A Chance of Madness
Disclaimer: Firefly and all of its related characters, imprints, trademarks, servicemarks, et cetera are the intellectual property of Joss Whedon, and maybe 20th Century Fox. I'm only borrowing them for a little while, and I promise to put them back where I found them.
Author's Notes: Dialogue within brackets  is Mandarin. (Pretend, okay?). If I actually know the Mandarin, then it's in italics.Temperatures are in Celsius. This is my second fanfic (please see "A Kiss is Still a Kiss"), and I appreciate all feedback, most especially the constructive criticism.
"Why do we keep coming back here?" Wash asked, peering out of the cargo bay. "No job could make up for the smell of this place."
"Maybe it's the smell that keeps the Alliance from looking too closely at this place. It's sure easier to get a little business done here than Persephone," Mal replied, dropping the last of the cargo boxes on the mule.
"Speak for yourself," Inara answered.
"Show a woman the 'verse, and what do you get?" Wash shook his head.
"A receipt?" Mal asked. Before Inara could snipe back at him, he wiped his hands on his pants and addressed the crew. "You got two hours. Keep your communicators on you, and nobody – I mean, nobody – steps back on Serenity lessen they wash their shoes off first."
The crew, those of them that were heading out, looked out at Beauregard and took Mal's instructions to heart. There was a reason its citizens called their planet "Buggered" more often than its rightful name, and that reason had a great deal to do with the near constant rain, soupy ground, and pervading stench of dirty diapers and boiled cabbage.
"What're we looking for?" Kaylee asked as Simon carefully sorted the small, dusty vials.
"Standard antibiotics and immune boosters," he replied, turning each of the bottles he'd checked until their labels all faced the same way. "We're running a little low. Also, see if you can find anything that starts with the syllables "amphayto-". It's for River."
Kaylee squatted down and began looking through the bottles as well. "There's ice cream after this, right?"
"If you say so," he peered at a label old enough to crackle under his gentle fingers.
"Well," Mal declared, standing outside the building of his client, placing his hands on his hips, "that was unnecessarily unpleasant."
"Yes, sir," Zoe replied.
"I liked it," Jayne disagreed, cleaning his nails on a very large, very spiky knife.
"There was blood coming out of someone else. And mucus. That's why you liked it," Wash explained to him.
"And I got paid," Jayne grinned. "Day's off to a good start, s'far as I'm concerned."
The alley they strode out of branched off one of the main streets, wide, unpaved, and ankle deep in thick, sewage-smelling mud. While the crew of Serenity picked their ways back to the mule with utmost care, most of the people around them slogged through the cold slop with little notice.
"Do you think it was wise, breaking the nose of a paying client like that, sir?" Zoe asked.
"The important part I think you need to remember," Mal answered, "is that he was paying – which before the breakage, he wasn't."
"I was thinking of how other paying clients might react on hearing that we're acquiring a habit of doing that."
"Well, now, that might serve to our benefit. Eventu-"
They were cut off by a fight breaking out of a nearby building. Zoe immediately checked her holster and scanned the crowd around them. Jayne held Vera up a little closer to his chest. The two combatants were male and female, and the building they spilled out of wasn't a tavern, but a dry goods store. The woman was definitely getting the better part of the fight.
"Doreen, no, wai-"
Doreen slugged the man with a roundhouse that would have done Jayne proud, sending the man reeling over the sidewalk and into the muck of the street. He landed flat on his back. She leaped at him, straddled him and started pounding at his face with smallish sharp fists.
"Well, this day just gets better and better!" Jayne grinned.
"Doreen! No!" the man gasped under the barrage. Blood and spit began to fly. The crowd around them began to pull back, people jostling either to see or to get away.
"Sir," Zoe began.
"Yeah, I know," Mal answered and waded in just ahead of her.
"Hey, what're you guys spoilin' the fun for?" Jayne called indignantly.
Mal grabbed Doreen by the upper arms and hauled her off her victim. She twisted and kicked, snarling with rage. He likely would have lost his grip on her, but her fight wasn't something thought out or planned. She was acting on sheer rage, which enabled him to haul her back up onto the porch and away from the man she'd been beating.
Zoe had her hands full, pulling that man out of the mud he'd been near trampled into. His face was a mess, and he was more or less incoherent with shock.
"You got a quarrel goin' on here?" Mal asked, keeping Doreen on her toes and depriving her of leverage.
"N-no," the man swore through broken teeth. "Don't rightly know what took her. We's just shoppin' a bit, and I asked her what she thought of the flannel shirt for our pa."
"Another family split asunder by flannel," Wash sadly shook his head. Zoe gave him a quelling glance.
Doreen didn't answer, but the fight in her suddenly wound down, and she could barely keep to her feet. Wary, Mal lowered her to the planks of the sidewalk, and as he leaned over her, caught a whiff of something.
"Might be you need to keep her away from whatever spirits your pa likes," he told the young man.
"Doreen?!" Clearly the idea of his sister drinking was even more difficult to reconcile than the fact that she'd just beaten him senseless.
"Amphaytolactine?" Kaylee asked, holding out a twenty milliliter vial of black glass.
"That's the one. Stronger than amphaytolinitol, and it's only a year past its expiration date."
"Isn't that a bad thing?"
"The expiration date is actually set five to ten years before the drug loses its potency, and that's if it's exposed to direct sunlight. The glass protected it."
"Well, now, why'd they go and do a thing like that?"
"Keeps the hospitals and doctors buying fresh stock," Simon answered, clearing Kaylee's shelves of the remaining six bottles. "Protects them from a lawsuit should something go wrong."
She followed him up to the counter, where a witheringly skinny old woman took a few coins from him, wrapped the bottles up in cheap paper and put them in a bag. As Simon gathered his supplies up, Kaylee slipped an arm through his.
"So, now that we're done with your shopping, and I did come along to help, I do believe that means you owe me," she smiled.
"Ice cream?" he asked.
"Perhaps. Or possibly frilly dresses. I spotted a store round the corner."
"I… uh, I don't think they'll carry my size."
She laughed and pulled him along with her.
"I'm sure they won't have anything that complements my eyes."
"Those sweet blue things? A'course they will. A little lace, some flouncy ruffles…"
He looked up from her smiling face and saw the woman across the street standing at the edge of the sidewalk, tears streaming down her face.
"Kaylee, what's –"
And the woman deliberately stepped out in front of a team of horses hauling a heavy load. It happened so fast that no one, not the team driver, not the other woman standing beside her, could do a thing. There was a horrific smack as the near horse knocked her down, and then hooves and wheels drove her into the mud.
Kaylee's hands flew up to cover her mouth in shock. Simon dropped his bag and staggered through the sludge, across the street to reach her. The team driver had his hands full trying to keep his panicked horses from bolting.
It was too late. Simon squatted down beside her and pulled her long hair away from her face and neck. There was no need to take a pulse. The awkward crook of her neck and the hoof sized crater just above and behind her temple had been the end of her. With thumb and forefinger, he closed her eyes.
"MELLY?" the other woman screamed, dashing around the wagon the where Simon stood.
He caught her and pulled her away from the mangled corpse. Several passers-by had stopped and begun to murmur and wave hands and weep.
"No! No, Melly, you get up! You get up right now, y'hear!"
"I'm sorry," Simon told her more firmly. "Melly's dead."
"But…no, we's just come t'town for her weddin' dress makin's," the woman shook her head, still trying to get a clear view of her friend. Simon pulled her around to an angle where she couldn't see the gore spreading through the mud.
"Is there anyone else with you?" he asked. Kaylee came up behind him, holding his bags of precious medicines.
"My brother," the woman replied in a tiny, numb voice. "Melly's fiancé. Melly, why?"
He didn't have an answer for her, and Melly had left none. The only thing he could guess from the whiff he'd gotten when he'd bent over her, was that she'd been drinking quite a bit.
Dispirited, they returned to Serenity. Book had seen to the refueling, and Kaylee thanked him quietly, still terribly distressed by what she'd seen. She'd been in no mood for ice cream or ruffled flounces. Mal, Zoe, Jayne, and Wash arrived shortly after they did, newly acquired funds in hand.
"I'm just sayin' you could have let it go a little longer," Jayne was complaining. "I didn't even get to place a bet."
"I doubt anyone would have taken the odds on that fight," Mal answered, his thoughts obviously elsewhere.
"That was no fight," Zoe replied, pulling off crates of rations. "He never raised a finger against her. He wasn't even feelin' any hurt after we pulled her off him. Not yet, any rate."
"Yeah," Mal answered in a quiet voice. "That kind of killin' rage, you see that when someone's been killed or raped. Don't figure. Not even if she were drunk."
"Someone was drunk?" Simon asked.
"Lady in a fight, and I didn't even get to see the whole gorram thing," Jayne continued his complaint.
"Jayne," Malcolm sighed, "you got that malady where your jaw keeps moving. Look into that."
"There was a woman across the street from us," Simon explained. "She walked right in front of a team of horses. On purpose. I think she'd been drinking too."
"A rather odd coincidence," Book stated, entering the conversation.
"Yeah, well, you can hardly blame the inhabitants of this world for taking an extra refreshment break. S'none of our worry. Wash, we break atmo in twenty."
"Aye aye, sahib," Wash waved a half-salute his way and wandered up to the bridge.
Kaylee paused in the engine room, the tool she'd just picked up held slackly in her hand. It was just terrible, what had happened. The split-second image of that woman, Melly, being run down by the horses kept appearing in her mind – the way her body had been jolted, flapping like a rag doll in a heavy breeze, then falling under the horses' hooves. Why would anyone do that? How bad did it have to be for that kind of death to be preferable to life? What about her friend and her fiance?
She sat down just beside the engine, listening to the hum of Serenity's life force. At least she had Serenity. Nothing could get so bad that she'd leave this ship. She looked at the tool in her hand, a magnetometer flux reader, trying to remember what it was she'd come in to do. Her head was starting to ache something fierce. Probably the stress of the day, seeing what she'd seen – and again, unbidden, the image sat in front of her eyes. She winced at the remembered sound, the horrible crunch as hoof had met skull.
What if… what if things ever did get that bad? It was a bad way to go, but nowhere near bad as Reavers. Or what Jubal Early had promised her. Suddenly, she was shaking, tears falling down her face. She'd been such a coward, hadn't even tried to stop him. River had been brave enough to put on a suit and jump through the black over to his ship. Hadn't been for her, Kaylee'd still be trussed up in her own engine room, trembling with fear. The captain would have been well within his rights to fire her, kick her off Serenity. Kaylee's mind conjured up the image of Mal, mouth twisted with disgust, saying the words that would end her life here.
A heavy curtain of grey despair fell onto her shoulders. She brushed the tears off her face, but still sat, trembling, wrapping her arms around her knees. He'd every reason to be rid of her. What'd she done when the whole crew set off to rescue him from Niska? Almost let his men take Serenity. Again, if it hadn't been for River…
"Kaylee!" Jayne's voice called down the companionway. "Dinner's on. Don't forget, s'your turn to wash the dishes afterwards."
She jumped, startled. Honestly, her head was killing her. She'd stop at the infirmary before starting the dinner for something. Simon surely would have something on hand. But then, why should Simon do anything for her? It was plain as the stiffness in his posture that he'd no use for her.
As she climbed to her feet, thoughts of how unwanted and unloved she was consumed her, and the curtain kept falling until it covered her whole pained soul.
"Produce was pretty hard to find planetside," Book apologized, putting two dishes down on the table. "Beauregard isn't known for its tremendous crop-growing ability. Still, I was able to find a vendor or two with some fresh greens."
"I'm entirely impressed with your abilities," Inara smiled at him as she took one.
"Brussel sprouts," Jayne wrinkled his nose in disgust. "Not natural, taste like [green camel dung]."
"Guess I won't be eating any of them," Simon responded, putting the spoon back in the bowl.
"They're good for you," Mal said, climbing into his seat at the head of the table. "Grows brain cells an' the like."
"Here, Jayne," Wash handed him the bowl. "Take it all. You're the most in need."
A subdued Kaylee joined them, taking a seat at the end of the bench, away from both Simon and Mal. Mal glanced up and noted it with the slightest frown. Simon was too busy taking steamed asparagus from the other bowl.
"Let's see, what else have we got?" Wash asked as Zoe brought over the last of the platters. "Protein, honey? My favorite! You shouldn't have."
He took a large spoonful of the paste and handed it off to Kaylee, who only looked at it before passing it over to Book. She did the same with the brussel sprouts, asparagus, and algae crunchers.
"Kaylee?" Inara asked.
"Not hungry," she said quietly.
River watched her, tilting her head slightly to one side. She was no longer allowed a knife at the dinner table, so Simon was cutting her sprouts into bite sized pieces.
"Eat up, mei-mei," Mal ordered, spooning some protein onto his plate. "You starve away to nothing, we'll have to get us a new mechanic."
He was about to add that it wasn't a task that interested him in the least when he looked down the table at her. She was crying.
Everyone at the table had frozen, spoons or forks stopped in midair or trapped between teeth. With a sob, Kaylee pulled herself away from the table and dashed out of the room.
"Scuse me," Mal said, throwing his napkin on the table and going after her.
"Her head hurts," River confided to her fork, before spearing an asparagus stalk and eating it in two bites. "Also, she smells funny."
Kaylee made it out to the catwalk above the cargo hold, sobs tearing at her throat. It hurt so much – her head, the knowledge that she was a drag on everyone here. They were better off without her. Someone else – someone brave and clever – could easily take her place, and Serenity would be the better for it. She climbed up on the railing and stared down into the hold. It was a fall over twenty feet – fatal if she took it right. She took a deep breath of relief. It would be okay, then. She put her feet up on the top bar of the railing and started to step out into the open air.
"Kaylee, what in- [Mother of God]! Kaylee, NO!"