Kaylee was afraid.
She hadn't been—not at first. She'd heard the captain's warning too late; Tracey had grabbed her, brandishing a gun as she'd come up out of her room to see what was going on. But she hadn't been truly afraid; it had all happened so fast, she hadn't had time to be afraid. Just shocked and a little angry, both at Tracey, and herself for letting herself get snatched.
As he'd dragged her down to the shuttles, she'd looked for the fella she'd met that morning. The Tracey who had just been joking and laughing with her in her room, all smiles and charm. He had to be there someplace, underneath all that panic and pain. She thought maybe she could talk him out of this. That once he stopped to think a minute, everything would sort itself out.
But things had only gone from bad to worse. And when the captain started talking about a trail of bodies, the fear had started gnawing at her belly when she realised that Tracey was so scared of whoever was dropping charges on them that he might do anything to get away.
Anything at all.
Her heart pounded in her ears as she fought to keep her footing on the catwalk, Tracey's arm around her neck. The gun in his hand was trained on her captain, as the ship shook in the aftershocks of another blast. Jayne caught her eye, and she struggled not to stare at him, but she knew they were planning something. She held her hands out in front of her for balance and held her breath, trying to hold back the whimpers that were trapped in her chest.
"What are we now, Mal?" Tracey asked, and though she couldn't see his face, she could hear the desperation in his voice.
The silence grew, and after all of the chaos, it seemed profound.
"See there?" Mal said so softly, and Kaylee could see, out the corner of her eye, the gun never wavering in his hand. "You hear that quiet? Means the call's already been made."
"Well that call..." Tracey said, voice cold and deliberate even thought the gun shook in his fingers. "That call means you just murdered me."
Jayne cocked the shotgun one-handed, and Tracey turned. Kaylee darted out from under his arm as quick as she could.
The shot was the loudest thing she thought she'd ever heard.
She cowered behind Jayne, shaking with fear and adrenaline. When she was able to look up again, Tracey was lying on the catwalk between the two shuttles, staring up at Mal and moaning. Jayne kept his gun trained on them, even though Tracey's gun had clattered to the deckplates below.
"No, son," Mal said, his voice choked with sadness. "You murdered yourself. I just carried the bullet a while."
Kaylee heard footsteps, and looked down to see Simon coming up from the passenger dorm, River at his heels. He took the metal stairs two at a time, bag in hand.
"Are you—" he asked her, when he saw the blood soaking the back of her shirt where Tracey had held her against him. She shook her head, grasping the railing with clammy fingers to steady herself.
"Tracey," she said, her voice coming out a strangled whisper.
Simon moved to the injured man's side, ignoring Jayne's pistol and reaching into his bag with one hand while he pulled Tracey's shirt away from the wound.
"If we can get him to the infirmary, I might be able to—" Simon began, but Mal laid a hand on his shoulder and shook his head slowly.
"Take your sister, and lock yourself into shuttle two."
"Cops are on their way," Mal said firmly. "Last thing you need is for them to catch sight of your pretty mugs, what's been plastered on warrants all across the 'verse."
Simon swallowed and nodded. His eyes dropped from Mal's to Kaylee's. She was still cowering behind Jayne, trembling. When he met her eyes, she looked away, cheeks flushed.
"Little Kaylee, you go with him."
"Those boys put up a fight, don't want you in the crossfire."
"Please, Cap'n." Kaylee felt her cheeks burn as she crouched down next to Tracey and helped him into a sitting position against the rails. "If there's trouble, I'll run for the shuttle."
Tracey coughed, and blood appeared on his lips. He reached blindly for Kaylee's hand, and she took it.
"Captain," Shepherd Book stepped out onto the catwalk. "I think she'll be safe. But the boy and his sister—"
"I'll go," Simon said. "But the second they're gone—"
"You're right on the other side of that door," Mal nodded.
Simon took River by the arm, leading her back into the shuttle, turning his back on Kaylee as Serenity lifted into the air.
"Trail ends here," River said quietly as she watched Simon pacing the length and breadth of the shuttle. "No more bodies. Just the one."
"The first shot hit his lung, I think," Simon began, rooting through his medkit with one hand. "Depending on where the second shot hit, he could still—I might be able to—"
She shook her head slowly. "He made the lie true."
"I can't stand the idea of hiding while there's a patient who needs my help!" Simon snapped.
"Can't stand the way he looked at her," she said, flopping down on a bench.
"That has nothing to do with anything," Simon said, a flush creeping up his neck.
"He had an autonomic response to her presence," River continued, undaunted.
He just stared at her.
"She made his heart beat faster," she said slowly, as if to a child, and he grimaced. It hadn't been lost on him, the way the scanners in the infirmary had gone crazy the moment Tracey had laid eyes on Kaylee, who hadn't exactly seemed put off by his advances.
"He's dying out there—we shouldn't be..." Simon trailed off. "This isn't the time."
"She thinks he's like you. Thinks he wouldn't have hurt her. Just like you."
"You wouldn't have let her die. You told the captain you would. You told him to run. Just like he did."
Simon flushed at the memory of Kaylee lying gutshot on the cargo bay floor, Dobson's bullet lodged in her stomach—not his most shining moment.
"She thinks he's like you, but she's wrong," River said gently.
"I didn't mean to hurt her. I don't know—I don't know how not to hurt her, sometimes," Simon said glumly, wrapping his arms around his knees. "I wish I knew what was going on out there."
"Big bad wolf came to blow the house down," River said, eyes fixed on the door. "Thought it was just piglets, thought it would be easy. The growl surprised him."
Simon opened his mouth to ask her what she meant, but the door slid open from the outside, and Kaylee's pale face appeared.
"They're gone," she said quickly, stepped aside so Simon could get through the doorway. "He's bleedin' real bad."
River stayed inside the shuttle, peering out the open hatchway.
Simon knelt next to Tracey, one hand on his shoulder, and pressed a clean bandage against his wound. The boy coughed, and blood speckled his lips. Mal crouched on his other side, his expression unreadable.
"So... that was the plan?"
Mal nodded. Zoe came up to them, her weapon holstered, and Simon stepped aside so that she could take his place.
Kaylee sat on the catwalk, staring blankly. She'd stopped shaking, but her eyes were downcast. Simon wanted to reach out to her. Instead, he folded the bloody cloth and gripped it tightly in his fingers, bitterness burning his throat.
Tracey was dying, and they all knew it.
"That was a... That was good plan," Tracey said, and Mal nodded.
"I think so."
"You weren't that far off about me being stupid," he said, almost rambling, and the captain laid a hand on his shoulder. "I never could get my life working right. Not once, after the war. Kaylee!"
She started at the sound of her name. Simon willed himself not to move, not to breath as Tracey turned to her, eyes bright with pain.
"Um... I'm so sorry. It—I didn't—-"
She offered a tentative smile, nodding her head. He looked as if there was more he wanted to say, blinking quickly against the tears.
Tracey looked at Mal's hand on his shoulder, as if he had only just noticed it resting there. "Sarge?"
Tracey coughed again, a rasping sound deep in his chest.
"Um... that stupid message of mine. I was trying to play you guys, and now... You'll-you'll do it. You'll get me home."
"Yeah," Zoe promised him gravely, all the lines of her body screaming tension.
"You know the old saying..." Mal said, his voice calm and even. Simon felt as if he were eavesdropping. Intruding on a moment where he had no place. Where he didn't belong.
Tracey gave a strangled laugh, on the verge of sobs. Simon saw the captain's mouth twist in the ghost of a smile. "When you can't run, you crawl, and when you can't crawl... When you can't do that..."
"You find someone to carry you," Zoe said, her voice soft and gentle. Tracey looked from her to the captain one last time, and then his eyes clouded and he stared into nothingness.
For the second time that day, Simon found Kaylee in the engine room, listening to Tracey's message on the tiny recorder.
She sat with her back to the door, and her shoulders shook with quiet sobs. This time, instead of running away and leaving her alone with her pain, he stepped inside. She turned a tear-stained face to him as she heard his tread on the deckplates.
"The captain and Zoe wanted me to tell you we're setting down in a few minutes. To take Tracey's—to take Tracey home."
She nodded, sniffling. He knelt at her side, laying a hand on her shoulder. "Kaylee? Are you—are you all right?"
"It's my fault," she said, dissolving once more into tears. "It's all my fault, it's all my fault..." Kaylee kept saying as she rocked back and forth, hugging her knees to her chest.
Simon wrapped his arms around her shoulders clumsily, and she buried her face in his shirt, legs slipping out from under her. He let her rest her weight against him easily, his cheek pressed against her hair to offer what small comfort he could.
"It's not your fault," he said softly as her cries subsided, rubbing her back with one hand as her sobs were reduced to hiccups. "Are you listening to me?"
"But it was," she insisted, sitting up and wiping at her tears with one hand. "Cap'n told us to stay put, but he wanted to go see what was going on, and I didn't stop him. I shoulda stopped him."
"Kaylee," Simon brushed her hair from her cheek gently. "What happened?"
She took a deep breath, struggling to compose herself. "I heard shooting, and I came up, and he had a gun. He was bleeding—he said the cap'n and Zoe shot him. He wanted me to fly the shuttle."
"He had a gun?" Simon asked, trying to keep the anger out of his voice at the idea that Tracey would cosy up to Kaylee one instant and threaten her the next.
"It's my fault," she said helplessly. "If I'd kept him in my room, then he wouldn't—"
"He took you hostage," Simon said firmly, one hand tightening on her shoulder. "That isn't—"
"He was just scared!" she said, voice cracking. "He wouldn't have... He wouldn't have hurt me."
She sounded as if she was trying to convince herself as much as him. River's words echoed in his mind. She thinks he's like you. Thinks he wouldn't have hurt her.
Just like you.
"Kaylee..." Simon said softly as her lower lip trembled, and her eyes filled with tears.
"He wouldn't," Kaylee insisted, shaking her head. "He was just scared is all. And if—if I had just kept ahold of him, then he wouldn't have—he'd be okay. It would all have been okay."
"It weren't you fault, Little Kaylee," came a voice from the doorway, and they turned to find Mal standing there, his heavy coat draped over his arm. "Tracey got himself into his own mess—pure and simple."
He came a few steps into the engine room, his coat dragging on the floor as he bent down and laid a hand on her shoulder. "Weren't your fault. Don't you ever think otherwise."
Kaylee wiped at her face again with the back of one hand but nodded miserably.
"Come on now and get bundled up," Mal said gently as he rose. "It's cold outside, and Tracey's folks are waiting."
The wind whipping down off the mountains stung Kaylee's cheeks as Mal and Zoe laid Tracey's coffin on the ground in front of his gathered kin in silence. There was a little over a dozen people there at the foot of Serenity's ramp. They were wrapped in fur and wool against the biting wind, and the falling snow turned the whole world white around them as the captain lifted off the lid.
Tracey looked so peaceful. Just like he had when they'd first opened up the crate, thinking he was dead. All traces of blood had been washed away, and Zoe had sewn up the bullet holes in his shirt. Kaylee had never known Zoe could thread a needle, let alone mend. But her hand stitches were tight and tiny. She'd closed up the holes she'd made with her shotgun so they were invisible, unless you knew where to look.
Kaylee stood at the very edge of the ramp, blinking back tears. She reached into her pocket and took out the slim recorder and trudged through the snow, her feet slipping a little, to hand it to Tracey's daddy.
"He'd have wanted you to have this," she said softly, as he stared down at the device nestled in the palm of his gloved hand.
She could hear Tracey's mamma crying behind her as she walked back to Simon's side. She slipped her hand into his, swallowing the lump in her throat as his fingers curled around hers. His hand was warm, and they stood in silence for a while, while the snow fell all around them.
Simon folded the heavy coat and stowed it in the drawers beneath the bed. It was still slightly damp; he should have laid it across a chair to dry. He hadn't seen snow in a very long time. He'd forgotten how it made the quiet deepen. He imagined the thick white flakes bringing the hush with them. But the silence had been broken by the sound of a mother's cries. He could still hear them, even though Serenity had lifted off St. Albans hours ago.
Simon wondered, sometimes, if his mother had ever cried for her children. It was not a question he was sure he wanted to know the answer to.
He sat on the end of his bed, resting his head in his hands and taking deep breaths. The lights in his cabin were low—he wondered if the crew could sleep, after the day they'd had. Jayne— who was still wearing the ridiculous orange knit hat—kept glancing at Book during supper, like he had questions to ask but didn't know how to ask them. The shepherd had been grimly quiet as he'd dished up the bowls of rice and protein. Mal and Zoe had picked at their food. The captain had excused himself early, pushing away from the table and the sound his chair had made as it had scraped across the floor seemed too loud. Inara had followed him, leaving the remaining denizens eating in relative silence.
Kaylee had sat across from Simon, rather than at his side. She'd been quiet ever since they'd broken atmo, though she seemed to be past the tears. At one point, she'd reached for the pitcher of cider at the same time he had, and she'd looked up as their fingers had touched. He'd poured her a cup, and she'd smiled as she'd taken it from him. But her smile was dimmed, nothing like the ray of summer sunlight he'd grown used to basking in.
As he'd tucked River in for the night, his sister had reached up to brush his cheek with long pale fingers. "You are such a boob."
"Thanks, mèimei," he'd said, pressing a kiss to her forehead before he switched off the light.
There was a light knock at his door, and he lifted his head to see Kaylee framed in the doorway. She had her blue silk jacket on over a dark grey tee-shirt and loose pyjama bottoms.
"Can't sleep?" he asked, and she nodded.
"Mind if I...?" she asked, and he scooted over to make room on the end of the bed. She sat down next to him, one leg tucked up under her.
"So..." he began and then stopped.
"So," she echoed.
"So is this always going to happen?" he asked, breaking the uncomfortable silence which had descended.
"Is what always gonna happen?" she asked, tucking a stray lock of hair behind her ear.
"I say something stupid, you get angry, we stop talking, and you start reconsidering your options?" he finally asked, a little shocked that he was able to put into words what was bothering him so easily. He supposed it was like ripping off a weave quickly. Getting the hurt over with all at once, instead of drawing it out.
She frowned. "How do you mean, my options?"
"You seemed quite taken with Tracey—before he took you hostage, in any case."
Her eyes widened in what appeared to be genuine surprise. "You were jealous?"
"Of course I was jealous," Simon said with a bitter chuckle. "Weren't you trying to make me jealous?"
"There ain't nothing to be—We talked, is all."
"Yes." He stared down at the floor. "Something I'm not so good at, I think we've proven."
"You're just fine at talking, when you don't think too much," she said, sounding slightly irked. "Or when you try to be funny."
He looked back up at her, shocked. "I'm not funny? You told me I was funny."
She sighed. "Sometimes, y'are. But usually when you're not trying t'be."
"I'm not so sure that's a compliment," he said wryly.
"Well, now maybe you know how I felt," she said, leaning back on the bed.
"Ah." He turned so that he was facing her. "Kaylee—you're not the bottom of the barrel. That's not what I—"
"Then what did you mean?" she asked, chewing on her bottom lip. "Why would you think what you said would be funny?"
"Because sometimes, I'm not so bright."
"You're plenty bright," she said quickly.
He shook his head. "Not about stuff like this. I didn't mean to hurt your feelings."
"I guess..." she trailed off, pulling her jacket closer around her. "What really hurt was the part where you couldn't see as how it hurt me. Or why."
"Then explain it to me," he said simply. "Explain it, so I'll know. I know it would probably be much more romantic if I knew without you having to tell me, but considering our first date involved a mutated cow foetus and you storming off almost in tears, I think we've proven the grand romantic gesture is not my forté."
She appeared to be considering this as she played with the hem of her jacket.
"A girl don't want to hear that the fella she fancies only likes her because of circumstances," she said finally, her expression frank and open. "A girl wants to know he likes her for herself. That even if the circumstances were different, that he'd still like her. Dong ma?"
Simon nodded, glancing back down at the floor again. Her feet hung off the end of the bed, almost touching the cabin floor. She was barefoot, and he could see chipped polish adorning her toenails.
"Well... if the circumstances were different—" he began, meeting her eyes, "would you still like me?"
She blinked in surprise. "What—?"
"If we didn't live on a ship where your only romantic options were a priest, a married man, your pseudo-brother, and... whatever the hell Jayne is," he clarified. "Would you still like me?"
"Of course I would," she said with a laugh.
"Then how is it different?"
Her smile faded. "Because I didn't say it. I didn't take your worst fear, put it into words, and say it with a grin."
"That's your worst fear?"
She shrugged, cheeks pink with a blush. "Pretty damn close, yeah."
"Do you?" she asked, scooting over closer to him and wrapping her arms around one bent knee. "It's like, every day I think we're getting closer, and then... something comes along to remind me how far apart we are. How I ain't got fancy manners or refined tastes. How I wouldn't know fancy gifts from cheap junk—"
"I never said—"
"—and I just can't figure you out! You ain't like anyone I've ever known. I ain't never spent eight months doing nothing but talking with a fella. At first I thought maybe you was just sly—"
"You thought I was—" he began, not sure what to think about that, but she kept right on going.
"—but then on Canton, well, you seemed like you actually liked me. And I ain't never felt about anybody I've done quite a bit more than talking with, the way I feel about you." She took a deep breath, as if the words had been stored up inside for a long time and it had taken a lot of effort to pry them loose. "And that's scary."
"You're saying I scare you?"
"I'm saying the way I feel—scares me. I mean, it's kinda exciting too—but mostly?" She smiled wryly. "It just scares me because every little thing suddenly becomes a big thing."
She rested her cheek on her knee, hair falling to hide her face. She tucked the strands behind one ear with one hand absently. "And when things are going well, then I think maybe I've got a shot at being more to you than just a good way to pass the time, out here in the black. But when things aren't going so well—"
"—then you think I'm just using you," he finished for her. "Or letting you use me. That you don't really mean anything to me."
"Kaylee, I'm not a robot," he said, turning his head so that she could see his face as he said it. "I'm not some machine with no feelings. Or feelings that can be turned off and on with a flick of a switch."
"I didn't mean—" She flushed, looking guilty. He wondered if she knew how easy it was to read her thoughts as they flashed across her face. She was so open, wore her heart on her sleeve where it was plain to see. "I shouldn't have called you a robot. I'm sorry if I hurt your feelings, too. I just..." she trailed off.
"I'm sorry," she finished meekly.
"Just because I don't always show it on the outside, doesn't mean that there's not stuff going on, on the inside," Simon said carefully. "We're different—we don't always react to things the same way. You always say what you mean—and I... I have a hard time opening up to people," Simon admitted, glancing down at where their knees almost touched. "But I opened up to you. And it did hurt, when you shut me out."
She sighed, picking at a loose thread on the hem of her pants absently with one hand. It was a nervous gesture; he'd noticed she did it all the time, as if she was looking for something to do with her hands when she wasn't elbows-deep in engine parts. "It's just so hard to know what you're feeling, sometimes."
"You can always ask me," he pointed out.
"Well, now you tell me," she said with an exaggerated sigh that brought the shadow of a smile to his face.
"Yes. I am. Instead of the two of use going around and around like this, hurting each other—maybe we should just..."
"Keep talking?" she prompted, and he nodded.
"Keep talking. Maybe with enough practice, we'll get better at it."
She turned on the bed, legs stretched out so that one of them pressed up against one of his. He could feel her warmth through the thin cotton pyjama pants, and he reached over and took her hand.
She interlaced her fingers with his, their joined hands resting on his thigh. She stroked his wrist with one callused thumb absently as the silence grew between them. But rather than the strained silences he'd grown used to of late, this one was comfortable.
"So, what are you feeling?" she asked shyly, peeking at him from beneath her lashes.
"At the moment?" he asked, and she nodded. "Relieved that you weren't hurt. Angry that Tracey was stupid enough to put us all in this situation in the first place and wishing I'd been able to help him. Because that is an ugly way to die, and I don't like losing patients. Even ones I'm jealous of, and who take people I care about hostage at gunpoint. Glad, that we actually seem to be talking to one another and saying things we probably should have said a long time ago."
He took his free hand and reached up to cup her cheek, fingers tracing the curve of her ear. "And wishing that we could just go back two days, to before all this started, and maybe do things differently. Without the angry storming off, sucking chest wounds, or hostage taking."
"That's a lot of stuff," she said, and he felt her cheek grow warm beneath his hand.
He shrugged. "What can I say? I'm deep."
She chuckled at that, and let go of his hand so that she could lean against him, laying her cheek on his shoulder. As he had earlier than evening in the engine room, he rested his cheek against the top of her head, her hair tickling his neck and chin.
"Can we make a deal?"
"What kind of deal?" she asked, sounding slightly wary.
"I'll try not to say stupid things that offend you, in the future. And when I do, you try not to take them so personally?"
She paused, and pulled back so that he could see her face. "It's hard—not to take stuff personally."
"Well, apparently it's hard for me not to say stupid things," he said with a self-deprecating smile. Then he reached for her hand again, lacing her fingers with his own. "But I'm willing to try, if you are. Because it's important to me—you're important to me."
"You're important to me, too. I guess..." she trailed off. "I guess that's why I kinda lose my head, sometimes. Because here I have this handsome, smart, funny doctor from the Core—"
"So you do think I'm funny!" There was a note of triumph in his voice that he couldn't suppress.
"—asking me on dates, even when they involve poor dead Bessie in a jar. It'd turn any girl's head."
"The only head I'm interested in turning is this girl's," he said, giving her hand a squeeze for emphasis.
"Yeah?" she said softly, and there was that smile he'd missed so much.
"Yeah." He grinned back at her.
She'd been close to the mark, with her angry comment about debutantes and nurses. But what he wished he could have told her was how none of the girls he'd known had ever known him half so well as Kaylee did. None of them had ever really seen him at his worst, at his most desperate, at his most vulnerable. He'd always worn a mask. The dutiful son. The child prodigy. The brilliant doctor.
There was always barriers between him and the people around him—either by design, or circumstance. And none of the women who had pursued him or he had pursed in turn had made him feel the way a free-spirited mechanic from the rim made him feel when she held his hand. That it was okay to be less than perfect. That there could be strength in what he would have called weakness, once upon a time.
For all that Kaylee was in new territory, so was Simon. And more than anything right now, he wanted to explore it together.
"So, tell me more good stuff about me," he said, and she burst out laughing.
"Well, I think," he said airily, feeling slightly giddy that they had reached a place where they were comfortable in each other's company again, "all things considered, it's my turn."
"You ain't never finished telling me about my eyes," she reminded him.
"We'll get to that—later," he assured her with a wave of his free hand. "I think you should tell me about my eyes."
She paused, considering him slowly and carefully. "They're blue."
"And?" he prompted.
"And you got two of them."
"Now who's not being romantic?" he chided her, and her nose crinkled as she grinned.
"And when you smile, you do this thing with your tongue that's just so—"
"With my tongue?" He brought a hand up to touch his mouth, suddenly self-conscious, and she laughed.
"Yeah, against your teeth," she laughed. "It's kê ài. Makes me wanna just lean over and..."
"And what?" he asked, leaning forward to that their faces were only centimetres apart.
"Tell me about my eyes," she said softly, "and maybe I'll show you."
kê ài cute/adorable/lovely