River to the Sea

Simon took a deep breath and let it out slowly; he was calculating, and Mal could tell. Worst of all, Simon knew Mal could tell. The calculation was relatively simple and at the same time inescapably complex. Exactly how much could he tell Mal, what was the Captain ready to deal with, would the truth get him and his sister kicked off on a nameless island somewhere never to be seen or heard from again?

All good questions. Mal understood the nature of the questions but his patience was running out. He didn't like being lied to and he didn't like people who put his crew in danger. Simon had done both.

"I ain't gettin' any younger here Doc," Mal said pointedly, the drumming of his fingers on his oak-wood desk taking on an ominous tone.

"You need to understand my position here, Captain, I'm putting my sister's life in your hands…"

"Your life ain't in the safest of positions here either," the Captain pointed out. "Now I think I'm bein' more'n fair here. You came onto my boat with a wanted fugitive from the Church, the Catholic Church and you got one of my crew seriously injured… now," Mal held up his hand when it looked like Simon was going to interrupt him, "now I am not blind to the fact that you jumped in to help and your sister, somehow, saved Kaylee's life. That's why you're bein' granted this here audience." He relaxed back into his seat, somewhat regaining his composure. "Convince me you aren't an unjustifiable risk."

"I can't," Simon said softly. "They'll probably chase us. I don't know how far they'll go, but you've seen that my sister can… do things others can't. I don't know what they'd be willing to do to get her back, I really don't." He pulled up a chair and sank down into it. "All I can tell you is that we need this."

Mal listened to the whole rambling thing with an ever growing frown, right up until the last sentence. For a long time, Mal had fancied himself a bit of a hard-ass, a grumbly old miser with no love for anyone but himself and he could have clung quite convincingly to that fiction if it hadn't been for that last sentence. He heard it repeated in dramatic echoes and an ever increasing volume. All I can tell you is that we need this.

"How long do you expect to be able to keep her out of sight?" Mal asked seriously. "In all honesty you got yourself a bug-house there and she stands out like sheep shit on the dining room table."

"Probably not very long, so we keep moving. I can't let them take her back…they…" Simon looked down at his hands clasped in his lap "They tortured her, Captain. They did awful things to her body and it broke her mind. She'll recover given time, I'm sure of it. I just need to find a way to give her that time."

"So you'll keep moving, try not to stick out too much, that kind of thing?" Mal asked, already feeling the cold grip of stupidity closing in on his mind.

"I don't have a plan, Captain; I just want to keep my baby sister safe. Is that so hard to understand?"

Before Mal's eyes swam visions of Kaylee, the little girl he loved like family, closely followed by Zoe, Wash, hell even Jayne… then there was Inara's face… what wouldn't he do to keep them safe? Who wouldn't he screw over to keep them by his side for just one more minute?

"No, no it ain't."

"So you'll take us to the next port?" Simon asked, hope flaring in his eyes.

"I'm willing to make you a proposition at this point and you want to be thinkin' about it real careful, understand?" He looked Simon square in the eye and took a deep breath. "This boat has no doctor; I am willin' to offer that position to you… with a few provisos."

Simon just looked at him, unable to believe what he'd just heard. He stammered for a moment but Mal ran right over the top of him.

"Proviso one, you need to keep that girl under control. The sea can be a bitch on her bad days and she wont brook no foolishness. You keep your sister by you and calm." He paused to make sure Simon was listening carefully. "Proviso two is I do not need to have this talk with you again. There will be no lying on my boat, not to me! You keep any more dangerous secrets and our agreement is null and void, you got me?"

Simon nodded mutely. An effusive expression of gratitude would have been out of place and he knew Mal wouldn't take it well. Finally he settled for a restrained but respectful "Thank you, Captain."

"Alright, now get outta my cabin and go make sure everyone's still breathin'. That is your reason for existing on this Earth you got me? To keep those people alive." Mal's eyes would brook no argument and Simon could understand that.

Simon turned and walked from Mal's cabin with a new spring in his step, a montage of possible futures for him and his sister flashing before his eyes. If he could make this work, everything might still be OK. The heavy door closed with a click and with no more warning than a low grunt, Jayne shoved Simon up against the now closed door by his neck.

"I don't care who you are or what deals you've gone an' made with Mal. You ever do anythin' that puts Kaylee in danger like that again and I will gut you, slowly. You understand me?" he growled.

Simon could only nod. No one in his world ever behaved like that and he'd never learnt how to deal with it.

"Good." The much larger man grunted sharply, then turned on his heel and loped back across the deck to retake his place on the stool beside Kaylee's hammock. He glared at Simon until Kaylee made a soft noise. "Kaylee?"

"Mm, how long was I asleep for?" she asked.

"Few hours, sun won't be goin' down for a while yet. How d'you feel?"

"Kinda tingly, like my shoulder has fairies in it." She smiled sleepily and reached out to take his hand. "You stayed, didn't you?"

"Course," he mumbled gruffly, "gotta protect my midget." He gently touched her cheek with his free hand and then tapped the tip of her nose with his finger.

"Mm, love you, Jayne," she breathed and slipped back into sleep.

Jayne stood very still for a very long time looking down at her sleeping face. It seemed to him that he might in fact be able to live off those words, without food or water or even air; those words could sustain him indefinitely. He looked at the hand that still enclosed hers and was amazed again by how small she was when she was asleep. When she was awake it was a very different story. Kaylee filled all the space you left to her with laughter and smiles so you didn't notice she was tiny. But when she was asleep all you had to look at was her slender little frame and her tiny little hands.

"Love you too midget," he finally breathed, though he knew full well she wouldn't hear him.

Down in their room, Simon smiled at his sister and gently checked all her bandages again. He did it habitually every few hours in case something went wrong. River smiled tolerantly and reached out a trembling hand to touch her brother's chin, and when he looked down, she flicked his nose gently.

"Brat," he laughed quietly and pulled the blankets back around her shoulders.

"I dreamed of you," she told him, her voice very far away. "I dreamed and the stars told me you'd come."

Simon looked at her carefully before replying. "What did they tell you, River?"

"The Stars don't call people by their names, not like we do… 'cept me. Even the stars call me River." She leaned up and whispered conspiratorially to him, "Do you want to know what the stars call you?"

"Tell me." He was almost entranced by her now; her voice had lost much of its little-girl quality and taken on an ethereal feel.

"The stars call you beloved brother and they sing… they sing about us in the night time if you listen." She smiled distantly and touched his cheek. "Don't worry, everything will be OK."

"I hope so. But we're together now and I'll always look after you."

"We're home now, aren't we?" she asked.

"Home? River, we're on a ship at sea," he frowned, "not at home."

"All Rivers go home to the sea." She breathed, on the edge of sleep.

There wasn't much Simon could say to that so he sat in silence and watched as his sister slipped through his fingers and off into another place. Maybe she was more at peace there, he didn't know, but at least they couldn't hurt her anymore.

When the sun began to set, Jayne scooped Kaylee up in his arms to carry her below. He didn't want her to be out in the cold, but Mal stopped him.

"Take her into my cabin, I'll sleep in her hammock tonight and she can have the bed," he said quietly, touching Kaylee's cheek with the back of one finger. "Just till she's well, mind."

Jayne just nodded. He didn't like Mal all the time, they didn't always see eye to eye, but Jayne knew love when he saw it and Mal loved little Kaylee. Loved her in a way that didn't make Jayne in the least bit jealous, in the way a man loves his baby sister above all other things.

"You be stayin' in there with her then?" Mal asked when Jayne ducked into the cabin.

"I'll sleep on the floor," Jayne grunted, his eyes meeting Mal's for the first time since Mal punched him. "Just wanna be there in case…"

Mal didn't need him to go on. He held his hand up and ducked his head in acknowledgment. Only where Kaylee was concerned was Jayne's word enough; Jayne was even more deluded than Mal in that respect. Jayne honestly believed he was a hard-ass, big, bad and totally self loyal, but it wasn't true. For little Kaylee he'd take on the might of the British Empire or at the very least sleep on a cold, wet floor.

Captain Mal changed his mind halfway down the stairs and turned, crossing the deck again, ignoring Zoe and Wash where they sat keeping watch. He knocked politely on Inara's door.

"Come in, Mal," she called. He hated it when she did that; it made him feel like she'd been watching him all the time. He pushed the door open and Inara offered him a full, steaming tea cup. "What is it with English people and tea?" he asked, half disgusted.

"Aren't you English, Mal?"

"Course not!" he declared hotly.

"What are you then?" she asked with a delicately raised eyebrow.

"Asshole, I come from wherever they make 'em." He grinned his boyish grin at her and there was no escape, her heart melted yet again.

"What did you want to talk about?" she asked.

"Have I done the right thing?" He didn't bother to tell her what he'd done, he was pretty sure she used to be a spy and she was still practicing every day.

"Giving the Doctor and his sister a place here? I don't know…" She frowned and looked into her tea cup as if it held the answers.

"Will they chase her?"

"For the power she possesses? Possibly. For the uprising one such as her could lead the people to, people still yearning for the old ways? Definitely. Like it or not, from this moment, they will come for her." She looked up at him then, meeting his eyes, which she did very rarely. "Will you fight for her?"

"Should I?" He wasn't sure if he was testing her or asking her counsel; maybe both, but he desperately wanted to know her answer.

"You've never been a man of great faith, Mal, but you know as well as I do what the Church is capable of. That it answers to no one, not even God." Inara took the last mouthful of her tea and set the cup aside. "If you decide to fight, I will fight with you."

And that effectively ended that. Mal had his suspicions about Inara's income and its source; he also had very strong suspicions about where she went when they stopped in at major ports. 'Retired' wasn't a word he was willing to apply to his little diplomat in residence.

"Goodnight, Inara." Mal said quietly as he stood and moved towards the door.

"Good night, Captain."

Book sat alone in his room. He had seen things since setting foot on Serenity that he didn't know precisely how to handle, things that rocked his faith more than he thought possible. With nothing else for it, he pulled his heavy black felt jacket and left the space he'd rented to go find some absolution.

Minutes later he was at Inara's door, knocking softly, half hoping she wouldn't answer.

"Come in," he heard her call.

Tentatively the door swung inwards, away from him, and he found himself surrounded by drapes of silk and velvet, falling in waves from the ceiling of the cabin and giving the room an Arabian air. It was small and cozy and amazingly comfortable.

"Book, what can I do for you?" she asked, though her eyes told him that she already knew.

"I… I've seen things today that…" he took his collar off and held it, the strip of white stark against his dark hands.

"Sit down Book," She smiled at him. "Tea?"

"Thank you." He put the collar down on the table in front of him and looked at it as though it might bite him.

"What is it you're looking for, Book?" she asked him gently.

"I don't know, the truth maybe. Myself." He sighed and put his head in his hands, "Some sort of assurance that I haven't made all the wrong choices and become something… tainted."

Inara stood, her hair tumbling lightly down her back and her long flowing dress making her look regal in the lamp light. With a dainty and delicate hand she reached out and touched his head lightly.

"Bless your heart preacher," she told him, her voice low and vibrant, "you could never be tainted."