1. Uninvited Guests
Mal switched the comm off. "Well, this is some gorram bad luck."
"Like that's a change," was Wash's response.
"Think we'd get used to it, right?" He backed out the cockpit entryway. "Reckon I'd better go inform the rest of the crew."
"Inform us of what?"
He twisted around and found Inara looking up at him from the foot of the steps. "Nothing we can't handle," he assured her. "We're getting a little company here on Serenity, is all."
Telling the others went just about a smoothly as Mal expected. "The President's coming here?" Kaylee squealed. "To Serenity? And Captain Apollo too?"
"Wasn't there some way to refuse?" Simon asked.
Mal shrugged. "We're not in a good position to say no to Tom Zarek. And I don't guess that you want me using, "We're worried she'll notice we're not exactly from this part of the 'verse," as our excuse."
That quieted Simon down long enough for Zoe to ask the other question. "When do they get here?"
"We dock in Acharna Orbiter in fifteen minutes, pick them up there. Zarek isn't giving us time to get cold feet." Kaylee looked ready to interrupt again, so he kept going. "Listen, people. You all know what to do. Keep your distance and try not to talk to much about where you're all from. Folks here aren't so different from folks back home, and we've done a good job blending in so far. We'll fix up the spare shuttle for them -- that'll keep them out of our way. And Simon, you'll keep your sister away from them. That's it. Get to work."
Fifteen minutes later he was standing in Serenity's bay as the inner doors swung open. Zarek stepped up onto the ramp. "Reynolds," he said.
Mal returned the greeting but kept his eyes focused on the pair behind Zarek. "Madam President."
"Thank you for your help, Captain Reynolds," she said.
Didn't sound crazy, Mal thought, but having River aboard might raise your expectations on that count. "Welcome aboard, ma'am."
She stepped up to take his hand. "This is Captain--" A crash and some swearing from the upper deck interrupted her.
"We're getting our spare shuttle ready for your use," he said. "I think Jayne might've just dropped your bed on our pilot's foot." Wash was using the kind of language Mal didn't figure him for knowing.
"There's really no need for you to trouble yourselves," she said.
"Moving a bed ain't trouble." He thought she nearly smiled at that.
"No," Zarek interposed, "but there will be trouble if you don't get moving. Reynolds, I'll contact you with a rendezvous in forty-eight hours. Captain Apollo, President Roslin, you'll lie low on Serenity for the moment. That was a close call on Athena's Owl, and you need to disappear until we find the intelligence leak." Apollo looked to Mal's eyes like he wanted to argue, but at a look from Roslin he walked stiffly up the ramp and into Serenity.
"Let me know as soon as you hear from Elosha, Mr. Zarek," the president said.
"Will do," Zarek answered. "Now close your doors, Mal. And call that doctor you've got on board."
Roslin spun around. "You have a doctor on Serenity? Lee, there's a doctor here. Lee!" Her voice rose.
Now that the other man was nearer Mal could see pale skin and a sheen of sweat on his face. He slammed his hand down on the control for the doors and raised a shout of his own. "Wash, stop moaning about your gorram foot and take us out of here! And Simon, get yourself down here! You just got a patient."
The doors slammed shut and Serenity shook as the thrusters powered up; Apollo staggered into the president, and Mal had to grab his other arm to help lower him gently to the floor. "He was shot," the president was telling him, "on Athena's Owl, while we were getting out. Zarek patched him up a little, but..."
Blood was spreading onto his hands. "Don't you worry, ma'am," Mal said. "Our doctor's got plenty of experience with bullet holes."
* * *
Lee blinked his eyes open and stared up at the halo of bright light. He hadn't thought that the afterlife would smell of disinfectant. As his vision grew less blurry, the afterlife resolved itself into a small white room. He turned his head to get a better look at his surroundings, and when that worked well enough, tried to raise himself up on one elbow.
Hands on his shoulders pushed him flat again. "Lie still," someone said. "I don't want you to reopen your wound." As a face came into view, Lee saw that the voice belonged to a dark-haired man about his own age. He gave him a sip of water and asked, "Do you know where you are, Captain?"
"Serenity," he croaked.
"How do you feel?"
Lee grimaced. Idiot doctors. "It hurts."
"Bullet wounds generally do, particularly when we're low on painkillers. You're going to be fine; the bullet went through muscle in your abdomen and kept going. All I needed to do was stitch you up again." Another sip of water and Lee was willing to consider the possibility that the man wasn't lying to him. "I'm Dr. Tam, by the way. Would you like me to help you sit up?" Lee nodded, and the doctor raised the bed.
Dr. Tam was still getting him to wiggle his fingers and toes when he looked up and saw the president standing in the doorway, with the man he remembered as the ship's captain just behind her. "Doctor," she began, "how is Captain Apollo?" Lee watched her interact with the two strangers; the doctor, he thought, was willing to let the president charm him, but the captain seemed a bit less enthusiastic. Even so, when Laura asked for a moment alone with him, both men withdrew.
She took his hand. "Captain Apollo."
"I'm fine. Really," he added. "Bullets apparently don't do much against Adamas. How's the ship?"
It hadn't been a joke, and she didn't smile. "Better than some. I'd like to get your impression of the crew, though. They're a strange mix."
She shook her head. "No more so than anyone else we've stayed with. They're nervous about having us here, but that's nothing new." Her eyes brightened. "Wait until you meet the ship's engineer; she looks like she's barely out of school." Lee groaned: not another one. There had been an obsessed girl on three of the ships they'd visited, and two on Athena's Owl. "Not that bad, Captain Apollo," she said. "But she has some plan to increase maneuverability in Raptors; the Captain barely kept her from coming in here as soon as she heard you were awake."
* * *
"We'll bring you your supper on the shuttle, ma'am," Mal had offered. "Give you a little privacy." But no, the president didn't want any privacy, she'd be pleased to eat with his crew. So here they were, all crowded around the table; Kaylee'd taken the place next to that Captain Apollo, he noted, and Roslin herself was at the head, opposite himself. She looked ready to do some god-talking, so Mal headed her off. "We're not much of a ship for prayer," he said, and winced when Inara kicked his ankle.
"Would you lead us, Madam President?" she said. Then there was some nonsense about their storybook gods leading them back to Earth-That-Was, although Mal allowed that any god who could make sure that Jayne didn't mouth off and River didn't act to crazy might be worth some attention. Anyhow, it made the president look happy. Maybe she'd eat fast.
"I'd like to thank you all," she said, "for making us welcome on Serenity. I know that you are taking a risk, and we both appreciate your support."
"I don't hold with martial law," Mal answered. "And I reckon all my crew feel the same." Jayne swallowed hastily, but kept quiet at a quick look from Mal.
"The fleet can't afford open warfare," Book commented.
"We don't want that," Apollo said quickly. "Just the restoration of legitimate government."
"That sounds fine, but looks like not everyone agrees with you. They didn't on Athena's Owl, did they?"
Apollo managed a grim smile. "The reward on our heads looked a little too tempting, and we had a scuffle getting away."
Simon shook his head. "The depths some people will sink to." Mal glared at him, too.
Kaylee patted Apollo's arm. "No need to worry about that here on Serenity, right, Captain? An' we have plenty of experience hiding stuff here."
Wo de tian a. Roslin gave him a sharp look; that woman was no fool, Mal thought. "We said you'd be safe here, and you will be. Now eat up before the rice gets cold."
That gave him a few minutes of relief before the president started up again, wanting to know where they got their supplies and whether there was much trouble about it. Kaylee got launched into a story 'bout how they traded one of Inara's fancy dresses for coffee and grain because some refugee girl on a trading ship wanted to get married but didn't have more than the clothes she stood up in; it was a good story, and kept them going for a time, but Inara had a funny look on her face that Mal thought he'd have to figure out one day.
Not this dinner, though. River speared a protein ball and gave it a mournful look. "I can't eat this one," she said. "A god cursed it."
"River!" Simon said. "I'm sorry, my sister isn't well."
"She ain't unwell," Jayne said. "She's crazier than a cat on an anthill. You don't want that, I'll eat it."
She snatched it away. "You'll be cursed, too." She paused and smiled, then passed it back to Jayne.
"Curses aren't real, River. And I'm fairly sure that even if they were, they wouldn't apply to protein balls," Simon said. Mal caught his eye, and he got up. "Let's leave the table, mei mei."
She stared up at him. "I'm not finished."
"Come on," he said. "You can eat in your room."
Forty-eight hours, Zarek had said. They might manage it.
2. Incorrect Diagnoses
The next day, Lee was back in Serenity's tiny sickbay, letting their doctor check the bullet hole in his side. "You might as well make use of a doctor while you have one," Simon had pointed out. Fair enough, but Roslin was right: it was a strange collection of people, especially for a ship that he would bet had been a smuggler back in the colonies.
"How did you end up on Serenity?" he asked, letting it sound like an idle question.
As he expected, Simon didn't answer. "Long story, and not a very interesting one."
"You were onboard before the attacks?"
"Is that why your sister is..."
"She was like that before."
"I'm sorry," Lee said.
Simon looked up. "Don't be."
There was nothing sexual about the way the doctor was touching him, but Lee was struck by how close Simon's face was to his own naked chest. His breath caught, and he saw Simon's eyes go wide: he felt it too, Lee thought. His hands were raised as if too... he never found out what he would have done: Reynolds looked in the doorway and cleared his throat. "Broken leg on Star of Hermes. Wash told them you'd be right over."
Simon stepped back. "I'll get the..." he paused.
"Inara'll take you on her shuttle."
"I'll be up there in a moment." He was already taking items out of the sickbay cabinets, his back to Lee.
Lee grabbed his shirt and caught up with Rynolds on the gangway over the cargo area. "Ger Durrold is the captain of that ship, isn't he?" He thought he might have surprised Reynolds. "I'd like to go over with Dr. Tam."
"What happened to lying low on Serenity?"
"I didn't leave Galactica to hide, Captain. We need to contact as many ships as possible, and we need to do it quickly. I met Durrold when the fleet first came together." He'd asked whether the Old Man was planning to impose martial law, Lee remembered. And he wasn't part of Zarek's agenda for them.
Reynolds seemed to be considering the situation. "If someone spots you, the trail leads straight to Serenity."
"I'm asking you, Captain Reynolds. This isn't an order. I know it's a risk."
Reynolds met his eyes. "Durrold's honest, I reckon. I'll come with you. Not much point to me telling you to do what I say, is there?"
Lee grinned at him. "I'll try."
* * *
Captain Apollo was still looking a little surprised by the interior of her shuttle. "This is my home," she said in explanation. No need to mention that it had also been her workplace; there was no hint of anything like a Companion in this part of the universe. She hadn't realized how much she relied on that identity until it disappeared. In the scramble of their first days here--and then, just when they'd gotten their bearings, the Cylon attack--it hadn't occurred to her, but now she saw it. The rest of the crew did what they always had done: Kaylee was still an engineer (and riding high after her successful installation of Serenity's jump-drive), Wash a pilot, Simon a doctor, the same with all the rest. What was she? She suspected that Book felt a similar loss, but they hadn't spoken of it.
"Ready to go, ambassador?" Mal asked. He hadn't called her a whore in months. She disengaged from Serenity and flew them the short distance to Star of Hermes.
"Do you do much of this?" Apollo asked.
"Most of the smaller ships can't afford to get a doctor out from one of the liners," Simon said, "I can take a shuttle over from Serenity, and they pay with whatever they have. The ships with space and water are setting up hydroponic gardens, for instance."
She let the conversation wash over her until Star of Hermes signaled that they were ready for the shuttle to dock. Simon was out the shuttle door as soon as it was opened, medical bag in hand. Mal watched him go and told them to wait while he went to find Durrold.
"Ambassador?" Apollo asked.
"Just a silly nickname." She wondered what would happen if she tried to make a contract the president; the woman certainly seemed to Inara to be in need of something, and the services of a Companion couldn't hurt. "Mal thinks I'm more presentable than the rest of the crew."
She supposed it had been unkind; Apollo flushed and seemed at a loss for anything to say beyond, "Oh." She could smile and make it a joke, but wasn't sure it was worth the trouble. "Serenity isn't as bad as some I've seen," he finally said. "We spent two days on Amazon Maiden, and that crew seems to have given up washing. I think they just got used to the smell." He made a face, and she responded with a small smile; she was spared the need to do anything else by one of Hermes' crew at the shuttle door, there to take them to Mal and Durrold.
As she stepped out she thought that the bay was more crowded than she'd expected; then she saw the makeshift weapons. "Qingwa cao de liumang!"
"If that means we're frakked," Apollo said, raising his hands, "then I agree."
* * *
"What the hell kind of trouble have you got me into?" Durrold shouted. The four from Serenity were seated on a bench against the wall in his office, arms tied behind their backs and a guard at the door. It was a small gray room, and between the bench, the cabinets and Durrold's desk, a crowded one.
"Now hold it there," Mal said. "You're the one trying to kidnap our doctor. You brought this on yourself."
"What am I supposed to do now? What am I supposed to do with him?" He stared at Apollo. "What's he doing here, anyway?"
Lee tried to shrug, but the ropes holding his arms back made it difficult. "I wanted to find out if you were still opposed to martial law."
"You wanted to drum up support for your rebellion, you mean," Durrold said. "Why my ship?"
"You were the one who called for a doctor," Simon said.
Lee pushed further. "Are you going to turn me in, Durrold?"
"Am I... I don't... why'd you make a deal with Zarek, anyway? The man's a terrorist; I don't care what kind of position he has now. He needs to be behind bars, and you're working with him!"
He took a breath; it might be a way out of this mess. "Would it help to know that the president agrees with you? She hates having to work with him."
"So why's she doing it?"
"We need the kind of help Zarek can provide. If nothing else, he knows how to stay under Galactica's radar."
"You only need him because you left your post! Did you think for a second about the trouble you'd make for all the rest of us? I'm an honest ship's captain," Mal coughed loudly at that. "Frak," Durrold said again, some of the fight going out of him. "I'm trying. I've got over a hundred crew, and our food reserves are low. I don't need trouble in the fleet -- I've got enough of my own right here."
"May I point out again," Simon said, "that you might have avoided at least some of your present difficulty if you hadn't tried to kidnap me?" Mal stifled another cough, but couldn't keep from laughing. He leaned forward, his shoulders shaking. The conversation might be ridiculous, Lee thought, but not that funny: he could still be turned over to his father, and who knew what kind of punishment there would be for Mal and his crew? Then Mal's back gave another twist and he shot forward off the bench and into Durrold as his hands came free. Lee leaped to his feet as well as Durrold backed away from Mal and knocked into him with his left shoulder, wincing as the wound in his side burned. The blow sent Durrold back into Reynolds, who grabbed him by the collar and pushed him into the wall; Lee saw the flash of a knife in Mal's hand. Inara was on her feet as well; she'd grabbed Mal's gun off the desk and was pointing it at the guard by the door.
"Right," Mal said. "I'm gonna make this decision for you, Durrold. First of all, that man of yours is going to put down his weapon and let Inara here tie him up. Got that?"
"Are you crazy?" Durrold said. Mal tightened his grip. "Alright, alright. Do it, Wain."
Lee watched carefully, but the guard let her do it, and Inara seemed to know what she was doing; as much as he did, anyway. Even if they got off Star of Hermes, he'd still been spotted; they'd have to leave Serenity before Zarek was ready for them to move. He stood still as Inara untied him and then Simon.
"You don't think you're walking out of here, Reynolds? You're not that crazy."
"That's just what I think. And I don't think you or anyone in your crew is going to say a word about anything that happened here, or anyone they might have seen. We're all going to forget this ever happened."
"We are?" Simon asked.
Mal paid no attention. "Anyone hears that Star of Hermes don't trade fair, well, I reckon that's the end of you."
Lee rubbed his wrists. There was no way this would work, not with a hundred desperate crew on board, but he couldn't think of any other plan. "You don't want to be known as the ship that betrayed the president, do you?" he asked.
"So here's what I think," Mal said. "I think you're going to walk the four of us up to your bridge, nice and friendly, and we're going to arrange a little communications accident, just in case you decide to change your mind. Then you're going to see us back to our shuttle, and we're going to head back to Serenity."
"You'd do all that for Apollo?" Durrold asked. "He's not one of us."
"Way I see it, you turn him in, you turn us in too. You want to endanger my crew, Durrold?"
Durrold sighed. "I'm going to have to find some other doctor, next time I need one."
"Reckon so," Mal said.
* * *
Simon sulked most of the way back on the shuttle, until Mal made a comment Lee didn't understand, something about not ending up set on fire. "Surprised this hasn't happened before, though. Next time Jayne'll go with you."
"Marvelous," Simon said. "I feel safer already."
"This isn't the first time something like this has happened," Inara said. "A girl from Mari Palace was kidnapped last month by some men from Astral Queen. Zarek sent her back and the whole thing was hushed up. I heard about it when I went over to hem the wedding dress for Sita Nautos.
Mal looked surprised. "You never said anything about that before."
"Why do you think I had a knife hidden in my sleeve today?"
"I don't like that," Mal said. "And Durrold wasn't wrong. People are getting nervous out in the fleet. No predicting what they might start doing, and we got enough troubles without turning on each other."
"We don't want to split the fleet," Lee said.
"No, but that's what you did. Worth it?"
He sounded almost like he meant the question. "Some things are worth fighting for," Lee said, "win or lose."
"Sometimes you have to hold the position," Mal said. Their eyes met, and Lee very nearly asked him what unit he'd been in, but Mal shook his head. "That's the past," the other captain said, and was silent for the rest of the short flight back to Serenity.
Back on the ship, Lee followed Simon down to the sickbay. "Would you mind?" he asked. "I think I pulled something when I threw myself at Durrold."
Simon's face was unreadable. "Of course."
His fingers stumbled as he started to pull off his jacket; Simon, he thought, misread his hesitation and stood in front of him. "I'll do that. He lifted the jacket up and off Lee's shoulders; there was blood on the undershirt. "Looks like you did reopen the wound," Simon said. Lee gasped when his fingers brished bare skin, and Simon froze. "Sorry," he said.
"No, I'm sorry," Lee said. "This is crazy."
At that, Simon smiled. "You know, I'm something of an expert on crazy. I don't think this really qualifies."
"So, what would you call it?"
"Awkward. Ill-advised. Possibly dangerous, since you could still bleeding all over my infirmary. May I?" Lee let him pull his vest off and remove the bandage. "Not bad. You won't bleed to death." His hands rested briefly at Lee's waist.
Lee cleared his throat. "I'll probably need a doctor again before this is all over. And the President..."
"She won't let me examine her. I asked this morning."
"You aren't going to take me with you. And really, the life of a fugitive doesn't appeal." He smiled. "Which is a little ironic, I think."
"You have some company in that," Lee said. The moment, whatever it had been, had passed.
3. Anomalous Visitation
Laura Roslin's eyes flew open and she gasped. A face hovered not five inches from her own. "I heard you dreaming," it said. The girl... the doctor's sister, she thought. River. "We don't belong here. Can you take us home?"
"I can find Earth," Roslin said. "And I will lead the people there."
"Earth isn't home. The anomaly is irresolvable." The girl sounded thoughtful. "Also, I don't think the snakes are real."
Laura looked down to her feet: there they were, twelve snakes coiled at the foot of the bed. A dream, then. No wonder she felt so peaceful. She reached out and let two of them twist up her arms. The girl ran her fingers down their backs. "Another anomaly," she murmured.
"They are a sign from the gods," Roslin explained.
"My brother told me the stories. Now the stories are telling you." She extended her own arms and two of the vipers crawled up them, flicking their tongues at her skin. "It's because I'm crazy."
Then there was a banging on the shuttle door, and the light flicked on; she heard Lee on the other side of the curtain getting up. She blinked, but the girl was still there, grasping Laura's fingers. Hadn't it been a dream? "You saw them too," she said.
"I see everything," River told her.
The doctor came in, half-scolding and half apologizing, his arm around River's shoulders. "Wait!" Laura said. "Tell me," she said to the girl. "What did you see?"
"It's a paradox. You, me, the snakes. Earth, too. We cannot be here, and we cannot be there."
Laura stood. "You are not insane." One of the other crewmembers had followed Simon in: the older man, Book.
"We're leaving now," Simon said, turning his sister around to walk her out.
She twisted her head to look at Laura as she went. "I see everything," she said again. Laura took a step forward and stumbled; Apollo was there, though, to hold her up.
Book was blocking the shuttle door. "Let them go," he said.
"You know what I am," Laura said. "And I know what she is."
"She isn't what you think."
"The gods give me visions. She shares that burden, doesn't she?"
Book shook his head. "We all have our own burdens, but we will protect her if we can."
She felt Lee tense beside her, and rested her hand on his arm. "I am dying," she said simply. "When I am dead, she may be needed. She may be able to guide us to Earth." She couldn't miss the flash of fear on Book's normally guarded face.
* * *
They were all awake now, even Jayne, ranged around the kitchen.
"This isn't a problem," Simon said. "This is a catastrophe."
"She thinks River can find Earth-That-Was," Book said.
There was a little silence. "You think she's right," Mal said.
Book hesitated. "We don't know the limits to River's abilities. The question is, do we want to let her try?"
Kaylee was sitting next to River, holding her. She looked up from the girl. "What do you mean?"
"If the fleet gets to Earth, the Cylons will follow," Zoe explained.
"The Alliance would fight them," Book said.
"Even if they do, there's a lot of systems out on the Rim. They won't be protected."
"So we're never going home at all, are we?"
"We don't know that, Kaylee," Mal said quickly. "And anyway, that's not the question now. What're we gonna do about Apollo and the President? We know they're wrong, but we can't say why."
"The snakes were beautiful," River said. "They poisoned her."
"I won't let them hurt you, mei mei," Simon said.
She gave him a doubtful look. "They aren't real," she said.
"Whatever we're going to do," Wash said from where he was standing in the doorway, "we need to do it now. They're coming up from the shuttle."
Simon stood up. "I'd like to try something."
"If it avoids the threats and the violence, I'm all for it," Wash said.
Mal frowned. "I'd want to know what you have in mind."
"I'm going to talk to Apollo," he said. It sounded innocent enough, but to Mal he looked like a man ready to throw himself in front of a gun.
* * *
Simon Tam walked out of the kitchen, where Serenity's crew had assembled. "Excuse me, Madam President," he said, and "May I speak with you, Captain Apollo? In private?" The president nodded once, and Lee let Simon lead him down past the infirmary to a set of rooms. "Passenger quarters," he explained. "Before, I mean. That's how..." He paused. "My sister has... River is a gift. But there have been people who wanted to use her, to use that gift. We're a little cautious."
"Is that how you came onto Serenity?"
"Yes." He paused. "Does the President believe all that? That the gods are telling her what to do?"
Lee spoke carefully. "I think she sometimes believes it."
"And you? Do you believe it?"
Simon's face was very pale, and his arms were crossed across his chest. "Simon, what are you afraid of?"
"You didn't answer my question. Do you believe her?"
"I believe that Roslin is the rightful president. I believe that Tigh's declaration of martial law is illegal."
"I'm not worried about the President," Simon said. "I don't care about all your politics!"
"Simon, President Roslin is not going to take River and... and do whatever it is you're afraid of!"
"I have no idea what she's capable of!" Simon said. He stopped as if he'd surprised himself, and continued in a calmer voice. "Neither did you. And you haven't answered my question."
"You haven't told me what you're so afraid of," Lee shot back. "If you want me to back you against the President -- and that is what you want, isn't it? -- you need to tell me what's going on here."
"I haven't lied to you, and I haven't lied to the President," Simon said stubbornly.
Hadn't lied! Lee whirled around and slammed his hand against the bulkhead wall; he stood there, his back to Simon, breathing in and out.
Simon's voice was shaking. "River is the most important thing in the universe to me."
Lee turned around and let the wall hold him up. "You can't keep your secret forever, whatever it is. Is it... It's to do with the Cylons, isn't it?"
"No!" Simon said. "No, it's nothing like that. It's nothing dangerous."
"Why should we believe you? Why should we keep your secret?"
"We've kept yours."
Lee opened his mouth and let it close. It was true: if they couldn't trust Simon and the rest of Serenity's crew, they were already frakked. "We have to think of the good of the fleet. Not one ship or one person. All that's left of humanity."
"Lee," Simon's voice was gentle. "The president can't keep herself safe, and you have... looking out for her is all you can do. But I'll tell you what I can, you and her both."
* * *
"Madam President," Simon began; the title still felt odd on his lips. He glanced at the rest of the crew, still crowded into the kitchen; Mal was looking very suspicious. Roslin was, he thought, trying to appear encouraging; he wondered if she had the slightest idea of how terrifying she was. He suspected that she knew it perfectly well. "My sister doesn't have religious visions -- she never has before -- she has a different talent. She can read people: their thoughts, their histories, sometimes. She can see what you can see, or know what you know." He watched her carefully: they didn't even know whether people here understood the idea of readers. "If she saw something, it was because you did." The phrase 'drug-induced hallucinations' occurred to him.
"You aren't certain of this." It wasn't a question.
"I'm as certain as I can be."
"As am I. River has a role to play in our journey. Would you withhold her when she's needed?"
He glanced at Mal. It was the heart of the matter, the point where all their loyalties met: to River, to Serenity, to their homeworlds. to the Fleet they were traveling with. Mal nodded. "Keep this secret, Madam President. Give us time. If you need her, if she can help you, if she's willing to help... I won't stand in your way."
"Nor any of us," Mal said.
"I miss Persephone most," River said. "All the crinkles and rivers of dust. In the end, we'll go there."
It was no consolation that the President looked as horrified as he felt. "River," Simon said.
"Let's you and me go back to my bunk, River," Kaylee interrupted. "We'll play with the lights and I'll tell you stories, how's that? I think you've worn your brother out."
River rolled her eyes. "He's always been delicate."
* * *
Lee caught up with Simon by the passenger quarters; it wasn't difficult, since he was sitting slumped against the wall by the foot of the ladder, head in his hands. "If Mal kicks me off Serenity, do you think Roslin might consider taking on a personal physician after all?"
Lee sat down next to him. "I don't think he will. And Inara's smoothing things over with the President. What is her background?"
Simon lifted his head. "Complicated."
"Is there anything on Serenity that isn't complicated?"
He thought the noise Simon made was supposed to be laughter. "Wash tells me he's a simple man, but I'm not sure." Simon pushed himself to his feet. "My room's right here, but I feel obliged to remind you that you have a recent bullet wound."
"No exertion, right?"
"It would add an entirely new level of complication to the evening, difficult though that may be to imagine." He reached down and helped Lee up. "But at least I'll be on hand to patch you up if we do open your stitches."
All was right with Serenity, Mal thought, or as right as it was likely to get without a miracle: the crew was back where they should be and the visitors were gone. He found Simon down in the infirmary counting and reshelving his stocks, dismissed his behavior as no more disturbed than usual, and kept going. Book was up in the kitchen, scraping some vegetables they'd traded for. He glanced up when Mal came in, then went back to the food. Mal sat at the table and watched him.
"How much trouble do you reckon we're in?" he asked.
"Can you think of a time we haven't been in trouble of some sort?" Book asked.
Mal snorted. "I got vague memories of that, yeah. Been a while."
"Yes it has," Book said. "Yes it has."
"I don't think the doctor made things any worse," he offered. "Once River'd had her spell, anyway."
Book put down the knife. "She can't help what she is."
"Neither can the President. Neither can you or me. Neither can the Alliance or the Fleet."
"Or the Cylons, for all we know."
"We ain't likely to find out about that," Mal said. "You think President Roslin will leave us alone?"
Book shook his head.
"Didn't think so," Mal said. "We get back home, does the Alliance stand a chance against the Cylons?"
"You have a lot of questions today, Captain Reynolds."
"Sometimes I think you have more answers than you let on, and I don't mean what you can pull out of those scriptures."
Book started chopping. "I don't know."
"Is there anything to do but wait?"
"You hold your crew together, Malcolm Reynolds. That's one thing."
"It ain't much."
"I once heard the saying: give me a place to stand and a large enough lever, and I can move the world. Serenity is where we stand."
"Hunh," Mal said. "Reckon Kaylee could rig us a lever, if we asked her nice."
All Hail Joss Whedon and Ron Moore! And their corporate sponsors. I merely borrow their towys, and put them back not too much worse for the wear.