Black Widow

Part XXII—And All's Well

Author: justslummin

Disclaimer: Don't own 'em. Just playin' in Joss' sandbox.

Rating: PG

Summary: Conclusion. Inara talks to a Guild representative, and Simon comes home.

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Inara found herself once again looking at the Cortex screen in shock. "When did it happen?" she asked.

"Earlier today," the older woman said. "She was traveling in the city."

"So I assume the typical mourning period will be observed," Inara said, mentally ticking off a list of things that would happen.

The older woman paused for a moment, thinking of how best to phrase her answer. "Actually, there will be no official mourning period," she said finally.

"What do you mean?" Inara asked, more shocked by the moment.

"She had retired as of today," the woman answered sadly. "Said she wished to live out the remainder of her life pursuing other interests. That's why she was in a public hovercraft, you see. She had left the Guild House with the last of her belongings this morning."

"I see," Inara said, her mind reeling with the puzzle of what could have made the House Mistress retire when she has so recently given ample evidence that she wanted to maintain her position.

"I'm sorry, child," the older woman said. "But if you'd like, you can speak with the new House Mistress. She is quite busy at the moment, but I could give her a message."

"No, thank you," Inara said. "That really won't be necessary. Please extend my condolences to the house members."

"Of course," the older woman said, discreetly wiping a tear from her eyes. "I didn't get a chance before to say good-bye, my dear. I will miss having you as a Companion of House Madrassa, but I wish you well with your young man."

"Thank you," Inara said, warmed by the woman's genuine words. "I shall miss you as well. But perhaps we can correspond. I'll be eager to learn about the new House Mistress."

"As will I," the older woman said wryly.

Inara smiled. "The Guild had to have offered you the position as House Mistress first. Am I correct?"

The older woman smiled softly. "You are, but I had no interest in it. Looks to me like a lot of trouble for not very much reward. I'm content to be as I am. Happy to be training the youngest group of the girls. They provide all the challenge I need."

"I understand," Inara said, remembering the things she'd learned at the older woman's feet so many years ago. "But you would have made a marvelous House Mistress all the same."

"Thank you, child," the older woman said. Sighing slightly, she added, "Unless there's something else, I suppose I'd best be getting back to the new Mistress. There is much to be done."

"Of course," Inara said. "We'll speak again soon."

Cutting off the transmission, Inara wondered at the strange turn of events that had led to the death of the House Mistress. Thinking that perhaps it would be best not to delve any deeper into the mystery, she accessed her accounts and made arrangements to pay the Guild her debt in full. As she finalized the transaction, she said a brief prayer of thanks for the burden that had been so conveniently lifted from her slender shoulders.

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Jim stared at the ceiling, Zoe draped across him sleeping soundly in the aftermath of their earlier passion. Fighting the urge to awaken her with hungry kisses, he settled instead on concentrating on the sensation of her warm skin under his fingertips as he stroked her back slowly.

Zoe had kept her word about being gentle and Jim's hip throbbed no more than it had before. He considered the pleasant heaviness in the rest of his body to be well worth the dull ache of his wound. Closing his eyes, he tried to remember the last time he had felt such a wonderful lassitude in all his muscles, and decided that perhaps he had never felt quite so marvelous after being with a woman.

But then again, he thought, Zoe was no regular woman. Though she was as tough as any man he knew, he was discovering, to his delight, that she was indeed soft in all the right places. And he intended, by the grace of whatever god there might be, to discover still more about her just as soon as he was able. Smiling at the thought, he stretched carefully under her weight.

He felt her lips curve into a smile against the bare skin of his chest. "'M'I too heavy for you?" she asked, starting to move.

"No," Jim said, encircling her with his arms. "Stay right where you are. I'm thinking that I could get used to such a weight lying on me anytime."

"Good to know," Zoe said, repositioning herself more comfortably beside him. "Hate to think I had to work this hard every time."

Jim opened one eye to look at her. "Think I did the hard work," he said, grinning wickedly.

"That a fact?" Zoe asked, beginning to nip lightly at his earlobe.

Jim shivered with the sensation. "Though I'm beginning to think that the job's not quite finished," he murmured into her hair. "Think maybe the workday needs to be extended a bit. Hate to leave a job half done."

"I love a man with a good work ethic," she replied before her words were swallowed by his kiss.

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"Thirty percent, as promised," Badger said, grinning at the Cortex screen with an obscenely wide grin. "Check your account, if you don't believe me."

"Think I will," Mal said. "Hold on." Quickly accessing the account he'd set up for Badger's deposit, he was astounded by the amount he saw there. Looking back up at the screen with Badger's smiling face, he smiled thinly in return. "That's all?" he asked, pretending to be affronted. "You expect me to believe that the Widow wasn't worth more than that?"

Badger's smile turned quickly into a frown. "Everything she had ain't exactly liquid assets, if you get my meaning. 'Ow's a gent to put a price on some of her 'oldings, after all?"

"Get them appraised," Mal said dryly. "Liquidate them, and get me thirty percent."

"You can't honestly expect me to liquidate everything," Badger said, a note of something close to pleading in his tone. "I need some of this go se to keep the operation runnin'. Can't just pick it clean like a vulture. What kind of businessman would do that?"

"The kind that doesn't want to end up at the wrong end of a gun barrel," Mal said evenly.

"All right, all right," Badger said. "I would have never figured you for a greedy man, Captain Reynolds. What will it take to satisfy your lust for filthy lucre?"

"We'll discuss it when I get to Persephone," Mal replied. "'Til then, don't sell anything without getting a certified receipt. Dong ma?"

"Yes, I understand," Badger said, having lost his earlier good mood. "But we're going to 'ave to come to some other agreement. I don't think we'll make very good partners. Different goals and such."

"Oh, I'm fair certain of that," Mal said, nodding. "We'll talk about that when I get to Persephone too."

"And just when are you thinking that might be?" Badger asked.

"Not rightly sure," Mal answered. "But don't worry. It won't be too long."

"Right," Badger said, thinking privately that any time in the next millennium would actually be too soon to see Reynolds again, if he was coming to collect the rest of his percentage. "Well, 'til then 'ere's to your journeys, mate." Raising a glass into the range of the screen, he gulped it down, letting the liquid fire distract him from his dismal thoughts. With a little luck, maybe something would happen to the hundan before he made it to Persephone, he thought optimistically.

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Mal was right in his assessment of the time that would pass before he could head to Persephone. Once convinced that he did have a problem, Simon, in his typical fashion, set about to correct it by whatever means he could achieve the best and fastest result. Stunning the doctors and therapists at the treatment center, he quickly evidenced that he had a determination that would help him to succeed in his continuing battle with addiction. Convinced shortly that they could do nothing for him beyond providing him with a place to come back to if needed, Dr. Li released him to the care of his family on Serenity.

And though the doctor made Simon promise to check in for regular sessions on the Cortex for the next several months, he felt fairly confident that the young man would be successful in his fight with his inner demons. After taking Kaylee aside to discuss the early warning signs of substance abuse, he signed the order to release Simon and watched with satisfaction as the younger man headed back to his home with an energy born of renewed confidence.

Simon's return was greeted by celebration all around. Looking at the faces of the people he'd come home to, he marveled at the genuine warmth he felt from each of them. Having dreaded facing them after so spectacular a breakdown, he found to his amazement that there seemed to be nothing but joy at his recovery. Understanding more clearly than he ever had that he was not just a necessary part of Serenity's crew as a doctor, but was also valued as a person, both humbled and empowered him for the long road ahead.

As if reading his thoughts, Kaylee squeezed his knee under the galley table and gave him a sunny smile. Simon blushed, wondering if there would ever come a day when Kaylee would cease to have that almost heart-stopping effect on him, and somehow doubting that there ever would. Leaning forward to kiss her, he heard Jayne's snort from somewhere behind him.

"Ain't you two got a bunk for that kinda' thing?" Jayne asked gruffly, though his smile belied his words. "Now that Zoe and Jim are together, ain't a place on this boat without some kinda' public display of affection. And I got to eat in here."

Jim, hobbling about with a cane temporarily, protested. "I don't notice that you're too far off your feed since Zoe and I….got together."

"It's just 'cause I got an iron constitution," Jayne said, grinning and stuffing a heaping spoonful of food into his mouth.

"Don't seem to notice you and Inara bein' any too private," Mal added, chewing more sedately. "The cargo bay ain't exactly the place to be…."

"That won't happen again," Inara said, interrupting him before the little ears at the table heard more than she thought appropriate.

Jayne scowled. "It won't?" he asked, disappointment in his tone.

"Not on the weight bench," she whispered, blushing slightly.

"So," Simon said, trying politely to change the subject. "We're heading to Persephone."

"Yep," Mal said. "Got a little business with Badger, and thought we'd drop in on Lord Harrow too. Tell him in person that the cattle got where they were goin'."

Simon nodded. "Perhaps we can restock the infirmary there then."

Silence fell for an uncomfortable moment, and Simon swallowed nervously. "And if you don't mind, I think it might be best if I have some help stocking the supplies. Someone to sort of help me keep an eye on the inventory."

Mal smiled broadly. "Sounds like a plan," he said, relieved that he had not had to suggest it.

"And I think I'd like to talk a bit with Lord Harrow when we get there," Inara said, seamlessly moving the conversation to safer ground. "Now that I am no longer a member of the Guild, I'm thinking of embarking on a new venture, one on which I'd like to hear his opinion."

"What?" Anya asked curiously.

"I don't want to say just yet," Inara said, smiling at the girl. "But if it works out, I'm sure it's something you'll like."

"Sounds shiny," Anya said, her curiosity aroused.

The rest of the meal passed in pleasant conversation and Mal looked around at his crew contentedly. Their stay on Sihnon had been shorter than he had feared it might be, but it had still eaten into the profit from the Widow's thirty percent. So, he was happy to be on their way again, where he could search for work that would hopefully enable them to keep flying with a little buffer in the accounts. He glanced over at River, who held Hannah in her lap while busily eating with her other hand. "I'll take her," he said softly. "I'm done eating."

River smiled, handing him the baby and turning back to talk with her brother. River's joy at Simon's return shone brightly in the room, lighting her face and radiating outward to warm Mal's heart. Thinking that she looked thoroughly enticing, his mind began to wander to highly pleasurable thoughts.

After several minutes of concentrating on his mental images, he was rewarded by a faint flush that rose from River's chest to her cheeks. She turned to look at him, wicked knowledge in her eyes. He smiled the slow, lazy smile that he knew made her knees go a little weak. Making a great show of yawning, he said, "The dinner was mighty fine, Jim. Got to say you make the best stew among us, except for maybe Kaylee, that is." Kaylee smiled. "But, I think I'll turn in a little early this evenin'. Been a long day." He looked at River pointedly.

"Me too," River said quickly. "I'll just put Adam to bed and…."

"Let me do it," Simon said, ruffling Adam's hair. "I've missed this little fellow."

Adam grinned. "Will you read me a story, Uncle Simon?"

"Maybe two, depending on how well you brush your teeth," Simon said. Turning to River, he said, "You go on to bed. We'll talk in the morning."

River smiled at him gratefully and hurried down the corridor after her husband.

"You think they think we don't know what's going on?" Jayne said, snagging a roll that River had left on her plate.

"I don't think they care," Zoe said blandly, causing the small group to erupt in laughter that seemed to vibrate in tune with the hum of Serenity's engine as she sailed into the Black with her crew safely home.

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Author's Note: So ends another tale of Serenity's crew. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. I thank you for taking the time to read and comment. It makes the writing all the more pleasurable. As for future tales, I am currently collaborating again with the wonderfully talented Midnight Obsidian on another tale of Serenity's crew and the crew of the Hit or Miss. Hope you will tune in to read it when it is posted. Until then, happy reading and writing to you all!