((Please note that Firefly and all related materials are owned by Joss.))
Chapter One: Leihuang
Leihuang was an oddity out on the rim. While most planets that had been terraformed were dry as dust and barely suitable for cattle ranching, Leihuang, it seemed, was the dumping ground for all the water that didn't settle elsewhere. It was known for a rainy season that was more than three quarters of the year long, and a lush green rainforest— the kind that was impossible to farm in and bred more spiders, snakes and other unpleasant critters than anywhere else in the 'verse.
To see the sun on Leihuang was considered a blessing, and today it was shining through the leaves and down on the Serenity. For the roving crew of the Firefly class ship a lucky sign was a rare thing indeed. They could certainly use more of them.
Jayne, Mal and Zoe were talking to a less-than-charming looking group of fellows, trying to exchange some goods they had scavenged recently for fuel. Their last heist had gone extremely well—for several platinum hours they had been living the high life. Then the Captain had been kidnapped, the loot stolen, and they'd returned to their daily routine of barely scraping by. Kaylee and Wash were observing the goings-on, and getting a well-deserved breath of fresh air.
"How you think it's going over there?" Kaylee chirped. "Captain's been talking an awful long time."
Wash chortled. "Well, if the guns haven't come out by now, I'd say we're in decent shape. Clearly his jing chai people skills are winning the locals over." The pilot shook his head. "Hopefully Inara and Book are having better luck in the actual town."
"Wish Simon'd come out with us," Kaylee muttered. "This is an awfully pretty place."
"Yes, indeed," Wash nodded his head sagely. "Pretty hot, pretty humid, and pretty—chui sei!—buggy." He swatted a mosquito away from his arm. They'd been all over him since he'd stepped out of the cargo bay.
"Aw, but lookit! All this green. . . S'like a city made of emerald," Kaylee smiled. "You know," she turned to him, grinning, "that'd make a right shiny story—a city of emerald."
Wash paused for a moment, contemplating this. "Well, even so, I am going to return to the cockpit where I won't e eaten to death by a minute army of insects."
"They probably think your shirt is pretty," the mechanic said, nodding towards the brightly colored Hawaiian pattern.
Wash looked down at the garment, plucking at the sleeves. "Honestly, you'd think the flowers would attract bees, not mosquitoes." He paused for a moment. "On second thought, I'm glad that isn't the case. The merits of my wardrobe aside, I think I'm going to get the ship ready for a hasty retreat, just in case negotiations turn into a fiasco. . . as per usual."
"M'sure it won't. Captain knows what he's doing," Kaylee said with sweet optimism. "An' you sure you don't want more sun? Don't know when we'll see it next."
Wash glanced briefly up at the golden orb and shook his head. "I think I prefer the deserty-dry sun as opposed to the uncomfortably-hot-shower sun. Give me a nice temp-controlled cockpit any day." He patted Kaylee on the shoulder. "Tell you what, I'll see if I can send the good Doctor out here to keep you company in my stead."
Her grin spread from ear to ear. "Yeah? Think he'll come?"
"With a kuh ai girl like you sweating out here in this heat? He'd have to be a eunuch to stay away." His eyes glinted with mischief. Kaylee blushed slightly. "I'll try my best for you," he added with a smile.
"That'd be shiny," Kaylee said, bouncing on the balls of her feet. "Meantime I'll make sure Zoe don't get into no trouble for you."
Wash snickered. "She's the one who gets them--" he nodded at Jayne and Mal, "-out of trouble, remember?"
"Ain't that the truth," Kaylee laughed.
Wash left the cheerful mechanic behind as he strolled casually through the cargo bay, scratching absentmindedly at a red lump on his hand. "Poor girl," He mumbled to himself "Completely moonbrained over that boy and he can't take a hint." He looked down at his skin and noticed that there were several identical red lumps on both his arms, and he could feel another on his neck. "Ta ma duh," he hissed. These were going to annoy him for days. What right did those bugs have to use him as a tavern?
"Madness comes on crystal-paper wings. Gotta be good, or he won't be able to concentrate."
Wash jumped when River appeared in front of him. A quick stream of Chinese and English expletives escaped his lips. "Where'd you come from?"
River stared at him, wide-eyed. "After the sperm met the egg, the fetus spent nine months incubating in the uterus. . ."
"Ah, mei mei! There you are!" Simon rushed over, looking stressed and thankfully interrupting River's explanation. "No more hide and seek today, okay?" her brother scolded her gently. "I'm all worn out."
"Seeking. . .hiding. . . relative terms," River mumbled. "If I'm not hiding, you can't be seeking. Wasn't going anywhere."
Wash suspected that their brief foray into the world of the rich and famous had reminded the doctor of how much he had sacrificed for the odd creature that used to be his perfectly clever little sister. Still, as Simon protectively wrapped his arms around River's shoulders, the pilot knew that even if the doctor had been given a do-over, he'd give it all up for her again in a heartbeat. It probably helped that there was a charming girl who was completely sweet on him on the ship, whether or not Simon wanted to acknowledge any feelings for Kaylee, Wash was pretty sure they were there. Still, between patching the crew up after their various escapades and making sure River didn't accidentally hurt herself or someone else, Dr. Tam probably got the least time to relax out of all of them. . . except, of course, Mal.
"Hey, Doc, why don't you get some fresh jungle air?" Wash said, interrupting Simon as he softly chided his sister for running off. "I can watch River for a bit, show her the ship's controls. Would you like that?" he asked the dark-haired girl.
River smiled dreamily at him and nodded. Simon, on the other hand, shook his head.
"I—I don't think that's such a good idea. She could start flipping switches or poking buttons. . ."
"Promise I won't," River piped up. "I'll be a good girl. Sit and watch," she insisted.
"See? Wash thumped Simon on the back. "No button-poking. Go on out there and talk with Kaylee for a bit. Girl's got all sorts of crazy notions on how nice this planet is, and she wants you to see it."
Simon hesitated. River had seemed better lately overall, but her condition was constantly in flux. As for Kaylee, well, they hadn't really spoken since. . . since Jubal Early. After the bounty hunter had been sent out into the black Kaylee had started avoiding him. When he'd enter a room, she'd disappear from it. She was never in the engine room when he sought her out. As for her room. . . he didn't want to intrude on her privacy, so he stayed out. When she'd finally stopped being so skittish things had gotten busy on the ship and he hadn't had time for more than a passing "hello." There were things he wanted to say to her, to explain that nothing that had happened with Early had been her fault in any way—he just hadn't had the chance to.
He was startled out of his thoughts by a sharp kick to his shin. "Move it, boob," River insisted.
Simon frowned at his sister. "How is it you're perfectly fine when you feel like being a brat?"
River didn't answer, she just smiled at him and started dancing away towards the stairs. Simon shook his head and Wash laughed. "Well, there you go!" the pilot smiled. "Enjoy your time off." He trotted after River, making sure the girl didn't pirouette into trouble.
Alone now in the cargo bay, Simon could see Kaylee's silhouette and started walking towards her. He was trying to think of something to say, but the words just weren't coming. He found himself standing next to her, clearing his throat, and forgetting how to speak in English and Chinese when she turned to him, eyes flashing with excitement, and grabbed his arm.
"Shhh! Look up there!" she pointed up at the trees. "See the bird? Ain't he just the most handsome fellow you ever did see?"
Simon had to wrench his eyes away from her enthusiastic smile to see where she was pointing. "That's a Lear's Macaw," he said, observing the indigo-hued avain. "They were very rare on Ancient Earth, and people often mistook them for Hyacinth Macaws, which were more abundant, but a little bigger and a darker blue."
Kaylee raised an eyebrow. "Yeah? How can you be sure he ain't a Hy-a-cinth?" she very carefully mimicked his pronunciation of the word, teasing him ever-so-slightly. "He looks pretty blue t' me."
"Well," Simon traced the outline of the bird with his finger. "Lear's Macaws are more metallic looking, have a different body structure, and the two yellow patches on their cheeks are a different shape then the Hyacinth's," he explained.
Kaylee looked at him, both eyebrows raised. "I'm impressed Dr. Tam. You sure you're a people-doctor and not a vet?"
Simon's eyes drifted back from the macaw to Kaylee. She was still latched onto his left arm, and her eyes sparkled up at him with curiosity. He couldn't help but smile nervously and rub his finger behind his ear. "Actually, there was a zoo on Osiris that River used to love, and it had a menagerie filled with tropical birds. Our parents used to take us there—what?" Kaylee's expression had changed into a pout. "Did I say something--?" He thought over the words that had just come from his mouth. Was there an insulting phrase in there? Osiris. River. Zoo. He couldn't think of anything.
Luckily for him it seemed that Kaylee was just playing at being hurt. "Only birds I ever got to see growin' up were buzzards," she said wistfully. Simon breathed a sigh of relief and Kaylee punched him lightly on the shoulder. "Seems even the wildlife was fancier where you come from. "
There was regret and a twinge of jealously in her voice that Simon felt the need to disarm. "They weren't actually wild per se. . ." he started, but he rethought that tactic and restarted in a different vein. "Do you know why male birds are so much fancier than the females?"
"They came from better breedin'?" Kaylee said somewhat darkly.
Simon shook his head quickly. "Because they feel the need to be perfect to attract their ideal mate." Kaylee looked skeptical, so he jumped into a further explanation. "See, the females aren't dull because of any difference in where they come from, they just have nothing to prove—they're inherently desirable. It's the males that need to make their worth apparent—so they dress up." The mechanic stared up at him with fascination in her eyes. . . which very thinly veiled something else that the doctor couldn't identify. At that, the Lear macaw spread its wingspan to the fullest and Simon nodded at the bird. "See? He's trying to impress you."
Kaylee didn't bother turning to see, just smiled at Simon wryly. "That so?' she asked as she fingered his golden vest.
Simon very quickly realized that somewhere along the line he'd lost all control of this conversation.
"Ow!" Kaylee jumped suddenly, breaking the contact, and swatted at her neck. "Looks like with Wash back on the ship I'm the mosquitoes new target of choice," she said ruefully. She looked at the hand she'd nailed the bug with, made a tiny face and wiped it on the knee of her jumpsuit.
Simon, still trying to figure out exactly what had been happening moments before, was relieved to hear the mule pull up with Book and Inara on board. He and Kaylee stepped out of their way so that they could pull the vehicle into the cargo bay, where it grumbled to a halt. Book got out first and walked over to where Inara was sitting, offering her a hand. The companion graciously accepted his help, though it didn't appear she needed it, since she descended from the mule with her typical grace.
"Hey you two!!" Kaylee trotted over to the mule. "Didja see the—" She glanced back over her shoulder to the tree where the macaw had been resting, but it had flown away. "Oh, well," she sighed.
Simon trailed up behind Kaylee and glanced at the two small bags I nthe back of the mule. "Do you need help with anything?" he asked Book. "It—it doesn't look like much."
"Sadly, it isn't," the Shepard sighed.
Inara shook her head. "There wasn't much of a town. Apparently those gentleman pretty much own everything of value on this planet." She nodded towards the five men who Mal was still trying to negotiate with. "Have they been talking all this time?"
"Yep," Kaylee replied.
Inara's eyebrows perked up for just a moment. "It's amazing no one's been shot ," she observed. "Then again, the day is still young; I'm sure Mal can managed to start a gunfight yet."
Book chuckled very slightly, taking up the two bags from the back of the mule himself. "Hopefully not. We may have enough food here to get somewhere else, but it's doubtful we have enough fuel."
"Ain't that the truth," the mechanic sighed. "S'wonder the Captain gets away with treatin' this ship the was he does. She must like him something fierce."
"Or Serenity has a wonderful caretaker who can manage to undue the damage he inflicts upon her," Book countered. Kaylee blushed slightly at the compliment, waving it off. "Mind you," he added, "I don't think the Captain abuses the ship as much as he could. I think he's well aware of her limits.
"He gets along better with ships than people," Simon said under his breath. Kaylee heard him and frowned.
"Now that ain't true. The Captain just has a different way of showin' affection than most," she insisted. "Look," she stood on her tip-toes and pointed over Simon's shoulders. "He even sorted everything out all peaceful-like with the locals."
Somewhat surprised, Simon, Inara and Book turned to observe the Captain, Jayne and Zoe returning peacefully to the ship, without a single round being fired at them.
"Lurn shwei jah jwohn," Malcolm Renyolds swore. "What we were offerin' was worth three times what they're gonna give us in exchange. Coulda at least been decent enough to throw in a little more." He swatted at a mosquitoes buzzing through the air. "Merciless bloodsuckers."
"The bugs, sir?" Zoe asked.
"I think you know full well I ain't talking 'bout no bugs," Mal retorted. "Though I am still talkin' 'bout vermin."
"I don't see no reason not t' shoot them an' just take the goods," Jayne grumbled. "Don't like bein' ripped off much."
"Not like we had much of a choice," Zoe said smartly. "Leihuang's out in the middle of nowhere here in the black, and the Shen family," she tilted her head in the direction of the retreating men, "own everything of worth, so they can charge what they want and get away with it. It's one of many very good reasons people don't stop here—make sure they fuel up plenty on Regina."
Mal grunted, "We ain't having this argument again, Zoe, dun mah?"
Zoe rolled her eyes behind his back. "Yes, sir. Just reflecting on our newfound knowledge which might help us some in the future, sir." That final word had a slightly amused and annoyed edge to it.
Mal muttered something under his breath in Chinese as they joined up with the rest of the crew members in the cargo bay. He addressed Book and Inara first. "Glad you two made it back safe and sound. Hope you got a better deal than we did." He eyed the Shepard's bags. "Don't look like it though."
"People in town need what they have," Book said. "But it's enough for now. I was just going to the kitchen to unpack it."
"I'll give ya a hand," Jayne said. "There's a stink to those Shens, an' I don't wanna deal with them when they come back." He took the bags from the Shepard before Book could protest. Mal gave Book an encouraging nod. The last thing they needed was Jayne and his temper when the Shens returned with the fuel. Things had gone smooth, if a little tense so far, and all he really wanted was off this damn rock. Jayne and Book ascended the stairs, chatting quietly.
"Kaylee, Doc," Mal nodded to them in turn. He took note of the fact that it appeared that the two had been talking for an extended period of time and Kaylee was still blessedly cheerful. That meant the conversation had managed to go well; the Doc hadn't stuck his foot in it like he was prone to. He did look a little uneasy, which made the Captian curious. Exactly how well had the conversation gone? He examined his mechanic. Not as well as she would have liked, Mal guessed. She didn't yet have that cat-with-the-canary look, and the doctors fine clothes and hair weren't mussed up any. Come to think of it, when was the last time those two had spoken for more than a few seconds? Not in a while, if he recalled correctly. Damn. He'd been hoping li'l Kaylee would have been over the core-bred boy by now, leaving Mal with the "toss him out the airlock" option the next time Simon did something stupid. While Kaylee was all hung up on him that wasn't going to happen. After all, it'd make Kaylee mighty upset.
There was on person very conspicuously missing from the doctor's side, which Mal immediately noted. "Where's your sister?" His eyes scanned the bay for a telltale wisp of black hair.
"Wash is looking after her," Simon said. "Said I should get some air and offered to show her the ship's controls. . ."
There was a moment of silence that fell upon the group.
"I think I'm gonna go check on them sir," Zoe said.
"Yeah. You go do that," Mal encouraged her.
Zoe walked off at a decent pace, slightly faster then a walk but not quite a jog. Simon's fists balled slightly, but he sighed and let it go. He had to admit to himself that they had a right to be concerned. He felt a soft touch on his arm and turned his head to see Kaylee giving him a sad little smile.
"They don't mean nothin' by it," she said softly. "They're just. . ."
"I know," Simon put a hand over hers. "I really do. . . I wish they—we—didn't have to be. . ."
Inara and Mal glanced quickly at each other as they listened to the soft exchange. Mal shifted, frowned, and Inara rolled her eyes and spoke first.
"She seems like she's been much better lately," the Companion said encouragingly. She shot the captian a look.
Mal inclined his head slightly towards Simon. "Settin' aside the unpleasantness beforehand, when that mi tian gohn invaded my boat she handled herself well enough."
Kaylee's grip on Simon's arm tightened ever-so-slightly. Her smile was frozen in place for a fraction of a second, then she quickly said, "So, captain, when are we getting a move-on?"
Inara and Simon noticed the way her voice cracked briefly at the end. Mal, who had walked over to shut the cargo bay door for the time being, missed it. "Soon as the Shens come back with the fuel. Couple hours, maybe."
"I should run a full diagnostic while we're still grounded," Kaylee said quickly, breaking away from Simon and all but fleeing the room.
Mal's brows knit together. "Now what in the hell has gotten into her?"
Inara shook her head and hissed something unflattering in the captain's direction. Kaylee had confided in her everything that had happened during the incident with Jubal Early and swore the companion to secrecy. The young mechanic had done a very good job hiding how upset the whole thing had made her, but the fact that she actually made Inara verbally pledge her silence gave everything away. Kaylee knew full well that nothing she said in confidence to the Companion would ever leave that shuttle. Kaylee never had to ask for Inara to keep quiet over personal matters.
"Inara could you. . ." Simon began, paused and rubbed behind his ear, then repeated. "Could you look after River for a bit if Wash needs a break? I have—I have something I need to attend to."
Inara nodded at Simon. "Of course," she said graciously.
Mal looked between the two of them curiously. He'd happened to run across Simon leaving Inara's shuttle during their last heist and wondered exactly what had gone on. Everything appeared to be normal with them, but it was still curious.
Simon didn't even finish saying "Thank you," to Inara before he was heading towards the engine room. Mal snorted once he was out of earshot.
"Shipboard romances don't work," he grunted.
Inara rolled her eyes. "Of course they don't. Zoe and Wash are just miserable."
"Exception to the rule," Mal retorted. "Gotta be one."
Inara shook her head. "I'll be in my shuttle. Please let me know if River requires looking-after." She turned on her heels and clicked out of the room.
Alone in the cargo bay, Mal folded his arms. "Well," he said, "That's pretty much how this whole damn day's been."
"Kaylee?" Simon called softly into the engine room. "Are you—do you need any help?"
He could see her legs poking out from under the engine, and heard a very muffled, "Nope, I'm fine, thanks," that sounded to his ears like it meant exactly the opposite. He rolled his sleeves up and got down on his knees, peering under the heart of the ship, but still couldn't quite see the mechanic's face.
"Listen, Kaylee. . .I've been meaning to talk to you," Simon started. "About. . .about things I've said in the past and about what happened with Early. . ." Kaylee made a noise he couldn't quite make out. "What?" Simon leaned closer.
"I said, I'm workin'. Please go away." Her hand reached out and pulled a wrench underneath the engine with her. Simon opened his mouth, shut it again, and pulled himself back to his feet.
"I'm sorry, obviously this is a bad time," he said stiffly. "Maybe we can talk tomorrow."
"Sure," came the distant and unenthusiastic reply. Simon's featured wrinkled in irritation, but he didn't say anything more; he simply left the room.
As soon as she could no longer hear his footsteps, Kaylee began sobbing again. She'd been trying her best to forget how afraid she had been when Early had taken the ship, but it kept rushing back to her. Every time she heard an unexpected noise in the engine room she jumped, and her heart flew into her throat. The captain's mere mention of the man had caused her to see Early's face every time her eyes closed. She wanted the fear to stop, she wanted to be able to sleep soundly in her hammock in the engine room again, but so far she couldn't sleep anywhere without feeling someone creeping into the ship just behind her. She hated herself for that. She hated herself more for practically shoving Simon out of the door. In truth, all she wanted this very moment was him to hold her until she cried all her fears away.
That wasn't going to happen. She'd have to deal with this on her own. After all, the rest of the crew was okay. Kaylee wanted to be stronger, wanted to be "okay" on her own too; she didn't realize that when it came right down to it, it was because each other that they were able to push past these things. If she had, she would have understood why it hurt so damn much and wouldn't go away.
Simon was hurt, or rather, his feelings were. Physically he was in tip-top shape, as a doctor he made sure of that. Had he said something that would have made Kaylee upset? Not really, he hadn't gotten to say much of anything at all. The more he thought he might understand the mechanic, the more he realized he really didn't.
He was heading towards Inara's shuttle to check and see if River had been brought there before heading up to the cockpit and checking there. He didn't have to go far. Inara was walking River towards her quarters when Simon ran into them.
Inara's eyes widened in surprise. "Simon! I didn't expect you to be back so quickly."
"Gives up too easy," River scowled at him. "Soon as things go wrong, he waves the white coat."
"Kaylee was busy," Simon said, mostly to Inara, but trying to convince himself. "And I should run some more tests on River, see how her neural activity had been lately."
"See?" River said insistently. "Wave, wave, wave." She flapped her arms.
"Please River," Simon said gently, taking her softly by the arm. "You've been very good lately and maybe I can use some scans to pinpoint why."
"I've been helping," the girl shook his hand off. "Very good lately to help, but you're refusing it. Not very nice. Gonna be scared. Already scared, but more will be, 'specially the Captain. Won't show it though," She puffed herself up, "None of it means a damn thing." She relaxed again. "Thought he was scared with the last invader. This'll be worse."
Simon's expression switched from irritation to fear then quickly to a mix of distress and concern. River rolled her eyes at him.
"Worried about a relapse. Still better, you're just not listening," she said very calmly. "Everything starts simple and becomes complicated. Especially when it was all simple to being with." River danced just out of his reach and started lightly walking towards the infirmary. Simon stared at her, completely mystified. How could anyone have taken his practically perfect little sister and abuse her until she was turned into a girl who spoke in riddles and nonsense? How cold and hard would their hearts have to be?
"Meimei. . ." Simon walked after her, wrapping his arms around her shoulders again.
"Tests, tests, I know. Only ones I can't ace," she pouted.
"If you need any help, let me know" Inara offered.
"Of course. Thank you," Simon said quickly, distracted by River pulling away from him again.
Inara watched them go and said to the air, "The men on this ship. . . not even a hammer could crack their skulls."