Chapter Twenty-Five

One last time I remind you that no copyright infringement is intended, and there is no money made from this work. Only the original ideas and characters are my own.

FIREFLY

The sun was not yet up when Jayne emerged from the tent, his body heavily marked with the paint that identified him as a deMuertos. In his hand was the massive knife taken from the ashes of his home many years ago, almost all that remained of his former life. Of what little that still connected him to this land and people.

The Judge was waiting for them in the circle, rawhide in hand. Jayne watched the man he knew only as the leader of the team that had tried to kill him and Chelsa approached from the other direction, accompanied by the Dos Osos shaman. Without waiting to be told, Jayne stepped inside the circle. His opponent did the same.

"You each know the laws that govern this contest," the Judge said in their native tongue. "You know the consequence of breaking them, as well. Should you do so, you will forfeit, as will your people. Is that understood?" Both men nodded.

"Your hands," he ordered. Each man extended his off-hand, gripping the other's forearm. It became a jostling match of its own as his opponent tried to out muscle Jayne. Unable to do so he fought to gain some kind of leverage instead, but again failed.

"Enough," the Judge ordered. "Such is beneath you," he chided. The man stopped at once, chastened. Jayne simply looked at him.

The Judge stepped forward and presented the cord to each man, then to the onlookers, Joseph Ironhorse among them. It had been noted by several that Flint was absent, as was his daughter.

Presentation made, the Judge quickly wrapped the chord around the grasped arms, binding the two men together. Both tested the bond, but it was strong.

"When I give the command you will fight," the Judge ordered. "There will be a winner," his voice pronounced with finality. "The Spirit shall judge between you." With that he stepped back.

One sneered at Jayne, though careful to keep his knife hand down or face disqualification. Jayne's face remained impassive.

"Nothing to say?" One taunted.

"My blade speaks for me," Jayne said simply, otherwise not reacting to the taunt.

"Na kiah!" the Judge's voice prevented further interaction, and combat was joined as One ripped his knife up, edge up, attempting to end the fight before it truly began. Steel clanged against steel as Jayne's blade blocked the move neatly. Surprise shown briefly in his opponent's eyes, though he masked it quickly as the two began to move around each other.

The rules were simple. Step outside the circle and you lost. Die, and you lost. Cheat, and you lost. There were no other rules.

The two men circled one another, One wary now. He had won with that move on several occasions over the years. To have it so easily blocked had come as a shock. But he was a seasoned warrior and recovered quickly.

Jayne's knife shot out suddenly, almost too quick to see, aimed at One's gut. Having seen no warning of the blow, One was slow to respond and his eyes widened as he realized that his middle was unprotected. Even as he moved to block, he knew he would be too late.

At the last minute, Jayne's knife changed course, instead slicing his opponents knife arm as he moved to protect himself. One recoiled, then dropped to a guard position, his eyes questioning.

"It will not be so quick," Jayne's voice was as cold as spring water, as soft as a lamb's skin. One knew then that he had made a mistake in making an enemy of this man, and in underestimating him.

Fortunately, Flint had made arrangements for that. He almost smiled, but caught himself. It would not do to give himself away.

FIREFLY

Goldie watched the fight grimly, recognizing a move that he had actually taught Jayne many years past. He chuckled darkly at the look on the other man's face. Surprise.

He took a moment to check his surroundings. So far no one had shown up to check on the dead shooters, or to replace them. Or simply to add a shot of their own. He reached for his com and touched his transmit button once. He heard two clicks, then three, then four as the others checked in. Satisfied, Goldie turned his attention back to the fight.

FIREFLY

Mal wasn't surprised to see Zoe sitting in the cargo bay when he tried to slip aboard in the early light.

"Late night, sir?" she said calmly.

"Of a sort," he nodded in agreement. "Our quartet of do gooders make it back yet?" he tried to keep his voice light.

"Won't be until its over," she shook her head. "Just in case," she added. "Take it you might have seen someone you were looking for?" she asked.

"Might," Mal nodded, taking a seat beside her.

"Reckon you'll be seeing him again?" Zoe asked.

"Doubt it," Mal's voice was flat this time. Final.

Before Zoe could say anything else the airlock cycled again. Both tensed, then relaxed as River came through the door. Neither reacted to seeing the former assassin covered in blood.

"Keeping bad company, 'Tross?" Mal inquired calmly.

"Somewhat," she smiled faintly, almost humming. "You look very pleased with yourself Baba," she remarked. Mal knew she already knew what he had done.

"I am very pleased, in fact," he assured her. "You might wanna get cleaned up a bit 'fore the others wake up," he added. River looked down at the blood staining her dress and grimaced.

"I really liked this dress," she frowned.

"I'm sure we can find you another one," Zoe almost smiled but caught it at the last minute.

"I suppose," River nodded, sounding as if she suddenly no longer cared so much for the dress, anyway. "I'll just go and shower, I think," she added, heading for the stairs.

"Good idea."

FIREFLY

One was bleeding from a dozen places now, two of them heavily. So far he had not managed to land a single blow to his opponent, either. He was becoming desperate now, and wondered when the men in the woods would take their shot.

A sudden thought occurred to him that should have hit him much sooner; what if Flint had ordered them not to shoot until he, One, was at the brink of death himself? And wouldn't it just be too bad if he perished from his wounds in spite of being the survivor. No one could claim that Flint had 'rigged' the fight if his own champion was killed as well. Right?

"Just think of something, kacheen?" Jayne taunted for the first time, using an insult guaranteed to anger any Tokalan male.

"Thinking of my reward when you are dead," he tried to sound confident, but even as he spoke Blood Knife's blade spoke true and took his blood once more.

"How long can you last, child killer, with so much of your yellow blood now staining the ground? Jayne inquired casually. "I had hoped for longer, but your color is already looking bad. You're less yellow now and more beige, I guess," he taunted.

"I'm enough for you!" One lunged, his blade aiming for Jayne's middle in a desperate attempt to end the fight. It might have been the move Jayne had waited for, or not. The end was the same.

FIREFLY

Joseph frowned as he watched Ironhorse play with his opponent. He understood now, more than ever, why he would not entertain any notion of being the clan's leader. Little of his raising remained in him now. No true man of the Blood would toy like this with an opponent.

The years had not been kind to this man. His psyche damaged beyond repair in many ways, he recognized that he was no longer fit to lead his own people, regardless of their desire.

This show was sure to raise that issue among other tribal leaders present, but Joseph could handle that so long as Ironhorse did not remain among the People. And his specter would long hang above the lands of deMeurtos as a warning to those who might seek to harm them in the future.

He was certain that the Man Called Jayne had thought of that as well, even as he watched One's insides spill onto the ground and the light leave his eyes.

Yes, the Ironhorse clan would be allowed to rebuild in peace. Of that he was certain, now.

FIREFLY

Jayne's face was still impassive as the Judge stepped in to release him from the binding, afterward kneeling to ensure that One was, in fact, dead.

He took Jayne's knife hand and raised it shoulder high.

"The victor," he said simply before lowering the hand once more. He looked at Jayne, then. Jayne looked back, still impassive. Cold. Unmoved.

"It will be good to see you leave," the man admitted softly.

"I would not want to remain in a place that raised a child killer," Jayne taunted the Judge then, the older man's face flushing at the implied barb. "The ghosts of my people hide themselves in shame of what this land has become," Jayne couldn't resist adding, contempt dripping from his words. With that he left the older man standing in the blood and guts of another as he left the circle, completely justified in all that he had seen and done. Joseph turned to elders assembled to watch and raised a questioning eyebrow.

"The issue is decided, now and for all time," the council's president nodded. "You shall have your seat, Joseph. Sit well within it."

"I intend to," he nodded, then turned to where Jayne approached.

"Clean yourself and then I have somewhere to take you," he ordered softly. "There are those who wish to see you." Jayne looked at him a long minute, then nodded. After a piercing look at the elders, he followed Joseph away.

FIREFLY

"Let's boogie," Goldie ordered shortly as soon as the fight was over. The four met at a pre-decided place and made their way back to the ship as unobtrusively as possible. Only Mal, Zoe and River were yet awake to see the four of them enter the ship splattered with blood and wearing very satisfied looks.

"Done?" Mal asked, trying to appear disinterested.

"Completely," Goldie nodded. "And in style," he added with a nasty grin. The four moved to clean themselves up, Zoe following Goldie to 'help'. Mal sighed as he sat in the silence with River.

"Thank you," River said softly, once they were alone. She didn't have to say what for.

"Welcome," was all Mal said in reply.

By the time the others were awake, the rest were clean and ready for breakfast, telling a somewhat cleaned up account of what had happened.

FIREFLY

Jayne was not surprised to see Mal's new ship, sand worm and all, looming in the windscreen as Joseph drove them.

"I assume there won't be any more trouble," Jayne said simply.

"I think that is a safe assumption," Joseph agreed.

"You see, now, why I can't stay," Jayne said after a minute and Joseph nodded.

"I am sorry," he offered. "I wish it were not so."

"Me too," Jayne agreed in a rare moment of self-pity. It was gone as soon as it had come. There were no parting words. The two would likely not see each other again. Jayne merely nodded, then gathered his things and headed to the ship. Joseph watched him go, then departed. He had a great deal to do, now that all of this was settled.

When he entered the cargo bay, the others were all standing there, waiting. River walked up to him slowly, though she wanted to run. When she reached him, she looked up at him and smiled softly.

"You missed breakfast."

FIREFLY

The trip back to Argo was calmer than the trip out had been, at least for a week. One week in, almost to the hour, Kaylee awoke with a start. While she realized at once what had happened, it still took her a minute to catch up.

"SIMON!!"

FIREFLY

Inara, Chelsa and Blade assisted Simon in the infirmary as the rest walked and stalked outside, waiting for the baby.

"Ain't right, a man has to deliver his own baby," Goldie shook his head. "He ought to get to be worried like a normal dad would."

"Simon has always been able to separate himself from things like that," River shrugged, sitting with Jayne. "He will panic later, thinking of all the things that could have gone wrong and how bad it might have been. Right now he is as cool as ice."

At just that moment Mister Ice walked out of the infirmary, smiling broadly.

"A healthy boy," he beamed. And then fainted, Jayne barely catching him in time to keep him from cracking his head on the deck.

"See?" River smiled, feeling completely validated.

FIREFLY

"I'm telling you it was low blood sugar!" Simon said for perhaps the fiftieth time.

"If you say so, brother dear," River petted his head, smiling fondly.

"I didn't have time to eat anything and I was hungry!" he added, realizing he was losing but unable to keep fighting.

"Yes, we know," River cooed, almost as if she would to a baby. All this did was make Simon more angry, which of course was what it was intended to do.

"All right, 'Tross, that's enough," Mal chided gently. "Your brother's entitled to a fainting spell now and again, considering how many times he's saved us all at one time or another."

"True," she nodded, then kissed Simon's temple.

"Thank you," Simon tried in vain to salvage his dignity. In truth, River could have said pretty much anything she wanted to since he had a healthy son a recovering wife in the sick bay. There wasn't much that could ruin something like that.

FIREFLY

Baby Tam was five days old when the crew disembarked, Simon and Kaylee heading straight for the clinic to give their new addition a complete once over and to allow the Frye clan to see baby Ethan Malcolm Tam.

"How 'bout that," Mal had run his thumbs under his suspenders like old times when the couple had announced the baby's name.

"Don't let it go to your head," Jayne had scoffed. "Most likely it was guilt."

Jayne had not had much to say on the way back, and no one had pushed him. He had spoken to River, but what the two had discussed had stayed between them and probably always would.

The birth of Ethan Tam had overshadowed all that in any event, and Jayne was glad, for once.

One wave from Joseph had informed Jayne of Flint's apparent suicide, as well as the murder of Annassa Flint and her retinue. He had strongly suggested that Jayne and his new family not find themselves in the neighborhood again anytime soon. Jayne assured him that was unlikely.

As the group broke up, River looked up at Jayne.

"We're good?" she asked simply.

"We are very good," he leered at her, and she beamed. Taking his hand the two started for the mule that would carry them home. Half-way there, River felt a second of lightheadedness and stumbled slightly before Jayne caught her with ease.

"You okay?" he asked as River placed a hand on her belly and looked slightly pale. Then she looked up at him and smiled softly.

"Oh, yes, my great bear," she said mysteriously. "I am very okay."

FIREFLY

"And here's to Doc bein' a daddy!" Mal didn't quite roar as he toasted Simon, who was already quite inebriated.

"Hear ye!" Wart grinned, raising his glass as did the rest. The men were gathered, as was tradition, on the eve of Mal and Inara's wedding. There had been a near riot among the women but no amount of threats would see the men put off their mission.

After all, it was tradition.

This time however, they were joined by Toby Bontrager, the Greggs brothers, and Ping, all of whom had had one beer to celebrate and then remained steadfastly sober, essentially standing guard at Inara's request.

"I got something to say," Goldie said suddenly, and the table grew quiet. Goldie seldom made such an announcement, instead just speaking when he felt like it.

"I asked Zoe to marry me," he admitted to the suddenly quiet table. No one spoke at first, not sure they had heard right.

"Well, don't everybody congratulate me at once!" Goldie snorted.

"You ain't told us what she said," Mal pointed out, leaning forward on his elbows.

"She said yes of course!" Goldie looked mildly offended. "As if there was any doubt of that," he scoffed. Laughter hooted back at him from around the table. One bar patron threw a hand of cards on the table and started making his way over to complain, only to be intercepted by Leander Greggs and told to amble his way off somewhere else. The hulking deputy made an excellent persuader and soon the complainer was busy with something else.

The bar owner saw this action but said nothing. While his business might suffer tonight for a bit, a small woman had visited him earlier in the day and left a very nice chuck of money with him to cover what she had called 'incidentals'. He had checked a dictionary as he looked at the money and decided that whatever the former sheriff's bachelor party did was going to be perfectly okay with him.

"I don't have to tell you what I'll do to you if you're bad to her, do I?" Mal threatened.

"No, I heard the speeches you made to the rest," Goldie grinned. "Besides, there's nothing you can do to me that Zoe couldn't do better."

"Well, that is true," Mal admitted. "I am getting older in my old age." That elicited another round of laughter from the table, though Mal frowned as if he didn't quite get the joke.

"Congratulations, Goldie," Jayne raised a glass to him, and Goldie nodded silently.

"Same here, man," Liam grinned, and Goldie smiled at the young man that all of them had basically adopted, for all that he had his own family.

"And here," Toby raised a glass of water in Goldie's direction. "May you both be happy for a long time to come."

For once the party broke apart without injury, and the assembled lawmen saw the others home safely.

FIREFLY

The wedding was a civil affair with the Justice of the Peace presiding. Jayne and River had rented the Farmer's Hall for the event at Inara's stiff opposition, but it turned out that the room as needed as practically everyone turned out for the affair. Mal was still well thought of and Inara was equally as popular. George had shut the factory down and declared it a holiday and he and his family, including his sister and her family were there.

Mal, though hungover, was presented otherwise undamaged. Zoe was his best man. In the end there just hadn't been any other choice. It was Zoe who had been with him since the beginning, through thick and thin, never wavering. Goldie had been adamant that he would not be a bride's maid, however.

As the two stood there, waiting, Zoe straightened Mal's tie.

"You look good, sir," she told him.

"Thanks, Zoe."

"I'm proud of you, Mal," she said softly just a minute later and Mal's eyes softened.

"That means a lot to me, you know," he admitted.

"You may never hear it again," she warned, the moment gone. Mal chuckled at the truth, then music started and there was no more time.

First came Goldie with Blade, Wart serving as an usher. Goldie had made much of that selection until Zoe had shut him down, leaving Wart the winner of the gloating contest. Blade's hair was still short, but had evened out into a bob cut, and she was, as Mal had observed, a 'damn fine lookin' woman'. She drew many looks, but she was taken by the short, ugly man at the door, and happily so.

Next was Liam and Chelsa, the former very unhappy and almost constantly tugging at his tie, the latter thrilled to be asked to participate and determined that Liam was just as thrilled. He had learned that this meant he was, indeed, thrilled, tie and all.

Next was Jayne and River, the two of them looking very happy. River had a glow herself, now, and her dress was just a bit too tight across the belly. She had known as soon as the dizzy spell what had happened, but for Jayne's peace of mind relented to see Simon two days later. When her brother confirmed that she was, indeed, going to be a mother, Jayne's face had lit up like a Christmas tree in surprise.

Of course Jayne had since begun treating her as if she might break at any minute. Even that could not diminish her joy at finding herself a mother to be. She had already made plans to visit Astra with Kaylee and several others 'looking for baby stuff', which Jayne knew meant spend money.

Finally was Simon and Kaylee, the latter recovered enough to make her way up the aisle as Inara's Maid of Honor. Again, there had really been little choice in that. Kaylee had been Inara's friend through it all, and was as loyal as they came. She was still carrying the weight she had gained with the baby, but had that glow that made all pregnant women and new mothers beautiful. An obviously hung over Simon still looked like a preening rooster next to his wife and mother of his child.

Finally, Braz Guilford appeared, Inara on his arm. He wore a powder blue tuxedo that matched Inara's gown color, a beautiful oriental number with delicate embroidery in silver running all along it. There was a train of matching lace behind her, and a head piece with matching veil completed her outfit. The gown might have been just the slightest bit tighter than decorum might dictate, and might have drawn just a bit too much male attention, but no one would say anything. Inara wasn't wearing that gown for them.

She was wearing it for only one man.

Mal watched her coming down the aisle and wondered again at the long and winding road that had led to this place, in this moment. To him standing before an altar waiting for Inara Serra to be his wife.

He simply could not credit it to anything other that divine intervention, something he had steadfastly ignored even speaking of for a very long time. But what else could have placed him here, right now, about to wed to this most wonderful and unique woman? He couldn't provide an answer for that, and stopped trying as Inara made it to him and the music died away.

"Hi," he said softly as he took her hand in his.

"Hi, yourself," she smiled through the veil. They both turned to look at the JP as the folks in the crowd took their seats.

"Friends, family, and interested onlookers," the man smiled at the titters of laughter in the audience. This line had been from Mal, with Inara's complete approval. The rest was hers.

"We gather here, in the presence of all, to unite this man and woman in the bonds of matrimony," the JP continued. "Before we proceed, who brings this woman here, today, and offers her hand?"

"I do," Braz Guilford stood and answered formally. "With great pride and joy," he added, beaming at Inara.

"Very well. Before us are Malcolm and Inara, two souls that have found each other across both time, and space. Together, they had forged a bond that has weathered many storms. . . ."

FIREFLY

The reception was a gala affair, again at Jayne and River's treat. Both Mal and Inara had objected, again, but Jayne had a reply for that;

"What's the point of having all that money if you don't spend it?"

Neither had an answer for that, and didn't bother protesting again.

The gifts were varied and sundry, with a week at the same resort that Jayne and River had attended being offered by Braz Guilford and George Harwell.

"You suffered a great deal on our behalf," Braz said simply. "Please accept it with our thanks."

Jayne and River agreed to let their contributions to the wedding be their gift, happy to just be there and see it happen.

The party went on for some time until finally Zoe stood, ringing her glass as was her duty as best man.

"To the bride and groom!" she announced loudly, and every glass was raised in salute.

"Those of us who have watched them over the years have seen some truly spectacular fights," she went on to raucous laughter. "We've also seen acts of love, of tenderness, and of sacrifice. While the two of them would probably have denied it, we all saw this coming. It was merely a matter of time, that's all."

"So to Mal, and Inara, may your future be as trouble free as your past was troublesome," she offered. "Know that we love you."

Everyone cheered as the taciturn Zoe sat down again. She had worked for some time deciding what to say, and everyone felt she had hit things just right.

Others spoke at times, including Braz, Toby, and several others. All agreed that this had been a long time coming, but was as inevitable as spring rains. At times there were tears, and others laughter, but everyone was happy.

Finally it was time for the happy couple to head on their way and everyone gathered together for Inara to loft her bouquet. At the last moment however, she simply turned and walked straight to Zoe, handing the flowers to her directly.

"May you be blessed," she said simply, embracing Zoe and placing a gentle kiss on each cheek. Not even Zoe could stay stern for that, and a single tear escaped her left eye. Inara gently wiped it away before returning to Mal's side. She was cognizant of Zoe's place in Mal's life, and did not want Zoe to think she wasn't. Ever.

Soon afterward the two were on their way to their honeymoon destination and the others were breaking apart, a crew hired by River already moving in to clean up as the family gathered the gifts to take to their house.

FIREFLY

There would be strife, of course. No life is without it, whatever the source. There would be pain, there would be loss, there would be all those things that life simply is not life without.

There would be homes, laughter, tears, anniversaries, birthdays, Christmas presents.

And there would be children. There would be a legacy on Argo that would never die. Mal had desired to put down roots, for his small family to have a home and be part of something bigger than they were. And they would.

Sons and daughters would become grandchildren. Descendants would lead, would build, would dream. And occasionally turn outlaw, of course. One might argue that it was inevitable, given the gene pool. Practically in their blood, Mal would have said. Yet even those would always be part of that family that grew and prospered and flew ships into the black to distant places.

When war would come again, many of them would serve, following in the footsteps of their ancestors. When service was required to their home in any form, those who bore the names, or at least the blood, of Reynolds, Tam, Cobb, Frye, Greggs, Tarrant and others would answer those calls, and do their names and their ancestors proud.

And Argo would always know that Serenity had dwelt among them.

FIREFLY

AND SO, it ends. I am at once happy, sad, relieved, anxious, and other things I can't find words for. Where do I start to thank you all? What do I say that I haven't offered you already over the years? I hope you all have always known how much I have appreciated your comments, your encouragement, even your corrections. There aren't enough words for that, to be honest.

And nor does it seem real that this adventure with you has stretched so far and so long. Looking back, it has been an incredible journey in and of itself. As I leave this one to start again with Stormcrow as well as others, a thousand thank you's would not even be a good start for this wonderful experience you have given me. Rather than try, I will simply say it once last time;

Thank you.

May you all be blessed. And as ever, Happy Reading.

Sincerely, Bad Karma aka N.C. Reed

N C Reed