It all started because Kaylee was in love.
Well, that wasn't completely accurate. It all started because Kaylee volunteered to pick up the mail and supplies on Greenhorn. The love part, in the form of the doctor, wasn't anything new. Kaylee was usually the first to raise her hand high when it came time to go planet-side, and the captain more often than not let her go – the girl was just so gorram enthusiastic about new places that it was hard to shut her down.
The love wouldn't have been any trouble, no more than any other day, had the object of Kaylee's crush not volunteered himself to go right along with her, mumbling something about some new compound he wanted to try for River. And Kaylee, of course, what with the love and all – Kaylee was over the moon.
“No dilly-dallying,” Mal scolded, as the crew assembled in the cargo hold to see them off. “We gotta schedule to keep.”
Zoe hid her frown. She wasn't any happier than Mal at the notion of Simon leaving the ship to begin with, what with him and his sister being Public Enemy Numbers One and Two on the Alliance radar. But Simon had insisted in his cool, unmovable way, and in the end Mal had caved. On one condition – a condition Simon hadn't accepted with anything approaching Kaylee's good cheer.
“It's a fine hat,” Kaylee insisted.
“It's very... orange.” Simon glanced back at the captain, as if hoping he'd change his mind. “And itchy.”
“Inappropriate,” River added from her perch on catwalk, eyes huge and solemn. No one asked precisely what she meant by the word, but then, no one contradicted her either.
“You lose that hat,” Jayne said, fingering Vera, “And...”
“I get it.” Simon yanked the woolen monstrosity further over his ears. His dark hair poked out in uneven clumps around his forehead. “Bad things will happen. I'll be writhing in agony under the power your wrath.” Jayne scowled.
“Don't forget the protein mix!” Wash called from somewhere overhead. Even River's nose wrinkled.
Kaylee didn't take Simon's hand in hers, though it looked a close thing. Her grin was big and infectious, like some kind of giddy disease. Mal was immune.
“Two hours,” he yelled, as sunlight hit Kaylee's pigtails and Simon's disguise and the mule kicked a cloud of dust behind them. “Two hours, or you're both shit out of luck. Dong ma?.”
Two hours and seven minutes later, Serenity swallowed the mule back up and shut her hatch tight.
“It's like Christmas,” Kaylee's grin had taken over her entire body while she'd been dirtside. That much happiness would have been disconcerting on anybody else. Kaylee bounced off the mule, swinging her canvas bags down with her. Simon followed, tearing off the hat (home safe and undamaged, if a mite dustier than it was before they left), trying and failing to keep his own smile at a safe minimum. They still weren't holding hands, but they moved through the cargo hold together with the easy coordination of two bodies in sync, constantly in each others space without colliding. Simon took one of the bags from her and followed up the metal stairs to the kitchen.
“Are we getting close?” Kaylee asked Book, who was busy at the kitchen counter chopping up the last of the dried fruit.
“Close?” Book set the knife down and brightened.
“Christmas.” Kaylee dumped her bag on the table and Simon followed suit, his shoulder brushing hers.
“Oh, we've got awhile yet,” Book said. “It's only just August.”
“Saturnalia,” River added, her voice startling them all. She poked her head out from under the table. She squinted up at her brother, still beaming at Kaylee. “Or maybe Lupercalia.” When all eyes turned to her with varying levels of puzzlement, she grimaced. “One takes over from the next. Layers, mutations, spores taking root and sprouting in fertile soil. Underneath, they're all the same.” The puzzlement deepened and she rolled her eyes. “St. Valentine's Day. Qi Xi.”
Simon blushed. Kaylee still looked befuddled.
“That's a mite further off even than Christmas.” Book said, returning to his chopping. River sank back under the table, sulking behind the curtain of her hair.
The crew gathered around the kitchen table, shifting in anticipation like kids at Santa's knee despite the Shepard's insistence that the holiday was long off. Behind her, even Mal bounced on the balls of his feet. Not that the Captain ever got mail, or asked for much of anything from planet-side trips besides the essentials.
“'Kay, here we go.” Kaylee opened her bag with a flourish and everyone leaned forward. She grinned wide and fished her hand inside the canvas, beaming at Simon, who stood across the table from her, hunched between Jayne and Wash. Jayne was near quivering, and he started to grab the bag out of Kaylee's hands before a jab in his ribs from Mal sent him sulking back.
“Ooo. First, we got...” and Kaylee hesitated, building up the moment like a sideshow caller. Zoe wondered where she'd picked up the talent for sadism. Kaylee pulled out a big tan box and dropped it to the table with a thump. “Protein powder!”
Wash groaned. “Kaylee-” When had her husband turned into a whiner? Zoe caught Book in a smirk, and when he noticed her looking his face smoothed over quick as laser fire.
“Okay, Okay,” Kaylee said, rummaging in her sack again. “This is for River.” She handed over a bound stack of thin discs. “I know you can't get on the Core for more stuff to read, and these are just knockoff pulp stories we found in the swap meet; but Simon said you might like 'em.”
River squinted at the metallic stack and glanced sidelong at her brother. No peep of thanks, but her dark hair fell over her face in a cascade and she kept fingering the discs like she could read them by touch. Kaylee took it in stride and her eyes were back on Simon, watching for his matching smile.
And in that pause, while Kaylee was admiring her doctor, Jayne launched himself half across the table and shoved his hands into the bag.
“Hey!” Kaylee squeaked. Simon's eyebrows shot up, and Book just rolled his eyes.
“Where is it?” Jayne managed, as Mal and Wash hauled him back to his side of the table.
Flustered, Kaylee pulled the bag back towards her chest and glared. “Why'd you have to go and do that. You always ruin the fun.” And Jayne had the good sense to hang his head.
“Fine. Here.” Kaylee reached inside without looking and thrust a brown-paper wrapped package into his hands. “Go on. Go away. You got what you wanted. Shoo.”
Jayne sulked off and left the table in peace, but the moment had passed.
“Inara, they didn't have the incense you wanted, but the shop girl recommended this instead. She said it was loose, but you could just burn it in a dish. Smells real nice.”
Inara accepted the package, nearly the size and shape of whatever it was Jayne had run off with, and gave Kaylee a kiss on the cheek. Kaylee turned to Mal with a little frown.
“Cap'n, there weren't no note from Guffman. Sorry.”
Mal didn't react, but Zoe's insides squeezed together. This was the third stop without word from any of their usual contacts. Kaylee might have come back with a bag of goodies; but without work all the goodies in the 'verse weren't gonna keep them in the sky.
Wash got a package he wouldn't explain, though he and Kaylee shared a grin Zoe didn't quite trust. Kaylee said Zoe's request – two boxes of shells for her rifle and a pot of hand balm – was the easiest to fill, 'cept Book's – and the Shepard hadn't asked for anything this time.
Once the sack was empty of the crew's requests Kaylee brought out the rest of the usual supplies and put them away, and then the kitchen went back to quiet. Kaylee skipped off with her new set of ratchets to try 'em out on the engine. Simon carried his vials of drugs to the infirmary. Wash kissed the back of Zoe's neck and muttered something to Mal about having the night off. When they were all gone, Mal sat at the head of the table and scrubbed his face with this hands.
“We'll get word, sir,” Zoe offered. She stayed standing, eyeing her captain. Mal dropped his hands and wouldn't meet her gaze, lines at his mouth she hadn't seen there for a long time. He shoved away from the table and stalked off towards the bridge, leaving her behind with her worry and her bullets and her balm.
dong ma? = got it? understand?
Qi Xi = lit. "The Night of Sevens” or Chinese Valentine's Day sort of.
With everyone squirreled away, wrapped up in their new toys, Serenity felt like she'd gone into hibernation. Zoe found some busywork in the cargo hold, looking after the mule, which only limped along because she spent so much time on it when she knew she needed to talk to Mal or Wash and was putting it off. The first sign that something had gone terribly guo shi came as she was wiping grease from her hands, having just made up her mind that she and Mal needed to have it out about their next job. Or lack thereof.
“Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.” The deep groan echoed off the metal walls. Zoe froze, her hand straying to her gun, and dropped the greasy rag to the deck. “Ohhhhhhh. Ta ma de!”
The voice wasn't hard to recognize, now that the first shock had worn off. “Jayne?”
Zoe climbed to the catwalk, following the sound of Jayne's misery. She found him huddled up against the metal hull in the hall leading from the bunks, shivering like he'd caught the river plague. Her stomach did that clenching thing again. Jayne never got sick. Not without a lot of whiskey first. And Mal had started rationing the spirits months back.
“Zoe?” Jayne looked up at her, bleary and damp with sick sweat. “That da shabi. She poisoned me.”
Now, that didn't make a lick of sense. Zoe reluctantly touched his pale forehead, but he wasn't feverish. Just miserable. “Why don't we go see the doc?”
“Nuh uh. Gan ni lao ma pi gu .” Jayne jerked away from her, then retched, but nothing came up.
“Nice, Jayne,” she muttered. “My mother's not available.”
“Well, wo cao ni ye ye de sao pi yan then,” he growled, his teeth grinding so hard she could hear them.
“Stay here,” Zoe ordered. “Da diao.” Jayne only grunted at the insult and then let out another long groan that followed her down the corridor towards the infirmary.
“They're perfectly good copies, River.” Simon's weary voice met Zoe at the door.
“There's things missing,” his sister insisted, in that quiet way that sometimes gave Zoe the creeps. “The words are in the right order but the spirit is gone.”
“Kaylee looked all over that backwater market for something for you to read. If you don't like them, at least you can be polite about it.”
Zoe cleared her throat. Simon whirled, a glass vial in each hand. He deflated when he recognized her.
Simon sighed. “I thought the captain had hid the booze.”
“Not that kind of sick. He keeps going on about being poisoned. Don't have a fever but it looks like river plague to me.”
“Malaria?” Simon frowned. “He didn't leave the ship.”
Zoe shrugged. “He's sicker than a dog. Could be it took time to develop.”
“Alright. I'll be right there.”
The girl followed the doc and Zoe back to the hall outside Jayne's bunk. She took one look at his miserable self and let out a peal of giggles.
“Wasn't what you wanted. Not at all,” she managed, gasping for air.
Simon ignored her. Jayne squeezed his eyes shut and grumbled another insult to their parentage under his breath.
“Poor Kaylee,” River said, her giggles dying down.
Simon stiffened. “What's wrong with Kaylee?”
“Distracted.” River grinned, one of the few times Zoe had seen anything like mirth on the young face. “Lost track of what was what. Your fault.”
“I knew it!” Jayne surged off the deck and then fell against the hull again. “Cho yade! It's all Kaylee's fault!”
Simon's knuckles went white around his medical bag. If he'd been a man more prone to letting his feelings out, Jayne would have had a broken jaw by now.
“Can you get him down to the infirmary?” he asked Zoe instead.
“What's my fault?” Kaylee said at the same time.
Three heads whirled. She'd just emerged from her bunk, blinking sleepily.
“It was an honest mistake,” River answered. Then she broke into giggles again. It was downright disconcerting, River amused. Zoe decided she didn't like it. She had other things to worry about, and she saw them reflected in Simon's eyes. If Jayne had picked up some backwater-world bug...
“No one else has symptoms,” Simon answered her thoughts, like he'd picked up some of his sister's parlor tricks.
“Not yet, anyway,” Zoe hauled Jayne up under the arms. He was limp as noodles, and cold where he'd sweat through his shirt.
“What's my fault?” Kaylee repeated, pretty face all scrunched up with worry.
“Nothing,” Simon assured.
“You poisoned Jayne,” River said.
“I did no such thing!” Kaylee's chin came up.
“What is going on down here?”
Five heads swiveled up towards the bridge. Mal stood in at the top of the stairs, hands on his hips, looking none too pleased at the racket they must have been making. Four voices spoke in an overlapping jumble that hurt Zoe's ears.
“Gorram girl poisoned me!”
“Jayne seems to have fallen ill.”
“I didn't do anything! Honest!”
“She was the instrument of Karma.”
Mal stared at them. Then he dismissed them and looked to Zoe. “Can you make any kind of sense out of that?”
So she explained the past twenty minutes best she could, while Jayne shivered and Kaylee glared and River's giggles turned into hiccups.
“Karma?” Leave it to the Captain to focus on the least relevant bit. River nodded. Mal sighed.
“If you'll help me, sir, we can get him to the infirmary...”
Zoe and Mal got Jayne laid out on the examining table and stepped back. Mal wiped his hands on his pants and Zoe resisted the urge to do the same. Jayne had been slimy. As Simon went to work, a crowd formed in the doorway. Somewhere along the line the Shepard had joined them, frowning thoughtfully as Kaylee filled him in.
“I didn't poison nobody. Honest.” Kaylee said for the fourth time.
“No one thinks you poisoned him.” Simon said, distracted, as he stuck an instrument in Jayne's ear. Jayne batted it away and then groaned again as another cramp doubled him over.
River opened her mouth. “Only River and Jayne think you poisoned him,” Mal corrected before she could speak.
Kaylee crossed her arms over her chest and sulked against the doorway.
“I don't see anything to indicate a disease vector. I'll have to do some blood tests.” Simon announced, turning away from his patient. “It does resemble food poisoning; but we all ate the same thing at dinner and none of us are effected.”
A giggle rose from behind them, out in the lounge. Everyone turned to River, but the girl was silent.
Inara pushed her way through the bodies in the doorway. Her kohl-rimmed eyes were wide and unfocused.
“Oooh,” she said, peering at Jayne. “Hey. What's wrong with him?” Then she burst into another round of girlish laughter.
“That's your fault, too,” River said to Kaylee.
Mandarin Swearing taken from here.
guo shi = dog shit
Ta ma de = Oh Shit!
da shabi = big dumb cunt
Gan ni lao ma pi gu = fuck your mother's ass
wo cao ni ye ye de sao pi yan = fuck your grandfather's piss stinking asshole
Da diao = big dick
Cho yade = smelly slave wench
“I still don't see how anything's my fault.” Kaylee's distress set Inara shaking again with distinctly undignified giggles. The companion almost immediately forgot her question about Jayne and drifted back through the tangle of crew members on the infirmary's threshold. The crew forgot Jayne too, peering after her as she dropped herself into the saggy embrace of the battered couch in the common area.
"Oof." Inara's arms flailed as the couch swallowed her up. "Hey, stop that."
"Stop what?" Kaylee's pretty face scrunched up in confusion. Zoe wasn't sure why River had figured all this mess to be Kaylee's fault; but Kaylee had taken the accusation personal.
"Kaylee!" Inara struggled to right herself, but only sank deeper into the broken down couch.
"What? What'd I do?" Kaylee shoved her way past Zoe and Book and stood over Inara, wringing her hands. Jayne hollered behind them, put out now that the focus had turned from him. Inara's silk tunic fell loose around her, baring one white shoulder. With her shawl covering up her arms and her long skirts hiding everything else, the spot of bared flesh seemed that much more bare.
"She's usually not so..." Kaylee gave a helpless shrug, waving her hands in Inara's direction.
"Relaxed?" There was a glint of something in Mal's eyes. Zoe watched his speculative gaze move from Inara's boneless sprawl to Jayne, struggling against Simon and his scanner. "Huh."
"Kaylee, come sit with me," Inara called, overly loud despite Kaylee's hovering. She scooted up a bit, making room for Kaylee, then patted the couch until the girl complied. Inara ran her hand up Kaylee's bare arm and then tugged at Kaylee's ponytail until her hair came loose. "That's better." Zoe watched Inara's fingers tangling through Kaylee's hair, smoothing it down, the hennaed patterns on her hands flickering among the strands.
Mal's lips thinned as he turned to River.
"You seem to be the only one here with any kind of grip on what's going on. So spill."
River's mouth opened. Then shut again. She hiccuped, then the giggles took over. "Kyogen," she managed, clutching at her belly.
"Very helpful." Mal stalked to the couch. Jayne bellowed something about dying, but no one paid him any mind. Mal loomed over Inara, hands on his hips, and Inara's eyes got wide and round.
"Oooh." She left off grooming Kaylee and stared up at the captain. "What's got hims so glowery?"
"This." Mal grabbed one of Inara's hands. She squeaked, and tried to take it back, but he was the stronger, and she didn't put up the kind of fight she would have on any other day.
"Hey. What're you... "
Mal shoved back the peach silk of Inara's shawl, exposing one hennaed arm.
"Shen jing bing." Inara wasn't quite focused enough to glare, but it was a near thing.
"Captain," Book warned, starting forward. Then he stopped short, staring down at Inara's slim arm. "Huh."
"Yeah," Mal said, "Huh is right."
Zoe moved to join them, and even Simon abandoned his patient. River's laughter took on a hysterical edge.
"Mal," Inara scolded, struggling to sit up. A prissy frown floated over her face, and found nowhere to anchor. "This isn't- we had an agreement."
The hint of amusement in the captain's eyes went flat. "I'm not propositioning you. For the love of-" He broke off, and dropped her hand. Everyone else leaned closer to get a look.
The henna marks, which started in an intricate pattern of flowers and geometric figures on Inara's fingers and the back of her hand, got... strange... as they moved up her arm. The design shifted into swirls and happy faces, chinese calligraphy, and what looked like...
"What's all the fuss?" Jayne demanded, shoving his sweaty way into the group gathered around Inara. "I'm dying and... Hey. Si lang gou!" So she hadn't been the only one to notice the extremely well endowed male figure tattooed on the pale flesh of Inara's inner arm. Jayne leaned closer, leering, until Book yanked him backwards. "That is one huge diao."
"It's not permanent, is it?" Kaylee's eyes were wide with horror.
Mal grabbed Inara by the wrist (right over a particularly intricate sketch of what looked like an Alliance cityscape) to keep her from wandering off as they all set out to her shuttle, even Jayne stumbling along behind them, his hands at the walls to keep himself steady.
When they reached the shuttle, Mal pushed back the gauzy curtains at the entrance and immediately reeled backwards, dragging Inara with him. She batted at his arm without much force, and would have slid to the floor if Simon hadn't caught her. The open curtains emitted a smoky-sweet scent that sent Zoe coughing as she slid past Mal to peer inside the shuttle. Hazy bluish smoke drifted from a small incense burner set before a bronze Buddha on Inara's altar.
“What is it?” Zoe asked, after Mal yanked her out of the room. The hall shifted under her feet for a moment before settling back down to normal.
“Yào xìng fú .” Book answered. Something of a smile cracked the calm facade he'd managed to maintain. Simon just looked confused, but Mal nodded. “But I don't think you're supposed to burn it quite like that. At least, not in that amount.”
“And how would you know, Preacher?” Mal let Inara go. She promptly sat on the metal deck, and stared up at them with wildly dilated eyes. Her silk skirts fell past her knees in a most unlady-like manner, revealing more hennaed insanity. Wèi shén me, her calf shouted. Gòu, one dainty ankle answered.
“But what is it?” Simon demanded, looking between Mal and Book, while Kaylee's face disappeared behind her hands.
“Oh no. Oh no no,” she muttered.
“A plant that grows on some of the border planets. They have something like it in the Core, but it's banned. You've heard of Bhang? Or Kief?”
“Cannabis?” Simon still seemed lost.
“Close enough. I don't know what the rightful scientific name for the plant is, but some call it Happy Nights.”
“We're all here,” Inara announced as Book finished. “All of us but Wash. Hardly seems fair.”
Zoe looked around for her husband, but he was nowhere to be found. Hadn't been, even after the ruckus in the halls. She didn't have time to wonder further, because Kaylee started apologizing to Inara, her face red as pickled beets.
“Told you,” River said kindly.
“Oh 'Nara. Oh, I must have mixed 'em up. Oh, poor Inara.”
Jayne straightened at that. “Poor Inara? I'm the one who's sick here. She's having my good time.”
“That means...” And Kaylee broke into belly laughs.
“What?” Simon flushed. “I don't understand.”
“Love.” Mal shook his head, disgusted. “It never bodes well when somebody goes and falls in love. Bad things happen.” He turned his accusatory look on Zoe. She stared back until he dropped his eyes, turning red himself. “Yeah. Well, somebody's got to go and quench that stuff before we all...” His gaze settled on Inara, who smiled up at him beatifically. “I'll go.”
“But what about me?” Jayne had turned a rather unbecoming shade, not unlike pea soup. “I'm dying here.”
“I switched 'em,” Kaylee said to Simon. “Gave Jayne's stash to Inara. So I guess Jayne must have...”
“You're saying he smoked Inara's incense.” Simon turned back to Jayne, incredulous. “You must have realized. The smell...”
“Hey, I didn't know. Coulda been some exotic local variety.”
Zoe pushed back into Inara's shuttle, leaving the bickering behind. Mal had doused the charcoal in the incense burner with water from a carafe on Inara's side table. He dumped the mess into the trash and covered his mouth and nose with one hand.
“Have Kaylee or Wash reverse the air flow to the shuttle, suck this mess out into space, okay? We don't need any more crew incapacitated by Kaylee's... distraction. Dong ma?”
“I get it, sir.” He was the only one not amused by the entire thing. She decided to let it go. With the captain, there were areas of conversation you avoided like the sand traps on Helene.
“Oh, sweety. Comeon, you can sleep it off in my bunk,” Kaylee offered, wrapping her arms around Inara.
“Oooo. Dizzy.” Inara planted a sloppy kiss on Kaylee's cheek.
“Can I come?” Jayne leered, though it only looked half hearted. He gripped his stomach with one hand and shot a glare at River when she smiled at him.
“You're going back to the infirmary.” Mal ordered. “Se mi mi de ren idiot.”
Jayne just gave him a lopsided shrug and followed Simon back down the hall.
“I'll... ” Zoe let the rest stay unsaid, leaving the Captain behind. As the curtains fluttered shut she could just see Mal staring around Inara's shuttle, an expression that could only be called wistful lingering on his face.
Wash, predictably, couldn't believe his bad luck when she found him in the bridge and told him the story.
“Why do these things happen when I'm somewhere else? Every time!”
“It's a curse, honey,” Zoe found herself smiling for the first time that evening. Now that she'd left the others and everything was under control, the hilarity of the situation finally broke through.
“Well. As curses go, I guess it's not so bad.” Wash didn't sound convinced. “I could be cursed to forever wander the planets, in search of... soybeans. Or something.”
She ignored him, and concentrated on the way his skin felt, smooth under her fingers as she played with his collar.
“Hey. Hey, there.” She ignored him more, and bent to kiss his throat, right near his ear. “Hey! Driving here!”
He batted her away, staring at her with a mix of shock and... well, outright lust. She stared back, surprised herself. She never let herself get so physical in the public areas of the ship.
“How long were you in that room?” Wash got a considering look on his face.
“Not as long as Inara. Long enough.”
Wash reached for the intercom and called for the captain to take over the bridge.
Turned out, the package Wash had asked Kaylee to get for him planet-side wasn't for himself at all. And it wasn't bullets, or incense, or medicine, or digital books. It wasn't balm, either, though Zoe bet Kaylee'd bought it at the same store.
“You like it.” Wash's voice was relieved, and a little part of Zoe's brain, the only part that wasn't currently reduced to the level of incoherency, wondered how distant she'd been with him lately to make him sound like that. She had to get better at preventing her worry over Mal and the ship from bleeding into her times with Wash.
“Dear, this is the best Christmas gift I've gotten in years.” Her muscles were loose and warm, and the bunk smelled of cinnamon. She lay on her stomach on the bed and let Wash prod at the last few tight spots, his hands slippery with oil.
“Well, it's not Christmas yet.” Wash's grip tightened around the muscle between her neck and shoulder, then smoothed over the planes of her back. “That puts a lot of pressure on me, you know, to match this when the actual holiday comes around.”
“Best Qi Xi then.” She was nearly asleep, all thought of Mal and the lengthening dry spell between jobs drifting away.
“And neither of them recognized their packages didn't smell right?”
“Honey,” Zoe groaned.
“Okay, okay. Just, next time the hijinks ensues, make sure somebody comes to get me, okay?”
“Okay,” Zoe muttered into the pillows.
Wash shifted, patted the bare skin of her ass. “Promise?”
“Promise. No more talking,” Zoe said, reaching for him.
“Right. No more talking,” he agreed.
Mal had it wrong, Zoe thought as she let her mind fade the rest of the way into sleep. Wasn't nothing the matter with love.
Kyogen - a type of Japanese farce
Si lang gou = dead man doggie
Diao = dick
Shen jing bing = lunatic
gòu = complete; meet unexpectedly; see
Se mi mi de ren = lecherous