Chapter 22. Time to go.

by Kispexi2

[Story Headers]

Time to go.

Yet more thanks to wedjateye whose beta-ing is nothing short of brilliant.

The warm yellow glow from Serenity's tail swells and intensifies, shifting through gold and silver to shafts of blinding white light and then she's gone, hard-burning through the Black which slams shut behind her, obscuring her path.

The late Mrs Burgess' pilot stares dumbstruck out of the viewports, unable to believe any sane pilot would risk such a manoeuvre in a vessel of that type.

"Bring her round!" Saffron snaps at him. "Bring her round, you piece of crap! More thrust! They're getting away."

Luckily for Saffron, this ship once belonged to Rance Burgess, a man with a passion for all things high tech. He drew up her specifications himself and spent a lot of money on having her specially crafted, making her one of the most advanced, responsive vessels in the 'verse. His widow told Saffron so not two days back.

The pilot's hesitation in complying with his new employer's order, earns him a touch of cold metal just below his left ear.

"I can fly this thing myself if I have to," Saffron informs him in a honey sweet tone.

"You know this is ruttin' crazy, don't ya?" Jayne grumbles. "Even if we do outrun 'em through the Black, soon as we land the Feds're gonna snatch us for sure."

"Mmmm." Kaylee's only half-listenin'. Gotta get this circuit back up. She tucks a handful of loosened screws into the pocket of her overalls an' holdin' the screwdriver between her teeth so she has both hands free to adjust the wirin', gestures to Jayne to pass the solderin' iron.

Summat mighty distractin' about the way she's bitin' on that tool. The mercenary gives hisself a shake an' hands the iron over.

"Don't know why we're botherin'," Jayne continues. "Ain't like she's crew. Hell, she ain't even sleepin' with crew. Can't see the percentage in us puttin' our lives on the line for-"

Kaylee turns on him with a frown, holdin' out her hand for the solder. Jayne flinches a tad under her look of disapproval.

"I'm jus' sayin'," he protests defensively. "It don't make no sense."

The Director heaves a sigh of relief. A Firefly class vessel may manage one short voyage on hard burn without shaking itself to pieces, but certainly not two in succession. This time River Tam and her brother will not escape. They will be apprehended in the vicinity of Xuefang and transferred to the IAV Unity to await retrieval. The ship they're travelling on - Serenity - will be decontaminated as a matter of course. The Unity also.

For the first time in months the Director's hand does not shake as he pours himself a well-earned glass of aged New Canaan brandy.

He checks his schedule. The elections to Alliance High Command are less than a month away. Without River Tam their outcome would be far from a certainty.

Simon makes his way resolutely back to the infirmary with River trailing after him, arms clasped around her waist as she fights the pain filling her gut. The pain filling Simon's gut. Poor Simon, he's given up so much already, got so used to losing.

Thermometer. Sphygmomanometer. Local anaesthetic. Analgesics. Weaves.

As Simon fills his medical bag, he wishes to all diyu he had even the most basic haemostatin. Inara would have her own supplies had she not generously given Simon her last dose of anahaemofluxin. The medic sighs. How can he hate her? He can't - even if she is about to snatch Mal away from him.

"Wants forever," River says quietly handing Simon a pack of sterile gloves. "Family. Doesn't want to lose again."

To be on the safe side, Simon picks up a pack of broad spectrum antibiotics and drops it into the bag. What else does he need? Antiseptic, wo de tian, he almost forget the antiseptic!

Why won't he listen? River puts a hand on her brother's forearm. "He wants two by two, Simon. Two - not three. If you love someone, let them go."

Simon says nothing - merely keeps placing items into his bag.

It's River who lets out the little moan of anguish. She blinks at her brother, astonished. No. That wasn't what she meant at all. And now he's crumbling inside.

"It's not what you think," she cries, trying to piece him back together.

Simon rounds on her angrily, eyes blazing. "Yes, it is!" he snaps, broken. "It's exactly what I think."

Snatching up the bag, he storms out of the infirmary, leaving River gazing miserably after him. The pictures in her head are so clear but they're locked inside where no-one else can see them.

The change in engine tone tells Mal that Serenity is finally in orbit around Xuefang. He allows Zoe to talk him through the proper procedure for breaking atmo in a shuttle one more time.

"Sure you don't want me to come with you, Sir?" she concludes, hoping he'll change his mind about doing this alone. Could be a trap.

Mal shakes his head. "Need you here. In case ..." No, he ain't gonna say it, or she'll only argue this some more. "Ship's yours Zoe."

With that, he steps inside Shuttle Two. Still thinks of Shuttle One as Inara's - an', should anythin' untoward occur, he can do without her accusin' him havin' mishandled it. Not that he thinks his flyin' skills have gotten that rusty but ...

"If I ain't back within three hours-"

Zoe nods curtly. She knows the drill. Turning back towards the bridge, she finds her path blocked by Simon, who's hurrying stony-faced along the walkway, red medical bag in hand.

The muscles in Mal's cheek tighten. He don't need this. Gotta concentrate on the job in hand. "Seems you're mistaken as to the plan, Doc," he says lightly, flashin' his medic a quick dismissive smile. "I'm goin' alone."

"You are not," Simon contradicts, slipping past him and into the shuttle before Mal can make a move to stop him. "The sooner Inara receives medical assistance, the sooner she'll start to heal. With luck, I should be in time to prevent any serious scarring."

"You ain't comin' an' that's final," Mal insists with the kinda glare that makes most men back off.

'Ceptin' Simon, of course, who stays right where he is, demandin' sharply, "Do you want her to scar?"

The question hangs between them, loaded with all kind of accusations Mal don't wanna examine too closely right now.

Hands ballin' into fists as he fights the urge to seize Simon by the scruff of the neck an' eject him bodily from the shuttle, Mal changes tack.

"Reckon you'd do your thing better in the infirmary," he tries to reason through gritted teeth.

Simon raises an eyebrow. "I hadn't realized you were an expert in cosmetic surgery, Captain."

Out of the corner of his eye, Mal thinks he spots a flicker of amusement cross Zoe's face. "Gorramit," he mutters. "All right then, Doc. Strap yourself in. It's like to be a bumpy ride."

Kaylee stands back and regards her repair work with satisfaction. "That oughta do it."

"All fixed?" Jayne asks admiringly. "Already? Mal's gonna be real pleased you got the ship runnin' proper again so damn quick."

She beams at him with pride. "Cou'n't have done it without you, Jayne."

Jayne grunts and looks away. "Me? I di'n't do much. Was you did all the difficult stuff."

"Yeah. But only cos you got me sobered up. Thanks for that, Jayne. An' for ... well, for not ..." She pulls an exaggeratedly embarrassed face. "Never figured you for a gentleman."

Jayne stuffs his hands into his pockets an' hunches his shoulders up. "Dunno what you're talkin' about."

He ain't blushin', is he? Kaylee's eyes widen. He ruttin' well is! Aww, that's so sweet.

She stretches up on tip-toe to plant a kiss on the big man's cheek. Stubble prickles against her lips but that's kinda nice an' manly like. Jayne don't smell bad neither.

The mercenary eyes her suspiciously. "What was that for?"

Kaylee grins an' punches his arm gently. "Jus' cou'n't help myself."

Book knows they don't have long. Oh, he's not worried about fly-by-night opportunists like bounty hunters. The Alliance, on the other hand, is another matter altogether. That ship will catch up with them - and then what? Prison if they're lucky; death if they're not.

Time like this, a man ought to have the comfort of prayer. Especially a man of God like Book. And yet the Shepherd can't pray, partly because he doesn't want to admit that mortality's bearing down on him but mostly because he's not ready for Judgement Day. Still got a lot of entries on the debit side of his account and not near enough on the credit side.

He works his shaving brush vigorously against the bar of soap in his hand and applies a coating of foam to his day's growth of beard. May yet die unshriven, but at least he'll be clean shaven.

Not that Book's order sets any store by cleansing rituals. Wouldn't have joined it if it had. The irony of trying to distract the Almighty from the filth within by presenting Him with a freshly bathed body would have been too, well, ironical.

Lifting his chin, Book runs a razor up his exposed throat and over the jugular vein. Such a slender thread. No, not an option. Never was. He rinses the soap and whiskers from the blade and strokes it carefully up his throat again.

"You're afraid."

Book jumps at the unexpected sound of River's voice behind him and in his surprise takes a small nick out of the skin on his jawline. Ignoring the way it stings, he smiles gently at the girl. "Can I help you, River?"

She smiles back. "Help one another. Build a fire escape."

Book wipes the rest of the foam from his face with a towel.

"We'll take care of each other, preacher man. I'll knit," River promises. "Give back the apple. Then they can go on without me, not have to worry. Be with the people they want ..."

"Don't think your brother would see it that way."

River rolls her eyes. "He is such a boob."

Simon ain't said a gorram thing since they broke atmo. He's jus' sittin' there - that pretty mouth set in a hard line an' those normally open blue eyes of his shuttered off. He looks distant. Cold. Brittle.

'Course if Mal's truthsome, he's all manner of glad Simon ain't lookin' to talk. What could he say to him? Can't pretend he ain't worried about Inara, cos he is; can't pretend he don't have feelin's for her, cos he does. Wa'n't ever expectin' to see her again. But that ain't the reason he bedded Simon - or at least, not all of it. It's complicated an' Mal'd rather say nothin' at all than the wrong thing.

To Simon the silence is awkward, ominous. Mal hasn't spoken one word to him since they detached from Serenity. All he's done is gaze intently at the planet filling the viewports as if he can already see Inara waiting for him. Waiting for her knight in shining armour to come galloping to her rescue ...

Simon fails to cover the little snort of derision that escapes him with a cough, but Mal doesn't appear to notice. Damn him! All Simon wants is a word, a gesture - anything - to stop him feeling so alone.

Mal darts a sideways glance at him, marvellin' at his composure. It's all right for Simon ruttin' Tam. They train doctors in switchin' their feelings off. Probably second nature to him. Mal's always found it a struggle. His control never feels good enough. It ain't relaxed an' flexible - it's tight an' hard cos that's the only way he knows how to stop his emotions from spillin' over an' swampin' him. He wishes he could find the right thing to say to make this easier for both of them. Wishes he could touch Simon at least - but if he does that, his fragile hold on himself will shatter. An' then Simon will know. Boy's got too many advantages over Mal as it is - don't need to be handin' him any more.

Mal ain't ready to lay down arms jus' yet. Might never be.

Xuefang seems to be coming up awfully fast, Simon realizes with alarm.

"You do know how to land this thing?" he asks nervously as Mal suddenly starts urgently flicking switches and shifting the joystick.

Sarcastic hundan! "You wanna do it, smart ass?" Mal growls at him, yankin' the steerin' wheel back in a last ditch attempt to keep the shuttle's nose up as they come to a bumpin', grindin' halt on the landin' site.

"You're the expert."

The market square is hot and dusty and bustling with people. Shading his eyes against the fierce noonday sun, Mal scans the scene, sure that he could pick Inara out of any crowd, no matter how big. A woman like her stands out.

But she ain't nowhere to be seen. Mayhap Atherton Wing came after her? Mal's heart thumps in his chest and his scrutiny of the square becomes more frantic.

"Over there," Simon tells him in an undertone, mindful of the need not to attract attention. "Outside the cafe."

At first Mal can't see her. Cos he's lookin' for the wrong thing. He's expectin' to see a haughty, self-assured Companion, not a vulnerable, injured woman. When at last his eyes settle on the slight figure seated in the shade of a parasol, it takes him a while to comprehend that it really is her. Gorram unsettlin' to see her like that. Still proud an' self-possessed, but hurt an' needin' him. Mal needs a deep breath or two 'fore he's ready to approach her.

Meanwhile Simon's already making his way over, stopping to peruse the occasional market stall in order to conceal his interest in the veiled young woman clutching a small bundle of belongings on her lap.

Mal prays Simon ain't gonna be dumb enough to fuss over her. Little kindnesses are like knives to the heart when you ain't used to 'em an' Simon's got a gentleness to him that can penetrate the strongest defences.

"Inara," Simon greets the Companion with a formal handshake. "Can you walk?"

She nods once and with effort before getting unsteadily to her feet. Simon is about to offer her his arm but Mal is already doing so and worrying that, hidden behind the row of trees on the horizon, the shuttle is too far away. Inara assures him the distance is no problem.

Simon falls into step on Mal's right and together they walk slowly back through the crowd. None of them speaks, each lost in their own troubling thoughts.

Once again Inara wishes she didn't read people so well.

Simon wishes he were a better, less selfish person.

An' Mal wishes he wa'n't in the middle of this.

Little more than a sigh passes through Serenity as Shuttle Two docks smoothly. When Mal opens the airlock door onto the walkway, he finds Kaylee, Jayne, Zoe and Wash waitin' outside, Kaylee's face alight with happiness at her friend's return, the others' more somber - like they know what to expect.

"Best not be huggin' her, mei-mei," Mal warns the mechanic. "Doc ain't finished workin' on her yet."

Kaylee bites her lip, instantly anxious and subdued. "Shia, Cap'n."

He drops a kiss the top of her head. "Good girl."

"Zao cao," Wash murmurs under his breath as Simon helps Inara out of the shuttle. Her face is a patchwork of weaves - there must be ten, twenty of them - and the skin around her eyes is dark and swollen.

"Welcome home," Zoe says sincerely and without fuss.

Inara's smile is lop-sided. "Xie-xie. It's good to be back."

"'Nara ..." Kaylee begins but has to stop cos her eyes are fillin' with tears.

"All right," Simon says firmly. "I'm afraid I have to insist on taking Inara to the infirmary now."

"Of course," the others agree, standing aside to let them pass.

Immediately Mal starts issuing orders. They ain't out of the woods yet. "Wash, Kaylee - we're gonna need another spell at hard burn an' maybe a crazy Ivan or two. Zoe, Jayne - get the Preacher an' see about settin' up a few lines of defence down in the cargo bay."

Zoe arches a brow. "You got a plan, Sir?"

"Workin' on it," Mal answers an' strides quickly away after Simon an' Inara before she can ask for the details.

People imagine envy is green, but they're wrong. It's not green at all. It's acid yellow. Electric blue. Neon red. Harsh, jagged rays vibrating with hurt and need. They're radiating out from Simon, fizzing and crackling around Inara.

"Piggy in the middle," River whispers with a glance at Mal. His head jerks round and, in that unguarded moment, he can't stop her from seeing it. The envy she evokes in him. It pouring off him, zigzagging yellow and blue and red.

River squeezes her eyes shut against the pain, but she can still hear it screeching through her brain like failing brakes, shredded nerves. Gorram stupid boys. They're so very different and yet so very alike.

Simon removes the cuff from Inara's arm, relieved to see that her blood pressure is normal. Most of her injuries are superficial too, although a couple of the cuts to her face may yet leave scars. Her nose, though swollen and bloody, is not broken.

However Simon fears they may be other, less obvious damage.

"Captain, River - I need to examine Inara properly now. If you wouldn't mind?"

"Right," Mal agrees hastily, wonderin' what the hell he's doin' here anyway when he's got Feds an' bounty hunters to deal with. Trouble is, he don't wanna leave.

Simon senses his reluctance and all those childhood feelings of not being good enough that he thought long buried rise to the surface again. When he was younger Simon always felt second best to his genius sister. Now he's trying to compete with a Companion! No wonder he always loses. He really should stop playing out of his league.

Mal looks from Inara to Simon and seems on the point of saying something but instead straightens his suspenders decisively and exits the infirmary. Simon watches him go, chiding himself for his foolishness in ever having fallen for the Captain when he knew the man's heart already belonged to someone else.

Inara is sitting erect on the exam table, eyes downcast. She would spare Simon this if she could. It isn't fair.

River pads across the room to crouch down in front of the Companion. She reaches out a gentle hand to touch Inara's abdomen. "She'll live," she promises.

Simon gapes at her. "Of course she will!" he exclaims. "Now, please - go."

"There's no reason why you shouldn't go back to your shuttle." Simon eyes the medcot critically. "You'd definitely be more comfortable in your own bed."

"Yes. I will. Thank you, Doctor," Inara replies.

Assuring her there's no need for thanks, Simon turns to write up his notes, but stops when Inara covers his hand with hers. There's no mistaking the entreaty in her expression. "I don't have to ask you not to tell Mal, do I?"

"Of course not," Simon replies, slightly affronted at the implication he might. "But you really need to talk about what happened with someone. Physically, you ought to be fully healed within a matter of weeks, but emotionally, after what you've been through ... it will take time."

"Yes. I know. I will contact the Guild. They have experts trained in dealing with Companions who've been victims of ... assault. And if the Guild won't help me, I still have my friends." She swallows. "But Mal must never know. If he were to find out, there's nothing any of us could say to stop him going after Atherton and he'd end up getting himself killed."

Simon is touched by the fear in her eyes. She's afraid, really afraid for Mal. Because she loves him. And Mal loves her. What's more, she can give him the one thing he craves that Simon never could - a family.

*Two by two.

Love is not 'in love'*.

Simon knows he ought to be glad that Mal has another chance at finding happiness with Inara.

He forces a smile. "I won't tell him."

"If his reputation is to be believed, Captain Reynolds may require a little persuasion before he's ready to make the transfer," Ginger remarks. "A demonstration."

Gaunt nods and locks the laser canon sights onto Saffron's ship.

Mal and Zoe stand behind Wash's chair, watchin' the Alliance hunter speedin' through the Black towards them. Been a long time since Mal felt this ruttin' powerless an' it ain't a feelin' he likes. Not got much of a taste for surrender.

"They're hailing us," Wash says suddenly, hand hovering over the switch to open up a link.

Mal nods grimly. Ain't like they've got a choice.

"Firefly class transport Serenity - this is Alliance Special Agent Cerulean. You are ordered to cut forward drive immediately and maintain your position ready for docking."

"Sir?" Zoe prompts the Captain when he fails to respond.

Mal blinks at her and with effort, pastes on a grin, instructin' Wash to go to visual.

"Captain Harbatkin here, Special Agent Cerulean," Mal announces in as amiable a tone as he can muster. "Uh - is there a problem?"

"Cut drive and prepare for docking. Captain Reynolds."

Mal and Zoe exchange a look.

"You have ten seconds to comply, Captain Reynolds."

Mal hesitates. Can't outrun them, that's for gorram certain but mayhap they can make a fight of it if he lets 'em board.

A sudden explosion of light illuminates the bridge. Mal hears Wash utter a string of Chinese expletives as he realizes the debris spinnin' past their viewports is all that's left of that fancy boat that was tailin' them.

"Last warning, Captain Reynolds."

"We got any way of knowin' how many they got on that boat?" Mal asks Wash urgently.

"Two by two."

Mal spins round to discover River, barefoot again, has crept up silently behind him. Her eyes are huge and terrified.

"Two by two," she repeats in an anguished whisper. "Hands of blue."

Mal takes her gently by the shoulders an' decides to trust his gut instinct that the girl's a reader an' that somehow she knows. "Two? You sure?"

She rolls her eyes impatiently. "Yes!"

"She can't-" Wash's protests but Mal is turnin' to Zoe with a triumphant glint in his eye.

"Hear that?" he asks her cheerfully. "Two of 'em. An' there's nine of us. Of which at least five know how to handle a gun.."

"Won't do any good," River declares mournfully. "Two by two. Hands of blue. This is the way the world ends."

Zoe steps forward to reassure the girl. "It's okay, River. The world ain't gonna end. Captain's got a plan. Right, Sir?"

Mal grins broadly at her an' speaks into the mic. "My pilot is killin' the engines now," he announces, indicatin' that Wash should do jus' that.

"Sensible move, Captain Reynolds," the disembodied voice approves before Mal closes off the link.

"That's our plan?" Zoe asks in disbelief.

Mal's grins widens. "Yeah. We wave the white flag, let 'em dock an' then shoot the hundans as soon as they're through the airlock!"

"They'll kill you." River sounds so certain, it knocks the wind out of Mal's sails a mite. "They'll take me and Simon and they'll kill all of you. Even the babies."

Wash starts. "The babies?" he asks his wife, emphasizing the second syllable. She gives him a not-now- sweetcakes smile.

"Won't be able to do no killin' if'n we shoot them first," Mal declares with a snap of his suspenders.

River sighs. "The world's coming to an end again, Captain. With a bang this time, not a whimper."

Mal goes hot then cold. His mouth sets in a firm line. "No it ruttin' well ain't."

River presses her fingertips to his chest, feeling for his heartbeat. It's strong and steady. Mended now.

"Can't live in Serenity forever, Sergeant."

Mal stands outside the door to Inara's shuttle, waverin'. Hatin' this. He huffs out a lungful of air and raps on the door.

"Qing jin." Inara is carefully unpacking her little bag, placing items neatly back into drawers. Settling back in. She looks up from her task and, unable to hide her surprise that her caller is Mal, decides to explain it. "You knocked!"

Mal shrugs. "Only cos I need somethin' from you."

She smiles. "Really? And what would that be, Captain?"

"Your shuttle."

Confused, Inara stops what she's doing to stare at him. Is he trying to say he doesn't want her back at all? Not even if ..? "Shen me? Why?"

Mal sighs an' slumps down onto her red couch. "Gotta blow the ship up."

Inara's eyes narrow. "Is this your idea of a joke, Mal?"

"Wish it was," he grinds out through clenched teeth. "Got precisely no other options at this juncture. Seems the Feds followin' us ain't ordinary purple-bellies. They're them hands of blue River has nightmares about. Can't let 'em board us or they'll take her. She's just a kid, Inara!"

Mal bites his lip as the memories flood back, clear now. That poor kid. The youngest of the ones who survived. Just a kid but they took her anyway. Other memories - fresher, sharper - rush in too. Simon ... Mal pushes them firmly away. Time for that later. Maybe. If they survive this.

"An' we can't outrun 'em, neither. So River came up with this plan. 'Out with a bang', she calls it. We picked up a load of explosives after you - I mean, after we dropped you on New Melbourne. Gonna wire it to a timer an' set the ship to blow. We do it right, might even take those bastards down too. Meanwhile we make our escape by flyin' in Serenity's shadow so they don't see us. Accordin' to Wash we oughta be off their radar long enough to get far enough away that the explosion don't take us out too. Leastways, that's the theory," he adds with a wry smile.

"But Mal!" Inara exclaims. "You love this ship!"

He grunts an' turns away. Truth is, he loves too many things, too many people. An' he can't keep all of them. "Got a fondness for breathin' too," he mutters. "So if we gotta abandon ship, reckon we might as well do it in style. Which is why I'm askin' for use of your shuttle."

"It's not mine, Mal. It's yours." Inara tells him an' with a start Mal realizes there's somethin' unspoken behind those words - somethin' he's wanted to hear for a very long while. Inara takes a step towards him. "It's all yours, Mal. It always was."

Mal forgets to breathe as her words sink in. Then, suddenly self-conscious and awkward, he starts mumblin' words of gratitude and backin' away towards the door.

"I - uh - gotta go Captain."

Serenity's crew gathers in the dining room. They stand solemnly around the table as Mal outlines the plan. Kaylee takes it hardest. She keeps shakin' her head and arguin' that there must be another way until Mal finally barks at her, "You think I'd be even comtemplatin' this if we had a choice?"

The mechanic's face crumples an' she shakes her head miserably. Jayne glares at Mal but the Captain's already puttin' an arm round Kaylee an' tellin' her he needs her to be brave.

"Okay, listen up," he says, addressing the whole crew once more. "Book, Jayne, Simon - need you down in the cargo bay haulin' those crates back out of the hold. Kaylee, mei-mei - think you an' River can rig up a coupla timers? Good girl. Wash, Zoe - you're on the wirin'. Meanwhile Inara's gonna get her shuttle prepped for your departure. Right - you all got jobs. Go do 'em."

Alone on the bridge, Mal leans into the mic.

"Special Agent Cerulean, this is Captain Reynolds. Special Agent Cerulean - what kind of a name is that? Anyhow, the thing is Special Agent, turns out we got a problem this end. Havin' given it careful consideration, we've decided to pass on your kind offer to board us. Some folks - folks like us - can't see the percentage in lettin' you fellas on this boat. We got doubts as to your intentions - reckon you mean to kill us all. That bein' the case ..."

Mal stops the clock, does a quick calculation and rewinds the tape before setting the first timer.


After pickin' up the second timer from Kaylee, Mal makes his way to the cargo bay. He leans against the railings on the catwalk, suddenly overcome by weariness. How many hours he been awake now? Too many. Specially since the last time he was in bed, it wa'n't exactly a period of unbroken rest. Despite everythin' he can't help but grin at the memory.

Below him Simon an' Jayne are heavin' the last of the crates out of the hold whilst Book drags them off to line the ship's walls. Simon's makin' a valiant effort to keep up with mercenary but Mal ain't too surprised to notice he looks dead beat too. Jayne's talkin' at him about somethin' an' their voices drift up to Mal.

"Can't've been that good if your gonna settle for only doin' it once," Jayne is opining.

"Well, technically, it was twice," Simon, being a stickler for accuracy, corrects him automatically, using his body to rock a crate forward. "And actually it was. Very good," he murmurs, more to himself than Jayne. Book takes the last crate from him and Simon wipes the sweat from his forehead with his arm. He sighs, pulling a regretful face. "But things are different now and I have to accept that. Find a way to deal with it."

Jayne nods, all understandin'. "Like masturbatin'?"

Simon stares at him in disbelief for a moment and then laughs. "Probably."

Book clears his throat but neither Simon nor Jayne follows the direction of his gaze.

Simon assumes he's offended. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to shock you, Shepherd."

The preacher lays a warm hand on his shoulder. "I'm not shocked by love, son." Mal's listening and Book knows it. Might be able to save three souls here instead of one.

"Love!" Jayne (who secretly considers hisself a bit of an expert when it comes to love) scoffs. Love's a lot like trackin'. It's about dogged determination not givin' up at the first hurdle. The Doc wou'n't be throwin' in the towel so easy if what he felt for Mal was love. "Nah," he laughs, winkin' at the Preacher, "That was jus' two fellas gettin' their-"

Book cuts him off quickly to spare them all further embarrassment by conceding "Perhaps I'm mistaken."

Simon takes a deep breath. He's beginning to understand what his sister's been trying to tell him. Real love is not the same as being 'in love'. "No," he says quietly. "You're not."

Books smiles warmly at the medic and gives Mal a pointed look.

The Captain narrows his eyes, a rush of something like anger runnin' hot through his blood. He descends the stairs two at a time and stands before the work party, glowerin'. Jayne looks shifty an' sidles off to replace his weights on the stand. Book gives Mal a knowing half-smile.

Meanwhile Simon flushes beetroot red from his hairline right down to his chest. "Uh ... Mal ... how long have you-"

"Long enough," Mal replies, smilin' dangerously as he steps in a mite too close.

Aiya, tamade! Tamade Yesu! He's mad, he's really mad. What in the name of diyu possessed Simon to discuss having had sex with Mal with Jayne of all people?

Mal grabs his medic by the elbow and starts marchin' him off towards the infirmary. "Think you an' me need a private chat, Doc," he declares with another less than pleasant smile.

Simon nods, the rapid, uneven steps he has to take to keep pace with Mal's long strides making him feel even more foolish.

Once inside the infirmary, Mal punches the doorlock and tints the windows. He leans back against a counter and gives Simon a long, searchin' look.

The medic shifts uneasily from foot to foot. Is this the part where Mal punches him again? He wouldn't blame him if he did. "Mal, I .. I shouldn't have ..."

"No, you shou'n't," Mal agrees grimly, foldin' his arms over his chest.

Simon hangs his head. "I ... He just came right out with it and asked." Simon shoots Mal a pleading look. "I know that's no excuse but he took me by surprise, I wasn't thinking ... I'm so tired ... otherwise I wouldn't have said anything. Mal, please believe me ..."

Mal's mouth twists and he shakes his head. Lookin' down at his boots, he says quietly, "That wa'n't what I meant." When he raises his eyes again the look in them makes Simon catch his breath.

"What did you mean?" he asks slowly.

Mal crosses the room and places both hands on Simon's shoulders. "Why di'n't you tell me? Tell me that ... that you-"

Simon's heart is beating so hard he can hear the pulse pounding in his ears. "Because you don't want me, Mal. You want Inara."

Mal flinches like Simon was sewin' him up with a blunt needle. Ain't no denyin' he's spent a lot of time wantin' Inara, though whether that was because of somethin' real between them or because she was so damn hard to get, Mal wa'n't never rightly sure. But that di'n't - don't - stop him wantin' Simon. An' he wa'n't hard to get. At all. Nor never will be if the desire, devotion an', yeah, gorram love in his eyes is anythin' to go by. How in the suoyou de dou shidang can that be? Simon's seen the worst of Mal - not jus' the best. Seen his weakness as well as his strength. Knows him. Knows him an' still loves him? Oh goushi!

"I'm gonna be truthsome with you, Simon," Mal says, tightenin' his grip on the medic's shoulders. "Can't deny Inara's a graceful, fine-lookin' woman. An' mayhap there's somethin' there ... always hoped there might be some day. If'n we di'n't kill each other first." Mal grins as he recalls some of their angrier spats but his grin quickly fades when he sees the pain on Simon's face. "But now there's somethin' between you an' me. Only thing is, I can't ..."

"I know," Simon whispers, closing his eyes and willing Mal to kiss him.

Mal brushes a thumb over Simon's lips. "See?" he asks with a rueful smile. "This is exactly what I di'n't want. I wanted simple, smooth. Then you gotta say things ... things like what you said to the Shepherd ... an' it makes everythin' all ... all ..."



Simon looks amazed, then pleased. He takes Mal's face between his palms and kisses him lightly on the mouth. "Good."

"Good?" Mal's arms go round him. "It ain't much."

Simon's smile widens. "It's enough."

"All set, Sir," Zoe announces over the ship's comms.

For a moment Mal don't move, reluctant to release Simon from his embrace, but it has to be done. "Best you go round up li'l sis," he advises. "Take her to Inara's shuttle."

Simon hesitates. There's an odd light in Mal's eyes. "Where are you going?"

"To make sure everythin's done right," Mal tells him in a tone that says it ought to be obvious, but that light's still there. "You go get River."

Simon eventually tracks his sister down to Shepherd Book's bunk. She's seated on the bed and the preacher is in a chair in the corner. Curiously, they look as if they've been deep in conversation.

"The Captain wants us-" Simon begins but Book interrupts him.

"Come in, son. You're sister and I were just talking about you."

Simon's skin prickles uncomfortably. He hopes they weren't talking about him and Mal.

"Let you be his kite string," River murmurs. "To keep him tethered. Now he needs to fly again."

"I'm not going to stand in his way," Simon assures her earnestly, hoping it's a promise he's man enough to keep whatever Mal decides.

River's brows pucker. "Two by two," she repeats insistently. "Fly away Paul."

Book coughs, reminding the Tams of his presence.

"You've done all you can, son," he tells Simon gently. "Time to let go. For your sake, for the Captain's. For River's. There's a place, a secret place where she could be safe. Where she might even get better." Simon's mouth falls open but Book doesn't give him chance to speak. "There's an underground movement," he continues. "With a measure of experience in cases like your sister's. Can't promise a complete recovery but they've had some success in retraining central nervous system pathways."

"What?" Simon snarls, unable to believe his ears. "How long have you known about this 'place'?" He stalks over to the Shepherd until they're inches apart. "Why haven't you mentioned it before, you he chusheng zajiao de zang huo?"

Book is undaunted, his eyes calm and kindly. "Because getting there is not without risk. The journey's a long one with dangers at every turn. Plenty of folk out there would take their thirty pieces of silver and sleep well at night. You and River, undertaking that journey together, wouldn't-"

Fighting back his rage, Simon interrupts to demand through clenched teeth, "And you're telling me this now because?"

"Because - without Serenity - being constantly on the move is no longer an option. We're all going to need to find work, a place to stay. And that means getting to know people, and them getting to know us. Won't be long before someone figures out your sister's different, special. There'll be talk. And eventually the Alliance will get to hear it. Only way to keep her safe now is to go to the people who might be able to get her better." The Shepherd touches Simon briefly on the arm. "The only way to keep the Captain safe is to ensure he isn't found with her."

"Have you spoken to him about this?" Simon asks, even though he's sure that, Shepherd or not, Book would be missing a few teeth if he had.

The Shepherd confirms his suspicion with a shake of his head. "No, son. It wouldn't be fair. Not when he's got a chance of building a new life, starting afresh. Without this ship, the Captain won't be able to pursue his current less than legitimate career. Who knows? With the Alliance convinced that Malcolm Reynolds went down with his ship, the man might even opt for a respectable line of work, make his peace with God. But the important thing is that he's no longer in a position to help your sister whereas I am."

"Are you going to tell him?" Simon asks slowly.

"He'd only make his business to protect us if I did," Book answers and Simon realizes he's right.

"How will you be able to keep it from him?" he asks, anxious now rather than annoyed.

"By taking Shuttle Two."

"Fly away Peter," River sing-songs. "Fly away Paul."

"River, mei-mei-" Simon takes her hands in his. "I don't know if-"

"Shh," River soothes. "We'll be fine. Everything will be fine." She tips her head to one side, eyes shining with tears. "If you love someone, let them go."

Medical impossibility or not, Simon's sure he can feel his heart breaking. The pain in his chest is almost unbearable.

"Okay, mei-mei," he says quietly. "If that's what you need, I will."

Mal follows the fuse wire across the cargo bay floor from crate to crate, ensurin' there are no breaks. Not that it matters much. Once one of these babies go, they all do. But more'n a little of the soldier remains in Mal an' he don't plan on takin' any chances.

Funny how things turn out, he muses, takin' a final peek into the infirmary. How you change your mind about things. Always used to hate comin' in here. He closes the door out of habit an' glances across at the now empty passenger dorms.

Yeah, he's changed his mind about a helluva lot of things.

Absent-mindedly twistin' the tassel on one of Inara's silk cushions, Kaylee says what they're all thinkin'.

"Why ain't the others here yet?"

By 'the others' she means River an' Simon, Shepherd Book an' the Cap'n.

A lewd remark about what may be keepin' Mal an' the Doc springs instantly to Jayne's lips but he bites it back.

"They'll be here," Zoe insists. Seated at the shuttle controls, only her husband notices the trace of doubt in her voice.

The door opens and everyone looks up expectantly. Simon is standing there, alone. He makes no move to enter the shuttle, instead asking, "Could I have a private word please, Zoe?"

Fearin' all manner of stupidity on the Captain's part, Zoe nods and follows Simon out onto the walkway. "Where is he?" she asks. "He ain't plannin' on goin' down with the ship, is he?"

"No. He's on his way. Which means I haven't got long. Zoe - we're not coming with you. Shepherd Book knows a place where River might get better. I have to take her there. And it's better for all of us if we go alone." He pauses, torn between hope and despair, and hands Zoe a folded piece of parchment. "I've explained it all in this. Will you give it to Mal for me?"

Zoe frowns. "He ain't gonna like it."

Simon smiles weakly at her. "No, I don't suppose he will. To start with at least. But it's for the best in the long run. Believe me. The Captain will understand eventually."

Book does a double-take as Simon enters Shuttle Two. "What are you-?" he begins but is drowned out by River shrieking "No, Simon, NO!"

Simon tries to calm her by taking her hands in his. She slaps them angrily away.

"Two by two, Simon!"

"Yes," he says wearily, taking a seat. "So you keep saying."

River pouts at him. "Only ate six," she sulks, furious at him for being so stupid, so jing chang meiyong. And at herself for having failed in her duty to Mal.

She tries again. "If you love someone let them go, Simon!"

Her brother rubs his temples and closes his eyes, seeking oblivion. "I have, River."

She would knock some sense into him, if she weren't paralyzed by his sadness. As it is she slumps back against a wall and slides down to the floor, tears rolling down her cheeks.

Mal told himself he was jus' checkin' there weren't gonna be any unforeseen problems as he walked through his boat one last time, but in reality he was sayin' goodbye to her. Savourin' the memories fillin' each of her now empty rooms one final time.

Now he takes a last look down into the cargo bay, wonderin' briefly if blowin' the cargo up means Monty won't be puttin' any more work his way, before walkin' briskly along the hallway to Inara's shuttle.

Timer in hand, Mal seals the door to Inara's shuttle behind him an', despite his own agony at what he's about to do, turns to deliver some encouragin' words to his people. They sure look like they could use some. Kaylee's lyin' with her head in Inara's lap, tears rollin' unchecked down onto the Companion's silk skirt. Beside them Zoe's lookin' grim but resigned. Meanwhile Jayne's pickin' at his teeth with a knife. Any minute now, Simon's gonna start complainin' about that ...

But he don't.

Cos he ain't here.

Mal's face clouds over with worry.

"Where in the good gorram is the Doc an' his sis?" he demands, confused. They have to be here. Mal's jus' checked every gorram room. Suspicion raises its head. "An' where in the ruttin' hell's the Preacher?"

Zoe gets to her feet an' hands him a scrap of paper, murmurin' about it all bein' okay.

As if in a dream, Mal unfolds the paper an' reads the message written on it. Zoe watches his jaw tighten and his expression darken.

"Guess you're all aware of the contents of this?" Mal asks, waving the paper at his crew.

They nod, shame-faced.

Mal swallows and straightens his suspenders decisively. "Wash," he calls through to his pilot, "Let them know launch is in five."

"You're gonna let them go?!" Kaylee cries in disbelief. She jumps up an' throws herself at Mal. "You can't! Tell 'em they gotta stay, Cap'n. Qing."

"Uh - you want me to lay in a new course, Mal?" Wash asks hopefully.

Mal realizes Inara's watchin' his face intently. He meets her gaze, holds it a while.

"No," he says at last. "Boy made a choice."

The one, in his heart of hearts, Mal always knew he would. Mal don't blame him for it. Would most like do the same thing his own self. But that don't make this any easier.

Slowly, deliberately, he refolds Simon's note and is about to drop it into a bin when he notices there's somethin' else on it.

A turn through ninety degrees and the jumble of meaningless lines and curves resolves into a shape.

"What is it, Cap'n?" Kaylee asks gently cos he looks terrible.

"The last bit," he recalls distantly.

Jayne scratches his ear an' shakes his head. "Huh?"

Abandoned and empty now, Serenity holds her breath.

Likewise Malcolm Reynolds does the same.

The timer clicks forward again one last time and Serenity shatters into a million burning shards that light up the Black like stars.

Somehow Mal's goin' to have to find a way to put the pieces of his life back together.



As originally conceived, this series was supposed to end here. But it turns out that stories, like journeys, end where and when they will. One more chapter to go.

Please post a comment on this story.

Title:  Chapter 22. Time to go.
Series Name:  Trauma Medicine.
Author:  Kispexi2   [email]
Details:  Series  |  PG-13  |  het *slash*  |  42k  |  08/26/05
Characters:  Malcolm, Zoe, Wash, Kaylee, Inara, Jayne, Simon, River, Book, Other - Saffron
Pairings:  M/S K/J M/I?
Summary:  Mal and Simon rescue Inara only to find themselves in danger of being caught by the Hands of Blue. Meanwhile Book has a plan of his own.

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