Authors Notes: This story takes place about a month after the movie Serenity ends. My story has some MAJOR spoilers for things that happen in the movie, so if you haven't seen the movie, my advice would be to see the movie before reading this (on DVD in the US on Dec 20th). A big thanks to Chrisie for helping me stay true to the Firefly universe. Thanks to Jenna for getting me thinking about Simon in the first place. And thanks to everyone who kept encouraging me to write it by giving me wonderful feedback. Written December 2005.

The Orange Death

Mal sat in the pilot's chair of Serenity thinking about and missing Wash while he watched the stars go by. He felt more then heard a presence behind him, and turned to find River at the bridge door looking out at the stars too. He said quietly, "It's a mite late for you to be about."

River didn't take her eyes off the stars and said, "Simon and Kaylee are making noises again."

Mal nodded absently and looked back out at the stars as he said, "Have a seat if you like."

River went over to the co-pilots chair and sat down. A comfortable silence fell over the cabin. Ten minutes later River said, "She won't like any of them."

Mal looked over at River and said, "What?"

"Zoe."

Mal thought about that, and realized what River was talking about. They had interviewed three pilots so far, and Zoe had had problems with all of them. Mal nodded in agreement. "Most likely, but we need one just the same."

"But you're looking in the wrong direction."

Mal turned to River and said, "You got a suggestion for where I should be lookin'?"

River shook her head no. Mal shrugged and said, "Then we're headed to Newview."

Silence settled over the cabin once again. Half an hour later Mal noticed River's head drooping. He said quietly, "Hey."

River's head jerked up and she focused on him. He said, "Time for bed."

River took one last look at the stars and got up to head for the quarters she shared with her brother Simon.

The next morning at breakfast, after everyone except Jayne was done eating, Mal cleared his throat to get everyone's attention. "We should reach Newview in about six hours. It's way too close to the Core for my taste, but this guy, Bannon, says he can pilot the ship, and his references check out."

Jayne said with his mouth full, "What was wrong with that last guy again?"

Zoe said, "It took him three tries just to get Serenity started."

Mal nodded, but knew the real reason they didn't take him was because he had made a joke about toys on the bridge when he saw Wash's dinosaurs. Mal said, "Simon, did you get a response from the Doc at the local hospital?"

Simon nodded, "She called this morning. She's willing to sell us the medications that I need to restock the ship at a fair price."

Mal nodded. "You're sure she didn't recognize you?"

"Pretty sure."

"Well are you sure or aren't you? If you aren't, then we'll wait for the next stop to restock."

"We need these medications now. We used up most of out extra stock when we…"

The room was silent for a few seconds. Simon continued, "At any rate, it's gone and knowing our propensity for danger, I would highly recommend we get the medications now whether she recognized me or not. But I don't think she did."

Mal looked at Zoe for her opinion. She gave a slight nod. Mal said, "Alright, but you'll need to take Jayne."

Jayne said with obvious irritation, "You said I could stay. If I'm going with the Doc, who's gonna watch…"

Jayne's eyes darted to River's and then his voice got a little more quiet at he looked back at Mal and said, "….the girl."

Jayne nodded his head towards River in what he thought was a subtle way.

River looked over at him and said, "I could beat you with both hands tied behind my back."

Simon said with mild disapproval, "River."

River looked back down at her plate and didn't comment.

Mal said, "I'm thinking Kaylee and Inara are better suited to keeping our little albatross both happy and non violent then you are."

Jayne glared at River and said, "The only reason you got the better of me was 'cause I was tryin' NOT to hurt you."

River made a face at Jayne, and would have stuck out her tongue at him if Mal hadn't said, "Enough! Be ready to go in six."

Jayne gave a glare to River and a slight nod of acceptance to Mal. Then he grabbed three biscuits off the table and walked away.

Mal looked at Zoe and said, "Wake me when we're in orbit."

"Yes Sir."

Mal left, and the rest of the crew went about their usual business. Mal went and found Jayne. He was checking the tires on the mule to make sure it was in good working order. Jayne looked up at Mal as he approached. Mal said, "Do I have to go over what I expect when I send you out to protect one of the crew?"

Jayne stuck a biscuit in his mouth and said, "Nope." As he turned back to checking the vehicle.

Mal nodded and walked to his quarters.

Six and a half hours later Kaylee, Inara, and River were waving good bye, and closing the hatch on the ship. Mal and Zoe headed off in one direction on the hover sled, while Jayne and Simon headed in the other on the mule.

Mal and Zoe arrived half an hour early at the bar where they were scheduled to meet Bannon. Mal looked around the bar and then at Zoe with a question in his eyes. The bar only had one other occupant besides the bartender. Mal had never seen a bar so empty. Zoe shrugged to indicate she didn't understand what was going on either. Mal went up to the bartender and Zoe followed. Mal smiled and said, "You got any ale here in this fine establishment?"

The bartender looked over both of their faces carefully and said, "As long as you've got platinum and ain't sick, I got ale."

Mal put down some money and said, "Two."

The bartender inspected the money and then gave them the beer. Mal took a sip and said, "Aahhh, now that really hits the spot don't it?"

Zoe swallowed her sip and said, "That it does Sir."

Mal looked back at the bartender and said, "Seems this place is a mite empty when you're serving ale as good as this."

The bartender said, "Where you been the past month? Ain't you heard 'bout the sickness?"

Mal lost some of his smile and said, "Sickness? No, we just arrived."

"Been 'bout a month now, and they still ain't found a cure. Two thirds of this town is dead."

Zoe said, "There were no warnings at the dock. It's standard Alliance protocol to post warnings of quarantine at all docks."

The bartender said, "What dock you at?"

"Blue A."

"There was quarantine signs up yesterday when I went by. Maybe you wasn't lookin'."

Mal and Zoe looked at each other. Zoe said, "Wait for Bannon, or round up the crew?"

Mal said, "Could be a set up."

Zoe nodded in agreement and then said, "Could be the sign fell."

"We wait."

Jayne drove Simon to the local hospital and parked the mule. Simon got off the back and looked expectantly at Jayne who was just sitting there. Simon said, "Are you coming?"

Jayne looked annoyed and got up as he said, "Yeah, I'm comin'."

Simon pointed at a large metal box that was strapped to the back of the mule. He said, "Bring the container for the supplies."

Jayne unbuckled the straps that were holding the box to the mule, and picked it up. He followed Simon into the hospital. The second they walked through the front door, Simon could tell that something was very wrong. There were sick people everywhere, and there were cots set up for patients in the hallway. At first Simon wondered if maybe they had come in the emergency entrance instead of the main entrance. He looked around and saw the front desk. He walked to it and a tired looking nurse got a new chart out and said, "Where has it started?"

Simon said, "Excuse me?"

The nurse said, "The rash. Where has it started?"

Jayne leaned down to Simon and said, "You got a rash?"

Simon gave Jayne an exasperated look and said, "No of course not." He turned back to the nurse and said, "I'm sorry, I think you have me mistaken for someone else. I have an appointment to see Dr. Muriel Larsen."

The nurse looked up from her chart and took a long look at Simon. She didn't take her eyes off him but picked up the phone and said, "Dr. Larsen, there is someone here to see you. A Mr….."

Simon filled in for her, "Dr. Zachary Milton."

"A Dr. Zachary Milton."

The nurse listened for a moment and then hung up. She said, "The doctor will be down to see you in a minute."

Simon and Jayne looked around while they waited. After a few seconds Jayne leaned down to Simon and said, "Hospitals give me the creeps."

Simon ignored him. He was absorbed looking around at the patients. He could see that most of them had the same affliction in various stages. But it was something he had never seen before. Simon had an almost photographic memory, and he knew what he was seeing was something new. The people all had patches of skin covered in an orange colored rash. Some people were almost entirely covered, and others only had small patches. Simon could tell that the people who were entirely covered were seriously ill, and a few looked close to death. The doctor in him had to know more.

A few minutes later a short brunette woman with pale skin walked into the room. She was wearing a white lab coat. She immediately spotted Simon and gave him a smile. She stuck out her hand to shake and said, "You must be Dr. Milton."

Simon smiled, nodded, and shook. "Dr. Larsen I presume."

"Call me Muriel."

"Zach. And this is my assistant Jayne."

Muriel nodded in acknowledgement of Jayne and said, "Why don't you two come up to my office."

Simon nodded and followed her. Soon they were in a small office, and Jayne set the box down and sat on top of it to wait. Simon and Muriel sat on opposite sides of her desk. She said, "We received your list. Here is a copy of it, and I've put a star next to the items we can't provide for you."

Simon looked it over and was pleased. They had almost everything they needed. Each item had a price next to it, and he said, "Everything looks to be in order. Your prices are quite reasonable. I truly appreciate your generosity."

Muriel nodded and said, "Actually I did have somewhat of an ulterior motive for selling you these items at such a reasonable rate."

Jayne tensed at that. Simon just continued to smile and said, "What might that be?"

"We have discovered a new virus. I've been working on trying to find a vaccine for the past month to no avail. I could really use a fresh opinion on the matter."

Simon nodded eagerly. "The orange rash I saw in the lobby?"

She nodded. Simon couldn't wait to hear about it. "Let's finish our transaction, and then I'll be happy to take a look."

Muriel nodded and stood. She said, "If you gentlemen will follow me."

Simon and Jayne both followed her. They walked down the hall and to another door. There was a guard at the door, and Muriel showed the guard her ID. They all went into a supply room.

Soon the metal box Jayne was carrying was full. Simon pulled out a pouch of platinum, and counted out the correct amount. He handed it over to the supply clerk. As they walked out of the supply room, Simon turned to Muriel and said, "Thank you very much."

Then he turned to Jayne and said, "I'm going to be here for a while. Why don't you take the supplies back to the ship, and then come back to get me."

Jayne shook his head. "That ain't the plan."

Simon looked at Muriel and said, "could you excuse us for just one minute?"

Muriel nodded and walked down the hall a few feet.

Simon lowered his voice and said, "You said hospitals make you uncomfortable. I'm going to be here for at least two more hours, and if you wait here for me you're going to be bored. Just take the supplies back, and then come back to get me."

Jayne shook his head more violently and said, "Mal said I was to watch over you."

Simon rolled his eyes and said, "Fine, you can stay, but you need to keep quiet and out of the way."

Jayne said, "We ain't supposed to stay at all. We got the supplies, so let's be on our way."

Simon sighed and said, "I'm sure you can't understand the significance of a new virus, but I do, and I'm staying until I've heard about it."

"I understand enough to know if there's some kind of disease goin' round, then that's an even better reason to high tail it out of here!"

Simon was tired of arguing. He said, "Do what you want. I'm staying."

Jayne opened his mouth to argue, but Simon was already walking towards Muriel with a smile. She took them to a large lab, and Jayne staked out a spot against the wall where he once again sat on the metal box full of supplies. Muriel showed Simon some pictures of people with various stages of the disease. She said, "The first case was almost a month ago. We had thirty-six cases on the same day. All of them were children who went to the same school. But the incubation period for the virus is about a week, so by the time we saw our first case, those children had been in contact with their family members, and then those family members had been in contact with their coworkers."

"So it takes a week for them to start showing signs of illness, but they are actually contagious well before that?"

"Yes."

Simon said, "How is it transmitted?"

"Before the rash appears, it is somewhat difficult, and can only be spread through bodily fluids. But once the rash appears, the rash itself is contagious, and anyone who touches it can easily become infected themselves."

"Really? Fascinating. Was the original carrier found?"

"We believe the original carrier of the virus was a stray dog. All the children who were infected had pet this dog during recess. The local law enforcement has been trying to find the dog all month. It's most likely long dead."

"Are any other animals sick? Family pets or livestock?"

"No, we haven't had any cases of that."

Simon shook his head and said, "Then why do you think it was the dog?"

"Because all the children said he had an orange color under his fur. They said that when they were petting him, a kind of orange dust came off him."

Simon thought quietly for a minute and then said, "Were there some kids at the school who didn't get sick?"

Muriel nodded. "Three. They've been tested. They aren't carrying it."

"What about the teachers?"

"All but one got it, and he wasn't a carrier either."

"What's the survival rate once they have it?"

Muriel sighed and said, "Once the rash starts, patients start to feel slightly ill, but within a week of having the rash, they have lung problems. I would say one out of every three people who have gotten to the last stage of the rash have survived to see the rash going away. They are left with an odd orange scarring around the abdomen."

Simon said, "Have you gotten it quarantined?"

"I wish I could say yes. We tried, but I'm not sure if it has gotten out of the city. Most likely it has spread to some of the outlying countryside. There are three major cities on this moon, and I'm certain that the other two have not been infected yet. I'm in daily contact with doctors from both hospitals, and they have had no cases of it."

Simon nodded and thought for a minute. He said, "Can I see samples of it?"

Muriel led him over to a microscope, and they spent the next hour looking at various slides and discussing what she had tried in the way of a vaccine so far.

Mal and Zoe had moved to a table with their drinks, and they had almost finished them when a man walked in. He was tall with black curly hair and dark brown skin. He had a beard, and was wearing dark clothes. He scanned the room and walked directly up to Mal. He said, "Are you Malcolm Reynolds?"

Mal stood up and put his hand out as he said, "That's right. You must be Ray Bannon."

Ray shook his hand, waved at the bartender, and sat down. Mal sat too, and as soon as the bartender brought over a drink, Mal said, "I hear tell you piloted for Fatty Marks."

"For two years."

"Why aren't you still there?"

"Because he was a mean son of a bitch, and I got tired of it."

Mal laughed and said, "Fatty ain't nice, that's true enough. Did you leave on good terms?"

"Good enough. I stayed until he could find another pilot."

Zoe said, "Have you ever flown a Firefly?"

"Yes Ma'am. Back eight years ago I flew one for about six months. Very nice ships those Firefly's."

"What have you been doing since leaving Fatty?"

"I came home to visit with my family. I had some money put away, so I thought I could stay here for about a year."

Mal said, "Fatty said you left three months ago."

Ray nodded, "That's right."

Zoe said, "What changed?"

"I came home to see my folks and my sister. They're all dead now."

Mal and Zoe looked at each other. Ray said, "The orange death took them about two weeks ago."

Zoe said, "The orange death?"

"The epidemic. I'm sure you saw the quarantine signs. Actually I was surprised you didn't have me meet you at your ship instead of coming out here."

Mal sat back a little to put more distance between himself and Ray. He said, "Did you get sick along with your family?"

Ray lifted up his shirt to show them both some orange scarring on his stomach. He said, "I had it, but I got over it. The doctor said I was one of the lucky ones, and that I must have been in excellent health to start with, because only one in four who gets it lives to tell about it. He assured me I wasn't contagious any more."

Mal nodded and said, "Have you ever flown in combat?"

Ray gave him a disbelieving look and said, "I told you I flew for Fatty. We were getting shot at every other day."

Mal nodded and said, "Okay, excuse us for a minute."

Mal looked at Zoe and nodded his head towards the door. Ray stayed at the table, and Zoe and Mal went to stand by the door to talk out of earshot. Mal said, "Seems worth a try."

Zoe shook her head. "I don't like him."

Mal gave her a disbelieving look and said, "Why not?"

"Can't put my finger on it, I just don't like him."

Mal sighed and took a minute to think about how to say what he knew needed to be said. He put a hand on his friends shoulder and said, "Zoe….. we need a new pilot. You haven't liked any of them so far, and I'm thinkin' that's gonna continue."

Zoe shrugged off his hand and said with anger, "It's your decision Sir."

Zoe walked out to wait in the hover sled while Mal stayed where he was, feeling both sad for her and annoyed with her at the same time. He took a deep breath and went back to Ray. He said, "We'll give you a try. If you can come to the docks right now, we'll let you do a test drive. Then if everything goes well, we'll take you on. And no offence to your doctor, but I'm gonna have our doc check you out before I let you anywhere near my crew."

Ray stood, "That's understandable."

Mal started walking towards the door and said, "Assumin' everything goes well, when would you be ready to ship out? I'm anxious to get away from this place."

Ray said, "I could have my things packed and ready to go first thing tomorrow morning."

Mal nodded and thought that would be good enough. As they got close to the hover sled Mal said, "Does Fatty still have that horrible little monkey, Shiver?"

Ray nodded and said, "He has a monkey, but its name is Silver. I wanted to shoot that thing more then once. Always crapping on things, and stealing food."

Mal had talked personally to Fatty about Ray, and he had gotten a picture of him, so he was pretty sure this really was Ray, but he was still happy that Ray passed his little test. He said, "Right, my mistake."

Zoe refused to acknowledge anyone's presence, but as soon as Mal and Ray were aboard, she started up the hover sled, and headed back to the ship.

They got back to Serenity, and were greeted by Kaylee and River. Mal said, "You girls stay back now, I need the doc to check out the new pilot before anyone gets too close."

Kaylee said, "Um…..Well.…. That might be a problem."

"What might be a problem?"

Kaylee looked to River who just looked back at her. Kaylee said, "Simon. He ain't exactly back yet."

Mal said, "Did they call? Was there some trouble?"

Kaylee shook her head no. Mal took his short wave radio off his holster belt and pushed the button to talk. He said, "Jayne are you there?"

A few seconds past before Jayne answered, "I'm here."

"That's funny, 'cause I'm lookin' around and I don't see you here."

Jayne, not getting it, said, "That's cause I'm HERE at the hospital like I said."

"You both should have been back well before us. What happened?"

Jayne said, "The doc has some kind of hard on for figurin' out about some virus. Or maybe it's for the other doc. She's kinda pretty in a…. Doctor sorta way. Either way, he said he ain't goin' back yet."

Mal glared at no one in particular. "Put him on."

Jayne smiled at Mal's tone, and couldn't wait to see Simon chewed out. He saw both Simon and Muriel on the other side of the lab and walked over to them. They turned to see him coming, and Jayne smiled mean as he handed Simon the radio. He said, "Captain wants to talk to you."

Simon sighed and took the radio. He looked to Muriel and said, "Excuse me please."

Simon walked over to the other side of the lab, and Jayne followed. Simon pushed the button and said, "Yes Mal?"

"Get your ass back to the ship right now."

Simon bristled at the tone. He said, "This City is in desperate need of help. They've lost almost half of their doctors recently, and they have an epidemic that has killed off one third of their population. I would like to stay here for a few more hours to see if I can help."

"This ain't a discussion. Leave. Now."

"I really don't see why you're having such a problem with this. We're in a sterile lab, I'm a highly trained doctor, and I'm good at what I do. Don't you think we should try to help people out when we can?"

Mal's voice came back, "Jayne?"

Jayne quickly yanked the radio out of Simon's hands and said with glee, "Yeah?"

"Help the doc come 'round to my way of thinkin', and be back here in less then twenty minutes."

"It'll be my pleasure."

Jayne put the radio back in his pocket and smiled at Simon. "Please tell me you ain't gonna go quiet like."

Simon knew for sure that Jayne could have him unconscious with one punch, and that he would have fun doing it. Simon said, "I'll go back, and try to talk some sense into the Captain. I'm just going to go tell Muriel that I'll be back later."

Jayne watched Simon walk back to Muriel and muttered, "Yeah, that'll happen."

Simon walked back over to Muriel and said, "I'm very sorry Muriel, but I'm going to have to leave for a little while and take the supplies back to the ship. I'm going to try very hard to come back here in a few hours to help you out some more. If I can't come back, I'll keep in contact with you and help you go over your work."

Muriel looked down and nodded. Then she said, "I have a confession for you."

Simon was confused and it showed. She looked up at him and said, "I know who you are. You're Dr. Simon Tam."

Simon was both surprised and a little scared. She quickly said, "I'm sorry, but we've lost so many doctors, and when you contacted me for supplies….. I recognized your face, and I knew you would be able to help us. That's why I didn't tell you about the quarantine, and I had the signs at the docks taken down. We need help Dr. Tam. You've worked at the best most advanced hospital the Alliance has. There isn't anyone else on this moon that can bring us that kind of experience and knowledge. Please stay and help me before two thirds of the people on this moon are dead. I can pay you….with supplies or with whatever money our hospitals can collect."

Simon looked behind him to see Jayne impatiently waiting by the box of supplies on the other side of the lab. Simon made a decision. He couldn't just leave this alone, no matter what. He said quietly, "I promise I'll be back tonight, and I'll stay here until we find a vaccine, but you'll most likely have to hide me from the Alliance if they show up, and maybe even from my other crew mates."

Muriel looked at him with gratitude and said, "Thank you Dr. Tam. I'll be forever grateful."

Simon nodded and said, "It's Simon, and I'll see you late tonight, or maybe as late as early tomorrow morning."

Simon walked back over to Jayne. Jayne picked up the box and they both walked out to the mule.

Back on Serenity Mal put his radio back on his holster belt with irritation. Kaylee turned to him and said, "Don't be too angry Cap'n, it's got to be hard on Simon not to be able to do what he was trained to do."

"He can do his doctorin' here where he ain't gonna be picking up some sickness to bring back for all of us."

Kaylee didn't like the way her two favorite men fought, and she could usually see both sides of their arguments, and see the sense in why each of them did what they did. She just nodded and looked away knowing Mal had to see to his crew before anyone else.

Mal turned to Ray. He said, "We've got about fifteen minutes to do a test run."

Ray followed Mal to the bridge. Mal looked back to see if Zoe was following too, and was pleased to see she was. He assumed this meant that she had cooled down some.

Fifteen minutes later they had landed again and Zoe had to admit to herself that Ray was a fine pilot. Mal said, "As long as the doc gives you a clean bill of health, you're hired."

Ray nodded and said, "Good."

Mal turned to Zoe. "Show Ray where the infirmary is, and keep him company until the Doc gets back."

Zoe nodded and said to Ray, "This way."

Mal went back to the cargo bay and looked around. Everyone else had gone to do other work, so he was alone. He decided to look over the hover sled while he was waiting for Simon and Jayne to get back. As soon as he heard the cargo door start to open he walked over to it. He stood there with his arms crossed waiting. Jayne drove the mule to it's usual spot in the cargo bay, and got off. Simon got off wearily not looking forward to the confrontation he was sure was about to happen. Mal kept his eyes on Simon but said to Jayne, "Jayne, take the supplies to the lab."

Jayne, looked from Simon to Mal and said, "Now?"

"Now."

Jayne tossed down his goggles in annoyance that he was going to miss the scene, and unstrapped the metal box from the back of the mule. He carried it away muttering to himself about always missing the good parts.

Simon took of his goggles and put them on the mule. He looked at Mal expectantly. Mal said, "Have you completely taken leave of your senses?"

Simon said with disdain, "Not likely."

Mal reached him in two steps and grabbed the front of his shirt. He shoved Simon up against the hover sled and said, "I don't recall givin' you leave to stay at the hospital once you had the supplies."

Simon looked right at him and said, "You didn't. I just decided to do the right thing all by myself."

Mal kept a fist full of Simon's shirt and said, "The right thing? You risked getting sick, and getting the rest of the crew sick, including your sister, and you think you did the right thing?"

"I'm not an idiot Captain, and I'm not a child. I know the risks better then you, and I still did the right thing by trying to help those people."

Mal yanked him close so that they were practically nose to nose and said, "You are a member of my crew, and that means you do as I say whether you like it or not. I don't expect to have to go over this with you again."

Mal let him go with a slight shove towards the door. He said, "Now get to the infirmary and do your job. We've got us a new pilot, but I want a full physical on him before we take him anywhere. Make sure he's not contagious."

Simon stumbled a little with the shove, but quickly got his footing. He glared at Mal, and then walked to the infirmary. He had originally thought there was a possibility of convincing Mal to let him stay there for a week so he could help, but now he understood that Mal would never let that happen. As he walked to his lab, he thought about what he was going to do.

He nodded to Zoe as he arrived and she stood outside the door while Simon preformed the physical. Ten minutes later Simon opened the door and told Zoe that Ray was in perfect health. Zoe thanked him and had Ray follow her to find the captain. They found Mal still looking over the hover sled. Zoe said, "He checks out."

Mal nodded at Ray and said, "Sounds like you've got the job."

Ray smiled. "I'll be here at eight AM tomorrow morning ready to go."

Mal shook his hand and said, "Welcome aboard."

Ray left to go do his packing. Mal looked at Zoe and in way of reconciliation said, "Looks like we're docked for the night. Want a drink?"

Zoe gave him a slight smile and a nod. They headed to the kitchen area together. Mal got out his good whisky and two glasses. He poured and they both stood at the counter to have a shot. Mal poured them both another, and held his up to his lips and then paused. He looked at Zoe and held up his glass. He said, "To Wash."

Zoe paused a second and then clinked her glass to his before tipping it up. She set it down with a click and said, "Requesting some personal time Sir. I'd like to be alone in my room for the next twenty four hours."

Mal could tell she was close to tears and said, "Granted."

Zoe walked away, and Mal poured himself one more before heading out to talk to Jayne about the hospital visit, and any possibility of infection for his crew.

Simon stayed in the infirmary and put his new supplies away. Then he started thinking about the virus and the epidemic. He sat and jotted down some of his thoughts that he wanted to share with Muriel when he got back there. An hour after getting back to the ship Kaylee knocked on the infirmary door. He smiled at her and said, "Come in."

Kaylee walked over to him and gave him a passionate kiss. Once they pulled apart he said, "How was your day?"

She smiled at him and said, "River and I played hop scotch."

He laughed a little and said, "Who won?"

Kaylee shook here head. "It's always about winnin' with you men. We had fun playin'."

Simon brushed some hair away from Kaylee's forehead and said, "Have I told you before how much it means to me that you've become friends with my sister?"

"Have I told you how much it means to me that you've become my lover?"

Simon gave her another kiss and said, "Have I told you before how happy I am that you waited for me to come to my senses. You could have had any number of men, but you waited for me."

She kissed his neck and said, "It was worth the wait."

She pulled away and went to sit on the examination table. She said, "You were gone an awfully long time."

He sighed and stood next to the table beside her. "I want so much to help them."

Simon took a minute to think about it and collect his thoughts. "It's like I get lost in the lab. When I'm there everything else disappears, and I know that I can solve the puzzle if I just have enough time to put the pieces together. I can end the pain, suffering, and death of thousands of people if I have enough time."

Kaylee felt for him. She knew exactly what he meant, because she felt the same way about the ship's engine. She put a hand on his face and said, "But Simon, you can't fix everyone. Family has to come first, or life just ain't worth livin'."

Simon got a little upset. "I've sacrificed my entire carrier for my family. I don't think it's too much to ask to actually be of use once in a while in the carrier I gave up."

Kaylee said, "That ain't what I meant. I meant…." Kaylee gave up, knowing Simon wouldn't understand. "I guess I just mean I missed you."

Simon gave her a peck on the cheek and said, "I missed you too. Now I've got some work to do before dinner."

Kaylee nodded and headed out feeling bad for her boyfriend.

Dinner that night was more of a somber affair then usual with the obvious empty spot where Zoe usually sat, and the spot right next to it where Wash used to sit. Mal and Simon avoided direct conversation, and Inara and Kaylee did most of the talking. Mal told everyone that Ray would be joining them first thing in the morning, and that then they would be off to look for work in some of the outer rim planets.

When dinner was over Mal sat and looked at the two empty chairs for a while. Then he noticed the only person left at the table was Inara. He smiled at her and said, "Hope this stop hasn't been too dull for you."

Inara smiled and said, "It's been fine. I had fun watching Kaylee and River play this afternoon."

Mal looked back at the empty chair and said, "Inara, can I ask a favor of you?"

Inara was shocked and slowly nodded. Mal looked back at her, "Could you take Wash's chair at meals once Ray is aboard?"

Inara said, "But…"

Mal interrupted, "Someone has to take his seat. I'd rather it be someone Zoe calls a friend then some stranger. Especially when that stranger is taking over her husband's job."

Inara said with sincerity, "Of course I will."

"I'd be much obliged."

Mal put his hand over hers, and she left her hand there. She said, "How's Zoe doing?"

Mal shook his head. "She's missin' him, and it'll take some time, but she'll be alright. She's seen more then her share of death over the years. It's never easy, but… you do become more accustom to it then you'd like to admit."

Inara put her other hand on top of Mal's and squeezed it. She said, "I'm going to make a plate and take it to Zoe."

Mal wasn't sure that was the best idea, but he figured Inara knew more about making people feel better then he did, so he let go of her hand, and picked up his own plate to wash it.

Late that night, Simon lay in bed staring at the ceiling trying to get up the courage to follow through with his plan. He looked over at Kaylee sleeping next to him. She spent most nights in his quarters rather then her own lately. He thought she was beautiful. He absently wondered how upset she would be about what he was planning. He knew she would be a little mad, but he thought she would forgive him because she would understand why he was doing it. Mal on the other hand would not. He wasn't sure what Mal would do about it, but he was pretty sure it would be unpleasant. He thought it could very well get him and his sister kicked off the ship. But River was a lot better now, and he thought they could easily change names and hook up with another ship. He also thought he could talk Kaylee into coming with him.

Simon sighed and thought about the other option. Mal might shoot him, or beat him up. Simon thought the odds of Mal shooting him were low, and if he did shoot him, Simon was sure it would be non-lethal. Simon had been shot twice since being with Serenity, and it wasn't an experience he wanted to relive. But Simon thought the best odds lay with getting punched and yelled at a lot. Simon had been punched a few times, but not much. He had never been punched before his life on the run with River. He didn't exactly want to step into that either, but he decided saving a few thousand people was worth the pain of a punch or two.

He took one more look at Kaylee and slipped out of bed trying not to wake her up. He quickly got dressed, and pulled the small overnight bag out from under his bed. He had packed right after dinner before Kaylee came to see him. He took a letter out from the side of his overnight bag and put it on the pillow next to Kaylee. He walked out and shut the door behind him.

He walked over to River's room and hesitated at the door. He wasn't sure if it would be better to tell River or not. He suddenly had the stray thought that he never could have done this if River hadn't gotten 'better'. If River was still getting worse, and in crisis every day, he never would have even considered leaving. He knew he would have to see her reaction before he left, because if she became emotional, it might change his mind about the whole idea.

He opened the door and saw River sitting on her bed looking at him expectantly. He was slightly caught off guard and said with surprise, "You're awake."

River said, "You're leaving."

Simon looked behind him and then walked into her room. He closed the door behind him. He put his bag down and went to sit on the edge of River's bed. He said, "There are thousands of people sick on this moon. I want… no I need to go help them. Will you be okay without me for a week?"

River said, "They have the orange death."

Simon nodded. "Yes they do, and I want to find a vaccine to make sure other people can't get it."

"When they get it, they can't breath. They suffocate to death. Suffocation isn't the worst way to go. A little like falling asleep."

Simon put his hand on hers and said, "But I can make it so people won't have to die."

River looked down at his hand. After a few seconds she said, "Simon?"

"Yes?"

"I'll be fine. You go help them."

Simon gave her the smile that only she could bring out in him. It was a mix of affection, exasperation, and joy. He kissed her forehead and got up. He turned around to say something, but before he could River said, "I will."

"You will what?"

River rolled her eyes, lay down on her pillow, and turned to her side so that her back was to him. "I'll behave. I'll do what Mal says, I won't start a fight with Jayne, and I'll help Kaylee not to miss you."

Simon collected his bag and said, "I love you River."

"I know. I love you too."

Simon walked out and shut the door behind him. He took a look around the living area they shared and then walked up the stairs to the main hall. As quietly as possible he opened and then shut the hatch door to their quarters, and prayed he hadn't woken anyone up. He made his way to the main hatch, and pushed the button for it to open. He couldn't believe how loud the hatch was. It didn't seem that loud during the day. He kept looking behind him expecting half the crew to come running. But soon the hatch was open, and no one had come.

Simon took a deep breath, and pushed the button for the hatch to close. As it was slowly closing, he jumped out and started running down the dock. Once he got to the end of the dock he started walking. He looked behind him a few times, but found no one. He looked around him and found that while the town had seemed slightly dead during the day, it was a creepy kind of dead at night. He kept a brisk pace, and ended up at the hospital forty-five minutes later without encountering another soul.

He went in the emergency entrance, because the main entrance was closed. It was mostly empty. He went to the nurse on duty and said, "Excuse me, I'm here to see Dr. Muriel Larson."

The nurse said, "Oh yes, she left me a note. Hold on."

The nurse looked through her papers and found the note. She looked it over for a minute and said, "Are you Dr. Milton?"

"Yes."

"Right this way. She has a room set up for you."

Simon followed the nurse, and as they arrived in the main section of the hospital, he again saw stretchers in the hallway, and patients with various stages of the rash everywhere. He only saw two nurses and one doctor for the hundred plus people that were sick. Soon the nurse showed him to a private room. He had a bed and his own bathroom. He looked around and said, "All I really need is a cot. You could fit four patients in here comfortably. I could put my stuff somewhere else and go help out. It looks like you're short staffed."

The nurse lifted up her shirt slightly to show him some orange scarring on her stomach. She said, "Let me see yours."

Simon shook his head a little confused. "I haven't had it. I'm not from here."

The nurse put her shirt down and said, "Exactly. Dr Larson's note said you are our best hope of finding a vaccine. She said you are not to interact directly with the patients, and you are to have a room alone. She's the new chief of staff, now that everyone else is dead, so I'm gonna follow her instructions."

Simon didn't really like it, but he could see the sense in it. He nodded and said, "Okay then, thank you for the room. If you could please have her wake me as soon as she arrives?"

"Sure."

"And if someone comes looking for me…."

The nurse cut him off, "I've never seen you before, and our records show you were here yesterday but left in the afternoon and we haven't seen you since."

"Wow. I guess she's thought of everything."

The nurse said, "If you really can find us a vaccine, everyone in this hospital including the patients will fight to keep you safe and working."

Simon nodded and started to feel a little nervous that maybe their faith in him was misplaced. He watched her leave and shut the door behind her. He promised himself he would do everything he could for them, and then lay down to try and get some sleep.

Mal woke before anyone else, and was sitting in the kitchen enjoying a quiet cup of coffee when Inara walked in. She smiled at him and got herself some coffee too. She sat at Wash's place and sipped her coffee quietly with him. A few minutes later she looked at the clock on the wall and said, "Ray should be here in the next few minutes."

Mal looked over at the clock too and said, "I best go open the hatch and be there to show him to his quarters."

Inara watched him go, and sat alone with her coffee. Ten minutes later she could faintly hear the hatch opening and figured the new crewman had arrived. A few seconds later Kaylee bust into the kitchen looking disheveled and holding a note. River was right behind her looking slightly less stressed. Inara stood up and said, "What's wrong?"

Kaylee looked around and said, "Where's the Captain?"

Inara said, "He's seeing to the new pilot."

Inara thought Kaylee looked close to tears. She walked over and put a hand on her shoulder. "What is it Kaylee?"

"He's gonna be so mad. I don't want to tell him, but I gotta tell him. How can I make it sound less… wrong?"

Kaylee handed Inara the note that Simon had left. It read:

Dearest Kaylee,

I'm very sorry to run out in the middle of the night, but I knew of no other way to accomplish my task. I have gone to help rid this moon of the virus that has killed so many. It should only take a week at most, and I sincerely hope that both you and Mal can forgive me when I'm finished. Please tell Mal that he can conduct business as usual, and if it takes longer then a week for him to come back to this moon to get me, I understand completely. If he feels that in this endeavor I have broken the proverbial camel's back, then I will find new passage for my sister, for myself, and for you also if you are willing. Please watch out for River while I am gone, and try to find it in your heart to forgive me.

All my love,
Simon

Inara shook her head and handed it back to Kaylee. She said, "There is no easy way to tell him. Just show him the note….. Maybe after hiding his gun."

Kaylee was almost in tears, but she nodded at Inara's advice. She said, "Come with me?"

Inara linked arms with Kaylee, and they went together to find Mal. River followed behind them with an odd expression on her face, and mumbling quietly to herself about possible outcomes.

They found Mal next to the main hatch helping to carry in a bag. Ray was next to him carrying a couple of large bags and said, "That's the last of it."

Mal had a big smile on his face, and when he noticed the three women arriving he turned to Ray and said, "Come and meet some of the crew."

Mal turned to the women and was about to introduce them to Ray when he lost his smile at the site of Kaylee. He said, "What's wrong?"

Kaylee clutched the note to her chest and said, "Promise you ain't gonna shoot him."

"Shoot who?"

"Simon."

Mal narrowed his eyes and said, "What's he done?"

Kaylee shook her head and a tear did fall down her face. She said, "Promise me you ain't gonna shoot him Cap'n." Everyone could tell she wasn't demanding this of him, she was begging.

Mal had always been, and would always be, fond of Kaylee. She was very much like a little sister to him. He wiped the tear off her face and said, "I promise, xiao mei mei, now tell me what he's done."

Kaylee handed Mal the note with a shaky hand. Inara gave her a one armed hug while they waited. The more Mal read, the angrier he got. When he was finished, he wished he hadn't been so quick to promise. He handed the note back to Kaylee. She took it and said, "What are you gonna do?"

Mal took a few deep breaths to calm down and said, "I'm going to go get the good doctor and bring him back. What I'll do when I get him here, I can't rightly say just yet."

Kaylee nodded in acceptance of that. Mal turned to Ray and said, "Inara here can show you to your quarters, and you can unpack while I collect my wayward crewmember."

Ray nodded and looked to the women not sure which one was Inara. Mal started to walk towards the hatch when River quickly walked to him and put a hand on his arm to stop him. He turned to her, and was about to tell her not to worry because he wasn't planning to do any actual damage to her brother, but when he looked at her she was looking off in the distance. He looked up and to the left where she was looking but saw nothing. She whispered, "The Alliance."

Mal looked back at her. She turned her eyes to him, gripped his arm tighter, and said urgently, "They'll find us. If we don't leave RIGHT NOW, they'll find us. They aren't looking for us, but they'll know who were are, and they'll find me."

River let go of his arm and stumbled back a few steps while looking terrified and turning white. She mumbled, "They'll take me back to the Academy. I don't want to go back. They'll test me and cut me open again. Then I won't be fine anymore, I'll be crazy."

She covered the sides of her head with both hands and said, "I don't want to be crazy anymore. They're coming. We have to leave now. Please don't let them take me! Please!"

River started to cry quietly and then crouched down into a little ball on the floor and said, "Don't let them take me."

Mal knew that River 'saw' things before they happened. He knew that River had been tortured at the Academy, and he didn't want another run in with the Alliance any time soon. He walked over to the hatch, and pushed the button to close the door. He turned to Ray and said, "Looks like you'll have to unpack later."

Mal crouched down next to River and said, "Which way should we go to avoid them?"

She said, "Towards Grizzy"

Mal looked up at Ray and said, "You been to Grizzy before?"

"Yep."

"Then go earn your pay, and get us out of here quick like."

Ray headed towards the bridge at a brisk pace. Mal reached out to River and touched her shoulder. He said, "I have no notion of letting anyone take you River. You're never going back to the Academy."

She gave him a teary smile and whispered, "Thank you."

Mal patted her shoulder once and then looked to Inara and Kaylee for help. Kaylee, forgetting about her own problems for the moment, crouched down next to River and put an arm around her shoulders. She said, "Come on now River, let's go back to your room and make ourselves more presentable. We can't go paradin' around in our pajamas now can we?"

River looked down at herself, slowly shook her head no, and stood up along with Kaylee and Mal. Kaylee looked at Mal and said, "We'll be in for breakfast right quick."

Kaylee lead River away. Once they were out of range, Inara said, "Do you think there's any possibility that the Alliance won't find Simon if they land on the moon?"

"No."

"Maybe they don't know about the quarantine. Maybe they won't actually visit the moon now that we've left."

Mal looked at her and said, "I hope for Simon's sake that you're right. If the Alliance gets a hold of him….."

Inara nodded knowing they would torture him for the truth about his sister's whereabouts. Mal said, "The Alliance will most likely leave spies once they know we've been there. We won't be able to get him for at least a month."

Inara tried to lighten the situation and said, "Just enough time for you to cool down."

"Not even close."

Inara changed the subject. "I'm going to go start some breakfast for everyone."

Mal nodded absently and headed up to the bridge so he would be close enough to give orders if they did run into the Alliance.

Half an hour later they were well on their way to Grizzy, and hadn't seen any Alliance. Mal left Ray to pilot, and went to breakfast to talk with his crew. He saw everyone, including Zoe, sitting around the breakfast table done eating. Everyone turned to see Mal come in. Mal sat down and got himself a plate of cold food. He said, "I'm guessin' you've all heard the news."

Jayne said, "Doc's out of his Gorram mind to stay there in the middle of all that death."

Kaylee defended Simon, even though she didn't really agree with what he had done, "He's a doctor. Being around death is kinda in his job description."

Jayne shrugged, "I guess so. Maybe that's why they're all so creepy."

River quietly said, "He's preventing death."

Kaylee put her hand over River's hand and said, "That's right."

Mal had eaten a few bits. When there was a lull in the conversation he said, "We're headed to Grizzy, and we'll see what business we can scrounge up there."

Kaylee said, "What about Simon?"

Mal looked closely at her and said, "If the Alliance doesn't get wind of him bein' there, then he'll be safe enough until we come back for him. If the Alliance already has him, then there ain't much we can do for him now."

Kaylee shook her head no but said, "How long tell we can get him?"

"At least a month."

"A month! But what if…"

Mal cut her off, "Kaylee."

She waited for him to talk. "It ain't what I want to do, but I gotta think of everyone, not just Simon."

Kaylee looked down and nodded understanding where he was coming from. She mumbled, "Excuse me." And left the table in a hurry.

Jayne said, "I say leave him there. He'll most likely be dead from that disease before we get back anyhow."

River giggled at that. Jayne gave her an uneasy look. Mal said, "We don't leave our crew behind."

Mal looked over at Zoe and said, "You're 24 hours ain't up."

Zoe said, "No Sir."

"Ready to go back to work?"

Zoe smiled at him, "Yes Sir."

"Go relieve Ray, so he can come eat and meet everyone."

Zoe nodded and headed out to the bridge. She said hi to Ray and sent him to the kitchen. He arrived and Mal said, "Ray, grab a plate and eat while I introduce you."

As Mal spoke he indicated Inara's old chair for Ray to sit in. Ray took a plate, and dished some food up. When he sat, Mal said, "Everyone, this is Ray. He used to fly with Fatty, but left when he found out what a nice guy Fatty really is."

Jayne said, "Fatty ain't nice. Didn't he try to shoot you once?"

Mal looked at Ray and said, "This is Jayne. He's good in a fight, and knows his weapons."

Ray nodded and shook hands with Jayne. Mal pointed at River and said, "This here is River, she's wanted by the Alliance, she's not quite right in the head, and as you probably already gathered she has a habit of knowing things she shouldn't."

Mal had said this in an upbeat voice, so Ray smiled and held out his hand to shake with River. River gave him a serious look and said, "The Orange Death tried to take you but failed."

Ray slowly put his hand down. River smiled at him and said, "You have pretty skin."

Mal got Ray's attention back to him as he said, "You've already met Zoe my second in command. And you met Simon, our doctor, who won't be with us for the next month. The only two left are Kaylee and Inara. You saw Kaylee earlier. She keeps the engine going. And Inara here is a licensed Companion."

Ray swallowed his food hard and looked at Inara with surprise. He said, "Really? You have a licensed Companion on board? I didn't realize you were running such a high class ship Captain. I'll have to dig out my better clothes."

As Ray said this he was smiling at Inara. Inara smiled back at his slight flirting. Ray held out his hand, but instead of shaking he kissed the back of her hand. Mal gripped his fork hard enough to hurt while watching this and said, "No need for that. She prefers to be the only one with fancy clothes aboard."

Inara gave Mal a quick glare at that, and then turned back to Ray who was still holding her hand. She said, "It's a pleasure to meet you Ray. It will be nice to have someone on board who at least changes his clothes once in a while."

Mal knew this comment was directed at him and his uniform. He said with false cheer, "Let's hope his piloting keeps him occupied enough that he doesn't feel the need to change clothes three times a day out of boredom."

Inara let go of Ray's hand and said, "I look forward to getting to know you Ray. If you'll all excuse me, I think I'll go see if there are any potential clients in Grizzy."

Mal felt his adrenaline pumping at that statement, and had to force himself not to go after her. Inara hadn't had any clients since getting back aboard the ship. He quickly regretted his jealous little outburst, and hoped she wouldn't find anyone.

Ray turned to Mal and said, "That's the whole crew?"

Mal nodded. Ray commented, "Lot's of women."

"Is that gonna be a problem for you?"

Ray gave Mal a large smile and said, "Just the opposite Captain. Do you have any rules against the crew getting together?"

Mal wanted badly to say yes he did, but instead shook his head no. He thought about pointing out that Zoe had just lost her husband, and Kaylee was involved with Simon, and River was seventeen not to mention slightly off, but then that just left Inara, so he kept his mouth shut.

Jayne rolled his eyes and stood up to start clearing the table. He muttered, "Good luck with this crew."

Mal said, "Zoe can handle the flyin' for now. As soon as you're done eating, I'll show you to your quarters so you can get settled."

Ray nodded and finished his meal.

Six hours later they were about to land on Grizzy. Mal hadn't talked to Kaylee since that morning, and went to find her before they landed. He went to the engine room and found her sitting on the floor watching the engine spin the way some people might watch a fire. He said, "Hey."

She didn't look at him but said quietly, "Hey Cap'n."

Mal went and sat down next to her, and put an arm around her shoulders. She leaned into him and said, "How could he do it? Just up and leave in the middle of the night like that?"

"I don't rightly know."

They sat in silence for a while, and then Kaylee said, "It's gonna be a long month."

Mal nodded in agreement. A few minutes later he said, "We'll be landin' on Grizzy soon. I want you to keep an eye on River while the rest of us are lookin' for work."

"Okay."

Mal patted her shoulder once and then got up. Next Mal went to see Inara. She had skipped lunch in favor of hiding in her shuttle to avoid him. He knocked on her door. She opened it and said, "Yes?"

"We'll be landin' soon, and I plan to stay here for two nights, so that should give you plenty of time to line up a few customers."

Inara wanted to tell him that she didn't actually plan to see anyone on Grizzy, but all that came out was "Thank you for letting me know."

Mal gave her a curt nod and walked away. Inara watched him go, and then quietly shut her door. She leaned against it and asked herself, "What are you doing?"

She shook her head not knowing and went to sit on the couch. She loved Mal. There was no question about that. But you couldn't exactly have a 'boyfriend' when you were a Companion. Inara sighed and thought, 'Why am I still here? I left for a reason. He can't ever really love me, he thinks I'm a whore. All we do is fight and irritate each other, and get in the way of each other's business. But the real problem is that I just don't want to leave. I'm drawn to him even with all his flaws, or maybe because of them. And after Wash, life just seems shorter. I don't want any big regrets. But what if I quit the guild, and then it doesn't work between us? Would I regret that as much as not trying at all?'

Inara lay back on her couch and tried to decide what to do.

Kaylee watched River for most of the evening, but didn't really do much with her. Then when the rest of the crew got back with a job lined up for the following evening, Kaylee said her goodnights and went to her room. She looked around and thought how lonely it looked. She got ready for bed and lay down with the note Simon had left her. She looked it over again, and then set it on the table next to her bed. She turned off her lights and lay there thinking about the whole mess. She alternated between being angry with Simon, and then worrying about him. She tossed and turned long into the night.

Kaylee woke up to a dark room, but something didn't feel quite right. She looked around and was startled to see River in her room sitting in one of her chairs staring at her. Kaylee made a noise of surprise and sat up quickly. She said, "River?"

River just kept looking at Kaylee with an innocent face and said, "I can't sleep."

Kaylee lay back down and said, "What time is it?"

"Early."

Kaylee looked over at her clock and saw that it was three AM. She sighed and sat up again. She stood up and motioned for River to come with her. "Let's get you back in bed."

River said in a pathetic voice, "I don't want to go back. It's too quiet there. It's like one of the tests. The sensory deprivation test. I can't hear Simon sleeping, so I can't sleep."

Kaylee put an arm around River and said, "You wanna sleep here tonight?"

River shook her head. "I want you to sleep in Simon's bed like usual."

Kaylee took her arm off and said, "Oh, River….. I…. I don't think that would be right. It's Simon's bed, not mine…. And if he's not there…."

River grabbed Kaylee's hand and said; "It will smell like him. You can sleep better, and so can I. Please Kaylee. Please sleep there until he comes home."

Kaylee gave River a smile, and even though it wasn't exactly what she wanted to do, she couldn't tell River no either. "Of course I will. Come on, let's go get some sleep."

Kaylee walked with River to her room and watched her get in bed. She said, "Night. Don't let the bed bugs bite."

River lifted the covers and looked around confused. "There aren't any bugs in here."

Kaylee turned off the lights and shut the door. She walked over to Simon's room and opened the door. She looked at the bed, and thought she would never get to sleep now. But she lay down and found that River was right. It did smell like Simon, and she was soon asleep.

Four days later things had gotten back to some kind of normal. Ray seemed to be fitting in nicely with the rest of the crew, except that he flirted endlessly with Inara, which in turn infuriated Mal. And Inara was having fun watching Mal try to keep his cool while Ray flirted. Mal had noticed that Inara hadn't seen any other clients, and somehow that made her flirting with Ray that much worse.

Kaylee was more quiet and less sunny then usual. She had done a lot of thinking about Simon over the past few days, and she had come to some kind of inner piece about it. She kept sleeping in Simon's bed, and River seemed comforted by this.

Then on the fifth night away from Newview, Kaylee was awoken by the sound of screaming. She jumped out of bed and ran to River's room. River was thrashing about on the bed and screaming as if in pain. Kaylee turned on the light and yelled, "River! River wake up!"

River immediately stopped screaming and abruptly sat up in bed. She looked at Kaylee and then shielded her eyes from the light. Kaylee dimmed the lights and then went to sit on the edge of River's bed. She put a hand on River's arm and said, "You were having a nightmare."

River was sweaty and shaking. She shook her head and said, "No, I was reliving the past."

Kaylee gave her a hug and said, "The Academy?"

River nodded. Kaylee said, "Why don't you go take a quick shower to rinse off. I'll bring you some new pajamas, and make up your bed again."

River again nodded and went to take a shower. Kaylee looked at the clock. It was almost midnight.

Ten minutes later River was clean and dry in new pajamas. She lay down and Kaylee covered her up. Kaylee sat beside her on the bed and did what her mother had always done for her when she had a bad dream. She started to brush out River's hair with her fingers and talked quietly to her. "No more bad dreams tonight. You ain't at the Academy no more, and you never have to go there again."

River mumbled, "I miss Simon."

"I know, I miss him too. I'll bet that's why you had that dream. You're worried that the Alliance will find him. But I'm sure the Alliance didn't even stop at that moon once they heard about the quarantine. I'm sure Simon is just dandy."

River close to sleep said, "No, I'm not worried about the Alliance, that wasn't real. I told you, I was reliving the past, not having a dream about the future."

Kaylee's fingers stilled in River's hair. She said, "What do you mean it wasn't real?"

"It was the only way for Simon to be a doctor again. He needed it, and the Captain wasn't gonna let him, so I made it up. But he's safe. He's gonna find a vaccine. Probably already has. He's a good doctor. Not like those men who worked on me. But I do miss him."

Kaylee couldn't believe her ears. She said, "River?"

"Hmm?"

"The Alliance wasn't really there at Newview? You just made that up for Simon?"

River gave a nod and said, "I'm tired again now. I'm going to sleep."

Kaylee stood up and turned out the light. She shut River's door and leaned against it for a few seconds. She said quietly to herself, "It wasn't real."

A few different things went through her mind at once. 'No one even considered she was lyin'. Cap'n's not gonna like this one bit. But that means we can head to Newview now and get Simon by tomorrow!'

She was happy for a millisecond and then thought, 'But Cap'n's still all riled up about Simon leavin', and when he finds out River's been tellin' tales that's not gonna help. I gotta tell him, ain't no choice there, but maybe I can make him see things my way when I do.'

She made up her mind, and went to find a sweater to put on over her pajama top. She quietly walked up to the hatch and into the hallway where the crew's quarters were. She went to Mal's door and quietly knocked, knowing it would probably be enough to wake him up. A few seconds later she hadn't gotten a response. She opened his hatch a crack and called, "Cap'n?"

There was no answer. She closed the hatch and went looking for him. She found him in the kitchen staring at a full shot glass. He turned to see her come in and said, "What are you doin' up at this hour?"

"Lookin' for you."

He gave her a smile and set an empty glass at the spot next to him. He held up his bottle of whisky and said, "You want a shot?"

Kaylee made a face and shook her head no as she sat down next to him. He set the whisky down and stared at his own shot glass again as he said, "Me neither."

He had been staring at the same shot glass full of whisky for the past hour. He didn't really want it. He just wanted the excuse to sit there and think about things. He hated feeling helpless, but that was how the situation with Simon and to a lesser extent the situation with Ray and Inara made him feel.

Kaylee said, "I have somethin' to tell you Cap'n, and you ain't gonna like it. Not one bit."

Mal drank his shot, put the cap on the bottle and said, "Best get it over with then."

Kaylee said, "I've been thinkin' about Simon since he's been gone."

Mal waited a few seconds and then when she didn't continue he said, "Sounds reasonable."

"You remember when I was talkin' about us bein' family?"

Mal nodded and she continued. "I truly believe we are Cap'n. You, me, Zoe, Jayne, and Inara, we're family. And after Miranda I think Simon and River are family too. Do you feel that way?"

Mal shrugged and said, "I don't think on my feelings overly much Kaylee. They're part of my crew, which makes me responsible for them."

Kaylee shook her head and said, "It's real important to me Cap'n. Think on it now. Are they family, or ain't they? If they're just crew, to you, then that changes things."

"Changes what?"

Kaylee shook her head. "You first. I'll make myself a snack while you decide."

Mal did think about it. He already knew the answer, but he didn't know that he wanted to tell Kaylee about it. She would just use it against him later to make him go easy on Simon when they did get him back. But by the time Kaylee got back to the table with a cut up apple, Mal knew he would tell her the truth.

She said, "Well?"

Mal sighed. "They're family, but that don't mean that I'm gonna just let Simon do as he pleases. They're still crew, which means they need to follow my orders, and do as I say."

Kaylee smiled. "Thank you Cap'n. That's how I feel too. Now what do you intend to do to Simon when we get him back?"

Mal shook his head. "I don't rightly know. I promised not to shoot him. Yellin' don't seem to do much good, he just yells back. And I ain't got a brig……"

When he paused, Kaylee said, "So you're plannin' to beat him up."

"It's not that I want to, Kaylee. I just don't see any other options."

"I do."

"I can't just let it go. Then he'll be off doin' it again at our next stop."

"I wasn't sayin' you should let it go Cap'n. I'm sayin' I have another idea."

Mal sat back and slouched in his chair. He waited to hear her idea. She said, "Promise me you won't interrupt 'till I'm done?"

Mal shook his head; "I ain't promisin' nothin' of the sort."

Kaylee was disappointed at that, but understood why he said it. Kaylee said, "Well if we're family, then where do we all fit? You're the Captain, so that makes you the dad."

Mal opened his mouth to protest that immediately. He had never been a father, and the thought of little ones made him nervous. She held up her hand and said, "I know, just hear me out. Zoe is like your sister, so that would make her the aunt. Like it or not, that makes Inara the mom."

Mal said, "I ain't likin' this analogy Kaylee."

Kaylee went on. "Jayne is like the oldest son who maybe got dropped on his head as a baby. I'm the older sister. Simon's the younger brother, and River is the baby."

Mal was slightly amused now and said, "You know that means you're sleepin' with your brother, right?"

Kaylee rolled her eyes. "It's how we all fit with you, not how we fit with each other."

"So let's pretend I see what you're sayin'. I don't see how that changes things."

Kaylee looked Mal in the eye and said, "One time when I was sixteen I ran off to be with a boy who was almost twice my age. My daddy found us the next morning, and took me home. Turned out the looser was married, but that ain't the point. The point is that once we got home, my daddy whupped me so hard I couldn't sit for the rest of the day."

Mal sat there for a second waiting for the punch line, and as the connections were made in his brain he started shaking his head. He gave her an incredulous look; "You want me to give him a lickin'?"

"Think about it. You were gonna punch him in the face or the stomach, or both. That can do a lot more damage then a whuppin', and if he decided to fight back, then you got a mess on your hands 'cause you'll have to keep at it until you've won."

Mal shook his head; "I don't know Kaylee…."

"Has Simon told you anything about his folks?"

"No, we don't sit around talkin' much."

"Well he told me plenty. They put River in that school, and when he tried to convince them that she was sufferin' they didn't do squat. Then when he tried to rescue her, they said they were ashamed of him. They made it seem like he had disgraced the family by tryin' to save his sister. They've disowned him and River now that they've become a social embarrassment. I don't care what I did; my daddy never would have been that mean. Even when he whupped me, I knew he loved me."

Mal looked at Kaylee and said, "I ain't looking to be a father figure to my crew."

Kaylee shrugged and said, "Too bad, 'cause you already are."

"Well, maybe that needs to change."

"I ain't never seen you back down from a challenge Cap'n."

Mal pointed a finger at her and said; "Now see here, tryin' to push me into this isn't gonna work."

Kaylee looked down to hide a smile at how parental that sounded. After a second she said, "You know I love Simon."

Mal sat back again, "Yeah."

"So believe me when I say he's never gonna fully trust you any other way. He'll always be expectin' you to dump him and River off the ship, or he'll be expectin' you to show him your anger in a hateful way. But if you show him you're not gonna accept what he did, and at the same time show him that he IS a member of this family now, you'll break through his defenses."

They were quiet for a few minutes and Mal said, "I don't know Kaylee. I'll think on it over the next few weeks."

"I ain't told you 'bout the thing you ain't gonna like yet."

Mal gave her a sarcastic, "Well ain't that just great, 'cause I've been enjoyin' our conversation so much up to now."

"River just told me that she lied to you."

"'Bout what?"

"The Alliance wasn't there at Newview. She made it up so Simon could stay and work on a vaccine."

Mal didn't know what to say. That thought had never crossed his mind. He said, "She lied? All that cryin' was an act?"

Kaylee nodded and jumped to her defense, "You know River ain't quite right. She most likely don't even know that what she did was wrong."

"I know River ain't all there, but she knows right from wrong. I can't abide her lyin' to me."

Kaylee tried to change his focus, "So we could head to Newview and get Simon any time you like. You don't have to wait a month."

Mal nodded and said, "I'll have Ray head us in that direction right now."

As Mal got up Kaylee put a hand on his arm and said, "You got whupped when you was a youngen right?"

Mal gave her a confused look and said, "A few times, why?"

"You know you've got to hug them after, and let them know you care about them."

Mal was frustrated with the whole conversation and said, "I ain't decided to do it, and I ain't discussin' this with you no more Kaylee. Go to bed, and that's an order."

Kaylee got up and said a quiet, "Night Cap'n." as she left the room.

Mal ran his hand through his hair thinking about all the things they had discussed. He walked up to the bridge to find Ray. The bridge was empty, and the ship was on auto pilot. Mal thought Ray was in the bathroom. He thought about waiting for him, but decided to come back and talk to him in a few minutes. He felt a strong need to talk to Inara about the things Kaylee had said to him, and decided to see if she was awake. He walked to her shuttle and as he was about to knock quietly at the door, he heard her scream, "Get off me! I said no!"

Mal drew his gun, and went in unannounced. The sight in front of him made him so angry he felt a calm settling over him. Inara was laying on her back on the couch, and had a trickle of blood coming out of the side of her mouth. Ray was on top of her trying to rip her dress. Mal cocked his gun and said with calm, "Get off her now, and I'll shoot you somewhere that won't find you dead by the time we get to Newview."

Inara looked at Mal with relief. Ray was shocked and angry at the interruption. He snarled, "This is none of your business Captain. I paid for her services."

Mal looked to Inara who was not agreeing to what Ray said, and was actively trying to push him off her. Mal took aim, and shot Ray in the calf of the leg that was hanging off the couch. Ray screamed and fell off the couch, and subsequently off Inara, as he clutched at his leg.

Inara quickly stood up when Ray was off her, and then kicked him in the head. She said with anger, "I said I didn't want your money."

He lay on the floor groaning and Mal held out his hand to Inara. She came over to him and took it. He said, "Are you alright?"

Inara nodded. He put his hand to her face and wiped off some of the blood. He said, "What happened?"

Inara wiped at the blood too. She said, "He came over about half an hour ago. He's come to visit me a few times, and he has always been very nice until tonight. He sat and had some tea with me, and we talked about some of my regular clients. Then when the tea was done he showed me that he had brought money with him, and said he would like to buy my services for the night. I told him no. He looked hurt, so I explained that I wouldn't get involved with anyone on board, because it would be a conflict of interest. He got angry and called me a tease. He went on about it, and then when I asked him to leave he slapped me. He was trying to rape me when you arrived."

Mal looked to Ray on the floor and said, "Tryin' to rape a Companion is a serious offence. Twenty years in prison at least."

Ray didn't comment, and Mal shot him again, this time in the upper leg before putting his gun away. Ray screamed and passed out on the floor. Mal turned to Inara and cupped her face as he said, "You sure you're all right?"

Inara nodded but a tear came out of her eye. She said, "They train us for this kind of thing. I should have known what to do. Should have kneed him in the groin. Gotten to the dagger on my thigh. It just took me by surprise, because I thought we were friends."

Mal said, "I'm sure you would have remembered your trainin' before it got too far."

Inara whispered, "Thank you."

Mal put his hand down and looked over at Ray. He said, "Sorry 'bout the mess. I'll pay to have your rug cleaned."

Mal looked back at Inara and almost fell over as she launched herself at him. She stood on her toes and hugged him hard while resting her head on his shoulder and cried. He put his arms around her too and said, "Hey now, it's gonna be okay. He's not gonna hurt you no more."

Inara shook her head and after a few seconds was able to stop crying long enough to say, "No… It's not that… I used him to make you jealous, and it was stupid. I came back here because I can't stay away from you even though I've tried. I don't want any other clients. I just want you, but you think I'm a whore, so…."

He interrupted her by putting both his hands on her upper arms and pulling her away from his embrace. He looked into her eyes and said, "You mean it Inara? You just want me, and no one else?"

She nodded through her tears and even laughed at herself as she said, "I'm not foolish enough to think you feel the same, but I thought you should know."

He leaned down and gave her a tender kiss, which she quickly turned into a passionate one. Soon they broke apart and looked at each other not quite knowing what to say. Ray groaned and Mal let go of Inara and said, "I best get him to the infirmary, or he'll be dead before we get back to Newview."

Inara nodded and said, "Shall I help?"

Mal shook his head and said, "Wake Zoe and have her meet me there."

Inara walked out to get Zoe. Mal went over to Ray, and maneuvered Ray's body to a sitting position on the couch, and then got him up over his shoulder. Mal groaned at the weight and said, "Should'a waited till you were in the infirmary to shoot you."

Soon Mal had dumped Ray on the exam table, and Zoe was there a second after. She said, "I hear you've been shooting the crew Sir."

"That I have Zoe."

Zoe and Mal started working together to get the wounds fixed. Neither one was any kind of doctor, but they had both patched up people during battle. As they cut off Ray's pant leg Zoe said, "Have anything to do with Inara's face?"

Mal said, "Attempted rape."

Zoe stopped helping and said, "Are you sure you want to fix him?"

Mal got out some iodine and poured a little on both wounds. "Yeah. That way he can stand trial."

Zoe nodded and looked at the wounds. She said, "The shot to the calf went straight through. The other still has the bullet in it."

Mal concurred and got out some large tweezers. As he was digging around in the open wound Ray moaned in his sleep. Zoe was prepared to punch him if he woke up. Soon the bullet was out and Mal said, "Stitch him up."

Zoe nodded and started to do it. Mal looked around in the drawers and soon found a sedative. He put some of it in a needle, and shot it into Ray's arm. Mal said, "He should be out for a while. I'm gonna go head the ship back to Newview."

Zoe said, "Do you think that's wise Sir? What about the Alliance?"

Mal said, "Turns out the Alliance was never there."

"But River…"

"River lied."

Zoe looked surprised, but then slowly nodded. "Sneaky little thing, isn't she?"

"Let me know when it's done. Best strap him to the table in case I didn't give him enough."

"Yes Sir."

Mal went to the bridge and headed the ship in the direction of Newview. He sat in the pilot's chair for a few minutes with a big smile on his face. No matter what else had happened tonight, the thing that stood out as most important in his mind was that Inara had kissed him and said she didn't want anyone else. And suddenly nothing else seemed all that difficult to figure out.

Soon Zoe came up to the bridge and said, "It's done."

"You up for bein' the pilot tonight?"

"Are you going to see to Inara?"

Mal nodded. Zoe said, "Best let me have the chair then."

Mal got up, and Zoe sat down.

Mal went to Inara's shuttle, and knocked on the door. Inara said, "Come in."

He found her cleaning up blood off her carpet with some towels. He said, "Let me help."

He got down on his knees next to her and grabbed a towel to help her clean up the blood. They worked quietly together. When it was mostly done he looked over at her and said, "Inara, I….."

She waited and then he said, "I don't think you're a whore."

She gave him a crooked smile and covered his mouth with her hand. She said, "Don't lie to me Malcolm Reynolds, petty thief."

He gave her a crooked smile too, and didn't think it sounded nearly as bad as the last time she had called him that. He gave her a serious look and said, "I don't want to be with anyone else either."

She put her towel down and stood up. She held out her hand to help him up too. He took it and stood. She led him to her bedroom and then turned to start kissing him. He kissed her back, but as he felt her start to unbutton his shirt he pulled away. He said, "You sure 'bout this? After what Ray tried to do I would understand if…."

She shut him up with another kiss and continued to undo his clothes.

The next morning Mal woke up with a start, and realized he wasn't in his own bed. He looked beside him on the bed and saw Inara laying there looking at him. She smiled as she saw he was awake. He smiled back and gently touched her face. "You got a nasty bruise from Ray."

She said, "You know what? I don't even care. The only thing that matters is you, and the fact that you're here."

He gave her a small kiss and then lay back as he said, "I can't stay though. Gotta get up. We're headed back to Newview."

She said, "I was so caught up in other things last night, that I forgot to ask about that. What about the Alliance?"

Mal sighed and got up to start putting on his clothes. He said, "River lied about it to make sure Simon had time to work on his vaccine."

Inara was shocked, but didn't know what to say. He was soon dressed and she said, "What are you going to do?"

"Deal with it."

She said, "Mal, you're not going to kick them off the ship are you? Because I don't think…"

Mal said, "I ain't kickin' no one off the ship. Between you and Kaylee, you'd think I need a vote to make a decision 'round here. And the way you're both frettin' over the Doc and River, you'd think I was some kind of monster."

She thought carefully about it and said, "I trust you. Go deal with it, and let me know if you need help."

Mal nodded and muttered to himself, "That's more like it." on his way out.

He went to the bridge and found Zoe still at the helm. He said, "How long till we get there?"

"About three hours."

He said, "You okay for 'bout another half hour?"

"Sure."

Mal went to the kitchen and saw no one was up. He went to the infirmary and saw that Ray was still passed out. He went to the hallway where the crew's quarters were and sat down in front of Simon's hatch. Ten minutes later Jayne came up from his quarters. He said, "Hey Mal, what are ya' doin'?"

"Waitin'."

Jayne looked around and said, "What for?"

"Kaylee and River."

Jayne said, "Umm….Okay. Can I go to breakfast?"

Mal nodded and Jayne walked away confused, but more concerned with his breakfast then anything else.

Ten minutes after that, Kaylee emerged from Simon's hatch and saw Mal sitting there in front of it. River was right below Kaylee and said, "What's wrong?"

Mal said, "Mornin' Kaylee. Go have some breakfast while I speak with River."

Kaylee was about eighty percent sure Mal was going to take her advice, and suddenly felt very sorry for both River and Simon. But she also thought it was the only solution to the problem. She looked down at River and said, "Cap'n wants to talk to you before breakfast. Go on back down and sit on the couch, and I'll see you in a few minutes."

River did as she was told, and Kaylee continued out to the hallway. She almost pleaded River's case, and wanted to tell Mal not to be too hard on her, but in the end she just walked to the kitchen.

Mal took a deep breath and walked down the ladder closing the hatch behind him. He looked at River over on the couch. She was wearing her usual floral print dress with no socks or shoes. He walked over and sat on the table across from the couch so that their knees were almost touching. He said, "You lied to me."

River cocked her head to the side and said, "She told you?"

He nodded. She said, "Simon's probably done anyway, and I miss him."

He tried to think of where to start. He said, "Did you ever hear the story of the boy who cried wolf?"

River thought about it and slowly nodded. She said, "Extremely old folk tale with a moral for little children."

Mal nodded. "That's right. What was the moral?"

River thought about it again and said, "If you lie about things, no one will believe you when you tell the truth?"

"That's right."

She looked at him and said, "You're saying I'm the boy?"

"I'm saying if you lie to me, I can't trust you. What if you'd lied before, and I didn't believe you when you said the Reavers were comin'? We could all be dead. I have to be able to trust my crew, River. You are never to lie to me again."

"But Simon…."

Mal shook his head. "Not a good enough excuse. I would have tried to work something out with Simon so he could work on the vaccine, and still stay aboard with us. But either way, it's not your place to interfere."

"I wanted to help him like he's helped me."

"I know, but this wasn't the way to do it. Now I need to do somethin' to make sure you remember this talk, and to make sure you ain't gonna lie to me no more."

River gave him a curious look. He said, "I'm here to give you a lickin'"

"That sounds unsanitary."

Mal was surprised she didn't already know what he was going to do. He pictured it in his mind and she gave a little gasp. She said, "You're going to spank me? Daddy says spanking is a brutal and outdated practice, and that it does the person getting spanked more harm then good."

"Maybe so, but I'm still gonna do it."

River glared at him and said, "I don't have to let you."

Mal knew because of the things that were done to her, she was better in a fight then him. He may have been stronger, but she knew his moves before he made them, and could counter with a better move that he wouldn't be expecting. Mal nodded in agreement and said, "You're right, but I'm thinkin' you're gonna."

"Why?"

"Because we're family now. You, me, Simon, Kaylee, Inara, Zoe, and even Jayne. We may bicker, and we may not even like one another every day, but we're still family. And because we're family, we trust each other, and we keep each other safe. But most important, we don't lie to each other. What you did was wrong, and I need you to learn not to do it again."

River nodded to herself. She said, "Simon doesn't trust our father anymore. He thinks Daddy doesn't care, and it makes him sad. He thinks you don't care either, but he's wrong."

Mal gave her a nod. She looked down at her hands in her lap and said, "Okay, but only because I know you don't want to."

Mal put out his hand to her, and she put her hand in his. He pulled her to standing, and quickly had her over his lap. Mal knew generally what should happen, but he had never actually spanked anyone before, and if anyone had been watching they would have been able to tell. He awkwardly started to put a hand on the side of her waist, and then moved it to her back instead. He looked at her bottom and thought to himself, 'Just get on with it.'

He raised his hand and brought it down on his intended target. He felt River jump slightly at the impact, and then did it again. This time she lay still. He gave her five more swats trying to move around enough not to hit the same spot twice in a row. By the eighth smack he thought it was odd that she wasn't making any noise. He had only been ten years old the last time he had been spanked, but he remembered that there was a lot of yelling and crying involved. He quickly figured out what the problem was, raised his hand higher, and brought it down with more force. River jumped again at that one.

River's mind kept going back and forth between what Mal was thinking, what Mal was doing, and what she was feeling. Thoughts of Simon and her family passed through her mind, along with thoughts of a new family. But once the swats got harder, she thought about the Academy, what they had done to her, and how much she hated everyone who had kept her there. And as the pain got worse she started thinking about a way out. Just as she was about to jam her fingernails into whatever she could reach of Mal's groin, he stopped and said, "All of us on board want to help you River. We want to help you get better, and recover from the things that happened to you. That means there needs to be trust, and I can't trust someone who lies to me. Do you understand why I'm doin' this?"

River's thoughts of the Academy went away, and she started to cry quietly as she said, "Because you can't trust me when I lie, and you can't help me get better if you don't trust me."

Mal nodded and said, "That's right."

Mal had given her ten of the harder swats, but had been baffled by her lack of response after that first jump, and so he had decided to stop to see if she understood his reasons. Now that he knew she did understand, he gave her eight more hard swats, and while he was spanking her she shook her head no, kicked her feet, wiggled to get her butt away from his hand, and said, "No more lying, no more lying, no more lying!"

Mal stopped and River lay still. He patted her back and said, "It's done."

She pushed herself up to standing and looked at him while putting her hands back to rub at her bottom. She said, "That hurt."

Mal nodded and said, "I reckon it did."

"But you're not mad."

"No."

"And you trust me again?"

"You plannin' to lie to me again?"

River shook her head no vehemently. He said, "Then I trust you for now. But you best be rememberin' this for a while, 'cause if we have to go over it again, I'll be doin' the same but more of it."

River nodded in understanding. Mal thought about the last thing Kaylee had said to him last night, and moved from sitting on the coffee table to sitting on the couch. He patted the seat beside him and said, "Come sit with me for a spell so I know you're feelin' better before we go eat some breakfast."

River wiped at her face and sat down next to Mal. He put his arm around her, and pulled her up next to him. She leaned her head on his shoulder and pulled her feet up to the couch so that her knees were by her chest. She said, "We're going to get Simon?"

"Yes."

"You're still mad at him."

"I'm tryin' not to be."

"He's going to save thousands of people."

"But at what cost? He could catch the orange death and die, or he could bring it back here to the rest of us."

River shook her head, "But he can't because then I'd be all alone."

Mal squeezed her shoulder and said, "No. You'd still have us."

Inara was the first one to arrive at the kitchen. She started some coffee, and sat down to wait. A few minutes later Jayne arrived. He looked at Inara's face and said, "What happened to you?"

"Ray tried to rape me."

Jayne paused for a minute at the news. Then he said, "He dead?"

"No, but he's in the infirmary with a couple of bullet holes."

"You want him dead?"

"No, it's fine, but thanks for the offer."

Jayne got himself some coffee and considered the matter over. It was his turn to cook, so he started to make breakfast for everyone. Jayne and Inara were eating when Kaylee arrived. She seemed distracted at first, but when she saw Inara she said, "Lordy Inara! What happened to your face?"

As she talked she walked over to Inara to get a better look, and to put a hand on her shoulder. Inara patted Kaylee's hand and said, "I'm fine really. It was Ray. He wanted to solicit my services, but I told him no. He didn't like that answer."

Kaylee glared and said, "Ta ma de hun dan!"

Inara smiled. "I agree, but Mal took care of it. He shot Ray. Twice."

Kaylee nodded and then said, "Are you sure you're all right?"

Inara's smile grew and she said, "Actually, I'm great."

"Great?"

Inara darted her eyes to Jayne and said, "I'll tell you later."

Kaylee suspected it had something to do with Mal, and just nodded. She got herself a plate, and started eating.

Mal and River had been sitting quietly for the past ten minutes when finally River said, "I'm hungry. Can we go eat now?"

Mal patted her shoulder and then let go of her, and said, "I'm a mite peckish myself."

Soon they got to the kitchen and saw everyone at the table except Ray and Zoe. Mal said, "I'll be right back."

He went to get Zoe. When River sat down, Jayne leaned over to her and said, "What was that all about? What'd he want to talk to you about?"

River said, "Lying."

"What about lying?"

"Not to do it."

Jayne looked confused for a second, and then said, "I don't get it. Have you been lying?"

Kaylee broke in and said with irritation, "Jayne! Leave her alone for goodness sake. It ain't none of your business."

Jayne ignored Kaylee and said with suspicion and a hit of a smile, "Mal don't take well to lying. What'd he do to you?"

River looked directly at Jayne for the first time that morning and said, "He didn't hit me in the head with a wrench and threaten to kill me."

Jayne got slightly red. He looked back at his plate and said, "I was just askin'. Ain't no need to bring that up."

Kaylee said, "Let's all just eat and wait to see what the Captain has to say."

As soon as everyone was quite Kaylee put her hand over River's hand on the table and gave it a little squeeze. River gave her a small smile of reassurance and started eating.

Zoe left the ship on auto pilot, and went to eat with everyone else. Once everyone was at the table Mal said, "We're headed to Newview, and we should be there in about two hours."

Jayne opened his mouth full of food and said, "What about the Alli…."

Mal cut him off, "The Alliance ain't there. We're only gonna be there for a few hours. Just long enough to drop off Ray, and pick up the doc."

Zoe said, "How are you planning to get Simon? He'll most likely be guarded."

Mal shrugged. "I'll ask nice to see the doctor that sold us the supplies, tell her we want some more, and then hold a gun to her head 'till she talks."

Zoe said, "Sir?"

Mal waited. Zoe continued, "Ray needs medical attention, and I'm assuming Inara wants to bring formal charges against him."

Inara nodded. Zoe said, "Jayne has been to the hospital before and he's seen the lay out. Maybe if Inara wouldn't mind being a little more dramatic then usual, Jayne could lead you to Simon unnoticed."

Zoe took a bite of her food and waited for Mal to decide. Mal gave her a smile and said, "Shiny."

The first four days Simon was at the hospital, he worked closely with Muriel. They spent almost every waking hour in the lab. Simon was often frustrated by the lack of equipment, and thought he could have found a vaccine already if he had been in a large Alliance hospital. At first he was appalled at their use of live rats for testing instead of simulators, but after the first day he became accustom to it.

The longer he knew Muriel the more impressed he was. She was twice his age, and had much more real life experience to bring to the table, which seemed to compliment Simon's Alliance technical knowledge. They both had respect for each other, and worked well together.

Simon had some stray thoughts of Serenity and his fellow crewmates, but they were few and far between, because his mind couldn't stop thinking of the virus and the puzzle he needed to solve. He was sure they were all doing fine without him, and only worried about River a few times. Then on the fifth day they had a breakthrough.

They had over fifty lab rats with various stages of the virus, and they had been testing trial vaccines on healthy rats every day, and then exposing them to the virus the following day. On the morning of the fifth day Muriel was testing the blood of the rats they had vaccinated two days ago. She checked all five rat's blood and then called to Simon. When Simon came over she said, "Look at this! There are blood samples from all five rats that were given vaccine 153."

Simon spent a good twenty minutes looking at the blood. When he was done he said, "It's working. The antibodies are reproducing exponentially, and I can't find a live virus in any of the samples."

Muriel gave him a huge smile and said, "We did it."

Simon shook his head. "You did it. That one was yours."

She shook her head too. "You helped and you know it. Before you came I was getting more and more desperate. Just knowing you were here to work with me, gave me enough motivation to look at the problem in a new light. I never would have come up with this without you here."

Simon wanted to believe this, but in his heart he knew it wasn't true. He said, "It may have taken you a while longer Muriel, but you would have come up with it eventually. You're a brilliant doctor."

Muriel gave him a slight bow and said, "Thank you. But given time, you would have come up with a viable vaccine too. Let's make some more 153 and test it out on some more rats. We should be ready to try it out on willing human subjects in two weeks if everything goes well."

"Two weeks?!" Simon said with disbelief.

Muriel said, "We may be close to the Alliance, but they won't lift a finger to help us, and don't often regulate us. There are at least ten people I know personally who have lost their whole family to this virus, and who haven't gotten it. They'll try it out whether it's been approved or not. And I'm one of them."

She lifted her shirt to show him a stomach free of orange scarring. Simon said with surprise, "I assumed you had already had it."

She put her shirt down and smiled at him again. "Now maybe I never will."

Simon thought about what she had said. He wondered if River and his folks were dead, if he would be willing to try out a risky vaccine when there would be a real possibility of death. He wasn't sure. Especially now that he was involved with Kaylee.

They worked long into the night making vaccine and testing rats. In the very early morning, Simon was falling asleep in his chair when he felt Muriel's hand on his shoulder. He jerked awake and she said, "Let's call it a night."

Simon yawned and said; "I'll see you first thing."

He went to his room and fell asleep quickly. That night Simon had a dream of his family. The dream started out happy. He was with his family before River had been sent to the Academy. Back when she was eight, and he was twelve.

Simon was trying to do his homework; but River kept bugging him. She had finished hers, and wanted him to play with her. She said, "Simon, aren't you done yet?"

"No."

"Do you need help?"

"Nooo."

"You're taking foreeeever!"

"It will just take me longer if you don't stop."

River got out a book and quietly read for five minutes sitting on the couch next to him. Then she said, "You got number three wrong."

Simon sighed and said, "If I play with you for fifteen minutes will you leave me alone?"

River put her book down and bounced a little on the couch. She clapped her hands and said, "Hide and Seek!"

Simon said with irritation, "Aren't you tired of that game? How about chess?"

River whined, "Noooo. I always win. I want to play Hide and Seek!"

"You don't always win!"

"Only because I let you win sometimes."

Simon gave her a tolerant smile and said, "Brat."

She got up and clapped her hands. She said, "Count to fifty!"

She scampered off to hide and Simon counted out loud in a big voice at first, and then trailed off after he got to ten. Then he picked his book back up, and started his homework again.

Fifteen minutes later, problem number three was corrected, and he was done. He put his books away, and went to look for her. He talked loudly about trying to find her as he looked in all her favorite hiding spots, because he knew she would start to giggle if she was close and could hear. Then a few minutes later he started to feel just slightly uneasy, because she hadn't been in any of her favorite hiding spots. He then stopped talking so much, and searched the house in earnest. When he couldn't find her his unease turned to fear. He went to his father's study and knocked on the door.

His father said, "Come in."

Simon said, "I'm sorry to bother you while you're working, but I can't find River. Did she come in here?"

His father gave him a curious look and said, "Whatever are you talking about? River has been away at school for two years now. We just got another letter from her yesterday. Are you feeling alright son?"

Simon looked down at himself. He wasn't twelve, he was twenty. It didn't seem odd to him. He looked at his father and said, "Something isn't right at that school. She isn't happy. We need to have her come home for a visit, and make sure she's okay."

"Don't be ridiculous Simon. She's having a fine time. I know you miss her, and I know you've had your moments of jealousy, but why can't you try to just be happy for her?"

"Why won't you listen to me? She's not happy! The letters don't sound like her at all."

"Not this again! I'm done listening to this garbage. If you can't stop this, I'm going to have to ask you to move out, and finish your residency somewhere else."

Simon stormed off, and as he closed the doors to his father's office he found he was in a jail cell. He looked around him, and knew he had failed in his attempt to find his sister and free her from the Academy. He felt like crying. Knowing she was hurting, and knowing there was nothing he could do. Then the guard came and took him to his father who had just paid his bail.

Simon kept his head down at first, but then looked up at his father. His father was wearing the usual expression of disappointment, and anger that he had worn for the past year. Simon started an explanation, but his father cut him off saying, "I don't want to hear it again. You're sister is fine. You are the one causing this family problems. You are the one who is in need of help. If you continue with these ridiculous accusations, your mother and I will have no choice but to turn our backs on you. You have become a social embarrassment, and we will not tolerate it. If you get arrested in your foolhardy endeavors again, I will not come for you."

His father turned and left the room without waiting to see if Simon followed. Then he heard knocking.

Simon woke with a start. He heard someone knocking on his door. He put a hand on his head and called out, "Yes?"

He heard Muriel's voice say, "It's your wake up call."

"Thank you."

Simon lay in bed thinking about his dream. It was reasonably close to his real life experience. He thought about his father, and wondered if his father ever thought about him. He knew his mother thought of both him and River, but she would never cross their father, because he brought them the most prestige socially. Simon rolled to his side and thought about River, and how much happier she seemed to be since Miranda. He smiled as he remembered her and Kaylee playing Hide and Seek exactly a week after the events of Miranda. Then he thought about everyone aboard Serenity, and found that he missed them. And the more he thought about it, the more he realized the people aboard that ship had done more to help him and his sister then his parents had done for years. The crew had risked their lives for him and his sister on more then one occasion, and he knew they would do it again.

He sat up and soon stood up. He went and got in the shower to get ready for the day. As he was washing he wondered what they were all doing, and found that he missed not just River and Kaylee, but all of them. He gave a short laugh and said to himself, "I think I'll even be glad to see Mal, even if he's livid."

Then as he was drying off he had another thought. 'I never even doubted that they would come back for me. My own father can't be counted on, but Mal can. I know he won't ever leave his crew behind. He's proved it to me more then once.'

As Simon was getting dressed he shook his head and wondered why he was thinking about the people on the ship so much today, when he hadn't thought much about them for the past five days. He brushed his hair and decided it must be because the puzzle his head had been working on was mostly solved. He brushed his teeth and tried to focus on what he planned to do to help Muriel that day.

Two hours later he was in the lab looking at blood samples with Muriel when the door to the lab was shoved open hard enough to slam on the wall. Both Muriel and Simon jumped slightly, and turned to see Mal and Jayne in the doorway. Mal looked right at Simon but didn't say anything. Mal calmly started walking towards Simon, while Jayne stayed by the door and shut it. Simon heard Muriel pushing a button and saying urgently, "Security!"

Simon couldn't seem to break eye contact with Mal, but he said, "No! No security. It's fine, they're with me."

Muriel wasn't sure she should, but she pushed the button again and said, "False alarm guys, we're just fine."

Mal kept coming closer, and Simon felt his stomach starting to twist. He was breathing harder, and starting to sweat as he watched Mal. Soon Mal was right next to him. Mal leaned down so he was eye to eye with Simon. Simon leaned back as far as he could in his chair, but Mal just leaned forward into Simon's personal space. Then Mal gave him a smile that wasn't very friendly and said; "You're done here. We're going back to Serenity right now, and then you and I will be discussin' leaving the ship in the middle of the night."

Mal stood up straight and took a step back. Simon gave a nervous nod and said, "I'll just wrap things up here and….."

Mal interrupted, "No."

Simon said, "But I really….."

Mal leaned down into Simon's personal space again and said quietly, "I really don't like repeatin' myself."

Simon looked over his shoulder at Muriel and said, "I'm going to have to go back to our ship now. I'll give you a call in a few hours, and maybe you could arrange to have my things brought to the dock."

Mal stood back up and waited. Muriel said, "Sure, but you don't have to go back with them. If you want I'll call security for you."

Mal crossed his arms and just looked at Simon. Simon looked at Mal and shook his head without even thinking about it. "No. Thank you, but I'll be fine. I'll call you soon."

Mal gave a short nod of approval at this decision, and then grabbed Simon by the shirt. He hauled him out of his chair and then let him go. He gave him a slight shove towards the door where Jayne was waiting and said, "Good choice."

They went single file with Jayne taking the lead, and Mal brining up the rear. Soon they were in the hospital's lobby again where Inara was still loudly yelling at various hospital staff about 'backwater moons'. She was telling them to get her in touch with 'someone high up' in the Alliance so she could make a formal complaint against Ray, who had been taken to an exam room.

Jayne leaned up against the wall where he had first been standing when they came in. Mal leaned close to Jayne and whispered, "About another ten minutes, and then give her the signal to get out."

Jayne gave Mal a nod, and Mal turned to Simon. Simon was starring at Inara trying to figure out what was going on. Mal tapped him on the shoulder. When Simon looked at him Mal said, "Come on."

Mal walked towards the front door, and looked back once to make sure Simon was following. Mal took Simon to the mule, which was parked next to the hover sled. Mal got on, and waited for Simon to get on behind him. Simon thought about trying to talk to Mal, but instead just sighed and got on the mule too.

As the noisy mule headed for Serenity, Simon thought, 'Times up Simon. You knew this would be happening, so get your act together. I'll just tell Mal why I had to do it. Then if he wants to yell or punch me, I guess there isn't much to do besides hope it's over with quickly. And then there's Kaylee to contend with. Maybe I should have bought her a gift to bring back. I wonder how angry she's going to be.'

Simon quietly stewed over these issues, but they were back at Serenity before he was ready to be. As they pulled in they saw that Kaylee and River were in the cargo bay basically waiting around for them. As soon as he was off the mule River was in front of him with a big smile. He took off his goggles, and she gave him a big hug. He hugged her back and said, "Hi River, how was your week?"

She squeezed him tight and said, "I missed you so much."

He hugged her tight back and said, "I missed you too. I even had a dream about you last night."

River let go of him and looked at him. "Not a good one."

Simon gave her a wry look. "No. Not the best."

He put his hands on both sides of her face, and pulled her head towards him to give her a kiss on her forehead. He let her go and then looked over at Kaylee. Kaylee was standing a few feet away with her arms crossed. She said quietly, "I'm glad you're back, and I'm glad you're safe, but what you done was wrong, and I ain't forgiven you yet."

Simon didn't really want to talk with her in front of everyone, and really didn't even know what to say. He said, "I'm sorry about leaving the way I did Kaylee. But I….well I explained why I left."

Mal had been standing waiting for Simon to say his hellos, and now said to Kaylee, "Call the hospital and arrange to have Simon's things brought back to the ship. Inara and Jayne should be back in less than fifteen minutes. Once they get aboard prepare the ship for take off."

"You want me to wake Zoe to fly us out?"

"No, let her sleep. But if we have some trouble, wake her before interrupting me. I should be up to the bridge in half an hour. Anyone who interrupts me and Simon best have a damn good reason."

Kaylee nodded in understanding. Mal turned to Simon and said, "Your quarters. Now."

Simon rolled his eyes at Mal's tone and curt orders, but headed in the direction of the rooms he shared with River. Mal followed closely behind. Simon opened the hatch and went down into the rooms first. Mal followed and locked the hatch behind him.

Mal had been thinking for the past three hours about what he wanted to say to Simon, but that still didn't make it easy. Mal opened his mouth to start and then closed it again. He took a deep breath and said, "While you were gone I had a talk with Kaylee."

Simon had been ready for loud yelling, and was still waiting for the explosion. He nodded warily. Mal continued, "And she brought up somethin' that…. Well I guess it's somethin' I ain't been doin' right. You and I don't talk much unless it's about a job, or doctorin'. And maybe you think that means you and your sister are just crew to me. But after all the things we've been through together, after all the times we've put our lives at risk for each other, I think we both need to admit we've become family."

Simon hadn't been expecting this type of reaction from Mal at all, and couldn't think of anything to say besides, "Um…. I suppose I can see that."

Mal gave a short nod, and then started to walk into the living area as he took off his long brown coat. He got it off and draped it over the back of a chair. He turned back to Simon and said, "Now I know we've never talked much about your family, but Kaylee told me your pa has disowned you and your sister. Is that true?"

Simon looked away and gave a slight nod, not wanting to think about it. Mal said, "Well that ain't never gonna happen on this ship. Maybe a month ago I would have said different, but not anymore. I ain't gonna dump you and River on some planet and let you fend for yourselves. I ain't gonna leave you behind if you get caught by someone or get lost. If you do somethin' troublesome or shameful I ain't gonna turn my back on either of you."

Mal stopped and Simon thought about what he had said for a few short seconds. He found he was more emotional about that then he'd like to admit. He looked at Mal and cleared his throat so he wouldn't sound close to tears as he said, "Thank you Mal. I really appreciate you telling me that. I know I speak for River as well when I say we feel the same about everyone here. We're grateful, especially to you, for keeping us aboard even though you knew we were fugitives from the start."

Mal gave a short nod and said, "Good, now we got that settled, I also need you to understand that just 'cause you're family, don't mean you're not crew. Because you're part of my crew, you and River follow my orders, even when you don't like them. You don't have to follow them blindly. If you disagree, you can tell me about it, but the final decision lies with me."

Simon didn't like that but nodded in understanding. Simon had always understood that this was Mal's ship, that Mal was Captain, and that Mal was just a natural leader.

Mal said, "Now we need to talk about you runnin' off in the middle of the night."

Simon felt himself starting to blush. He wouldn't have thought that possible an hour ago. He had been ready to defend his position to the end, but after the things Mal had just said, he found he was ashamed of the way he had left. He looked away again and mumbled, "I needed to help those people, and I was worried you would try to stop me."

Mal unbuckled his holster belt, and took it off with the gun still in it. He set that on top of his coat over the chair. Simon noticed this and started to feel uneasy about what might happen. Mal said, "But you weren't worried about what I would do once you got back?"

Simon took an unconscious step away from Mal and said, "Well yes actually I was."

"So you weighed both options and still decided to leave?"

Simon was now bright red and muttered, "You were unreasonable when I tried to help them the first time, and I doubted you were going to change your position on the issue."

Mal started to pace back and forth in front of Simon. He said, "You're right. I wouldn't have let you go work in the hospital, but if you'd told me how important it was to you, I would have tried to make some kind of arrangements. You could have stayed in contact with them, and you could have worked with them from here for as many hours a day as you wanted."

"We wouldn't have even been able to accomplish half of what we did that way!"

"Maybe so, but you would have been safe, and that's more important to me. But that ain't even the point. The point is that you ran off in the middle of the night specifically because you knew that if you asked, I would have said no."

Simon was getting frustrated and angry. "I'm perfectly capable of making my own decisions. I don't need your permission to work with other doctors."

Mal half shouted, half laughed incredulously, "Yeah, you do! And you know you do. If you didn't need my permission, you would have been a man about it and come told me to my face what you was plannin' instead of sneaking off like some adolescent."

Simon could hear the truth in those words, but couldn't or wouldn't admit it. He shook his head no and said, "Fine. You're angry about what I did. I think I did the right thing, and you disagree. So what now?"

Mal stopped pacing and stepped up close to Simon. He said, "I sincerely don't wanna do this Simon, but I gotta do somethin' to make sure you ain't gonna do it again."

Simon had been expecting this and felt almost relieved that it was going to be over and done with quickly. He closed his eyes, turned his head a little to the side, and tightened his stomach muscles. Then he said, "I understand. Go ahead."

Mal waited for a few seconds until Simon opened one eye. Then he said, "I ain't gonna punch you."

Simon darted his eyes over to Mal's gun that was still draped over the back of the chair. Mal sounded irritated as he said, "I just got done tellin' you we're family. I ain't gonna shoot you neither."

Simon just looked confused and said, "Then what did you mean?"

Mal took Simon's upper arm and started walking towards the couch. Simon didn't put up a fight, not knowing what was going to happen. Once he got to the couch Mal sat and pulled Simon down over his lap all in one move. Simon immediately understood what was happening, and tried very hard to get up. Mal struggled to keep him down, and said, "Quit your fussin', I ain't even started yet."

Simon was soon in a complete panic and continued to struggle wildly as he yelled out, "NO! No Gorram way! This is NOT happening!"

Mal had only heard Simon swear one other time, and knew he was more then just a little upset about this new turn of events. When Mal saw that Simon wasn't going to settle down and let him spank him, he got irritated. He got a better grip on Simon and maneuvered him until he got one leg over both of Simons, and after two tries, got one of Simon's hands behind his back. By the time Simon was pinned, both him and Mal were breathing hard. Mal said, "This IS happening, so just settle down."

Simon shook his head violently. Mal raised his hand high, and brought it down as hard as he could. Simon grunted in surprise and pain, and when he felt a second spank he yelled in frustration, "Aarrrr!"

Mal spanked hard and fast while Simon grunted and still struggled to get away. Simon quickly realized how painful a spanking could be, as each swat jarred his whole body, and hurt not just the skin, but the muscles in his butt too. His emotions had been near the surface before the spanking started, because of his talk with Mal, and while his strongest emotion right now was anger, guilt and shame were just under the surface.

After about thirty swats Mal noticed Simon's struggles became less premeditated and were now more of a reaction to the pain then an effort to escape his grasp. Mal stopped and said, "Now, just so we're clear, why don't you tell me why I'm doin' this."

Simon lay there pinned, hurt, and angry for a few seconds thinking about what to say. He thought, 'Why!? Because you're a ke wu de lao bao jun, that's why. Calling me an adolescent! Treating me like a child! And now you want me to be a 'good boy' and recite my wrong doings to you? Of all the ridiculous, asinine…..'

Simon's thoughts were interrupted with another solid swat, and Mal said, "I asked you a question."

Simon snipped, "Because in your infinite wisdom, you've decided you're God on this ship, and that you have the right to be judge and jury over all proceedings!"

Mal shook his head. "You know Doc, for someone who's had so much book learnin', you really ain't all that bright sometimes. It was a simple question."

Mal started spanking again, and Simon yelled, "You know what's simple! Ahh! Is you thinking….. Mmmmff… that this will do any good! Aahh!"

Mal was getting annoyed and kept spanking as he said, "That sounds like a challenge Simon. I ain't never met a challenge I wouldn't take on."

Simon struggled wildly at that pronouncement for all of ten seconds, and then couldn't do much besides try to squirm his butt out of the line of fire without success. After Mal had given Simon another twenty swats he stopped again and said, "Let's try again. Why do you think I'm holdin' you down and smackin' you on the rear?"

Simon was in enough pain now not to say the first thing that came to his mind, which was, 'Because you're just plain mean.' He took a deep breath and swallowed his pride. "Because I left the ship without asking."

Mal decided to try something a little different to get Simon in a more accepting frame of mind. He said, "Did you tell River you were leaving?"

"Of course."

"Why?"

"Because she's my sister, and she would worry about…me...."

Simon trailed off as he realized the connection Mal was trying to make. Mal said, "That's right, you told her because you're family, and you didn't want her to worry. But I'm telling you that we're family too now, so the same rules apply, and whether you want to believe it or not, ALL of us were worried about you. What if you've caught this orange death? What if the Alliance had decided to come pay a call, and gotten a hold of you? Did you even think about those things before you left?"

Simon shook his head and whispered, "No."

"'Cause I did. I thought about it every day you were gone, and worried over you."

Simon didn't want to hear that. That brought his guilt to the surface. Mal continued, "Kaylee was cryin' when she showed me your note. She pleaded your case to me wantin' me to go easy on you. Both Kaylee and Inara were concerned I was gonna kick you off the ship, and let me know they wouldn't approve. And your sister actually lied, and told me the Alliance had arrived on the moon the morning you left, because I was about to drag your ass home. So now I'm askin' you again. Why am I doin' this?"

Simon wanted to block the whole thing out. He wanted to get his anger back, because that was helping him not to notice the way his butt was throbbing. But after Mal's speech, Simon couldn't be angry anymore. He just felt guilt and shame at what he had done. He tried not to sound like he was about to cry, but failed as he said, "Because we're family, and I…. I made everyone worry."

"That's right." Mal brought his hand down five more times, and Simon tried very hard not to cry.

Mal said, "But it's also 'cause what you did was cowardly and underhanded. You knew I wouldn't let you do it, so you snuck off to avoid me. That ain't gonna happen again is it?"

Simon gave a barely audible, "No."

"Good. Now we're gonna practice you followin' my orders even when you don't want to. I'm gonna let you up, and you're gonna take down your pants and get back over my lap."

Simon couldn't stop the tears that finally fell at that pronouncement. He got out a ragged plea, "Please Mal…. Captain…. Please no."

Mal felt bad hearing the pleading, but believed this was a lesson Simon needed to learn both for his own safety, and for the general safety of the crew. He let go of Simon's hand that was behind his back, and took his leg off Simon's legs so that Simon was free to get up. Mal said, "I ain't doin' this 'cause I want to. I'm doin' it to keep you alive. Now do as I said."

Simon slowly got up, but kept his head down unable to meet Mal's eyes. The thought of taking off his pants, and then willingly getting back in position to be spanked some more was so abhorrent to him, that he found it impossible to reach his hands up and undo his pants. Mal waited patiently for about three minutes and said, "If you like, I can pull you down and keep smackin' you 'til you agree to do it."

Simon's hands immediately went to the button on his pants. Soon they fell to the floor, and then again Simon stood there unable to lay himself over Mal's lap. Mal sighed and said, "I'd think you'd want this over quick like."

Simon definitely wanted it over. He hesitated for only one more second, and then had to choke back a sob as he awkwardly lay himself over Mal's lap. Mal patted his back once and said, "Very good." Mal rested his hand on Simon's back and continued; "Now I've said my piece on this whole matter, and when I'm done here, I won't be brinin' it up again. It will be over and done, and you'll have a clean slate. You hear me?"

Simon gave a nod. Mal said, "But don't think I won't do it again if you give me cause."

Simon felt the hand Mal had been resting on his back now putting pressure on him to keep him in place. Mal quickly yanked Simon's underwear down to mid thigh, and while Simon was still protesting this by yelling 'NO!' Mal brought his hand down to connect loudly with Simon's butt. Mal wasn't putting as much force behind his swings now, but Simon didn't notice, because the sharp stinging pain to his skin seemed to double when it was bare.

For the next few seconds the only sounds in the room were loud smacking, and crying that started off soft but soon grew louder. Simon didn't actively try to get up, but he couldn't be still either. While still crying Simon got out a few 'I'm sorry's', but not much else. Mal kept spanking Simon until his butt was a deep dark red with a few darker spots that would become small bruises. But Mal wasn't paying as much attention to the condition of Simon's butt as he was listening to Simon's crying and waiting for it to sound sincere.

Once Mal was sure the lesson had been learned, and that Simon was truly repentant, he stopped just as suddenly as he had started. Then before Simon could even register that the spanking was over, Mal pulled his underwear back into place. Mal wasn't exactly sure what to do next. Comforting River after her spanking had seemed easy and natural for him, but he wasn't sure what Simon would want or need from him now that the hard part was over. He patted Simon's back a few times and said quietly, "It's done."

Simon wiped at his face with one hand and then pushed himself up to standing. He quickly got his pants off the floor and put them back on. He couldn't stop crying, and wouldn't look at Mal. He was about to flee to his bedroom when Mal stood up too. Mal put a hand on Simon's shoulder and gave it a squeeze as he said, "Look at me."

Simon darted a glance up and then back down. Mal said, "I… I think there's somethin' else I need to make clear today."

Simon visibly winced. Mal said, "I haven't said it before, but I guess you should know that I have a lot of respect for you."

Simon couldn't believe his ears and darted his eyes back to Mal's and kept his gaze. Mal continued, "What you done for your sister. Getting' her out of that place, and goin' against your family to do it. Givin' up your hopes and dreams to save her. That's somethin' a lot of men couldn't do."

Simon burst into fresh tears at this, and put his head in his hands. Mal pulled Simon into an awkward hug, and said, "And that ain't all, you're the best doc I've ever known. You know what you're doing, and do it well. You're good to Kaylee and treat her right. You've never backed down in a fight, and you protect your sister with everything you have."

Mal was quiet for a few minutes letting Simon cry. "I'm tellin' you this 'cause I want you to know that just 'cause you messed up once, don't mean I look at you any different. I think you're a good man, and I'm proud to have you as one of my crew."

Simon continued to cry, but at the same time soaked up the words, and the hug that were being given. He couldn't believe Mal had said all those nice things about him. His own father had disowned him for trying to save River, but Mal had just told him it made him a good person, and one he could respect. Simon knew that even though he fought with Mal pretty often, that he did have a lot of respect for the man. He just never knew until today that the feeling was mutual. But that in turn seemed to make what he had done that much worse.

Mal didn't think the hug was all that awkward now, and Simon was making no move to get out of it. They stood that way until Simon's crying tapered off. Then when it was quiet in the room other then the occasional sniffle Mal said, "I have to go get us off this planet."

Simon stepped back, wiped his face again, and nodded while he said, "Of course. Sorry…."

Mal shook his head and put both hands on Simon's shoulders. When Simon looked at him Mal said, "Ain't no need to be sorry for cryin' or wantin' comfort. Why don't you go lie down for a while? I'm sure you'll feel better once you've made up with Kaylee."

Simon nodded and started to head to his room. Then, while Mal was putting his holster belt back on, he said, "Simon."

Simon turned around and Mal said with obvious discomfort, "For the next week, until we're sure you don't have the sickness, I don't want you kissin' Kaylee, or doin' anything else with her that might infect her too."

Simon said, "Okay. I know I don't have it, but I'll keep my physical touching to a minimum with everyone on the crew for a week, just to be safe."

Mal gave him a curt nod and put on his coat. Then he said, "I'll expect to see you at dinner, so we can all discuss our next job."

Simon didn't feel up to seeing anyone, but gave Mal a nod and said, "Okay."

Mal went to the ladder and left Simon to himself. Simon went into his bedroom and lay down face first on the bed. He couldn't help himself from reaching back and rubbing at his butt for a few minutes. The whole experience seemed a little surreal, but the pain was still very real. Then just as he gave up and put his hands up by his pillow he heard the hatch opening.

He stayed where he was, not sure who it would be. Soon River came in his room as she knocked on the door. She went and sat on the bed right next to him. She looked down at his face, which was turned in her direction. He waited for her to say something, but she just sat looking for a while. Then she put a hand on the top of his head and patted it with comfort. She eventually looked off into the distance and said, "Daddy, our father, he's not a very good man is he Simon?"

Simon gave her a sigh and said, "I don't know River."

"Yes you do, you just don't want to tell me."

"I think he's made a lot of mistakes in his life, and I don't think his moral judgement is accurate."

"You're right. I didn't want to believe it, but you're right."

They were quiet for a while, then River said quietly, "I said I would behave while you were gone, but I wasn't very good. I lied to the Captain, and made everyone worry about the Alliance."

Simon half sat up, and half leaned against the wall, and pulled River into a hug. He said, "Mal told me. I appreciate you trying to protect me River, but I don't want you lying to the Captain any more."

She nodded and said even more quietly, "He spanked me too."

Simon pushed her away far enough to look in her face. He felt himself getting truly angry and said; "Mal spanked you?"

River nodded. Simon said with rage, "He had no right. No right to touch you at all! Not ever!"

River shook her head and put both her hands on the sides of Simon's face and said, "No Simon. You're wrong. He was right to do it. What I did was wrong, and in a way it made me feel better when it was over. I felt more like this was home now. More like we weren't gonna be alone anymore. Daddy always was against it, but I think he was wrong about that too."

"I can't stand that he hit you River. It's…. I just can't."

River gave him a small smile and said, "I love that you protect me Simon, but it wasn't all that bad. Not like what he did to you. He only gave me a few swats, and I couldn't even feel it anymore by bedtime. I promise you it made me feel better more then it made me feel bad."

Simon was somewhat mollified hearing that her spanking had been much less severe then his. He said, "Still, I'll have to tell him I don't want it to ever happen again."

River glared at him and said, "You were gone. You left me in his care and told me to follow his orders. Why did you do that if you didn't trust him."

Simon backpedaled, "I do trust him. That's not it, it's that…."

"That he spanked me, and you can't stand the thought of me in pain, because I've had so much pain already in my seventeen years."

Simon nodded. River said, "It wasn't the same as the pain at the Academy. Not at all. You have to trust me Simon, and let it go. The Captain did the right thing for me, and even if you don't like it, I think he did the right thing for you too."

Simon almost kissed her forehead again, but remembered he said he wouldn't, and just patted her shoulder before lying back down. "Okay River. You win. As if there was any doubt that you would."

She patted his head one more time and said, "I'm going to go talk Kaylee into coming to see you now."

Simon shook his head, "I don't think she…."

River got up and said, "You won't win this one either."

She walked away as he kept protesting. Once she was out of his sight he gave up, and just groaned. He worried over what to say to her, and if she would forgive him. He tried to come up with a reason for his eyes to be puffy and red, and was glad he had agreed not to sleep with Kaylee for a week so his butt would be back to normal before she could see it. It seemed like almost no time had passed when he heard the hatch open again. Then Kaylee was there in the room with him.

Before he could gather his thoughts to say anything, she lay down in front of him, and wrapped her arms around his middle. He rolled to his side so they were facing each other and Kaylee rested her head on his chest. She said, "I missed you."

He was surprised she seemed to have forgiven him, but was glad too. He hugged her back; "I missed you too. Every day."

She said quietly, "It hurt me the way you left."

Simon felt a wave of guilt and held her close as he said, "I'm so very sorry. I swear to you it won't happen again."

She gave a slight nod and said, "I believe you."

She looked up at him and said, "Let me see."

Simon wasn't sure what she meant. "See what?"

"Your backside."

Simon got bright red, because she obviously already knew what had happened. He said, "How do you know?"

"'Cause I suggested it to the Captain in the first place."

"You what?!"

Kaylee gave him a glare and said, "Are you tellin' me you don't think you deserved it, because I can leave if you like."

Simon could tell she was angry and very serious. He looked down and thought about it. After a few long minutes he eventually shook his head no. She said, "So let me see."

Simon felt defensive, "No."

"It ain't like I never seen it before. It's a cute little backside."

"Why do you want to see it?"

Kaylee looked down and said, "To make sure."

Simon made no move to let her look and waited for more of an explanation. "To make sure it was done right."

Simon had heard her talk of her family often enough to know she got spanked as a kid, or whupped as she called it. He eventually undid his pants, rolled onto his stomach and pulled them down for her to see. She made a noise of sympathy, and couldn't stop herself from putting a hand on the skin to feel how warm it was. He winced slightly at her touch, and she took her hand away. She lay back down and said, "Okay."

He pulled his clothes back up and said, "Okay what?"

"It was done right." She stated simply.

Simon couldn't help but smile at her. He said, "So you forgive me now?"

"I do." She leaned in to kiss him, but he put a hand up to stop her.

He said, "Then I guess this is a good time to tell you Mal said no sex or even kissing for a week, so we can be sure I don't have the orange death."

Kaylee sputtered, "What! Why that's none of his concern! It's already been a week, and now I'm supposed to wait a week more! Of all the irritatin' things I've heard recently, that's the most!"

Simon chuckled and said, "Serves you right for suggesting what you did."

Kaylee punched his arm and said, "Oh, like you're gonna be happy to wait a week."

Simon shook his head, and pulled her into a closer hug as he said, "I'm happy just to be here with you. At home."

She let that sink in for a moment, and then hugged him back knowing it was true.