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Summary: A Xander one-off. Xander finds himself dealing with the wild frontier, one thousand years in the future, with one messed up not-quite assassin girl, her doctor brother, and a ship full of comrades.

Categories Author Rating Chapters Words Recs Reviews Hits Published Updated Complete
Firefly > Xander-Centered > Pairing: RiverphoukaFR15117,722465811,34516 May 0916 May 09Yes
Disclaimer: Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, and their respective characters and universes are the property of Joss Whedon and Mutant Enemy Productions. No copyright infringement is intended. No profit will be made.

Not-the-Author's Note: I did not write this. My brother, aka phoukabro, wrote this. This is not part of his infamous series "Oh, The Places He Goes!". This is a stand-alone, what-ifish sort of story. After reading it, I accused him of being a soft-hearted, sentimental slob. Turns out I was 2/3rds correct. Please enjoy. All feedback will be forwarded to him.


How I Wound Up On Serenity

Short answer?

A cute girl said I should travel on the ship.

Long answer?

I was sitting at the bar, reading Willow's journal. I had been there for a couple of hours, nursing my beer. I had just gotten to the part about Giles retiring when I heard a voice, inches from my ear.

“You can't go home again,” the quiet voice said.

I jumped back in alarm. She had gotten right next to me without me even registering it. I stared at her, wondering how the hell she snuck so close.

“There's no door into summer. You can't go home again.”

“Yeah,” I said carefully. “That's what they say.”

“It's okay,” she said, and patted my arm. “Billy Blue exiled down under, started a ferry, died a hero. You'll find your place. You can see that, can't you?” she asked.

The girl leaned in close and studied my face. “You are the one who sees things.”

“River!”

I looked up and saw a young man quickly approach our table.

“You're not supposed to go off on your own. You know that.”

“Wanted to meet new people.” She pouted, then a smile broke out on her face and she pointed to me and said, “And I did!”

“Yes, I see that,” he reassured her. The man turned to me and said, “I'm sorry my sister disturbed you. My name is Simon, and she's River.”

“Hey, I'm Xander,” I introduced myself. “It's not a problem. I was just killing time here.”

“He's not from here,” River pronounced. “Stranger in a strange land. Silent as a tomb, calling out for a trail of bread crumbs.”

Simon glanced from his sister to me.

“Your sister's...kind of intense,” I observed.

“Yes, she is,” Simon agreed. “River, we should probably get back to the ship. C'mon, let's go.”

“No. We have to sit under the table for the next three minutes,” River said, then slunk down and hid under the table.

Simon looked at me, then grinned nervously. “River can act a little peculiar. But you don't have to worry about her. I'll just get her out from under the table and...” he trailed off and stared to my right.

I looked over and saw a couple of Alliance security agents enter the bar. I turned back just in time to see Simon yanked down by his sister.

“Interesting,” I mused.

I watched as the agents went from table to table. After a couple of minutes, one of them approached me.

“Excuse me, sir,” he said. “We're on the lookout for two dangerous fugitives. Have you seen either of these criminals?”

He held out a photo in front of me. The picture showed Simon on one side and River on the other.

“Don't really look that dangerous,” I said.

“Looks can be deceiving.”

I looked over the picture. According to the sheet, they were brother and sister. The charges listed were theft of government property, assault, reckless endangerment, destruction of public property, and high treason. Hell, me and the gang did all that back in Sunnydale. I was about to blow him off, when I saw his partner begin to search the other side of the bar.

“Wait, I think I have seen them,” I said. I felt Simon tense up next to my feet. “At least I saw the guy. He was out by the stable. I passed by, and he was trying to hire a horse. I think he said something about a meeting in the desert east of here.”

The agent didn't even thank me. He called his partner and they ran out of the bar.

“You can come out now,” I told Simon and River.

River popped out, while Simon slowly stuck his head out and looked around before coming out.

“Thank you,” Simon said. “There was some misunderstanding with the local authorities. It's nothing important. Some tax issues. It'll all be cleared up next week. But I do appreciate your help.”

“Simon,” River tugged on his arm. “We're leaving now.”

“Xander did help us out. We owe him the simple courtesy of thanking him.”

“Silly, we'll see him later,” River said. With that, she turned and exited the bar.

Simon sighed, then turned to me. “She gets confused sometimes. Thank you again for your help.”

“No problem. Take care of your sister,” I told him.

I watched him leave the bar, then I sat back down at my booth. I reached out to pick up Willow's journal, but there was nothing there.

“Oh, no,” I muttered. I looked all around the table, but there was no sign of the journal or my bag.

“Oh no. Where the hell did...” I trailed off as I realized what happened to them.



I scanned the crowded port, hoping to spot River. I shook my head and realized that if she didn't want me to spot her, then I wouldn't. I then tried to spot Simon. The well groomed proper young man would stick out in this frontier crowd. I walked up and down the port, peering carefully, when the cute girl spoke up.

“You know you want a ride.” I looked over at the girl. She was good looking in a girl next door, grease monkey, kind of way. “Serenity isn't the fastest, or the most comfortable. But she is the best.”

“And why is she the best?” I asked, now a little intrigued.

“Cause she's got heart,” she said. “I'm Kaylee. I'm the mechanic and the unofficial welcoming committee for Serenity.”

“I'm Xander,” I shook her hand. “I'm sorry, but I can't book passage on your ship.”

“But you want to. I can tell. There's somewhere you're itching to get to.”

“Maybe,” I said, thinking about the friends I missed. “But there's not a ship made that can get me there.”

“Well then, Serenity is the ship for you.” She never wavered that wide smile of hers as she spoke.

“Okay, I'll bite. Why is Serenity the ship for me?” I asked.

“Cause if you ain't where you want to be then you need to travel. And if you can't get there, then you might as well enjoy the journey 'til you can,” she reasoned. “Serenity goes to all sorts of places. Who knows, you come on board, we may not get you to where you want to go, but we may take you to where you want to stay.”

I listened to her pitch, and realized how enticing it sounded. But I smiled back and sadly shook my head.

“I'd love to. Really. But I need to find someone right now. They have—”

“Xander?” Simon said from behind me.

“Simon!” I cried out in relief. “Is River with you?”

“What do you want with River?” he asked in a wary tone. He took a careful step back from me.

“She took my bag and journal when she left the bar. That's all my stuff. There were some very personal items there, as well as all my money,” I told him.

Simon turned around towards his sister. “River? Did you take his bag?”

River looked down at the ground, unable to meet her brother's stare. “Can't prove anything,” she mumbled.

“River, stealing is wrong,” Simon said.

River looked up at him and smirked.

“Stealing from people who help you is wrong,” he clarified. “Give Xander back his belongings.”

River pulled out my bag and journal from her knapsack. She held it out to me. I reached for them, but she pulled them back

“You have to catch me first,” she said, then sprinted into the cargo hold of the ship.

“River!” Simon yelled.

I took off after her. She had all my personal possessions in her hand, and I was not letting them go. I ran up the steps and into the first hallway, when a rough hand grabbed my arm. I instinctively struck out, chopping at my attacker's throat. He clutched his throat with one hand and swung out at me with the other. I ducked under his punch, grabbed his arm, pulled him forward, and threw him to the ground.

I heard a click behind me. I slowly turned and saw a rather intimidating woman standing there pointing an even more intimidating gun at me.

“Zoe! Put the gun down,” Simon cried out from the stairwell. He slowly approached us. “River took some private property from Xander here. She ran into the ship and Xander followed. There's no need for gunplay from you or Jayne.”

“There's always time for gunplay,” Jayne said from the floor. “Especially when I get thrown to the ground.”

“See? Jayne wants to shoot, and he's always wrong. So you know you should put your gun away,” Simon reasoned.

Zoe listened, then lowered her gun. “I suppose the man that can get the drop on Jayne can't be all bad. You best get your sister. I'll escort our guest here to the galley.”



I sat at the table while the whole crew sat around me, watching. River slowly came up and placed my bag and Buffy's letter before me. She backed away as I picked them up. I opened the bag and dropped the letter inside.

“I don't know who's caused more trouble. Mr. Harris here, or your sister,” the captain of the ship said to Simon.

“Hey, I got my stuff back. No harm, no foul, right?” I said.

“The thing is we got a problem,” Mal said. “Alliance has got people planetside looking for the Doc and River. I passed by three of them earlier. You've seen them. You know the name of the ship they're traveling on. You got a nice look outside and inside, so you can probably describe it in detail. And you got names and faces of the crew. Seems to me you could cause a lot of trouble for us if you talked to any Alliance agents.”

“Mal, Xander already covered for us with the Alliance agents. We can trust him,” Simon said.

“You ready to bet your life on that, Doc? What about your sister's life? You going to trust a man you just met with her? Alliance got a lot of ways of getting what they want. Money, favors, threats.” Mal stared at me as he talked.

“The leprechaun that tells me to burn things says we can trust him,” River said, but that character reference did not sway the captain.

“You always think the worst of people you just met?” I asked him.

“Yup. Saves me from getting disappointed later on,” he answered.

“Uh, Cap'n? I have an idea,” Kaylee spoke up. “He could come with us. Like a passenger,” she offered. Kaylee turned to me. “And Serenity is still the best shop on the planet. And you said you wanted to travel.”

“That I did. I'm not sure how I feel about being on a ship where the crew has held a gun to me. It doesn't really bode well,” I said.

“Actually, that's how River and I came aboard,” Simon told me. “And it's turned out rather well for us.”

“That's how I came to the ship too,” Jayne added. “We had ourselves a nice standoff, when they offered me a job.”

“Excuse me, I am still the captain of this here ship, and the decision on who we take on stays with me,” Mal said.

“Captain. We have been short handed lately. And he was able to knock down Jayne in a fight,” Zoe told him.

“Momentarily knocked down,” Jayne growled in protest. “I would've won the fight if we hadn't been interrupted.”

“You just keep believing that,” Zoe said.

“He's lost his home. Time tossed and set adrift,” River said from the corner. “Friends, family, even enemies. They're all in another country, and now the wench is dead.”

The room fell silent as we all stared at River.

“Oooooooookay. Anyone got something not crazy to add?” Jayne asked.

“I'm not looking for a charity ride here,” I cut in. I opened up my bag and reached in. I pulled out a gold bar and placed it on the table. “I think this should cover my fare.”

Mal picked up the bar and studied it. He placed it back down. “Zoe will show you to the shuttle. If you need anything let her know.”

“That's as close to a 'Welcome Aboard' as you're going to get,” Kaylee said.

How I wound up bonding with the crew

Part 1: Zoe

I was hanging out in the cargo hold with Mal, Jayne, and Kaylee. We were halfway on our journey to Beaumonde, which is the slowest part of the trip. I was trying to teach them the finer points of basketball. I was really looking forward to getting a game where all the other players weren't pubescent girls who could jump over my head when dunking the ball.

Since I was expecting to get sweaty, I had grabbed one of my extra shirts I hadn't worn in awhile. It was one of my old Hawaiian shirts. I was just trying to explain the three point line when Zoe came in.

“Cap'n, I wanted to check over the... Wash?” she stopped. I turned around to see her staring at me. She shook her head and ran out of the cargo hold.

I turned to the others in confusion. “Wash? I thought this shirt was clean. Why would I need to wash it?”

Kaylee sniffled a little and wiped away a tear. Jayne shook his head. “Damn, Harris. That's just cold.”

I turned to Mal. He walked up to me and spoke softly. “Wash was Zoe's husband. He got killed about six months back. And he used to wear god awful eyesore shirts like the one you've got on. I guess Zoe saw you from behind in that shirt and thought it was Wash for a second.”

“Aw, geez. That's horrible,” I said.

“Weren't your fault. Woman's gotta grieve. It's going to come out sometime,” Mal told me.



After I changed my shirt, I found Zoe in the cockpit.

“Hey. Mind if I sit down?” I asked.

Zoe shrugged, but didn't say anything. Since it wasn't an outright rejections, I sat down next to her.

“It's nice up here. You get to watch the stars and enjoy the quiet.”

Zoe sat quietly in her seat.

“I never got into the whole stargazing thing. Problem was that where I grew up, being outside at night could get pretty dangerous,” I said, breaking the very quiet I had just praised. “My favorite time was Sunday morning. I could sleep in late. Go out and get a leisurely breakfast, read the paper... Of course I really only enjoyed it when I was with Anya.”

I sat back hoping she'd take the bait. We sat back and looked out the front for a few minutes. I gave a little sigh and began to get up when Zoe spoke.

“Who's Anya?” she asked.

“She... she was my fiancée. I loved her. She loved me. We were going to get married, but I... the wedding didn't happen. We started to reconcile, or maybe it was just convenience, loneliness, and horniness all coming together for us. But I could wait until we figured it out.” I paused to sit back down. “Then she died.”

Zoe stared out into space, never looking at me. But in a soft voice she said, “Tell me about her.”

I took a deep breath before speaking. “She was blunt. She loved money. And sex. She had absolutely no patience for something if it didn't make sense to her. And none of my friends liked her.” I laughed a little at that. “They tolerated her, mostly. But there were so many times she'd say something, and my friends would look at me like, 'What the hell do you see in her?'”

Zoe nodded. “I know that look. So what did you see in her?”

I stopped to think about that. I think this was the first time anyone just flat out asked me that before. At least the first time they genuinely wanted to know. “When she loved something, she loved it with her entire being. And she loved me. I never felt that from anyone else in my life.”

Zoe handed me a beer from the cooler by her feet. She opened a new beer for herself and took a deep swig. “Wash made me laugh. For months he hung around me, making dumb jokes, just trying to get some kind of reaction out of me. And for months I ignored him, or glared at him, or cleaned my gun in front of him, but he never wavered. Then one day he made this stupid joke, a pun for god's sake. And I laughed. It was just a little chuckle, but then months of laughs I had been holding back just poured out.” She took a another slow drink from her bottle. “After that, I never stood a chance. We were married the next month. And from that day on until the day he died, I knew he loved me.”

I held out my beer in front of me. “To the ones we loved who loved us back. They may be gone, but they'll never be forgotten.”

Zoe held out her beer and clinked mine. We both drank and sat back. We spent the rest of the night looking at the stars.

Part 2: Kaylee

I heard a string of highly inventive cursing come from the engine room. I poked my head in and spotted Kaylee heft up a wrench and prepare to bludgeon an uncooperative coolant system.

“Now, I'm all for venting my frustrations on inanimate objects, but that piece looks kind of important,” I said.

Kaylee jumped at my voice. “Oh, Xander. Sorry.” She put the wrench down. “I wasn't going to do it. I just felt all... frustrated lately.”

“Frustrated? I figured you of all people on the ship would be the least frustrated,” I said. She looked at me with a familiar expression on her face. I had seen that expression on Buffy and Willow's face many a time. It meant I better explain what I just said so they don't get offended. “All I meant was that you and Simon seem pretty happy together right now. You two are the only people on the ship with someone they love. I figured that would make you less grumpy than the rest of us.”

Kaylee sighed heavily. “Simon. How can someone so nice and proper and respectful make me so..."

“Angry?” I offered. She shook her head. “ Sad? Forgetful? Sleepy? Dopey? Sneezy? Clumsy? Horny? Cynical?”

“THAT'S IT!” she yelled.

“Cynical?” I repeated.

“No. The one before that.”

“Oh,” I said. Then I frowned. “Wait, you two have been at it like rabbits. The captain said he caught you guys in every room in the ship. How come you're not... satisfied?”

“We are. And I'm not complaining. Simon is always very considerate and thoughtful towards me,” Kaylee said.

“So, what's the problem?”

“Well, it's....” Kaylee blushed as she trailed off. “There are times when I don't want respectful and considerate. Sometimes I just want pure carnal frenzy. And that's not Simon's strength.”

“That's it? Easiest fix ever,” I told her.

“Well, what is it then?” Kaylee demanded. “It's not like anyone else is offering to help. Since Inara left the ship, I haven't gotten any good pointers.”

“Simon is a nice guy, right?”

“You know he is,” she answered.

“The thing is Simon needs to know that he's a nice guy. He needs to know that he's treating you right and proper. That's important to how he sees himself. And if he lets out his freak flag, he's afraid you won't like it, and he'll do something less than respectful and proper.”

“But I want to see his freak flag,” she said in mounting frustration.

“You can't just say go for it. Because he's afraid if he does, he may cross a line with you and not even know a line was there,” I explained. “So you have to give him a safe way to do this. Have you tried safewords? Or role playing? I think Simon could really cut loose with some roleplaying,” I said. “Not that I think about Simon in that way,” I hastened to add.

“Role playing? I always figured if a guy and girl fancied each other, they should just have fun. How does role playing help?”

“Well, if you want Simon to cut loose, I'd recommend some male domination games. The corrupt cop and the streetwalker, the coach and the cheerleader. Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf is a classic. My ex liked the business owner and the shoplifter,” I listed off. “Oh! The stern schoolmaster and the naughty schoolgirl! It totally fits Simon. He'll get to be all proper and rule like.”

“Wait a minute. I need to write this down,” Kaylee said as she grabbed a piece of paper and pencil.

Over the net ten minutes, I gave Kaylee the general outline of the game and the items she needed to pull it off. I never thought I'd use all the ideas Anya and I had in the bedroom to help other people.

Two night later, Kaylee asked for Zoe to watch River for the night. The next morning, both Kaylee and Simon were late for breakfast. When they finally arrived, Kaylee was beaming wide, and Simon kept breaking into a grin.

“You're late,” Mal pronounced.

“I apologize. Lost track of the time,” Simon said, as he sat down.

“I guess we've been bad,” Kayle said with a grin.

“May have to be punished,” Simon added.

Mal dropped his fork down. “Gorram it! I'm trying to eat here. It's bad enough at night, but now you're starting it at the breakfast table.” He got up from the table and left the room.

Kaylee and Simon burst out laughing. Zoe just shook her head. Jayne looked around in confusion. “What? What'd I miss?”

“Zoe, could you look after River until this evening?” Simon asked. He and Kaylee grabbed some food and juice from the table. “I need to... Kaylee and I...we'll be occupied for most of the day.”

Zoe just nodded in agreement. As Kaylee and Simon left, Kaylee turned and mouthed 'thank you' to me before following Simon out.

Part 3: Jayne

I entered the cargo hold, spotted Jayne, then turned to exit. Jayne had been pretty hostile to me ever since I came on board. I guess he was still holding a grudge about me knocking him down when we first met.

“Running away, huh?” Jayne growled out.

Since I had been spotted, I stopped and turned back around. I didn't want him to think I was avoiding him, especially since I was avoiding him. Instead I just walked down into the hold and placed what I was carrying on one of the benches.

“What's that you got there?” he asked, seeing what I brought.

“Crossbow,” I told him. I walked over to the end of the hold and began to set up the practice bales. I put new paper targets up in front of them. I walked back and carefully took aim and fired. The bolt landed just in the outermost ring.

“You need practice,” Jayne noted.

“Yup. Thought I'd come down here, work on my aim, and drink a few beers.” I looked over and saw Jayne eyeing my crossbow with desire. “I brought an extra. You want to try one out?” I asked him.

Jayne nodded. He grabbed the second crossbow and looked over it, carefully studying it, before loading a bolt.

“Bring a couple of the beers over while you're there,” I told him. “Grab one for yourself while you're at it.”

Several hours later, all the beers were drunk, all the targets were almost shredded from the hits, and Jayne and I were sitting on the floor laughing at some lame joke one of us made.

“You know, Harris? You're all right,” Jayne pronounced. Then he threw up on my shoes.

Part 4: Simon

I sat at the galley table, reading Willow's journal, eating a sandwich. I had already read it three times from cover to cover, and I was beginning on a fourth when I heard someone clear their throat. I looked over and saw Simon staring at me.

“What?” I asked him.

“Hmm? Oh, sorry. Didn't mean to distract you,” he mumbled, then looked down. I went back to reading the journal. I reached for my sandwich, but it was just out of reach on my left side. I swiveled my head to see where it was and grabbed it. As I turned my head back, I saw Simon studying me. I put the book down and faced him.

“What?” I asked in a louder voice.

He shook his head as I broke his concentration. He straightened and said, “I'm sorry, I was just lost in thought for a moment. Didn't want to intrude. Carry on,” he urged me. He began to absently look through one of the cabinets.

I warily went back to the journal. As I picked it up, I mentally counted to ten. When I reached ten, I glanced back up and saw Simon once again staring at me.

I slammed down the journal on the table and demanded, “WHAT?”

He jumped a little as I shouted. He glanced around, then took a step back. “Sorry, I'm making you uncomfortable. I should head back to check on River.”

“Doc, wait a second,” I said, stopping him. “I just want to know why you keep staring at me.”

“Oh, well I was just thinking, you wear the eyepatch, and we've never seen you take it off. So, I was looking at your left profile, the slight depression by your left temple shows indications of a recessed ocular cavity, but it seemed intrusive since you never discuss, and I just wanted to know...” he trailed off, trying to decide what to say next.

I gave a sigh,” You want to know how I lost the eye?”

He nodded.

“There was a big fight. I was helping people get to safety, when this guy got the drop on me and gouged it out with his thumb. It hurt. A lot. Any other questions?”

“Uh, so the orb is completely absent. Possibly some damage to the retinal nerve. And the state of the central retinal artery would have to be examined,” he muttered to himself. “Sorry, I was just wondering why you didn't get a replacement when your injury was treated.”

I shrugged. “Eye was gone. Putting a piece of glass in my head wasn't going to change that.”

“Glass?” Simon said in confusion, with a hint of disgust.

“Plastic, then. Whatever they make prosthetics out of.”

He stared at me again, this time in genuine confusion. “What kind of backwater frontier did you live in that they would put some kind of non-functioning replica instead of just transplanting a new eye?”

This got my attention. I got up from the table and closed in on him. “Wait, are you saying you can heal my eye?”

Simon took a step back from me. “Well, with the proper supplies and expertise, it's actually a fairly simple procedure.”

“But you can do it?” I asked him. “We don't need to go to one of the Alliance hospitals for it?”

Simon shook his head. “Don't get me wrong, the Alliance hospitals are state of the art facilities. But for this procedure, the main factor is the skill of the surgeon. And there are at most four surgeons more qualified than me to perform the transplant,” he explained. He thought for a moment then added, “Wait, Jorgenson is on a rotation to Aberdeen, so that makes it three on planet.”

“So, when would you be able to do this?” I asked, still not quite believing it was possible.

“I can have Kaylee send a wave to get the necessary supplies ready for when we land. And we can do the preliminary scans before we land on Beaumonde. Assuming we pick up the supplies right when we land, I can get you fixed up that same day.”

I felt almost dizzy from the idea. I sat back down at the table to steady myself. "Uh, yeah. Let's do that. When do you need to do the scans?”

“I've get to prep the sickbay first. How about tomorrow afternoon?”

“Sounds good,” I said. Simon began to walk away, until I called out, “Hey, Simon?”

“Yes?”

“Why...,” I paused and took a breath. “Why are you putting yourself out to do this for me?”

Simon frowned, like he didn't even understand the question. “I'm the ship's doctor. You're part of the crew,” he answered. He began to walk away again, then stopped and turned back to me. “When we first met, why did you lie to the Alliance agents?”

I just shrugged and said, “It looked like you guys could use some help.”

Simon nodded, then turned again and headed off to the sickbay. I watched him go, then touched my eyepatch. According to Simon, in seven days, I wouldn't need it anymore.

Part five: Mal

Everyone was gathered in the common area, gathered around one of the screens. I walked in, and River grabbed my hand.

“We just got a wave from Inara. She had messages for everybody,” she told me.

She looked at me, then shook her head. “Except you. But she never met you. So she's sent messages to everyone she knows.”

River stopped again. “She sent messages to everyone she knows on Serenity.”

Once again she paused. “She sent messages to everyone she knows on Serenity that hasn't died.”

“I got it. You, Simon, Jayne, Kaylee, Zoe, and Mal got messages.”

River frowned, then counted off on her fingers. “She sent messages to everyone she knew on Serenity, that hasn't died, and isn't an ill mannered, uncouth, vulgarian.”

“So everyone except me and Jayne got a message,” I said.

River smiled brightly. “Yes! See, Simon,” she called out to her brother. “People understand me just fine. I don't confuse them.”

Zoe read her note, her eyes tearing up slightly. She put it down and smiled. “Inara was always good with words.”

Kaylee and Simon were sitting next to each other. They passed their messages back and forth, pointing out passages to each other. River huddled in a corner, reading her message. She guarded it carefully, scowling at anyone who came close to her.

Mal just let out a derisive laugh, crumpled up his message, and dropped it in the trash. He got up and walked out without a word. I looked around and saw the others shrug it off.

Jayne said, “They had this screwed up yelling, barely resist humping each other thing while she was on board.” Kaylee nudged him, but he said, “What? That's what happened. If he was just nice to her, I'm sure she would have thrown him a freebie.”

The others shook their heads in disgust, but I got the gist of it. I left the others to go over the communication from their friend. I walked to the hallway for the crew quarters, and knocked on Mal's door.

He opened it, saw me, and said, “Something I can help you with, Harris?”

“Hey, Mal. Look, I know it's none of my business, but I figured you could use someone to talk to about Inara. It's obvious that there are some unresolved feelings. Since I never met her, I could give you an unbiased opinion. If there's anything—”

“You're right,” Mal said. “It's none of your business.”

And with that he shut the door in my face.

Hey, I never said I bonded with all of the crew.

Part Six: River

Ship time was about 3 AM, but I never could adapt to it when there's no real day or night time on ship. I was down in the galley, trying to find something to snack on that wasn't soy-based. I found something in the back that was vaguely chocolate looking when I had a funny feeling. I stood up quickly and scanned over the room and adjoining hallway. Just at the far corner of the hallway, I thought I saw a flickering in the shadows.

I turned back around, but I still had the feeling that I was being watched. No, not watched. Stalked.

“This is crazy. I'm in a ship out in deep space. No one's stalking me,” I said to myself.

I picked up my snack, took a step towards the shuttle bay, then stopped again.

“Jayne?” I called out.

I listened carefully, but I heard only silence.

Now fully alert and very paranoid, I began to head back to my shuttle. I went into full 360 degree patrol mode, looking for anything out of the ordinary. I was about ten feet from the shuttle door, when I heard a distinct click. I spun around, ready for anything, when the air duct in the hallway began to pump out cool air. I let out the breath I had been holding and shook my head.

I walked over to the shuttle door and opened it, ready to finish my snack then go to bed.

“Jumping at shadows,” a small voice whispered in my ear.

I swung out, but hit nothing. A push on my back, plus a small kick at my feet sent me sprawling to the ground. I launched myself out the shuttle door, ready to raise the alarm, when my feet went out from under me.

The lights turned on, blinding me for a second, as I swung upside down caught in a makeshift snare. I opened my mouth to scream, but a small hand covered it up. River Tam stood before me. She leaned in close to me. “Tag. You're it,” she whispered, then happily skipped away.

I swung back and forth in the air, trying to process what the hell just happened. “Uh... River?” I called out. “I'm getting a little nauseous.”

River poked her head out of my shuttle. “Say Uncle,” she said.

“Uncle?” I said in confusion. “Can you get me down now?”

River smiled and came out of the shuttle carrying my bag with her. She sat down in front of me and looked over the bag.

“River, can you please cut me down now?” I asked as politely as I could manage.

“Can't cut the Gordian Knot without the Sword of Damocles,” she said, holding up my bag.

“River, just get a knife from the kitchen. You can't open my bag.”

River looked down at the bag, then up at me. She stared directly into my eye, which kind of freaked me out. Leaning forward, she pressed her forehead up against mine. River pulled back and smiled brightly. She picked up my bag, pulled it open, reached in, and pulled out a knife.

“How the hell did you manage that?” I asked.

River stood up and walked over to the rope tied to the wall. “Magic,” she said with a smile and sliced through the rope.

I dropped to the ground with a thud. I had taken enough falls to know how land without damage. Once I got to my feet, I backed away as River approached me. She stood straight holding the knife in hand looking down at me. I'll never quite understand how a woman could look so dangerous and so beautiful at the same time.

“You think I'm pretty?” she asked.

“What?” I asked in confusion. I might have been thinking that, but I hadn't said anything.

“Signal's strong. Can't block it out,” she said, then blushed and looked away from me, giggling a little. She was instantly transformed from a dangerous predator into a shy girl. She shuffled over, almost nervously and held out the knife to me in one hand, hilt first, and my bag in the other hand.

I reached out and took them from her. “River, why were you hunting me?”

“Taste of home,” she answered. “Give you back what you're missing.”

“Jesus,” I muttered and shook my head. I opened my bag and dropped the knife in. “I don't know how you managed to open this. It was fixed so only I could.”

“I just let it know that you needed a knife, so it opened for me,” she said with a shrug. “Thought you'd be happy.”

“You thought I would be happy if you stalked me and ensnared me in a trap? Why on earth would you do something...” I trailed off as I saw the tears well up in her eyes. “So totally and completely awesome?” I finished lamely. “And because it was so super cool, we shouldn't cheapen it by doing it ever again. Okay?”

River curled up in a ball and sniffled sadly. “I ruined it all. You were so nice and kind, and you weren't ever scared of me, and it's all gone.”

“You were so happy I wasn't scared of you that you... hunted me down like a rottweiler tracking a wounded chipmunk?”

She lifted her head up a fraction and peeked at me. “I just wanted to help. All your thoughts are about what you lost. I tried to give you a reminder, but it didn't work.”

“River,” I started. I shook my head as I tried to figure out what to say. It was like talking to a non evil teenage version of Drusilla. “What's gone is gone. I can't change that. And neither can you. I just have to accept it and move on.”

“Your body's here, but your mind's stuck back there,” she said with such certainty I couldn't argue. “Your grief is so loud, it's deafening.”

“I... I can't help thinking about them. I don't think that will ever change,” I told her. I closed my eye and pictured the gang.

River lightly punched me in the arm. “Doing it again.”

“Nothing else I can do,” I said. “It's all I have left.”

River sat up and looked me right in the eye. “They're trapped inside your head. You've got to open the bottle and let them flow out.” I looked at her in confusion. She gritted her teeth and concentrated, saying, “Talk it out. Share the pain.”

“Yeah, right,” I said with a sad laugh. “No one would believe me. They'd think I was crazy.”

“I'd believe,” she whispered. “It would be a super special secret, never to be shared. Cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my....” she glanced up at me, “...toe,” she finished up.

“You really want to hear this?” I asked.

She nodded. “And you really want to tell me.”

“Okay. Where should I start?”

River furrowed her brow in concentration. “Start at the beginning,” she said with great seriousness.

“Right. Bit obvious. Don't know why I didn't think of it,” I agreed. I thought back to the life I left behind, and the day I lost it all. “I knew it was a bad idea, even as I started running.”

“Wait!” she stopped me. She leaned over and grabbed my bag. She muttered inaudibly for a second, then reached inside. She pulled out a pack of Twinkies, opened it, then handed one to me. She took a bite, then mumbled with her mouth full. “Continue.”

And so I told River Tam how I wound up lost in time.

How I Wound Up Lost In Time

I knew it was a bad idea, even as I started running.

It was a trap pure and simple. I was leading a group of rookie Slayers on what should have been a milk run. We headed out to the local cemetery to pick off some risers. It's akin to shooting fish in a barrel. But the new Slayers needed to see a vamp up close, and get some staking practice on a live target before moving up to the next level.

The ground began to move at the first grave site when the attack began. A group of vampires, long-timers from what I could tell, came at us from two different sides. There were five of them in total compared to the three Slayers plus me.

Even as the attack began, I couldn't help but notice the parallels to our own mission. Instead of a group of Slayers trying to get some easy kills, it was a group of vamps. Instead of some rising vampires as the easy target, it was my squad of inexperienced Slayers. And instead of a cemetery at night, the attack was at... well, I guess that was still the same.

“Girls! Form up!” I barked out order to them. “Jackie, take point. Machete and torch! Maria and Cindy, back her up. Switch to long range weapons to cover her.” As they followed my orders, I moved behind them and pulled out a couple of pieces from my bag.

The lead vampire rushed straight at us. I guess he was eager to make the first kill. That eagerness cost him.

“Wait for it,” I cautioned the girls.

When he got five feet from Jackie, I aimed the Super-Soaker at him and let out a full blast into his face. The holy water burned his skin on contact, including his eyes.

“Now!” I yelled to Jackie.

She stepped forward, swung the machete, and cleanly dusted the distracted vampire.

“On the right. Wait for my throw,” I told Maria and Cindy.

They shifted the aim on their crossbows over to the vampire on the far right. I hefted a water balloon from my bag. I threw it at the vampire, but he dodged out of the way, as the balloon hit the tree next to him. Just as the water splashed by him, the first bolt hit him in the shoulder. He reared back in pain, then the second hit his chest. He dissolved into dust, leaving three foes left.

The remaining three were more cautious in their attack. The oldest looking held back as the other two slowly approached.

“Switch over to close range,” I told Maria and Cindy dropped their crossbows and each pulled out a stake. “Wait for them to come to you. Watch your sides, and cover each other.”

The two vampires knew enough to attack as a team. As one lunged, the other covered him. They were better fighters than the girls, but the girls outnumbered them three to two. The result was a stalemate. I edged around the group. Glancing over, I saw the last vampire still hadn't approached. Turning back to the fight, I saw an opening. I jumped forward, punched the back of the closest vampire's head, then jumped back.

It didn't hurt him at all. But it did distract him, just for a second. In that second, Jackie pushed the other vampire back with her torch, and Maria kicked out at his knee, then Cindy staked him right in the heart.

The three girls turned their attention to the remaining attacker. It was just a matter of time for him. He was outnumbered and alone. The girls were in their groove, and ready to take him out. I looked back over at last vampire. He had a book open in front of him, and I saw his lips moving, chanting.

“Oh, shit,” I muttered and began running.

Vampires? Bad news. Magic? Also bad. Vampires using magic? Really, really bad, it's like Showgirls bad. So, there I was, a one-eyed, normal human rushing a magic-using vampire, away from protection of the Slayers. Like I said, I knew it was a bad idea, even as I started running. But that never stopped me before.

The air above him began to swirl above his head. He raised his hands, and I saw the vortex respond to his command. I knew whatever was in that vortex, it was bad news for my girls. He drew the vortex down, into his hands. He smiled widely and looked at his targets. The smile flickered, as he saw me, a split second before I tackled into him.

“FOOL!” he shouted out, and backhanded me. I fell to the ground, where he kicked me in the ribs.. “You're too late,” he said, and drew his arm back, the vortex still in his other hand.

I'm not proud of what I did next, but I didn't have a lot of options. Clutching my injured ribs, I leaned forward and bit into his thigh as hard as I could. He screamed in pain and grabbed at his leg. As he did so, the vortex dropped to the ground next to us. It grew, and I felt a pull drawing me towards it. Scrambling away, I grabbed at the ground. The pull grew stronger with every passing second. I tried to crawl away, but the pull was too strong. I grabbed a tree root and gripped it as tight as I could, hoping to wait out the spell.

Just as the pull began to abate, I felt a hand grasp my ankle and pull. I looked back and saw the last vampire being sucked into the vortex, dragging me with him. “Oh, you asshole,” I said, just as we were both enveloped.

Then everything went dark.



I hit the ground with a heavy thud. All I wanted to do was curl up in a ball, whimper in pain, and hopefully pass out and sleep for the next twelve hours. The only thing that stopped me was the knowledge that wherever I was now, a magic-using vampire who must now be very, very pissed off was here with me.

I opened my eye, then squinted in the blinding sunlight. A harsh scream next to me caused me to look over. My companion through the vortex had caught fire from being exposed to the sunlight. I backed away as quickly as possible as the flames burned him up. The flames burned out, and the remaining ashes drifted to the ground.

A quick look around showed I landed in a grassy field about a dozen yards from a beaten path. I thought for a moment about where I was. It was daytime here, which meant that the vortex dumped me on the other side of the globe or some other time, or... or even further than that. With a sigh, I decided to go with my first impulse. I curled up in a ball, whimpered in pain, and thankfully passed out.



The sound of wind gusting around woke me up. I bolted up and looked to the source of the sound. A small dust devil about twenty feet away. I hopped up and sprinted over to it. Just as I reached it, the whirlwind died out, and a piece of paper fell to the ground. I leaned over and picked it up.

It was a letter. It was a letter addressed to me.

"Xander,

It has been two weeks since you disappeared. Your Slayers from the patrol made it home safely and told us what happened. We went back to the cemetery to find out what happened to you. From the book the vampire left on the ground, we figured out you went through a spatial-temporal portal. Everyone is in full research mode for this. We're all figuring out how to reverse the portal and get you back home.

I studied the ambient energies at the cemetery and found a way to send objects through. If it works, then we can send you messages and even objects.

No matter how much time passes on my end, when we reverse the portal, very little time will have passed on your end. Stay where you are. From your point of view, help will be there in just a few minutes. Stay calm and don't worry. You'll be home in time for your next meal.

Willow
"

I read over the letter. Then I read over it again.

“Okay. Nothing to worry about. Willow's on the job,” I said to myself. “If anyone can figure this out, it's her.”

I sat back down on the ground and waited. I counted off the seconds as they passed. Once I got to three hundred, I decided to switch to a more interesting line of thought. I began to list my top fantasies in chronological order. I had gotten to the girl who played Arnold's daughter in True Lies, when the wind began to pick up again.

A small twister formed in front of me. I stood up, ready to act, when it died back down. Another piece of paper floated down in front of me.

“Not a good sign,” I muttered. Leaning down, I picked up the paper and saw Willow's familiar handwriting on it.

"Xander,

I started writing this letter a dozen times, but I could never finish it.

It's been three years since you disappeared. We haven't found a way to reverse the portal spell yet. It's taking longer than I thought, but we're still working on it.

We found that the vampires that attacked you were part of a wide conspiracy to counteract all the new Slayers we activated. We systematically tracked down every member and worked our way up to the leaders. The whole idea was to use the portal spells to send the Slayers to other times, other dimensions, even other worlds. We took the whole organization down, piece by piece. We tracked down every single member and made them pay.

The bad news is that they didn't have information on how to get someone back. While the spell creates the portal, the destination is random.

No matter what, I am not giving up. It's taking a lot longer than I thought, but I will find a way to reverse the spell.

You will be coming home.

Love,
Willow
"

Three years? Three whole years? That's as long as I was in middle school. That's the wait for a new Star Wars movie, or all three Lord of the Rings. That's as long as when I found out vampires were real to when we blew up the high school. Three years?

Then the real shock hit me. Three years had gone by back home, but by the time I finally get home, it could be a lot longer. Hell, it may be five years, ten years, even longer than that.

All the work rebuilding the Council would be finished. All the Slayers I began training would be veterans by now. Then a worse thought hit me. Some of the Slayers I knew could be dead by now. Or some of my friends. Jesus, I had to sit down.

I sat there in shock. All I could hope was that when I got home, I could somehow adjust. All I could do now is wait for my ride home.

The wind picked up again at the same spot as before. I stood up and walked over to it. A black baggy shape shimmered slowly into view. The wind died down again, and the object fell to the ground. The baggy shaped object turned out to be a bag.

I picked up the bag and reached into it. I took out the letter I knew would be within. Opening it up, I began to read.

"Mr. Harris,

My name is Mario Esteban. I am the successor to Ms. Willow Rosenberg in the Reformed Watchers Council

It is my sad duty to inform you that Ms. Rosenberg passed away at the age of 93 years old. She left instructions to be carried out after her death.

The bag in your possession is a Bag of Holding that has been keyed to your aura. Only you can open it and access what is inside.

The contents provided inside were placed by Ms. Rosenberg and her friends over the years. They include personal letters written to you from your friends. For your financial needs, fifty gold bars have been placed inside as well as a collection of rare and precious jewels. Several weapons are enclosed for your use. I understand that most of your personal possessions were destroyed in Sunnydale and you did not have a chance to replace them before your disappearance. Your friends put together an extensive collection of music, movies, books, comics, and television shows that have been downloaded onto the Universal playback module included. I have also put in Willow Rosenberg's personal journals that she chronicled her life and the history of the Council. She personally asked that these be sent to you.

I understand that this must come as a shock to you. Five years after your disappearance, the Council moved your case from active to inactive. The current research favors the view that in the unlikely case you survived traveling through the portal, you were most likely deposited in a location that cannot sustain life. The current Council believes that the bag you now hold is a waste of resources. The only reason it is being sent is to honor Ms. Rosenberg's wishes.

Because despite all the years, despite the loss of support from the Council, and despite her own growing doubt, Ms. Rosenberg never gave up trying to find a way to get you home.

It was my privilege to work beside Ms. Rosenberg for the past eight years. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, I share her belief that you survived and are waiting to see your old friend.

It is my responsibility to inform you that there is no return. I can only send you the Bag and its contents and wish you well in your life.

Respectfully,

Mario Esteban
Director, Magic and Earth Energies Department
Reformed Watchers Council
"

I sat down and stared out to the horizon. I knew eventually I would have to get up and find out about the world I was now in, but right now, I just didn't have the energy.

How I Wound Up Becoming an Interplantery Criminal

“Look forward,” Simon directed as he shone a light in my eye. “Good. Now look to the left. Hold it for another second.”

I followed his instructions without question. I concentrated on doing exactly what he said, pushing away the nervous exhilaration I felt once he removed the bandages from my face.

“Okay, now look to the right,” Simon said. He fiddled with his scanner for a couple more seconds. “Good. And you're ready to go.”

I stood and looked around the sickbay. I let out a quick laugh as I scanned the room. “Son of a bitch, you did it.”

“You had doubts?” Simon asked, almost offended.

“Not about you,” I assured him. “I'm just surprised that something so important to me actually worked out.” I held up my hand in front of my face and moved it back and forth. “Whoa, depth perception. How I missed you.”

“There's going to be a period of adjustment. Your field of vision has increased, including peripheral, as well as the restoration of your depth perception. You may feel dizzy or nauseous at times,” Simon advised me. “If that happens, just lie down for a few minutes to let it pass.”

“Got it. If I feel dizzy, start spinning in a circle.”

“Uh... that's not really the best—”

“In a rush here, Doc,” I said, grabbing my coat. “I want to check out the 3D holo movies in the marketplace. They carry porn, right?”

“I don't know. Look, Xander, you need to take things slow for the next few days,” he cautioned me.

“Run with scissors. Roger that. I'll just go grab a pair,” I said, heading for the door.

“NO! You have to be very careful and avoid any strain on your eye.”

“Check. Stare directly at the sun.” I opened the door and saluted Simon. “You are the most kick-ass doctor I've ever met. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go play in traffic.”

I walked out of the sickbay feeling a lightness in my step that I hadn't felt in years. I practically skipped down the hallway, down the catwalks, and out of the cargo hold into the docking area that Serenity had touched down at. I was only a few blocks from the main marketplace. The marketplace was only a few square miles that bordered the ship yards, but it was almost a miniature city. The sellers offered every conceivable good and service for the ships and passengers that came through.

I reached the edge and paused for a moment. I wanted to dive right in and explore the variety of the shops and all they offered, but I had to take a moment and enjoy the sight before me. There were stalls, shops, restaurants, and vendors as far as the eye, well as far as the eyes could see. I was at the edge of an honest to god alien bazaar that makes the Mos Eisley scene in Star Wars look like The Muppet Show. I just had to stop and take the whole thing in.

Back when I had just graduated high school, I planned a cross country road trip. I never actually made it further than an hour and a half away from my home town, but I planned to see all the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone Park, Mount Rushmore, and a whole slew of others. But right now there was no other place I wanted to see than the scene before me. I had a bag full of gold bars, a small city full of future technology, food, and culture, twenty-four hours before Serenity departed, and two healthy eyes to enjoy it all. For the first time since that piece of shit vampire warlock dragged me away from home, I smiled.

Of course, that's when it turned to shit.

It was my own fault. I just had to satisfy my curiosity. Anyone who grows up on the Hellmouth has survival instincts that have been honed to a razor's edge. The people who didn't develop survival instincts didn't last that long. One of those instincts is the ability to spot a threat from a long way off.

So while I was scanning the crowd, mainly out of habit, I spotted two guys that just gave off bad vibes.

It was something about the way they carried themselves that set off warning bells for me. Maybe it was they stood, as if ready to attack any second. Maybe it was the way they scanned the crowd like hunters. Maybe it was the way they looked at everyone else like they were less than human. Or maybe it was just those weird blue gloves they wore.

Needless to say, they caught my eye. So I put on a fake smile and entered the crowd. I stopped three stalls down from them and began to look around. I managed to get a lot of real shopping and browsing done over the next hour as I followed Thing 1 and Thing 2, as I mentally named them. After the first ten minutes, I realized that they weren't worried about being tracked. They were so intent on their search they weren't even considering the possibility that someone would be looking for them.

After an hour and a half of following them, I had finished up all my shopping, and was ready to return to Serenity. When Thing 1 and 2 were approaching the far edge of the marketplace, I decided it was about time to part ways.

Thing 1 and 2 were passing the last shop, when I stopped. They may have set off my mental alarms, but they weren't demonic and they weren't after me. I was just about to turn back, when I spotted Simon. I suddenly had a real bad feeling about what was going to happen next. My feelings were confirmed when I looked over and saw Thing 1 staring at Simon. He held up a hand, and motioned to Thing 2. Thing 2 stared at Simon, then turned and nodded back to Thing 1. They briefly smiled at each other then strode towards Simon.

“Oh, this is bad," I said to myself. I opened my bag, dropped all my shopping into it, then reached in. The first object I pulled out was a protections amulet. I frowned, since that wasn't what I wanted, but I put it on anyway. I reached in again and pulled out small club. It was from my personal stash from home. Willow had included it in the items she sent me. I hefted the weapon in my hand and closed in on Thing 1 and Thing 2 as they closed in on Simon.

Thing 1 reached into his pocket and pulled out some kind of wand stick thing. I knew I had to act then.

“Simon! Look out!” I yelled as I rushed Thing 2.

Simon and the Things turned at my cry. I barreled into Thing 2, knocking him to the ground. Thing 1 pointed his wand stick at me, and I felt an intense throbbing in my head. The amulet glowed and the pain faded from my head. I swung out with my club, striking Thing 1 across the face. He fell to the ground, but he wasn't out yet. Thing 2 was rising to his feet as well.

Simon grabbed my arm, and pulled me away. “We need to leave, right now,” he told me. I followed him as he ran.

“How far are we from the ship?” I asked him, glancing back to see Thing 1 and 2 running after us.

“We're still a few miles off. I don't think we can make it with them after us,” Simon said, panting for breath.

“We're going to have to lose them somehow.” I pointed at a gap between two stalls. “There.”

We ran through the gap and down the back alley. I stopped for a few seconds to push some boxes into the gap. If we were lucky, Thing 1 and Thing 2 would miss the gap, or they might not be able to get through. It was a longshot, but I did it anyway.

When I was done, I saw Simon waving to me about a hundred feet down the alley. I sprinted over to him, and saw that he had found an opening to an empty stall. We both clambered in, and shut the opening.

“You know these guys?” I whispered to Simon.

He nodded. “I thought they were burned up at the Sturges battlefield, but they must have survived.”

“And they're after you?” I asked.

“They're after River. And since I rescued her and have been hiding her, they'll go after me to get to her,” Simon explained.

“Seems to me there's a lot of people putting in a lot of effort for just one girl,” I observed.

“Yes, well...” Simon hesitated. “You've already put yourself at risk over her. I don't want to put you in greater risk by telling you any secrets about River.”

“Like the fact that she's psychic?” I grinned a little as the shock hit Simon's face, and he tried to cover it up. “Give me a break, Doc. The moment I first met her, she was reading me like a book. She knew things I never told anyone. When she talked about it, all of you thought it was gibberish, but I knew what she was saying.”

“Oh,” he said. “Well.” Simon sat down, a little deflated now. “I suppose that makes things a little simpler.”

“So they want her because she's psychic?”

“No,” he shook his head. “They made her psychic. River was always a gifted girl. When she was fourteen, she was admitted to the most exclusive academy in the Alliance.”

“What happened there?”

A dark cloud settled on him. “They experimented on her. Cut into her. Tried to turn her into a weapon they could use.”

“Jesus,” I muttered.

“They had her for two years before I was able to get her out. Two years,” he repeated. “If I had been able to figure out what was wrong sooner, if my parents or friends had believed me when I asked for help, if... if only things had been different,” he finished sadly.

“You got her out,” I told him. “No matter what else, you got her out.”

We sat in silence for the next half hour. Finally, I got up and inched my way to the front opening of the stall. I pressed an ear against the door and listened intently. “I can't hear anything. I'm going to peek outside to see if the coast is clear.”

I opened the front door a crack. I didn't see any movement outside, so I opened the door fully. “I think we can head out now. There isn't—” A blast of air hit me in the chest, knocking me to the ground. As I blacked out, the last thing I saw was a squad of Alliance troops coming into view.



My head ached, and everything was blurry when I finally woke up. I found myself tied to a chair, in an ill lit room. All the sounds were muffled, but when I shook my head and focused, the world became more clear. I turned my head and saw Thing 1 and Thing 2 standing in front of Simon, who was also tied to a chair.

In times like these, when I'm tied up and there's a person or persons with less than virtuous intentions towards my well being, all I can do is wait for some kind of rescue. Usually, it comes in the form of a Slayer. Occasionally, it would be a lesbian Wicca or British former librarian. But that was in the past. Right now, I would take a rescue from any crew member of an interplanetary ship in general and a young psychic trained to be the perfect weapon in particular.

River, I know you can hear my thoughts. Me and Simon need some heavily armed assistance right now.

I stared at the door to the room and concentrated. If my luck was holding, she should be charging through the door right about.......now.

Or now.
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Or even now.
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Fuck.

So with no rescue forthcoming, I had no choice but to listen to the bad guys talk. I hate listening to the bad guy talk. They think they're all profound and insightful, and their questions probe the dark recesses of your soul that you dare not admit, even to yourself. But really, they're just evil douchebags that like hurting people and love the sound of their own voice.

“I have a theory about you,” Thing 1 said to Simon. “My theory is that you think you're the good guy in all of this. That in your poor deluded view, you think the damage that you're doing to your sister, the danger, the degradation, and wasteful squalor you force her into is somehow all for her benefit.”

Aw crap, he's going to do the whole 'I'm actually the hero and you're the villain' spiel. It's number four on the scumbag top five monologue list. Maybe if I bang my head against the wall, I can knock myself out.

River? Can you hear me? Anytime now. I know waiting until the last moment makes the rescue more dramatic, but I promise I'll be impressed no matter how early you get here.

“Your sister is an extraordinary person. She has gifts far beyond normal. We gave her the chance to reach her full potential. But you snatched that away that away from her. Why are you so selfish?”

Simon glowered at him, but said nothing. Attaboy, Doc. Responding only encourages them.

“Was it your need to be the hero?” Thing 2 asked, taking over from his buddy in blue. “Or was it that you just couldn't stand to see your sister become so much more than you ever could?”

“You were hurting her. She wrote, begging me to get her out of there,” Simon said.

Dammit, Doc. Now they're just going to keep going all night long.

“When your sister was five, on her first day at school, she cried and cried. She even went so far as to claim her teachers were alien impostors bent on harvesting her organs,” Thing 2 said with an understanding smile. “But these were just fanciful stories told by a frightened girl who just didn't want to be away from her brother. We recognize that for her own good, she should have to go to school. How is this any different?”

“You cut into her brain,” Simon growled.

“You're a surgeon. You know that sometimes you have to cut away the bad tissue to save the good tissue,” Thing 2 said.

“I am a surgeon. And I know the difference between a necessary procedure AND BUTCHERY!” Simon screamed in frustration. He took a deep breath and calmed himself. “I'm not going to send her back for more of your torture.”

Thing 1 and 2 looked at each other and chuckled. Thing 1 squatted in front of Simon. “Torture? We're done with all that. Your sister has exceeded our wildest hopes. She is the ultimate weapon. We found the aftermath of the transmitting satellite. Dozens of dead Reavers, all due to one little girl,” he said and leaned in close. “She is magnificent. And she will only truly be home with us.”

“And what's the alternative?” Thing 2 asked. “Life on some broken down vessel, shuttling back and forth between backwater worlds? If you don't lead us to her, you will never see her again.”

“That's going to happen no matter what. If you get your hands on her again, it'll be the last I ever see of her.”

Thing 1 frowned and shook his head. “We're not cruel, Simon.”

“Yes, you are,” Simon contradicted him.

Thing 1 gave a small nod.

“We're not needlessly cruel,” he corrected himself. “You could be stabilizing influence on her. Say one day every year, you could spend with her. Not Christmas of course. That's a busy time for us. But on her birthday. A reward for the both of you for a job well done.”

“You could have your whole life back,” Thing 2 offered. “Think of it, you could be a real doctor again, instead of run down paramedic to a bunch of thugs.”

“Money, respect, a return to your rightful place in society. You could even see your parents again.” Thing 1 leaned in next to Simon's ear and whispered, “We can give you whatever you want. All you have to do is say yes.”

Thing 1 pulled back and stood next to his partner as they waited for Simon's answer. Simon looked up at them, his eyes red, and spoke. “Right now, what I want, more than anything else in the whole system, is to see both of you dying painfully. I want to stand there and watch it,” he said in a sad, calm voice. “I'm a doctor. I followed the Hippocratic Oath my whole life. But for you, and only for you, I would just stand there, doing nothing except letting it happen. Can you give that to me?”

Thing 1 and Thing 2 sighed in frustration. “We're trying to be reasonable here.”

“We're trying to help you.”

“Yet in return all you offer are these hateful thoughts.”

“If only you could see how much you're hurting—”

“Jesus Christ, will you two just SHUT THE HELL UP?” I screamed. “He's not going to help you. And subjecting him to your bullshit twisted logic isn't going to change his mind. What, you think he's just going to forget the fact that you've hunted him down and tied him to the chair? He's just going to think, say, these sociopathic A-holes make a good point, I'm going to hand my little sister over to them. It's not gonna happen,” I said.

Thing 1 and Thing 2 frowned at my outburst. They walked up to my chair and looked down at me.

“What is your name?” Thing 1 asked.

“Keyser Soze,” I answered.

Thing 2 opened the door to the room and beckoned an Alliance guard in. “Send a wave out, I want to know everything there is about our Mr. Keyser Soze here.” He looked over at me, “In an hour we're going to know every detail about your life. There won't be single thing about you that we won't know.”

“Want to bet?” I said under my breath.

“Yes, sir. And should we inform Command about capturing Mr. Tam?” the guard asked.

“No, not just yet. Let's wait until we have his sister before we send them the good news.” Thing 2 said as he ushered the guard out the door.

Thing 1 walked around until he was behind me. I tried to swivel my head and lean back, but I couldn't see him. “So are you trying for looming ominously behind me, or are you just going to give me a backrub?” I asked. “Because the backrub would be kind of creepy.”

Thing 1 pressed down on my shoulders while Thing 2 stood in front of me and pulled out his wand stick. “Why aren't you dead?” he asked.

“Maybe your manly wand slash phallic symbol is broken,” I offered. “Maybe I've got a stronger constitution than you pegged me for. Or maybe it's just...“ I paused and flashed a smart ass smile at them, “magic.”

Thing 2 held his wand stick in front of my face and pressed a button on it. It emitted a hum, and I felt a dull buzzing in my head. The protective amulet under my shirt warmed up. Thing 2 frowned at my lack of reaction. He moved over to my right and waved over his partner, so Thing 1 let go of my shoulders and walked around to stand to the left of me. They both had their wand sticks out.

Um, River? They've gotten to the physical torture section of the interrogation. No more dilly-dallying. It's go time.

The Things adjusted the sticks and activated them. The buzzing turned into a high pitched shriek that pierced my head.

“DAMMIT! Back off, Blue Boys!” I yelled, squirming in pain. “You keep that shit up, and I won't be in much shape to answer questions.”

The Things smiled at me. “I think you'll be more useful as an example to Dr. Tam, than any meager information you may possess.”

The shriek was now turning into a deafening roar now. The amulet was heating up so much, it felt like it was burning my skin. I felt a trickle of blood drip from my nose.

All I could do was pray for some distraction. Whatever protection the amulet was giving was being overwhelmed. The pain in my head was so agonizing that it blocked out everything else. I heard a scream in the distance, then realized that it was coming from me.

My vision blurred and turned red. Blood was swelling in my eyes. My entire world had shrunk down into the pain in my head. I needed something, anything to make this stop. Where the hell was the god damn rescue?

I knew I was going to die. There was just too much pain hitting me. I was lost with no way home, my friends were long dead, and I was stuck in a dark room with two killers. I was going to die, and there was nothing I could do about it. I couldn't even help Simon. They were going to kill me, then kill Simon, then kidnap and torture River. THERE'S NO FUCKING RESCUE, AND WE'RE ALL GOING TO DIE! THE PAIN WAS KILLING ME, AND I WAS GOING TO DIE HERE ALONE! THE PAIN....was gone.

I blinked slowly and tried to catch my breath. The Things were no longer standing in front of me. They were moving to the door, when it burst open. A dead Alliance guard flopped into the room. And into the room strode River Tam. There was blood splattered on her face, and she clutched a large knife. “You hurt my friend,” she said, her hand was trembling with rage. The last thing I heard before I passed out was River yelling, “YOU. HURT MY. BROTHER!”



And then I woke up.

I sat up in the observation bed in the Doc's sickbay. Simon turned around and walked over to me. “You're awake. Good.” He shone a light into my eyes, took my pulse, then jotted down a few notes on his clipboard.

“What,” I croaked out, then went into a coughing fit. The Doc pressed a glass of water into my hand. I gulped it down, then started again. “What happened?”

“Was hoping you'd be able to tell us that,” Mal said, standing by the door. “We were getting ready for takeoff when River started screaming bloody murder.”

I grabbed a shirt next to the bed and put it on. “Glad you guys made it in time. Did any of the guards get a good look at you guys?” I looked over to Mal, but he didn't answer. Instead he looked towards the Doc. I turned to look at the Doc, but he just kept his head down. “Doc, what's going on?”

Kaylee ran up to door of the sickbay and looked in. “You're up!”

I glanced over at the Doc. “She sounds surprised. Was there some doubt about the possibility?”

“Oh, no. There was nothing to worry about with you in Simon's care,” Kaylee said, smiling at her boyfriend. “River started yelling a few minutes ago. Yelling about how Xander was awake now. Then she got real quiet. I came over to see if she was right.”

“Is River upset?” Simon asked with a hint of worry. “Perhaps I should—”

A loud crash from the cargo bay cut him off. Zoe's and Jayne's yells echoed down the hallway. Without a word, we all ran to see what was happening.

We spotted Jayne first. He was crouched behind a crate with a gun drawn. Zoe at the foot of the stairs, looking up at the walkway.

“Jayne! What's going on?” Mal demanded.

Fong luh girl freaked out again. Started yelling, grabbed a gun and holed herself up in one of the smuggling holes,” he said, still crouched.

“You scared of one girl?” I asked him.

“You might have been out of it, but I saw what she did on Beaumonde. I'm staying right here.”

I looked over at the Doc. “Simon, what happened back on planet?”

Simon glanced down at me and grimaced, then waved me off. “It's not important right now. RIVER! IT'S SIMON! CAN YOU PLEASE COME OUT AND PUT THE GUN AWAY?”

“I CAN'T FIND THE RESET BUTTON!” River yelled from her hiding spot.

Zoe inched forward on the walkway. Three shots rang out, and she jumped back for cover.

“WE WERE AT THE RUBICON, AND I HAD TO CROSS IT! CAN'T UNDO IT!

“Girl's not making any sense,” Jayne said, comfortable sitting behind his cover.

“Everything she's said makes some kind of sense,” I told him. “You may not know what it is, but it's there.”

“Then what's a Rubicon?” he asked. “I never heard of it.”

“It's obviously...” I paused and thought for a moment, “some kind of convention...for gem enthusiasts?”

“It's a river in Italy back on Earth That Was,” Simon said. “When Julius Caesar rose in power, he was ordered to return to Rome and leave his army behind. The Rubicon was the river at the border. Caesar crossed the river with his army, irrevocably setting him on the path to war with his enemies.”

“So your sister is talking about historical geography?” Jayne asked in confusion.

“It means she crossed a line,” I figured out. “Simon, what happened back on Beaumonde?”

Two more shots rang out. “LOOSE LIPS SINK SHIPS! HAVE TO MAKE THINGS BETTER! GO BACK AND MAKE EVERYTHING BETTER! SPIN AROUND THE GLOBE AND SET IT RIGHT!”

“Simon, tell me what happened,” I urged him.

The Doc looked up to the walkway, then back at me. “There were ten guards outside the room where we were being held. River cut through them before they could get a single shot off. They died instantly. Our interrogators...It turns out that I got what I wanted.”

“NO! YOU WEREN'T SUPPOSED TO TELL!” River cried out.

“Has she ever acted like this before?” I asked the crew.

“She's had... episodes before. But she never shot at us,” Simon said.

“She tried to cut me open with a knife once,” Jayne added.

Simon turned to him, “You were in contact with the Alliance and arranging to turn us over at the time,” he pointed out.

“So, she didn't know that.” Jayne thought for a moment then asked, “Do you think she did know and that's why she cut me?”

“You just figured that out right now?” Mal asked in disbelief.

“So maybe she's freaked out because she never killed anyone before. Could that be it?” I asked.

Mal shook his head. “She wiped out the Reavers that were attacking us a while back. And she took out some of Niska's men that were shooting at us.”

“She never butchered anyone like those blue glove men before,” Jayne added.

“But she was fine after that. She was up until a few moments ago,” Simon thought out loud. “What changed?”

“Me,” I said, figuring it out. “She didn't want me to find out what happened.”

“What, that she's a violent psycho?” Jayne asked. “Bound to figure it out sooner or later.”

“RIVER! I'M COMING UP!” I yelled out to her, then added, “PLEASE DON'T SHOOT ME!” I headed up the walkway. As I passed Zoe, I told her, “Don't worry. I know what I'm doing,” then added quietly to myself, “I hope.”

I inched closer and closer, ready to jump for cover at the first sign of a gun. I got to the edge of the open cargo hole River had retreated. “River?” I asked. “You in there?”

I heard some sniffling, so I carefully peeked in. River was sitting with her back against the wall. She had a gun in her left hand, resting on the floor. I could see the tear tracks down her cheeks. She wiped her nose, then looked up at me. “You shouldn't be here. You might get hurt.”

“I don't see that. But I do see someone I care about is hurting.” I sat down next to her in the hold. “You want to talk?”

“I have a gun,” she said in a flat voice. “I'm very good with it. Everyone I've aimed it at is dead.”

“Maybe you could give me lessons. I've always been more of a crossbow man, myself, but it wouldn't hurt to diversify,” I told her. Zoe and Mal had made their way up the walkway and were at the entrance.

“River, honey? Why don't you give me the gun and come out?” Zoe asked.

River gripped the gun in her hand tighter, and brought it up. “No! I have to have it. It's all I am now! It's what they made me!”

“Wait, 'they' is the blue glove guys, right? And they made you into a gun?” River shook her head. “A weapon! They made you into a weapon, is that it?” I asked, figuring it out.

“I tried. I really tried,” River sobbed. “I just can't fight it anymore. I'm so tired.” She raised the gun and placed it against her temple.

“NO!” we all shouted.

“That's how you see me. That's all I'll ever be,” she said in a weary tone.

“River, wait! Concentrate on me. I know you can read me. So you know that I'm not lying. Can you do that for me?” I asked her. River wavered for a second, then slowly nodded. “I've actually had some experience dealing with girls who are suddenly more dangerous, and are emotionally unstable. So I know that whatever they did to you only changed what you can do. They can't change who you are, or the choices you make.”

River looked at me with uncertainty. “No, I've killed. They made me a killer.”

“They tried to make you into an assassin at their beck and call. But you chose to get word out to Simon so you could escape. You chose to live a life on the run instead of working for them.”

“I killed those guards. I killed those men,” she said, almost pleading for help.

“You rescued Simon, you rescued me,” I pointed out. “Every person you killed was trying to hurt someone you care about. But because you acted, we're all safe. Simon is alive because you rescued him. I'm alive because you rescued me,” I said. I could tell River was thinking about what I told her. “Thanks for that, by the way. I'm glad you were there.”

River's eyes glanced at the gun in her hand. She slowly brought it down from her temple. She looked at me, then looked behind me. I looked over my shoulder and saw the Simon was being held back by Jayne and Kaylee.

“River, please put the gun down,” he pleaded.

River jerked the gun up again. I knew I had to pull out my weapon of last resort. I reached out and pinched her nose and said, “Honk!”

Lao tyen yeh, he's going to get himself killed,” Mal muttered.

River stared at me in total confusion. “What?” she asked, with remarkable lucidity I noted.

“Assassins don't get their noses honked. Girls who have friends that trust them and a loving brother get their noses honked.”

River just stared at me. I suspected the rest of the crew was staring at me too. “That's not——” River began, but I cut her off by honking her nose again. She stopped and stared at me again. Then, a smile slowly broke out on her face. She reached up and pinched me nose, letting out a high pitched “Beep!”

“Beep?” I asked. “What happened to honk?'”

“You're a boy,” she said, as if it was completely obvious explanation. She walked past me and handed off the gun to Mal. Simon pulled her close in a hug.

I watched her, and was struck once more by her beauty. Why am I always attracted to the complicated ones?

River stepped back from her brother and turned to me. She walked up to me and said, “Because we're worth it.” And with that, she kissed me. And after a moment, I kissed her back.

How I Found My Way Home

Three days later we landed on Athens. I was looking forward to it, since Zoe said we would arrive just as the harvest celebrations were starting. An added bonus was that it was out of the way of most Alliance patrols, and no troops were reported in the area we were staying.

I was shaving in my shuttle, when I heard a knock. I turned and saw Simon standing at the door. “Mind if I come in?” he asked. I motioned him in, still not comfortable with verbally inviting anyone in. “I think we should talk. About River... and you,” he said.

“Right,” I nodded. I put down my razor and wiped by face. I grabbed a drink from my fridge and offered one to Simon, but he declined. I sat down at the table and Simon sat opposite me. “Guess I should have expected this visit. Did you bring the shovel with you?”

“Excuse me?” Simon asked, not getting my reference.

“You know. The shovel. The one you'll threaten to beat me to death with if I hurt River.”

“Oh. The shovel. No, I didn't think to bring any props with me,” he said.

“Never underestimate the power of a good visual aid,” I joked.

Simon ignored it and stayed serious. “Xander. I love my sister. And more than anything I want to keep her safe. She's been through so much, more than anyone should. And I don't want anything bad to ever happen to her again.”

“Okay, okay,” I stopped him. “Believe it or not, I've had this conversation before. Let's just say that Mr. and Mrs. Chase felt I was not of the right social strata to date their daughter. Plus my parents were drunks. Considering how things turned out, maybe I should have listened to them.” I sat back and looked at him. “You fixed my eye. I can never repay that. And you're just looking out for her. I can't really argue with that. If you don't want me involved with River, then I'll stay away from her.”

Simon stared at me without saying anything. Then he began chucking. Then the chuckling turned into laughter. Then the laughter turned into full blown guffaws, as Simon doubled over.

“Doc, you okay?” I asked in confusion. “What's so funny?

“You thought....” Simon took a deep breath and wiped a tear away from his face. “You thought I was here to order you away from River?”

I nodded in response. He just broke out laughing again. It was almost a minute before he recovered.

“I learned a long time ago that once my sister decides something, there's nothing I can do to change her mind. And she's decided that you're the person she wants to be with. Frankly, I don't think there's anything you could do to change her mind.”

“Oh. So what did you want to talk to me about?” I asked him.

He grew serious again as he asked, “Do you love her?”

“Kinda putting me on the spot here, Doc.”

He grimaced slightly. “I know. But I have to ask.”

“I like her,” I admitted. “First person I've liked in that way in years, really. But I'm not in love with her.”

Simon's face fell at hearing that. “Oh, dear. That will make things difficult.”

“Wait, let me continue,” I stopped him. “I'm not in love with her yet. But if you ask me again in two months or even two weeks, you'll probably get a different answer. I'm not in love with her yet, but I want to see if I will be. Does that make any sense?” I asked.

“Actually, yes. That's not entirely unlike how I felt about Kaylee when I came on board,” Simon said with a smile. “But that means I have to ask you for something.”

“Hey, Doc. Like I said, I owe you for the eye. If there's something I can do for you, just name it.”

He nodded at that. “River has been though so much pain, so much suffering. More than anyone should have to endure. And it's not going to get any easier for her.”

“I know.”

He looked directly at me and said, “I've seen how she is with you. She's more lively, she's more lucid. And... she's happy. What I'm asking of you is that when things get rough, and they will get rough, to not give up on her. Keep trying to help her. And keep making her happy.”

I could only sit there in shock, finally saying, “Wow, I did not see the conversation going in that direction.”

“If it would help, next time, I can bring a shovel,” Simon offered.

“It would.”



Later, as I came out of my shuttle, I heard Mal arguing with someone down in the lower dock by the airlock. I didn't recognize the other voice, so that probably meant it was one of Mal's contacts on Athens. I made my way down there and saw Mal yelling at a shorter man wearing bowler hat.

“Get off my ship!” Mal yelled at the man, poking his finger into his chest. “You sold me out, Badger. I don't truck with people who sold me out.”

“Let's be fair. I didn't sell you out. I set you up. There's a subtle, but distinct difference,” he reasoned.

“How is that different?” Mal asked in a high pitched voice.

“Look, selling you out would imply that you had trust that I would act in your best interest, and that I would otherwise act in a trustworthy manner. If that was the case then you would be fully justified in feeling some sense of betrayal.” Badger pulled out a cigar and let it up, then continued explaining, “Now it's true that Dobson paid me to lure you to the Sturges battlefield, but it's not like you actually believed me. In the meeting you shot my men, then left me in the desert. Considering that you walked away free and clear while Dobson was dead, I'd say the whole thing comes to a wash between us.”

“You thought wrong on that,” Mal said. He pulled out his revolver and pointed it at Badger.

“Um, Mal? He does have a point,” I interrupted. Mal glared at me, but I pressed on. “Obviously the guy is an untrustworthy lying sack of crap, no offense,” I added to Badger. He merely shrugged. “So if he led you into a trap, you should really blame yourself for not thinking the situation through a little better.”

“Listen to the man,” Badger said. “He's talking sense.”

“Although I have to wonder, if you did set him up, why are you here now?” I asked.

“I have a job for you lot. Easy as pie, guaranteed profitable,” Badger answered.

I turned to Mal and said, “Okay, now you can shoot him.”

“What?” Mal and Badger asked in unison.

“It's probably a trap. I mean he admitted you can't trust him just a few seconds ago. So you can take the bait again and watch it bite you in the ass, or shoot him now. How's he going to learn not to set you up if you don't shoot him?”

Mal nodded along and brought his revolver up. “I'm listening to the man,” he said with a grin. “He's talking sense.”

“Wait, wait, WAIT!” Badger yelled. “Alliance have been cracking down on honest criminals like myself. I'm short handed and need all the help I can get just to stay in business. If I do wrong by you now, no one will ever work with me again.” Mal lowered his gun slightly, but did not holster it. “And you can't tell me you can't use the work.” Mal thought for a moment, then raised the gun again. “AND I'LL PAY DOUBLE!” Badger added in desperation.

“Triple,” Mal said.

“Triple? You're killing me here.”

“No, killing you is when I pull the trigger. Allow me to demonstrate,” he said, cocking the gun.

“All right, all right. Triple it is then,” Badger agreed.

“In advance,” I added. Badger looked at me in despair. “Think of it as a good faith gesture. And right now, you need to show all the good faith you can.”

He let out a sigh and said, “I'll be back tomorrow night with the money and cargo. Deal?”

Mal nodded. “Deal.” He put his holstered his gun, spat into his hand and shook hands with Badger.

I wandered away as Badger and Mal hammered out the details of the job. Kaylee walked over to me and sat down. “Hey there. You looking forward to tonight?”

“Yeah. You and Zoe have been talking up this festival for awhile. And it'll be nice to be planetside again. I didn't get much chance to look around last time.”

“That's not what I mean,” she laughed and gently slapped me on the shoulder. “You and River. This is kind of like a first date.”

“You're an incurable romantic, you know that?” I asked her. “Seriously. We're going to be in crowds the whole time and you and Simon will be chaperoning us. It's just going to be a nice night out.”

“Ah, there you are. Ready to go?” Simon asked as he and River came down the stairs. He glanced over and spotted Mal and Badger talking. “Oh dear.”

“It's okay, Doc,” Mal told him. “Badger here has seen the error of his ways, and has come crawling back to us.”

“Really,” Simon said skeptically. “And what brought this change of heart?”

“Alliance has been cracking down ever since a squad of security agents got themselves killed on Beaumonde,” Mal told him.

“Oh. I see.” Simon swallowed nervously. “Is there any information about what happened there?”

Mal turned to Badger and raised an eyebrow. “Officially, it was a training accident. But word is that they were tracking someone.”

“Who were they tracking?”

“No one knows. Locals weren't told. Even the Security Agency didn't know. A couple of high level agents were running the whole thing, and they didn't let any details of what they were looking for slip,” Badger explained. “Although....”

Mal glanced from Badger to Simon and River, back to Badger. “What?”

“The last thing that the agents reported before they died was a name. Keyser Soze.” Simon looked over at me, and I let out a laugh, then covered it with a cough. “No one knows who he is or why the Alliance is asking about him. But everyone wants to find out, Alliance and underworld.”

“Probably nothing there,” Mal said. “Some name pops up on a wave and everyone starts chasing ghosts.”

“Greatest trick the devil ever pulled was making the world think he didn't exist,” River added in a soft voice. I kept my head down, struggling to keep from laughing out loud.

“Don't you all have a festival to go to?” Mal asked us. We took that as a sign to leave him and Badger to their dealing.

We left the ship and made our way to the fair grounds. I kept smiling as I looked around. I was five hundred years in the future, but I could have been back home at any county fair. There were food stalls all around the grounds, along with sure to be rigged games with cheap prizes, even a ferris wheel.

“So, what do you want to hit first? Shall we try to win some stuffed animals for the ladies, or treat ourselves to some fried popcorn, or whatever the hell they fry here.” I looked over at the Doc and saw him canoodling with Kaylee.

He looked up at me in embarrassment. “Oh, well, Kaylee was wanting to see the crafts. So why don't we split up and meet back here at midnight.”

“You're okay with letting River out of your sight?” I asked him.

“Well, you both have your comm links, right?” he asked, then waited for us to show them. “And if anything happens, you'll call immediately. And be sure not to wander off from the main fair grounds. And stay with the crowds. Don't go off with anyone you don't know. And—” Kaylee tugged on his arm pulling him away. “Just... enjoy yourselves,” he said, then walked away, pulling Kaylee close to him.

I let River pulled me along to the game alley.

“Okay, the trick to these games is that the sights are off, the bottles are weighted at the bottom, and the best prizes aren't available unless you win like twenty straight games with no misses. But I know the secret to getting the best prize possible.”

“Bribe the carny?” River asked.

“Normally, yes. But tonight, my male ego is forcing me to actually win one for you,” I told her. “Now stand back and marvel at how eight years of crossbow shooting has honed my natural aiming ability to a razor edge.”

Ten minutes later I walked away from the stand lugging a stuffed pink bunny slightly smaller than me and slightly larger than River. “We could have gotten a smaller one.”

“Only the biggest one for my guy,” River said with a grin.

“It's just that the guy usually wins the doll for the girl, not the guy tries to win, but the girl grabs the gun from his hand, racks up a flawless score, then demands the largest prize in the entire fair, somehow making the carny cry during the whole thing,” I pointed out to her as we made our way to the ferris wheel.

“I like my way better. I get to make someone cry and win a huge doll, so it's win/win,” she said.

I helped her into the ferris wheel gondola, then loaded the bunny, then took a seat myself. The ferris wheel started, and we rose into the air. “Now what should I name him,” I asked. “Hoppy? Cupcake? River II?”

River frowned. “I won him. I should get to name him.”

“You won him for me. So I get to name him,” I reasoned. “Besides, I paid for the shots.”

“But you paid to win me the bunny,” she pouted.

“Doesn't matter. Whoever is making the shots has to give it to their date. If I made the shots, I would give it to you. But since you made the shots you have to give it to me. There's a very strict etiquette here.”

She thought it over, then pronounced, “You tricked me.”

“Very possible. I am devious. Or deviant. I can never remember which”

River studied the doll, then said, “Mrs. Emily Norrington.” I looked over at her. “The doll. That's her name, Mrs. Emily Norrington.”

“Okay, a little close to Miss Edith for comfort. Why that name?” I asked.

She gazed at the doll. “That was the name of my first teacher. Back before Serenity or the Alliance doctors. Back when Simon and I were children, my parents doted on me. They dropped me off on the first day, and I went because back then my parents wanted the best for me and teachers tried to help me learn. That was before my parents sent me off then forgot about me, and teachers used needles and drugs on me,” she whispered.

“So I guess she's a reminder of the good times. Your first teacher, someone you could trust. Someone you miss,” I said, letting her lean against my shoulder.

“I hated her. I wanted to read Lovecraft and Webster, anything with gore and violence. She wanted me to read from picture books about picnics and rainbows,” River told me. “Also, she was an alien that wanted my organs.”

“I had a teacher that turned out to be a giant praying mantis. She wanted to have her wicked way with me, then bite my head off,” I told her. "And I think my principal was part troll or goblin. But he got eaten by a giant snake, so I never found out.”

River snuggled closer to me. She closed her eyes and let out a happy sigh. I watched her and smiled.

“What are you smiling about?” she asked, eyes still closed.

“You. I like that I can talk about my life to you and not have to worry that you won't believe me.” I stared up at the stars as our gondala came to a stop at the top of the ferris wheel. “I like that I can stare at the stars at night with you and not worry about anything. I like that you win me stuffed animals. I like that you name stuffed animals after hated teachers. I like that I have no idea what you're going to say or do next, but whatever it is, I can't wait to find out.”

River opened her eyes and looked up at me. “I like that you like that about me.”

The ferris wheel began moving again and broke the moment. Once we reached the ground we got off and walked around the festival. We spent the next few hours trying all the foods, riding all the rides, won a menagerie of stuffed animals from the game booths, and visited every booth on the fairground. We handed all the prizes, except Mrs. Emily Norrington, to kids around the festival. After hours had passed, we made our way back to the entrance to meet up with Kaylee and Simon.

We hung around for a few minutes waiting for the others. “They did say to meet back here at this time, right? I wasn't just imagining that.”

“They like their alone time,” River said. “I don't mind.”

“You cool with Kaylee then?” I asked her. “I mean, dating your brother.”

She nodded along. “She's nice to me and she makes Simon happy. I want him to be happy,” she said. “Isn't that how it normally goes?”

I let out a laugh at that. “Yeah, I wish. One of my friends, I hated two out of her three boyfriends. Although in my defense, they were total douchebags. And my girlfriends,” I shook my head. “If I had known how little time I had with them, I would have...” I trailed off in thought.

River nudged me. “Hey, where are you at?”

“Sorry, I just realized, that I kept dividing all my old friends into the ones that died and the ones that survived. But they're all gone now. It's like I keep forgetting that, then it'll hit me all over again.” River didn't say anything. Instead she just took my hand into hers and held it. “How did you get past missing your old life?” I asked her. “How did you get to the point where you knew Serenity was your home.”

She looked deep into my eyes and said, “Home is where the heart is.”

And she kissed me. It was a soft kiss, less urgent than the last time, but more relaxed, as if we had all the time in the world.

“Xander! River!”

I turned and saw my friends approaching us. Simon and Kaylee, they were my friends. Then I looked at River still staring up at me. And it struck me how how long it had been since I spent a night out with my friends, and just enjoyed myself without worrying about anything else.

“Huh,” I murmured in a low voice that only River could hear. “I think I'm home,” I said. And then I kissed her back.

THE END

The End

You have reached the end of "Far Off Lands". This story is complete.

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