EPILOGUE

(three weeks later)

It was crowded in the Infirmary, but not in a way that Simon minded. His patients were stable and non-critical, his machines were sparkly and new, and he had visitors. There was a little bit of Christmas morning, in the smell of new medical equipment, boxes of bandages and suture thread, and the lingering scent of the apple cider that Kaylee was brewing upstairs. Kaylee had been waiting with a recorder so she could capture the look on his face when he saw the new Infirmary. It amazed him how clean Serenity had gotten in the three weeks he'd been gone, and he was secretly glad he'd been too injured to be put to work.

River sat on the side bed, hugging her knees to her chest because the new meds made her a little queasy. It had been awhile since Simon had put her through a complete detox, and he was glad she'd done alright without him there. She was responding amazingly well to this treatment, and had been lucid and cheerful all morning. Simon didn't want to keep her on this cocktail for more than a few months because it would start to damage her liver, but the psychological effect was profound. He'd never seen such a good mix of her sweet, bratty, smart, naiveté all at once. It was possible his own new lease on his own life was coloring his vision a little.

Michael was sitting up on the center bed, playing a game with Zoë. Simon had taken the more immobilizing braces off that morning, which turned out to be a mistake because Michael kept forgetting his ribs weren't healed and twisting the wrong way. Zoë wasn't helping. Still, there were more smiles than tears from Michael, and as long as it stayed that way, Simon wasn't going to tie him to a bed.

Simon hobbled to the counter, using a cane because his right knee wasn't healed enough to bend, nearly tripping over Jamie. The boy was literally attached to Simon at the hip, and had been since Simon limped out of the hospital that morning. Jamie had stayed with him planet-side while the rest of the crew finished the job for Walker. He'd had to medicate the boy just to get him back onto the ship that morning, but now the downer was wearing off and Jamie seemed calm enough, aside from wanting to maintain constant physical contact. Simon couldn't get him to sit on the bed with River, nor could he convince Jamie to sit on the floor and stack the new splints in the lower cabinets. He never strayed farther than his arm could reach and Simon told River that she had some serious competition for the honor of most persistent shadow. River and Simon shared a laugh at that, and it was one of those moments he knew he could heal her just by being close.

Throwing a hand up to keep from bowling Jamie over, Simon found his balance, tottered to the counter, and leaned heavily on the countertop with Jamie wedged in front, arms hooked over Simon's elbows. Jamie was somber and laconic, half-heartedly helping as Simon opened a box, pulled out the various cold medicines, and arranged them on the shelves. It was like having a third arm – a traumatized and lethargic third arm.

More accurately, it was like having eight-year-old Jamie again. Jamie had always been a shy boy, but he'd started coming out of that shell the past year, mostly because of the way Emily took to him. His hostage experience had regressed him those two years of maturity, and their return to Serenity that morning just about undid all the progress Simon had made in their time planetside. Simon planned to scour the literature later for any advice on how long to let this behavior go on. They'd go upstairs soon, and hopefully then Jamie would relax.

Cole and Genny dashed by, nearly wiping out as they stopped by the door to the Infirmary, all squeals and giggles.

"Jamie, Zoë come on! Auntie Sky is making the special bread!" Cole said breathlessly. Genny reached out her hand and Jamie took a step toward her, one hand still on Simon's elbow.

"Go on," Simon encouraged. "I'll meet you up there."

Jamie bit his lip and stepped back, wrapping his arms around Simon's waist. Disappointed, but not surprised, Simon hugged him gently and dismissed the other kids with a nod. Genny lingered a moment longer, but Cole wasn't waiting. He grabbed her arm and pulled her up the stairs.

"I want to go! I want to!" Michael cried, bouncing and then wincing. Despite the broken legs, he was still trying to swing himself off the bed, but Zoë held him back.

"Careful," Zoë warned, and he pressed his head against her shoulder in frustration.

Jayne trotted in next, wearing a slightly crunched birthday hat with sparkly streamers coming out the top. He wore a tight t-shirt, a loose apron, and a slightly drunken smile.

"I've been sent for the mini," he said, winking at Michael and Michael squealed in delight.

"And you, Mr. Sweet tooth," Jayne said to Jamie, pulling Jamie into a chokehold as he strutted into the room. "Your mom found those strawberries and you know how she is about sharing."

Jamie's eyes lit up and he looked toward the door again, keeping hold of Jayne as if that could protect him from the ghosts in the hall. Effortlessly, Jayne swung him over one shoulder, but gauging the less-than-receptive response, put him down almost as quickly.

"Will you fly me, too?!" Michael asked excitedly.

"No!" Simon said firmly.

They made it up the stairs slowly, but with many amusing antics. It was Jayne's birthday, but Simon felt the party was for him, because they'd postponed the celebration for his return. River's hands were on his shoulders like she was leading him toward a surprise. Her hands were trembling with effort to stay upright, but she was determined to have fun and radiating mirth. The whole galley smelled of cinnamon, apple cider, and French toast. Kaylee and Genny were running and squealing, Genny trying to protect the last pint of fresh strawberries while Kaylee tickled her sides. Sky was cooking, Mal was setting the table, and Inara was swatting Cole away from the birthday cake on the table. All of them wore silly hats.

"Well there's the rest of the party," Mal cajoled as the group of them came into the galley. Simon smiled, realizing that half the ship had been with him in the Infirmary. Genny vaulted over a tipped chair dashing toward Simon, and he reached out sideways for balance, but didn't have anything but Jamie holding him up. Genny gripped his shirt, hiding behind him as Kaylee slowed her approach, her eyes suddenly off the strawberries and on him.

"Clever girl," Kaylee crooned, wrapping her arm around Simon's neck. "Distracting me with my other favorite thing in the 'verse."

She wove between the children, pressing in closer to Simon in that way that made him forget anyone was watching. Her body was warm against his, her leg wrapping around his hips, pulling him close. She pressed the flat of her palm against his chest, splaying her fingers as she stroked upward toward his chin. Her warm tongue painted over his lips, tasting of strawberries, and he was lost. So lost in the feel of her. Simon danced his fingers lightly through Kaylee's hair, then trailed down her spine–

"Hey, keep your shirt on. Both of you!" Mal hollered.

Simon froze, embarrassed, and tugged his ear while Kaylee giggled bashfully against his chest. This wasn't their party … yet. One look at Jayne told Simon he wasn't stepping on any toes, though.

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Jayne winked at the Doc encouragingly. Hell, if he'd been away from his wife for three weeks, he'd have been all over her like frosting on cake, not spent the morning unpacking supplies in the Infirmary. That little man had a strange mind, and Jayne had been tipsy for a week, waiting for him to get back so he could finally open that gorram present Sky was hiding from him.

"Papa," Emily said, tugging at Jayne's pant leg. "Where's the hats? Jamie needs a hat."

Jamie brooded in the corner, munching on the strawberries, keeping his distance since Kaylee had crowded him away from his father.

"Think Jamie needs a hug more," Jayne told the little girl, scooping her up, planting a sloppy kiss on her nose, and handing her the last stack of party hats from the table.

She nuzzled him sweetly, then leaned close to his ear and whispered, "Papa, drink safely."

Releasing her to her mission, Jayne watched hopefully as Emily held a hat out to Jamie. Little Jamie looked up at the ceiling like he was trying to get away, but finally, he picked up Emily and let her put the yu ben de hat on his head. It was a small step, but it was something.

"Food and presents!" Jayne crowed, calling everyone to the table. The families gathered and the conversations bounced left and right, getting rowdy like it always did when it was someone's birthday and nothing tragic was coinciding.

Jayne saw how everyone clung to the normalcy of the shared meal, trying to convince themselves that things were done going wrong, even though they were still wound pretty tight on the inside. Now Simon and Jamie were back on board, River was walking upright, and they could be whole again. Jayne saw it in the way Mal held Inara closer than he normally would with everyone together and watching. Jayne also saw River sitting alone.

She was the only one among the adults that didn't share a bunk at night, and it was because of situations like this. How do you break it to a man that sometimes your brain goes funny and you start killing without meaning to? She was so afraid of herself and so alone. It made Jayne want to fix her up with someone, but they didn't have that kind of friendship and she would just read pity in the gesture. So he reached into the bread basket, pulled out a roll, and chucked it at her. He wasn't afraid of her. He knew her and he knew she wouldn't kill him on purpose. That was all he wanted to say.

River made a face when the roll caught her square in the chest, but any disapproval was buried under an impish smile. River was a mischievous punk in the kind of way that made Jayne laugh from the belly so long as he wasn't the target of her pranks. She picked up the roll off the floor and threw it back at Jayne, smacking hard into his cheek. Jayne didn't care if he was setting a bad example for the little ones. It was his birthday and he'd keep up whatever he wanted 'til Mall hollered at them and told them to stop.

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Inara stepped onto the catwalk, not surprised to find Mal sitting alone, staring down into the cargo bay. He drank directly from a bottle of engine wine; he probably needed to if his stomach was churning with the same fearful memory knotting hers. But this was their spot, and they'd either reclaim it or sell the ship, and she didn't see the latter one happening any time soon. Inara sat on the floor next to her husband, crossing her legs, since their child-proofing modifications prevented them from dangling their feet over the side anymore. Mal offered her a cup of wine that he'd been neglecting in favor of the bottle, and she nearly gagged when she swallowed it.

"You'd think for all the years we've lived here, we'd have wine less … fresh."

Mal laughed distantly, caught in some happy memory. "We could make a side business out of it. Kaylee's Engine Winery."

"We could retire," Inara added. The silence nestled between them and turned cold. Mal hung his head a little, twiddling the bottle in his hand.

"Are you asking me to?"

It was a fear that grew more apparent in him with every passing job – the fear that he couldn't keep up this life. Inara bumped his shoulder genially, and he winced from old injuries.

"I plan to grow old on this ship," Inara told him.

Mal tipped his head back and chuckled, taking another swig of wine from the bottle. "Don't see that happening."

She looked at him in surprise, but he just smiled in his special Mal way.

"You haven't aged a day since I met you," he said warmly. "Me on the other hand … I think I'm aging for the both of us."

"I didn't see you stopping that food fight," Inara teased.

"Don't see me cleaning up either," he answered roguishly. He drank from the bottle again, returning to that internal struggle that kept drawing his eyes to the floor of the cargo bay where their boys had nearly died. Inara knew what he wanted for them; she knew he worried that they wouldn't get what they needed here. But she grew up in that privileged life, with all its amenities, safely tucked into a warm bed every night, and she knew there was nothing safe about being in a place like that. It was the people surrounding her that kept her safe – her family on Serenity. There was little point in trying to explain it to Mal with words, so she pulled the bottle away from his lips and kissed him gently.

Mal usually didn't like being so intimate in a public place, especially now that the kids were old enough to know what they were walking in on, but he'd had just enough wine, and Inara could be very persuasive with her tongue. It was nearly a minute before he pulled back, but he wasn't pulling away. He brushed her cheek with the backs of his fingers like he wanted for all the worlds to sink into that kiss again, but was fighting the instinct.

Mal screwed his lips thoughtfully and nodded back toward the galley where the others were still cleaning up. "Did we agree to watch the munchkin tonight?"

"I think so," Inara said, kissing Mal again. She'd forgotten they'd agreed to look after Emily so Sky and Jayne could have the night alone after his birthday party. They didn't have much time, then.

"Can we get Zoë to babysit?" Mal asked between kisses. It was too hard to kiss his lips while he was thinking, so Inara cradled his face and nibbled along his jaw.

"She's tending Michael," Inara said.

"Genny?"

"Nursing Cole back to health."

"Jamie –"

"Not ready to work yet."

Mal groaned in frustration, and Inara wished he'd just let it go and be satisfied with the moment rather than trying to claim the whole night.

"We're running out of kids!" Mal complained and Inara laughed.

"Simon and Kaylee are working on that," she whispered.

"I want to work on it," Mal pouted, sticking out his lower lip.

"So work," Inara teased, running her fingers inside his shirt. Finally getting it, he wrapped his arms around her, half tackling, half dancing, he dipped her in front of him, and kissed long and hard. There was no safer place Inara could think to be than there in his arms.

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