TITLE: End Game


A/N: As promised, another story in the Chosen-verse. Starts six months post-Aftermath. Just FYI, I'm a bit of an ink gal, so forgive me if some of it isn't to your taste.

Kale held out his hand as River stepped down from the mule. Jayne wanted to glare at his brother but the good natured teasing they'd given him about being too possessive made him hold his tongue. For her part River simply took his hand graciously, allowing him to help her off the mule.

It had been six months since the fall of Niskatech's headquarters, six months since they'd rescued River from the hellish nightmare that was Miranda. Again.

And today was a special day. Jack Reynolds was turning four years old. They'd been at the market, Jayne, Marcus, Kale and Lucas largely acting as pack mules for Inara, River and Kaylee. It had been either that or staying behind and helping Book cook, and since Lucius and Thomas had seen the other boys trying to cook, they sent them on their way. When Kale had pointed out that River was stronger than all of them she'd simply held out her hand for him to pass over the heavy basket he had been carrying. He'd shuffled from one foot to another, sheepishly muttering that he could do it.

Inara had rolled her eyes. Though River was still recovering she wasn't exactly an invalid. In the last six months she'd managed to break the hold Crymeth had on her system, and regain some of the muscle she'd lost after her incarceration at Niskatech. A combination of ballet and Book's training had her almost in top form, although she still wasn't back to her normal weight range.

The Crymeth had addled her system badly, and though she was working hard to become herself once more, the darkness that had once been well hidden now simmered much closer to the surface. Her Watcher had worked hard with her to regain her focus and control, the meditation they worked on allowed her to still her mind somewhat. Book was working on ways to test out her new skills, but Simon had been adamant that her physical health had to come first. It was only when Book had pointed out that her mental health was hinged entirely on self-control, control that she couldn't have without knowing her limits, that Simon had relented. They'd been working on the plan for a while, but refused to implement it until they were both sure.

Which meant that the males on the ship all had an excuse to annoy the hell out of River by always trying to help her. If Simon wasn't making sure she ate, Thomas would be snitching to Jayne when she yawned at the dinner table. Which would invariably lead to Mal ordering River to go for a nap, much to the Slayer's consternation.

Inara, Kaylee and Zoe argued on her behalf, but the men were adamant. Finally River had snapped one day that she would turn them all inside out if they kept annoying her. That had shut them up…largely because she was the only person in the 'verse who could possibly do it.

Probably wouldn't even use her hands.

So their fussing was somewhat more controlled. Still, now that her body was almost back to its original condition it was her mind that was creating problems. The Crymeth had in some ways allowed her to suppress her abilities, if only while under the influence, and the withdrawals had been a difficult time for the entire crew. She'd worked hard to keep the worst hidden, although her husband and brother were growing suspicious. Book's meditation techniques had once allowed her to focus solely on the movements of her muscles, giving her respite from the voices in her head, from the alternate realities that trickled in front of her eyes. But unlocking the darkness of her mind was producing a strain, and it was starting to become noticeable.

Still, today was a good day. Jack was anxious and excited for his upcoming birthday dinner, especially when they'd informed him on the guest list. The Cobb brothers were visiting for the boy's birthday, and they'd brought their employer with them. Badger had been thrilled to offer them the job as his security team, largely because they were the only people in the 'verse that he trusted, apart from Reynolds crew.

Besides, they were mighty intimidating, even without their growly faces.

Kaylee and Inara started ordering the boys to haul their purchases up to the galley. Mal had been generous, giving them free reign of the ship's credit account, and Inara wasn't ashamed to say they'd taken full advantage. Not only was it Jack's fourth birthday, but today also marked exactly six months since they'd taken River back. They followed the Cobb's upstairs to monitor their progress.

Jayne sat on a crate, pulling River closer to him. She'd seemed a little off lately (the Jayne of years ago scoffed in his head), more so than usual at least. Something was getting her twitchy. She ran a slim finger along the fresh ink on his arm. Whilst picking up his brothers from Badger's offices on Persephone the Cobb's had added to their already excessive tattoo collections.

The artist had been pleased at the number of customers until they told him what they wanted. It wasn't difficult, just time consuming. But there was a reason they always went to him, his work was always good, and he was quiet. It he wondered why every single brother had the same two fresh parallel scars below their shoulder blades he didn't say a word. Each brother now had the word SERENITY running along his shoulder blades in large black lettering.

When Mal found out what they were planning he'd demanded to go with them. Then Zoe wanted to come too, Wash didn't want to be left out, and Book decided a little rebellion later in life wasn't such a bad thing. Kaylee had found the idea so shiny she couldn't resist, and she'd dragged along Simon, who had taken the good natured teasing of Lucas and Thomas while he lectured them all about infection rates. And then resigned himself to getting the word inscribed on his wrist. And then surprised them all by getting Marina on his other wrist.

Jayne had clapped his shoulder proudly. "Didn' know ya had it in ya, doc." Simon had grinned at him wickedly, and Jayne wondered what other secrets the doctor might be hiding.

Now almost every member of their crew had the name of their ship tattooed somewhere on their bodies. Actually, all of them had it, but there was no way Inara was telling anybody about the little Chinese symbol for serenity just above her right buttock.

And no power in the 'verse would pry the information out of Mal.

The Cobb's had added another design. Each of their right forearms was adorned with a large flower, a lily. The sketch was simple black ink, kept plain enough that it wouldn't look too girly. River had drawn the picture for them and she'd watched as the artist carefully inscribed her daughter's emblem on each of her uncles' arms. When Jayne had shown his daughter she'd smiled up at him proudly. She understood.

The last one had been only for Jayne. Across the left side of his chest, right over his heart, was a of Reaver war blade and a barbaric axe crossed over pair of ballet slippers. His wife's name was scrawled underneath. The first night he'd shown it to her she had spent hours trailing her fingers over his chest, outlining the little crest he'd asked the artist to create. Every night before they fell asleep she gave him three kisses; one on his cheek, one on his chest, one on his lips.

He used his finger to bring her face up, forcing her to meet his eyes. "What's goin' on baby?"

She shrugged, dissembling, hiding something in those dark eyes. "Portents; little value without other components and variables present." He sighed. Whenever she was feeling uncomfortable she still slipped back into that slightly poetic, wordy manner of speaking. He brought her face closer to his, kissing her quickly before standing.

They needed to get to Jack's birthday party. His brothers had to be back on Persephone with Badger tomorrow. As much as the little man had delighted in bringing on board more toys than Jack could possibly play with in a life time, he still had a business to run, and he wasn't comfortable without his hand-picked security team.

As he walked with her to the galley he didn't notice the faraway look in her eyes as something millions of miles across space whispered through her mind. The lilting whisper had been growing stronger and stronger over the last few weeks, trickling into her mind unannounced, uninvited.