Zoe drifted between sleep and wakefulness. As she drifted, her twilight dreams took her back to Basic.
Sergeant Jericho was bellowing at her for her carelessness. She wanted to leave and kept looking toward the door of the barracks. The door was open and she really needed to go through but Sarge kept berating her. "Hold the line, Maggot! Always remember your duty! Hold the gorramn line!" Turning from him, she could see through the open door. A beach with clear blue water awaited her. In the distance she could see a figure. All she could make out was a colorful shirt. With the Sarge's words still in her ears, she hurriedly walked toward ---
A hand on her shoulder woke her. Opening her eyes, she immediately focused on Wash's face. She had momentarily forgotten that her head lay on her folded arms which rested on the same table as her dead husband.
"It's been an hour," Inara said gently.
Not taking her eyes off her husband, Zoe didn't speak. The sight of Wash's profile shocked all the words out of her. Her all-too brief lapse into dreamland made her forget, albeit temporarily, that her husband was dead.
"You need to have a doctor look at your back."
Still staring intently at Wash, Zoe didn't answer. He's dead oh god how could he leave me he promised he's dead oh god oh god oh god he's gone oh baby gone dead
Zoe lifted a hand to acknowledge that she heard her.
"Simon's not back yet. I thought River and I would check on him and Kaylee. River needs to see him."
"Check with the Captain." She was hardly aware of what she was saying.
"I think maybe you should come with us. I mean, to see the doctor."
"I think it is."
Zoe turned and looked Inara square in the eye. "Don't push me."
"I'm not. It's just…your back is bleeding a little."
Zoe was barely conscious of her wound. Her defensiveness receded as she looked at Inara and saw only concern in her usually non-expressive eyes.
"How about if I ask if one of the doctors can come here instead? Mal could use some medical attention as well."
"Can I get you anything?"
Inara had asked her this question only about a dozen times in the last few hours.
"When you get to the MedCraft, might as well check on arrangements for Wash."
Inara nodded turning to leave.
Suddenly, Zoe was very glad for Inara's presence on Serenity at this time. She had helped get Wash…presentable - even offered one of her expensive shawls which they used to wrap around his torso.
"Inara," Zoe called out, causing her to pause at the hatch. "Thank you."
Inara nodded her head, smiled slightly, and disappeared through the door.
Zoe watched her leave. She and Inara had never really been close. Friendly, yes, mutual respect, yes, but they had never spent much time together. Most of her free time had been spent with…
Turning back to face Wash, she touched his face. Her hand trembled at the unfamiliar coldness. Knowing that she would never see him again, she refused to allow tears to impede her last sight of him.
Mal woke in Book's old dorm disoriented and in pain. He exhaled deeply as the memories of the previous day assaulted him. Lying there, he knew he had to get up because there were a million things that needed attending to but he couldn't move. Couldn't think on the huge mess he had gotten his crew in. Zoe. At the thought of her, Mal closed his eyes again desperate to shut out his last view of Wash. Wash, Book, Mr. Universe. Three friends whose deaths rested squarely on his shoulders.
Sensing another presence, he opened his eyes and looked toward the door. River peered at him curiously.
"I took off your boots."
"Thanks." Mal closed his eyes again. "Where's everyone?"
"Jayne's outside. Simon and Kaylee are still at the MedCraft. Inara is with Zoe and Wash."
Hearing Wash's name spoken aloud prompted him to sit up abruptly, wincing as he did so. "What time is it?"
She shrugged. "Daytime outside. Between morning and noon." Cautiously approaching Mal, she offered him his boots.
Nodding his thanks, he slowly attempted to bend over to put them on. River looked like she wanted to help but he waved her off. After some fumbling and stabs of pain he managed to get his boots on.
Limping toward the cargo bay, he met Inara. They looked at each other for a few moments silently assessing how the other was faring.
Inara broke the silence. "Zoe needs to see a doctor. I suspect you would benefit from seeing one as well."
"Doubt if Doc is ready to leave Med yet. He wasn't even conscious when I left."
"Mal, if it's alright with you, I'd like to take River with me so she can see Simon. I'll ask the doctor to come here to check on you and Zoe. Her wound really needs attention and she doesn't…"
"Want to leave Wash," he finished for her.
Mal hated the thought of any Alliance personnel setting foot on his boat. He glanced up toward the direction of the dining area. His crew needed tending to and he wasn't about to let his personal feelings get in the way of doing right by them. Not again.
"Only one doctor's allowed on my boat. Try to find the least Alliancey one if'n there is such a thing."
At that Inara smiled. "And River?"
"Don't think she should leave Serenity."
"Ain't no purplebellies around if that's what you're worried on."
They hadn't noticed Jayne's approach and were startled to hear him.
"MedCraft is parked alone – no other officials in sight."
Mal looked at Inara and then over to River who hung back near the passenger dorms. Both were waiting patiently for his decision.
He nodded his assent.
Inara approached him hesitantly, and quietly said, "I also need to speak with them about taking care of Wash and Shepherd Book. Zoe indicated cremation for Wash but do you think Book's order has anything against cremation? Or should we try to take him to the abbey?"
"How would we get him there? Serenity ain't goin' nowhere."
"Don't think the Shepherd would mind how we choose to tend to him. I say we keep our crew together." Jayne said.
"Need to see to Mr. Universe as well," Mal said, not forgetting about the friend who died helping them.
"Ain't nowhere I could find him, Mal," Jayne said. "Alliance cleared everybody out. I mean every body."
"Inara, see what you can do to find out about Mr. Universe. He's our responsibility."
"Mal, what about the others?"
Mal knew exactly who she was referring to – their friends from the Haven mine. For a moment he was completely overwhelmed by the extent of his desperate actions. Pushing his emotions aside, he took a deep breath. The bodies that now littered Serenity's hull deserved to be set to rights properly. He didn't know who was whom and he doubted anyone on board could put a name to a body. The Alliance, with all their fancy equipment, could easily identify the charred remains.
"Just don't want the Operative involved in this, dong ma? They're all dead because of him and I'll be furtherly damned if I'm gonna ask his help for this one."
"We have to do something. I'm sure they have families off-world who deserve to know their fate."
"Do what you have to." Mal's voice was quiet and defeated. His fight had ended with the successful transmission of the Miranda wave.
Eager to see Simon, River took Inara's arm and rushed her away through the cargo bay to the MedCraft.
"Jayne, let's get those people off Serenity."
"You up for that?" Jayne gave Mal's wound a significant look.
"Needs to be done. Find what we'll need to get started. I'm checkin' on Zoe and then be right up." He turned away and started toward the stairs on the other side of the infirmary. He paused. Not looking at Jayne, he said quietly, "You know which one is the Shepherd?"
"Already took care of him."
They had been standing on the steps that led to the cargo bay. Mal looked into the hold and noticed the fabric that usually covered Jayne's beloved arsenal wrapped around what he knew to be Book's remains. The sight of his merc's humble offering affected him deeply.
"Only Shepherd I met that didn't look down his nose at folks. He was a good one to talk to," Jayne said quietly. "Guess he mighta not minded dying for what he died for."
It was the closest Jayne would ever come to offering Mal an approval for the whole situation.
"Well, you better see to Zoe. I'll get started here."
Mal watched as Jayne walked through the hold pausing briefly at Shepherd Book before continuing out the airlock into the sunlight. Mal turned and headed the opposite direction.
Simon woke thinking he was napping during one of his killer shifts at Saint Theresa's Medical facility on Osiris. His hand drifted to his wound and he remembered where he was. For the first time in over a year he was relieved to be in an Alliance facility. If he had sustained this wound on one of Serenity's business ventures on the Rim he suspected he would be dead now. He thought back to his last conscious thought…River safe. Inara had taken River to Serenity to keep her away from the soldiers. Are you alright?
He started to sit up but instead only managed a loud groan.
"Dr. Tam, don't try sitting up."
"As far as I know she's fine." A kind face appeared. "I'm Dr. Ben Pierce. Your injury was quite serious…" Lapsing into medical terminology only Simon would understand, the doctor explained the extent of Simon's condition.
"Where is everyone?"
"Unfortunately, the other patients decided they did not require any more of our help and went back to your ship."
Dr. Pierce looked a little more unkempt than Simon would have expected of an Alliance doctor. His black hair was streaked heavily with gray and was longer than regulation standards. The man's uniform didn't fit properly and gave him a sloppy look. For some reason, the doctor's un-Alliance appearance relaxed Simon.
"Am I under arrest?" Simon couldn't resist asking.
"I haven't been advised of any such development. Are you dangerous?" Dr. Pierce said with a grin. "How about Miss Frye over there? She positively exudes danger."
Simon looked over to see Kaylee standing silently on the other side of the MedCraft. She smiled shyly at him. At first, he was surprised by her shyness then he remembered what they had said to each other before the fight.
"Uh…Kaylee, how is your injury?"
"Weren't hardly nothin', Simon. Turns out it weren't poison. Just somethin' to keep a body from movin'. These Meds here fixed me up right away."
He started to ask for details on the rest of the crew when he heard, "Simon!" Relief swept through him as River bounded over to him and gave him a big, almost painful, hug.
"I knew you would be alright," she said with a smile. "I didn't worry too much."
"How do you feel, Simon?" Inara asked.
"Like the Captain."
At Inara's and Kaylee's confused look, he explained, "I feel like I've been shot."
Only River laughed at his joke; she was happy to be with him.
"Simon, do you mind if we borrow your doctor for awhile? River will keep you company," Inara said.
Simon and River watched them leave the MedBay.
"River, how is everyone?"
"Zoe's numb. Jayne's bewildered. Inara's sad. The Captain is…" she thought for a moment trying to find the right word. "…bereft."
"So it's true about Wash?"
"Yes," she said sadly.
Simon lay back down and closed his eyes. The weight of his responsibility in this situation drained what little energy he had. All those deaths could be laid at his door.
"No," River said, shaking her head.
"Yes, River! I took the easy way out. Hiding on Serenity. Letting the Captain protect us…fight our battles…" he trailed off overcome with emotion.
Holding his hand, River sat quietly by his side, waiting for his composure to return.
"Has he said anything about…us?" Simon asked tentatively.
"Not speaking about us."
Simon fell silent again.
River couldn't resist asking, "What are they going to do to them?"
"I suspect they'll be brought to the MedCraft. Ships such as these are equipped with facilities for treating the dead."
"Not ours. Them."
"Who, mei mei?"
"Don't think about them, River."
"I killed fourteen of them."
"You saved us. You know what they would have done to us if they had gotten through."
River nodded. Simon could tell that she was still troubled about the battle.
"How are you, mei mei?" Simon looked at her closely trying to assess her state of mind.
"I'm alright, Simon." River met his gaze. "First time since Beaumonde. I feel like I'm me again."
At Simon's hopeful look, River said, "Not then me. Now me."
Kaylee walked between Dr. Pierce and Inara as they escorted him to Serenity. The doctor and Inara were discussing Mal and Zoe's medical treatment and what he could expect from them. When their conversation turned to taking care of their dead, Kaylee stopped abruptly. Unable to listen anymore, she walked off by herself.
In the MedCraft, she could almost pretend that things weren't as bad as they had seemed before the Reaver fight. She thought a lot about her pre-battle talk with Simon. If they had had that conversation a week ago, she would have been over the moon. Now…
"Kaylee, are you alright?" Inara asked. She had sent the doctor off to Serenity alone.
Kaylee shook her head, unable to speak. She had remained in the MedCraft not only to stay with Simon but to keep away from Serenity. For the first time since she had first seen her three years ago, Kaylee could hardly bear the thought of her beloved Firefly.
"Sweetie, sweetie…" Inara murmured wrapping her arms around her.
"I keep thinkin' 'bout Serenity destroyed. She's hurt awful bad but she ain't dead. I can't think 'bout…" She looked up at Inara, tears streaming down her face. "Please tell me it ain't true."
"I'm sorry, I can't. I'm so sorry."
"What happened? I don't understand. Wash, Book, all those people at Haven. Kids even. I can't figure it all out. Why?" Kaylee didn't expect any answers for she knew Inara had none.
"What's gonna happen to our family?" That thought shattered the last of her barely there composure.
Inara held her tight. "It'll be alright, Kaylee. This will just take time and then we'll be alright."
Kaylee didn't believe her.
Jayne sorted through the tools that were necessary to remove their Haven friends from Serenity. Even though he doubted Mal's ability to take on the physical exertion of the job, he waited for him. He was going to start the job alone but he figured Mal should have a hand in this one. After all, this whole situation had been the Captain's doing.
His attention turned to an approaching figure. Automatically, his hand went to his gun. As the figure came closer, Jayne relaxed recognizing the doctor from the MedCraft. He then spotted the two figures beyond the doctor. Kaylee and Inara were talking and embracing. He was glad Inara was here for hugging duty. They all sure needed it.
"You were shoulder shot, right?" The doctor's question brought his attention back to the moment.
"You left rather quickly after the MedAide treated your wound."
"Other things to see to."
"What are you doing?"
"Takin' down the bodies from our hull." Jayne' tone indicated that the doctor's question was about the stupidest he had ever heard.
The doctor didn't ask him any more questions about the charred remains on the ship.
"I'd like to take a look at your wound."
"And you base your opinion on-"
"Ain't the first time I been shot," Jayne interrupted. He turned away dismissing the doctor.
"I'll just go check on the other wounded." Dr. Pierce headed up the ramp.
"Wait! Let me check with the Captain. Don't come inside 'til I say so."
Jayne hurried up to the dining area where he knew he would find Mal. Standing outside the hatch, he hesitated. He could see Zoe sitting by Wash and Mal crouched in front of her. Zoe's back was to him but Jayne could see Mal's expression. He looked even more despondent than Jayne had ever seen him. A surge of anger shot through him at the mess the Captain had gotten them all into. His anger overcame his hesitancy and he knocked firmly on the hatch opening it only when Mal nodded.
"That doctor's here. Same one from the MedCraft." Not wanting to walk inside, he stayed by the hatch outside the dining area.
"Jayne, send him to the infirmary," Mal said. "Zoe, you go on and let him take a look at you. I'll stay here with Wash."
Mal and Zoe looked intently at each other for a few moments. Jayne never really understood their silent communication but he was getting a lot of bad off this one. Seeing a rift between the Captain and Zoe lessened his anger and brought the unwelcome sadness again.
Zoe stood and headed for the opposite hatch. She didn't say a word as she left the dining room and disappeared down the corridor.
Mal took her post at Wash's side. Jayne noticed that he didn't look overlong at his former pilot.
Not knowing what to say, Jayne closed the hatch and went to fetch the doctor.
Dr. Benjamin Pierce had been a doctor serving with the Alliance for over twenty years. Like so many, his time spent during the war had severely affected him. The waste quite simply appalled him. Offended him. Nowadays, he could easily identify those who fought in the war. Didn't matter what side. Those who fought had a look about them. His present patient had that look in spades.
"I take it from the name of the ship that you were there?" He couldn't resist asking her. The moment he had heard the name of the ship that had been attacked by Reavers, his curiosity had been piqued.
"I heard from some of the other doctors who were sent to treat the wounded that it was quite…horrible."
"Worse thing to ever happen to you." He didn't know why he said this except that there was something terribly wrong here and he wanted to somehow comfort her by reminding her that she had been through worse times.
"Used to think so."
"Got a dead husband on our dining room table." She turned her face away unable to control her emotions.
He wasn't expecting that answer. He got the feeling that this woman wasn't much for baring her soul to just anyone but the funny thing about strangers was that sometimes you opened up to them in a way you couldn't with those closest to you.
The doctor silently re-treated her wound not wanting to pry any further. When he sensed she had gotten herself together he spoke again.
"Wound will still bother you for awhile. Don't overexert yourself and it will heal nicely. An injury such as this I would be concerned about follow-up treatment but you've got a good doctor on board."
She gave him a funny look.
"I'll send the Captain in."
She walked stiffly out of the infirmary and disappeared from view. Dr. Pierce looked around at the mess of the infirmary and resisted the urge to straighten up the place. The big, unfriendly man had instructed him not to touch anything and he didn't want to risk being on that guy's bad side.
As he waited for his other patient he thought about what he knew about this mission. So much was mysterious. As a doctor, he was isolated with his own team and not privy to the specifics of military missions. Yesterday, he was lounging in his quarters when all hell broke loose. From his experiences in the war, he recognized the feel of battle. His first thought was maybe a skirmish with rogue Independents. Rushing to the MedBay, he and his team were treating the wounded when a Sub-Commander informed them that they were fighting Reavers.
He also started to hear rumors that an Operative had taken control of the Artemis, the Command ship, for this mission. Later, he heard that the Artemis had been destroyed by the Reavers, no less. Pierce shuddered at the thought. He had never been certain that they really existed until he had seen, with his own eyes, dozens of dead ones in that room. They looked inhuman with their disfigured faces. Even in death, they appeared…furious. He wanted to take some of them in for autopsies but a man, whom he later learned was the Operative, forbade him from examining any Reaver remains.
Dr. Pierce couldn't quite figure out how this ship was involved. The Operative must have rescued them from the Reavers. But if it was a rescue, why did this ship have dead bodies on it? Why was the Operative so anxious about this motley bunch's medical treatment? Pierce didn't usually drop with the MedCraft for medical aid but the Operative had specifically requested the Command Doctor's presence to treat the civilians. Why? There was nothing in the wounds that merited his special attention.
He was beginning to suspect that the Operative wanted to keep this situation as hush-hush as possible.
A man limped into the infirmary interrupting his musings. The man didn't say anything just sat down on the examining table.
"Captain Reynolds, isn't it?"
The man nodded curtly. Dr. Pierce had thought the woman had the look of the war about her but that was nothing compared to this guy.
As he worked, Dr. Pierce asked, "Is there anything I can do for you? I mean your ship looks like it--"
"We'll handle it."
Dr. Pierce didn't have the slightest idea how they would manage that.
"Ms. Serra indicated you may require some assistance with identifying the…uh…remains."
"That would be appreciated."
"I'll send over my MedAides to collect them. We can notify any relatives of their passing."
"We'll do that."
"Captain, I must ask. What happened here?"
"Just check your Cortex. You'll figure it out."
Inara approached Serenity from the MedCraft relieved that the bodies had been removed. She hated seeing her desecrated as she was. For a year, Serenity had been her refuge. Even living somewhat contentedly at the Training House, she wistfully entertained the notion of coming back to her shuttle. She had felt at home in her shuttle more than any other place she'd ever lived. For a short time, she allowed herself to forget the past and live for the present. That philosophy worked very well for her until she had let someone past her carefully fortified defenses.
Thinking about That brought her back to the present. Now, thoughts of the present only brought heartache. Alright, so I start living for tomorrow. Sighing wearily, she walked up the ramp and met Jayne in the Cargo bay.
"They're ready whenever we are," she said softly.
He sat on a crate next to Shepherd Book. Seeing him looking so overcome saddened Inara deeply. Jayne could be relied upon to be the most superficial of them all. She wasn't used to seeing him so…subdued.
He didn't look up. "Let's get this over with."
"I'll get Mal." There had been an unspoken agreement to take Shepherd Book to the MedCraft first. No one was in a hurry to take Wash from Zoe.
Jayne sighed, "I'll get the stretcher."
Inara slowly walked up toward the dining area - the room where she had so many happy memories. Knocking lightly, she opened the hatch and stepped in.
Zoe was, of course, at Wash's side. Mal was sitting opposite her looking at the floor. As she approached, he looked up at her. For the umpteenth time in the last day, Inara called upon her Companion training to calm herself. The sight of Mal was almost her undoing.
"They're ready for us," she told them. "The sun will be setting soon. So, it might be best if we get started."
"Jayne got Book ready to go?" Mal asked.
"Yes. But Kaylee and I can help him carry--"
"No. I'll do it." Mal stood and walked over to Zoe. Putting a hand on her shoulder, he said, "We'll take the Shepherd and come back for Wash."
Zoe placed her hand on his and met his gaze. Her antipathy toward Mal momentarily forgotten. Tears filled her eyes but she just nodded her head.
Mal and Inara stepped out into the rear corridor. Closing the hatch behind them, Mal leaned against the bulkhead. Lifting a hand to his eyes, he rubbed his forehead tiredly.
"Can't believe we're about to do this."
"I know. This feels like a bad dream."
"Yeah." His attention focused on her one injury from the Reaver fight. He touched her cheek, distantly remembering what happened the last time he had touched her like this.
Inara didn't move away this time. She looked up at him also remembering when she had withdrawn so abruptly from his touch.
"Mal…" she said, stepping closer to him.
He removed his hand and moved away from the bulkhead toward the engine room. "Let's get Kaylee."
Inara followed him pushing the entire incident from her mind.
They found Kaylee in the back of the engine room staring at her toolkit.
"Thought I might try to work a little but I don't even know where to start."
"We'll think on that later, Kaylee. It's time to take the Shepherd to the MedCraft," Mal said gently.
Inara held out her hand. Kaylee took it gratefully.
Taking a deep breath, she said, "Let's go."
River prowled Serenity. It was nighttime and everyone was quiet but not asleep. River missed Simon but she knew he was relatively content in the MedCraft. No one knew more than she did what her brother had given up to rescue her. The medical environment was a comfort to him. He loved it. Missed it. Needed it. Now it was gone. Now he got to treat injuries sustained by criminals. Their new family.
Simon was afraid of Serenity. Afraid of the condemnation from their family. River wanted to tell him no one was thinking about him now. They would later, but not now. She didn't know why she couldn't tell him. So many thoughts raced through her head. Sometimes she wasn't sure why some thoughts she vocalized and other she didn't…couldn't. Like Miranda. She couldn't understand why her thoughts couldn't be translated into words that others would comprehend.
Unexpectedly, she missed her mother - missed her so acutely that she almost sank to her knees. Her mother wouldn't know her now. Would she want to? Would she care that River was sad because two of her friends were dead. Because of her. Would she still love her killer of a daughter. Killer of Reavers…citizens of Miranda. She stopped her meandering. She listened.
Her expression changed from wistful to determined. She had to go. Had to see. She almost ran out of the ship. So intent on her objective, she didn't notice Kaylee and Inara sitting on the catwalk.
"River, honey, what are you doing?" Inara called out.
River didn't answer but hurried down the ramp out of the ship.
They caught up with her. "River, don't think Cap'n wants us leavin' Serenity."
River turned around.
"Eyes need to see."
"See what, honey?" Kaylee asked.
"Them. Not damaged anymore. Folks. Free."
Kaylee and Inara were starting to get an idea of what River was talking about. They exchanged a worried look.
"River, we need to stay here. It's nighttime and this place looks as black as black."
"Stay. I need to go." She turned around and headed into the darkness.
"Should we get the Cap'n?" Kaylee asked Inara.
"I don't think so. He's with Zoe and I think we can handle this." Inara moved to follow River.
"Inara, I don't think we should. Cap'n–"
"Kaylee, sweetie, I honestly don't think Mal wants to deal with River now. We need to look after her while Simon's still in the MedCraft."
Kaylee nodded. She hadn't forgotten Simon's request to look after River. Her desire to help Simon overcame her reluctance to disobey what she was certain Mal's wishes would be. She looked out into the night, uneasy about going out in it but River looked determined. Kaylee was perfectly aware that they wouldn't be able to stop her once her mind was set on something.
"River, wait! Just gonna get us a flashlight. Don't be wonderin' off 'til I get back."
"We'll wait for you." Inara called out. She moved toward River who had stopped walking. She couldn't see her face in the darkness.
"Sweetie, are you alright?"
"What's out there?"
"You do," River stated.
They didn't speak until they heard the ramp closing. Kaylee jogged over to them holding a flashlight.
River set off leading the way. They walked for a long while. The landscape was barren and rocky. No one spoke. As they continued stumbling over wayward pebbles, Inara's apprehension began to match Kaylee's.
"Don't worry," River called out. "Almost there
"Uh! What's that smell?" Kaylee asked later as they approached yet another rocky slope.
Inara and Kaylee looked at each other. Even in the dark with the meager flashlight they could read the alarm on each other's face.
"River—" they both said together.
As they walked up the steep and rocky ridge the smell grew stronger. Over the rise they could see a smoky light.
They reached the top. They first saw that there were perhaps five soldiers standing on the top of the opposite hill. River recognized one as the soldier in charge from the room at Mr. Universe's. No one said anything. Their attention soon focused on the cause of the smoky light. A fire burned in a pit that had been dug in a soft part of the ground. The only sound was a random crackle in the wind.
River gazed intently into the fire. Dozens of Reavers were burning in the fire. The bodies had been doused with some kind of green chemical perhaps to ward off the smell of burning bodies.
Looking across the pit, one man who stood apart from the others caught her attention. Through the smoke she saw him gazing sadly at her. She knew who he was. They looked at each other until another loud crackle from the fire startled her.
River felt Inara's fright; she saw the man, too.
"It's alright," she whispered. "He won't harm us again. Empty and lost."
Kaylee nudged Inara silently questioning her about the man who stood alone opposite them. Inara whispered to her. Kaylee looked at him warily.
The other Alliance soldiers drifted away unable to watch any longer.
Inara and Kaylee linked arms and silently watched the scene in front of them. They felt like outsiders as if the only ones really there were River, the Operative and the burning Reavers.
After a long while, River stepped back to join her friends. Inara and Kaylee parted to allow River to stand between them. Wrapping their arms around her, they held her close.
Kaylee spoke, unable to contain her feelings. "Can't believe these were people. Regular folks with lives and jobs and families. Easier to think they was just monsters."
The three women and the Operative stayed until the fire burned low. With a last look toward the Operative, they returned to Serenity leaving him alone with the ashes.