"Jayne, will you haul on that thing, you mangy cur! We lose that topsail and you'll have to get out and push us back to port!" Mal wrestled with the wheel, blinking to see through the salt spray on his face.
"I'm doin' the best I can! God damn it, Wash, help me!" Jayne hauled on the rope, the fibers cutting into his palm deeply.
Wash skidded across the slippery deck to grab the rope behind Jayne and together they hauled the sail in. The storm was only getting worse, and Jayne nearly trod on Kaylee where she was furiously nailing in supports for the mainmast.
"Get in outta this, little girl!" he growled at her.
"You get in! The supports for the mainmast are buckling; I can see it from underneath. If I don't get these in place she could go and then we're royally buggered!" she screamed back to be heard over the storm.
All his life Jayne had been told it was bad luck to have a woman onboard ship, and now there were three to contend with, but he had to admit he'd much rather have Kaylee around than be without her. Instead of bustling her under cover as he might have done for anyone else, he took hold on the supports and held them in place for her while she worked.
Mal stood at the helm and kept his ship pointed into the wind as it peaked and dipped through the angry waves. He hadn't known much about the sea when he'd bought Serenity, hadn't had a clue how to manage himself on the waves, but in the time he'd had her, she'd taught him a lot. On days like this when the sea seemed intent on ridding itself of his presence, Serenity kept him safe and always took him home.
"Captain, looks like we're comin' out of it!" Zoe called from the bow, her dark hair flapping wildly in the wind.
"Good, get below and check the hull. If we've popped a seam, I wanna know," Mal ordered.
Below decks, Jayne was carefully sharpening a nick out of his black handled saber. A lot of the sailors and pirates he grew up around insisted on using fencing swords, but Jayne was just to big and decidedly not subtle enough for that sort of thing. For his dismembering purposes he chose the largest saber he'd ever laid eyes on. He called it Vera and kept it clean and shiny all the time.
Beside him, Kaylee was carefully combing the salt soaked tangles from her shoulder-length hair, wincing at her own heavy handedness. She wore a standard seaman's outfit with a few alterations to accommodate her obviously female attributes. With a smile, she finished with her combing and carefully pulled her hair back away from her face, tying it there with a length of purple ribbon.
"Kaylee, come check for sprung seams with me," Zoe ordered.
Kaylee waved her off. "Already taken care of," she smiled. "Still tight as a drum." She stood and patted the curved hull with a tender smile. "My girl wouldn't let me down."
Zoe had never really known how to take the very personal relationship that Kaylee managed to have with a big inanimate object, but when Kaylee touched the hull she seemed to know what the ship was thinking, if such a thing was possible. When Kaylee was on Serenity, it seemed, the ship would always bring them home.
Wash, her darling husband and possibly the worst sailor in the known world, stood in the back of their sectioned-off room, carefully sewing the pocket back on his pants.
"Lover, you are an extraordinary man," she smiled at him.
"How so, my blushing rose?"
"Wouldn't most men have asked their wife to do that for them?" she asked with a raised eyebrow, running mischievous fingers along his shoulder.
"Possibly, but none of them are married to you, are they, petal?" He laughed and leaned his face into her touch. "And I, unlike many men, have a strong survival instinct."
Like most nights, they were tempted beyond measure to do things that shouldn't be done in the company of others, but they heard Kaylee's light laughter and Jayne's rumbling dirty jokes and decided against it. Though they were a tiny crew and the captain had allowed them to section off the ship so they all had their own space, they still hadn't really gotten used to being so close together all the time.
"Where's Inara?" Kaylee asked Jayne.
Inara had, at one time, been in the service of the English nobility, some sort of diplomatic spy apparently. Now, however, she sailed about on Serenity, probably hiding from the authorities, though she never shied from using her old position of power to get them out of trouble when it was needed.
"In the Captain's cabin, I think, she's doin' that thing again where we're gettin' low on cash so she's gonna give him a hint."
It was something they had simply come to expect. Inara wasn't the kind of person to flaunt her power or play up her obvious influence in the British empire, but when the ship was in need she came through for them. The Captain wasn't the nicest to her, but it was pretty obvious to everyone that there were feelings there that couldn't be ignored forever.
Serenity cleared the storm and slipped into calmer seas that lulled Jayne and Kaylee to sleep below decks while Zoe and Wash kept watch above. Smooth nights like that were easy when the couple could set the sails, sit on deck wrapped in blankets and watch the stars or talk in the knowledge that they wouldn't be disturbed.
"We'll be stopping along the African coast in three days," Mal told Zoe as he let Inara out of his cabin to return to her own room.
"Aye sir, I'll make the course changes." She stood and nodded to Inara as she passed. "Goodnight."
"Goodnight, Zoe," the other woman replied with a small smile.
With everyone either asleep or on watch, Mal sat at his desk with a pensive frown creasing his handsome face. While he had to admit to himself that he felt better knowing Inara was around to get him out of fixes like this, what he hated was not knowing who the hell she really was. Having strangers on his ship made him uncomfortable in the extreme.
It took them only two and a half days to reach the African coast and find the sea-side village Inara directed them to. Another hour on land saw Mal wishing he'd just sent Zoe and Jayne, wishing he'd had the forethought to offer to stay behind with Kaylee and guard the ship. While it was always nice to get off-ship in a civilized place, find a pub and get stinking, it was something else to be surrounded by hottentots in an unknown land where he couldn't find a single alcoholic beverage to slake his thirst.
While the cats were away the mice, namely Kaylee and Wash, were playing, or at least that's what it looked like to random passers by. Kaylee say on a box covered with a length of purple velvet, a paper umbrella in her hand to keep the sun off and a bright smile on her face as she watched people pass. Finally her eyes fell on a gentle-faced older man with white hair and dark skin.
"You're going to come with us, I think," she sang out to him.
"What makes you say that?" he asked.
"Well… you're not looking at destinations; you're looking at the ships. Serenity here is the nicest." She pointed at her pride and joy. "Just so happens we got room- long as you don't care where you're going, that is."
Book looked at the sleek ship and then at the bright young woman enticing him on board and decided that maybe this was the ship for him. He started up the gangplank, noticing for the first time the large man moving around on the deck.
"Don't mind him, that's Wash. He's our second helmsman. We got a real small crew on Serenity, but she don't like crowds anyway."
"Why is it you're taking on passengers then, my Lady?" he asked with a good-natured smile.
"Oh, I ain't no Lady, and I'm sure my ship wouldn't mind a few more feet on her decks."
Kaylee would never know just how close Mal, Jayne and Zoe came to not coming back to Serenity that day. How close they came to being bodies in a ditch outside a nameless village in a forsaken country. None of the maybes mattered when she saw them coming back with a cargo order in Mal's hand and another two passengers.
One was tall, with dark hair and eyes and a chiseled jaw, the kind that made Kaylee ache to reach out and touch it. He had one arm around a smaller person who was covered from head to toe in some sort of ceremonial robe, like the natives wore in Egypt sometimes. The second person seemed to walk in jerks and fits, as though its body didn't want to cooperate completely with the direction of its mind.
"Kaylee, this is Simon and, uh, what was your friends name again?" Mal said , and from his tone it was obvious he didn't trust them one bit.
"It's almost unpronounceable. You said you could organize a room for him away from everyone else. I'd like you to show me that room now if you could." This Simon guy seemed a little tetchy.
"Course. Wash, show them to the Boson's quarters, and make sure they have everything they need," Mal grunted.
Wash jumped to do as he was ordered, and when the robed person tripped a little the gentleman in him moved to help. He took hold of an elbow covered in thick cloth and steadied the slightly disoriented person.
"Thank you," came a tiny voice from under the hood.
Wash nearly did a double take but checked himself at the last minute. With a calm expression he led them below without comment, though he made a mental note to talk to Mal about it as soon as an opportunity presented itself.
"That'll be all, thank you," Simon said somewhat firmly when Wash opened the door for them.
Mal was having a growling match with Jayne on deck , with Kaylee looking on like it was the most amusing thing she'd ever seen. Standing at the top of the gangplank was a man in drab-looking clothes, carrying a leather satchel. He looked quite useless, according to Jayne, and if he was useless he had no place on a ship. At least the other passengers could pull their own weight if required.
"Look at this guy, Mal, he doesn't look strong enough to chew his own breakfast!" Jayne gesticulated as he talked, waving his hands in the air and stabbing accusing fingers at the man on the gangplank.
"I'm more than capable of holding my own, sirs. I may not be as strong as others, but I can make myself useful."
The argument raged on for some minutes until Mal ended it by the simple expedient of punching Jayne in the mouth and pulling rank.
"This is my ship, and I'll have on it whom I please. I'll kick off it whom I please too; you might want to remember that." Mal sighed and carried the man's bag aboard before handing him off to Zoe to show him where he could stow it. "Now, don't look at me like that, Kaylee. We need the money and Jayne was just bein' contrary."
Kaylee had sunk down onto the deck next to Jayne and was carefully holding the bridge of his nose to stop the bleeding. "I know…didn't have to hit him so hard, though." She helped Jayne to his feet and they went below without another word.
Book, who had been standing by, watched Mal lean on the railing and suck in a tired breath. Dealing with Jayne wasn't the easiest thing in the world and doing it in front of Kaylee was even harder. In Jayne's world authority was ordered on the basis of strength and Mal knew he had to constantly display that strength or the bigger man might get delusions of captaincy. With Kaylee, though, the whole world revolved around the people she loved, and she loved the crew. Mal knew she'd be looking at him with those big reproachful eyes for a week before she let it slide.
"It's hard to be the leader sometimes," Book said in his clear ringing voice, as much announcing his presence as making a point.
"Sometimes. Can I ask who you are and what you're doin' on my ship?"
"Young Kaylee rented me some space in the hold. I'm travelling at the moment."
"Yeah? Where you bound?" Mal asked with a raised eyebrow.
"Wherever the wind takes us, Captain. You could say I'm on a quest to find myself."
"And you think you'll find yourself on my boat?" Mal laughed in an almost self-mocking fashion.
"Well, little Kaylee said that this was the ship to be on. Something in her eyes suggested she might know what she's talking about." Book smiled at the doorway that Kaylee had gone through.
"She may well, preacher." Mal smiled, noting for the first time the collar Book wore.
Book looked down and rearranged his heavy overcoat to hide the collar. "The jury is still out on that, Captain. Just call me Book."
"Book?" Mal raised that eyebrow again; it was getting a lot of exercise that morning. They shook hands and Book took his leave.
Mal stayed out on the deck, walking around it, pacing it out again like he had a million times. Serenity had a way of creeping into his body through the soles of his feet if he just gave her some time.
"You OK?" Zoe asked quietly as she made the rounds, making sure they had everything before castoff.
"Yeah." He leaned out over the railing to look at the turbulent water.
"Jayne's nose stopped bleedin' if that's what you're worried about." She smiled slightly, leaning on the railing next to him.
"Good to know. Got a small crew, can't afford for one of them to be useless."
"Kaylee never stays mad at you for long."
There was no hiding anything from Zoe. She'd known him too long, had seen him at his best and his worst and somewhere in between had come to understand him. He had no secrets from her.
"She looks at me like I'm a monster sometimes…"
"No she doesn't, you just surprise her, that's all." Zoe's hand came down companionably on his shoulder and squeezed lightly. "She thinks you're wonderful and when you do somethin' slightly less wonderful it shocks her. She'll never reconcile you with someone who isn't one hundred percent perfect."
"Gee, thanks." He let out in a short laugh, but it did help and he knew she was right. "OK, get them up here and ready to get this tub moving."
The passengers watched in fascination as a crew of five got underway a ship built for crews of twenty. They had tricks that cut corners and they seemed to move together perfectly. Jayne and Wash did most of the heavy lifting and pulling of ropes while Kaylee clambered about the rigging pulling on carefully organized lines. Zoe busied herself giving orders and making sure everything moved as it should while Mal stood at the helm.
"Most impressive, Captain," Book said with honest admiration.
"Thank you, Preacher." Mal smiled, proud of his crew. "We worked hard to get her set up the way we wanted her."
"Please, just Book is fine."
"If you say so. Why don't you run below and see if Simon and Mr. Unpronounceable want to come up and take some lunch with us once we're underway?"
Book trotted off with a peaceful smile on his face. From his countenance and complete lack of seasickness Mal guessed that Book was one of those people born for the sea. He seemed to take to it like breathing, and like Mal it seemed to bring him a kind of peace to be found nowhere else. Mal liked that in a man.
The doctor, Simon, came up on deck some ten minutes later and asked Zoe to provide food enough for him and his friend. They would eat below decks by themselves. Zoe grudgingly gave him the provisions and allowed him to go below, but her expression said quite plainly that she didn't approve.
"I don't like it, Captain, he's hiding something and I hate having secrets on a ship this small," she said to Mal once Simon was out of sight.
"You know, I do believe you're right…"
"Captain, about that." Wash swallowed a large hunk of bread and looked at Mal. "I'm pretty sure that under all that cloth, he's got a distinctly girl-shaped friend."
"I see…" Mal frowned over his cup of cheap, low grade coffee. He hated having strangers on his ship, and he hated being lied to, so he made a decision. "Alright, we're far enough away from land now, go get them both up here, Wash. Take Jayne with you; drag 'em by the hair if you have to."
"What the hell is going on here?" Simon was demanding at the top of his lungs as Jayne dragged him by one arm. "Hey, get your hands off… him!" he almost growled as Wash led the robed figure up on deck.
"We have a problem, Doc. Seems you're keepin' things from us and that don't fly on my boat. Now we are going to have the story from you or I'm turnin' this tub around and I'll dump you right back where I found you," Mal pronounced.
"You can't do that!" Simon tried to break from Jayne's grip but his companion seemed to have other ideas. "Don't!" Simon cried, but it was too late.
Wash, it seemed, had been right. When the figure pulled back the hood to blink at the bright light, she had to push her long dark hair back from her face. Her eyes were a dark brown, and they blinked at everyone, moving from one to the next as though examining them carefully.
"Huh… Nice. You smugglin' a slave girl back to work your kitchen?" Mal had no time for such men and was giving serious thought to tossing the bastard over the side.
"This is… my sister, River." Simon struggled from Jayne's grip and moved to the girl's side. She seemed quite calm about having him put an arm about her shoulders and hold her to him. "We just need a ride to wherever you're going. This shouldn't change anything."
"It wouldn't, 'cept you lied to me and that suggests it does. Now fess up."
"The sky is falling," the girl said sadly. "All falling in and burying what used to be beautiful."
"I do hope you have a better explanation than that," Mal grunted.
"The less you know, the safer we'll all be, can't you understand that? We won't do anything to endanger the ship; we'll stay below in our room until we dock." The poor guy seemed so desperate, Mal's gentler side was tempted to just give in, but doing things like that could get his crew killed.
"I'm sorry, Doc, but that's not going to happen. Truth, now."
"Turn this ship around,Captain, and take us back to Africa." It was the fourth passenger- shit, Mal couldn't remember his name, but he'd pulled a short sword from somewhere and had it pressed firmly to Kaylee's neck.
"What? Now you put that down right now!" Jayne pulled out the pistol he kept loaded in his belt and pointed it at the man's head.
"You wouldn't. Now turn this tub around, I'm taking these two back with me to face questioning and as far as I'm concerned any more mouth from any of you and you can accompany her to the interrogators!" With his free hand he pulled a pistol from his own belt and held it to Kaylee's hip.
"No, no, no, no! It's blinding the brightness! Killing the light, Goddess make it stop!" River was on her knees, covering her ears with her hands and crying. Simon knelt beside her and tried to calm her down.
"I ain't turnin' anything around till everyone calms down and I get a straight answer! Someone better start talking, or I'm gonna tell Jayne to start shootin'!"
"No one's that good a shot," the man spat.
"I am, and Kaylee trusts me," Jayne growled low in his chest, his eyes never leaving Kaylee's. "You trust me, don't you, midget?"
"You know I do," was all she said, though she was trembling uncontrollably.
"I am an authorized representative of the Catholic Church, and that… girl," he almost spat, "is a witch! She's to be questioned by the Inquisition to discover the full extent of her depravity and then cleansed to save her soul."
"I don't believe for one minute you're concerned about that girl's soul." Mal moved forward carefully. "And as of this moment, you ain't gettin' off this ship alive."
Without having to be ordered Jayne opened fire, the single bullet moving through the air, arching along a perfect trajectory. Kaylee had seen the twitch in his shoulder just before he fired and dropped all her weight to get well out of the way. Doing so, however, had caused the knife to her throat to cut quite deeply into her shoulder. She collapsed on the deck, dazed and whimpering, while the body beside her lay quite dead, a bullet right between his eyes.
"Kaylee!" Jayne screamed, sounding afraid for the first time since Mal had met him. He skidded along the deck and came to a stop beside Kaylee's body. "Kaylee, can you hear me, girl? You alright?"
Simon was next to her in a second, one hand pressed over the wound, the other waving to get someone's attention. "Someone get my bag from my room, quickly!"
River sat swaying from side to side as a tiny stream of blood ran from the dead mans body past her feet and into the water. With chilling calmness she put a finger into the stream of blood and drew two lines away from her nose on each cheek. She got up shakily and walked like a person trying hard to be calm, finally sinking down beside Jayne.
"It's alright," she said, sounding lucid for the first time. "Mother loves her children, loves them when they smile." Though Kaylee was in pain, she reached out and took River's hand, giving her as reassuring a smile as she could. "As the sun rises," River said softly. Reaching out with her bloodied hand, she covered Simon's.
Wash came skidding in, holding out the Doctor's bag, only to watch in bemused wonder as Simon took his hand away from Kaylee's shoulder. Jayne swore under his breath and River fell backwards unconscious.
Mal would never get the straight of it in his mind, not even years later when he understood all that had happened to them. One minute there was a gash in his Kaylee all the way down to the bone and then River had touched her and it was gone.
Jayne picked Kaylee up and carried her to the stern, laying her carefully in the hammock he'd set up for her the first week she'd been onboard.
"You OK?" he asked, his voice soft and concerned.
"Shiny," she smiled sleepily at him. "She saved me, didn't she?"
"I think so… don't know nothing about such things. Don't care neither long as you keep breathin'."
Kaylee liked it when Jayne went all protective; her own family had been less so and being on Serenity was a pleasant change from a life of forever being lonely and scared. She was never scared when Jayne was around.
"River? God, River what did you do? Wake up, please!" Simon was holding her in his lap tenderly and rocking back and forth.
Then a tiny hand crept up to touch his cheek and he looked down to find her deep brown eyes open and alert, if utterly exhausted. "Sun's shining;" she told him sleepily. "Mother loves her children when they smile."
Though Mal had no idea of exactly what was going on, he had a dead body on his deck and God knew what going on about him. He was not, however, a heartless monster and he realized that nothing was going to be solved right then.
"Take your sister below and get her to sleep… then you come back up here. We need to have a talk," he told Simon firmly.
There was no way for Simon to express his gratitude in that moment. The Captain could have reacted quite differently and well within reason, but instead he was being compassionate and that was something Simon had learnt not to expect.
In the hammock to stern, Kaylee slept fitfully with Jayne watching over her. Below in the hold River slept soundly, free and alive and glad to have been able to help. Wash and Zoe stood at the helm, talking in soft voices about things they didn't understand. Book and Inara were both alone in their respective rooms, one praying and one crying… though which was which might be the opposite of what an observer would expect. Finally, in the captain's cabin, Mal sat behind his desk while Simon paced the room, telling a story that would change Serenity's course forever.