Keep the Streets Empty for Me

The explosion rocked the ship, sending the crew flying.

In the cockpit Wash hit his head on the control panel and fell off of his chair, covering his head to protect it from more damage as a rain of plastic dinosaurs fell around him.

In her shuttle Inara, already kneeling, desperately grabbed at the candles and lit sticks of incense that surrounded her-threatening to topple to the floor and start a fire; cringing at the sound of priceless china breaking.

In the med bay Simon, preparing a new dose of medicine for River, smacked into one of the cabinets and sprawled to the floor, watching in horror as vials of medicine fell from the shelves, sending glass shards skittering musically across the floor.

Slowly, the shaking stopped, and the last vial teetered on the edge of a shelf before falling lazily to the floor, breaking open to spill the purple liquid.

After several more seconds, Simon slowly stood up, wincing at the pain in his back, and dashed out of the infirmary, yelling for the rest of the crew.

He ran into Inara in the corridor, sporting several red burn marks on her hands, and Wash joined them a few seconds later, a nasty bruise already developing on his forehead.

"What happened?" Simon gasped, hoping that the engine wasn't about to explode and send them to a fiery death.

Inara and Wash shared a terse look, worry radiating from them.

"What is it?" Simon demanded, looking back and forth wildly. Wash answered, his voice shaking.

"It was something in town," he said. "Something exploded."

Simon felt the color drain from his face.

"No," he breathed, glancing wildly at Inara, hoping for reassurance. Inara's face, just as pale as his own, provided none.

Letting out a strangled cry, he whirled, running for the cargo bay. Footsteps pounded after him, and he heard Inara calling his name. He ignored them, running faster.

River was in town, and Kaylee. He couldn't lose them, either of them. He just couldn't.

He threw himself at the cargo bay's doors, smacking the button to raise them. Slowly, painfully, they started to open.

By then Inara and Wash had caught up to him. Inara had a hand on his arm while Wash pleaded with him.

"They'll be fine Simon," he reassured him, eyes glued on the rising cargo doors. "I mean, Mal and Zoe are with them. And Jayne. They can't be dead." His voice cracked on the last word, making his words much less convincing.

"Please Simon, just wait," said Inara, her voice much more soothing. "Just for a little while." Simon hesitated and then nodded, conceding defeat.

He walked outside sucked in a breath. Behind him, Inara made a sound like a whimper.

To the north of Serenity was a thick forest, with a single dirt path cutting a direct path back to the ship. The town of Boreas was on the other side of the woods, nestled into a small clearing, much like the one Serenity was parked in.

And hovering over the general area of the town was a thick black cloud which billowed high into the air. Even from here Simon could smell the smoke, so thick he could almost taste it.

Wash stumbled forward, seemingly unaware of what he was doing as he moved towards the path. Now it was Simon's turn to grab Wash and tug him back to the ship where Inara was waiting.

Together they sat, their eyes glued to the path, waiting.

The minutes ticked past as they waited, the sun beating down in defiance of the black cloud, which only continued to grow.

At the half hour mark Wash started to ramble, and Simon wasn't sure whether he was praying or talking to himself.

"I'll throw away my dinosaurs," he whispered. "just let her come back. Please."

Simon turned away, not wanting to hear anymore. Wash only had one person out there, he had two.

His eyes were beginning to smart from not blinking for long stretches of time, but he was unwilling to lose sight for even a second.

The minutes continued to pass, and Simon shifted, trying to relieve the ache that was growing in his leg. Inara moved forward, misreading his intentions, and placed her hand on his.

Wash stood up suddenly and walked into the ship. Simon turned around, feeling slightly worried about what the pilot was going to do.

When he re-emerged from the ship thirty seconds later, he was clutching several of his precious dinosaurs.

Simon watched as Wash stood there, the toys clutched in his hands, and tried to summon up any emotion besides the deadness that seemed to fill him. There was nothing.

Wash stood there for a few more seconds and then hurled the dinosaurs down the path and out of sight before sitting back down next to Inara, his face void of emotion.

Inara put an arm around him, but he shook it off. Inara seemed to understand that the only woman he wanted to hug him right then was his wife, and she didn't push him.

And they turned once more to the path.

The first person to appear was River, almost an hour later. She walked, so gracefully she was almost dancing, out of the forest, emerging from the trees as if she was part of them.

She looked perfect, untouched, her long black hair flowing down her back. Her long white dress was gray with ash but unripped, falling to her feet which, Simon noted with amusement, were bare. The only thing out of place were her arms.

From her elbows down River's arms were red, scarlet even. The blood dripped off her fingers as she walked, seemingly unaware of the liquid gloves she was wearing.

Simon stood, dropping Inara's hand, and moved forward, stopping almost a foot in front of his sister. She stared up at him, her large brown eyes calm.

"I came back," she said, her voice almost teasing. She paused, her expression turning serious. "No power in the 'verse can stop me," she promised.

Simon felt his lips twitch into a smile as he stared down at the face he had feared he would never see again.

River's red, dripping hand reached up, lightly touching his cheek. Simon didn't care that a bloody handprint was left behind.

He stepped forward and wrapped his arms around her, holding her close to him, not caring that his hair and clothes were rapidly becoming a sticky, bloody mess.

Finally he pulled away, his eyes dropped to her arms, which were still red.

"Are you hurt?" he asked, his hands already tracing the blood, trying to find its source. He couldn't get his sister back just to lose her again.

River gave him a small smile and tugged her arms away.

"Not mine," she told him serenely. Simon breathed a sigh of relief and pulled her back into his arms.

By now Inara and Wash were there, hovering behind Simon. When he released her Inara immediately grabbed her and pulled her into a tight hug, not caring either that her expensive silk dress was being destroyed.

Wash suddenly stepped in and pulled River away, turning her to face him.

"Have you seen the others? Is Zoe okay?" he asked. River gave him a small shrug.

"Scattered, split up. Different corners of the Earth-that-was. Then there was fire and smoke and people. Voices got too loud and I ran. Came back here, wanted to see Simon."

She spun out of Wash's grip and moved back to Simon, her small hand seeking his out.

Wash's face twisted with misery, then smoothed out, and he sat, his gaze once again fixated on the road. Inara sat down next to him and Simon next to her, pulling River onto his lap.

She curled up into a ball, her head tucked under his chin, his arms wrapped around her thin frame; and together, they waited.

Zoe came next, as the shadows were lengthening and the sun was traveling across the sky.

She walked with a limp, one arm wrapped around a red stain on her stomach. The other was clenched at her side.

Wash let out a noise somewhere between a scream and a yelp and leapt to his feet, throwing himself at Zoe.

She wrapped one arm tightly around him then pulled away, opening her clenched fist to reveal four dinosaurs.

"What are these?" she asked, her voice level. Wash reached to take the dinosaurs, and Zoe relinquished them.

"Don't do that again," she told him. Wash gave her a small smile, and Simon felt slightly stunned that Zoe was chiding Wash for throwing away his toys when she was just in a life-and-death experience.

Then she took a step forward and stumbled, her arm tightening around her stomach. Simon made a move to stand up, but River caught his shoulder and gave him a small shove downwards.

"Nothing you can do," she whispered softly. "Scratch, graze, no painkillers." Simon nodded, though it grated on his nerves that most of his medicine and painkillers had been destroyed.

Zoe waved Wash off and dropped to the ground.

"I've had worse," she muttered through gritted teeth. "It's just a scratch, a graze. I don't need any painkillers."

"That's good," Simon told her from his spot. "Because they were all destroyed. The explosion got us here."

Zoe smiled slightly, then sobered, her eyes suddenly sad.

"We split up," she said, her voice thick. "Kaylee wanted to go shopping, and Book went with her. River started screaming, and she was attracting attention, so I pulled her into a shop to calm her down while Jayne went with Mal. And then, there was a noise and I turned around for a minute and River was gone, so I went after Mal." She stopped, the tears coming faster now.

"There was a sound, and then there was fire and smoke and everything went flying," she continued. Wash was hugging her, and Inara was leaning closer, eyes terrified.

"Jayne's dead," Zoe concluded. "I saw him. Got thrown into a building. Ain't no one that can survive that."

Inara grabbed her arm, her fingers digging in.

"What happened to Mal?" she asked, her voice high. Zoe bit her lip and looked away.

"He was in the part of the building that exploded," she whispered finally.

Zoe turned away, burying her face into Wash's chest, shoulders shaking. Inara stared at the path, face white, eyes wide.

"Oh god," she whispered. "Oh god oh god oh god." Tears were streaming down her face, sparkling like diamonds. River uncurled herself like a cat from Simon's lap, her arms reaching out to her, blood now dried and brown-red instead of scarlet.

Inara seemed beyond caring now, not even registering River's arms around her.

River suddenly released her, standing up and turning towards the woods.

"The shepherd," she whispered, smiling slightly. "Book!" It came out as a scream as she launched herself at Book who was staggering out of the woods, his hair escaping his tie and covered in blood.

Book hugged her back as he surveyed the scene, eyes worried. They took in the sobbing Inara, the tearful Zoe and Wash, and Simon, who was standing slightly behind River, looking vaguely confused.

"Mal," he said, a statement rather than a question, and Simon nodded.

There was something else, Simon knew, something he was forgetting. He struggled with his memory, trying to remember. In the end, it was River who reminded him.

Peeling herself away from the shepherd she stared up at him, eyes wide.

"Kaylee?" It came out as no more than a breath, but it caught the attention of them all. Even Inara's sobs slowed as she looked up. Simon closed his eyes, remembering.

How could he have forgotten? The happy mechanic who was a friend-rapidly becoming something else-to him.

Book closed his eyes and shook his head, a single tear trickling down his cheek. River let out a sob that morphed into a scream and collapsed, shaking, into a ball. Simon dropped down next to her, clutching her to him. He had to be strong, for her.

They took off; the new captain, the pilot, the doctor, the shepherd, and the genius.

In the end, they had to leave Inara behind. She had sat, unmoving, staring into the now-dark forest, ignoring their pleas, waiting for her hero to come home.