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Chapter Three

"Little Albatross. Trust you ain't doing anything in here you ain't supposed to be doing."

River kept her eyes trained on the control panel as Mal walked into the cockpit. She had heard him coming before he even headed her way, so his arrival was no less than anticipated, even if he thought he had caught her by surprise. They never took River by surprise. She just never told them that much. Let them think what they want. Makes them feel better. "Albatross is doing her job," River answered casually.

Mal eyed her for a moment, but her demeanor was unreadable, much like it always was. He cleared his throat and stepped over to lean against his side of the control panels. "Right, because that is what you're supposed to be doing and that's what I expect you to do," he said and crossed his arms over his chest. "...What are you doing?"

River offered him a glance that was on the border of disbelief and exasperation. It only lasted a moment before she shifted her eyes back to the control panel to dismiss the question. Stupid questions didn't warrant answers and River didn't have the patience for stupid questions right then. Her mind was crowded; everyone was thinking too loud and thinking nothing at the same time. Everyone but Simon. Her brother was quiet and it made River nervous, more nervous than she normally was. It made her head hurt the more she listened and the more his silence closed in on her. Simon was rarely ever quiet. It made no sense for Simon to be quiet right now. He had been so loud earlier. "The silence is too quiet. It isn't right."

"I reckon silence is meant to be quiet," Mal replied with a simple shrug of his shoulders. He'd caught sight of the barely noticeable change in River's demeanor, not that he was quite sure what to make of it. Mal usually left the figuring out to Simon when it came to the younger Tam. It just wasn't Mal's area of expertise and he didn't much care for it to be either. "I like the quiet. Don't get much of it around here."

"Jayne is loud," River said. "Even when he is sleeping. A big child, he is. He didn't learn to grow."

Mal afforded a small half grin that curled the left corner of his mouth. "Now if that ain't as accurate a description as any I've ever heard..."

Zoe entered the cockpit with Emma perched tightly on her right hip. Motherhood seemed to come so natural to her at times, that Mal still found it weird and hard to believe in some moments that the strong hardened by war woman was indeed a mother now, like that moment for instance. But there wasn't a trace of relaxation on her face. It was business as usual and serious business at that by the looks of it. Zoe glanced briefly at River before returning her attention to Mal. "Sir. No sign of him yet."

Even Mal couldn't fight the frown he felt surfacing at the mention of Simon's continued absence. Truth be told, Mal was still just as pissed that the doctor had defied his orders and walked right off the ship despite their impending departure. He'd spent a good deal of time right after storming around Serenity and cursing under his breath and at first he'd had every intention of holding true to his threat of leaving Simon behind if he wasn't back within the hour. Let him crap his britches and then come back around to pick him up. The doctor needed a good lesson. Of course, Mal knew he wouldn't have actually gone through with that, because Simon was right. Kaylee would have his head on a platter if they left the good doctor behind, even only temporarily. That pissed him off even more; damn know it all.

Then the first hour had come and gone and when Simon hadn't shown up, it was Zoe who reasoned that he'd probably gotten himself distracted in the block of shops. Probably was enjoying the fresh air as well; Simon was one who had been cooped up on Serenity for a long period of time now, so it made sense he'd want a little extra time. 'Give him the benefit of the doubt, sir' Zoe had said and Mal gave him another hour, called it charity and held steady that he wouldn't allow Simon a minute more.

That hour had also come and gone.

It had been just over three hours since Simon's departure.

"Sir?" Zoe called out when Mal didn't respond to her.

River looked out the front end of Serenity just as a spark of lightning flashed across the sky. The weather on Jirah had taken a drastic turn from sunny and sweltering to cool and overcast with a storm suddenly moving in. Seconds later, rain began to splat against the window, slowly and sporadically at first and then more steadily. "Simon's not coming," she murmured, her forehead creasing. "Can't."

"That ain't something I wanna be hearing right now," Mal muttered. He looked between River, the now downpour of rain outside, and Zoe's raised brows. "I wanna hear his proper self is walking on board my ship right now so we can get off this Gorram rock."

"'Fraid that ain't the case, sir," Zoe answered him and lifted Emma to cradle her against her chest when the toddler began to whine quietly.

Mal gruffed to himself. "Well, who let him off the ship in first place?" he scowled.

"Actually...that was you," Zoe answered again with a hardened stare.

River brought her hands up to the sides of her head, frowning harder. "Not right. It ain't right."

"Now ain't the time to be losing your marbles even more," Mal stated pointedly at her. His eyes snapped to the window at the loud Crack of thunder and winced when the sound caused Emma to cry out in fright. "Ta ma de... [Damnit...]"

"What's moonbrain girl going on about now?" Jayne rasped as he strolled into the cockpit. He appeared annoyed and distracted more than normal, something that wasn't much of a surprise. He looked at Zoe and Emma. "Aiya! [Damn!] The kid's cryin' again. This party ain't lookin' like much fun. Why didn't I get an invite?"

Mal ignored him and walked over to the intercom mounted on the wall. He connected to the intercom in Kaylee and Simon's room where he last remembered Inara being. "Inara."

It took a second before Inara's voice filtered through the speaker. "Keep your voice down. Kaylee doesn't need to be awake right now."

Mal bit back a curse. "That's all shiny and everything, but I need you in the cockpit for a word, dong ma? [understand?]"

Inara sighed and answered him, "I'll be right there."

Turning back to the others, Mal crossed his arms over his chest again. "Clearly we got ourselves a problem right now."

"Ya think?" Jayne snapped. He pointed at Emma whose whines had turned into full-blown wails of distress to which Zoe was having sufficient difficulty calming her down from. "That kid is making my ears bleed, Mal."

"Ain't nothing you don't do to me every time you run your mouth," Mal told him stiffly.

River drew her knees up to her chest on the seat and gripped her head tighter, her fingers tangling in her hair. "It's not okay. I told him it was a catastrophe. No no no. It's too quiet."

"With all due respect, sir..." Zoe interjected as she bounced Emma in her arms to soothe the child, but it did little good and her voice fell short.

Inara arrived in the cockpit soon after, flustered and breathless. "Tell me this is not about Simon still being gone," she said.

Jayne rolled his eyes at her. "Why? Mal interrupt one of your little tea parties or something? Guess I didn't get an invite to that either."

Inara narrowed her eyes at him. "Would it pain you to act human for five seconds, you liou coe shway duh biao-tze duh ur-tze? [stupid son of a drooling whore and a monkey?]"

"Huh..." Mal cocked his head to the side, a little taken aback. "Didn't see that one coming..."

Jayne grumbled under his breath and leaned back against the wall.

Inara stepped closer to Mal. "Something's not right with Kaylee. You can tell just by looking at her. She's in pain. Where's Simon?"

"Don't seem anyone knows where the doctor's at at the current," Mal told her.

"This is not the time to be joking-"

"I ain't jokin', Inara."

They stared at each other for a long moment while Emma's wails finally began to cease before Inara pulled the silk shawl she wore closer around her shoulders. "Then why are we just standing here? Clearly he's been gone too long. And if something happened-"

"Nobody's saying anything happened-" Mal started to say.

Inara narrowed her gaze at him and hushed her voice. "I can see it in your eyes that you believe otherwise."

Mal's shoulders dropped under the weight of Inara's stare. It took him a moment before he spoke up again. "You and Zoe keep Kaylee calm if she wakes up. Lie to her if you have to. Jayne and I will head into town, find Simon, and drag him home. Until then, it's business as usual. Do I make myself clear?"

"Hey, I hate to be the bearer of bad news," Jayne piped up and nodded to the window. "But it's really raining outside. I don't wanna go out in the rain, Mal. This is a solo run."

Mal's glance turned steely in Jayne's direction. "I'll make this a solo run for you if I hear that come out of your mouth again. Now go armor up. Keep it small. I don't anticipate we'll need use unless it's an absolute necessity."

"This is a new Gorram shirt," Jayne muttered as he stormed out of the cockpit.

"It smells like sweat and liquor! You'll be doing it and us a service!" Mal called after him.

"You sure this is such a good plan?" Zoe asked and handed Emma over to Inara. "I should go with."

"I need you here this time, Zoe," Mal said with a firm shake of his head. "Help Inara with Kaylee. She's the one who needs lookin' after." He turned to find River looking at him with a knowing glance. It bothered him more than he could express and he sure as Hell wasn't going to admit to it. "And don't you worry either, Little Albatross. I know that look."

"Albatross already knows," River whispered in return.

"That's the problem," Mal grunted and turned swiftly to leave the cockpit.


The sound of distant voices yanked Simon abruptly out of a dark safe place where nothing worse could happen. At first, he couldn't make sense of anything; the pain that swarmed his body from head to toe, the air around him that chilled him to the core, or why everything was still so dark. Then he pried his eyes open and inhaled a shallow breath. The act made his chest and stomach hurt. Bruising, it felt like bruising both internal and external, but why? It didn't make sense. Nothing made sense right then.

Simon grimaced and shifted his eyes sporadically to take in his surroundings. It was almost as dark as it had been when his eyes were shut, but as his vision slowly began to adjust to the lack of lighting, so did his awareness. He was surrounded on all sides, as far as he could tell, by crudely constructed stone walls that lead up to a wooden ceiling not too far above him. It was maybe just high enough for him to be able to stand up right without hitting his head, though Simon couldn't be sure about the accuracy of that assumption. He was too disoriented to tell. His head was killing him with a dizzying throbbing pulse.

Clenching his eyes shut, Simon swallowed thickly and rolled from his back over onto his hands and knees. The movement left him breathless for a moment and he nearly toppled over as the room swayed around him. It felt like the worst intoxication spell he could imagine, but that wasn't right. Simon hadn't had a drop of liquor in his system for weeks now. He wasn't drunk. He was in pain, a great deal of pain. And probably suffering from a highly likely concussion sustained from the blow to his temple.

The thought had the breath catching in Simon's lungs. Images flashed through his mind like a cinematic feature, blending one into the other. The faces of the crew of Serenity...Kaylee...his sister River. She didn't want Simon to go. And then faces Simon didn't recognize brought him back to the events that led him to where he was. Those accents he couldn't recognize. The mistake he had made. The trouble he was now in.

Simon tried to push himself up onto his feet, but his knees hit the ground again in seconds and he found himself retching, spewing bile as the nausea over took him. His throat burned the more he gasped for breath and his arms quaked under his weight, threatening to give out at a moment's notice.

'Catastrophe...' River's warning echoed in Simon's head. He brought a hand up to slowly swipe it against his mouth. His face stung to the touch and when Simon withdrew his hand, he noticed the streaks of blood marking his skin. There was no pinpointing where it came from without seeing a reflection of himself, but there was also no mistaking it was from him.

The voices could be heard again, the ones that had brought Simon back into a state of consciousness, and the more he listened, the better he was able to tell where they were coming from. Directly over head. Those unfamiliar accents and a couple of other voices Simon didn't remember from before. Their footsteps were heavy and echoed across the ceiling, giving Simon a better idea of where they were, not that it made him feel the least bit better. They were close by and they meant no good.

He needed a way out. He needed to get back to Serenity.

Simon needed the room to stop spinning around him.

Swallowing thickly again, Simon summoned as much energy as he could muster and slowly rose to his feet. He quickly braced a hand against the closest wall as he teetered and turned just as slowly, looking for a doorway, a window, anything that served as a means of escape. Across the room, he caught sight of a small door with tiny slivers of golden light seeping into the room beneath it. The only in and out as far as Simon could tell, which left him with very limited options, if there were even any to begin with.

Simon kept his hand braced against the wall as he carefully crept forward, placing a good deal of his concentration on his steps alone. It was hard to walk; his legs trembled and threatened to give out just like his arms had. They tempted him to lay down and close his eyes again to shut out the world. He couldn't do that though. He wouldnt. Simon had to get out. He had to get back to Kaylee and River like he promised he would.

Reaching the door, he fumbled to grab hold of the handle and when he finally managed to tug on it, the door didn't budge. Had he really been expecting it to? Simon's captors obviously weren't idiots; they wouldn't just toss him in and walk away with the door unlocked. It didn't stop him from yanking on it again and then again before a curse of frustration and even desperation passed Simon's lips.

The voices and footsteps above Simon ceased, causing him to freeze as well. He held his breath and strained his ears to listen and it seemed like the hammering sound of his heart in his chest only grew louder in his ears. It wasn't long before he heard their footsteps again and this time, the sound quickly traveled across the ceiling. Simon's hand dropped away from the door handle, his eyes drawn upward.

"A mouthy lad he is," Simon heard one of them say as the foot steps steadily approached the door. Jethro, the only name Simon remembered. He took a few unsteady steps back from the door, searching his foggy mind for a plan of action. There was no doubt they were coming for him right then and if only he could figure out a way to take them off guard and get out the door...

"Don't reckon we could get our hands on a good ransom for him, do ya?" another voice, this one deeper and raspier than Jethro's, spoke up.

"Alone, he was," Jethro answered. "Dressed fancy. Looks made a'money. Little on him though. Not from around here."

They stopped outside the door at that point and Simon took another step back.

"Got ourselves a fancy feather on our hands. Could have fun with that, money or not," the second voice chuckled. The sound sent a chill down Simon's spine.

A key was slipped into the lock on the other side of the door and the handle jiggled. Simon pressed his back against the wall, bracing himself as he watched with bated breath.

"Bleeds easy, this one," Jethro spoke again. He started to open the door. "Knocked 'im out cold with one blow to the head. Easy target, aye."

The door opened further, sending a flood of light washing into the room. Simon pressed back into the shadows as the two men stepped inside, looking around for him. They were clearly baffled when they didn't see him sprawled out on the floor like they expected. Jethro turned to the other, scowling.

"Left 'im right there!" he stated in annoyance as he jabbed a finger at the ground.

"Then where is he?" the other one asked. "Didn't lock the door all the way, did ya."

Jethro cursed sharply. "Go and get Titus. See what he knows about it. Grimy bastard better not have been down here unattended and let the lad a way out."

The second man mumbled something under his breath that Simon wasn't able to make out before leaving the room. Jethro remained standing in place for another moment before turning to follow him out and Simon took the opportunity without further thought to lunge out of the shadows at him.

He collided roughly with Jethro, taking him off guard, and the two of them fell through the doorway onto the ground outside of the room. Jethro shouted a loud curse as Simon's fist connected with his head before he managed to throw the doctor off of him. But with the adrenaline surging through Simon's veins, he scrambled to his feet and turned to dash down the small hallway leading towards a set of stairs.

Simon never saw the swinging rock coming towards his head, or the second man on the other end of it who had never gone up the stairs after all. Fiery pain exploded behind Simon's eyes and he slumped to the ground limply. It was River's voice he heard in his head before the darkness took over him once again.

'Catastrophe...' she said.