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The crew of the Serenity walked out of the cargo bay into the sunny, dusty marketplace on Persephone; except for Simon and River who were staying behind and out of site. Wash and Zoe were going to find a bath and quiet time alone. Mal was off to various different areas on ship errands. Book was off to the Abbey for tea with his fellow Shepards and to see if they had some vegetables to spare. Inara had left the ship in her shuttle prior to Serenity landing in Persephone on her way to a short engagement. And Jayne was off to find a drink and a woman, in that order.

As they all scattered their separate ways a small figure, of rather indeterminate age, watched from the shadows eyes narrowing in on Mal. A medium height man with a gun belt slung low across his hips. He looked like he could be a good mark; the gun wasn’t too big of a deal. Everyone wore one if not two or three and he would never notice his money missing. Caroline squared her shoulders back and headed out from the alley mimicking his stride on the other side of him and generally making a little nuisance of herself; an amusing little nuisance. It was an act that she had perfected over the last couple of years; sometimes people gave her credits, other times she took them. At first the man tried to ignore her; but, she wouldn’t let that happen. After five minutes of watching him laugh at her antics she pinched his wallet vanished into a convenient alley. Darting quickly from that alley into another alley she finally stopped and checked out the Ident Card and tried to sound out the name – M, Ma, Mal… something – reading wasn’t her strong suit. “Some fancy pants name” she thought to herself as she shoved everything inside her coat. “Maybe ma’s feeling good today;” it was nice when she was feeling good then if Caroline brought home wallets with Ident Cards they’d play a little game guessing about the lives of the people on the cards. If she was feeling really good they would go out for walk in the marketplace and buy fruit, real fruit with the money she got from selling Ident Cards to Two Snouts or Badger. But, that didn’t happen too much. Usually the money went to Badger for drops to stop ma from hearing the screams and whiskey to make her forget about the dead people. Lately they’d been coming more then they used to. Badger told her that her Ma’s mind was broke in the war – “the dammed Alliance.”

Creeping into the darkened room at the edge of Persephone, Caroline yelled: “Ma, Ma, I got a good one. The pic is a dandy, some fancy pants.”

“Lemme-shee, sweety” Golensa drunkenly slurred.

Handing over the Ident Card Caroline watched Golensa’s eyes widen as she looked at it. Golensa felt her mind snap back to sobriety as she looked into the eyes of the man who fathered her baby girl. She sat for a minute and thought back to the night that she got pregnant. It was the war for Independence and she’d been a foot soldier like Mal; they were pinned down in an abandoned warehouse. And, well needs were needs, and fear was fear. It wasn’t making love so much as an act of desperation; but, the result was someone who gave her a reason to live.

Golensa sat and stared at the picture of the man who gave her the only true love of her life. An idea started to form. She would give Caroline, her darling Caroline her childhood back. If Mal was in port then Zoë would be here too. Zoë always had Mal’s back. They would make Caroline good parents. Now how did she get Caroline to Mal and Zoë?

A plan, she needed a plan. The hard part would be getting a letter to Mal; a letter that he wouldn’t open until after his boat took off. And was far enough away that they wouldn’t turn around. Golensa hauled up her scrawny, used up body, and dug around in the small box of “savings” she and Caroline had. With the money from Mal’s wallet there should be enough credits there to purchase passage. Now to find the boat.

Slitting her eyes she staggered out into the harsh afternoon sunlight and went down to the loading area of the marketplace looking for Mal and Zoë and any sign of whatever boat they were on.

Kaylee was sitting in front of Serenity talking with Book about the thronging masses milling around, life at the abbey, the growing season for strawberries, women’s fashion, and whatever else came to their minds.

“ ’Scuse, me does this shi-ip carry cargo?” Asked Golensa, as she tried desperately to look reputable.

“Yep, she does” replied Kaylee looking at Golensa.

“That’s good, really good; I got a box that needs to go to Boros. Pretties and such for my family.”

“We just came from Boros; not sure when we’ll be going back there.” Interjected Book, feeling a little concerned about this woman who was an obvious drug addict.

“Don’t really matter when it gets there, just that it gets there. How much?”

“Well,” answered Kaylee, “probably not too much.”

“That’s good; real good. I don’t got too much. Is this enough?” Asked Golensa pulling out a bunch of credits. The credits from her savings and some that had been in the wallet that Caroline had slipped from Mal’s pocket.

“It’ll do; I’ll ask the Cap’n just to be sure.” Was Kaylee’s light hearted response as she was twirling her colorful paper umbrella. “You come back with your box, Cap’n wants to leave this afternoon.”

“Ok, ok, I’ll be back before Sarg… urr Cap’n Reynolds’s wants to leave.” Golensa hurriedly took here leave almost stumbling over Kaylee’s chair. She really hoped that no one noticed her missteps.

“Wonder what she wants us to take to Boros?” Kaylee idly wondered as she watched the woman walk away. “Hope it’s something interesting.”

“Mmm…hmmm” responded Shepard Book as he turned his attention to book of poetry he’d been reading before Kaylee had started talking with him.

Traveling this way wasn’t unfamiliar to Caroline. It was much cheaper for one person with luggage to travel then for two people with nothing to travel. So it was without much thought that Caroline climbed into the crate on top of everything she owned; which really wasn’t much: A change of clothes, and a ragged stuffed doll that resembled a horse, or had once when it still had all four legs. Zoey, the horse’s name, was missing a leg, most of its tail, and an eye. She just needed to make sure she was out of the box before night; that was when ma got bad. Clutching Zoey, named after one of ma’s friends from the war. Ma had told her stories of Zoë and Mal, and how they were the good guys. When she gave Caroline the horse, she said its name was Zoey, because Zoey was incredibly loyal, and gentle; but, you never wanted to get on her bad side for then you would feel the power of her rage. A rage much like that of horses when you tried to hurt something or someone that they loved and viewed as family.

Caroline took the soother, and accepted the warm blanket of sleep as it swept over her as she hoped that Ma wouldn’t forget about her this time. Last time Ma got drunk and forgot about her.

Golensa used more of Mal’s credits to find a deliveryman to take the box to Serenity; along with an envelope with the last of the credits and some brief directions of what to do with the box once it got to Boros. Although, she didn’t think that they would ever be used, and fervently hoped that they wouldn’t. She had also packed her old brown coat for Caroline, and letters, letters to Caroline, a letter to Mal apologizing for not telling him earlier about Caroline. And a letter for Zoë, apologizing for everything; and hoping that they could carry Caroline until she could walk on her own; for Golensa was no longer walking; but, crawling and did not want anyone to see her in the condition she was – a used up junkie whore.

The delivery man, Mal, and Zoë all arrived at Serenity at the same time. Mal was cussing his luck about his wallet; and Zoë was saying something about the footpad being quite talented.

“Delivery, one box, for Serenity – bound for Boros. Someone’s got to sign for this thing.” Rattled off the rather bored delivery man as he pulled the box off his mule and set it down at the top of the ramp.

“Hmph, I will; I’m the Captain of this ship.” Grumped Mal as he turned to sign for it taking the papers and envelope the uniformed man handed him.

“Payment should be with it, Cap’n. Lady promised. She said it don’t matter when it gets there. Jess some family fei hua.” the deliveryman just about sprinted down the ramp when Jayne showed up growling about moving more gorr-am crates around.

“Wash, get this boat in the air.” Shouted Mal as he made his way up toward the bridge to go and do Captain-y stuff.

Chapter Text

Most everyone was sitting around the table in the common area talking about the day, how Mal “lost” his wallet, the woman who wanted to ship a box to Boros, and the new job on Hillard when Inara glided in.

“Mal, the cargo you picked up is thumping. Is it supposed to do that?”

“Uh, no; it’s just supposed to be some stuff for someone on Boros.” Commented Mal as he shoved his chair back from the table and headed quickly towards the cargo area with everyone thundering after him.

Wash took up the rear and rather thought that they resembled a small herd of stampeding dinosaurs. Shepard Book was a brontosaurus; a large spirit, gentle except when directly threatened. Jayne was apaeotosaurus, a deceptive lizard. Kaylee was a quetzalcoatus, a birdlike creature soaring high above chaos. “Wuh de tyen ah! That box really is thumping.” Exclaimed Wash watching the crate thump back and forth as though someone or something was trying to get out. “I hope it’s a beagle. I like beagles.”

“Ten, eleven. Five, six, eight.” muttered River as she rushed out of the cargo bay heading someplace that was of great importance that only she could discern. “Not beagles…” They would have all heard if they had been listening; but, they were staring raptly at the box that was thumping quite rhythmically.

“Cap’n; be careful…said Kaylee quite concernedly as she stood next to Simon watching Mal approach the crate. Reaching the crate, Mal watching it for a minute and then popped the single latch and watched in amazement as the front fell open and a small dirty child fell out clutching a ragged stuffed animal that could be a horse under one arm and a small vicious looking knife in its left hand. Kaylee rushed forward to try and comfort or just to do something for the snarling child. Mal grabbed her arm as she tried to kneel down and get close to the child. “Ni hao.” she said gently while trying to shake off Mal’s grip and kneeling down to be at eye level with the child. “Are you ok?”

“Is that a boy or a girl?” whispered Jayne to Wash.

”My name is Kaylee. What’s yours?” In response the child’s eyes skittered across the hold saw Mal and the others milling around the crate; clutching the horse and the knife scrambled back into the recesses of Serenity where no one could get her. Shaking free of Mal, Kaylee went after the child making comforting noises. Inara and Simon followed Kaylee hoping to lure the child out.

“Well, that went well.” Mal shook his head and lifted the top of the crate wondering if there was any information about it in there.

“Interesting cargo indeed, Kaylee got her wish indeed.” Commented Book as he watched Mal remove an old army issue brown coat to reveal several neatly packed items: a small Buddha, a gold cross, a battered wallet, and a change of clothes.

“My wallet!” yelped Mal snatching it out and turning to show Zoë, revealing the letter beneath it. Book saw that the letter was addressed in a spidery handwriting simply to Sgt. Reynolds; he reached in took it out before Wash, or Jane could see it and comment. As he took the letter he saw that there was another one addressed to Zoë Alleyne and he picked that one up as well.

As everyone started talking at once setting up a hum in the cargo bay Book reached over and took Mal’s arm, pulled him aside quietly and told him “I think you should see this.” Book then walked over to Zoë and repeated his actions. Zoë took the letter and headed out of the cargo bay to read it in private; this was getting strange enough she wanted to be alone when she opened the letter. Wash followed close at her heals, kind of like one of the beagles he’d been talking about earlier.

Turning around Mal took the letter, walking to the stairs, and sank down as he began to read. “Tzao gao,” he muttered to himself “My God” as he kept reading, “wuh de tyen ah,” he kept switching between Mandarin and English. He staggered up and walked dazedly over to where Kaylee, Inara, and Simon were trying to coax her out of Serenity’s bulkhead. “Caroline, her name is Caroline. Make sure Simon looks her over when you get her out.” And with that he went to the bridge to think.

“That ain’t no ruttin girl.” Jayne grunted at Book as he watched the retreating back of the Captain. “Girls got more hair.” And seeing as all the excitement was over headed out going to his quarters to clean Henrietta, his second best boot gun, as she had been exposed to the dust and grime on Persephone. Wasn’t any point in taking his best gun out there, no action, and the dust got in the action something fierce.

Book headed over to where Caroline was hiding and looking at the three of them milling around the hole said that he would bring her to Simon in the infirmary when she came out, and that all of the people hovering where probably terrifying her. After Kayee, Inara, and Simon moved off towards the common room Book sat next to the hole where Caroline was hiding and began to talk in his calming voice. He told her that he was a Shepard, a Shepard from the Southdown Abbey on Persephone. He told her about the gardens there, and how on Tuesdays they always made special meals for the children. He told her about Serenity, and her crew; and that they were good people. He told her the story of David and Goliath. He told her about the places that he had been on Serenity, and the people he had met (severely edited for content).

As he was talking Caroline was listening, and she did remember the meals on Tuesdays at the Abbey; ma always made sure she went. And she liked the Shepards they were nice, gave her new shoes when hers got too bad. Gave her medicine when she was sick, not like that nasty doctor at the Alliance clinic who stuck her with needles and shaved her head – he’d said she had bugs in her hair, and called her a dirty hwoon dahn. Doctors were just bad news.

Creeping out to sit next to the Shepard, clutching Zoey, she put her knife back in its holster. She was proud of the holster she’d made it herself; it held the knife upside down under her shirt so that she could grab it easily. Caroline had a second hiding spot for the knife, inside of Zoey. She’d had to use the knife a couple times, once to stop some boys from torturing a cat, and once to stop some from taking her money. Book noticed, by smell and the wheeze in her breathing, that she had left her hidey hole; but, not wanting to scare her he kept talking about how he missed his garden. And someday how he wanted a garden again where he would grow strawberries for Kaylee, the mechanic; apples for Jayne and Wash; and vegetables for the dinner. Lots of kinds of vegetables: beans, peas, corn, squash, potatoes, cabbage, and lots of others.

Finally looking down at Caroline he asked “Are you hungry, little one?” She nodded still scared to speak, and wondering where was her ma; but, she was completely intimidated by the new surroundings. She’d pretty much figured out that ma wasn’t here. She really wanted to ask; but,...

“Well, we’d best get you washed up. Would you mind if Kaylee and Inara helped and got you some clean clothes?” Caroline shook her head no as Book stood up and took her hand and led her to Inara’s shuttle. As they were making the short walk, Book told her that Inara was really nice and wouldn’t hurt her. And he asked her if she would mind if he went and got dinner ready? She nodded no, a very tentative no as Book was knocking on the shuttle door.

“Come in.”

“Inara, this is Caroline. I’ve told her that you would be helping her clean up for dinner.” Caroline’s eyes opened wide at the luxurious surroundings that were the complete opposite of the cargo bay, and the docks on Persephone. She’d only seen things this fancy in store windows.

“Sweetie, come in.” motioned Inara as she lit a stick of fragrant incense. “Of course I’ll help. Thank you Shepard.” Book took his leave presumably to tell Simon and the Captain that Caroline had come out and would be at dinner; but, that the exam had probably better wait as she was still rather skittish.

Finally gathering her voice and courage up Caroline asked “Where’s Kaylee? She likes strawberries, I like them too; but, blueberries are better.”

“Let’s call her. She can help you shower and I will make you a dress for dinner. Would you like to call her?” Inara walked over to the comm system and motioned for Caroline to follow, showed her which buttons to push and what to say.

The next thing anyone heard was a tentative young female voice saying “Kaylee to Shuttle 1.” With wide eyes, a desire to please, and her finger still on the talk button, she turned to Inara “did I do that right, Ma’am?” Her ma always told her call her elders Sir or Ma’am. Said she couldn’t give her much; but, she could give Caroline some manners.

Inara gently took Caroline’s finger off the talk button and told her that no-one else on the ship could do it that well. Hearing the page Kaylee hurried towards the shuttle.

Zoë was sitting with Wash’s arms around her on their bunk eyes not quite believing what she was reading. She kept muttering to herself, Mal, daughter, qin aide wo de ma; over and over again. Closing her eyes she saw Golensa, as she and Mal had known her, a young and vibrant woman looking forward to seeing planets other then her own. Not some used up, broken down junky whore whose sole aspiration was to that her daughter was safe. When her daughter was safe she could die peacefully; not hearing the screams of the dead anymore.

Chapter Text

Dinner was a rather quiet strained affair, a simple meal that Book had put together with vegetables from the Abbey. Mal, Zoë, and Wash were adjusting to the news that Mal had a daughter. Inara and Kaylee were watching Caroline marveled at the transformation that took place when about ten layers of dirt were removed; she looked like Mal, a small female version of him; the same eyes and jaw-line. Inara she wondered if the little one had the same mercurial moods as the Captain did. Book was watching Mal; and Simon and Jayne were glaring at each other over River’s head. Something about Simon saving the biggest dullest needles he had for Jayne. And River was being River; talking in circles about things that no one quite understood but her.

Caroline ate with the manners of a starving animal. Manners that were equal to Jayne’s in quality; and she stared. She stared around the ship; it was her first time off planet. Stared at Mal, and wondered why he made Ma go weird all of a sudden. Stared at Zoë and wondered if she was the person that Zoey was named after. Stared at River wondering why she got to look messy, and why she was mumbling about beagles and holes, and broken things that love held in the air.

How do you tell someone that their mother isn’t coming for them? Pondered Mal as he ate his dinner watching his daughter at the common room table. His daughter, hard to believe that he had a daughter and one that had table manners like Jayne. Book, he needed to talk with Shepard Book, he would know how to approach this situation. As everyone was finishing dinner Mal asked Book, “Could I speak with you for a few moments, Shepard?”

“Certainly, Captain” nodded the Shepard as he took his last sip of tea.

“Thank you. Kaylee, River take Caroline and show her the boat.”

As everyone left to go about their after dinner chores, tasks and other activities the Shepard and Mal headed out of the common area up to the cockpit. By the time they had reached the doorway the preacher and the Captain were deep in conversation on their way up to the bridge where Mal was planning on sending a wave to Persephone. Kaylee overheard bits and pieces of their conversation: daughter, accept, scared, close.

River, Kaylee, and Caroline went around the various compartments of the ship stopping to look at the pretty pink dress and colored lights in Kaylee’s room. Caroline climbed under the pink frothy concoction that was hanging at the foot of Kaylee’s bunk. Small places made her feel safer.

“Bao bei, how old are you? Five? Ten? Fifteen?” asked Kaylee teasingly peeking under the frothy trim.

“Ma says I’m seven; almost eight. Where is my ma? Is me ma here? Or did she leave me here with the Shepard?” asked Caroline looking at Kaylee and River as she clutched Zoey even more tightly. “She done left me with the Shepards at the Abbey before. They was nice gave me apples and blueberries; didn’t stick me with needles. That done happened once, when the hun dan purple-bellies took me from ma. They said she wasn’t fit or sumpin like that. Didn make no cents to me. I don’t like needles, they hurt.”

“Qin aide wo de ma” Kaylee’s eyes just kept getting wider and wider as Caroline spoke her piece in a voice that said being dumped into an unknown environment wasn’t that big of a deal. “Bao bei, we’d better ask the Cap’n.”

“He and Book are up on the high mountain” piped up River coming out from under the hoops of Kaylee’s dresses. “We shall have to go up on high.”

“Lead the way” piped Kaylee looking at River trying to keep the tears out of her voice. Like a little train they wound there way up to the bridge with River being the engine and Kaylee as the caboose.

Poking her head through the hatch River went “choo - choo” at the top of her lungs.

Quickly followed by Caroline and Kaylee going “hunk – a – chunk, hunk – a chunk, hunk – a – chunk.”

“Choo – choo!”

Mal and the Shepard looked up in surprise. Shepard Book was holding the letter addressed to Captain Reynolds; and Mal was pacing back and forth. Given that they hadn’t heard the train coming up the ladder-well their discussion must have been really deep and serious.

“We were just discussing you mei mei.” Book told Caroline gently as he looked at the three faces peeking in the hatch. “And the fact that the Captain is your father.” He then handed the letter back to Mal.

Looking at Mal in surprise as she stepped into the bridge Caroline told Book very defensively “He ain’t my da; ma said that da and Zoë died in ‘renity Valley. He’s too old.”

“How old do you think I am?”

“Old, at least eighty.” Returned Caroline with the certainty that only a child can have for something like that.

“I may be old, little one; but, I’m not that old. And I didn’t die at Serenity Valley.”

Didn’t die, what did that mean? Her da was dead and gone; long gone. The little hairs on the back her neck raised Caroline clenched her fist, and clutched Zoey tighter with her other hand trying to ward off the growing sense of fear that; thankful that her knife was inside the horse. The lady called Inara had made her take off her holster; said she didn’t need a knife on board. Caroline felt safer with her knife and she’d snuck it into Zoey’s belly when Inara wasn’t looking. Looking around the bridge frantically like a cornered wild animal she wondered where was ma? “You ain my da! Whad you do with me ma? Where is she? Where are we going? Whadya goin’ to do with me?”

“You’re her father?” gasped Kaylee kneeling down to gather Caroline into her arms to try and calm her down.

“Not beagles.” reproached River looking at Wash’s dinosaurs as she left the bridge. “Holes, big holes; watch out for the holes.”

“Sssh-ssh mei-mei; everything’s going to be just shiny, Cap’n will fix it proper. Won’ cha Cap?” She said as she looked at him with worried eyes.

“Your ma’s not here little one.” Mal tried to tell her as gently as he could clutched the letter tightly crumpling it a little. “She sent you here for me and Zoë to take care of you; because she’s sick.”

“No, ma wouldn’t do that unless she was bad again. She’s been good, not screaming much no more. She’s here; I know it, she’s gotta be. What did you do with her? Where’s my ma?” Caroline shook Kaylee off at the beginning of the tirade and drew her knife out of its hidey hole in Zoey where there used to be a leg. Ready to protect herself and Zoey from these people who claimed to want to help, the urge to flee took over and with that she turned and ran out of the bridge, down the ladderwell, darted around Wash and Zoë, and disappeared.

“Cap’n what was in that letter?” gasped Kaylee not quite comprehending everything that was going on. Wordlessly Mal just looked at the letter in his hand as Wash and Zoë came into the bridge. Book started to move to give Wash his usual pilots chair, which he motioned that the Shepard should just keep.

“Mal, a daughter, Zhen de ma?” asked Zoë uncharacteristically gently.

“It appears so. And we are supposed to raise her.” Mal ran his fingers through his hair, causing him to drop the letter unnoticed. “This isn’t exactly someplace safe for a five, six year old child.”

Zoe turned slightly to look hard at Wash trying to subliminally keep him from speaking about his opinions on child-rearing on Serenity. “Seven, she said she’s seven. She’s just really small for her age.” Kaylee said as she bent down to pick up the letter. “It’s a jian jiu xiu shi home for all of us; and its lots better then living with the Alliance or at the Abbey. No offense Shepard.”

“None taken. A family is always the best place for a child to be raised”

“She said that her ma had left her with the Shepards before; and that once the Alliance had taken her. Said that her mother was unfit. Serenity’s got to be better then being brought up by the Alliance.”

“Golensa, unfit?” mused Mal.

“Sir, that does make sense with what all she said in her letter to me.” Added Zoë.

“I just can’t see it. She was like Kaylee -- always cheerful, looking at the bright side of things no matter how bad they got. A broken junky whore; it don’t make sense. She was so cheerful you wanted to duct tape her mouth shut. Don’t make sense at all.”

Reading the beginning of the letter out loud Kaylee uttered something that was now fairly familiar to everyone on the bridge:

“If you can't walk, you crawl, if you can't crawl... You find somebody to carry you.”

And she continued reading the rest of the letter to herself, in tears by the end of the letter, now understanding how a mother could feel desperate enough to send her child away.

Mal, we had one night together. One night to forget about everything happening around us. I can’t forget anymore. I’m haunted every time I close my eyes by the screams, screams of living begging to die, screams of the dead begging to live. The faces of those we tried to save, those we had to kill, and the souls we had to leave behind. How do you write a letter; telling a man that you spent one night with that he fathered a child? Then in the same breath ask him to be a father, a good father? I’m not capable of being a mother. I am crawling now; and don’t have long to crawl. Please, take care of our baby girl – Caroline Lilliana Reynolds – until she is able and capable to be on her own. I named her after your mother, and my mother. She is everything too me; and I must give her a future; a future she will never be able to have with a used up junky whore.
-Golensa

Sir, we can’t just dump her somewhere; she needs us to carry Caroline until she’s old enough to walk alone. She deserves Serenity more then anyone else.” Patting the hull she finished “She’ll take good of her, keep her safe.”

“Kaylee, this isn’t a broken grav-boot, or a puppy. This is a child.”

“Cap’n, she’s not just a child. She’s YOUR child. Your kin.”

“What can I offer her? Chances to get corpsified on a regular basis? The opportunity to be on the run all the time? To be able to eat molded protein day in and day out? That’s not the life for a child.” Thinking back to his childhood on Shadow. “A child needs clean air, open spaces, and freedom. None of which we have here.”

Speaking up for the first time in while Zoë interjected “Mal, all a child needs is unconditional love. That we can offer.”

“What kind of future did she have with her mother? Jail? Death? I don’t think she’s ever gone to school. She can be a whore when she grows up, or a bar wench.” Snapped Kaylee glaring at Mal and she stormed out of the bridge going to find Caroline.

“Well then, I guess she stays; but, just on a temporary basis.” Sinking into the co-pilot’s chair and putting his head in his hands he felt overwhelmed to the point of nausea. Mal didn’t know anything about being a parent.

Sensing his discomfit Book looked directly at him, and borrowed some words from River “You’ll do fine, Captain Daddy, you’ll do fine.”

Chapter Text

Safe, some place safe to hide, someplace where she could be warm again. Someplace where the cold that was in her bones would go away. That was all she needed. Caroline narrowly missed Wash and Zoë as she left the bridge trying to find someplace safe. Running blindly through the passage ways she managed to calm down enough to keep some of her well honed street sense around her and paused when she saw Simon; and managed to duck around a corner before he saw her. He went into the infirmary, and she continued. The ship seemed to go on forever; the “tour” Kaylee and River had given her wasn’t helping her. Caroline started to feel panicked again everything seemed to vanish from her mind except for the need to find someplace to hide. She started running, wishing she was still at the docks; there she knew where to hide, there she had friends, there she could forget everything but the moment.

Jayne finished his dinner and bugged Simon for a little while as he did dishes. Then he headed down to the cargo bay to lift weights. Lifting helped Jayne think things through – and this short person who looked just like Mal, a Mini-Mal was something that needed some thinking about.

Caroline was close to hysterical when she came into the cargo bay, she saw the hole in Serenity’s bulkhead that she had hidden in right when she had come out of the box. Zeroing in on the hole she sprinted across the open floor, her street sense had left with the full-on panic, and not looking left or right she ran and crashed right into Jayne.

Jayne grabbed hold of squirming body and then looked down. He looked down at a feral animal who was fighting for some semblance of freedom. Trying to get away desperately, squirming, kicking, biting, anything. She finally looked up enough that Jayne caught a look at her eyes. They were terrified. Instincts that Jayne had thought were long forgotten, instincts gained from taking care of his younger brothers and sisters back home kicked in and he growled out “shh, shh, xin gan. What’s wrong?”

“Let me go, you chsheng xai-jiao de xiang huo, fancy pants.”

“Ain’t a bastard; knew both my ma and pa. And I ain’t no fancy pants.”

“You’re here.”

“Yep, they pay me to be here. I do their dirty work. Will you calm down? I ain’t gonna hurt you.” Squatting down Jayne wrapped his arms around the little girl.

“I wan my ma.” And with that Caroline’s brave front dissolved and started sobbing into Jayne’s chest. “Sh – she’s not here. He said she’s not here.”

“Shh, shh, sshh” grumbled Jayne picking Caroline and Zoey up, carrying them over to the nearest ladderwell and sitting down. “I don’t know where your ma is.”

“I wan my ma. She said she was comin’.”

“Coming where?”

Still crying Caroline hiccupped out, almost unintelligibly “Boros, going on a trip. I ain’t never been off-world before.”

“In a box?”

“Cheaper that way.”

Jayne understood a lot more now; passage for one adult was much cheaper then passage for two people, even if one of those was a child. You did what you needed to do in order to survive. Jayne rocked Caroline and gruffly asked “Tell me about her.”

Caroline was starting to feel less frightened. This big lion of a man didn’t talk like other fancy people; and from what she could see of his wet T-shirt he didn’t dress all zang shang liu, like the other ones. Sniffing, she burrowed deeper into Jayne’s chest seeking warmth, something to warm up her bones.

“It’s going to be ok.”

“I miss my ma. She’s nice; most of the time, except when she has a spell. I don’t like it when she’s broken. She screams an’ brakes things then. Two-Snouts said she was like a race horse, fragile. He said that she was all used up and needed to be put out to pasture. Said the ‘Liance broke her.” Caroline was starting to relax a little; and starting fiddling with Zoey. She continued “I don’t like the gorram Alliance. I don’t like night, days are good. When ma has good days we go for walks in the market and make up stories and eat fruit. That’s fun. I like fruit; blueberries are my favoritest. Kaylee likes strawberries, Shepard said so.”

“I’m sure when we get back to Persephone; we’ll look for your ma. Don’t want cha worried bout her. Tell me more mei-mei. Tell me about Two-Snouts.” Jayne growled trying not to sound angry, and Caroline could feel his chest rumble like a cat when they purred. Jayne didn’t want to promise they’d find her ma; he didn’t have any hope for that.

“I don’t like Two-Snouts. He’s ma’s boss; works for Badger. He says he has a stable full of flesh. And he dresses all gorram jian jiu xiu shi with lots of smelly stuff in his hair. It looks wet all the time; and he smells bad. He gives ma ice drops keep the screaming away. Says he can’t make no money off a woman screamin’ her head off.”

Jayne figured that keeping Caroline talking was a good thing. “How ‘bout your home?”

“I like feeling you talk. You feel like a cat, all rumbly.” Said Caroline trying burrow deeper into Jayne and shifting Zoey a little. “Home, we done had lots a places we stayed. Couple, times when ma was really sick and I couldn’t take care of her I stayed at the Abbey. I like Shepards, they’re nice. Where do you live?”

“I live here.”

That caused her to straighten up “With all the fancy pants? They let you? Zhen de ma?”

“Yep, here. They ain’t all that bad. I gots three meals a day, and my own bunk. Captain’s a fair sort a’ guy.”

“Huh, he seems like a tamade hundan.”

“Nah, he’s a good guy; just kinda different. You can trust him.” He felt her begin to relax against him again; and figured he must be saying something right. “Whole crews right nice.” He thought about Simon then added “mostly.”

Caroline was really starting to relax; and was starting to feel warm, tired, and safe. This big man, Jayne, they had called him at dinner was nice. He didn’t talk all fancy like the others, ceptin’ Kaylee, he talked kinda like her. He didn’t dress all weird either in tight pants with a stripe on them like the Captain, or prissy like the guy called Doc or Simon, or in weird looking shirts – he was normal. “Normal is good.” Caroline said out loud; but, very quietly. She heard a noise behind them on the upper floor of the big room, and tensed up, tightening her hands around Zoey, getting ready to go for her knife.

Hearing the footsteps, and realizing that it was just Kaylee; Jayne rumbled, “Don’t worry it’s just Kaylee. Can always tell the sound of her: little feet in big boots. River too.”

Looking down on what was unfolding below her; Kaylee’s heart melted. She had always known Jayne had a soft spot; but, it almost never showed itself. She didn’t want to break up the peaceful scene; but, the Cap’n had sent her to find Caroline and help her get ready for bed. Kaylee had offered to give up her bunk; Shepard had said no, it would be better if she shared a compartment with Mal. They needed to get used to each other. Shepards knew that kind of stuff. Kaylee kept watching the two of them conversing in low tones until they looked up at her. She really wished she could hear; and she really hoped Jayne wasn’t talking about Vera, guns, or sexin’ up women.

“Bao bei.” Kaylee said starting down the ladderwell. “It’s bed time, are you tired? It’s been a really big day. We’ve got a bunk all ready for you; Cap’n is puttin’ clean sheets on for you.”

Shaking her head vehemently, Caroline clutched Zoey and Jayne tighter. “No, don’ wanna go. Safe here. Warm.”

Holding her very carefully, Jayne stood up. “Come on little one, let’s go. Can’t stay here all night. Go on Kaylee, we’ll follow.”

And so they went, another train forward past the passenger quarters, med bay, common area, up the corridor, through the dining room and to the crew quarters. Kaylee stopped in front of Mal’s room which surprised Jayne; but, what the hell if the Cap wants to give up his bunk for a rug rat that’s his problem. Book had said that since Caroline was Mal’s daughter the forced physical closeness might help them develop a father daughter bond more quickly.

“Down you go. Ain’t carryin’ you down the ladder” Jayne rumbled setting Caroline down on her feet.

Looking very uncertain and nervous Caroline asked “are you coming?”

“Not sure I can.” By this time Kaylee was standing below with Mal and the Shepard. They’d made up the bunk for Caroline and rigged Kaylee’s hammock up for the Captain.

“Not going less you come.”

“Ho’ k. I’m coming, you go first.”

Caroline went down the ladderwell and waited unmoving for Jayne to come down. She was tense again, worried; clutching Zoey tightly and not liking the fact that everyone seemed to be in the room. Seeing how the number of people seemed to make Caroline tense; Book nodded at Kaylee and said “I’m going to take my leave now. Kaylee doesn’t Serenity need some checking up on?”

“Mmm…” she said looking over at Book, who gave her a meaningful stare. “Yes, good night everyone. Good night Caroline.” As they left the compartment, Caroline was climbing back into Jayne’s arms.”

“Bao bei” Mal uttered walking over to the odd couple “I brought your stuff down, your Buddha and the cross are on the shelf at the top of the bunk. That’s where you’re going to sleep tonight. Kaylee and River found you a night shirt and a toothbrush. Drawer under the bunk has your clothes in it.”

Jayne put down Caroline “Go on, go over there. I can’t stay here all night. Got my own bunk. You’re gonna be fine. Caps a good guy. You can trust him.”

Walking over to look at the things on the shelf and under the bunk Caroline just stared at them with wide eyes. It was very odd that everything was all together, neat-like, and not hidden.

Mal ran his fingers through his hair “I put them there for you. Is that ok? We’ll find someplace better for them tomorrow.”

“Are they safe?”

“Yes, everything is safe in here.” He pointed at the bunk, “You’re going to sleep there. Uhhh… I’m going to go and get Kaylee; she’ll help you get ready for bed. Ok?” Mal went to the comm box and called for Kaylee.

When Kaylee popped down the ladder and started to talk with Caroline Mal went up the ladder and sagged against the bulkhead wondering about how he was supposed to raise a child. The man from whom he usually sought counsel was a preacher, and had never had children. Ironically, the person on Serenity with the most experience with children was Jayne. Jayne, that didn’t make sense? That thought just made him sit down on the floor with his head in his hands. How could he ask counsel from Jayne? How was he going to raise a child? His daughter? He had a daughter? Qin aide wo de ma, what was next Zoë and Wash having a gorram baby? He’d have to nip that idea in the bud – but, in the morning. He was sharing his quarters with a child. What next, pets on board? Well other then Wash’s dinosaurs.

Kaylee’s head popped up in the hatch. “We’re done; Caroline is ready for a story.” She climbed all the way up; and said “Tell her a nice story, no reavers, or gun battles. Tell her something from your childhood on Shadow or Earth-That-Was. All kids like “Earth-That-Was” stories.

Mal lifted his head and hauled his weary body up, and waited for Kaylee to pass by. “Thank you. Good night.” And down the ladder he went, slowly and very apprehensively not quite sure what he was going to find or what he was going to talk about. He grabbed the chair at his desk, ducked under the hammock, and sat down. Trying to sound comforting he started “you ready to go to sleep little one? It’s been a long day.”

“Yeah.” Kaylee had told her that Mal was as scared of her as she was of him. She had Zoey tucked in with her. Holding Zoey made her think of her ma. “Do you think ma’s ok?”

Mal reached over and touched the bed. “I’m sure she is. We’ll send a wave to Persephone tomorrow. Do you want a story?” Wash had told him to tell her a story. He didn’t want her to start screaming again. Horses he would talk about horses; she had Zoey, and she liked her so they had to be a safe subject. “My mama always told me ‘you treat your horse right, it'll do right by you.” He looked down at her and saw that she had her eyes closed. This might not be too hard he thought to himself. “Mama’s ranch was on Shadow; it’s a rim world. We had a lot of horses there. Needed ‘em to work the ranch. Some we used for riding; some of them pulled wagons, or plows such.” He looked over again and noticed that her breathing had started to even out and her grip had stopped being a complete death grip on the stuffed horse; figured that he should go on just a little more while he got ready to sleep. So he kept going as he got ready. “My favorite horse of all was a brown horse, her name was Apple; ‘cause she would eat apples right off the tree. She could run like the wind forever and ever.” He climbed awkwardly into the hammock and ended with “We had some good times Apple and me. Good night, little one.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “We’ll figure this out, you and me. Good night.”

Chapter Text

Over the next few days Caroline decided being on Serenity wasn’t too bad. The Cap’n would tell her bedtime stories always about horses. Kaylee said that the next time they were planetside for a few days they would make her a bedroom. Her very own bedroom! Cap’n said it had to be kept clean, shipshape like the rest of Serenity.

The crew’s routines went back to normal too. A new version of normal; but, normal. Kaylee still kept Serenity flying, laughed with Wash and Zoë, and made googly eyes at Simon. Simon was still an uptight trauma surgeon from the core who worried. River was -- well River; she danced her way around the ship, irritated Jayne, worried Simon, and perplexed everyone else. Inara was as always a graceful priestess who kept Mal on edge, brushed Kaylee’s hair, and calmed River. Book was still a gentling presence to most of the crew; he talked with Simon, lifted weights with Jayne, laughed with Kaylee.

The new normal was just a little different. Kaylee and River played with Caroline; Wash told her stories; and Zoë read to her, which worried Wash he still wasn’t too sure about having a baby aboard a spaceship. Inara brushed her hair along with Kaylee and Rivers; and was attempting to teach Caroline the formal tea ceremony she’d been taught when she was young; Jayne roughhoused with the little girl, to the consternation of Simon; and the preacher, he tried to calm the doctor. It was interesting how quickly she’d embedded herself into their lives.

Before Caroline came on board Serenity, Mal had always put Serenity to bed. After dinner when the crew had settled in for the night: Book with his evening meditations; Inara to her shuttle; Kaylee, Simon, River, and sometimes Wash and Zoë to the common area for quiet conversation; and Jayne to his bunk to clean weapons, or read girly magazines. Mal would walk around Serenity and check in with her. He’d make sure nothing seemed out of place or sounded wrong.

With Caroline in the picture; their routines changed. All of their routines changed. After dinner Caroline would curl up in the common area with one of the crew who would draw with her (that was mostly Kaylee and River); or tell her stories (that was pretty much everyone). Then Kaylee, Inara, or Zoë would help her get ready for bed: showering, teeth cleaning, and a nightgown. She was wearing one of Simon’s undershirts as a nightgown; he was the smallest male on board, and had the most clothes. While Caroline was getting ready for bed Mal would make his nightly rounds of Serenity, tuck Caroline into bed and tell her a story. After she fell asleep, Mal would check in on Serenity and then often go up to the bridge and ponder the cosmos for an hour or two; or the common area doing captainy things.

Tonight he’d told her the story of him discovering Serenity. After she fell asleep Mal went up to the bridge; he needed some alone time. Some time to ponder fatherhood. Mal worried about the little girl. Whenever anyone looked at her cross-eyed she’d bolt for a hiding spot. Skittish that was the word.

She’d gotten into the engine room once and had made a mess looking around. He’d had to have a stern talk with her then; but, Kaylee had said that nothing seemed to be missing. Caroline had gotten into a cabinet with cleaners, lubricants, chemicals – that type of stuff; seemed like a weird choice; but, he guessed she’d been exploring. He had to tell her that the bridge, engine room and medical bay were off limits unless an adult: Wash, Zoë, Book, Simon, Jayne, or Kaylee was with her. River didn’t count as a responsible adult.

Small things seemed to make Caroline rabbit. Weird noises, or people looking at her oddly or sternly or Simon looking at her at all would make her go darting off to one of her hidey holes. Caroline’s favorite spot was the hole she’d found when she emerged from her box. She had little bits of stuff stored there; things that she didn’t want anyone else to know about. Little bits of her soul ma called them; not much: a shiny rock Kaylee gave her, an origami crane from Inara, two pieces of string from Zoey’s mane; and other stuff like that.

Mal was staring at the stars wondering what to do about Caroline when he smelled jasmine tea. Turning his head slightly he saw Inara standing in the hatch. “Evenin”

“Captain.”

“Ambassador, come to enjoy the cosmos?”

“I was wondering how you were doing? You seemed a little tense this evening.”

“Caroline, I was wondering how to deal with her skittishness; and if we were ever going to hear back from Golensa. She’s been asking; and I don’t want to get her hopes up.”

“She’s scared. She’s a little girl in a new environment without her mother. She’s figuring out that you love her.” Inara paused for a moment and amended “She’s figuring out that we all love her. It’s a big change, her world going from revolving around Golensa and surviving, to being onboard Serenity surrounded by people.”

Mal nodded his agreement and went back to staring at the stars.

Inara sat down in the other chair and joined Mal in the silence that was the black. She sipped her porcelain cup of tea in silence. The black velvet of the stars surrounded them.

“Gorramit Golensa.” Mal muttered.

Inara looked over at him; took a sip of tea, and hmmmed her assent. She recognized that Mal was worrying over Caroline, worrying over Golensa, worrying over the crew, and Serenity. He was a worrier; as much as he said he wasn’t – he cared about the people around him.

The silence sat all around them. It was a comfortable silence; the kind that envelopes you like a woolen shawl on a cold morning. Mal sat and stared out at the stars and muttered occasionally. It didn’t take a formally trained companion to tell that the Captain needed alone time so Inara stared at the stars for another few minutes enjoying the cosmos; and the time with the Captain. Too often they were bickering. She finished her cup of tea silently left him alone on the bridge.

The following day Caroline peeked out of her hiding hole in the cargo bay and darted out tripping over her feet right before she reached the stairs. Jayne who had just finished lifting weights and was heading for a shower scooped her up before she hit the floor. “Watch your feet, little one.”

“Uh huh.” Caroline didn’t look up at him; she looked down at her feet. Her feet that weren’t doing what she wanted them to.

“What ‘cha doing hiding in there?” Jayne bobbed his head in the general direction of the hole.

“Simon.”

“Yeah.” Jayne set the little girl back on her feet; and rubbed a smudge of silver stuff off her cheek. The wheeze that Simon had commented on seemed to be getting a little worse today.

Caroline found her feet; and meandered off towards her bunk. She looked about ready for a nap.

They were six days into the two week trip; Caroline had never been off planet before; how was she going to deal with being cooped up on a ship for another week? Mal worried, not too much more he could do. During the days that followed Caroline kept studiously avoiding Simon and the infirmary; the idea of getting poked and prodded terrified her. She and River played games, drew, or danced. Inara was teaching Caroline to braid River’s hair; how to serve formal tea like a lady, and she’d let them watch cartoons on the cortex. That was fun; she really liked the singing octopus. Kaylee joined them when she wasn’t busy with Serenity. River was trying to teach Caroline to dance; it was hard, especially with no real music. Caroline didn’t like the needle tracks on River’s arms. She wanted River to cover them up; they made her think of her ma. River said that was how Simon gave her medicine.

Jayne made Caroline laugh, and held her when she cried. He was her favorite person out of the whole crew, he didn’t tell her NO too much. Let her swear, as long as no one else was around. Cap’n said she wasn’t supposed to swear; and Inara would purse her lips and shake head at her when she swore. But, Inara was nice -- intimidating, all prettified, and elegant. She talked real fancy. Shepard Book was nice, he told neat stories; about whales, and people that turned to stones. He said that his God would keep her ma safe in his arms; which was real good. Wash played dinosaurs with her; but, she couldn’t go on the bridge by herself because she could hurt Serenity. Cap’n wouldn’t let her in the engine spaces unless someone was with her; which sucked because that’s where Kaylee spent most of her time. The Cap’n said Kaylee didn’t have time to watch her and work on Serenity too. Wash was funny he always told funny stories about juggling baby geese; “lip ferrets,” and other strange things.

Wash ‘s married to Zoë; which made the Cap’n unhappy. Something about ruttin’ on ships being bad for morals. Didn’t get that at all; Caroline asked Book what a morel was. He said it was a type of mushroom. What do mushrooms have to do with ships that fly in space? Who knows; but, it cemented Caroline’s opinion of Mal being slightly addled in the brain pan.

Zoë was scary. Serious most of the time; she looked like the warrior women that she saw once at the moving picture show that Two-Snouts gave her money to go and see. They’d called her an Amazon. He’d wanted to get rid of her for some “adult” reason that Caroline wasn’t old enough to learn about yet. Stupid, just stupid. Wash called Zoë his warrior woman sometimes, other times he called her Lamby-Toes. Zoë made good soup; wife soup Wash called it. Hadn’t heard of that kind before; he said it tasted like chicken soup. The Shepards at the Abbey made chicken soup sometimes; fed it to sick people. Caroline like the soup at the Abbey.

Almost two weeks after she arrived, Caroline walked out of Inara’s shuttle after getting her hair brushed. She didn’t have too much hair yet, since the Alliance doctor had shaved her head only a few months earlier. Caroline really liked Serenity now. It was a nice ship. Riding on one was much cooler than seeing them take off and land in the docks. Serenity was safe; Jayne said so. She didn’t need to hide much now, ‘cept when people yelled or Simon started looking at her weird. He wanted to ‘xamine her; said so. Nope, that wasn’t happenin’. No how. No way.

Caroline walked down the passage going towards the common areas looking for River to see if she wanted to play jacks or cards. River and Kaylee were teaching Caroline to play War and Old Maid. River was just sitting and staring. “What cha doing?”

“Watching. Spider is building its house.” The spider was spinning a web between two pipes up near the ceiling.

“That ain’t its house. That’s its dinner table.”

“House too.”

“Huh? Where does it sleep”

“Middle.”

“Huh.”

“How does it build that?”

“It secretes the silk out glands. Different types of spiders have different types of glands for doing different things. The Glandula Aggregata produces the sticky material for the threads; the Glandula Ampulleceae major and minor are used for the silk of the walking thread; the Glandula Pyriformes is used for the production of the attaching …”

“Huh? Whad you talkin’ bout?”

“Spider poops out thread.

“Zhen de ma?”

“Yep.”

“Gross.”

“We could build a web.”

“I don’t poop string.”

River turned, now staring in horrified fascination at Caroline “No, silly; we’ll use real string. Make a big web here in the passage; see what we can catch.”

“Dinner?”

“Maybe. Or a person.”

A big smile lit up Caroline’s face. “Shiny! How we going to do that.” Caroline waved her hands at the web. “Build a house? And a table?”

“Need string; lots of string.” River got up and headed to Simon’s berth with Caroline close on her heels. They entered the berth and Caroline just watch River root through Simon’s stuff throwing things hither and yon until she came up with dental floss. Three boxes of the stuff. “Go ask Jayne if he’s got any tooth string, or regular string; I’m going to go and ask Kaylee and ‘Nara.”

They went separate ways and met up about an hour later with twelve boxes of dental floss, three little packets of embroidery floss from Inara; four skeins of yarn, and a spool of thread from Kaylee; three rubber bands, and a ball of twine from Wash; and a spool of fishing line from Book. Jayne had contributed some wire, a box of dental floss, and six red rubber bands. Mal, they didn’t ask him – he would have said no. Caroline just rummaged through his toiletries and found a thing of dental floss. Searching the kitchen they found scissors, two big rubber bands, one small blue one and five twist ties. River had gone through the infirmary and taken a pair of scissors, stitching silk, and the sticky stuff that Simon squirted on people to hold together cuts and the like. They piled all of their goodies into their secret workspace; the empty shuttle.

River started to explain web building to Caroline “The wind helps the spider make its web. It carries a thin adhesive thread released from her spinners while making the thread longer and longer. If she is lucky the thread sticks to a proper spot. Then she walks carefully over the thread, strengthening it with a second thread. This is repeated until the primary thread is strong enough. After this, she hangs a thread in the form of a Y below the primary thread. These are the first three radial of the web. More radials are constructed taking care that the distance between the radial is small enough to cross. Then non-sticky circular construction spirals are made. The web is completed when the adhesive spiral threads are placed. While the sticky spirals are placed the non-sticky spirals are removed. And that’s all there is to making a web.”

For the rest of the morning; and part of the afternoon they strung string, made knots, giggled, and talked. It was mid-afternoon before River declared the web a thing of beauty, and done. It was a complicated circular maze of string with the thinnest in the center and the thick twine at the outer edges all held together by knots and a primary thread of fishing twine.

“Now what?” Caroline asked.

“Now we hang it up; and see what we catch.” River responded with severe gravity. “Gotta get dinner.”

They very carefully rolled up the web and snuck out of the shuttle, concealing themselves behind the mule, being very careful that Jayne and the preacher didn’t see them and ask questions.

“Where are we gonna’ hang it? Near the real web? How’s we gonna catch summpin in it?”

River carefully explained as they were walking through the passageways “Real spider webs have sticky spirals on them, so that when a bug gets caught in them they stick to it. When they struggle, they get more stuck and can’t get out. Got this from the infirmary, it’s really sticky. We put it on our web and when something walks into it they’ll stick just like on a real spider web.”

“Ok.”

Stopping in the passageway between the upper cargo bay and the crew quarters River looked around and studiously declared “Here, here is where it goes.” With that she climbed up to the top of the passage and using it seemed like twelve hands, three legs, and a few other appendages managed to attach a corner of the web to a pipe using one of the twist ties.

“Shiny; this is really shiny. Almost as good as hide and seek with you, Wash, Kaylee, and Jayne.”

River nodded her head in assent and clambered up the other side and attached the rest of the top. Caroline knelt down and hooked the bottom on to the cables and pipes that ran along the passage.

“Now we just need to make it sticky. Can I do it please River? I wanna make it sticky?” River handed Caroline the small gun and showed her where she wanted the sticky stuff. When not mixed with a water based substance (like blood) it wouldn’t harden just stay sticky. Otherwise you had to use a special dissolving agent.

River’s eyes were darting around. “Now we gotta hide. Quiet like mice. We don’t want anyone to think we’re here.”

“Watch? We gonna watch?”

River pointed down the corridor; gathered up the rest of the twist ties and rubber bands. “There.”

They scampered down the hallway giggling like children up to something and hid just around the bend. River brought out a deck of cards, and while they waited, she started trying to teach Caroline how to play war. Another uphill battle Caroline’s counting skills weren’t great.

“Yeh soo! Ta ma duh! Niu shi! Ni ta ma de!”

Whispering to River, Caroline excitedly asked “Who do you think we caught?”

“Qing wa cao de liu mang! Hwoon dahn!” Echoed down the corridor, in a furious female voice.

“Zoë. I was hoping for Jayne or Simon.” Was the whispered reply.

“Ooh. Jayne would have been funny. What now?”

“Run, hide. Don’t want to get caught.” River led the way into the guts of Serenity just as Wash, and Simon showed up and stared at Zoë struggling in the sticky yarn prison. They looked at her and at then at each other and dissolved into laughter. It was very funny picture; the warrior woman trapped. Trapped in a multi-colored string prison, Zoë had walked into it had fallen off the ceiling and was sticking to her hair, clothes, and shoes.

“Lamby-Toes, how did you get caught in that, that thing?” Wash asked trying to not laugh too much at his wife.

“I was reading and walking. I didn’t expect this thing here. Get me out.”

“What in the gorram hell is that thing Zoë?” Yelled Mal arriving on the scene a little perturbed at having the quiet routine of the day disturbed.

“Sir, I don’t rightly know. It appears to be some sort of net. Will someone please help me get out?”

Laughing Wash walked over to Zoë and started to disentangle her. “Diyu, this explains why Caroline wanted my twine.”

Book and Jayne heard the commotion floating down to the cargo bay. As soon as they walked in Jayne busted out laughing at the sight of Zoë and Wash tangled up in string. Book, was trying very hard to cover up his chuckling. With the addition of Book and Jayne laughing Mal couldn’t keep it in any longer and started laughing with them. Inara and Kaylee walked over from the galley where Inara had been making a cup of tea.

Inara saw the laughing crew first; and then Zoë attempting to get out and Wash’s attempts to help. Wash was trying to help Zoë; but, was getting himself caught in the sticky maze of strings. The sticky stuff hardened when it touched skin, something about the oils in the skin. “Does anyone have scissors or a knife with them?”

Jayne handed his knife to Inara in between laughing spells. “Ni ta ma de. I see my wire, and the red rubber bands are mine.”

Inara glided over to Zoe and Wash who were by now thoroughly entangled “Stop squirming you two, or one of you is going to get cut.” And she started cutting the two love-birds apart; being careful not to touch the strings – she’d seen what happened when Wash had touched them. “You all could help instead of just standing there and laughing.” Inara looked at Jayne and added “The violet embroidery floss is mine; River came and asked for it this morning said something about weaving.”

By the time that Inara had finished cutting Zoë and Wash apart everyone had stopped laughing. But, the sight of Zoë and Wash covered in short strings started everyone back up to laughing. “I’m glad we could provide some afternoon amusement. Now if you will excuse us, I’m going to take my wife back to our quarters and rip her clothes off. Being tied to my wife always makes me quite amorous.”

“Not tied up; caught in a spider web.” Piped up River from somewhere behind Jayne. River and Caroline had heard the laughing and didn’t want to miss the fun; so they had circled back to the corridor.

“Gorammit, girl. Must you sneak up on people like that.” Growled Jayne.

“Didn’t sneak. Walked.”

“What’s this about a web?” asked Mal looking at the string and twine remnants scattered on the floor. He looked at River and Caroline trying to look severe. “This ship is not a playpen. And I do not appreciate having it treated as such.”

“Holes. Teaching Caroline about spiders. No school, so I’m teaching.”

“It was really cool; Cap’n. Spiders poop silk. Webs is their home and there dinner table, and sometimes their dinner. River said so.” Caroline’s small head popped out next to River’s.

“And you believed that addlepated crazy girl.” Growled Jayne. “Now what am I going do for dental floss?”

“Caroline’s mostly right. They use glands to excrete silk. Jayne, I have a couple of extra boxes. Simon volunteered reluctantly, feeling it was the proper thing to as River had taken Jayne’s.

“Nope, nope you don’t. Used it, center of the web.” Spouted River.
Simon just shook his head. Little sisters, he thought. He hoped that they hadn’t used all of his suturing and stitching supplies.

“A spider web?” Asked Mal, looking rather addled. “Why is there is a spider web in the middle of my ship? Teaching? Teaching who? Teaching what?”

“Teaching Caroline; holes. Full of holes.” She looked pointedly at Mal, “No holes” and then back at Caroline “Holes need to be filled.”

He looked sternly at Caroline and River he asked “What in the gorram diyu are you talking about? He turned and started walking towards the bridge, and finished “Teacher, student clean up the web and no more science projects in the passageways or any other part of this ship without permission. Dong ma?”

River stared deeply at the Captain. “In the search for your destiny, you will often find yourself obliged to change direction.”

“Huh.” Mal shook his head at the addlepated response from River. “Not the answer I was looking for. Clean this up; understand?”

Caroline grabbed River’s hands; she was a little worried about Cap’n getting mad. She didn’t really know how’d he react. “Shirrah. Uh huh, Cap’n we’ll clean. We’ll clean good.”

“Good.” Mal headed up towards the bridge with Book following not too far behind.

“Moonbrained girl.” Jayne muttered.

“It was a quote from an Earth-That-Was lyricist and novelist Paulo Coelho.”

Jayne slitted his eyes at Inara and headed towards the aft portion of the ship with Inara close to him leaving River and Caroline to clean up the mess. Kaylee went to make dinner; it was her turn to cook. Simon went to his infirmary to see if they scavenged anything else from his sanctuary; and to get the dissolving solution to Zoë and Jayne. No one saw the look of satisfaction on River’s face; she’d successfully planted the seed of school.

Reaching the bridge the Shepard found Mal sitting in the pilot’s chair staring out at the black. “Mal are you all right?”

“Spider webs in the passage. What’s next? Volcanoes in the cargo bay? Diyu, their probably trying to figure out how to flood the engine room for swimming lessons? I didn’t sign up for this.”

“Mal, you’re doing good. Children will be children. It takes time to grow into the role of having a daughter; just as she needs time to adjust to having a father.”

“Thanks preacher.” A little sarcastically.

“Although River did have a point. Caroline should be going to school.”

“And where are we going to find a gorram school? Ain’t seeing a little schoolhouse poppin’ up in the middle of the cargo bay. I told everyone this wasn’t a good idea. Children need more then this.”

“Mal, everything she needs is right here. Zoë said it best all she really needs is unconditional love. Schooling we can provide. At the Abbey we taught the street children; I helped out sometimes when the teaching brothers were otherwise disposed. I can teach her reading and writing and math, Simon can teach her science, first aid, and medical stuff. Wash can teach Caroline navigation. Inara can teach her etiquette and music. River can teach her dancing, and about spiders. Everything she needs is here.”

Mal muttered, “Great River a teacher. That’s something I never thought I’d see. Be as bad as Jayne teachin’. We’ll discuss this at dinner.”

“Have faith Mal. You and Caroline will figure it out. Your mother did a good job of raising you. I’m sure you will do a good job raising Caroline. I’m going to leave you with your thoughts and go help Kaylee with dinner.” And he left Mal alone staring out at the black.

Folding his hands behind his head Mal thought to himself: School probably was a good idea. Child needed to learn. Would keep her out of trouble; could keep River occupied part of the time. Wasn’t ever really sure where the two of them would pop up now, or what they would pop out of. Yesterday he’d found them crawling through air vents under the common room. What was next? Learning about something would keep the girl busy for at least part of the day.

Routine, a routine was good. Daily routine was good. School would solve part of that problem; give her mind something to do. Now there was just the rest of the day to worry about. Mama, his mother, Caroline Reynolds had always made sure that he’d had chores. Kaylee had daily chores to do when she lived at home. Zoë, Wash, and Jayne had all had chores to do of various types also. Might make the girl feel more like she belonged was a part of the crew, a part of the family. He’d talk with Kaylee and Book and see what they felt was appropriate. Dinner they’d talk about it at dinner.

It was about dinner time wasn’t it? Stretching Mal got up and took one last look out at the black. He snapped his suspenders back up onto his shoulders and headed down to the galley to see if he could find Kaylee and the Shepard.

When he reached the kitchen he found Simon setting the table, Inara and Kaylee were sitting in the common area. Inara was brushing Kaylee’s hair. Shepard Book was doing what appeared to be the finishing touches a meal that looked suspiciously like molded protein. It was a very domestic scene.

“Almost out of fresh vegetables; a little here and there left.” Book’s told Mal as he was spicing the mysterious concoction that was to be dinner.

“Smells good. I was thinkin’. Girl’s here to stay for a while. Needs a routine, it’ll be good for her.”

Inara was a little suspicious about the Captain’s thinkin’ it didn’t always turn out good for anyone. “What are you thinking of?”

He sat down at the table and replied “Schooling, girl needs schooling. And probably some type of chores. It’ll make her feel more like a part of the crew. Keep her occupied and out of trouble. Don’t want more spider webs in the passages, volcanoes in the cargo bay, or swimming lessons in the engine room”

“Swimming lessons in the engine room?” Sputtered Kaylee laughing and choking.

“Or some such thing. Shepard, will you and Simon teach her in the mornings?”

“That’s probably the best time to do it; after breakfast. We can start tomorrow; have you talked with Caroline about this?” Book said thoughtfully.

“Nope, was going to do that at dinner.” Mal responded with a sideways glance at Wash and Zoë who had just come in to the galley.

“Thought I smelled something good. Shepard, what is it?” asked Wash trying to see if he could snag a taste.

“Curry. Should be good.”

Inara and Kaylee walked over from their corner to the table and sat down. Kaylee added her bit into the conversation “Chores would be good for her; she could set and clear the table.”

“Faster, faster, faster.” Echoed down the passage, accompanied by the sound of stomping feet. “Go faster River.”

“You say giddy-up to a horse.”

“If one of you falls and breaks your face I won’t fix it.” Bellowed Mal looking at the still empty door.

Slightly out of breath Caroline appeared in the door right behind River. “Didn’t fall. We were being horses.” The littlest crew member piped up.

“And next it’s volcanoes” muttered Mal to himself. “Well someone go get Jayne; it looks like dinners about ready. River.”

“Caroline, bao bei, did you wash your hands?” Kaylee asked looking at Caroline who had a piece of blue rubber-band still glued to her hair, and grease stains on her arms, legs, and face.

“Yep.”

Mal narrowed his eyes and looked at the grungy child. “When?”

Caroline looked down at her hands, and then her bare feet, “a little while ago.” She hadn’t worn shoes since they’d found her; because, hers were really ragged and River didn’t wear shoes when she didn’t want to.

“Go wash em again; and your face.” Mal said, taking a second look at the large grease stains covering Caroline’s face, waving his arm in the direction of crew berthing. Caroline slouched out, about as happy with the washing business as Jayne. When Caroline got back most everything was on the table and the usual loud hum that accompanied dinner was in full force. Shepard Book put the curry on the table with an authoritative plunk; and everyone that weren’t sitting scrambled for their usual seats.

Wash had made Caroline a box that sat on top of her chair so she was tall enough to sit at the table. Her first meal on Serenity; Shepard Book had her sit between the Captain; and Inara. He’d said something about her and him havin’ to get used to each other. Caroline didn’t really like sittin’ there; she’d a rather sat down by River, Jayne and Kaylee. ‘Nara and Simon was always correcting the way she ate. Made it gorram hard to make it through a whole meal.

Mal was watching Caroline and everyone else eat. The enthusiasm for the meal went down as everyone realized that it was molded protein; even though this was one of the better presentations. How did he bring up the school thing? And the chore thing? Gently? Brusquely? Diyu; better to just tell her and be done with it. Although, the chore thing could wait until tonight, that might be easier without the whole crew around. “Caroline, you and Shepard Book are going to start school tomorrow. Tomorrow morning after breakfast is cleared away.”

She looked up from pushing her protein around “Huh? School? I don’t go to school.”

‘Tomorrow you start. Shepard Book is going to teach you reading, writing, and numbers.”

“Ain’ goin’ to no school. School is for ni ta ma de purple bellies; that’s what ma always said. Fancy pants. I ain’t no fancy pants.”

“No you ain’t; but, you aren’t going to be an ignoramus. You’re going to learn.”

“Captain, if I might interject.” Book inserted looking from Mal to Caroline and seeing identical facial expressions, and jaw lines. Both set stubbornly. “Caroline; you aren’t going to leave Serenity, we going to read and write here. Here at this table.”

“Golly, it’s like Mal and Mini-Mal.” Wash interjected looking at the two glaring parties. “Ow, Lamby-Toes why did you kick me?”

“I ain’t like them.” Caroline yelped; and knocked her chair over, the booster hitting Mal in the shin, and running from the room.

“Hwoon dahn, can’t we have one peacable meal without someone getting all addlepated?” Growled Jayne slurping up the last of his curry.

River was staring intently at Mal as he was running his fingers through his hair in utter frustration. “Holes need to fill the holes.”

Mal pushed back his chair; “Diyu. I’m going to go find her and talk to her.” He headed out of the corridor towards crew berthing; figuring that Caroline would have gone diving for that gorram raggedy stuffed horse. He supposed she was getting more comfortable around everyone; because, she didn’t take it everywhere with her anymore. But, whenever she felt threatened she’d go diving for the horse and some little hidey hole. The trick was getting to her before she reached a hiding spot.

He was just about to head down into their shared quarters when Caroline popped up the ladderwell clutching Zoey heading somewhere. Somewhere fast. He reached down and grabbed hold of her by the waist. “Slow down, little one.”

“Qing wa cao de liu mang. Frog humping son of a bitch let go of me!”

“Nope, not until you calm down. Ain’t no need for that kind of language.”

“Go away! Leave me alone. I ain’t goin’ to no school. Don’t want to talk to you, want Jayne. He’s nice.” As she hit him repeatedly with the horse.

“Caroline.” Mal said trying to hold her still, and attempting not to let his temper get the best of him. “Calm down. You are going to learn. I am your father and I don’t want you to be an ignoramus. And I’m sure your ma wouldn’t want that either.”

“You ain’ my ba’.” Caroline answered squirming until she got purchase and bit him on the arm. Mal’s response to the bite was a shake and swat to the back of her head. “Ow!!

“Do something like that again; and you won’t be sitting comfortably for the rest of the night. Dong ma? You are going to learn; it’s not going to be going to a school house. It’s going to be you and the Shepard or Simon in the galley at the dining table. When you get a little older Wash and Kaylee ‘ll teach you about engines and ships and flying.”

Caroline’s eyes narrowed suspiciously; but, she calmed down. “Ma said that school was a tool of the Alliance. Look what it did to River. School ain’t good.”

“Well, there ain’t no Alliance here. And your ma, Zoë, and me fought the Alliance together; so we ain’t exactly friendly towards them. So I figure this school will be ok with your ma. Ok?”

Sullenly she responded. “Yes, Sir.”

“Good. Look, I know you didn’t ask to come here. But, you’re here. We’re glad you’re here.” Mal, thought about what Book had told him about reassuring Caroline and added “I’m glad you’re here. You’re a part of this crew. It takes a lot to keep Serenity in the air, takes effort from everyone on this boat. That includes you bao bei.

Now go apologize to everyone in the galley for disturbing dinner and help Simon with clean up. That’s going to be your job from now on. Clearing the table after meals; and setting it before meals. You’re a part of this crew, which means you gotta’ help keep Serenity running smooth.”

Caroline stood up; holding Zoey; and told Mal still very sullenly “Yes, Sir.” That’s what her ma had always told to call older people when they were talking to her. Sir or Ma’am. She drilled it into Caroline with some well placed smacks to the back of the head. And she went to help clear the table; and to apologize.

Mal went down into their shared berthing and sat at his desk. Another hurdle cleared. How many more were there going to be? Had he been this hard on his mother? He thought back to his childhood; and smiled thinking of some the escapades they’d gotten into. He and the Clarke brothers had gotten into an egg fight one morning when Ma had sent them to gather eggs. She’d whupped all three of them for that; none of them sat right for a couple of days. But that first egg exploding right on Hyde’s forehead made it all worth while. At least he hadn’t gotten whupped again like Hyde and Thomas had – their da had taken them out behind the woodshed when they’d gotten home.

They’d be landing on Hillard in a couple of days. He’d have to get Kaylee or ‘Nara to take Caroline shopping. Girl needed shoes, and some clothes. And probably some
schoolbooks, or some such stuff. Oh, yeah and he needed a book on being a parent, a father. What was the one mom had? Dr. Speck, Spock? Something like that.

Chapter Text

Mal was used to women; he was comfortable with them; they surrounded him on a daily basis. Serenity; the first mate, the mechanic; the Companion; and a teenage psychic. They surrounded him all the time; butting into his life and his affairs; but, not a one of them was a willing to go shopping with him and Caroline. No one was willing to go with him. Book was having lunch with some brothers that he had known while he was at the Abbey and trying to see if he could beg or borrow some textbooks. Wash had zipped Zoë off somewhere so fast it made Mal’s head spin; something about a bathtub. Simon and River were off with Kaylee looking for something for the engine and then going to get bedroom stuff with which to surprise Caroline. Jayne had been muttering something about grenades, booze, and sex; but, was just going to pick up some essentials and then help Kaylee and River with construction. And Inara, she’d left when they entered atmo, a client. Although she had made most of the bedding. She’d even used what was left of her silk thread to embroider Caroline’s name onto the pillow and blankets.

Mal was standing outside the cargo bay squinting against the Hillard sun holding the hand of a small girl in a rather dirty jumper. She was clutching a ragged horse that missing a leg. Anyone that would have looked at them would have seen a father and daughter out for a day in the town. For Mal it was something he never thought he would see – him being a father. He took one last look at the list that Kaylee and Inara had prepared before putting it in his overcoat:

Caroline (Dress (?), Overalls, Sweater, Shirts, Under garments, Socks, & Shoes)

Pants (Mal really needed a pair or two; he was down to one pair without holes, tears, or blood on them). He’d added this, and the next item to the list.

Book!

“Well, little one. Lets go shopping? Gots lots of stuff to get today. Gotta get you some clothes.”

“Yep.” Caroline, holding Zoey under one arm and Mal’s hand with her right hand, looked out at the bustling dusty marketplace and thought that Hilliard didn’t look much different then Persephone. Lots of people going lots of places and lots of dust. Caroline was really excited Kaylee had said that the Cap’n was going to take her shopping for new clothes. She’d never had new clothes. Mostly her stuff had come from the Abbey; they gave used clothes to all the street children. When the ‘liance had taken her from her ma; they’d given her new clothes; but, ma made her throw them away. Said they was tainted. Dirty. Sumppin’ like that.

They walked through the marketplace, past the ships seeking passengers and cargo, past all kinds of stalls with all kinds of goods. Rug vendors, candle and incense vendors, vegetable vendors, and all other type vendors – Caroline saw blueberries, strawberries, apples, and lots of things she’d never seen before in all kinds of colors. They turned out of the market area, and into an area of permanent store fronts. There were lots of things in the window, all kinds of writing. Book had been teaching Caroline letters and words every morning. As they wound there way down the street she picked out letters; K, is for Kaylee, J is for Jayne, D is for dinosaur. She knew all the letters now; Shepard Book was teaching her words and writing and numbers too. They finally stopped in front a store that had big pink letters painted on the glass window.

“C, is for Caroline.” Said Caroline as she bumped into Mal; she hadn’t realized they were going to stop and it startled her.

“Yep. Gotta get you sumpin’ decent to wear. Figured this is the best place; lest that’s what ‘Nara says.” He held open the door for Caroline and they both entered “Mrs. Larsson’s Fine Young Ladies Clothing.” Mal cringed upon entering this palace of pink and pastels and floral prints. It seemed every surface that could be covered was covered with pink ruffles, or lace trim, or flowers. Could this place get any worse? He was going to kill ‘Nara for suggesting this particular store. He was about to suggest that they go someplace else when he looked down and saw Caroline’s face. She appeared to be completely in awe and in love with the pink surroundings. Zoey was just dangling from her hand forgotten. Mal reached down and gently took the horse; Caroline didn’t even notice. He cringed again; internally this time when he saw Mrs. Larsson, at least he assumed she was Mrs. Larsson. She was an older lady dressed entirely in pink; with white hair curled up close to her head. A pink floral dress, pink slippers, pink hair bow, and a pink striped apron that said Mrs. Larsson’s across the pocket.

“Ni hao. I am Mrs. Larsson; can I help you?

“Uh, qu. I need some clothes for my daughter, Caroline.” He said pointing at Caroline. Mal was internally cringing at how Mrs. Larsson fluttered.

With a look at Caroline who was gazing in wonderment and walking around the room Mrs. Larsson asked “Anything in particular, Xiān sheng?”

Feeling more and more uncomfortable in this palace of pre-adolescent femininity and frippery Mal pulled out the list and mutely handed it to Mrs. Larsson. “Not so sure ‘bout her needin’ a dress though.”

“Ahh, I see you need some of everything. You have come to the right place. Do you have any particular needs for certain types of clothing?”

“Ummm… sturdy; Caroline tends to get into a lot of things.”

“I see, an active child. You sit there.” Responded Mrs. Larsson pointing at a delicate slipper chair covered in pink silk. “I will work with Caroline.” Mal obediently sat. Mrs. Larsson walked over to Caroline and looked down at her, although not very far; because she was very, very petite. “Xin gan; I am Mrs. Larsson and I’m going to help you find some clothes.”

Caroline just nodded; her eyes were still wide. She’d never been in a store like this, only looked in the windows.

“Your ba’ is sitting over there. We are going to start at the inside and work out. Ok, Xin gan?”

Caroline looked over at where Mal sat and just nodded; she was totally overwhelmed by the store. Mrs. Larsson walked over to an ornate white-washed dresser; she opened the top drawer and pulled out neatly wrapped packages of under garments. “Which prints do you like? Horses, fairies, teddy bears, flowers?”

“I like the yellow flowers.” Caroline whispered. “Kaylee painted some like that on the dining room.”

Well, everything seemed to be going ok, Mal thought, no tantrums or such. That was good. Real good. Gave him a few minutes to his thoughts. Last couple of weeks, everyone’s world had turned upside down. It had been rough on all of them. Probably physically roughest on Simon. Boy was walking around with a black eye. It was pretty funny though; a fifty pound girl beating the gao-se out of the doc. Maybe this week would be smoother.

It had happened a couple days after the whole spider-web incident. Caroline and the Shepard had finished with their lessons; and her and River were drawing in the common area. They were using paper as their canvas’ too; not the walls or the floor, which was a miracle unto itself. Simon had cornered him and told him that he really thought Caroline should have a physical; her wheeze didn’t seem to be getting much better. And she’d been living mostly on the streets of Persephone which had exposed her to tyen shiao duh. They’d tried a couple of other times to get Caroline to let the Doc check her out; but, she turned into a little hell cat every time he tried to get near her.

“Ok, go get Kaylee, she should be able to help calm the little one down. I’ll go get her horse. Let’s do this, get it over.” Mal told Simon and they both departed. Zoey seemed to make Caroline feel safe; it acted as an anchor in the upheaval that had been her life recently. Mal went and got stuffed horse, and came back through the common area. “Bao bei, come on.”

Caroline looked up from her picture, it appeared to a horse and a building of some sort. “Huh. Weishenme?”

“Gotta go see the doc.” As soon as he had said the word “doc” Caroline had gone into flight mode. She went for the door leading to the cargo bay. Mal had grabbed her by the head and hair; it was the only thing he could reach. Quickly grabbing her by the waist instead, and threw her over his shoulder into a fireman’s carry; trying not to hurt her. Army boot camp learning coming in handy.

Pain and not going anywhere near the infirmary were Caroline’s two primary aims. “Tamade hundan! Fucking Bastard!

Tsao ni zuzong shiba dai! Fuck eighteen generations of your ancestors! In between the creative cussing, she had managed to get in a couple of good bites, actually drew blood. For a little girl she cussed better than most soldiers!

Sitting in the pink chair Mal shifted around moved his shoulder and winced as he felt the scabbing over the bite mark stretch. And he sank back into his thoughts and memory.

“Taint no need for language like that round here, little one.” Mal said putting Caroline down on the exam table in the infirmary, and swatting her not so lightly upside the head. “What did I say about biting?”

“Ain’t getting’ stuck, and bled by no swai doc. Ain’t happenin’.”

Mal had hoped that humor was the right tack to take out of this situation. “Handsome doc, she called you handsome.”

“Well, I’m not sure that I wouldn’t disagree with that.” Added Kaylee walking in the door of the infirmary; with Inara. “Xialia, bao bei, relax. Ain’t no one goin’ to hurt you.” Kaylee walked over and gave Caroline a hug. “It’s going to be ok.”

Inara walked over to the wall where Mal was standing. “I’m just here to provide moral support.” She didn’t specify to whom she was going to provide support.

“No, tain’t that chsheng xai-jiao de xiang huo doctor ain’t touching me! Ouch!” Yelped Caroline as Mal stood up from his position against the wall smacked the back of her head, not so gently this time.

“Caroline, I hear words like that again comin’ outta your mouth. You ain’t going to be sittin’ down for a month. Dong ma?” Barked Mal.

“Don’ wan no ruttin’ doc poking me.”

“Shh… Hhoney, it’s going to be okay. Simon just wants to make sure that you’re all healthy-like.” Kaylee added soothingly.

“He sticks needles in River. Hurts her. Makes her cry.”

Simon jumped into the conversation “I’m just trying to make her better.”

“Ain’t doin’ nothing; but, causing pain. That don’ make no one better.”

Simon had no answer for that; so he reverted to Doctor. “Open your mouth; I want to take a quick look inside.”

It wasn’t getting stuck, so grudgingly Caroline opened her mouth after only one stern look from Mal. Without the facilities of a hospital Simon had to conduct the physical in a very primitive fashion – rim style. He actually had to poke and prod at Caroline, no nifty diagnostic tools. She was a little short and underweight for her age, needed to see a dentist; but, was pretty healthy overall. A slight wheeze in her lungs meant nothing much, just something to keep a watch on.

“Ok Caroline, last thing. You’ve been really good so far.” Simon said turning around and reaching into one of the drawers he drew out a small handful of things and a couple of vials. “I just need a blood sample.”

“Ain’ no doctor stickin’ at me with no needles.”

“Calm down bao bei, it’s going to be ok. Xialia. Relax.” Whispered Kaylee as Simon turned back around. Mal stood up again ready to intervene if the situation called for it. Inara shifted towards Caroline maternally uttering calming cooing sounds.

Caroline was ready for Simon as he came prepared to stick her. She had Zoey clutched in her right arm; and left fly with her left. BAM, right into the side of Simon’s nose. The infirmary erupted into mass of tangled arms and legs. Caroline slid off the exam table and was trying to get away. Kaylee was trying to hold onto Caroline and go around the table to comfort Simon. Mal was trying to reach for a fighting Caroline through Kaylee and see to Simon at the same time, and Inara was trying to calm everyone down.

“Píng xī! Quiet everyone!” roared Mal, sounding like a raging bull. “Kaylee, Inara see to Simon.” Caroline, come here. Now!” He pointed at his feet.

Inara and Kaylee were attempting to help Simon stop his nose from bleeding; and were making a bigger mess of it then if they hadn’t done anything. Caroline saw the look in Mal’s eyes and recognized defeat – she went and stood where he’d pointed; hanging her head and holding a very droopy Zoey. Mal took Caroline by the shoulder and forcibly led her out the door. Just then Jayne poked his head around the door.

“What’s all the ruckus?”

Inara looked up at Jayne “A slight altercation between Caroline and Simon.”

“Huh, she didn’t want no swai doc pokin’ at her. Smart kid.”

“She didn’t want him takin’ blood.” Kaylee added in glancing up at Jayne.

“So mini-Mal beat the gao-se out of the doc, now that’s funny!” Jayne started chuckling as he went off to find the rest of the crew and spread the news. He found it infinitely funnier then when River had kicked him in the nether regions.

“Xiān sheng, Sir.” Mrs. Larsson asked, breaking Mal’s reverie “Shoes, do you have any preferences of the style?” As she held up a pair of brown sturdy combat style boots, and some pink sandals.

“Boots, more practical on a cargo ship then those fou-fou things.” Mal responded gesturing at the boots. The boots looked a lot like the ones River wore.

“Just a little longer, and you can both be on your way.” Mrs. Larsson said sensing Mal’s discomfort in this feminine sanctuary; she turned her attention back to Caroline and the racks of clothing.

Mal slipped quickly back into his thoughts and wondered about how Kaylee and Jayne were doing on the whole bedroom construction thing. Then his mind wandered back to the whole infirmary fiasco. Did he do the right thing spanking her? It’s what his mother would have done. Simon had been horrified by the fact he had hit her. Kaylee and Jayne had looked at Simon like he’d been from another ‘verse. River had said something about “Different place, different planet, different parent. No holes. Good.” Mal took that to mean that he had done the right thing; it was odd that it had taken Jayne and River’s acknowledgement to make him feel any better. Hearing Caroline cry had been so hard; he’d just held her afterwards. And rocked her; and told her that he loved her. Of course that was before the lecture that if she ever did anything like that again he would take a belt to her backside.

Book, not Shepard Book, a text, he really needed to get a book on parenting. That was going to be the next stop, a bookstore. Well, after the stop at his tailor.

Mal opened his eyes again and saw a stack of clothing on the table. And he saw Caroline with a huge smile on her face staring at her reflection in the mirror. She was wearing light brown overalls, the same color as his pants; they even had a stripe on the side. Had some pink girly shirt under it and holding a sweater of some sort. If overalls made her happy; she was going to go nuts over the bedroom!

It looked like they were done picking out clothes. “Got everythin’ little one? Mrs. Larsson?”

Mrs. Larsson looked down at Caroline. “I think we do. Two pairs of brown overalls; one with a brown stripe just like her Ba’s. Five shirts, different colors and designs, one zip up sweater in bright pink, a coat with flowers on it, a dress in blue overall style with pink and yellow flowers on the bib, socks, tights, underwear, brown combat style boots, and dress shoes in black patent leather. Do you need anything else?”

Mal looked around helplessly “Uh, uh, uh…”

“Hair ribbons, a purse, watch, …” And she let her words trail off as she packaged everything up.

He looked at the pile of clothes and decided that he’d spent enough of his hard-earned credits in one place. “Mmm, I think we got everything. Xie xie ni.”

“Thank you, Xiān sheng.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Le.” Caroline added in. Mal looked down at her in complete surprise he hadn’t thought that she had any manners at all. Mrs. Le held the door open of her shop and smiled at the two of them as they left.

“Ok, little one. You want me to carry that? It’s pretty big.”

“Nope. Got it.”

“Ok, Let’s go run the rest of this list down. Next stop tailor.”

“Ok.”

They walked the short distance to the tailor. Mal was hoping that his pants were done. Gong had made him pants before; and he hadn’t changed sizes since then. Shi Gong ning, the young proprietress, glided up to the counter, much like Inara did, when they entered. She greeted them “Mr. Mal, you’re back. It’s been a while.” Gong (her given name) looked down at Caroline, “And who is this? My name is Gong. Would you like a candy?”

Caroline looked up at the woman in surprise; with the looks that Gong had been giving Mal Caroline wasn’t expecting her to be nice. “Qu, I would.”

Gong reached under the counter and came up a handful of brightly wrapped rice candies which she handed to Caroline. “Sit there short one; I am going to take your Ba’ back and do a final fitting on his trousers. Ok?”

Caroline nodded, sat down with Zoey and all of the packages around her and started opening the first rice candy. “Qu. Xie xie ni. Thank you.”

Mal went into the back with Gong; still amazed at the manners that this child seemed to have at times. Inara was having an impact; or else Golensa had managed to instill some courtesies in the child. He left Caroline sitting down in the front of the shop and headed to the back to try on his new pants.

Caroline sat in the chair at the front of the store holding Zoey, and eating sweet rice candies and thinking that maybe Mal could be her ba’. Jayne had said so; that meant something. Said she looked like the Cap; and kids were supposed to look like their parents.

Cap’n had whupped her yesterday. She’d told Jayne about it. Jayne had looked at her and said: “If you was growin’ up with me; ma woulda’ takin a belt to yer backside; not her hand. Ya can’t go ‘round hurtin’ people like that; bitin’ ain’t good.” But, he had given her a hug; told her to stand up till dinner. It wasn’t fair, everyone got to tell her what to do; but, the new clothes were real shiny. And Kaylee had promised her a surprise when they got back on board this afternoon. And she didn’t have to stay inside today and practice writin’ her letters and words. Book was gone visitin’. It’s a good day; a real good day.

Why hadn’t her ma told her that her ba’ was alive? Didn’t make no sense. Ma had told her most things. Told her ‘bout the war. The ‘liance, and their camps afterwards. Told her bout Mal, and Zoë. Lots, about them. Why didn’t she say that he was her ba’?

Caroline was carefully putting the last of the pretty candy wrappers in her sweater pocket when Mal and Gong came out of the back. He was carrying a neatly wrapped package. Caroline was saving the wrappers, ‘Nara had made her a paper crane a few days ago; and these papers would make pretty cranes.

“Xie xie ni, Gong. I hope that we see you again next time we’re here.”

“Thank you, Mr. Mal. Have a good day. Good bye little one!” As they got ready to leave Gong slipped a folded piece of paper into the package of pants.

Mal added the package containing two pairs of pants to the growing stack; and they headed out with a final good by for Shi Gong ning. He was now carrying both packages of clothing; Caroline was carrying Zoey. “One more stop before lunch. The bookstore.”

Caroline just looked up at him and nodded tucking Zoey under her arm as they headed down the main shopping street of Hilliard. She pointed at a vendor selling stuff on a stick off of his cart. “What’s that? They didn’t have that on ‘Sephone?”

Mal looked over “Molded protein on a stick. Prolly not very good.”

“Ma wouldn’t let us eat protein; said it was ‘Liance food. I’m real good at stealin’ from the market. Said it was going to wash us. I thought washing was good? Kaylee and ‘Nara sure think so. They always make me wash.”

“I think your ma was talking ‘bout brain washin. That ain’t good. Means you don’t got your own thoughts; just theirs.” Mal turned pensive as he thought about what Caroline had just said. Golensa would rather her daughter go hungry or turn into a thief instead of eating Alliance food, they musta’ really done a gorram job on her. Tamade hundans. “Ok, little one; here’s the book store. Tintagel. I need a book; and we should see if they’ve got one you like.”

Caroline opened the door to the small and crowded shop. A bell cheerfully jingled a welcome. It was a stereotypical used bookstore; right down to the cat sitting on top of a stack of books. There was an older gentleman sitting deep in the shadows smoking a pipe; and drinking a cup of tea. In a deep leathery voice that sounded like the covers of a lot of his books he asked the pair “Can ah hep you?”

Mal looked around, realized he wasn’t going to find anything in here by himself “I uh, need a book on parenting.”

“Got a few of those. Over the- ah.” He waved his hand in the general direction of a shelf. “Down on the bottom.” Caroline had walked over to the children’s section. Probably the only well marked area of the whole store. Someone had put a rocking horse in front of it. Mal set the packages down on the floor and walked over to where the man had waved. “Dr. Spock is always a popular choice; the 128th edition of his book on school age kids is on sale. Half off.”

Mal found the volume, slightly dusty and dog-eared; he opened and flipped through it quickly. It seemed like a good choice. “Little one, did you find something?”

“I want this one.” Caroline said holding up a really old book with only one cover. Mal looked at it apprehensively. “It’s got nice pictures, girl looks like ‘Nara.”

“Good choice.” Said the old man. “King Arth-ah and the Knights of the Round Table. It’s one of mah favorites. You may have it gōng zhǔ.”

Mal looked down at Caroline, not sure if she was going to remember her manners. Again she surprised him; her whole face was lit up. “Thank you, Xiān sheng. It’s my first book.”

It hit him just then; at how little Caroline had. “Thank you, sir.” Mal paid for Dr. Spock and his advice. He really hoped it would help him!

Mal and Caroline wound their way through the streets until they reached a small noodle house for lunch. They talked while they ate. Mal thought they were making progress. Caroline seemed to be opening up to him. They talked about nothing at all, and everything. After they finished they walked back to Serenity. “You goin’ grocery shoppin’ with me later?”

“Do I got to do lessons today?”

“Should, gotta see if the Shepard’s back. Or are you doing numbers with Simon?”

Caroline just shrugged and they walked the rest of the way back in companionable silence. Both of them lost in their own thoughts. Mal was wondering if Kaylee, River and Jayne had finished construction and if he would have his bunk back. Thoughts about how well his little girl had dealt with two weeks in space. When would the next bump in this road of parenthood was going occur? Why hadn’t they heard anything about Golensa. His thoughts wandered on to business: How would the meet he and Zoë had set up for tomorrow afternoon with Lou Hiao tong go? Gong had given him a paper with the time and place on it. They’d only done business together a few times. Some dangerous stuff, high paying; but, dangerous.

What was he going to tell Caroline? Yeah, your ba’ he’s a crook, a smuggler. Gao-se. A whole new wrinkle.

Chapter Text

A couple days after the shopping trip the usual breakfast war was going on. “I ain’t eatin’ that!”

“Caroline, that’s breakfast. You don’t got much choice. What’s the Cap’n goin’ ta say?”

“Still ain’t eatin’ that.” Caroline responded to Kaylee pushing the protein porridge away. “It’s gross. Tastes like niu shi. An food taint that color. Ain’t natural, foods not grey. Only Alliance food is that color.”

Jayne looked up from sluping up his second bowl of mush. “I ’gree with mini-Mal; but, its food. Better then goin’ hungry.”

Caroline stuck her spoon in the bowl and pulled it back out watching the grey stuff slide off it in clumps. “I’ll go hungry then.”

“Xin gan, Cap’n said if’fn you didn’t eat it for breakfast you was eating it for lunch.” Kaylee said almost begging Caroline to eat. It had become the morning fight, the porridge. Simon had finally managed to get a blood sample and discovered that Caroline had never had any vaccinations. The protein the porridge was made out of had the vaccines, vitamins, and minerals that the little girl was missing. Golensa had been so paranoid about the Alliance that Caroline had none of the vaccinations that a “normal” seven year old would have. And with her being so terrified of medical establishment this would be the easiest way to get all that stuff into her system. Medical establishment was the term Simon had used. Even given the sheer number of shots she needed was a lot. Kaylee really wasn’t too sure that this was easier than a needle or ten. Simon said he didn’t even have all the vaccinations and the protein porridge had them all in there – Caroline just needed to eat the stuff every day.

“Nope. Ain’t eatin’ it.” The set of Caroline’s eyes and chin made Kaylee and Jayne both think of Mal when he set his mind on something.

As a last ditch effort Kaylee tried a new tactic “Ya don’t eat it, Simon’s going to poke ya with needles. This has the stuff in it you need. I know how much you like being poked.”

Mal walked into the dining room looking a little grumpy. “Jayne, you just about done eatin’ us outta house and home? I need some help gettin’ ready for the meet.” He looked down at Caroline who had pulled the bowl back towards her, when she saw him enter the room, and was playing with her spoon. “Little one, don’t you go given’ Kaylee no problems ‘bout eatin’ breakfast, now, ya hear?” He leaned over and whispered conspiratorially in her ear “Stuff gets grosser when it gets cold.” It was nice not to have to be the bad guy for once. He’d have to thank Kaylee. Mal walked over to the coffeepot, and refilled his mug. It smelled like Zoë had made it. She made the best coffee on Serenity. “Me, Zoë, and Jayne ‘ll be back later. Caroline, don’ chu go given’ no one no trouble, no how. Do good on your lesson with Simon this morning.” He walked over to Caroline, kissed her on the head on his way back to the cargo bay. “I love you, little one. We’ll be back soon.” Dr. Spock had said that he needed to show affection both physically and verbally so Mal was making an extra effort. He wanted her to know that she was loved, wanted, and needed.

“You goin’ thieving?” Caroline asked Mal’s back while playing with the porridge.

Mal’s back stiffened right up, he stopped in his tracks and almost dropped the mug of coffee. Niu shi. He thought to himself, he was hopin’to put off this discussion for a while.

Luckily Kaylee jumped into the conversation before Mal could respond. “Nope, he’s goin’ to go and get us work. Needa eat, needa work. Right Cap?”

“Yep.” Bullet avoided for the moment he thought and started moving again. “Jayne, ma shong. Get a move on. Don’ want to be late.”

Kaylee tried to distract Caroline from the topic of thieving. “What cha learnin’ today?”

Jayne snickered on the way out of the mess. “Prolly sumpin useless. Like how to be a fancy pants. Should be learnin’ useful stuff like how to use your knife and the sech.”

“Ignore him, Caroline. I bet you’re going to learn all kinds of interesting things.”

“Numbers, Doc said numbers, ‘cause Shepard Book stayed at the Abbey last night. Do I really gotta eat this?” Caroline whined, trying to look pathetic and ended up just looking petulant. She considered Jayne’s statement for a second “Ooh, will you teach me; Jayne? Please, please!”

Jayne looked over “Uh yeah; I spose.” He hadn’t really thought about it. Would the Cap’n kill him for that? “Ya gotta ask the Cap’n”

“Yep, ya gotta eat it.” Kaylee tried to look stern. “Don’t ask again. Or I’ll tell the Cap’n. I swear.”

“Tell him what?” Asked Wash wandering in for his usual Zoë-is-gone-on-a-meet chat with Kaylee.

“That she doesn’t want to eat her breakfast.”

“I see,” said Wash looking down at the bowl and trying to look very wise stroking an imaginary beard. “I see said the Wiseman. How do we fix that muck?”

“Make it go away? Turn it into toast and jam? I like toast and jam.”

“Hmmm… Let me think. No toast; but, I have a little jam. A spoonful of jam should make it taste better.” Wash opened one of the storage containers and pulled out a little jar of jam. He put one precious spoonful on top. “Mix it in; and it’ll taste better. Tell no one.” And he let his eyes wander around the room making exaggerated eye movements like there might be spies in the walls – and more to the point making both Caroline and Kaylee laugh. “Shh… a secret.”

Mal posted Jayne and Vera about a mile away on the top of an abandoned quarry tower. Impossible shot for all; but, the most experienced. For Jayne it was a rather routine shot, he’d done harder shots without a scope huntin’ back home, nuthin’ but, a set of open sights. “Keep a look out.”

“Yep, Cap. We’ll do that.”

Lou Hiao tong liked to meet in deserted places. Made him feel safe; or some such. This one beat all though; gorram boondocks, what it was. Made him feel safer to know that Jayne was keepin’ a lookout, that he had Zoe at his back, and Wash in his ear. Mal took another look around at the landscape desert is what it was, and he hated the desert. Hot as Hades. “Zoë you ready?”

“Shirr ah, Sir. Ready here.”

Mal felt comforted by that. “Wash, you ready?”

Wash’s response came in over everyone’s ear pieces. “We are all ready here. Breakfast is done. The dinos are all fed.”

“Great. Now we wait. I hate gorram waiting.”

“Jayne, shut up.”

“Zoe, my lamby-toes., that was so succinctly put.”

As Mal and Zoë waited in the mule, Mal’s thoughts started to wander back to Caroline and the comment she’d made at breakfast. They weren’t really thieves – just didn’t approve of the Alliance. Shit, who was he kidding; they were thieves. Smugglers too; pretty goods ones if he did say so himself.

“Sir, they’re. Sir. SIR! ”

“Wha? Huh? Sorry. Lost in thought.”

“Wong’s comin’. Best be payin’ attention.”

“Let’s get this show on the road. Nice to be home by lunch.”

“It would, Sir, it would.”

“Ooh, lamby-toes pie for lunch.”

“Wash, my dear, shut up.”

Mal walked over to where Lou Hiao tong was standing. He and Zoë looked at the Chinese man wearing a beaver skin top hat, tails, and a bright red cravat. Zoë thought the contrast between Wong and Mal was about as big as it could get; but, for the moment she was more interested in keeping her eye on the man with him; the taller hired muscle with the twitchy eye.

“Capt-tain Reigh-nolds how are you on this fine morn?”

“Good. What cha want us to do? Mr. Lou?”

“I need you, your fine crew, and that bucket of bolts you call a ship to pick up and deliver some goods.”

“I s’pose we can do that.” Mal replied a little pensively wondering what the rest of the details were. “Ya got some details for us? Need a little more information fore I decide to ‘cept.”

“It’s a paltry little task really. A trifle. Just need to move some boxes of retail merchandise to Pythagoras. I will ensure that it is worth your while.”

“Hmm… worth our while?”

Wash came over the ear pieces. “You all know that Pythagoras is being blockaded by the Alliance right now? Some type of unrest there. Only certain ships are being allowed in; and those are being checked real well.

“Pythagoras. That’s the moon being blockaded right now, ain’t it? Mal mused out loud. Looking directly at Lou Hiao tong. Indirectly challenging him.

“It is; my fine man. It is; which is why the recompense is larger than usual. Half now, half later.” He handed over a heavy silken bag containing credits. “And a bonus for speedy delivery, say another twenty-five percent if it is there prior to the end of the month.”

“Sounds reasonable.” Tong was one for the little niceties, even though Mal now had suspicions that he’d been raised in a gutter somewhere. The cultivated accent slipped occasionally. Jayne had been the first one to point it out. The last time they’d had dealings with him. Jayne made surprising observations sometimes. Although, given that he was a tracker by trade it probably wasn’t that surprising. Trackers were supposed to notice changes in character and habits. Can’t track something if you don’t understand it – that is the difference between an exceptional tracker and an average one. “Three and half weeks to get to Pythagoras from here. Pushing it a little. Call it an even month? Don’t want us takin’ no unnecessary risks with your crates.”

“That sounds fine to me, Captain. One month. Details on the pick-up and delivery rendezvous places and times are included in the bag.”

“What are we transportin’? If’n I gotta get it by the Alliance I like to know what I’m riskin’ my crews hide over?”

“That sounds fair; medical supplies. Crates of medical supplies and some equipment support for the rebellion.”

Mal looked at Zoë “I don’t got a problem movin’ medical supplies.”

“It is nice doing business with someone so reasonable and dependable. Have a good day Captain Reynolds, Mrs. Washburne.”

Caroline finished her porridge helped Kaylee with the dishes and went to find Simon to work on numbers. Wash and Jayne were going to teach her to play Blackjack later if she was good and worked hard for Simon. Wash said it was a counting game. Kaylee went up to the bridge for the Zoë-is-gone-on-a-meet-chat that didn’t happen earlier. Inara had gone into the city to pick up a dress she had ordered. She had a client scheduled after the dress; and would be back in the morning.

“What ‘re they up to?” Kaylee asked poking her head into the bridge.

Wash made his voice squeaky as he waved his blue plastic brontosaurus “Waitin’ on Lou Hiao wong.”

“Grr…” went the yellow T. Rex “Just like every other time we’ve ever dealt with him. Drive ‘em out to the middle of gorram nowhere and make ‘em wait.”

Kaylee sat down in the co-pilot’s chair and picked up a palm tree. She put her booted feet up and fondled the fronds. “I wonder what he wants. Hope it pays enough for some parts and some spares. Serenity ain’t had no spares in too long.”

“Yep, be nice not to worry.”

“Wash, what’s up? You sound down.”

“Zoë brought up kids again last night. Said with Caroline on board; it would be good practice for us.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah, oh. Babies are a lot different than a seven year old.”

“Some; both take a lot of effort. Just different kinds of effort.”

“I suppose.” Wash replied absently twirling the brontosaurus around by its long blue neck. “I spose.”

“I wonder if they’ll be back by lunch.”

“Nope.” River announced poking her head in. “After.” And she popped right back out, dancing off to where only she knew.

“Wash, you really going to teach Caroline how to play Blackjack?”

“Figured I would. Makes counting fun. That’s how I learned to add. Old guy next door taught me to play when I was about five or six. Used to bet chores, cookies, coppers whatever. He’d put copper coins in the pot, I’d put in emptin’ the trash or some such. I remember being so proud one day I won two cookies, a coin and a plastic dinosaur. That was my first apaeotosaurus. I had a couple of others; but, that one was the one I was the most proud of.”

“Did you ever lose?”

“Quite consistently. I don’t think he ever took his garbage out, or had to go to the store. When I got older we switched to poker; then I’d end up fixing things for him.” Wash’s eyes were glazing over as he was remembering. “He used to play with a bunch of buddies from when he worked at the plant. They all knew I had no money, I think I was ten or so the first time I got to play with them. Shoot, I was run ragged for a month. Had so many chore chits out there; learned to play pretty good. Those old guys were crafty. After a while had me a nice little nest egg. Blew it all on a date, Adaleen Theral.”

“Adaleen. You ain’t never told me about her ‘fore.”

“Adaleen. My first true love. Ooh, Wong’s there.”

Kaylee sat forward as if she could hear. “Now, we find out what we’re doin’.”

“Sshh..”

“Call me if you need me Wash.” Kaylee heaved herself up and went out to check on things in the engine room in case they had to leave suddenly.

“Ho-ok.” Wash went back to his thoughts about Zoë and Adaleen. They were different; Zoë was wow. Zoë was his warrior woman, his lamby-toes, an Amazon. Adaleen was well she’d been a girl. Little Red Riding Hood or Goldilocks. Adaleen was like Little Red Riding Hood; that was it.

Lunch was mostly quiet. Simon was exhausted; he’d never taught before; especially a seven year old. When River was little, she’d just read his books. At least the kid didn’t seem to be as afraid of him anymore. Wash was worrying about Zoë and the meet. Kaylee was hoping that everyone got back soon. And River was talking about filling in old holes, fixing faith, and the Three Little Pigs. After everyone was done eating, Simon collapsed in the common room, Wash went back up to the bridge wishing and hoping his thoughts could get Zoë home sooner Kaylee, Caroline, and River were cleaning up the lunch mess, and packing plates for Jayne, Mal, and Zoë.

“Is the Cap’n a thief?” Caroline asked while bringing the last of the plates and flatware over to the sink where Kaylee was washing and River was drying and putting them away.

“No, honey. Of course not.” Kaylee said defensively almost dropping a glass.

“Is too, a good thief. Kind of like Robin Hood.” River added giving Kaylee a don’t lie to her look. Different then the ‘you’re a boob’ look Simon got a lot.

“Keeps us afloat. That’s good.” Kaylee said trying to dance around the topic.

“Robin Hood. Huh? Ma always said stealin’ from the tan lan ‘Liance was a good thing. Cause they is a bunch of chsheng xai-jiao de xiang huo”

“Caroline.” Kaylee said sharply “You ain’t supposed to talk like that.” She really hated having to tell Caroline no all the time but, she didn’t want the Cap’n to be angry.

“Just tellin’ you what ma said.”

“She says that’s not enough of an answer to fill a pin hole.” River added in putting down the dish towel and pirouetting over to the table. “Draw. Need clouds. Clouds. Not the horizon. Up high”

“Bao bei, that’s something you need to ask your ba’.” Kaylee said bending down and kissing Caroline on the head. “I’m going to go see if Inara’s back yet.”

“Clouds on the ceiling? Like in my bedroom; where you and Kaylee painted clouds and stars and the sun on the ceiling, and a castle on the wall? Can we paint clouds here on the ceiling over the table? That would be shiny. And stars and the moon!”

“Draw now; paint later. Paper.” River heard the mule first. They were drawing. A picture for Jayne; Caroline had decided that Jayne needed a picture to hang on his hatch. It was a picture of Jayne and Vera, he wearing an orange hat drinking a beer; with shaky letters underneath it spelling J – A – Y – N – E. “There back.” River stood up in her seemingly permanently bare feet, which of course Caroline had to imitate. Though the Cap’n had said that Caroline couldn’t be in the cargo hold without shoes on anymore.

“Cap’n, n Jayne, n Zoë?”

“Yep.”

“Let’s go see them. Hurry.” Off they went tearing down the passageways like a herd of wild horses yelling at the top of their lungs “They’re back” waking Simon up, and startling Kaylee. Everyone headed down to the cargo bay to greet the returning crew. Caroline followed River up onto the catwalks so they could get a birds-eye view.

“Hey Captain Daddy.” Yelled River.

Caroline added in. “Hey Jayne, Hey Zoë!”

“Hey. You two be careful up there. Don’t fall and break your head’s open. Don’t need no excitement today.”

“How’d it go? Cap? We got work?” Kaylee asked coming from the engine room; Inara wasn’t back yet. She walked over to the mule and checked it over to make sure nothing was wrong with it as everyone milled around in the cargo bay talking.

“Yep, should keep the wolves at bay for a while.” Mal responded heading in towards his quarters. He needed to do some planning, budgeting, and other captainly stuff. “Tell you ‘bout it at dinner. Shepard back?”

“Not yet. He’s due back in time for dinner. He extended his stay at the Abbey; something about a holy day which required fasting and meditation.” Simon added from the back where he’d been looking over the returnees to see if there were any obvious injuries. There weren’t any -- that was rare. A very nice change.

Wash took Zoë back to their quarters to personally check her over for injuries; and to help her clean up. Caroline cornered Jayne before he could say gorramit mini-Mal. She wanted to show him the picture she’d drawn for the hatch down to his bunk. River had helped her hang it up. Simon went to guard his infirmary from Jayne’s intrusions. Jayne liked to make forays into his supplies for gun cleaning supplies, and generally he made it look more like a war-zone then an infirmary.

Dinner was a raucous affair. A bottle of Kaylee’s finest engine room hooch had been brought out to celebrate the new job. Shepard Book had conjured up a fine meal with produce from the Abbey. Most of the Shepards on Hillard were strict vegetarians; not like Shepard Book. There was even dessert, pastries. Not made from protein; but, from butter and fresh fruit from the orchard and farm that provided the financial and physical support for the Hilliard Abbey. Everyone was back but Inara; and she was due back in the morning.

After all of the post-meal adulations were complete; Caroline cleared the table, Jayne hadn’t broken any dishes while washing them; and the table had been wiped down. Mal started laying out the plan. They would leave Hilliard for Pythagoras the following evening. The next day would be spent laying in supplies, food, fuel, spare parts (Kaylee gasped when she heard this news!), and such. Mal and Zoe would pick up the delivery the following morning. They were going to disguise themselves as a long distance transport ship transporting the children of a wealthy family from Boros to Pythagoras for an extended visit. It was much easier with an actual child on board. River was going to pretend to be 14; and Caroline was going to be herself. Kaylee was going to be their nanny, and Jayne was their guard. Can’t have wealthy children floating around the ‘verse by themselves. Book was on board, because he was an itinerant preacher and was spreading the Word wherever he went. Inara was their Ambassador. And everyone else was themselves. Simple really, assimilate the equipment and supplies into the stocks of Serenity and fly through the front door. A motley crew providing a medley of services for a price.

“Kaylee you and Wash go get what you need for Serenity tomorrow morning.” He handed them a small stack of credits. He’d spent a chunk of the time in his quarters budgeting, and doing important captainy stuff. “Don’t spend everything in one place. Dong ma?” Kaylee nodded and pertly responded “Cap’n there’s only one yard on Hilliard. You want me buyin’ new parts?”

Mal just rolled his eyes. Then on to Jayne “Ammo, grenades, and whatever we’re running low on. Limit yourself, and bring back some change. Get ident cards, I seem to remember you saying you’ve got contacts around here.”

Zoë was next. “Zoë you and me are going to go and pick up the cargo.

Caroline had been sitting quietly at the table amusing herself by drawing a picture of Wash’s dinosaurs. “IDs are easy. You don’t buy ‘em, you take ‘em. I used ta sell em to Two-Snouts or Badger. Get ma drops and Zeus, keep her from screaming.”

The only response anyone at the table was able to come with was “huh.” Except Jayne who added “Now that makes some sense, first thing I heard all night with any horse sense in it.” Kaylee promptly smacked him. Zoë and Mal glared at him.

Mal had no idea what to say so he kept going as if nothing had been happened and turned to Shepard Book “Groceries and supplies, for the next two months.”

Caroline added in “None of that grey breakfast gao se.” While glaring at Simon.

Mal sighed and looked at Caroline. “Language, little one. Language.”

“Yes, Xiān sheng. What do I getta do ‘morrow?”

“Well, you got lessons to do’. In the afternoon …”

Book added “She can come with me; we’ll go shopping together. Is that okay with you little one?”

Caroline nodded and returned to drawing. Book continued “I’d like to go and say good-bye to the brothers at the Abbey in the morning if that is all right with you, Captain?”

Mal nodded his assent and looked over at Caroline “Little one this ain’t Persephone; don’t want you goin’ out by yourself. You’re staying here with Simon and River.” Next Mal turned to Kaylee. “Kaylee you need some type of uniform?”

Simon answered that question. “Our nanny always had a uniform. The whole staff had uniforms; grey with lavender and white trim.”

“Purple belly.” Caroline muttered under her breathe, again glaring at Simon. Everyone ignored her.

“Kaylee can you get uniforms tomorrow for you and Jayne. Simple is good, cheap is better.” Mal ordered looking at the assembled. “Nice to be off this rock by 2000 hours tomorrow.”

Now that the planning was over Mal sat back. Everyone else was considering their parts. Jayne was the first to leave the table. He went by Caroline’s chair. “Nice picture Mini-Mal. It’s as good as the one on my bunk.”

Mal felt jealous that Caroline had drawn Jayne a picture not him. He was her father; shouldn’t she draw him a picture? Kaylee and River left soon after Jayne. Simon got his book and was reading in the common area. Wash and Zoe wandered off soon after.

Mal got a second cup of coffee and sat back in his chair and thought Caroline’s dinner table comment. It would be nice not to have to purchase IDs; good ones were expensive. And unless you’d had dealings with the seller beforehand you didn’t know exactly what you were getting. Kid was a good footpad; she’d managed to take his wallet without him noticing; she’d apologized for snagging his wallet that day. He didn’t want his daughter being a thief. No child should have to be a thief. She didn’t need to be a thief anymore. Nope, no daughter of his was going to be a gorram thief. The odds of his own daughter picking his pocket… small that’s what they were, small.

He put his cup in the sink; figured he’d wash it later. If he was lucky someone else would wash it. He went on what had become over the years a nightly routine of checking on Serenity and her crew. He started walking and could hear Zoë and Wash talking softly up on the bridge; like they did most nights. Jayne was sharpening his knives in the common area talking with Shepard Book. Simon was reading a thick book in there also; and apparently keeping one ear in on the conversation. Mal kept on walking; he poked his head in on Kaylee in the engine room where she was putting Serenity to bed. Kept on going, walking the catwalks of the ship that was home. He paused outside the hatch to Inara’s shuttle, which wasn’t back yet. It seemed empty without everyone onboard.

Serenity was a sanctuary for him and Zoë from the horrors of war; a home to Wash and Kaylee; a prison in many ways to Simon. He wasn’t sure what Serenity was to River; and it was a job to Jayne. Mal hoped that he could translate his love of Serenity to Caroline.

Mal kept on walking. He heard voices coming from his berth, and went to check it out. Caroline and River were reading inside ‘Caroline’s Castle.’ That’s what it said on the wall behind her mattress. Inara, Jayne, River and Kaylee had done a wonderful job of making Caroline’s berth something special. They’d moved some non-structural walls around and made her a spot the size of a mattress. They’d done some moving around all over. Jayne and Kaylee had put doors on both Mal’s and Caroline’s bunks; screens that when closed made the small compartment into a living room you couldn’t tell that there were beds in there at all. The inside of Caroline’s nook had been painted; a daytime sky down at the foot of her bed progressing to a night sky at the top. On the side Inara and River had painted a castle and animals along with the words ‘Caroline’s Castle.’ Kaylee had donated her beloved pink ball gown; she and Inara had sewn it into some girly frippery pillows and trim for her blanket and the such.

“What ‘cha reading, little ones?”

“River’s reading me the Le Morte D'Arthur. I like listening to her, she reads nice. You want ta stay and listen for a while?”

Mal settled in his chair. “I think I might, if’fn you both don’t mind?”

“Nope, River read.” Caroline poked River in the side.

“Terrabyl / So his wyf Dame Igrayne he putte in the castell of Tyntagil / And hym self he putte in the castel of Terrabyl the whiche had many yssues and posternes oute / Thenne in alle haste came Vther with a grete hoost / and leyd a syege aboute the castel of Terrabil / And ther he pyght many pauelyons / and there was grete warre made on bothe partyes / and moche peple slayne / Thenne for pure angre and for grete loue of fayr Irayne the kyng Vther felle seke / So came to the kynge Vther Syre Vlfius a noble knyght / and asked the kynge why he was seke / I shall telle the said the kynge / I am seke for angre and for loue of fayre Igrayne that I may not be hool…”

Mal closed his eyes and listened to River’s voice as it rose and fell in the cadence of a long dead language, Middle English. It was very melodic and peaceful. After a long while he looked up and saw that Caroline had fallen asleep. He made a motion to River who stopped reading. Together they got her ready for bed trying not to disturb her anymore than necessary.

“Good night River.” Mal told River after they had Caroline tucked away in her castle and River was halfway up the ladder.

“Good night Captain Daddy.”