Part 1 - Moving Parts
The face on the cortex screen was bland and unassuming—the round, pale face of a minor functionary in the middle of a port town. Not Badger's class—but not what Mal assumed Simon's folks must have been, either.
They had just picked up from Eavesdown Docks on Persephone when the WAVE came through. Mal was just as glad to be leaving—a part of him was quite sure Atherton Wing would be monitoring the docking 'nets and wasn't the type to be above paying some muscle to shiv him while he was in port.
Their trip had been short and sweet—deliver Badger's cut of the last two jobs, see if Harrow had anything he might need ferried off-world. But Persephone was quiet as a tomb. Well, a tomb with a few raucous barroom brawls going on inside it. Still, quiet enough, compared to what they were used to. They'd set down just in time for Wash to get some fresh jiao-zi from his favourite street vendor, and lifted off again less than an hour later.
"I have been told by a certain mutual acquaintance that your crew is both reliable and discreet." Readout said he was a Dr. Nelson Wyner and was transmitting from Riverside on Zephyr, less than nine hours away. They hadn't had a gig on Zephyr in over a year. Good a time as any to head back, Mal was thinking.
"That we are. Reasonably priced too, if I say so myself."
"Money—as they say—is no object. I only require the utmost secrecy." Mal almost smirked—sometimes, he wondered if the folks he had dealings with were all reading their lines off the script of the same melodrama. But work was work, and after handing most of their coin over to Niska, they needed it. Badly.
"That we can also provide."
"The cargo is breeding stock to be delivered to the Han Province, on Paquin."
"We got a hold capacity of fifty head of cattle—plus room for two weeks' feed."
"I assure you, Captain Reynolds, the cargo won't require that much space. It's in cryo for transport—one cylinder, to be exact, to be decanted on Paquin. Shall we meet in the morning? Ten? I'm transmitting my co-ordinates now."
Mal glanced at Wash, who nodded.
"I look forward to doing business with you." The screen powered down, and Mal clapped his hands, grinning. "Well, folks, looks like we got honest work. Well—work, in any case. If it was honest, they wouldn't come to us."
"River, hold still—" Simon frowned as his sister squirmed on the examining table. He was trying to get a sample so he could run her blood work, but she was steadfastly avoiding the hypodermic. She drummed her fingers on her thighs, moving in time to a tune only she could hear.
"The only thing keeping me from flying apart is my skin," she informed him seriously.
She rolled her eyes. "No, you don't. Your moving parts are on the inside, where they belong."
"So are yours, River. I'd think I'd notice if your circulatory system, for example, were on the exterior. Speaking of which, I just need a vein—ow! River!"
He sucked his finger where the needle had stabbed him.
"Moving parts," she muttered, ducking her head and allowing the curtain of her dark hair to hide her face.
"Fine," he said around his injured digit. "No needles today—I'll just assume that your medication is working. But tomorrow—"
"Thank you, Simon!" She beamed at him and threw her thin arms around him before bounding off the table. "I'm going to go dancing!"
"You do that," he said with a sigh and watched his baby sister skip out of the infirmary in heavy leather boots. Her mood swings weren't as severe as they had been—but he still couldn't tell what sort of a day they were going to have usually until they were halfway into it. And that was exhausting him. Still, at least she seemed happy.
He dug one-handed through the drawer for a weave and tore the wrapper on the synth skin with his teeth. The bleeding had stopped, and he smeared some disinfectant gel on the wound and wrapped the plaster around it, frowning.
He'd given up everything he knew—everything he had—to give River the chance to be free. Be happy. Be a seventeen-year-old girl again. He would give anything to keep her that way. Seeing her happy... helped.
But his finger still throbbed.
Simon closed the drawer with his undamaged hand and looked up as Kaylee strolled past the infirmary. She was thoroughly engrossed in the contents of a wax paper bag and didn't even stop to glance inside.
"What'd you pick up on Persephone?" he called from the doorway, and she poked her head in, smiling brightly.
"Nothing," she said coyly, holding the bag closer to her chest.
"Don't I get to see?" he asked, slightly hurt.
"Maybe," she drawled. "If you're real nice to me."
"I'm always nice to you!" he said, shocked, and she giggled.
"Depends on how nice."
Her playful mood was somewhat infectious. Simon suddenly understood a little better about moving parts.
"Come on... let me see."
She got a mischievous gleam in her eye—not unlike River, when she was about to do something she knew she shouldn't. "Naw—you gotta catch me first!"
"Kaylee!" Simon lunged for her, but she just laughed and side-stepped him, the bag clutched close to her chest as he chased her around the infirmary.
She squealed as he cornered her opposite the diagnostic scanner, trapping her with arms on either side of her shoulders. Her cheeks were pink and her hair had fallen into her face. She tried to duck beneath his left arm, but he pinned her with the length of his body, hips flush against hers.
"Stop! You'll crush them!" she cried, alarmed.
"What are they?"
She opened the wax paper sack and held up a ripe strawberry to his lips. He bit into it carefully—the flesh was sweet and slightly bruised, and juice ran down his chin. She laughed and leaned forward to wipe the corner of his mouth, her thumb resting briefly on his bottom lip. Her hazel eyes seemed enormous, so close to his.
His finger didn't hurt anymore.
He leaned forward and kissed her, the taste of strawberries still in his mouth. Her lips parted beneath his. He twined his fingers in her hair, the smooth strands catching on the bandage as he pulled her closer.
"Kaylee!" Mal's voice shattered the moment, and they sprang apart like two teenagers caught necking in the family parlour. The captain's eyes shone with barely suppressed mirth, tempered by annoyance. It was a look Simon was coming to recognise.
"Yes, Cap'n?" Kaylee said, a smile still playing around the corners of her mouth.
"We got us a job—picking up a load of freight on Zephyr to take to Paquin. Thought you might want to send a WAVE ahead, to let 'em know we're coming."
"Shiny, Cap'n." She popped the half of a strawberry still held between two fingers into her mouth with a grin and then licked her fingers. Slowly. Suggestively.
Simon swallowed, feeling a blush creep up his neck.
Mal however only rolled his eyes. "You go on, now. We'll hit Zephyr in the morning and got work to do 'fore we make the pick up."
Kaylee sighed, closing the bag of strawberries and tucking them into the pocket of her jump-suit. She leaned over and gave Simon's unbandaged hand a quick squeeze before she slipped out of the infirmary.
Mal just leaned in the doorway, arms crossed, and Simon could feel his ears starting to burn with an unwanted blush. He busied himself with arranging a tray of instruments, trying to look industrious.
"Can I—is there anything you needed, Captain?"
"Me?" Mal raised a brow. "Not a thing. We're setting down on Zephyr for two days to pick up a load of cargo, refuel, and re-supply. I figure the Infirmary has got to be running low on something, even after the Ariel job—what with our propensity for getting shot at so much. So you need anything in town, you might want to go on a little shopping trip. Riverside's not so big as all that, but being a port town, I'm sure you can find someone who's got what you need."
"What about the Alliance?"
"Zephyr's far enough out on the Rim that Alliance don't have much presence there. You'll be fine, so long as you don't get in any trouble."
"Thank you, Captain." Mal turned to go. "Was that all you needed?" Simon called after him.
"Yep—you expecting something else?"
"You ought to make up your mind there, Doc," Mal said, purposefully guileless.
Simon swallowed and ran his fingers through his hair, pushing it back off his forehead in a nervous gesture. "No grand, dramatic threats to space me, if I break her heart?" he asked flat out and then waited for the answer, ready to flinch as if from a blow.
"I need me a doctor 'bout as much as I need me a good mechanic," Mal said with a shrug. "And doctors are a mite harder to find, out here."
Simon let out a breath he hadn't been aware he was holding. Mal smiled at him.
"But no one ever said you needed your kneecaps for doctorin'."
"I have no intention of hurting Kaylee."
"Well, you know what they say about the road to Hell."
"...and then he just kissed me." The young mechanic was practically vibrating, she was in such high spirits. Kaylee sat on the edge of Inara's bed. Her pant legs were rolled up, and Inara could see the chipped pink polish on her toes that Kaylee had carefully applied the last time she'd spent an afternoon in Inara's shuttle. For all it was only a fortnight ago, it felt longer. Inara had missed their stolen afternoons.
She drew the brush through Kaylee's hair with a smile. "Well, of course he kissed you. You're very kissable."
Kaylee laughed. It was a full-throated laugh, easy and real. It made Inara smile.
"What? You are. Three months of pulling your chair out for you at dinner and politely seeing you to your door at night. It was time for kisses."
"It was just so... Felt so right, you know?" She sighed, her expression in the glass wistful as she no doubt relived the moment. "It was like, we was fooling around—not being serious or nothing. And then it just happened. No time to think it through, or second guess—"
"Now why would our Simon second guess kissing the prettiest mechanic on the ship?" Inara interrupted, and Kaylee eyes widened.
"You think I'm pretty?"
"Of course I do. You're a lovely girl, and I'm just glad Simon finally noticed that."
"Oh, he called me pretty—um, I mean, I knew he thought I was pretty. I've known that a while now. I was just waiting on him—you know how he can be. All stiff and proper."
"A lot of men go stiff when they kiss a pretty girl," Inara said slyly.
"'Nara!" Kaylee brought both hands to her mouth as she dissolved in helpless giggles. Inara set the brush down and enfolded Kaylee in a hug with a laugh.
Inara had grown up on Sihnon an only child, all her family's hopes and dreams for the future resting squarely on her shoulders. She'd known the friendship of other girls while attending the Academy, but Kaylee was like the sister she had never had. She treasured the time they had together to simply talk. Be women, without credits changing hands at the end of it.
"He's just—it's so nice to see him happy on Serenity, you know?" Kaylee sighed as Inara lifted her hair off her neck, slim brown fingers twisting it up into a bun. Kaylee peered into the mirror. "Oh, that looks nice!"
Inara smiled. She still remembered the first time she'd asked Kaylee if she could brush her hair. The girl had been barely eighteen—her brown hair had been longer then and was almost always pulled back in a messy braid to keep the long strands from wrapping around delicate moving parts as she worked. She'd been so surprised and had been painfully shy when Inara had asked her back to the shuttle.
They'd become fast friends—much to Mal's annoyance and the amusement of the rest of the crew. Inara liked to believe she was mentoring Kaylee to an extent—acting the part of worldly and experienced older sister. But the truth was, Inara needed Kaylee's friendship and unfailing good humour much more than the girl needed fashion tips or a sympathetic ear—both of which Inara was more than happy to provide.
"Want me to pin it?"
"Shiny!" Kaylee grinned. "He's been running scared for so long, and just a bundle of nerves. Kinda skittish, you know?"
Inara nodded as she fixed Kaylee's hair with two silver and garnet pins. She'd been somewhat fascinated to see how Kaylee had carefully and methodically drawn the shy doctor out of his shell over the past few months. The girl had a single-mindedness of purpose that Inara found admirable. But what might have started as a simple crush had become quite something else entirely, as Simon and Kaylee had gotten to know one another. There was a genuine sweetness and caring there that Inara envied.
"I think our skittish Simon is starting to make a home here," Inara observed as Kaylee held up a gilded brass mirror to admire the companion's handiwork.
"I hope so," Kaylee said, smiling at her flushed cheeks reflected in the glass.
"Why don't you get Kaylee to do that?" Zoe asked, leaning down to where Mal's legs poked out from beneath Serenity's main console.
"I can get it."
"That's what you've been saying for the last hour," Wash reminded him as he leaned back in the pilot's chair, fingers interlaced behind his head. "And yet my screen is still on the fritz. This may in fact be because you're a captain and not an engineer."
"Ain't no reason to be botherin' Kaylee—it ain't the engine what needs fixin', just a stupid gorram wiring—tāmāde!" Mal slid out from beneath the console, nursing his bruised elbow.
"What's got a burr under your saddle, anyway?" Wash asked as Mal dove back in for another round with Serenity's wiring. "You been tetchy all day."
"I am not—Qingwa cào de liúmáng!—tetchy!"
There was a clang and another muffled curse from beneath the console. Wash looked up to see Inara and Kaylee come onto the bridge.
"Mal?" Inara stifled a laugh. "What are you doing down there?"
"My screen is on the fritz," Wash explained, gesturing at the dead cortex link.
Kaylee peered down at the screen, tucking her hair behind her ears. "Cap'n making it better? Or worse?"
"Well, let's see—started out, there was lines all across. Now I'm getting no picture, just audio."
"Well, that ain't good." Kaylee frowned and reached over to mess with the dials and buttons.
Mal stood up, making a face as he massaged his elbow. "Surprised you noticed, from way up there on cloud nine."
"What are you—oh. Is that all?" Kaylee laughed. "Ain't got no cause to be tetchy on account of me'n Simon!"
Wash glanced at Zoe, who simply quirked an eyebrow at him. Obviously, the boring old married folks were missing out on the latest scuttlebutt.
"I ain't too fond of shipboard romances, as you well know. Gums up the works."
"I dunno, Captain—I think me and Zoe worked out okay."
Mal gave Wash a look. "You would."
Kaylee laughed and ruffled up Wash's hair affectionately. "The captain's just mad because you went ahead and got hitched without him giving you the go ahead."
"Now Kaylee, that's water under the bridge, that is."
She laughed. "Like you coulda stopped Zoe doing anything she didn't want you to."
"That is a fact," Mal favoured his first mate with a sunny smile. "But it was my opinion that it was a mighty poor idea. Still is. Having folk at each other's throats when we're on a job on account of a lover's spat ain't professional."
"And we are nothing if not professional," Wash said smoothly.
"Exactly. Wait, was that sarcasm?"
"Me?" Wash feigned shock. "Never!"
"Well, I think it's sweet," Inara said as she draped an arm around Kaylee's shoulders and gave them a squeeze. "I think Simon's lovely, mèimei."
"Isn't he?" Kaylee giggled.
"Oh yeah. He's dreamy," Mal grumbled, and Kaylee punched him in the shoulder. "I got nothing against the doc. Boy's making the best of limited choices. Ain't nothing wrong with that."
Silence descended on the bridge.
Kaylee flushed and looked down at her boots. "Port stabiliser's been acting a might funny—I'm gonna go see if I can set it to rights."
"Mal!" Inara hissed once Kaylee had disappeared down the hall towards the engine room.
"I just don't want the girl to get her hopes up—and then have 'em come crashing down again. Zoe, back me up here!"
"You're on your own." Zoe just glared at him. "Sir," she added after a nice long pause, and ice floes would have been warmer.
Mal threw his hands up in defeat. "I got too many women on my boat."
The floor of River's room was covered in pencil sketches, and his sister sat on the floor surrounded by a sea of paper. She didn't look up as Simon entered, but she knew he was there. She always knew when he was there.
"I've been drawing."
"I can see that." Simon bent down and picked up one of the sketches of a woman's face, half hidden by a curtain of hair. The eyes were all vacant and staring, despite the fact that River had caught the person in a number of different poses. "These are beautiful, River. Who is she?"
"She isn't. Not yet," River said with a shrug, folding the sketchbook closed. "You had your hand in the cookie jar. Daddy isn't pleased."
"River!" Simon felt his blush return in full force.
River giggled, tucking her knees up to her chest and wrapping her arms around them. "Did she taste like apples?"
"Strawberries," he said absently and then frowned. "This isn't the sort of thing a brother should be talking about with his mèimei," he said sternly.
"Why?" she asked, dark eyes wide and curious.
Simon decided he should really learn never to underestimate his baby sister's ability to make him extraordinarily uncomfortable with devastating ease. He wasn't sure if it was the crazy part or the sister part that made it so effective. It would be easy to blame the former, but he had a sneaking suspicion that it was, in fact, the latter.
"Well... um... Because."
Strangely, that answer seemed to satisfy her. "Rush like honey, sweet and golden and warm. You like her."
Simon smiled and sat on the end of the bed. "I like her very much."
She leaned her head against his knee. "I like her, too."
"I'm glad." He stroked her hair. "It's important to me, that you like her. I wouldn't... I couldn't like someone who didn't like you too."
"Kaylee's my friend. She's your friend—more than friend. She's in your eyes, no matter who you look at. Even me."
"River, I..." Simon swallowed, unsure of what to say.
"Kaylee's my friend," River repeated with a smile. "Have to like her. She makes him smile. Also, she loses at jacks. Important to know who your allies are so that when the battles lines are drawn, there are no surprises."
Simon reached out to stroke her cheek. "No surprises, mèimei."
"Shouldn't make promises he can't keep," she said gently, fingers curling around his. With a sigh, she began snatching up the drawings and stacking them haphazardly on her bed.
The port stabiliser was half disassembled by the time Mal got to the engine room and Kaylee was bent over it, focused squarely on her task. He could see her eyes were puffy as if she'd been crying. He mentally kicked himself, but stood firm.
"You here to apologise?" she asked, not looking up from the mess of wiring her deft fingers were untangling.
"You looking for me to?"
"You got no call to say what you did," she said, looking as steely as Kaylee could look, which, granted, was about as scary as a fluffy little bunny with a pistol. Gun could still blow a hole in you—but that didn't much change the fact that it was still a bunny rabbit.
"I got every call—it ain't nothing but the way of things. Truth be told, I'm still glad it was the doctor you was crushing on, 'stead of Jayne—talking about limited choices and all. But I got to be sensible here, mèimei."
"I ain't your little sister—and you ain't my brother, my daddy, or my keeper. So I'd as soon appreciate it if you kept your nose outta my business from now on." She looked back down at the parts in her lap, jaw set.
Mal scowled down at her bent head. "I am your captain, you are a member of my crew, and that makes it my business.
She looked back up at him, pale and angry beneath the smudges of engine grease. But she didn't interrupt him.
"What happens when he and River decide to step off this boat, huh? You gonna trail after him, all moon-eyed? Or is he gonna leave you here a wreck for me to clean up? Either way, I lose me a damn good mechanic. So that makes it my business."
"Don't mean you know what's best for me," she pointed out. "Hell, Cap'n—you didn't much care 'bout who I spread for up 'til now—and don't you bother lying, 'cause I know it's true."
"This ain't about meaningless sex, or some fling, Kaylee," he said, trying to keep his tone in check, because the goal here wasn't actually to hurt Kaylee, but to prepare her for what he saw as the inevitable conclusion of this little romp. "A girl falls in love, and she leaves her head someplace and maybe she never finds it again. Can't afford that."
"Zoe—" she began, but he cut her off.
"Zoe is different."
"It ain't different at all!" Kaylee snapped. "She up and married Wash and she's still just as good at her job as she ever was. You got a whole lot of different rules for Zoe and 'Nara than you got for me, and I don't see as how that's fair. Not one bit."
"I told your daddy when I hired you on that I'd look after you—"
See, now, that was his mistake right there—and he'd known it just as the words had come out of his mouth. But if he hadn't, the look in her eyes would have told him. And he was no stranger to that look.
"I believe I am about finished with this conversation, Captain Reynolds. And I'd thank you kindly to get the hell out of my engine room, less you wanna be brained upside the head with a wrench."
Mal clenched his teeth against what he was about to say next—because he really did genuinely believe at this point he would get his head bashed in— and turned on his heel to go.
"Too many women," he muttered as he headed back up to the bridge to finish what he'd started.
Dinner was a strangely subdued affair. Wash handed his wife the rice and the two of them watched events unfold with some interest.
Simon had smiled broadly when Kaylee had come to the table, pulling out her chair for her as he always did. The boy looked lost and a little forlorn when he received no grin in response. Shepherd seemed equally bewildered, but said nothing. Inara had scowled at Mal and excused herself, taking her supper to eat in her shuttle. Jayne shovelled food into his mouth, either not noticing the tension, or not caring.
For her part, River kept glancing back and forth between her brother and Kaylee, not saying a word. Wash figured so long as the food stayed on the plates and wasn't decorating the walls or their garments, Ms. Tam must be having an okay day.
Mal seemed placid on the outside, calmly dipping his protein cubes in the savoury sauce Shepherd Book had prepared from vegetables he'd picked up that morning at Southdown Abbey. Mal was even smiling, which was a sure sign that something would blow eventually.
"We should be landing on Zephyr 'round dawn, Captain," Wash said, trying to strike up some vaguely neutral conversation.
Mal nodded. "Zoe, Jayne—you and I'll head over to Wyner's soon as we hit planetside. Preacher, you up to some shopping with the doc?"
"I'd like to check out the chapel at Riverside, actually—if that won't interfere with the pickup?"
"We're on Zephyr for least a day. Long as you make it back 'fore we take off, I got no problems."
"Kaylee? I need to pick up some supplies for the infirmary—Did you want to...?"
Startled, Kaylee looked up from her plate, which she had been staring at as if it contained the secret answers to every question she had ever yearned to answer.
"I imagine Kaylee's got some folks to see, planetside," Mal said before she could answer. "And we got us a port stabiliser still in pieces, if I recall."
"I ain't hungry," Kaylee said as she pushed away from the table.
Simon rose to follow her, but Mal stopped him.
"You best let her get on with her work."
"Hand in the cookie jar..." River whispered to Simon, who sat back down, staring at his own plate guiltily. "Go to bed without supper."
The best of limited choices.
Ever since the words had slipped—easy as you please—out of Mal's mouth, they'd been echoing in Kaylee's head. Sucking all the joy right out of what had started off as a mighty fine day.
That morning, Kaylee'd found a lady right near where Serenity had parked at Eavesdown with a cart full of fresh, ripe strawberries. Berries what had grown in the ground—not a Core hydroponics bay. They'd tasted almost as good as the berries Shepherd Book had brought from the Abbey when he'd first signed on. Better than the strawberries she'd had at that fancy party, even—those had been flash frozen from last summer's harvest, she was pretty sure. Out of season.
She'd fished through her overalls for coin and picked up a bag at a more than fair price—even if it meant that she'd have to make do with last year's coveralls for another season. Or a month with no shiny new toys to play with, like the new grav boot she'd heard about from one of the techs on an '07 she'd run into last week in a portside bar.
People had their passions, and strawberries were one of hers. Engines, berries, and a certain dark-haired doctor. Anyone who knew Kaylee for more than a minute learned that much, and she hadn't cared one whit. Not today.
Because Kaylee loved strawberries. And Simon had kissed her.
If it had been the other way 'round—her doing the kissing—it would have been different. She knew that. This whole time, she'd been the one doing all the chasing and she was fine with that. Didn't mind one bit. She knew what she wanted and she'd gone after it. And as time had gone on, she'd gotten so very much more than she'd ever set out to.
From the second Simon had read their destination off the screen and signed on for passage to Boros, Kaylee had thought he was one of the handsomest fellas she'd ever set eyes on. Her first instincts had been to snag a piece of that grace and class for herself. But as they'd settled in and bit by bit got to know one another, she realised she didn't just like him for the pretty. It was like icing on the richest chocolate cake in the 'verse as far as she was concerned.
Simon was decent, caring, funny—he made her laugh, and made her smile, and made her want to show him he could do the same without giving up an ounce of who he was. He was so focused on what he'd lost, she'd made it her personal mission to try and help him appreciate what he'd found. Not just because she'd spent many a long night imagining his arms around her, his lips moving against her neck or hair. But because no matter what might or might not happen between them, she wanted him to be happy. Everybody deserved to be happy.
And he'd kissed her, and she'd kissed him back, and it had been perfect.
Kaylee wanted to fling the coupler she was wrestling with across the room, but she didn't. Serenity needed every part she could scrounge—she couldn't go wasting them in a fit of pique. It wouldn't be sensible.
"You shouldn't let him get to you." Inara's voice broke through her musings, and Kaylee looked up to see the companion standing in the doorway.
"But what if he's right?" Kaylee sighed and tucked her knees up against her chest, resting her chin on her folded hands. "What if only reason Simon likes me at all is 'cause there ain't nobody else, and he's just making do?"
"Oh, Kaylee..." Inara bent down and brushed Kaylee's hair back from her face, pressing a kiss to her forehead. "I hate to see you this way."
"I was so damn happy, you know? And then I come down to supper, and I see him smiling at me—and that's all I can wonder."
"Maybe the person you should be talking to is Simon?" Inara said gently.
Kaylee shook her head, feeling her gut seize up at the very thought. "I-I can't—I mean, what if it's true? At least now I got a fifty-fifty chance, ya know?" She gave a weak chuckle. "Don't know what I'd do if I found out it were true after all."
"If you can't have faith in your own charms, then at least give Simon the benefit of the doubt?" Inara suggested. "Mal wouldn't be in a snit if he didn't think that the good doctor genuinely cares about you. It's just Mal's way."
"I'm trying—I just... Everything's all turned around." Her eyes burned with unshed tears. She stretched out her legs, leaning back against the bulkhead, and picked absently at a loose thread on her jump-suit to give her nervous fingers something to do.
Inara sighed, dark eyes shining with empathy as she sat down next to Kaylee, arranging her flowing silk dress carefully as she stretched her legs out parallel to Kaylee's canvas-clad ones.
"You'll get all dirty," she said absently, fingers aching to pluck at the glowing gold folds. She wiped at her eyes with one sleeve instead.
Inara only laughed and graciously allowed Kaylee to steer the topic away from her day's woes. "I've other dresses."
"My mamma always told me, never buy something you can't wash yourself and hang out to dry on the line."
"Your mother sounds like a wise woman. The guild pays for my cleaning bill—and sometimes I wonder how many tailors get fat and happy thanks to my trade."
"Do you think maybe—maybe you could take me shopping sometime? To pick out a pretty dress?" she asked shyly. "I love the one I got and all—but I think maybe it's too fancy sometimes. Too much fooferaw, like Zoe said. I'd like—I dunno, somethin' simple. Somethin' classy."
"I'd love to take you shopping," Inara said, patting Kaylee's knee. "We'll make a day of it."
Kaylee managed a smile. "I'd like that."
"Don't worry. Everything will look different in the morning."
Part II - First Impressions
Simon tried to read, but couldn't concentrate. He kept listening for footsteps, eyes fixed on the sliding paper screen that separated his room from the hallway of the passenger dorm. Waiting for Kaylee to magically appear. It wasn't as if they had spent every night together—but there wasn't a night in the past month when he couldn't remember her stopping by at least once. And most times, those evenings stretched into the wee hours, so that when breakfast finally rolled around, both of them were bleary-eyed and slow to rouse from staying up half the night talking.
He'd told her things he'd never told anyone. Certainly not his parents. Drunken Medacad exploits, childhood fears, daydreams and wishes. Things he'd previously only shared with River. Some things he was afraid to burden his sister with—other things they had simply taken for granted, but which seemed wondrous to Kaylee.
She would listen with rapt attention as he'd shared every inch of his family estates that he could reconstruct from memory—the scent of the lilacs in the garden, his mother's vegetable patch that never seemed to yield anything but an unending supply of cucumbers and tiny green tomatoes that never ripened. She begged him for stories of seasons at the most lavish Opera House on Osiris. Libraries of actual books, with shelves that stretched fifteen stories into the air. And the whole time, it was like he was seeing everything new again—through her eyes.
He could have gone to her room. He knew that. Or the engine room, to see if she was still tinkering with whatever bits of equipment had broken down this time. But that would have meant risking running into Mal on the way, and Simon was growing increasingly fond of his knees.
It was coming up on midnight when Simon finally gave up completely and wandered up into the mess. Wash sat at the heavy oak table, surrounded with plastic dinosaurs, and looked up when Simon entered.
"You look like someone kicked your dog," Wash said as Simon pulled out a chair and took a seat. "I mean, if you had a dog. Out here in space. Which would probably be a really bad idea, although I hear beagles actually make excellent—"
"Have you seen Kaylee?" Simon interrupted Wash's stream of consciousness chatter more abruptly than he'd meant to, but the pilot didn't seem to take offence. Merely shook his head.
"She's been avoiding me since—I mean, um... Since we..." Simon trailed off. He was fairly certain there were complex rules in every society—even smugglers—about kissing and telling. And the last thing he needed were all of Kaylee's crewmates giving him the evil eye. "Since this afternoon."
"The climate Kaylee-wise does appear to have shifted quite a bit today," Wash noted, moving a triceratops so that it was no longer poised to rip out the plastic throat of a gentle plant-eating brontosaurus.
"I don't know what I did." Frustrated, Simon sank into a chair, despair flowing out of him like water over a riverbed. "I mean—I know what I did, I just don't know how it could be wrong. From Kaylee's point of view. She seemed to have... enjoyed it." He realised he was babbling and stopped. "Am I making sense?"
"Absolutely." Wash looked pensive. "According to my wife—whom I adore, and who could bend me in half like a twig—as men, it's fairly likely that if something's wrong, it's our fault. But in this case, I think it's our stalwart captain who's more responsible. If that's any comfort to you."
"It's not, but thanks." Simon rested his chin in his hand and picked up a yellow and green pteranodon, running his fingers over the toy's plastic moulded wings.
Wash clapped him on the shoulder in a universal gesture of fellowship. "Let us be manly, consume alcoholic beverages, and discuss our comely women."
Jayne trooped down the short flight of steps, scratching his belly absently as Wash emerged from the pantry brandishing a jug of Kaylee's engine room hootch.
"You boys drinkin'?"
"It seems the thing to do," Simon said with a shrug.
Jayne pulled out a chair, turning it around and straddling it. "Mind if I join ya?"
"Is your woman comely?" Wash asked as he filled Simon's mug to the brim.
"My women always come," Jayne assured them with a grin.
"Oh, dear God." Simon buried his face in his hands.
Inara was paging through screens of potential clients on the cortex when there was a knock at the door of her shuttle. She tugged her robe closer around her and blanked the screen before opening the door.
Mal stood outside her shuttle, shifting his weight from foot to foot.
"Well, this is a surprise," she said, raising one sculpted brow.
"How so?" he asked.
"You don't usually knock." She stepped aside, giving him room to enter.
"Seemed the wisest course," he said with a shrug as he stepped inside the shuttle. "You still mad at me?"
She glared in a way she hoped was effective. "What you said to Kaylee was cruel."
"The truth can be a cruel thing. I just don't wanna see her get hurt is all."
"The only one hurting her right now is you," she snapped, and he seemed genuinely taken aback. "Do you know what you've done? Do you have any idea?"
"No, but I imagine you're fixin' to tell me whether I want to hear it or not."
"You've got Kaylee thinking she's not good enough for Simon." She paused to let that sink into his thick skull. "She didn't think that yesterday. Or this morning. And I daresay that was the last thing on Simon's mind when he kissed her—so seems to me that it should be your job to set things to rights again."
"Set things—" he sputtered. "Inara, somebody's got to look out for the girl—"
"—has it occurred to you that perhaps that 'somebody' might be Simon?" she countered swiftly.
He laughed. He had the audacity to stand in the middle of her home and place of business and laugh at her righteous indignation.
"Don't tell me you, of all people, are buying that old Yeh Shen story?" He leaned back against the wall, arms crossed.
She mirrored his posture, as if daring him to continue. "Why is it so hard for you to believe?"
The laughter left his eyes. "Real life ain't a fairy tale."
"Mal, some people do get their happily ever afters," she pointed out, but he shook his head.
"Not anybody I ever knew."
"So because you don't believe it—it can't be so?"
"Woman don't need a man to make her worth something."
"There's different kinds of needs, Mal."
"She got an itch she wants to scratch—that's one thing. But our little Kaylee's a romantic. And the 'verse ain't kind to romantics."
She sat down on the edge of her bed and looked up at him. Taking stock. "Some days, I'd call you a romantic," she said carefully and with a slight smile. "Sword fighting for a lady's honour, and all," she reminded him.
Her smile was answered with a scowl. "Yeah, and look where that kind of thinking got me. Poked full of holes."
"So... you and Kaylee," Wash prompted once they'd started working on the bottle. The dinosaurs had been put away, and Jayne had taken out his favourite knife and a whetstone.
"Yeah." Jayne's grin was wolfish as he set to putting a keen edge on the blade. "We want all the details. Paint us a picture with words, Doc. Dirty words."
"Don't mind him," Wash said at the vaguely horrified look on Simon's face. "He was dropped on his head repeatedly as a child. And raised by wolves. Baby-head-dropping wolves."
Jayne gestured with the knife. "Don't you be sassing my mamma."
"Wouldn't dream of it."
"I kissed her," Simon said as he refilled his mug from the jug of berry wine.
"And?" Jayne asked, leaning across the table and practically salivating.
"And... that was all."
"Well, shit." He settled back in his chair. "That ain't nothing. We all kissed Kaylee."
"Hey!" Wash pointed to his chest with both hands for emphasis. "Married!"
"'Cept you," Jayne conceded.
Simon stared at Jayne, mouth hanging open in shock. "You kissed Kaylee?"
"New Year's Eve, two years back. We'd all had a bit to drink."
"So the two of you—"
"She laid me out. Wrench to the head. She can't shoot for shit, but girl's got an arm."
"It was a thing to see," Wash said with a grin, savouring the memory of Jayne bleeding copiously from a nasty head wound.
"I got a scar."
"This day just gets better and better." Simon scowled into the recesses of his mug. "Has Captain Reynolds...?"
"Sorta. Not really," Wash assured him. "Kaylee's gonna kick my ass for saying this, but back when she first signed on—she had a thing for Mal. Just for a few weeks."
"But he didn't—"
He quickly waved Simon's concern away. "Nothing ever happened. Kaylee's his mèimei, you know?"
"Only pants on Serenity he's looking to get into are a bit too expensive for the rest of us."
"I'm so glad you came down, Jayne. You bring such a refreshing level of sophistication and wit to our little gatherings."
Simon, however, continued to frown. "It's just... hard for me to picture."
"She ain't no blushing virgin, our little Kaylee," Jayne said as he took a big swallow from his mug. "Hell, Mal ever tell you how she signed on? She was on her back, 'neath the engine, getting her jollies from Bester."
"Bester?" Simon asked, his eyes starting to glaze a bit. Wash figured it was from the influx of new information. He actually felt a bit sorry for the doc—he was getting a lot of history tonight that he probably hadn't ever heard before. Lots to process.
"Mechanic 'fore Kaylee. He was all... Not pretty like you, exactly—"
"Can you not call me pretty? Ever again? Please?"
"—one of them fancy boys what gets all the women. I was glad to see the back of him. More for me, ya know?"
"And that's how Kaylee got the job?"
"We were grounded on Zephyr, 'cause Bester said the grav boot was shot. So we were cooling our jets, waiting to take a load of cargo off-world, and Kaylee fixed Serenity pretty much with spit and a bobby pin. Bester didn't have the first clue what she'd done, but whatever it was, we were back in the air in an hour. Mal hired her on the spot." Wash leaned over to Simon, whispering conspiratorially, "Bester was a moron. And you're much prettier."
"For the last time, I'm not pretty!"
"Yeah. You're a rugged manly man," Jayne sneered.
"Don't worry Doc—our Kaylee's only had eyes for you since you came onboard."
"I'm not wor—I need another drink."
Wash handed him the bottle.
Simon blinked, raising his head from Serenity's scarred kitchen table with some effort. There was a very small puddle of drool marking where he'd spent the night.
Mal was standing over him, smiling pleasantly. "You boys have fun last night?"
He didn't remember falling asleep. He decided this was most likely because he hadn't fallen asleep so much as passed out. Kaylee's wine packed more of a punch than he'd anticipated, and the last thing he remembered with any kind of clarity was Jayne re-enacting some epic bar brawl with the help of Wash's toys. Jayne had of course cast himself as the T-Rex, despite Wash's suggestion that the raptor might be more his speed. Simon sincerely doubted the man had fought off sixteen Alliance shock troops single-handedly, as described. But then, at 4am, after demolishing two bottles of fermented fruit juice between them, he would have believed damn near anything up to and including Jayne being an elf.
"Where are my shoes?" Simon rasped, peering under the table.
"Never drink with Jayne. At least he left you your clothes."
The world began to wiggle and sway and Simon pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes in a vain effort to stop it. "I'm never going to drink again."
"Sounds like a wise and lofty goal."
Mal plunked down a plate of eggs and rice and sat down to eat. The smell of cooked food reached Simon, and his stomach rolled and pitched in protest. Bolting up from the table, he barely made it to the head in time, the sound of Mal's laughter echoing down the hallway.
When Simon emerged from his room, pale and shaking but at least cleaned up and wearing fresh clothing (and a pair of shoes borrowed from Book), Zoe, Jayne and Mal were holstering their weapons and preparing to go out on the job. Jayne was in the driver's seat of the mule and grinned wide when he caught sight of Simon.
"Where are my shoes?"
Simon shielded his eyes from the sunlight as Zoe opened the cargo bay doors.
"Wash—you're in charge," Mal said as he tossed Zoe her coat. "We'll be back in two, three hours with the cargo. I want to be ready to pick up and take off soon as Book and Kaylee get back."
Wash leaned over the catwalk and gave Mal a sloppy salute. Simon glanced back and forth between the smiling pilot and Jayne.
"Why am I the only one hung over?"
Jayne snorted. "'Cause you're the only one can't hold his liquor."
"Doc—you got enough coin for the supplies you'll need?"
"I think so. River—" Simon glanced back at the catwalk, where River was sitting, drawing on some scrap paper he'd found her the night before.
"Wash can keep an eye on her. You just get what you need and get it back here 'fore we take off. Don't want any repeats of Jiangyin."
Simon bristled at that—after all, it hadn't been his fault that crazy hill people had decided to kidnap themselves a doctor.
"I know the schedule," he said stiffly.
"Best get to it, then."
Zephyr was one of the first colonies on the Rim. Cities sprawled across her continents, some of them crumbling with decay. Serenity was parked in a narrow spot down at Riverside Docks, huge transports looming on either side, casting long shadows over the Firefly-class vessel. Simon shivered in their darkness, but the sun was warm when he stepped out into the wide street. His borrowed footwear fit a tad snugly, and he supposed he would have blisters by the day's end, but that couldn't be helped. Zephyr's denizens milled about—vendors hawking their wares, their shouts and songs blending into a cacophony of noise as he pulled out his list to consult. He needed bandages, alcohol, antibiotics and more syringes; basics that he was fairly sure he could find if he could locate the closest medical supply warehouse.
Simon passed a boy selling fruit and scanned his tray to see if he had any strawberries.
He hadn't seen Kaylee that morning yet. He wondered if he was reading too much into dinner the night before. Wash had mentioned, during their marathon drinking session the night before, that the captain was to blame for Kaylee's mood. But the pilot hadn't been forthcoming with the details. Simon just wished he knew what exactly had been said to rob the girl of her perpetual good humour. If he knew, then maybe somehow he could fix it.
He wanted to fix it.
He knew that in the past, on at least two occasions, he'd been the careless one. He still regretted his words on Jiangyin—and the fact that Kaylee had been right. He had meant them. But he should have had the common sense to not take out his frustration with his situation on Kaylee.
She'd been wrong when she'd assumed that he looked down on her because she'd chosen the life that was like a prison sentence to him. Truth was, he admired her in more ways than he could name. She knew how to live simple. Take simple joy in simple pleasures. He didn't look down on that, he envied it—and wished he had the first clue how to learn from her example.
Canton... well, Canton had been something else all together.
He'd been flustered and confused, sure Mal was about to accuse him of taking advantage of his mechanic. Later, as she'd dressed his wounds, she had made it quite plain that she would not have considered it taking anything that wasn't freely given. He'd hoped she'd understood why he had not—could not—then. But that hadn't meant he hadn't wanted to. That was what had hurt her so badly that morning, he'd realised as they'd talked it out. The idea that he hadn't wanted to.
He just wished he could talk to her. Everything would somehow be okay if they could sit down and talk—away from Serenity. Away from Mal's heartfelt but heavy-handed attempts at the over-protective big brother routine Simon knew only too well. Away from the constant interruptions and engines that always needing fixing, or even—as much as he adored her—River's frequent meltdowns and mishaps.
As he wound his way through the narrow streets lined with shops, the kernel of an idea took hold in his mind. He smiled, despite his throbbing head and aching stomach, as he began to plan.
"What about this one?" Inara held up a gold brocade, trying to judge what the colour did for Kaylee's complexion.
They were in a small dress shop, about two miles from port. Kaylee hadn't even known the shop was there, but Inara knew all the best places to buy beautiful things in any port town Serenity visited. Companions kept up lively correspondence on the cortex, detailing such out-of-the-way nooks. They called it the Silk Road—named for ancient Earth-that-was trade routes that carried silk and spices, gunpowder and jade across continents to waiting buyers. As members of the Guild spread out across the skies, they reported back to their brethren this restaurant known for its fine wine, that tailor who could mend or make a dress in just the nick of time. Who knew how to remove blood or wine from hundred-year-old silk without destroying the fibres. Who knew where to find a book a client had been seeking for months. Who cut the best emeralds, and who knew how to make paste and glass shine like the real thing.
Even in a sprawling port town out on the Rim, there were jewels to be found. Master Xu smiled at Inara from behind the enormous polished wood counter, as his nephews brought out dresses of every style and draped them along the long couches that lined the walls for the two young women to peruse.
Kaylee studied her reflection in the wall-length mirror, frowning. "I don't know, 'Nara. It's a bit too fancy."
"True, we don't want the dress to outshine the girl—not that I think that's possible." Inara smiled at Kaylee's blush at the compliment. "Perhaps something simple—traditional."
"Oh, that's pretty!" Kaylee sighed as Inara reached for a green qipao embroidered with plum blossoms at the neck and shoulder. She held the dress up, twisting her hair up behind her with one hand as she admired the glossy folds of silk brocade as they draped.
"I think this one will do—it brings out your eyes. Go on, try it on."
Inara watched Kaylee disappear behind the heavy silk drapery that shielded the main floor of the shop from the dressing rooms.
In some towns, wearing a dress that hadn't been made specifically for you was the mark of poverty. In others, only the poorest of the poor made their own clothes, and it was a mark of status to purchase your garments. Like any good Companion worth her training, Inara kept track which were which, and was glad that one of her sisters had found this place two months ago while meeting with the magistrate.
Master Xu's wares were fine, his shop was clean, and his staff was respectful. While a woman like Inara had little to worry about, entering such an establishment, she hadn't wanted to even risk Kaylee being barred from entry. Not every dressmaker in the 'verse saw raw potential under the layer of grime and canvas. And while Alliance credits could open the door to any custom, Inara had been pleased when there hadn't even been a flash of surprise in Master Xu's niece's eyes as she'd slid the paper screen open and escorted them to her uncle's display room. Kaylee's self-esteem was the companion's chief concern of the day.
They'd left the ship quite early that morning. Kaylee hadn't wanted to risk running into Simon, and they had breakfasted at a small tea house near Master Xu's shop. Inara had hoped that once she'd had a chance to sleep on it, Kaylee might be in better spirits. Usually, such an outing would have had Kaylee chattering like a magpie and Inara would have been hard-pressed to keep up. But the girl had been subdued—even sombre—as they'd window shopped. Most decidedly un-Kaylee-like.
The curtain was drawn aside and Inara looked up to see Kaylee nervously fiddling with the frog-buttons that held the dress closed at the neck.
"Kaylee, you look lovely!" Inara beamed.
"Don't know where I'd wear it," Kaylee said shyly, turning in front of the mirror. The dress would need to be altered, so that it fit closely at the waist, but the colour was perfect and it fit exactly right in the shoulders, accentuating the length of Kaylee's neck. Rather a lot of leg peeked out from the slit in the side, and Inara was having a lot of fun imagining Serenity's crew's potential reaction to that.
"I'm sure that Simon might have some ideas."
Kaylee blushed. "I don't know about that..."
"And the boots are a nice touch."
Kaylee glanced down and Inara couldn't hold back a giggle at her heavy leather work boots peeking out from beneath the hem.
"We'll get you shoes." She laughed and turned to the closest nephew. "We'll take it."
"Wait! We don't even know how much it is!"
"It doesn't matter. Think of it as a birthday gift."
"My birthday was three months ago."
"A very late birthday gift." Inara handed over her ident card so that Xu could access her accounts.
Kaylee's eyes widened as the price flashed up on the flimsy screen, and Inara had the dressmaker add the cost of shoes, stockings, and alterations. "Oh 'Nara, it's so nice, but it's so much. Too much. We could get all new synchronisers, not to mention—"
"Kaylee, it's a gift. Accept it graciously and give someone you love something that they cannot get for themselves, when you get the chance. That's all the repayment I need."
Doctor Wyner was just as Mal had pictured him. Pale, short, well-off enough to have offices on the edges of the business sector a good ways away from port, and looking vaguely nervous—most likely due to Jayne looming and Zoe being all steely and such. Which was, technically, why Mal brought them along. Nothing wrong with a client knowing that there was muscle to back up his claims of competency when it came to protecting the cargo.
"As agreed, you'll get three hundred platinum now, collecting the remaining three hundred upon inspection of the cargo on Paquin."
"Seems fair to me," Mal said as he tossed Zoe the pouch of coin. "We can make Paquin by morning."
Wyner led them to a large gun-metal blue canister, square on two sides. It had all manner of tech built into it—no doubt all the cryo controls—and was cool to the touch. "It's locked, of course—to prevent tampering."
"Something still cooking in there?" Jayne asked, looking over the flashing controls.
"The gestation period is complete. It merely awaits re-animation. The locking codes have been sent ahead to the magistrate—"
"Magistrate?" Mal echoed, eyebrows raised. "Didn't realise we'd be fetching and carrying for the local Law."
"I assure, Magistrate Carlysle is appreciative of your discretion. We have contracted your services precisely because the cargo in question would cause the magistrate a great deal of personal and professional trouble, were it discovered."
Mal shrugged. "Long as we don't get pinched with the goods, or after we deliver the goods, I'm fine with the fetch-n-carry. Just wanted to say up front, woulda been nice knowing, is all."
Zoe and Jayne traded a look behind the good doctor's back, but Mal nodded his head and the two of them began securing the canister on the back of the mule.
"Not sure I like this, Sir," Zoe said as the mule wound its way through Riverside, heading back towards Serenity.
"Me neither. We've done fetch-and-carry for the law before—"
"Not since... Not in a while, sir." She didn't need to mention that life on Serenity had been a mite more stressful since they'd taken the Tams onboard.
Being smugglers, they were used to a certain level of danger. Mal had to admit that sometimes knowing he was doing his part to tweak the Alliance in whatever small way he could was what made him get up each morning. He got more of a thrill of accomplishment from a successful illegal transaction than he did the honest transport work that sustained them the rest of the time. It was in his nature—Zoe's too, when it came down to it. But smuggling contraband out to the border planets was one thing; carrying two fugitives across interplanetary borders was quite another. It raised the stakes a bit.
"Work is work," Mal said with a shrug, determined to not dwell on what was essentially a milk run. "And six hundred platinum will keep us flying."
"AB plasma, as much as you've got," Simon checked his list as the clerk made notes on a clipboard, "and I'll need about fifteen units whole blood."
"We got a load of synth-globin from the Core two days ago."
"How much is it per unit?"
"'Half again as much, but it'll keep forever and no typing issues."
Simon winced at the cost—he never realised before he had to stock his own infirmary how much he'd taken for granted, at the Hospital. Whatever you needed magically appeared as soon as it ran out. Life was decidedly different out on the Rim. "It's a small crew—just eight people and O neg will do, if you've got it."
"Will do." The woman nodded. "Is your ship in port?"
"Yes," Simon wrote down Serenity's berth. "And I'll be playing in platinum, if that's all right?"
The woman laughed. "Most our customers do. You'd think Alliance credits were goin' out of style, out there in the black," she said with a grin and went off to fill the order.
He glanced down at the shopping he'd already done today. He'd gotten a pad of drawing paper for River—it wasn't much, but she'd gone through the one Book had given her last month. He could imagine her smile already, and it made his mouth quirk up automatically to picture his mèimei happy. The second bag of goods had taken him an hour to assemble. Neatly wrapped in wax paper were fresh strawberries and, beneath that, flash-frozen salmon and a small bag of new potatoes. He'd still have to find fresh asparagus to make the dinner complete—but he figured on the trip back to the docks, there were likely to be more produce stands. His grand plan was simple—he'd wait until Serenity picked up for Paquin, and steam the fish and vegetables in the infirmary, so as not to tip anyone off. Then he could surprise Kaylee with supper. Just a quiet supper for two. In his quarters.
Simon paused in the doorway of the shop, staring out at the milling crowds. He was about a mile from port, in a market that seemed to be primarily geared for space-faring folks. Directly across from the medical supply warehouse were a number of spacecraft parts suppliers, each trying to out-gaudy the other to draw the most custom. Half the crowd he could see through the holographic window wore canvas coveralls of all hues and sizes.
He thought of Kaylee and how her favourite pair were spotted and stained with years of wear—the sleeves ripped off, with a teddy bear from a children's storybook sewn onto one leg. And a bullet hole, neatly sewn up, over her abdomen.
The blood stains had washed right out.
His first impression of Kaylee had been one of youth, as she sat there in her coveralls with the teddy bear, hair held back from her face with elastics and twirling a parasol. She was barely older than River—three, perhaps four years between them. Never mind there was less than that between him and her. He was so used to playing the grown-up, the wise adult with all the answers that he knew how to put on a good show.
Kaylee didn't do show. She didn't do artifice. He'd been looking for a ship to Boros—a disreputable ship. He'd found one, in spades—but it had been the cheerful and friendly voice from the folding chair, asking where he was headed, that had made him look twice. She'd seemed so young—a little slip of a girl, getting a rare bit of sun planet-side. She was a shiny lure, he realised now—he wondered if Mal always had Kaylee do the hawking when they were looking to take on passengers. She had a talent for charming people right from the start. A talent he was sorely lacking.
His first impression hadn't changed much over the last sixth months. Her air of innocence remained, something almost tangible in his mind. He'd been surprised, last night, to discover that little Kaylee was a bit more worldly than he'd pictured. He didn't know why—she had a zest and love for life that easily translated into a kind of sensuality that was wholly different from Inara's practised and polished art. But potent, all the same. He'd collated the data, fit this new bit of information into the jigsaw puzzle that was his idea of her and found it didn't mar the picture one bit. It might have surprised him, once. But that had been a long time ago, and his own picture was constantly changing.
The Simon Tam Kaylee had met at Eavesdown docks was fast becoming little more than a memory. From the calm self-assurance he'd consciously projected, to the three-piece suit, that wasn't him any longer. He'd let go of the artifice bit by bit—and was surprised how much lighter he felt without its weight. He'd thought he'd needed it to protect himself. Turned out that it had been more of a burden than a boon. He wondered if his colleagues from the hospital would even recognise him, any more. He wondered if kissing Kaylee had changed her impression of him. Worried that was exactly what had happened—that Mal had just given voice to some fear she'd already had, buried deep inside.
He needed to talk to her. He needed other things as well, but right now, he needed to talk to her.
"Here you go," the shopkeeper broke through his reverie as she pulled over a cart for him to look over. He handed her the coins, pocketed the change, and turned to open the door.
As if he had conjured her, there Kaylee appeared—chatting with the owner of one of the swap-shops. He could see her clearly through the holo and broke into a smile. Her light brown hair was loose and shining in the early afternoon light and she had a package tied with brown paper and twine dangling from one hand. One of the mechanics leaning against the wall outside the door came over to her, and Simon was unable to tear his eyes away as Kaylee threw her arms around the man, who spun her around in a circle. He was older—broad-shouldered, with sandy hair, and he looked somewhere between the captain and Shepherd Book's ages. Forty, perhaps fifty—but a fit, healthy middle-aged man, no doubt from hard work and lean living. He couldn't hear their laughter, but he could see Kaylee's smile from here.
"Hey, you still need something?" the clerk asked, and he started.
He watched Kaylee head off, the man's armed draped across her shoulders, stopping to press a kiss to her hair as they stood in a patch of sunshine before they disappeared down the street, out of his field of vision.
"No, I—I'm just thinking. I think I got it all."
Part III - And There Was Pie
"Triceratops are herbivores." River leaned back in the co-pilot's chair, resting her bare feet on top the instrument panel. Her long hair spilled over the back of the chair halfway to the deck, swaying from side to side.
"Ah." Wash picked up the triceratops, with whom he had been menacing the raptor. Wash was beginning to suspect that he was identifying a mite too strongly with the triceratops, whom he called "Joel" inside his head when left completely to his own devices.
"It would have eaten plants," she informed him matter-of-factly. "Not other dinosaurs."
Wash mulled this for a moment. "What if he was a mutant triceratops?"
"Mutations can't affect teeth?"
"The chances of a genetic mutation affecting the entire—" River began and then stopped and tipped her head back, smiling upside down as her brother trooped up the short flight of metal stairs leading to the flight deck. "Simon!"
"You're back early," Wash noted with surprise. The boy still looked a bit pale and shaky. He was willing to write it off as hangover, except for the eyes. There was something in his eyes—a look Wash recognised, having seen in too many people's eyes of late. Something like defeat.
"I found everything I needed," Simon said with a shrug. "Did you have a good day, River?"
"Wash let me fly the ship."
Simon turned to Wash, confused.
"Actually, um, I just let her sit in my chair. We never left port."
"An aught-three Firefly can execute a one-eighty turn in point-zero-seven seconds."
"She ain't wrong. Don't know how she knows it—since, as I repeat, we didn't budge from this spot all day. But she ain't wrong."
"The grav thrust required is achieved by cutting the hydraulics and rotating the engines while simultaneously re-routing all power through the starboard acceleration thrusters. Did you bring me anything?"
He handed her a paper-wrapped package. "I brought you more drawing paper."
"Thank you, Simon!" River gave him a kiss on the cheek and skipped out of the bridge, grinning.
"She might make quite a pilot someday," Wash said fondly as River's footsteps retreated in the distance. "Of course, she might also make quite the mad scientist, or really interesting dentist. You find your shoes yet?"
"I imagine they'll show up eventually. They're not Jayne's size."
"You okay, Doc? You seem a bit—"
"I'll be in the infirmary," Simon said stiffly. "I've things to unpack."
Wash watched him go and sighed. "There but for the grace of being ten years older and happily married to a stunningly beautiful woman, go I."
Inara was standing on the catwalk, watching, when the mule came struggling up the ramp, labouring under its burden. Jayne and Zoe hopped off as soon as Mal reached the level floor of the cargo bay and began unloading the giant grey stasis module.
The tiny silver bells that trimmed her shawl made random music as she walked down the stairs from the catwalk to the main floor. Mal had always liked that shawl. Thought it was quite becoming. Or maybe it was just the idea that, belled like a cat, he could hear her coming that appealed to him. He was never sure.
"How'd it go?" she asked Mal as he picked up a skein of webbing, so they could secure the box against the port wall for the duration of the journey to Paquin.
"Same old, same old—man gave us a package and the address to drop it off. Oh yeah, and we got half in advance. As that's usually my favourite part, I thought it bears mentioning." He tossed the webbing to Zoe, who caught it one-handed. "How 'bout you? Our Kaylee show you all the sights to be seen in Riverside?"
"Actually, I showed her some she'd never seen."
"So she a mite better today?" he asked before he could stop himself. If Inara caught on, she let it slide, and for that he was grateful. But he knew that one of these days, he was going to have to go to Kaylee to find out how Kaylee was doing, instead of using the companion as a buffer.
"See for yourself." Inara tilted her head towards the airlock, and he turned to see Kaylee walking up the ramp. Her arms were laden with packages and she was smiling brightly.
"I see we did some shoppin'," Mal said, gesturing to the brown paper packages she was shifted from arm to arm.
Kaylee smiled broadly at the companion. "'Nara got me a shiny new dress."
"Did she now?" Mal smirked. "Well, you can wear it next fancy party we go to what involves no sword fights."
"Awful big of you, sir," Zoe said as she secured the cargo with the webbing.
"You are that," Zoe said with a raised brow as she trooped up the stairs to where her husband waited for her.
"So I take it the visit went well?" Mal asked as Kaylee shifted her packages in her arms, balancing one box on top carefully. "Your mamma stuff you full of her peach pie?"
"Yep—and I brought one back to share." Kaylee held up the small box by the twine, giving Mal a sunny smile. "'Cept you don't get any, 'cause you're mean."
"You denying me pie?"
"Yes, sir. No pie for you," she informed him as she skipped up the stairs.
"I call dibs on the captain's pie!" Jayne yelled from where he was securing the mule for takeoff.
Mal turned back to Inara, ruefully amused. "It appears I am to be denied pie."
"Told you you should have apologised," Inara said sweetly.
"Our little Kaylee don't stay mad—or sad—for long. She's already on the mend."
"You think so?" Inara asked as she leaned against the railing, watching Kaylee disappear through the hatch that led to the mess.
"Wash, we got a full house?" Mal called up to the pilot who nodded.
"All hands accounted for."
"Let's get locked up."
Serenity lifted off Zephyr, leaving a cloud of dust in her wake. The sky stretched out before her, the golden late afternoon sunlight giving way to the blackness of space as Wash guided the ship through the upper atmosphere. They broke orbit smoothly and the endless night closed around them like a whisper.
"You sad to be going?" Mal asked Kaylee as she watched the planet shrink behind them on the screen Kaylee had just repaired in Wash's console.
"Ain't my home no more," she said with a shrug. "I love my folks, but Serenity's home."
She dropped her soldering iron back into the pocket of her coveralls, wiping her face with the side of her wrist. Mal grinned as she left a long smudge along her nose, merely transferring the grease from her hand to her face.
"Still, got to be hard—leaving folks behind."
"My cousin Mac's got two new horses and she's gettin' married this spring."
"That a fact?"
"Brian Cooper, works with my uncle Charlie in the refinery. Seems like just yesterday, we was having sleepovers and braiding each others hair."
Mal chuckled. "Xiao mèimei, it was just yesterday—you're still a babe in arms."
"Old enough to be your mechanic." She punctuated the last syllable with a poke to his ribs with one grubby finger.
"Old enough to be my mechanic," he conceded the point gracefully. "Kaylee, what I said yesterday—"
"You know I didn't mean nothing by it. I'm just ornery by nature."
She looked wary for a moment, but then broke into a smile. "You're just a mean old man."
"That I am." He gave her a one armed hug, kissing the top of her tousled brown hair. "So... do I get pie?"
"Nope." She grinned and headed back towards the engine room.
Inara found Mal on the flight deck, staring out at the stars as they streamed past. Wash was ostensibly steering the ship. However, his wife was sitting in his lap, which might be impairing his ability somewhat to execute any complicated manoeuvres. She guessed he'd laid in the course for Paquin and the auto-pilot was on.
Mal didn't turn around when she came to stand beside him, following his gaze out into the black.
"You seem surprisingly happy about the pie," she said finally.
"Ain't the pie—or lack thereof."
"Then why are you smiling?" she asked, curious.
Mal leaned against the guard-rail, arms crossed, an insufferable half-smile playing about his lips. "I know what this is really about."
"Do you, now?"
"Took me a while, but I finally figured it out." He grinned broadly at her and, leaning forward, said in a conspiratorial whisper "You're livin' some romantic dream vicariously through Kaylee."
Inara froze, mouth open in shock. "And you arrived at this shattering insight into my character how, exactly?"
"C'mon, Inara—you can be straight with me. You're getting a kick outta being little Kaylee's fairy godmother in this whole mess precisely 'cause if your white knight ever showed up, you'd have to charge him."
"You're the one who has made this all about you!" she snapped, feeling a flush rise up her neck. "All your talk of 'I'm just worried about Kaylee' and 'Somebody's got to be looking out for Kaylee.' But it's not about Kaylee—it never has been."
"Do go on—I am fascinated. Do people pay you for this? Does the psychoanalysis come before or after the sweaty parts?" His flipness only served to infuriate her further—just as it always did. It was as if he went out of his way to humiliate and embarrass her. And she was getting tired of his little mindgames.
"It's all about the fact that so far as you're concerned, no man is good enough for the women aboard Serenity." She lifted her head a fraction, trying to pin him with her best haughty stare.
"And I suppose you include yourself in that little club, now, dontcha?"
"Isn't that what your idiotic behaviour on Persephone was all about?"
"You'd like that, wouldn't you. You'd like to believe that my knocking that liúmáng Atherton Wing down a peg or two was all about me just pining away for your love."
"You arrogant, pig-headed, ego-maniacal—"
"See, you calling me names makes me think I've hit close to home, here. Maybe I'm not the one who's pining."
She rolled her eyes. "Oh yes, Mal—the very thought of you makes my heart go pitter-pat. You've found me out. The last year has simply been a charade, so I could feel your manly arms around me—"
"See, I knew you had a thing for me."
"I am going to rip off your arm and beat you to death with it."
"Such words of love."
"Your right arm—effectively ending your sex life, such as it is."
"I am overcome with emotion. How do you feel about a June wedding?"
"All I want is for Kaylee to be happy. Kaylee and Simon both. And they were happy. They'd be happy, if you had just kept your yúchûn mouth shut. But it's Zoe and Wash all over again—"
"You two know we are right here and can actually hear you—right?" Wash said from the pilot's chair and was ignored.
"Why do we always come back to Zoe—"
"So you do think Wash is good enough for Zoe?"
"It's okay, honey." Zoe rose and laid a hand on his shoulder. "Ship can fly itself. Let's get us some pie 'fore Jayne eats it all."
"I want to stay and watch the fighting," Wash grumbled, but followed his wife down the short flight of stairs.
"Don't matter what I think of him—they's married, they's happy, and all of us have come to terms with—"
"Gôu pì," Inara snapped. "It doesn't matter how much you like Wash, or how much Zoe loves him. Deep down, you still believe that he's not good enough. Simon's not good enough. No man is good enough for any of the women in your life."
"Well they ain't!" Mal exploded, all pretence of amusement banished. "That what you want to hear? It has been my experience that men are liúmáng. They lie, they cheat, there ain't a one of 'em that I'd trust with any gal's heart—yours, Kaylee's, Zoe's, my m—anyone's."
"Your what, Mal?" Inara pushed, fully expecting him to push back—and not caring if he did. "If we're going to have a screaming match about this, I'd like to know where it all started. Is there some childhood sob story here that has bearing on the matter at hand? What, did your daddy wrong your mamma?"
Mal stiffened. "Don't you dare bring my mother into this—"
"I didn't. You did."
He glared at her and she took an involuntary step back at the pure fury that shone in his eyes. With a muttered curse, he stalked past her and down the hall. She listened to his angry footsteps as the echoed through the ship, and she was left alone with the stars.
There was something to be said for the therapeutic effects of home-made peach pie, topped with whipped cream.
Wash lifted a forkful to his lips and stared at it first. He couldn't remember the last time he'd had this particular treat and wanted to make it last as long as humanly possible—or longer. He closed his eyes as the burst of flavour hit his tongue, savouring the different textures—the flaky pastry, the tart and sweet fruit, and the light yet rich cream.
Wash was in heaven. His wife, on the other hand...
Zoe was staring off into space, a slight frown marring her lovely features. She got that look sometimes, like she was working on a puzzle and frustrated that she could find all the corner border pieces, but there was still a gaping hole in the middle of the picture that would show her what she was supposed to be looking at.
Wash figured that his job was to sit back and let her work it out in peace when she had to, or tease her out of her black mood the rest of the time. He weighed his options for the moment and made a calculated guess.
"You'd better eat your pie," he suggested, "or Jayne might think it's up for grabs."
Jayne looked up at the mention of his name, peaches and cinnamon smeared across his lips. He was hunched low over two pieces of pie—his and the slice originally destined for the captain—and was like a dragon protecting his hoard. His eyes narrowed as he chewed, and then he transferred his attention back to his fork.
She smiled at him then, the special smile that she saved for small children, idiots, and husbands, and allowed him to lift a forkful of pie to her lips.
Wash couldn't help but grin at the look of pure bliss that crossed her face—he knew that look, too. And usually he never saw it outside their bunk. It was a good look, and he might sacrifice half his own slice, if it meant he could see it written across her face a few more times.
A place for everything, and everything in its place. Simon's maternal grandmother had always said that, when he was a child. Granted, that had been in reference to her spice cabinet and not a fully stocked infirmary. But the end result was the same.
He stood back and admired his handiwork. The blood supply was safely in stasis, waiting for the next catastrophe. He'd stowed the boxes of syringes and bottles of alcohol in the cupboards, and replenished the depleted stock of antibiotics. Rows of vials were neatly labelled and set in trays for easy access. He'd even managed to get a variety of heterocyclic antidepressants, selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors, and anti-psychotics which he was hoping to use to synthesise a cocktail that would work on River's unique form of paranoid schizophrenia.
He thought if he could just block the medial nucleus from receiving certain kinds of sensory input, that somehow he could regulate her responses. But it was such a long shot, not to mention not his field of study. As a trauma surgeon, he'd handled the usual range of emergency room cases—severed limbs, burst appendices, severe lacerations. They'd always sent the neural trauma patients to another ward. The second a patient left the ER, they vanished from his mind. His world.
Now, his sister was his world. This ship was his entire world.
If he were still on Osiris, he could have gone to dozens of different resources for advice on treatment. The finest specialists in the Core. He could have gotten her the help she needed—the help he wasn't qualified to give her.
Instead, he was on an ageing and decrepit midbulk transport vessel with a rudimentary infirmary, using Inara's cortex access to download whatever medical journals he could access. And even that had to be done carefully, lest he tip off the Academy as to River's whereabouts. After all, what use would a Companion have for the published writings of neurosurgeons?
He opened the "freezer" to put away the last plasma pack and stared at the bundle of carefully wrapped packages pushed to the back.
The makings of an intimate dinner for two.
He'd felt the ship take off—the steady vibration of the engines shattering the silence he'd only started to get used to since they'd landed on Zephyr. He assumed that meant Kaylee had returned—but he'd remained childishly hiding in the infirmary, nursing his hurt.
Just when he'd begun to believe they had made progress, he'd been thrown into an utter tailspin—his mind obsessively imagining every worst case scenario and playing them out in his mind. What each scenario had in common was Kaylee in the arms of another man who understood her, her world, the life she'd chosen. In the dark recesses of his mind, she was laughing and smiling. Completely free of all the doubt and awkwardness that seemed to be the hallmark of their fledgling relationship.
After all, what could he really offer her? What woman in her right mind could see any kind of future with a wanted fugitive? He was broke, the Alliance having crashed his accounts when he fled the Core with River. There was a price on his head which meant at half the ports they docked he had to stay on the ship, hiding lest he be spotted in town. Even when he did go out, he was constantly reminded of his shortcomings. The assault on Niska's skyplex had proven that he couldn't protect her. If River hadn't been there...
And there was River.
No matter what his feelings for Kaylee, River would always come first. That was too much to ask from anyone, even someone as caring and giving as Kaylee. He would never be able to be the kind of man she could have any kind of real relationship with. She deserved more. She deserved better. She deserved to be happy.
"Ai-ya," he muttered, closing the door and rubbing his eyes with one hand. He was suddenly so very tired.
"Hey," came a voice from the doorway. He looked up to see Kaylee standing in the doorway of the infirmary. One hand rested on the doorjamb, but she made no move to come in. "There's pie, in the mess. If you want some."
"Pie?" he asked, trying to wrap his mind around the concept of baked goods while wallowing in the depths of his despair.
"Yeah—my gran's recipe. Peach pie. Got cream for it, even."
"You made pie?"
She laughed. "Oh no—me and baking never did seem to get along. My mamma made three and give me one to bring back, is all."
"Your mother—she's on Zephyr?" he said carefully, and she nodded.
"Yeah. Didn't nobody tell you? My folks live in Riverside—"
"Your father. He's in Riverside too. Of course." The words spilled out of his mouth, one after the other, as he collated this new and surprising data. "You met him this afternoon at the swap shop."
"How'd you know?" she asked, mystified.
"I saw you," he said, suddenly feeling light-headed.
Her brows drew together in a puzzled frown. "How come you didn't—"
"I didn't realise it was your father."
"Well, who'd you think it—oh." He could see the exact second the realisation had dawned behind her hazel eyes.
"I didn't know," he said quickly. "Wash and Jayne told me about Bester, and I thought—"
"You thought I had a guy in every port?" she asked, anger bringing a flush to her cheeks.
"No!" he back-pedalled quickly, "I mean, if you wanted one—I mean, there's no reason on my account..."
"Huh," Kaylee said, staring at the floor. "I see."
The silence that descended was deadly. Simon wracked his brain for what words would make it better and, in his panicked state, came up empty.
Her eyes slid away from his, and she tapped a finger against the metal hatchway absently. "So there's pie. And Wash found your shoes."
Then she was gone, and he was alone.
"They're, um, a little charred," Wash said apologetically as he handed Simon his shoes.
He and Zoe sat at the table, remnants of pie on the plates in front of them. Shepherd Book was in the lounge, engrossed in his bible. Jayne sat opposite him, cleaning a very large gun.
"Charred?" Simon was almost afraid to ask.
"They were in the oven," Zoe said, fighting the smile that he could see tugging at her lips.
"We turned it on to warm up the pie—" Wash continued and Simon held up a hand, signalling him to stop. He took the shoes, which were warm to the touch but appeared mostly undamaged, and sat down to lace them up.
He took the borrowed shoes back over to Book, ignoring Jayne, who took his presence as a cue to hock up a wad of spit into his cleaning cloth and began to vigorously rub the barrel of the cannon.
"Thank you, Shepherd."
The preacher smiled up at him, marking his place with a scrap of paper and setting the bible aside. "The good Lord instructs a righteous man to clothe the naked stranger, welcome him and feed him. I imagine that extends to friends with missing shoes, as well. Did you have a productive day in town?"
"I got everything on my list."
"Yet you don't seem too pleased with your accomplishments."
"It's not that, it's..." Simon trailed off, unsure how to even begin. "I have an amazing talent for saying exactly the wrong thing, when I am trying to say the right thing."
"I believe that is genetic," Book said with a twinkle in his dark eyes. "And a trait not uncommon to our gender. I'm sure she'll forgive you."
"You don't even know what I said, or to whom—"
"It doesn't take much to figure that out, son. Kaylee's a special girl, with a very big heart and a powerful need to share it."
"Her heart ain't exactly what she's opening—" Jayne said with a chuckle and before Simon knew what he was doing, he'd gotten two handfuls of Jayne's shirt, hauling the other man to his feet.
"Don't you even—"
"Or you'll what, pretty boy?" Jayne growled. "Our little Kaylee may not like you so much, if I messed you up some."
"Jayne!" Book thundered and Jayne gave Simon a shove that sent him backwards. He landed hard on the padded bench and tasted blood from where he bit his tongue.
Book stood between them and while Simon couldn't see the look on the preacher's face, Jayne backed down.
"I ain't the one who started it," Jayne muttered as he picked up his gun and his gear. "It's always Jayne's fault. I'm sick of ev'rything always being my gorram fault."
Simon closed his eyes as Jayne marched out of the mess, leaning back against the wall.
Book gave Simon a sympathetic pat on the shoulder and then handed him a foil wrapped plate. "I saved a slice of pie for River."
"Just have a little faith." The preacher smiled at him paternally. "Things will work out."
Simon found River in the cargo bay. She sat, her back up against the grey cryo unit, legs stretched out in front of her amidst a sea of paper. Her head was bent over her work, long hair tucked behind her ears.
"You're not supposed to be here alone, remember? Captain Reynolds said—"
"Not alone," she muttered, pencil pressed to paper, tip of her tongue peeking out between pursed lips as she tried to capture a swirl of hair against a long neck. Dropping the sketch to the floor, she reached for a clean sheet of paper and quickly sketched out a woman's silhouette.
Faces stared up at him from the pages littering the floor. The same girl, caught in different poses once again.
"And we're not supposed to touch the cargo, mèimei. You could get in trouble..." He began gathering up the pages and realised he could see writing through the drawing. He flipped the portrait over, gasping when he recognised the page. "River! This is my journal!"
She shrugged. "It doesn't signify."
He sighed. "I bought you a pad of drawing paper, remember? And Shepherd Book saved you a slice of peach pie. Come back to our rooms—"
He took her by the arm and she pulled away. Scooting back against the container, dark eyes wide, she drew her knees up to her chest. "She's afraid of the dark!"
"You can leave the light on in your room."
She shook her head. "She's supposed to be what he lost, but she isn't. She isn't her."
"River..." Simon was taken aback by his sister's sudden outburst. Tears filled her eyes, slipping unchecked down her cheeks.
"She doesn't know how to be her," she said, her voice breaking.
He gently laid a hand on her shoulder and this time she didn't shrug it off. "Come to bed—it will be all right."
She allowed him to guide her to her feet and she wrapped an arm around his waist, burying her face in his shoulder as they walked back towards the passenger dorm.
When River was finally asleep, blanket tucked up to her chin, every light in the room blazing, Simon returned to the cargo bay.
Kaylee was sitting on the floor, in almost the same exact position River had been earlier. She was staring down at one of the sheets, letting it rest lightly on one canvas clad knee. The teddy bear sewn over the pocket peeked out from beneath the overhanging sheet. She was wearing a top he'd seen her wear a few times before—iridescent and brightly coloured and patterned, it was in stark contrast to the worn and stained coveralls. As always, she had unzipped the top, letting half of the coveralls fall around her waist and he could see a tiny ribbon of skin where the shirt didn't come down low enough.
"River was looking for paper, apparently," he said from the hatch and she started.
She hastily stacked the pages, looking flustered. "I'm sorry, I didn't read it—"
The silence that stretched between them made Simon want to run. Flee. Bury his head in the sand.
Instead, he sat down next to her, making sure their shoulders didn't even come within inches of touching.
"The girl's pretty," Kaylee said as she placed the sketch on top of the stack. "Who is she?"
"I don't know. River's done a hundred sketches and I'm not sure she knows, either."
He watched as Kaylee tucked her hair behind her ears. One lock immediately fell forward and she tipped her head back slightly. His fingers itched to touch her cheek.
"I never knew River could draw."
"She can do anything she puts her mind to, I sometimes think." He picked up the sketch and studied the lines. The girl in the drawing was half turned away and he couldn't see her eyes.
"Anyway, um.. I just saw the mess, figured you wouldn't want Jayne or anybody finding 'em—"
"I'm gonna head off to bed."
He caught her wrist as she started to rise. "Kaylee, wait. Please."
He got to his feet quickly. "I want to fix it. I want to go back to the way things were."
She looked at him, bewildered. "The way things were?"
"Before whatever happened that made you stop smiling. Before whatever happened that made you leave a room as soon as I enter it. Please. Just tell me what I need to do."
"Simon, I..." She swallowed, blinking rapidly. "I don't... I don't know..."
"What I said, before—I know, now, that I hurt you and I didn't mean to. I just meant... I don't own you. You're free to be with whomever you want to be with. I just... want you to be with me."
"Why?" she blurted out and then covered her mouth with curled fingers. But it was too late to push the word back in, unsay it.
"Why...?" He was completely lost.
"Why'd you kiss me?" she asked, her voice barely above a whisper.
"Why did I—I thought... I thought you wanted me to."
"Was that the only reason?"
"No, I... I wanted to. I guess I didn't think about it—I didn't give myself time to think. River says I think too much and maybe she's right. I do think too much. I wanted to kiss you, so I did. Was it wrong? Did I do it wrong?"
"Naw, you did it right. You did it perfect." Her chin trembled and he could see her jaw clenched against tears. "You did everything just perfect."
"I just... I didn't want to be just the best of limited choices." She looked away, hazel eyes swimming.
"Wha—no! No." He took her face in his hands, tilting her chin so that her eyes met his. "Kaylee.... There could be a hundred girls on this ship and I wouldn't even notice. You shine so bright."
"That's what 'Nara always says," she said with a watery hiccup of a laugh.
"Well, Inara's right. Shhhh, don't cry, qin ài de Kaylee," he whispered against her hair and kissed the tears from her cheeks. When his mouth found hers, he could taste them, hot and salty on his tongue.
It was slow and careful. Not like before—not full of smiles and simple things. It wasn't simple anymore, not for either of them. It had grown thorny and complicated and so much rested on the weight of her lips moving softly against his. The smiles had been replaced with tears and Simon wanted to coax the smile back.
Her arms went around him tentatively and he pulled her close to him, losing himself in her. Her breath was warm against his cheek as her mouth opened beneath his, tongue tracing his lips curiously. She grew bolder, sucking on his lower lip as he slid his hands over her shoulders before coming to rest at her waist. One hand kneaded her hip, fingers splayed against the canvas. She gasped as he pulled her even closer against him, the kiss deepening as one leg slipped between hers.
The hunger that tore at him almost frightened Simon with its intensity. He couldn't get enough of her—her body pressed up against his, her tongue slipping into his mouth teasingly. He knew that all of the obstacles between them still existed. But they suddenly didn't seem to matter. All that mattered was her—the taste of her on his tongue. The way her body fit against his, the little sounds she made in the back of her throat as she moved against him. The sounds she drew from him, as he pressed kisses to her lips, her jaw, any part of her he could reach.
Kaylee was the one who pulled back finally, one hand coming up to trail fingers down the planes of his cheek. Her face was alive with something like wonder, even as her breath came in laboured gasps.
"Nî hâo mêi," he said as he rested his forehead against hers, tracing her lips with a fingertip. "My beautiful, beautiful Kaylee."
Her mouth curved into a tentative smile. "I feel like I'm going to just... pop. Like my skin is the only thing keeping me—"
"—from flying apart," he echoed. He pulled back, brushing her hair back from her face with a smile. "Me too. So, um... do you want to maybe go back to my room?"
"To talk. And there might be some talking. Yes."
Part IV - Happily
There were men waiting for Serenity when she landed at the rendezvous co-ordinates; three men—two heavy lifting types and one slim and bored looking assistant. The cargo was loaded onto an anti-grav dolly and, flanked by Jayne and Zoe, Mal was escorted into town.
Paquin was a civilised sort of place—miles ahead of most of the frontier towns where they did most of their business. Not as posh as a core world, but then, few of the planets on the Rim could come close to the opulence of Ariel or Osiris. The people they saw on the street seemed well-fed and groomed. Badger would have been entirely out of place, though Mal could easily picture Wash and Kaylee just fine, milling through the bustling streets which were crowded even at this early hour. Mostly, folks seemed to be in a hurry to get on with their business.
The transport took them trough the wide boulevards to what looked like the city centre. Office plazas gave way to elaborate parks, and he could see statues and fountains here and there. The sounds of the city faded as they pulled up to the magistrate's estate and Mal felt his stomach lurch, seeing a purple belly who guarded the main gate. But he reminded himself that he had legitimate business—well, business anyway—with the magistrate of Han Province. The Alliance soldier didn't even spare Mal and his companions a second look as they were taken around the back to the delivery entrance.
The magistrate's estate was walled, lush gardens surrounding the clutch of single storey buildings connected by small stone and wood bridges. Koi swam lazily through the stream that wound its way between the teak and rice paper walled buildings, their golden scales shining in the early morning sun.
They were deposited in an ante-chamber while, Mr. Bored informed them, the cargo was inspected. Zoe sat on a bench, back straight, dark eyes surveying the landscape. Jayne, on the other hand, lounged in a chair that looked like it had cost as much as all of Serenity's furniture put together, with enough left over for one of Inara's fancy dresses.
They'd taken off that morning before Inara had even emerged from her shuttle.
Jayne had grumbled about missing breakfast, but one look from Mal and he had shut right up. The black mood that had taken hold of him the night before hadn't much dissipated; in fact, it seemed only to have grown darker through the long night he'd spent in fitful sleep. The companion had touched a nerve that Mal had thought had long since lost its ability to bother him. Obviously, he'd been wrong. Part of him wanted to rush to her and apologise. The rest of him was determined to stand fast and not allow himself to be so casually manipulated. He wasn't sure which part was likely to win out. Getting paid, getting off-world, and getting the next job lined up would go a long way towards putting him in a better mood.
After an hour, Bored showed up again, looking a mite twitchy.
"Magistrate Carlysle will see you now," he said stiffly, and they followed him from the ante-chamber into the main hall. One wall was lined with screens which had been opened and Mal could see the courtyard beyond. Three women sat on a stone bench—two in the subdued grey and maroon of servants, and the third was a girl maybe Kaylee's age, dressed in gold and cream. Her pale hair shone in the morning sunlight and she seemed engrossed in the reader in her hands, never looking up once as they were brought before the massive mahogany desk.
Magistrate Carlysle was older—maybe pushing sixty, but powerfully built with a full head of thick, steel-grey hair. Hanging behind the desk was an old-fashioned oil portrait of a handsome woman in her forties. She was like enough to the girl outside that Mal assumed she was her mother. One big happy family, then.
Carlysle gestured to a chair, but Mal continued to stand.
"Cargo checks out?" he asked, tone cordial.
"Oh yes—more than I ever expected." His eyes drifted past Mal, to the women in the courtyard and he smiled warmly. "I understand from the good doctor that the terms of the contract were half up front, half upon completion?"
"Those were the terms. Cash—if you don't mind."
"Understood." He opened the desk drawer and removed a steal box, which he opened with a small key. Removing a stack of platinum, he gestured to Bored, who bagged the loot and handed it to Mal. "I hear tell that platinum goes a bit farther than Alliance credits, out there." He gestured heavenward.
"Lotta things go a bit further out there in the black," Mal said with a shrug. "Pleasure doing business with you."
"Likewise," the magistrate replied, his eyes still fixed on the girl in the courtyard.
The crew was lounging in the mess when they got back to Serenity, sunlight streaming in from the windows set into the ceiling above the table. Mal could see dust motes floating in the air, the room twice as bright as it usually got when they were out in the black. It reminded him suddenly of the kitchen at the ranch—and how there had always been a handful of hands in the house, playing cards, trading stories, cooking and helping with the washing up. It reminded him of family and he couldn't keep from grinning at that thought.
"You missed breakfast," Wash said as he gave his wife a kiss on the cheek as she settled into his lap, arms draped around his neck.
"But we brought back lunch and dinner." Her dark eyes sparkled as the bag of coin hit the kitchen table with a musical ring.
"I love my wife." He leaned in for a kiss.
Mal's stomach growled at the smell of eggs and bacon which rose from where Kaylee was cooking at the range. Mal quirked a brow as the young doctor came up behind her, wrapping his arms around her waist and planting a kiss on her ear. She laughed and said something too low for him to hear.
Obviously, things had gotten settled during the night.
Mal stole a glance at Inara, who was smiling from where she sat on the cushioned benches that lined the common area—no doubt pleased that her turn at matchmaking had ended satisfactorily—but her smile faded a bit when she caught his eye and she looked away quickly. River sat beside her, the girl's dark head bent low over her sketch pad.
Mal filled a mug with strong black tea and stole a piece of bacon from the pan before Kaylee could slap his fingers away. He carried his "breakfast" over to where Inara sat, some delicate needlepoint in her lap. Just the sort of thing a lady would busy her hands with, he supposed. He wasn't sure. Hadn't met very many ladies in his lifetime.
"Looks like our Kaylee-bird done all right for herself," he said conversationally, nodding towards the lovebirds who seemed joined at the hip, completely oblivious to the rest of them. He thought it was bad when his pilot and second hooked up. God only knew what the next few weeks were going to be like.
He still couldn't stop grinning.
"No thanks to you," Inara said sweetly, but she didn't seem quite as distant as he was afraid she would be, after their little tussle the night before.
"Can't have everything," he said, burying his smile in a sip of tea. Mal peered over River's shoulder, to see what she was drawing. "You turning artist on us, now?"
Something twisted in Mal's gut as he recognised the face in the drawing. "Pretty gal," he said, mouth suddenly dry. "Where'd you meet her?"
"We had a sleep-over," River said matter-of-factly.
"On Serenity?" Mal asked and River nodded, frowning.
"But we couldn't braid each other's hair. Walls between us and cold holding her fast."
He could feel Inara's eyes on him as a muscle twitched in his jaw. "Now that's a shame."
River looked up at him, brown eyes wide with clarity and something like mercy. "She doesn't know how to be her," she said simply. "But that's not your fault."
"Mal?" Inara called after him as he fled the mess. He barely made it to the head before he lost what little he'd had of breakfast.
Inara hesitated before she knocked on the door to Mal's quarters. Granted, the last time she'd barged in, she'd found him out cold on the floor and then spent the next four hours floating on the edge of consciousness herself.
She rapped sharply on the door and listened. She could hear muttering from inside, but nothing that sounded like "Come in." Deciding it would be easier to beg forgiveness than ask permission, she gave the door a push. It slid open and she held tightly to the skirt of her dress as she descended the ladder.
He was pacing, hands balled into fists. His movements were stiff with anger and he didn't even slow down once he marked her presence.
"Mal? What is it?"
"What is it about this ship and girls in gorram boxes!" Mal exploded, slamming his fist into the bulkhead.
She winced on his behalf as he shook the injured hand. "What are you talking about?"
"Breeding stock." The words could not have been filled with more venom. "Bastards turned Serenity into a slaver. Turned me into worse than that." He sat down heavily on the end of the bed. "Knew he weren't no rancher. They let me believe what I wanted to believe, and I took their money without even asking. I thought she was his daughter."
"Weren't no family portrait on his gorram wall—it was a shrine. Bastard cloned his dead wife."
Inara paled when she realised what he was saying. "Cloning's illegal," she finally managed.
"So's smuggling," he replied bitterly.
"Mal," Inara laid a hand on his shoulder. "You had no way of knowing."
"I should have known. Sick sumbitch used us—and he's gonna use her." The look in his eyes was one of utter bleakness and despair. "Girl was brought into this world to be nothing more than a ghost on legs, and she'll spread for him 'cause she don't know no better. Don't know no different."
"I'm so sorry."
"Ain't nothing you can do. Ain't nothing I can do, neither." He scrubbed his face with both hands. When his eyes met hers, he just looked weary. "Not without getting this ship into a whole world of trouble, and I can't have that. Got other people to be thinkin' about."
She gave his shoulder a squeeze, wanting to tell him that it would be all right. But she couldn't push the lie past her lips.
It would not be all right. Not unless something changed. Not unless something could be done. And that was what was tearing Mal up—she could see it in his eyes.
For all of his brash posturing, Mal was a gentle, good, and decent man. She knew him well enough after a year to know that he had looked into a hold full of families decimated by Reavers—women, children, and men all gutted and mutilated—and had been able to stomach it because he at least knew enough that there was nothing he could have done to prevent it.
This was different. When Mal had first opened River's stasis module, she'd seen a hint of it then. But this... She could see from his eyes that knowing he had been a part of what amounted to the rape of an innocent child was worse. Far worse.
Inara had chosen her life, her path—been trained for it, prepared for it, taught all of the arts associated with it. But in the end, it was her choice. That poor girl, whomever she may be, had all her choices taken away from her before she was even born.
And the worst part was, she wouldn't ever know it.
"Things were going so well. Weren't things going well? There was smiling, and bacon-stealing, and such. This, to me, is usually a sign of the wellness of things."
Zoe was quiet as she stared out the forward windows at the green valley beyond, though her hand roamed over Wash's back restlessly. He reached up and curled one lock of her hair around his thumb. "Did something happen planet-side?"
"Not sure, exactly. Something about the job... Just felt off."
"We got paid."
"We did at that. But sometimes, I don't think it's just about the money." She sighed and cupped his face in her hands, brushing his forehead with a kiss. "It's probably nothing."
"What if it's something?" Wash pressed and that little worry line reappeared between her brows.
Before she could answer, Mal appeared at the top of the short metal staircase that led to the bridge. He didn't come all the way inside, but leaned forward, both hands braced on either side of the hatch.
"Get us out of here, Wash."
"Any place in particular?" he asked as he started up the launch sequence.
"Anywhere that ain't here." Wash wasn't going to stare, but Mal looked positively haunted. Worse than when he'd bolted from the mess that morning.
"You're the captain," Wash said with a shrug as Mal headed back down the stairs, his footsteps echoing on the metal deckplates.
Zoe shrugged, but there was an echo of the captain's haunted look in her eye as well.
"Late night?" Shepherd Book asked with a lifted brow as he observed Kaylee's valiant yet ultimately failed attempt at staving off a yawn as she opened up the access panel on the side of the mule so she could get to its innards.
She blushed as she got out her wrench and set about locating the short causing the transport vehicle to act up.
"Stayed up past my bedtime."
"Talking?" he asked, all casual-like, and she felt the blood rush into her cheeks.
Sometimes, having Shepherd aboard reminded her of what her life had been like living with her mamma's folks when she was a kid. Grams and Grampap had got up to all sorts of mischief when they was young—her mom and brothers and sisters (the eldest of whom was a mite big, at nine pounds, for a premature birth) were proof enough of that. But she'd never been able to reconcile their wild past with who they were by the time she'd come along, youngest daughter of the youngest daughter. Grams was up near eighty by now, with a cloud of frizzy white hair, and Kaylee couldn't imagine her even so much as cussing, let alone, well...
Shepherd was a bit like that.
He was a man of God and all, and wise and kind. But she'd heard him cuss a blue streak a time or two—like when Jayne had dropped a weight from the weight bench on his foot, or when Niska had cut off the captain's ear. Some of the stuff he'd said when she'd found him in the passenger dorm, after that bounty hunter had laid him out, had made her blush scarlet. She knew he'd lived a life before he took up orders, but that didn't make it any more shocking when he did something that reminded her of it.
She remembered how he'd looked, when he'd come upon her and Simon in the corridor behind the galley after River'd got Jayne's gun. Like he knew just what sort of mischief she could be getting up to, and was amused and full of caution all at once. He had that same look now.
"There was all sorts of talking," she assured him, trying to ride out the blush. And she wasn't even fibbing—they had talked. Simon had asked her all about her family and growing up in Riverside, how many cousins she had, and how she'd become a mechanic. It was like he was making up for all those nights they'd spent with her grilling him about life in the Core.
As she shone her flashlight into the mess of wires and gears, she grinned. "Well, mostly talking."
"Best get to sleep at a decent hour tonight then, child," Shepherd said and she swore he winked at her before he went over to the weight bench to lift. It suddenly occurred to her that their merriment might well have kept Book up, him being only two rooms over from Simon's, and she could feel her cheeks burning as she nodded and then stuck her head back inside the mule, intent on her task.
She couldn't stop grinning, though.
Simon had been like a kid with a shiny new toy. He'd been delighted as he discovered if he kissed her just below the ear, where her jaw curved, it made her shudder, while stroking the back of her neck lightly with his nails gave her gooseflesh. And there had been no stopping him once he learned just how ticklish she was. It was as if all he'd been waiting for was licence to taste, touch, and feel—and now he was mad for it.
She'd finally fallen asleep fully clothed, curled up at Simon's side on top the covers with all the lights in his room still blazing. When she'd awakened it was to find him sleeping peacefully beside her, his face buried in her hair and his arms wrapped around her. She'd hated to move, but she had to get back to her own bunk before the rest of the ship woke up. He muttered sleepily as she pulled the blanket over him and she'd pressed a kiss to his forehead.
River had been standing in her doorway as Kaylee had crept past and she'd given Kaylee a warm hug, whispering something about allies and surprises that Kaylee'd been too tired to decipher. She'd tiptoed past Zoe and Wash's door, and held her breath when she opened the hatch to her quarters. But the ship had remained silent as a tomb as she'd climbed down the ladder.
In the end, she'd lain awake in her own bed, unable to go back to sleep. Her thoughts were buzzing around her head like a nest of hornets. It all still seemed so unreal. Like a dream that she was terrified she'd wake from. But she could touch her lips and remember the feel of his kisses—stroke her arm and recall the gentle pressure of his fingers. After being so polite and respectful for so long, it had taken her aback how passionate he could be. How carefree his smile could be, after carrying around so much fear and pain and loss.
It made her heart beat faster in her chest, knowing she could make him smile like that.
She popped the access panel back on and crawled out so she could fire the mule up, and saw Simon staring at her from the catwalk.
"How long you been up there?" she asked, pushing her hair behind her ears with one grimy hand.
"Just a few minutes." He had forsaken his usual vest for a grey sweater and was smiling contentedly, chin resting in his hand.
"Ain't you got work to do?"
"Everyone is annoyingly healthy today. Not even a chance of anyone getting shot at until we get wherever we're going."
She grinned. "C'mon down, then—you can gimme a hand."
He bounded down the stairs, not stopping until he had wrapped his arms around her waist and she had her back pressed up against the mule. She giggled against his lips.
"This ain't the hand I was thinking of."
"I like watching you work," he said, lips brushing her jaw. "I find you exceptionally sexy while covered in engine grease. Have I ever mentioned that?"
"Simon," she whispered as she jerked her head towards where Shepherd Book was still at the weight bench.
"We're just fornicating over here, Shepherd," Simon called over dryly, and Kaylee tried to smother her giggles by burying her face in his chest.
"Don't do anything I wouldn't do," Book replied, continuing to heft the barbell methodically.
"Well that don't leave nothing fun at all!" Kaylee called back, and laughed as Simon pulled her close for a kiss.
"Go to dinner with me," he said as they parted, and her eyebrows shot up.
"Captain hasn't said where we're headed—"
"Here. On Serenity."
"Why not? We'll have a date."
"A date," Kaylee repeated, and Simon nodded.
"A dinner date. I can make dinner."
"You know how to cook?" she asked, amused at the notion. He'd always managed to trade his shifts in the mess with Shepherd Book, choosing the dishes or laundry over the cooking chores.
"Not exactly," he admitted. "But I graduated in the top three percent of my class. I'll figure it out."
She smiled, her fingers leaving a smudge of grease on his cheek as she traced the curve of his smile. "Then it's a date."
"I think the patient is dead," Mal said from the doorway as he came into the infirmary and saw Simon frowning at a plate of salmon.
"I think I overcooked it."
"Glad you're the doctor, then, and not the cook."
"What happened?" Simon asked as Mal stepped over to the sink and began rinsing his hand, wincing as the cold water hit the split knuckles.
"Got in an argument with a wall earlier today. Wall won."
"Need me to take a look at it?"
He shook his head. "Wouldn't want to get blood on your fancy shirt." He hadn't seen the doctor all decked out in his fancy duds in a while. He was quite resplendent in his shiny vest and fancy coat. "Speaking of which, you're all gussied up. Hot date?"
Simon fidgeted. Mal had to admit, he was thoroughly enjoying the young doctor's discomfort.
"Captain, I know that you haven't exactly been pleased, exactly. About me and Kaylee—"
"Whatever gave you that idea?" Mal asked as he slapped a weave on his hand and headed back out the door of the infirmary.
Simon picked up the steaming plate of fish and fell in step behind him. "The part where you threatened to break my kneecaps?"
"Well, there is that." Mal smiled at the memory. "But Kaylee made her choice; I ain't gonna stand in the way of it."
"I appreciate that." Simon smiled, and he looked so damn young and earnest. Mal almost felt a twinge of guilt for his behaviour the past few days.
"You just make sure that you've made your choice, too, and we're all gonna get along just—Wow."
Mal stopped in his tracks as Kaylee stepped through the hatch into the passenger lounge, Inara a few paces behind her, beaming.
She was wearing a dark green qipao that showed off all her curves, and there was an awful lot of silk-clad leg visible through the slit up the side. Mal was fairly certain Inara was responsible for twisting her light-brown hair into a simple but elegant style. Garnet pins caught the light as she ducked her head, blushing, and matching earrings completed the picture. She made a pretty picture, his mechanic. All cleaned up and in a fancy dress that didn't remind Mal of a tea cosy gone horribly awry, she positively glowed.
"Wow," Simon echoed Mal's sentiment, his mouth hanging open.
"You're catching flies, son," Mal said, but there was a twinkle in his eyes as Simon closed his mouth yet continued to gape. Maybe there was hope for the boy, yet.
He nudged Simon with his elbow, and the doctor moved to quickly set the plate down at the low table which Mal now noticed was lit with two candles which had miraculously survived the doc's birthday, stuck in mismatched candlesticks in the middle of the table. The doctor was grinning as he offered Kaylee his arm.
"Kaylee, you look—I mean, you look so—Wow."
"That's fancy doctor-talk for 'you clean up real nice, Miss Kaylee,'" Mal translated for his blushing mechanic as Inara glided over to his side, her dark eyes sparkling with mischief.
"We'll give you two some privacy," Inara said as she laid a hand on Mal's forearm and guided him towards the ladder.
"We will?" Mal asked.
He turned back to Simon and Kaylee. "We'll be going now. You two—be good."
Kaylee missed him waggling his finger at her in his best paternal manner, however, as she was staring deeply into the doc's eyes and they might as well have already gone, those two were paying him so much mind. Inara poked him in the middle of his back surreptitiously, and he chuckled as he began climbing the ladder.
"Looks like Yeh Shen finally made it to that fancy party," Mal said when they'd reached the top and he offered Inara his hand. She closed her fingers lightly around his, noting the fresh bandage before releasing his hand.
"Looks like." She smiled at him. "You're in better spirits."
He smiled lopsidedly and they started down the hall towards her shuttle. "Yeah—funny thing. Zoe showed me a bulletin she just happened to pull off the cortex little bit ago. Seems the feds busted the magistrate on Paquin today for the illegal cloning of his late wife."
She didn't even pause, but kept up with him effortlessly. "Did they?"
"They did. They got tipped off by a local tailor, of all people."
"You'd be amazed the sort of thing people will let slip to the help," she said smoothly.
"I most likely would at that."
They'd reached the hatchway of her shuttle, and she didn't even mind when he followed her inside and sat on the end of the bed.
"What will happen to the girl?" she asked as she sat down at her dressing table and began removing the pins that held her heavy curls up off her neck. She watched him in the mirror as he leaned forward, hands loosely clasped and forearms resting on his thighs.
"Probably be put into some Alliance fosterage programme." He frowned, then shrugged. "Won't be the best life I'd have picked for her, but at least she'll get a chance to be who she is, 'stead of being a ghost."
She smiled at him in the glass.
"My daddy ran out on us when I was just a kid."
She froze in the act of removing the pins from her hair. He wasn't looking at her anymore, but had his eyes focused on his boots. She wasn't sure if he'd caught her lapse and she shook her hair free, laying the pins on the table beside her comb as carefully as she could. She was almost afraid to move—afraid she'd shatter whatever spell that made him feel he could open up to her.
"My mamma raised me and ran the third largest ranch on Shadow, and she didn't need no man to help her do it. She had three dozen men working for her, any given time—but they was working for her. Not telling her what to do. She was the strongest woman I ever knew."
Inara turned sideways in her chair so that she was facing him. "Just because she only ever showed you her strong side, doesn't mean she wasn't lonely, Mal."
Mal only frowned.
"Despite all appearances to the contrary, you're not a liúmáng. You're good, and decent, and you've never shown anything but respect for women. Hell, that pōfù Saffron—"
"Now, we have established that she was playing me—" he began defensively, but she went right on as if he hadn't interrupted her.
"A man like Jayne would have been on her inside of five minutes. You're not a man like Jayne. You'll never be a man like Magistrate Carlysle. Never." His head snapped up and she couldn't read his expression. "Doesn't matter that Saffron was playing you—what matters is what you did. And what you did was act like a gentleman."
A ghost of a smile curved at the corner of his mouth. "Except for the part where I let her kiss me while naked."
She sighed. "At least she was the one stripping down to her skin and coming on to you. You were played by a player—but she had to play you. Because you don't play games with women's hearts. That's not who you are."
He looked at her with a mixture of wonder and amusement.
"You're saying an awful lot of nice things about me."
"Yes. Of course, if anyone asks me, I'll deny it."
She leaned forward, reaching out to brush his hair away from his forehead. She expected him to pull back. He didn't.
"You were right, the other day—a woman doesn't need a man to make her worthy. But there's a tremendous strength that can be found in loving someone and being loved in return. And that is worth something."
"They teach you that at whorin' academy?" he asked, his smile returning.
"I learned it at my mother's knee."
He chuckled and leaned forward to brush one dark curl behind her ear. Her breath caught in her throat as she felt his hand brush her cheek lightly before it dropped back down to his side.
He was very close to her. She looked up into his eyes as he leaned toward her, lips parted.
"So, you think there's any of that pie left?" he asked, blue eyes sparkling with mischief.
gôu pì bullshit
jiao-zi pan-fried dumplings (New Year specialty)
mèimei little sister
nî hâo mêi you're so beautiful
qin ài de dear, darling
qingwa cào de liúmáng frog-humping sumbitch
tāmāde (exclamation) motherfucker
xiâo mèimei baby sister
xin gan sweetheart, darling
Yeh Shen 6th century BC Chinese folktale upon which the Western Cinderella is based