Serenity was a ghost ship. There was no laughter echoing through the halls, no pitter patter of tiny feet in huge combat boots. There was no gunfire, no shouting, no arguing, there was nothing but an eerie, uncomfortable silence. It was a metal shell gliding through space, much like the occupants who called the ship their home.
It had been a week since Simon had been taken away and not one single member of the crew could rightly admit that his loss hadn't affected them. As much trouble as the stuffy doctor and his crazy sister had brought upon them, they were crew, they were family, and they'd had a place on the ship.
Mal, even at his crankiest, couldn't ever admit to feeling so helpless. In the past, the ship had been filled with laughter, jokes, and a fair bit of ragging on their resident, uptight doctor. He was such a fun and easy mark. But now, as he walked through the empty hallways and looked at the solemn faces of those Simon had left behind, Mal couldn't remember the last time he had felt so – lost.
Kaylee sat with Inara, as the Companion forced her to eat, pushed her to go on with her life. The young mechanic existed solely for her girl now. Serenity. Her baby; the love of her life - until she had met that stuffy Core doctor. The bright light of life was gone from her eyes, and with it had gone Serenity's never-ending glow. Stupid shipboard relationships. Mal hated them even more now to see his lil' Kaylee's bright eyes dimmed because of a lost love.
He knew Kaylee had played back Simon's message for Inara. He'd known it because she'd come to him late one night and simply cried on his shoulder. He'd held her all night long, frequently wondering perhaps that maybe there were benefits to shipboard romances. But then he just had to take one look at the lifelessness in Kaylee's eyes and he remembered why he hated them.
Zoe and Wash, along with Book had handled the situation better than anyone else. The married couple had one another, and they'd spent a lot of time in their bunk during the last week no doubt burying their grief in one another's arms, and the Shepherd had God. Fat lot of good his God had done for Simon.
Jayne, Mal noticed, had tried to act tough, act as if he was glad of the annoying doctor's departure. But Mal knew Jayne. He knew the loud, obnoxious behavior only served to cover a deeper, hidden emotion. There had been no love loss between Jayne and Simon, but there had been a respect and understanding for everything that Simon had sacrificed for his sister.
River had, understandably, fared far worse than anyone. She refused to eat. Mal couldn't remember, even during the first days of her arrival on Serenity, where her mental state had ever been so erratic. When she spoke, which wasn't often, her voice was devoid of any and all emotion. It was as if synapses in her brain fired every so often, pushing disjointed words out of her mouth in in comprehendible streams. She needed expert medical care. She needed her brother.
Mal stepped onto the bridge and glanced down at Wash as he accepted an incoming wave.
"What is it?"
"Dunno. Just came addressed to you."
"Well, play it."
Alexandra Bai's face appeared and Mal turned to walk away. "There's nothing that woman has to say that I want to hear."
"It's on a time delay," Wash offered with a shrug.
"Of course it is, we've been flying for a solid week away from Osiris. The distance will delay the feed."
"Want me to play it?" Wash asked when Mal paused on the top step.
Mal turned around and leaned against the wall with a sigh. "Go ahead."
Wash pressed the button and the image flickered for a moment before speaking. The voice was light and cheerful, which unnerved both men.
"Hello Captain Reynolds. I want to thank you for the swift delivery of my cargo from Paquin. As you have now earned a favorable reputation with myself and my business, I would like to retain your services again as soon as possible."
Mal scowled at the screen. "The woman is cracked."
"Clearly not thinking with a straight deck," Wash agreed as Zoe stepped behind them, listening.
"If she thinks I will agree to bring Serenity anywhere near a Core world again, she's crazier than River."
"Listen, Sir." Zoe's eyes narrowed as she watched Alexandra's eyes, her demeanor, her tone.
"I have already instructed my representatives on Persephone to prepare the cargo for pickup. You will be paid in full when you arrive, the destination for delivery will be given to you then." She stared unblinking into the viewscreen. "I don't expect you to refuse this job, Captain."
"Refuse!" Mal growled. "Of course I am gonna gorram refuse!"
"No, Zoe. I'm not taking River or this crew anywhere near that woman!"
"Likely she's on Osiris, Sir, and no where near Persephone." Zoe's eyes never left Alexandra's face as Wash paused the wave.
"She could be a livin' representation of every God in the 'verse and I wouldn't go anywhere near her."
"I think we should go, Sir."
Wash tilted his head and reached forward to flatten his head on Zoe's forehead. "You feeling all right?"
"Are you – ?"He gestured animatedly at Wash. "Yeah, what he said!"
"There's something about that message, Sir."
Wash winced and he busied himself with calculating their current trajectory and speed if they turned toward Persephone rather than watch Zoe and Mal have it out right in front of him. Tempers had been frayed the last week, and nothing had worked to lighten the tension.
"Something about –" Mal jumped when he suddenly found River beside him, a blanket wrapped tightly around her shoulders. "Gah! Would you not do that!" He gestured to Zoe. "Tell her not to do that."
"Cold." She glanced at Wash's calculations. "Warm there. Sunny. Hot." She stared up at Mal, her eyes pleading. "We have to go."
Mal exchanged a confused look with Wash and Zoe. "Is it odd that I understand what she's sayin' all of a sudden?" He glanced down at River. "Why do I understand you all of a sudden? You ain't spoken this much in a week."
River cocked her head. "Cows. Forgot who we were."
Mal blinked at her, his mouth moving but no sound coming out.
Zoe's eyes narrowed as she carefully regarded the troubled girl.
Wash glanced down at his jumpsuit. "I don't see no udders. Jayne may have some hidden somewhere but –"
River turned to him. "Will remember there. Go back to where it all began."
Mal sighed. If something there could help River – Mal paced the small deck hoping he wouldn't regret this decision. "Change course for Persephone." He glanced down at River. "I'd better not regret this little one."
"I don't like this," Jayne grumbled as container after container was loaded into the cargo bay.
"Yeah, well, oddly enough, I'm right there with ya, Jayne." Mal stood back as the cargo was stacked and loaded in a very precise, orderly manner.
"Well, I don't mind sitting back and letting someone else do the work." Wash crossed his arms and indicated the privately hired hands with an incline of his head.
"And for a lot of money too." Zoe added, cradling the two bags of platinum in her hands.
"What is all of this?" Inara asked from the catwalk above.
"You don't have to work for months after what you earned from –" Inara's voice trailed off, remembering at what price that payment had come – Simon's life.
"Large containers too, wonder what's in 'em?" Jayne watched closely as the men loaded the last of the cargo, handed Mal a chip, presumably containing delivery instructions, and left.
"Nothing." River wandered around and between the containers, dragging her fingers lightly over their smooth surfaces.
"What?" Mal and Jayne said at the same time, exchanging confused looks. Mal pressed the controls and the bay doors lifted, sealing them off from the bustling docks.
Suddenly, River draped herself over one of the containers, flattening her cheek and her hands atop its surface. When she looked up, her eyes lit like Mal could never remember having ever seen before.
Everyone stared as she pushed herself to her feet and ran toward the passenger dorms, her hair trailing out behind her like a swirling tornado.
Inara slowly made her way down the stairs and glided to a stop beside Mal. "I haven't seen her smile since Simon –"
They all stared, confused, when River returned, dragging a protesting Kaylee behind her.
"River, I tol' ya, I don't want to be –"
Inara left Mal's side and put an arm around Kaylee's shoulders. She had gotten used to spending most of her time holding the young girl. She was pale and thin and her normally bright, expressive eyes were bloodshot, but Inara knew that was from the relentless crying the girl had done over the last week.
River removed the blanket from her shoulders and shoved it into Kaylee's arms. "Cold." She turned to the container on which she had been lying and pressed a hidden release mechanism.
Before Mal realized what was going on, the container hissed and the outside walls fell away, the shell no longer needed now that River had set in motion something that could not be stopped.
"What'r ya doin', ya crazy moonbrain!" Jayne was beside River in an instant as was Mal.
"Need to –"
"Need to get away from there. Don't belong to us." Mal pulled River away but she squirmed out of his arms.
"This one does." River hurried back to the chamber and pressed a few more buttons. She lay her head back down atop it, as if she was listening to something within.
"River get away –"
"Mal." Inara reached out and rested her hand on his arm. "Let her."
Mal stared at her incredulously. "Wha? Did you hit your head, woman?"
"Time to wake up." River muttered quietly.
Inara allowed a sliver of hope to creep into her heart as she watched River work. She indicated the container with an arch of her neck. "Look at it. Does it look familiar?"
"She's right, Sir." Zoe added.
"You're all cracked." Mal shook his head and attempted again to pull River away.
"Forgot who we were." River stared at Mal, "but we remember now." She pulled out of his arms and finished pressing a sequence of controls on the side of the chamber.
A loud hiss echoed through the cargo bay and Jayne immediately raised his weapon, glaring at the container. Mal pulled River away and Inara hurried back to Kaylee's side.
River smiled at them all, her eyes lingering for an extra moment on Kaylee. "Family."
A chilling mist spilled out of the container in tumulus waves, surrounding the base until it was nearly invisible.
"Ta ma de," Jayne muttered as he suddenly remembered the last time he'd seen one of these.
"Gou shi," Mal stared, wide-eyed at the chamber.
Inara closed her eyes. "Ren ci de fo zu,"
River squirmed out of Mal's slack grip and hurried to Kaylee. She dragged the wide-eyed girl toward the chamber, muttering, "together again. Forever now."
Kaylee shook her head, trembling. She'd been shot the last time one of these chambers had sat in this cargo bay and she didn't know what to make of it. But River didn't seem scared. She seemed – excited. As she crept closer, mostly at River's insistent prodding, she craned her neck to look into the now open chamber.
Kaylee's mouth fell open and she brought the blanket she held to her mouth to cover her surprised cry. Tears fell from her eyes moments before she fell against the rim, reaching for the unconscious Simon inside.
"Soon." River said with a smile, standing behind Kaylee, watching, waiting, expecting. Tears crept down her cheeks and she closed her eyes as the emotions rolled over her in heart pounding waves.
A few moments later, a sharp intake of breath echoed through the cargo bay, breaking the stunned silence that had fallen around the room.
"Simon," Kaylee whispered, awestruck, as he groggily pushed himself into a sitting position and stared at her, his body shivering as it reacquainted itself to normal, pressurized and heated air.
"Cold," River said to Kaylee.
"Oh!" Kaylee hurried to wrap the blanket around his bare shoulders and as she touched him, she fell against his chest sobbing uncontrollably.
"Kaylee. Xin gan," he whispered, crossing his arms as tightly around her back as his weakened muscles would allow. They rested against one another for a long moment before Simon shakily pulled himself up and over the side of the chamber.
Kaylee wrapped the blanket tighter around his naked body and walked with him toward the common room, the rest of the stunned crew, with exception of the smiling River, following dumbly behind.
Kaylee sat as close to Simon on the couch as she could without sitting in his lap. Their fingers were entwined so tightly, where one began and the other ended was a mystery. River sat on the other side of him, her tiny fingers touching his hair, while he slowly sipped at a cup of steaming tea.
"He just let ya go?" Jayne stared at Simon, a look of disbelief in his eyes.
"That's quite unbelievable." Inara sat beside Mal in another chair really made for one.
"Imagine how I felt when he brought me into a room full of cryo chambers and pointed to the medications lying on the table."
"So Adrian Bai had a change of heart after all." Book added, a wondrous tone to his voice.
"I'm not so sure it was a change of heart."
Jayne didn't understand. "Well, he let ya go, didn't he?"
"Because he let me go." River said, her eyes focused on the side of Simon's face. The pad of her finger trailed down his neck, almost to reassure her that he was real.
Simon nodded slowly. "He did, mei mei." He glanced around the room. "He is or was a member of the Academy River attended. He knew what was going on there. He – recruited the students."
The silence that greeted this announcement made Simon's heart ache. "He – put a data stick and records about the work done there in a compartment in my cryo chamber. I want to study it." Simon turned to River, love and hope burning in his eyes. "With all of that information, I have a good chance of helping you now."
"Don't need help. Have you. All I need." She wrapped her arms around his neck and hugged him tightly, pulling Kaylee against him from the other side.
"Well, I think we need to leave Simon to his girls for a bit." Mal stood and drew Inara to her feet, smiling as his hands lingered far longer at her waist than normal. He turned to Simon. "Get some rest, too, if they'll allow it. We've got to listen to the instructions that came with all of this cargo. Ain't leavin' it all here."
The crew slowly walked out of the common area, leaving Simon, Kaylee and River locked in a tight embrace. There were no words spoken between them. They had all been said before. The girls cried tears of joy as Simon held them and he couldn't remember a time that he had ever felt more at home, more loved.
Simon had been given another chance at life and he wasn't going to waste one moment of it.
Ta ma de – fuck me blind
Gou shi - crap
Ren ci de fo zu – Merciful Buddah
Xin gan – sweetheart