Disclaimer: Serenity and her crew are the sole and rightful property of ME, Joss Whedon and Tim Minear. No disrespect is intended from my borrowing them; no financial gain is garnered by me from their use in this story.


piaoliang supi gaodian - pretty pastry

bâobè - sweetheart

Ni zhen bushi yiban ren -You're unbelievable

ma pigu - horse's butt

hundan - bastards

tamade liúmán - mother fuckers

xiâo péngyou - child

The hum of dozens of conversations floated around them like a swarm of friendly bees. The door of the saloon stood open to let in the fresh air and the sunlight; it was the kind of establishment that took to sunlight - more of a restaurant with a bar in it than your usual lowly saloon. It was the first warm day of spring on this moon, and it seemed as if everyone's spirits were high.

Mal leaned back in his chair, lifted his glass in a silent toast and let the liquor roll slowly down his throat. Golden fire, that's what it was. He smiled at the notion, then smiled even wider just out of the sheer pleasure of it all.

"You're awfully pleased with yourself," Inara noted with a slight lift of her lips.

"Got reason to be, wouldn't you say?" He brought the legs of the chair down and leaned his arms on the table, bringing him closer to her. "The job went off without a hitch. As you might recall me telling you it would." She rolled her eyes at the smug tone, but he continued, unaffected. "We're more'n flush, and the next job is even more lucrative. And very nearly legal." He took another sip. "Yuh, it's been a good couple weeks."

"It could be even better if you'd just let me talk to my sources about . . ."

"I told you, no." He cut her off, then looked surreptisiously around the crowded saloon. "I ain't havin' you a part of that."

"Mal," she said, exasperated. She lowered her voice and continued. "I already am a part of 'that'. I handled that gun every bit as much as you did. Whether or not you want to admit it, if it's discovered, and they run any sort of even half-way sophisticated tests, I'll be in a jail cell with you before you can whistle."

"With me?" Mal grinned at her. "Well, now. And they say crime don't pay."

"You're impossible," she groaned, but her eyes were light and smiling.

"Hey, you two!"

They turned in unison to see Kaylee, Simon, and River making their way through the crowd toward their table. Each of them carried a few packages, although Simon carried the bulk of them. He maneuvered himself carefully to the table, balancing the boxes and bags.

"You buy out the town?" Mal counted the bags. Ten of them.

"Apparently this is what Kaylee means when she says 'I have to pick up a few things'," Simon said, teasing her.

"A girl's got her needs," Kaylee replied pertly. She pointed to an empty chair at the table. "Just put 'em there," she ordered as she dropped hers onto the wooden seat. She lowered her voice. "Though some of them goods probably shouldn't see the light of day. Got a real good price on some blackmarket parts."

Simon placed his bundles carefully on top of hers, then held out Kaylee's chair for her to sit. She glowed at him, and sat more gracefully than you'd think could be managed while wearing coveralls and boots.

"Oh, my. Such manners," she smiled up at him.

He pushed her chair in a bit for her while Inara looked on approvingly.

"Yes, good manners are rather hard to find, aren't they," she commented, looking archly at Mal out of the corner of her eye.

"What? I got manners. I just happen to think it's a sign of respect to a woman to let her take her own seat. Lets her know that I think she ain't no piaoliang supi gaodian can't do for herself."

"The captain ain't nothin' if not respectful of women," Kaylee agreed, then blushed when Inara and Simon laughed. "I don't think that came out how I meant."

Simon started to take his own seat when River - still standing - stopped him with a hand to his shoulder.

"Meimei?" He looked at his sister.

"My chair," she said.

Mal noisily pushed himself away from the table and strode to where River stood. He elbowed Simon aside, not ungently, and with a flourish he held out the chair for the grinning girl.

"Please. Allow me."

She seated herself with the grace of a ballerina.

"Thank you, kind sir." She held out her hand to him.

With an arched brow in Inara's direction, Mal took her hand in his, then bowed and placed a soft kiss on the back of her hand.

"The pleasure is all mine, Miss."

He sauntered back to his seat with an air of triumph. As he dropped back into his chair, he directed a smug look at Inara. "I got manners. I got all sorts of manners."

"And charm to spare," she replied softly, darting her eyes in the direction of River. Mal followed her gaze and saw the girl looking down at her hand, dreamily drawing her fingers over the spot where Mal's kiss had fallen.

"Wuh huh," he managed. Then he shrugged at the Companion. "Nah, it's nothin'. She's just a kid." River felt his gaze on her, and she looked up, beaming at him. Mal smiled weakly in return, then turned abruptly back to Inara. "It's nothin', right?"

"Others didn't check in yet?" Kaylee and Simon had been whispering together, heads close, but she looked around the room now, straining to find the other members of the crew.

"Jayne and Book came and went. Haven't seen hide nor hair of Zoe and Wash. Expect Zoe will be itchin' to get back to the ship before too long, though."

"I wouldn't bet any money on that, Cap'n," Kaylee said.

"Kaylee." Mal looked at her, but all he got in response was a happy smile and her nodding head. "You want to explain before you bust?"

"Zoe and Wash checked into a room at the hotel. I saw 'em. Think they're lookin' for a little privacy. And maybe a bathtub. For, you know, some mutual rub-and-scrub." She grinned broadly.

"Kaylee," Simon warned, embarrassed, almost imperceptibly nodding in River's direction.

"Oh for heaven's sake, Simon. River knows all about this stuff, don't you, sweetie?"

"Intercourse can be accomplished through a myriad of positions with a single partner of either sex or multiple partners. Sex toys are a common accompaniment. Foreplay is more appreciated by the female while the male is more fixated on orgasm," she replied conversationally. She looked at her speechless brother and at Kaylee. "I'm still a virgin," she declared.

"River," Simon exploded, shocked.

"All right then," Mal said loudly, speaking at the same time as the doctor, the wheels visibly turning as he tried to think of a new subject.

River jumped a bit, startled by the twin outbursts.

"It's all right, sweetie. Your time will come, don't you worry," Kaylee leaned across Simon and stroked the girl's arm with sympathy.

"Kaylee!" Simon was turning red.

"Kaylee!" Mal hissed, then glared at Simon for no reason other than again the two of them had spoken as one.

"What?" Kaylee looked from Simon to Mal in puzzlement.

"It's nothing, meimei," Inara assured Kaylee. "It's all right, River," Inara continued, soothingly. "The boys are just being . . . boys."

"It's just sex," Kaylee offered reasonably.

"Which we do not speak about at the table," Mal lectured.

"Cap'n," Kaylee looked around her then back at Mal. "This table's in a saloon."

"Don't care if it's in a gorram brothel, just change the subject, dong ma?"

"OK, OK. Don't blow a catalyzer," she sighed.

An awkward silence settled over them for several moments.

"Having sex on a table is a common fantasy," River offered.

"River!" Simon couldn't seem to articulate more than his sister's name.

"Now there, see what you done?" Mal accused Kaylee.

River burst out laughing, a happy, girlish laugh.

"Gotcha," she grinned. Kaylee and Inara joined in her laughter.

"River, just . . ." Simon gathered himself and continued calmly. "Meimei, could we discuss something a little less . . . explicit?"

River thought for a second. "I'm hungry," she said decisively.

"Now that there we can take care of. I'll order you somethin'." Mal left the table and headed for the bar, trying to look as if he weren't escaping.

"We have several hours yet before we have to lift off. What are your plans for the rest of this beautiful day?" Inara smiled fondly at the three of them.

"Well, there's a real pretty path runs along the river. I thought we might take a little stroll. Just, you know, enjoy being out in nature." Kaylee had put her arm through Simon's and tilted her head to look up at him.

Simon smiled back at her, happily. He shook his head suddenly, as if to clear it, and sat up straighter in his chair.

"Yes, that will be fun. As soon as River finishes eating, we'll take a walk. The three of us."

Kaylee's smile faded just for an instant, then returned in all its brightness. She leaned in to address River.

"Maybe we can pick some flowers, make a crown like I used to when I was a little girl. Make one for your brother, too. I bet he'll look pretty with all those flowers in his hair." She poked Simon in the ribs playfully.

"No. Thank you." He grinned and tried to move away from Kaylee's teasing hand. "I prefer my hair flowerless. But your hair," his voice softened as he pushed a few locks of her hair behind her ear, "your hair was made to have flowers in it."

"Well, we'll just have to have a contest, I'm thinkin'," Kaylee said, just as softly. "River can decide who wins."

"I'm not going," River said.

"What?" Simon turned to her.

"Honey, why not?" Kaylee asked.

"The sun shines too bright. It hurts to be near it."

"River, are you feeling all right? Did you get too much sun today?" Simon was feeling her forehead.

She moved her head, trying to dislodge his hand.

"I'm OK, Simon," she said shortly. "Not all of me is broken. You don't have to worry about me all the time."

Simon stared at her intently for a moment, then nodded his head.

"All right," he agreed. "But - you're still my little sister; I don't think the day will come when I don't worry about you at least a little, OK?" Simon rubbed her back gently.

River leaned her head so that her face rested against his arm. She stroked her cheek against him, once, twice.

"OK," she conceded.

"You're sure you're not feeling ill?"

"Simon!" All three women spoke in unison.

"All right." Simon threw up his hands in defeat.

"We'd better get gone before you land yourself in real trouble," Kaylee chided him. She rose and pulled him up, too, then stood with her arm around his waist. Simon froze for a moment, then smiled and tentatively draped his arm across her shoulders. Kaylee bent and placed a quick kiss on the top of River's head. "We'll bring you back some flowers," she promised. "Oh, my things." She looked at the chair heaped with bundles.

"We'll carry them back with us when we leave. It'll do Mal some good to fetch and carry for a bit." Inara whispered that last part conspiratorially. "You two go enjoy the day."

Kaylee made a move to leave but Simon stayed rooted to the spot, suddenly hesitant.

"River, are you sure . . ."

"I don't hear you," the girl replied. "You're not here."

"Brat," he laughed. He kissed her cheek, and then turned to Kaylee with a grin. "Shall we?" He gestured toward the open doorway and the sunny day awaiting them.

"We shall," Kaylee answered brightly.

With a wave to Inara and River, they left.

River had turned in her seat to watch them go, a wistful expression on her face.

"They make a sweet couple," Inara observed casually.

"Not sweet," River shook her head. "Sweet can make you sick. Antidote. A restorative couple." She slowly interlaced her fingers and pressed palm to palm as though she were praying. She seemed fascinated by the picture it presented. "I poisoned him with worry. She can fix him. I can't."

Inara was trying to gather a response when she was distracted by a clatter behind her.

"There you go." Mal placed a platter on the table and slid it across to River. A huge sandwich of grilled meat with juices dripping down the side lay in the center. A few lonely vegetable slices were off to one side. "It ain't high cuisine, but it'll fill your belly." He took his seat. "I asked him to throw some green stuff on it, too. You're still a growing girl." He looked around. "Where's Kaylee and the doc?"

"They went for a walk," Inara told him, keeping a neutral tone. "River is staying here with us."

"Is that right?" Mal looked at her, some concern on his face. "You OK? You feeling a little sick?"

The two women smiled at each other.

"She's fine, Mal." Inara patted River's arm. "Go ahead and eat something, bâobèi."

River picked up the sandwich gingerly, deciding on the best approach, then attacked it from the center. Some of the juice dribbled down her chin. She chewed and then grinned happily. "'S good," she announced through a full mouth.

"Girl has taste," Mal nodded approvingly. "You could teach your brother a thing or two about the simple joys."

"Simon's learning joy," River assured him. She looked around for a napkin, then used her arm when she couldn't find one. "Kaylee is teaching him."

"This is one of those topics we're supposed to be keepin' clear of," Mal reminded her.

Inara had searched around her bag and brought up a scented cloth; she handed it to River and shook her head at Mal.

"Here, sweetie, use this. Talking about falling in love should not be a forbidden topic, Mal. Oh, but then I forgot who I was addressing."

"Love? Who said anything about love? I thought she was talking about . . . you know."

"Sex?" Inara asked sweetly.

"Ni zhen bushi yiban ren! You cannot stay off that topic, can you?"

"You are such a prude. I am continually astounded."

"I am not a prude," Mal protested. "Everything has its time and its place and this ain't neither." He glared at her pointedly and slowly tilted his head in River's direction.

Inara tried to hide a smile, but gave it up as useless.

"You can be quite winning in a decidedly old-fashioned way."

"Winning?" He moved closer to her in his chair. "Winning, now. I enjoy the sound of that. Is there any kind of prize I get to claim?"

"My good thoughts," she replied primly, but she moved toward him almost unconsciously.

"Thoughts. You been thinking about me, then?"

"I wouldn't be too awfully cheered by that. Not all of my thoughts are charitable."

"So you're saying you're thinking about me a lot?"

"You're hopeless, Mal," Inara laughed, and he laughed with her. Their heads were closer together now.

"It has been said," he agreed with feigned regret.

River followed their exchange closely, her eyes going from one to the other as if she were following a sporting match. Suddenly the sandwich dropped from her hand and she froze in her chair.

"Sweetie?" Inara laid her hand on the girl's arm.

"River? What's wrong?" Mal's voice was filled with concern.

Just as suddenly she relaxed and smiled at him.

"They're not for you."

A squad of Feds walked through the door, noisy and high-spirited. Mal tensed and looked at River again.

"They're not for you neither, right?"

"Right," she nodded and daintily picked up the sandwich again.

The squad members were mostly young men in their prime and each more than aware of the fact. They made a straight line toward the bar, which brought them right past the table with Mal and Inara and River. The last of them didn't see the chair with the packages sticking out into the aisle; he stumbled into it, knocking off the top few bundles and falling heavily against the table.

His comrades hooted with derision, but kept to their trajectory. They arrived at the bar and hollered for the barkeep to see to them.

The young Fed picked up the fallen packages all the while apologizing to Mal and Inara.

"Sir. Ma'am. I'm sorry. I hope nothing is broken. I'll replace anything that I damaged, I promise. Just look through your things and let me know."

Mal had stood up at the collision but Inara's hand on his arm silently calmed him, and he had seated himself again, feigning a look that was relaxed and unconcerned.

"No worries . . ." he checked out the insignia on his uniform, "Corporal. I'm sure there's no damage done."

"No, sir, I insist. If you'll just look over what you bought, I'll be happy to make amends. Here." He handed one of the bags to Mal and started to open the other himself.

"No. Really, it's nothing to bother about." Mal put out his hand to take the package from the eager soldier.

"They're mine." River took them both by surprise. "Those on top. The ones you knocked over. They're mine." Her voice was cultured and mature with a slight lilt to it.

The corporal turned, really noticing her for the first time. He took in the slender body, the pretty face framed by long hair. He took off his hat.

"Oh. Oh, excuse me, Miss."

"It's quite all right, Corporal . . .?" River left the question dangling.

"Corporal Rydell, Miss. Calvin Rydell."

"Your friends are waiting, Corporal," Inara prodded him gently.

"Yes, ma'am." He barely took his eyes from River who was looking at him prettily through lowered lashes. "You really should check your belongings, Miss. I couldn't sleep tonight wondering if I'd caused you any trouble," he finished smoothly.

"Isn't that dangerous for a soldier? Not being able to sleep? You need to be alert at all times, I would imagine. I wouldn't want to put you in any danger, Corporal Rydell." She smiled at him demurely.

"Danger comes with a soldier's duty, Miss."

Mal rolled his eyes but kept his silence.

"You must be very brave, Corporal Rydell, to seek a soldier's life. I'd be much too afraid."

"I'm no braver than any other soldier," he replied humbly. "Clumsier than most, though. If you'll please just check your things, it would be my pleasure to escort you to replace anything I've damaged." He held out the bundle to her, a gleam in his eye.

River cast her eyes down.

"But corporal, they're . . . well, clothing and toiletries of an intimate nature. I believe they used to be called "unmentionables." River's voice turned coy. "It would be terribly embarrassing to show them to you. In public."

Mal and Inara exchanged a cautious look.

"Yes, Miss. I could see how that would be." Rydell was smiling at her.

"You're very understanding, Corporal."

"You make it easy to be understanding, Miss. You remind me very much of the lovely young ladies from home."

"What a darling compliment," she laughed.

"I'm only speaking the truth, Miss. . . ?"

"Isabella." River held out her hand to him. Mal started to speak but Inara touched his leg under the table in warning.

"Miss Isabella." He took her hand and bowed slightly in a courtly manner. "I'm sorry to have disturbed your lunch."

"Not at all, Corporal Rydell. It's been a lovely diversion." Her hand was still in his.

"Please forgive my impertinence, Miss Isabella, but you . . ." he started to reach his hand toward her face but a movement from Mal stopped him "you seem to have a spot of grease on your mouth." He pointed to a spot just above his own lip.

River slowly, delicately used her tongue to touch the corresponding spot on her lip. With a small caress of pink, she wiped the spot away.

"Is that better, Corporal Rydell?" she asked innocently.

"We have to be going now." Mal stood. "Isabella, say good-bye to the nice corporal."

"Sir," Rydell stood straight and addressed Mal. "I'm sorry if I've overstepped my bounds with your . . ."

"Cousin." Mal cut him off. "On my mother's side. The rich, fast side." He took Rydell's hand in his and pumped a vigorous handshake. "Thank you for your trouble, Corporal, but we'll be just fine. We've got to be goin' along. Folks waitin' on us. You know how it is."

"I could help you carry the packages," the corporal offered hopefully.

"Wouldn't hear of it," Mal assured him heartily. He clapped the young soldier on the back and moved him in the direction of his friends at the bar.

Rydell turned back toward River. "Miss Isabella, I hope to see you again."

"The universe is large, Corporal; I fear that may not come to be. I promise you, though, I will carry the memory of this brief encounter with me." River batted her eyelashes at him.

Inara was next to River now, arm across her shoulder, encouraging her to stand.

"We really must be going, dear."

"Keep up the good work, soldier," Mal slapped Rydell on the back again and fairly pushed him toward the bar. Without waiting for a response, he turned back to the table and started to pick up the packages. He tossed a couple to River. "Here, Isabella. Wouldn't want you to forget your unmentionables," he growled at her.

River held her head high and glided haughtily out of the saloon, Mal and Inara trailing after her. She continued walking until they were well down the road, then she whirled on them, laughing.

"I like that game!"

Mal looked around him to check that no one was in earshot, then he dropped the packages and grabbed hold of River's arms. He was steely with the effort not to shake her.

"Are you out of your gorram mind? Wait. Let me rephrase that. Just how much out of your gorram mind are you?"

"Mal," Inara attempted to intercede. He shut her down with a look.

"He was a boy. And he wanted to play." River was still smiling.

"He was a Fed, River! A ruttin' Fed. We don't play games with the Feds."

"Just a game," River replied more seriously. "Like you and Inara. Like Simon and Kaylee. But not real. I just wanted to play. Just once."

"Mal," Inara spoke his name again, quietly.

He released River from his grasp and ran a hand through his hair, frustrated and angry. He paced away from her for a few steps and took a moment to pull himself together. Calm again, he returned to stand in front of her.

"I know you didn't intend no harm, and none was done, as long as that moonsick calf don't come pantin' to find you." He crouched down a little to bring himself closer to her eye level. "River, any time we deal with the Feds is dangerous for us all. You understand that, right?" She looked at him silently, her eyes filling with unspilled tears. "Anything that raises their suspicion of us, anything that could lead them to lookin' at us too close. You know what would happen. They'd take you. They'd take your brother. The rest of us would end up in some Alliance prison. Or worse. I know you don't want that for any of us. Not even for Jayne." He smiled at that last part, hoping to see her smile in return.

"I understand," she said solemnly. "I forgot that I'm not real. I won't forget again." She turned away from him and started to walk back to the ship.

"Wait. River." Mal started after her, but Inara stopped him and started to fill his arms with the fallen packages.

"Let her be alone for a while, Mal. We'll keep her in sight, don't worry." She picked up the remaining few packages and the two of them followed River as she slowly made her back to Serenity.

"What did she mean she's not real? Course she's real," Mal muttered as they walked. "Real pain in the ma pigu sometimes, but mostly . . ."

"Mostly she's just a young woman." Inara finished for him. "We all think of her as a child, but she isn't. She's old enough to want romance and . . . intimacy." She chose the word carefully. "She's old enough to wed and have children of her own." Mal shook his head at the image, and Inara nodded. "None of it is likely in the near future. Maybe never."

They walked on in silence for a while, each lost in their own thoughts. Mal was brought back to the present by the sound of a hitched breath at his side.

"Inara?" She was crying quietly.

"I'm all right, Mal. It's only . . . when I think of what those hundan took from her, the things she may never experience because of what those monsters did to her . . ."

"It makes you sad," Mal said. He shifted the bundles in his grip so he had an arm free to place around her shoulder in comfort.

"Yes, it makes me sad. But it makes me incredibly angry, too." She swiped at her eyes with the back of her hand. "I want to find them and hurt them. Make them suffer for the life they took from her."

He tightened his grip on her shoulder, pulling her closer to him. She came willingly.

"If we ever get the chance, they'll pay for what they did. It's a vow I made I don't intend to break."

"A vow?" Her voice was high with surprise. He didn't answer her. "Mal?" she asked again, gently.

He sighed.

"It was one night about a month after they come aboard. You were gone to some appointment. She was havin' a real bad night. Ain't heard screams like that since . . . Woke us all up. All except Jayne, of course."

"Of course," she repeated, shaking her head.

"Went on for hours. Nothin' the doc tried seemed to work. I thought she'd tear her vocal cords, screaming like that." He walked a bit without speaking, lost in his memory. "Finally, she just stopped. In mid scream. Doc said she just collapsed. Said he thought for a second that she died. Near died himself, I expect." He shook his head. "Later, after everyone else went back to bed, Zoe and me were still up. Too wired to sleep, y'know? Still thinking about . . . other things. We made a pact. A vow. Any of those tamade liúmán fall into our hands, they're dead. Slow death." His eyes were fixed on a distant point. His voice was grim. "They'll die screaming."

They continued on, neither speaking.

"I know I should be appalled, but I'm not." Inara finally broke the silence between them. "I should tell you that vengeance is wrong. But I won't. I can't."

They crested the hill they had been climbing and Serenity came into view, sunlight reflecting off her silver skin. They could see River ahead of them, walking more quickly now, hurrying toward the open ramp.

"I thought she was getting better. I forget sometimes how it is with her." He said the words aloud, but it sounded as if he was talking to himself.

"She is getting better," Inara comforted him. "Her nightmares are less; she's more coherent."

"She's a ruttin' time bomb. And all she wants is to be a real girl."

They were stopped just over the crest of the hill now. They could see River rush on board, brushing past the Shepherd who stood in the hatch to greet her.

"Mal, what should we do?"

He shrugged.

"Don't know there is much to do. Need to talk to her brother, that's for gorram certain. Time he had the talk with his little sister."

"The talk?" Inara asked, momentarily puzzled. "Oh Mal, no. Not Simon."

"He's her kin. He has the right to know what she's on about, and he needs to make sure she understands it's more than a kid's game. It's just too dangerous for everyone involved, Inara. It's got to be done."

"You're right, of course."

"Of course?" He smiled.

"Well, mostly right," she amended. She held up a hand to stop his comment. "Simon needs to know, and River needs to to have someone to talk to. Someone who isn't Simon. It would be horrible for them both."

"Well, I ain't doin' it." Mal looked shocked at the very idea.

"You can be such a dolt," Inara sighed. "There are othe women on Serenity, Mal. Women with experience."

"Now no offense for real, but I don't know that the doc would be too hummed about having his little sister tutored by a Companion. Not that I'd think you'd try to turn her or anything."

"Thank you," she said, dryly. "I was thinking more along the lines of an old-fashioned girls' night out. I know Kaylee would be happy to help. I think Zoe would be there, too."

"Girl's night out. Yeah, sounds good, but we got a job to get to. We can't stay another night here, no matter how much I want to help the kid out."

"Men are so literal-minded," Inara sighed to the air. "Girl's night out in my shuttle, Mal. No men allowed."

"Well, that'd be a change," he muttered.

"I'm sorry - what was that you said?" Inara asked sweetly.

"I said I'll see what I can arrange," he answered just as sweetly.

He shifted his grip on the packages and started walking down the hill toward the ship.

"And we were havin' such a good week."

"Oh, stop. Please," Kaylee begged as she wiped the tears away with her

shirtsleeve. "I think I hurt myself." She looked at Zoe and broke

into another storm of laughter.

"I swear it's true. Every word." Zoe was trying hard to hold a

straight face.

River had a hand across her mouth to stifle the giggles; Inara, still chuckling, reached for her half-empy tea cup. The table in front of her was filled with empty plates and cups from their little supper.

"You ever tell Wash?" Kaylee wiped at her eyes again but was starting

to get her laughing fit under control.

"He will never hear that story. Ever." She looked around at the

gathered women - River and Kaylee seated cross-legged on the bed, Inara

gracefully relaxed on the sofa across from her - her smile giving lie to

her fierce gaze.

"I promise," River told her quickly.

Inara held up her hand. "I swear, what is said here will never leave this room." She whispered loudly to River, "It is an ancient rule among women when we gather like this."

River nodded solemnly back at her.

"Men can be so moonbrained sometimes," Kaylee said with a sigh. "I

don't think they get us half the time. Like we're supposed to be

acting like we come out of a book or somethin'" She turned to River. "If

your brother knew even half the stuff I done before we met . . . well, I

don't think we'd be talkin' much. He'd just keep passin' out from the


"Simon is a gentleman. Gentlemen respect ladies," River recited. She

nibbled on the teacake in her hand. "You don't act like ladies," she

said thoughtfully.

"We act like women. A good man respects that," Zoe said without


"I was going to be a lady. That's what they kept saying. Now I'm not even

a girl." River went back to nibbling on the cake, apparently

unconcerned about the effect her words had on the others.

"Course you're a girl, silly!" Kaylee put her arm around River's

shoulders and shook her gently. "Just look at you. Pretty girl, too."

River shook her head.

"Parts," she explained. "No center. No whole. The story gets lost in the maze."

"What story, River?" Inara encouraged her, kindly.

"Story of a girl. Who sang and danced and loved the handsome knight.

Once upon a time . . ."

Inara and Zoe exchanged a look.

"Once upon a time . . ." Inara repeated.

River shook her head and smiled sadly at the Companion.

"You know the good thing about stories?" Zoe leaned forward, resting

her forearms on her knees. She waited until River looked at her. "You

can write new ones."

"No." River shook her head at the memory. "I tried, but I wrote it wrong."

"Mal was just concerned, River," Inara tried to assure her.

"He was worried that we'd get too much notice from that Fed you were flirting with," Zoe continued. "It don't mean that you have to stop being a girl." She quirked a smile at her. "You can't ever stop being that. It just means that you have to be more careful about who you play with."

"That ain't as easy as it sounds," Kaylee added, glumly. "I made my share of wrong choices comin' up. Paid for 'em, too." She grinned suddenly. "Made some darn good ones, though, and they more'n made up for the mistakes." She started counting on her fingers. "Hanson Burns. Lyle Hideki. Lucius McAllister." She wiggled her eyebrows suggestively at the young girl next to her. "Oh yeah, he was a good one."

River smiled, pulled in by Kaylee's good humor. She bumped her

shoulder against Kaylee's playfully, then let her arm rest against the older


"Only boys on your list?" River asked. "Maybe you're missing something."

Kaylee pulled back and stared at her quizzically.

"Were you just flirting with me?"

River nodded at her, wide-eyed, unsure.

"That was pretty good!" Kaylee looked over at Zoe and Inara. "She

shows real promise, don't she?"

"Yes. She does." Inara and Zoe sighed simultaneously.

"I was wrong again." River ducked her head.

"No, sweetie!" Inara assured her. "You seem to have a natural talent,"

she noted wryly.

"Flirting can be fun, but you have to tread careful, River." Zoe tilted

her head and considered the girl. "Your folks didn't let you play with

other kids too much, did they." It wasn't a question.

"I was tutored at home. Until . . ."

"Well, of course you were, being such a genius and all." Kaylee rushed

in to cut her off.

"Kaylee." Zoe's voice was quiet. She continued. "You've got some

catching up to do, xiâo péngyou, it's true, but you'll be fine. I take you to be a fast learner," she added dryly. "Now first lesson. Flirting is about maybes, it ain't about promises. You don't say more'n you want to back up. Ever. Got it?"

River nodded her head.

"The temptation will be to use your 'feminine wiles,' as our captain

would so quaintly put it, just because you can." Inara continued. "You're a lovely young woman and young men will come buzzing around you because of that" She considered her for a moment. "Young women, too," she added. "Not all of them are good. And even of those that are, not all of them are safe, do you understand? Because of who we are," she finished delicately.

"Who I am," River corrected her, bleakly.

"Yes, that's right," Zoe agreed. Kaylee started to protest, but Zoe stopped her with a look. "It's a hard truth, but it can't be backed away from."

Zoe stood and crossed to stand in front of River. She stroked the girl's face tenderly and then knelt in front of her, so that their eyes were level with each other.

"You got dealt a bad hand. Things were done to you shouldn't ever have been done to a living soul. You been changed. We all see that. Ain't no one more aware of that than you, though."

River's eyes filled with tears and they spilled down her cheek, but she kept her silence, kept her gaze locked on the woman kneeling before her. Zoe wiped a trailing tear from River's cheek with the back of one finger.

"But they didn't unmake you, River. You're real and you're here and we're all glad for it. I ain't saying it's easy - for any of us - but you bring life to this boat, little one. Your brother told us you were a gift. He weren't wrong."

River was crying in earnest now and they let her. Kaylee held her close and rested her head on top of the crying girl's.

"Voices and colors and thoughts and they whirl and they mix and I can't make them out, can't make them stop."

"I know, sweetie," Kaylee murmured, comforting her.

"But sometimes they do and I remember. I remember how to be like you but it's not real. Not my memory. I don't know how." She looked at them despairingly. "I don't know how."

"We'll teach you, bâobèi. We'll help you get your own memories." Inara's voice was gentle but tight with emotion.

"Who would love me? Broken thing. Nightmare thing." She clenched her hands into tight fists. Zoe covered the girls hands with her own.

"Shhhh," Kaylee hushed her, rocking her a little now.

"You know something? I don't think there's a woman ever lived who didn't say words like that at some point." Zoe smiled. "Course you got more cause than most, but you're feeling what all of us have at one time or another."

"No. You're just saying that. Soothe the girl - keep her calm!" She broke free of Zoe's grasp and thrust out one arm; the pinpricks were visible. "Where's the needle? River's crying!"

Zoe laughed, and the sound brought River up short.

"Child, crying girls are as common as the stars. About as old, too. You ain't all that much news."

River hitched a breath. "Not news?" she asked, a touch of hope in her voice.

"Not a whit," Kaylee put in. "I went on a cryin' jag for days once. I was certain I was to die an old maid. Who would want a foolish, stupid, ugly girl like me?"

River's tears were quieting and she looked around at Zoe and Inara. They nodded in agreement with Kaylee's sentiments.

"Welcome to being a woman, sweetie," Kaylee smiled at her.

River smiled back, wiping her tears away with her hands. Zoe stood and straightened out her pants legs.

"You got family now. Female kin. We'll be looking out for you." She towered over the two girls on the bed. "Just, please, no more Feds, OK?"

River returned a small smile and nodded. "OK."

"In fact, until you get your footing, I'd say you run it by one of us before you take to flirting at all."

River nodded her head again, then stopped and furrowed her brow.

"I need to rehearse."

Kaylee, Inara, and Zoe exchanged amused looks.

"Well, sweetie, that might be difficult while we're on Serenity," Inara said.

"Slim pickin's," Kaylee chimed in.

"There's the captain," River offered excitedly.

Inara smothered a laugh while Zoe fielded the suggestion.

"I think your flirting would be more than a mite discomfiting for him, River."

River sighed and slumped her shoulders.

"Simon won't play. He's too worried. Probably think it's something else he needs to fix." She grinned and the women laughed, delighted at the unexpected joke. "Jayne's afraid of me. But that might be fun . . ." she teased.

"River!" Kaylee drew her name out and poked her in the ribs.

Zoe crossed her arms and stood ramrod straight, catching the girl's eye.

"If you promise me it won't go no further, I'll talk to Wash. He was terrible flirty when I first met him." She fixed the girl with a strong look. "I'm trusting you with my man, River."

River looked at her seriously while next to her Kaylee ducked her head to hide her smile.

"I'll never betray you, Zoe." The words were sincere and Zoe softened from her joking stance to place her hand on River's head.

"I know you won't," she said softly.

"I'd say it's time for tea and cake." Inara stood and addressed the other three, a satisfied look on her face.

"What about the preacher?" River broke in. "Can I practice on him?"

"I don't like it." Jayne stood behind the weight bench, arms crossed tightly.

The Shepherd hoisted the barbell above his prone body and grunted up at his spotter. "So you keep saying."

"It ain't right, them off like that. We ain't never had no, what you call it - no sepragation on this boat before." He shook his head. "I don't like it."

"It ain't for you to like or dislike," Mal shot back. He took careful aim with the horseshoe and let it fly. It landed with a clang, leaning up against the metal spike at the other end of the cargo bay. Simon, seated on an upturned supply box off to the side, took another bite of his apple and nodded appreciatively at the captain's skill.

"I'm just sayin' . . ." Jayne back-pedalled a bit.

"And that's the problem. You're sayin' it. You might want to give your mouth a rest." Mal stepped aside to let Wash have his turn.

"There's nothing nefarious afoot." Wash lined up his shot, horseshoe held in front of his face as he concentrated. "It's an old, old tradition." He let fly and the horseshoe landed with a thump a few inches shy of the stake.

He lined up his next shot.

"I imagine they're up there doing the usual things," Wash continued, "painting each other's toenails, trying out new hairstyles . . . " His voice trailed off and a silence fell over the bay as they each tried to imagine their first officer indulging in any of those activities. "Or, you know, they could be teaching each other garrotting techniques." He tossed the horseshoe and it landed with a satisfying clang next to the stake.

Book sat upright and wiped the sweat from his face, as the captain and the pilot strolled to the far stake to continue their game.

"My sister and her friends would take to carousing every now and again. They were a formidable group - very strong women. Much like our own. I'd walk into the room where they were gathered, preparing to go out for the night, and they'd stop talking and just . . . smile at me. Gave me the chills," he finished with a laugh.

"You had sisters?" Jayne seemed stunned.

"Two of them," the Shepherd answered, amused at Jayne's surprise. "One older, one younger."

"Three," Wash called out, as he picked up his horseshoes. "All of them older."

"Explains why he's so whipped," Jayne sneered in a loud stage whisper.

Wash held up a horseshoe and looked at Jayne through the iron oval.

"It explains why I have me a sexy, exciting, dangerous woman . . . and you have a gun collection."

"What about you, Doc?" Jayne asked over the laughter, looking to move the attention elsewhere. "Your sis always havin' tea parties and such? All them rich little girls runnin' around - probably had a maid for each of 'em to cut their sandwiches."

"No." Simon's voice was carefully neutral. "Our parents didn't encourage River to find friends."

"Crazy even back then, huh?" Jayne nodded thoughtfully.

Simon flushed with anger. "She wasn't crazy. She isn't crazy!"

Mal glared, Wash shook his head. Book stood up and turned to face Jayne.

"Think before you speak, son. It will save you some grief."

"What?" Jayne looked around, bewildered.

"The women just wanted some time alone to talk about . . . womeny things. Why is that so hard for you to wrap your brain around?" Mal tossed his horseshoe and grimaced when it overshot the stake.

"They ain't women, that's why!" the merc exploded. The men all stared at him.

Wash turned to Mal. "We haven't been in space that long, have we?"

"You know what I mean," growled Jayne, eyeing the pilot angrily. "They ain't 'women'," he drew quotes in the air. "They're Zoe. And Kaylee. And your eerie-ass sis. And In . . ." he paused. "All right, I'll give you Inara," he shrugged.

"You're insane, you know that." Simon shook his head in disgust.

"But it's all right for him to call me crazy, right?" Jayne called accusingly to Mal.

Simon rode over his comment.

"Just because we're crewmates together, we're supposed to forget their sex?" Simon asked incredulously.

"I ain't talkin' about sexin' 'em," Jayne shot back with a guilty look at Mal. "And why now, huh? Why all of a sudden we got 'women problems'? You tell me that!"

Simon and Mal exchanged a quick glance.

"They ain't 'women problems', Jayne," Mal answered icily. "And ain't no one here reports to you, dong ma?"

Jayne shifted his feet, staring moodily at the floor, but he kept his silence.

"Gentlemen, shall we just call it the Mystery of Woman and let it rest?" Book moved out toward the center of the bay the better to address all the men. "I, for one, feel blessed to have such fine, strong women - all of them - as my crewmates."

"Amen to that, Shepherd," Wash responded, seriously. "Amen to that."

The hatch to Inara's shuttle swung open and as one the men turned their eyes upward. The women spilled out of the hatchway and onto the catwalk, Kaylee and River arm-in-arm, Zoe and Inara chatting and smiling.

"O, so light a foot will ne'er wear out the everlasting flint," quoted Book admiringly.

"Huh?" Jayne squinted at the Shepherd.

"Shakespeare," responded Simon without looking at him. He broke into a grin when River and Kaylee waved to him; he waved back, then put his hands in his pockets, looking embarrassed.

"We were adjourning to the dining room for some tea and cake. Join us, please," Inara called down to the men.

Wash dropped the horseshoe he was holding. "Don't mind if I do!" And he bounded up the stairs to meet his wife.

"I could be persuaded," Mal called back, smiling. "Gentlemen," he turned back to the rest of the men still in the bay and jerked his head toward the stairs. Book put his arm around Jayne's shoulders and ferried the grumbling merc up the stairs.

As Simon passed him, Mal stopped him with a hand on his arm.

"Looks like everything settled down."

"Yes, it does," Simon answered with relief. "Captain . . ." Simon hesitated. "Thank you."

Mal shrugged. "She's my crew." Simon gave him a knowing look. "Kid deserves a break, all right? Don't go makin' no big thing out of it."

"Thank you," Simon repeated.

"Get on up there," Mal nodded toward the stairs up to the dining room. "'Fore the cake's all gone."

Simon hurried up the stairs. At the top Inara waited, alone. Mal strode up the stairs, taking them two at a time.

"Everything OK?" he greeted her when they stood face-to-face.

"I think it went well," she answered. "Thank you - for leaving it to us, for leaving the rest of them out of it," Inara said, seriously.

"Everyone's thanking me this evening. I'm gonna get a swelled head," Mal replied, easily.

Inara laughed. "That would hardly be a first."

"Why, whatever do you mean, woman?" Mal answered, shocked. They had started walking toward the dining area, talking over the noisy laughter flowing out of the room ahead of them. "I am as modest as the day is long."

"There's no day out here in the black," she reminded him.

"I don't get your point," Mal answered, deadpan, as he stepped aside to let her enter the dining room first. They moved to their customary seats at the table, passing close by Zoe and Wash who were in quiet conversation.

"Honey," Zoe spoke to her husband lovingly, hand on his chest, "we have to talk."

From her seat at the table, River caught Wash's eye and grinned.

The ship was silent except for the comforting thrum of Serenity's engines; Mal made his way back to the kitchen. As he walked, he hummed a lively tune almost silently, and he drummed out a beat with his fingertips on the coffee cup he carried. He danced down the few steps from the corridor into the dining area and came to a dead halt, caught up by the sight of River sitting in the lounge. The girl was like a ghost in her white night clothes, sitting demurely, feet on the floor, hands clasped in her lap, eyes closed.

Mal quietly put his cup back in his storage bin and walked softly into the lounge. He neared the girl and leaned over to peer closely at her.

"I'm awake," she said without opening her eyes.

"Whoa!" Mal jumped back.

"I'm daydreaming." Her eyes were still closed.

"Looks like your dream-dreaming," Mal countered. "And why ain't you asleep?"

"Too much coffee."

"You shouldn't be drinking that stuff. You're too young."

River opened her eyes to narrow slits and looked at Mal, then heaved a sigh.

"Oh, excuse me," Mal huffed in an aggrieved tone. "I keep forgettin' you're all grown up. So what do you say? Wanna throw back a couple shots?"

River crossed her arms on her chest and remained silent, but her lips turned up in a grudging smile.

"Big day today," Mal said over his shoulder as he walked to the sink and poured himself a glass of water. He lifted the glass toward River. "You want one?"

She considered the question briefly and then nodded. "Yes, please." She stood and walked silently, gracefully to stand across the counter from Mal. He handed her the glass and pulled out another for himself.

"I'm sorry I made you mad," she said as she lifted the glass to her mouth.

"You didn't make me . . . ," Mal started and then stopped himself. "All right, you made me mad. But I was more worried than I was mad. You understand that, right?"

"I'm sorry I worried you," she amended.

"Yeah, well, it comes with the job, so don't you worry, dong ma? Just don't be doin' your girlie flirty business with the wrong fellas, and we'll be fine."

"I'm not allowed to flirt with you."

Mal coughed on his water. "Excuse me?"

"It would discomfit you."

"It would at that. So . . . thank you for not doing that." He took a hasty gulp from his glass.

"You're welcome," she replied comfortably. "Zoe is letting me flirt with Wash."

"Really?" Mal sounded intrigued.

River nodded a yes. "And possibly the preacher," she continued, matter-of-factly.

Mal grinned. "Now that I would like to see."

"All right. When?" She looked at him expectantly.

"No, uh . . . I mean, I didn't mean . . .you shouldn't . . ." Mal scrambled to correct himself and then stopped when River could no longer contain her laughter.

"You're too smart for your britches, anyone ever tell you that?" Mal said with a lopsided smile.

"All the time," River sighed.

"What's going on?" Simon stood at the entrance to the dining area, one hand on the hatch frame. "You weren't in your room. River?" He was down the stairs and walking toward them, his face concerned.

"Just getting' a drink before turnin' in, Doc," Mal answered for her. "Want one?"

"No. Thank you." Simon moved closer to his sister. "River, what are you doing up?"

"Simon," she moaned, "stop worrying."

"Too much caffeine," Mal explained. "I told her she was too young," he continued off Simon's look, "but she put me in my place." He paused. "Rightly so, I might add."

River looked at him thankfully. She turned to her brother.

"The captain and I are talking. I'll go to bed in a minute." Simon didn't move. "So you can go along now." Her shoulders were set, her voice was firm. Behind her, Mal looked at Simon with a barely suppressed grin.

Simon held his ground, looking at his sister uncertainly. "Meimei, I know I seem to worry too much. But this afternoon. You were so . . . upset. I just want to be sure . . ."

"No need to worry," she stopped him, touching his face lovingly. "River is here now. Maybe just for tonight. But for tonight, don't worry."

Brother and sister held each other's gaze; Simon finally nodded and kissed his sister on the cheek. "Don't stay up too late." He turned toward Mal. "Good night, Captain."

"Night, Doctor," Mal answered evenly.

They listened to his footfalls retreat down the corridor. Mal stretched and yawned.

"You won that round, but you'll have to celebrate on your own." He yawned again. "I'm goin' to bed."

"Me, too," River yawned widely. She noticed Mal's smile. "I just wanted him to go first."

"You are a stubborn, stubborn girl," he said admiringly as he started to wash out the glasses and put them in the drainer.

"Yes, I am," she said, pleased with herself. She took a step away from the counter. "Good night."

"Night," Mal answered not looking up from his chore. Too late he noticed a blur of white rush toward him and a soft kiss was placed on his cheek. He nearly dropped the glass from surprise.

"I hope it didn't discomfit you," apologized River, hurrying toward the doorway.

"No. No, it's all right. Just - don't make a habit out of it," Mal managed.

"I promise," she replied, then whirled around and hurried down the corridor to her room.

Mal finished with the glasses. He walked to the switch and turned off the overhead lights. The details of the room receded in the darkness, only a dim light spilled in from the corridors. Walking with a steady tread, Mal made his way surely to the steps; he turned around and looked back toward the corridor where the passenger rooms were. Placing a hand on the bulkhead next to him, he patted it with affection.

"Yuh," he spoke aloud to the silent ship, "our little girl is growin' up."

The ship gave no answer, and with a great yawn, Mal made his way back to his quarters. He pushed open the hatch and stood for a moment, drinking in the calm quiet. With a nod of contentment, he stepped onto the ladder and pulled the hatch door closed. In minutes he was asleep.

Nothing stirred but for the engines pulsing with their own life. Steadfastly, Serenity carried her family through the black.