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BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL
Maya. Post-BDM. Complete. Simon and River find out disturbing news, but there's light at the end of the tunnel.
CATEGORY: FICTION TIMES READ: 1688 RATING: 0 SERIES: FIREFLY
“Well, you are,” Simon confirmed. “There’s just barely enough hormone for me to tell, so how you knew …”
“Hormones have nothing to do with it,” Freya assured him, climbing off the medbed.
“Is Mal happy about this?”
She laughed. “About as far over the moon as a man captaining a Firefly can get.”
“I thought as much. But you should have come to me before. When you first knew.” He turned his stern face on her. “I am your doctor. I’ll need to get you started on diet supplements, although the food we’ve had lately has been much better than usual. Still, better safe than sorry.” He saw Freya smile. “Look, just be glad I'm not telling you to stay in your bunk for a month.”
“Better not even try,” she said softly, heading out of the infirmary.
“If it becomes necessary, I will,” he called, shaking his head. That woman. In fact, all the women on Serenity would more than likely drive him to an early grave. In true and honest fact, they’d probably dig it for him.
Kaylee had spilled the beans. Eventually. That last day on Lazarus.
She watched him moving across the ice, his lithe body seeming to cut through the air. Bundled up in Inara’s heavy coat and boots, sitting on a blanket, she felt her love for him crystallising out of her mouth to hang like her breath in a mist in front of her lips.
He span, his skates a blur, arms above his head, finally coming to a rest and looking at her.
“You’ll get cold,” he said, smiling at her, panting a little.
“You can warm me up.” She grinned.
“No problem.” He slid across the ice to her, joining her on the blanket. “I might need some TLC myself later though.”
“Oh?” She snuggled into him as he removed the skates. “How come?”
“I don’t think I've used most of these muscles in years.” He rubbed the back of his calves. “I could seize up.”
“Then I’ll have the fun unseizing you.”
“Sounds good.” He grinned and put his arm around her for a moment, then picked up his boots. “You okay?” he asked, seeing a thoughtful look on her face.
“I … spoke to Freya a couple of days ago.” Kaylee looked down at her hands.
“Oh?” Simon was busy buckling up. “What about?”
He jerked around so hard he was sure he was going to get whiplash. “She’s what?”
“Guess she’s hasn’t told you herself then.”
“She … no … she hasn’t.” He glanced towards Serenity, just visible a distance away. “When did she …”
“Don’t you go getting angry at her,” Kaylee admonished. “She was just worried it might take something away from Hank and Zoe, and little Ben. I'm sure she was going to come and talk to you soon enough.”
“I needed to know! What if something …” He backtracked. “Not that anything would, but … damn it, Kaylee, I should have been the first to be told!”
“I think the Cap was the first,” his wife said softly. “And they wanted to keep it a secret for a while. Just them.”
He sank down a little. “I suppose so.” He looked round at her. “So how come you’re telling me now? Breaking a confidence?” His eyes narrowed. “And how come you’ve managed to keep it a secret anyway?”
“You saying I blab?”
He rapidly retreated from her glare. “Well, it’s just … when you know something … it …”
She took pity on him. “I’m trying, Simon. Like River and Bethie are trying not to peek, I'm trying not to blab.”
“So why are you now?”
“I suppose it’s … I want everything to be okay with this baby, and I thought you should know.”
“Thank you.” He took her hands in his. “Are you … okay with this?”
“Why does everyone keep asking me that?”
“Because everyone knows how much you want another child.”
“So did Frey.”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“I’m shiny. Honestly.” She smiled at him, leaning her head on his shoulder. “Has made me think a bit more, though. ‘Bout what we can do. And I think I’d like to try that DNA thingie you suggested.”
“That’s the one.”
“You know I can’t do it on Serenity. I don’t have the equipment to do the stripping, let alone the necessary –“
She put her fingers on his lips, feeling them soften. “I know that. Just … I kinda think that’s the way to go. I mean, the Cap’n said he would, ‘n’ all, but I know Frey was more’n a bit antsy about it, and the baby wouldn’t be … I think the other way’s best.”
He smiled at her. “I can ask Mal when we’re likely to be going by a planet with decent medical facilities.” The smile grew wider. “Maybe we could kill two birds with one stone and rob the place at the same time.”
Kaylee shook her head. “You’re truly a criminal mastermind, ain’t you?”
“As long as it’s the criminal mastermind you love, that’s fine by me.”
“Oh, I do.”
Now Simon was looking down at the small DNA tester, remembering what he’d said to Hank, not that long ago.
“It takes one egg and one sperm to make an entire human being. Even someone as big as Jayne. That’s all it took for you and Zoe.”
“Yeah, but –”
“And those single cells can’t be seen with the naked eye.”
A single cell. Well, two. And Kaylee would have the baby she wanted to make her family complete. Mal and Freya still hadn’t made an official announcement, but Simon was pretty sure it would be today at dinner, now he’d confirmed the pregnancy to his satisfaction.
“Test me,” River said, wafting in, her bare feet not making a sound.
“What?” He looked up, and for a single fleeting moment wondered if his sister was asking him to see if she was having a baby.
“Test me. Take some of my blood and put it into your machine, then let me see the results.”
“Why?” he asked carefully.
“I was just wondering if I could extrapolate what a child would look like with my genes and Kaylee’s.” She jumped up onto the counter next to him.
He relaxed a little. “Mei-mei, no-one can do that.”
“No-one can kill a room full of Reavers, or live with Jayne, but I seem to be doing that all right.”
Simon allowed a small look of distaste to cross his features, but then he laughed. “I suppose I should be wondering what you can’t do, not what you can.”
“Bethany is more powerful.” She put her head on one side and corrected herself. “Will be.”
He looked up in surprise. “Really?”
“She’s naturally gifted. Mine had to be forced to fruition.” The matter of fact way she said it belied her true feelings, the memories she tried to keep buried of that time.
“I wish –“
She smiled. “Don’t, ge ge. If you’d come for me sooner you would have found a different ship off Persephone, and neither of us would be here.”
“Where would we be?”
“Somewhere … else.” She didn’t want to go into the darkness she’d seen would have been waiting for them if the past had been different. She hit him lightly on the arm. “So you first, then me.”
“I need to see yours, and you can prove to me it won’t hurt.”
“It won’t hurt,” he said, smiling at her.
Shaking his head, he pressed the DNA tester to his finger, taking the tiniest drop of blood with barely a pin prick. He started the sequence then held out his hand. “See?”
She looked at his finger carefully, her nose barely an inch from his skin. “Doesn’t prove a thing.”
He laughed. “And there I was thinking you trusted me.”
“Over the big things.” She lifted her head. “Freya’s been to see you.” It was a statement, not a question.
“Saw her leave.”
“Did you.” The tester beeped, the sequence complete.
“Show me,” River demanded, and her brother handed the device across. She studied it, seeing the spiral in front of her, her mind unwinding it and reading the code. She held it out. “Now me.”
With a smile he pressed the small cup against her finger.
“You’re just a big baby,” he teased, beginning the cycle again.
“She’s going to be beautiful.”
River gave him one of her looks. “I felt the conception.”
He shook his head. “At least you kept it to yourself.” Then he had to laugh. “One day someone on this boat will be pregnant and you won’t be the first to know. Then what will you do?”
“I don’t know everything.” She pushed her hair back behind her ears. “And I'm learning to be strong.”
“You are strong, River,” he assured her, his hand on her knee. “You’re the strongest person I know.”
“Stronger than Kaylee?”
Various thoughts flashed across his mind, but he said, “Different.”
She grinned. “Good answer.”
A second beep announced the new result.
“Here, “ he said. “Do your magic.”
Taking the tester she stared at the screen. Then the colour leached from her face.
His brow furrowed. “River?”
“Simon … it … this can’t be right.” She was shaking.
“Mei-mei, what is it?” He took her arms, fear rushing through him.
“It’s not the same.”
“It’s not the same.” She held out the tester.
“River, it won’t be,” he said softly, trying to calm her. “The only way it would be identical is if we were twins and then only –“
“It’s not the same!” She waved the device in front of him. “Not enough!” She thumbed the COMPARE button.
The result flashed onto the small screen and she turned it to face him. Simon stared.
“That … that isn’t possible,” he breathed.
Comparison Result, the screen declared. Samples indicate familial coincidence of 25%.
“You did it wrong!” River insisted, pressing her finger against the small cup, over and over until her skin was red. “Do it again!”
“Stop, please!” he cried, holding her, pulling her towards him, the tester clattering to the floor.
“Who am I?” she asked.
“You’re my sister.”
“No I’m not!”
“Who are we?” she asked again.
“I … I don’t know,” he said, then caught her as she collapsed in his arms. “Mei-mei!”
“Do we need to get him registered or something?” Hank asked, stepping down into the galley.
“Registered?” Zoe followed, Ben in her arms.
“I was. Everyone born planetside gets registered. Weren't you?” He held her chair out for her and she sat down.
“I don’t know,” she admitted. “I was born on the freighter, but … I suppose so.”
“Shouldn’t we … I don’t know … go somewhere and do it?”
He shrugged. “Benefits, maternity allowance, that kind of thing.”
“We don’t take anything from the Alliance,” Mal said, striding into the room. “They’ve got their hooks into far too many good people as it is.”
“Mal, I hate to say this, but this is my son,” Hank pointed out. “And there might come a time when he might actually need something from them.”
“They’ve not got anything we want.”
“But that’s not your –“
Zoe put a hand on his arm. “Dear.”
He turned to glare at her. “What?”
“We don’t need them.”
“You’re siding with Mal now?”
“No. Just saying we don’t need anything from them.”
Her calmness had the desired effect on him.
“I just … I want the best for our son,” he said quietly, looking down into the little boy’s face.
“So do I. And I happen to believe that’s on board this ship.”
“Oh, I’m not disputing that.” He gave up. “So we’re not going to register him?”
“Not at the moment.”
He sighed heavily. “Am I ever gonna get my own way?” he asked.
“When I've forgiven you for running off when I was giving birth.”
He cringed a little, then tried a grin. “Came back, though.”
She raised an eyebrow at him.
“When’re we eating?” Jayne said, stomping into the kitchen and lifting the lid on the stew. “Smells okay.”
“Usual time,” Mal said.
“Then what’re we doing here?”
“I asked Mal to call everyone together,” Simon said quietly from the doorway.
“Which I did.” Mal felt Freya come up behind him, but didn’t turn. “And I’d kinda like to know why I did.”
Simon took a deep breath and stepped inside. “There’s something … I think you all need to know.”
“Look, if it’s about –“ Mal began, glancing at his wife as she sat down.
“No. You don’t know about this.” The young man looked at the faces watching him, open, friendly … This brought back too many bad memories. The first time he had to tell them about River, about what had been done to her … he felt his knees begin to buckle.
“Simon?” Freya asked.
“Just give me …” He took the seat at the end of the table, his arms on the old wood, his hands trying to gain some semblance of warmth from it.
“You want to explain?” Mal said, a little kinder now, leaning on the back of his own chair.
Simon felt his chest knot. “I don’t know how.”
“Word at a time’d be good, doc,” Hank said encouragingly.
The young doctor took a deep breath. “You … all know about Andrew’s letter to me.” He looked around. Everyone was nodding. “That River and I were not the natural children of our … of Gabriel and Regan Tam.”
“That they chose you, yes,” Freya said softly.
“You make it sound almost maternal,” Simon said, unable to get the hoarse chuckle out of his voice.
“It was. They wanted children.”
“And they got us.” He took a deep breath.
“Thought you were okay with this, doc,” Mal said quietly.
“I am. I was. It’s just … it doesn’t appear to be the whole truth.”
“We … Kaylee had decided to go with … well, that’s not important. But it meant I tested my DNA and River’s.” He swallowed hard, still not believing it himself.
“Three times, Mal. I ran the tests three times. There can’t be a mistake. River isn’t my sister.”
There was dead silence around the room. Eventually Mal spoke.
“What are you talking about?”
“Not my full sister. The results … we can only be half siblings at best.”
“I don’t understand,” Hank said.
“One of our genetic parents is probably the same. The other definitely isn’t.”
“Dung ee-miao,” Mal interrupted. “That letter from your friend … he said specifically that you and River came from the same donors, right?”
Simon nodded. “He did.”
“You think he’s lying?”
“I can’t see why.”
“Then he didn’t know the truth.”
“I think he does.”
“Doc, you can’t have it both ways.”
“I know.” He looked unhappily around everyone.
“And River?” Jayne ground out. “She know about this?”
“She was there. It … she fainted.”
“Where is she now?”
“In the infirmary. I had to sedate her. She’s –“
“Shoulda told me,” the big man said, striding out of the door. “First off.”
“Kaylee’s with her,” Simon called, then added to the others. “I've already told her.”
“So now what?” Mal asked. “You want something, else you wouldn’t’ve told us like this.”
“I want … I need to speak to Andrew. If there’s something he knows, something as to why this …” Words failed him.
“You need to know what happened,” Freya said for him.
Simon nodded. “River and I were all we had until Kaylee and Bethany, until we came on board. She might have Jayne, but she needs to know who she is. If she’s not my full sister … I can’t see her broken again.”
“It might not. And she’s not alone. We’re all here.”
“It kept her going, Frey. All that time in the Academy, then those months before Miranda … knowing we had each other.”
“You still have.”
“Not to her.” His face was bleak. “It was her lifeline, her hold on reality. Knowing she was my sister. If she breaks, I don’t know if I can put her back together again.”
“Well, like Frey says, you ain't alone,” Mal said, standing straight. “But if it helps her, then we’ll do what we can.”
“Thank you.” Simon was honestly, supremely grateful.
“Hank, how close’re we to Corvus?”
“Might be grainy, but … yeah, should be able to get a signal through.”
“I'm still a wanted fugitive,” Simon said quickly. “If anyone see the wave …”
Mal crossed his arms. “Then we’d better figure out a way so they don’t.”
Jayne crossed the threshold into the infirmary. “She okay?” he asked Kaylee, sitting on the stool next to the medbed.
“Ain't what I asked.” He stood close, taking River’s hand in his.
“I don’t know.” The young woman was patently very unhappy, her normally sunny disposition submerged beneath lines of worry.
“Ya shoulda told me, Kaylee. Called me when she …”
“I know. I'm sorry, I just … neither of us thought to.”
“Well, you should’ve.”
“I'm sorry.” She bit her lip. “I'm surprised she didn’t … you know, herself.”
Jayne looked angry, but it wasn't at her. “Maybe she did, and I wasn't listening. Working out, concentrating … maybe I didn’t hear.”
“Perhaps it was too quick. Fainting like that.” She edged forward on the stool. “What Simon said …”
“Yeah, he explained.”
“I don’t see how it can be possible, Jayne.”
“Nope, me neither. I’d’ve bet blood on them being brother and sister.”
“They are. Just not full.”
“He had to’ve known, you know. Andrew. Don’t see how he couldn’t, being so close to the family ‘n’ all.”
“You think that’s what they wanted? Someone else to be the father to one of ‘em?” Jayne’s eyes narrowed. “Didn’t think Simon was good enough for ‘em?”
“No!” Kaylee was outraged. “How could they possibly think that?”
“Why else’d they want a different …” He faltered at the look on her face. “Weren’t saying that was the case, you know,” he added quickly. “Just that it might be their way of thinking.”
“They wouldn’t. Simon was always intelligent, they couldn’t hope to find anyone better’n him.”
“It’s okay, little Kaylee,” Jayne said. “He’s a good man. Must be somethin’ else goin’ on here.”
“He’ll find out.” She shook her head. “He’ll find out.”
“Well?” Mal stepped onto the bridge.
Freya turned in the co-pilot’s chair. “It’s as secure as we can make it. I’ll run the cycles manually, so anyone listening shouldn’t –”
“Five minutes. Maybe.”
Mal turned to the young doctor, haunting the stairs behind him. “You get one shot. If he ain’t there, we don’t try again. Dong mah?”
Simon nodded. “I understand, Mal. And … thanks.”
“Well, better get to it.” He looked at Hank in the pilot’s chair. “What time is it on Corvus?”
He calculated. “Just gone eight in the morning.”
“Andrew’s an early riser,” Simon said, crossing the threshold and coming closer. “He’ll be at breakfast.”
“Best chance, then, doc.” Mal put his hand on his shoulder. “Good luck.”
Freya set the code, her fingers flying across the board while Hank eased out of his seat, Simon taking his place.
For a long while there was nothing, no sound on the bridge, as they waited for someone the other end to pick up. Mal was about to call time, about to tell the young doctor that he was sorry, when Freya sat up straighter.
The screen in front of him shimmered into life, and a man’s face appeared. A youngish man, however, and definitely not the one he was expecting.
“Yes? Can I help you?”
Simon leaned forward. “I'm trying to reach Andrew Brooks.”
“Andrew isn’t … he’s not here. Can I help?”
His heart fell. “Not really. I need to speak to him. It’s urgent.”
“Well, I don’t think he’s going to be able to … what’s it about?”
“It’s personal. Are you sure I can’t … it’s very important.”
“Sorry, but there’s nothing I can do without knowing a bit more.”
“I can’t …” Suddenly Simon’s memory clicked. He knew this man. Knew him from the time they visited, when the Reavers came. “Mr Harris?” he asked. The mayor.
“Yes.” The man looked puzzled. “Do I …” His brow cleared. “Simon?”
“Yes,” Simon admitted.
Eli Harris was relieved. “Thank God. Least maybe now the old coot’ll get some proper medical care.”
“Proper care? Why? What’s happened?”
“Andrew’s sick.” Harris’s face set. “More than sick. He’s dying.”
Simon felt his stomach turn to ice. “How bad is it?”
“He won’t tell anyone, but I know he’s in pain. He doses himself up when no-one’s looking but now he’s confined to his bed and … son, you anywhere close?”
“I …” Simon was about to shake his head when he felt Mal’s hand on his shoulder. “We’ll get to you. Soon as we can.”
Harris relaxed a little. “Thanks. He’ll be glad to see you. Hell, we all will.”
“I’ll let you know when we’re landing.”
The screen went to static and Freya closed the connection.
“Anyone pick up on that?” Mal asked softly.
“I don’t think so.”
“Hope you’re right.”
Simon stood up, his back ramrod straight, looking Mal in the eye. “Thank you.”
“We have to pick up the cargo, and some supplies, but that’ll be but an hour, maybe two. And it’s in the same direction.” He glanced at Hank. “We can make Corvus in …”
“A little over a day, even with the pick-up,” he supplied.
“Thank you,” Simon repeated. “If nothing else, he’s …”
“I know,” Mal said. “You’d better be getting on back to your sister.”
She didn’t want to open her eyes. Didn’t want to see everyone a stranger, every face a mask. Masks slip, reveal the truth, expose the dead and rotting beneath a façade of ivory and gold.
“River, I know you’re awake. We’ve been livin’ together a while now. Ya think I don’t know when my moonbrain ain't asleep no more?”
Not him. Not him. She didn’t want to see his demons looking back at her, ready to pounce, to rend her limb from bloody limb in their haste to drown her.
“Just saying I'm here. ‘N’ I love you, no matter what you are. Loved ya when you were crazy, and when you … well, you’re still crazy. Think that’s gonna change? Just ‘cause you might not be who you think you are, you figure that’s gonna make it different somehow?”
It was so gentle. Stroking her mind, curving and cupping her thoughts as he did her skin, seeing the good inside, hidden by pain and layer upon layer of tormented memories not her own. Not hers. Who, if not hers? Who was she? Who was she?
Serenity landed in the middle of the storm that had been lashing Regina’s main port of Queenstown for three days.
“We gonna be okay?” Mal asked, watching the lightening illuminate the clouds and the rain coming straight down.
“I've got us grounded, so we should be okay, even with a direct hit.” Hank flinched as a particularly violent fork pierced the sky.
“You sure about that?”
“Course I'm sure.” He managed to sound a lot more positive than he felt.
“Well, they’d better be here. I’m not in the mood for hanging around waiting on folks.” Mal strode off the bridge, another flash throwing his shadow tumbling down the steps and along the corridor.
She could feel the electricity sending tendrils down her flesh, lifting the fine hairs on her arms, even though she was insulated against the shocks hitting the ground. It lit the corners of her mind, flares of insight and inspiration, burning into the eyelids of her soul as she hid from them.
“Jayne, we’re down.”
The captain, a good man, better than he thought, his heart more open and welcoming. Don’t look. Don’t see the darkness waiting inside.
“You need to be getting to pick up the cargo.”
“Not going anywhere, Mal.”
Tightly wound, all knotted, wrapped around a core of certainly that he was who he was, nothing more or less. He knew. He was grounded, like the Firefly.
“That wasn't a request.”
“She’ll be here when you get back, and the sooner you get going the sooner that’ll be.”
No room for negotiation. Do it now or wallow in the pit of corruption.
“You’ll look after her?”
“She’s my sister. Of course I’ll look after her.”
No ‘of course’. No sister. Just a jumble of unknown cells orbiting a fragmented mind that won’t look, can’t see. Sliding a thumb between lips and biting down. Tastes like blood. But whose? Who am I?
Three people were waiting in the lea of a large container, a couple and a lone woman, trying to keep out of the worst of the rain, while keeping as much distance between them as possible.
“Do you think they’ll take us?” one of the women asked the man.
“If it’s God’s will.”
The ramp lowered, and Jayne stomped down, pulling his green combat jacket higher around his neck. He glowered at them.
“Excuse me,” the man said, taking a step forward into the rain. “We heard you were taking cargo to Three Hills. Would you be taking passengers?”
Jayne looked him up and down, seeing the slightly old-fashioned clothes, the shirt buttoned right up but no tie, the tall hat. “Ain't me you wanna see.” He jerked his thumb over his shoulder. “See the Cap.” He strode off towards one of the warehouses, hunched in his coat to try and keep dry, mud and water flying up around his feet.
The man looked up into the ship’s interior. Another man was standing in the dry, the gloom obscuring his face.
“Sir, my name is Cyrus Hetter. This is my wife, Ruth. Are you taking on passengers?”
Mal moved further forward into the light. “I'm Captain Reynolds, and that depends. We’re headed for Three Hills, if that’s your destination. Can you pay three fares?”
“Two. My wife and I.” Hetter didn’t even look at the woman standing a little way off, but there was something in his manner that made Mal’s skin crawl.
“I see.” He moved enough so that he could see her. “And you, miss? Sorry, ma’am.” He smiled at her, noting the large swelling at her waist.
She smiled tiredly. “Miss is fine. And Three Hills is okay. Anywhere but here.”
“And can you pay?” His voice gentled.
“I've a little coin. And what I can’t pay I can work off in chores.”
He laughed a little. “Can’t see you scrubbing too many floors.”
“Oh, I’ve done my share.” A flash of fire lit her face.
“Figure maybe you have. Well, maybe we can negotiate, perhaps argue some. That’s fun too.”
“Sir … Captain Reynolds.” Hetter spoke loudly to get his attention back. “Will you take us?”
“We’ve got the room. But if you’re needing time to get your belongings –“
“Everything we have is here,” Hetter said, indicating a small pile of boxes. “The Good Lord didn’t see fit to grant us too much.”
Great, Mal thought to himself. Another Bible thumper. “And you?” he asked the lone woman.
“He didn’t give me that much either.” There was humour in her tone, but an edge of steel as she glanced at the other couple. Mal wondered what Hetter had said to her.
“Then you’d better get on board before you wash away.” Again he smiled, and this time hers was more real.
“Thank you, Captain,” she said, picking up the large carpet bag at her feet.
“Here, let me,” Mal said quickly, striding out into the rain to take it from her.
He put his hand under her arm and escorted her up the ramp, making sure she didn’t slip in the water that was pouring down it.
Hetter waited for similar assistance, but Mal didn’t turn back for him. With pursed lips he picked up the first of his boxes.
“You planning on telling me something?” Freya asked, waiting in the cargo bay as Mal brought a very heavily pregnant woman on board.
“Well, I always kinda hoped you’d never find out, darlin’,” he joked. “I guess I'm the epitome of that old saying – a girl in every port.”
Freya laughed. “I didn’t think you’ve got the energy.”
“Not with you around, xin gan.” He smiled, leaning in to kiss her gently.
“So we’ve passengers?”
“We do.” Mal nodded back over his shoulder. “That there’s Mr and Mrs Hetter, and this is …” He paused. “Don’t think I caught your name.”
“I didn’t throw it.” The woman smiled. “But it’s Roxanna. Roxanna Caldwell.” She glanced back. “And you’re Mrs Reynolds?”
“No, Mal just goes around kissing all his crew,” Hank said from the top catwalk. “Can get downright embarrassing sometimes.”
“That man up there used to be my pilot, so you can ignore him,” Mal instructed. “And yes, that’s Freya. My wife.”
“I like that name.”
Freya smiled. “I like Roxanna.”
“You’ll get to meet the rest of the crew soon enough,” Mal added.
Simon looked out of the common area doorway, attracted by voices. “Mal, how long do you think we’ll … oh, sorry. I didn’t know we had guests.”
The young doctor hurried forward. “You’re joining us?”
“That’s the plan.”
Simon looked at Roxanna, his mind performing medical calculations. “How long until you deliver?” he asked.
“Don’t worry,” Mal said, smiling. “He ain’t just being perverted. He’s our medic, and if you’re likely to drop while you’re on board –”
Roxanna smiled. “Another month yet. If you get me to Three Hills on time, you won’t need to worry.”
“All but a week,” Mal assured her.
“Still, I’d like to examine you. If you don’t mind,” Simon added quickly.
“No, that’s not necessary.” Roxanna folded her hands protectively over the large mound at her waist. “I saw a doctor only a few days ago, and everything’s fine.”
“I’d still prefer –”
She turned to Mal, effectively cutting him off. “If I could be shown to my room, Captain Reynolds. I’m a little tired. Unless you’d like to start some of that arguing now.”
He grinned. “Not quite yet.” He nodded at Freya. “My wife will make sure you’re comfortable, and there’s a meal in about an hour.”
Freya smiled at Roxanne. “Come on. Let’s get you unpacked and then you can have a rest. I know what it’s like to be feeling as if you weigh as much as a house.”
“You have children?”
“A son. He’s taking a nap at the moment, but you’ll meet him later.” She turned to the Hetters. “There’s a nice double room for you. Leave your boxes. If you need anything out of them, I'm sure we can find someone to help you.”
“Thank you, Mrs Reynolds,” Hetter said, nodding his head as if accepting his due.
Mal waited until they were all out of earshot before turning to Simon. “You think she’s lying?” He’d picked up on the young doctor’s unease when Roxanna had said she wasn't due for a month.
Simon shrugged. “It is possible she doesn’t know. But any competent doctor would be able to give her a fairly accurate due date, just from the size of the baby.”
“So you think she’s further along than she says.”
“I think it may be days, not weeks. Maybe even hours.”
“Why’d she lie?” Hank asked, walking down the stairs, an odd feeling sliding up his spine, like he was in crosshairs or something.
“In case I wouldn’t take her on board, I‘m guessing,” Mal said.
“Some ships won’t carry pregnant women at all,” Simon put in. “In case something goes wrong.”
“So she ain’t exactly telling the truth.”
“Is Freya …” Simon began diffidently.
“I think so.” Mal smiled. “Figure we might know a lot more about our passengers before we sit down to eat.” He looked at his pilot. “Speaking of which, you’d better go see what you can get us in the way of supplies.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of notes.
“Then you’ll get wet.”
“Do I get a wet weather bonus?”
“How about I don’t leave you behind?”
“I catch pneumonia and Zoe’ll be pissed.”
“Then dodge between the drops. Get going.”
Hank muttered under his breath but took the proffered notes, thrusting them into his pants before walking out into the rain.
Mal turned to Simon. “How’s your sister?”
“Withdrawn. She won’t speak to me. Not even Jayne. And he wasn't very pleased about being ordered off Serenity.”
“He’ll get over it. It was his contact got us the job, so it’s up to him.”
“He didn’t want to leave her.” The young man looked unhappy.
“I know, Simon.”
“How long until we’re back in the air?”
“Soon as they get back.”
“I'm afraid, Mal.”
“We’ll get there in time.”
“Not about Andrew. Well, not only about him. But for River.”
“Maybe Freya can help. You know how that little girl looks on her.”
“Can’t hurt, Simon. Remind her family isn’t just blood.”
“You might be right.”
“Sure I am. I'm captain. Comes with the job.”
Jayne drove the borrowed mule up into the cargo bay and began unloading the several boxes from the back.
“Anything likely to explode?” Mal asked as he humped the last crate to the floor.
“Machine tools,” Jayne said, climbing back on board the vehicle. “I checked.”
“Maybe I should take her back to the shuttle,” the big man pondered. “Ya know how she hates that infirmary.”
Mal nodded, as always surprised by Jayne’s flashes of sensitivity, although since he’d been sleeping with River they’d increased in number.
“I think that might be a good idea. Speak to Simon when you get back.”
Jayne nodded and reversed the mule back out into the rain, gunning its engine to throw a spray of thick muddy water behind before speeding away.
“We ready to go?” Mal asked Zoe, looking out into the murk.
“Hank’s stowed the supplies and he’s back on the bridge. He says thank you for the shower.”
“He’s welcome. Did he get enough?”
“I think so. There was nothing much in the way of fresh produce, but he’s got some.”
Mal nodded, still staring outside. “Frey needs it. You too.”
“I'm fine, sir.”
“I know that. I meant for Ben.”
“I'm still breast feeding, sir.” Her lips twitched as she saw him squirm, just a little. “I will be for a few months yet.”
“Don’t need to know that, Zoe.” He still couldn’t get his head around seeing her doing just that two days ago when he’d been making his last rounds, and gone into the dining area without checking first. As much as he’d seen her tackle almost anything, breast feeding a baby was one he’d never imagined.
“Although Hank said he’d be more than happy to feed Ben if I expressed the milk. He offered to help.”
“Apparently you can get a pump, or do it by hand, only I think that might make me feel like a cow.”
He turned on her. “Go. Away. Anywhere. Now.”
She smiled at him and headed up the stairs, leaving him to await the return of Jayne. At least she could tell Hank she got a little back for making her man get soaked to the skin.
“You okay, honey?” Kaylee asked, stepping quietly into the infirmary.
Simon turned to her, trying hard to smile. “I'm okay.”
“You sure about Andrew?”
He nodded. “I don’t think Eli Harris was exaggerating. If Andrew’s let anyone know he’s ill, it must be bad.”
Simon pulled her close into him, inhaling her personal perfume of engine oil and hot metal, a scent that had been known to drive him insane with need, but now just soothed him. “Harris thinks so.”
“He’s a nice man. Andrew, I mean. Even when he was trying to persuade you to stay on Corvus.”
“They’ll be without a doctor now.”
She looked up at him. “Not thinkin’ of taking on the job?”
He shook his head. “No. Not now. I haven’t changed my mind – I think Serenity’s still the safest place for us. But I wish I could help them.”
“You’re a good man, Simon.”
He tightened his grip on her. “I can’t help her, though.” He glanced at his sister, apparently asleep.
“You will, honey.” She ran her hand down his cheek. “Can I sit with her a while?”
Kaylee pulled gently out of his grasp and moved the stool closer to the bed, hitching up onto it.
“Doc, can you join us in the galley?” Mal’s voice echoed tinnily through the com system.
Simon crossed to the wall and thumbed transmit. “On my way.” He looked across at his wife and sister. “Will you be okay for a while?”
“Shiny, Simon,” Kaylee said, smiling at him. “We’ll sit here and have a good old chin wag.”
“I won’t be long.”
“Long as it takes.” She turned back to River. “Got a lot to talk about, ain't we?”
Simon hurried out of the infirmary, but looked back before going up the stairs. Kaylee was holding River’s hand, patting it gently, her lips moving as she spoke softly. He had to be able to help her.
Touching. Skin to skin, but nothing inside. No-one is who they say they are. Can’t look. Won’t see the lies within. Easier to pretend there’s no-one home than be forced to confront the one who isn’t there. Keep the masks in place and not peek. Not ask the question … who am I?
They’d taken off from Regina as soon as Jayne got back, and were now heading through the black to Corvus. The big man had gone straight to the infirmary, to check on River, but now joined the others in the galley, waiting to hear the verdict on their passengers.
Freya poured herself a cup of coffee. “Why do pious people always make me want to wash my mind out?” she asked, sipping the liquid to take the taste of them away.
“Because they’re always looking for the dirt in everyone,” Mal said. “Not as ready to accept people the way they are, unlike us poor but honest crooks.”
“Probably.” She suppressed a shiver.
“So the Hetters’re not likely to be a threat, then,” Zoe said.
“Not unless it’s holding a Sunday Service in the cargo bay. And they’d be most put out that half the crew couldn’t attend.”
“Half?” Mal paused for a moment, doing the math. “Well, okay, maybe. Good job we’re not keeping them on board too long, then.” He looked at her. “What about Roxanna?”
“That’s different.” Freya took a deep breath through her nostrils, holding it. “She won’t talk to me about the baby, just keeps saying it’s fine.”
“Any reason to doubt her?”
“Oh, just one.” She looked around the faces in the galley, coming back to Mal. “She’s sick.”
Simon stood straighter.
“She’s pregnant,” Hank said. “That ain’t being sick.” He glanced at Zoe. “Believe me when I say that.”
“No, I mean really sick. Ill. She’s got something physically wrong with her.”
“Any idea what?” Mal asked. “And is it contagious?” He put his hand on her arm, worried about their own baby.
“I can’t tell. Her mind’s got a lot of natural barriers, partly due to the pregnancy.”
“Did you tell her you were pregnant?” Mal asked.
“You are?” Hank looked at Zoe. “She is?”
Zoe shook her head slowly, this as much news to her as to the pilot.
“I told her,” Freya said. “She denied there was anything that might affect me or the baby.”
“You need to examine her, doc,” Mal said quickly, turning to Simon. “Ain't having nothing coming onto my ship that’s going to jeopardise any one of ‘em.”
“And if she refuses?”
“It won’t take much to turn around and put her back on Regina.”
“Would you do that?”
“Not if I can help it, but I'm leaving my options open. Try.”
Simon nodded and headed towards the lower level.
Jayne followed. “Doc, I wanna take River back to our shuttle. Is that okay with you?”
Simon was surprised. It showed the measure of the man, the depth of his feelings, that he was actually asking permission.
“I think that’s a good idea. Familiar surroundings might help.”
“I’ll make it nice for her.”
“Ah … good.”
“It ain't right for her to be like this,” Jayne’s deep voice grumbled. “Not when she’s got us.”
“Keep telling her that.”
“Oh, I intend to.”
Back up in the dining area Zoe was gazing calmly at her captain. “So. Freya’s pregnant, sir,” she said.
“That we are.” Mal smiled.
“Were you going to tell us, or maybe we were supposed to guess?”
Mal looked at his wife, who shrugged. He could get himself out of this. “Well, it wasn't quite how I planned letting everyone know. Not that most of you didn’t anyway.”
“I didn’t,” Hank put in.
“We didn’t want to … what with you and little Ben … we thought it better to wait,” Freya put in, despite herself.
“And when were you planning on giving us the good news?”
“Hey, you were the ones waited almost until he was born to tell me Hank’d knocked you up,” Mal protested. “And you’re living in sin.”
“And you’re trying to change the subject, sir.”
He glared at her, then unexpectedly laughed. “We were gonna tell you tonight, and wave Inara too. Sorry you found out this way.”
“But you’re pregnant,” Hank said, trying to get the confirmation from the woman herself.
“I am.” Freya couldn’t stop the grin spreading across her face.
Hank joined her. “That’s great!” He hugged her.
“Congratulations, sir,” Zoe said, her own lips curving. “And I mean it.” She put her arms around the other woman, holding her tight.
“I know you do.” Mal put his hand on her shoulder. “And thanks.”
“What for?” his first mate asked, letting go to look at him.
“Not shooting me for not telling you.”
“Oh, I think it would prob’ly take more than that.”
“So there would come a point where you might?” Freya asked, glancing from one to the other. “I think you and me need to have a talk,” she said to Zoe. “Help me finish off the meal.”
“You get the feeling we’re being dismissed?” Hank asked.
“Figure we are,” Mal agreed.
“You think they might get violent if we don’t go?”
“Maybe. Hormones, you know.”
“Oh, hormones,” Hank said knowledgably.
At the bottom of the stairs they split, Jayne to collect River from the infirmary, and Simon to call on their pregnant guest. His steps slowed as he approached the room.
She was staring at something, something in an ornate box, not knowing he was watching. Sliding one finger down the metal tube, almost lovingly, she sighed and closed the lid.
“Roxanna. How are you feeling?” Simon asked, leaning in the doorway.
“I'm fine, thank you.” She slid the small box back under her pillow.
“I’d really like to take a look at you, if I may. Just to reassure myself.”
“I said I'm fine.” The steel Mal had seen in her came to the surface again.
“Then you won’t mind telling me what that was.”
She gazed at him. “What?”
“It looked like a hypo kit.”
“Then you saw wrong.”
The young man’s voice was gentle, persuasive. “Roxanna, if Freya says you’re sick, then you’re sick. You don’t argue with her.”
“How would –“
“Let’s just say the captain’s wife is very intuitive.” He smiled a little. “She’s also pregnant, and if there’s anything wrong with you that could possibly communicate itself to her or the unborn child, I need to know.”
“It’s nothing like that.
He held out his hand. “Then can I see?”
For a moment she wondered whether to argue, to insist it was none of his business, but the gentleness of his blue eyes, the honest need in them to help her, made her slip her hand under the pillow and remove the box. She handed it over and watched as he opened it.
“Codafenicol.” He looked down at her. “This is about as strong a painkiller as you can get.” He saw the lines around her eyes, the tightness of her skin elsewhere. “A tumour?”
She nodded slowly. “Yes.”
“Where?” he asked, sitting down next to her.
“It started in my breast, but …”
“Yes. There’s one in my brain, and it’s … I don’t have long.”
“But there are treatments, drugs …”
“All of them harmful to unborn children. And it’s too late for an operation. Besides, I made my mind up when I found out I was pregnant. I'm not important. My baby is.” She took his hand. “I have to have this baby. It’s all that I have left.”
“But if you’ve not been taking the treatment –“
“I know there’s only a little time. That’s why Three Hills is as good a place as any. I just took the first transport that came along.” She smiled a little. “Well, maybe not the first. That wouldn’t even let me on board.”
“It’s been known.” He looked at her pale fingers entwined in his, feeling sympathy and regret for her condition. “Is the Codafenicol working?”
She shook her head. “It takes the edge off, but I'm having to take more and more. It never really goes.”
“At least let me examine you. I might be able to –“
“You won’t.” She patted his hand. “But if it makes you feel any better, I’ll let you.”
Simon smiled. “Good. And I’ll check the baby too.”
“The baby’s fine.” She put her hands on her belly. “Aren’t you, sweetheart?”
Simon felt his heart jump a little. “Come on. No time like the present.” He stood up, helping her to her feet.
“Thank you. I never expected … out here …”
He smiled a little. “Neither did I.”
Jayne carried River out into the cargo bay and up the stairs, stiff and unyielding in his arms. She wouldn’t look at him, keeping her eyes closed all the time. Even when he laid her gently onto their bed in the shuttle, she rolled away, turning from him to face the bulkhead.
The big man stared at her, trying to figure out what to do. In the end he just spoke his feelings.
“You’re shuttin’ me out, River. Can’t hear you no more. ‘N’ that … that hurts.”
He sat down in the chair, wanting to touch her but knowing she didn’t want that kind of intrusion.
“You accepted who you are enough to be with me. This ain’t changed a damn thing, River. I still love ya. You’re mine and I ain’t gonna let you go back.”
She hadn’t moved. If he couldn’t hear the slight sound of her breathing, he would’ve thought she was dead.
“Ain’t I enough? I know you put all your faith in your brother, being kin and all, but … you’re with me now. Ain’t I enough for ya? I’m big, River. Big enough for you to anchor yourself to, to hold onto, when it gets bad. And I know it’s bad now. But … I ain’t changed either. I’ll be here. Long as you want. Longer, if you don’t kill me.”
He leaned back in the seat and ran his hands across his face, through his short hair.
“Don’t know what to say to you, moonbrain. To prove to you it don’t matter. But we’re going to Corvus, see that friend of yours. That Andrew feller. Maybe he can … do something to help you.”
He shook his head.
“I’ll grab us some food, how about that? Then we’ll just sit. If’n you don’t wanna talk, we don’t have to. I’ll clean my guns, and you can … I’m here, River.”
She didn’t acknowledge him, but tears ran down her cheek and nose to soak into the pillow.
Mal looked around the table at the majority of his crew and two of the passengers. “We’ll be landing on Three Hills in five days, with just a little delay. We’re dropping by to see an old friend on Corvus, so –“
“A detour?” Hetter sounded querulous. “That wasn’t mentioned to me when we came on board.”
“We go where we’re needed,” Hank said, piling his plate with food.
“It’ll be a few hours. A day at most. But we’ll get you to Three Hills as planned.” Mal poured water for himself and Freya, trying to keep his temper. Hetter had the ability to rub him up the wrong way without even trying. “It won’t inconvenience you.”
“It is inconvenient. I have a flock waiting for me on –“ Hetter stopped, staring as Simon helped Roxanna into the galley. “What is she doing here?”
“Same as everyone else,” Mal said. “Partaking of this fine meal.” He looked at the young doctor, who shook his head slightly, indicating everything was, if not okay, at least not dangerous.
“Not so fine,” Freya said softly. “I cooked most of it.”
Mal smiled, about to claim her cooking was improving, when he was interrupted.
“I won’t break bread with a woman of this … type.” Hetter looked like he’d chewed on a whole lemon grove, not just one fruit.
“You’re a guest on my boat,” Mal said, deceptively quietly. “I’d take it as a kindness if you behaved with something more of a Christian attitude.”
Hetter’s eyebrows threatened to disappear into his hair. “You’d rather take this dongwu whore’s side over mine?”
Mal straightened in his seat, aware the rest of the crew were watching him, including Bethie and Ethan, who were more than a little scared. “Apologise.”
“Apologise to her right now.”
“No, it’s alright, Captain,” Roxanna said, managing to push Simon’s hand from her arm. “I think I’d rather eat in my room anyway.”
“That ain't the point.”
“It doesn’t matter.” She spoke as if the entire weight of the ‘verse was on her shoulders. “Really, it doesn’t matter.” She walked unsteadily out, back towards the passenger quarters.
“Roxanna –“ Simon began, but Freya stood up.
“Let me.” She put a hand on Mal’s shoulder and followed the other woman.
“She’s unwed,” Hetter said, not realising the hole he was digging for himself. “An unwed mother is a sin.”
“Really.” Mal gazed at him, very little emotion apparent on his face, except to the other members of his crew. Hank edged his chair surreptitiously backwards.
“She is to be looked down on and shunned!”
“That’s what you think, is it?”
“That’s what I know!”
“Huh.“ Mal let the silence build between them.
Hetter broke it first. “If we could have found another ship we would.”
“You know, I don’t think I’d’ve minded if you had.”
“But you wear a cross – and a wedding band!” Hetter complained. “How can you be so forgiving?”
Mal wanted to wipe the disgusted look off the man’s face. “Isn’t that what the Bible teaches? Forgiveness? Or ain't that in your version?”
Hetter was pale with anger. “Do not blaspheme.”
“Blasphemy? Believe me, I think I know more about that than you do, and I still say you’re in the wrong.” He leaned forward. “And you will apologise to Miss Caldwell. Or I’ll put you off on Corvus, and you won’t be finding another ship landing there for quite a while.”
“If it’s God’s will –“
“Not God’s will. Mine.”
Everyone around the table knew that look, that tone. Mal meant every word.
Hetter realised he’d gone too far. “As you insist. I shall speak to … her … in the morning. But now I think it better if we eat in the cargo bay, Captain,” Hetter said, picking up his plate and nodding to his wife. “This is a heathen ship, and I shall have nothing more to do with you.”
He strode purposefully out of the room, his wife following a little slower.
“Mal, you want I should ask Jayne to put him out the airlock?” Hank asked, watching them go.
Mal exhaled heavily. “As tempting as that sounds, no.”
“Can we at least keep it in mind?”
“That I think we can do.”
“Well, Simon?” Mal asked, turning to the young doctor.
“Freya’s right. Roxanna is sick. She’s dying.”
Kaylee’s hand flew to her throat. “Dying?”
“She has a tumour, in fact several. I completed a scan just before we came up. She doesn’t have long.”
Mal stared at him. “Anything we can do?”
Simon sat down next to his wife. “Make her comfortable. And keep Hetter away from her. That’s about it. The cancer is too widely spread to be treated, and she’s refused everything except painkillers.”
“She going to make it to Three Hills?”
“Honestly?” Simon shrugged. “I’m actually surprised she’s still walking. The position of the tumour in her brain, the rapidity of its growth … she must be very strong-willed.”
“She wants to see her child born,” Zoe said, looking at her baby in the sling around Hank’s body.
“The baby in any danger?” Mal asked, his eyes moving to his own son.
“Healthy, as far as I can tell.” He paused a moment. “I have spoken to her about inducing the birth while she’s still on board. Once she gets to Three Hills there may not be any medical help, and if she’s … I think it would be better if she had the child here.” He waited for the outburst.
“Think you might be right,” Mal said softly, surprising him greatly. “Better she does it amongst friends.”
“We don’t know her,” Hank pointed out.
“We know enough. Strong, willing to do anything … sounds like a lot of other women I know.” Mal nodded. “You did right, doc.”
“Thanks. Somehow that just doesn’t seem to be enough.”
Someone else in pain. Not just the usual generalised background of every day living, punctuated by the bright peaks of desire and fulfilment, but the stark pain of loss, of need never to be realised. Decisions to be made. Steps taken. One dies so one can live. Choice in a fettered world. So strange and odd to feel it here.
Roxanna sat on her bed, tears running down her cheeks.
“If you’re planning on eating in your room, you should at least take some food with you,” Freya said from the doorway.
Roxanna turned away, wiping her face. “I’m not hungry.”
“No, but I bet that baby is.” She let the other woman gather herself a little. “Do you want to talk? I'm a good listener. Ask anyone.”
“I don’t need company.”
“And most folk will tell you I don’t just go away when asked. Pretty persistent, if truth be told.”
Roxanna couldn’t help a little laugh. “Is that a fact?”
“It is. My husband’ll tell you. I didn’t leave him alone until he agreed to marry me.”
“And I’m sure you don’t leave him alone now, either.” She looked up at the other woman.
Freya grinned. “Not for a minute.” She sat down on the other end of the bed. “So. Talk?”
“Okay.” She wiped at her cheeks again.
“Do you need another hankie? Only I’ve got quite a few -”
“No. I’m fine.” Roxanna sniffed, then tucked the square of linen into her sleeve.
“I’m sorry about the Hetters,” Freya went on. “We take passengers where we can, and unfortunately we can’t be too choosy. Believe me, if Mal could, I think he’d like to space that man for what he said.”
“I’ve heard worse. Regina isn’t exactly … they have strong beliefs, and don’t mind passing them on.”
“Maybe, but that’s no excuse. Is that why you wanted to leave?”
“Anywhere but Regina? Sure. My baby may be illegitimate, but I’m not having it being called a bastard by everyone.”
That was better. The steel was showing itself again, Freya thought.
“So tell me about yourself.”
“Me? I’m no-one.”
“Yes you are. You’re a mother to be. That’s something important.”
Roxanna stroked the large mound. “No. I’m just a … a way station on this little one’s journey.” She looked up. “I went to a fortune teller, when I found out I was pregnant. She said this baby’s going to be special. Very special.”
“All babies are.”
“I guess.” Her hand stilled on the swelling. “I’m afraid,” she admitted, her voice small.
“Don’t be. Mal won’t let anything happen to you.”
“Not for me. For my baby. Never knowing who … always wondering.”
“What about the father?”
“He doesn’t know. He was never going to be the love of my life.” A small smile flittered across her face. “I didn’t think I had a life to worry about. I already knew I was sick, but he was kind and gentle, just a man passing through.”
“Don’t you want him to know?”
“No. He didn’t sleep with me expecting to be given a family. It was just a few days comfort.”
“You’re very philosophical about it.”
“Can’t be anything else. There’s no point in ranting and throwing things. That might be fun in the short term, but it doesn’t really change anything.”
“I guess not.”
“Your doctor … he said it might be better to have the baby on board, if I can. Proper medical care, that sort of thing.”
“He’s probably right. You must be almost full term.”
“All but a week. I … I lied to your husband.”
“Don’t worry about it. People do that all the time.”
“I was afraid he wouldn’t let me on board.”
“Mal surprises a lot of people.”
“I suppose.” Roxanna reached into her carpet bag. “If anything … “ She swallowed. “If anything happens before I leave this ship, could you … would you keep this for my baby?” She held out a small journal.
Freya took it, reading the title. To My Baby, it said on the inside cover.
“It’s just thoughts, feelings, that sort of thing. Bits and pieces I wanted him to know.”
“It’s a boy?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t … it was going to be a surprise.” She smiled crookedly. “Only I’m so worried there won’t be time now.”
Glancing at the book in her hand, Freya nodded slowly. “I have one of these. For my children. Just in case.”
“Just in case,” Roxanna echoed. “Do you … do you know the sex of your child?”
“Not officially. But it’s a girl.”
Roxanna smiled. “I’d like a girl. Dress her in pretty clothes, give her tea parties, make things …” She choked, tears once again spilling down her cheeks. “And I won’t see any of that.”
Freya pulled her close, wrapping her arms around her, letting her cry her fill.
After a long minute Roxanna sat back up.
“Don’t be. We all need to do it once in a while.”
“But you seem so strong.”
“No. Not really. I take my strength from the people around me.”
“They must be special.”
“And is this one of yours?” Roxanna asked.
Freya turned, and smiled. “No. This one’s Bethany. She’s Simon and Kaylee’s daughter.” She looked at the little girl in the doorway. “What is it, honey?”
Bethany was looking at Roxanna. “Hello.”
She smiled. “Hello.”
“Uncle Mal said you can come back now because the hwoon dahn has gone.”
Freya lifted her eyebrows. “Did Uncle Mal use those exact words?”
Bethie rolled her foot. “Nearly.”
She suppressed a smile. “I think we need to go back over a few lessons, don’t we?”
“Maybe.” The foot roll became even more expressive.
Freya turned to Roxanna. “What do you say? I’m hungry, at least, ‘specially as I’m eating for two.” She saw Bethany’s eyes widen - perhaps she hadn’t been peeking as much as it appeared. “And some of it should be edible, even though I cooked it.”
Roxanna looked unsure, then chuckled at the faces Bethany was pulling. “Sure. Why not?”
Freya smiled. “Good. And we’re okay, you know,” she added. “Once you get to know us.” She looked back at the little girl, perfectly well aware of what she’d been doing, even though she now looked as innocent as the day. “Bethie, tell Uncle Mal we’ll be along soon and to save us some food.”
“Don’t think that’ll be a problem.” She sighed theatrically, then turned and ran back up the stairs.
Friends. People. Welcoming. Maybe they aren’t the corruption. Take their masks and they stay the same. Perhaps it comes from within, inside the unknown object. Seeping through pores it decays what it touches, changing because it is nameless. Unidentified and unfamiliar. Waiting.
Roxanna was back in her room, resting. Freya sat with her until she fell asleep, and now she slid the door closed, intent on heading for her own bunk.
Simon stood in the doorway to the infirmary, watching her.
Most people forgot. Her accent was closer to Mal’s now, and vulgarities and words like ain’t peppered her language. But she was Core-bred. Like him. He’d always felt close to her for that very reason, seeking her out to talk to when he needed someone. More even than Inara.
She smiled at him. “River?”
He nodded. “Do you mind?”
“I think this might be the conversation we almost had on Paquin,” Freya said, smiling at him.
“Did we?” Simon asked.
“Something about whether it mattered to me that I wasn’t Elena anymore.”
“Is it that obvious?”
“Pretty much.” She lowered herself tiredly into the yellow armchair. “I've been so many people, Simon. Started out as Elena Rostov. The child.” The smile died. “Then I became just a number, a thing to be tested and experimented on. And when I ran I was nothing. There was nothing. Until my mentor found me, gave me the control, and I became Freya Nordstrom, in memory of my friend.” She looked up. “Now I’m Freya Reynolds. Wife, lover, mother. And so much more.” She laughed. “Sometimes I wonder if I really exist at all.”
“I think Mal would disagree with that.”
“Probably. And he’s right. I’m here, now, and that’s the important thing.”
“Could you tell River that? That it doesn’t matter who you were, it’s who you are now that counts?”
“Only that’s not the problem, is it? She doesn’t know who she is now. At least she thinks she doesn’t.”
“I don’t care if she’s related to me or not. We could have not one fragment of DNA in common, and she’d still be my sister. She was the little girl who corrected my spelling. She was the brat who broke into my locked drawer and stole my diary, leaving pages of it around the house. She was the one I gave everything up for. And I’d do it again. She’s my sister, Frey.”
Fear. Fear that without the bond of chemical ties he won’t love. He can’t love what isn’t his. Just a word, six letters, but so strong it led him to find that which was lost. Still lost. Lost again. Don’t look in the mirror because nothing looks back. Only emptiness.
Bethany waited until she saw Uncle Jayne head for the kitchen for a snack, then she walked quietly up to the shuttle.
“Auntie River, it’s me.” The little girl stepped inside. “I bought you something to cheer you up.” She crossed to the bed and placed the big, green, slightly tatty toy Mal had won for her at the fair by the pillow. “I thought you’d like Jayne to keep you company.”
She looked towards her aunt, but she kept her face turned away.
“It’s okay,” she added. “He won’t turn into something else.”
She saw her aunt jerk, as if a shot of electricity coursed through her, but she didn’t look up.
Bethie sighed and went back to the door. “I have Uncle Mal and Auntie Frey. Uncle Hank, Auntie Zoe, Auntie ‘Nara … ‘N’ I love them. ‘N’ I have Auntie River. ‘N’ I love her more. All family. All my family.”
It was too much. She ran out of the shuttle, past Jayne outside on the catwalk, and back to her room, slamming her door and throwing herself onto the bed, overwhelmed by the despair. Fiddler howled.
And River heard, through the barriers and confusion in her mind, little Bethany’s voice saying You’re mine. ‘N’ that’ll never change.
Serenity dropped through the atmosphere, the flames extinguishing as they neared the ground. Corvus had changed in the couple of years since they’d been by last. The worst of the fire destroyed homes had been levelled, and new houses arose in their place, while others had been repaired. There was no outward sign that Reavers had ever visited this little planet, but the fear was still locked in everyone’s hearts. As the Firefly landed, faces peered out from windows and doors, but only one man came to greet them.
Simon walked down the ramp as it lowered. “Mr Harris.”
“Simon. And please call me Eli.”
They shook hands warmly.
“Eli.” Simon glanced towards the house on the outskirts of town. “How is he?”
“A little worse every day,” Eli admitted. “And the pain grows, I know that.”
Simon lifted his bag. “Perhaps I can do something.”
“Sure hope so. That man’s been the saviour of this town for a long while. If he has to go, if it’s his time … we want it to be easy.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
“Let me know when you can. I’ll be at my own home.”
Eli Harris walked off back into town.
“You okay?” Mal asked, joining Simon outside.
“It’s just …”
“Yeah.” He put his hand on the young man’s shoulder. “Come on. Better see to your friend.”
“Are you coming?” Simon was surprised.
“Sure. You got a problem with that?”
Simon managed a smile. “No. No problem.” In fact he was pleased to have the captain’s company.
“Then let’s go.”
Andrew’s house stood back from the rest, perhaps just a little grander, but only a little. It was the house of a doctor, pillar of the community, friend to all. And the man in it lay dying.
Simon pushed open the gate to the yard, hearing the hinge squeal rustily, noting the weeds flourishing in the untended flower beds. He opened the door and the two men stepped inside.
“Andrew’s bedroom is in the back,” Simon said softly, almost as if he was in church.
“Lead the way,” Mal said.
They walked through the house, into the main bedroom, coming at least face to face with the person they’d crossed the system to see.
Simon was shocked. The man they’d left on Corvus after the Reavers came had been tired, depressed even, but at least he hadn’t been old. This … the man in the bed … he was ancient, his skin thin and loose on his bones. Quickly putting his case down, the young doctor opened it up, pulling the stethoscope from inside so he could start checking his old friend over.
“Anything you need?” Mal asked, himself appalled at the changes.
“No. Not yet. I just need to -”
Andrew Brooks opened his eyes and fastened on Simon. At first a smile tugged at his lips, then a cry erupted.
“No! No, Simon!” He grasped at the young man’s hand. “You weren’t supposed to come. You have to leave. Now!”
“Andrew, I came to see you. You’re sick.”
“I’m dying. My own fault. Not careful enough …”
“Simon, please, you must go. If they find you here …”
“Who?” When Andrew didn’t answer, Simon leaned forward. “Who, Andrew?”
Mal lifted the com to his mouth. “Hank, keep an eye out. You even think it looks like we might have guests, you take Serenity out of here. You can come back for us later.”
“Just don’t leave the bridge.”
“And get Frey to listen out. She might pick ‘em up before our sensors do.”
“On it, Mal. Any particular idea who they might be?”
“I don’t think we want to get close enough to ask.”
“Andrew, please, lie back,” Simon was saying.
“You have to leave.” He was pushing at the young man, trying to get it through to him. “It isn’t safe here, Simon. I won’t be responsible for … for what might happen.”
“A little bit late for that, ain’t it?” Mal asked, coming to the bed.
“What?” Andrew stared at him.
“I tested River and my DNA,” Simon explained, holding the old man down with no effort. “Compared them, Andrew.”
“Oh, God.” He fell back onto the pillow. “I prayed you’d never … God.”
Simon realised he was crying. “Andrew, please. What’s going on? You told me, in your letter, that River and I came from the same donors. Now I’m not even sure she’s my sister at all.”
“Doc.” Mal put his hand on the young doctor’s arm. “Don’t you think you’d better see to him medically before you get into this?”
He stared at the captain, then nodded. “Of course.” He rummaged in his medical bag.
“I never wanted to have to tell you,” Andrew wheezed, the breath rattling in his chest.
“Just lie still. I've got something that’ll ease things. Make you more comfortable.”
“But nothing that’s going to make me live, right?”
Simon turned at a sound like pebbles on a tea tray, then realised the old man was laughing. He smiled tightly. “No. Nothing to make you live.”
“Knew that was the case. I couldn’t be a doctor as long as I have been and not been able to diagnose myself. Always knew having Romeo and Juliet as my favourite play would come back to bite me in the ass.”
“Poison, I see, hath been his timeless end.” Andrew coughed, and Simon wiped away a little spittle. “Wish they’d done me the courtesy of a sword thrust. Be quicker.”
“Not necessarily,” Mal muttered.
“Andrew, what are you talking about? What poison?” Simon asked.
“They’re cleaning house.” He coughed again, and this time the mucus was pink tinged. “I got a gift, from someone I haven’t seen in a long time. More fool me, I didn’t think it might be … I got sick after. Just kept getting worse.”
“What was it?”
“Chewing tobacco.” He laughed the rattle again. “I know. Last time I saw you I said it’d kill me. Wish I hadn’t been quite so prophetic.”
“Are you sure it was -”
“Sure. I tested what was left. And me. Phanocylic acid.”
“Tah muh duh.”
“Doc?” Mal leaned forward. It had to be bad if the doc swore. “What’s –”
“It is a poison. It targets the pulmonary system, destroys the lining of the lungs, then attacks …” His voice faded away. “How long, Andrew?”
“Two weeks.” He waved a hand. “I know. I’m living on borrowed time anyway. I just wish you hadn’t come here. If they find out …”
“I had to. I had to know what’s going on.”
“Oh, Simon. If I’d known you were likely to test your DNA, I’d have made sure I told you before.”
“What happened, Andrew? You said in your letter that … I believed you when you said River and I weren’t the children of … weren’t Tams. Did you lie to me?”
“No, no.” Andrew reached out, and Simon took his hand, feeling the old skin thin and fragile under his young, strong fingers. “You’re not Tams. I promise you that. But … you’re right. River is only your half sister.”
“But you said they requested the same donors.” He didn’t need to elaborate on which they he was talking about.
“They did. They didn’t know, Simon, I swear.”
“Didn’t know what?”
“What Blue Sun were doing.”
Simon involuntarily tightened his grip until he saw the old man grimacing in pain. He let go. “I'm sorry.”
“Don’t be. I deserve it.”
“How? How did you find out about this?”
“Because I was part of it.”
If Simon had any colour left in his cheeks, it had gone now. “Part of what?”
“The experiment.” Tears forced from Andrew’s eyes to run down his temples into his sparse hair. “Believe me, I've cursed myself every day for what I did, but … I had no choice.”
Simon took a deep breath. “What did you do, Andrew?”
“You’ve got to understand. The Government were looking for psychics for their own reasons, to make into soldiers, to win any war before it could start.”
“To make them assassins.”
Andrew nodded wretchedly. “They’d known for a long time that there were ways of … increasing abilities. Taking what was already there and shaping it into what they wanted.”
“I didn’t … not that. You have to believe me.”
“Go on,” Simon said, his tone flat.
“There was widespread testing, then offering places in an Academy to suitable children, those who showed an aptitude, where they could be tested further, pushed to see if they could become more, to see if … if they were what their masters wanted.” He licked dry lips. “Those that were found to be suitable were … handed on.”
Mal, standing at the back of the room, stirred uneasily, but neither of the other men took any notice of him.
“That’s what happened with River,” Simon said.
The young man’s head jerked up. “Yes, it was! The Academy, the tests, the … the torture …” He stared at the old man, realisation in his eyes. “And you knew. When we visited before, you told me you didn’t know, but you … you couldn’t know this and not understand what they did to her.”
“I didn’t. Please, Simon, you have to believe me. Not then. But I've still got friends. I’ve been doing some poking around, asking questions, seeing whether what you said was true.”
“They hurt her! Destroyed the River I loved!”
“Yes, that all happened. But I only knew the why.” Andrew coughed, a sound that, to Mal’s experienced ears, had the imminent ring of death to it.
Simon held up a cup of water to the old man’s lips, allowing him to drink a little. “Careful,” he said, wiping the excess from his chin.
“There’s not much time, Simon,” Andrew said, gripping his wrist. “It’s happened in families all over the systems. People desperate for children, paying to have their wishes granted, only those that went to the Blue Sun facilities got more than they bargained for.” He pulled the young man closer. “They were playing God, Simon. We were playing God. Combining eggs and sperm from those we knew were psychic, or just having shown brilliance in any field. Letting these people go home with what they thought they had chosen, when they were just part of an experiment.” He let go and fell back onto the pillow. “They were watched, assessed, balanced. You were watched, Simon.”
The young doctor sat back. Despite having realised what he was going to say, hearing Andrew speak the actual words was a shock. He took a deep breath. “And River?”
“They failed with you. At least, what they considered a failure.”
“You didn’t display any overt psychic skills. To them, that was a failure.” He took a breath that rattled in his chest. “But when the Tams asked for another child, they saw the chance to try again. The same father, but a different mother. A dancer, so very beautiful …” Andrew swallowed. “This time they got it right. By breeding River –“
“She’s not cattle!”
“I know, my boy. And I'm wrong to use that word, but it’s how they looked on her. A product of their research. And as they watched her grow they were more and more pleased.”
“Who watched? You?”
Andrew nodded sadly. “Some of the time. But there were others, and of course all the other ways they could …”
“Did they know? My … the Tams? That River wasn't from the same donors as me? Did they think they’d failed with me?”
“No. Oh, Simon, no, don’t you ever think that. They were so proud of you. Doing so well, getting into medical school when you did, being so gifted –“
“Performing like some dog in a circus.”
If Andrew was surprised at the bitterness in the young man’s voice he didn’t show it. “They loved you.”
“Not enough to listen to me.” Simon shook his head. “And if River hadn’t wanted to go to that school? Hadn’t chosen to take up their offer?”
The old man’s eyes closed to hide the guilt. “She’d have gone missing. Stolen. Harvested like too many others.”
“What did you have to do with this?” Simon asked, trying to stop from shouting.
“I … I selected the donors. You have to understand. When I told them about the Pax, they wouldn’t let me resign. They gave me other work, other ways to be useful, until I was too old …”
“And the other children?”
“You got your sister out. I don’t think anyone’s ever done that.”
“So they’re still there.”
“Simon, I think there’s more to it than that. When they found what they thought was the perfect combination, they used it again.”
“How many times?” Simon asked hoarsely, leaning over the bed.
“For as many eggs as they had. Some dozen or so.”
“Dozen …” Simon couldn’t help the image in his brain of a row of children like River, all sitting in those chairs, probes in their skulls …
“They’re not,” Andrew said, almost reading his mind. “Like River. As far as I can find out, most showed no sign of her level of skills, if any. I think … I think you’re the key.”
“They thought it was the female bloodline, but I think they’re wrong. I think River would have been like this no matter who her natural mother was. That in this case it was the male line that carried the psychic gene.” He grabbed Simon’s arm, his grip surprisingly powerful. “I think they’ve realised this, and it’s why they’re still looking for you. There’s no other reason for the warrants to be still active. Miranda’s over, long done, and they can’t possibly believe River can hurt them any more. It’s you they want, Simon. And Bethany.”
Mal pushed away from the wall. “Bethie?” he asked.
“If she’s in any way gifted, they’ll want to breed from her.”
“Wuh de mah …” Simon breathed.
“You need to keep her safe. If they ever find out about her …” He coughed, letting go of Simon’s arm to wipe at his lips and the blood that stained them, his form quaking with pain.
“Mal, get out for a while,” Simon ordered. “I need to help him.”
“I’ll only be outside.”
Mal was dozing in one of the chairs in the living room, but was instantly awake when Simon walked slowly through the door.
“Doc?” he asked.
“He’s gone. Just now.” He held out a memory tab. “He gave me this, just before ... It’s his list of contact names, Cortex addresses … he said … he said it might come in useful one day.”
“He cared about you, Simon.”
Mal narrowed his eyes a little. “What you said in there, before, about they destroyed the River you loved. Is that how you feel?”
Simon sat down on one of the hard chairs. “Mal, I was angry.”
“Maybe. But it had the ring of truth about it.”
The young doctor wiped his hands over his face, trying to press away the tiredness. “I suppose it did,” he admitted.
“You want to talk about it?”
“No. But I gather you do.”
“Simon, she’s your sister. No matter what any little gizmo says. But it kinda sounds like you did all this, came here to Corvus, more for you than her.”
“Perhaps I did. And yes, you’re right. I did feel that.” He stood up and walked to the window, looking out into the grey dawn. “When I got her out of that place, put her into cryo, I truly believed she’d be the River I remembered when she woke up. Then she woke up.”
“It wasn't her fault.”
“I'm not saying, in any way, shape or form that it was, captain.” His voice had hardened, and using Mal’s title only put more venom behind it.
“If you were I wouldn’t’ve taken you on board.”
Simon collapsed a little, putting his head back and closing his eyes. “She wasn't the same. Not just the psychotic episodes, the schizophrenia, but she wasn't the same at all. The way she used to love to dance, to move with music … even that was tainted, as if it came from a place of darkness, not light. Having fun with Kaylee just led to a bad place, and … and I couldn’t help her.”
“Did you stop loving her?”
“I don’t know.”
Mal was a little shocked, if not surprised that Simon would admit to this. “You saved her.”
Simon sighed heavily, a sound that seemed to be dredged up from his very soul. “There were times I almost wish I hadn’t. That she would have been better off … better off dead.”
“You’re human. I don’t think you could be and not feel like that.”
“Mal, you don’t understand. If Andrew was right, if it is through me … then I‘m to blame.”
“How’d you work that one out?”
“Because it was me they wanted really, all along. Not her. They took her because they didn’t understand.”
“Simon, I think there’s two things working here. They wanted River so they could make her into something else. They want you so they can make more. Two separate things, doctor. And you ain’t to blame for either.”
“I can’t –”
“Yes, you can. And you know we’ll be there for you. We’ll do what we’ve always done. We deal with things as they turn up. And we’ll deal with this.
The door opened and Eli Harris walked in.
“How’s Andrew?” he asked, then realised what the answer was from the look on Simon’s face. “When?”
“A few minutes ago.”
Harris sighed heavily. “The town’s gonna miss him.”
“So will I.”
The com link on the table buzzed. Mal picked it up, thumbing the switch. “Yeah?”
Hank’s voice filled the room. “Mal, you need to hide. Now.”
“That company you were talking about? I think they’re coming.”
Hetter looked into the engine room, seeing the spinning heart of Serenity. It made him feel nauseous. A young woman, who he remembered from the aborted mealtime, was leaning into the housing. He coughed.
Kaylee stepped back. “Oh. Hi. Um, you ain't allowed in here.”
“I'm not inside,” he said, smiling at her. “I’m very carefully not inside.”
She was taken aback, a little. He seemed almost friendly. “Well, guess you ain’t.” She smiled a little in return, but went back to her work.
“I was wondering …” Hetter went on.
“Wondering what?” She forced the injector nozzle back into place and stood up, wiping her hands on a rag that left more grease than it took off.
“Whether you and your husband would care to join my wife and myself in a small service.”
Kaylee’s open face, never that good at dissembling, showed her surprise. “Oh. Well … I …”
“It would only be short. Half an hour or so. Outside. On God’s good earth.”
“Oh. Look, Mr Hetter, I … it ain't that I ain't grateful for the offer. But I've never been that religious, and –“
“Then it would be good for your soul.”
“Yeah, maybe it would, but … I got work to do.” She waved her hand around the small room. “I keep her running. The Cap’n kinda relies on me.”
The smile switched off and his mouth tightened. “I see.”
“Look, I …”
“No. I quite understand. I thought, an honourable married woman like yourself would be pleased to have the company of those less … ungodly than this crew.”
Kaylee bristled. “They’re my friends, Mr Hetter. And I gave you the benefit of the doubt yesterday, on account of you being tired and all, but I’m not having you talk that way about my family.”
“Family? From what I can see your family are sinners of the first order.” His lips twisted into a sneer. “And the captain allowing that biao zi on board –“
“Now that’s enough,” Kaylee said firmly, picking up her wrench and holding it in front of her like a shield. “Roxanna’s a nice lady. I ain't gonna have you talking about her like that.”
“She’s carrying a bastard!”
“Well, I weren't married when I had Bethany!”
Hetter stared. “You admit to being a –“
“Hold it right there,” Zoe said, coming up behind him. “One more word of the wrong kind outta that mouth and I don’t care what the captain says. I’ll put you out the airlock. Only I might just wait until we’re back out in the black.”
Hetter glared at this Amazon, her dark face hiding her emotion, but her eyes spitting fire. “You’re threatening me?”
“No. Just warning you.”
She wasn’t armed, but Hetter was under no illusions that she couldn’t take him apart if she wanted.
“When a man speaks the truth, he doesn’t expect to be threatened.”
“The truth.” Zoe took a step closer. “Well, Mr Hetter, you see a ring on my finger?” She held up her left hand. “And that little baby you might have seen before? He’s mine. I'm not married either. So you want to speak the truth to me?”
Hetter opened and closed his mouth several times like a fish, then drew himself up to his full height. “Yi jiao tu,” he said, then walked past her towards the stairs.
“Rather be that than like you,” Zoe said after him. She turned back to Kaylee. “You all right?”
“Shiny,” the young mechanic said. “He really makes my skin creep.”
“When do they get off?”
“Just a few days.”
“I’m thinking I might be eating in my bunk for a while.” Kaylee gave a rather shaky smile.
“No. You don’t give in to people like that,” Zoe said. “Saw enough of them during the war, trying to make the men feel less than worthwhile.”
“But the Cap was religious back then …”
“Different kind of religion. What he was came naturally to him, and he made you feel like you could win. Men like Hetter, all they could say was that we’d get our reward in heaven after we lost in this life.”
“Still makes my skin creep.”
Feel them. Feel them coming. Getting closer all the time. Too far to be seen but getting closer with every heartbeat. Closer with eyes that burn red and teeth that bite flesh. She hasn’t seen. Too close, not able yet to throw herself willingly into the dark. Too cluttered. But she’s important, caring, loving, needing … Family. So many on board who need. Such small lives to be snuffed out in an instant. Need to help. Need to cut through the masks and ties and self-hate, even if …
Jayne looked up in surprise from where he was reassembling Vera. His flesh and blood girl had sat up. “River?”
She spoke with both her mind and her voice. “Freya. Close. There.”
Up on the bridge Freya suddenly leaned forward from her position behind Hank and brought up an empty area of space on the screen.
Freya felt the young psychic in her mind, directing her, forcing her to look further, to see … “Cao.”
“Freya?” Hank asked, staring at the screen. “What is it?”
“How soon’re they gonna get here?” Mal asked urgently.
“Minutes. We picked ‘em up coming in from the farside. You ain’t gonna get back in time.”
“Already done it.”
Mal nodded, hearing Serenity’s engines overhead. “Get out of range, then wait for my signal to come back and pick us up.”
“Mal, Frey says they’re really bad guys.”
“Then you make sure they don’t see you.”
He let go of the com button and turned to Harris. “Can you delay them? Until we find someplace to hide?”
Harris nodded. “Of course. But where –”
“The shelter,” Simon said, running through into the bedroom again. “Is it still there?”
“Yes, of course.” Harris went to the front door. “We’ll do what we can.” He left.
Mal followed the young man. “Shelter?”
“Where we hid from the Reavers.”
“I don’t know about that, Simon. I’d rather we took our chances in the hills –”
“Do we have time to get there?”
Mal took a deep breath. “Probably not.”
“Then the shelter looks like our best option. Our only option.” He finished packing his bag. “Do you think they saw Serenity?
“Can’t you …” He nodded toward the com unit still in Mal’s hand.
“Short range, Simon. ‘Sides, don’t want our friends to hear us.”
Mal. A soft caress in his mind. For no good reason other than it felt right, Mal turned to the window and looked up into the sky.
They didn’t see us. They’re landing in the town. Hide. The caress became lighter than a feather.
“They’re coming,” Mal said. “Okay, doc. Where’s this shelter?”
“Frey? What the tyen shiao duh is going on?” Jayne asked, leaning through the bridge doorway. “What we taken off for? And what’s River going on about?”
“Unwanted visitors down on Corvus.” She glanced back at him from where she was standing at Hank’s shoulder.
“Reavers?” Jayne hated Reavers with a vengeance.
He didn’t want to ask what could be worse than cannibals. “You want I should get the girls ready?”
“I’m not sure … although …” She thought a moment.
“You making a plan?” he asked dubiously.
“Only your plans don’t go that much better than the Cap’s on occasion.”
Hank waved his hand. “Jayne, shut up. She’s thinking.”
“I was just saying -”
“Get the shuttle ready to launch,” Freya said suddenly. “Is River okay to move?”
“Well, not sure she’s walking anywhere by herself, but I can carry her. You want I should put her in with Kaylee?”
Freya shook her head. “No. I need her up here.” She looked down at Hank. “Keep the planet between them and us.”
“Wasn’t going to do anything else,” the pilot assured her firmly.
Simon led the way into the doctor’s surgery, then through a door and down steps.
“If this shelter’s just a cellar –“ Mal began.
“It isn’t.” He pulled on a hidden lever, a bank of shelving moving smoothly and silently aside. “Go on.”
Mal nodded, heading into the darkness in front of him.
“Gentleman. It’s unusual to have visitors in our small town. How can I help you?” Eli Harris smiled genially at the two men who’d stepped out of the gleaming black spaceship.
“We’re looking for two fugitives. A man and a woman.” The first spoke quietly, an air of natural authority about him. The second stood in the background, but scanned the curious faces of the crowd, his oddly gloved blue hands by his side.
“Well, like I said, visits are rare. Ain’t had any strangers drop by for a few months, maybe near enough a year. We’re kinda out of the way, and there ain’t much here that anyone’d want, so –”
“These people.” He held out two plastifilm warrants. Simon Tam, said one, while the other was for River Tam.
“What’re they supposed to have done?” Harris asked.
“They are enemies of the Alliance. But specifically they are wanted for treason and terrorism.” He took a step forward. “There’s a large reward offered for their capture, and for those who have aided in their escape.”
“Think they’ll sell us out?” Mal asked, feeling vulnerable and trapped, a bad combination, despite the lights Simon had switched on as the door closed.
“After what we did for them? No.” Simon sat back on a box, his eyes closed.
“Memory’s a funny thing, doc. ‘Specially if someone’s pointing a gun at you.”
“They won’t,” Simon assured him.
]Mal, remember to breathe. Freya’s mental voice was almost amused.
“And that don’t help,” Mal complained.
“What?” Simon stared at him.
“Oh, it’s Frey. Being a pest.” Mal touched his temple.
That’s that I’m here for. Now she was laughing.
“You know, I’m beginning to see why Hank doesn’t like enclosed spaces,” Mal muttered, ignoring her.
“You have a doctor, I believe.”
“Had. He died this morning.” Harris heard the general gasp from the townspeople gathering behind him.
“We would like to see the remains.”
“Now, that’s downright unchristian of you folks.”
“We don’t intend to interfere with him. Just pay our respects.” The man almost smiled. “Perhaps we can assist in finding you a replacement.”
Mal, stay very quiet. They’re coming to the house.
“Mal, I was wondering about –”
“Don’t. Not right now.”
“What? I was just –”
The man in the bed was definitely deceased. Not even their sophisticated little scanner could detect even the smallest sign of brain activity.
“See, now I told you he was dead,” Harris said. He followed the two men through the house and they looked in all the rooms. “And this ain’t respectful.”
They went outside.
“We will search the rest of the town.”
Harris strode around them, standing in their way. “Excuse me, but by whose authority? ‘Cause I’m Mayor here, and I don’t recall you asking my consent.”
“I don’t need your consent. This is by the authority of the Alliance.”
“Really. Well, I ain’t seen any proof of that. Not one bit.”
The second man reached towards his inside jacket pocket.
“You complete that little manoeuvre and you’ll lose it.” Harris’s voice was suddenly strong, punctuated by the sound of a dozen rifles being cocked.
“Do you really think you can stop us?” the first man asked, looking at the crowd behind him, the guns facing his way.
“Stop you? Hell, we already have.” Harris stepped forward. “Now, I told you. We ain’t seen any strangers for weeks. You seem to be saying we’re all of us liars. A whole town. You really think that’s possible?”
They glared at each other, neither giving an inch. Then …
“We will be back. With a cruiser. And lots of men. If there is anything untoward in this town we will find it, and you will be prosecuted with the full might of the law.”
Harris shook his head, sighing. “Son, we ain’t got enough to worry about illegality. Even the stills we got in the hills ain’t producing anything of value no more. So I’d appreciate it if you and yours would leave us all alone in peace.”
The man looked at his companion. “We will be back.” They strode towards their ship.
“And when you do we’ll make tea,” Harris called.
The wall opened, sliding away, and Mal gripped his gun just a little tighter, aiming right where a head was about to appear …
“Mal, you shoot me and I’ll be gorram annoyed.” Jayne’s voice.
Mal let out an explosive bolt of air from his lungs. “What the hell are you doing here?”
“Freya’s idea. Can’t land Serenity again on account of them hwoon dahns sitting out there in their little boat, so she decided we should come and get you.”
“Sir, are you coming or just going to stand there and argue?” Zoe looked around the edge of the door.
Mal was shocked. “What? Don’t tell me you got little Ben on your back like a papoose.”
“He’s with his father back on board the ship. Which is where we should be. Coming, sir?”
Mal hurried up the stairs. “That woman …”
Harris was waiting for him. “They’ve gone, but I’m pretty sure they ain't gone far.”
“No, I conjure you’re right.” Mal held out his hand. “Thanks.”
“No need. You did right by us, back when … when we had that trouble.” He wouldn’t use the word, in case in brought the Reavers back down on them. “We remember things for a long time, captain.”
They jogged along a dusty path, keeping in single file. Except when Jayne hurried up to Mal’s side.
“Why didn’t we just kill ‘em, Mal? I coulda done it myself. Two bullets.”
“And bring the wrath of the Alliance down on these people?” Mal shook his head. “They didn’t do anything except help us. If we’d killed those Blue Hands I wouldn’t give them a snowball’s chance in hell of coming out of this in one piece.”
“Still say I shoulda killed ‘em,” Jayne muttered, falling back.
Less than ten minutes later they came in sight of the shuttle, sitting in a clearing barely big enough to take it.
“Good pilot,” Mal muttered.
“Freya, sir,” Zoe said.
“She’s here?” He was shocked.
“Said no-one else could fly in as the way we needed to, unless it was Wash. And as that’s highly unlikely …” She activated the door control, and Mal was inside immediately, going to the small bridge.
“What in the name of Buddha do you think you’re doing?” he asked, glaring at the woman in the pilot’s seat.
“Saving me.” He shook his head.
“Saving you. And Simon.” She began the start up sequence. “Now shut up and let me get us off the ground.”
“And when we take off they’re going to see us, chase us, catch us … you seeing a flaw in this plan?” Mal asked, his sarcasm spilling over.
“No they won’t. They’re not here.”
“How do you know that? What did you …?”
“Cry Baby,” Freya said, reaching over and firing up the small craft’s engines. “Slightly adapted to give a similar signature to the ship out there.”
“So you’re telling them there’s one of their own in trouble?” Mal couldn’t help smiling. “Good plan.”
“I learned from the best.”
“Did I say it was you?”
“Fine. And I still want to know how come you didn’t tell me about your little plan in the first place.” He tapped his temple. “You were in there, dropping little sarcastic comments all the time.”
“Sar …” She turned in the seat to stare at him. “I like that. There I was, trying to be helpful, to keep your spirits up, and you call me sarcastic.” She shook her head, turning back to stare at the stars. “I’ll have you know it took a lot out of me to do that. To focus enough so I could see what was happening, River telling me about the Blue Hands, and fly as well, and talk to you ...”
He was immediately contrite. “You joking still, or did it really …”
She dropped her head for a moment. “Really did. It’s not exactly my area of expertise, not like River. She could’ve put the thoughts into your mind from half a system away. Me, it hurt.”
He went down onto his heel to look into her face. “Sorry, ai ren.”
She smiled at him. “Just glad to have you home in one piece.” She leaned down to kiss him, but the comlink interrupted.
“Frey?” The young mechanic’s voice sounded … odd.
“What is it, Kaylee?”
“Roxanna’s in labour, and … Oh, Frey, it’s going wrong.”
"Whore.” Hetter spat the word.
“Rather be that than what you are,” Roxanna said, turning from him.
He grabbed her arm. “How can you bring a life into this world knowing what you are?”
“Let go of me.”
“You have to repent of your wickedness.”
She stared at him, then laughed out loud. “Repent? Of being with a man who actually treated me well, of wanting this child more than anything in the world? What should I repent over?”
“For being wa.”
“I'm impure? That’s so …” She dragged her arm from his hand, her sleeve tearing.
He snatched at her again. “If you don’t repent your child will be born unclean, and you will never enter the kingdom of Heaven.”
“If it’s full of people like you …” Suddenly she doubled over, hit by a wave of pain unlike any she’d known. She started to gasp.
“What … what is it?” Hetter asked.
River stared out at the stars, her mind ruthlessly controlled, sending her consciousness out into the vastness of space, but to only one place. It hurt, being in such close proximity to hands of blue, but she was doing what Freya had asked.
“River, you okay?” Hank watched her from the co-pilot’s seat, her skin shining with perspiration. He was itching to fly, but right now all he could do was be there for her.
“Need to keep us … just so,” she muttered, making a minute adjustment to the steering, taking them a half degree further around the planet’s axis.
“No, I mean, are you okay now?” he asked, ready to up and run should the erstwhile psychotic decide to appear.
“No. Still crazy.”
He reached out to touch her. “I meant –“
Her hand snaked out, grabbed his wrist and squeezed. He gasped at the sudden pain and the feel of bones grating together. Obviously hadn’t been fast enough.
“No words,” River said softly, her hair hanging down between them. “Nothing will make the taste go away.” She let go of his wrist.
He sat back, cradling it, flexing his fingers. “Ow?”
“Nothing broken. At least for you.” She hadn’t looked at him the whole time. Again making a minor course correction, her hand stilled and her head lifted. With a speed that equalled her wrist-grabbing manoeuvre, she pulled the com down. “Kaylee. Roxanna needs you.”
Her voice echoed through the ship and bounced back at her. No thought. Just action. To help. To save. To be.
Kaylee ran out of the engine room and flew down the stairs towards the guest quarters, pulling up almost in disbelief at the sight of Hetter helping Roxanna towards the infirmary, his arm around her waist.
“I think … I think it’s started,” he said, his face white.
Kaylee nodded, going the other side and letting Roxanna lean on her too as they got her inside. Between them they managed to get her onto the bed before another contraction hit, but this one had her screaming in agony, clutching at her head.
Hetter put his hands up, about to leave. “I … this isn’t …”
Kaylee turned to glare at him. “You stay. You’re supposed to be a Christian man. You’re gonna stay and help. If I'm gonna birth a baby, I damn well need someone with me.”
“But I’m not a doctor. I don’t know what to do.”
“Well, I'm guessing it might be your fault, so you stay!”
“I was only trying to apologise –“
Suddenly River flew down the stairs, right into Hetter’s face. “You weren't apologising! You were ranting, telling her the unborn child was going to be a bastard and she was going to hell!” She was barely an inch from his nose. “A child who is about to lose a mother, to come into the ‘verse never knowing who … and you were condemning them both!”
To Hetter’s credit he didn’t back down, but whether that was due to courage or being petrified with fear was debatable. Still, he managed to say, “I tried! She attacked me!”
“Two lost souls, adrift forever …” Tears began to roll down her cheeks. “How dare you …” She turned and ran, back towards the safety of her shuttle.
Kaylee looked at Hank, who had followed River in. They both felt Serenity rock slightly.
“Shuttle’s back,” the pilot said.
“Good.” Kaylee glared at Hetter. “And you’d better get out of here before I tell the Cap’n what you did.”
Hetter looked about to argue, but Hank moved in closer. Muttering to himself something about having fallen in amongst thieves, he scuttled off back to his room.
Simon ran in from the cargo bay, the others at his heels, just as another scream ripped out of the infirmary. Immediately the young doctor was inside, fixing sensors to Roxanna’s forehead, chest and finger.
“When did the contractions start?” he asked, checking the readouts.
“I don’t … don’t know.” Roxanna could hardly breathe. “An hour ... maybe.”
Kaylee was shocked. She’d been in labour while Hetter was berating her. “Cap’n, that man …”
“Captain, I need everyone except Freya outside. Now.” Simon’s voice was calm, no inflection, but it was an order.
“Okay.” Mal turned to look at his crew. “You heard the doctor.”
As they left the infirmary Simon looked down at Roxanna. “I can’t give you anything for the pain. Not since the Codafenicol. I don’t have anything stronger.”
She grasped his hand. “I know. I …” Her eyes closed as she tried not to cry out.
Simon’s eyes narrowed. If she’d only been in labour for an hour, this was far too soon for another contraction. “Roxanna, does it hurt anywhere else?”
She nodded, her teeth clenched tight. “My … head,” she ground out. He picked up his scanner, about to run it across her head, but she stopped him. “Please …” Roxanna was fighting for breath. “Please …”
He thought she was begging him not to. “I have to see,” he said softly.
“Not what … I need … boy or girl?” she managed to say, gasping against the pain.
Simon quickly ran the scanner over her belly. For a moment it was unclear, then … “Girl,” he said. “It’s a little girl.”
Roxanna smiled. “Always wanted … a little girl. To dress her in … pretty clothes, make tea … tea parties for her …” Her voice halted and her eyes opened wide as a spasm flooded through her so hard that she almost lifted from the medbed. She screamed, tearing at her head.
“Save her. Please save my baby.” She twisted in agony, her body contorting in a fashion it wasn’t meant to. “Please!” she screamed.
Simon reached for his hypos, wanting to help despite what he’d said, to alleviate … then there was silence. Roxanna fell back onto the bed, her body slack, her eyes wide, staring at nothing.
“No … no!” he shouted, his hands on her chest, beginning compressions. “No!” He breathed for her, forcing air into her lungs. He felt Freya at his side.
“Adrenaline. In that –”
“She’s gone.” She put her hand on his. “You have to save the baby now.”
He stared at her, then at the flatline on the monitor. “Frey …”
This time she took his shoulders, squeezing tightly. “Simon. The baby.”
The pain seemed to bring him out of his daze and he turned to the drawers, dragging out the instruments he needed.
“Cap’n?” Kaylee said in a small voice outside the infirmary.
Mal couldn’t answer. Instead he put his arm around his mei-mei and held her tightly, watching as his wife and Simon prepared to try and save the child.
River watched Mal pull Kaylee into his embrace from her vantage point high on the stairs. Heard him call her mei-mei. No blood between them, just honest affection. He’d told Mr Frye she was the sister he’d never had. He chose her. Chose to make her his family. As the activity in the infirmary increased, River walked slowly up the stairs again, thinking hard.
Jayne watched her go.
Simon let his body work on autopilot, making a sweeping incision across the woman’s belly, lifting the skin and muscle away before opening the uterus. Fluid poured out, but he didn’t care as he reached inside and took hold of the baby.
She put her hands under the tiny arms, allowing Simon to clamp the umbilical cord and cut it.
“Simon … I don’t think she’s breathing properly.”
Kaylee whimpered a little, and Mal tightened his arm around her. Zoe squeezed Hank’s hand even more.
Simon walked towards the bridge, having tidied Roxanna up, closing the wound. Most everyone else had gone back to their bunks, or just someplace else, and when he left the infirmary the common area was empty. With heavy feet he climbed the few steps to where Mal was sitting in the pilot’s chair, alone.
“It was a burst blood vessel in the brain, Mal,” Simon said, rubbing his hands through his hair, feeling as if the room were smaller than ever. “Nothing anyone could have done.”
Mal turned from looking out at the stars. “And the baby?”
“She’s … better. Out of the woods, I think. Kaylee’s looking after her.”
“River said Hetter was arguing with Roxanna. Did that have anything to do with it?”
“Possibly. It would have raised her blood pressure, and with the labour, but … it was going to happen. The tumour had weakened that area significantly. It was only a matter of time.”
“Then you did the right thing.”
“I’d like to bury her on Corvus.”
Mal shook his head. “Not a good idea, Simon. They might still be around.”
“Freya said the Cry Baby worked, that they’re not there anymore – if we go back now, take the shuttle, we … please, Mal.”
“And if they come back while we’re there?”
“Then what do you suggest we do with her?” Simon was getting angry, his tiredness making him snap. “Dump her with the rest of the trash?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“No, and I didn’t hear you coming up with an alternative suggestion either!” Simon was waving his arms around. “Come on. You’re the captain. You tell me what we’re going to do with her!”
Mal got to his feet. “I’m thinking of you here, doc. You and your sis. You and your sister and your child. You really want to put them in danger?”
“Don’t you think that’s for me to decide?”
“Since when did this become a democracy, doctor? I’m still captain of this boat. I decide what we do.” Mal’s own anger level was growing.
“Really. Really. Well, I’m still waiting for the captain to make his mind up.”
“Already did. You ain’t going.”
Simon balled his hands into fists. “Mal –”
“Stop!” Freya stood in the doorway, her whole body vibrating with tension. “You will stop this right now, both of you!”
“You telling me what to do too?” Mal asked.
“Yes. I’m telling you … both of you … to stop being so stupid.” She stepped over the sill. “We’ve just lost two people. I think you could both do with showing a little respect.”
Mal glared at her, then saw the lines around her eyes. His anger faded instantly. “You okay?” He crossed the bridge in one stride and put his arms around her.
“Not particularly, no. And this doesn’t help.”
He helped her to the pilot’s chair, making her sit down. Simon was immediately by her side, checking her pulse, her temperature.
“Your blood pressure’s probably up,” he said quietly.
“Yeah, well, I’m not surprised.” She took a deep breath, trying to calm the beating of her heart. “Only, if you two are about to come to blows, can you go and do it someplace else a little more quietly?”
“I really think I should check you over in the infirmary.”
“Frey –“ Mal began.
“I'm fine. Honestly. Just … empty. Maybe some food would be good.”
“I don’t think anyone’s prepared anything.”
“Then it’ll be pot luck.” She stood up, swaying just a little, even as Mal put his arm around her. “I think everyone could do with something to eat, don’t you?”
It was a sober meal, everyone pretty much wrapped up in their own thoughts. A dozen times Kaylee went to say something, but Simon shook his head at her. He’d given the crew the barest bones of what Andrew had told him, but it wasn't that that occupied them.
Eventually Mal spoke, his voice falling into the quiet room. “Simon, you’re right,” he said, everyone turning to look at him. “Roxanna deserves something better’n just a hole in the ground.”
The young doctor sat up. “Thank you. I'm sure the town’s people will be willing.”
“Yeah. They seemed like good folks.”
“We could go down the same way, if I can use the shuttle.”
“You ain't going.”
“You ain't going. If anything happens while you were down there, if you got taken by those blue handed hwoon dahns, you think I could ever forgive myself?”
Simon stared. “Then who …”
Eli Harris was woken by a knocking on his front door. Assuring his wife it wouldn’t be anything important, he struggled into his robe and went to cuss at the person outside.
“What do you think you’re doing at this time of the morning?” he said, unbolting the locks. “Do you have any idea …” He stared at the large man outside, carrying a very large, tightly wrapped bundle. “Mr Cobb?”
Jayne nodded. “Got a favour to ask.”
“Are you on your own?”
“Yeah. Safer that way.”
“At least come in, come in.”
“Better not. Considering what I’ve got here.”
“And what is that?”
There was a sharp intake of breath, then Harris nodded. “Come with me.” He led the way around the side of the house to a small outbuilding, going inside and turning on the light.
“It ain't nothing to be worried about,” Jayne said, standing just inside the doorway. “It’s just … one of our passengers didn’t make it, and … well, we ain't got the facilities to take her with us, nor the inclination to do so.”
“Her?” Harris cleared some bits off a trestle table against the wall.
“Name’s Roxanna Caldwell. She … well, she died giving birth.”
“Put her down here.” Harris watched the big man lay the bundle gently onto the old wood. “The child?”
“Alive. It was touch and go at first, but the doc pulled her through.”
“A little girl?”
“Yeah.” Jayne adjusted his gunbelt. “Only, we kinda hoped you might take in on yourselves to bury her. Be right. Seeing as she gave up herself for her kid. Run from Regina, so you can maybe comprehend why we got her.”
Harris understood. He’d heard of the unforgiving attitude of that particular place. “Was she sick?”
“Yeah, but it weren't nothing you can catch.”
Jayne nodded. “One brave lady,” he said, admiration in his tone.
“Then we would be proud to have her in our church yard.” Harris said a silent prayer. “Andrew Brooks is to be buried tomorrow morning –“ He glanced out at the rapidly lightening sky. “This morning. She can lie next to him.”
“Good. I know the Cap’ll be grateful.”
They buried Andrew in the town graveyard, and put Roxanna in next to him. The whole town seemed to come out, a wave of black funeral clothes, dotted with traditional white Buddhist garb. Jayne watched from the shelter of a large tree as they lowered the caskets into the ground, the Mayor presiding, while a small choir sang hymns.
He waited until they’d finished, until they’d wandered away back to the church and the funeral breakfast, until the diggers had filled the holes in again, before he walked quickly down to the freshly turned earth. He stood for a moment, the weak sunlight trying to poke through the clouds, his hands wishing they had a hat or something to fiddle with. Instead he laid the posy of wild flowers he’d picked on the grave of Roxanna Caldwell.
“Don’t you worry none,” he whispered. “We’ll make sure your little girl’s taken care of.”
He looked at the other grave.
“You take care of this one, too,” he said softly, his words to Andrew dropping into the still air. “Figure you will, but best to say.”
He glanced around, making sure no-one was watching, and loped off back towards where the shuttle was hidden.
Zoe lay back on the pillow, her arms full of little Ben, having just given him a feed. Now she held her baby against her bare skin, staring into the ceiling.
“Penny for them?” Hank asked, ready to go back up to the bridge and take over the watch.
“I’d be overcharging.”
He smiled. “Heard tell how you told that Hetter off.”
“She couldn’t wait. Made it seem like you were about to tear him limb from limb.”
“It occurred to me.”
“You know, I feel sorry for him.”
She lifted her head and glared at him. “For Hetter?”
“Sure. He’s never going to know the fun of having a family like ours.”
Zoe laughed. “He’s married.”
“So do you really feel sorry for him?”
“Kinda.” He ran his hands through his hair, knowing it wasn't going to make any difference. “My Granma used to go to this church with a fire and brimstone preacher, one of them that prophesied hell and high water for anyone who didn’t kowtow to his vision of the Good Book. I asked her once why she went. I mean, she didn’t like him, that was obvious, but every Sunday she’d put on her best clothes and go and sit in the pew and listen to him rail at everyone.”
Zoe, interested, despite herself, asked, “What did she say?”
“That she felt sorry for him. That he was so totally convinced of the depravity of mankind that he’d never be happy. Never feel joy. The only pleasure he got out of life was seeing his congregation in front of him come Sundays, and that was a mean, dispirited thing.”
“You think Hetter’s like that?”
“No-one’s ever gonna come up to his ideal.”
“You don’t mind if I don’t feel sorry for him, do you?”
He laughed. “Oh, I might. Given enough time. ‘Cept I don’t think there’s gonna be enough in this ‘verse.” He looked at her, the darkness of her skin contrasting with the paler, more coffee colour of his son on her breast. “River’ll be okay.”
“Bao bei, I know you.” He sighed. “And the baby’ll be fine too.”
“She’s so small.” Zoe hugged Ben a little tighter.
Kaylee put the little girl into the cot next to Bethany’s bed. “You sure about this, honey?” she asked.
“I’ll look after her,” her daughter said, tucking the blanket in. “I like her.” She looked up. “Can we keep her?”
“Keep …” Kaylee’s mouth was open. “Sweetie, I don’t … she has family somewhere, maybe they’re looking for her … I don’t –”
“She’s got no family,” Bethany pointed out. “Her mama said so.”
“That she did,” her mother agreed. “But there might be others, who –”
“No-one,” Bethany said firmly. “No-one else to look after her.”
Kaylee, with her large family back on Phoros, and her extended family here on Serenity, shook her head. “No-one?”
“Nobody to care.” Bethany patted the baby’s head. “’Cept us.”
Kaylee stared at her daughter, at the compassion already in that little frame, and nodded. “’Cept us,” she echoed. “You get some sleep,” she added.
“’Kay, Momma.” Bethany snuggled down, but kept one hand on the crib. “’Night.”
“Night.” Kaylee slid the door closed and went back to her own room.
Simon was sitting on the bed, his head in his hands.
“You okay?” she asked, joining him.
“Not really. I lost two patients today. It’s been a while since that happened.”
“Neither of ‘em were your fault.” She put her arm around his shoulders.
“That doesn’t actually help.”
“How come?” She shook him a little. “You didn’t make Roxanna sick. Nor Andrew. Unless you’ve been up to something I don’t know about.”
“But I couldn’t help them.”
“And that hurt, doesn’t it? I know it does, like when you were worried about Frey, about River … but Simon, you can’t know everything. You can’t do everything. ‘N’ if you could, you wouldn’t be the man I married.”
He looked into her eyes, so honest and open, so loving. “You mean you didn’t want a superman?”
“Might’ve been nice for a while,” she admitted, her lips curving into a soft smile. “But they ain't real. You are. And if that Hetter were a nicer man I’d ask him to thank God for me that I got you.”
“Hetter.” Simon shook his head. “You know, I'm coming more around to the idea of getting Jayne to put him out of the airlock.”
“And then you’d worry about that if he did.” She squeezed him gently.
“Probably.” He glanced towards the door. “How’s the baby?”
“Asleep. Bethie’s looking after her.”
Simon smiled. “That daughter of ours is going to grow up just like her Momma.”
“Sweet talker.” Kaylee paused, then added, “Bethie wants to keep her.”
“Keep … bao bei, she’s not a toy. Or a puppy.”
“I know. So does Bethie. I don’t think that’s what she means.” She leaned into him. “She says Roxanne told her she had no family. No-one to take the baby in.”
“There must be someone.”
“Not a one. ‘parently.”
“Just thinking, is all. Just thinking.”
“Came back,” Jayne said, ducking into under the shuttle doorway, looking towards River laying on the bed, facing away from him. “Like I said.”
He stared at her. She’d actually spoken. Not looking up at him yet, but she’d said one word. Just for him.
“They buried her,” he added, trying to be as normal as possible, undoing his gunbelt and laying it on the small table. “Proper. I saw. Words said and everything. You’d’a liked it.” He realised what he’d said. “I mean, if’n it hadn’t been a funeral, ‘n’ all.”
River didn’t move.
“Whole town came out. Don’t think there was a one stayed at home. If I’d been inclined I coulda gone through their houses and taken everything I wanted. Not that I wanted to.”
He sat on the chair and took off his boots, dropping them on the floor, careful not to look at her.
“I … er … put some flowers on the grave. On her grave. Not Andrew’s. I mean, he’s a feller, and I ain't that way inclined. Not that I was ever into interfering with dead bodies either. I ain't a Reaver. But I know there’s some as don’t hold … “ He stopped. “Look, River, it’s all well and good me keeping up my side of the conversation, but a word from you now and then would help.”
“What do you want me to say?”
He held his breath. “How about ‘I love you’?”
“So what else is new?”
“I don’t know who I am.”
“Aw, hell, that’s easy. You’re my moonbrain. ‘N’ if that don’t ring a bell, you’re River, the girl who gutted a whole room full of them Reavers, saved our skins good. Saved my life more’n once, too. ‘N’ I don’t just mean by shootin’ the bad guys. I mean by moving in with me. Saying you love me.” He leaned forward in the chair. “’N’ I miss that River. That woman who makes me hot just to look at her. I don’t care what you were, it’s what you are now that matters. And that’s my girl.”
For a long moment there was no sound, and Jayne began to think he’d gone too far. Then River rolled over. She held out her arms, and in a moment he was on the bed, holding her, letting her cry out all the tears inside.
“Jayne’s back,” Mal said, climbing down the ladder.
Freya was lying on their bed, one hand under her head, staring into the shadows above her. “Good.”
“He said they did a good job.”
“So I've told Hank to get us going to Three Hills. Might have to burn a few more cells, but I reckon we’ll be in time.”
“Course, dragging Hetter out the back of the boat ain't doing much for our space dynamics …” He watched her focus come back and she looked up at him, her brows drawn down.
“Well, at least you didn’t say good.” He crossed the room and sat next to her. “What’s up? Thinking about Roxanna?”
“She was a nice lady.”
“Yes she was. Didn’t deserve to die like that. Didn’t deserve to die at all.”
“No, she didn’t.”
He moved back so he could lean on the bulkhead, pulling her into him so she was against his chest. “Let me guess. You’re thinking whether you’d do the same.”
“Die for my child? Foregone conclusion, Mal. I think it comes with being a parent.” She snuggled her head a little.
“Guess you’re right. I’d die for you and Ethan.”
She didn’t answer for a long moment. “I know,” she said finally, her voice so soft he could hardly hear it. “Me too.”
“Just so long as we don’t have to make good on that,” Mal added, putting his arm around her and squeezing gently.
“I’d rather we didn’t.”
They sat quietly for a minute, before Mal asked, “So how’s River?”
“Better. I think.”
“Reconciled with the fact that she’s an experiment?”
Freya smiled. “She’s always known that. At least from the Academy time, anyway.”
“Yeah, but we’re talking a mite further back than that.”
“So do you think she’ll be okay?”
“Are you missing your albatross?”
“Well, yeah. Kinda.”
“I don’t know, Mal. I don’t know if she’ll be okay. I hope so.”
“You going to talk to her?”
“Simon asked me to, but I wasn't sure.”
“You should. You know how she looks on you.”
“I'm not her mother.”
“Does it matter if there’s not blood involved?”
Freya thought for a moment. “You know, it doesn’t.”
He smiled. “Do you think you might be the same?”
“You mean the chicken and the egg thing?”
“If you’re talking about Blue Sun and experiments, yeah.”
Freya shrugged. “I don’t know. I think it’s possible, although damn hard to prove.” She laughed a little. “It’s not like I can wave my parents and ask if they had us created.”
Mal stroked her belly. “But you said your twin had no psychic abilities.”
“Alex? No. But maybe they implanted two … or perhaps my mother was pregnant anyway.” She put her hand on his. “There’s certainly no evidence of any kind of ESP in the Rostov line before. Not like Kaylee’s family, where the women seem to have been gifted for generations.”
He looked down at her. “You think reading tea leaves is a gift?”
“Sure. And you’re damn lucky it came out in Kaylee as a skill with machinery.”
“Oh, I’m thankful every day. And you shouldn’t swear. I have it on good authority that babies can hear that kind of thing even in the womb.”
“Zoe.” He kissed her forehead. “So you might not even have been a Rostov.”
“Nope. I could be anyone.”
“So there’s no point in me waiting for you to inherit a fortune.”
“I don’t know,” he said, rubbing his nose gently against her ear. “All this time wasted.”
“No.” He sighed, and she felt the short hair on her neck move. “You know, Alex could still be your brother. I mean, if Andrew was right, and it was the male line in Simon’s genes that carries the ability, could be he carries yours too. Just dormant.”
“I hope not.” She shivered. “Seriously. If that’s the case and he has children …”
“Then he isn’t. And the things you told me he used to do to tease you … can’t believe your twin would do that.” He licked her ear lobe.
“Are you going to be doing more of that?” she asked.
“More of what?”
“Then shouldn’t you lock the door?”
He grinned. “Already did.”
Three Hills loomed large in the bridge window as Hank began the re-entry sequence.
“Got word they’re waiting for their cargo, Mal,” he said over his shoulder.
“Well, a few more minutes won’t do them any harm.”
“They could get nasty.”
“Tell Jayne to be ready with Vera. That tends to shut people up.”
Hank grinned. “Shuts me up.”
“Nope, don’t think that’s possible.” Mal walked off the bridge and down the stairs into the bay.
Cyrus Hetter was waiting. “Captain, I would like to speak to you.”
“We’ll be landing shortly, then you can be away from us heathens,” Mal said, crossing his arms. “I'm sure you’ll want to scrub us from your saintly skins soon as you can.”
“What you think of me is irrelevant, Captain, particularly as I'm sure it is uncomplimentary in the extreme.”
“Well, let’s just say I doubt you’re gonna recommend me to all your friends, and that’s a fact.”
“Absolutely not. But that isn’t what I wanted to discuss.” He pursed his lips. “My wife and I have been talking, and we feel it would be wrong if we didn’t arrange for the child to have a home.”
“What?” Mal doubted he could be more surprised.
“We will take the child,” Hetter said. “It is an innocent, and I’m sure we can place it in a suitable home.”
Mal shook his head slowly. “Weren’t you the one claimed her mother was a whore? A harlot?”
Hetter’s lips tightened at being reminded of his own words. “The child will be brought up in a Christian environment, with rules and regulations.”
“And beatings if she doesn’t behave herself?”
“If the child is wilful –”
“You think I’m gonna hand her over to you?”
Hetter drew himself up to his full height. “You’re not the child’s father.”
“And you don’t even care!” Mal was fuming, and about to let his temper out. “You keep calling her ‘the child’ – she’s a little girl.”
“Then she will be looked after.”
“She will be,” Freya said, walking up behind her husband from the common area and putting her hand on his arm. “Only it won’t be by you.”
“You have no authority … you’re not related to the child …” Hetter began to bluster. “I am a pillar of the community, I can force –”
“You can’t force anything,” Mal said, his voice now deceptively quiet. “This is my boat. If anything, she’s mine. My property. And you don’t have a say in it.”
“You cannot own this child.” Hetter was outraged.
Mal couldn’t help it. He laughed. “You talk about that in the same breath as saying you’re going to … Mr Hetter, if you weren't such a pain in the ass I might consider keeping you just for the entertainment value.” Suddenly he was in front of Hetter, barely a breath between. His eyes flashed blue fire. “I wouldn’t let you within a mile of that little girl. Or any child. Far as I'm concerned men like you are a disease, and really need wiping from the face of the ‘verse. But since I can’t do that, I’ll just say … get the hell off my ship.”
Hetter’s lip curled in disgust. “I’m sure the Alliance would be keen to know about your activities.”
Mal couldn’t believe the sheer stupidity of this man. “Mr Hetter, you really have to learn not to threaten a man on board his own boat. ‘Cause it wouldn’t take much to have your body disappear.”
Hetter swallowed. “You wouldn’t.”
“I'm sorely tempted.” He let the idea sink in. “I won’t, but only because I’ve seen enough death for a while.”
Freya relaxed a little, feeling Serenity rock as she settled into her docking port. “Mr Hetter, I suggest you collect your wife and your things and leave,” she said softly. “And you even consider telling anyone a damn thing, I will take it on myself to make it known to everyone on Three Hills and the surrounding moons that you personally caused Roxanna to go into seizure and die, leaving her poor child an orphan.”
He stared at her, at the total and utter conviction on her face. “They wouldn’t believe you.”
His mouth worked as if he had words caught in his teeth, but he didn’t speak. Instead he turned and strode back towards the guest quarters.
Mal looked at Freya. “Would you?” he asked.
“Try me,” she repeated, but in a much gentler tone. “And even if most people didn’t believe me, mud sticks.”
“Surely does. And I for one wouldn’t wanna cross you.” He smiled. “Soon as we’ve got paid we’re off.”
“Good.” Freya wrapped her arms around herself. “I’d rather be out in the nice clean black anyway.”
“Just steeling myself to go and talk to River.”
“Mal, you want me to load the mule?” Jayne asked, leaning over the catwalk.
The captain looked up. “Yeah. Then you, me and Zoe’ll go delivering.”
“Shiny.” The big man stomped down the stairs. “And Frey? She’s waitin’ for ya.”
“River, how are you feeling?” Freya stepped into the shuttle, finding the young woman sitting on the bed cross-legged, her sketch pad on her knees, drawing furiously.
Freya leaned on the wall. “I meant in what way.”
“You mean me? No, I suppose I wasn't.” She looked at the pad. “What are you drawing?”
“Can I see?”
“Not yet.” River glanced up at her from under her waterfall of hair. “Are you going to sit down or stand there all night?”
Freya smiled. She sounded more normal, at least. Taking the chair by the table she watched River as she changed from a pencil to one of her coloured ones.
“I lost it,” the young woman said suddenly. “Who I was.”
“I was afraid that, if I wasn't Simon’s sister, I wasn't anything.”
“You are his sister.”
“Half. Which half?” She glanced up then went back to her drawing. “Can’t be quantified. It’s not a leg, or arm, or any other part belonging to a man … just half.” She shook her head. “They took what I was. Gave me a number, not a name. Tried to tear me from my brain. If Simon hadn’t come for me …”
“He did come.”
“But he might not have if he’d known.”
“You know that isn’t true,” Freya said, sitting forward.
“I'm not full blood.”
“Hasn’t it occurred to you that he feels the same way? That he isn’t full blood to you? That he’s losing you somehow?”
“He’s Simon!” Her voice was suddenly loud, her eyes lifting to glare at Freya.
“Exactly. And you’re River. And he would have come for you even if you weren't related at all, because he loves you.” She got up and crossed to the bed, sitting down next to the young woman. “I would have. So would Mal. You know that.”
“Not your mother, River,” Freya said almost with regret, reaching up to tuck a strand of long dark hair behind her ear.
“Love me like I'm yours.”
“Oh, that I do.”
“Jayne showed me. He anchors me. Keeps me sane.” She smiled. “Well, saner. Loves me.”
River slid quickly across the bed until her head lay in Freya’s lap. “Simon loves me too.”
“Honey, of course he does.”
“Always, River. He’s always going to be your brother, no matter what. Even when you eventually go to him and ask him to look after your pregnancy with Jayne.”
River giggled, her whole body shivering. “Almost worth it.”
“Don’t go getting any ideas.”
“Not time yet.”
“Well … that’s good.”
They sat quietly for a moment, then River picked up her sketch pad. “I know what this means now,” she said softly, handing it to Freya.
She looked at the picture, an image of River looking in a mirror, a thousand other Rivers looking back, caught in the reflection. “And what does it mean?”
“I have to choose who I am. Which one is me.”
“And have you chosen?”
“Yes,” she said, snuggling back down into Freya’s lap. “This one.”
The drop-off went without a hitch, apart from Jayne having to threaten someone with Vera, blowing a not inconsiderable hole in a wall, but the money was in the small safe ready to be apportioned, and Serenity was back in the black.
“Mal, you mind if I go spend some time with my … with Zoe and Ben?” Hank asked, turning the seat.
“As long as I don’t have to do anything more complicated than look pretty and stare out the window, sure.”
Hank grinned. “Course is set for Beaumonde, so no … looking pretty should do it. Although I know damn well you can fly this ship almost as well as me.”
“As you know, almost I can live with. Go. Go spend time with them. If I need I’ll holler.”
“I'm sure you will.”
Hank stood up, stretching, then headed off the bridge, Mal taking his place. As he reached the bottom step he heard the captain call.
“When’re you gonna marry that woman?”
He leaned on the top stair. “Aw, come on, Mal. I'm trying.”
“Try harder. Ain't having people living in sin on my boat.”
“In …” The pilot gaped. “You gonna tell Jayne that?”
Mal considered a moment. “Sure,” he said finally.
“When?” Hank challenged.
He laughed. “Can I watch?”
“No.” Mal made shooing motions. “Go.”
“Hey, you called me!”
“And now I'm telling you to go away.”
“Make up your mind.”
“Don’t have to. I'm captain.”
Hank shook his head and hurried down the corridor, passing Simon on the way.
“Is he in one of those moods?” the young doctor asked.
Hank nodded. “Good luck.”
“Thanks.” Simon stepped onto the bridge. “Mal, can I … have a word?”
“Sure.” Serenity’s captain looked at the young man, saw the lines of strain around his eyes. “You need to get some decent sleep.”
“I know. And I will. Soon. Or Kaylee’s going to dope me.”
“Good girl.” Mal smiled in approval.
“Only there’s something I need to ask you first. It’s been … sort of keeping me awake these last couple of nights.”
“You wanna adopt the little girl.”
Simon’s jaw dropped. “How …” He half-collapsed into the co-pilot’s chair.
“You saved her life. Saw how you were with her, doing your best to keep that little body going. Then with the squirt wanting to give up her bed …” Mal smiled slightly. “Didn’t take much to work out.”
“It’s not just me, Mal.”
“I know. Figured that too. Kaylee ain't let her out of her sight. And I'm figuring that right now River won’t be wanting to be part of your plans for a new baby …”
“I haven’t asked, but … probably not.”
Mal leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. “I’m still willing, but … truth is, Frey’s right. It’d be difficult to know any kid Kaylee has is half mine, and not want to be part of his life.”
Simon shook his head. “If these last few days has taught me anything, it’s that family has nothing to do with blood. And you’re a part of Bethany’s life, so …”
“Guess you’re right.”
“And I’d … I’d like that little girl to be a part of mine.”
Mal smiled. “Nothing wrong with that.”
“So … you’re okay with it?”
“You think I was maybe going to put you off the next planet?” Mal asked, his eyes twinkling.
“The … thought did cross my mind. Another child on board, another mouth to feed –“
“Not that much.” He let a laugh tumble from his lips. “Simon, so far we’ve got three kids already, one on the way … I think we can manage.” He sat back. “’Sides, if I put you off I lose my mechanic too, and that’s be a shame.”
Simon smiled. “It would.” He glanced down at his hands. “Although knowing Blue Sun are after me … well, I thought you might not take too kindly to that.”
“We’re not in any more danger than we were before, Simon. In fact, if anything, we’re better prepared. Now at least we know who’s after you and why.” Mal smiled. “Not gonna let anything happen to any of my crew.”
“This reminds me a little of when I first came on board. When you told me that if you ever killed me, I’d be awake, I’d be facing you, and I’d be armed.”
Mal chuckled. “You remember that?”
“Difficult to forget.”
“Well, it still applies. Just maybe not as likely.” Mal’s blue eyes twinkled.
“Well, I'm just going to go check on the baby before you decide today’s the day, so I’ll say goodnight.”
“Just make sure Kaylee doesn’t have a hypo hidden anywhere about her person.”
As Simon stood up, Mal asked, “By the way, how’s my wife?”
“Fine. I checked her over today, and the pregnancy is progressing well. In a little under eight months you’ll be the proud father of another bouncing baby.”
“Another little girl.”
“I can’t tell yet.”
“Frey can.” Mal grinned. “Seems to me we’re gonna end up outnumbered on this boat, all the females there are.”
“I for one don’t mind in the slightest.”
“You know, doc, neither do I.”
“She will be loved,” River said quietly from the doorway, careful not to waken Bethany.
Simon looked up from where he was tucking the comforter a little closer around the little baby. “Mei-mei …”
“I know you love me. Even though we’re not –”
In a moment he had crossed to her, pulling her into his arms. “You’re my sister. My beautiful sister. No-one … no-one is ever going to take that away.”
She felt her body absorb his warmth, and the last little bit of indecision thawed inside her. “No-one,” she repeated. “And now there’s another.”
Simon pulled back enough to look into her dark eyes. “Will you … mind?”
“About her?” River reached out and stroked the baby’s head. “Of course not. She’s beautiful.”
“Yes, she is.”
“I heard voices,” Kaylee said, leaning into the room, glancing down at her sleeping child before looking up at her husband and sister-in-law.
“I was just congratulating Simon on the new addition to his family,” River said.
Kaylee’s hand flew to her mouth. “You mean the Cap said yes?”
Kaylee ran across the cabin and into his arms. “Oh, Simon!” She was so happy she wanted to yell, and only managed to contain her excitement by holding her breath.
“She’s very lucky,” River said. “Loving father and mother.”
Simon reached out and took her hand. “And loving aunt.”
Kaylee let go of Simon and opened a drawer, and when she turned she had a book in her hands. “Freya gave me this. It was Roxanna’s. She wanted her child to have it.” She held it out to River. “I’d like you to keep it for her. For when she’s old enough. Then her Auntie can teach her to read it.”
“I’d like that.” River took the book, feeling the well-worn cover waiting to tell all sorts of stories. She held it to her breast. “I have to go. Jayne is looking for me.” She grinned suddenly, the old River back in her face. “He needs me.”
“Course he does,” Kaylee said, watching her waft out of the room. “I think she’s okay,” she added softly.
“I think so.”
Kaylee leaned into the crib and lifted the baby out, smelling the sweet scent of the newborn, overlaid with something else. “Looks like you’re gonna get a lot more practice changing diapers,” she said, smiling at Simon.
“I’ll make sure I have enough weaves in stock,” Simon said dryly, stepping closer and remembering a thousand punctured fingers.
“No, you got good at it before. It’s prob’ly like riding a bike. Once you learn, you don’t forget.”
“I hope so. Because I was terrible at riding a bike.”
The baby stirred, her little arms coming up to her face. “So strong,” Kaylee said softly. “Just like her momma.”
Simon curled his hand around the baby’s head. “And when she asks, we’ll tell her about Roxanna. How she fought to stay alive long enough to see her.”
“But she didn’t.”
“I think we can stretch the truth just a little, don’t you?”
“I guess.” Kaylee ran a finger along a soft cheek. “What about a name?”
“A … well, I hadn’t actually thought about that.”
“We need to name her.”
“Momma?” Bethany had rolled over and was looking up.
“Hey there,” Simon said, sitting down carefully on the edge of the bed. “Did we wake you?”
“Sorry, sweetheart.” He looked up at Kaylee holding the baby. “What do you think we should call her?”
“Are we keeping her?” Bethany held her breath.
“That we are,” her mother said, then grinned at the joyous look on her daughter … on her eldest daughter’s face as she bounced up onto the mattress, standing so that she could see better. “So. A name.”
“Jayne?” Bethie suggested, leaning forward.
Simon laughed, taking hold of her waist so she didn’t fall. “I don’t think so, somehow.”
“No. That’s a boy’s name,” Bethany agreed. She smiled. “Hope.”
Kaylee understood. “You know, I think that’s shiny. Hope Tam.”
“Hope Roxanna Tam,” Simon expanded.
His wife smiled. “Oh, yes. That sounds perfect.” She looked back into the baby’s blue eyes. “Welcome to Serenity, Hope Roxanna Tam.”
Elsewhere in the ‘verse …
The girl sat in the chair, her hair plastered to her scalp with sweat, the band around her head holding the probes in place.
“How’s it going?”
“She gonna be okay?”
The man laughed. “Hell, when was she ever okay?”
“So what’s she dreaming about?”
“Seems to be a popular theme.”
“Are you surprised?”
“With what they want done? Hell, no.”
The girl moaned.
“Readings are off the charts.”
“Well, keep an eye on her. Don’t let her tire herself out.”
“Are you concerned?”
“Of course not. It’s just that she’s the best we’ve got.”
“Not surprising, though, is it. What with her pedigree and everything.”
“You keep talk like that to yourself.”
“You know what they say about loose talk.”
“No-one’ll stop us. We’re too valuable.”
“She may be. We can be replaced.”
“Speak for yourself.”
“Anyway, just keep quiet about her family.” He stepped closer, moving the lank hair from her face. “And you keep dreaming. You just keep dreaming, Mara Tam.”
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