Chapter Four

It was night again, and Mal stood watch in the infirmary. It was only fair, since he'd gotten a good ten hours sleep thanks to whatever Simon had slipped in his coffee. At least, that's what he thought it had been. Even Jayne had refused to be forthcoming.

Zoe was back in her quarters, cared for by her husband and looked in on by everyone else, including River. The two seemed to have bonded somehow. Kaylee and Inara were still in the infirmary. Kaylee's fever had finally broken in a drenching sweat, and she'd slept so soundly, no one had bothered to try to wake her. Inara was curled in a small ball, one hand tucked beneath her cheek. She'd woken up several times, but hadn't managed to string together a coherent sentence. It didn't seem to bother her too much, as she fell asleep as soon as one discombobulated pack of words was finished. He checked her brow, and sure enough, her fever had broken as well. He picked up a soft cloth and wiping the sweat off her, then pulled her blanket up to her chin so she wouldn't get chilled.

"Cap'n?" There was only one person that soft voice could belong to.

"Mornin', Miss Kaylee," he whispered back to her, turning from Inara's bed.

"Cap'n, why's it so dark?"

"Because I turned off the lights. Most everyone else has gone to bed."

"Oh," she thought about that for a moment. "Where am I? Something happen?"

"You're in the infirmary, Kaylee," he reached down and smoothed a lock of her flyaway hair back. "You were sick for a while, but now you're gettin' better."

Simon had mentioned that the virus seemed to disrupt the transition from short to long term memory. Events longer than a few minutes ago hadn't been encoded into memory. Zoe said she last recalled discussing whether nose breaking was an appropriate negotiations technique. Mal dearly hoped that Kaylee remembered nothing of climbing up on the railing and almost taking her life. They would have to keep a close eye on her to make sure the suicidal depression caused by the virus cleared up one way or another. It was, after all, nowhere near as fun as Wash's latest bar trick of handing his wife an object to hold in her left hand and then asking her what it was. She might be holding on to a coffee mug, but she couldn't name it. Hand her a pencil and she could draw the most realistic portrait of a coffee mug you'd ever see, but she couldn't conjure up the word. Let her put it in her right hand, and the word would instantly come to her. All a part of hemispheric cognitive functions, Simon informed them. Then he added that it should pass in another week or two, as her immune system destroyed the remainders of the virus.

"Everything…okay?" Kaylee asked.

"Everything's gonna be just fine, mei-mei. Just understand that you don't ever get to do such a thing again. Dong ma?"

"Dong ma, Cap'n. S'okay if I take a nap?" she yawned.

"You go right ahead and sleep."

She squeezed his hand before sighing deeply and nodding off once again.

When Inara woke up the following morning and was finally able to put two words together in the right order, Mal stood back while Book tended to her and watched from just outside the infirmary.

"And Simon and Wash were able to route a wave through about eleventeen different points, completely disguised, to the Medacad on Osiris, suggesting a successful course of treatment," Book explained. "Captain told them if they wanted to leave a breadcrumb trail for the Alliance to their own sorry hides, that was their business, but on no account were they to even hint at Serenity."

"Sounds like him," Inara smiled sleepily.

"Beauregard suffered some pretty steep casualties," Book continued soberly. "Over two hundred thousand women died before the Alliance got the supplies to them that were needed. More than half of those women died during the first hour of symptom onset, though, and no supplies would have saved them from that."

"I'm so sorry."

"A great many more would have died if not for Simon."

Inara nodded and dozed off. With a gentle pat, Book put her hand back on top of the blanket and turned down the light, then left. Mal watched him go and turned back to look at Inara and Kaylee, the both of them sleeping as easy as could be. He took a deep breath. The pervading reek of Beau's Chance, the name that had stuck, had been pulled out by the air recyclers. The Alliance vessel searching for ships that had left Buggered had missed them by a far stretch of distance. None of the men carried the virus past the first week. He felt a tight knot somewhere under his breastbone start to loosen. He'd never again be so trusting as to say everything would be all right, but maybe it was enough to think that it wasn't all going straight to hell.

"River?"

Simon found her sitting on the catwalk above the cargo bay. Her arms were wrapped around her legs, and she rocked back and forth to some tune only she could hear.

"River?" He sat down beside her.

She startled when he touched her arm, then turned her face from him and started rocking again.

"Mei-mei, what's wrong?"

She didn't answer at first, but finally looked up at him. "So loud. The noise," she tried to explain. "Chords, arpeggios, voices in tune."

He studied her face. "The singing? Is it singing?"

She nodded miserably. "It crowds. There's no room! I can't fit into it."

The amphaytolactine had stopped working then, and the habits of River's abused brain were reasserting themselves. She had been the key to solving the riddle of the virus, but it had done her little good. He pulled her close in a hug and let her rest her head on his chest, tucking it under his chin. Then he started rocking her back and forth a bit.

"We'll get it figured out, mei-mei," he told her. "You and me, we're an unbeatable team."

Finis