“Why did we have to go on this mission again?” Simon asked Kaylee as he watched his sister gently pilot the shuttle into the atmosphere of Athens.
“Because Jayne was getting so anxious with River piloting Serenity that if we didn’t get her away from it, he’d be liable to crack,” Kaylee answered easily. “And because the Captain’s next job is taking them all near Londinium and it’s still best if you and River don’t travel that deeply into the Core. And because you and River are the only ones that Mary Margaret won’t associate with Serenity. Is that enough reasons?”
“I submit,” Simon conceded. “I bow before your overwhelming logic.”
“There truly is a first time for everything,” River quipped as she reached up to flick some type of switch, whose function—like the entire shuttle, and Serenity herself—was a total mystery to Simon.
“Unless you think we should have left the two of you to do the job alone, and I should have stayed on Serenity,” Kaylee said, a gleam in her eye.
“Never,” said Simon, as he knew he should. Even he wasn’t so clueless as to miss that he was being fed that obvious a line.
“Yes you are,” River piped up from the cockpit, but Kaylee just smiled and kissed him. He had just opened his mouth to allow her tongue when suddenly there was a loud BOOM! Kaylee pulled away from him quickly, racing to join River in the cockpit.
“It’s the thorine converter,” said River, as she struggled unsuccessfully to keep the shuttle’s flight steady. “I think it blew.”
“Is that important?” asked Simon, following Kaylee.
“Very,” said Kaylee as she slipped into the seat next to River and began to frantically pull levers and push buttons. “I can’t fix it from the inside. We’re going to have to land.”
“On the menu anyway,” River pointed out. “Can only fail to miss the ground.”
“River, can you hear my thoughts?” asked Kaylee as she began to power down the forward thrusters.
“Yes.” River didn’t take her eyes off the rapidly approaching planet face.
“Good,” said Kaylee as she slipped under the cockpit and began pulling out wires and reconnecting them. “Do what I’m thinking. We need to slow our descent.”
A minute later, the shuttle touched down, in mostly one piece. He silently thanked God, although he supposed that his sister and Kaylee were the ones who really deserved the credit.
* * * * *
“The damage isn’t as bad as it could be, considering,” Kaylee said thoughtfully. “With River helping, I should be able to fix it in less than a day.”
“I can help, too,” Simon offered.
Kaylee shook her head. “We still have our mission to carry out. You need to meet with Mary Margaret. Luckily, we didn’t crash too far from the city limits. You should be able to get there within a local hour. Don’t forget to drink your liquids.” With a smile, she threw a backpack at him, then turned back to the shuttle. “River, could you hand me that wrench?”
* * * * *
“Oh, the weather outside is frightful,” Kaylee sang as she rewired the thorine converter, “but the fire is so delightful, and since we've no place to go, let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow!”
“We live in space,” River pointed out reasonably. “The song doesn’t apply.”
“Oh, I know,” Kaylee said as she connected the last wire. “I just like getting in the spirit of the holiday, you know?”
“It’s irrational,” River replied. “Celebrating a birth twenty-five hundred years ago we don’t even know happened. A human constant—the festival of lights. All hail Mithras. But the days don’t get any shorter, so there’s no need for candles.”
Kaylee figured she understood maybe half of that. “But it’s not about that. It’s about goodwill to men and peace on Earth—”
“Earth-that-Was,” River corrected.
“On Earth,” Kaylee insisted. “Meaning everywhere. On Osiris and Persephone and Londinium and Serenity and even this hell of a planet.” She sighed and looked at the reconnected thorine converter. Everything looked right. “Okay, let’s get started on the hull damage.”
River nodded and picked up a blowtorch. “So what are you getting Simon?” she asked.
* * * * *
It took him an hour and a half of walking under the hot sun (why was it the planets so much farther from the sun were always so much hotter?) before he finally reached Market City.
He made his way through the central bazaar, keeping a look out for his rendezvous point with one eye and for a Christmas present for Kaylee with the other. What to get her? He couldn’t very well buy her an engine for Christmas, could he?
But she also liked pretty, girlish things, he knew, like that pink dress she had worn to the ball back on Persephone. Perhaps he could find a piece of jewelry or something she’d like.
He made his way through fruit carts and popcorn trolleys until he came a jewelry cart. He looked over the wares, but everything was laughably cheap. Rubbish, most of it.
“Do you have anything of a finer quality?” Simon asked.
The merchant shook his head. “This is the best we are allowed to sell,” he answered. Then, dropping his voice, he added, “For the truly expensive jewels, you’ll be wanting to see Mary Margaret.”
Simon gave a resigned nod and went on his way. He’d be seeing Mary Margaret soon enough, anyway.
* * * * *
“You know him better than I do,” Kaylee complained. “What do you think I should get him?”
River paused for a moment, then smiled. “Do you want me to tell you a secret?”
“About Simon?” Kaylee asked. “Sure.”
“I can’t just tell you,” River said, as if that were obvious. “You have to guess.”
Kaylee frowned. “Give me a hint?”
* * * * *
Simon found his way to the rendezvous point, where a unsurprisingly burly man was waiting. “Life is short but the years are long?” he said, uncertainly.
The man nodded. “Not ‘while the evil days come not.’ Come on. You’re late.”
Simon followed the man into a nearby tavern and up a pair of back steps into the rooms above. Seated at a wooden table was an attractive young woman wearing a white dress and a stunning diamond choker.
“Boss, it’s the agent from the Methuselah job,” the burly man said.
The woman rose, offered Simon her hand. “I’m Mary Margaret Haversham,” she said. Simon shook her hand, and she glanced at the burly man. “That’ll be enough, Olivier,” she said.
She turned back to Simon. “Have a seat,” she said, gesturing toward a wooden seat opposite the table from where she had been sitting. “Would you like something to drink? Brandy, gin, rum?”
“Gin’s fine, thank you,” Simon said, sitting down at the table and taking off the backpack Kaylee had given him.
Mary Margaret returned with two glasses, one filled with gin and the other with what looked like rum. She placed the gin in front of Simon. “Do you have the merchandise?” she asked.
Simon nodded and slipped a small black box out of the backpack and placed it on the table. “There you go, Miss Haversham.”
“Oh, please call me Mary Margaret,” she answered. “Otherwise I feel like an old woman from a Dickens novel.” She paused, then ran her gloved fingers across the top of the box. It was a sensual move, the white fabric sliding against the black wood, as if just being in contact with it gave her pleasure. “Do you know what’s inside?”
Simon shook his head. “It came into our possession locked.”
Mary Margaret took the box and held it level to her eye, then pulled back a clasp as it scanned her retina. The box made a whirring noise for a moment, then popped open. She placed it back onto the table.
Inside the box were gems and jewels of all types, shapes, and sizes. Mary Margaret reached a gloved hand in and pulled out a particularly large blue stone. “Do you know what this is?” she asked.
Simon shook his head. “Geology was never my strong suit,” he admitted.
“Of course not,” Mary Margaret said, placing the stone on the table in front of her. “It would be a shame for a gentleman such as yourself to waste your time learning about rocks and mud. You are a surgeon, are you not?”
Simon’s heart began to race. Did she know who he was? “How did you—?”
“I observed,” Mary Margaret answered simply. “Your hands. Holmes always said to check the hands first, did he not? One can learn quite a bit from someone’s hands. Why do you suppose I always keep mine covered?” She smiled. “You must not suppose that we are all illiterate simpletons on the border planets, Doctor—?” She held up a gloved hand. “No, don’t lie to me. From now on, you shall be Dr. Jekyll to me. Who knows? Perhaps Mr. Hyde will even see fit to make himself known.”
Slowly and deliberatively, she removed her right glove, then used her bare hand to pick up the blue stone. “This,” she said, “is a garnet. A blue carbuncle, to be precise—quite rare and very valuable. This particular specimen, however, happens to be beyond price. The Heart of Londinium—the centerpiece of the Prime Minister’s personal collection. Fortunately, I was able to secure a position within his staff for one of my agents who was able to engineer its theft. And from her it passed into the care of those for whom you work, whose name is unknown even to me. I suppose you do not care to enlighten me, Doctor?”
“I am afraid not, madam,” Simon answered with a smile. “They prefer to work within the cover of anonymity.”
“A pity,” Mary Margaret sighed. She slipped an index finger into the wrist of her left glove and gracefully pulled out a few folded pieces of paper. “Good for 10,000 platinum credits,” she said, counting them out in front of him. “Redeemable on the Market City Town Bank. Fifteen percent, as per our agreement.” She paused, glanced up at him. “Is there a problem, Doctor?”
Was this some type of trick? “The agreement was for ten percent.”
She shrugged. “Consider it a bonus for getting my merchandise to me on time and in one piece.”
* * * * *
“Is it bigger than a breadbox?”
River stopped welding and turned to Kaylee. “Is the secret bigger than a breadbox?”
“Oh, come on, River,” Kaylee begged. “You’ve got my curiosity all piqued. Can’t you just tell me?”
River shook her head. “You have to guess.”
“Well, can you give me another hint?”
“Simon wanted the moon to shine, but didn’t realize it’s merely the sun’s reflection. He stood there, waiting for the nightfall, while the stars were all already out.” She turned the blowtorch back on and went back to welding the hull.
Kaylee just stood there, trying to process what River had just said. “Can you give me a non-crazy hint?”
* * * * *
“Can I get you another drink, Henry?”
It took Simon a moment to realize that she was talking to him. “No, thank you,” he answered. “I need to get back to—”
“I’m sure that it can wait, whatever it is,” Mary Margaret said as she placed another brandy on the table in front of Simon. “I insist. You wouldn’t want to refuse my hospitality, would you?”
“No, of course not.” Simon sank back into his chair. “I have been meaning to ask you something. I was looking for a piece of jewelry in the town bazaar and couldn’t help but notice that all the pieces for sale were of rather substandard quality. The jewelsmith suggested I come to you.”
Mary Margaret nodded. “If everyone can get what they need, then there is no need for a black market, is there?” She put her ungloved right hand into the box of gems and pulled out one of the smaller green stones. “An emerald,” she said as she placed it on the table in front of him. “The stone of Venus.”
Simon looked at it. While he might not know much about the stones themselves, he could recognize excellent craftsmanship when he saw it. It was intricately but flawlessly faceted, and had to be at least two carets.
"How much do youy want for it?" he asked.
“For you?” she asked, putting back on her right glove. “A mere hundred credits. Olivier!”
Within moments the burly muscle was in the room. “Yes, boss?”
Mary Margaret picked up the emerald and handed it to Olivier. “Take this to Dennis for Dr. Jekyll here. Tell him I need it set in a ring as soon as possible.”
The henchman nodded and was just as quickly out of the room. As soon as he left, Mary Margaret removed both her gloves and laid them on the table. “Dennis does good work but he isn’t the quickest jewelsmith to set an emerald. It’ll be at least an hour or two before its ready.”
“That’s okay,” Simon said as he finished the second brandy. Kaylee had said it would take her and River all day to fix the shuttle, hadn’t she? “I’m in no rush.”
* * * * *
“So this secret happened to Simon when he was young?”
“When he was young, when he will be old, all tricks of a calendar to convince you that it’s all a straight arrow. It isn’t. It loops back on itself, like a knot in your hair and the brush makes you cry out in pain: Never again!”
“So it didn’t happen to him when he was young?”
“Things happen. Effect follows cause. Disguises agency. ‘Mistakes were made.’ Irreducible complexity implies a designer. Who designed Simon? Photographs my feet when I’m not looking.”
“River, what in the ‘verse are you getting at?”
“Teleology. Everything has a purpose. Simon was made for loving. Loving sister, loving girl. Me, now you.”
“But I do love him! At least I think I do.”
“Not sex. That’s part, but not all. There has to be a horse and carriage all tied up in thread.”
“Well, we don’t have no horse and carriage but I think there’s more between your brother and me than just the sexin’.”
“Things have no substance till you say their name,” River said, putting down the blowtorch and picking up a wrench. “It’s like a magic spell, wishing them into existence.”
“River, are you saying I should tell him that I love him?”
River nodded. “That’s the secret. He needs it, always has. He just doesn’t know it yet.”
Kaylee bit her bottom lip and nodded.
* * * * *
“You don’t strike me as the sort of guy who would find much use for a piece of jewelry yourself. A gift?”
“For your mother? Your wife?”
Simon frowned at the mention of his mother. His parents were certainly not getting anything for Christmas from him. “My girlfriend.”
“Ah,” Mary Margaret said. “She must be a lucky girl, having such an attractive boyfriend.”
Simon paused, unsure how to respond, then shrugged and finished off the last of the third—or was it the fourth?—brandy. “Thank you.”
Mary Margaret moved to refill his glass, then grasped her chest.
“Is there something wrong?” Simon asked, jumping up from his chair.
“No, I’m fine,” she said. “It’s not—” Her features changed as if she suddenly remembered something. “Then again, perhaps you could look at it, Dr. Jekyll.”
Her hands went to her neck as she unclasped her choker and placed it on the table next to the Heart of Londinium. A moment later she had slipped out of her dress and had folded it neatly on her chair. Her corset followed some time later, followed by her chemise.
“I don’t see anything wrong,” Simon said, examining her bare chest, then took a his emergency medkit out of the backpack, opened it and removed a stethoscope. “But if it’s a heart condition, it probably wouldn’t show.”
“Oh, it’s a heart condition,” Mary Margaret said as he pressed the cold metal of the stethoscope to her chest, and the next thing he knew her mouth was around his.
It took a moment for him to process what was happening, and a moment more to realize he should stop it. When he did, he grabbed her by the shoulders and pushed her away from him.
“Come on, Henry,” Mary Margaret whispered. “Let out your Mr. Hyde, just for tonight.”
“You’re huá lì de,” Simon said. “But I—”
“Say no more,” Mary Margaret said. “I understand. She’s a lucky girl you have. What’s her name?”
“Kaylee,” he answered, momentarily forgetting himself. He realized his mistake when he saw the change in Mary Margaret’s features.
“Now, that wouldn’t be Kaylee Frye, now would it? Mal Reynolds’ girl?”
Mary Margaret quickly grabbed for her gloves, pulling them onto her hands. Simon looked both ways, eager to find a way out, realizing he had been caught.
Mary Margaret was pulling herself into her dress when Simon grabbed the Heart of Londinium and the diamond corset, threw them into the open black box, and ran out the way he had come, down the steps and through the crowded tavern.
He’d be pursued, he knew, just as soon Mary Margaret had covered herself enough to give orders to her henchman. They’d come after him with trucks and horses. He just had to make sure he made use of his head start.
Walking briskly but not attracting attention, Simon managed to make his way to the edge of city, where he begun to run through the desert to where he had left Kaylee, River, and the shuttle. Luckily the sun had set, and it was cool but not yet freezing.
* * * * *
“I want him found,” Mary Margaret ordered. “I want that stone, and I want that wúnéug de rén brought back here and made to pay. If you can find his accomplices, even better. He couldn’t have gotten onworld by himself. Serenity will have to be here, or else one if its shuttles. I want it found. Dong ma?”
“Yes, boss,” Olivier said. The other henchman just nodded.
“Good,” said Mary Margaret. “Now go.”
* * * * *
Simon could just make out the silhouette of the shuttle in the moonlight upon the horizon when he could hear the buzz of terrain vehicles behind him. Qù tāmāde. He had almost made it.
He broke into a sprint, feeling the search party speed after him as he got closer to the shuttle. “Kaylee, get inside,” he could hear his sister call out. “We need to go.”
“But I’m not finished the—” Kaylee answered, confusion evident in her voice.
“Doesn’t matter,” River cut her off. “The horse is at the gate and the race won’t wait.”
Simon could see Kaylee turn and see spotlight-equipped vehicles come closer. She quickly stopped whatever she was doing and ran into the shuttle. Simon was there a second later and they shut the door behind him. River had already powered up the engines, and with a few quick manipulations they were off the ground.
“If we can get as far as one of the moons, we should be able to wait for Serenity there,” Kaylee said, watching a read-out with a furious concentration.
“They won’t send any ships after us,” River replied serenely. “Gravity defines them.”
“It’s not them I’m worried about,” Kaylee said. “I’m worried about us. The capacitator is still exposed.”
“It’ll hold,” River said forcefully as she maneuvered her way out of Athens’ atmosphere. “We always hold together.”
* * * * *
River was right; no spaceships were sent to pursue them. They made their way to one of Athens’ moons where Kaylee, stilled worried about the exposed capacitator, insisted they cut their engines and enter into a synchronous orbit. They’d wait there until Serenity returned.
Well, they had certainly had an adventurous day. Simon supposed it was about par with Serenity’s typical exploits, but he wasn’t quite used to being thrown into the center of them like that. Usually that was Mal’s job, or maybe Zoë’s.
Simon looked down at the box in front of him, containing the Heart of Londinium, the other jewels, the cash, and Mary Margarete’s choker. He smiled. At least now he had a worthy Christmas present for Kaylee.
“Simon?” Kaylee asked as she exited the cockpit and sat down next to him. “There’s something I want to say to you.”