Disclaimer: Firefly and all related elements, characters and indicia © Mutant Enemy Productions and 20th Century Fox Television, 2003. All Rights Reserved. All characters and situations—save those created by the authors for use solely on this website—are copyright Mutant Enemy Productions and 20th Century Fox Television.

Please do not archive or distribute without author's permission.

Author's Note: This story contains mature themes, including sexual violence. Proceed with caution.

Acknowledgements: Huge huge thank yous to all my betas, especially amilynh, Amy the browncoat, Dangermom, LiquidEyes, BK, annieM, maystone, Harri Vane, Yahtzee, and the entire Lj crowd who provided encouragement during the almost four month gestation period. Extra special thanks to amilynh for excellent help with research, scrunchy for letting me 'watch' her read the various drafts over IM. Could not have done it without you all.

Lex Talionis
by LJC

And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life,
Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,
Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

—Exodus 21:23-25

Part I

There was darkness, and pain, and voices.


No. No, no, no, no...

Wôde tìan, Kaylee!


It's going to be okay, mèimei. Kaylee? Can she hear me?

There's so much blood.

Kaylee, can you hear me? C'mon, open your eyes. Stay with me, xin gan. Kaylee? Can you—

"—hear me? Kaylee!" Margaret Frye's voice cut through the summer birdsong as she stood out on the front porch, hands cupped around her mouth so her voice would carry. "Dammit, where is that girl..."

She smoothed her cotton dress down over her hips for the eighth time and resisted the urge to check her chrono yet again. By now, three generations of Fryes, Carters, Neelans and Mitchells would be gathering at the church just north of Riverside. Waiting on the three of them and probably gossiping up a storm. With a sigh, she stepped down off the porch, out into the yard. "Kaylee! I ain't gonna call you again, girl!"

"I'm here!" Kaylee called down from the tree house her daddy had built her brothers before she was even born.

Margaret stood at the base of the old oak tree, fists resting on her hips as her youngest daughter started backwards down the ladder, something clutched against her chest. "Kaywinnet Lee Frye, I have been calling you for the last ten minutes!"

"Sorry, Mamma."

Meg sighed, exasperated, as she took in Kaylee's grubby overalls and grease-stained fingers. "Why ain't you ready? We're s'posed to leave—"

"I didn't want to muss up my dress," she shrugged. "I'll go get ready—"

"What have you got there?"

"Just Uncle Cal's compressor, for the mule."

"What in God's name are you doing with that? Your daddy told Cal the damn thing was done for—"

"No, it ain't. I can fix it." Child was puffed up with pride, and it was eerie at times, seeing such a tiny mite of a thing so purposeful.

"You're never gonna get the grease from under your nails; Sherry's gonna never let me hear the end of it," she said with a sigh, taking it from her, frowning as she placed it—still wrapped in the soft grey cloth—on the table next to the porch swing. There was still a glass half full of lemonade, the ice melted into it, sitting there. Water beaded on the side of it, making a ring on the hard plastic tabletop. "You scrub 'em as hard as you can, you hear me? Your daddy's on his way to pick us up."

"But the 'pressor!"

"You leave that here with me. Your father would tan your hide, he knew you'd been rooting around in his workshop again."

She bussed her mother's cheek with a kiss. "Just tell him not to throw it 'way!"

"We are gonna be late to the church, and you know how Grams is about folks skulking in late to a Christening."

"I know, I just thought I'd get it done 'fore it was time to go."

"No excuses, now! You just go clean up and put on the dress I laid out for you on your bed. You can wear the bracelet Tallie gave you for your birthday. You bring it down, and I'll do up the clasp. Now git!"

Meg smacked Kaylee on the bottom as she scampered inside to get cleaned up, long braids bobbing behind her. She'd been towheaded as a baby, and summers spent in the sun had made it blaze almost white. The last year or so it had come in darker, and it looked now like she'd have brown hair like her daddy. He'd been blond as a baby too; Meg had seen the vids. Only the boys had inherited Meg's frizzy orange curls.

She sighed as she looked down at the mess of parts that together would keep her brother's mule going for another month.

When Tallie, her eldest daughter, was eleven years old, it had been dolls, ribbons and bows, and boys. Middle girl, Sasha, she'd had her head in a book and you couldn't drag her out of one unless the house was on fire. And even then, it was a struggle. Then there'd been the three boys, and Meg had longed for the simple problems of two girls under the same roof, fighting over the bathroom, hair bobs, or screentime on the cortex.

Kaywinnet had been a surprise. In every way. There was ten years between Kyle and Kaylee, and Meg hadn't thought she could even have another child by the time Kaylee had come along.

Ever since she could crawl, it was all Margaret and Ephram could do to keep the girl's hands out of her daddy's toolbox. Sam and Kyle, who had worked with their daddy since they were old enough to finish primary school and were the best mechanics in the shop next to their father, didn't have half the natural talent that Kaylee had been born with. Ephram said that day in and day out, as they crawled into their bed at night, waiting for the rest of the house to quiet down, all the young'uns tucked in—and windows bolted from the outside to keep 'em in, in some cases.

Kaylee had a rare gift. She could as much as look at a thing that was broke, see what was wrong with it, and half the time patch it right up—spares or no spares. And her not even twelve yet. If she spent half her time at school actually learning her maths and letters, rather than sketching engine diagrams in the margins of her textbooks, she could go to any Academy on Zephyr. The girl was whip-smart. But all she seemed to care about were machines, and how to best set them to rights.

She still remembered when the school had called her in on her lunch one day. She'd hightailed it from the factory to the clutch of white buildings that the primary school had overflowed into years ago—temporary buildings that had somehow gotten to be permanent, and were falling to bits all around them. She'd been sick with worry that something had happened to her baby, her youngest, and the apple of her eye.

There had been nine-year-old Kaylee, her flowered dress tore in three places, braids all askew, standing in front of the vice principal's desk. While Meg could do nothing but gape, her baby carefully explained, as if to a child, how the air conditioning unit in the teacher's lounge was malfunctioning—leaking into the maintenance closet on the first floor—and that the fire that hadn't started would have made a right mess of stuff if she hadn't caught it.

A janitor had found her in the closet when she was supposed to be in class, up to her elbows in a mess of wiring. They'd called Meg in to reprimand her; only now, they were sitting there thanking her.

Always a surprise, her Kaylee-bird.

She wrapped the compressor more tightly in the cloth, shaking her head as she headed inside the house. She blamed Ephram, of course. He'd taken Kaylee to work with him almost every day when she'd still been working at the factory and couldn't get none of the other kids to mind the baby until Kaylee was old enough to go off to primary with the other tech-rat brats.

Until Grams and Grampap had moved in and took over minding her, Kaylee had grown up a stone's throw from the spaceport, being minded by a rag-tag group of social misfits who kept those flying tin cans in the air. It was all she could do to keep her eyes in her head, when something passed above her, and she'd smile like she was fit to bust.

Meg was gonna lose her baby girl to one of those hulking monstrosities someday. She felt it in her bones.

Simon wasn't going to lose her. Not like this.

That was the mantra he had repeated to himself from the moment they had found her, crumpled in a heap outside the cargo bay doors. Thrown away like trash—like she wasn't a person. Like she didn't matter.

The wounds were fresh; he didn't know how long she'd been unconscious, and that worried him. For all he knew, she could have been lying there, propped against the hull like a broken toy for hours—or minutes. If River hadn't come and found him, dragged him to the cargo bay...

She'd come to on the way to the infirmary. As Jayne had laid her on the table, she'd begun to struggle weakly, hazel eyes filling with tears.

Simon had smoothed her hair back from her face, wiped away her tears gently with his thumb. "It's okay, Kaylee. You're safe. You're on Serenity. No one is going to hurt you. You're safe," he said, trying to soothe her the way he would River during a fit.

He'd gestured for Mal to hand him the smoother, and he had. Without asking why, or even if what he was doing was the right thing to do. The hypo had hissed against her neck, and then her eyes had mercifully closed, tears leaving tracks through the blood and dirt before they were swallowed by her hair.

He'd asked them all to leave. They'd gone. They hadn't been happy about it, but they'd gone.

He'd cut away the ripped and bloody coverall, placing it and what remained of Kaylee's shirt in a paper sack that now sat on the counter. There were bloody handprints on it, but his hands were clean now. His shirtsleeves were rolled up and his hands were scrubbed pink and encased in gloves as he carefully cleaned each wound with antiseptic, bandaging and sewing as he went. He'd only gotten a little blood on one cuff. The one red smear was fading to brown now. Just one more bloodstain that might come out in the wash, or might not. He was running out of white shirts that didn't have blood on them—his or someone else's.

It hadn't been Kaylee's in a long time. Such a simple thing to take comfort in. So simple he'd taken it for granted. Sometimes the simplest things could leave the ugliest scars.

He catalogued them all. Every cut. Every bruise. His stomach rolled, threatening to empty itself all over the infirmary floor at the bite marks. The bruises that were already livid purple on her wrists and shoulders, back and thighs. The blood that he carefully washed away from where she'd bitten her lip, the inside of her cheek, her tongue. The blood that had run down her legs and continued to—albeit sluggishly—while he tended to each individual hurt.

He'd taken samples and stored them. That was what you did, cases like this. He'd seen a few of them in the ER. He knew what to do.

He always knew what to do.

Through it all, her eyes had remained closed, her chest rising and falling steadily, the only sign that she was still with him. That she hadn't gone yet.

Inara had brought him some of her clothes: a clean white tee-shirt, and soft flannel trousers with tiny blue flowers, thin in places from being washed so many times. He recognised them—had a sudden flashback to the last time she'd worn them, the two of them lying on his bed on top of the covers, fingers intertwined, talking.

He couldn't lose her. Not like this. He wouldn't. That was what he kept telling himself. As if repeating the words could make it true. As if through sheer force of will, he could fix it all. Make it all better, like a mother kissing a child's skinned knee.

He finally covered her with the softest blankets her could find, brushing her hair back from her forehead tenderly. He'd washed the blood out of it best he could, and it curled against her neck and cheeks.

He opened the infirmary doors and gestured for Mal to come inside before closing the doors again.

The others were outside in the passenger lounge, which was serving for the moment as waiting room. He could see Book and Jayne through the one window he hadn't dimmed during the examination, the former with his head bent in prayer, the latter simply staring straight ahead, something dangerous shining in his eyes. And now that he was paying attention, he could hear Wash's and Zoe's voices through the closed door. They were all worried. They were all frantic. Because it was Kaylee.

He had no idea where River was. That thought jolted him for a moment.

"How is she?" Mal asked, looking grim as death. They were the first words he'd spoken in more than an hour. Since they'd found her.

"No internal bleeding near as I can tell from the scans," he answered as he leaned heavily against the edge of the examination table, the rush of adrenaline wearing off, taking its toll as it fled. "She's got broken ribs, a type 1 pelvic fracture; it's hairline and should heal with bed rest. Two broken fingers on her left hand. I've set and taped them, and the swelling should go down in a few days. And she's lost a tooth, a right molar. But her jaw wasn't broken. That's something, at least. Bruises, shallow cuts, contusions. I've doped her for the pain—"

"She gonna come though?" Mal interrupted him, and he winced.

It was so much easier, just to list every hurt, one by one. Pretend that together, all the pieces didn't make such an ugly picture. Simon was thorough. He knew his job. He knew how to care for his patients.

It was so much easier when it wasn't the woman he was fairly certain he was in love with, lying unconscious on the table.

"There's only so much I can do for her here," he said matter-of-factly.

"Tell me where we need to go, and I'll take us there."

Simon nodded, feeling increasingly numb.



"There's more."

In thirteen-year-old Kaylee Frye's unvarnished opinion, Michael O'Brien was the cutest boy in Riverside.

Kaylee had watched him, the last four weeks, as he and his sisters stood in the back of the church at services. Sweat made his dark blond hair stick to his neck, which was red from hours spent out in the sun, loading cargo onto the big freighters with his daddy and brothers. His eyes were this kind of pale blue, and she bet that up close, there were maybe flecks of gold in them. Because that was how, in the cache of romance novels Sasha had left her when she'd gone off to school, the hero's eyes were always described. Didn't matter what colour they were; there were always flecks of something in them. She itched to get up close enough to see for herself.

She'd helped her mamma and grams set up their corner of the bake sale. Margaret Frye's peach pie was legendary, and Grams' applesauce cake wasn't too shabby neither, especially covered in thick whipped cream. Folks were already starting to line up when Kaylee caught sight of Michael out the corner of her eye, talking to Harb Jenson and his cronies.

Rumour was that Jenson was going off to fight in the war like his daddy and uncle. Half the girls in Riverside were staring at him, heads bent together, whispering. They said that the war would be over soon—but then, they always said that. Heck, they'd said it that first Christmas, and that had been nigh on three years ago, now. It was just somethin' people said, her daddy had told her, because they wished it were so.

Zephyr was split pretty much down the middle, in terms of how folks felt about the war. When you didn't have much to start with, it was easy to see why the Independents had tried to secede, to hold onto what little they had free and clear, her daddy had explained to her when she was old enough to ask where her cousin Charlie had gone. And why he hadn't come back. But the Alliance was good for stuff too—like medicine, and schooling—and there weren't nothing in the 'verse that was just black and white. There was all sorts of shades of grey to trap a man in-between.

Mamma still cried for Charlie, sometimes.

She got herself a cup of punch from the bowl little Nellie Reilly was standing next to, and when she turned, there was Michael O'Brien, standing there with a flimsy paper cup of his own.

"Heya," she said, trying to sound calm and cool even though her tongue felt too big in her head and some of the punch splashed over the side of her cup, sticky sweet juice dripping down the side of her hand. Normally, she'd just lick it off—not wanting to waste a drop. But she just pretended that she hadn't noticed, and prayed he wouldn't either.

"Hey," he said, and smiled. Two of his front teeth were a little crooked, but that only made her stomach tighten with butterflies, because he was smiling at her.

"You're Kay Frye, aren't you?" he asked, taking a sip of his punch.

"Kaylee," she corrected automatically, and felt her cheeks heat up with a flush. "Um... that's what—everybody just calls me Kaylee."

"Sorry, Kaylee," he said, and smiled again. "I've seen you around."

"Yeah, I work with my daddy," she looked around for him, to point him out, but he'd already disappeared—probably to play horseshoes down by the river with her uncles and cousins like he usually did on Sundays. "As a mechanic."

"Yeah, that's what I heard." He took another swallow of punch, and she could see Mary Ellen Parsons and Cassie Rose giving her the glare of death from over by Mrs. Keller's rows of muffins and tarts. Mary Ellen had had her eye on Michael O'Brien ever since his folks had moved to Riverside, and there was gonna be some hair-pulling for sure, next time she and her crew got Kaylee alone in the church hall coat closet. "You really as good as they say you are?"

She took a sip of her punch, turning her back on the girls. "Depends—what they say?"

"That you can re-wire a mule's transmission in seven minutes."

"Naw, that ain't true," she said with a laugh.

"It ain't?" He looked crestfallen.

"Nope." She grinned. "I can do it in five."

"Kaylee!" Grams called from the table, and she glanced back to see both her mamma and grams waving her over to help them out with the line of folks waiting to get their sweets.

She put her half-empty cup down on the edge of the table and wiped her sticky hands on the skirt of her floral print dress. "I gotta—"

"You gonna be at summerfair?" he asked quickly, reaching out to catch her, and she got goose-bumps as his strong brown fingers closed over her tanned forearm.

"I was planning on it, yeah." She tucked her hair behind her ears, suddenly feeling coy. "Why? You, ah, gonna be there?"

"I might."

Yep, his blue eyes had flecks in 'em, all right. Right around the irises there were little bits of gold, like the sun shining in a summer day.

"You gonna save me a dance?" she asked, bold as brass, heart hammering in her ears.

"I might."

"Well, I guess I'll just have to see you there," she said, sauntering past the gossiping girls with a wide grin and a skip in her step.

Mal hadn't seen the punch coming. He had to hand it to the doctor—his right cross was definitely top three percent.

"You son of a bitch," the boy said—softly, so Zoe wouldn't come in, guns blazing. So softly that Kaylee, lying there on the table wouldn't have heard—even had the sound of his fist meeting flesh and bone penetrated her drug-induced slumber. "You rutting bastard," he said, with as much hatred and anger as Mal had ever heard in his voice. But the second punch never came.

Mal wiped the blood away from his mouth with the back of his hand, eyes never leaving Simon's. He slid the doors of the infirmary open and met the anxious faces of his crew.

"Is Kaylee going to be all right?" Wash asked, blond brows furrowed. Zoe was at his side, her hands resting on his shoulders.

"She'll heal," Simon said, his jaw tight.

"Doc did a good job patching her up, she's gonna... She's gonna be okay," he said, avoiding Simon's eyes. "Wash, break atmo. I want us as far away from here as we can get without burning out our engines."

"Sir?" Zoe prompted him. "What about Badger's men—"

Mal swore. He'd forgotten all about the job. That was how shook he was. He'd almost forgotten why they were on Greenleaf in the first place. It had been completely pushed out of his mind by the shock of coming down the stairs and finding Kaylee being carried unconscious into the cargo bay, her hair matted to her face with blood. It was something he had a feeling he'd be seeing every single time he closed his eyes, possibly for the next month.

"We're not waiting for Badger's men," Mal said, making his decision even as the words left his mouth. "We're getting out of here now."

Zoe's gaze was wary. "Badger ain't gonna like that."

She cared about Kaylee as much as he did—maybe even more. But it had always been her job, from day one, to be the voice of reason when his had fled him. So he didn't resent her much for saying what he already knew.

"Badger can go hang. We got our own to be looking after."

"Any particular course...?"

He turned back to Wash. "Just get us the hell off this rock."

Wash, so pale Mal thought he could count his freckles, nodded and with one last squeeze of his wife's hand, headed up the stairs towards the flight deck. His footfalls echoed in the sudden silence.

"What about them that did this?" Jayne asked, and Mal almost started. The big mercenary had been quiet ever since the doc had shooed him out of the infirmary. He'd sat on the lowest step of the metal ladder, passing his bowie knife from hand to hand, a muscle clenching in his jaw.

Mal knew that Jayne had a soft spot for Kaylee—hell, they all did. Waves of fury came off the mercenary like heat, and Mal knew exactly what Jayne wanted to do right now. He knew because he felt it too, ripping through his gut, twisting and burning.

He wanted to kill. It was that simple. He wanted to make it slow, he wanted to make it last, and he wanted to make it as painful as possible. But mostly, he wanted to destroy the bastards who had used and abused an innocent girl who'd never hurt another soul. Who didn't have it in her to hurt a fly, let alone another human being.

"You let me worry on that for now."

"Dammit, Mal—"

"I said leave it, Jayne."

Jayne was a pack animal, and he didn't have it in him—yet—to take Mal. So he backed down. Mal could tell he didn't like it, but he backed down and inside him, something relaxed just that fraction more. The last thing Mal needed right now was for Jayne to push him. Because, state he was in, he might just do something he'd regret. And he needed Jayne.

He needed all of them.

"I need to go change my shirt," Simon said, fiddling with the bloodstained cuff. Mal nodded at him to go ahead, but Simon didn't even seem to see him. The boy looked like Mal felt: wrung out, drained, angry. Mal didn't blame him. Didn't blame him one bit.

"Captain, do you think the doctor would mind it I—if I prayed for her?" Book asked, and Mal bit back an automatic bitter rejoinder. Instead, he nodded and watched as the shepherd pulled up a stool, taking the unconscious girl's hand in his as he bent his head in silent prayer.

Save your prayers for them that did this, Preacher, Mal thought, but didn't say. They're the ones who're gonna need 'em.

"Mal?" Inara followed him out of the passenger lounge, running to catch up to him.

"Inara, this isn't really—"

"I'm not blind," she said simply. "And I'm not stupid."

He should have known he couldn't hide it from her. He felt light-headed, suddenly; like all the air has gone out of him. "She'll be... she'll get through."

Inara stared at him, her dark eyes unreadable. She'd been all dressed up—just come back from an appointment. Now the kohl around her eyes was smudged, the lipstick bitten away, and she had her shawl wrapped around her as if she was chilled to the bone, even though Serenity's E-Cee was regulating the temperature just fine.

"Who are we running from?" she asked, hand on his arm. He looked down at those dark red fingernails, staring before he shook off the comfort of her touch.

"Who said we're running?"

Kaylee ran. Her long legs ate up the distance between the river and the boarding house, but she made sure she was going slow enough that he could still catch her. After all, the whole point was the getting caught. Sure enough, an arm snaked out and got her round the waist just before they hit the front porch.

Wilson wrapped his arms around her, burying his face in her neck, and she squealed as he deposited her on the wooden porch swing, which creaked and groaned in protest, its chains rattling. His beard scraped her jaw as he kissed her—smacking kisses that slowed and changed into long, sensual ones that stole her breath clean away and made her stomach drop like she was in zero-gee.

She'd met him at the shop, like dozens of other pilots in port, waiting for their ships to get set to rights before they headed back out into the black. He'd been hanging around for days, and she'd taken a shine to him. He was older than she was—more than a decade—but his green eyes sparkled with a kid's joy and laughter as she'd shown him around town, arm tucked in his.

Sam and Kyle had ribbed her for days, but her daddy had just scowled. She knew how he felt about her taking up with an older man—which was why she'd told her mamma she was going to spend the day out with Mac at the stables. Her cousin—only six months older, and much more like a sister than the sisters she did have, on account of them being grown and married when she was just a kid—had been more than happy to help with the little subterfuge. It all seemed like a grand romantic adventure, and Kaylee felt like the heroine of some story as Wil swept her up and carried her inside like a bride on her wedding day.

The boarding house kitchen was empty, late afternoon sunlight streaming through the windows and making dust motes dance through the warm spring air. Mrs. Riordan was off at the market, and they hadn't seen hide nor hair of the other boarders all day. She'd dropped back down to her feet, so they could climb the steep wooden staircase to the second floor room Wilson had rented for the night while his ship, a sleek 80-10, was being overhauled down in the port.

They fell on the bed, kissing, and the brightly patterned coverlet got rucked up beneath her shoulder blades as he pushed her back up against the pillows, hands buried in her hair. She fussed with the buttons of her dress impatiently, gasping as his hand found her breast.

She was startled out of her fog of desire by thunderous knocking on the door of Wil's room. She hastily re-buttoned her dress, tugging the skirt back down as he bounded up to answer it, re-fastening his trousers as he went.

"Mrs. Riordan, I'm a little—" he began, and then stepped back as the door flew open.

"You treacherous snake!"

Ephram Frye had his hands around Wilson's throat and looked like he was gonna throttle him. His face was beet red, his sandy hair sticking up, and his eyes were wild.

"Daddy!" She leapt up, trying to pry her father's hands from Wil's throat. "Daddy, stop it!"

"She ain't nothing but a girl, you gorram—" Ephram snarled as Kaylee managed to hold him back long enough for Wil to step backwards and land heavily on the bed, massaging his throat with his fingers.

"Sir, I don't—I didn't—" Wil croaked, and Kaylee got Ephram around the waist as her father lunged for him again.

"Daddy, stop!"

She flinched as he turned on her, his expression thunderous.

"Kaywinnet Lee, you git your ass out to the mule this instant."

"B-Bà bà—" she stammered, eyes wide. She'd never once in her fifteen years seen her father so mad, not even when he'd caught her making out with Mitchell Graves last summer. He'd given her a whupping when his folks had come to fetch him home, but he hadn't been even half so mad as he was now.

"I said now, girl!"

"Pop, please don't hurt him—" she begged.

"Git!" he snapped, grasping her roughly by the arm and half-dragging her out into the hall. She ran down the stairs, half-blinded by tears as she stumbled past a gobsmacked Mrs. Riordan who was unloading a box full of dry goods.

Kaylee sat in the mule, shaking, her eyes fixed on the front door. She had all sorts of terrible images running through her head—each one worse than the last—and tears ran down her cheeks unchecked, making them sting. She wiped her nose on the back of her hand, blinking and hearing muted shouts still from the wooden frame house. She was petrified of her daddy killing Wilson and being carted off to jail by the Feds. Of what her mamma would say, and how they'd manage the shop...

Ephram stomped down the stairs a few minutes later, his face still all red, and his hands balled into fists at his sides. He started up the mule, and they drove all the way home in silence. Kaylee couldn't stop crying, and she was too scared to ask what he'd done to Wilson. His face was like the side of a mountain, features carved of stone.

They pulled up in front of the house, and her mamma was standing on the front porch, arms crossed, looking half as stony as her husband.

"I see you found her," she said, not even meeting Kaylee's eyes.

"Down at Riordan's with that liúmáng from Harlan's ship," he said, and Meg just sighed and went inside. The screen door slammed behind her, and Kaylee still sat on the hard seat of the mule, wiping at her cheeks as her daddy sat down on the porch swing. He motioned for her to come sit beside him, and she stumbled to her feet, feeling light-headed.

The swing creaked and groaned as she sat down, smoothing her dress as best she could. She stared at her shoes, eyes still burning. They just sat for a few minutes, and she finally glanced up warily from beneath her lashes at her father.

He looked so tired. So much older than he'd ever looked before.

"Kaylee, how old are you?"

"Fifteen, you know that, Pop. My birthday was two months back."

"Do you know how old that man you was with is?"

"Older'n me," she said, her voice very small. She was tall for her age; could pass for eighteen, maybe even twenty, she get herself all dolled up. She'd never told Wilson how old she actually was.

"Do you understand that it ain't right for a man that age—more'n ten years older'n you—to take up with a girl? Do you understand that what he did—"

"Daddy, he didn't do nothing!"

"Only 'cause Mac told me where you was. If I'da gotten there an hour later—don't you lie to me, Kaywinnet. I know what you was about."

"I'm sorry, Pop."

"No, you ain't. But you will be. Now you listen to me, Kaylee Frye, and you listen good, 'cause I am only gonna say this once. You got yourself a gift. A natural talent."

She opened her mouth to say something, but he held up a hand for silence.

"And you get yourself in trouble by some shiny pilot and end up an indentured servant living on some border planet, with six brats and a husband you'd never see except when his ship was in port—you are throwing that gift away and spitting in the eye of the God who gave it to you."

She started to cry again, holding in her sobs as best she could as he took her hand in his.

"Kaylee-bird, you got a mess of cousins all in the same sorry state, and you are headed down that same road. Getting all ahead of yourself. Do you understand me, girl? You have a gift. And I'll be damned if I'm gonna see you end up some gutter trash, wasting what the good Lord gave you. You're better'n that. You hear me?"

"Yes, sir," she said, wiping her nose on her sleeve.

"Now you go get cleaned up, and help your mamma with supper."

"You ain't gonna whup me?"

"I just beat the hell outta a man half my age; that's all the whupping I can do in a day."

"I'm sorry, Bà bà," she said softly.

"You show me you're sorry by never getting mixed up in a mess like this again, dong ma?"

She went inside, but not before she saw her daddy start to cry, sitting there on the front porch on a Sunday evening, the sun blazing down and casting long shadows on the lawn.

Simon sat on the end of his bunk heavily. The bloodstained shirt slipped from his fingers, landing in a heap on the floor. He stared down at his knuckles, where the blood oozed from where the skin had broken against Mal's teeth. Just stared.

"There's DNA evidence. We can find whoever did this, prosecute them—" Simon had said, almost rambling, and Mal had shook his head.

"I know who did this."

A hand fell on his shoulder, and he started. But it was only River, dark eyes wide in her pale face half-hidden by her hair. He wondered for a moment where she had been; he couldn't remember seeing her in the lounge. He should have gone to look for her, tell her himself what had happened. Kaylee was her friend. She must have been worried.

"Put on a brave face, so no one saw," she said softly, her fingers tightening on his shoulder. "No cracks. No eggshells."

"River..." he rasped, his voice barely above a whisper.

She was frowning, her dark eyes shining with her own unshed tears. "Hands where you'd been—hurting and twisting. Teeth, and hands, and other things. And so much hurt, and so much pain."

Everything inside him felt tight, like a toy whose spring had been wound too far. Like he would snap, or fall to pieces, at the slightest pressure.

She blurred, reduced to colour and shapes by tears. He blinked, and she came back into focus.

"Not your hands. They heal people. Keep them from harm and injustice." She took his face in both her hands. "You have clarity of purpose. You're purposeful."

River brushed away his tears with the balls of her thumbs. His mother used to do that, when they were children. Easing away all the pain with a gentle touch.

He'd always imagined that once he became a doctor, he'd be able to do that with his hands. Erase every trace of a wound with just the brush of his fingers. He reached up to wrap his hands loosely around her wrists, tracing the curve of her thumb with one of his.

"Not your hands," she repeated, as if the words could heal. She carefully put her arms around him, as if he was fragile and would break.

Which he did.

Sinking to his knees, he wrapped his arms around her waist, cheek against her stomach. She stroked his hair, murmuring empty words of comfort as his shoulders shook and his tears soaked the front of her dress.

Part II

Lord, please look after Your child who is suffering now. She's a sweet, kind girl, full of light and hope in a 'verse with precious little of both. This child of Yours is a gift. Since meeting her, I've never seen her be anything but kind and gracious, sharing what little she has freely and without pause. She's a good soul, a credit to You in nearly every way.

Lord, I know that Your ways are ineffable—mysterious and unknowable. But I can't believe that this child's hurt would be any part of any plan for us You might have. Please, help us find the strength and will to get through this dark time—especially the captain. He may have turned his back on You, but I know that whether he wants any part of You or not, that You are still his God.

Help him find his way in this wilderness.

Help us all.


The engine room was quiet.

Kaylee had left her toolbox out and open, a wrench sitting on its side across the open lid, to hand in case she'd needed it. The engine spun lazily, steady as a heartbeat, keeping them all alive as she went.

Mal sat down heavily on the edge of a raised bulkhead, and pulled the cortex link out of the pocket of his shirt. He plugged the datachip into the slot and hit playback, knuckles white where they gripped the hard plastic reader. His jaw ached from Simon's punch. He welcomed the pain, in a way.

Mal's stomach twisted, threatened. He clamped down hard on it—even though his throat burned as the message played again, volume turned down low so no one could hear it. He didn't need to hear it; he almost had it memorised, even though he'd only viewed it once thus far. The reader still bore the marks from where he'd flung it across the cargo bay, and it had hit a storage container hard before clattering to the deck. He was lucky it still functioned at all. Kaylee would have tore into him, if he'd broken it... And probably fixed it in the time it took for him to walk from one end of the bay to another.

He didn't see the face on the cortex screen. All he could see, whether his eyes were opened or closed, was Kaylee's still form on the examination table.

He'd seen worse—much worse. In the war, and after. This was different. The boy had been right. This was all his fault.

"You're just the moon, reflecting the light back. But the sun is cold, and you've gone dark."

Mal looked up to see River. The girl was standing just inside the hatchway, leaning against the door.

"I suppose I have at that," he said as she came the rest of the way in and sat down, cross-legged on the floor in front of him. Her red cotton blouse had been Zoe's once; he remembered when she'd bought it, so many years ago. The pattern was faded now, from washing. She was barefoot; she always seemed to find reasons to kick off her shoes, and the soles of her feet were almost black with grime from Serenity's hallways. He wondered if Simon had given her a talking to about that yet. "Your brother know you're up and about?"

"Simon can't see me. He looks, but all he sees is her."

"Well... I can see how that would—"

"He won't stop," she said, cutting him off. "He won't stop until you're alone."

He knew without asking that she wasn't referring to Simon anymore.

"You know, it ain't nice to go peeking inside folks' heads without them knowing."

She shrugged. "Cannot be confined within the weak list of a country's fashion. Customs curtsy to great kings."

"More poetry? Aren't you just the fancy one, now."

"More at stake than they know."

"Wouldn't be the first time."

"They love her. They love you. If you don't tell them, you cut your own hair."

"Okay, now you've lost me, with the whole barbering segue there."

She got up on her knees, and leaned forward, brushing his hair lightly with the tips of her fingers. "He knows how to hurt you by not hurting you. He knows, can't take that away. Can't take it back. Too late. The bird has already escaped from that cage. But you need to stand tall, stand together. They can't stand unless you tell them."

She withdrew her hand, let it fall to her side. The movement carried a strange kind of grace to it. Mal just looked at her, feeling slightly disconnected, unnerved yet somehow made stronger by the girl's clear gaze.

"Gorram geniuses, always being right," he muttered, and she smiled.

"That's my ship."

He was a pretty one—blond hair brushed back from his forehead. He had the arms of his jump-suit tied loosely around his waist, and she was real curious about the tattoos that criss-crossed his muscled chest. He'd shown up the day before, looking for spare parts, and they'd fallen to talking while her daddy had looked to see what they had could jury-rig a firefly secondary grav boot. He said his name was Bester, and they were stopping over on Zephyr on their way to Paquin. She'd run into him again that morning at one of the fresh fruit stalls in the market and trailed along after him back to the docks.

But pretty as he was, Kaylee couldn't tear her eyes away from the aught-three firefly sitting down there at the dock. It was the most beautiful thing she'd ever seen. Sitting there, shining in the hot summer sun, it just fair took her breath away. There was no wind, and she could hear cicadas down by the river, their song carrying in the still air.

Her cargo bay doors were open in an attempt to keep airflow while the engine wasn't moving. It wouldn't do much good, not in this heat. Kaylee had braided her hair to keep it off her neck and tugged on a short little sundress that morning, foregoing her usual canvas coverall because it was just too damned hot to bother. Not on a Sunday, anyway. The docks had been half-dead all summer, and her daddy and the boys had spent almost more time fishing on the river to put food on the table, than being hired out on retrofitting jobs.

"She's so... mêilì." Kaylee sighed. "She use a trace compression block?"

"Uh... yeah. I think so."

"Oh, I have been itching to get my hands on one of those so bad!"

For her eighteenth birthday, Kaylee had gotten a brand new toolbox, full of her very own tools. She'd grown up using her daddy's and her brothers' gear. Her mamma had fussed, saying that weren't no fitting present for a gal coming of age and all, but Kaylee had just beamed with pride.

Ephram had always talked about Sam taking over the shop when he got ready to retire, but of late, he'd been dropping hints that maybe Kaylee would make a better accounting than Sam. She knew near every junkyard and scrap shop in Riverside, and chatted on the cortex with others far away as New Melbourne and Cheyenne, all the way on the other side of the planet. Packages streamed into the shop, as she spent her mad money on shiny new gadgets and parts, instead of ribbons and clothes like her sisters had before her. Not that Kaylee didn't love a bit of frippery now and again—but faced with a new dress, or a barely used secondary grav boot, there just weren't no choice as far as she was concerned.

But as much as her daddy's confidence in her made her shine, the truth was, she imagined a life bigger than staying on in Riverside, mending ships and watching them all sail away. In her heart of hearts, she wanted to sign on as a maintenance tech and see those stars close up. Not to one of them big Alliance cruisers. When their shop had gotten conscripted to over-haul an Alliance cruiser last summer, she'd seen first hand what a giant cock-up their engineering was. Their cooling drive system drove her to distraction. Not to mention, you get four, six of them twitchy Gurtlser engines crammed up under each drive, and you'd be hard pressed to keep from asphyxiating the entire crew one of them bypass systems failed. She couldn't see no sense in it. Alliance had all the best that credits could buy, yet under all that shine weren't nothing but junk. But the engineers in charge hadn't much cared to hear what a seventeen year old "prairie harpy" had to say. In the end, they hadn't even gotten paid a fair wage, and Alliance credits didn't go nearly as far as platinum on Zephyr. Left a bad taste in her mouth, the whole thing, and her daddy had vowed then and there never to work for the Alliance if he could get by on his own.

No, what Kaylee loved were those old transport ships—some of them two, three decades or more past their supposed expiration date. She loved getting up inside them, seeing the marks each engineer had left on 'em, tweaking this, smoothing that. Made each of them unique, and even thought she'd never been up in a one of them, she'd learned half a dozen ways around just about every problem a spacer could face, just by working on the ships that came through Riverside each year, hauling cargo and passengers from one end of the 'verse to the other. Some were better than others, of course. She'd laughed when her daddy had made a point of showing her how the 80-10 was just an 80-04 with shiny new plating. The guts were all the same, made in the same factories, using the same parts as they always had. Folks snapped up whatever shiny new model come out and never seemed to pay no mind to what was under the hood half the time. It was a life-lesson, Ephram had said, and one she took to heart. It weren't the package that mattered, so much as the heart of a thing.

"I could show it to you..."

"Really?" she squealed, and Bester grinned.

"Hell, yeah. Always nice to meet a girl knows her engines, you know?"

"Won't your captain—won't he get mad?"

He shrugged. "Nah, he's shiny."

Her heart was beating wildly in her chest, and her eyes caressed the clean lines of the little freighter. It was just so... perfect. Oh, sure, she wasn't quite in the prime of her life. She had some scorch marks along her sides, and Kaylee could see where she'd been patched up a few times. But that just gave her character. Ship like that, it was a dream. She was suddenly fiercely jealous. Tomorrow, that little firefly would lift off, and Kaylee Frye would just go right back to her same old life, no surprises. No real challenges.

But for today... She could at least crawl around inside her, see all her guts and bits and pieces, and pretend.

"Shiny," she smiled as she took his arm and they started towards the firefly.

"Hello, Mister Reynolds. I trust by now you have received my package? I hope it wasn't too damaged in transport. You know my boys—they can get, how you say? A bit rowdy at times. Full of high spirits, my boys.

"I know, now—I went about it all wrong the last time. So, this? This is to fix. To make clear.

"I can find you, Mister Reynolds, any place you hide. I can reach any one of your people, any time I desire. I will start with your women and break them. Then I will have your men killed one by one. And you will be left alone. To suffer.

"This one? She is just the beginning."

Mal switched off the reader and took in the shocked and angry faces of his crew as they sat around the kitchen table. "I wanted you all to know what the deal was—what we're up against. Who did this. Y'all have that right, and I'm sorry I kept it from you this long."

"Where—how—" Wash asked, glancing back and forth between his wife and the captain.

"Came over the cortex when they—when we found her. Secure transmission. Untraceable."

"I wish you'd killed that méiyôu mûqin de xiao gôu when you had the chance." Inara had her arms wrapped around herself, and her dark eyes seemed pools of black, absorbing all the light.

"Well, I didn't exactly get the chance—he was a little too busy killing me at the time," Mal reminded her, but couldn't even conjure up a grim smile to try and soften the words.

River sat next to Simon and held one of his hands in both of her own. There were dark circles under his eyes, and he kept glancing back at the hatchway. Mal knew he didn't want to be here; he wanted to be down in the infirmary. It was in every line of his body. Mal could sympathise. He'd called everybody up here for this little town meeting and had to pry the preacher and the doc away from Kaylee's side.

Mal took a deep breath and squared his shoulders. "You all can walk away from this."

"None of us are going anywhere, sir," Zoe said, her voice steady and even, and her words were met with nods and affirmatives from all assembled. Mal was actually a little surprised to see Jayne as angry as Zoe.

"Gorram bastards mess up one of our own, I say we show 'em how we treat húndàn who beat up little girls ain't got no quarrel with them. That's what I say."

"Jayne—This ain't the same as last time. Niska's powerful, and dangerous."

"Well, so am I."

"You had surprise on your side, going up against Niska on the skyplex." Mal hated playing devil's advocate, but someone had to. "This is different. He wants to pick us off, one by one."

"So what, we ruttin' let him? That's gôu pì. I ain't sitting around, waiting for that psycho to try and kill me in my gorram sleep."

"Don't see as how we have a lot of choice in the matter."

"So, what? We rabbit?" Jayne snarled, disdain dripping from each syllable.

Book stepped away from the wall, almost deadly calm as he locked eyes with Mal. "We run—he'll just keep coming."

"I'm all aware of that, Preacher."

"How'd he even find us to begin with?" Wash asked. He was almost shaking; Mal could see it. The two of them had barely escaped from Niska's clutches the last time, and he didn't need to ask Zoe to know that Wash still had nightmares about the tortures they'd endured on the Skyplex. "We've made a point of staying out of his way—"

"Only one who knew we'd be on Greenleaf was Badger, sir," Zoe said, her husband's hand still clutched in hers. "You think he sold us out?"

"I wouldn't put it past him. How 'bout we pay him a little call? After all, we did leave him high and dry on Greenleaf. Man's got to be wonderin' about his cargo. Deserves to get an answer, don't you think?"

He might not have been be ready to go up against Niska just yet. But if Badger had sicced Niska's dogs on them, well... Mal had no qualms about letting the fence know that business or not, he'd take some of his anguish out on the limey little bastard's hide.

Wash jumped up from the table, his chair scraping across the floor. "I'll lay in a course for Persephone."

"Then what?" Simon asked, his eyes boring into Mal's.

"Then I'm of a mind to go hunting."

"Captain Malcolm Reynolds."

"Ephram Frye."

"Please to meet you, sir."

The two men sized each other up about as subtly as two bucks about to lock horns. Mal stood at the end of Serenity's ramp, hands in his pockets, as his new mechanic and her folks stood still on the dirt side in the shadow of the hull. The girl was beaming, practically bouncing on the balls of her feet, but her daddy was regarding Mal with the kind of gaze a man usually aimed at a fella asking for a daughter's hand in marriage—not offering her a job.

Made Mal feel all sorts of uncomfortable, and for the first time he wished he'd had the presence of mind to ask Bester where exactly he'd met his prairie harpy and how the hell old she was. In the dim light of the engine room, he'd had her pegged for Bester's own age: someone south of twenty-five, but still north of eighteen. But in the plain light of day, and a pair of cut-off coveralls with—was that a fuzzy little teddy bear? A gorram bear sewn over one knee, he suddenly wondered if this little gal was old enough to sleep over at a girlfriend's house, let alone go off-world with a strange crew she'd just met that afternoon.

"Kaywinnet tells me you're offering her a job," the man said calmly, his voice carrying the same lilt as the girl's had. The same accent Mal had grown up with on Shadow, which wasn't all that far from Zephyr, if the space between stars could be considered not far at all.

"Yes, sir. Serenity—that's my ship. Well, she could use a good mechanic, and from what little I seen, your girl is about the best mechanic I could find, even if I looked a hundred years. And that ain't me putting a shine on the truth, sir. Not one bit."

"What kind of work you do?"

"We haul cargo—passengers, too, when we can. I got a standard short-range shuttle I'm looking to rent out to bring in a bit of extra. I'm sure I don't have to tell you that work can be a bit scarce—but we work steady as a ship like ours can work. Got a job waiting for us on Paquin, matter of fact—we're two days late, thanks to my dāì ruò mù jī mechanic."

"Thought it was the secondary grav boot, when it weren't nothin' but the g-line gettin' tacked 'cause the reg couple was bad," girl said conspiratorially to her father, who nodded sagely.

"Now I don't know what that all means," Mal admitted with a smile. He'd seen her do it and still wasn't sure what she'd done. Even Bester had still seemed shell-shocked as he'd wandered off, duffel slung over his shoulder before the girl and her folks had shown up. "All I do know is that your daughter was kind enough to get us up and flying when no one else could. And that means she's just the sort I can count on to keep her in the sky. Job's hers, if she wants it."

"These fireflies are quite a favourite of smugglers, or so I hear," the girl's mother spoke up, and Mal saw that her green eyes held a shrewdness that he recognised. "What with all the little hideys."

Mal decided that honesty was the best policy. Girl had to know what she was signing onto, after all. "Truth be told, not all the work we get is legal. But I swear to you sir, ma'am—that legal or not, it's honest work. I won't run drugs or slaves, you have my word on that. I got no love for the Alliance—me and my first mate were both browncoats, fought in the war. But war is long behind us now, and all I want is to do an honest day's work, get paid, and keep my ship in the sky and my crew's bellies full. Mechanic's cut is ten percent, straight off the top, of any job."

"Bà bà—" the girl whispered, tugging on her father's arm as she shifted the bag on her shoulder. "It's a good job, better'n anything we've had—"

"Now Kaylee-bird, you just hush," her mother said, eyes still on Mal. Despite the freckles and frizzy ginger hair so different from the woman of his memory—it could have been his own mamma staring back at him in that gingham dress, crows feet around her eyes the only sign that age had touched her at all.

"It's her decision, and I expect she made it the second you asked her," Ephram finally said as he reached out to shake Mal's hand. "I just told her I had to meet you first, see what kind of man you are."

His handshake was firm—almost a little too firm, and he didn't let go of Mal's hand right off.

"This is my baby girl, Cap'n Reynolds. You look after her proper. Dong ma?"

"You've got my word, sir. I'll take good care of her." Mal hid a wince as best he could as Ephram's grip tightened briefly before her released his hand.

Mal stood beneath the stairs, in front of one of the infirmary windows, watching Simon with Kaylee. The doctor hadn't noticed him. Mal figured that was good. He'd gotten punched once already today.

He kept staring at the bandage on Kaylee's broken fingers. Picturing how cross she'd be once she woke up, not being able to hold a wrench properly. She's probably start bossing Book and Jayne around in her engine room. Mechanic-ing by remote. That would be a thing to see. A thing to see indeed.

Mal kept pretending that once she opened her eyes, everything would go back to normal.

"It isn't your fault," Inara said quietly from behind him.

He'd known she was there—heard her soft tread, smelled the sandalwood and lemon oil scent that clung to her gown from the incense she burned in her shuttle. Breathed deep the perfume of lily of the valley she used in her hair, so he didn't flinch when she spoke. They always seemed to find one another, when they needed to. To talk things out. Yell and scream. Sit and joke. He could count on two hands the number of times it had happened in the last year; but it always did happen. Sure as summer rain.

"The hell it isn't," Mal said as they started up the stairs. He was leading her back towards her shuttle, and he knew she knew it. "Simon blames me. I'm surprised you don't."

Her fingers plucked at his elbow, forcing him to stop halfway across the catwalk to her door. "I know you—you had to leave that medicine in Paradiso. You couldn't not, not after you saw the plight of those settlers—"

"Don't have a thing to do with Paradiso," Mal said simply. "It has everything to do with going into business with Niska and his like in the first place."

Her lips parted in surprise at his admission, and she followed as he walked her back to her door.

"I knew what he was; knew what he was capable of. I was the one who put us in this situation, dealing with the likes of him. It's my fault Kaylee was—it's my fault."

"While there are many things in the universe that I could blame you for—and do—I can't blame you for the fact that Niska is an evil bastard. You paid him. You paid him five times over. This is about an old man struggling to hang onto the bloody shreds of his reputation. He did this. Not you."

Don't make it any less my fault, Mal wanted to say, but didn't.

He sat down heavily on the end of her bed, staring at the shuttle floor rather than meeting her eyes. Her forgiveness was worse, in a way, than if she had blamed him. The way she looked at him, like she wanted to comfort him, made everything a thousand times worse.

"I made a choice, taking smuggling jobs—putting this crew in the line of fire. It has always been all about me. I'd rather be on the wrong side of law just to stick it to the gorram Alliance—and I've treated it like a game. But it ain't no game. Wash almost paid the price with his life, and you think I woulda learned my lesson after dying my own self. I had no right to make that choice for Kaylee. No right at all, and now... Girl trusted me, Inara. Trusted me to keep her safe, and I put her in harm's way."

"Mal, Kaylee knew. She knew when she signed on this 'boat'—if I know anything about you, it's that you made sure she knew your business before you ever took her on. But she chose to be here—on Serenity. She chose to follow you of her own free will."

"She didn't choose to be beaten and raped, Inara," he said, trying to shake her. Rattle what was left of her composure.

It was the first time he'd actually said the words. "Sexually assaulted," Simon had said; as if that somehow made it less... horrific. Less a brutal act of cowardice and hatred than it was. But rape was an ugly word for an ugly thing. And he wanted to lash out—at the men who'd done this, at Niska, at himself for letting it happen in the first place.

Inara was just the closest available target.

"No," she said softly, mask still in place. "No woman does. And it's horrific, there is no denying that. But it happens. It happens every day. Every hour."

"How can you be so gorram cold—"

"Because I'm a woman," she said simply, cutting him off. "It's a fear that almost all of us are born with, and the 'verse is full of bastards who will take advantage of that."

Her resolve crumbled, tears finally springing to her eyes. "I'm not cold, Mal. God, I wish I could be. Then maybe this wouldn't hurt so much."

Mal pulled her into an embrace, resting his chin on top of her head as she cried herself out. His head swam, enveloped by the rich scent of lily of the valley as her shoulders shook beneath his hands.

"Why did it have to be Kaylee?" she said, voice cracked with strain. "Why couldn't it have been... God, I wish I'd—"

"Don't. Don't say it. It ain't ever gonna be you, or River, or Kaylee. Not ever again. Not any of us."

He whispered lies—reassurances, nonsense—into her hair, his own eyes burning as her tears scalded his neck. Finally just holding her.

After a few minutes, she pulled back and drew in deep and shuddering breaths. Her carefully applied makeup was gone, and he'd forgotten how young she was, underneath all that paint. How vulnerable. For a split second, he had a horrifying vision of finding her crumpled against the side of Serenity's hull, and his hands shook as he dropped them to his sides.

If she noticed, she didn't let it show. She wiped at her cheeks with the heels of her hands, and sniffled.

"I—I'm sorry."

"Why? For being human? For being Kaylee's friend, and hurting? Ain't nothing to be apologising about."

He let his hand rest for a moment longer than it should on her bare shoulder, let himself fall into those dark eyes just a touch more than was wise, before he broke contact.

"Inara, I want you to take Simon, River, and Kaylee while she's on the mend in your shuttle until—until this whole thing is sorted out one way or another."

"There's a Companion Guild House on Bernadette, only a day out from Persephone," she said, mask slipping back into place, even without the paint. "It's small, and I know the house mistress there—I trust her. Simon and River would be safe there. And the house has medical facilities with equipment Simon doesn't have access to here, and there are staff trained to treat... There are people who can help Kaylee."

"Contact her," he said as he started towards the door.

"What about you?" she called after him.

"I'm gonna find Niska and put him down like the dog that he is. I promise you."

Mal didn't even climb down the rungs of the ladder to his bunk, just slid on the sides of his boots. They'd had a good day. Picked up a cache of foodstuffs and medical supplies from a derelict freighter, and Capshaw was being uncommonly generous in regards to their cut of the take. Zoe and Wash were making noise about taking a proper honeymoon, Jayne was making noise about getting a new knife since he'd lost his last one when the guy it had been stuck in fell off that damn cliff on Whitefall, and Mal had gotten word that morning from a surveyor and his wife on Boros interested in renting the spare shuttle. Best of all, Serenity was humming along, in better shape than she'd ever been—certainly since he'd picked her up for a song from the scrap yard on Persephone.

All in all, one of his best days ever, come to think of it.

He sat down on the end of his bed to unlace his boots, whistling a little tune—perhaps a touch off-key, but it didn't much matter to Mal if he couldn't carry a tune in a bucket, so long as he could shoot straight. He had the first boot off and was going for the second when suddenly there were hands on his shoulders.

There was a squawk of surprise as he spun, drawing his weapon and pinning his attacker to the bed in one smooth motion. Took a second for him to register that the barrel was pressed to the temple of his brand new mechanic, who was huddled beneath the bedclothes, eyes wide.

"Kaylee, what the hell—"

That was about as far as he got, as she just sorta arched her back and lifted her head a little and kissed him full on the mouth.

It was enthusiastic, and not without skill, Mal noted with the part of his brain that wasn't concentrating on how to extricate himself from this situation without her daddy coming after him with a shotgun, but not what he was either expecting or wanting.

"Whoa! Hey!" He let go of both her wrists, which had been pinned over her head, and the gun, which slipped between the mattress and the wall and sat up. He held up his hands as if in surrender. "That is about enough of that!"

Her shoulders were bare, and he saw her clothes were folded neatly atop her shoes next to the bed. Her long light brown hair spilled over her shoulders as she clutched the coverlet up to her neck.

"I don't know what notion you got floating around up there in that head of yours, but I didn't hire you for a roll in the hay. I hired you to keep this ship in the air."

"Oh I know that!" She laughed, and grinned at him. "I didn't mean—I know you're a good man, Captain. It's what I like so much about you. You're good, and kind, and handsome—"

"You'll turn my head with talk like that."

"Well y'are!" She grinned, and then flushed. "And, well, I like you."

"And I like you too."

"I mean, I like you like you."


He quickly went over the last few weeks in his mind and tried to figure out if he'd been giving his pretty little mechanic any reason to believe he was a lecherous hump who chased after girls near half his age. What he discovered is that while he was pretty damn sure he'd been a proper gentleman, she had been awful shy around him—coy even—the last few days.

"And I thought, maybe, with us all liking each other, we might have some fun is all." She shrugged, and Mal glanced away as the blanket started to slip, showing a bit too much pale white shoulder.

Well, son of a bitch. It had been a few decades since he'd been in the pulling gals' pigtails-mode of courtship, but he imagined that it hadn't been near so long for Kaylee Frye. And thinking back on how he met her in the first place, stood to reason that the girl was used to a certain level of companionship.

"No offence, but I like models with a few more years on 'em."

She got puffed up with all sorts of righteous indignation at that, just like he knew she would. "I'm eighteen!"

"And I haven't been eighteen for a good long while now. Now," he bent down and picked up her clothes and tossed them to her, quickly glancing away as she let the coverlet drop so she could catch the bundle, "as flattering as this little crush is—and don't get me wrong, it's flattering as hell and if I weren't who I am then there wouldn't be a whole lot of talking going on right now so much as shucking of clothes and some stuff that would be improper to speak on in front of a lady—this ain't right. This is just all sorts of not right, is what it is. Dong ma?"

"Now, you want to tell me what this little attempt at seduction is really all about?" he asked once she'd gotten the shirt on over her head, and was doing all sorts of things under the blanket regarding her pants.

She glanced away, biting her bottom lip.

Mal decided to take another tack. "How long since we left Zephyr?"

"'Bout a month."

"And this is the longest you ever been away from home, isn't it?"

"Maybe," she mumbled, looked flushed and every inch her age.

"And you know it may be months and months fore we get back there?"

She nodded, and looked positively miserable. Mal kicked himself for not noticing it sooner. But the first few weeks, she'd been so busy overhauling the engine, and seemed happy as a pig in shit to be up to her eye-teeth in parts and electrical systems and the like. She'd seemed to have adjusted to living on board like it was all some grand adventure. But he was guessing now that things had settled into more of a routine, and some of the shiny had worn off, that she was starting to pine for familiar sights, voices, and the like.

He'd never thought of himself as having a fondness for strays, but the ship had felt a lot more... a lot more like a home since he'd picked up the little mechanic. Looked it, too—she'd taken to stencilling flowers on the bare yellow walls of the mess and, with the leftover paint, had made a ridiculous sign she'd posted on the door to her bunk. And that was just fine by him. But as homey as Serenity had become, nothing could take the place of the home you came from.

"Little Kaylee, there ain't nothing wrong with being homesick," he said, giving her a brief one-armed hug. "Hell, I ain't been home since—well, I ain't been home for a real long time, and that don't mean I don't wake up in the middle of the night every once in a while, missing home and my mamma something fierce."

"You do not," she groused, tucking her hair behind her ears.

"Do too—cross my heart and hope Jayne dies."

She giggled despite herself.

"You got a big family, don't you," he asked, knowing before she nodded that it must be true. He'd only ever met her folks, but she had the feel of the baby of a great big brood.

"Two sisters and three brothers, my folks, my mom's folks, and a whole mess of aunts and uncles and cousins on both sides all spittin' distance from one another pretty much. Oh, and nieces and nephews 'course."

"Of course." Mal couldn't help but grin. His guess was, they started young on Zephyr. "Sounds like Sunday dinners at the Frye house were somethin'."

"Mamma had Grams to help her out—and most times Pop and the boys would catch a mess of fish down at the river, and everybody would bring somethin', so no one ever went hungry." She smiled at the memory, and her eyes were suddenly bright with unshed tears. He imagined that after a few weeks of moulded protein in every colour of the rainbow, and drinking recycled water and breathing recycled air, those Sunday dinners might be taking on a particularly rosy hue right about now.

"How 'bout you?" she asked, covering her sudden attack of being eighteen as best she could with the good humour he was coming to associate with her.

"Only child."

Her eyes were wide, as if the concept was completely alien.

"What about cousins?"

"Not a one. You are looking at the last of the Reynolds line."

"But you'll get married and have kids—"

He laughed. He couldn't help it. The idea of him settled down someplace with a biddable little wife—or in his case, some Amazon with a sawed off shotgun—and a passel of rugrats was just too much for him for a moment. He recovered quick, not wanting to hurt Kaylee's feelings. "Don't know about that. Maybe. Hell, I suppose anything can happen. Sure."

"Family's important."

"Sure is," he agreed. "It's where you come from."

"More'n that. You do for family, that's what my daddy always says. It's about having folks what do for you, and folks you look after."

"I expect that's true. I always kinda wanted a little sister, truth be told."

"Yeah?" she asked, her nose crinkling as she smiled.

"Yeah. So, 'mèimei,' how's about you get yourself off to your own bed now, dong ma?" He gave her a stern look, which only made her giggle.

"Hao de, Cap'n." She pressed a quick kiss to his cheek and then scampered up the ladder.

If they ever ran out of fuel cells, Mal was pretty sure they could just plug Kaylee in to power Serenity. He'd never seen a body to quick to shake off sorrow and return to her natural state of shining.

Mal sat there, chuckling to himself as he bent down to get his other boot off.

Badger choked as Mal's boot pressed harder on his throat.

"—on't—-cking know—cho—"

"I'm sorry, what was that?"

Badger drew in a tortured breath as Reynolds lifted his foot and released the pressure on his windpipe. Big Teddy was on his back next to the door, Reynolds's mercenary had his gun trained on him and looked itching to plug somebody full of holes. Carl sat at his desk in the adjacent room, cradling his elbow and whimpering in pain from the gunshot wound that had sent his revolver spinning across the floor. Badger eyed it carefully—trying to gauge the distance and see if he could make a grab for it.

"I don't know a thing about it, you rutting psycho!" he spat between wheezing gasps as he scuttled backwards across the floor until his back hit the wooden desk.

He glared at Reynolds, who just stood there in the centre of the room, arms crossed. "You come into my place of business, guns blazing—"

"Yeah, about that," Mal cut him off. "I would have thought you'd have been happy to see us, since we missed the meet this morning. You know, all worried as to why your boys didn't find us at the docks. That is, if they even bothered to show up."

Badger froze, all his hasty attempts at righteous indignation fleeing as a cold sweat broke out across his brow. He stared deep into the barrel of Zoe's shotgun, which seemed to loom impossibly large in front of him.

"One of my crew got snatched on Greenleaf," Mal continued, deceptively calm. "My mechanic. Last time you saw her, she was in a pink fluffy dress, bow in her hair. Cute as a gorram bug. Niska's men tore her up pretty bad, and as you are the only person who knew we were gonna be on Greenleaf..."

"Now, let's be reasonable here—" Badger held up both hands in a gesture of placation and bit back a gasp as Reynolds grabbed him by the lapels of his suit jacket and hauled him roughly to his feet.

"I think I'm being plenty reasonable. And I'm thinking might be reasonable to let Jayne here cut off your family jewels and feed them to you."

The mercenary smiled as he pulled out his knife, and Badger licked his lips and tried to wriggle free of Reynolds's grasp.

"I didn't have no choice! Niska's a powerful man! It ain't good business to make an enemy like that—"

"But making an enemy of me is wise, is that it?" Cold blue eyes very close to his made Badger swallow nervously. "Don't seem too wise at the moment, now does it?"

"Man's reputation suffered, once word got 'round you and your crew'd tore up his Skyplex. It ain't exactly a secret that you and your crew do jobs for me—they came looking, what was I supposed to do?"

"So, zôugôu that you are, you sold us out."

"I'm a businessman, Captain. Hard to do business when you've got your throat slit."

"Yes. I 'spect it would be," Jayne said, eyeing the edge of his blade.

"I got to think of myself first, you see?" Badger said quickly.

"I see. I see clear as day. So, in the interests of you continuing to do business, hows about you tell us where we might find Niska and his boys?"

Part III

They'll tell you that the pain will go away and time will heal all wounds and that everything will be all right.

And they're lying, but not about everything.

And they're not lying to you—they're lying to themselves. Because it hurts. It hurts so much you think that the entire world is red and raw and bleeding. But it's not all a lie. Not all of it. He promises, and he always keeps his promise. Post-holer. For digging posts.

Remember. Remember.

It's not all lies.

Zoe stared out the flight deck ports at the stars. Wash had set the autopilot, and she would join him in bed. But she'd wanted to sit and watch the worlds go by first.

She'd grown up on ships. Never spent more than a day or two planetside before the war. Her daddy had been a supply ship's captain, running cargo from world to world. Her mamma was an engineer and a damned good one. Uncle Marcus had been their pilot. He'd been an honorary uncle, just like half that twelve-man crew had become Zoe's family from the second she'd been born, her and her brothers and sisters. The other half of the crew had actually been blood-kin. By the time she was seven, she'd had five or six cousins to play with, grow up with, train to fly the shuttles, patch the electrical systems and patch each other up in the infirmary.

Marcus had married, and they'd hired on a new pilot. The wedding feast had lasted four days and had culminated with her mamma giving Marcus back his share of the ship in platinum, and then some—so he could put a down payment on a freighter of his own. That was what you did. Those were the rules of the society she'd grown up in. Everyone was precious, because when it came down to it, you depended on one another for your own survival. Everyone knowing how to shunt the main E-Cee to the back-up system in case of a burn-out meant you weren't asphyxiated in your sleep. Everyone knowing how to pilot a shuttle meant there was always a way out. And everyone knowing how to make moulded protein into a meal that you could at least swallow without gagging... well, that was something too. Everyone did their part, and when they celebrated, it was as a family. And when they grieved, it was as a family.

They had been a family—until the Alliance had tried to conscript them. Tried to force them to give up their home, their ship, their livelihood to run Alliance supplies during the first year of the war. They'd done it to dozens of independent freighter captains, and like many before him, her daddy had run. Straight out to the Rim. They'd gotten caught, finally. Gotten their ship taken from them. Zoe had joined up after her daddy had died—brought up on charges by the Alliance and thrown into a detainment camp where he'd gotten pneumonia and died by inches.

"Who else knows?" she asked when she heard the footfall on the metal grate behind her.

Mal came up behind her, laid a hand on her shoulder. "Knows what?"

"That they didn't just beat her." She leaned back in the chair and met his eyes. His gaze was steady—and haunted.

"Inara," he said after a long pause. "And I think it's fair to say that whatever Simon knows, River knows too."

"Poor kid. Poor kids," she corrected with a sigh. "You gonna tell the others?"

"They're hurting enough as it is."

Ain't gonna do any good, keeping it a secret. She bit her tongue before the words could slip out. But they echoed in her mind anyway. She knew—knew from a life lived aboard small ships with small crews—it would just make the hurt fester. Just make it hurt more, when they did find out.

"Don't stay up too late. Got a big day, tomorrow." He withdrew his hand and left her alone with the 'verse.

She stared out at the stars that were one of her earliest memories and thought about the family she'd been born into, and the family she'd chosen.

It wasn't that Jayne was ashamed of his family. He wasn't.

But, the first day they'd met, he'd lied to her. When Kaylee'd asked if he had any family, and Jayne had said not really. His mamma would have kicked his ass, but he'd wanted to sound all tough. Like a loner. He'd gotten pretty lucky with that act in the past. Good girls who liked bad boys, and all.

She'd just looked so sad, and patted him on the arm, and he figured it musta been working. Not that he was exactly looking for a pity hump. But she was a pretty little thing, and her being part of the crew gave Jayne the notion that maybe this gig wouldn't be so bad after all.

In the month since Mal had kicked Bester out on his incompetent stoner ass, though, she hadn't shown much interest in bunking with him. He'd seen her get all googly-eyed over the captain, and he figured that was that, until Mal had started callin' her little sis and all. So, barring any weird kinks, Jayne figured that meant he still was in the running.

However, as Jayne stared at the giant paper-wrapped box with his name scrawled across it, he knew his lie had been blown. The jig was up. He was screwed.

"Well, aren't ya gonna open it?" Kaylee poked him in the ribs. "C'mon, Jayne!"

"Might be a bomb or somethin'."

They'd stopped off on Persephone to check in with Badger on a job. Eavesdown was partying late into the night, it being New Year's and all. Year of the Cat or somesuch. Jayne never did pay much mind to what day it was out in the black. Only day he gave a hump about was payday. But Kaylee was in high spirits, as she'd convinced Mal to let them do a lion dance for the ship.

He'd hefted her up on his shoulders so she could hang the "bait"—a sad looking cabbage and some oranges that were hard as rocks she'd found in the mess—from the cargo bay doors. She'd giggled as he'd weaved, pretending she was heavier than she was and miming dropping her before she'd secured the line.

Mal had even come down to watch as five boys in a ragged red and gold cloth and tin-foil lion get-up had come and the firecrackers had been so loud Jayne had almost reached for his gun. But Kaylee had clapped and squealed like a little kid. Afterwards, they'd sat around the kitchen table with the first jug of engine room hooch Kaylee had cooked up using her brand new intra-engine fermentation system. Tasted a lot like berry wine, but Jayne realised after his third mug that it packed a lot more punch.

He was half in the bag already when the kid showed up with the post. Mail call was rare. Being on the move so much, you could never really count on anything find you 'less you told somebody right where you was gonna be, with enough time for them to get it there when you were gonna be there. Jayne had been shocked when the big box had his name on it.

"Who'd send you a bomb?" Kaylee asked as he set the box on the table and pulled out his knife to poke it.

"Anyone who's ever met him?" Wash asked, then ducked Jayne's only half-serious swing at his head.

"We could use the scanner in the infirmary to be sure," she said, trying to be helpful. But he'd recognised the writing on the package and knew damn well who it was from, and what was in it.

He ripped away the paper and opened the box. Sure enough, his mamma had been knitting again.

"Oh!" Kaylee squealed as he lifted out a red hand-knit sweater. "How pretty!"

There was a card tucked amongst its folds, which fell to the cargo bay floor. Jayne made a grab for it, but Kaylee was quicker.

"Who's it from?" she asked as she handed him the card, which he opened.

"Nobody," he grumbled, scanning the letter quickly.

"Just sound out the words with more than two syllables, big guy," Wash said from the safety of Zoe's arms. "C'mon, we'll all pullin' for you. You can do it!"

"I'm gonna pull you—"

"Oh, it's from your mamma," Kaylee cooed as she read over Jayne's shoulder, and Jayne stuffed the sweater back into the box. "That's so sweet! Did she make it her own self?"

"Hey! That there is private!"

"You never told me you still had folks. Oh, Jayne, you gotta try it on!"

"Later," he muttered, but Kaylee was positively glowing. And not just from the wine.

He found her later on, after the dinner dishes had been done. Mal had wandered off to check the cortex for answers to the ad he'd placed about the second shuttle, and Zoe and Wash had gone to their quarters all giddy and sickeningly sweet as to make Jayne's teeth ache. She was in the engine room, on her back beneath the engine, fiddling with something.

"Should you be doin' that?" he asked, crouching down next to her knees.

"Doin' what?" came the voice from beneath the spinning engine.

"Workin' on the engine while intox—toxica—drunk."

"I ain't drunk."

"You are too drunk. I seen you drink a whole lot of that berry wine."

"Doesn't mean I'm drunk," she chirped, sliding out and getting to her feet. "And anyway, if I don't shunt the—oh!"

She'd finally noticed he'd put on his mamma's new sweater, and her face just lit up with a grin. She had her grubby coveralls pulled up over the red and gold tank top she'd been wearing earlier, and her hair was twisted up into two little buns on either side of her head to keep it from gumming up the works.

"There. See?" He gave a little half-turn, arms stretched out to keep his balance, since he'd had rather a bit more wine than Kaylee had. "Fits."

"It's shuài!"

"My mamma does good work."

"Xin Nian kuai le," she said with a grin and got up on her tiptoes to give him a peck on the cheek.

He moved his head so that her lips landed on his mouth instead. She made a squeak of surprise as he pinned her against the wall, and next thing he knew, he was laid out on the floor of the engine room, clutching the side of his head.

Kaylee had both hands pressed to her mouth, eyes wide. "Oh no, you're bleeding!"

"'Course I'm bleeding, you just hit me with—what the hell did you hit me with?"

"It's just a wrench. I didn't mean to hit you so hard!"

"What'd ya hafta go and do that for?'

"Well you was the one with the roaming hands all of a sudden, mister!" She scowled at him even as she pressed a rag to his head to try and stop the flow. Head wounds bled like a son of a bitch, though. He could already feel the hot wet trickle of blood down his neck and seeping into the fabric of his tee-shirt beneath the sweater. "Does it hurt?" she asked, biting her lip.

"'Course it hurts. You hit me. With a wrench," he grumbled. "You didn't hafta hit me."

"Well, you took me by surprise is all! All grabby and lips outta nowhere like that. Oh, I think it's gonna need stitching. I'll go wake up Zoe—"

"Ain't nothin'," he said quickly, not too thrilled at the idea of what Zoe or the captain would say once they found out why he had a head wound in the first place.

"Oh, I'm so sorry—is it your sweater all ruined?"

He looked down, and saw that the collar and shoulder were now a darker red than the rest of the yarn. "Naw. Good thing my mamma made it red."

She laughed and then winced in sympathy as she helped him to his feet and he swayed.

"You're going straight to the infirmary, mister," she said, all gruff, like she wasn't so tiny he could lift her with one hand. He swore she actually felt bad about hitting him, and that just made him feel like a low down dirty dog for pulling what he tried to pull in the first place.

Of course, that didn't stop him from making a grab for her ass, as they navigated the stairs down to the infirmary. But after she hip-checked him into the metal railing, he figured maybe the captain was right about one thing.

Little Kaylee was definitely the little sister type.

Simon was keeping vigil. He was curled up on his side on the bed built into the wall of the infirmary, trying to will his eyes to stay open despite utter exhaustion that made his arms and legs feel leaden. He kept staring at Kaylee, who lay unmoving on the examination table, pale beneath the bruises which just got uglier with each passing hour.

He'd seen family do this in the hospital. Wives, sons, parents—loved ones dozing in chairs in the ICU or curled up on spare beds when there were spare beds to be had. He remembered feeling compassion for them as he passed them on rounds or accidentally woke them when he came to read charts, check vitals, all the other things a doctor did for dozens of patients every day. He'd seen, but he'd never truly understood until now. He wished to God he didn't.

He was waiting for her to wake once the smoother had worn off. Waiting for her to wake, so he could ask her the questions he needed to ask her. The things he couldn't tell, just by cataloguing the damage. Things he desperately wished he didn't need to know.

Waiting to see if her spirit had been as broken as her body.

River had brought him some rice and cider earlier, her dark eyes shadowed as she'd reached out to carefully brush Kaylee's cheek with her fingertips and whisper in her ear. Simon had eaten slowly, trying to settle his stomach. He didn't remember actually tasting the food, and the cider sat untouched in a mug on the counter. River had kissed his forehead, and tucked the blanket over him before she had gone off to bed. He could only imagine what this must be like for her.

He'd been unwilling to believe that his sister could actually be a reader. He'd spent months chalking up her uncanny insights to her just being... River. His baby sister. A genius, bratty, wonderful seventeen-year-old girl. Even in the face of undeniable proof, he just couldn't bring himself to admit that whatever the Academy might have done to her would make such a thing possible. As a doctor, as a scientist, as a brother, it all just seemed impossible. And the truth was, he didn't want it to be possible. All he wanted in the world was for River to just be a kid. To help her become the girl he'd known again. And accepting that she could be so different meant accepting that she would never again be the sister he remembered.

But if it was true, that made her a victim of the thoughts and emotions of everyone around her. The thought of her bearing the weight of all his pain and worry in addition to her own, not to mention the rest of Serenity's inhabitants... He remembered, now, River waking screaming when they had found the derelict hit by reavers. He shuddered, drawing the blanket closer around him, thinking of what sorts of nightmares she must have—would have—once Kaylee woke up.

He worried more about what sorts of nightmares Kaylee would have.

He'd had a few of his own, in the brief snatches of sleep he'd caught when he couldn't keep his eyes open long enough to stave them off. Worst-case scenarios that played like horror vids across the inside of his eyes every time they drifted close, bringing him back to waking in a cold sweat, his hands balled into fists, nails cutting half-moons into his palms.

He saw the captain's face at the window and silently slid off the bed, folding the blanket over the back of his chair.

"How she doing?" Mal said, his voice pitched low despite the fact that Simon had closed the infirmary doors behind him.

"I've got her heavily sedated. She's going to be in a lot of pain when she wakes up and the pain block wears off."

Understatement of the century, a little voice inside Simon's head mocked him.

"Badger gave us a lead on Niska," Mal said, and just hearing the name made Simon's blood run cold. "I talked to Inara—we're heading to Bernadette. There's a guild house there, run by a gal she trusts. They got medical facilities. Inara'll take you, your sister, and Kaylee in her shuttle once we reach orbit."

"I want to go with you," Simon said, and Mal's eyes drifted past him to the infirmary doors.

"When she wakes up, she'll need you."

"You said they have medical facilities. They'll have doctors—"

"When she wakes up, she'll need you. Not because you're a doctor."

There was a kindness in Mal's eyes when they met his, and Simon swallowed his intended reply. The bruise on the captain's cheek was a purple smudge, and as furious as he had been in the moment he'd given it to him, seeing it now made Simon wince in sympathy.

"And anyway," Mal continued, "if anything happened to you, she'd have my hide. Here." He handed Simon two ident badges. River's face stared up at him from the small plastic card which bore the name Jiàn Li. "In case something happens to us, you and your sister're gonna need these."

"Where did you—"

"Badger's got some good forgers. And he owes us."



"I'm sorry I hit you."

"We'll arrive at Bernadette in the morning, about oh-nine-hundred. You get some rest. Can't help Kaylee if you're dead on your feet."

Simon had been off-world before. He'd taken day trips to other core planets. Gone hiking with his Medacad roommate on Ariel, attended the theatre in Capital City on Poseidon with his parents in his teens. He'd spent two months, between Medacad and his residency, working in a clinic on Tiantán.

Nothing in his life thus far had prepared him for the absolute chaos of Eavesdown Docks on Persephone.

He'd arrived on a transport shuttle that morning and met with two men he knew only as Michaels and Nelson—aliases, he was sure—in a dusty warehouse on the edge of town. He'd handed over the bag of platinum for which he'd exchanged almost every last credit he had without a thought, his eyes fixed on the silver-grey stasis module sitting almost haphazardly among the cargo in one corner of the cavernous building. He'd wanted to open it right there and then; make sure that this all hadn't been some sham. But it would be another seven days before the drugs would wear off and it would be safe for River to emerge.

By then, Simon hoped to be at the other end of the galaxy.

"There's a man waiting for you on Boros," Michaels had said as he'd tucked the bag into the pocket of his coat and pulled out a flimsy with a set of co-ordinates and time, which he handed to Simon. No names. He was getting used to that, finally, after three years. "Got ident cards for the both of you—so you can start a new life."

"Thank you," Simon had said, no knowing what else to say, continuing to look past the tall blond stranger to stare at the box that was his one lone possession left in this world. "Thank you so much—"

They had turned and walked out, the transaction complete. Their end of the bargain held up. And Simon had been left alone in the storage facility, his luggage and medkit at his feet.

Now, he looked over the row of ships of every shape and size—none of them Alliance. Alliance vessels docked at the spaceport, an enormous structure of steel and glass and cool white plastic walls half a mile east. When the morning haze had burned off, Simon could see the building in the distance, the sun glaring off its windows.

Eavesdown docks, on the other hand, were mainly for cargo ships. Of the seven ships displaying Boros as their destinations, only three were taking on passengers. Paragon had a cluster of Alliance feds a little too close to it for Simon's comfort, and Brutus wouldn't land on Boros until four days after his scheduled rendezvous with the forger.

So he found himself reading the screen in front of a disreputable little midbulk firefly-class transport called Serenity with 12 berths available. It wasn't leaving for another hour, but it was going straight to Boros and thus far no other passengers had signed on. It had the added advantage of being cheap. He'd paid three times as much for his trip from Ariel to Persephone, and he was running low on credits. He hadn't accessed his accounts since he'd left Osiris, worried that they would be able to track him through his credit accounts. He'd cleaned out a separate account he'd set up before he'd left Osiris, and had paid in cash for everything from food to lodgings ever since.

"You headed to Boros?" came a voice, and Simon looked up to see a girl a little older than River sitting in a lawn chair set out in front of the ship, a yellow wooden and paper parasol leaning against its side.

She wore a peacock blue embroidered silk jacket over a pair of dingy coveralls and her light brown hair was twisted up off her neck. She was holding a paper boat with four guo-tie in it, a set of plastic disposable chopsticks still in their wrapper held against its side with one small pink thumb as she used her other hand to tuck stray wisps of hair behind her ears.

"Yes," he said, startled at her wide smile. No one else he'd met since he left Ariel the night before had smiled at him. Not like this. It seemed absolutely genuine—he wasn't used to people smiling at him like they meant it. "Yes—I am."

"Well, we've got plenty of room, and Serenity here is the smoothest ride from here to Boros."

She popped one of the dumplings into her mouth and giggled as the juice from the pork ran down her chin, which she dabbed at with her fingers to catch it before it could hit her shirt. Before he realised what he was doing, he had pulled the handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to her.

"Xièxie—xièxie nî," she said once she'd swallowed and almost daintily wiped her mouth with the square of silk. "Is it just you, then? Or you got a wife or family coming along—"

"Just me," he said quickly. "I have some cargo stored in town—"

"Oh, well, cargo we's used to." She jumped up and ran over to the ramp. She pressed a button on the side of a comm just inside the door. "Hey, Wash? We got a passenger with some cargo—hey," she called over to Simon, "will it fit on the back of a mule?"

"I believe—yes."

"Yeah, Wash, it can go on the mule. You wanna come down and go pick it up?"

"Shìde, Kaylee. Be right down," came the static-laden reply.

"Shiny," the girl smiled and handed Simon back his handkerchief before she picked up her lunch and sat back down. "We'll be ready to go soon as our captain gets back—is your stuff far?"

"It's just across town."

"Wash'll get it brought round for you quick as anything, don't you worry, mister...?"

"Simon. My name's Simon," he said as he folded the silk and tucked it back in his pocket before extending his hand.

"Gāxìng jìandào nî." She shook his hand, her grip firm. "I'm Kaylee—ship's mechanic, and this here," she turned as a man in orange coveralls, his blond hair sticking up every which way came trooping down the ramp, "is our pilot, Wash. Wash, this is Simon—we're takin' him to Boros. Um..." She turned back to him with a charming smile, suddenly shy. "We are, aren't we?"

He hadn't actually said that yes, he was booking passage, and suddenly it was being treated as a fait accompli. It made him feel slightly dizzy, like he was caught up in a whirlwind. One, he suspected, with a charming smile. Simon wanted to stammer a denial—something. Anything. But try as he might, he couldn't actually dredge up a decent reason not to book passage on the little firefly. It was going where he needed to go, it seemed safe enough, and...

The girl—Kaylee—continued smiling at him, looking hopeful.

He couldn't think of a good enough reason.

Jayne didn't say anything when Shepherd Book came over to the weight bench.

He just kept lifting the barbell over his head, ignoring straining muscles and tendons. He'd lost count of how many reps he'd done. It just gave him something to do—something to keep his mind off... everything. Arms and neck ached, muscles burning with exertion, but he'd kept at it. He welcomed the pain, the simple oblivion of the mindlessness of it. Didn't require no thought, working out. He could push all the thoughts away and narrow his focus down to one simple thing. Like breathing.

His shirt was soaked through with sweat, which stung his eyes as he sat up.

"I just came to see how you were doing," Book said, and Jayne gave him a sharp look.

"Walkin' and talkin'. I'm just fine. Can't say the same for Badger, though. Little bastard just about pissed himself. It was entertainin', almost."

"The captain was right. It won't be like the last time, you know," Book said almost conversationally as Jayne gave up the weight bench and moved to spot. Preacher didn't even change the weights. Over the last few months, it had become kinda a routine—a game, even—between them. Book couldn't work as long as Jayne could, but he worked as hard. Jayne didn't think he'd ever seen an old guy as cut as Book. Made him wonder what the preacher was 'fore he became a preacher, sometimes. Man had tracking skills and knew far too much about crime as any clergy had a right to know.

Next to Kaylee, who pretty much thought the best of everybody until she was proven dead wrong, Book was the closest thing he had to a friend on this boat, and that was a spooky thought in and of itself. No one ever seemed to give a damn about what Jayne thought or felt or did—unless it was to kick his ass about it. 'Cept Book.

Zoe had Wash, and when Mal was in a mood to be sociable, he more often went to Inara's shuttle or presided over the dinner table like some damn lord, master of all he surveyed. The doc and his sister kept more to themselves, though that had changed a fair bit once the doc and Kaylee started getting it on. But him and the doc never had quite worked out their little scraps, and Jayne was in no hurry to. Doc set his teeth on edge too much—not to mention there was too much between them now thanks to the Ariel job to ever make them anything even approaching friends.

But Book was different. The shepherd seemed to actually enjoy his company. That was something Jayne had never expected. And he found, some nights, he actually went looking for the preacher his own self. Not to make any kind of confession, of course. Jayne had been raised most as what his granny would have called a Godless heathen on a good day, godforsaken bastard on another. But it was nice to have someone who didn't look down on him like he was scum all the time. Book talked to him like he was, if not an equal exactly, then at least somebody worth talking to.

"A man like Adelei Niska," Book began, not moving to start his workout yet—just talking, like Jayne and him were sitting at dinner instead of in the hold near the dead of night, "he couldn't understand why we came after the Captain, because he can't conceive of that kind of loyalty with no basis in fear. His men follow him—respect him—because they fear him. But Malcolm Reynolds' crew came after him because they love him."

"Hold it now, Preacher. Never said anything about love—"

"And he has to realise that the captain would do the same for any of his crew. He's got to know we'll come after him. But even if we didn't, he can pick us off one by one. Either way, he holds all the cards."

"This ain't no ruttin' card game."

"We could turn him over to the Feds. I'm sure there's plenty of lawmen be glad to collar a criminal of his standing."

"Can't. We'd get pinched."

Shepherd's brows drew together in a frown. "With Simon and River safe on Bernadette—"

"Don't have nothin' to do with them two fugies." Jayne shook his head. "We try and turn Niska in for what he did to Kaylee, and they'd say 'Why?' And we'd say 'Revenge.' And they'd say 'Why?' And we'd say ''Member that train job in Paradiso?' We'd get pinched.''

Book seemed to be collating that particular bit of data, his eyes focused on something far away. Something Jayne couldn't see. "So we take the law into our own hands?"

"The law and justice ain't the same thing at all," Jayne said, a grim smile playing with the corners of his mouth. "And what I plan to do to that man—that's justice, plain and simple."

"I'm surprised you're so gung-ho to go up against Niska."

"Why? I went the last time, didn't I?"

"Even though it was, as you put it, suicide."

"Everybody's got to die sometime." Jayne shrugged. "Might as well be in a firefight with Niska's boys. Not that I intend to die. There'll be dying, I just don't count on any of it being me, if you know what I mean."

"You care about her very much, don't you."

"It ain't—Man made it clear that he was gonna go after all of us. I just plan on going after him first. That's all."

"It's all right to care, Jayne," Book said, real softly, like Jayne was some wet-behind-the-ears kid and not a man full grown. "About Kaylee. We all do."

Kaylee. She was always so damned cheerful, always thinking the best of folks—made you want to live up to her expectations. Or duct-tape her mouth shut and dump her in the hold for a week.

"Doc'll fix her up," Jayne said with a shrug as Book laid back on the bench and lifted the barbell. "He always does."

"We're good, people," the captain's voice came over the comm. "We're outta the woods."

Jayne whooped in answer, and Kaylee reached over to stroke Serenity's side.

"That's my girl," she said softly. "That's my good girl."

She grinned at Book, who smiled back at her before kneeling down beside her, pressing the back of his hand to her cheek just like her mamma used to do when she was a little kid and took sick. He frowned when it came away slick with sweat.

"I think we better get you back to the infirmary," he said as she coughed and then grimaced at the pain that shot through her abdomen. "Jayne?"

The mercenary stopped his victory dance and crouched down to Kaylee's side.

"I'm okay," Kaylee tried to protest.

"You been shot, child. Still a ways from okay."

Jayne scooped her up, lifting her like she weighed nothing at all, and she bit back a cry of pain.

"Guess those meds the doc gave me're wearing off," she conceded as she let her cheek drop to Jayne's shoulder.

Simon was in the infirmary when they got there. River lay on the bed built into the wall.

"River! Is she okay?" Kaylee asked as Jayne laid her on the examination table.

"She's okay. I just gave her a smoother."

Kaylee coughed again, and this time she wasn't able to keep from whimpering from the pain. Simon reached into his bag and removed a syringe.


"Oh yeah," she said as her eyes blurred from the sudden tears. "Lots."

He rubbed the inside of her arm with alcohol before injecting her. Almost immediately, the pain began to recede.

"You're bleeding," she said muzzily. Simon blinked and touched his split lip in surprise.

"I'll be fine." He carefully peeled back the dressing on her wound, frowning at the blood. "You tore your stitches, getting out of bed."

"Maybe tore more'n that," she admitted.

"Lay back—I need to scan you. See if there's any internal bleeding." She shifted her weight, closing her eyes at the twinges of pain even the meds couldn't catch.

"Thank you, for what you did," Simon said softly as he passed the scanner over her. "For warning me about Dobson."

"Did he... I mean, is he—"

"He's dead," Simon said, his voice sounding flat and hollow. "The captain shot him."

She wanted to feel bad, about him being dead. He'd seemed so nice, when he'd signed on to be a passenger. But she couldn't help it. She was glad. She'd never been so scared, when he'd snatched Simon's little sister from the infirmary and pointed that gun at her. It was scarier than getting shot. That had happened so fast—one second she'd been walking through the door and next thing she knew, she was on the floor of the cargo bay.

"He was gonna shoot me in the throat," she said quietly. Even the reavers hadn't scared her the way Dobson's voice had, when he'd said he was gonna shoot her. Because this was a man who had smiled at her as he'd passed her the tomatoes at dinner. Someone she'd thought was a good man.

She'd frozen like a rabbit. To scared to move or breathe, even. She'd waited until his footsteps and River's whimpers had died away before she'd pushed herself off the bed and lurched to the comm on unsteady legs. She'd sank to the floor afterwards and stayed there.

It was Shepherd Book who found her. He'd come in, blood on his face and helped her back to the bed. He'd gotten a cloth to wipe the blood away from the cut, and she'd been about to ask him what had happened when Jayne had barrelled in and said they had to get her to the engine room.

"I'm sorry he ever shot you at all," Simon said, and she looked up into those blue, blue eyes and knew he meant it.

"You're limping, too," she said as he replaced the scanner in its casing.

Smile twitched at the corner of his mouth. "Jumped off a catwalk."

"Āiya, ù kê néng!"

"It's true. Landed right on him."

"Good," she said, smiling. "Hope you dented him."

"Now, you rest." He pulled a blanket over her, and the darkness came up to swallow her. She let it, thinking about those blue eyes and kind smile.

Wash awoke to darkness, panicked and unsure of where he was for the split-second between waking and hearing Zoe's steady breathing beside him.

Slowly he allowed his eyes to adjust, and the darkness softened. The glow from the green and red buttons of the comm on the wall next to the ladder gave him enough light to pick up shapes, rendering in shades of brown and grey what had been impenetrable blackness seconds before. Slowly, his home—his and Zoe's quarters—took familiar shape around them, banishing the memory of a back room. Warm sheets and a soft mattress chased away the cold touch of orange metal stretchers welded to a pipe frame. The scent of his wife's hair masked the smell of ozone and human flesh cooking like meat. He swallowed, tasting bile in the back of his throat.

Zoe shifted, her breathing changing, and then her hand was at his shoulder.

"Nightmare?" she asked, snuggling closer.

"Yeah," he said, still trying to shake off the effects. "Don't know if I'm going to get much sleep tonight."

"Gotta sleep. Can't get the bad guys if we don't sleep."

"How can you... I mean..."

"Practice," she said, stroking his hair. "Once you've slept in a foxhole while shells rained down and machine guns went off ten feet from your head all day and all night, you learn. You learn to grab what sleep you can. Even with the nightmares."

"Never thought I'd be jealous of your war stories..." he pressed a kiss to her temple. "I just can't stop thinking about it, you know?"

She went very still. "About what?"

"About everything. About what would have happened if you'd gone with Mal to meet Bolles, instead of me—"

She sighed and wrapped her arms around him, pulling him close. "Honey, we've been over that—"

"Zoe, that could have been you, months ago. If it hadn't been me, it would have been you. That could have been you, today, 'stead of Kaylee."

"Shhhhh, ài rén. No point in worrying over might-have-beens."

"No, Zoe—nî bù dông." His voice had an edge of desperation to it. "I was glad. I was so glad it wasn't you. Jesus, what kind of person am I—"

She laid a hand against his lips to stop the words. "You're my husband. You're my wonderful, brave, smart, heroic husband."

"I don't feel like a hero right now," he said, eyes burning with tears. "I feel like a monster."

"Baby, every man and woman who died in Serenity Valley—don't you think, even as I mourned them, I thanked God every second that it wasn't me who took that mortar shell? Lost a leg? Bled to death while we waited for them to negotiate the armistice?"

He shuddered. Zoe hardly ever talked about the war. Not like this. She was so calm, describing horrors that would have given him nightmares for years. A kind of calm that sometimes scared him.

"Captain's got a plan," she said, sound so sure. "It'll all work out, you'll see."

He wanted to have the same kind of trust in Mal that Zoe displayed every day. He didn't know if it was truly blind, or if she was trying to convince herself as much as him. But he couldn't stop himself from not believing. As much as it was Zoe's nature to trust, it was his to worry.

"How, Zoe? How will it work out? Even if we get the guy—that doesn't make it all go away. Doesn't mean it never happened, you know?" He buried his face in her hair, letting the curls wipe the tears away. "It just... I can't stop thinking about it."

"I know, baby," she said, pressing a kiss to his temple, and he thought for a moment he felt tears on her own cheeks.

Part IV

Hey you.

I know you're sleeping, and Simon says you probably can't hear me—he's medicated you against the pain, and you'll be out for a while. But just in case—just in case you can hear me, I want you to know you're not alone, mèimei. You'll never be alone, because there are people here who love you.

No matter what happens, we'll handle it together.

You'll never be alone. Not while I'm here.

Inara was already dressed, her personal belongings stowed for travel, when Mal appeared to tell her they had hit Bernadette's orbit. He was wearing the clothes he'd worn the day before, his blue eyes hooded and full of worry, and she knew that whatever her night had been like, his had most likely been worse.

"We'll send you a WAVE soon as we can," Mal said from where he had stood in the doorway. "To let you know—well... To let you know."

"Just come back," she'd said, her back to him as she'd prepped the shuttle for launch as Bernadette loomed in the distance, a serene blue ball with a scattering of white clouds that reminded Inara absurdly of the balls River and Kaylee used to play jacks.

"I'll do my best."

She turned in the pilot's chair, twisting so that she could see him. "I mean it, Mal."

"So do I."

She'd turned back to the shuttle controls so he couldn't see the tears in her eyes. She had heard his footsteps, and while every instinct screamed for her to go after him—that this might be the last time she would ever see him alive, she calmly continued her task.

After Mal had left her shuttle she had tried to rest, but sleep had refused to come. She had tossed and turned in her bed, and then finally given up. Serenity had been silent as the proverbial tomb. Wash had set the autopilot, and the lights were low, cast just enough illumination for someone to make out the deckplates and stairs. She could usually count on someone wandering through the ship even this late at night. Jayne, on his way to the galley to get a snack. Mal in the pilot's chair, staring at the stars. Or even River, sneaking out of the passenger dorm to dance to music only she could hear in the cargo bay. But Inara had made her way from her shuttle to the mess and back again without running into a single soul.

She had stopped in the infirmary, setting the steaming mug on the counter carefully, so as not to wake Simon, who was curled on his side on the bench built into the wall. The lights had been low, and she had stood next to Kaylee's bed, gingerly picking up the girl's unbandaged hand and holding it between her own.

Inara had prayed for Mal in the past, when he was out on dangerous smuggling jobs. She would never tell him. It would only infuriate him, to know that she had bargained a thousand times with merciful Buddha, promising that if they just came home safe and sound—whole and unhurt, she would...

She would do anything.

Kaylee was like a sister to her—a beautiful, naïve, free-spirited, genius mechanic sister. She would do anything to spare her pain, to keep her from harm.

While she had been making tea for the governor's son, Kaylee had been snatched off a street full of people in broad daylight.

While she had been seeing to Miller's physical needs, using all the years of her training, all the skill of her art, her friend had been viciously beaten and brutally raped.

While she had been docking her shuttle, thinking trivial thoughts about trivial things, her sister had been dumped like yesterday's trash outside their door.

As a message. To prove a point. To cow them, hurt them, make them understand that they were mortal. That they were fragile. And that they were at another's mercy.

Inara hadn't needed to see Kaylee broken to know that. She had been born knowing that. People were frail creatures, easy to damage. But to live in constant fear... that wasn't living. And that was what Niska wanted: to make her live in fear. And as much as she wanted to deny him that power over her, Kaylee's broken and battered body had shattered her resolve. He was winning, and she didn't know how to deny him that victory.

She had felt so ashamed, breaking down the way she had. Forcing Mal to comfort her when she should have been the one to provide comfort. All of her training was based around the idea of providing comfort to others. Not just the comfort her body could afford—companions were trained to provide solace and understanding for their clients. Seeing to the needs of their minds, their souls, as well as their desires.

But crying herself out in Mal's arms, it was as if all her training had fled. More and more, she felt like she was losing control. She had always held herself apart from this crew—this family. Always. But over the last several months, that studied detachment had eroded almost completely. Once, she'd believed she had to leave Serenity precisely because she no longer felt she could bear leaving. Now she knew she couldn't go. Couldn't leave Kaylee, or Mal. Couldn't imagine not being a part of this insane, rag-tag bunch of thieves and fugitives whom she counted among the best men and women she had ever known.

Well, except for perhaps Jayne.

Her fingers tapped the shuttle controls, laying in her course—her hands following the paths she knew so well out of habit, while her mind was still on the memory of Kaylee's hand on hers.

Inara felt as if the merciful Buddha had abandoned her. For the first time, she understood what it must have been like for Mal, the day the Independents had surrendered. Like there was no reason, no logic, no God. Because if there was a God, how could such a thing happen? How in the 'verse could such a thing even be possible?

"Just come back," she murmured to the empty shuttle.

Kaylee slid open the door to Simon's quarters carefully, trying not to make a sound in case he was sleeping. She was surprised to find the light still on, and him still awake. Simon grinned as he set down his reader, and she lifted the blanket and curled up next to him in the narrow bed.

"Your feet are like ice!" Simon hissed, as her bare feet met his calves.

"Sorry," she murmured, and dropped a kiss on his shoulder. "Deckplates just leech the warmth right outta me."

He leaned over her, groping across the floor before he came up with a pair of socks. "Why weren't you wearing shoes?" he asked as she sat up to tug them on.

"Just ran up to the engine room for a minute, to check on the catalyser—"

"That was two hours ago. I made it halfway through the latest medical journal Inara downloaded off the cortex for me."

"Well, yeah—meant to only be a minute, though," she admitted sheepishly. "I'm surprised you're awake. Couldn't sleep?"

"I've gotten used to not sleeping alone," he said with a chuckle as she pulled the covers back over them. He wrapped his arm around her waist, pulling her close, until they lay like two spoons in a drawer.

She relished the warmth of his arms around her, his breath warm on her neck. The last two months had been like a dream. Waking up beside him, sometimes to find him already awake and just watching her—it was the best dream she'd ever had. Sometimes, she pretended she wasn't dreaming. That this was reality. That this was forever.

Kaylee could admit to herself that she might be a romantic, but deep down, she knew that you work with engines long enough, you know that romantic notions don't make wheels turn. Don't keep you flying. Real life is about a certain amount of friction and grit that gums up the works, and someday, parts just plum wear out and need to be replaced. No matter how well you take care of them, no matter how good you are about making sure there's always enough oil to keep her running smooth—someday, a thing's gonna break. Won't be nobody's fault; that's just the way of things.

But moments like this, when the whole ship was quiet, the crew tucked into their beds and Simon's arms around her, she could pretend.

"I thought maybe you'd want your bunk all to yourself again," she said with a smile. The narrow berths of the passenger dorm were actually a few inches wider than the bunks in crew quarters, so she had spent more than a few nights in his of late. She was starting to forget what her own room looked like. "It being a tight fit, and all."

"I suppose we'll just have to make do," he said with a theatrical sigh that ruffled her hair. She reached up to lift it up, out of the way, and she shivered as he pressed a kiss to the nape of her neck. "Though it does make me wonder how Zoe and Wash manage."

"Oh, they got a big bed."

"How big?" he asked, his mouth travelling down the side of her neck towards her shoulder slowly, teasing.

"Big enough," she giggled, then gasped as his teeth nipped gently at the spot where her neck curved into her shoulder. "Captain's wedding present was the bigger room," Kaylee recalled with a smile. "He gave them his quarters and he moved into Wash's old room next to mine. Then me and Jayne got them the big bed."

"How'd it fit through the door?"

"Well, you don't bring it all put together, silly," she said as she rolled over onto her back so she could look up into his face. He lazily stroked her ribcage, fingers sneaking beneath her shirt, dipping to trace the curve of her hipbone almost absently. "You bring all the pieces onboard one at a time, then put it together in the place where it's gonna stay. That's how you do, on a ship."

"Huh. I guess you learn something new every day."

She lifted her head for a kiss, twining her fingers in his dark hair and pulling him closer.

"So, you bring all the individual... pieces..." he said when he could catch his breath again. "And you put them together in the place they're going to stay?"

She swirled her tongue around the inside of his ear, gently taking the lobe between her teeth. "Yeah."

All thoughts of beds—other than the one the two of them were currently sharing—were driven out of Kaylee's mind as she pushed him over, onto his back. The blankets tangled between their legs as she straddled him. Thorough the soft grey cotton pyjama pants, she felt him getting hard as she leaned down and trailed kisses across his bare chest.

He closed his eyes, dark lashes like smudges against his cheeks as his breath quickened. Not for the first time, she was struck by how amazing he was. How amazing that they were there, together. That somebody as smart, and sophisticated, and just... shuài as Simon was hers. That he was hers, and that she was his.

She delighted in him, delighted in the sounds he made as her hands raked his chest lightly even as her mouth crept downward. Delighted in the way he gripped handfuls of the tan sheets as she edged backwards slowly, one leg on either side of his knees, as she dipped her tongue into his belly-button. She took joy in the way he gasped and arched his back as she caressed him through the thin layer of grey cotton. She took joy in the warmth that began to build inside her as his breath came faster, a flush creeping across his chest as he licked dry lips, eyes squeezed tightly shut.

One hand released tortured fabric and came up to brush her hair, and she pressed a kiss into the centre of his palm before she peeled off his grey cotton trousers. She tugged her own top over her head, tossing it so it landed on the floor next to his shoes before she wriggled out of her own pants. And then it was just them. Naked as the day they were born and ready for anything, she observed with a gleam in her eye.

Sometimes, it was quick. As if they'd go crazy if they couldn't touch each other, and every kiss was like fairy food that only made them crave more. Other times, it was slow—as if they had all the time in the world just to touch, and taste, and feel. But the one thing that never seemed to change was the incredible rush of elation Kaylee felt when they were together. Like nothing else in the world mattered when he was inside her, his hands gripping her hips as she moved. The entire 'verse narrowed to just the two of them.

When he came, crying her name, it didn't matter that he came from the Core, and she was from a poor backwater like Zephyr. When she lay across his chest, the sweat cooling on her body, her hair sticking to her cheeks and his neck, all that mattered was that she was his. And he was hers.

"How do you move it once it's all put together?" Simon asked as he turned off the light, and they pulled the blankets back over themselves. "The bed, I mean."

"Well, I s'pose you'd just take it apart again," she said after a moment.

"It's a good thing it's not going anywhere, then," he said, burying his face in her hair. "The bed. That would be an awful lot of work, taking apart something that had been put together so well."

"Yeah," she said softly, wondering if perhaps they weren't talking about furniture at all.

Radha was waiting for them when Inara's shuttle landed. Her long black hair was coiled low on her neck, and she smelled of jasmine when she enveloped Inara in a warm hug as she stepped through door. They had attended the Academy on Sihnon together and hadn't seen each other in years, but it was as if no time had passed at all.

"These are my friends," Inara said as Simon and River had alighted from the small craft, the former helping one of Radha's nurses carry Kaylee's stretcher, and the latter with wide dark eyes that took everything in. "Jiàn and her cousin, Alexander."

Inara tried to sound as casual as possible as she introduced them using the names on the forged ident cards Badger had provided then. She'd told Radha some of what she could—but she knew it would be best if no one on Bernadette knew Simon and River's names. After surviving their encounter with Jubel Early, it seemed only wise to take more precautions. She hated the idea of putting Radha and her House in danger, but the idea of what would happen if someone like Niska got his hands on River made it the lesser of two evils by far.

River wore a pair of Kaylee's old coveralls, her long dark hair in two plaits, and a pair of Wash's old glasses perched on her nose. She'd even—though how, Inara could hardly understand—subtly altered her accent so that it featured the rounder vowels of the edge of the Core worlds like Tiantán or Kwan Yin, instead of the smooth, clipped tones Inara associated with Osiris.

"I'm in disguise," River had said when she'd met them in the shuttle that morning. Normally, such a game would make Simon smile. However, Inara suspected it would be a long time before Simon would smile easily. When he and Jayne had carried Kaylee's stretcher to the shuttle, the first thing Inara had noticed was how pale and drawn the young doctor looked, and she wondered if he'd gotten any real sleep at all the night before.

The Companion Guild House in Castlebridge was a small one in comparison to the Academy on Sihnon, home to only twenty registered companions of varying ages. Bernadette had suffered during the war, and there were few Houses still operating so far from the central planets. It had surprised Inara when she had learned Radha had taken a position as a house mistress so far from the Core. But then, Inara wouldn't have been able to picture herself renting a dilapidated shuttle from a bunch of Independents on the run from the Alliance, either.

But the building was, Inara noted, large and full of light. Sunlight poured in through floor-to-ceiling windows and gauzy white drapes, and the floors alternated between smooth white birch and cool tile. The entire House was built on one level, in a vaguely octagonal shape. The receiving hall and ballroom, offices, comm centre, and half a dozen consecrated suites were in the front, facing the grounds. Living quarters, library, kitchen and hospice were set further back, arranged around a large open atrium full of cherry and plum trees that had lost their blossoms and were now in full leaf. Red lanterns hung in the gallery formed by the overhanging terraces which ran the length and breadth of the courtyard.

On Sihnon, the lanterns had only been raised and lit during the second week after New Years—Yuanxiao Jie. But Inara remembered how much Radha had loved the Lantern Festival, when the Guild opened its doors and gave the students free reign, and an escape from their duties and studies. The lanterns were an ancient harbinger of prosperity and fertility dating back to Earth-that-was, and the sight of them gave her a familiar pang in her chest. Not homesickness, exactly. But the memory of a simpler, happier time.

"I've had the staff prepare guest quarters close to the hospice," Radha said, drawing Inara out of her reverie as they came to a halt outside Kaylee's room.

"Thank you," Inara said as Kaylee was transferred from the stretcher to the diagnostic bed. "I can't tell you how much I appreciate your hospitality—and your discretion."

"There's no need, Inara. I understand. If you need anything—your rooms are just down this hall, and I can have the staff alert you the moment—"

"I'd like to stay with Kaylee," Simon said quickly. "I'm her personal physician as well as... That is, please, if it's all right, I'd like to stay with her."

"Of course. We can have a cot brought up." Radha smiled at him warmly, and motioned another woman forward. She was perhaps ten, fifteen years older, her short dark hair neatly combed, and her skin, the colour of tea with milk, was smooth and unlined. "This is Talia Wynn, our doctor. She transferred here last year from the Academy on Poseidon. In addition to being a medical doctor, she's received extensive psychiatric training and acts as our counsellor as well as the head of the hospice staff."

"How long has she been unconscious?" Talia asked, her manner brisk, efficient as she put the memory tab Simon had give her into her reader and began scanning the readouts.

Inara moved to Kaylee's side, brushing the girl's hair back from her forehead. The right side of her face was terribly swollen—bruises darkening to purple from temple to jaw. Simon had done what he could, and she knew that they would fade quickly, but she had been shocked at how much worse Kaylee had looked that morning. She hadn't thought she could look any worse than she had when they'd found her.

"Twenty-four hours. With the extent of her injuries—particularly the pelvic fracture, the lacerations, bone-deep bruising—I thought it would be best if she remain immobile. I administered a pain block yesterday, but it should be wearing off soon."

"Did you administer any CRF antagonists?"

"Our ship's infirmary is very rudimentary—we don't have a cortical imaging scanner. My primary field of study was trauma, not neuro, and I didn't want to risk starting any psychiatric treatment without sufficient scans—"

"No—no, that's good." She flashed Simon a quick smile that took years off her age. "We're still inside the 72 hour window. We can do it here. Do you have any idea how many assailants...?"

"Three," River said, and all eyes turned to her. Radha and Talia looked confused and startled, and Inara watched Simon grow very still, not even blinking. "They came out of the shadows. They were bigger than she was—made her into a thing. Made her into nothing but an object."

Kaylee was practically whistling as she made her way through the bustling crowds around the port at Shepherd's Landing Docks. They hadn't been on Greenleaf in a good while, but her feet knew the way to Mitchell's, and so she let her eyes wander over the impressive array of shops, food stalls, and interesting people out having a day. The sun was shining, the sky a pale, pale blue high above her. Flitters and hovercars would occasionally cast shadows as they crossed between her and the sun as she wound her way through the narrow streets and alleys.

"There will be other planets, other junkyards, with other parts," Simon had said as she'd been getting dressed that morning, and she'd had a hard time dragging herself out of their bed. Mainly because the sight of him, hair sticking up every which way, naked torso beneath the blankets, tended to be an incentive to take her clothes off rather than put them on.

"Do you know how hard it is to find new used coils for an aught-three that ain't already half gone? They cost a fortune new, just 'cause they last so long, and they outlast the ships, half the time. Only time you ever find 'em used is when they're already fit to bust. Mitchell says he got a great haul in, and if I don't get 'em—"

"He's just trying to make a sale," he'd said, making a grab for her as she sat on the end of the bed, trying to lace up her boots.

"And I aim to let him!" she laughed as she hopped on one foot sideways, out of range of his questing hands. "But I can't if I'm not there to hand him the platinum."

"Can't Mal—"

"Cap'n's gotta stay here, waiting for Badger's fellas." She'd kissed him quickly. "I won't be long."

He'd sighed and laid back, hands laced behind his head. It did interesting things to his biceps, and she'd stood in the doorway, chewing on her lip thoughtfully for a minute. She'd swooped in, getting a proper kiss—and a bit more—before she'd finally attempted to extricate herself.

"No, I'm going," she said against his mouth.

"You're not going." She felt his smile.

"I'm going," she repeated, dragging herself away from him, the bed, the room. "I'm going. See?" She waved to him from the doorway. "This is me leaving."

Then she'd laughed at the face he'd made.

Simon and River almost never left Serenity now; not when they was in port. Mal figured, after the Ariel job and Early's attack, it just made more sense for the two of them to keep a low profile. The doctor was, Kaylee had decided, getting a bit stir crazy, staring at the same four walls day in and day out.

She remembered her own first six months aboard. How the first few weeks, she'd been so busy, and it had all been so new. Then once she got into a routine, things started going smooth—that was when she'd had time to think about all the little stuff she missed. The sound of crickets outside her bedroom window. The smell of summer rain. Grams' applesauce cake and spending days with Mac and the horses.

The difference was, Kaylee could still go back there, if she was of a mind to.

Simon had talked about Osiris a lot, at first. Not so much his folks—she'd noticed that right off. But what life had been like at the hospital. Friends he'd made in Medacad. What he and River used to do, when they was kids. It had seemed terribly exotic and strange to Kaylee, but she realised now that it had been as common as her growing up in Riverside in its own way. And the longer Simon was out in the black, the more he seemed to need to talk about what he'd left behind. Both to keep it behind him and to remember what life had been like before all the craziness had begun. To remind himself that he hadn't always been on the run.

He'd adjusted to his new life a lot better than Kaylee would have thought he would have. She got the giggles as she tried to picture the staid and proper Doctor Tam she'd met at Eavesdown Docks that day helping Book with the dishes. Or up to his elbows in dirty laundry when he got stuck with Zoe's chores after losing three hands running at a late night card game. Or crawling around barefoot in the hidey, getting covered in dirt and whatnot, chasing after River when they'd had a particularly energetic game of ghost-in-the-graveyard. It was a childhood game Kaylee hadn't realised they even knew in the Core until River had announced at lunch that Kaylee was ghost and had until midnight to hide.

The captain had just shook his head as the three of them had acted like idiots for hours, culminating with River scaring the hell outta Jayne when he'd found her crouched in the storage locker where he kept his weights. Then the game had morphed into a breakneck speed game of tag with half the crew cheering them on from the catwalk.

Simon had won. Even with River being able to read folks' minds, her brother was still faster. Of course, Kaylee had let him catch her. It seemed only fair.

"We'll have fun when I get back," she'd promised as she'd slid the door to his room in the passenger dorm open. "I'll see if I can pick something up for River in town, too."

She stopped in front of a boy selling bubble makers. They were just coils of copper wire bent into the shape of hearts, spirals, and honeycombs which he dipped in a tray of soapy water and swung through the air. Huge soap bubbles floated up, iridescent as dragonfly wings in the sunlight, before they hit a dry patch of wall, cloth, or person and popped. She remembered when she was a little girl, asking her mother why the bubbles were always round, instead of being the same shape as the wands. Now she knew why; but it didn't make it any less magical.

Kaylee wondered briefly if River would like such a toy, before she had a brief mental image of Mal getting a face full of soap next time he stepped into the mess. She turned away from the boy, and slammed face-first into a guy coming out of the mouth of the alley.

"Duìbùqî," she murmured, trying to step out of his way. She was puzzled when he stepped into her path. Then her eyes grew wide as he suddenly grabbed her forearm, forcing her backwards into the narrow alley between two buildings, one hand pressed to her mouth before she could even scream. She was plunged into gloom—the buildings on either side rising up so far she could only see a sliver of blue sky between them. The sunlit street full of busy people seemed miles away.

Her teeth rattled in her head as he slammed her up against the wall, one massive forearm across her chest, pinning her. His large hand still clamped over her mouth—almost completely covering her nose and mouth—coupled with the weight across her chest, made it hard for her to breathe. She couldn't even move her head, only her eyes. In her peripheral vision, two shadows detached from the rear of the alley, taking the shape of men as they came closer.

She could see the soap bubbles floating harmlessly through the air behind them. She was frozen—couldn't move, could barely breathe. She couldn't even see the man who held her. Her eyes blurred with tears of pain, and all she had was the vague impression of tall, fair-haired, and big. Big as Jayne. Maybe bigger.

"This the one?" one of them asked, his English heavily accented.

"Trailed her from the docks," the man holding her said. "Straight from Reynolds' ship."

Something glinted in the other man's hand, and as she realised what it was, she was shocked out of her stupor, kicking and clawing at the man who held her. She tried to scream, but it only came out a strangled yelp as the needle plunged into her neck.

"Perfect," she heard as the alley began to fade away. "Mr. Niska will be pleased."

Her last thought, before her vision went dark around the edges, was that Mitchell was gonna sell those coils. She was going to die, and Mitchell was going to sell those coils to someone else.

Mal spread the flimsy out on the table in the mess hall. They were an hour out of Bernadette, and Zoe and Wash sat at one end of the table, the pilot's hand in his wife's resting on the tabletop. Jayne and Book stood, the former practically vibrating with energy and unable to keep from fidgeting, and the latter remarkably calm, staring at the flimsy, his hands clasped in front of him as if it were a newspaper.

The intel Badger had provided was good; better than what Mal had expected. For the first time, he felt as if they might survive this.

"Okay—according to Badger, Niska's got a gambling complex on Ithaca," Mal pointed out a cluster of white buildings and tapping a command, the flimsy zoomed in one the surveillance satellite photo, bringing the complex into detail. "He's there another two days. Should give us plenty of time to hit him and hit him hard."

"The second we enter orbit, he's gonna get a read on us," Zoe said, shaking her head as she leaned forward to try and get a closer look.

"We're not gonna get that close," Mal assured her, before turning to her husband. "Wash, you set Serenity down on Priam—that's the second moon. We'll take the shuttle from there."

He waited until he could see the light dawn in Wash's eyes, the knowledge blossoming in his eyes that he would be staying with the ship. Mal continued on quickly, before Wash could raise the obligatory objection about his wife going into a dangerous situation without him.

"Niska's fancy poker parlour is here—just outside of Capital City. We'll land in this patch of desert—couple of miles from the edge of the complex. Nice desolate spot. Should be far enough, their sensors won't pick us up."

"The complex's gonna be heavily guarded—"

"Which is why we go for him while he's in transit," Book said, and Mal tried to hide his surprise.

"You got a devious mind, Preacher." He'd spent half the night coming up with this plan—going over it in his head, turning it this way and that, and he was surprised that the shepherd, of all people, had come to the same conclusion so quickly. Yet another piece of the puzzle that Mal would shove aside for another day, when he would have the luxury of trying to figure Book out.

The plan was risky, and owed a little more to chance than Mal was comfortable with. But the gaming complex itself had air-tight security. That much cash going in and out of there every day; a man like Niska couldn't afford not to seal it up tight as a drum. But most men would be after the cash—not the man.

Mal wanted the man. Wanted him so bad he could taste it, like bile in the back of his throat. The memory of Niska, bleeding and cowering in fear on the skyplex had sustained him. Reminded him that, for all his hired goons and fanatical minions, Niska was still just a man. A man who could be hurt. A man who could be gotten to. A man who could be killed.

He figured they had that in common. The only difference was, Mal wasn't gonna let that stop him. Not today. Not ever again.

"Shepherd's right. Our best chance will be when he's in his hovercar, going between the gaming palace and home."

"Won't they know we're coming?"

"If I know Niska, he suspects something. But not this soon. And not this way. He wanted to put us on the defensive—not the offensive. And pretty soon, Badger's men on Cowlan Fed Base are gonna be sending him a coded WAVE with our next location."

"Badger know that?" Book said, quirking one eyebrow. Yep. Preacher had one devious mind.

"What Badger don't know can't bite us in the ass," Jayne growled, taking out his knife and whetstone.

"They'll get a location we're not gonna be at, though, right?" Wash asked Mal as he scanned the flimsy, still sounding slightly nervous. "I mean, I imagine that's the point—"

"WAVE's gonna tell him we're headed to Three Hills," Zoe assured him. "Niska's got no reason to doubt him, and Badger's got no reason to cross us."

"He better not, he knows what's good for him," Jayne grumbled. "Next time, he won't get off so good as he did yesterday—with just a messed up pair of pants."

"Badger's scum, but right now, he's more scared of us than he is Niska," Mal pointed out. "Not to mention, he relies on the income he can get off us, so long as we're still flyin'. That state of affairs won't last long, so we best take advantage of it while we can."

He looked at each of them in turn, taking stock. Wash was still looking a bit shaky, but Mal couldn't blame him. Not after how the last tangle with Niska had gone. Man hired on to be a pilot, after all—not a soldier. But there was a grim set to the little man, something in his blue eyes that Mal hadn't seen in a while. Not since Hera. Zoe had her hand on his shoulder, kneading it almost absently, and when she met Mal's eyes, she gave an almost imperceptible nod.

Jayne looked more than happy to go off and start cutting on folks. Not that that differed much from the usual state of affairs, all told. Preacher was still staring down at the flimsy, looking serious and grave. Mal had made him the offer of staying behind with Inara and the kids on Bernadette, but Book had simply said that wasn't an option. He'd been quiet ever since, reflective almost. Not as stoic as Zoe could be on her quietest days—but close enough to it to make Mal wonder once again just what kind of man he'd been before he put on the collar.

They all just looked back at him, resolute and steely. As ready as they were ever gonna be.

"We gotta do this fast, people. And we gotta do it right the first time. 'Cause there won t be a second. We don't breathe easy until we're back on Serenity and the job's done."

River couldn't breathe.

She had been in her room; organising her meagre collection of coloured pencils, pens, and slips of coloured wrapping paper she had rescued from the dustbins. She had intended to fold a thousand paper cranes, but she was still short several hundred pieces of paper. She had them arrayed according to colour and size, and at night she hid them beneath her mattress. She wasn't sure why, exactly. But at the time, it had seemed imperative. She had discovered one of the pages of Book's Bible among the white pages, and was debating the relative merits of returning Exodus 21 to him when she stopped breathing.

They were on the ground. If Serenity had been in the air, then a hull breach would have explained it. She clawed at her throat, eyes burning with sudden tears, and when she drew her first tortured breath after what seemed like an eternity of silence she screamed for her brother.

He came running from the infirmary, his task half done. She met him in the doorway of her quarters, hands gripping his shoulders. Images danced behind her eyes—jumbled, and soaked in blood, almost paralysing her. She had to fight to see him; see his blue eyes so close to hers, filled with concern and the first stirrings of dread. She'd been so good, the last few weeks. Almost right. Not right, but so close. Close enough that they'd both been lulled into believing the quiet would last. But now the quiet was filled with screams, and she realised with a start some of them were still coming from her.

"River? River what is it—"

"Air. No air. No light," she tried to force the words out in the right order so he would understand, but it was so hard. So hard to find the right words. It was worse than when Book was shot. Worse than the dead people hanging like meat. Worse, all of it worse, because it wasn't stopping. It wouldn't stop. "And too much blood."

"Blood? Are you hurt?" he asked, trying to calm her. He was so confused and worried. She pulled him towards the cargo bay doors with both hands. She wasn't as big as he was, she wasn't as strong.

"They came and they took her and they broke her!"

"Came and took who? River, you're not making any sense—"

"Simon, you have to come!" She ran ahead into the cargo bay, her brother trailing behind.

Jayne was working at the weight bench. He didn't stop when she ran past him. Just watched, muttering about the crazy girl as she slammed her hand down on the controls and the cargo bay doors began to slide open.

"Mèimei, we're not allowed to leave the ship."

Inara was on the catwalk, coming from her shuttle. She came down the stairs two at a time as River grabbed Simon's arm and dragged him towards the daylight. Inara's hair was done up in curls. It had taken half the morning. They were held with jewelled pins off her neck, arranged as carefully as the companion would flowers in a vase. As precisely as she would hold the calligraphy brush. As perfectly as a doll on a shelf. Her dark eyes were wide, as she took in the scene before her.

"What's going on?"

"I don't know—" Simon began, exasperated and beginning to be afraid, too.

"Simon!" River pleaded, tears slipping down her cheeks as she ran out the open doors. He followed her, and then he saw and understood.

Kaylee was crumpled against the side of the hull, blood soaking through her clothes. So much blood everywhere. People were gathering now in the street—watching, their eyes wide and mouths open.

"No," Simon gasped, and River felt his fear on top of her own—the weight of it crushing her. "No, no, no, no..." he chanted as he bent down to Kaylee's side, felt her throat for a pulse.

"Wôde tìan, Kaylee!" Inara came up behind her, her hand pressed to her mouth in horror. One of the pins that held the complicated mass of hair slipped. It hit the cargo bay floor, the sound of metal hitting metal so soft that River almost didn't hear it.

Inara stepped aside as Simon lifted the unconscious girl. He carried her inside the cargo bay and laid her down gently on the deckplates, while River could only stare. Stare and hear the voices that screamed inside her head. It was getting so crowded. It would be so easy for her to get lost, if she didn't stay focused.

The jewel set into the head of the pin sparkled in the light from the open door. Garnet. Blood.

"Jayne!" Simon barked, and the weights hit the floor with a metallic clang that seemed so loud, even in the cavernous space. Impossibly loud. Then Jayne stopped and stared too. Frozen.

"It's going to be okay, mèimei," Inara said, stroking her hair, even though her eyes were closed. "Kaylee? Can she hear me?" she asked Simon, frantic.

"There's so much blood," Jayne said, as if his mind couldn't grasp what he was seeing. River was forgotten. She felt invisible, standing behind them.

"Kaylee, can you hear me?" Simon asked, so tender. So afraid, but trying not to let it show. Trying so hard. "C'mon, open your eyes. Stay with me, xin gan. Kaylee? Can you hear me?"

Her eyes wouldn't open. Her breath came rasping and shallow. There was a smear of blood on the floor. There was blood on Simon's hands; Inara's too. River looked down at her hands; they were white and clean. She turned them over, staring at the creases in her palms.

"She's unconscious. Help me get her to the infirmary," Simon said as he lifted her, and Jayne got her feet.

River looked up, and saw the captain, standing frozen on the upper catwalk, his face pale and drawn.

River hit the door controls again, and the hatch slid shut. She leaned down and picked up the garnet pin, staring at it in the palm of her clean white hand. She closed her fingers around it and felt the metal setting cut into her palm. The airlock doors locked with a clank and a hiss. Daylight banished, and the cargo bay was once again plunged into gloom.

The sun was shining.

Kaylee blinked a few times, confused. Dust motes danced in the air, and her hand was warm from the sun that came in through the windows, painting the bedclothes gold. The bed was wider than her bed on Serenity, covered with a coverlet the colour of butter and she was beneath crisp white sheets. The walls beyond the edge of the bed were white, reflecting the light. There were vases of flowers—pink and white. She groped for the name and found it after a few seconds. Peonies. Her aunt had had a whole mess of them in her back garden, and she and her cousins Mac and Nita used to pick them, before Nita and her whole family had picked up and taken off for the Tamson colony when she'd been eight. She'd forgotten about them; hadn't seen any in so long.

She tried to swallow and grimaced. Her tongue felt swollen inside her mouth, and her throat was painfully dry. The entire right side of her head ached, a dull, low throbbing pain that was echoed in her side, between her legs, and pretty much every part of her she could feel. There was a needle in her arm. Clear fluid inside the IV tubing. She could see a little blood dried under the bandage that held it in place, and she stared at the vein, blue beneath her skin, for a moment. As if her arm weren't attached to her at all.

Slowly, as if she were viewing the world through cotton gauze, she began to be aware of sounds. Beeping from machines. The rustling of leaves outside. Birdsong. Breathing.

Turning her head, she saw Simon asleep on a cot beside her. His clothes were rumpled and stubble darkened his cheeks and chin. He was curled on his side on top of the blankets. One arm was out-flung, the fingers so close to hers she could feel their warmth. She reached out to touch him and flinched as she tried to flex fingers that were taped together.

The door was open, and there were voices outside. She thought one of them might be Inara's, but she wasn't sure. Women's voices, too indistinct for her to make out what was being said. She was planetside, and not any place she recognised. Everything was so fine and fancy, from the paper on the walls to the brocade patterned coverlet that covered the wide, comfortable bed. It reminded her of all the fancy dresses the girls had worn at the ball on Persephone, the silk and satin practically glowing beneath the hovering chandelier. Her own blankets on Serenity were surplus—rough wool that was warm enough, but not what anyone would call luxurious.

As she stared, River appeared in the doorway. She was wearing one of Kaylee's coveralls, the pair she'd just washed yesterday—they'd been dark brown once but had faded in the washing to rust-coloured. Kaylee wanted to ask why she was wearing her clothes, and why she had on one of Wash's old pairs of specs, but couldn't find her voice. It was like it was sealed up inside her, and she couldn't push any words past her dry lips.

River tiptoed over, so as not to wake her brother. Simon didn't even stir as she knelt next to the bed, resting her head next to Kaylee's thigh.

"The sun's warm," she said cryptically, her voice pitched as she reached for her hand. "It went dark. But now I can feel it on my face."

She reached up and ran the tips of her fingers down Kaylee's cheek. The touch was feather-soft. Kaylee flinched.

"Safe now," River whispered. "Don't be scared."

Kaylee's eyes began to fill with tears, and the room blurred into shades of gold and green and rose as River's hand tightened around hers.

Part V

I'll close my eyes, and it'll all just be a dream. Just a nightmare.

God, please let it just be a nightmare.

There were birds singing, outside. She had almost forgotten what that sounded like. It seemed impossible that there could be birds singing.

Kaylee sipped the water slowly, trying not to grimace as she swallowed. Her throat burned, but she'd been so thirsty. Like she hadn't had a drop of water in days. River had gone down to the kitchens, to see about getting her some grub. She didn't feel hungry, but she needed to eat something, as she hadn't since breakfast the day before.

Simon had woken up almost as soon as she'd had started crying, her face buried in River's shoulder, while the other girl had stroked her hair and whispered in her ear. He had come awake quickly, and she'd wondered if he'd done that at the hospital; caught sleep where he could and got in the habit of just going from sleeping to waking, no grey space between full of yawns.

Thinking about that gave her something else to think on, besides how bad he looked. How bad she knew she must look. One side of her face was stiff and swollen, and she gently probed the inside of her mouth with her tongue, and tasted blood still, the copper tang of it bringing back thoughts she wanted to keep at bay.

"I'm so cold," she said, her voice sounding muffled in her own ears, as she handed the glass back to Simon. "Can't get warm."

He pulled the blanket off his cot and tucked it around her gently. She hadn't gotten used to the finger splint on her left hand yet, and it made it hard for her to remember not to try and use that hand.

"Better?" he asked, and she nodded. Her cheeks felt chapped from crying, though her eyes were dry now. She'd blown her nose, with help from River, and there was a packet of paper tissues sitting on the little table next to the bed.

"How long...?" Her eyes took in the tastefully decorated room; she knew now it had to be a hospital of some sort. But it was fancier by far than any hospital she'd ever been before. She had an insane moment where she wondered if all the rooms in the hospital where Simon had worked had been this fancy.

"We've only been on Bernadette since this morning. You've been unconscious since... since we found you. A little over a day." He sat down on the edge of the bed, leaning over to lay the back of his hand against her forehead. "How are you feeling?" he asked, all calm and doctory, even in his rumpled shirt, his hair sticking up in the back.

"A little fuzzy," she admitted. "And a little like I'm gonna throw up."

"It's the pain block," he assured her. "You have a pelvic fracture, and some broken ribs. Dr. Wynn gave you an osteo-stim treatment while you were out—to speed up the natural healing process. But they're still going to take a few weeks to heal enough that you can put any weight on the bone. And you'll need some physio after the bed rest, for the atrophied muscles."

"Fancy doctor talk." She tried to smile, despite the pain in her jaw.

"Hey, only the best for my girl," he said gently, brushing her hair back from her cheek.

She took a deep breath, glanced down at their clasped fingers. His kept stroking her wrist with his thumb, staying clear of the bruises. "They worked me over pretty good, huh?" she said, trying to keep her voice light.

"Kaylee," He lifted her chin so her eyes met his. "I know what happened," he said softly.

Her eyes filled with tears again; she couldn't stop them. She couldn't tell if it was because she was glad he knew—or horrified. Part of her just wanted to pretend that it had never happened. The other part was just needing someone to know. It was all mixed up, and she couldn't stop the tears once they started coming. Her ribs hurt as she breathed, and now that she knew how messed up she was, all the little hurts seemed to be coming to the fore at once.

"They said they were gonna kill me," she said, her voice barely above a whisper. "I thought they were gonna kill me."

He leaned his forehead against hers, face cradled in his hands as he wiped away her tears gently with the balls of his thumbs. Every touch was so gentle, and she just wanted to scream. Because nothing felt right anymore. It didn't feel right, that people treating her with such care made her feel worse, instead of better.

"Simon, where is the captain?" Kaylee asked, as if waking from a dream as she realised that, since waking, the only familiar faces she'd seen were his, River's, and Inara's. Fear drew the remaining warmth from her bones, and almost made her teeth chatter with the cold. "Where's Serenity?"

"They went after him," he said softly. "They went after Niska."

Adelei Niska was a creature of habit.

He left his office, on the top floor of his recreational and highly legitimate gaming palace, flanked by two of his most trusted men at the same time each night. While Lars and Miklos kept their eyes on the crowds, he would walk through the throngs of people losing their meagre paycheques at his rigged tables. Showing his face. Reminding them all whose hospitality they were enjoying—and whose wrath they would have to face if they tried to cheat him in any way.

His wife would say that it was his arrogance which would be his undoing and, he mused as he strolled through the main floor of his casino, to a degree this would in fact be correct. But he had a right to be arrogant. He had won that right through decades of toil, which now afforded her the sort of life she had become accustomed to. The feather pillows she rested her head upon, the silk comforter that kept her warm, the silver they ate with, and the burnished wood of their three hundred-year-old bed were all bought and paid for with ill-gotten gains.

His family had risen from the ashes of Earth-that-was and carved for themselves a hold on explored space that rivalled anything his ancestors had accomplished at the height of their power at the turn of the third millennium. They had gone from petty mobsters to controlling the drug, slave, and unregistered prostitution trade across the first terraformed planets.

His uncle had built the skyplex Malcolm Reynolds' crew had left in partial ruins. Despite his best efforts, word had spread—the story of how less than a half dozen petty criminals had brought Niska to his knees. Left him for dead. Slaughtered over thirty of his best men. For generations, the name of Niska had been feared and respected. Now, that reputation lay in tatters, and he could hear the whispers.

Niska has grown weak, they said.

Niska has grown old.

Niska has grown foolish.

He had cut out the tongues of those whisperers he could find. But the whispers seemed to live on, passing from mouth to ear like a disease. He knew the cure—the only cure—was to show them all what it meant to cross a Niska. He wanted to hear Malcolm Reynolds' name whispered as a warning to anyone who would dare stand in his way.

"Your hovercar is waiting, Mr. Niska," Lars said, summoning him from his reverie. He found he was already at the lobby, the tempered glass doors showing him a pale shadow-reflection. His tie pin gleamed in the lights of the lobby. Not a hair was out of place. He did not see an old man.

"Mr. Niska?"

He refused to see an old man.

"Tell McCabe I want a report from Three Hills before morning," Niska snapped as Lars held the glass door open for him.

"Yes, sir."

Miklos opened the rear door of the hovercar, and Niska slid inside. He tapped on the glass, which separated the rear compartment from the driver's side, with a finger as the car rose into the air, leaving the glass and stone gaming palace below them.

"Sofia is making quail tonight, Stefan. If I am late, and it goes cold—you know how Sofia can be."

The glass slid aside, and the driver turned in his seat to face him.

"No, I don't actually—but I imagine right about now, 'Sofia' is about the last of your worries," Malcolm Reynolds said as he dropped a gas canister into the back.

River sat in the garden beneath a blooming magnolia tree, legs crossed and forearms resting on her thighs. She didn't look up as Inara approached and sat down on the grass beside the girl, smoothing the skirt of her long caftan over her legs.

The companions of the house were at dinner, and so far, Inara had only seen a few girls as she had made her way between Radha's office and the hospice. They had eyed her curiously, but kept walking, chatting to themselves and giving the newcomer a wide berth. Inara wondered what Radha had told them. She would ask her, later. For right now, she was more concerned with River's silence.

Simon had distracted Talia—taken control of the conversation after River's chilling comments about Kaylee's attack, and River had fallen silent while the two doctors had conferred regarding her injuries. But Inara was still perturbed by what River had said—and not said.

"You're afraid for her," River said, her voice soft and her dark eyes huge in her pale face.

Inara blinked. Someday, she would get used to how River was able to head straight to the heart of something,in a way that was often intensely uncomfortable. So many things about this girl had clicked into place in the last few months, since Jubel Early's attack. Inara was still sorting through all of the incidents since River and her brother joined Serenity and re-examining them in their new context.

It frightened her, sometimes. Not just that her government—the government she had supported during the war—could do such a thing to an innocent child. That they could murder to cover their tracks, destroy lives to preserve an experiment or weapon that just happened to be a teenaged girl. But it frightened her that it was even possible for someone to be able to do the things that River could do. Impossible things.

"Afraid she's broken and can't be fixed," River continued, her eyes searching Inara's.

"Yes, I am," she said simply, not knowing what else to say. What else she could say that River wouldn't already know, with her uncanny abilities. "What happened to her on Greenleaf... It's a kind of nightmare."

"No. It's not," River said gently. "You wake up from nightmares."

They sat in silence for a moment. River stared up at the windows of the hospice over the ridiculous horn-rimmed glasses, lips pursed.

"He's scared, too," she said. "He's trying not to be, but he can't help it. She's inside him—part of him. Everybody carries a piece of her, but they can't see how it blinds them."

She shook her head, braids dancing against her shoulders, and then she turned to Inara, smiling and reaching over to take her hand and give it a comforting squeeze.

"She's stronger than you think. Stronger than she looks. Even she doesn't know it yet."

"You knew Kaylee was hurt. You brought your brother to the cargo bay, because you knew," Inara said, thinking back to those horrible moments that felt like a lifetime ago, rather than yesterday. "And when you told us about the men—it was like what happened when we found the ship that had been hit by reavers, isn't it."

"Saw it all," she said, tapping a finger against her temple. "Behind my eyes."

River picked up a fallen blossom and began removing the petals.

"That's part of what they did. They tore away the veil, made me so I can see. It was too much. So crowded, before. But I'm getting better. It's getting better. Sometimes, I can choose. But the screaming gets so loud, can't drown it out."

Inara felt a chill race down her back. It was one thing, to imagine the worst. To look at Kaylee's face, and feel her stomach twist at the idea of what had happened. But River didn't need to imagine—she knew. Had somehow... if not lived it, then at least "read" it straight from Kaylee's mind. Out of all of them, River was the only one who would ever really know what had happened.

Inara didn't know how the girl—already fragile—could bear it.

"I'm stronger than I look, too," she said with a shrug. Inara forgot, sometimes, that the fragile girl next to her had also shot three men dead with her eyes closed. "That's why they opened me up; to see the springs and wires that make the clockwork girl spin. They're coming back."

Inara blinked at the sudden segue. "I never said—"

"You're afraid they won't. You're afraid that we'll have to go on alone, without them. Without him. But they're coming back for us," she said, as if she were the mother patiently calming the child's fears. There was something about her in that moment—something serene. Almost otherworldly.

"You sound so certain," Inara said with a wan smile.

"You think it's hope, shut into the box so death doesn't seem so scary."


"Jiàn," she corrected absently, even though there was no one else with them in the garden.

"How do you know?" Inara asked, brows drawn together in a slight frown. "What's going to happen?"

River shrugged again, dropping the remains of the flower to the grass. "Just do."

Inara knew that the relief she felt was because she wanted to believe River, rather than any kind of logic. She supposed, as she took the girl's hand, and the two of them continued their vigil from afar, that it was more like faith.

"There was three of them," Kaylee said, her eyes focused on the hands folded in her lap. River had returned with some soup, which had gone cold and sat, untouched, on the table. She'd tried eating, but the thought of food made her stomach turn. Thus far, she'd managed to keep down some of the fruit juice Inara had brought her. The sugar made her head buzz a little, but in a pleasant way.

Dr. Wynn had given her the once over, shooing everybody but Simon out while she conducted her examination. She'd been brusque but kind as she'd told Kaylee the outcome of the various tests and patiently explained how she was gonna be stuck in bed for a while, while she healed up. Kaylee had just nodded, eyes darting to Simon, watching him because she knew how to read his expressions.

After Dr. Wynn left, it was just the two of them. The sun was starting to go down, and Simon had turned on the lamp by her bed, which cast a soft golden glow over everything. He sat on the edge of the bed, one leg still on the floor for balance, and she rested her head on his shoulder. His sweater was rough beneath her cheek, but she didn't care. She breathed deep, smelling traces of the harsh detergent they all used to wash their clothes, and beneath that, Simon. He'd held her hand in both of his, trying to warm the cold fingers with his own body heat before he'd draped one arm around her shoulders, resting his cheek against her hair.

"One of 'em was a real big guy—he was the one who snatched me. The two other guys—one of 'em never touched me. Just watched."

Kaylee shivered, and Simon pulled the blankets closer around her. She was wearing a red embroidered robe over her shirt and soft trousers, and they had piled blankets onto the bed. She still shook with chills, and felt like she'd never be warm again.

"When I woke up," she went on, "I was cold, 'cause they'd taken my clothes. I couldn't figure out where my clothes were. My throat was real sore, and my head hurt—I thought I was gonna throw up. I felt like I was gonna throw up, but I was scared that if I did, they'd hurt me.

"It was... it was like when Early had me tied up that one time." She frowned, trying to find just the right words. "I knew what was gonna happen, and I was so scared. I couldn't move. Like I just froze up. They made me stand up, and the big one pushed me up against the wall—real hard. Then even as scared as I was, I kept trying to push him off me. I tried to push him away, and he hit me. I tried to cover my face, but he hit me. I think he musta hit me a couple times. I got all dazed, and I kept coughing, 'cause my mouth was all bloody, and I couldn't swallow.

"He pushed me up against the wall, and then he raped me."

His arm around her shoulders tightened, but he didn't interrupt her. She thought she should be crying and screaming—but she was so calm. It was eerie. She'd cried herself out, before, and now felt like she was swathed in cotton. Like a part in a crate she'd ordered, waiting to be unwrapped. Layers and layers between her and the rest of the world.

"He just kept saying 'shut up,' telling me to shut up or he'd kill me. I weren't even saying nothing—but he kept saying it, over and over. When he was finished, the other one got me by the hair. I fell, and he kicked me. He was wearing boots, and I was curled up on my side, trying to keep him from kicking me again cause it hurt to breathe so much after he kicked me. He pushed my face into the floor, and got my arm twisted up behind me, like he was gonna break it.

"The whole time, it was like... It was like I wasn't really there. Like all the stuff that was happening, was happening to someone else, ya know? I was there, only I wasn't. I was watching it happening from someplace else. Like I wasn't in my own body. Like it was just... a body that was getting raped. Not me. Like it weren't me at all."

Simon made a small sound—and she realised he was crying. Real quiet, like he didn't want her to know. She hadn't ever seen him cry before.

"I'm sorry," he said, trying to blink away the tears, then wiping them away first with the back of his hand and then with his sleeve. He took her hand, his own still damp with his tears, interlacing his fingers with hers.

"Weren't your fault. Weren't nobody's fault. They followed me from the ship. They were watchin', waitin', they said. If it hadn't been—if I hadn't gone, it might've been Inara, or..." she trailed off, taking a shaky breath.

"Nobody's fault," she repeated, needing to believe it. Wanting to believe it.

Like Dobson's bullet, the catalyser blowing, or Early appearing in her engine room, bad things just happened sometimes. Bad things happened to good folk, and it weren't no fault of their own. Her mamma had always said that—when Charlie was killed in the war, and when Tallie's youngest died in the night when he was only a month old. Cry and rage all you want, Mamma would say. Won't change it. Can't undo what's been done or make a wrong thing right again. Blame ain't never did a thing but keep you holding on to the hurt, 'stead of letting it go.

Kaylee was trying to let it go. She just didn't know if she could. She could still feel the crushing weight pressed up against her chest when she closed her eyes. She could still hear the market day crowds, hidden in the birdsong outside the hospice window. And even with Simon right next to her, holding her hand, knowing she was a day out from Greenleaf and someplace nobody could find her, a voice kept whispering shut up shut up you stupid cunt in her ear.

"I blamed Mal," Simon said quietly in the silence she left him. "When he told me—when he told me that Niska had sent a message..."

"No," she shook her head, then wished she hadn't when it made her feel nauseous. "No, Simon, you can't blame—"

"I don't," he said quickly. "Not really. Not anymore." He stared down at their hands intertwined. "It was just... seeing you there, just lying there outside the door. All the blood. I was a trauma surgeon. I worked in an ER. First thing I should have thought was how I could help you, and instead... All I could think about was how scared I was."

He turned so he could face her, and he looked so serious. So grave and solemn as he took her hand in his, carefully minding her bruises.

"I don't know what I'd do, if you'd—if anything ever happened to you. You and River—you're my whole world right now, and then when I saw—when I realised what they'd done, I just got so angry, and Mal..." He shrugged. "He didn't even hit me back. Just... just took it, and looked me in the eye afterwards. Like he thought he deserved it."

"What happens if they don't come back?" she asked, her voice very small.

"They'll come back," Simon said, giving her fingers a squeeze.

"But Niska..."

"They went up against him before—"

"Yeah—and the cap'n and Wash almost died. Cap'n did die. And if River hadn't been there..." Her eyes filled with tears again, and she let him pull her into a gentle embrace. "Simon, I don't want anyone to die 'cause of me. I don't want anyone to die."

"Shhh, ài rén." He stroked her hair. "No one's going to die."

Niska blinked in the sunlight from Ithaca's twin suns.

He was on his back on the ground, looking up at the circle of grim faces of Mal and his crew. There was no sound but the wind whipping through the patch of desert, and carrion birds off in the distance. Mal watched, his expression blank, as he coughed, rolled over onto his side and spewed the contents of his stomach across the desert floor.

Jayne snarled, taking a step back as his boots were spattered with bile.

"You're a dead man, Malcolm Reynolds," Niska spat as he smoothed his suit jacket with one hand, as if he hadn't just lost his lunch on account of the knockout gas. As if he wasn't surrounded by his enemies, and like to die any second.

"Already died once. Didn't much like it," Mal said, his tone deceptively conversational. He dragged Niska to his feet, and the circle widened slightly. Three guns remained trained on the old man, but Mal's hands were empty as he just stared him down. His hands ached to close into fists. He wanted to pummel the gangster until there was nothing recognisable left in that withered and hawk-like visage.

"You really think you could come after one of our own—do what you did—and we'd turn tail and run?"

"A wise man would have."

"Well, never let it be said Mal Reynolds couldn't be one dumb sumbitch, when the occasion calls for it."

He drew his gun and cocked it in one smooth motion, with an ease and quickness born of long time practice. The gunshot was loud, the crack of the pistol echoing across the dessert. Niska clutched his calf, spitting curses in English, Mandarin, and Czech as his blood flowed across the parched ground.

"I'm of a mind to make this slow."

"I like slow," Jayne's grin was wolfish. "Slow's good."

"I got no problems with slow," Zoe concurred, her face a mask.

Mal glanced at Book, to see how the preacher was faring. He expected to see something like disgust on the shepherd's face, but the older man's face was curiously blank as he kept his weapon trained on Niska. There was no sign of any tremor in his hand, and his dark eyes were hard—like chips of obsidian.

"You'd kill an unarmed man in cold blood?" Niska asked, all his attention focused on Mal. "An honourable man like you?"

"Normally—no," he admitted. "I tend to want to face my opponents on even ground, a weapon in their hands. Not much for the whole 'fish in a barrel' approach. But with you, I thought I'd make an exception, on account of you're so special." He cocked the pistol, taking a certain amount of indecent satisfaction at the fact that Niska flinched at the sound. "And anyway, blood don't feel so cold, just now."

"Almost poetical," Jayne added. "Since you seem all willing to set your thugs on little girls ain't never did you a bit of harm."

"I lost thirty men on that station."

"Yeah, well—shoulda gone after us, then," Jayne snapped. "We're the ones did all the shootin'. Hell, Kaylee couldn't barely hold a gun, let alone use it. She never fired a gorram shot that day."

"Fools, all of you. It is not mattering to me, if the girl killed! It is better, that she is innocent. Better that an innocent suffered." His smile was terrible, and it was all Mal could do to keep from pulling the trigger right then and there. "Did you think I could let such an attack go unpunished? Do you think I would not protect my reputation?"

Niska weaved unsteadily on his feet, blood seeping through the grey wool cloth of his trousers, turning it black. "An eye for an eye."

"The good Lord counsels us to 'resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also,'" Book said, and they were the first words the preacher had spoken since he had helped Zoe drag Niska's unconscious body from the passenger compartment of the hovercar.

"'Course, judging from your reputation," Book practically spat the word, "you don't strike me as the turn the other cheek type."

"My boys left her alive," Niska offered with a wolfish smile.

Zoe moved almost faster than Mal'd ever seen, and Niska spat blood as he straightened up from the blow. Mal noted with satisfaction a tooth making an island in the bloody spittle on the ground.

"Your 'boys' ain't gonna live to see the morning," Zoe growled. "Any man laid a hand on Kaylee—"

Niska began to laugh. It was a wheezing laugh, as if his was a body unused to humour as he locked eyes with Mal. "You have a very dedicated crew, Mister Reynolds. Willing to die for you, I am seeing, when they attacked my skyplex. Loyal. Such an obvious weakness."

"Don't seem much like a weakness, seeing as how I'm standing here breathing 'cause of what they did. But had I known what it woulda cost us, I'd have gladly died and stayed dead in your gorram back room." Mal lazily pointing his gun at Niska's heart and watching the old man's face with something akin to satisfaction as he blanched. "Still—I can't seem to keep this crazy bunch from doing what they can to look after their own. Not sure I'd even wanna try."

"Captain! We got company!" Zoe said sharply as a hovercar approached from the south.

"Tāmāde húndàn," Mal growled as he grasped Niska by the collar and dragged him behind the limousine, Book on his heels. "Everybody grab some cover!"

The ground where they had been standing was peppered with weapons fire which sent up clouds of dust, as the bullets ripped through the air. There was a whine of engines above them as the hovercar turned to get off a second volley.

"You're all fools. You should have killed me, instead of drugging me."

"You're probably right," Mal said, and hit him with a right cross to the jaw, which slammed the old man's head into the door of the limo. He slumped against it, dazed. "How'd they find us so damn quick?" Mal yelled to Zoe, who crouched with Jayne among the scrub.

"Bastard's prob'ly got a locator on him," Jayne called back as he glanced up and took aim. The sound of bullets piercing the metal undercarriage of the car was a welcome sound to Mal's ears.


"Got it, sir!" She pumped the shotgun, and while Jayne and Book provided cover fire, let a blast loose as the car swung around for another pass. Black smoke poured from the rear of the vehicle, which lurched and began dropping toward the ground.

It landed with a thump, six guys pouring from the back. One fell, and didn't get up again. The rest, however, were armed to the teeth and wasted no time using the battered vehicle for cover as they commenced firing at them.

Bullets whizzed by Mal's head as he pulled a second gun from his boot. He fired both before ducking back behind the limo and heard the bullets hit the side of the vehicle.

"Jayne! We got odds needing some evening up!"

"Working on it," the mercenary growled, stealing a glance at the group of Niska's men before he let lose a volley of shots. Two men dropped, one clutching his leg and screaming, and the other soundlessly.

"I think we might actually win this," Mal grinned at Book, but the preacher's eyes were fixed on the horizon. Mal heard him mutter a curse, and looked up to see a second car coming from the south.

"Gorramit, is there an endless supply of these heishôudâng liúmáng?"

Book didn't answer, merely frowned and took careful aim before firing. His frizzy grey hair was coming loose from its tie, and his grey shirt was streaked with dust as he ducked back behind the battered limo.

Mal peered over the door, jerking his head back as a bullet ricocheted off the once-gleaming and now bullet-pocked metal centimetres away. He muttered a curse as his fingers came away from his brow smeared with blood. Shrapnel. He supposed he should be grateful; an inch lower, and he might have lost an eye.

"Zoe! Jayne!"

"We see 'em, sir!" Zoe called back, lying on her back to reload while Jayne fired both his guns at the hovercar arcing toward them.

"They'll circle around," Book said, grim.

"Flank us," Mal agreed.

"Preacher! We can use you over here!" Jayne called, and Mal nodded, trying to provide what little cover fire he could while Jayne covered the distance between the car and the scrub as quickly as he could.

There were still three men on the ground, with plenty of ammo between them, it seemed like. The second car was still in the air, and he looked up to see two men leaning out the rear windows, the long barrels of two laser rifles silhouetted against the washed-out sky. He swore and pressed himself closer up against the side of the car, waiting for the shots he knew were coming.

He was suddenly seized by the mental image of empty Blue Sun cans carefully arranged on a fence, from back when his mamma had taught him to shoot his first pistol on the ranch. There was a sense of inevitability that sat in his belly like a cold hard weight at the roar of engines overhead.

Engines that suddenly sounded much too loud for just a hovercar, Mal realised.

He looked up to see Serenity, coming out of the blind spot created by the converging suns like some sort of avenging angel.

The second car was caught in the heat-wake of the engines and spun crazily before it plummeted to the ground. It landed on its side, then tipped lazily over onto its back before being swallowed by a gout of flame that shot ten feet in the air. Mal was too far away to hear the screams, but he could see several figures writhing before they stilled and the hovercar continued to burn.

"Wash, you crazy son of a—" Mal started to say, but was cut off by Niska suddenly launching himself at him, knocking him flat on his back on the ground, ice-blue eyes practically glowing with madness as Mal's gun went spinning across the sand.

"How does it feel?" Niska ground out between clenched teeth as his hands closed on Mal's throat with a fierce strength belied by his slight frame. "Knowing she paid for your honour with her body?"

Mal could feel the edges of his vision going black as he wrestled, trying to get enough leverage to throw the old man off him.

"Tell me, Mister Reynolds, an honourable man like you—how does that really feel?"

"Cào nî zûxiān shí bâ dai," Mal ground out between clenched teeth, reaching up to try and gouge out his eyes. He could hear shouts in the distance, but they seemed to be getting further and further away with each rasping breath.

There was a single shot—then Mal blinked as he was splattered with something scalding hot and Niska's grip went slack. He toppled over to one side, an expression of surprise etched into what remained his features, and Mal saw Book standing behind him. Smoke curled up almost lazily from the pistol in his hand.

"Hasn't anyone ever told you? An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind," Book said as the light faded from Niska's blue eyes.

"That was bit north of the kneecaps, Preacher," Mal said quietly as he wiped blood and grey matter from his face with his shirtsleeve.

"Yes." Book stared down at the body, the gun dropping from his fingers. It hit the ground with a muted thud, unnoticed. "It was."

Serenity's cargo bay doors slid open almost before she touched the ground, and Mal let Jayne, Zoe and Book go on ahead of him, casting his gaze back over his shoulder to make sure no more hovercars were on their way before he headed up the ramp himself.

"Graze," Zoe said as Mal's eyes went to her bloody shoulder. "You?" She waved her hand near her eye. Mal touched the cut, which was still sluggishly oozing blood, and winced.

"Zhè bìng bù huài," he said as he shrugged. "Might need a stitch or two."

"Woo hoo! Nice flyin', little man!" Jayne clapped Wash on the shoulder as he came down the tiered stairs from the flight deck.

Wash paled when he saw the blood running down his wife's arm. "Nî shòu shäng le—"

"Just a graze," she assured him, wrapping her arms around him and kissing his hair.

"Wash, I thought I told you to stay on Priam—" Mal began.

"I was monitoring traffic on the cortex," Wash said, arm still around his wife. "And, um... a couple of channels that, you know—aren't exactly public. Thought you could use a little deus ex Serenity."

"Well, we did," Mal admitted with a scowl. "But next time, I tell you to stay put—"

"I'll stay put," Wash said with a firm nod. "Sir."

"Take us outta the world, mâshàng. Before anybody else decides to come calling."

"So, did we get the bad guy?" Wash asked as Mal hit the door controls, and the ramp began to rise.

"We got the bad guy," Zoe said, her eyes straying to Book, who had his head bent and was headed through the hatch leading back to the passenger dorm.

Book was in his quarters, washing up. Mal stood in the doorway awkwardly, while he patted his face with a towel that had taken on a slightly greyish hue, one corner smeared with pink.

"I wanted to thank you," Mal said when Book looked up and saw him there. "For what you did down there. Can't have been easy for you."

Mal stepped the rest of the way inside. He could feel Serenity lift off—his body attuned at this point to the subtle shift from planet-grav to artificial. Book didn't seem to notice. He sat on the edge of his bed, towel hanging from his hands.

"I used to think I was on the wrong ship," Book said quietly. Mal didn't say anything, just waited for him to speak his mind.

"It was Inara who told me that perhaps I was right where I ought to be. I wasn't sure I believed her. I'm still not." He bowed his head and wiped at his face one last time with the towel before he dropped it on the bed beside him. When he lifted his gaze to Mal's, his dark eyes were haunted, but his jaw was set in a firm line. "We set down on Ithaca to kill that man. I knew that. I've made my choices, right or wrong. Now I just have to find a way to live with them."

Mal risked an observation. "Not a lot of killing to be done, behind abbey walls."

"Not a lot of anything, behind abbey walls." There was a touch of bitterness in his voice. "But avoiding ain't the same as choosing."

Mal reached out and laid a hand on Book's shoulder, and the older man gave him a wan smile.

"We're only ten hours out from Bernadette. You feel up to rounding up some chow?" Mal asked, thinking that keeping his hands busy might be a blessing. "If not, I can always make Jayne do it—"

Book smiled, and there was a bit more warmth to it. "Don't know how much I could eat—but I could throw something together. We still have some real foodstuffs left over, from re-supplying on Persephone last time."

"Don't have to be fancy, Preacher."

It hadn't been lost on him that the preacher had taken on all sorts of the sorts of jobs the rest of the crew weren't too fond of, to earn his keep once his cash ran out. They'd never much talked about it. Book had just... become a part of their lives over the last year. Same as the doc and his sister—even though Mal had a good solid reason for keeping them on, and things where Book were concerned were a mite fuzzier.

But he was a good man to have on a job, even if he tended to start quoting the Bible a bit too often for Mal's comfort. But even that had changed, over time. His reflexive preaching had disappeared after a while—and he just became another member of his crew. It was still a puzzle as to how a man of God knew so much about both sides of the law, but Mal didn't much care to look a gift horse in the mouth, considering he'd be dead right now had Book not been a good shot.

"You'd best get that eye seen to," Book said, and Mal accepted the dismissal as gracefully as he could. He nodded, and headed back out towards the common area.

Book's voice stopped him at the threshold. "Captain?"


"He would have killed you," Book said, and Mal wondered if he was asking, or telling.

"And I woulda killed him," Mal replied simply. "You shouldn't have had to."

"There are a lot of things in this 'verse that we shouldn't have to do. Taking a life—any life, no matter how wretched, how vile—should be one of them." He spread his hands in a futile, empty gesture. "I should be on my knees, begging the Lord for forgiveness. Perhaps eventually I will."


Inara waited just inside the atrium as Wash neatly set shuttle two down alongside hers in the landing pad on the side of the house. When the shuttle hatch opened, she was holding her breath even though she had already gotten a cortex transmission letting her know they were on their way.

Mal came out first, and she didn't care who was watching or what they would think as she ran out and threw her arms around him. There was a butterfly weave above his eye, but he was smiling as he returned her embrace.

"Hey—when do I get my hug?" Jayne leered over Mal's shoulder.

"I'll hug you," Wash said as he and Zoe stepped out of the shuttle, Book on their heels.

"That ain't the same at all. You ain't got tits."

"Your powers of observation continue to astound me."

"How's Kaylee?" Zoe asked as Simon and River joined them.

"She's doing okay," Simon said cautiously, stealing a glance at Mal. "She's awake and alert, and ate something this morning."

"They brought a bathtub," River said excitedly. "Right into her room. It was big enough to drown in!"

Everyone stared at her.

"And she had a bath," Simon added as they all began to file inside.

Mal hung back and waited until the crew's voices were swallowed by the house before he turned to Inara, a hand on her arm to keep her in the cool stone hallway where no one else could hear them.

"How's she, really?" he asked, hand still on her arm.

"Simon and Dr. Wynn ran a battery of tests; they all came up neg for STDs or pregnancy," Inara said quietly. "She was shocky most of yesterday, and Simon told me she told him about the attack and then cried herself out. She was worried, afraid Niska would kill you. Talia gave her a smoother, and she slept through the night."

She saw something change in his face, but it was too quick for her to be certain what it was.

He took a deep breath. "So what do we do?"

"Survive," Inara said simply. "After something like this, the only power anyone has over you is whatever power you give them. The only way to get through it is to survive, go on—not let them take anything else away from you. You survive, and you live, and love, and you go on. Just to spite them."

"Damned easy thing to say," he said, his gaze far away, "and something else all together in practice."

"Then we'll all just have to start practising," Inara said gently.

Mal's only reaction was a terse nod. "We'd best catch up to Jayne, before he gets an eyeful of your friend Radha's girls and starts to get ideas."

"Hey, little Kaylee," Mal said softly as he knocked on the open door of her room.

She smiled when she saw him, and he felt something in his chest tighten.

Her hair was still damp from her bath, and she wore a red and gold embroidered robe that was tucked close around her all the way up to her neck. Her face and jaw were still bruised, but the swelling had gone down, and there were fresh bandages on the cuts and a fancy new splint on her broken fingers.

"Heya, Cap'n," she said, and he came the rest of the way into the room, shutting the door behind him. She patted the bed, and he took the hint, sitting down beside her. She struggled to sit up, and he helped her get comfortable against the mound of pillows.

"Simon told me you went after Niska—" she began.

"He's dead," Mal said without preamble. "Him and about fifteen of his boys are food for the buzzards about now. He ain't never gonna hurt nobody ever again. Not you, not nobody."

She blinked rapidly, fretting with the edge of the coverlet. "And nobody was hurt?"

"Not more than a bit," he said, shaking his head. "They're all waiting to come and see you—if you want the company."

She glanced at the door, chewing on her bottom lip. "Maybe in a while?"

"Fair 'nough."

She reached up, ran fingertips alongside his bruised jaw. "You get that in the fight?"

"Your boyfriend sucker-punched me." Mal grinned. "Doc's toughened up some, last few months."

Her eyes narrowed shrewdly. "He said you let him hit you."

"Ai-ya, well, I only let him think that," he said airily, and was rewarded with another halting smile. "Pretty lady doctor told me they plan to keep you a spell."

"Simon says I should be up on crutches in a few weeks. They gave me some fancy medicine s'posed to make bones mend quicker."

He smiled and took her hand, giving her fingers a quick squeeze.

"I've been thinking... Zephyr is only two days out from Bernadette. Once you're on the mend, we could—"

"You don't want me on Serenity?" she asked, guessing where he was headed before he even got there, her voice almost a whisper. "You want me to leave?"

"No, no, mèimei, that ain't it at all—" he said quickly.

"It's because I can't take care of myself, isn't it." Her eyes filled with helpless tears. "'Cause I can't shoot like Zoe, or even River—"

"Mèimei, you shouldn't have to," he said firmly. "You shouldn't never have had to. I hired you on as my mechanic, not muscle. You ain't Zoe or Jayne—and I don't expect you to be. Don't you ever think that."

"Then why do you want to send me away? You said I had a job long as I can keep her in the air—"

"I don't want to, little Kaylee. But you got hurt because of me. What happened, happened because Niska wanted to get to me. I can't let that ever happen again—"

"But he's dead!"

"That don't change the fact that anybody has got a beef with me, could go after the lot of you."

Her pain and confusion was writ large across her expressive face, and it made him feel lower than dogshit, but he was determined to stand fast.

"Cap'n, you take care of us. You're always lookin' after us."

"But I didn't this time. I let you get hurt."

"Weren't you that did this to me," she snapped, desperation turning quickly to anger. "I chose to take up arms against Niska, after he snatched you and Wash. Me. I chose, because you woulda done the same for any of us. You would have in a second."

"This ain't about that—"

"I ain't some blind little flit of a prairie harpy, don't know weak tea from boiling water, dong ma? Maybe I can't make much of myself with the shootin' and all—but I am good at my job. And not just the mechanic'ing parts, neither. I got a gift for crime. You said it your own self, more'n once."

"You have all sorts of romantic notions about smuggling—"

"—and don't you think the last three years have cured me of a bunch of those?" she shot back. "Don't you think, as I lay there after Dobson shot me, that I wasn't scared half to death? I got gutshot, Mal. Woulda died, if Simon hadn't patched me up."

"That gôushî bùrú Fed wouldn't have even been there to take pot shots at you, I hadn't—"

"But he was there. And it did happen. Hell, a million things could go wrong, any day of the week. With the engine, with a job—if Zoe hadn't shoved me out of the way when the compression coil blew, that woulda been the end of me right there. I knew that when I signed on. You don't get to make that choice for me."

"Don't I?"

"No. You don't. If I was too scared, I woulda walked after Early."

"Maybe, if you had some sense, you woulda—"

"Then I ain't got no sense!" she exploded, colour flooding her cheeks. "And you know what? Neither do you, mister! You're always going on about how you're a mean old man, but look at how you took Simon and River in, what with the Feds after them and all. And Book too, even though he ain't paid his fare in eight months or more. You're always goin' on about it's your boat, and you make all the decisions and only your say counts—but it don't, Mal. This ain't just a job. It's a family. Always has been. So, you telling me I ain't got no say in staying with my family?"

"My mind's made up, xiâo mèimei."

"Well mine ain't." Tears of frustration shone in her eyes. "Don't that count for anything?"

"It's for your own good," he said, a muscle in his jaw twitching.

"Gôu pì my own good!" she said, her voice rising again, an edge of hysteria in it. "You feel guilty, and you feel responsible. And maybe you want me to blame you, since you're so dead set on blaming yourself."

"You should! It's my fault!" Mal shouted back at her and then froze, surprised at his own outburst.

"I'm not some gorram doll can be put up on a shelf to be stared at, 'stead of living my life," she said evenly, looking him right in the eye, chin lifted up and the one hand balled into a fist at her side. "Those men took something from me I can't never get back. Them being dead don't change what happened."

He flinched at that, and her expression softened slightly.

"But don't take away only thing I got left, Mal. Please don't. Serenity's my home. You all are my home. I just want—I wanna go home." Her voice broke, but she kept on going. "I ain't a little girl no more—and you can't keep on pretending that I am."

"But you are a little girl, Kaylee," Mal said, shaking his head with a wild little laugh that was halfway to a sob. "You are a kind, generous, cheerful, clever, devious, adept criminal mind all wrapped up in a little girl package—and you are the last bit of innocence I had that wasn't wiped out by the war, or this gorram bleak and generally all-around cruel 'verse we're floatin' through. And I shoulda been able to keep you safe. I should have been able to—to—" He swallowed hard. "Don't you see? It's my fault, and I can't make it right again."

He watched the anger drain out of her, like water leaving a broken vessel. Her lower lip quivered as she reached out and pulled him towards her with her good hand, until his chin rested on her shoulder. He closed his eyes, his hands gripping handfuls of the blankets as his throat burned raw with the effort of keeping the tears in.

"I'm sorry, mèimei," he said into her hair as her arms tightened around him. "I'm so sorry."

"I know," she whispered, and he felt her tears against his neck as she rocked him gently. "I know you are."

When the tears came this time, he finally just let them.

Translation Notes

ài rén sweetheart
bà bà daddy (familiar)
bù kê néng! no way!
cào nî zûxiān shí bâ dai fuck 18 generations of your ancestors
dāì ruò mù jī dumb as a wooden chicken
dong ma? understand?
duìbùqî sorry/excuse me
guo-tie pan fried dumplings
gôu pì bullshit
gôushî bùrú lower than dogshit/lowest of the low
gāxìng jìandào nî pleased to meet you
húndàn asshole/bastard
hâo de okay/will do!
heishôudâng liúmáng gangster asshole/bastard(s)
liúmáng bastard
mâshàng on the double/quickly
méiyôu mûqin de xiao gôu motherless cur
mêilì beautiful/pretty
nî bù dông you don't understand
nî shòu shäng le you're hurt
shìde yes/right away
shuài hansome/snazzy
tāmāde húndàn fucking bastard
wode tìan Oh God! (lit. Oh sky!)
xièxie thanks
xièxie nî thank you
xiâo mèimei little baby sister
xin gan sweetheart, darling
xin nian kuai le happy new year
zôugôu yes man (pejorative)
zhè bìng bù huài it's not that bad