BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL

MAVOURNEEN

Delia Cycle # 6- Desperate Times
Thursday, June 9, 2005

After a risky job for Patience, Serenity is shattered by news from Europa.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 2674    RATING: 8    SERIES: FIREFLY

Desperate Times ( Delia Cycle # 6)

by Maura F. ( Standard infringement disclaimers apply...I write for love, not profit. Of course, Delia would disapprove! )

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"I've got some bad news." Mal looked up from the handheld computer before him. The Mess had been quiet, until Wash and Zoe had arrived. He had been shopping the Cortex for something for Delia. He wanted to get her something special, to celebrate two years together. "What's going on?" "We got a wave...from Patience." Zoe said. Mal's shoulders sagged as his head dropped toward the table. That was bad news. Patience was a powerful woman nearly running all commerce on Whitefall. The last two times he had dealt with her, he had gotten shot during a post transaction scuffle. Anything Patience wanted with Serenity was bound to be bad news. "What does she want from us?" Mal asked warily. "Water." "Huh?" "Whitefall's in drought time. She's having trouble gettin' or makin' enough water to cover the crop she' growin'. Wants us to bring water to her." Wash said. "The crop? Let me guess...Patience has illegal tobacco growin'. She's gotta be awful desperate to ask me to do somethin' for her. Thirsty tobacco would do it. " Mal said. "She stands to profit well if she can get it to the outer rim. If it makes it to maturity." Zoe observed wryly. "Hold it. Water? We ain't a tanker transport. How she expect us to haul water to her?" "Well, she mentioned gettin't from St. Alban's." Wash said. "Ahhh...water. Solid water." Mal said. St. Alban's was one of the coldest terra formed moons. It was cold year round, always covered with ice and snow. "Whad'ya want me to wave her?" Wash asked. Mal thought about it for a minute. If they helped Patience out, it could help repair the shaky bond he now had with Patience and her considerable sphere of influence. But, he could get shot again. Or worse. If they chose to ignore Patience's wave, he could probably count on a peaceful time of it...without many prospects for future jobs in this quadrant. "Wave Patience. Tell her we'll bring a cargo hold of ice her way. Short and sweet. She can expect us in 48 hours." Mal said tersely. Zoe raised her eyebrows and rolled her eyes to match. Dealing with Patience was always a one way ticket to trouble. She understood Mal was sayin' yes to the job, not to Patience. Patience was a snake. "You do know it's gonna be like bringin' Delia's goods to Europa...maybe worse. Ice is heavy. A hold full of it will make Serenity slow as molasses and nearly to thrust capacity." Wash observed. "Well, let's burn for St. Alban's. Nothing better on the horizon than this. Zo, do you know the name of the company that does the ice mining?" Mal asked. "I think it's something like the Morgan Ice Collective, or Monroe Ice Company. " "Find their wave address. Try searching Morgan and St. Alban's, or St. Alban's and Ice. Let 'em know we're comin' for a load." "Can do. Just hope you're not leadin' us down a path we don't want to fly." "If the path forks, you know Patience has a bullet for me, not you." "Somehow, that's not much comfort. I remember catchin' a bullet on Whitefall, too." --------------------- Simon walked behind the Infirmary toward the Mess when he heard someone inside. Drawers opened, then closed. A metal tray clattered around. Simon blinked a few times then a single name crossed his mind....Jayne. He paused a moment, then started to curse at Jayne as he entered the Infirmary. "You ignorant baboon ..." Kaylee's eyes grew wide at the words being leveled at her from the normally placid Simon. "Kaylee! I...uh...what are you doing in here?" Simon exclaimed. ""I was...leaving you a note." "A note? Why didn't you just come and find me?" "I...uh...wanted it to be a surprise." Kaylee walked out of the room without another word, leaving Simon totally baffled - until his eye was drawn from Kaylee's back to a piece of paper that had fluttered to the floor with her retreating figure. Simon bent down and retrieved Kaylee's note from the floor. Meet me in the Engine Room at midnight. -Kaylee ----------------------- "Ok, folks. We need to get everything out of the cargo hold. Remember Delia's stuff? Well, double it. That's how much ice we're bringing on." Mal said to the crew in the hold. "Cap, why don't Patience just make herself some water?" Kaylee asked, box in hand. "Hydrogen prices have tripled in the last 6 months cause of the drought cycle. She can't afford to make it no more. Nobody can afford it, 'cept Alliance. Cheaper to get it natural made." Mal said. Jayne helped Book push the locking cargo box to the far end of the hold. They pressed it against the back bulkhead. Kaylee walked behind them with the box in her hand and placed it on top of the locking cargo box. As she turned away, she heard someone above on the catwalk. Simon surveyed the crew moving the boxes and barrels, then caught Kaylee' eye. She paused and looked up at him, then smiled discreetly as he held up her note and nodded slowly. ------------------------- Simon didn't know what Kaylee had planned for their midnight meeting, but he was eager to find out. After dinner, he quietly slipped away from the rest of the crew playing cards to ready himself for whatever lay ahead. Simon showered, and carefully shaved his sparse moustache hair. He took pains in picking out something to wear - not too dressed up, but something more casual and newer than the usual white shirt and vest to which he was so accustomed. He settled on a light weight dark green sweater he had bought from Hammond's only a few weeks ago. Kaylee hadn't seen him wear it yet. He would spend the next few hours alone in his room, reading. He had picked up an Alliance Medical Journal Chip from Delia with great delight. In an age of Cortex driven information, having the chip meant he could stay abreast of the newest medical procedures without drawing attention to himself by using his real name to log onto the Cortex's main medical database. Simon glanced at the clock near his bedside - 10:36 PM. He could read until midnight. ----------------------- Kaylee regarded her hair critically in the mirror. It just wouldn't hold the curl, no matter what she tried. She held the curler in one hand as she ran her other hand through her hair. She shook her head at her image, then put the curler down. She reached over and grabbed the skirt from where it lay on her bunk. Kaylee wiggled her hips to get the skirt over her legs. Had she gained weight? Great...plan a...what had Delia called it? A tryst?...and my gorram thighs are jiggling. Simon opened his eyes to find his handheld on his chest. Disoriented, he glanced around but was awake instantly by seeing the time...12:41 AM. To his horror, he had fallen asleep. He jumped out of bed and silently slid his door open so as not to wake River across the hall. Though the engine room was merely steps away, he felt as though he was jogging down a long corridor that never ended. What would he say to Kaylee? Was she still there? The doors to the engine room were closed. Simon saw a flickering light glowing through the door's window. He peeked through and smiled. He quietly opened the door and entered. Kaylee was asleep in her hammock. She lay slightly on her right side, facing him. Her shoulder length golden hair was spread out behind her. She wore a tan blouse Simon had never seen before, and her pretty blanket skirt. Simon smiled as he noted Kaylee's bare feet, just visible at the skirt's hem. Several candles lit the room and the area was warm with a soft glow. Simon was just able to forget this room was the greasy heart of Serenity. He turned back to look at Kaylee's angelic sleeping face and found her eyes were open. She regarded him dreamily. "Where've you been?" she murmured. "I'm so sorry." Simon apologized as he knelt next to her. "I fell asleep." "S'okay, Think I did, too." Kaylee said as she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. Simon smiled at the unassuming, natural motion. So unpretentious, so Kaylee. He couldn't help himself. With the slight smile still on his face, Simon leaned in and kissed her lips softly. As he lifted his head, Kaylee reached her right hand up to cradle his cheek tenderly. With a slight forward motion, she brought his mouth back down to hers. ------------------------- Serenity came upon her destination as the rest of the crew finished breakfast. Zoe had broken into the ship's powdered egg reserves and they enjoyed a meal that was several levels better than the usual fare. It couldn't compare to pancakes on Delia's deck, but few things did. Mal drank his coffee quietly. He kept replaying the last night he had been in Delia's bed over and over. Maybe if he had worded it differently. Maybe he should have bought her something as a token. Maybe she wouldn't have said no. Mal looked over the rim of his coffee cup at Kaylee and Simon. With mild amusement, he watched as they exchanged knowing glances, smiles, and the occasional giggle. He suspected they had enjoyed a moment together. While he liked seeing Kaylee happy, he was torn. Shipboard romances were a recipe for trouble. They divided loyalties and when they soured, created disharmony in such a confined living space. Inara caught Mal's eye and smiled, bringing him back to the Mess. She saw what Mal saw, but regarded it with welcome pleasure. She would wave Delia after breakfast; Operation Tam / Frye was in full swing. "Prepare for landing on St. Alban's." Wash said over the com. --------------------------------- The Morgan Independent Ice Company was the conduit for St. Alban's only export - ice. Though it could usually be made cheaply with centuries old technology, ice from St. Alban's was treasured for it's purity, abundance, and most importantly...it's low price. "I'm a little concerned about the weight." Wash offered, as he watched the ship begin to be filled with ice. "No worries." Henry Morgan countered. "We carry close to 4 tons in a runabout not much stronger than a Firefly. You won't have any problems taking off from St. Alban's. Atmo here is thin. You're goin' to Whitefall? Put in a new rod before you hit the moon, then turn off your grav drive 2 seconds before you hit their atmo. That'll relieve the weight on the ship. We do it all the time. Should have no problems. You'll lose your lunch, but your ship'll be in one piece. " Wash's eyebrows raised as a mental image of everyone on board throwing up cheered him to no end. "Let's see how much we can get aboard safely. Water weighs 8.3 pounds a gallon. We could probably get 3 tons in the hold easily. That'd be 750 gallons. Will that do for you?" Morgan asked. "That'll do jes' fine." Mal said, shaking Morgan's hand. "What'll that cost me?" "750 credits . One a gallon." Mal nodded thoughtfully. Patience would owe him 1250 credits. "Let's get her loaded." Mal said. ---------------------------------- The cargo hold was overwhelmed with the clear blocks of ice. It was everywhere... in the hold, under the walkways, and on the stairs. The only place ice blocks didn't intrude was near the living quarters. Mal had thought Delia's shipment was bad...but agreeing to haul ice, then actually having it on board was another thing. A chill hung in the air as the ice began to bring Serenity's ambient temperature down. A slight fog formed in the cargo bay. "You'll want to turn the heat down. Nothing worse than gettin' water in your electrics. Bundle up!" Morgan said as the cargo door closed. On the bridge, Wash fired up the engines and Serenity took off with little trouble from the Morgan company's rear docks. Within a few seconds, Serenity was home again, in the deep black of space. Mal entered the bridge and lifted the intership com. "Ok, folks. We're gonna have to turn the heat down to protect the ice. It's gonna get cold in here real fast. Make sure you're dressed for it." "Zo, can you get my white sweater from the bunk, please?" Wash asked from his seat in the pilot's chair. "You want those ear muffs too?" "Yep." Zoe walked off the bridge toward their bunk, Mal close behind. "How we gonna get this to Patience without losing valuable body fluids?" Zoe asked, without looking at Mal. "I've got a plan." Mal said smugly. "Once again, that's not much comfort." ---------------------------- Within 10 minutes of cutting Serenity's heat to minimum, the fog in the hold lifted as the internal temperature plummeted. Mal's brown duster provided little comfort. He climbed into his bed and pulled the blanket up around his shoulders. He flicked on his hand held to check his wave files. The computer sounded a brief chime. New mail. ------------------------------- To: captmreynolds@serenity.firefly.shp From: dhammond@hammonds.europa.pl re: S & K Hey, Spaceman. Why is everything that happens between S & Kaylee my fault? I know how you feel, but let out a deep breath. They have as much right to happiness as you and I. I'm happy they've found each other. Be happy too. Hank got a wave from his kin on Persephone. His sister passed yesterday. He'll be leaving for the funeral later today. I won't be able to attend, but sent a nice flower arrangement from us. I was glad to hear you got a job, but watch your back with Patience. I'e never dealt with her personally, but her reputation makes me worry. If anyone's gonna put a hole in you, it'll be me. Ha ha. Take care of yourself and Serenity. Love you, D. ------------------------------ Mal put the handheld onto the floor near his bunk. The cold began to creep back in to his brain. He would answer Delia's wave later. Just then, his primary focus was keeping warm. Jayne and Book sat in the Mess, drinking coffee. They were dressed in layered clothing to keep the chill away, but it didn't help. Serenity's internal temperature hovered at 30 degrees for the ice's sake. The ship was unusually quiet. No Kaylee and River chasing each other around. No games being played. No casual conversations by passing crew mates. Jayne and Book sat silently. Jayne's wooly orange cap bobbed as he bent to sip his coffee. Preacher shivered slightly; his sweater and lightweight jacket did little to stave off the cold. Every breath was visible in the cold. "Hey, c'mon." Kaylee said as she peeked around the corner from the Mess. She motioned to Book and Jayne with a wave of her gloved hand. "What is it?" Jayne asked. "Just come with me..." ---------------------------- Mal awoke shivering. He glanced at the clock and saw he had napped for just over two hours. He felt refreshed but knew he'd have trouble getting to sleep that night. He sat up and felt the cold reenter his bones. This was a miserable job for a miserable woman. Sure, bring a load of ice to Patience. The reality was pitiful. His hands ached from the chill. His right hand was definitely sore; ever since he had fractured it on Europa the cold bothered him. Mal got up and moved to climb the ladder from his bunk. He touched the metal rungs but quickly pulled his hands back. The metal was painfully cold. He went to his bureau and retrieved his black gloves. As he rose from his bunk, Mal noted the stillness that surrounded him. Looking up to the bridge, he saw it was empty. Mal turned toward the Mess. A hot cup of coffee would be good right about now. Three steps down into the Mess showed this room, too, was deserted. Mal's brow furrowed slightly. Where was everyone? Coffee forgotten, Mal started to wander the ship, looking for his crew. The lounge was empty. Down the back corridor, the engine room was empty. Mal retraced his steps and walked to the cargo hold. Nothing but the sea of ice greeted him. He turned and walked to River and Simon's quarters. Empty. The Infirmary was empty. Mal reached over and slapped the com. "Where is everyone?" Mal asked. His voice sounded slightly hollow to him. Hollow and annoyed. A few seconds later, the door to shuttle two opened and Inara stepped onto the top step. She drew her light wrap around her bare arms against the cold. "Mal!" she called. "We're in here!" Mal walked to the shuttle door and entered. His entire crew was in the shuttle. Zoe and Wash sat on the floor playing cards with Book and Jayne. Kaylee, Simon and River sat on Inara's bed talking. It was invitingly, comfortably warm. "I've got my own heat independent of Serenity. We can be warm in here and still keep the ice cold." Inara explained with a smile. Mal smiled at Inara and the rest of his crew. "Can we bunk here for the night?" Mal asked. --------------------------

In her house on Europa, Delia walked downstairs from the second floor and into her kitchen. Opening random cabinets, she realized it was time for dinner. The slightly longer days this time of year threw off her internal clocks. She wasn't in the mood to cook a full meal; without Hank on moon it would be just herself at the table. The refrigeration unit held a variety of leftovers. Those would do. As she leaned over to retrieve the grilled chicken from the lowest shelf, her hair spilled forward and obscured her vision. Vexed, she grabbed the chicken and put it on the counter. Delia walked to the dining room table and picked up the hair combs she had left there last night. She inserted them into her hair with a smile. Mal' gift to her always reminded her of their connection. She put a variety of leftovers on her plate, and placed it in the reheating system for a few seconds. Delia grasped a wine bottle from the rack next to the dining room table and opened it. It would do as tonight's dining companion. As she contemplated the bottle, the reheating system chimed. Her plate was ready. Delia took the plate and her wine glass to the table. Something was missing. She looked around the room but couldn't quite place what was wrong. Then, it was clear. Her house was silent. Desperately, painfully quiet. Delia walked around the table to the communication port next to the sliding glass door. She punched a few buttons, and the kitchen was filled with a lively country reel. The music filled the void Delia felt. Serenity had been gone for three weeks, and Hank had been off Europa for the past few days, attending his sister's funeral on Persephone. She expected him back within the next 48 hours. Delia sat down at the table, her back to the living room. She began to eat the chicken and rice on her plate. Her solitary dinner made her introspective, and she thought of her last visit from Mal. She knew it had taken a lot of nerve for him to broach the subject. Mal had been disappointed when she had said no. But, she thought he understood she wasn't saying no to him. Three weeks ago, in her bed, it hadn't felt right. Maybe it still wasn't right. They were connected already, no matter their physical distance from each other. But still, maybe she shouldn't have turned down his quiet marriage proposal. Her reverie was interrupted when the sound of engines at full bore jerked her head up from her plate. Through the sliding glass door, she just caught a glimpse of an ovoid ship racing North behind Stapleton, between her house and the foothills. What kind of nut would fly like that? Delia wrinkled her face in disgust. Some punk with a loud craft. She hoped he wasn't coming in for a landing at the Market. She was done working for the night, and didn't want to retrieve Rosie from her bedroom. Whoever it was, their reckless flying spelled trouble. Delia was relieved when the spaceship continued away from Stapleton and North toward the Great Divide. No punks on tonight's menu. She picked her fork from the table and raised some rice to her mouth. Delia's thoughts returned to Mal. The next time he was on Europa, she would talk to him. If she were ever to marry again, she had to admit to herself it would be to Mal. How would they get over the whole Serenity / Europa thing? Delia couldn't live on Serenity. It was too confining. Mal wouldn't be happy on Europa for long. He would miss his sky. This was a huge stumbling block to them getting married. She had several bites before the engine whines returned, this time more intense, slower, and almost urgent. Delia looked up to the ceiling, listening to the noise grow in strength. Her fork was poised in front of her, stopped mid air. She looked down to it, and saw her arm starting to shake. Suddenly, everything was shaking. Her chair. The walls. The front door. It became more violent until her fork clattered to the floor, scattering rice in her lap. She looked down, disgusted, at the floor. As the rice came into focus, her front windows exploded into her living room, as the spaceship roared slowly down Stapleton's Main Street. Glass shards hurtled toward the kitchen as the windows blasted inward. Several large pieces stabbed into Delia's back and hunched shoulders, lodging in her flesh. Delia cried out in pain and surprise, and she reached back to feel a shard stuck into her shoulder near the neck. Her hand came back bloody and shaking from the wound. She jumped up and ran to the front window to look outside. What was happening? Delia peeked out quickly to see the dirty gray spaceship parked at the far end of Stapleton. From afar, she could just make out people exiting the ship. Squinting, she couldn't quite tell who it was. Then, the report of gunshots and lasers being fired made her duck back into her house. Delia peeked more carefully a second later, and could just make out Harlan coming out of the sheriff's post, gun in hand. She reached up again, and yanked the glass shard from her neck. The fiery pain made her nearly cry out, but she clamped her left hand over her mouth to silence herself. Harlan fired shots toward someone, then Delia recoiled in horror as Harlan grabbed his neck and collapsed in the street. Delia turned to race up the stairs to her room. To Rosie. As she approached the stairs, she tripped, and caught herself with the corner of the wall at the landing. Delia sprinted up the stairs to her room on the third floor. She no longer felt the shards of glass protruding from her back; adrenalin from the fight raging outside had taken over. Delia grabbed Rosie and her holster from the bureau and threw them on the bed. Delia's attention was drawn away from the gun momentarily as the sounds of screams echoed through Stapleton. She darted to her closet and retrieved her .44 shotgun and two boxes of ammunition from the shelf. She loaded it, then went back into the closet for her tote bag. She slung it over her neck, and winced in pain as the strap hit a glass shard. It tumbled out of her back and onto the floor. With no notice of the shard, Delia dumped the boxes of ammo into the tote. She ran to the opposite side of the bed, near the front window. Delia reached for the holstered laser on the bed and strapped it to her thigh as she peered out of the window. Glass crunched below her feet as she silently observed the slaughter unfolding below her. The lively music piped through the house provided a hideous soundtrack to the violence. Men in ragged clothing were running through the town, shooting anything that moved and dragging bodies behind them. A small pile of bodies had already collected in front of Harlan's office. She saw a machete raise and lower over one of the bodies. The man was hacking it to pieces. Delia couldn't see which of her neighbors was being mutilated. They were only a few doors away from her home. Delia realized she had only minutes before they entered her house. As she tied the knot securing Rosie, she finally realized what she was seeing. Reavers were attacking Stapleton. Delia sprinted out of her room, but stopped in the main hallway. Her mind went into overdrive as she quickly calculated her options and the odds. Should she try to head for the foothills three miles West of her home? Should she hide herself somewhere inside? Within the fleeting thoughts, she knew her best chance at survival was to run and hide. She couldn't defend herself against the Reavers. As Delia thought about her options, she heard a loud, banging noise coming from the first floor. Someone was in the house. She would have to hide, right here. Delia closed her eyes to focus. Where was the safest place? Where should she hide? She swallowed hard. Delia slowly raised her head skyward, and saw her only hope. -------------------------------- Kaylee woke up slowly. She had slept on the floor in Inara's warm shuttle. As she came to her senses, she smiled to feel Simon spooned against her back. He was still asleep. In front of her was River, snoring softly. Kaylee hated to leave Simon's warm embrace but she needed to go to the bathroom. Badly. She gently moved Simon' arm from her hip and rose quietly from the floor. Zoe and Wash were a few feet away, snuggled in a similar spoon. Inara lay on her back in her bed. Book was in Inara's bed, but faced away from her. Mal was in one corner of the shuttle. She could hear Jayne snoring on the opposite side of Inara's bed, hidden from her view. Kaylee moved to the shuttle door and eased it open. The cold air from the hold bit her face after being warm all night. She scurried to the community bathroom near the Infirmary. Kaylee sat down on the toilet but quickly jumped up. The seat was too cold. She would have to hover to get the job done. As she left the bathroom, Kaylee had a thought. She would cook breakfast for the crew and serve it in Inara's shuttle. She moved to the Mess to get the coffee started. She loaded a basket with the food she had prepared carefully wrapped against the cold. She had found the last of the frozen bacon and had made scrambled powdered eggs to go with the bacon. Fresh biscuits steamed in the basket and a carafe of hot coffee rounded out the meal. Kaylee carefully carried her load to Inara's shuttle. As she walked, she smiled to think this is just what Delia would have done for the crew had she been there. "Breakfast!" Kaylee called into the shuttle, rousing her crew mates. --------------------------------- Wash finished his coffee on the bridge. He pecked at the cold control panel with his gloved fingers. With a scan of the nav, he saw they were within communication distance of Whitefall. "Captain to the Bridge." Wash called through the intercom. His breath was visible in the cold. In Inara's shuttle, Mal looked up from his hand of cards. "I'll take your hand" Jayne said, reaching for the cards. Mal stood up from the floor, leaving Zoe and Simon to play with Jayne. "Ha!" Jayne said, glancing at Mal's cards. "You're holding out on them!" Zoe and Simon scowled. This hand was a lost cause. Mal put his duster on and left Inara's shuttle. He made his way to the bridge through the icy hallway. "What's going on?" Mal asked. "We're within shoutin' distance of Patience." Mal bit his lip and thought for a moment. He reached for the intercom button. "Zo, come to the bridge." A minute later, Zoe entered the bridge. She wore her long jacket and Jayne's orange hat. Both Wash and Mal stifled small snorts at Zoe in Jayne's pompom hat. "Remind me to buy a warm hat at Hammond's, please." Zoe laughed at herself. "I'm gonna be callin' on Patience here in a second. Want you to listen in. K?" Zoe nodded; the pompom swayed slightly. Mal smiled and turned to the com. "Wait a minute. Let's not call her." Zoe said. Mal pulled his hand away from the com and turned back to Zoe. "Why give her the upper hand? We show up unexpected, she has no time to set her trap." Mal nodded and his lower lip protruded in agreement. "Good idea. We land, we get paid, we unload." ------------------------------ Six hours later, Serenity approached Whitefall. Drought conditions had made the moon unusually light colored. Dry as a bone. From space, it looked like Pacquin, the desert moon on the Outer Rim. Wash glanced away from the horizon briefly and just missed seeing another ship, ovoid and streamlined, dive bombing into the atmo on the other side of the moon. It was too far away to set off the proximity alarm. "Alright folks. Here we go. Kaylee, load a new rod in the hole. As we hit atmo, I'm gonna countdown from 3. When I get to one, I'm gonna disengage the grav drive. Get your bags ready." Wash said in the com, with much delight. Wash looked down and retrieved the plastic bag at his feet. Mal and Zoe were on the bridge, bags in hand. A well bundled Kaylee was alone in the engine room, having just loaded the new rod. Everyone else was in Inara's shuttle, protected from the cold. Wash steered Serenity toward Whitefall. With one eye out the front widow, he watched the altimeter with the other. "3...2...1." Wash said into the com, and pressed the grav drive button, disengaging it. Mal looked at Zoe, whose eyes were large. He had never felt a feeling like this in his life. Not from drinking. Not from bein' down with illness. His stomach overwhelmed his body and he heard Wash throwing up. Mal tried not to hear Wash but it was too late. Both Zoe and Mal were sick, too. Wash had been unable to turn off the intership com in time; the sound of the bridge vomiting carried through the ship. In Inara's shuttle, the rest of the crew were throwing up as well. Mal looked up from his bag and groaned. Zoe was as pale as he had ever seen her. "Oh, Patience owes me big." Mal moaned. "Inara, everyone ok?" Wash piped into the shuttle. "We're alright." Inara reported faintly. She grabbed a trash bag from in the closet and moved around the room, collecting the 5 bags of vomit from the crew. Wash could feel the difference in Serenity's handling with the grav drive off. The lower gravity pull from Whitefall made Serenity feel lighter and she responded better, unlike when they had moved Delia's packages to Europa. He would remember this trick for the next time the load was heavy. Wash moved Serenity Westward toward Patience's compound just south of Ibanez. They had been to Patience's compound once before several years ago. "Find the tobacco field and land next to it. Face the field so we can offload quick." Mal directed. Patience's small compound came into view on the horizon. Wash maneuvered Serenity around the Main house then onto the tobacco field. He saw withered greenish brown stalks covering several acres. She hadn't been fooling. This was no trap. Patience needed water. She came out of the house and waved to Serenity as the ship moved slowly away. A few minutes after landing and the main cargo door's opening, Patience arrived on horseback with 5 men. All were well armed. "Patience." Mal said warily. "Malcolm." Patience replied, equally watchful. "See you weren't foolin'. Your plants need water." "It'll be a good crop if I can save it." "1500 credits." Mal said evenly. "It only cost you 1000 credits at most." "750 for the water. 750 for Serenity." Mal replied. Patience's mouth was a thin line as she studied Mal's emotionless expression. Zoe and Jayne walked a few steps behind Mal. She looked from Mal to Zoe, then to Jayne. "If you don't want the ice, we can go and dump the load into the valley we passed 30 miles away. " Mal smiled. "Okay...okay...1500 credits. Boys, start unloading..." Patience began. "Hold it." Mal said, putting up his hand. "1500. Before the ice is unloaded." Mal turned his hand palm up before Patience. She smiled and shook her head. "I see you've learned a bit since we last spoke." "I'm older. Less trustin'." he replied. Patience reached into her saddlebag and retrieved a leather drawstring bag. She thumbed some coin out of the bag and back into the saddlebag. She tossed the bag into Mal's open hand. He opened the purse and made a quick count. It was all there. Without looking away from Patience, Mal handed the bag over his right shoulder to Zoe, who took it into the ship. "Ok, boys. Let's load the ice on the anti-grav sleds. Each plant gets a block. Let's hurry. The ice won't last long in this heat." Patience instructed. Patience's men moved quickly to unload the ice from the hold. It was slow, hard work. Mal and Jayne stepped in and helped load the sleds. The quicker they could get the ice out of the hold, the less chance of water getting into the ship's nooks and crannies below. An hour later, Mal's hold was empty, and each tobacco plant had at least one block of ice near it. A large stack of ice sat on an elevated grate, with a collection trough below it. "Thank you, Mal." Patience said, extending her hand. "Glad to see you aren't in a shootin' mood." Mal said as they shook hands. "I've got a bit more respect for you now then I did before. Don't think I'll be able to pull the wool over your eyes again. " "Good luck with your tobacco." Mal said. "We'll deal again, Reynolds." she said. Patience reared her horse away from Serenity and she and her men trotted back to her Main house. -------------------------- Serenity lifted from Whitefall a few minutes later. Wash reengaged the grav drive for the ascent from Whitefall. The heat was on again. That, coupled with having the main gate open for an hour in the desert like conditions, had warmed the ship significantly. The engines turned downward and lifted the ship off the moon. On the bridge, Jayne, Zoe, Mal, and Wash watched the moon recede. "Where to?" Wash asked. "I was thinkin' we'd go to Wan Chao. Have some fun for the day." Mal said. Jayne nodded eagerly. He could get his girls something there. "We gonna divvy the money?" he asked. "Nope. This one's for the purse. We're savin' up for munitions." Mal said. This made Zoe smile. Mal had decided on the munitions. "Guns!" Jayne laughed. "We'll be the only Firefly in the sky loaded for bear!" ---------------------------- At the Wan Chao Skyplex, Serenity's crew wandered through the crowded corridors, enjoying the carnival like atmosphere of the space station. Wan Chao was a conglomeration of many cultures, thrown into the close confines of an orbiting slum in space. The strong Chinese presence was evident throughout the Skyplex. Few signs were in English, and most of the Skyplex's population were either full blooded Asian or some Eurasian mix. The last time they had visited Wan Chao, they had received Tracey in the mail. Kaylee and Inara were in the clothing quadrant, looking at Chinese embroidered robes. "I like the red one." Kaylee said, as she thumbed the silky fabric. "It's nice, but this green one would look better on you." Kaylee frowned slightly. It wasn't the one she would have picked. She thought the peach blossoms on the back were a little too feminine. She liked the grand dragon on the back of the red. "Delia tol' me to get green, too." Kaylee replied, resigned to green. "The green brings out your eyes, and anyway, it's cheaper." Inara said. Kaylee eyed the price tag on the robe. It was 50 credits more than she had planned to spend, but the red was nearly 75 more. "Simon asked me to get one for River. Which one should I get for her?" "River get the red robe. If Simon can afford it." Inara said, as she lifted it up. "He gave me more than enough. It's for River's birthday next week." Kaylee took the robes from Inara's hand and approached the ancient Chinese man behind the counter to pay. "Let's go find the others." Inara said, linking her arm in Kaylee's. ------------------------ Jayne and Book ate moon cakes as they walked though the food court. Jayne had just purchased two pairs of earrings as gifts for Kimi and Karen a few carts back. They swung from his wrist in a small bag as they approached Mal, who was holding a skewer of teriyaki chicken in one hand, and a paper bag in the other. Mal had bought a poesy ring for Delia. The gold band was inscribed with a language he knew was from Earth that was. The jeweler had called it "French." But Mal liked the words best of all. It said Vous et Nul Outre...You and No Other. He planned on asking again. The men saw each other through the crowd, waved, then approached. "What'dja buy?" Jayne asked through his mouthful of cake. "A ring for Delia." Mal said, slightly embarrassed. Then, Mal noticed Jayne's bag. "You?" he asked, pointing to Jayne's wrist. "Got my girls some earrings." Jayne announced proudly. "Ya know, bigamy is illegal on most moons." Mal said with a chuckle. "Bigamy? What's that?" Jayne asked. "Being married to two women at the same time." Book offered. "Married?" Jayne hooted. "I just got them earrings, for cripes sake. 'Sides, you got yours a ring..." "You planning on pickin' one of them?" Mal interrupted. "Not while I'm havin' this much fun!" Jayne cried, as he lightly punched Mal's arm. ----------------------------- Zoe and Wash walked away from the dumpling stand with a paper bowl filled with sho mu. They shared it as they slowly sauntered down the corridor, looking at the various stalls on either side of them. Every few stalls, one would stop and look at merchandise, while the other held the bowl and enjoyed free reign over the dumplings. One stall caught Zoe's attention, and she peeled away from Wash and entered the Chinese Medicinal Herb Shop. Wash knew what she was doing, and stationed himself across the way to wait for her return. Having researched Chinese fertility herbs thoroughly, she would be in and out of the shop momentarily. As he glanced around the corridor, a Vid screen on the far wall caught his attention, and he strained his ears to hear what the woman on the screen was saying. Wash frowned and walked closer to the screen, until he understood the horror the news anchor was saying. He dropped the bowl of sho mu on the ground, and backed away from the screen toward the herb shop. "Zo! Zoe! Come here!" Wash yelled into the shop. At once, Zoe came out of the shop, drawn by the urgent tone in her husband's voice. Without a word, he grabbed Zoe's arm and took her close to the Vid screen. Wash covered his mouth as they both listened to the anchor. ----------------------------- "...sources close to the investigation refuse to acknowledge Reaver activity on the effected moons or even the existence of Reavers. However, an anonymous source told Core News that this dangerous lapse in security is being investigated at the highest levels. The massacres at Newton on Whitefall, Stapleton on Europa, and previously this year New Amsterdam on Kratos are currently under investigation. To repeat, the towns just mentioned have been hit by an unknown assailant. In Stapleton and Newton, most, if not all residents have been murdered. Alliance officials are currently compiling an inventory of the dead. More on this developing story next. This is Barbara Ambrose, Core News." --------------------------- "Get him." Zoe ordered, not taking her eyes from the screen. Wash sprinted through the skyplex, scanning the crowd for Mal and the crew. A few hundred feet from the herb shop, he found Jayne, Mal and Book laughing near the food court. A garish vid screen behind them hawked Blue Sun soda in brightly colored lights. "Captain....come with me now." Wash said insistently.. Mal jerked his head around, instantly sobered by Wash's urgency. "What's going on?" Mal asked. "Jayne, Book, go find Inara and Kaylee. Get them aboard now. We'll be right behind you." Wash ordered. Taken aback by Wash's command, Jayne and Book turned and walked quickly down the corridor to find the two women. Wash took Mal's arm and steered him through the crowds back to where Zoe stood, eyes still on the Vid. "What's going on?" Mal repeated to Zoe. He was on edge now. Something was clearly wrong. "Reaver attack. Yesterday. Newton on Whitefall, ...and Stapleton." Zoe murmured. Mal's jaw slowly loosened as Zoe's words had their impact. Reavers...Stapleton...Delia. Everything was swirling in his head, and his hand instinctively reached for his holster. "Let's go" he yelled, as broke into a run back to Serenity. Wash and Zoe were close on his heels, following Mal as he swept a path through the crowd, causing angry Chinese to be cast toward their backs as they ran. ----------------------------

Mal, Zoe, and Wash ran into the open forward hatch of Serenity. Book, Jayne, Inara and Kaylee stood waiting within the bay. Wash's stride didn't end in the cargo hold. He continued his run through the hold, up the back stairs and to the bridge. Within moments, Serenity's engine came to life. Disengagement began, and Serenity pulled away from the Wan Chao Skyplex. He turned the ship toward Europa, and engaged the thrusters. Serenity's engine core lit space and she shot forward, far faster than she should have in the crowded air space around the Skyplex. Wash briefly hoped there were no Alliance ships watching; he didn't want Serenity stopped and fined for the infraction. Serenity's crew climbed onto the small bridge, led by Mal. "How long?" Mal asked angrily. "12 hours, full burn." Wash replied soberly. "Zoe, pull up everything you can from the Cortex on the attack. I'm gonna check the waves. See if Delia sent something telling us she's okay. Kaylee, we gonna be okay full burn for so long?" "Yep, she'll be good." Kaylee replied." What's going on? Why wouldn't Delia be okay?" "Reavers attacked Stapleton." Zoe said quietly. Kaylee's eyes grew big and Inara's hand flew to cover her mouth. "Is there anything we can do?" Book asked. "Don't think so, Preacher. We gotta get to Europa." Zoe said. Mal brushed past the crew distractedly, and headed to his quarters. Heads turned and watched him descend down to his bunk. The hatch closed behind him. ------------------------- Mal jumped the last two rungs of the ladder and landed solidly on the floor of his bunk. He strode the short distance to his bed and grabbed his handheld computer from the floor. He flicked it on, and checked his wave file. Nothing new. Nothing from Delia since two days ago. Before the Reaver attack. He flipped the tablet back onto the desk and sat down on the edge of his bed. Mal bowed his head and slowly rubbed his hands against each other as he thought about what could have happened on Europa. Reaver attack. No survivors. A massacre. Delia. Delia is dead. Delia has been killed by Reavers. He laid his forehead in his right hand and tried to rub the headache forming in his brain away. Delia is dead. Mal grimaced at the image his mind was trying to conjure. He tried desperately not to imagine the scene on Europa. Mal felt his first tears forming, and a fat drop fell between his feet. As he bit his lip to keep the tears at bay, his handheld chimed; a new wave had arrived. ---------------------------- To: captmreynolds@serenity.firefly.shp From: europamaildepot@espaceport.shp re: Attack on Stapleton Captain Reynolds- It's Hank. By now you should have heard of the attack on Stapleton. I hope you are on your way. I was on Persephone for my sister's funeral when I heard about the attack. Alliance has closed the town. I am on the Europan Spaceport, waiting for the town to reopen. I have not heard from Miss Delia or any of the hands. Wave me at this address to let me know where you are. -Hank. ------------------------------

To: europamaildepot@espaceport.shp from: captmreynolds@serenity.firefly.shp re: Message for Hank Michaels, Hank- We are about 12 hours away, comin' up fast. We just heard about the attack. We will pick you up at the Space Port. Be at the departures bay so we can get to Europa as soon as possible. -Mal ------------------------------ Mal wiped his eyes. Not everyone in Stapleton was dead. He rose from his bunk and ascended the ladder out of his quarters. On the bridge, the crew huddled around the Cortex port in silence. He stood in the doorway for a moment before Zoe felt his presence behind them and looked over her shoulder. "Got the news service reports up." As Mal walked over to the port, Inara, Jayne and Kaylee moved away to allow Mal access to the video feed. It showed the Newton Massacre on Whitefall. Bodies lay in the street. Blood and gore littered the scene. The video appeared to be taken by a survivor; it was jerky and slightly out of focus. Mal pressed the screen lightly and paged over to the part detailing Stapleton. There was no video link, and spare details. Alliance was still processing the town, identifying the dead. Mal looked at Inara, who reached out and touched his arm lightly. "Got a wave from Hank. He was on Persephone when the attack happened. We're gonna pick him up at the space port over Europa." Mal said without emotion. Wash nodded in acknowledgment. He would need to recalculate the coordinates; the space port flew over the Northern Hemisphere of Europa. Stapleton was in the South. He would be on the bridge for the duration of the trip. Serenity would be flying too fast to be unattended for any length of time. Mal backed away from the port slowly and turned toward the doorway. "Where you goin'?" Kaylee asked softly. "Mess." Mal answered. ---------------------------- He sat at the dining room table and poured himself a third glass of whisky. The first two he had downed quickly. Mal quietly regarded the glass in front of him. He hoped to be drunk as soon as possible. Maybe the pain in his heart would get drunk, too. He closed his eyes briefly, then raised the whisky to his lips. Zoe peeked her head into the darkened Mess. Mal was at the table, his back to her. The only light in the room came from the spotlight above the table. It illuminated Mal in sharp contrast to the dark background. Shoulders hunched, his pain was palpable. "Can I join you?" Zoe asked quietly. Mal raised his right hand, and waved her into the room. Zoe walked over to the cabinet and reached for a glass for herself. She shook the whisky bottle in front of Mal but found it was already empty. Zoe went back to the fridge unit and pulled a squat sake bottle from the lower shelf. "She's dead, you know." Mal muttered. "I know." Zoe replied flatly. "My mind keeps trying to see her, dead. What they did to her." "Don't do that to yourself. We just need to get there and give her a proper burial. Say goodbye." "I asked her to marry me." Mal said, as his fingertips lightly tapped the table. Zoe glanced up at him and caught his eye. She was caught off guard by his admission. "She said no. Said we didn't need ceremony to connect us." "She was right. You were a pair from day one." He raised his glass and drained the remaining whisky. Zoe poured sake into his empty glass. She couldn't lecture him that this wasn't any way to deal with the loss of Delia. Her glass was ready for a refill, too. Kaylee and Simon entered the Mess as Zoe silently poured the drinks. Kaylee walked over to Mal and bent down to hug him. He reached up with one arm and returned her hug - grateful for the concern but he wished like Hell everyone would just leave him alone to die. "Everything'll be okay, Cap." Kaylee said, trying to soothe her Captain. Both Mal and Zoe looked up at her in disbelief. Was she nuts? "Kaylee...Delia is gone." Zoe said. Kaylee withdrew from Mal's embrace abruptly. Her eyes were rimmed with red, but Zoe's words ignited the anger she felt. "No she ain't! Delia survived. I just know it. She ain't gone." Kaylee cried. Simon reached out and put his hand on Kaylee's arm. She jerked her arm away and glared at Mal and Zoe. "You all can get piss drunk thinkin' she's dead. That don't help nothin'. It don't help you, don't help Delia. You all make me sick. Not believing in Delia. She's strong. You know that. She fought 'em off. She's alive...." Kaylee raged. Mal looked up at her with sad eyes. "She was strong...but she wasn't that strong. Sooner you come to accept Delia's passing, sooner you can ..." "I'll never 'cept Delia's passing, cause she ain't dead!" Kaylee cried. Her last words were muffled as she buried her face in her hands and burst into tears. Inara entered the Mess and quickly put her arms around Kaylee. Tears silently streamed down Inara's face as Kaylee buried her face in Inara's shoulder. Inara gave Zoe a pained smile and steered Kaylee out of the Mess and toward her shuttle. Simon trailed behind the two, and left the Mess without a word. "Maybe Kaylee's right. Maybe we should hold out hope." Mal said quietly. "Mal..." "I know. Just hard to wrap my mind 'round the thought I'll never see her again. My head knows she's gone. My heart hopes Kaylee is right." Mal gulped the sake in front of him and stuck out his tongue slightly at the sweetness of the dark rice wine. He reached into his pocket and withdrew his keys. "In my footlocker. Another bottle of whisky." Mal said as he handed Zoe the keys. -------------------------------

During the confusion on the Wan Chao Skyplex, and watching Cortex reports on the Massacres, Jayne had been silent. He hadn't said a word to anyone about Delia, Reavers, or the attack. In their grief, the crew hadn't noticed Jayne's silence. His mind was elsewhere. While he mourned Delia, his heart bled thinking about Kimi and Karen. They were most surely dead, having neither arms nor the ability to defend themselves. Jayne's girls. Gone. Jayne paced his bunk, unsure how to act. He was sad, that he knew. Something else caught in his throat. He couldn't pin down the emotion, but it tore at him until he was forced to recognize the truth. They hadn't just been his girls. Kimi and Karen were his love. He had known love, and now it was gone. Jayne scrubbed his hair violently and climbed the ladder out of his bunk. He had to do something. He would go stir crazy if he stayed in his room any longer. Jayne made his way to the cargo bay, where the bench press sat waiting for him. He had just started lifting the bar above his head when Book stared down at him and read his mind. "I knew you'd be here." "Had to get my mind off a Stapleton." Jayne replied between reps. "Ive been composing a few words for Delia...for a funeral." Book said quietly. "That's good." Jayne said, distractedly. "I've got words for the Cortland girls, too." Book said. Jayne placed the bar back in the holder and sat up from the bench press. "You'd say words for my girls too?" Jayne said, as he blinked back the tears that started to form . "Of course. They are Children of God." Jayne bit his lip and blinked rapidly. A tear went down his cheek as Preacher sat down next to him. Jayne turned and looked to his friend, unashamed of his tears. "I'm so sorry, Jayne." Book said he touched Jayne's back. Jayne leaned his head into his hands and cried for his girls. -------------------------- "You want something to eat?" Zoe called up to the bridge through the com. "Yeah." Wash answered. "Sandwich, coffee would be great." "You got it." Wash rubbed his eyes lightly. Glancing over, he saw they were about two hours from the Europan Spaceport. He would soon slow Serenity to prepare for docking. Until then, he would continue staring out into space and listen for a proximity alarm. He hadn't left the bridge since leaving Wan Chao, except for a minute when Inara took the helm while he used the bathroom. Zoe looked out the Mess door to the couch outside the Infirmary. Mal had passed out there. He snored loudly as he slept off the whisky. Unsteadily, she carried the coffee and food to Wash. On the bridge, Wash had his cheek in his hand, his elbow on the nav. "Here's your food." Zoe announced a little too lightheartedly. Wash accepted the coffee Zoe offered warily but sat back in his chair. She was kindof happy looking. Before he took a sip, he smelled something sweet in the air. It wasn't Zoe's perfume; he knew that well. This was a vaguely vinegary sweet...sake! "Zo, honey...you've been drinking." "Yeah, me and Mal had a few." Zoe said, slightly slurred. "Where's Mal?" "Passed out in front of the Infirmary. He had more than me." "Maybe you should lie down, too." "Good idea. Wake me when we get to the Spaceport." "Sure thing." Wash lied, as he waved Zoe off the bridge and to their bunk. She and Mal both needed the next few hours to sober up. He and Jayne could get Hank on board, and on to Europa. An hour later, Wash slowed the engines to prepare Serenity's approach to the port. Serenity would slow herself down under quarter power, and glide into the Spaceport without using too much engine power. He finished the sandwich quietly, his thoughts consumed with the impending scene that would confront them on Europa. Wash knew he and Zoe were both crushed by Delia's loss. It meant a loss for Mal, a loss for Serenity, and ultimately a loss of the future he and Zoe had imagined...the two couples someday residing on Europa. His melancholy was broken by Book's arrival on the bridge. "How close are we?" Book asked. "Close." "Do you want me to wake the Captain?" "No, he needs to sleep. Can you get Jayne and ask him to meet me in the cargo bay once we dock? He and I'll get Hank onboard." "He's in his bunk. I'll get him. You know, he's pretty torn up by what's happened." "Losing Delia is gonna hurt for a long time." "Not just Delia. Jayne lost his twins." Wash turned in his seat and stared at Book for a long time. He hadn't even thought of anyone else dead except Delia. "I forgot about Kimi and Karen. I'll say something to him." "I think it would help. He was more attached to them than he realized." ----------------------------- Wash came down from the bridge once docking was complete and saw Jayne loading his revolver in the cargo bay. "You think we'll be needin' that?" Wash asked. "Never know. Better to be prepared." Wash nodded at Jayne and was about to offer his condolences when Inara and Kaylee came out of Inara's shuttle. "Are we at the Spaceport?" Inara asked. "Yep. We'll be back in a few minutes." Jayne called up to them. Wash leaned over and to the control panel and pressed the button that released the forward door's lock. It hissed and disengaged. Jayne walked to the door and opened it. He held it open for Wash, then closed it behind himself. Inara watched them leave, then turned to Kaylee. "You gonna be okay?" "No. Not for a long time." ----------------------------- Wash and Jayne walked the corridor from the docking point to the departures area. It was nearly deserted. "I realized that Delia wasn't the only one we lost. I'm sorry 'bout Kimi and Karen." "Thanks." Jayne said, and cleared his throat. "They were good women. Very kind, from what I saw." Jayne nodded without comment, but gave a pained smile to Wash in gratitude. As they exited the corridor, the departures area was equally deserted. People must be avoiding travel to Europa due to the attacks. Wash and Jayne scanned the sitting area, looking for Hank. He was seated in the far corner, his head down. "Hank!" Jayne called across the room. Hank walked over to Wash and Jayne, carrying a small black bag. He looked tired and depressed. "Hey there. Good to see you all. Where's the Captain?" "He and Zoe drowned their sorrows. They're sleepin' it off." Wash replied. "I'll be joinin' them soon as possible." "We're this way" Jayne said, poking his thumb over his shoulder. "Look at that." Hank said. The two followed Hank's pointed finger across the room to a digital sign near the departures counter. ALL CIVILIAN TRAFFIC TO STAPLETON, EUROPA SUSPENDED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE "How you 'spect to land at Hammond's?" Hank asked. "Dunno. Guess we just land and suffer the consequences." Wash said. Wash, Hank, and Jayne walked the corridor back to Serenity. As they approached the hatch, it was opened by Book, who watched them approach through the window. Once the three were aboard, Book closed the door and turned the handle. Wash leaned over and pressed the locking button, reengaging the seal. "Hank, we are all truly sorry for your loss." Book said. "Lost my Trudy, then my sister. Now, Miss Delia. Don't know how much more I can take." Book reached over and took Hank's bag from his shoulder. There wasn't much anyone could say in response to Hank's words. Inara came down from the catwalk and went to Hank. She wanted so much to help him, and knew what she could do. "Hank, would you like a drink?" "Miss Inara, I'd love one." Inara smiled politely. She led him to the Mess, to provide what she could. ------------------------------- Mal groaned lightly. He was vaguely aware of a painful pressure on his neck, that came and went in an instant. Within thirty seconds, he was semiconscious, and his eyes fluttered open. He was being stared at by Simon. Mal's eyes slammed open and he reared back on the couch. As soon as he did, an enormous headache engulfed him and he grabbed his forehead to keep it from bursting through his skull. "You'll be okay in a few minutes." Simon soothed. "Wha...what happened?" Mal whispered, eyes closed. "You got drunk. Passed out. We let you sleep for a few hours. Simon gave you a shot to clear the alcohol from your system." Book said matter of factly. "Drunk?" Mal said, disoriented. Then, he remembered. Delia. Reavers. Whisky. Mal swung his legs from the couch and pulled himself more upright. The pain in his head was overwhelming. The throbbing beat kept time with his heart. "The headache will go away in a few minutes." Simon said. "We need to get Hank. How close are we to the Spaceport?" Mal moaned through his hands. "I'm right here, Captain Reynolds." Hank replied. Mal peeked through his fingers and saw Hank standing next to Book. Mal reached his right hand toward Hank to shake hands, while his left kept his eyes covered. "Hank" Mal said flatly in greeting, as Hank shook his hand. "Captain Reynolds." "So we're over Europa?" "We could land at Stapleton in ten minutes. Problem is, town is closed." Wash said. "We need to get down there. Let's go down and call on whatever Alliance is there. Maybe it'll be like on Kratos. We gotta try." Mal said. "You got it." Wash said, as he turned then jogged toward the bridge. A few seconds later, Wash's voice came over the intership com. "Prepare for landing at Stapleton." Mal moaned heavily as Wash's voice reverberated through his head. "Hank, you tried callin' Delia?" Mal asked softly. "Yep. No answer on any line." Hank said glumly. Mal shook his head lightly, then stood up carefully. "Coffee. I need coffee." he muttered. --------------------------- Mal joined Wash on the bridge a few minutes later, coffee in hand. Whatever medicine Simon had given him had swept the fog from his system. The pain in his head was lifting, as the pain in his heart grew. Mal looked through the forward window as the Great Divide became apparent. "Just land behind Hammond's like normal." Mal said, as footsteps behind him caught his attention. "What's going on?" Zoe asked groggily. "We're be at Stapleton in two minutes." Wash replied. "How do you feel?" "Like elephants are dancing on my brain. Is Hank on board?" "Yep. Go get gunned up. You, Me and Jayne'll be goin' into town." Mal said. "How are you so shiny? You drank a whole bottle of whisky." Zoe asked, annoyed. "You just don't hold your alcohol well, I guess..." Mal said without humor. Wash looked at Zoe and rolled his eyes. He'd tell her when this was over. ---------------------- Serenity landed behind Hammond's in a scene vaguely reminiscent of their expedition to Kratos. An Alliance skimmer was on the landing pad, but this time the contingent assigned to Stapleton was much larger. Mal could see at least 30 soldiers in and around the Main street as they landed. As Mal opened the main cargo bay, Serenity's crew was greeted by ten soldiers, weapons drawn. "I need to talk to whoever's in charge." Mal said. None of the soldiers moved, or acknowledged he had even spoken. "Hello? Someone must be in charge." The soldier on the farthest right looked around, then peeled off toward the skimmer. "We'll wait here." Mal said. A few minutes later, the soldier returned accompanied by the contingent's leader. "I'm Major Andrew Bingham. What's going on here?" "That's what we've come to find out. I'm married to someone who lives here, and I've brought her Ranch Foreman with me." Mal said, motioning to Hank. None of the crew blinked hearing Mal's white lie about his marital status. "This town is still closed. You need to leave." Bingham said firmly. "Please. My wife is dead. I need to claim her." Mal said honestly. "And Hank lives here. I'm asking you to help me out here. I gotta know what happened." Major Bingham exhaled a long, slow breath and stared at the asphalt for a long moment. "Okay. Go over to the morgue area at the theater and find Captain Miller. Tell him Bingham said you could claim your wife's body. I really didn't want to open the town til tomorrow. Okay, just stay out of my men's way. The foreman can stay. He's confined to his house after sunset. You and your crew will need to leave tonight. Got it?" "Thank you, Major. I really appreciate it." Mal said. "Just you and the foreman go into town. Your others stay on ship." Bingham said, motioning into Serenity. "I'd like to take two people. Support people.. The woman, there...and the man on the right." Mal replied. Bingham shook his head, exasperated. "Okay, okay. Corporal Chang, you and Carruthers escort these people to the morgue area. Don't leave their side." Bingham ordered. Mal nodded in appreciation and understanding. Zoe, Jayne, and Hank walked from the ship to Mal and the soldiers, then toward the familiar path that led them past Delia's house and the market. As they walked the Main street that had become their second home, they passed locations burned into their minds. Hammond's Market. Range Bar. Sheriff Harlan's post. Stapleton had been brutalized. Black stains marked the dirt. Dried blood. Like on Kratos, every window facing the street had been blown out. In front of the small school, several men stood talking and looking at handheld tablets. Two of the three were not wearing standard Alliance uniforms. "We're lookin' for Captain Miller." Mal said to the group. "I'm Miller. Who are you? What are you doin' here?" "Major Bingham told us it would be okay if we claimed my wife and some other folks." Miller nodded thoughtfully, his lower lip protruding slightly. "Sorry for your loss. What's her name?" "Delia Hammond." Mal said softly. Captain Miller touched the tablet and bent his head to scan the list it contained. His black hair shot with gray caught the sunshine and appeared to glimmer faintly. "Hammond?" Miller questioned. "Delia Maddox Hammond." Mal repeated. "Hmmm. No Hammond. No Maddox. She hasn't been identified among the dead." "She's alive?" "Only 32 survived. She's not on the known survivors list either. We do have 43 bodies we haven't been able to identify." "Mrs. Hammond has an Alliance record. You'll have her prints on file." Mal said. Miller glanced over his glasses at Mal without comment. He went back to the tablet and punched several buttons. Several moments later, Miller turned the tablet to Mal. "Is this her?" Mal bit his lip and looked at the tablet. Miller had called up the first page of Delia's Alliance record, her image clear. Her hair was as short as Mal's, unevenly cut. She appeared to have a faint bruise on her cheek. It was her prison identification. Mal closed his eyes briefly and nodded as he swallowed hard. "Well, this should help. You wouldn't happen to have any of her DNA?" "No." Mal answered. "Well, Mr. Hammond, I'm sorry. We'll use this to see if she's among the unidentified." "My name's Reynolds. She is...was Hammond." "I thought you said she is your wife." Miller questioned, brows starting to knit. "She didn't take my name." Mal said simply. That was true. Delia had chosen not to take Mal's name. "What about Kimberly Cortland?" Jayne asked meekly. He didn't want to hear Miller's answer. "Kimberly Cortland...deceased." Zoe reached over and lightly gripped Jayne's arm in comfort. "Karen Cortland?" Jayne whispered. "Karen Cortland...Karen Cortland...not yet identified." Miller responded. Miller punched more buttons, then looked at Jayne. "No record for her. Same thing as Mrs. Hammond...do you have any DNA?" Jayne shook his head, no. "But you do." Zoe offered. "Kimberly and Karen were identical twins. Get Karen's DNA from Kimberly." "That's helpful, thanks." Miller said, making a note in the file. "Harlan Jacobs?" Hank asked. "Harlan Jacobs...deceased." Miller said. The group was silent for a moment, then Mal thought he'd ask. "Can we see the unidentified?" "Um, I don't think you should. Those are folks in a bad way. Missing parts. Some, just parts." Miller said. "Listen, Bingham is gonna make us leave at sundown. I can't go without knowing for sure about Delia." Mal pleaded. Miller nodded. If he was in this man's shoes, he'd feel the same way. "Come with me. The unidentified are in the theater." Miller said. The group followed Miller down the street, with the two Alliance soldiers trailing behind. They entered the theater and walked down the center aisle to the front stage. Miller swept his hand parallel to the stage. Before them lay 43 body bags, lined in two rows. Mal took a few steps to the stairs leading to the stage before Zoe stepped into his path. "I can't let you do this, Mal. I'll do it." "Zoe..." Mal started. "Mal, I won't let your last image of Delia be what's in one of those bags." "Zoe, get out of my way." "No, Mal. Stay here. She was my friend. She was your woman. Would you let Wash ID me if it was me in one of those bags?" Mal thought about that for a moment, then started to move around Zoe toward the steps. Zoe reached out and forcible restrained Mal, her hand on his chest. Miller watched the power struggle between the two, but didn't intervene. This was their fight. Not his. But the woman before him clearly cared about the Captain's feelings. "Don't make me draw my gun, Mal." Zoe said evenly. Mal stopped and stared at Zoe. She had never spoken to him in this way, and it made his blood run colder than it already did. Mal clenched his jaw but stepped back to where Jayne and Hank stood. Zoe turned and followed Miller up the steps to the stage. She walked to the first bag in line. She knelt and unzipped it. As she gazed at it's contents, she grimaced but didn't look away. She rezipped the bag and moved on to the next. And then the next. Again and again, Zoe unzipped, looked, then rezipped. From below the stage, neither Mal, Jayne nor Hank could see the contents. At bag 23, Zoe reached into the bag. She withdrew the top part of a woman's arm and examined it. As she brought it into the light, she saw the skin was tanned. Delia had been fair. She put it back and moved on to the next bag. At bag 38, Zoe's brow knitted and she bit her lip. Her head sagged and Mal's breath caught in his throat. Delia. She unzipped the bag further to see the complete body. It was the headless trunk of a woman. Zoe reached in and rolled the trunk onto its side. She pulled the shredded shirt aside and looked at the woman's right shoulder blade. She exhaled audibly which caused tears to well in Mal's eyes. Delia. Zoe let the trunk roll back and rezipped the bag. She looked up, and caught Mal's eye. She shook her head...not Delia. Mal nearly cried out in frustration and relief. ---------------------------- Zoe stood up after she rezipped the last bag. She turned to the men below her then noticed three bags apart from the rest. "What are these?" she asked. Miller walked past the 43 to where Zoe stood at the far left of the stage. "Those are...some of the assailants." Mal walked up the steps and to the three bags. He reached down and unzipped the bag in front of him. Inside the face of a man who had been scarred, tattooed and bore the marks of mutilation stared back lifelessly. "Reavers." Mal said firmly. "You say Reavers. I say Reavers. The company I work for? They say unknown assailants." Miller said harshly. "You're not like any Alliance officer I've ever met." Mal said. "I'll take that as a compliment." Miller said, without the humor it could have held under different circumstances. Mal glanced back at the Reaver. He had been shot in the neck - a clean, perfect circle of smoke marked the laser shot. The laser shot. "Where was this body found?" Mal asked. "This one was found in one of the houses." "Which house?" Miller walked over to the map of Stapleton he had placed on the wall. Red X's dotted the map, indicating a dead body. "It was found...here." Miller said, as he jabbed his finger to the paper. Their eyes followed Miller's finger to Delia's house. "So was Assailant #3." Miller added. "She fought back." Mal whispered. "Your woman's house?" Miller asked. Mal nodded. "But you didn't find her body in the house?" Zoe asked. "No. Just the two...Reavers." "Can we go in her house?" Mal asked. "Let me ask Major Bingham. I can't authorize that." Miller said. Miller lifted his portable com and raised Bingham immediately. "He says you can go in. That house has been cleared. He asks that you don't take anything out, though. Carruthers and Chang are to accompany you." "Captain?" Hank asked. Both Mal and Miller looked to Hank. "Captain Reynolds, I mean. I'm gonna stay here. See if I can ID anyone." Mal nodded to Hank, then led the group out the door and back up the street to Delia's gate. Mal climbed the front steps and tried the front door. Locked. He moved to the right and climbed into Delia's living room through the broken picture window. Jayne and Zoe followed through the front door, which Mal unlocked. "We're...gonna give you some time." Chang said. "We'll be right out here." Carruthers bugged his eyes at Chang, but he stayed on Delia's front porch with Chang. --------------------------------- As they entered the living room, glass crunched under foot from the window. Lively music grotesquely filled the house with life that no longer seemed appropriate. Mal walked into the dining room and punched the button on the wall. The music ended abruptly. He looked around as Zoe and Jayne entered the room behind him. Delia's last meal lay on the table. Chicken and rice stuck to the plate. Her wine glass was tipped over, it's drying contents sticky on the table. Rice and glass mixed on the floor. "Blood" Zoe said, pointing to small droplets on the chair. "She was eating when the attack came." Mal observed. "Where's the blood from?" Jayne asked. Mal shrugged and walked back into the living room. He immediately saw a bloody hand print on the far wall near the staircase. Zoe approached behind him and saw the wall. She reached out and spread her right hand above the stain. They were nearly identical. "Delia's hand." she murmured. The three climbed the stairs to the second level and spread out. Nothing appeared to be disturbed. The sewing room. The guest room. The bathroom. On the third level Mal discovered where the violence had erupted. In the middle of the hall, two large bloodstains bloomed on the carpet. There were burn marks as well, evidence of laser fire on the rug. Mal walked over the stains and into Delia's bedroom. On the bed, he spied two empty .44 gauge ammo boxes. He opened the closet and saw Delia's .44 shotgun was missing. He glanced at her bureau, and saw Rosie was also missing from her usual spot when Delia didn't have her. Zoe walked behind him and entered the bathroom. Delia's jade robe lay across the bed. Mal picked it up and brought it to his face. He smelled her perfume. It was as if she had just taken it off. He let the silky fabric slide from his fingers back onto the bed. As he turned to leave, something on the floor near the bed skirt caught his eye. Mal bent down and retrieved a large shard of glass, stained with blood. "Here's where the blood from downstairs came from. She musta been hit by the flying glass." "So what do we know?" Zoe asked. Jayne wandered around the room as Mal spoke. "Delia was eating dinner when the attack started. Listening to music. The picture window blows out. Glass hits Delia and she gets injured. She runs upstairs to get her guns. She loads the shotgun. This glass falls out of her arm or back." Mal summarized. "She looked out from this here window." Jayne said, pointing to blood on the casement. Mal walked over to the window and looked out. He tried to see what Delia had seen. "She sees Reavers. Some get in the house and she shoots them. But where is she?" Mal asked. They were silent for a few long seconds before Mal realized Zoe would know the answer to his next question. "Zo, think about what you would do if you were Delia. What would be your next move?" Jayne walked out into the hall as Zoe answered the question. "Two options from what I can see. Run and hide, as far from here as possible. But if I couldn't run, if I was cornered, I'd find the most defensible position and make my stand." Mal saw Jayne crouched in front of the bloodstains in the hall. He walked to Jayne and muttered Zoe's words under his breath. "The most defensible position." Jayne reached over and touched a burn mark next to him. "Delia's a fine shot. Why'd she fire Rosie into the ground? If she were firin' from her bedroom, wouldn't the mark be on the back wall?" Jayne wondered aloud. Mal looked at Jayne, realizing the logic was right. Burn marks on the floor? Jayne stood up from his crouch and glanced around. It was when he looked up that he saw it. Jayne silently pointed upwards. Mal looked to the ceiling and saw the attic trap door, it's pull cord lightly stained with blood. "The most defensible position." Zoe breathed behind Mal. Jayne reached up and pulled the string. The attic door swung down, and stairs unfolded before him. Zoe reached over and flicked switches on the wall until the attic light came on. The attic held anticipated items - boxes, clothing racks, and furniture. But, not Delia's body. The three silently observed the site of Delia's final stand. A bloodstain marked the floor. Delia's shotgun was on the floor, discarded. No sign of Rosie. Mal closed his eyes and swept his hands through his hair. This was where Delia had died. "There's blood on this window frame. She watched from here, too." Zoe said. "Kinda small for a killin' shot." Jayne said to himself as he looked at the blood on the floor. "What are we missin'?" Mal yelled in frustration. If Delia died here, her body should be here. He looked at the floor for a moment, then cocked his head slightly. It was on his chest. It the size of a gold credit. A circle of light illuminated his left side. Mal looked up to find a matching hole high in the roof above the trap door opening. "Jayne, go down and hit that light off." Mal said urgently. As the light flicked off, Mal looked from his chest to the ceiling. A perfect shaft of light. A bullet hole along the roof line. Mal looked behind him; the ray of light would have gone out the window had his chest not stopped it. "Jayne, aim your gun up the stairs." Zoe said as she looked down the stairs at him. "Mal, he couldn't make that hole unless he was at the top of the stairs and shot straight up and back." Mal shook his head as the facts slowly filtered through his mind. The blood on the floor. The shaft of light. Delia fighting for her life. He raised his hand to the shaft of light, where it glowed brightly in his palm. "Jayne turn the light back on." Mal said. "She was here. Near this window. She was shooting down the stairs, at the Reavers. She fires and hits the floor, hits them. Then, someone shot her through the attic window from the street below. Bullet goes through her, hits the roof. She fell. Here. Gorramit, where's her body?" "Three bloodstains. Two Reavers. Why would they take her from here?" Zoe asked. As she asked, she walked to Mal. Her boot made contact with something that crunched slightly. She bent over and retrieved it. Zoe held out her hand to Mal, Delia's hair comb in her palm. Mal lightly touched the comb's edge, then plucked it from her hand. "She fought. They shot her. They took her." Mal said. "Reavers make dead bodies. They don't take prisoners." Zoe answered. "They kill. They take what they want. They leave." Mal agreed. "Why would they want Delia?" Zoe asked. "And Karen?" Jayne added. Mal turned his head slowly to stare at Jayne. Delia...Karen...Reavers. Killing. They take what they want. "Oh, no." Mal breathed. He was scared at his next thoughts. For Delia, and for what it could mean for the 'verse. If he was right...he prayed Delia was dead. "We need to talk to Captain Miller again." Mal concluded fiercely. ------------------------------ Back at the morgue, Hank stood talking to Miller on the stage. At the sound of the approaching footsteps, Miller looked up and scrunched his nose, which inched his glasses back into place. ""We ID'd 14 more, with Hank's help." Miller noted. "Captain, of the ones not ID'd, how many are women? "Six" Miller replied. "Old or young?" "I think most are older." Miller said, as he scanned his tablet. "All six appear to be over 40." "How many women are unaccounted for? Like Delia and Karen?" Mal asked insistently. "Against last year's census...maybe 10 women." "Ten women unaccounted, minus the 6 here, is 4 missing." Mal said. "Four missing..." Miller repeated, then jerked his head in understanding. Reavers don't take captives...or at least they had never done so before. Miller nodded his head. He could see Mal's train of thought and followed it. "Hank, how many women under 40 lived in Stapleton proper? Not counting children but counting say...teenage girls?" Miller asked as he looked at Mal, who nodded several times. "I'd say 15 or so" Hank answered. "Hank, start at Delia's house and work your way around town. Name every woman you can name who lived in town who fits that age range." Mal urged. As Hank began reeling off names, Miller cross checked the women against his lists. When Hank was done, Miller pressed a few buttons and the tablet compiled four names still unaccounted. Veronica Chao, aged 17 Karen Cortland, aged 25 Delia Hammond, aged 33 Rebecca Lockmun, aged 28 "They took these four with them." Mal said softly. "Why? Reavers don't leave survivors. You said it yourself. Reavers take what they want and go." Jayne asked. "They came for women. They got women." Mal said somberly. "Oh, Gods. They wanted women. For breeding." Miller whispered. "Breeding!" Jayne yelled. Zoe closed her eyes to control the wave of nausea that she felt rising. "I need to talk to the person in charge of the Newton scene...see if any of the women in that town are missing. New Amsterdam on Kratos, too." Miller murmured. "On Kratos it was a Lieutenant Sommers. " Mal offered. "How did you know that?" "My ship picked up a body from the scene and took it to Ariel. New Amsterdam was a mining town. Doubt there were many women there." Mal explained. Miller pulled his tablet from his pocket and walked off the stage to the front row of seats in the theater. He turned and sat down heavily, deep in thought. His own records, along with Alliance records should tell him everything he needed to know. "If Delia is alive, taken by the Reavers...how can we get her back?" Zoe asked. "I don't know." Mal admitted. "'Sides shootin' 'em from the sky, I don't know." Jayne rubbed his cheeks in frustration. Karen might be alive, gettin' raped halfway to Sunday by a Reaver...and there was nothin' he could do about it. "I hope she kills 'em all." Mal said softly. "The Reavers?" "No. I hope Delia kills the women with her then turns Rosie on herself." -------------------------------

"If they wanted women for...breeding...why did they take Karen and not Kimi?" "Genetics" Miller said, looking up from his tablet. All three turned to look at Miller sitting below them. "Kimi and Karen were identical. They'd want as broad a gene pool as possible. From their pictures, the four women are as different as can be. Karen is a tall blonde. Delia is a fair red head. Veronica is Asiatic. Rebecca is brunette with dark skin. They would only want one tall blonde. No need for two. It shows some clear forethought. Some Reaver - maybe a leader of some sort - told the raiders exactly what to look for." "Shopping for women." Zoe spat with venom in her tone. "Looks like 3 women are missing in Newton. I'm tryin' to pull their profiles now. See how they match our missing women. New Amsterdam is missing one woman. I've sent a wave to the contingent in Newton, outlining our suspicions." Miller said. "So what do we do now?" Jayne asked Mal. "We'll bury Harlan and Kimi. After that..." "I was right. The three women on Whitefall that are missing are also genetically different. One is black, she looks like Zoe, but darker- 19 years old.. One is white, a fair brunette, 22 years old. The last looks to be a bit older...another brunette. No age given. The woman from Kratos is Eurasian...28 years old. " Miller said as he scanned the tablet. "Eight women on the Reaver ship makin' babies." Mal said painfully. "Maybe not." Miller said, as he stood up. "Huh?" Miller looked around the room to be sure there was no one else to hear his next words except Mal and his crew. "It's long been suspected that the Reavers have an encampment somewhere on the outer rim. The Alliance has been tracking the Reavers for quite some time. Mapping attacks, trying to pin them down. I've been on the Reaver team for over a year now. We got close a year ago, outside of Canaan on Pacquin. We found an abandoned camp site, on the edge of the Northern desert....missed them by maybe two days, tops. They move around, never in the same place for long. They could be taking the women to the outer rim." Miller said quietly. "Makes sense. The Alliance doesn't patrol much out there, though." Zoe said. "My team has been urging for increased presence for months." Suddenly, Mal realized why Miller acted so differently than every other officious Alliance prick he had ever met. "You're not Alliance, are you." Mal said. It was a statement, not a question. -----------------------------------

Miller exhaled a short, clipped laugh. "When the Alliance couldn't protect the outer settlements, they turned to some private contractors for help. Scientists. Engineers. Cultural anthropologists. Anyone who would give them a leg up on the problem. A team was formed. We track them. We work independently. Not for the Alliance, but with them." Miller said. "And which are you?" Zoe asked. "I'm a scientist. I've been compiling intel on the Reavers for a while now." "But you didn't see them breeding." Mal said. "No. Caught me completely off guard. I'm not surprised, though. I knew they were starting to set up moon bound camps. Means they're changing, evolving. A breeding program fits hand in hand with this. I've never heard of women among the Reavers. It's all men. They'd have to kidnap women to breed with." "You mean rape." Zoe said bitterly. "Of course I do. No woman in her right mind would willingly lie with a Reaver." Mal walked to the edge of the stage and sat down, his legs dangling down over the edge. His knuckles turned white as he gripped the edge firmly. He felt defeated yet angered by the thought of Delia possibly alive, somewhere in the Universe. Captain Miller walked over to Mal and crouched down beside him. "I can help you. We can help each other. You're not alone on this, you know." Mal looked over at Miller with a grim, determined look. "What are you gonna do?" Miller asked. "Well..." Mal cleared this throat "We'll bury Harlan and Kimi. Then, you're gonna tell us where to start looking for Delia." Zoe said, behind Miller. Miller pivoted on his heel and looked back at Zoe. Mal jumped down from the edge of the stage and began to walk up the aisle out of the theater. He walked out of the theater and into the brilliant sunshine without a word. ---------------------------------

Zoe, Jayne and Hank boarded Serenity just as Mal put his hands up in a gesture of defeat and walked silently up the stairs to the crew quarters. He left his crew in the cargo hold with many unanswered questions. "What happened?" Kaylee asked, desperately. "Delia and Karen are missing...not among the dead. Kimi and Harlan are dead." Zoe said, and recounted the afternoon's events for the horrified crew. The Reavers. The hole in the roof. The dead bodies. Breeding. Captain Miller. "How is Mal doing? He wouldn't say anything." Inara said. "He's...he's not taking this too well. " Zoe said simply. "What can we do?" Wash asked. "We're gonna smoke them Reavers." Jayne replied. -------------------------------------- They stood in a semi-circle in front of the two open graves. Preacher Book was at the head of the graves, and addressed those assembled for the funeral. "We are gathered here to honor the memory of our friends and loved ones. Kimberly Cortland and Harlan Jacobs. Two Children of God struck down by barbarism in an unstable Universe. It is painful to think of suffering, and to know that those we held close died in vain. Comfort is to be had not here, not right now in my words. Your comfort will come at a time when you remember Kimi or Harlan. Perhaps a moment in time frozen forever. Harlan arresting Jayne. Kimi at the Marksville dance, in that beautiful blue dress. Harlan protecting the town he swore to keep from harm. It is in remembrance that we keep alive the gift our friends gave to us. Their kindness. Their beauty. Their humor. Themselves. Mourn their passing now. Later, be grateful for the chance to have shared in their lives. Be thankful to have linked yourself forever with two people as good as Kimi and Harlan. For they can warm your heart in was you cannot imagine in times to come, far away from here. Their physical bodies may be forever on Europa, but their souls reside with us, forever." -------------------------------- Wash took Zoe's hand as they walked back to Serenity behind the town. The prairie grass was beginning to wilt. The short Europan Autumn was in the offing. Wash clenched Zoe's hand tightly. She glanced at him occasionally, but they walked back to Serenity in silence. ---------------------------- Behind them, Kaylee and Inara walked on either side of Preacher Book. "That was real pretty, Preacher." Kaylee said quietly. The prairie grass caught at Inara's skirt, making whooshing sounds as she walked. She reached out her left hand and raised her hem slightly. The day's events had made her introspective; she had few words to express the sadness she felt...for Mal. ----------------------------- Jayne walked back to Serenity after covering Harlan and Kimi's coffins with dirt. Hank had offered to help, but Jayne insisted on doing it himself. He struggled for a moment, lifting dirt by the shovelful back into the open graves. Soon, he developed a slow rhythm that plowed his pain into the soil. As the last shovel was placed, he straightened up slowly. Jayne handed the shovel back to Harlan and turned from the graves and back to Serenity. ------------------------------- Mal sat in the grass a distance away. After Preacher's words, he had walked away from the crew to think about the day. He watched Jayne's work emotionlessly. He had come to see Jayne as a friend, but Mal couldn't see past his own pain to feel anything for Jayne. Delia was not here. Delia was kidnapped. Delia was gone. Delia was probably dead. Mal looked down at the grass between his legs and pulled a plug from the ground. The sweet smelling, rolling prairies of Europa had disappeared. This was now just another moon. He stared at the grass in his hand for a moment, then tossed it casually away. It meant nothing to him now. Delia was gone. Mal raised his head slightly to the sound of footsteps in front of him. Black boots were a few feet away. He followed them up to see Captain Miller, blocking the sun. ---------------------------- "You alright?" Miller asked. Mal shrugged and looked away. This man didn't know him. He certainly wasn't going to open up to him. Miller sat down in the grass next to Mal. "I was thinking...if they took these women for a purpose, they are more than likely alive. The raiders are probably under orders to bring young women back unharmed. If they were hurt, they wouldn't be able to breed." "Nice thought." Mal said tersely. "What I mean is, you have a good chance of finding Delia alive. I read her record while you were gone. If anyone in the 'verse could survive being captured by Reavers, it's Delia Hammond." "I once saw a man 'spared' by the Reavers. He went insane. Delia once told me she was surprised she was still sane after comin' outta Carthage. Don't think she'll be right if I do find her alive. After the Reavers. " Miller looked down at the grass, and digested this new development. He reached into his pocket and fished out a piece of paper. He handed it to Mal. "It's my wave address. You keep me posted 'bout where you are and what you find. I promise to share what I have with you, too." "She and I weren't married." Mal said quietly. "I know." Mal got up from the ground and brushed the grass seed from his pants. Miller rose as well and turned to face Mal. He looked at Captain Miller and smiled grimly. Miller stuck out his hand and the two men shook briefly. With a silent agreement, the two men walked in opposite directions. Miller walked back into town towards the theater. Mal returned to Delia's house. -------------------------- Mal walked back onto Serenity as the sun began to set in Stapleton. In his hands, he had a small canvas tote bag. It was zippered closed. Hank and Book were in the cargo hold, talking on the stairs. "Hey, Captain Reynolds. Can I talk to ya?" Hank asked. "'Course. Let me stow this real quick. We're gonna have to take off soon. Let's go over to Delia's office." Mal dodged Hank and Book on the back stairs and climbed up to his quarters. The bag would have to wait for later. --------------------------- In Delia's office, Mal reached over and pressed the button that ended the solid holographic picture covering Delia's safe. "How much is in here?" Mal asked. "Last week, maybe 140,000 credits." "How much do you need to run the market for a few months?" "Since the hands are gone...maybe 2 or 3,000 credits a month. Less since most in town are gone. "Good. I'm gonna write Delia an IOU for 50,000 credits. I need to get Serenity retrofitted if I'm gonna take on a Reaver ship." "Since Delia has no children, no brothers or sisters...what'll happen to the market?" Hank asked, his hat in his hands. "You'll run the market. Same as always. I'm gonna bring Delia back, one way or another. She'd want it to be open with or without her. You know that." Mal said seriously. "But you should get the market. You and she were as close as husband and wife..." "For now, just run the market. Stapleton'll need it to get back on it's feet." Mal said. "Will do. Anything else?" "Yeah. Get the carpet on the third floor replaced. Delia'll have a fit when she comes back to find blood on her carpet." Hank looked to Mal with a slight smile. Hank opened the safe and reached in to withdraw the money Captain Reynolds had requested. He placed it inside one of the market's paper sacks and handed it to Mal. "I don't think Miss Delia'll mind you usin' the money to get her back." Hank said. "Just...keep everything else like it is. Clean up the kitchen and the bloodstains. But leave everything else as it is." Mal requested. Mal and Hank turned and walked out of the market and stood on the path that led back to Serenity. "Well, you're home now." Mal said. "Not many people left. It'll be quiet here till more folks come to settle. That's another thing. Europa'll be giving away land in and around Stapleton to anyone willing to forget a Reaver attack happened." Mal looked at Hank with a surprised look, then glanced to Serenity, where Zoe and Wash stood in front of the cargo door, talking to Kaylee. "You wave me when that happens. I think that's somethin' I'd like to get in on." Mal and Hank shook hands briefly. "You let me know if you need anything. I'll keep you posted 'bout Delia." Mal said. ------------------------------ A few minutes later, Mal entered the bridge to find Wash back in his chair and Zoe leaning on the nav...just as if nothing had happened. "Are we heading to the outer rim?" Wash asked. "No. Althos Spaceport." Zoe smiled grimly next to Wash. "I borrowed money from Delia's safe to get the ship retrofitted with a munitions battery." "One or two?" Zoe asked. "Two....You ever fly and shoot at the same time?" Mal asked. "Me? I'm lucky I can chew gum and walk upright at the same time." Wash joked. "Maybe we can get the controls separate from the steering. A pilot and a gunner." Zoe said. Mal nodded. It was a good idea. "I'm not gonna go after Reavers without some way of defending myself." Mal said. "Won't a Firefly rigged for war attract a little attention?" Wash asked. "Don't care. Not 'gainst the laws to arm yourself." Mal leaned over and grabbed the intership com. "Attention, everyone. Let's meet in the Mess in 15 minutes. " ------------------------------

"When you all signed on to Serenity, it was as a hauling crew. Above and below board. We've been in some scrapes, and we've had some good times. Well, times have turned again. I plan on havin' Serenity retrofitted at Althos with munitions. I'm gonna go find Delia and the rest of the women. I want you all to think on whether or not you want to stay on Serenity. 'Specially you, Inara. We'll be going pretty far out on the rim. I need to go where the Reavers are. That means I can't guarantee your safety. I won't hold it 'gainst anyone who chooses not to stay. I understand. That's why I'm asking you all to think on this." Mal looked around the room at his crew, assembled around the Mess table. Their somber faces said it all. They were taking him seriously. "I don't want anyone to give me an answer now. Y'all have 24 hours before we reach Althos. " ----------------------------------

"What do you think?" Wash asked. "I want to stay. I want to get Delia back." Zoe said. "I want that, too. I also like breathing." Zoe looked to her husband who had a scared look on his face. "I trust Mal. Do you?" Wash was silent for a moment before he answered in a well measured reply. "I trust that you trust him. I just wonder whether his judgement may be cloudy 'cause of emotions runnin' so high." Zoe bowed her head slightly. Every once in a while, her man had a point. "We had started building a dream of a life on Europa. A life that included Mal and Delia. You and I both know chances are pretty slim Delia is still alive. Maybe...maybe we should move on. Build our post Serenity life not factoring in Mal and Delia. You and I are still alive. We have a chance." Wash said carefully. Zoe bit her lip and stared at the opposite side of their bunk. So much to think on. ----------------------------------- "Inara, when you leave, I want you to take the shuttle. You'll be able to come and go when you please, wherever you decide to go." Mal said firmly. Inara smiled thinly at Mal's offer. "I haven't decided what to do." "I don't want you to stay. I want you to take Kaylee and go." "Kaylee won't leave you." "That's why you're gonna take her." "I can't..." "Can't what? Save your skin? Leave Serenity? What?" "I can't leave you." Mal exhaled softly. After all they had been through. "I appreciate you feelin' loyal. I know I've been real clear on the point I don't consider you part of the crew. Not that I don't care for you. You know I do. I don't want you puttin' yourself in danger over loyalty. This is Serenity's fight. Not yours." "But Mal, I am Serenity. We are all Serenity." ------------------------------------ 58,620 credits. Mal sat on the edge of his bed and counted Serenity's purse. If Zoe was right, and double munitions cost 12,500 they would be just fine. Might even be able to upgrade from low level lasers to something much better. "Cap, come to the Mess." Kaylee called through the intercom. Mal looked up from his footlocker and up to the speaker. He frowned slightly. He secured the money back in his footlocker and left his bunk. In the Mess, the crew was again assembled around the table. "What's goin' on?" Mal asked warily. "You still got nearly a day to give me your answers." Mal sat down at the head of the table and faced his crew. "Mal, we've been talking. Most of us aren't crazy about going after the Reavers. But, we've all decided to stay with Serenity." Zoe said, speaking for the crew. Mal looked around the table at his friends, He was greeted with smiles of encouragement. "I'm thankful. I'll need you all to get Delia back. I can't do this myself. But I don't want you guys to be in harm's way." "We've been in harm's way before. You've always seen us through." Book said simply. ---------------------------------- Back in his bunk, Mal opened the canvas bag slowly. He closed his eyes and saw Delia in her kitchen that first morning. Eating toast, reading her tablet, ignoring him. She got up and her jade robe trailed behind her as she left the room. He saw her out on the deck, that second night. She pushed aside her robe to reveal her breast. Over and over, memories of Delia came flooding back. In her bathroom. Out on the deck, early morning, getting into the hot tub. Each time her memory came to him, he saw the same thing. Mal stood up and retrieved Delia's jade robe from the canvas bag. He shook it slightly and the silk shimmered in the low light. Mal raised it to his face and brushed it lightly against his cheek. Carefully, he folded the robe into a plastic bag and put it into his footlocker. He turned back to the canvas bag and reached into the bottom. He walked over to the statue of Buddha on his desk and placed Delia's POW medallion into Buddha's lap, next to her hair comb.

COMMENTS

Thursday, June 9, 2005 7:30 AM

AMDOBELL


Excellent, can't wait for more! My only gripe would be you having Kaylee lash out at Mal for drinking when it was believed Delia was dead. Kaylee is a much finer person that that and her love and loyalty to the Captain would not turn her so mean at such a painful time. The first part where she wants to comfort him is the Kaylee we know and love. I love how the whole crew is preparing to go into Reaver territory to get Delia and the other women back and it was very touching to see how affected Jayne was. Nice touch having the Preacher offer to say words over the graves. I also liked Captain Miller and how Delia fought back is so in keeping with the spirited gutsy lady you have created. Very shiny, Ali D :~)
You can't take the sky from me

Thursday, June 9, 2005 7:50 AM

MAVOURNEEN


Thanks...Please read my post for more info. But on Kaylee's reaction, remember she's been seeing Delia as a mother figure for a while. Kaylee's no dummy either- she knows Delia is dead ...while Mal's instinct to shut out the truth is to get drunk, I see Kaylee "defense mechanism" as anger. Anger at Mal for not "making" Delia live on Serenity with them. Anger at herself, knowing she herself wouldn't have been able to stay alive against the Reavers. Kaylee doesn't want to admit the truth that those around her are acknowledging...however they express it.
-Maura

Thursday, June 9, 2005 10:53 AM

NUTLUCK


Just a little something of a minor critic. a .44 is a measurment for most rifles and hand guns in the US and is a very big round. But shotguns are rated in gauges which is totally diffrent. A .44 cal would actually be a very small shotgun, normally as I said they are rated in gagues the most common being.
20 gauge which is a small game one
16 gauge also typicall a hunting one
12 gauge is the common size used by the police and military
final a 10 gauge which is huge and not rightly sure what they use them for as they are huge.

Anyways just thought I would share since you mentioned Delia's shotgun being a .44

Tuesday, September 6, 2005 6:04 AM

MAVOURNEEN


Hi Anonymous from Tuesday the 6th...

I can appreciate your comments. I hope you read my blog "Thanks for the Warm Fuzzies"

I've definitely acknowledged the Mary-Sue factor, but I really made a point of keeping myself out of Delia. I saw that the woman who held Mal's attention would have to be well liked by the crew, as they are his family. She's strong, too. My friend said Delia is "Betty Crocker with laser sights." That made me laugh, but I don't think she's perfect. She is flawed, just as damaged by the war as Mal is. Funny, everyone presented by the show has been damaged by the war...except for Zoe.

The overwhelmingly positive feedback I've gotten from this series has been great...but I want to nod to the occasional negative, too. Don't think "methinks the lady doth protest too much"
I can see what you are seeing.
But hell...you liked the series enough to read all six! That says something.

Wednesday, October 4, 2006 9:00 AM

NOTMANDATORY


I'm disappointed...that this is the last of this series. Please, write again soon.

Fav part: Mal, Jayne & Zoe in Delia's house, and also in the theater. I could see the scenes in my mind's eye like it was a movie.


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