Video Deteriora Sequor (executrix) wrote in jossverse_xover,
Video Deteriora Sequor
executrix
jossverse_xover

GIFTED CHILDREN (Firefly/BtVS Fusion) PG-13

GIFTED CHILDREN
Or, How Simon Tam Spent His Summer Vacation

Nobody near us,
To see us or hear us,
No friends and relations,
On two-week vacations.
We won't have it known, dear
That we own a telephone.
("Tea for Two")

When a doctor does go wrong, he is the first of criminals. He has nerve and he has knowledge. (Sherlock Holmes, "The Adventure of the Speckled Band")

The idea of a vampire was to me absurd. Such things do not happen in criminal practice in England.(Ditto, "The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire")

1 (February 12)
"Oh, you're back, Dr. Tam," said Nikole, the Trauma Surgery Department secretary, handing him a pink message slip.

"Yeah, we just finished the morning calendar. The closed-DEXA ran long."

"They said you don't have to call back. And you know which Council. Oh, also, they said, it's a man. That's what they said, Dr. Tam, don't blame me if they're feng le."

"It's all right," he said, taking the slip and wondering whether he should laugh or laugh hysterically. "I understand."

His office, such as it was, was tiny and airless and barely large enough to hold the Cortex terminal and the stacks of patient record disks (they had to back up the central computer ever since those terrorist attacks that, his new friends assured him, weren't their fault at all). But the office did have a door, and if you stood with your back to the door, even someone glancing or glaring through the wavy plasglas panels of the cubicle wouldn't get a very good view.

WHILE YOU WERE OUT, he read. FROM: The Council MESSAGE: Firefly-class transport Serenity. Eavesdown Docks until Friday.

"With a 'y', they said," Nikole's voice floated in. "They were very insistent about the 'y.'"

{{That's a first,}} Simon thought. {{Usually, the Council is all about the 'shut up and do it'.}}

He looked down at the pink slip again. JaYne Cobb.

"I hope it's not going to interfere with your vacation," Nikole said.

"I'll just have to see it doesn't," Simon said. "You can get from Port Eavesdown in Persephone to Boros, can't you? I can re-book the first leg."

"It's seventy-five platinum to change reservations," she said. Simon felt a tiny pang of guilt—P75 was a day's pay for her and about a haircut for him—and he felt silly conducting a conversation when he was leaning against a flimsy cubicle door, his heart hammering.

"Can't be helped," he said. He spared a thought for Koejieaan Lim, who he had actually met once, and resolved to go to the temple and burn a little incense in her memory.

For months, every spare neuron ("spare" as in "not needed for work") had been devoted to saving River. And now, when everything was in place, when he had endlessly packed and re-packed the two suitcases that were all that he could take without attracting suspicion (and, even so, someone might wonder why half his shirts and trousers and shoes were in a smaller size), now that he'd drawn out all the cash he could with the same caveat, now that he'd used up the butter and milk in the refrigerator and left a carton of sturdier food under the viaduct, where the beggars slept, the one thing happened that could upstage the rescue.

The one good thing was that the Firefly's crew would pay far more attention to the cryonic unit than to the chest of weapons it concealed. He did rather wonder what would happen if the message hadn't reached him in time, before he left.

There are no coincidences, only bored Immortals squabbling over the remote control.

2 (February 13)
(Eavesdown Docks)
As far as Simon could tell, the rescue went off without a hitch, although he couldn't be sure—no one could tell him--how much River understood about why it was necessary to freeze her in suspension. He felt helpless beneath the blows of guilt—why had it taken him so long to break her code, to hesitate, to try to juggle her freedom with work and his Council duties?

For that matter, he didn't really know what he'd do, once River was out of stasis and herself again. He didn't know who had harmed her, or how badly she was hurt, whether she'd need a hospital, or a therapist, or just a few months at the dacha recuperating. Perhaps she would want to live with him—he could easily afford a bigger apartment—but what would she do when he was at work? Perhaps she'd feel well enough to attend either the Pauumahdei branch of the University of Osiris, or the Conservatory of Music. Once he had all that squared away, he planned put in a wave to Felice Koorabian, a friend of his from Uni who had become a rather successful barrister. He was determined that whoever had done this was going to pay.

Still, here he was, at the docks, with an intact Stasis tank, all its read-outs normal, two suitcases perched on top—and a pressing mission to undertake. So the juggling hadn't stopped; it had just shifted to another planet, another arena.

It wasn't difficult to find Serenity herself. There was a pretty girl sitting on a beach chair, twirling a battered parasol into a spiral of bright color. "Is this your ship?" Simon asked her.

"I crew 'er," the girl said. "Name's Kaylee, by the way. Naah, she's Cap'n Reynolds' ship."

"How large a crew?" Simon asked politely, steeling himself not to recognize one name in particular, and glad that his sunglasses covered his eyes.

"We got plenty to take care of what you need," Kaylee said. "Well, not waiters and cabin maids and such, but you can use the kitchen any time you want, and we do the laundry every Tuesday for sure 'less there's a water restriction so you can get new sheets an' towels."

"You have a pilot, I take it?"

"Sure! His name's Wash. He's real sweet an' funny. His wife Zoe's the first mate, she warred up with Mal—with the Cap'n."

"Anyone else? A mechanic, for example, I should think that a {{deathtrap}} vintage vessel such as this one would require expert maintenance."

"I'm the mechanic," she said. "Oh, yeah, there's Jayne."

"What does she do?"

"It's a feller," Kaylee said. "Mal likes to say he does public relations. Oh, and there's a Companion travels with us, but I guess she ain't crew. Gone most of the time anyway, working. And we got another passenger. He's a Shepherd."

"How exotic," Simon said politely, handing a large tip to one of the men moving the cryonic unit.

"Huh!" Kaylee said. "What's in there? Must be valuable."

"Geological specimens," Simon said. "I'm a mining engineer."

Once the cryo-chamber was secured, and Simon paid for his passage and transmitted his location code to the Watcher's Council, the next order of business was to find Jayne. The reality was somewhat more hirsute and feral than the mental image he had formed.

"I have to talk to you," Simon said. "In private. It's very important. In fact, you're the reason I'm on this ship."

Jayne weighed him in the balance and found him wanting. "I don't do that shit no more," he said. "One thing, when I was on my uppers, but I got payin' work now."

"If you think I was intending some sexual reference, well, let me rephrase that," Simon "The Council—the Watcher's Council, that is—defines it as an extremely severe breach of ethics for a Watcher to become sexually involved with a Slayer."

Jayne raised an eyebrow.

"Okay. Back to the beginning. Now, I'm going to tell you something that might be a little hard to grasp," Simon said. "Much of the ancient mythology, the stories that have been repeated from culture to culture, is rooted in fact. Some unpalatable truths that human beings find very hard to face. There really are frightening things in the 'Verse. Things that aren't human. Malevolent demons. Vampires. Monsters. And in every generation, there is a Chosen One, who is called to be the Champion of Humanity. To defend it against paranormal incursions."

"Why me?" Jayne asked, already preening a little.

"We don't fully understand how Slayers are selected. Once, it descended purely in the female line. Perhaps with the Calling of the Potentials some five hundred years ago…"

"Huh. How much does it pay?"

"Well, it doesn't, you see. That's why the Watchers are usually drawn from the ranks of the more, the more economically comfortable."

Jayne yawned theatrically. "You stuff them shirts yourself or send them out?"

"When I'm at home, I have a full complement of people like you to do menial tasks."

"So this pansy-ass Council of yours wants me to fight demons? Well, I don't mind a fight. Long's there's no Reavers involved."

"Aaaaand already I foresee a difficulty."

(Corner Office, Blue Sun Plaza, Maahnfaht Ji, Osiris)
"What are you doing here?" Gabriel Tam asked, making a note to fire his secretary and perhaps a couple of security guards for letting her get through.

His wife sat down, unprompted, in one of the leather guest chairs in front of the huge zimberwood desk. "It's River," she said. "I received a very covert communication that says that she's escaped from The Academy. Or been kidnapped, but no one has claimed responsibility, and there's been no ransom demand."

"I'm sure you're exaggerating," Gabriel said. "When a teenage girl takes a few days off from school…I'm sure she'll turn up at ho—at our house in a day or two, with her arms full of shopping bags, when her credit cards max out."

"You know nothing about her. Nothing."

"Well, since she's your daughter and not mine, I can't work up much interest in the subject. I've been kind enough to avoid the open scandal that would harm the interests of the Golden Lion Party."

"You've been kind enough not to walk away with the nothing you would get under our prenuptial agreements, and not to give up your position as the head of a major Blue Sun division when your own talents might have earned you a third VP slot huckstering grass seed on the Rim. What do you think goes on at that Academy?"

"I assume it's a finishing school where vapid debutantes can practice their show jumping, and a few bookworms like River are kept around so the university placement figures will be less humiliating."

"It's a laboratory for defense research with the highest possible classification."

"And now you've told me, you'll have to kill me? Well, I always suspected you would anyway."

"It was the depletion of Earth-that-Was resources that led to the Migration. But it's not all working, Gabriel. Sometimes the terraforming holds, sometimes it doesn't. The two things you can count on about human beings is that they will breed like rats. And they will want more merchandise. We're going to run out of resources again, and we're running out of planets that we can reach with our spacefaring technologies. But we are poised at the edge of discoveries about other realities. And portals to those realities…"

"Splendid," Gabriel said. "So the human race can supplement its destruction of the known universe by scattering trash all over unknown universes as well. And your daughter is involved in this delightful process? Well, bully for her."

"When portals are opened by the ignorant…It's not safe. For them. Or anyone else."

3 (February 14)
(Serenity)
One thing Captains were good at: sounding easeful while they were making announcements that would generate panic in the normal mind. "So, we'll just play possum," Mal said. "Just wait here for a hiccup, see if that Reaver ship holds course and then we can just swoop off."

Jayne sat on his bunk, willing his hand to stop shaking long enough to feed Vera the single shell. The one that he was saving for himself.

Simon walked in, unannounced. "Come with me, Cobb," he said.

"Little busy here, Tam," Jayne said. "Waitin' on seein' whether them Reavers o'yours are gonna run in an' kill us real ugly."

"I'd hardly call them 'my' Reavers."

"You ever even seen one?"

"As a matter of fact, I have, which is a statement few people can make in light of the limited prospect of surviving a Reaver attack. There was a capture, and my entire Watcher training class was able to make several observations under controlled circumstances."

"Well, they get in here, won't be nothin' controlled about them circumstances."

"Then you might as well have some activity to distract you in the meantime. Now that everyone onboard here is tightly focused on the problem."

{{Little man might hold himself like a tin soldier and swagger about}} Jayne thought {{But bedamn if somethin' about him don't amputate a man's 'Go 'Way'.}} "Where we goin'?"

"I'm going to unpack my luggage," Simon said, "And I need someone to get my back."

"And who's got mine, if they come upon us?"

"Then either it'll be a highly useful training exercise, or we'll die on our feet, fighting," Simon said. He transferred the bundle in his hands to Jayne's bed and unbuttoned his vest, revealing a shoulder holster and the grip of a flattened .357 in matte black ceraplast.

"Hey, whatcha carryin' your laundry for?" Jayne said, thinking a little better of his Watcher and tucking Vera under his arm.

"It's not for me," Simon said, heading out into the corridor.

"Y'ever shoot anyone with that thing?"

"No, thank God," Simon said. "Or with anything else, for that matter. Except a syringe or an injector."

"What's a mining engineer doing with that stuff?"

"Well, that wasn't exactly the strict truth. Or any of it. Actually I'm a surgeon, the other was just a cover story." Simon's alma mater sent a high percentage of its graduates on to medical training. So often, a Slayer or a Slayer's associates came down with gaping wounds that couldn't be taken to the Emergency Room, or there would be a difficult demonic pregnancy case . Anyway, the Council liked its employees to be blasé about splashing through ankle-deep blood, or situations where the red squishy part of a dinner companion was suddenly on the outside.

By then, they had arrived at the cargo compartment where Mal had stowed the cryochamber. "Guess this ain't a box o' rocks, then," Jayne said.

"Guess not," Simon said, starting to hand the bundle of clothing to Jayne, then thinking better of it (he could imagine several scenarios in which the sight of Jayne, with Vera at port arms, would be salubrious). He put the clothes down on the ground, and drew out a flat red case that had been concealed in the pile. He had read up on Postcryonic Trauma Psychosis and had a few ampoules of the relevant antipsychotic drugs in his bag.

Simon checked all the dials and read-outs, took a deep breath, and initiated the re-warming protocol. When the panel went green, he unhooked the top of the tank, leaned over and whispered, "River, it's me. I got you out. You're safe."

"Simon!" she said. "Even when I thought you'd never come I knew that you would." He reached his arms out to pull her up. "I'll always keep you safe," he murmured into her hair.

River knew better, but she wasn't the tactless one in the family. He handed her underclothes, trousers, pullover, and left her shoes on the floor next to the cryo chamber.

"Sorry, River," Simon said. "I couldn't get you any girls' clothes, it might have been suspicious if anyone searched my luggage."

"I can be your page," River said.

Jayne couldn't figure out how getting writ on would help the case: even when words didn't get in the way there was no point in leaving a trail of evidence. But no one asked him. Later on, though, he did find that the book of etiquette his Mama gave him when he left home came in handy.

"All right, you can turn around now," Simon said. Jayne turned to see a thin girl with huge, pleading dark eyes in a round face, clad in too-short brown pants and a too-big green sweater. "These are awful, Simon," she said. "You have no taste."

"Brat!" Simon said amicably, simultaneously lunging at her to tickle her ribs and examining her vital signs.

"Boob!" she giggled, slipping in her too-large shoes. (Simon didn't know her shoe size and thought it would be better to overshoot than to constrict.)

Jayne cleared his throat. "Oh!" Simon said. "River, this is my Slayer, Jayne Cobb. He's just been activated. Cobb, this is my little monster of a kid sister. C'mon, help me support her. I'm going to take her to the Infirmary for an exam."

"Cap'n keeps that locked," Jayne said.

"Right now, not so much," Simon said. "Mei-mei? Can you walk?"

"Dang ranh," she said unsteadily.

"OK, then, you can walk but I'm hugging you. Come on, Jayne."

"What'd you do, shoot off the lock?" Jayne asked.

"When I was four, we were stuck the whole summer on Great-Aunt Frances' estate," River told him. "Simon had this book about a scientist from Earth-that-Was, must have read it about thirty-eight times. The scientist had two hobbies. Playing the bongo drums, and Simon couldn't even do that right…"

"She passed her Conservatory Grade Three piano exam when she was five," Simon said proudly.

"…and safecracking."

Simon sat River down on the exam table, put his arm around her shoulder, touched his forehead to hers, and then broke away to wash his hands at the sink and glove up.

River screamed when she saw him turn back. (Up on the bridge, Mal heard the scream, and reminded himself to go check on Kaylee.) "Two by two, hands of blue!" she sobbed.

"All right," he said, shaking his head and stripping off the gloves. He washed his hands again with special care. "The gloves are gone, River. I just need to look you over, to see if you're OK."

"Crown of thorns," she said.

"Oh my God," Simon said. "You had a spinal fracture?"

River shook her head, and kept doing it faster and faster, her hair whipping.

"The canthus is irritated," he said, shining a penlight.

"Entry site for the probe," she said. "Laser sleeve. Multiple burns, culminating in destruction of the amygdala and associated scarring."

His mouth dropped open. {{Why would anyone do that? Not just to my sister, but to anyone? How could they think they would get away with it?}}

"Not just what they took out, be scared of what they put in. The Key is a girl, Simon. The Key is a girl."

His heart misgave at the symptom of depersonalization. {{Maybe a short course of antipsychotic drugs}} he thought. {{I have some vixpalidine in my bag, and at Boros I might be able to get trazolonine…}} "Of course you're the key," he said, stilling her with the touch of his hand on the back of her head. "I'm here to get you, and I'll take care of you until you're better."

4 (February 15)
(Serenity)
"Am I seein' things, or is there a girl in here that there never was before, and us out in the black with no chance to pick up passengers?" Mal asked. River waved at him.

"My apologies, captain. I'm afraid I had to be less than candid," Simon said. "I'd hoped that we could breakfast, and then clear the room before the rest of the crew arrived…This is my sister River. She had…some problems that required me to take her to safety."

"Didn't mention nothin' like that when you climbed onboard," Mal said, hands still hooked in his gunbelt but obviously mobile.

"Not a box of rocks," River said. "Thus pro tanto not dumb as a box of rocks."

Simon reached beneath the table, to his money belt, and counted out fifty two-hundred-credit notes with tantalizing slowness. "I hope this will compensate for the…surprise," Simon said. He shot River a quick glance, hoping to signal 'Don't tell him about the rest of it,' but then she knew that already. "And, please, try to dampen down any curiosity the other crew members might feel. I get the impression that…uh, that their jobs often frustrate their taste for…narrative."

Mal put the big, floppy notes in the auxiliary safe (the door was in the floor, under the rice cooker) and rummaged around in a cupboard until he found a bottle. "I think this calls for a drink," he said.

"Kempei!" River said. Simon considered protesting, but she was seventeen, and had been through a lot. "Just the one," he told her. "There are still plenty of drugs in your system, even the scanner in the Infirmary showed me that."

Simon felt much better after he slammed down the shot of persimmon brandy. He looked over at Mal, gauging whether or not to take the leap. He hated not being able to trust anybody. But then he also knew from extensive personal delivery experience that a story softly whispered while innocent cornflower-blue eyes gazed upward could be prime-grade pure 100% horseshit.

He remembered what Zoe had told him about the battle that christened the ship, and the other battles official and otherwise, named and nameless. "She escaped from a secretive Alliance facility," Simon said.

"Is there a reward?"

"Quite a large one, I should imagine."

"I believe that calls for another drink," Mal said.

"Just a drop," Simon said. "I need to keep a clear head." He raised the shot glass. "Fuck the Alliance!" he said.

Mal and River clinked glasses. "Fuck the Alliance!"

River wandered into the engine room. Loudly, so as not to spook Kaylee, she tromped over to the portside thrust controller assembly. "Hi!" she said. "I'm Simon's sister," she said.

"Uhhh!" Kaylee said. "How'd you get here?"

"Rolled up in the freezer box," she said. "He needed to, to protect me. I had to escape from a bad place."

"Wow!" Kaylee said. "That was real brave of him! Like a hero."

"Well, other people did the heavy lifting," River said. "Mostly, he paid for it."

(Kaylee remembered a conversation with her mother: "It's just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor man" "Yeah, where'm I ever gonna meet a rich man and see?") "You're brother's real cute," Kaylee said. "Is he single? He don't wear a ring."

"Amazingly enough, yes," River said. "Kaylee, don't get your hopes up too high. Simon won't be here for very long, and he's kind of …preoccupied."

"Oh, yeah, that's right. He's—well, I guess you two—are goin' to Boros."

"That's the plan, yes," River said. (This time, she wore a pair of olive-green cords and a white shirt with narrow emerald and orange stripes.)

"I could lend you some girl clothes," Kaylee said. "I gotta wear practical things, for the grease an' all, but I got some real pretty dresses. Bet you'd brush up cute."

"It's all right," River said. "I want Simon to see me wearing the clothes he picked out."

5 (February 16)
(Serenity)
"The hell's goin' on in here?" Mal asked, as the catwalk sounded with lighter and heavier footfalls of booted feet, and the air rang with clashing steel.

"Ah, Captain Reynolds," Simon said, leaning over the catwalk and taking advantage of a much-needed opportunity to catch his breath. "Fencing is my hobby, you see, and Mr. Cobb has been kind enough…" Simon wheeled around, deducing that Jayne was about to sneak up behind his back during a pause in the match and clobber him,. He engaged Jayne's blade getting off a volley of high and low parries until Jayne, shaking his wrist, said, "Go 'head, boy, talk to the Cap'n if you're minded to."

"Kind enough to give me a little exercise," Simon said. "Oh, and my sister has studied martial arts, so there may be some sparring going on. More than merely the verbal variety, that is."

Mal shook his head and walked toward his cabin. {{Rich folks! Hope he don't go spoilin' my merc's fightin' edge. 'Cause, this day and age, when's anyone ever gonna need to know what to do in a swordfight?}}

"Oh, and Captain," Simon said, "I'm sorry about the lamp in my room, of course I'll pay to replace it." {{So much for the crossbow}} he thought.

After morning Training was over, Zoe stood in the shadows behind the door to the dining area. She watched Shepherd Book, who was tucked in a corner of the kitchen, watching Simon and River. The brother and sister sat at the table, faces glowing, laughing about something that Zoe couldn't catch.

{{Poor fellow}} she thought. {{Bet he's wondering if he did the right thing all them years ago, signin' up to put his wedding tackle in the icebox. Wonderin' if he'd have kids or grandkids by now, smart and pretty like them two. Wish that my man could see that look on his face. Might convince him not to piss away our chance too.}}

"You certainly seem to enjoy spending time together!" Book said, moving to the table and sitting down across from Simon and River. "No sibling rivalry here, as far as I can see."

Simon beamed pure joy. "I'm getting to really know her, at last," Simon said. "As one adult to another. I'm eight years older than River, y'know. When she was born, I'd already started at L'Institut de Saint-Etienne—and that's a boarding school. After a decade there, I went right to the accelerated program at MedAcad, and then I was a house officer at CapCity Medcen, with not much time off there. Now that I've met her…she's wonderful. She's not just gifted, Shepherd Book. She's a gift."

Book was nearly able to control the muscles of his face, The horror that struck him was not just because he knew a little German. Or because he knew that L'Institut de Saint-Etienne was the Watcher's Council's training school.

(Triumph Settlement)
{{I could crap a better planet than this}} Glorificus brooded. Dismemberment, ritual sacrifice, and a weenie roast had already been performed on the idiot minion who suggested that Triumph Settlement would be a good place to alight. He'd said that any bunch of people who had a real big jones for worship like that would fall at her Exalted French Pedicure, but they retained their puzzling devotion to Old Nobodaddy.

{{I'll take the first thing smokin'}} she thought. {{Get out of here. Go someplace better. Think about going Home.}} Then she grinned. {{Take the first thing combustible. By the time I get through with it, it'll be smokin'.}}

She idly began to cast the runes—she had a brand-new set of knucklebones, after all—and the same pair kept coming up. Key. Serenity. Key. Serenity. {{I'll be serene all right}} she thought. {{Get me my Key, and once I'm home I'll be Serene Girl, yes sirree!.}}

6 (February 17)
(Serenity)
Simon ducked as long as he could, but he knew that sooner or later he'd have to contact his Controller at the Watcher's Council. He set his alarm clock for three a.m. to minimize the number of insomniacs or other busybodies, and uplinked an aetherial connection from his pocket encyclopedia.

SESSION TRANSCRIPT (Decrypted)
BMcN (WC): How's it going?
ST: Slowly.
BMcN: Well, hurry it up. There's another file we need you to pick up.
ST: Give it to Red Peony. Working with Subject is no sinecure, and I've got to get back to work soon.
BMcN: What's the big deal? You're just there to activate him, give him the sales pitch, train him a little, drop the manual, and leave.
ST: In his case, the manual would be of no use.
BMcN: Maybe we should get someone else anyway, instead of assigning you. The target is called River Tam. Do you have, you know, a cousin or something with a name like that?
ST: It's a common name. You wouldn't want to carry the can for everything anyone named "McNaughton" ever did wrong.
BMcN: We're not supposed to use real names, even on a crypt line.
ST: Yes, that was sort of my point.

(Watcher's Council HQ, Bellerophon)
{{Toffee-nosed git}} McNaughton thought as he logged off. "I'm sorry, gentlemen, Dr. Tam is the only agent the Watcher's Council has in that sector at the present time."

"If you want something done right," the thin, tall man said You have to do it yourself." He picked up his baton from the desk. He and his partner stepped over McNaughton, leaping to avoid the pool, peeling off their flesh-colored gloves.

They headed home: there was only one suitable time, and Tisiphone was the most logical place. It was where the edge raveled and the darkness laughed, a whole moon that had been a haunted house even before anything recognized as an organism settled there. If the thought ever drifted through Stephen King's mind to write about it, he would break out into shakes and delete the file after two hundred words.

(Serenity)
Since when, Simon wondered, had human beings become"targets"? And what was the Council doing carrying water for the Academy, or for the Alliance for that matter? The Watcher's Council had been around for centuries before Unification, before the Alliance—had been in force on Earth-that-Was for centuries before the Great Migration.

After he logged off, Simon told himself that it was only a beta-blocker. Even though his hand was steady enough to give himself the shot, it would still be better to self-medicate, to be sure that the trembling had stopped and would not return.

7 (February 18)
(Serenity)
"Barbecue don't start till nightfall," Mal said. "Inara's keepin' an eye on your Sis. You can take a turn around the marketplace, if you're minded to have a bit of fresh air. Jayne, go 'long with him, what with you two bein' thick as thieves an' all."

"I wanted to take a nap and some o'them don't-get-a-hangover pills," Jayne grumbled.

"Shouldn't have said all them mean things 'bout my youth an' beauty, then," Mal said. "Anyway, I want to take a nap, and I'm the captain, so I win."

"You shoulda seen how plumb foolish he looked in that bonnet," Jayne said, as he and Simon left the general store where he had bought a carved wooden duck as a present for River, and a hideous plate that he thought Kaylee would like as a memento of the exotic visitors' brief stay on Serenity.

"Maybe he's not a hat person," Simon said, when a ululation broke out. Later on, Simon wasn't sure if he had heard it, or if it had simply vibrated within his bones.

"Blood of the Key! I smell the Blood of the Key!"

His arms were seized from behind. The duck and plate went flying (and the plate broke). He couldn't pull his arms away until after he had been dragged into an alley, shadowed by the walls of two adobe houses. A back snap kick loosened his assailant's grip. Simon was about to run out of the alley when a punch from the front knocked him sprawling. {{In the face}} he thought, {{Why do they always punch me in the face?}} although when he scrambled up the kick to his stomach made him wonder what he'd been complaining about. As he rose, he had a blackjack in his hand, and he had occasion to smash it into a coarse brown robe at kneecap level before he got up very far, and into a (puzzlingly incomplete) face on the way up.

Simon saw that Jayne was, as it were, leading a hand-to-mouth existence, enthusiastically battling two figures clad in the same hooded robes. Jayne drew them back toward the wall of the alley, then stepped back, grabbed one robed shoulder in each hand, and shoved them into the wall and kicked at their kidneys when they dropped.

"Come on!" Simon yelled, over his shoulder as he sprinted. "Let's get back to the ship! Are you all right? Do you need a weave for those knuckles?"

Jayne jogged up to meet him "Naaah, I'm good. Hey, this Slayer gig ain't so bad after all," Jayne said. ''Cept that we ain't killed any of them folks."

"Of course not," Simon said. "It's one of the first principles of the Council, never to take human life except in a clear case of self-defense."

"Where I come from, 'slay' don't exactly mean give 'em a cup of cambric tea and a little wet sandwich with the crusts cut off," Jayne said. "Anyway, betcha my stint of deck-moppin' tomorrow that them things warn't human."

Once they got back, Simon logged his pocket encyclopedia into the "Demons, Demons, Demons" database (V25.2.1), logged the IdentiKit feature, and after a few minutes said, "You were right, Jayne….Bringer demons. Eyeless, earless, tongueless, yet they somehow manage to communicate—not only within their hive-like social organization, but with other people."

"Knee in the balls," Jayne said. "The universal language. See? Told ya we shoulda killed them. Just on the off chance. I didn't get to be my age and you never will without goin' in there first and hittin' with all ya got."

"Raw survival can't be the only benchmark. There are rules of ethics. Standards."

"Win Ugly beats Lose Pretty," Jayne said. "Everydamntime."

8 (February 19)
(Serenity)
"Gawd, I wish I'd had them don't-get-a-hangover pills," Jayne said, the morning after they left Triumph Settlement, while he made a run on the Bank of Black Coffee.

"Come to the infirmary, I'll give you a metabolic booster," Simon said, flicking the mop all the way into the corner. He sported a black eye, and he'd had to give himself two stitches in the eyebrow and had a weave inside his lip. "Although I'd think that the cracked ribs would bother you more."

"Didn't see you at the hoedown," Jayne said.

"Oh, I stayed on the ship. River and I were playing Go. It wasn't…my finest hour."

"Don't sound like no fun to me. Went out, had me a time. Think there was some trim involved, but I might misremember. And if you think I tied one on last night, you should a' seen Mal," Jayne said, with satisfaction. "Dancin' around like the Queen of the May, with a mat o' flowers on his head. Wish I'd got in a capture."

There was a shriek from the Cargo Bay, but it sounded like a reasonably happy shriek, so Jayne took the time to gulp down his coffee and Simon took time to put down the mop and the ice pack in his non-mopping hand, before they got up to investigate.

"Look!" Kaylee said. "There's a whole 'nother girl outta nowhere!"

"This one's nekkid too," Jayne said, craning his neck. "Is that, like, a feature?"

Mal arrived to investigate the hoo-raw already in progress. "Who's this?"

"I'm your wife, sir," Glorificus said, with downcast eyes.

"Zoe!" Mal yelled into the comm, and then winced at the noise. "Get down here mashang! And bring some article of clothing that y'ain't wearin! Jayne, turn 'round and if there's a mirror in front of y' then, don't look in it!"

Once Zoe appeared, Glorificus wrapped herself up in one of Wash's shirts and sat down on a crate, swinging her bare legs. Jayne was riveted. "Triumph Settlement is a poor place, sir, and Elder Gommen did not have cash or cattle to pay you properly for saving us. So he chose the humblest maiden in the Maiden's House to be sealed to you in marriage."

"There was no sealing going on," (everyone's eyes flicked upward). "I don't go marryin' girls even if I know 'em from Adam's off-ox. Kaylee, make her up a bed in the passenger dorm, lend her somethin' of yours to wear—it's OK, you can keep the suit with the little bear on it, I ain't unreasonable. You, uh, wife, Girl Person…"

"Saffron," Glorificus said modestly and at random.

"Well, right now we're at the corner of No and Where, but soon's we make planetfall, I'll ask around, rent a room for you and ask around for some work you can do. Factory work, restaurant work, maybe, so's you can pay your passage back to Triumph. Or stay put there, if you're so minded."

9 (February 20)
(Serenity)
Mal heard the Wave Alert and took it Shielded, just in case.

"'Hlo there, Reynolds," Badger said. "Got a job for you."

"Really? What's up with it, and do I gotta count my fingers after I shake hands with you?"

"'Hlo there, Reynolds, got a job for you," Badger repeated.

{{Early in the day to be that drunk}} Mal thought. {{Or maybe he's dippin' into the Drops. Bad business when a man steals his own narcotics.}}

"Load of steel," Badger said. "Prefab building, acksherly. Of a religious nature. Twenty thousand platinum."

Mal whistled. "Sounds a mite on the high side."{{Less'n we ain't gonna get paid it.}} Before he could ask, "What's the catch?" Badger continued implacably, "Delivery to Tisiphone."

Mal's heart stuttered with dread. "That explains a lot," Mal said. "Well, we ain't scared of campfire tales."

In the passenger dorm, Glorificus sagged back against the wall and draped, bonelessly, down on the futon. The effort of controlling Badger, over all those space miles, exhausted her.

Mal thought of calling a crew meeting but then, knowing he was batting on a bad wicket, decided to break the news over supper instead.

"Persephone?" Kaylee asked. "Why're we on that heading, when Persephone's all the way in the other direction?"

"TISiphone," Mal said. "Whole different place."

"Ai-ya!" Wash said. "I usually stay away from the capital letters, but that's a Bad Place, Mal. Let's vamoose and also simultaneously skedaddle."

"We do what I tell you," Mal said.

"Hey, you missed dinner," Jayne said, sliding shut the door to Simon's room. "I brought you a plate, 'case you was castin' out devils or such."

"No," Simon said, vaguely waving a bottle (which Jayne viewed as half-empty; he didn't hold much with gin). "Mother's Ruin. Want some? I'm already drunk and there's still some left."

"Sure," Jayne said, acting on the hint that the residual gin would be better off consumed somewhere on the other side of the door.

Simon opened his pocket encyclopedia again and re-read the letter. He was beginning to really hate letters, although this one was far less cryptic than any of River's.

Dear [x] Mr. [ ] Ms. Tan:
Effective immediately, you have been suspended from the Watcher's Council for dereliction of duty and conflict of interest. A charging lien has been placed on your bank accounts pending return of all Council property in your possession. Such as weapons.

Yours sincerely,
Mihngjyu deAndreas,
Watcher's Council (dictated, not read)


{{Edgar I nothing am}} he thought. He had never realized how much being a Watcher had meant to him. All those years when it was his secret; the handful of days when he felt vividly alive. It was all taken away from him, just as he began to worry about what he could possibly do to help River, and to suspect that after all those years of effortless success—often by achievement, sometimes just by being so rich that he could plow through anything as everyone else got out of the way—he was about to fail just when it mattered most. He could treat an aneurysm or resect a tumor or reconstruct a shattered face but what was he expected to do with a scarred brain? He couldn't dial up a spare amygdala and hot-swap it into River's head. {{I thought I was more than the sum of my props}} he thought. {{But I must not be—take them away, and I fall. I have no experience of failure, and now I must fail and I will break.}}

{{Not that I've been much of a Watcher anyway}} he thought bitterly. {{All right, I gave him a few enchanting romps on the leash. But I didn't teach him about all the different kinds of demons, how to identify them, how to tell those that are evil by nature, and those who have turned away from their good nature. Maybe just for one dangerous minute, when the money is too good. He can kick ass without me, but how can he take names if I didn't teach him anything?}}

10 (February 21)
In the cargo bay, River was trying to teach Simon the schottische, to her own hummed accompaniment. "Hello, Shepherd Book," Simon said, noticing too late the distortion of Book's features—furious, but also agonized.

As River twirled away from Simon, Shepherd Book seized River around the waist with one strong arm. He dragged her backwards again, his other hand holding one of Jayne's huge, sharp knives to her throat.

"Why are you doing this?" Simon asked despairingly. After the first disbelieving blink, he went into stance, his legs braced apart, his left wrist locking his right wrist against the weight of the .357 and its presumable impending recoil. "You're a priest!"

"Yes, and I've prayed that God would send me a ram instead. Prayed that the cup would pass from me. But it won't. It's a long story, son. Goes back centuries, all the way back to Earth-that-Was. The mission of the Knights of Byzantium—Shepherds like me, warriors like me--is to protect the stability of the Universe against occult incursions. Your sister is at risk of becoming a pawn, of being used to open up portals that will destroy all human habitations. They will seize her. They will utter spells that will erase every trace of order. And they will open her veins for a blood spell, because her blood will serve to open the portal between dimensions. As long as her blood flows, then more and more human works will crumble, and the door to Hell will open wider and wider. And when she's bled out, dead, the demons will go through the door, and it will shut again—but every human being will be dead. Every human artifact will have been destroyed."

"The Key is a girl, Simon," River echoed.

"It breaks my heart that I have to do this. But if I don't take your sister's life now, as a sacrifice, then everyone will die. Everyone on all the settled planets. So if you kill me now, she won't be spared. And if I kill her now, that crime, great as it is, will prevent unspeakable horrors."

"She's my sister," Simon said.

River gave a sad grin. Simon thought that he couldn't fire while River was still shielding Book. She knew that he couldn't pull that trigger before Hell froze over or, more accurately, opened for business. So she could break free, but it wouldn't make any difference. She could kill Book, but it wouldn't make any difference.

"Or rather, I'm her brother," Simon said. "That's what counts."

In the passenger dorm, Glorificus pushed herself up from a dizzy sprawl. She needed nourishment, and not in the form of silvery protein packets. Big day coming up, and she needed to be Rainbow High. Glorificus reached out tendrils, and lighted on the tastiest brew of pain and fear, slathered with the Chocolate Decadence of crippling guilt. She put her face down and inhaled as noisily as the hungriest, most enthusiastic patron of a street noodle stall.

In the cargo bay, Book uttered a choked "Uhhhhh!" His arms flung wide, and the knife crashed against the wall. He dropped to the floor and began to convulse. Streamers of ectoplasm (brilliant chrome yellow) sprayed off him, and were pulled where Glorificus could devour them.

Simon tucked away the gun, buttoned his vest, and rushed to the stricken man's side. "River!" he said. "Get me my medical bag! Stat!" (River rolled her eyes—a minute ago, Simon was pretending to be ready to kill Book for threatening River, and now he was sending her on errands—but she did it anyway.)

"When the blood stops, the Portal closes," Book moaned, over and over, as the spasms shook his body. Simon ripped off his belt, doubled it, and put it between Book's teeth.

Zoe followed River as she ran into the cargo bay, saw the preacher's condition, and put two and two together. {{Ah-hah. Demon bride}} she thought. {{More common than folks think. Now, ain't that just typical of the pickles Mal gets himself into?}} Zoe helped Simon carry the Shepherd into the infirmary, then she walked over to the bridge to gather her thoughts. She told Wash what she planned to do, and he shook his head, but didn't disagree.

11 (February 22)
Mal intended to detail Wash to drive the mule and Jayne to help out with the loading, but the brown-robed near-skeleton walking point for his fourteen cohorts said that wouldn't be necessary. One of them hefted the crate of variously colored spheres on his head; the others each balanced a huge bundle of steel struts on each shoulder and marched off with it. They re-formed into a wedge (one in front, followed by two in the next rank, three in the next…) and disappeared from view. Either around the bend in the road, or…not.

Arriving naked had just been a psych-out; Glorificus had brought a small valise with her. Among its contents were two elaborate and lovely robes, gilded and braided and embroidered over and over again, through and around lace and brocade. She kept one for herself, and packed the other in the crate.

When the Bringers arrived at their destination (a flat, hot place in the middle of a crowded city; they paved Gehenna and put in a parking lot), they tossed the spheres among themselves for a while, like a casual game of Hoopball. Then they grabbed the steel struts, and rammed them into the asphalt and the ground beneath as if they had been spearing shrimp on cocktail picks, and connected the struts with the spheres. Soon a tower rose, with a platform at the top (teetery, but it didn't need to stay intact for long), and a staircase, spiraling like a chromosome, on the outside.

12 (February 23)
(Tisiphone)
If you want rabbits, you can chase the little bastards yourself, but you'd have to be faster. You can set snares. Or, you can wait till whoever set the snares turns his back, and grab the rabbits. Crime took a step forward the day someone realized how much more productive it is to rob payroll trucks rather than the painstaking work of robbing stores one by one.

The Blue Hands Men knew that all they had to do was wait. They wanted their Asset back. The Bringers wanted to flood the Portal open with the blood of the Key. The planets were aligned so that they had to do it today—well, what was today on Tisiphone, earlier or later wherever they tried to do it. The Blue Hands Men didn't sleep anyway, so they dug a trench and watched the tower rise. When the Bringers swarmed back, it would be time to pull away their prize, time to take her back to the Academy. But this time, without the excessive freedom that had brought the project so close to calamity.

13 (February 24)
(Serenity, Downplanet on Tisiphone)
The Bringers came when everyone was asleep. Glorificus opened the door for them. They might have taken River when only they could hear her mind screaming, but the furniture and the falling bodies woke Simon, who summoned Jayne, who put on the comm and yelled, "Ruckus in the passenger dorm!" Glorificus strolled away from the chaos, because only the little people have riots.

River killed three Bringers and Jayne killed two stragglers, but the mass of Bringers had already bubbled off, carrying River among them. Simon looked over at what Jayne was wearing—the pants he'd hastily pulled on over what he wore to sleep in, which was nothing—and down at his own pajamas. "Jayne, go put on something less comfortable," Simon said. "And your heaviest boots." Simon put on his last crisply ironed white shirt and took a second to buff at the polish on his shoes. He didn't bother putting on a vest or a jacket or a coat. He expected enough exertion to warm him, and at this juncture it was more important to be able to reach the shoulder holster than to conceal that he wore it.

When he got back to the cargo bay, Simon took the last bills out of his money belt and handed them to Mal. "Jayne and I have got this one," he said. "Stay here. But when we come back, be ready to get away as fast as you can."

Mal was a little insulted to be offered money from someone who was—well, not crew, there hadn't been time for that and anyway Simon was obviously a man en route to something, Serenity was just a waystation for him—but something. A friend, maybe, or if not a friend yet, someone with a story that he'd have to tell Mal someday. But whether or not a man had friends, his crew needed to eat, and his ship needed to drink.

Simon went to the cryochamber, and bent down to trigger the latch that made the drawerful of weapons slide out. The drawer was lined with purple velvet, the weapons lined up in their niches. Simon buckled on a sword belt and scabbard, and took a heavy sword out of the chest (a blue-white energy field pulsed around it). "Wipe them off carefully when we're done, Jayne," Simon said, handing over a battleaxe and a spiked mace. "The Council will want them back."

Wash walked back from the bridge. "I did a quick scan," he said, handing Simon a printout. "Looking for changes. Here's the coordinates of a weird-looking tower, wasn't there when we landed. That's my bet."

Simon turned, his eyes sweeping the cargo bay, then fixing on every face in turn. "Thank you," he said. Kaylee considered saying, "Don't go," but she knew he had to, and it was too late for "Good luck" or "Be safe."

"Much obliged," Mal said, on behalf of everyone.

Simon left Serenity, his hand on the hilt of the sword. Jayne followed, enthusiastically swinging the mace.

(Tisiphone)
"You was right about the boots, Doc," Jayne said. Not a lake of blood, not really, but enough to make sure that Jayne's boots would print a red waffle everywhere he went until he got back to Serenity and burned them. There was a ring of Bringer bodies they had to cross as they fought what was still a more than sufficient supply of active Bringers.

Simon touched Jayne's shoulder and rested his hand there for a moment. "If I'm not really sick after this is over, remind me to be."

Jayne's fingers momentarily brushed Simon's as Simon moved away. "I'll take the thirty thousand on the left," Jayne said. "Y'know, Doc, this is funner than I thought it would be."

As they fought their way toward the tower, not all the bodies were cowled in brown wool. Four blue hands (one with a forearm attached, another one going nearly to the shoulder) turned up interspersed in the carrion. The Astronauts had the technology, but there were hordes and hordes and hordes of Cavemen.

On the platform, at the top of the tower, the Bringers searched the heavens, like a hive whose queen was unaccountably absent. Only a few minutes remained until the perfect moment. Glorificus should have been there. She should have been the one wielding the knife.

Considering what she did to anyone who built her half-caf skinny latte wrong, it would clearly be imprudent to defy a direct order to destroy the Universe. And the task itself was far from distasteful to the Bringers. Chaos, destruction, cataclysm: Never Not Fun.

The survivors of the group of Bringers that vested River in the splendid robe and tied her to the stake pulled small leather-bound books (it would not do to inquire into the previous pursuits of the inhabitants of the tanned skins) out of the pockets of their robes, and read the prayers for raining down Destruction and opening the portal.

(Serenity)
Glorificus rested her aching head against the bulkhead for a moment. Wasn't that always the way? You get all greased up for something, and something happens to frig all over it. Getting into Inara's shuttle to steal some makeup and perfume took more time than she expected. And she broke a nail. She'd have to whip up one helluva wind to get to the sacrificial altar on time.

"You can't do that! I'm a frickin' GOD!" Glorificus howled, as Zoe threw a bowie knife that pinned Glorificus to the wall by a gold-dripping, ruby-embroidered sleeve. Then Zoe emptied the hogleg into her.

"Y'know the definition of a grunt? Somebody who gets told what to do and has to make it happen," Zoe said, pulling out the knife and kicking the twitching body toward the engine. She pushed the comm button. "Wash! Full burn! Time to take out the trash!"

"Zoe! What the diyu are you doin' to my ship?" Mal bellowed from the catwalk as the ship pushed up for a very brief trip into nowhere in particular and right back down again. A buffer panel broke free.

"Consider this a divorce, sir."

The molecules spangling the cosmos immediately began to reassemble—you can't keep a bad god down!—but it took a couple of centuries, long after the end of this story.

When Glorificus died, the glamour broke, and Shepherd Book sat up, ambivalent about whether the return of memory and sanity was worth it in a world like the one he was forced to live in.

(Tisiphone)
A moment after the last full stop in the last prayer, the lead Bringer drew a knife with runes etched down the center rib; one of the edges of the blade was rippled, the other straight. He painted a shallow cut across River's throat., and he was immensely cheered to see that the sky turned from its normal bright chartreuse to emerald, then scarlet, then mars violet even before the dripping blood stained the gold lace at the neckline of her robe. The next cut started an earthquake, and the downtown business district of Tisiphone was severely redeveloped by the next.

Simon's fighting stance wasn't particularly graceful—he pushed his torso forward, on the theory that if he took the wounds there, at least his legs would still support him. By the time he got to the foot of the stairs (and assigned Jayne to hold the stairs as he climbed) his shirt was filthy and action-painted in his own and other creatures' blood. He'd emptied the .357 and used up the two spare clips and his arms ached from swinging the sword. So he put down the sword at the foot of the staircase and started the climb.

Simon pulled the SutureStat from his vest pocket. It was small, smaller than the palm of his hand, and it looked like a cake icing pen. The pressurized gel inside was transparent blue. When Simon pressed the trigger, the gel solidified into a thin coat of antiseptic artificial skin that sealed the wound and cauterized the capillaries.

He kissed River's forehead and said, "It won't hurt—it has an anesthetic" as he smoothed on the poultice that closed the raw wound on her neck. His left hand was working a little better, so he held the 'stat in his left hand and steadied his wrist with his right hand.

"As if I cared about that!" she said, her face twisted in grief. "I can't let you."

He smiled. "You have to. You're tied up." He closed the wounds on her arms and then reached into one of the slashes in the fabric of her robe. "You finally get to wear a dress, and look what a mess you made of it!"

The vortex pulsed, flexed, and contracted a little.

He whispered in her ear. "I don't have a lot of time, mei-mei. I love you more now than ever, and I wouldn't give back a minute of our time together. But…the hardest thing in this world is to live in it, and I can't any more. I'm pulled in too many directions. Too many people hunting me. Including me. You have to be brave—you have to remember how brave you are. How strong you are. You have to be wonderful. To stay wonderful."

He called over his shoulder, "They want our blood? They can have it. Jayne! Don't ever let anyone hurt River!"

Then he knelt and healed the wounds on her ankles and feet. In the last second, when the destruction stuttered, uncertain, Simon dived off the tower and into the closing vortex, graceful at last.

After it sealed over him, Jayne killed the last few stragglers. They didn't seem to have much oomph, after the stuff stopped falling down. Jayne sort of hoped that the stuff that fell down already would get back up, but none of it did. He climbed up the staircase to fetch River. When they got back to the ship, and Jayne stopped carrying River (which meant he had to surrender the comfort of her arms twined around his neck), the top of her head was wet.

14 (February 25)
(Osiris)
Dear Hospital Folks:
I know you are expecting your Dr. Simon Tam back today but I am regretfull to tell you that he ain't coming. I conjured to tell his kin but my new Watcher says that they're in it up to their nose. And she'd know.

Speaking of noses I did not hold with him at first what with the snooty nose in the air and the stupid clothes but I got to know he wasn't such a bad type after all. In fact I think he saved the world. Because I mean, look at it. It's still here.

Ever Your Obedient Servant to Command,
Jayne the Reaver Slayer.


***

From the English-German dictionary at http://lookwayup.com/lwu.exe:
GIFT [n] (poison) Anything that harms or destroys

Maahnfatji: "Ten Thousand Buddhas Temple"
Paaumahdei: "Happy Valley"
( from Kwan Choi Wah, "The Right Word in Cantonese")
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