Part VIII—Coming Home
Disclaimer: I own none of these characters. I just play with 'em.
Summary: Serenity's crew delivers the captives back to Greenleaf, and Jayne and Inara re-join the group.
Simon silently climbed down into the bunk he shared with Kaylee. Stretching aching muscles in exhaustion, he kicked off his shoes and pulled off his clothes, for once not taking the extra time to put everything away neatly. He slid under the covers and turned over onto his stomach.
The mattress shifted slightly as Kaylee sat up on her knees beside her husband, and ran her work-roughened hands lightly down the dip of his spine. Simon sighed with pleasure. "Feels good, ai ren, but I can't…"
Kaylee's hands continued their soothing motion. "Hush," she said. "Weren't an invitation. You just looked so tired just now. Thought ya' might need to be tended to a little. You've been tendin' to everybody else, the Cap'n and all them women and little 'uns, I just wanted to make ya' feel better for a minute."
Simon smiled sleepily, groaning at the strength in Kaylee's fingers working his tired muscles into submission. "There are so many of them, Kaylee," he said after a time. "Thirty-four, well, thirty-five if you count the little girl who won't leave Zoe's side. Half of them sick or injured, and all of them under-nourished." He sighed. "Somehow, I wasn't expecting so many at once."
"And the Cap'n?" Kaylee asked. She felt Simon's shoulders tense again under her fingers.
"He's stable, but I need to be paying closer attention to him, too. Just so much to…"
Kaylee lay gently across his body with her own. "It'll all be shiny, honey. Tomorrow is soon enough to see to it all again. Go to sleep."
But Simon didn't hear her last words. He was already gone.
Zoe stood on the catwalk, looking down at the make-shift camp that had been the cargo bay. Women and children sat, many of them still huddled together. Zoe figured it might take some time before they truly understood that they had been freed, and could move about as they pleased.
Anya had no trouble understanding her freedom, however. After being properly introduced to Kaylee, she was enjoying watching Kaylee prepare a small meal for the army of refugees. Zoe sighed, wishing Serenity's food stores could offer more, but knowing that, as it was, before they could get to Greenleaf everyone's stomach would be uncomfortably empty.
She made her way down to the infirmary where River still sat, waiting for Mal to awaken. "Any change this morning?" she asked, noting the purple shadows under River's eyes.
"Dreaming," River said, smiling slightly.
"I take it they're pleasant dreams from your expression," Zoe observed. She knew Mal well enough to know that was rarely the case.
River grinned, reading the thought clearly. "Some of Simon's drugs are more pleasant than others. This one's happy."
"Bein' as that's the case, why don't you go on and get some food while there's still some left? I'll sit with the captain for awhile."
Taking a last look at Mal, River leaned over to kiss his forehead lightly. 'Be back in a bit, ai ren.' She sent the silent message, detecting the slightest hint of an answering smile.
Zoe took her place on the stool beside her friend. Thinking he looked a little less pale than he had the day before, she contented herself with waiting for him to wake up. Before too much time had passed, she saw his eyelids flutter open.
"Morning, sir," she said, flashing back suddenly to the countless times in the past she'd said the same words to this man.
"Mornin'," he mumbled groggily. "What time is it?"
"Goin' on 9:00."
Zoe thought for a minute, doing the math. "Tuesday, best as I recall, sir."
Mal nodded, wondering idly why he'd even asked, one day being much like another.
"How you feelin'?"
"Been better, but then again, I've been a lot worse too, so I conjure that's a good sign." Mal shifted, sending pain through his midsection. "I take it Simon saved the day, as always."
Zoe nodded. "Good thing you kept the doc onboard. He does have his uses."
"Women and children all okay?"
"Some of 'em are pretty sick. Most are just hungry,…and shook up plenty."
Mal's mind clicked into commander mode. "Need to ration ship's stores. Might be able to stretch them out, if we're careful."
"Already done, sir. Kaylee's made a thin broth for everyone this mornin'. Simon added some vitamin supplements to the mix. It's not much, but it's more than they've had."
"You all right?" Mal asked, seeing the bleak look that flickered briefly in her eyes.
"Glad to be home, sir." Zoe looked at him, her eyes conveying the true depth of the sentiment.
Mal returned the gaze steadily. "Kinda glad of that my own self." Turning back to less personal matters, he said, "Got any idea about what to do with 'em once we get to Greenleaf?"
"Inara waved early this morning, wanting to check on everything. When I told her the particulars, she seemed to think she could arrange for the local authorities to handle their care, and hopefully get 'em all back to their families, wherever that is. Said it'd be handled by the time we get there."
"That woman's a right wonder with organizin' a thing," Mal mused, glad not to have to handle anything beyond providing temporary food and shelter for the women, given his present condition.
Interrupting his train of thought, Zoe said, "Sir, there's something I need to talk to you about."
Mal looked up expectantly, hoping whatever it was would be something that would not require an major effort just now. Not exactly up for much, he thought wryly.
"You saw the little girl with me on the ship," Zoe began.
"The little blonde kid?"
"Yes. Her name is Anya, and her mother was on the ship too. Died, in point of fact." Zoe paused, remembering the moment. "Anyway, the short of it is that Anya's alone now. No father, no mother, no family as she knows of."
"That's a real pity," Mal offered, unsure where this conversation was going.
"It is at that." Zoe looked at him intently. "I want to take her on, sir. Don't wanna leave her to the authorities on Greenleaf or anywhere else."
Mal looked at her in astonishment. "That's a right big job to take on, Zoe. As I recall, that child ain't more'n five or six."
"You're right. She's five years old. But she's kinda latched on to me, and I…well, I got a lot I can give her, I think. If you agree, that is."
"Don't see as it's up to me, Zoe."
Zoe looked at him, exasperated. "'Course it's up to you who stays on your own boat."
Mal smiled softly, loving it when he could annoy Zoe. "Ya' think I'm like to throw an orphan child out on her ear to fend for herself in the big wide 'verse?"
Zoe smiled playfully. "There's never any tellin' what you might take a notion to do, all doped up on Simon's potions." Turning serious again, she added. "You know, Serenity ain't ever had a child."
Mal nodded. "Reckon if we can handle Jayne, we got a decent notion what to do with a five-year-old."
"'Spose you're right, sir," Zoe answered, relieved beyond measure that Mal had accepted her proposal.
Inara was exhausted. As she lay in the soft bed of her hotel suite, she mentally reviewed the events of the day. She'd spent most of the day arranging accommodations for the women who would be arriving in two days with Serenity. Then, she had kept her last appointment with the counselor, setting up a way to continue the sessions by wave once she was back in the Black. She would miss the intimate setting of the counselor's office, but she was more than ready to get back to some sense of normalcy on Serenity. And finally, she had spent the better part of the evening getting Jayne discharged from the hospital and settled into her other room. She sighed, thinking of the sudden awkwardness between them just before they'd each retired to their separate rooms, nothing but a door between them. Still pondering all those events and being lulled by Jayne's soft snores from the adjoining room, she fell into a fitful sleep.
Shortly thereafter, Inara sat up with a start, heart beating wildly from the nightmare which had jolted her out of slumber. Trying to calm her breathing, she closed her eyes and counted to ten. When she opened them, she screamed.
"Hush, woman, it's just me," Jayne said, standing in the doorway, knife glinting in the light coming from the window. "Heard you cry out. Thought there might be trouble."
Inara found her voice, oddly comforted by his presence. "I'm sorry I disturbed you, Jayne. Everything is fine. I was just…dreaming."
"Weren't none too pleasant, from the sound of it," Jayne observed sheathing his knife smoothly.
"No, it wasn't," Inara admitted. "In fact," she said, getting out of bed gracefully, "I think I'd like to have a cup of tea to calm me a bit. Would you like some?"
Jayne stood rooted to the floor. Gorram woman had no notion of how inviting she looked just then, hair all mussed from sleeping and that little night-thingy sliding so pretty along her curves. He cleared his throat. "Ain't much for the tea drinkin', but I'll sit with ya, if'n ya' want."
Inara nodded, inordinately pleased with the thought. Slipping into her robe, she turned back to see Jayne retrieve his own shirt. She was vaguely surprised by the small pang of disappointment she felt as he pulled the shirt down the sculpted muscles of his back. Shaking her head, she filed the thought away for future mediation.
"Thought maybe that therapist woman would be able to help you with those nightmares," Jayne said, watching her prepare the tea.
"She has been very helpful," Inara said. "But I suppose it will take some time." She sipped her tea delicately.
They sat silently for a moment, each thinking about the nature of Inara's nightmares. Finally, Jayne spoke. "'Nara, just want ya' to know I'm grateful to you for all you done this past week. I know it ain't exactly been your best week ever."
Inara smiled gently. "It was the least I could do after what you did for me, Jayne."
Jayne shifted restlessly, uncomfortable with the subject. "So, is that tea really as good as you say?"
"Even better," Inara replied.
"Might have to try it sometime."
Moving to make another cup, Inara answered, "No time like the present."
Mal moved stiffly down the stairs into the cargo bay, having been finally cleared by Simon to resume light activity. As always, Simon had been fairly amazed by Mal's rapid healing abilities, pronouncing him well enough not to need Greenleaf's superior medical facilities. Mal was relieved. Though he'd had a fair share of transfusions and the like, he had no great desire to repeat the experience unless absolutely necessary.
Noting with pride the smoothness of River's landing, he opened the ramp, flooding the cargo bay with sunlight. He saw Jayne and Inara standing anxiously on the dock.
"You're lookin' a mite better than you did the last time I saw you," he said to Jayne, noting with satisfaction the ease with which the mercenary was moving and breathing.
"And you're lookin' a helluva sight worse," Jayne answered, hiding his relief to see the Captain standing at all.
Mal nodded. "Can't argue with that. Next time I go about freein' slaves, I'll be sure to have you with me. Give the bad guys another target, at least."
Jayne shook his head, moving happily toward his bunk.
Inara stood back, momentarily at a loss for words.
"Inara," Mal said, inclining his head. "You're looking well. And I thank you for seeing to the womenfolk and children. Don't rightly know what we'd have done with 'em all."
Inara smiled, walking gracefully up the ramp. "I thought it best for them to be off Serenity as soon as possible, before they were exposed to a life of crime."
Mal's eyes glinted in the bright sunlight. "There's worse things than being on Serenity."
"There are indeed," Inara said softly. Taking a cleansing breath, she added, "I have a business proposition for you, Captain."
Mal raised an eyebrow. "Seems like we've had a discussion that started like this once before."
"I'm in need of a shuttle to expand my client base, and you're, I assume, still in need of an ambassador of sorts. I thought we might arrive at some equitable agreement."
Mal rubbed his chin in mock concentration. "Afraid I can't offer the generous discount I did before. Got a wife to provide for now, and a little blonde added to the mix."
Inara, slightly confused about the little blonde, said lightly, "Name your terms, Captain."
"Well, now," Mal said teasingly, "Ain't that just the shiniest thing you've ever said to me?"
Inara rolled her eyes, wondering briefly how River could stand to be married to such an insufferable man. As if summoned by her thoughts, River appeared, coming to stand beside her husband. Taking his hand, she smiled softly. "Welcome home, Inara."
Author's Note: So ends this tale of Serenity's crew. I'd like to express my appreciation to those who have stuck with this story to its conclusion. Your wonderful comments and observations have meant a great deal to me. There are, as always, more stories to tell, and hopefully, we'll get around to sharing them together one day soon. Please leave feedback, as I crave it like chocolate!