Part 1 - Keep Flying.
Louisa Agnes Serenity Washburne hated her name.
It was too long, for starters, and the girl was sure it would have taken her well into her teens to memorize the whole thing if it hadn't been for her mama screamin' it at her all the time--"Louisa Agnes Serenity Washburne! Get down from there!" "Louisa Agnes Serenity Washburne! What have I told you about playing on that thresher?" "Louisa Agnes Serenity Washburne! Gorramit! Not again!"
She went by Lou. Or Louie. Anyone not her mama called her Lou or Louie. Once, Caleb Tao from her class at school tried calling her Lou-Lou. He had an awful hard time trying again, what with his nose blood leakin' into his big fat mouth and all.
Louisa lived with her mama on Qilin. It was a tiny little border moon on the very outskirts of the very edge of the rim, prosperous and almost fully self-contained. Folk on Qilin didn't need nothin' from no one, 'specially not the Alliance. Purple-bellies weren't welcome on Qilin and they ruttin' well knew it.
Louisa's mama practically ran the whole moon; everyone called her Sheriff, but her office was more akin to that of law enforcement, forewoman, and mayor all rolled into one. When Zoe Alleyne Washburne first arrived on Qilin, a baby on her hip and a whole helluva lot of crying yet to be done, the place had been in a state of near anarchic chaos. Her and Louisa's aunts and uncles was who cleaned out the bad folk. It was just a job--a real well-payin' one, Uncle Jayne would insist fondly--but the people on Qilin still loved them for it. Louisa's mama fell in love with the sleepy moon and decided that it was where she should raise her daughter.
She was a strong woman, proud and near-Amazonian in stature, with dark eyes that betrayed a deep hurt her placid brown face never seemed to show. Louisa sometimes wished she would've ended up as pretty as her mama, but instead everyone said she took after her daddy. She had his long nose, his quirky smile, his soft blue eyes, and a whole mass of ruttin' uncooperative red-gold curls swirling tight around her bronzed and freckled face. She didn't really like looking like her daddy. Sometimes seeing him in Louisa was all it would take for her mama to have to go have a cry.
Louisa never knew her daddy. Mama said he'd been killed before she was born. It was the Alliance's fault but the Reavers that done it. Louisa didn't like thinking about Reavers. Once when she was six, she overheard some of the older kids telling campfire stories about Reavers. They'd made the mistake of telling 'em while her mama was passing by on her way home.
"If you're gonna be tellin' tales," She stated, slinking up quietly and scaring the daylights out of the inhabitants of the campfire glow, "Then you best at least be tellin' truthful ones... you really wanna know about Reavers?"
Her voice was eerie. From the hiding spot she held high overhead in the gum tree, Louisa could remember getting an awful shiver. The darkness all around seemed to rush in just a little closer, the humid air putting a strain on the girl's little lungs.
"Uh... ya, Sheriff," Frankie Murphy stated, trying to hide just how spooked her unnoticed entry and all around demeanor of ghostliness had gotten him, "You ever see Reavers when you was out explorin' the 'Verse?" He didn't really believe they were real; he was just trying to get Annabelle Waters scared enough so's she'd let him walk her home. The boy really had it bad.
Zoe gave a stoic nod, slowly lowering herself onto a free seat on one of the rotting fallen tree trunks that were being felled to make farmland. Her stony face was all in shadow. "Sure have," She stated, meeting all the half-dozen teenagers' gazes at once around the tight circle, "You know about Miranda. They teach you in school. Reavers used to be men from that planet until the Alliance pumped the Pax into their air processors. Now... now they're something else. Reaver's don't got nothin' in 'em but rage, hate, need..."
She leaned in a little closer, back ramrod straight as ever as she went on, "They ain't men. They've forgotten how to be... they take their ships from the folks they kill. You can tell a Reaver ship by the blood painted on 'em and by the scores of burnt up bodies chained to the hulls. Reaver ships run hot, with their core containment leaking or just not on. Makes 'em all kinds 'a scary fast, even if the radiation does tend to mutate and scar the Reavers inside."
Louisa had always known Reavers were real--Uncle Jayne was who told her but he wouldn't tell her much--but her mama would never talk to her about 'em at all, 'specially not like this, like she wanted the group of young kids to be afraid. Louisa was suddenly afraid.
"Reavers catch you," The tall woman went on, calm and cool even while her dark eyes spat fire and the teenagers quivered with terror, "Then you oughta get to killing yourself quick and painless before they get to raping you to death. It's a horrible way to go, getting raped, flayed, eaten, watching your own skin sewed into a coat or pair of blood-soaked britches, all while you're still alive to feel it... still prayin' and screamin' for it to stop."
And then, right as Louisa's mama was talking about the screamin', the girl heard a bit of movement right beside her on the branch she was sat on. She turned and screamed herself when she saw a big pair of bloody red eyes shining right at her in the dark.
Everything was a bit of a blur after that, but Louisa woke up home in her bed. Uncle Simon was there, wrapping her aching left wrist in plaster bandages as he whined about how fiberglass would've been better but he hadn't come across any in a long while. Louisa was embarrassed to hear her mama tell her how she'd fallen out of the tree and broken her arm, about how it had only been a nagapie, one of the little night monkeys that infested the entire moon, that had frightened her.
She also felt real guilty about the sadness in her mama's eyes as the mournful woman had tenderly petted her matted hair and scolded her for spying on the story she wasn't near old enough to hear.
Serenity's crew stayed visiting for awhile after that, so Louisa figured that breaking her arm wasn't all bad. Auntie Kaylee decorated her cast real pretty like, with glued on ribbons and glitter, and Aunt River claimed the underside of it to paint on a dead perfect picture of a nagapie looking like it was clinging to the girl's arm. Aunt River's nagapie was a lot less scary than the one in the tree, the dark haired young woman muttering something about making sure the budding leaf only had the right fears as she painted.
Louisa remembered Aunt Inara and Uncle Mal talking to her mama in the next room, remembered how her mama smiled big and hugged Aunt Inara after the fancy woman had put her hands over a bump that didn't used to be there on her stomach. When she asked what it was about, Uncle Simon explained that Aunt Inara and Uncle Mal were gonna have a baby, a little cousin for her. Ignoring Aunt River's whispered "two sides of the same coin," Louisa frowned in confusion and asked him how a bump could mean a baby. He'd turned red and spluttered that she should ask her mother.
She'd asked Uncle Jayne instead 'cuz he was more like to actually tell her the truth, no matter that she was little. And he had told her, letting the girl sit on his knee while he laughed about how Aunt Inara and Uncle Mal had been sexin' like bunny rabbits and it was inev'table that they'd pop out a brat at the rate they was goin'. Louisa didn't quite understand but laughed with him, grateful that someone talked to her like she was an equal instead of a dumb kid, even if Aunt River said that was just 'cuz Uncle Jayne had the mind of a child so they were about even anyways.
Uncle Jayne didn't much like that, the great big man growling with mock anger about the "ruttin' moonbrain" before he took off after her, chasing the lithe woman outside and off into the thick tropical trees in the distance. They were gone a long while and when her mama finally saw fit to wonder aloud as to where they'd gotten, Louisa smartly proclaimed, "Prolly sexin' like bunny rabbits." She and Uncle Jayne got their mouths scrubbed out with detergent powder and the girl learned that words she heard from the big man were best not said in the presence of her mama.
Serenity was Uncle Mal's ship. She was a 03-K64 Firefly class mid-bulk transport vessel and she was the prettiest boat in the 'Verse. Uncle Mal was the captain; he was in charge or liked to bitch about how he was supposed to be but no one ruttin' well listened to him. Aunt Inara was the ambassador, which mostly just meant she always got the job of talking to the fancified folks so Uncle Mal and Uncle Jayne wouldn't start no unnecessary fights. She was also married to Uncle Mal and Uncle Jayne said she'd used to be a Companion; Louisa didn't understand most of what a Companion was, but always thought it must've been some kind of princess from the nice clothes and airs Aunt Inara had on all the time.
Uncle Jayne was the merc, which meant he got to carry a gun and look scary and shoot people. He was real fond of his job. Auntie Kaylee was the mechanic and Uncle Simon was the doctor; everyone said they were the absolute best at what they did, top three percent and what not. Aunt River was the pilot. Aunt River was also the feng le mind-readin' genius assassin, but Louisa thought that the only one of those that really stuck was the genius part. Aunt River was odd, but not feng le; she was real nice and the smartest person Louisa knew besides her mama.
Louisa really loved it when Serenity visited Qilin. Her and her crew were always around every couple months bringing in supplies and sometimes picking up surplus crops to deliver off world. They always came with presents for Louisa, and lots of exciting stories about crime and gunplay and narrow escapes. Sometimes, they came wearing bandages stained with blood. She didn't like those times so much but her mama told her that gettin' shot was just a part of bein' on Uncle Mal's crew and she shouldn't worry too much 'cuz worrying wouldn't do no good anyways. She asked her mama if she worried about Uncle Mal and the crew. The woman had quietly replied, "Every ruttin' second."
Louisa's mama used to be Serenity's first mate until Louisa's daddy, the former pilot, had been killed by the Alliance and the Reavers and she'd decided she couldn't raise her daughter on a ship where gettin' shot was part of the job description. Louisa really wished her daddy hadn't died. If he hadn't, he'd still be the pilot and her mama would still be the first mate and they'd prolly all still be living on board getting to have great adventures all through the 'Verse. While the girl liked Qilin well enough, it was pretty gorram boring on the sticky little moon. For as long back as she could remember, Louisa had had a strong desire to get herself out into the Black, to fly and fight and see everything there was to see in the whole 'Verse just 'cuz it was there and needed seein'.
The twiggy little girl was thirteen before she even broken Qilin's atmo. When that time finally came, she was tryin' so hard to keep herself from cryin' that her head hurt and wishin' like hell she could just run home to her mama. She wished she hadn't wished so hard for the cause to leave Qilin 'cuz gettin' that wish had cost her a helluva lot more than she'd been willing to part with.
It happened a week before her birthday. She noticed over breakfast that her mama's face was a little flushed. She didn't think too much on it, kissing her cheek and chirping "wo ai ni, mama" before heading off to school. By the time she got home that afternoon, there was already nothing anyone could do for Zoe. Even if Uncle Simon had been able to make the week long trip to Qilin in the blink of an eye, no one could've saved her mama from the fever sickness. She died a few hours later. Gone. Just like that at only the age of forty-eight. The whole next week passed like a waking nightmare, like it wasn't even real and Louisa was just waiting patiently for herself to wake up.
The situation sunk in when Uncle Mal came stomping as quiet as he could manage into her room. His face looked so old and sad and Louisa knew it was all true. She'd been hoping it wasn't but it was and she wordlessly began to pack her belongings. Louisa might've looked more like her daddy, there might've been glimpses of his happy and odd personality in her--inappropriate jokes, amusing nonsequitors, and a fondness for plastic dinosaurs that would never leave her--but she was her mother's daughter; she kept her hurt inside.
And she was hurt. She was hurt and angry and didn't just have no way to let it out; she had no one and nothing to direct her hurt and anger towards. She couldn't blame her mama, not her fault she'd caught the fever, and the girl was smart enough to know that being angry at a disease was stupid and pointless. If the Alliance had killed her mama, or Reavers or some no good bandits, things would've been different. She could've focused her anger, made it into hate and given it a place to go, but the fact was no one was to blame for Zoe's death; it was just something that happened. That made it harder because without anyone to blame there was no one to make pay, no vengeance or satisfaction to be had.
At least she had a family on Serenity. She had her aunts, and uncles, and her little cousins, who tried not to be too bothersome for her, for awhile anyways. That pack of wenshen couldn't control themselves long.
Solomon Derrial and James Quinn Reynolds were the captain and Inara's twin boys. Sam and Jay--or Sammy and Jamie if they weren't in too much of a "don't call us by those baby names" kind of mood; Double-Trouble when they'd been up to no good (which was just about always)--were seven when Louisa moved onto Serenity and they loved their cousin somethin' fierce. During their visits on Qilin, she'd taught them to climb trees, to fish and swim, to catch lizards and snakes, and to skip rocks on the glassy black surface of the lagoon in the forest out behind her house. She was older than them, smart, pretty, funny, tough; they idolized her.
When she moved onto Serenity, the twins were real upset. Aunt Zoe had gone to be with her ancestors, their mama told them, and Louie was missing her; she was sad. They didn't like seeing their big cousin sad and went pretty far out of their way to try and make her happy, even if it did involve stealing a whole box of chocolate bars off the back of an Alliance transport on Ariel and an awful lot of running from the purple-bellies who chased after 'em. The chocolate didn't help none though, and the boys were stumped as well as grounded. They, like their daddy, had very little grasp on how to deal with the female of the species.
Auntie Kaylee and Uncle Simon had three girls at the time, but the bright woman was glowing and about ready to pop with the fourth. Jessamine Lee, Angelica Simone, and Rose-Ellen Beth Tam spent most of the first few weeks she was on the ship camped outside Louisa's locked bunk door. All sunshine and strawberries, the five, four, and two-year-old chattered nonstop about how Aunt River had already told them they were getting a baby sister and they were gonna name her Ginger Marie. Sure enough, seventy-two hours of labor and three sets of big ole brown puppy dog eyes later, the last Tam child--or else Uncle Mal was gonna give Uncle Simon a yinjing-ectomy 'fore he got populated right off his own ruttin' boat--was christened Ginger Marie. Jessie, Angie, and Rosie were calling her Ginny by dinnertime.
Louisa really loved her cousins but, besides the fact that they were too little to do much with, she didn't want to play games and chatter on about stupid stuff when her mama was dead. She kept to herself for a long while, strong and silent, trying to be like her mama because her mama wasn't around to do it herself. She spent a lot of time holed up in her bunk or the hidden smuggling compartments during day-cycle. During night-cycle, she would venture out to walk the ship. Everything was quiet and dark; the little ones were fast asleep and no one was around to pester her to talk. She liked it that way; she didn't want to talk--talking wouldn't help or change anything.
Sometimes, she'd run into Aunt River on her nightly walks. The woman would peer at her through a curtain of long sleek hair, hair Louisa had to admit she got a little jealous of whenever it came time to deal with her own tangled mass of red-gold frizz. Aunt River would look at her, face blank and eyes hugely dilated, and she would mutter "not ready" before passing by like a ghost, almost walking on the air with graceful dancer's steps. It was a bit creepifying but everyone was used to creepifying behavior from Aunt River; that's just how she was.
Other times, much more often if they were on one of the longer trips that tended to make him a bit stir-crazy, Louisa would find Uncle Jayne lifting weights in the cargo bay. He never said much to her either; he'd wipe his sweat off the bench, beckon her forward, and hand her a pair of his lighter dumbbells. The silent company was nice, as was feeling her muscles stretch and burn, watching them become defined on her lean form. It helped take her mind off everything else.
That's why, one night about a year and a half after her mama had passed on, Lou was stunned to find that the stinging she felt in her soft blue eyes was not from the sweat running into 'em as she strained to push the big barbell up away from her thin chest just one more time. She tried to fight it back, didn't even know what the hell it was about or how it had gotten set off, but in the end Serenity's ceiling and Uncle Jayne's face had blurred.
Louisa Agnes Serenity Washburne finally cried for her mama.
She just about scared the life right out of Uncle Jayne, the hardened merc turning to helpless, panicked putty at the sight of the itty bitty girl sobbing for all she was worth. Crying girls were not his thing and it seemed that the tinier they got, the worse it was. He tried to comfort her but, after a few awkward pats on the head and offers of engine wine to calm her nerves, the big man got on the com and radioed urgently for help.
All of Serenity came running, Uncle Mal barely awake and brandishing his gun at some unperceived threat, Uncle Simon fiercely trying to put on a pair of still buttoned pants before falling over and falling down the cargo bay stairs, Aunt River slinking up behind the others with a knowing look in her dark eyes as she murmured, "Ready." They ran in and found little Lou Washburne about to come apart from crying so hard and didn't know what it meant. Everyone had been worried. Grieving is one thing, but acting like a zombie for nearly two years is something entirely different.
"Aw, mei-mei," Kaylee cooed, tears already in her own eyes as she rushed forward to pull the girl into a big smothering hug. "Don't cry, bao bei," The woman soothed, petting down tight red-gold curls as she rocked the thin creature in her arms, "It's gonna be alright." Crying that much harder, Louisa found solace in the embrace of Serenity's sunshine and strawberries, bawling hysterically until she dizzily just could not stay awake any longer. Hardly aware of the continuous string of soothing nonsense still reaching her ears, she let herself sink into a warm darkness.
Louisa woke up back in her own bed. Aunt Inara was there, soft and almost saintly past the haze of incense smoke. Lavender, she identified blearily, lavender and patchouli and geranium. It was so relaxing, so peaceful, luring her back into the nothingness of sleep.
But Aunt Inara saw she was awake, tenderly brushing the girl's wild hair away from her eyes as she smiled and stated, "Good morning. How are you feeling?"
"Stupid," Louisa answered before she could stop herself, immediately blushing and rolling away to face the bunk wall.
Aunt Inara only hesitated for a brief moment before her hand fell onto the girl's back. "You're not stupid, mei-mei," She stated soothingly, her voice soft and even, full of guidance, "You're mourning as you should. It is a natural process and trying to stop it from coming will only make the experience that much harder on you."
"But I don't want it," She murmured, hiding her face in a soft feather pillow she'd taken off her mama's bed, "It hurts and it's not fair."
The hand on her back was moving in slow circles, up and down, smoothing out the tension with a practiced ease. "I know, bao bei," Aunt Inara answered wisely, "But it will lessen. You... you must keep flying."
Louisa laughed, for the first time in... what felt like forever. "You've been hanging around with the captain too much," She scolded lightly, turning to smile over her thin shoulder with watery blue eyes, "His Mal-isms are starting to rub off."
Aunt Inara returned the soft laugh and everything actually started to feel alright.
The girl started going out of her bunk more during day-cycle, started talking with her aunts and uncles, playing games with her little cousins. She started finding some happiness in being able to explore every next new port, new sights and smells and people. She could enjoy it; it was her dream to see the 'Verse and she knew that, even though she never told her mama the dream, her mama would be glad to hear she was living it.
Fifteen was when Louisa was given her first title: Official Serenity Babysitter. She was to look after the younger ones while the rest of the crew was off doing their own work. It wasn't all that glamorous or exciting, it wasn't goin' on jobs, but it was something. It made the teen feel useful, like she was really a part of the crew instead of just the orphan they'd taken aboard out of loyalty to her parents.
And it really was an exhausting full-time gig. Sam and Jay were just turned nine and all full of trouble. They stole and fought and broke stuff as easy as normal folk breathe, and Double-Trouble always had a scheme in mind.
With the dark hair of his mother and blue eyes and strong moral compass of his father, Sam was the leader; he was tough and thoughtful and real protective of those he loved. His trouble always seemed to have a more solid purpose: stolen chocolate to make Louisa feel better after her mama died, pilfered extra blankets for the girls when they complained about their toes getting cold during night-cycle, a few gallons of real siphoned milk so the thumb Uncle Jayne broke in a bar fight would heal up strong. On one notable occasion, a vital piece of Serenity's engine had gone missing just in time to strand the crew on Jiangyin for the one-night only circus show. Everyone had a blast; the missing part was later found at the bottom of Sam's clothes hamper.
Jay, sometimes Jamie, sometimes Jimmy, sometimes James when he was feeling real proper or tryin' to suck up to his mama, was the unpredictable one. He had lighter brown curls that waved and swirled instead of coiling like Louisa's own and dark eyes that could flash from one emotional extreme to the next without a warning. He had a temper as volatile as nitro in the sun but still found time to be sweet and goofy and mischievous just for the hell of it, because he enjoyed putting his underbritches on his head and dancing around the cargo bay naked while his daddy gave a furious chase, because he enjoyed watching Kaylee get confused as she grasped at the screwdriver he kept tugging further and further out of her reach with the long piece of string he'd tied to it, because, no matter how many times Alliance officers brought him and his brother back to the ship by their ears, he just couldn't pass up the chance to call them ching-wah tsao duh liou mahng purple-bellies straight to their core-bred faces. Jay was a force of nature and Louisa tended to wake up wondering just which side of him she was gonna see that day, hell, what he was gonna insist on being called that day and if it would even last the whole cycle.
Sam was a mountain, solid and unwavering; Jay was a fire, keeping everyone near him warm one minute and burning everything in his path the next.
The three elder Tam girls were every bit their mother's daughters.
Jessamine was seven, with her mama's dark brown eyes and sunshine smile. She could light up a room just by entering it and always seemed to end up the center of attention without even trying, 'specially when she danced that special blend of Aunt River's classical ballet and her own manner of carefree little girl. She was warmth, and joy, and people gravitated towards her like moths to a flame, planets circling a copper-haired supernova of pure happiness.
If Jessie was the sunshine, Angelica was the strawberries. It always amazed Louisa that such a young child, a girl barely turned six could be so utterly sweet and selfless. She was always bringing home injured animals for her daddy to fix, always urging her cousins and siblings not to fight, always so teary and worried whenever anyone got hurt. Folks loved Jessie because her sunny personality was downright dazzling, an awesome, powerful thing to experience; folks loved Angie, everyone's little angel, because her soft brown eyes, and shy smile, and even the ribbons in her strawberry blonde hair couldn't help but leave something purely good deep down in their hearts.
Rose-Ellen, called Rosie by everyone but her daddy, was four. She had dimpled cheeks and a freckled nose and the sparkliest brown eyes ever seen in all the 'Verse. She was a dreamer, always off in a land of make-believe having fantastic adventures with imaginary friends. The girl would talk, but she was quieter. It wasn't a shyness just... the sense that Rosie's world was just that: Rosie's World, a place where purple butterflies were so thick in the air that there was hardly enough oxygen left between 'em to live off, where she rode around on a giant pink frog named Melvin and Uncle Jayne dressed up for her tea parties and didn't even grumble.
Ginger was still a baby, still in diapers and just barely starting to toddle when Louisa was first put in charge. Unlike her sisters, she was all her daddy. She had dark hair, and blue eyes, and that determined "I have to understand it" way about her. Jessie and Angie could spend hours cooing over the engine with Auntie Kaylee; Rosie seemed to be the only one who really fully understood Aunt River; Ginny's first and most favorite toy was a stethoscope.
Yup, the little ones were more than a handful of trouble but they were well worth it. As the years went on, as Louisa dutifully played the babysitter, the referee, the teacher, the confidant and friend, she found herself coming more and more into her own, into the person she wanted to be. She didn't always feel sad anymore; she could laugh and play just 'cuz it felt good. Aunt Inara and Uncle Simon started giving her school lessons. She was real surprised to hear how smart she was. Aunt Inara helped her tame her hair a bit and for awhile she thought she might even be pretty, in an awkward, rangy teenager kinda way. Auntie Kaylee taught her how to work some stuff on the engine and she felt real proud of herself for learning about Serenity's heart. Uncle Mal and Uncle Jayne taught her shooting and fighting and she felt safer and stronger and more capable than ever before.
But it was Aunt River who taught her to fly, who took her by the hand one day and led her up to the bridge, who sat her in the pilot's chair behind the console that still displayed just two of her daddy's immense plastic dinosaur collection, who smiled one of those enigmatic smiles of hers and declared, "Destined for this. Destined for greatness. Born to fly."
feng le - crazy
wo ai ni - I love you
wenshen - troublemakers (lit. plague gods)
yinjing - penis (scientific)
mei-mei - little sister
bao bei - sweetheart
ching-wah tsao duh liou mahng - frog-humping son-of-a-bitch
Qilin - A mythical Chinese chimerical creature said to appear in conjunction with the arrival of a sage. It is a good omen said to bring rui, roughly translated to mean "serenity" or "prosperity." It is often depicted with what looks like fire all over its body and said to appear only in areas with a wise and benevolent leader.
Nagapie - Small, nocturnal primates native to Africa. They are also known as bush babies or galagos.