Book stood on the catwalk above watching Kaylee, River and the children play a game of tag in the hold. Laughter filled the large room and he smiled thinking it was good to hear that sound.
The boy Victor ducked around a large stack of seed that wobbled slightly. He was trying to dodge River who was currently 'it'. Wan blinked for a lofty perch on another stack.
"Careful of the cargo!" Reynolds hollered. He'd just entered from the common area below.
Simon joined the shepherd. "How are you today, Templar?"
"Fine." He was still getting used to his new name. But then, if he was to help Captain Reynolds, he had to make sure Serenity's crew never figured out the truth.
"It's so good to see her happy," the young doctor said, a smile on his face.
He had to agree. When he'd been here before, River had been troubled and incoherent most of the time. After Miranda she seemed to get better. Maybe the horrible secrets she'd harbored in her brain once freed, acted like a miraculous cure and returned her to normal.
Mal trudged up the stairs glaring slightly at the mayhem below. He stopped by the other two men. "This is why I don't want children on my boat."
"It's good they're playing," Simon told him. "They'd be even more trouble if they didn't have some place to run off excess energy."
"Just as long as my cargo stays intact," he grunted and headed for the bridge.
"Got too much ridin' on its safe delivery."
"When doesn't he," Simon muttered.
Book glanced at the young doctor. He'd heard much the same when he'd been here before. Still, he had a role to play. "Problems?"
"Just the captain and his constant worry about money."
Simon sighed. "Seems we're always on the 'raggedy edge', as the captain puts it." He leaned on the upper railing. "The Alliance is cracking down on smuggling and such making it harder for independents to find work."
"I see. Yet even on the more 'civilized' planets, there always seems to be a black market."
"I know." The younger man had a tired expression on his face and from what Book knew of before, Simon had used such contacts to free his sister.
"Well, at least this cargo is legal." A part of the shepherd was relieved about that.
"One of our few."
Laughter exploded below as Pazi took over being 'it'. The others ran much more slowly because the very young girl would not be able to 'tag' anyone if they didn't. She squealed with delight as she touched Kaylee who in turn chased the child. They circled one of the stacks disappearing into the common rooms. Wan yawned and jumped down, stretching to her full length and then following the others.
"Got us a job after this one," Mal stated as he joined the two men. "Man named Steve Brandon wants to meet with us."
"What's the cargo?" Book asked.
"Didn't say. Wants to talk about it in person."
"Sounds…illegal," Simon put in.
"He says not. Sides," he walked past them. "We need the work." His steps echoed as he went down. "Where'd those children git off to?"
Right then Book heard the special call the Elders used when they wanted to talk to a Whitelighter. He made up an excuse to be alone. "I think I'll do some Bible reading while it's somewhat quiet."
"Think I'll check the infirmary, see if we need anything."
The two went down the stairs. Simon going to the infirmary and Book to his quarters. He carefully closed the door and orbed.
"What's going on?" he asked the gold robed figures.
"Was there no way for the crew not to learn about the children?" A woman's voice accused her tone very disapproving.
"Why isn't Sam here? He's the children's Whitelighter." Book was used to defending himself.
"He's right," the young faced Elder with short light brown hair agreed. "Books assignment is Malcolm Reynolds."
Moments later Sam orbed in. "I know what this is about," he gruffed, glaring at the assembled group.
"The children were only supposed to be transported to the outer rings," the woman continued. "Not exposed to a crew of…criminals."
"They're not all criminals," Book objected.
"He's right about that, Leo," Sam agreed. He was looking at the Elder who had convinced Book to become a Whitelighter.
"I know." He glanced at the other Elders. "This is a family matter. I'll take care of it."
"You will not." A very old Elder joined them. "Our mistake before was allowing you to 'fix' things according to your own whim. Your decisions were not made wisely."
"Maybe not, but I had my family to think of."
"Now you leave Leo alone," Sam objected.
"And humans are not to know of Whitelighters," the old man stated sternly. "Yet you told the entire crew."
"What else was I supposed to do? The damage was already done."
"Do I need to be here?" Book asked. The events spoken of had happened before his arrival.
"Yes. Because this is what you're going to do,"
Leo tried to protest, but in the end, he lost.
Upon their return Book began to understand why Sam didn't always like what the Elders decided.
"It's wrong," the other man growled.
"I agree." The decision meant he'd lost Mal as a charge. That didn't set well with the former Shepherd.
"Dad blamed Elders and their constant need for secrecy." Sam punched the wall of the ship. "The kids haven't had someplace to call home for a long time. Living here has been good for them."
"And having them here has been good for the crew." They added a lighter sense to things and a hope for tomorrow. With them gone, he wasn't certain what would happen.
Sam faced Book. "Do yourself a favor. Don't give up on Reynolds. Just because the Elders have decided he's a lost cause and they want you to concentrate you talents elsewhere, don't you listen. They've been wrong before."
"I don't intend to give up on him." He just hadn't figured out how he'd defy them.
The next few weeks dragged on. Book had informed Reynolds he intended to disembark at their next planetfall. Mal had been unhappy about that but stated he had no cause to stop the shepherd. Sam told him the children would be leaving as well. Despite all the captain's complaints, he didn't seem glad they'd be gone.
They had a final farewell dinner in the galley. It wasn't a happy meal. Vic sulked the entire time and kept glaring at Sam. Pazi and Pessa kept asking why they had to go and Sam had to keep explaining it would be for the best for all concerned. That answer didn't set well. Wan made the rounds brushing against legs, getting fed a treat and sometimes a hand ran down her silky back.
In the morning they left the ship waving sadly goodbye. All the girls, big and small cried at the parting. Pazi and Pessa hugged everyone and spent some extra time with Wan holding the cat and hugging her to their chests. Vic kicked the ground and said, "It ain't fair," before they were swallowed up in the press of humanity of the busy spaceport.
"They'll be fine," Book assured them as he slung his pack over his back.
"Don't seem fair." Kaylee brushed tears off her face. "We could have been family to 'em."
"I know you could have." Book didn't like what he had to do now. Granted the dust had been refined over time and was more reliable than in days past. Still, it didn't seem fair to make them forget.
"Was nice to have ya on board, shepherd." Mal extended his hand. Book shook it.
"God's speed," he replied as he reached into his pant's pocket where the packet of dust had rested since the Elders gave it to him. He sprinkled the golden stuff over all of them, thankful all the while they were all there and he didn't have to hunt down any particular one.
"Goodbye, my friends." He began to leave as their eyes glazed over in forgetfulness. Wan rushed up and bumped against him. He kneeled down to pet the cat. "I know you won't forget."
She left him and stood guard over her people as he stepped off into the crowd, vowing to find a way to defy the Elders and help Reynolds fulfill his future destiny. He just wasn't sure 'how' he was going to do that.
Author's note. My apology for this being a short one. I didn't know until recently in another story what had happened here. This piece is now finished and if you'd like to know what happens next I'll direct you to SECRETS & SECRETS II.