Kaylee was sitting on her bed reading when her door opened and a pair of legs came into view down her ladder. She recognized those legs in their neat trousers and shiny shoes, and her mouth dropped open as the rest of him came into view. "Simon?"
He closed the door quietly, and turned, face a little pink. "I'm sorry for intruding," he said, speaking quiet-like. "I just... ah... I needed to hide."
"Hide? Hide from who?" Okay, so it wasn't the most romantic-like reason for him being in her bunk, but she'd never thought to see him in here at all at the rate he was going, so she'd take what she could get.
"The captain. He's coming this way and there's nowhere else to hide."
"Oh." Well, she couldn't blame him for that. The cap'n had been in an increasingly filthy mood the last week or two, for obvious reasons, and River kept windin' him up more and more. Simon hardly dared show his face outside the infirmary these days - the cap'n must have caught him sneaking up to the galley to get food. "Well, you can stay in here 'til he goes, if you want."
"Thank you." He smiled a bit bashfully at her. "I am sorry I didn't knock or anything, but River talked to him this morning and I'm afraid he'll throw us both off at the next stop if I offend him. Or, you know, speak to him. Or look at him."
"Oh, he wouldn't do that. Um. Probably." Kaylee smiled uncertainly. "Probably best to stay out of his way, though. He misses Inara real bad."
"I did get that impression." Simon grinned his sweet sideways grin that made her heart turn over. "He seems to think we don't know, though."
"Oh, he always has. Him and Inara both." Kaylee rolled her eyes. "They all thought as we were too stupid to see what everyone in the whole 'verse could 'cept for them."
"Yeah." He leaned against the wall, tucking his hands into his pockets. "You really miss her, don't you?"
"I sure do." Kaylee fiddled with the tablet still in her hand, surreptitiously closing down the trashy romantic story she'd been reading. "We was real close... least I thought we were."
"You were." Simon looked up at the ladder, lowering his voice as it vibrated slightly with the force of someone stomping past. "I miss her too."
Unwelcome knowledge, and Kaylee straightened up. "You do?"
"We got to be... friendly, before she left." Simon looked at her, and for once he seemed to be able to read her expression. "Not... you know... friendly. Just... Companions have a lot of training in psychology, you know. I'm doing my best, but I'm a surgeon, not a psychologist or a counsellor. Someone I could talk to about River, discuss potential treatments with..."
Kaylee relaxed. Of course 'Nara would never have encouraged him, even if he had liked her. Not knowing how Kaylee fancied him. But it was good to know that he didn't see the far more beautiful, more sophisticated Inara that way.
But... River. It always came back to River. Which was how it ought to be, of course, but... "How's she doin'? River, I mean."
"Tense. The captain's mood is taking a toll on her. Jayne's been doing his best to keep her busy and out of the captain's way, which is... strangely kind of him." Simon made a funny, bewildered face. "She seems to enjoy it, though. She spent a lot of yesterday smelling everything in the hold. I think she licked some things, too."
"Jayne's always smellin' stuff." Including her, a couple of times, which Kaylee had found a mite unsettling until she realized that he just sniffed everything he came into contact with, be it food or girls or random bits of equipment. "Did she say why?"
"Something about states of being and libraries." Simon shrugged. "She seemed to be enjoying herself, though. She told me quite seriously that she was here today."
"As opposed to... bein' someplace else?"
"That part did sort of make sense," Simon said, sounding sad. "She's not... always here with us, a lot of the time. On Earth-that-was, they used to say of people who went mad that they had wandered in their wits. Sometimes it seems as if River's wandered away somewhere in her own mind."
"She's wanderin' back more often now, though," Kaylee said hopefully. Maybe if River was better, and Simon wasn't always so worried about her...
"She is. Mostly to talk to Jayne which, again, disturbs me." Simon grinned a little. "Although less, now. Even when she puts syrup in his hair or ties his boot-laces together, he just chases her and yells. I don't think he'd... well, hurt her or anything."
"Well of course he wouldn't!" Kaylee was right shocked that he'd ever considered such a thing. "Jayne might be mean a lot of the time, but he wouldn't go around hittin' little girls! Or any ladyfolk, 'less they was trying to kill him or somethin'."
"Well, there was that one time..."
"She'd just stabbed him. Can't blame him for that." Kaylee had always felt safe with Jayne, always. He could be nasty and he was almost always crude, but he wouldn't ever put hands on her, violent or otherwise, unless she invited it. "He ain't that kind, Simon. Cap'n wouldn'ta let him stay a week if'n he was."
"I suppose not." Simon looked thoughtful. "Although even the captain doesn't seem entirely sure why he does let Jayne stay."
"'cause Jayne's strong enough to protect us." Kaylee smiled at the thought. "Cap'n worries a lot about folks gettin' hurt, after losing so many of his people in Serenity Valley and all. He needs Jayne to help him and Zoe protect all of us."
"Oh." Simon considered that. "Well, I suppose that makes sense. I - "
The door banged open. Simon ducked away from it. "KAYLEE!"
"Uh... yeah, cap'n?"
"What the hell are you doin' down there? Wash says something's wrong with the engine and he thought you were taking care of it already."
"I was just... uh... gettin' a clean shirt, cap'n." There was no point in telling him she was entitled to time away from the engine room, not right now.
"What the hell for? You're always covered in grease after workin' on the engines anyway."
"Yeah, well, grease is one thing, smellin' like Jayne is something else." Kaylee grinned at Simon's shocked look. "I'll be right up soon's I can stand myself."
"Oh. Well. See as you are." The door slammed shut.
"You stay here," Kaylee whispered, grinning. "I'll lead him away so's you can escape."
"Thank you." Simon gave her a shy little smile. "And... you never smell like Jayne. Even when you are all... you don't ever smell that bad."
That was about the nicest compliment he'd ever paid her sober, and Kaylee beamed. "Really?"
"Really." He was going all pink. "You usually smell... nice. Not that I go around smelling you or anything."
"Too bad." Kaylee grinned at him and scampered up the ladder. "Cap'n? You come with me, I want to show you why there's problems with the engine and why it is you gotta take us back to Persephone and the junkyards so I can get some damn parts."
"River! You get down from there this minute! I mean it, young lady! That is not a gorram swing!" Mal waited until the girl pouted and climbed down off the cradle-hoist that was currently hanging from the ceiling of the hold - how the hell had she gotten up there, anyway? - and then continued to the galley. "I swear to God, that child will be the death of herself and others someday soon."
"Aww, she's just playin'," Kaylee said fondly. "Don't be such a grump, Cap'n."
"I am not being a grump. I just don't want her breaking anything, like bones or expensive equipment." Mal scowled, helping himself to a stray dumpling that had clearly been abandoned on the table. "And where's Jayne? We got a job to do today."
"I don't think he's up yet. I ain't seen him, anyway."
"Typical." Mal finished the dumpling in a couple of bites and stalked down the hall. Jayne's door crashed open with a satisfactorily loud noise. "Jayne! Get your lazy ass up here!"
"Heywhubu?" That was Jayne - always eloquent.
"Job. Today. Move."
Mal cut the whine off, slamming the door closed again. He was in no mood for Jayne's bitching today. He was in no mood for anyone's bitching today. He stalked back to the hold, ignoring River's big, accusing eyes as he checked the mule. A simple bandit-grab today. Small group, unprepared, definitely not carrying the same caliber of weapons as his crew.
"You ate my breakfast." River was hanging upside down from the walkway, dangling apparently unconcerned above a distant metal floor and a certain broken neck.
"You wanted it, you shouldn't've left it lying around." Mal scowled. "And you shouldn't be out here. We have a job today."
River stuck out a small pink tongue at him - a gesture she usually reserved for Simon and Jayne - and somehow managed to curl herself upright in a single graceful movement. She padded barefoot towards the galley, her small nose in the air as she made it clear without saying a word that Mal was in disgrace.
Inara had had just the same way of doing that.
Mal kicked the mule, then staggered. "Gorram it," he muttered, determined not to do anything so undignified as crying out in agonizing pain.
Zoe was giving some fairly serious thought to having the doc sedate Mal. She knew even without looking at the black rings under his eyes that her captain wasn't sleeping, and his temper had gotten so short that little River had hidden in the well in front of the pilot's console and flatly refused to come out until 'the angry captain' went away. She'd also accused him of stealing her breakfast.
The job had, for once, gone smooth. Jayne was slightly less mouthy than usual, which always brightened Zoe's day, and he'd gotten to shoot two idiots with more balls than brains which accounted for his own good mood.
Seemed that nothing could improve the captain's mood, though. Not a smooth job, not the pile of cash money and fresh vegetables they were paid with, not even Jayne keeping his mouth shut for an entire hour. Zoe was fairly certain as to the nature of Mal's discontent, and it wasn't like to resolve itself any time soon.
At least if she had him knocked out for a few days she could talk River into coming out of hiding, convince Kaylee not to keep blatantly sympathizing with the captain on account of it made him crankier, and maybe try to work out what the hell Jayne was up to. His apparently continuing willingness to spend time babying their resident crazy child was starting to give Zoe the willies. He had to be up to something, no matter what Wash said.
"Hey, Zoe." Jayne's voice had that special I've-just-arrived-at-the-end-of-a-thought-and-now-I-need-to-share-it tone that always got on Zoe's nerves. They hadn't hired Jayne as a thinker, and she wished he'd stop trying. "It strike you as that went awful easy?"
"It went smooth enough. I wouldn't say easy, exactly."
"Yeah, but when do our jobs ever go smooth? You think it's some kinda setup, like that time with... whatever her name was? Saffron?"
"It just went smooth, is all." Mal didn't sound inclined to discuss it further.
"But River said somethin' big was gonna happen today." Jayne sounded puzzled. "I figured she was warning me as something might go wrong with the job, but it didn't. Maybe something fell off the ship again while we was gone."
"When did she say that?" Mal looked around now, frowning.
"This mornin'." Jayne's voice shaded into reproach. "She was hidin' up in the cockpit with Wash. She said you were all spiky and you stole her breakfast."
"I ate food that was left lying on the table. Didn't steal nothing wasn't already abandoned." Mal sounded sulky. "And she was getting in the way. Why didn't she tell me about this big thing?"
"Could be because you snapped at her, sir."
"I didn't snap at her." Mal folded his arms, scowling. "And why didn't you tell me, Jayne?"
"If you ain't smart enough to ask the Reader what's like to happen, ain't my job to think of it for you." Jayne sounded smug. "Anyway, she said not to."
"Oh, she did, did she?" Mal's scowl deepened.
"Well, what she actually said was... uh..." Jayne's frown was almost audible as he struggled to remember. "'The captain deserves no warning, for he is in debt for a dumpling and a stubbed toe is no worthy... somethin'. Let him be surprised, and his plans set all... uh... oh, yeah, all askew, until he apologizes and returns what he stole.' But that's River-talk for 'ain't telling him nothing 'til he replaces that dumpling'."
"That little... gorrammit, Jayne, you tell me these things! That xiao zang gui, what the hell does she think she's playing at? If she knows something, she should tell me!"
"Sir, with all due respect, you're barely fit company for those of us who can't hear what you're thinking lately." Zoe kept her voice level, but it was more of an effort than usual, and she let enough intensity slide through that he'd know he was working on her very last nerve. "I don't blame River for hiding from you, and if you want her to tell you things I suggest you calm the hell down before trying to talk to her."
Mal grumped wordlessly, but years of close alliance had earned her the right to pull him up when he needed pulling, and he knew she was right. He was in no fit state to deal with a flighty child who was buffeted by his every burst of temper. Zoe wasn't best pleased that River hadn't told her, being as she'd been perfectly calm, but maybe she'd thought just telling Jayne would be enough. Wasn't as if the child was sane enough to be expected to have good judgement or anything.
Jayne, by some miracle, was wise enough to keep silent. The rest of the run back to Serenity was quiet, through the small but thriving town and to the tiny miniature spaceport where three regular passenger runs stopped over, as well as the odd transport or mercenary vessels. Zoe enjoyed the smooth handling of the new mule, thinking affectionately of her husband and his pride in her mediocre skill. She could about keep Serenity flying straight, and did little better with the mule, but just sharing his flying ways made her man happy.
Shepherd and Wash were in the hold to meet them, and Zoe saw a guilty look in Mal's eyes when River, who had been sitting on a crate chattering, promptly rolled off and hid behind it as soon as she saw him. Good. Zoe didn't mind him taking his temper out on her occasional, since she knew he didn't mean nothing by it, or on Jayne, because that was what Jayne was there for, but River was just a child.
"Hey, gorgeous." Wash kissed her hello, and Zoe's toes curled up inside her boots. Her man was the finest kisser this side of the Companion Academy. "Hey, you brought us food! I love it when they pay us in food... hey, is that bok choy? Dibs on the bok choy!"
"There's plenty for everyone." Zoe grinned at his unguarded enthusiasm. "You and your green vegetables."
"I like green vegetables. My mother would have a heart attack to hear me say it, but I do." Wash looked around. "River? Tiny crazy person? Want to help carry the food up to the galley, maybe do a little quality testing?"
"The captain says the little dirty ghost is in the way." River's petulant voice issued from behind the crate.
Wash blinked. "He does? When did he say that?"
"On the way home."
"Well, the captain should know better than to say things like that just because he's miles away and you can't technically hear them." Wash gave Mal a reproachful look. "Or to call you names."
"Jayne calls her a xiao gui all the time!" Mal said defensively.
"That's different." Jayne hauled himself out of the mule. "I'm equally an' democratically rude to everybody."
Zoe had to admit he had a point there. Jayne could say things that Mal couldn't without giving offense... calling River a little demon or Inara a whore to name but two examples. Jayne was coarse and uneducated and there wasn't much to be done about it now even if he'd wanted to. Allowances were made. (Although 'democratically' suggested that River had been teaching him new words again)
She didn't admit the point aloud, of course. That would just encourage him.
"Simon! Kaylee!" Wash decided to deal with the situation by changing the subject, an idea Zoe approved of. "Come and help us get all the delicious real food to safety before someone loses control and begins snacking indiscriminately!"
Simon appeared from the direction of the infirmary, and Kaylee was coming down from the galley. "Wow, lookit all that green! Is that bok choy?"
"Yes, and Zoe says I have to share it. Quick, take it from me before my resolve weakens." Wash grinned, filling his arms with long loaves of fresh bread. "Mmm, smell that... I think the bread and I need to be alone..."
"You're going to make Zoe jealous if you keep that up." Kaylee giggled, reaching for the bundles of leafy green.
"Excuse me?" The voice was sweet and flawlessly modulated.
Everyone turned to the open cargo-door. River peeked up over her crate.
A slender woman stood there, wearing the discreet grey robes of a Mediator. Her lovely face was clear of cosmetics, her dark curling hair tied in a simple braid that hung over one shoulder. She was smiling, but it was a slightly shaky smile.
Mal stood there staring at her as if she were one of the angels he claimed to no longer believe in, come to escort him to a Heaven he was sure didn't exist.
She walked towards him, everyone frozen on the spot as they waited to see what would happen. "Captain Reynolds, I believe." Her smile widened and firmed up a little. "My name is Inara Serra, licensed Mediator and Counsellor. I understand that you have a shuttle available for rent."
Mal tried to respond in casual kind, but there was a disbelieving smile tugging at the corners of his mouth that he just couldn't shake. "Could be as I do. You interested?"
"I'd have to see it first, of course, but I'm hopeful that it will be what I'm looking for."
"But..." Kaylee shook her head slowly, as if not quite daring to believe it. "But you were a Companion..."
"Yes, I was. I retired not long ago." Inara looked around the gathered crew, smiling slowly. "It was a difficult step, but after thinking it over I decided that I needed to spend more time with my family."
Mal was still staring at her as if she'd fallen from Heaven when Simon stepped forward, grinning that lopsided little grin of his, and kissed Inara gently on the cheek. "It's good to see you, biao mei," he said gravely.
"It's good to see you too, biao xiong." Inara hugged him, returning the kiss affectionately. Then she turned, opening her arms to Kaylee. "And don't I get a kiss from you as well, mei mei?"
"Yes!" Kaylee ran over to hug her, crying happy tears. "Oh, 'Nara, we all missed you so bad!"
"I missed you too." Inara stroked Kaylee's hair, her lovely eyes full. Then she looked up at Mal, who just looked plain pole-axed after the kissing, and grinned a positively wicked grin. "Although I'm not sure about this man who you want me to take ship with. He looks disreputable."
"Oh, he is. Awfully." Simon glanced at Mal and smirked. "But he's not bad overall... looks out for his crew, for the most part. Keeps us all fed." He assumed a grave expression. "I should warn you, though, he's strongly opposed to any form of fraternization within the crew. I understand he was most annoyed when his second in command married his pilot."
"No shipboard romances, hm?" Inara was blushing a little, but she was still grinning. "Well, I'll keep that in mind."
"You do that." Simon had to have known about this. He was looking much too smug not to. "Why don't you have him show you the shuttle and fill you in on his other rules? You may decide you'd prefer to take ship with someone else."
"Well, perhaps... but all my people are here." Inara smiled, her arm still around Kaylee. "And someone has to keep you from force-feeding yourself your own feet."
Simon winced. "I do have a special gift in that area."
"Boy, do you ever." Kaylee grinned, ducking out of Inara's arm. "But go see the shuttle! It's all nice and tidy, 'cept for this trunk the Companion who used to rent it left in there."
"Really? I'm sure she didn't mean to leave anything behind." Inara met Mal's eyes, and Zoe could see Mal's chest inflate as if someone had pulled a string. "Still... maybe there's something useful in there."
"Maybe. Ah... would you care to see the shuttle? Make up your mind on an informed basis?" Mal's smile was back. "Maybe you could stay for dinner, too... we happen to have some fresh food on hand."
"That sounds delightful. I've been traveling for some time, and I'd enjoy a quiet meal."
Zoe was grinning as she watched them ascend the stairs, still maintaining the fiction but doing it less and less convincingly. When the shuttle door closed behind them, Zoe voiced her suspicions. "Doctor, did you happen to know something about this?"
Simon blushed, looking very sheepish. "Maybe a little..."
Kaylee punched his shoulder. "And you let me break my heart over her goin'!"
"She made me promise!" Simon rubbed his shoulder, wincing. "She wasn't sure, when she left, that she'd be coming back. She waved a few days ago - "
"She swore me to silence too. And she just had a quick word with Simon. I thought it must be about the trunk."
"She asked me where we'd be, and I told her." Simon shrugged. "She wanted it to be a surprise."
"And it's just the best surprise ever." Kaylee wiped her eyes on the sleeve of her coverall. "Shepherd, come on, we gotta make the best dinner ever to celebrate."
"I quite agree." Book smiled, loading himself up with fresh vegetables. "We will begin immediately."
Jayne strolled with what he probably thought was a casual air over to the crate River was sitting on top of again. "Was this what you meant about the big surprise that would skew up all the captain's plans?"
"Yes." River put her little nose in the air. "But he stole my breakfast, so I didn't tell him anything good was going to happen."
Zoe didn't think anyone else saw River extend her arms to the big merc, or saw Jayne catch her under the arms and lift her down off the crate as easily as a child. "How come you can always get up on things on your own, but you need someone else to get you down?"
"The cat in the tree cries for rescue not because she cannot climb down, but because she fears that she will fall." River smiled up at him. "Did you bring carrots?"
Jayne fished one out of his pocket and handed it to her.
Zoe was all manner of disturbed by this. Still, Mal insisted, so she'd keep it to herself for now.
"So, this is... uh... the shuttle." Mal was grateful for the fiction of a first meeting. It was the only thing keeping him from embarrassing himself horribly. "Looks a little disreputable, I'll grant you, but it's reliable where it counts."
"So I understand." Inara smiled at him, then frowned, looking around. "Why does it smell like something died in here?"
"Well, maybe 'cause something did. Uh. It was shut up for a couple weeks, and a rat couldn't get out, and... you could sleep in the guest-quarters while it airs out. No extra charge."
"I think I'll have to." Inara wrinkled her pretty nose. "Still, it seems sturdy enough. And having a licensed Mediator on board would certainly add some respectability to this... operation."
"That it would." He couldn't maintain the fiction any more. "Inara, why..." He stuck there. There were so many whys that he couldn't pick one to force past the others.
"I told you. Because I decided that my place was with my family." She looked away. "Mal, I didn't do this because of you, I want you to know that."
He blinked, his heart sinking. "Well, no, I didn't think as you did..." He had hoped. Oh, he had hoped. But he hadn't dared to believe it.
"Simon and I talked it over..."
"Yes, Simon. Who understands better than most how difficult it is to set your life's work aside." Inara ran a gentle hand over the back of the pilot's seat. "He told me that I should consider not what I should do, but what I could live with sacrificing. He gave up his career because he couldn't live without his sister. I gave up mine because I couldn't remain on Serenity as a Companion, but the thought of harm coming to any of my family when I wasn't here and couldn't help them was too painful to bear. If Kaylee were shot again, you or Wash captured and tortured again, River taken away again... I'd never forgive myself."
Mal nodded slowly, some of the tension caused by Simon's name easing. "They're your crew."
"No, they're my family. Although you've always used the words interchangeably." Inara smiled at him. "I'll be renting the shuttle, as before. I'll act as an ambassador of sorts, although I don't anticipate quite as enthusiastic a reception as I had as a Companion. I'll be able to work on a wider variety of worlds, now, although I won't be able to pay quite as high a rent."
"Forget the rent."
"No." Inara shook her head. "Mal... I have given up everything to try to make a new life for myself. Before... anything else... I need to know that I can succeed at that life without help from you or anyone else. I need to know if I can still be independent."
"Can't argue with that." Mal looked away, his throat tightening a little at this new, vulnerable side to Inara that she'd never let him see before. "Of course, could give you a little break on the rent if you're willing to service the crew. Got a little crazy person maybe could use some counseling, and there's a fair few arguments could stand mediation at times."
"I'll consider it." When he looked back, her smile was warm and sincere. "Mal... let's just see how this works."
"Sounds good." He smiled back, not sure if it was entirely steady. "I know Kaylee missed you."
"I missed her too."
"She kept going on about how empty the ship felt without you."
"I'm sure she did."
"She's been moping something awful."
"I've been a bit unsettled myself."
"Yes. Well." Mal cleared his throat. "You got any baggage you need to move in?"
"A great deal, actually." Inara grinned. "You know I prefer to furnish the place myself."
"And a fine job you do of it." Mal grinned. "Let's get it all moved into the hold for now. When the air's cleared out in here, Jayne'll carry it all up for you."
"The captain is happy." River had followed Wash up to the cockpit, enjoying his contented calm. "But confused."
"Well, can't blame him there." Wash smiled at her. "Are you glad Inara's back?"
"The ship isn't orange any more."
"And I will choose to take that as a yes. Want to play with the dinosaurs?"
"Yes." River picked up a raptor, smiling. The little squeaky voice she gave it didn't always entirely make sense, but the other dinosaurs talked back anyway. A triceratops tried to dance with it, and wound up giving it a dinosaur-back ride instead because they were different sizes.
She went to sleep in the co-pilot's chair, and later Wash carried her back to her room. She could feel how much he enjoyed it, how it made him think that maybe Zoe was right about having babies, so she pretended to stay asleep. But it wasn't the same as Jayne, her stone-man with his warm purples inside, and she couldn't go to sleep again when Wash carried her.
Instead, she thought about Jayne, and wondered why she liked him so much. She hadn't before. But then he'd put a knife in her hands and set her on her feet, and she'd realized that his distance was his armour and that he wanted to arm her. (Puns are the lowest form of humour and yet they have persisted longer than almost any other - a conundrum.) Jayne was stone and purple and hardened leather over a beating heart. Jayne took broken pieces and made them into shining wholes that danced a deadly dance. He was funny, especially when he wasn't trying to be.
He liked her. He thought she was a brat, and annoying sometimes, but he'd let her sidle in under his shell and put a leathery claw around her - not a stone after all, but a tortoise, all slow-deep thoughts and hardness with little warm curls deep inside the shell.
After Wash had tucked her into bed, smoothing her hair with a gentle hand, River reached out to touch Jayne's mind (beyond dreams now and into the deepest part of his sleep-cycle), and let it lull her back to sleep.
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)