Disclaimer: None of these characters are my creation. I can wish and dream, and play in Joss's 'Verse, but he owns the characters that own my heart.

A/N: I love Wikipedia! I'll be traveling and getting settled back in at home over the next few days, so my apologies in advance if I don't update this as quickly as I'd like to.


Chapter 1: The Dream, Checking In

It was the Valley again. Bodies, flies, carrion birds and all.

Mal stood in his familiar spot on the hillside. Looking out over the devastation, Sarge Reynolds knew with a soldier's keen instinct that something was wrong. Trying to divine the problem, however, proved a bit more difficult. Everything looked as he expected it to. This scene had been such a regular fixture in his memory over the past seven years that he should have been able to tell immediately if anything was out of place.

Glancing down at the bodies strewn about his feet, Mal realized at once what was wrong. These weren't the bodies of soldiers, Alliance or Independents. They were his crew. Over and over, he recognized the faces that chilled his heart. Over there, Zoë had a small hole in the front of her skull, and the back was plastered all over the boulder she had fallen in front of. Doc had it easy, one hole in his chest, surrounded by a blossom of red. Inara had fallen, gut shot, five feet from Jayne, who had apparently stayed on his feet so long only to protect the Companion. That explained why the merc had more holes in his chest than a piece of swiss cheese. Most tragically, little Kaylee was face down in a mud puddle, a ragged, gaping wound in the back of her left shoulder. Whoever had done this hadn't even given her the decency of dying face up, hopeful eyes to the sky she loved so much.

Mal looked around in stunned shock, praying he wouldn't see the one face he truly cherished. Oh no. There she was, the only living thing besides the birds. She was cradling something in her lap, keening like a banshee as she rocked back and forth, caressing the thing she held. Mal moved close, and saw that it was a person. Without looking at the face, he knew immediately who it was.

Can't look, he thought. Can't see myself again. Without willing it, the former soldier found his feet carrying him closer to the terrifying scene. As he approached, River looked up at him, tears marring her perfect face.

"Don't look," she said. "Can't bear it." Her voice sounded like it used to, before her brain miraculously healed itself and granted her the peace of regained sanity. Mal, unable to stop himself, reached down and turned the body in her lap so he could see the face. It was gone. Shot off by something large-caliber. The familiar brown hair, seen in countless mirrors throughout his long life, hung over the bloody mess. "Caught you in the back of your head," River said brokenly. "Emptied your brainpan and stole you away from me. Took your eyes and your lips, and now there's nothing to look into or kiss, and I'm all alone." A short sob escaped her lips.

"How -" Mal started, his voice hitching. "What's goin' on here?" His voice was hoarse, and there was a lump in his throat he had trouble speaking past.

"I screamed, you turned to see, and they killed you dead." River was rocking and stroking the hair again. She'd turned the body so the face, or the place the face should have been, was buried against her midsection again. Tears ran unchecked down her grimy cheeks. "Revenge is so empty. Can't bring Mal back by killing his killers."

Suddenly, unexpectedly, River stopped rocking. Her tears dried, and she stood up, setting the head of a dead Malcolm Reynolds ever so gently on the ground. "Trouble," she said calmly, without any trace of emotion. "Don't go back there. It's just like last time. It's Miranda again, and you can't stop it. You'll fall into the violet belly of the insatiable beast, and get all eaten up and dead. Beware Geb's firstborn."

She turned, walking away from Mal, and the world exploded in a flash of red and a riot of screaming.

XXXXX

Mal shot up, stock straight from the waist, and saw River curled against the wall, in the corner of the bed. She was hiding her face in her hands, hair falling across and obscuring her features further. A mindless, feral wailing was issuing forth from her throat, and she was rocking like she had in the dream.

Mal crawled over and pulled her into his lap, soothing her with gentle hands and soft whispers. When her shouting finally evolved into discernible words, they were accompanied by a torrent of tears. The moisture soaked into Mal's bare chest, and she wrapped her arms around his back in a vice grip. "Don't go, don't die. I can't live without you," River sobbed.

"Shh, lil' one," Mal shushed, "ain't nobody dyin' around here. Only place to do any proper dyin' would be dirtside, and we ain't scheduled to touch down for near on two weeks." They'd been in the Black since their last set of runs from Osiris, headed out to the Rim for some vacation and possibly a bit of less profitable, but more exciting, disreputable work. Couldn't let their reputation fall completely into the obscurity of legitimacy, Mal figured. Additionally, the whole crew, while enjoying their admittedly fatter pocketbooks, was beginning to grow bored with the milk runs and legal transit. This was not that type of crew, the Captain knew. Rather lose money than family, Mal had reflected many times over the past couple months.

"Don't go back there, Mal. You can't," River was quieter now, but her voice still hitched, and it sounded desperate, on the verge of defeat. Mal didn't know what to make of the terror he had woken to, nor the dream that had preceded it.

"River, sweetheart," Mal said, trying still to sound calm. "Who's this Geb fella, and what've I got to worry about from his kid?" River whimpered at this reminder of the terrible dream, which she had obviously been privy to.

"Geb was a god of the earth in the ancient mythology of Earth-that-was," Simon's voice said from the doorway. Mal had been so concerned for River he hadn't noticed the rice paper screen open. "What's ancient religion have to do with my sister's attack?" Simon was dressed in sleep clothes, his hair disheveled and eyes bleary as if he had just woken up himself.

"She ain't havin' an attack, doc," Mal answered, maintaining his calm tone for River's sake. "She slipped into my dreams again, and we saw somethin' weren't fit for tellin'. Last thing she said to me in the dream was something about lookin' out for this Geb fella's oldest kid. I don't reckon I know how a young 'un from some old Earth-that-was tall tale could cause the kinda harm we saw in the dream place, but I know what I heard and I know what I saw. I aim to find out what your sister was talkin' about, and then I intend to heed her words."

Mal, stroking River's hair this whole time, finally looked down and saw the young woman lying calmly, her head still in his lap. "Beware Geb's firstborn," she said without looking up, quoting directly from the dream she shouldn't have had.

"Who are you talkin' about, sweetheart?" Mal asked her quietly. "How's some storybook child gonna cause what we saw?" River only whimpered again at the mention of the dream, so Mal just continued to stroke his hand gently over her hair. Simon walked out of the room and returned a moment later holding something in one hand and poking at it with the other.

"Geb and his wife Nut gave birth to the younger gods of ancient Egypt," Simon said, having retrieved his encyclopedia from across the hall. "The four children were Osiris, Set, Isis and Nephthys." Simon stopped, realizing what he'd just read. "Geb's firstborn was Osiris. River, are you telling us to stay away from Osiris?"

"Now there's an explanation makes some sense," the Captain said. "Tell you what, I'll give your Pa a Wave in the mornin' and see if there's anything goin' on we need to be concerned of. Meantime, we keep on to Jiangyin. Now head on back to bed, doc. I got the care'a your sister tonight. We'll be fine."

Simon, having forgotten in the excitement that he had walked into his sister's room to find the Captain in her bed, was suddenly red faced and blustery. "We'll talk about this situation," he stammered, motioning to the two people in the bed, "in the morning." Having said his piece, Simon slid the screen shut and returned to his bed.

"Somethin' wrong sweetie?" Kaylee asked sleepily from his bed. Simon was struck suddenly with the absurdity of his stance on Mal being in River's room. Perhaps I'll let him slide, this once, Simon thought.

"No, bao bei," Simon said as he crawled back under the covers and snuggled into the engineer's warmth. "Just a bad dream."

"Oh," she responded blearily, slipping off again quickly into sleep. "Who's, yours? Or was it Cap'n or River?"

"All of the above."

XXXXX

"Mmmm," Mal rumbled, from deep in his chest, as River gave him a lingering kiss. "Enough'a that, lil' one, or I'm not like to leave anytime soon." Mal stood up and smiled, heading toward the door. "I'll see you at breakfast."

As Mal stepped from River's room, sliding his suspenders over his shoulders, Kaylee also left Simon's room. With a radiant, typical Kaylee smile, Serenity's engineer greeted the Captain with a flamboyant kiss on the cheek and, "Mornin', Cap'n! You have good sex last night?"

These moments always disturbed Mal on some deep, brotherly level, and suddenly his empathy for Simon was magnified. He resolved to never, ever, talk to Simon about sex with his sister, if he could help it. Shaking off the uncomfortable feeling, Mal replied pleasantly, "Good morning, Kaylee. I trust you and the doctor had a nice night?" With a pointed look over Kaylee's shoulder, Mal raised an eyebrow.

Simon must have gotten the hint. "Morning, Captain," he said tiredly. "How's River this morning?" Mal brushed his worry off, as normal, and Simon gave him an apologetic, 'I won't bring up your sleeping arrangements' look. "Breakfast?" the younger man asked hopefully. Motioning down the hall, Mal let Kaylee lead their little expedition to the galley.

XXXXX

"Malcolm! How good to see you," Gabriel Tam said over the Cortex later that morning. "Have your vacation plans changed so soon? We didn't expect to hear from you for at least another month." Gabriel and Regan knew that Serenity's crew had decided to take some time off from legal business, but didn't know exactly where the ship was headed, as there was no definite plan when they left.

"No sir," Mal answered, trying to sound upbeat. "I was just callin' to check on everything. River seems concerned that something might be wrong with some of our associates. Have you heard anything out of the ordinary lately?" Mal's thoughts drifted back to the dream momentarily. It's Miranda again, she'd said. Mal had learned to take his dreams at face value over his past months with a Reader, and he couldn't help but recall what had happened to all his business contacts back then.

"Malcolm, how many times do I have to tell you not to call me sir?" Gabriel answered jovially. "Actually, now that you mention it, I don't think I've talked to a single one of them in at least two days. It does seem a bit odd. Would you like me to make the rounds and check on everyone?"

"No, sir," Mal answered hastily. "I don't reckon that's necessary. Probably just coincidence. We'll let you know when we're headin' back Core-ward. The kids send their love."

"Their mother will be pleased to know they're well," Gabriel said in the fatherly tone of voice that really meant, 'I'm glad'. "Thank you, Malcolm. I'll talk to you soon" Mal reached forward and pressed the disconnect icon on the Cortex screen, wondering how he could tell Mr. Tam that he hated being called Malcolm.

River stepped in, then, padding silently on bare feet over the metal plates of the floor. Mal knew she was there immediately, having developed that second-sight one has only for a person one loves deeply. "Hey there, lil' one," he said without turning around. "Just got off the Cortex with your Pa. He says there's no problem that he knows of, and he's pretty well connected."

The diminutive pilot stepped up behind her Captain, wrapping her arms around his shoulders affectionately. "We'll find out soon enough," she said with finality. A single tear leaked from her eye, wetting Mal's cheek where their faces touched.


bao bei - sweetheart