Chapter 22: The Truth Will Set You Free

"How's my baby? She gonna be okay?" Even swathed in a white gown and in a wheelchair, Kaylee had endeared herself to the ship's engineers almost immediately. She was hanging over a railing, half out of her chair, watching on the screens as the two tugs manouvered Serenity's battered shell into position to dock with the carrier. She looked as anxious as a mother with a wounded child, and the Alliance engineers seemed to appreciate it.

"She's going to need a hell of a lot of repair work, and that's the truth." The senior person - Simon wasn't clear on his exact rank, but he'd introduced himself as Piper - was leaning against the rail beside Kaylee. "More of a rebuild than a repair, truth be told. But it's doable. And these old Fireflies are worth putting in the extra time."

"They sure are. Serenity's just the sweetest ride in the 'verse when she's well." Kaylee winced as one of the tugs jerked Serenity against a... a strut or a support or whatever those things were called. "Make them be careful with her!"

Piper clicked his com. "Bennet, you're not hauling scrap there. Stay sharp." He clicked it off again. "The structure's still mostly sound, which is damn near a miracle. They don't make 'em like her any more - this rig hit the ground anything like as hard, they'd be finding shrapnel on the other side of that moon. You'll want to take her to Persephone or something, get her patched up - won't be cheap, though."

Kaylee bit her lip. "We'll get her fixed up. We will."

"Of course we will." Simon patted her shoulder, smiling encouragingly at her. "Don't worry. Mal will think of something, then Zoe will stop him, then Inara or Book will come up with a plan that actually works."

That made Kaylee laugh, which made the worried line between her brows go away. "That sounds 'bout right. Is she airtight?"

"We managed to seal off the infirmary and part of the crew section, but that's about it. The rest has more than a few holes punched straight through to vacuum. Nothing replacing the plating wouldn't fix." Piper started talking in detail about things Simon couldn't make head or tail of, though Kaylee nodded and asked lots of questions.

So Simon watched Kaylee smile and chatter, and was perfectly content until a young man in yet another unidentifiable uniform hurried up to them. "Mr Tam? The Operative would like a word."

Simon frowned. "I really should get Kaylee back to bed first..."

"Oh, don't be silly. I'm fine, honest." Kaylee smiled brightly. "Mr Piper'll get me back to the hospital when we're done here, right?"

"Of course." Piper returned the smile, clearly as dazzled as... well, everyone she smiled at like that. "Don't worry, doctor... as soon as my patient's tucked in safe, yours will be too."

"Thank you." Simon turned to leave - then, for once indulging an impulse, he turned back and leaned down to kiss her cheek. "Don't tire yourself out, bao bei."

Kaylee's startled beam was more than compensation for the embarrassing display in front of strange people. "Oh, Simon... I'll be fine. Don't you worry."

"It ain't like I don't take care of her! I make sure she eats, and I move her to her bed when she falls asleep some place else, and I make her put on her boots when she hasta go out, and... and lots of things!"

Jayne had obviously been ranting for a while, and Inara paused in the doorway to watch. Book was sitting in a chair, his expression calm. Jayne was pacing and gesticulating, his face set in a scowl. "Oh, it's fine for Jayne to run after her an' spend more time watching her than her own brother an' all when he's just doin' it for money, everyone's okay with that!" he snarled, stalking away from the door. "But if it gets so's I'm doing it 'cause I want to, well, then I must be some evil lecherous hound who's gonna be bad to her! How does that make sense?" He swung around, and stopped abruptly when he saw Inara. For one second he looked sheepish, then he frowned and folded his arms, positively daring her to disagree with him.

Book glanced at Inara, smiling ever so slightly on the side of his face that Jayne couldn't see, and nodded. "Jayne, I know you expected the rest of the crew not to take it well. Why are you so surprised now?"

"I ain't surprised... exactly..." Jayne scuffed at the thin carpet with one boot. "But I'm good to her! They all know that! I mean, if they'd leaned on how I ain't good enough for her or somethin', I'd understand that. I wouldn't agree, but I'd be able to see it, you know? But Mal was goin' on like he thought I'd hurt her or somethin'!"

"She is very young, Jayne," Inara said gently.

"So?" Jayne frowned. "My ma was married at her age. So was one of my sisters, and the other two wasn't much older. I mean, not to fellows my age, 'cause I'm gettin' past startin' a family, but she's all grown up."

"I understand that. I do." Inara glanced at Book, whose expression showed nothing but innocent inquiry. No help for her there. "But River is from the Core, Jayne. Women don't marry so young, there. Actually, on Osiris she wouldn't even be considered over the age of consent."

Jayne blinked at her. "The what?"

"Many planets establish a minimum legal age at which a young person is considered capable of, among other things, giving meaningful consent to sexual relations." Book sounded very amused. "On Osiris, it's eighteen."

Jayne looked from one to the other of them, as if he suspected them of having some sort of joke at his expense. "You're jokin'. There's a law for that in the Core?"

"Several, actually." Inara smiled slightly. "Companions are exempt from some of them, but not all. It's... complicated."

Jayne scowled. "Well, that's just plain dumb. I don't hold with startin' real young, or nothin', but seems to me it's up to folk to decide for themselves when they want to be gettin' started with that."

"And I'll concede that River is perfectly capable of giving meaningful consent." Inara was getting a little alarmed about Jayne's blood pressure, so she made the effort to sound calm and soothing. "But Simon having grown up with that particular standard..."

"Yeah, well, he weren't ever gonna take it well anyway." Jayne shuffled his feet again, looking absurdly like an overgrown teenager. "I am good to her, 'Nara, you know that. I'll treat her right and take care of her. An' if I don't, she can just whack my head off with that axe if she feels like it. You know she can."

He was being truthful. Even without extensive training in discerning falsehood from self-deception from prevarication from truth, Inara would have been able to see that. It was written all over him in characters a yard high. "I do know that. And I believe you'll take the best care of her that you can. But it won't be easy."

Jayne actually rolled his eyes at her, and Inara didn't know whether to be amused or insulted. "I've been takin' care of her for... how long now, months? I'm the one who always has to find her when she takes to hidin', and who has to keep her amused when she gets fidgety out in the black, and who does all them million and one things it takes to keep River runnin' on an even keel. Why the hell do you folk keep tellin' me how hard she is to take care of like you think I don't know? Who do you think's been mindin' her all this time, magical babysittin' fairies?"

Inara chuckled. Book blatantly snickered. "Well, there is that," he said gravely. "But being in a relationship is going to be a different proposition altogether."

"Yeah, I ain't gonna have to run halfway across the ship in my bare feet every time she has a bad dream," Jayne muttered. "Those walkways are ruttin' cold. I dunno how she stands it."

Inara blinked. "How would you know when she has a bad dream?"

Jayne looked at her as if she was an idiot. She was definitely insulted this time. "She's a psychic. You think she can hear thirty million dead from across the system but she can't wake me up when she wants me?"

"Wait... you can hear her? How long have you been able to hear her?" Inara stifled the urge to shake the stupid, incommunicative, secret-keeping man.

"Can't if I'm awake, not really." Jayne shrugged. "But she can give my dreams a nudge if I'm sleeping. She knows I'll make the nightmares go away."

"And how long - "

"Ain't none of your business how long. Mal told me to take care of her and I have been, and now that I ain't doin' it just for money everyone's getting all bent out of shape." Jayne folded his arms again. "Did you want somethin'?"

Inara counted to ten in her head and smiled a sincere smile that she'd practiced in the mirror for years. "Mal wants us all in the Operative's office. They've come up with a plan to make River and Simon free citizens instead of fugitives."

"Javert has come up with something that should explain everything, and is close enough to the truth that nobody should have trouble remembering it." Simon did not look at Jayne when he said that. But he didn't look at Jayne so pointedly that he might as well have been staring. Mal was likewise ignoring their merc the way a cat ignores a mouse right before pouncing.

Jayne, meanwhile, had marched straight over to River as soon as he entered the room and put a possessive arm around her. He glared around the room as if daring someone to challenge his claim, and seemed almost disappointed when nobody did. River, who seemed kind of amused by it all, had cuddled up to him all cute-like, which had made Jayne stop bristling and look... actually kind of sweet. Zoe never would have credited it.

Still, Jayne and River had saved Wash, and she would have supported them if they'd announced that they wanted to start a circus in the hold. And River did have a point in that few men would dare take her on even if she were sane, knowing what she could do.

"The story starts out truthful - River was sent away to a special training program for the exceptionally gifted. Unfortunately, River was unable to cope with the intensely accelerated program and had a nervous breakdown."

"It's much more plausible than a secret government plot to warp the gifted children entrusted to them into psychics and assassins," River explained, tipping her head back to rest it against Jayne's chest. He smiled down at her, then hastily wiped his expression blank when he realized Zoe was looking.

That was almost cute, in an odd and disturbing way.

"Much more. Anyway, she was moved into to a treatment centre for counselling. Nobody thought it was particularly serious, so my parents didn't bother to tell anyone she'd been temporarily removed from her special school." Contempt sat oddly on Simon's thin, expressive face. "Everyone who knows them will believe that."

River made a rude noise. Jayne rested a broad hand over her stomach, drawing her closer to him, and she settled.

"While she was in the facility, River was a witness to a conversation between another patient and a man she has now identified as Member of Parliament Hsin Parker, regarding the use of the Pax on Miranda. She was dazed by medication at the time, and truly remembers little of the conversation."

"Uh..." Kaylee lifted her hand tentatively. "Won't this Mr Parker say as it wasn't so?"

"I'm sure he would, if he had not died of poisoning in a locked room in his heavily secured home approximately two hours after the Miranda broadcast." Javert smiled slightly. "It has been assumed to be a suicide. Despair at the perfidy of his own government is currently being blamed, although I imagine that when it becomes known that he was the one to sign off on the... controlled testing... of G-32 paxilon hydrochlorate, that assumption will be replaced with a slightly more accurate one."

"He's the one killed all them people?" Kaylee bit her lip.

"One of many, but he was a primary motivator behind the Projects for Improvement... which, so Javert tells us, was an innocuous name for many vile acts, including the inception of the Academy." Simon reached over to pat Kaylee's shoulder gently. "And Miranda, yes."

"Assumed to be a suicide, huh?" Zoe raised her eyebrows at Javert.

Javert smirked very slightly. "The eldest of our number is... subtle. The other two mysterious deaths of Members of Parliament were more obvious. There will, I have no doubt, be more. We do not appreciate being lied to."

"So I see." Zoe was inclined to approve. Trouble for the Alliance, the whole Miranda mess getting dealt with, and Mal wasn't involved which meant Zoe didn't have that to worry about on top of everything else. "You contacted the others, then?"

"Not as yet, but I will. There have always been contingency plans in the event that an untrustworthy person found his way into the command structure. I am certain they are being utilised already." Javert shrugged. "I still have the power to cancel the warrants for River and Simon Tam, and to annotate their files with the full story... or our version thereof. Since the charges and everything else were listed as classified until now, there will be no discrepancies to concern yourselves with."

Simon nodded. "The story being that Mr Parker panicked, tried to have River silenced by means of... experimental treatment involving cranial surgery, since that did have to be explained. She contacted me, I managed to con my way in and retrieve her, and we've been on the run ever since."

"Sounds workable." Mal nodded. "Your sister finds out something she shouldn't, gets her head worked on a little, you rescue her, and when the truth is revealed..." He raised his eyebrows inquiringly. "How are we explaining that part?"

"Why, by the completely truthful and plausible fact that they happened by sheerest coincidence to take ship with a retired Federal Marshal of impeccable record and standing." Book, who had been watching from a corner, smiled benignly. "Naturally, Simon had difficulty convincing anyone of his story, burdened as he was with an incoherent and traumatized witness who hardly rememberd anything. I, however, have sufficient experience to know truth when I hear it. Am I warm?"

"Scorching." Simon smiled at him. "And thank you for offering."

"Not at all." Book nodded. "Naturally it took me some time to earn your trust, but when you did tell me the truth I immediately contacted my dear old friend and colleague who rushed here in time to rescue you from not only Reavers, but the dangerous terrorist who released the Miranda broadcast. Sadly, he escaped and you were able to provide us with only a vague description."

Mal smirked. "He had red hair. I remember that real distinct. And he was short. Very short. I expect the Reavers ate him."

"I expect they did." Javert shared a sunny smile with Mal and Book, all three of them clearly enjoying the plotting greatly. "However, River's secret is now a secret no longer, and it is revealed that she is but an innocent victim of Mr Parker's grasping for power. The truth discovered, Commander Brandt - said old friend and colleague - will receive suitable but anonymous orders with a very high-level clearance code to adjust the status of the Tams." Javert inclined his head. "Given your services to the Alliance, I belive those orders will include a strong suggestion that any past indiscretions on the part of the crew of Serenity should be... discounted."

"I like that idea." Jayne brightened. "I mean, we oughta get something outta all this, and a cleaner record's somethin' we could all use... 'cept maybe Kaylee and Inara."

"Can't argue there." Zoe nodded. "And... that's it? You mean all it took to get Simon and River off the hook was kidnapping a high level Alliance spy, flyin' through Reaver space twice, maybe kicking off another war and gettin' ourselves torn to shreds while we were at it?"

"Yeah, I know." Mal grinned at her. "If we'd known it'd be this easy we'd have stormed that hill months ago, right?"

The others looked a little shocked, but Zoe chuckled. Joking about the pain and the death once it was survived... well, it was an old soldier thing. "Sounds like a decent plan, and it is close to the truth. Although how we'll explain her uncanny ability to shoot folks in the eye from a hundred yards off facing the wrong way..."

"She got mostly better an' she started spendin' time with Jayne and he taught her to defend herself." Kaylee beamed at River and Jayne. "An' then they fell in love, and it was real sweet, and - "

Jayne looked nauseated. "Kaylee, there's still a few in this 'verse actually take me seriously. You go around talkin' like that in public you're gonna kill what's left of my reputation stone dead, that what you want?"

"Of course not. Jayne is tough and mean and exceptionally ornery." River reached up to pat his cheek. "Kaylee and I would never say otherwise in a public setting."

"Oh, of course not." Kaylee nodded, grinning impishly. "Not a word. You're just as bad as can be, as far as we're concerned."

"That's better." Jayne made a grumbling noise, cuddling River gently. "You remember that." He gave Zoe the stink-eye as she snickered. "You too."

"Oh, absolutely. You are hard-heartedness incarnate. You don't have a romantic bone in your body." Zoe grinned. "You want folk to believe that, though, you may have to let go of River now and then."

Jayne's arms tightened possessively. "I will. When we're, you know, in fronta people who ain't crew. Or on a job or something."

"Can I be included in the people you don't get all cuddlesome in front of?" Mal made a face. "It's unsettlin' my stomach a little."

River poked out a small pink tongue at him. "Don't care."

Jayne smirked. "What she said."

"It could be worse." Inara was smiling, and she had her arm looped through Mal's as they strolled back towards their own rooms. That was just unfair - she knew damned well he had trouble staying mad when she did things like that.

"How, exactly, could it be worse?" He tried to scowl, although he wasn't sure how well it came out. "It's Jayne!"

"There are worse men in the 'verse than Jayne, Mal. You know perfectly well that even if she couldn't tie him in a knot with her feet, he'd never strike her or treat her badly."

"He did hit her that one time." Mal knew this was a losing battle, but he was determined to fight it anyway.

"She'd just stabbed him, Mal." Inara looked downright amused now. "I don't think even Simon blamed him for that."

"Well... yeah, but... he's stupid, he's uneducated, he's crude, he's selfish, he's mean... why do perfectly nice girls go for men like him? I've seen it before. Ain't no lout nasty enough as some otherwise sensible girl won't fall all over herself for him 'cause she thinks he's some kind of misunderstood saint."

"River knows perfectly well that Jayne isn't a saint, Mal. She also knows that he will work harder to understand her than anyone else, that he will protect her when she is vulnerable and let her fight for herself when she can - and actively guide her in fighting for herself, too. There are very few men who would treat River the way he has, Mal, all the more so because he has romantic feelings for her. As River said quite some time ago, he sets her on her feet and puts weapons in her hands. He doesn't coddle her or try to shield her from the world - he wants her to be as strong and independent as she can be."

Mal frowned. "Well, of course he does. Why wouldn't he?"

Inara shook her head, but she gave his arm a little squeeze. "It's to your credit that you think so, Mal, it truly is. But there are a great many men out there who would do what Simon does - without his justification of having known her since she was a baby - and try to hide River from danger and shield her from it, instead of letting her face it. Jayne not only allows her to be strong, he actually prefers her that way."

"Well... I guess that could be considered a point in his favour." Mal frowned, pausing in front of a window that showed the serene darkness of the black, glittering with stars. "It ain't gonna last, though. You know Jayne. He don't stick around, ain't ever been his way."

"He's stuck with Serenity for over two years now. And getting romantically involved hasn't ever been his way either, but he has now." Inara smiled, looking out at the stars. "Not to mention his attempts to open that door."

Mal scowled. He could argue away or somehow disallow all the other possible evidence of Jayne's devotion to River... given enough time... but the door thing was really difficult to get around. "Coulda lost his head in the heat of battle." Inara just raised her eyebrows at him and he sighed. "Which would be completely unlike Jayne, both the losing the head and the running towards danger when afraid, I know. I just..."

"Jayne is terrified of Reavers. We all know that. They're the only thing besides immediate and certain death that I know does scare him. And yet he was fighting you and Javert and Zoe with all he had trying to get that door open. To get to her." Inara smiled wryly. "Mal, this is the stuff of which epic romances are made. Very few real live people would really prefer to die with their beloved than live without him or her, but Jayne was actually fighting for the opportunity."

"Yeah, but..." Mal sighed. "But it's Jayne. He's a big dirty merc with a heart of solid rock, and he's putting his unclean hands all over my little girl. I don't like it."

"You don't have to like it, Mal, as long as River does. She loves him, and he loves her. That's what matters." Inara turned away a little, looking out of the window again. "He actually told her so, although apparently it was something of a struggle. She told me with some pride in him that he had made the effort to say it at least once, although he also told her that it would have to last her a while because he wasn't doing it again."


That was...

Wash had a point, gorrammit. Mal had heard Simon getting all mushy on Kaylee while they were being shuttled to the Fed cruiser, and Wash said it all the damn time. Well, that was them. But if even Jayne had come out and said the fateful words - which must have damn near killed him, uncomfortable as he was with all such things - then that made Mal the only one who hadn't... well, Inara hadn't either, but...

"Well, Jayne doesn't have my problem there," he said, sounding all reasonable-like.

"Your problem?" Inara didn't sound too pleased.

"My luck problem. I mean, I don't think there's anything in River's idea that there's a curse on me, but you have to own that the 'verse takes a special and personal pleasure in slapping me in the face as often as possible."

Inara still didn't look pleased, but she nodded. "I really can't argue with that."

"And here I am, standin' on a Fed ship, with a bunch of Alliance soldiery but a few hours away who want me good and dead, with two wanted fugitives obviously and blatantly on my crew. Sure, it's going all right now, but if I was to do something stupid like telling you that I love you as I've never loved any woman, nor likely ever will... well, if you smacked my face that'd work out all right, but if you actually responded in any kind of approvin' way I'd get shot immediately just to rebalance my luck."

Inara stared at him for a bit. Mal swallowed nervously. It had seemed like such a good way of bringing it up, in his head.

Then she smiled, and it was like sunshine and sweet tea and all manner of bright, warming things. "What if I slapped you and responded approvingly?"

"That would confuse things some..." Mal slid his arms around her waist and smiled down at her. "But that won't be necessary, 'cause I'm not saying anything of the kind. Nor I ain't doing anything about it, either. Not until I'm back on my own ship and master of my own destiny again. So don't you go being all perfect and beautiful at me, because it won't work."

Inara laughed, and just hugged him tightly around the middle. It felt... right. Very right. "You're a very peculiar man, Captain Reynolds."

"I just know the way my luck tends to run, is all. I want some strong steel around me and a couple of gun-hands at my back 'fore I tempt fate as badly as I would if I got all romantical with you." Mal was grinning. Couldn't have stifled it if his life depended on it. "You see what I mean, right?"

"I really can't argue, no." Inara chuckled, resting her head against his chest. "I'd hate to be the indirect cause of your death."

"Good. So would I." Mal stroked her hair, then reluctantly took her shoulders and moved her firmly away from him. "So stop temptin' me to risk it and start sayin' things I shouldn't."

She laughed, and touched his cheek with soft fingers. "All right. But when we're back on Serenity..."

"You and me will be having a conversation. It may be a little sappy, I warn you now."

She smiled that smile again, and Mal couldn't actually feel the floor under his feet anymore. "I think I'll live." She walked away, tossing him one more smile as she turned a corner.

Mal still couldn't stop grinning.

"How does it feel to be a free man with an entirely legal crew with almost no outstanding warrants?" Book smiled.

Mal grinned and shook Book's hand, his mood bluer and curlier than River had ever seen it, laced through with red. He and Inara had clearly said something, finally. "It's comin' as something of a shock, but I think I'll adjust. As long as we steer clear of Canton..."

Jayne shifted beside River, and she squeezed his hand. Canton still made him uncomfortable, she knew, and local warrants on a company-owned world couldn't be rescinded by the Alliance. Most of the others, however, had now been discreetly closed.

"Indeed." Book touched the side of his head absently, and River smiled, remembering how badly the hair had frightened her on Canton. It had looked very structurally unsound. "The tug will take you as far as Persephone... unless there's somewhere else you'd rather go?"

"Can't think of - " Mal started.

"Beowulf." That was Jayne, and everyone turned to look at him in surprise. "It ain't much further'n Persephone, and most of the spaceship parts in this part of the system get made there anyway. They do a lot of construction, too. It'll be cheaper if we ain't payin' transport taxes on the parts, and we'll find at least a few as know Fireflies."

"He's right." Kaylee was on her feet again now, but she was leaning on Simon's arm. Simon looked very happy about it. "Lot o' the best parts come from Beowulf, and the shipyards there are good."

"Really? Ain't ever been there." Mal shrugged. "But you're the expert, Kaylee. Book, can your boys get us to Beowulf?"

"Of course." Book nodded. "I'll have Kyo pass on the order." He went around, shaking hands with everyone gravely. "I'll be back on Haven soon. I'll expect to see you all when Serenity is back on her feet."

"You will, we promise!" Kaylee ignored the hand and hugged Book instead. "You take care, Shepherd."

"I will. You too." Book shook Jayne's hand, and then River's. "You take care of her, now."

"Don't I always?" Jayne put a proprietary hand on River's hip, looping his arm around her back, but she could feel nervous worry prickling underneath the surface. It wasn't because of her, though.

"You do." Book clapped him on the shoulder.

"Farewell, Captain. We will be seeing each other again." Javert shook Mal's hand gravely.

"Looking forward to it." And that was almost true, which River thought was rather nice. "All right, everyone in, we can't hang around all day getting sentimental."

Last hasty goodbyes were said, and the crew of Serenity boarded the small tug. It would be a cramped few days, but they would manage.

When the tug was safely undocked and drawing away from the cruiser, Mal turned to give Jayne a thoughtful look. "So... why Beowulf?"

"Because it's a cheap place to get parts an' all." Jayne shifted uncertainly. "Why not?"

"It's time," River said, since clearly Jayne didn't want to.

"Time for what, little albatross?" Mal's eyebrows drew together just a little bit.

River liked the new pet-name, and smiled at him. "Time to go back to hats and stuffed apples." She could speak clearly when she chose, now... most of the time... but she'd found she rather enjoyed still being cryptic now and then.

"I didn't get that." Mal's face fell.

"I did." Wash was pale and drawn, but he'd insisted on going with everyone else. The tug's medical facilities were adequate, barely, and the infirmary would be there once they reached Beowulf. Simon would take good care of him. "Jayne's going home."

(The End)

Teng - flying dragon

Yin hui - obscene, coarse

Ni Zi - little girl

Biao xiong - male cousin

Dong ma - you understand?

Wu Ji - dancing girl

Hun dan - bastard

Bai Chi - idiot

Bu Jing Chuan - whaling ship, whale-catcher

Mei Mei - younger sister

Feng Guang - scenic view

Xie xie - yes

Wu Dong - I understand

Ba Ba - father, Daddy

Go Se - dogshit

Renzi de Shang Di, qing dai wa zhou - Merciful God, please take me away

Wo shang mei er, mei xin, bian shi tou - I will close my ears and my heart and I will be a stone

Gao yang jong duh goo yang - motherless goat of all motherless goats!

Xiao Teng - small/tiny/young dragon

Ju Guei - giant tortoise

Bao Bei - sweetheart