YOU WILL KNOW WHEN YOU GET THERE
DISCLAIMER: Not mine. Joss's.
AUTHOR'S NOTE:The title comes from the Allan Curnow poem of the same name.
Serenity is a boat full of broken parts. Not mechanical bits - there's so much new in her that she's running better than she has for a long time. This time it's people who're broke. Seems like something River would say, but Kaylee can see it. It's like the engine, sort of - if there are bits broke or parts missing, Serenity don't run right. Kind of like that time when the compression coil went boom and then they were dead in the water, no life support or nothing.
'Cept that was fixable. Captain got a new part - got a bullet in him too - and that made Serenity better, put everything right again.
But ain't no one able to fix this. Captain can't, and he tries, she can see it in his eyes. Kaylee tries too, tries to make everyone right again by loving them so hard it hurts. It don't work and it always feels like she's being ripped up inside. She cries a lot these days, but mostly in secret 'cause she don't want Zoe to know. Beside Zoe, Kaylee ain't got no right to be crying.
There ain't no going back. Can't go back to Haven, to breathe real air and eat real food and sit with the Shepherd talking about life. Can't fill the empty seat in the bridge, not even by sitting in it.
Can't make things right again.
At first Kaylee tried pretending. She'd go up to the bridge, ignore the empty chair, stand by River or the captain as if Wash was going to come in any second, and she'd stare out into the black. Wash was off with Zoe, and the Shepherd was on Haven, or down in the galley cooking a meal for everyone, and everything was normal. 'Cept one day, River looked at her and said, real calm-like, "The dinosaurs won't forget." There they all were, a plastic parade round Wash's seat, empty, just like everything else, with nothing to bring them to life. No Wash.
Seemed then like the bridge was real tiny, and Kaylee couldn't breathe round the lump in her throat, so she ran. Right down to the cargo bay 'cause it was the biggest, emptiest space on Serenity, and even there she couldn't manage to breathe for the memories. Mostly she was remembering how they'd play hoopball there, Wash and the Shepherd too, and how she'd sat outside the ship on Persephone, convincing Shepherd Book to ride with them. If she'd not talked the Shepherd into coming onto Serenity, he and all the folks on Haven'd still be alive.
Captain had found her down there, and gathered her up in his arms and held on tight, let her cry. Told her the Shepherd's death weren't her fault and even sounded like he meant it. Didn't let her go even with Simon crouching beside them and stroking her hair, and she was glad of that. Simon's understanding was different from the captain's understanding.
That was the day Kaylee stopped pretending.
The next day she broke it off with Simon and started working as hard as she could. She keeps herself busy these days - no more loitering on the bridge trying to convince herself Wash'll walk through the door, no more sitting in the infirmary wasting Simon's time, no more hiding out in Inara's shuttle having her hair brushed. Serenity still needs a lot of tender care after everything she's been through, and Kaylee's the only one who can look after her right.
Sometimes the captain comes and sits beside her. He don't say much, but she likes having him round. Only people he treats normal these days are her and River, and Serenity too, of course. He handles Zoe like she's a piece of delicate machinery, and he's real brusque with Jayne and Simon, and he and Inara fight worse than ever before. Captain calls her names even worse than whore, and Inara calls him names right back, and it makes Kaylee feel kind of sick. Ain't right for them to be fighting like this, when Wash and the Shepherd and Mr Universe and so many others are lying dead all 'cause of knowing Serenity's crew. Them that are left gotta stick together best they can.
They pass long days out in the black like that, talking and not talking, all of them trying to fit right again. Trying to fit the same, too, even though the pieces have changed shape and size. It's like Kaylee fits better with the captain nowadays - always fit good, of course, but this is different, smoother. Fits best with the captain, even, and with Serenity. Zoe don't fit so well with anyone anymore, but there's more right in Jayne's piece than there used to be.
Comes a day when Kaylee's back in Inara's red and gold shuttle, fixing something that's gone all wonky with the navigation. 'Nara sits in the chair next to her and says nothing for a bit, and then she smiles like old times, and asks a gentle question 'bout why Kaylee ditched the doc.
It ain't an easy question to answer when the only answer she can figure is that he ain't like the captain. Kaylee don't really know what that means for her, and she can't talk about it with Inara anyway. She just says that things weren't right with Simon, which is kind of true, in its own way.
"Too different?" Inara says.
Kaylee has to crawl under the nav console to do some fiddling about with the wiring down there. "I guess," she says, carefully unscrewing the paneling.
Inara laughs, sort of soft and sad, but not at Kaylee. "Been experiencing that myself."
Kaylee holds her breath as she pops the panel off. "Meaning the cap'n?"
"Meaning the captain. I thought, maybe - I know he did too, but - I should've known better."
Wiring in nav panels is all complicated and tangled, and Kaylee has to study it a bit, shining her flashlight up into the mess. Nav systems ain't never been her favourite area, and she ain't had much to do with them without Wash at her side. She knows enough, but the shuttles ain't like Serenity - she don't sense them in quite the same way. Gotta make this all better though, so's no-one'll feel like Wash ain't here. 'Course they feel it anyway, so there ain't a lot of point trying. But she will.
"You'd be shiny together," she says, all careful-like. She and Inara ain't never talked about the captain like this - 'bout 'Nara and the captain and whatever was going on with them.
"No, we wouldn't. He can't handle my being a Companion, and I can't give that up. And I can't - oh, mei mei, this sounds so selfish - "
Kaylee spots the wire that's needing replacing and delicately removes it. "You ain't selfish, 'Nara."
"I would have expected him to share me with every man and woman I was willing to take to my bed, but I couldn't bear to share him."
Kaylee cuts herself a new piece of wire, which is kind of awkward to do down there under the console, but she ain't coming out now. 'Nara ain't really talking to her. "Captain ain't got no-one else."
"He's got Serenity."
The bit of wire slips out of Kaylee's hand as she goes to install it in the console. She fumbles round for it with her fingers, suddenly feeling all kinds of useless.
"Ultimately, Mal will never be happy with someone who doesn't love this ship as much as he does. I love her, but not as much as he does. Not in the way he does."
Kaylee retrieves the wire and shoves her flashlight in her mouth. Hands are all shaky now, for some reason she don't understand, but slowly she gets the wire in place and the paneling back on, and comes out from under the console. Inara's looking at her, all solemn. "I guess sometimes the answer's obvious."
"You ain't gonna leave again, are you, 'Nara?"
Inara shakes her head. "I couldn't. Not again."
Kaylee's gathering up her tools. "Good. Well, that should do it now. She should work fine for you when we get to Beaumonde."
"Thank you, Kaylee."
Kaylee takes herself off back to the engine room and the quiet. There was something real weird 'bout what went on there back in the shuttle and she's feeling the need to think on it a bit. 'Sides, no matter how much fixing she does, there's always a bit more needs doing.
She don't intend to keep thinking on what Inara said. Being as she's keeping pretty busy these days there ain't much time for thinking 'bout more than whether the water system or the lighting in the cargo bay needs to be worked on first. Ain't got a lot of free time, and that's the way she likes it. There's mealtimes, kind of, but there they all try real hard to keep on talking and fill the empty spaces and not see Zoe picking at her food. No time for thinking crazy thoughts when you're trying to figure something to say that's nothing to do with what no-one can forget.
It's at night that Kaylee remembers Inara's words. It's lonely in her bunk without Simon - not that she exactly regrets breaking it off with him, seeing as they'd been like two bits of machinery that didn't sit together quite right. When you get used to a warm body in your bed it ain't easy to go back to being alone with threadbare blankets and cold steel walls. Means it's kind of hard to fall asleep, even when her body's aching and her eyes are insisting on closing of their own accord, and those are the times when she needs to have something to occupy her thoughts that won't make her cry. That kind of thing's in short supply at the moment and so maybe the echo of Inara's words in her head's a good thing.
That there was a message for Kaylee in those words she don't doubt. It don't make no sense though - was almost as though 'Nara was saying she thought that Kaylee and the cap'n -
Don't make no sense.
Likely there are better things to think on before going to sleep, things that won't leave her with twisted dreams and cause her to wake up all odd and off balance and go pink on seeing the captain in the mornings. Ain't as though any man who wanted Inara would ever take up with her, 'less he was desperate. Anyway, the captain's not the type to carry on with any of his crew. He's always talked 'bout shipboard romances being bad for morale, and she can kind of see that now. Life on Serenity was all manner of tense after she broke it off with Simon, and everything about Wash dying was ten times worse for everyone 'cause of him being married to Zoe. Still, Kaylee's been kind of wondering whether Zoe would've done things different if she'd had her time all over again. Can't ask, of course - sure ain't a fit question to be asking a grieving woman - but there ain't no reason why she can't be wondering. Kaylee don't know how it feels to lose a husband, but she's fair sure she'd want her man for a time, if she couldn't have him for a lifetime.
It's a real puzzle, all this love stuff. Studying it's like looking at how some of the wiring was on Serenity when she first came aboard, all tangled and messy so's you couldn't see which bit of wire ended where, 'cept for with this she can't tug on some wires here and cut some there to make things work better. Ain't like machines - Kaylee can't just feel how it all works. Fact is, she's kind of a klutz. Never had a proper boyfriend before Simon, just encounters with more'n a few guys who happened to want sex same time Kaylee did. Some of them had ended in whippings from her daddy, but some'd worked out pretty good, like meeting Bester and ending up with his job. She and the captain ain't never talked about how he met her 'cause she was grappling with that no good mechanic in Serenity's engine room. Ain't never been embarrassed 'bout that - well, much anyway.
Least there ain't a lot of time for her to be thinking like this, not with keeping busy and all them other moments when there ain't space to be thinking. Jobs're few and far between at the moment, simply 'cause most of their contacts are dead and the ones that're left have been having second, third and fourth thoughts 'bout doing business with Malcolm Reynolds and his crew. Only people who'll deal with them are the insane ones who like sticking it to the Alliance, and the likes of Sir Warrick Harrow who are too well placed to have much to fear. Means there're times when there's not quite enough food to fill their bellies and she's gotta help the captain do some careful juggling with fuel cells to get them to their destination. Ain't much in the way of pay either, though the captain gives them what he can, when he can. Kaylee's been squirrelling hers away, keeping it just in case. No telling if there'll come a day that they can't afford Serenity's fuel cells or spare parts, and she's gonna be ready for it. Doing her bit, for Serenity, for the captain, for Wash and the Shepherd, to keep them flying a bit longer.
Things get better, of course, though for a while she don't hardly see it. At first she don't notice the number of days that she don't need to duck behind the turbine or into a corner to cry, or that Zoe's started laughing again at mealtimes. She does notice when Warrick Harrow puts them into touch with someone who gives them a job that means they can replace all Serenity's fuel cells and everyone gets a decent cut for a change. Persephone being their next port of call, she spends most of hers on a new heating coil for the air con, and a bunch of grapes. It don't take much figuring to know the captain can't afford to replace the heating coil, and being as it's one of them things he'd see as unimportant long as they ain't all freezing to death, it don't seem like there's any harm in her buying it and putting it in, real quiet-like. Turns out the captain don't quite see things that way when he comes across her installing it and wants to know where the shiny new part came from. He ain't too pleased to find she's spent her cut on his boat, and they get into a real good argument with lots of yelling. Kaylee wins, but probably only 'cause everyone else sides with her.
She shares the grapes with everyone, just 'cause they taste too good to keep to herself when all they've had to eat's been the same old protein. Gets her a smile from the captain, that one does, and she knows she's forgiven.
Captain still comes to sit beside her couple of times a week. He's doing better, too, starting to treat Zoe normal again, almost back to his old self with Jayne and Simon and even Inara. He ain't talking much to Kaylee about what happened with Miranda and the Operative and everything, but at the times when their talk brushes across those areas, maybe with a mention of Wash or the Shepherd, or the damage done to Serenity, his voice and his face get kind of dark. Makes her feel like someone's stuck one of her wrenches in her gut and twisted real hard, every time she sees the captain get like that. Can't imagine what it was like being the captain in that time, making the call about going to Miranda and turning poor Serenity into a Reaver ship with the bodies of the folks on Haven. Still gives her nightmares, sometimes; least she's always been quiet about her nightmares so the captain probably can't hear her through the wall dividing their bunks.
Seems she and the captain have got more to talk about these days. Mostly they used to just talk about Serenity, or something that needed doing for the crew's current job. Sometimes now they talk about growing up, and the captain tells her about the ranch, and his mother and all the horses and about how he never knew what he wanted to do 'till the war happened. After that, he says, he just wanted to be free and out of Alliance clutches, and then his eyes look kind of shiny and he strokes one of the walls, same way as Kaylee does when she reckons no-one's looking at her. She don't ever get tired of hearing that story.
Day comes when it's her turn to talk. So happens that it's the anniversary of the day she met the captain and got her job, so it feels fitting to talk about how when she was a kid growing up on a not-quite-border planet she used to fiddle with the machines in her daddy's workshop, hoping one day a nice handsome man would come and take her out to the black. Halfway through her story she starts feeling embarrassed, 'cause the nice handsome's man sitting right next to her passing her tools. 'Course, this ain't how she'd dreamed things would be when she was a kid. Never planned on helping commit crimes just to keep food on the table and the ship in the air, never planned on fighting Reavers or burying her friends. Strange how things work themselves out sometimes.
Unfortunately for her, by the feeling-embarrassed point there ain't no stopping the story without making things worse, so she keeps on talking, feeling her cheeks glowing nearly as bright as Serenity at full burn. Tale comes to an end and the captain smiles sideways at her, hooks an arm round her neck and pulls her against him so he can kiss her on the head. Been a long time since he's done that, even before Miranda. Probably that's why he don't let go right away, just holds her to him. Simon once said she looked pretty covered in engine grease, but it's like Mal don't even notice that's he probably getting it on his hands and his shirt. Engine grease is a part of who he is, just like it's part of her and part of Serenity. "How you doing, l'il Kaylee? Been so busy worrying about money and Zoe I ain't had much time to be worrying about the rest of you."
"I'm shiny, cap'n."
"Thinking you weren't before, though." Captain tightens his arms 'round her, though he probably don't know what he's doing.
"No one was. I did okay."
"Ain't in a hurry to do anything like that again."
Kaylee looks down, at her legs and the captain's legs and the dull metal floor. "Thought we were all gonna die."
She ain't looking at Mal, but she feels him nodding his head against her. "I was having that thought my own self. Thinking about bringing you all aboard my ship to die. Killed by Reavers ain't a pretty way to go." Mal tightens his grip again, but she don't mind. She's got a feeling like she wants to be held, with all these memories. She ain't wanting to talk on this just in case all the hurts come back, but Mal seems fair determined and she can't not hold up her end of the conversation.
"Seem to remember you offering us all the chance to get off the boat." Kaylee closes her eyes, remembering Haven, the bodies and the smell and the Shepherd, dying. Mal's shoulder feels kind of bony against her head, but it's nice. Usually she don't get held like this - in her experience it's mostly half a hug and straight into the sex. Not that there's gonna be any sex with the captain, of course.
Starts getting a little uncomfortable after a couple minutes. She's got her head on a funny angle and one leg tucked up under her body going all crampy. But she ain't moving for any amount of credits till Mal lets her go, not when she can feel his breath all hot and rough against her head. She helped desecrate Serenity with red paint and bodies for him, remembering the look in his eyes every time her body took to trembling and the bile started rising in her stomach. Only reasons she didn't lie down and die were Mal and Serenity and the chance of grappling with Simon, which last don't seem like a very noble reason now that she looks back. Kaylee don't have great causes, 'cept for keeping people happy and Serenity purring like a kitten, so she don't understand Mal's strength. Means that if he feels like he needs something to hold onto she's gonna be there.
Plus, it feels gorramed good.
After maybe ten minutes he kisses her again. His lips on her cheek are warm and dry and familiar, only this time they leave a shaky feeling that ain't normal. Least he's the one gotta stand up, not her - says they must be about an hour out of Athens and he's got things need checking before they land. Kaylee nods and watches him go, and returns to her work, trying not to think on the captain any more than necessary. 'Course, she's been trying to do that since that talk with Inara in her shuttle more'n a month ago, and she ain't had much luck yet. Something about him just seems to be getting under her skin, worse than Simon ever did, worse than any man ever. It's real good to get back to working on Serenity, 'cause at least she makes sense.
She can't decide whether it's a good thing or not that the captain ain't likely to figure it out, all the blushing and silly giggling that starts happening to her when he's around. Captain could have pretty much any woman he wants - he ain't gonna want a romance with someone like her, all plain and scared all the time. She ain't never gonna be Zoe or Inara, tall and slim and beautiful and in control of everything. Always be just sweet l'il Kaylee, making people wanna duct tape her mouth and dump her in the hold for a month, like the captain said once. She ain't nothing to him but his mei mei, his mechanic, that loves Serenity like he does and knows her just as well - all the parts that are fading and wearing out, the pipes, the access holes and panels, the feel of the walls in out of the way corners.
Captain don't stop coming by to see her after that, though she'd kind of been afraid he might. She's got a real feeling that something's changed and she can't believe he don't see that, but as much as he's the captain he's a man too, and so could be she's expecting too much, thinking he should know what she ain't quite figured out yet. It sort of becomes habit that the captain comes to keep her company on them long silent days out here in the black. Kaylee likes his company, 'cause he's the only one whose presence don't get between her and Serenity. Comes to be that the times when she ain't got much to do and the captain hasn't come looking for her she'll start finding herself a mite lonely, so she goes looking, prowling the ship till she finds him. Just seems right to be by him, and maybe he thinks so too.
Worst day in months is Wash's birthday, first since his death. Zoe don't come out of her bunk all day and she won't let the captain in. Everyone knows what day it is, only no-one quite knows how to handle it so there's a real deep quiet all day. Silent as the black. Kaylee spends the day trying to figure out the mechanical things for a job on Paquin, but it don't occupy her mind quite enough, and she finds she can't eat her evening meal, being as there's a real big lump in her throat that ain't in the mood for tasteless protein. Jayne eats her share and even says thank you, which makes the captain raise his eyebrows. Kaylee wants to smile, which is kind of crazy considering how she's feeling, but it seems real wrong so she just bites her lip and stares down at her empty plate. After dinner she just sort of sits there, listening to River rattling the dishes in the background.
She don't quite plan on it, but after River's gone, leaving Kaylee alone in the dining room, she makes her way up to the bridge. Captain's sitting there in the chair that wasn't Wash's, exactly where she'd thought he'd be. "Hey, Cap'n."
He looks round at her, all solemn-like. Sad. "Hey, bao bei."
Weren't quite the words she were expecting, for all they sound so natural. Ain't no denying they make her feel warm, when most of today she's just been cold. And there ain't no problem with the heating neither.
Kaylee leans herself against the back of his chair. Mal's warm and solid and smells like rusty metal, more'n likely 'cause she caught him tinkering with the grav boot today. Needs a shave, too.
He sighs, then reaches up and takes hold of her hand. "Lost plenty of men in that gorramed war," he says. "Stopped feeling it after a while." He's gripping her hand real tight. "But with Serenity we were lucky for so long. Got to thinking I'd never lose any of you. Never have to bury any of you. Fooling myself."
Kaylee squeezes his hand back, hard as she can. Gorramed lump's back in her throat, and even if it weren't she ain't got a clue what to say. Mal swivels his chair round, knocking her a little off balance 'cause she weren't expecting it. "C'mere, darling."
She feels kind of over-large sitting in his lap, but she's only got a second to think on that before he's folding his arms 'round her, holding on like he thinks something's gonna snatch her away from him.
Well, ain't no way she's gonna let that happen. Stuck with her till the day he kicks her off the ship, and she's fair sure that's a day won't ever come.
Shifting a little in his arms, Kaylee rests her head against Mal's so she can stare out into the black. So much out there, so many stars, so many worlds, and here're the two of them, safe in Serenity, surrounded by dust and dinosaurs and the soft hum of the engine. She turns her head just a mite, wanting to try and explain how she's feeling, only it seems Mal was going for a kiss on the cheek at the same time, 'cause his lips land on hers. Not by much, but enough.
Kaylee ain't never been the sort of girl who hides in the shadows, waiting for what she wants to come to her. Been her experience that if you don't go for it, it ain't much likely to happen. That's why she turns her head just a little more and kisses him, soft as she can. He just blinks at her for a second and then kisses her back real gentle, bringing one of his hands up to cup her cheek. Kaylee's starting to feel a mite dizzy, possibly 'cause of forgetting to breathe, so she closes her eyes and relaxes into the kiss.
Next thing, Mal's pulling back and looking at her. "Ain't right, Kaylee."
Feels like the 'verse has shifted under her, even though she ain't much surprised. "Ain't it right if it's what we want?"
"You're my crew, Kaylee. Ain't got no call to be kissing you."
Kaylee sighs. For just a moment she'd been forgetting about being sad, forgetting about everything 'cept for the feeling of Mal's lips on hers. Sure, it was her kissed him first, he ain't got no call to go feeling sorry about that bit, but he did kiss her back and that's what don't make no sense. He weren't kissing her like a man who ain't interested in a girl. Even if she don't look like Inara, she was thinking that he liked her enough, just for her. "Mal," she says.
He blinks at her again, does that kind of startled look. "Li'l Kaylee, I was starting to think you didn't know what my name was."
Kaylee looks away for a second, sees the dinosaurs 'round the pilot's chair and looks back. She's always just called him "cap'n" or "sir". Thought of him that way too for a long time. "Feels right to me," she says, meaning the kissing rather than the name, and it's true. Seems like there ain't nothing in the 'verse that could feel more right.
"Kaylee, it ain't - it ain't that I didn't like it, or that I don't want to be with you. I'm your captain, Kaylee, and that ain't right."
"Ain't no-one's business but yours and mine, and if we think it's right - " Kaylee feels desperate, trying to cling to something slippery that's moving out of her reach. Ain't fair for him to be doing this to either of them.
"Breaking my heart, li'l Kaylee." Mal hugs her tight. "But this just ain't right."
"That ain't so." Kaylee pulls herself out of his embrace and stands up. Legs don't wanna work right, but she ain't letting him see that. "Was thinking you liked me. Thinking you wanted me." Sure, she was taking a chance when she kissed him, but there weren't any way she'd've kissed him with no hope at all.
"Ain't like that, Kaylee - "
"Liou coe shway duh biao-tze huh hoe-tze duh bun ur-tze." She gets up all the dignity she can manage and marches right off the bridge without looking back, and don't even cry till she's in her bunk with the door closed tight behind her.
Turns out that sometimes you don't get what you go for, just 'cause someone else is an stupid hwoon dahn. Ain't a thought that brings her much comfort or satisfaction, and nor does finally falling asleep and dreaming of the captain. All of it leaves her with an empty feeling in her belly when she wakes up that don't go away even with food. 'Least Zoe's mostly back to normal, and everyone's so busy being relieved about that they ain't noticing that Mal and Kaylee ain't right together.
Well, mostly. Zoe and River both give them a couple of odd glances, but no one says anything 'till the afternoon when Inara comes down into the engine room, first time ever. "Mei mei?"
Kaylee's been under the auxiliary life support unit, concentrating real hard, so when she hears Inara's voice she sits up real quick and bangs her head. "Ow! 'Nara, what're you doing down here?" She slides on out and sits on her knees. Inara looks even prettier than usual, like some kind of queen or goddess, standing there in all her finery against the rough beauty of Serenity's engine room.
"What happened last night?"
"What d'you mean?"
"Kaylee," says Inara, with just a hint of a smile in her eyes.
"Oh, 'Nara. I kissed the captain!" Kaylee's feeling kind of guilty and really silly.
"Oh, mei mei." Inara backs up a bit, sits down all delicate-like on the edge of a box. "I take it that didn't go well."
"Did at first." Kaylee twists a wrench in her fingers, just for keeping her hands busy. "Even kissed me back. But then he just went all stiff and proper - kind of like Simon, 'cept for being the captain."
"That I can imagine."
"Said it weren't right, me being crew and all." Kaylee's words are kind of whispery, and she drops the wrench just to hear the satisfying clank of metal on metal.
"Well, I hope you told him off."
"Oh, I did. It just don't make the wanting go away."
"No," says 'Nara, real quiet. "It wouldn't."
The wanting don't go away. There're times when it feels kind of duller, giving her hope that maybe she'll come to stop feeling it in time, but then something happens to bring it all back. She don't mean to keep remembering what the kissing felt like, or even just the cuddling, only it's real bittersweet and happens at the worst times. It don't make her feel better seeing that the captain don't seem much happier than she is - can't even take any kind of pleasure in knowing he's made his own self unhappy.
Goes on this way for weeks, yet another shifting of life out in the black. It's real odd now, working all by herself in some silent area of the ship. Strange how she got so used to Mal's presence, even though he didn't say so much as a sentence half the time. She ain't exactly lonely, not with Serenity to keep her company, 'specially seeing as she ain't the only one the captain's shutting out or the only one missing him. She just ain't happy neither, feeling all empty and wrong.
Worst times of all are when the captain's gone on jobs. Usually Inara's off with a client then, and so Serenity's more'n half empty, just Kaylee and Simon and River, and ghosts and shadows. If she ain't got pressing work needs doing, Kaylee takes to sitting out the jobs on the bridge, looking out at the black or the local scenery, depending whether they're planet side or not, just waiting for Mal and the others to check in. Chain of command being what it is now Kaylee's in charge without the other three around, meaning that if anything goes wrong she's gotta make the call what to do. She don't much like that kind of responsibility, and so every job she just hopes desperately and prays to the Shepherd's God that they'll come home safe, every one of them, Mal and Zoe and Jayne, and even though she knows it ain't right she prays a little bit harder for the captain.
Kaylee makes it through weeks like this, hoping and praying and taking all her comfort from Serenity. She survives a subdued kind of Christmas, when they all sit 'round the table eating proper apple pie made to Mal's ma's recipe, and the captain makes a real pretty toast to all them as are dead, 'specially the members of the crew who ain't there no more. All their hands meet in the middle of the table, clinking together chipped enamel mugs of the only champagne they could afford, and Kaylee swallows real hard and Zoe blinks and Jayne don't say a word. Captain takes himself off to his bunk after dinner, and Kaylee stands out there for a while, wondering what'd happen if she pushed open the door and climbed down the ladder, if he'd hold out his arms to her or if he'd just make that speech about it not being right. Don't seem she could bear being pushed away, not tonight, so finally she climbs down her own ladder and just sits there on her bed, all on her lonesome.
Life settles down again at the end of Chinese New Year, when there ain't no call any more to be observing empty ceremonies. Kaylee used to love Christmas and both New Years. Used to be shiny, and real happy, too, even if Mal always pretended to be grumpy 'bout their parties. Now there ain't much to be enjoying when the one thing you want more'n anything else is a stubborn hwoon dahn who's trying to tell himself things that ain't true, like that he don't want the one thing in the 'verse you're wanting most to give.
The hurting ain't going away.
Come U-Day, a few months after New Year's, Serenity's on Santo. The synchronizers are corroding, and with no synchronizers engine don't work, and seeing as Mal's been paying more attention to warnings of that variety since the catalyzer blew, they're going shopping, Kaylee and the captain, just as if everything were normal again. Zoe looks a mite worried about letting Mal loose anywhere on U-Day, but he promises all seriously not to start any fights and puts his hand on Kaylee's shoulder for less than a second, enough to make her all melty inside. Seems Zoe thinks Kaylee's maybe a better babysitter than she is, or that Mal's not gonna go hitting people with pool cues if Kaylee's with him, but either way her face softens.
Despite all that's come out about the Alliance - not just Miranda and the Reavers, but other things, complex political things Kaylee don't really understand - there's still a crowd gathering in the town square as she and Mal pass through on their way to a second-hand dealer the captain reckons he knows. Ain't even midday yet she can smell the stench of alcohol all round them, and like as not Mal can too, 'cause he starts looking worried. Whispers at her to keep her head down, as if she were planning on doing anything else.
The shop and yard are full of treasures she could spend weeks browsing and picking through, but Mal's watching her with anxious eyes, muttering sideways to his friend as she digs through piles of engine parts. She don't find any perfect synchronizers, but there is a pair that're good enough. Serenity deserves the best, deserves everything brand new; but seeing as they ain't got the coin for new anything it's good enough that has to do. She barters Mal's friend down to a price that's actually something like what the synchronizers are really worth, and coin changes hands with only a brief flash of reluctance from Mal.
"There a way back to the docks without passing through the town square? Smells like trouble brewing there and I don't wanna be caught when it blows," Mal says, watching Norris put the synchronizers in a bag.
"Ain't the Malcolm Reynolds I know, to be avoiding a - "
"Is there another way to the docks, or not?"
"Only through the alleyways, and like as not you'd find yourself lost in a part of town won't be good to that pretty girl of yours. Square's quickest and safest if you're really keen on keeping out of trouble." Mal's friend pauses, looking them both over as if he's planning on saying something further. Kaylee draws a little closer to Mal without really thinking anything, just knowing he's taken fright over the folks in the town square, and if he's got cause to worry then she's got even more.
"Fine. C'mon, Kaylee. Pleasure doing business with you, Norris," and Mal don't sound like he means that last bit, not at all, but he's already sweeping Kaylee outta the yard.
Coming from the square are noises, drunken shouts and cheering and the sort of harsh laughter that makes her quaky. Weren't like there was anything needing celebrating on U-Day, not when the whole 'verse should've known what the Alliance was really like, what they'd done to the folks on Miranda. But there they were, celebrating all the same.
Soon as they enter the town square a fellow comes lurching over to them. Everything he's wearing's got Alliance and Blue Sun all over it, and he's got a ribbon, Alliance colours and Alliance symbol, pinned to his chest like it's something to be proud of. "Real glorious day, ain't it? Ribbon for the lovely lady, and one for you, fine sir - "
Almost polite, like Badger. Pretending to be real elegant, when all the time he was the kind of scum most people wiped off of their shoes. Kaylee dodges the ribbon he's trying to pin on her, with his fumbling hands and alcohol breath. She feels one of Mal's arms go 'round her and his body tensing, and then his voice, low and real harsh, says, "If you lay a finger on her, I swear to God I will end you before you've even had a chance to breathe." Then he pulls her away, walking double-quick, dodging people distributing ribbons and men selling sausages and more people praising the Alliance than Kaylee would've dreamed still existed in the 'verse.
"I don't get it," she says, soon as they're clear of the crowds and Mal slows down. He ain't taken his arm away, though. "What are they celebrating for? We told them, didn't we? We told them what the Alliance did and we told them about the Reavers and they're still going on like the Alliance is good? We tried so hard to tell those people and they ain't listening and - "
"They're celebrating 'cause it's a chance for a party. And 'cause they don't want to believe they've been supporting something evil, 'cause that would make them guilty too. We told them, darling, us and that doc from Miranda, and it ain't our fault they ain't listening." Mal stops and turns to face her, looking all serious. "Human nature, bao bei. Just like them mudders back on Higgins' Moon wanting to believe our Jayne's a real hero."
"Reckon he is," Kaylee says, looking back in the direction of the square. "He fought just like the rest of us. Saved Zoe - " Somehow it seems important that Jayne be a hero, 'cause she knows how scared he is - or was, maybe - of Reavers, and he still fought them. Stood alongside the rest of them and not a word about money.
"Ain't denying that. But them mudders, when they found out the truth 'bout that money, they still wanted Jayne to be their hero. Weren't the truth that mattered so much as the hero and the hope."
"I guess." Kaylee looks down at the mud under her feet, wanting just to be off this rock, even though this is the first real talk she's had with Mal since she kissed him. "It just ain't fair."
"Lots of things in this 'verse ain't fair or right, but we just keep on going. Keep on flying."
Something shifts inside of Kaylee. "Some things that ain't fair can be put right, though. Things like when two people know they're wanting each other and there's nothing more'n pride keeping them apart. And when there's so much that ain't fair, ain't it best that some things get fixed?"
Mal closes his eyes, breathes out long and hard. "Don't do this to me, darling. Told you my reason and - "
"But it ain't a good reason, Mal. It's gos se. It don't matter that you're my captain. You can be captain while we're working and then - " She don't have a word for what he can be those other times, and so she stops. He's making her mad now, 'cause when he opens his eyes she can see the wanting and the needing. Came to know him, all those weeks of peaceful companionship before the kissing happened, and she can tell when he's trying to hide something. "Ain't it about time you got something you wanted?"
For a moment she thinks he's going to kiss her, but then there's shouting, and running, and Kaylee shrinks into Mal as a whole heap of people push past them. Behind them, coming from the square, the sounds of revelry have taken on a nasty tone.
"I think we've just discovered that not everyone on Santo still supports the Alliance." One of Mal's hands goes to his gun and the other grabs her in the kind of reflex that always scares her, 'cause it reminds her of wars and fighting and everything's that happened. Feels like if only she never saw a gun again, then she could maybe forget. "Don't want you caught up in this, darling. You've done your share of fighting."
He rushes her back to Serenity so fast she can barely breathe, and all the time there's a sinking feeling of disappointment in her belly. Seemed that for once they were going to get a chance to fix things, make it all better between them, and then the gorramed war got in the way again. Ain't it taken enough from all of them?
Safe back on board Serenity, Kaylee installs the synchronizers fast as she can with shaking fingers. Soon as it's done the captain takes them away from Santo, and everything falls away behind them in Serenity's wake. She always feels a strange kind of freedom when they break atmo. With a few exceptions, likes of Jubal Early and the Reavers, most of their problems have been planetside. Long as Serenity's running fine - which she is - the black is the safest place to be.
When Mal comes by, 'bout twenty minutes later, she don't understand why she ain't surprised. Just seems right that he should come by, same way he did back before everything changed. Seems right, too - and more'n that, feels right - to sit side by side, touching just a bit, feeling the hum of the engine through their bodies.
"Don't rightly know what to do about this, Kaylee," he says, after a bit. "I'm your captain, and I'm a mean old man. You deserve someone closer to your own age, someone who ain't like to be shot every few days."
"Ain't what I want, though," she says, real careful. "And I know my own mind."
"That ain't what I'm worried about." Mal's staring straight ahead, but when he realises she's looking at him, he turns and smiles, just a mite.
"Don't know how to make you happy, darling."
"Quit being so silly," she says, firmly. He's just making up excuses so's he can - well, she ain't sure what exactly, 'cause she's fair sure he wants her. Reckons she knows that just as much as she knows anything in the 'verse. "You don't got to make me happy, Mal. You just got to - be yourself. Don't want you to be anything different."
He sighs then, long and hard. "You sure?"
"I been sure for months, Mal."
Feels him relaxing against her, just as if he's stopped pretending he don't want this and given himself over to what can't be denied. "So what do we do now, bao bei?"
Ain't no need for thinking. "This," says Kaylee, turning her head to his and kissing him.
Mal smiles against her lips, and kisses her back, folding one of his hands into her hair.
In the background, it seems to Kaylee that Serenity hums her approval.
Translations from the Firefly-Serenity Chinese Pinyinary: http/fireflychinese.home. bei - darling, sweetheart
hwoon dahn - bastard, scoundrel
liou coe shway duh biao-tze huh hoe-tze duh bun ur-tze - stupid son of a drooling whore and a monkey
gos se - crap
mei mei - little sister