Any other time, he'd've been disappointed with the anticlimax that was their trip back to Beylix, back to Serenity. Any other time, he'd've been the slightest bit upset that there were no near-misses, no gun-play, no death-defying mid-air heroics. Whether this trip was different, or he was different, wasn't no matter: what mattered was that something was different, and every hour that passed by with no news, he counted another blessing.

He'd slept some (a blessed relief) but spent the rest of the time sitting beside her, watching her chest rise and fall. But where before he'd watched with fear, terror, that each movement would be her last, now he watched rejoicing over those to come. Not enough of them, to be sure, but some, and he'd savor each breath she took, for as long as he could.

"She didn't want you to leave her. 'Not leaving you; don't you dare leave me.' You understand, don't you?"

He turned his head toward the infirmary hatch, where she stood like a dancer, feet turned outward like she was about to plié, left arm rounded down toward her hip, head tilted to the side, long hair draped over her shoulders. He shook his head. "Scares me how much you see, sometimes."

Again, her voice up a notch, a little desperate: "You understand, don't you?"

A nod. "I understand. And I conjure you know better than anyone how grateful I am."

"You didn't want to leave her."

"And I don't ever want to." (His voice low and fierce.)

Her eyes, on his, like she was trying to see into his soul. "No. Never."

A day later, and they were home. Would he have been able to say that if she weren't there? He wondered, and would from time to time in months to come. Could the caverns of his boat still be home without her?

Simon had kept her sedated through most of the trip, to help her through the pain of the treatment — had only brought her around a few hours before they'd touched down. The boy'd asked Mal to be alone with her, then, and he'd complied — had watched through the single window in the infirmary as Simon spoke to her, sitting beside her, holding her hand in both of his. He saw her face fall just enough to tell him that the story she told herself wasn't true: she wasn't a woman ready to die.

After her brother had left (a quick nod to him as he walked past), he'd gone in. Her eyes on his, questioning. And then quiet: "Did he tell you? Tell you what he told me?"

He dropped his eyes. "He told me."

"I should —" She let out a shuddery breath. "I should be grateful. It's more than I ever hoped for."

And then his hand was around hers, tight: "It's less than we deserve."

There were times that came to mind when they'd walked next to one another, her supporting him when he'd been injured (shot, most times), him leaning on her not so much because he needed it but because he wanted it. As she leaned against him as they walked through the Beylix dust and sun toward Serenity's gangplank, he wondered if she felt the same way.

She did what was her duty (because that was who she was): she sat with them in the living area off the galley, all of them around her, listening to her say the things she thought they wanted to hear.

River sat at her feet, gazing up at her, devotion plain in her eyes. Jayne stood to the side, grinning each time she described his feats of bravery (such as were told to her by the man himself). Simon held Kaylee on the sofa; she was crying, the boy gazing off at nothingness with a peculiar look of not-quite-satisfaction on his face, like he was already on to the next problem. And Zoe: Zoe looked happy (wearing a peaceful little smile) for the first time in too long.

He stood across the room from them. Arms crossed over his chest, he leaned against the cooker (right in the spot he'd been that very first night, when she hardly knew him, and he knew her less), and he watched her: watched her perfect posture, the crease beside her eye, the pink that had come back into her cheek, the way she bowed her head when she smiled, the curl of hair, missed from the rest, that danced against the back of her neck. Watched, and wasn't scared of being caught watching her, because, for three years, she was his to watch. And so when he felt Zoe's eyes on him and he turned his toward her, he just smiled — a tired but joyful smile.

His warrior stretched her arms wide, then, and gave a dramatic yawn. "Think we'd best be letting Inara get some rest. Reckon she's earned it. I'd say we all have." A smile thrown his way as she bent down to whisper a few parting words in the Companion's ear, and she was off, the rest of them not far behind.

Quiet all around them, then, and she herself was standing and walking toward him, one step at a time, something a little devilish in her eye. He didn't move, just watched (his lips quirked into a smile) as each footfall brought her closer, till she was standing right under him, her head tilted up and to the side. Her voice low: "Are you happy to be home, Captain Reynolds?"

His, rough, his eyes studying hers: "Happy so long as you're here."

She reached both hands toward him; he met them with his own, and then she was backing away, pulling him out of the galley and down Serenity's central artery toward his bunk. He felt some surprise. "Not to yours?" But she just shook her head, and so he followed her, to the little room that'd been his home for so long now, with its still-broken mirror, and two captures of her beside his bed, and walls that screamed at him of all the thoughts he'd ever had of her.

He'd had two years to learn her, two years he'd wasted. But it was foolish to chide himself. Not enough time left for regret.

So he started new: began to learn her that night (languidly), and to let her learn him. Gave her everything that he had, everything he was; and maybe, just maybe, she did the same.

Reckoned he'd keep doing just that until he couldn't anymore. Until his time was up.

And he loved her.

Between all the new moments of joy, he still watched her dying. Slower this time, but dying nonetheless. He prayed every day that she wouldn't.

Unrest in the Core: political protests (turned violent) stretching from Sun to Sun; resulting crackdowns throughout the 'Verse; martial law in parts unexpected. He became accustomed to coming to the bridge at night only to find Simon trying, mostly in vain, to wave his father, or scanning the Cortex for news. Meaning to do right by his children, he reckoned, Gabriel Tam had decided to speak the truth at long last.

One night, on the bridge next to him, watching the black as the boy sat entranced by the screen in front of him. Seeing the drop of his shoulders, the sudden pallor in his cheeks, Mal didn't have to ask what the news was. It was seven months after their return from Ariel.

When he told her, she didn't cry.

She'd told him once that time was a thief. Truest of truths: a year gone by in a blink. Each of his moments with her he tried desperately to hold onto, but still they slipped through his fingers like the sands of Beylix.

The dead of night, sitting beside Simon outside the infirmary. The boy reached his arms over his head; stretched back into that yellow sofa. Then, leaning forward, he scrubbed his hands over his face. "You know, you don't have to sit here with me. I'll let you know as soon the tests are finished."

He shrugged. "I can tell you right now, sitting here listening to your stories beats the hell out of tossing and turning in my bunk." (That image recounted of ringlets and cloisonné clips still played through his mind, too stubborn by far to disappear. He reckoned it never would.)

The doctor took a deep breath. When he spoke, his voice was soft. "Mal, you know that I want nothing more in the world than to be able to give you good news."

He closed his eyes; nodded. "I know. And you know, no matter how it turns out, I can't ever thank you enough for trying. It means — Christ, it means everything."

The boy stood up; stretched the stiffness out of his shoulders. "I can't take much credit, regardless. It was River, mostly. Her ideas, her research, her experiments. It's been — just miraculous, to see her so focused, and alert, and attuned —" He drifted off, looking for all the world like he was at a loss for words (probably a first for him, Mal reckoned). Shook his head. "So present. It's been so good for her."

He nodded. "Fair enough. But you're the one's made her imaginings reality. Just want you to know I won't ever forget it."

A half-smile on the boy'd lips: "We'll see."

From the infirmary, the sound of silence, sudden, as the soft hum of the centrifuge cut out, and then a low beep. He stood, but couldn't make himself follow the boy — just watched, frozen, his eyes wide, as Simon walked into the infirmary, donned gloves, and prepared a sample from the test tube that he'd had spinning.

He watched as the boy held a small wand over the sample (and, Jesus, he could hardly even grasp what that was, might be) — then closed his eyes, took a deep breath, opened them, and studied the projected image in front of him.

Seconds ticking by too slow as the boy moved the wand a touch, then again, looking back and forth at what surely must've been the same gorram view, over and over, and why in God's name couldn't he just stop looking and tell him what it was he saw?

He thought maybe he hadn't been breathing, because when the boy turned his head toward him, smiling, and nodded, the breath that filled his lungs burned, but burned good. So good.

"Mal?" Her voice from the edge of the room, but it filled the space around him, controlled him, and in two long steps he was standing in front of her, his eyes closed, his forehead and nose against hers, one hand on the back of her neck, the other on her stomach. Her voice, soft, tinged with sleep. "I woke up, and you were gone."

Wanted to say something, to tell her, but all he could manage was a satisfied hum.

She pulled her head back, and he opened his eyes to find her looking at him, her eyes hopeful. Just a whisper: "Mal?" Still, words were too much for him: all he could do was nod, a tired grin on his face, and hold her.

She must've caught sight of the doctor over his shoulder, because the next thing she said wasn't to him. "Simon? Is it true?"

He looked back; saw the doctor nod. "It's true. I'll run it again. I can run it ten times, a hundred times, if you want. As many times as you need. But I... I think it worked."

Then her eyes were gleaming, and she was blinking fast, tears on her cheeks, but smiling, smiling. A hand on her belly, beside his, and she was whispering: "Do you hear that, baby? You're whole. No sorrow for you. Just joy."

Wasn't full true, that there, at least not for him. The tears on his cheeks had some sorrow to them. But it was true enough: the taste of them was more joy than sorrow, because for maybe the first time he could begin to imagine a future even if she wasn't there. And so he nodded, his forehead back down against hers. "Joy."

Just a breath: "Joy."

She linked her fingers through his, and was pulling him back, toward their bunk, when he felt the doctor's hand on his arm. "Mal. Could you stay for a second?"

She looked back and forth between them, a question in her eyes. He cleared his throat. "Go ahead. I'll be there."

Her eyes, on his, and she was trying to read him. Then she nodded, took one step away, letting his fingers slip out of hers. "Don't be too long."

He watched until she'd faded into Serenity's night shadows. When she was gone, the boy: "I've been wanting to talk to you about something. Something that's been on my mind."

Not waiting for an answer, the boy turned, walked into the infirmary. Mal followed him. "So talk."

When he turned back toward him, he was holding a data reader. "I received this a few weeks ago. He must've sent it to me just before he died."

He closed his eyes; squeezed the bridge of his nose between his fingers as he absorbed what it was the boy was saying to him. "So why are you just showing it to me now?"

A beat. "I needed some time to think." Not an explanation, not really, but it would have to do. He pushed the screen toward Mal. "And now I want you to go through it, and I want you to think. I haven't made a decision yet. But — Mal — you know me. You know I don't find it very easy to let go."

His eyes hurt. His head hurt. Too much, too soon (the high and low and in between). He looked at the boy's outstretched hand. "Simon —"

"Just look. Please."

A beat. "I expect you don't want me to tell her."

He shook his head. "No. Not yet."

A deep sigh, and then his hand was around the edge of the reader, both of them holding onto it for a second before Simon nodded, let go. "You'll do it?"

He ran one finger along a sharp edge; studied the gleam of reflected lights on the glass. He nodded, and when he spoke, his words came slow. "I'll do it. How could I not? It'll give me something to think on. Sometimes a man needs something to think on, don't you think?"