Author's note: First off, my first book, 'Winter Awakening' is out. For anyone interested information about it is on my profile page.

Second, I will be trying to update fanfiction serials as time permits. Since I'm now a pro writer I have deadlines for submissions to meet, not to mention I also hold down a full-time job.

Third, this is the final story in the 'New Hope' trilogy. I hope my readers enjoy it as much as I did writing it.

Kissing the Dirt

Dragonlots aka Dana Bell

Glancing up from the repairs he'd been making on the hatch struts, Mal frowned as Zoë allowed Justin Bolt to help her out of the wagon. He grabbed the rag he had hanging close by and wiped his hands as he descended the ramp to greet them. "Afternoon."

Bolt's face split with a wide grin. "Afternoon, Captain Reynolds. My brothers and I should have a shipment to ya the day after next."

"I'll be glad of it." Truth never hurt, Reynolds had come to realize. They'd been sitting on New Hope for almost a month after constantly moving freight between the three moons for six months.

The big settler turned to Zoë as she started to move past him. "You'll let me know what you decide."

"I surely will." Zoë held her bulging stomach as if the weight was more than she could handle. She stopped beside her captain.

"How's Jayne?" Mal asked afraid to know what the two had been talking about.

Justin chuckled, looking every bit the back-woods settler in his buckskin. "Grouses every day about peeling spuds."

Zoë smiled. "Best place for him."

She didn't smile often and Mal was glad to see it. No doubt she'd be relieved when the baby finally came, which should be at any time. Zoë slowly shuffled up the ramp.

"He still has a bunk here if he tires of his new job." Jayne choosing to leave instead of being a proper husband to his wife Liz, still stung. Although, it had been quieter without the constant snips between the mercenary and Simon Tam.

"Figured as much," Bolt said. "How's Liz?'

Mal waited until Zoë had entered Serenity before he answered. "Misses her husband somethin' fierce."

"I'm sure she does." Bolt's brown eyes drifted to the open bay. "Tryin' to help ya with that."

"And I thank you for it." A part of Mal that wondered if Bolt meant Liz or Zoë. He hadn't missed the admiring glances coming from Justin when he looked at Wash's widow.

Justin remounted the wagon and grabbed the reins. "Be back in a couple of days." He flicked the thin leather, and the horses obediently pulled away.

Mal went back into his ship, hanging the rag in a convenient place. Zoë had just reached the stairs. "Zoë?"

She turned to face him. He still couldn't used to her wearing a loose outfit. Her gun resting low on her thigh just didn't look right. "Sir?"

"What were you doin' with Bolt?'

Her dark face frowned. "Explorin' some options."

"Find somethin'?" He had an idea what she'd been up to since she'd spoken of the possibility before. Losing more of his family was not something he wanted to do.

"Looked at a small house just outside town."

"Shouldn't leave." Mal jumped. He hadn't heard River approach. "Your family is here."

"Never doubted that." Zoë grabbed the rail. "I'm going to lie down for awhile."

His first mate had been tired a lot, and he'd asked Simon about it. The doctor assured him it was normal. "Shout if you need anything'."

"Always do." Slowly she climbed the stairs toward her cabin.

River looked after her. "Baby's coming soon."

"I'm sure your brother is ready."

"Wasn't on Verdue."

"Stemple didn't know that." They'd just unloaded their timber when the lumber mill owner's wife had gone into premature labor. "Kept our promise though." He glanced around. "Seen Mimzy?"

"Hunting mice." The girl wrung her red gauzy skirt in her hands.

"Long as she keeps those varmits outside and they ain't runnin' loose on my boat."

"Kills them first." Barefoot she walked around him to the open door. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "Storm's coming.'

"You sure, little one?" He joined her. "Not a cloud in the sky."

"Bad one." She twirled around. Her skirt flitted in the slight breeze.

"Hope you're wrong. Might delay our next load."

"Storms always clear. Did on Miranda."

"Not the one we had to pilot through."

"Been on the cortex."

Most of his crew had checked on the communications systems for news. Even though reports were sketchy, it wasn't hard to tell that there were open rebellions on the core planets now, not just the outer moons.

"Opened a nest of stingers." Her young face reflected her sadness.

"I'm sorry about that. Heard anything about your parents?"

"Not yet."

One of the reports that had come to them via a trading ship was that the older Tams had been arrested. Since Mal had no contacts left on any of the core worlds, he had no way to confirm the news nor to discover if the Tams were alive or worse. He felt a pang of guilt over the possibility.

"Not your fault," River told him. She gracefully lowered herself to greet the cat as Mimzy proudly strolled up the ramp.

"I'm serious 'bout the mice."

"Doesn't have a mouse." Her slender fingers reached out to stroke the cat's head. "She ate it already."

"Long as it ain't on my boat." Mal headed up the stairs.

He heard River laugh behind him. "Check your bed."

Mal groaned but headed for the bridge. Whether or not Mimzy had left him a 'gift', he'd find out later. He ducked his head as he entered the control center of his ship. Chuckling he figured Kaylee might argue the point with him. The engine room was her domain.

He sat down in the main pilot's chair noticing the dinosaurs were all lined up and looking down at him. Several times he'd come up here with the intent of taking them away only to have River glare at him with a daring look, and he had more sense than to take the girl on. Or else Mimzy had curled herself into the latest display and he hadn't had the heart to interrupt her nap.

"Maybe I just need to be reminded of you, Wash," he said to the dead man. "Still a part of you here." Mal knew he wasn't just referring to the baby.

His wife's frightened screams still echoed in his ears as Gabriel Tam sat in the sterile white cell. The small square room didn't even have a window. He was slightly miffed at that. What it held was an uncomfortable cot, an ugly gray blanket neatly folded at the end. Along one wall stood a sink and a toilet, along with some basic supplies for personal hygiene.

Gabriel paced the floor because he needed something to do. There were no forms of entertainment available to him, and his constant worry over his wife's welfare and safety made him restless.

Through the long hours of waiting, his anger simmered and reached the point of boiling over. Damn his renegade children! Their actions had brought this down on him and Regan!

Both he and his wife had been solid, outstanding Alliance citizens. The soldiers that had raided their compound in the middle of the night had had no right to force them from their comfortable bed, gas them and leave him unconscious on the floor of this miserable place!

His last image of his wife had been of her terrified face, her too-dark hair askew, two soldiers yanking her from the covers and forcing a mask over her face.

"You're under arrest for treason," the officer had informed them.

"We've done nothing wrong!" he'd objected. "We're loyal to the Allia…" He'd never gotten a chance to finish his sentence. A mask had been placed over his nose and mouth.

"You're children got it somewhere."

Vaguely he remembered seeing another man step forward. A man with blue hands, a neat dark suit, and an odd, peaceful expression.

Gabriel stopped and gazed up at the bright light in the ceiling. It was always on so he had no concept of day or night.

"Simon, River, where are you?" He wanted to hit something. "You've ruined us!"

Liz lightly knocked on the dormitory door. When someone called, "Come in!", she took a deep breath and entered. Her eyes took in the circle of women making a bright yellow and red quilt for Tawny's anticipated wedding announcement. She remembered all the times she'd done the same, hoping to get one as a gift when she wed, which she hadn't due to the haste of her marriage. Several of her friends waved at her, while a few others gave her sympathetic looks.

"Tawny's upstairs," Alice told Liz from her place by the kitchen door. The entire place smelled of apple pie.

"Thank you." Taking the front of her skirt in hand, she mounted the wooden stairs. "Tawny!" she called from the top landing.

"Back here!" her friend answered.

As quickly as she could, Liz made her way through the maze of beds and other belongings. Tawny sat on hers near the farthest back wall and her pretty face lit up on seeing Liz. "It's so good to see you." She got up and greeted Liz with a hug.

"You, too." They sat down like they did when they'd been younger, Liz at the end and Tawny leaning on the headboard. "Have you set a date yet?"

"Not yet. But I hope it will be soon." Tawny bit her lip. "I'm sorry about Jayne."

"Captain Reynolds, he keeps saying Jayne will come around."

"What if he doesn't, Liz?" Her friend reached out and took her hand. "You can still have your marriage annulled."

"And who would have me?" She felt tears sting. "All I ever wanted was a husband and family.'

"There's no reason why you still can't."

"Look at me." Liz got up and spun around. "I'm plain as mud."

"I wouldn't say that." Tawny got up and frankly looked her friend over. "That is the prettiest dress I've ever seen you wear. And look at your hair," she pulled Liz over to the long oval mirror. "The style compliments you perfectly."

Liz blushed. The dress she'd bought on Verdue at Inara's insistence. The ex-companion had insisted they go shopping, and she'd helped Liz pick out some new clothes. She'd also styled Liz's hair that morning. "Inara's doing."

"Good for her." She leaned close. "I always told you there was a butterfly under all your dark cocoons."

"Not that Jayne sees me."

"The problem with men," Tawny put her hands on her hips and tapped her foot, "is that they can't see what is right in front of them. You just have to show them."

"Pretty here," Kaylee commented as she and Simon walked along the river. She reached out and tugged a leaf off a tree.

"Makes me think about wanting to settle down." He took the leaf from her and let it drift to the ground.

"Really?" Breathless she waited to see what he'd say next.

Nervously his fingers combed through his dark hair. "Yes."

"Zoe told me that Justin Bolt sayz there's lots of cabins or spots for them," she turned around pointing, "all around."

"I'd never take you away from Serenity." He smiled warmly. "You love that ship."

"I love you, too." Kaylee had never dared say those words. She'd been afraid Simon would run away.

Lightly he brushed her soft brown hair out of her face. "Missed a spot," he teased, pulling his hand away and showing her the smudge of grease. "Wouldn't be you without it." He kissed her, sighing as he pulled away. "I love you, Kaylee."

More happy than she could remember, she threw herself into his arms and kissed him passionately until ended they up on the ground.

"Better places for ruttin'," a familiar voice interrupted them.

Kaylee rolled off of Simon, pulling her top closed. "How long you been standin' there, Jayne?"

"Not long enough," he leered. His clothes were dobbed with bits of brown.

Simon wrinkled his nose as he got up. "You stink."

Jayne pulled himself up. "Nothin' wrong with an honest days work."

Kaylee waved her hand in front of her face. "Watcha been doin'? Cleanin' the outhouse?"

"Like I said, honest work." He picked up a bucket. "You two best not let Bolt catch ya. He'd haul ya in front of the preacher."

"Jayne, it's not like we ain't already-" Kaylee stopped, remembering who she was talking to. "Liz misses ya."

A funny expression drifted over his grimy face. "I gotta git back." He plunged up the trail tearing out a few wildflowers in his haste.

"He's like a badly trained monkey," Simon commented.

"I still remember the look on your face when he messed up your infirmary." She grinned at the memory.

Simon grimaced. "Let's get back to Serenity before I actually begin to think I miss him." He held out his hand to her.

She took it. "Ain't been the same, has it?"

"No." He squeezed her hand. "Do you want to go before the preacher?"

Kaylee's breath caught. "You askin' me to marry ya?"

"Yes."

She squealed and tossed her arms around him. "Yes!"

Time passed and Gabriel saw no one. His meals were delivered automatically though a slot in the wall. As he ate, he wondered if his captors had died and forgotten about him. He'd heard dark rumors that he'd considered fanciful at the time about such things happening.

When he finished eating, he put the tray back in the slot and watched as it was slowly sucked back in. Then he paced again, thinking over past events.

There had been rumors circulating for months about rebellions on the outer moons because of the preposterous story about Miranda. The Parliament denied it of course, claiming it was a falsehood produced by the defeated brown-coats trying to once again stir up conflict.

However, there were other stories whispered at the parties he'd attended with his wife. Stores about how the Alliance conducted experiments on its citizens, all in the name of creating a perfect world. And then there was the man who confirmed what Simon had been saying about the government school they'd sent River to.

Shaking his head, Gabriel remembered being shocked. He'd tried to dismiss what he'd been told as gossip until the Tam name began to get connected with the report about Miranda. Not to mention the story about the warrior girl who had killed many Reavers.

He jumped as a crack appeared in the seeming seamless wall. A man with short hair, a perfect suit, and two blue hands stepped inside. He calmly gazed at Gabriel.

After being ignored for so long, Gabriel glared back and demanded, "Who are you and why am I here? Where is my wife? I have the right to an attorney!"

"I will ask the questions," the man replied without any type of inflection in his voice.

"My rights have been violated!"

"You have none."

Gabriel paused before talking again. "I want to see my wife."

"No." The man turned as a table was wheeled in. On it was a container, and Gabriel did not want to think about what it might hold.

"I've done nothing wrong."

"That is to be determined." The man put his hands behind his back and spread his feet slightly as if to balance himself. "Where are your children, Gabriel Tam?"

"I don't know."

The man cocked his head. "A father who does not know where his children are? I don't think so."

Tired of the farce, Gabriel decided a frontal attack might work. "I said I don't know." He walked to within a few inches of the other man. "I haven't seen River since I sent her to that school, and the last I saw of Simon, I had just been bailed him out of jail."

"What ship are they traveling on?" the other asked as if he hadn't heard a word Mr. Tam had said.

"I don't know."

"Where are they?"

"I don't know."

"What do you know about Miranda?"

"What everyone knows. There was a Terra forming event."

"Where are your children?"

"I don't know."

"When was the last time you contacted them?"

"I haven't spoken to Simon since he disobeyed me. I disowned him."

"And you've had any contact with them?"

"Didn't I just say that?" Gabriel yelled.

His questioner cocked a thin eyebrow. "Interesting."

"I'm not lying."

"I didn't say you were."

"I want to see my wife."

"Perhaps."

"If she alright?"

"Perhaps."

He crossed his arms and decided to stare down the Alliance man. "I, we, have done nothing wrong." Gabriel lifted his chin. "I demand to see my wife."

"Perhaps," his captor repeated. "Now," he mused, "where were we. Oh, yes." He offered Gabriel a benign smile. "Where are your children?"

Mal nervously watched the dark clouds advance across the blue sky. He'd finished his repairs, which he'd gone back to after leaving the bridge, and cleaned his hands, tossing the rag into a container they kept for such things. Maybe River's prediction of a storm wasn't wrong like he'd first thought.

"What's wrong, Mal?" Inara inquired as she entered the ship. In her arms she carried several bolts of fabric.

"Is all you ever do is shop?" He glanced over her simple colorful outfit, admiring her graceful figure.

Her dark eyes glanced at the fabric and then back at him. "No. Several of the brides asked me if I knew anything about sewing."

"You can sew?"

"Don't look so surprised. My training covered many fields."

"Learned that." He had. Inara handled weapons as well he, Zoë or Jayne. Not to mention other things he'd discovered during the time she'd been on Serenity.

"There's going to be dancing at the next wedding and they wanted some new fashions for their dresses."

"And these proper young ladies are askin' you?" That did surprise him. When he'd had the brides on board, they seemed suspicious of the ex-companion.

She smiled. "They've seen Liz blossom."

Mal knew that had been Inara's doing - along with the rest of Serenity's crew making Liz feel like she was part of their family, which she was. He couldn't remember when they'd eaten so well, or laughed together so much. The woman was a boon to the crew. Now, if they could just get Jayne back.

"Besides," Inara continued. "Since I'm no longer working, I could use the extra coin."

"Payin' job, huh?"

"Yes." She shifted her load. "Last time I mid-wifed, I was paid a chicken."

He remembered. While Simon had been delivering Mrs. Stemple's baby, one of the mill workers had approached them about using the doctor's services. Seemed his wife was in already in labor, and he'd heard Serenity had landed. Inara had volunteered her services and delivered the couple's little girl.

"That chicken was mighty tasty." Mal grinned.

The ex-companion laughed at the memory. "I still can't believe Kaylee knew how to kill and pluck a chicken."

"A right talented engineer I've got."

"And Liz cooked it for us."

"Got us a fine cook as well. Can't remember the last time this crew had it so well."

Heavy drops began to fall. They both stepped further into the bay to keep from getting wet.

River glided out of the shadows. "Storm came." She lightly stepped out on the ramp, raising her head to the rain, spreading her arms to welcome it. Her light brown hair slowly plastered to her head.

"River, get inside!" Simon shouted as he and Kaylee raced into the ship. They were both soaked.

His sister made no move to obey. "Clean."

"Don't want your brother to have ta doctor my pilot," Mal told her. "Come inside, River."

Reluctantly, the young woman obeyed. She shook like a dog and skipped off laughing.

"Change into something dry!" her brother yelled after her as his clothes dripped on the metal floor.

"Think we'd better do the same." Kaylee grabbed his hand. The pair was halfway across the bay before she suddenly stopped. "Cap'n. We saw Jayne."

"How's he look?"

"Dirty," Simon replied. "Come on, Kaylee. Don't want you catching a cold."

"Might be fun," she teased back. "You'd have ta wait on me hand and foot." Her round face seemed to be shining.

"Bad for Serenity. And us with a job." Mal waited for their reaction.

"We got a job?" Kaylee took a step toward him.

"Go git dried off. We'll talk at lunch."

"Yes, sir!" She gave him a mock salute before the two ran off to the guest quarters.

"They seem a mite too happy to you?" He turned to Inara.

"They're in love." Awkwardly, yet with great grace, she leaned over and pecked his cheek.

"No way to kiss a man, woman."

"You can show me how," her dark eyes smoldered, "later."

"Weren't near lunch time I'd show you now."

Easily she moved away from him and headed for the shuttle. "Later, Mal."

With a smile he turned away and looked outside. The dirt streets were turning to mud. A zagged lightning flash pierced the thick gray clouds and thunder rolled over the town and Serenity. Briefly it reminded him of the sound of canon fire during the war. He shook off the bitter feeling the memory produced. That had been a long time ago.

Mal crossed the bay and climbed the steps and catwalks to the galley. Liz was visiting her friends at the dormitory and had told him she'd be eating lunch there. Before she'd gone, she'd left a pot of stew simmering and the smell of fresh baked bread met his nose as he stepped into the bright yellow room. Kaylee had painted the red roses and green vines along the edges just after she'd come aboard. "Makes Serenity more homey," she'd told him.

"Smells good," Zoë said as she joined him. Tiredly she sat in one of the mismatched chairs.

"Told you we'd get us a fine cook."

"Shepherd Book did well while he was with us."

Mal took a deep breath. He didn't want to go off on Zoë about the Shepherd. Not when he still blamed himself for Book's and all the other deaths on Haven. "He did."

"What was it he said, somethin' about Rosemary?"

"Don't really 'member." Truth was he did. He didn't want to, even as the Shepherd's word echoed in his mind. "A man can live on packaged food from here to judgment day if he has enough rosemary." Book had said that at their first sit-down meal together after he'd boarded Serenity.

"I love Liz's cooking!" Kaylee announced as she and Simon popped in. "Everyone sit down, I'll set the table." She busied herself pulling out dishes and what not.

Mal frowned. What was his engineer doing in a bright colored dress?

"I'll get-" Simon began.

"I'm here." River gave them all a dazzling smile. Mimzy dashed in and promptly hid under the table.

"What have I said about that cat being in here when we're eatin'?" Mal tried to sound stern.

"That she's welcome." The girl sat down with a bit of flourish. She'd changed into a gauzy green skirt and orange blouse.

"That ain't what I said."

"Leave it alone, Mal," Inara chided as she chose a chair. "We allowed Jayne to eat with us. I dare say Mimzy has better table manners."

"Inara's got a point, Cap'n," Kaylee agreed as she set the table.

"This is my boat,"

Simon looked up, still prim and proper in his dark pants and white shirt. "And our home."

The doctor's simple statement struck true. Serenity was home for all of them.

"So," Kaylee went on. She put the pot on the table making sure there was a trivet protecting the white cloth and sat down. "How are we goin' to git Jayne back?"

"Liz cries too much," River added. "Thinks we don't see."

"Our plan back fired, Little One," Reynolds found a chair.

"Didn't fail. Just didn't work the way we wanted." She helped herself to the stew and lathered butter on her bread. "We should try again." River cocked her head. "Storm's getting worse."

"Git that locked down!" Justin bellowed at his men.

Several moved to comply, tying down tent pegs and girding the logs with chains. The wind whipped through the camp, knocking over anything not already secured.

"This be a bad 'ne," Cookie grumbled from his protected spot under the cook wagon.

"Ya think?" Jayne answered. He jerked back as water dripped on his hand.

"Jayne Cobb git out here!" Bolt yelled.

The mudder made a face, rising slowly. "Don't wanna git wet."

"Git out here!" The tone in older brother's voice left no room for argument.

"I'm comin'." Reluctantly he added his hands and strength to the mayhem. Peeling potatoes didn't seem so bad next to being drenched and trying to keep the camp from being swept away by the rain barrage.

"Justin!" John rushed up to his brother's side. Cobb was close by yet could barely hear them. "We've got trouble!"

"I can see that," the oldest Bolt shouted back.

"No, you can't." The two retreated into their tent and Jayne wondered how they could be in any more trouble than they already were.

Justin burst back out like the devil himself were chasing the big man. "Men!" he hollered.

Those who could hear him, including Jayne, gathered around. The rain made a deafening noise and the mercenary had to strain to hear.

"I need everyone down at the river sand bagging!"

No one needed an explanation. As one the men headed out of camp.

"Jayne!" Justin caught him just before he left. "I need you to git a message to Cap'n Reynolds."

He didn't want to, but he would, since Bolt was now his boss.

"Tell 'em to move Serenity. If the river floods, it'll take out the town includin' where the ship is." He took a breath. "There's a plateau about three miles out. It's a good spot."

"Will do." Jayne raced for town.

Regan Tam had no idea how many days she'd been in the horrid white room, or how many times she'd been questioned by the odd-suited man with blue hands. Her throat was dry from telling him the same thing over and over - she had no idea where her children were.

"I'd like to see my husband," she requested again.

"You need to be more cooperative." She was even tired of his monotone voice.

"I can't tell you what I don't know." Her eyes flitted to the case sitting on the rolling table. He hadn't resorted to using anything in it. She just hoped he would believe her so she wouldn't find out exactly what was in there.

He pursed his lips and his eyes narrowed. "One moment." He stepped out the hidden door which fitted so well into the wall she'd not even known it was there.

"Gabriel, I hope you're okay." Her hands ran over her grimy nightgown. She'd tried washing it out, but it didn't seem to help. There was no makeup and the shampoo left to wash her dyed brown hair did nothing to keep it up to her usual standards.

Her inquisitor reappeared. "I'm sorry. Until you tell us something of use, we can't allow you to see your husband."

"I don't know anything!" she screamed. Her sobs rose up in her, and she didn't try to stop them. "The last time I saw River was just before she left for school and Simon, well, when he expressed his concern over her welfare at our home."

"No waves. No letters."

"Nothing." She brushed at her face. Her hands came away wet. "But if what Simon suspected was true, I'm glad he helped his sister escape."

The suited man started and she realized perhaps she'd said the wrong thing.

"I've done nothing wrong."

She heard a pop and cringed. The case had just opened.

"I should be back on Serenity," Liz fretted as she peeked out the second story window at the storm.

"Nonsense," Tawny said. "You're safe and dry. Captain Reynolds wouldn't begrudge you that. Come on," her friend urged. "They're waiting lunch on us."

The two women went downstairs and joined the other brides around the huge table to eat. As they said the blessing, a deep rumbling roared overhead. Several of the women exchanged frightened looks.

"That didn't sound like thunder," Liz commented. She started to get up.

"Of course it was." Tawny picked up the biscuits, took one and passed the steaming basket to Liz. "Everything's fine." She gave them all a reassuring smile.

Liz had always admired her friend's leadership. Tawny had been like that since they'd been children, always being the first to try something new or stand up for what was right. It seemed natural she was the spokesperson for the brides.

Suddenly the door blew open, causing anything loose to fly about the room. Just as quickly it shut again. Heavy-set Marla, the local barkeep, smiled at them apologetically. "Sorry, girls."

"You're drenched." Tawny got up and grabbed the nearest colorful afghan. She threw it over the older woman's shoulders. "Would you like to join us for lunch?"

"Thank you."

A couple of the girls moved over and made room for her. Liz found an extra setting and placed it before Marla.

"You must be Liz."

"I am." She sat back down.

"How do you like life on board Serenity?"

"I like it just fine." Liz nibbled on a biscuit.

"Everyone eat before your food gets cold," Tawny interrupted.

Thunder shook the house. Marla glanced toward the door with a concerned expression.

"Something is wrong, isn't it?" Liz asked. She's seen the same look on Captain Reynolds' face often enough to know when things weren't right.

"I hope not." The barkeep sipped her tea. "But just in case, when lunch is done, you girls need to each pack a bag and be ready to go."

Tawny stared at the older woman in disbelief. "Why?"

Marla deliberately put her cup down. "Because when the storms are this bad, there can be flooding. And I know Justin has enough to worry about without having to spare men to rescue all you brides." She sat back. "That's why I came to warn you."

"Mal!" Jayne thundered up the ramp. "Mal!" Hurriedly he looked around the bay. Nobody was there. "Mal!" he yelled again, running up the walkways as fast as he could. He burst into the galley just as Kaylee announced, "Simon and I are getting married."

A part of Cobb was glad for her. He'd always had a soft spot for the girl. Another part enjoyed disrupting the news cuz of the doctor, who he'd never liked. But that wasn't important right now. Doom loomed and he had a message. "Mal! Ya gotta move Serenity!"

"What did I tell ya about givin' orders on my boat!" Reynolds got to his feet.

"Bolt sent me," he barked back. "Said there's a plateau three miles away. You should move there."

Calmly, Zoë asked. "Why should we do that, Jayne?"

"Cuz the river might wipe out the whole ruttin' town."

"What about everyone in town?" Kaylee cried.

"Isn't Liz at the dormitory?" Simon looked questioningly at Mal.

Reynolds bit off a curse in Chinese. "It's always somethin'."

"I'll go for her," River volunteered.

"No! I want you on the bridge, ready to lift off."

Jayne felt his nose tickle. "That gorram cat in here?" He sneezed.

"I'll go, Mal." Inara rose.

"Me, too," Kaylee volunteered.

Mal shook his head. "Kaylee, I need you in the engine room."

"But, Cap'n," her round face begged.

"I'll go." Simon pushed back his chair.

"Stay here, doctor. I'll go. Inara, gather every spare blanket we got. We ain't leavin' those brides to be drowned. Not after all we went through to git 'em here." He threw a meaningful glance at Jayne.

"I didn't do nothin'," the mercenary objected before he sneezed several more times.

"River, take Mimzy with you."

The young girl nodded, grabbing the calico cat and hurrying out the door leading to the bridge.

"Zoë, can you git to the door?"

"I can."

"Every body move!"

Everyone scrambled out of their chairs, rushing to different areas of the ship.

"Let's go, Jayne."

"I gotta git back ta camp."

Mal rounded on him. "I need your help gittin' those girls to safety. Once that's done, you can go."

He stepped back. "Fair 'nuf."

Mimzy wiggled out of River's arms landing on the metal floor with a soft plop.

"Better stay here," the girl told the feline. "Jayne doesn't like you."

The cat jumped up on the control board. Her delicate paw swatted at one of the dinosaurs, making it wobble slightly.

River giggled at Mimzy's antics and took the pilot's chair. Her nimble fingers flipped toggles and switches. Serenity slowly came to life under her hands.

And Kaylee's. River could 'see' the other scrambling around the orange painted engine room, grease on her face and her dress, grabbing tools and sliding under Serenity's beating heart.

Her eyes drifted up to the overhead windows. Rain dropped thickly obscuring her normally clear view. Her breath caught and her heart pounded at the loud screams and shouting she 'heard'. Mimzy hissed.

"Hurry. They didn't forget."

Capital City glittered in the night, making it almost too bright for the dusty-coated man who slunk through the black out zone. His balding forehead shone briefly in the dingy streetlight before he ducked under a stone overhang and knocked on a door. It opened a crack and a voice croaked, "Whatcha want, brown coat?"

"Here to do a job."

Huffing sounded and the door opened to allow the heavyset man with bushy brown hair in. It slammed shut. "Weapons?"

"I'm carrying a self-defense piece and don't you try and take it."

"Wouldn't dream of it." The shadow figure led him through a series of dimly lit corridors to an entrance with a hanging bead curtain. Pushing it aside, the brown coat was waved inside, his mysterious guide vanishing.

"Come in," a voice greeted.

There was no mistaking the cultured accent. This was someone with money and used to welding power with it.

"I'm Monty," the brown coat identified himself. "You asked for me."

"I have a job for you." A cork popped and liquid was poured into a tankard.

"I'm listenin'."

Mal didn't bother to knock and pushed open the dormitory door. "We're leavin'," he informed the room full of women.

"Captain Reynolds," Liz scolded. "You don't just barge in,"

"Don't got time for this, Liz." He took in the packed bags and the cloaks most of the girls seemed to have on. "I'm take it you're all ready ta leave."

An older woman forced her way through and stood before him. He recognized her from the bar.

"Justin send you?" She put her hands on her plump hips.

"He sent Jayne to warn me. Figured I'd get the brides to safety, if'n that's all right with you." Mal waited for her response.

"You've got a good head on you. I didn't really want to slog these girls through the mud trying to get them to safety."

"Know fer sure the river is goin' to flood." He made it more of a statement than a question.

"I've lived here my entire life, Captain. It's going to flood."

"Then let's go." He raised his voice. "Let's move, ladies!"

The brides fluttered out the door into the storm. Lightening flashed, followed by ground-shaking thunder. Mal led them through it with Jayne automatically falling behind the group to guard their backs.

His boots sank in the mud and every step was a struggle. More than once he had to help one of the women to get unstuck.

"How much further?" Tawny asked him.

"Not far."

Liz caught his arm. "Uh, Captain," she pointed ahead of them.

His eyes looked in the direction she was pointing. "This ain't happ'nin'."

Between them and safety, stood a raiding party of Reavers.

"We've got Reavers!" Zoë shouted into the ship-wide system as she forced herself to close the hatch.

"They didn't forget," River's voice echoed down just over Zoe's head.

Zoë turned to look up at the girl. "You're supposed to be on the bridge."

"They won't make it to the ship."

The others popped out from their various posts. Inara, above, had her arms full of blankets.

"We've gotta help them!" Kaylee cried.

"There are only five of us," Simon reminded her.

Quietly Zoë said, "We've held them off before."

"And almost died in the process." He walked over to the first mate. "Do you want to endanger your baby?"

Zoë threw a look at him he couldn't read.

"River," Inara spoke up. "Can you get Serenity to them?"

"Too close," the girl said with a far-off look in her eyes.

"Wish Wash was here," Zoë muttered.

"I can do it." River sounded miffed, as if her skills weren't good enough compared to Zoe's husband's.

"Then do it," she gritted back.

With a glare at the black woman, River stomped back to the bridge.

"Guess we need to brace for a bumpy ride." Zoë grimaced, her hand touching her stomach as water ran down her legs.

"You're coming with me." Simon put an arm around her. "Kaylee, get back to the engines."

"But…"

"Go!"

Kaylee bit her lip like she didn't know if she should. The feel of Serenity moving made up her mind and she ran for the engine room.

"Inara, take over Zoe's post at the door."

The ex-companion nodded and hastened down the stairs. She dumped the blankets on the floor and stood by the controls.

"I've got to-" Zoë began.

"You need to be in the infirmary where I can keep an eye on you."

A few choice words in Chinese seemed to suit the moment. "Baby has bad timing."

Simon smiled. "They always do."

Seeing Serenity slowly rise caused the women to gasp. Mal took a step back, almost hoping his crew wouldn't leave him, yet he'd understand if they did. "Get my ship to safety," he whispered as his mind raced to come up with a plan to protect the brides.

"And me without Vera," Jayne lamented.

"You didn't bring it?" He'd rarely seen the mercenary without his favorite gun.

"She's back in camp. Didn't see no need for a gun just ta warn ya."

The Reavers hadn't rushed them. Seemed peculiar even for them.

"Why ain't they finished us off?" Jayne actually sounded scared.

"Don't know."

One badly marred Reaver boldly strode forward. Mal's hand fell to his gun and he'd pulled it without thinking. His move didn't even slow it.

"This ain't good." Jayne backed up.

"Get them back to the dormitory. Barricade them in. Fight with whatever you have."

"What about you?"

"Jayne, just do it!"

"Captain Reynolds," Liz stared at him. "You can't."

"Liz, go. Now." Mal breathed deeply and shakily walked to meet the Reaver.

"Not what they want," River said to herself as she eased the ship around the raiding party. Her sharp eyes watched overhead for any sign of the Reaver ship. Wash had died because he hadn't seen the harpoon coming. She had no intention of dying the same way.

Skillfully, she set Serenity down next to the dormitory and hit the com. "Inara, open the hatch. They're coming."

Below her, she knew Inara opened the hatch, and she heard the muffled crying of the brides as they stumbled aboard.

"Get this gorram ship in the air," Jayne ordered her through the com.

"Don't take orders from you."

"I don't see Zoë, so—"

"Shut up, Jayne," Inara interjected. "They're all on board."

"Not all." She could 'see' Liz. The young woman had grabbed one of the guns they kept in the bay lockers and gone out without anyone else seeing her.

"He's an appetizer. Git us out of 'ere." Jayne tried again.

Inara must have heard her. "River, what do you mean, not all?"

"Liz, she went to help."

"Oh, no."

Jayne swore and she heard him stomp across the bay probably to grab a gun. "I'm gonna regret this."

"Easy."

Regan's eyes fluttered open and she stared into the face of someone she didn't know. Fuzzily, she took in her surroundings. Cracked walls, hazy lighting, stale beer, urine, and cigar stench. She shakily sat up and promptly wanted to vomit all over the dirty floor.

"Just the effect of the drug they gave you. It should wear off in a couple of hours."

"Where am I?" she managed to ask through her aching throat.

"Safe."

She heard groaning not far away. Turning her head she saw her husband on a cot. "Gabriel."

Her normally wel -groomed husband looked awful. His light brown hair had grown shaggy and his clothes were ripped. He sat up and did throw up.

The person standing beside her went to Gabriel's side and offered a glass of something. "Drink this. It'll help quiet your stomach."

"Thanks." He drank the fluid and glanced over his shoulder. "You're safe!"

"We were lucky we got both of you out," their rescuer told them. "Wasn't easy."

"Who are you?" Gabriel asked.

"Part of the resistance here on the core worlds." A door opened and a huge bear of a man entered. "This is Monty. He's your ride out of here."

Mal knew he couldn't reason with Reavers, but his mouth opened and he started talking. "I'm the one you want. Just take me and leave these folk alone."

The badly mutilated Reaver before him snarled and raised his curved shaped blade. He growled deep in his throat and crouched, ready to attack.

The sound of a cocking gun caused Reynolds to start. "Back away," Liz yelled.

"Liz, git outta here!" His heart beat very fast. He knew what they'd do to her.

Several of the Reavers edged forward eagerly.

"Liz," he managed to catch hold of the barrel of the rifle she held. "Know what they'll do to you?" Uneasily he watched the growing restlessness of the mad men as they prepared to charge.

"They'll kill you."

"Better than what they'll do first."

"Crazy woman!" Jayne stalked up. "You're gonna git us all kil't." He held his gun up and ready.

"Serenity is just over there." Liz pointed to where his ship now rested. "We can make it."

"We run, they'll chase us. That's their way." Mal took the rifle from her.

A hideous battle scream ripped from their throats as the Reavers surged to attack.

"Ah, hell," Reynolds started firing. Several of the creatures fell in the mud. He could hear Jayne's weapon and the terrible shriek from Liz as one of the Reavers dove and forced her to the ground. One of them was on him and he swung the rifle like a club trying, to protect himself. In the mad fight to survive, he lost track of what was happening and concentrated on trying to stay alive.

"We've got to help them!" Inara dashed onto the bridge. "They'll be killed!"

River's raised her head. "Coming."

"The men from the camp?" Inara asked hopefully.

The girl shook her head and pulled back on the steering. Serenity bounced slightly and moved upward.

Inara gasped at what she saw.

"You see."

A huge wave of water crested a distant corner and gushed toward the middle of town. The Reavers were in the direct path, as were their fellow crewmates.

"They'll drown! River, what are you doing?"

"Get Kaylee. She'll know what to do."

The ex-companion whirled and rushed out. River focused on shutting out the anger of the Reavers and getting the ship where it needed to be. She wouldn't have much time.

"Out of the way!" Kaylee motioned with her hands. The brides scattered away from the center of the ship. "Open it, Inara."

The bottom opened to the carnage below. Kaylee could see the captain fighting and Jayne still firing. Where Liz was, she had no idea. Quickly, she jury rigged a rope and dropped it down. She just hoped none of the Reavers saw it.

"I got it covered," Inara assured her, shouldering a rifle.

"Readin' my mind like River."

"Can't be too safe."

Kaylee and Inara shared a look. Determination took over and Kaylee yelled. "Grab the rope!"

"Jayne!" Reynolds pointed overhead.

The mercenary nodded and plunged into a mass of bodies throwing them aside like they were rag dolls. He grabbed Liz,who somehow was holding her own, and lifted her up.

"Grab the rope." He pushed on her rear to get her going.

"I can't hold on."

"Ya got ta." He elbowed a Reaver. "Git goin'!"

"We need to pull her up." Kaylee looked wildly around.

Several of the brides had gathered near the open deck. "We can help," Tawny offered.

Kaylee nodded and they heaved and pulled until Liz was onboard. The rope dropped again. The sound of roaring water filled the hold.

"They ain't gonna make it," Kaylee lamented.

Jayne dove for the rope, grabbing it. "Swing me!" he shouted.

With the brides' help, Kaylee managed to get it swaying. Just as the water began to pour over the mad men, Jayne reached out and yanked Mal out of the mayhem. The ship lifted and Kaylee watched as the Reavers were swept away along with boards, trees and other debris.

"Gorram it, Kaylee. Pull us up!"

"If it were just Jayne," she muttered with a wry grin.

Minutes later, the two men were gasping for air on the deck. Inara closed the lower hatch.

"Liz?" Mal wanted to know.

"She's okay. Sent her to see Simon, though he's a mite busy." Kaylee helped him sit.

"Didn't know she was such a fighter," Jayne said.

"She's quite a woman, Jayne," Tawny told him. "If you'd get over whatever it is men have about looks, you'd have found that out."

He made a face.

"Where's Zoë?" Mal got to his feet, almost falling. Inara put an arm around him.

"She's labor in, Mal."

"Great," Jayne groaned. "Squallin' brat."

"Ah, it's gonna be fun. You'll see." Kaylee grinned broadly.

"Let's get you two checked over." Inara tried to direct Mal to the infirmary.

"No one orders me on my own boat."

"Humpf," Inara replied. "You need a wife."

"You volunteerin'?"

"I don't think you can handle me."

"Like hell." He grabbed Inara and planted a proper kiss on her red lips.

Jayne snarled. "Cap'n always gits the prettiest girls."

Tawny slapped him. "You have one, too. If you'd open those stubborn eyes of yours and look." She stalked off with the other brides who had saved the mens' lives.

"Why is everybody always hittin' me?"

Kaylee crossed her arms over her colorful top. "Maybe cuz that's the only way you'll listen."

Hours later after River had put Serenity on top of the plateau, Zoe's baby was born. Finally, Simon joined the others in the galley. Kaylee jumped up and fixed him a plate as he sat down.

"It's a boy." He sipped the cider and put the glass back down before continuing. "Zoe's fine, just tired."

"So are you," Kaylee said, placing her hand on Simon's arm.

"Yeah." He glanced up at Jayne, Mal and Liz. "I've been busy."

Liz blushed. "Sorry."

"Don't be." He looked around. "Where are the rest of the brides?"

"Ate already," Mal answered. "Bedded down in the hold."

"Isn't that how this all started?" Simon observed as he sipped his cider.

Mal glanced at Jayne. "Could say that."

"So," Kaylee bubbled. "Are we goin' to have a double wedding?" Her green eyes darted between Inara and Mal, who sat next to each other at the table.

"Should never had proposed in public," Mal complained, raising his cider glass.

"You still haven't," Inara told him.

"Gorromnit, woman." The glass plunked on the table. "You have to be so difficult."

"I want to be properly asked."

"Proper, huh?" Mal scooted his chair back and went down on one knee beside her. "Inara Serra, will you marry me?"

"I'll think about it."

"'Nara," Kaylee urged. "Don't be mean. Just tell the Cap'n yes afore he changes his mind."

"Told him he should tell you," River put in. She leaned down and grabbed Mimzy and put the cat on the table.

"River," Mal began.

"Better manners than Jayne."

"I got manners." Jayne sneezed.

"Got a wife, too." River shook her head. "Too stupid to know it."

Jayne slumped back in his chair. "Think I liked her better when she was crazy."

Liz reached over to touch her husband's arm. "If you want to dissolve our marriage…" she paused like the words were hard for her to say.

"Don't say it." He glared at the happy couples. "Seems everybody on this boat is gettin' hitched."

"I haven't told Mal yes, yet," Inara interjected.

River beamed. "You will. You love him, too."

Regan and Gabriel were given quarters in Monty's ship. It wasn't fancy like they were used to, but it was somewhat clean and the crew treated them better than their previous 'hosts'. They'd also been given some clothes, which didn't fit well, but at least they didn't smell.

"Why are you helping us?" Mr. Tam asked the captain Monty. The couple sat with the big man and a couple of his crew in the galley area.

"'Cuz I owe Mal."

"Mal?"

"Malcolm Reynolds. He's cap'n of Serenity."

At Gabriel's and Regan's blank looks, Monty explained. "Was them that broke the news about Miranda."

"I thought that was a myth."

"Naw. Mal has all the fun. 'Sides, you're kids are with him."

When they returned to the town, there wasn't much left. The buildings were splintered piled boards. Tree trunks littered what had once been the main street and large boulders had been moved from the distant riverbed and strewn about in a haphazard pattern.

"What a mess," Mal said as he walked down the ramp.

"Seems we owe you!" Justin greeted. His normal buckskin clothes were mud spattered. "I hear you saved the brides from not just the flood, but from Reavers as well."

"Just did what was right."

The big man stroked his unshaven jaw. "You're a man of honor, Captain Reynolds."

"So folks keep tellin' me." He gazed over the mess. "You're gonna need help."

"I have a load for you."

"And I'll gladly take it. After, we help ya rebuild."

"I hired you to transport goods."

"I know." Mal glanced back at his crew, along with the brides, who were taking in the disaster with gasps or crying. "We found more than that." He paused before he said his next words. "Ain't fond of kissing the dirt, but we've found a home."

"Glad to hear it." Justin grinned. "Oh, before I forget, I got a wave from an old friend of yours. Man named Monty."

"I know him."

"Good. He'll be here in a few days. Says he's got a surprise fer ya."

"His last surprise didn't work out too well." Justin frowned. "Never mind. Long story."

"And I'm bettin' I'll git to hear quite a few."

"No doubt. For now," he pointed at Serenity. "The brides can stay in the hold until the dormitory gits rebuilt."

"Very generous."

"One favor."

"You name it."

"While we help rebuild the town, I got two couples who want to git hitched."

"Guess we'll have to rebuild the church first." Justin turned as his two brothers and sister joined them. "Not to mention finding where the parson got off to,"

the big man continued. Mal didn't recall seein' Judith much since they'd landed. Maybe her brothers kept her secreted at their cabin for some reason he couldn't fathom.

Kaylee squealed behind him, and Mal felt Inara's arm go around him.

"That will give us just enough time to get ready," the ex-companion assured them.

Jayne couldn't stand all the excitement of the coming weddings, so he trudged up to the galley to see if there was anything to eat. He stopped at the door when he noticed Liz sitting in one of the chairs, a steaming cup of tea in front of her, the gorram cat sitting in her lap.

His nose tickled and he tried to suppress the urge to sneeze. Something in him didn't want to disturb the tranquil scene. It also seemed that Liz was different, not quite the horse-faced woman he'd wed.

The cat lifted its head and made a mewy sort of noise. Liz glanced up and saw him. "Hello, Jayne."

"Hello," he gruffly returned. He pushed past the door and went to the stove. "Anythin' to eat."

"You know where everything is."

"Meanin' you ain't moved anythin'."

"I'm not the only one who uses the kitchen, but I think you know that."

"Yeah, I know." He made a cup of tea, found some sort of cookie, and slowly moved to the table. The cat seemed to watch his every move.

"You coming back?" Liz raised her mud-colored eyes to meet his.

"Don't know." His nose tickled again, and he barely managed to put his hand over his mouth before he sneezed.

"Bless you. We'd be glad of it. Hasn't been the same with you gone."

"Don't know why you'd miss me." He hadn't meant to say those words and wished he could take them back.

"Is it so hard to conceive that a woman could love you?" Were those tears he saw in the corner of her eyes?

"Never gave it much thought."

"I see." She looked down. "Thank you for saving my life."

"Welcome." He munched on the cookie. It was good, better than what Cookie made. "You make these?" he asked, holding the half-eaten treat up for her to see.

"Yes. I love to cook."

"I r'member." Why did he want to talk to this woman, aside from the fact she was his wife? He took a deep breath and plunged on before he lost his courage. "You wanna maybe try again?"

"Do you?"

"That cat stays out of our quarters." He sneezed to emphasize his point.

"Cover your mouth when you do that." She rose gently, putting the cat on the floor, and put her cup away. "And I'll think about moving back in with you, after our courtship."

"Gorramnit, woman!" He rose to his feet. "We're already married."

"Yes, we are." She stood there primly, eyeing him like he was the dirty bits he'd cleaned out of the outhouse. "But I insist on a proper courtship before…" she blushed. "Well, before."

He knew what she meant and decided he needed to have another talk with Inara. He'd pretty much forgotten most of what the ex-companion had tried to tell him. "May I escort you to the weddin's?"

She smiled at him. "Certainly."

"Ready for this," Justin asked Mal as they stood in the Bolts' tent about a week after the storm.

"As I'll ever be." He fussed with the suit coat he'd borrowed from the parson. It wasn't something he was used to wearing.

"Did you really think she'd say no?" Simon asked. He looked perfectly at home in his suit.

"With Inara," he shrugged. "No way to tell."

River pulled back the flap. "It's time." She stood back and waited for them to exit.

Mal stepped out and stared at the assembled crowd. "The whole town is here."

"Of course." Justin clapped him on the back. "Ya really think they wouldn't be here to see their favorite captain and doctor git married?"

"Was kinda hopin' for small and intimate."

"You'll be fine." Justin led the two men where the parson waited for them under a huge pine tree. River stood beside her brother, grinning. Inara must have styled the girl's hair. It was braided along the sides with flowers that matched her simple pink dress.

Moments later, Inara and Kaylee walked out of another tent to take their place beside their soon to be husbands. Kaylee wore a flowered dress and a garland in her brown hair. Inara had chosen a blue gown, with matching gems for accents. Her hair hung lose over her bare shoulders. A sparkling comb sat in her black locks.

"Sure ya want to go through this?" Mal whispered to Inara.

"Once I make up mind, I don't change it."

"Ain't gettin' much."

"I know what I'm getting."

The parson cleared his throat, "Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today, to join these two couples in holy matrimony."

Reynolds glanced over to one side. Jayne stood there with Liz beside him. She had her arm tucked neatly over her husband's. It wasn't going to be easy for those two, but he suspected Liz willingness to release Jayne had changed the mercenary's mind. At least he was coming home to Serenity.

Not far away on chair, Zoë sat, holding her new son. She'd named the boy Wash, after his father. She'd told him she wasn't leaving the ship. Them having a steady contract and a place to call home had changed her mind.

"Besides," she'd said. "Children need a family. Wash will have one here."

"Do you, Malcolm Reynolds, take Inara Serra as you wife?"

He yanked his attention back to his wedding. "I do."

"Inara Serra do you-"

She didn't let him finish. "I do."

"Simon Tam, do you take Kaylee Frye as your wife?"

"Yes, I do."

"And do you Kaylee Frye, take Simon Tam as your husband?"

She beamed, "I do."

"Then, by the power invested in my by the charter contract of this world, I now pronounce you husbands and wives." He cleared his throat. "Now kiss your brides so's we can commence with the party."

Each man took his wife in his arms and kissed her. The crowd exploded in a huge cheer.

Mal said against Inara's ear, "We're finally hitched."

She laughed. "And you thought your life was interesting before."

The band started up and the newly wedded couples had the first waltz. Other pairs joined in swinging around in a number of different dances. River even entertained them with her version of the one of jigs.

Night crept upon the camp. Mal took Inara's hand and they walked back to where Serenity sat. To their surprise, another vessel was just settling onto the dusty planet. The back hatch opened and a beg bear of a man stepped out.

"Mal!" the man shouted. "Ya old dog, how have ya been?"

"Monty Justin said he'd gotten a wave from you. What brings you out here?"

"Got a delivery for you." He eyed Inara with interest.

"My wife, Inara," Mal said pointedly. "Our weddin' day."

"Glad ta meet ya!" Monty gave her a massive hug. "Didn't think I'd live ta see the day when Mal here, would git married."

"I understand," she laughed.

"Now, 'bout that delivery," Monty turned and hollered into the hold. "Ya can come out."

"You better not have brought Saffron again."

"Not to worry. I'd shoot her first."

"Good to know."

An older couple walked out. They had money, he could tell by their manner, but they also had a look of the hunted in their baggy clothes. They also seemed familiar and it took a moment for Mal to realize why.

"Well, I'll be," he approached. "I'm guessin' you're Simon's and River's folks."

"Are they all right?" the woman inquired. Her pale face radiated concern.

"They're fine. I'm Malcolm Reynolds, their captain."

The man raised his eyebrows. "They travel with you on that?" He pointed at Serenity.

"I'll be leavin' them with you," Monty said.

"One moment." Mal took his friend a couple of paces away. "Who paid ylu to bring them here?"

"Resistance. Felt they owed you a debt on account of what you did about Miranda."

"I see. Thanks." He grinned. "Join the party, Monty. Help me celebrate."

"I will at that." The big man lumbered off in the direction of the music.

"Good to see him," Mal told Inara as he rejoined her. She squeezed his arm.

"Where are our children?" Gabriel Tam demanded.

"Please, Mr. Tam," Inara gave him a gracious smile. "They're at the party."

River materialized out of the trees. "Dad! Mom!"

Her mother opened her arms and gave her daughter a hug.

"Simon will be so glad to see you!" River beamed at her parents. "And wait until you meet Kaylee!"

Her father frowned. "Who's Kaylee?"

"Simon's wife. They just got married."

"What!" The older Tam looked like he could kill until his wife put a staying hand on his arm.

"Gabriel,"

"You know what we went through for them!"

"I do yes and we should be thankful we didn't know where they were." Her tired face smiled. "Look at our beautiful daughter."

"Come see Simon and Kaylee." River grabbed them both and dragged them to the party.

"Think we should go along in case we're needed?" Inara asked him.

"Nah. I think River can handle it." He pulled her into his arms. "I got other plans woman."

"I'll bet you do."

The day dawned crisp with a hint of rain later. Mal stood on the ramp of Serenity waiting for his crew to come in. He still found it hard to believe ten years had passed since they'd first signed the contract with Justin Bolt. Not to mention the fall of the Alliance and the new less harsh government that had taken its place and had granted independence to outer planets and moons.

"You're up early," Inara commented as she came to stand beside her husband.

He put his arm around her. "Got us a load to deliver." His wife still wore her beautiful clothes and this morning was no exception. Her dark hair fell over her bare shoulders accenting the red dress, his favorite, that she'd chosen to wear. "You look beautiful."

"You're prejudice," she teased back, giving him a kiss. "I need to get the children up."

"Be up to help with breakfast in a few."

"I'll hold you to that."

He smiled watching her glide over the floor. Was still hard to believe she could keep her figure and give him two children, a boy, Tom and a girl, Liana.

The whinny of horses interrupted his train of thought. A wagon pulled up and Zoë took her time saying her farewell to her husband Justin Bolt. She hugged her two boys and one girl, before she came up the ramp.

"Mornin', sir."

"Zoë."

"You take good care of my wife!" Justin called as the wagon pulled away.

"You bet!"

His first mate gave him a knowing look before she headed for the bridge.

Several more minutes passed before Simon and Kaylee arrived. The rushed up the ramp both breathing hard and giggling like kids.

"Sorry," Simon breathed. "My folks forgot they were watching the children today."

"Not on a schedule," Mal reassured Dr. Tam.

"I'll check Serenity's engines, make sure she's okay." Kaylee rushed off.

"Where's your sister?"

"She'll be along." Simon disappeared in the direction of the infirmary.

Another wagon pulled up. Jayne climbed out and helped Liz down. Their young son dashed up to hug his 'Uncle Mal'. Liz smiled as she nestled their daughter next to her breast.

"Short trip," Reynolds told Liz. "No need to come if you don't want."

"I wouldn't miss it." She climbed the stairs to the galley, her son following her.

"You're a lucky man, Jayne."

"Yeah. Took me long 'nuf."

"Won't argue the point." Mal leaned against his ship. "How's the house comin' along?"

"Almost finished. Ought ta build one for you, Inara and your children."

"Serenity's home."

"Yeah, thought as much."

River glided up. With her was Mimzy, though the cat moved a might slower now.

"She can still get rid varmits."

Jayne sneezed and hurried after his wife.

"So it seems," Mal good-naturedly returned.

The young woman picked up the calico cat, and turned to wave at her husband John. How those two had gotten together Mal was still fuzzy on. Gracefully River headed for the bridge. Mal closed up his ship and found his way there.

On the console the dinosaurs still sat. Mimzy twitched her tail and batted at one of them. River glanced at him as he took his normal place on the seat below.

"Kaylee," he called into the com, "we all set?"

"Shi, cap'n."

He swung around in his chair. "River."

She smiled and her fingers danced over the controls humming a happy song. Serenity shuttered slightly before lifting into the sky. Blue cleared and stars glittered overhead.

Mal sat back with a contented smile and laced his fingers behind his head. He enjoyed the new sense of freedom. "Not so crowded in my sky anymore."