Author's Note: None of the characters, ships, guns, or other oddments named in the following belong to me. They belong to Joss. Joss is boss. All hail to Joss. I am just playing with them because they're fun.


By Dyce

Chapter One

"Another half-percent ain't ruttin' worth it."

Jayne rarely thought that there was anything wasn't worth doing for money. Coin was what made the worlds go 'round. But this was just ridiculous.

"River! You git down here right the hell now!"

The girl was standing on one foot on the wobbly railing of the walkway, gazing with apparent interest at the ceiling. "Why?"

"Because if you fall down you'll make a mess, an' I already had to scrub blood off this floor this week."

"I won't fall." She rose on her toes, one hand looped loosely around a strut. "I'm almost flying."

"Almost ain't flyin', now get down here." Why had he agreed to mind the crazy girl? Why? Sure, she was cute at times, when she was talking straight and wearing his hats, but cute wasn't a big interest of Jayne's and she was deeply creepifying most of the time.

Only less now than before. He wasn't sure if she was getting less weird or if he was just getting used to her.

"All right." She grinned down at him, a wicked look suddenly crossing her face. "I will come down there. But if you don't catch me there might be a mess."

Jayne spat out a curse and lunged across the hold as she dropped, landing as lightly in his arms as a kitten. He glared at her as she laughed delightedly. "That ain't what I meant and you know it!" He dropped her - or tried to. Somehow instead of landing on her butt on the floor she wound up swinging from his arm and dropping lightly onto her feet. "Crazy brat."

"Pbt." She stuck out her tongue and blew a raspberry at him. "You should say what you mean."

She was more coherent today, which was good. On the other hand, she tended to be a brat when she was coherent. Cute when she aimed it at the doc or the captain, considerably less so when it was Jayne getting smacked with the bratty stick. "I do say what I mean. Ain't my fault you got no sense."

"Sense is not common." River rolled her eyes. "Especially on this boat."

Jayne snickered. Bratty River could be kinda funny, he had to admit that. "That's for gorram sure. What the hell am I gonna do with you today?"

Doc was still pissed as all hell that Jayne had been right about keeping River busy instead of babying her and filling her up with drugs. If she was distracted from her memories instead of sitting down brooding on 'em, she calmed down mightily. Wash had taken to the idea right off, spending hours telling her stories about flight school and teaching her to pilot Serenity. Kaylee was just as keen, and should anything happen to her she was now reasonably confident that River could keep Serenity flying until they could make landfall. Zoe would have no part of it, insisting that she didn't have anything to teach the girl was fit for a child to know, and Mal cravenly used the same excuse. How they thought that made it okay to dump the girl on Jayne, who was meaner and less kid-friendly than either of them, he could never work out. He suspected 'because we can' was the main thrust of it. Inara was busy packing and being mad at Mal. Preacher helped when he could, but River had taken a powerful dislike to his hair and would fuss endlessly about it waiting to leap out at her if she was in the wrong mood.

For some reason, probably just to piss him off, she was never in the wrong mood to spend time with Jayne. Even when she was shouting at Kaylee and babbling gory nonsense at Wash, she'd go along meek as a lamb when the captain told her to go with Jayne.

"Because you think straight," she said, breaking into his grumpy musings. "You make the world simple." She smiled sunnily up at him, wrapping her little hands around his arm. "Life and death. Cause and effect. Profit and loss. Linear causality."

Jayne grunted. Flattery was gonna get her nowhere. "You sure you won't let the shepherd tell you a story or somethin'?"

Her grip on his arm tightened. "The hair waits."

"Yeah, yeah." Think of the money. Think of the money. "Hey, I know. Let's play 'I spy something I can use as a weapon'. Look around the hold, standin' right here, and tell me how many things you can see that you could use to fight with if someone busted in here."

Jayne was starting to lose hope that 'teaching River inappropriate and scary things' would get him out of this, but since he didn't have a better strategy...

River pivoted slowly. "Narrow parameters, please."

He'd learned what that meant, eventually. "Only stuff you can actually lift. Walls and floors and the mule and all don't count."

"The loose bar on the walkway can be pulled out and used as a clubbing weapon." River pointed. "The lid of the third crate from the left is small and heavy enough to act as both an impromptu shield and a clubbing weapon. The closure on the fourth crate from the left can be pried loose and used as a stabbing weapon."

She kept going for quite some time, naming everything Jayne had been able to think of and a few he hadn't, like the wobbly stair tread on the right that could be pulled out and used as a slashing weapon, being as its back edge was sharp. He refused to allow her the chains hanging from the ceiling, since while they were technically usable they would take too long to get at to be useful in an emergency situation. Even so, her tally was impressive.

Thirty seconds later, she was bored again. "The mind races in a caucus," she said, starting to sound fretful. "Emptiness becomes crowded with nothings." Which was River-talk for 'bored'.

"You gotta learn how to slow your brain down some, girl, or it's gonna just overheat and drop right out of your ears one of these days." Jayne looked around, trying to come up with some other way to keep her amused.

"Can't slow it down. Running hot all the time, like Reaver engines." She rubbed her temple, frowning. "Simon tries to slow it down with the medicines, but it doesn't always work."

"Simon thinks there's a gorram drug for anything." Hospital-trained doctors was all alike. Jayne was all in favour of pain-meds, and surgery was shiny, especially when it involved putting Jayne back together, but he didn't hold with getting stuck with needles for every damn thing from a cold to an infected cut. It made you soft. "You don't learn to cope without the medicines, someday you're gonna be stuck someplace you ain't got 'em and go nuts and kill everybody."

"Maybe." River twiddled a strand of hair around her finger. "How else can I make my brain slow?"

"Well..." This wasn't an issue Jayne had ever really had to deal with. "You get slow when Kaylee plays with your hair."

"It's nice. Repetition induces relaxation." River nodded. "But she can't do it all the time."

"And I can't feed you all the time, neither." When she wasn't on the meds that made her puke it all back up, stuffing River to the gills tended to shut her up at least temporarily. "What about working out?"

She stared at him. "Working out what?"

"Exercise. Pull-ups and weights and all. That clears out the head some."

"Repetitive motions training muscle to perform." River gnawed on her lip. "Many exercises at the Academy."

"Well, do some kind they didn't do there." Jayne shrugged. "Get yourself good and strong so you can fight when they come after you."

River looked at him for a moment, and then she smiled a big beaming smile. "I like you."

Jayne blinked. She'd never said that before.

To the best of his recollection, nobody had said that to him before.


"You set me on my own two feet and push me forward. No wrappings to shield me from the worlds." She cocked her head, still smiling at him. "You put the weapons in my hands and tell me to fight for myself."

Jayne had another of those moments of creeping sympathy for the girl, which had started on Ariel and gotten much stronger since he'd started looking after her regularly. From what he gathered, them at the Academy had tried to break her to harness, teach her to obey without thinking for herself. And doc and the crew meant well, but she was right - they tried to wrap her up and protect her from the 'verse like she was a baby. "You can't stay a baby forever. You wanna be self-sufficient, you gotta learn to take care of yourself. Simon won't always be around, you know." Her lip trembled at that, and he backtracked hastily. Making River cry was a fast-track to getting lectured by every single person on the damned boat. "I mean, even starched-up core doctors gotta piss sometimes. He can't watch you every second."

River giggled at that. "Urine is a universal of humanity," she said happily. "Everyone makes it. Geniuses and mercs and doctors and engineers and all."

"Weirdest ruttin' things amuse you." Jayne shrugged. "I ain't got any weights small enough for you, but if you get a couple of cans out of the galley that should do well enough."

"I'm still floored by this." Wash followed his wife into the galley, shaking his head. "Jayne baby-sitting. That's like... I don't know... Reavers crocheting. The captain reciting poetry. Inara belching."

"I'm sure she does." Zoe grinned, ambling over to the kitchen area in that hip-swinging way that brought joy to Wash's heart and loins. "Belch, I mean."

"But not out in the hold where anyone can see her. Did you know he was teaching her to do situps hanging from her knees? Simon nearly had a heart attack when he came out and found her dangling upside-down."

"I wouldn'ta believed it myself if I hadn't seen it." Zoe shook her head. "Jayne teaching someone something. The mind boggles."

"And teaching River. He's been trying to get rid of her since day one." Wash shook his head, sitting down at the table and reaching for the bowl of dried peaches that they'd lucked into on New Melbourne.

"Ain't heard a peep from him on that score since he got stuck with her for two days." Zoe was pouring tea for both of them, frowning a little. "Inara swears that he's gettin' attached to the child."

"That's just downright scary." Wash shook his head. "Really. I'll be having nightmares about this now. Jayne playing with tea-sets and getting along with people."

"Inara is right, I think." Book had been tucked into the little seating corner, mostly unnoticed, but now he set his bible aside and joined Zoe in the kitchen, politely offering her the can of sweet rice crackers he'd bought on their last shopping trip. Zoe took two, and Wash beamed and held out his hand for his cracker and his tea. "Still, it's hardly surprising that Jayne should know what to do with a child."

"Actually, Shepherd, it really is. Astonishing, even." Wash sipped his tea. Mm. Wife-tea. She knew just how he liked it. "We're all kerflummoxed."

"I have to agree." Zoe sat down next to Wash and stretching out her legs all lazy-like. He loved it when she did that. "Jayne, in my experience, doesn't like any two-legged-thing that walks the worlds except for Jayne."

"And whores," Wash added helpfully.

"Yes, dear. And whores. Jayne is mightily in favour of whores."

Book chuckled. "You don't know him very well, do you?"

"Can't say as I've ever cared to," Zoe said, raising an eyebrow. "Why?"

"Jayne is the oldest of nine Cobb children. Seven of those survived to adulthood, which is significantly over the average in the kind of factory town where Jayne was born." Book poured himself some green tea. "He almost never discusses his family, save for imparting that single piece of information, but I know that he sends a large portion of his earnings home to his parents, and judging by the letter he received with that hat, at least one of his siblings is an invalid."

"Damp lung," Zoe said, nodding. Wash gave her an enquiring look, and she shrugged. "Findin' Tracey put it out of my mind at the time, but the letter said someone named Mattie had damp lung. It's a regional term for tuberculosis. A lot of recruits from the industrial planets got it and had to be discharged - once you get it bad, it never really clears up."

"Wow. Hidden depths to Jayne." Wash nibbled his cracker. It was hard to imagine Jayne as part of a big family.

"Probably left home by the time he was sixteen or so. A lot of them do - oldest children of large families, I mean." Zoe swirled the tea around in her cup, frowning thoughtfully. "They usually either go into the army or ship out on a private vessel working as unskilled crew." She looked up at Book, smiling a little. "Two years and more he's been on board, and I can't say I ever asked myself where he came from. Until the first letter from his mother showed up, I wasn't even sure if he had one."

"Everyone has a mother, Zoe." Book smiled. "Anyway, my point was that as the oldest of nine, Jayne doubtless has a great deal of experience in tending troublesome little girls, whether he enjoys it or not. I suspect that he was the one who braided her hair, while they were alone, since Kaylee had to teach her how to do it for herself afterwards."

Wash's jaw dropped. "Jayne braids?"

"I wouldn't bring it up to his face, dear. He might just kill you out of sheer embarrassment." Zoe shook her head. "Well. You learn something new every day."

"The day that ends, you might as well lie down and die." Book nodded approvingly. "Don't worry too much over Jayne and River. She feels safe with him, and she tends to know when someone wishes her harm."

Jayne jerked awake, silent and instantly alert. He'd heard a click. There shouldn't be any clicking in his bunk in the middle of the night. Sure enough, as he glanced around under half-closed lids, light came down through his opening door and was then obscured by shadow as someone climbed down the ladder.

Someone was sneaking into his bunk. Since odds were bad that Inara had decided she had to have him right here, right now, they were good that there was another intruder on Serenity or -

"Pretending to be asleep does no good if you cannot control your breathing."

"What the gorram hell!" Jayne sat bolt upright, flicking on the light to be confronted with River Tam in a baggy nightshirt that hung on her like a sack. "What the hell are you doing in here?"

She twisted her fingers together, her eyes big and scared. "There are nightmares in my room," she whispered. "And I have no weapon to fight them."

"So wake up your brother or something."

"He only has words to fight with, and Simon's words are no use even to Simon."

"Ain't that the gorram truth." Jayne climbed out of bed, glad he was decent. He'd get thrown out the airlock as it was if anyone caught her down here - if anyone ever found out he'd walked around naked in front of River, only part of him would get thrown out of the airlock, and it wasn't a part he cared to live without. "Look, if I give you a weapon, will you go away?"

"Yes." She shifted from foot to foot. It was funny how some times she looked far too old for her age and at others she looked like a little girl. "I want to be self-sufficient."

"Yeah, yeah, I know." Jayne dug around in the mess, pausing to flip a t-shirt over a pile of porn. He didn't have as many knives as he did guns, but they were always handy. He wavered a bit, and eventually decided on a small, slim knife that he occasionally tucked into his boot when he was feeling especially anxious about the potential danger on a job. "Here. You can keep this on one condition."

"What condition?" River was watching the knife almost hungrily.

"You never, ever, ever come sneakin' into my bunk again. You ain't ever allowed down here unless there's a fire or Reavers or blue hands or some other emergency that can't wait one second, you understand me?" Jayne shuddered at the thought of what Mal would do to him if he ever found out River had been in his bunk. Or worse, the Shepherd - Jayne was tolerably certain that he was going to hell, but just in case he wasn't he didn't want Book putting him in bad with God.

River thought that over and then nodded, holding out her hand. "I promise."

"Good." He dropped the knife into her hand. "Wouldn't hurt to keep that with you when you're awake, too. Someone tries to snatch you on another backwater planet, you'd save us all a lot of time if you just cut his throat and came back on your own without us having to go look for you and all."

"Much more efficient." River nodded solemnly then smiled sweetly at him. "Thank you, Jayne."

Jayne cleared his throat uncomfortably. People didn't usually thank him, especially not with little happy smiles. "Yeah, well, git. You might not need sleep but I do."

River nodded, staring up at him with those big, unsettling eyes. Then she reached up to pat his cheek with tiny, soft fingers. "Have good dreams," she whispered, and then she slipped away up the ladder, her faded pink nightshirt billowing around thin knees.

Jayne went to bed, trying to ignore the lingering memory of her little hand stroking his stubbled cheek. When he slept, he found himself dreaming of baked apples and a clamour of eager little voices, his own among them.

"River, please come out." Simon was on his knees, peering into the small triangular opening that led to one of the smuggling-holes that honeycombed Serenity. "It's safe, I promise."

"No! The lights all buzz, like bees with stings made of paper that poke at my eyes!"

"River, sweetie, it's all right." Inara was kneeling beside Simon with utter disregard for the delicate satin of her gown. "There's nobody here."

"You can't hear them because the dulcimer in your head is too loud!"

Inara looked at Simon, who sighed and shook his head. "I have no idea. She's been doing so well lately."

"I understand." Inara laid a gentle hand on his arm. "I wish there was more I could do to help."

"Thank you. That... means a lot." Inara was leaving the ship as soon as the captain could find time in their suddenly-busy schedule to get them to Worthington. She should have been packing, but she'd put everything aside to help him look for River when she ran off. Inara was always kind, and Simon didn't think it was just the Companion training. "I just wish I knew what was upsetting her."

"What're you doin' down there on the floor?" Jayne thumped down the stairs, gnawing on a pressed-fruit bar.

"River's having a hard day." Inara smiled up at Jayne, which in Simon's view was entirely unwarranted. "You don't know what could have set her off, do you?"

"No idea." Jayne squatted beside the hole and peered in. "You in there, xiao gui?"

"Jayne?" River's voice was less hysterical all of a sudden, and Simon thought he saw a slight movement at the back of the hole. "The lights buzz and my ears fill up with bees."

"I have no idea what she means." Simon sighed again as Jayne looked at him inquiringly. "She's been getting more and more worked up about the lights, but I don't know why."

To Simon's intense annoyance, Jayne rolled his eyes like Simon was the stupid one. "Which lights are buzzing?"

"In my room. Trying to eat me." River definitely sounded calmer.

"They ain't trying to eat you. It's just annoying is all." Jayne shrugged. "The calibration slides a little off sometimes. Kaylee'll fix it."

Inara blinked, a sign of great surprise in the usually perfectly controlled Companion. "You mean her lights actually are buzzing?"

"Probably. It's too high-pitched for most to hear, but it drives me nuts." Jayne smirked at Simon, who hastily tried to wipe the startled look off his face. "She did tell you what the trouble was."

"Yes, she did." Simon hated it, hated it when the ape thing gone wrong understood River better than he did. "Thank you. River, Jayne will fix the lights. It's safe to come out now."


"River, please..." Simon rested his forehead against the cool wall. "You can't stay in there all day."

"Why not?" Jayne sat back on his heels.

"What do you mean, why not?"

"She's safe enough in there and she ain't in anyone's way. Just leave her. She'll come out when she gets bored." Jayne shrugged. "Or when nature calls."

"The universal." River sounded like she was smiling.

"The... what? Look, I can't just leave her..." Simon trailed off as Inara took his arm, tugging him gently to his feet.

"Jayne is right." Inara frowned a little as she heard herself say it, and then shook her head. "River is perfectly safe where she is. Come and have some tea with me. I'm sure River's picking up your worry, and it can't be helping. Jayne -"

"I'm gonna work out." Jayne looked put-upon. "But I'll listen for the xiao gui."

"I'm not a little demon."

"You are. You're a bratty, whiny, pain in the ass little demon." Jayne grinned. "And you're going to miss the fruit bars if you sit in there all day. Wash and I'll eat them all and you won't get any."

"You could bring me some," River said coaxingly.

"But I won't. Your funeral." Jayne wandered away, smirking.

Before he was halfway across the hold, River had emerged from her hiding place and scampered up the stairs, scowling ferociously. Simon stared after her, and then looked helplessly at Inara. "What..."

Inara smiled. "Never underestimate the ability of the childish to understand children," she murmured. "Come and have some tea."

By the time Inara had prepared and poured the tea, Simon did feel calmer. "Thank you for this. I know you must have a lot to do."

"Well, yes. But I still have plenty of time, and I'd rather not spend the next few days sleeping in a dismantled bedroom." Inara smiled, but it was a professional smile that didn't ease the tightness around her eyes. "I know how hard the last few months have been for you, and I'm glad to be able to help before I leave."

"It's appreciated, believe me." Simon looked around the shuttle with some interest. He'd only been in here a couple of times, and generally only in some sort of dire emergency when he didn't have time to appreciate the decor. "It's a shame you have to dismantle all this. It's very well balanced."

"Really?" Inara blinked again. "What do you mean?"

"Well, the colours. You've managed to balance the warm, stimulating colours clients will expect with cooler shades to induce serenity and peacefulness, and the proportions are very..." He trailed off. She was staring at him. "I'm sorry, perhaps that was a bit personal..."

"No, no, it's fine. I'm just... surprised. I don't think anyone's ever actually noticed the colour-balance, let alone the trouble I took to avoid letting the room seem either cramped or off-kilter." Inara smiled a little. "It wasn't easy, given the shuttle's original proportions."

"I'm sure it wasn't. I've been in the other one, and..." Simon tilted his head. "The illusion of depth you've created there is very... I mean, I know you just don't have that much room in here, but even looking right at it, it's hard to tell."

"Really?" Inara beamed. "I've always been very proud of that. It's the pleating of the draperies that really creates the illusion." She sipped her tea, looking around the shuttle. "Of course, the whole point is that it not be noticed. That the space should be accepted as a haven of comfort and beauty as a whole, not a collection of disparate parts."

"You've done a wonderful job." Simon smiled a little. This conversation was going so much better than they usually did. "You've used quite a daringly varied colour palette, but it works very well... and I imagine it adds a level of flexibility costume-wise, since there's almost nothing you could wear that would clash with all of this."

"Exactly." Inara shook her head. "I have to say, I'm surprised. I would never have imagined that you would take such an interest in colour theory, let alone interior design."

Simon was sure he was blushing. "It was... making polite conversation is very important in the Core, as I'm sure you know. I was attending classes in etiquette at seven. By the time I was in my teens, I knew what I wanted to do with my life and I devoted almost all my time to medicine, but since I could not be permitted to become a single-subject bore at my parents' parties, I decided to specialize in a few select and diverse areas. River helped me create an optimal spread... which included colour theory and basic design, along with the form and crafting of the haiku, basic political awareness, and a few other pleasantly unthreatening subjects. Her reasoning was that since I was pathetically inept at maintaining a grasp of passing fashion, I should at least be able to flatter a hostess on the colour of her dress and the architecture of her home."

Inara laughed, shaking her head. "River was absolutely right - a man who can converse intelligently on the beauty of her home and the more flattering interpretation of her chosen gown's colour is always a welcome addition to a woman's guest-list."

"Even if, as it turns out, a course in basic spaceship mechanics and perhaps some light target practice with an assault weapon would have been of more practical use." Simon sighed. "I might even have been able to get away with the spaceship mechanics, as long as I kept my knowledge purely theoretical. As a suitably masculine interest, you know, to balance out the haiku."

"There's no way you could have forseen any of this, Simon." Inara reached out to lay a soothing hand on his wrist.

"I know that. It's just... it's frustrating. I have all this knowledge that I've spent a lifetime acquiring, and the vast majority of it is now completely useless. I'll probably never have to write another thank-you note, converse at another dinner-party or attend another performance of Aida." Simon set his teacup down, spreading his hands helplessly. "And I have no more idea of how to function out here than a child. I can't even hold a conversation without either insulting someone or making myself sound like a complete ass."

"You're doing quite well now, at least so far." She smiled sympathetically at him.

"That doesn't count. You were raised in the Core yourself. You... it's a completely different society, out here. You were trained to deal with people from vastly different social and cultural backgrounds. No one ever thought I would need to... or care whether I gave offense if I did."

Inara tilted her head. "You know something about Companion training as well. You're full of surprises this afternoon."

"I took some optional classes in psychology and a course on alternative treatments like acupuncture and reflexology. River thought I was giving too much time to the workings of the body as a machine and not as the residence of an actual person." He smiled, remembering the piping little voice lecturing him. "I happened to share them with several Companions-in-training. Since the MedAcad was so prestigious, the Companion House on Osiris didn't bother maintaining a separate training facility for those subjects."

"I'd heard about that. My own House disapproved of the notion on the grounds that introducing the girls into uncontrolled social situations too early might be harmful to their training."

"They were the only ones there even close to my age," Simon admitted, feeling as if he was boasting somehow. "I was nineteen at the time... I think the oldest of the girls was sixteen. All the others were... older."

"So naturally you drifted together."

"I was... well, I had a reputation for being much more interested in my studies than... dating." Simon knew he was blushing now. "They were always supervised, of course, but since I was polite and never made any advances, my presence was tolerated by the chaperones, especially since I could usually explain more of the theory behind the lectures than they could."

Inara nodded. "I imagine that was fascinating for them... most girls are rarely permitted even supervised conversation with young men at that stage. There are concerns about... inappropriate attachments, you understand."

Simon blushed harder. "Mostly I only talked about the subjects at hand... or River. Nobody else was particularly interested in the charming activities of my baby sister. But they had sisters too, within the House, so... it was an innocuous topic of conversation."

"I imagine so." Inara nodded. "And you didn't form any... inappropriate attachments, I take it?"

"Me? No, absolutely not." The thought hadn't even occurred to him. Even at fifteen and sixteen, the Companions-in-training had been so poised and polished as to be rather unnerving. He'd liked them well enough, had even exchanged a few books with a girl named Alise, but almost all his attention had been focused on his studies. A hopeless passion would have been silly.

"Most young men do, you know." Inara smiled. "Especially the first time they converse with a Companion."

"I've never really understood why." Simon bit his tongue. Damnit, damnit, why couldn't he have a simple conversation without saying something stupid. "I mean, I do see the appeal... you, for example, are genuinely kind-hearted as well as being beautiful, intelligent, and very accomplished. I just don't..." He sighed. "I have enough trouble working out what's going on in the head of an ordinary girl. I'd be pitifully, hopelessly lost with a Companion trained to charm and equivocate. I'd never know how she really felt about anything... or about me, for that matter."

"And that would be important to you?" Inara raised her eyebrows.

"Of course. I'm not... good with girls. Or people in general. If I were to get involved with someone, I'd want to have at least a hope of working out if something upset her, or if she was interested in something I happened not to know much about." Simon picked up his teacup again, trying to think of something that didn't actually describe Kaylee too obviously. "Someone who'll call me a dummy when I'm being one. Someone I can be... open with. If I ever work out how to be open."

"That's very perceptive, Simon." Inara sounded approving, so maybe he hadn't offended her too much. "Honesty in a relationship is very important, although it tends to be under-appreciated. You'd rather have someone who'll argue with you and have interests that don't include you than a flawless, charming Companion playing a part for you."

"Exactly." Simon smiled a bit wistfully. "Not that... well, I have to take care of River now, so it's not really... feasible. We're a package deal, at the moment, and how could I ask someone else to take on my crazy sister as well as my completely socially inept self?"

"It would depend a lot on who you asked." Inara smiled. "The right sort of woman might think your devotion to your sister was a selling point, not a flaw."

"Well... maybe." Simon fiddled with his cup. Inara and Kaylee were close. Maybe he could ask... no. Best not. "I really should concentrate on River for now, anyway."

"For now." Inara nodded. "You know, this does answer a question I've had for some time now, but couldn't bring up in conversation without being rather rude."

"Oh?" Relieved to get the conversation off the topic of Kaylee... which it had been, even if she hadn't been mentioned... Simon gave Inara an inquiring look.

"I'm a Companion. I'm trained to... allure. To stimulate a response." Inara smiled. "Even if that response is never acted upon, I'm accustomed to people - especially men - being aware of me to some extent, and being able to gauge the extent of that reaction from their verbal cues, body-language, and so on. Shepherd Book does register a reaction, even though it's one of mild discomfort. You honestly didn't seem to notice that I was female, and I couldn't imagine why."

Simon's face felt hot. "I hope I didn't offend you..."

"No, not at all." She chuckled. "Well, maybe my pride was a little bruised. I'm used to getting much more of a reaction. But now it's... relaxing. I can have a conversation with you without making a performance of it, either to attract your attention or subtly deflect it. It's rather a novel experience."

"Well... good. That is good, isn't it?"

"It is." Inara poured more tea, and now that he was paying attention he saw that she just poured it... it wasn't a graceful performance or a subtle act of distance, it was just tea. "I wish we'd had this conversation earlier."

"So do I." He liked Inara... she was gentle and sweet, if mystifying. "Thank you for having it with me now."

"You're welcome." Her smile softened into the genuine one she usually saved for Kaylee. "I hope we can find time for a few more - "

"Get back here, you little hai chong!" The roar was furious. A minute later, heavy feet thundered past Inara's door.

"Oh, no..." Simon set his cup down hastily and hurried to the just-slightly-open door. He was in time to see River, giggling, scamper around the walkway and down the stairs opposite. Behind her Jayne was in hot pursuit, probably because someone not unrelated to Simon had poured syrup onto his head. "Oh, no..."

"Oh dear." Inara was beside him, peering over his shoulder. "Jayne doesn't respond well to pranks."

"I didn't think he would. River!" Simon knew there was no point in chasing her. "River, what did you do?"

"She poured syrup on me!" Jayne wasn't nearly as fast as River, but he probably had more stamina. At least he wasn't waving any sort of weapon.

"You stole my fruit bar!"

"It weren't yours, it was on the table!"

"Still mine!" River waved the fruit bar over her head and ducked around a crate, doubling back in a manouvere that usually worked on Kaylee.

It didn't work on Jayne. Roaring in triumph, he pounced on her as she rounded the crate, wrapping one arm around her waist and hoisting her off her feet. "Gotcha! Gimme that!"

"Nooo! Mine!" River kicked, shrieking with laughter. By dint of much wriggling and flailing, she kept the bar just out of his reach. "Can't catch me, I'm the gingerbread man!"

"I already caught you!" Jayne shook her, grabbing for the fruit bar. "Now give me that, and you're going to get the syrup out of my shirt too or -"

"What is going on here?" Mal was on the walkway now, glaring down at them. Simon sighed in relief. Mal could handle Jayne. Simon had been about to intervene himself, but... well, it would work better if Mal did it.

"She poured syrup on me!" Jayne, naturally, blamed the whole thing on River.

"He stole my fruit bar." River bared her teeth and growled at Jayne. "Mine! Rrrrr!"

Jayne apparently thought it was a good idea to growl back. His growl was a lot more impressive than River's. So were his teeth.

River went limp and started laughing again, clearly thinking this was the funniest thing she'd ever seen.

"I just... I don't even want to know, I really don't." Mal shook his head, heading down the stairs. "Jayne, put the child down."

Scowling, Jayne swung River onto her feet. Mal promptly grabbed her arm before she could make a run for it. "River, no more wasting syrup on non-edible objects, do you understand me?"

"Yes, captain." River smiled angelically at him.

"Jayne, no more shaking the kid. You break her, you bought her, am I understood?"

"Okay." Jayne scowled.

"Good." Mal snatched the fruit bar out of River's hands, ignoring her plaintive wail. "You've both had enough sugar for today. I don't want to see either of you with one of these until tomorrow at the earliest, you understand me?"

"Yes, Captain."

"Yes, Mal."

"Good." Mal released his grip on River. "You, go clean up the sticky mess on the table. You, go clean up the sticky mess on your head."

River and Jayne departed, Jayne sulking and River still snickering. Mal shook his head, and looked up at Simon and Inara, who were still standing on the walkway. "Doctor, I would appreciate it if you kept a tighter leash on your sister. As much as I sympathise with your increasingly difficult task, there is only so much crazy running and giggling I'm prepared to tolerate."

"Er... actually, this is the most normal she's been since I rescued her." Simon found that he was grinning widely. "The syrup in the hair thing is an old favourite of hers. She used to do it to me whenever I was being particularly obtuse."

Mal looked at the fruit bar in his hand and then back up at Simon. "This is normal behaviour?"

"Well, for River."

xiao gui - little demon (affectionate term for a naughty child)

hai chong - injurious insect, pest

biao mei - female cousin

biao xiong - male cousin

mei mei - younger sister

yu chun - stupid

zi you - freedom, liberty

go se - crap, lit dog excrement

you zhi - childish

cu cao - crude, coarse

xiao zang gui - dirty little ghost (another term for a naughty child who has gotten very dirty)