TITLE: Shiny's in the Smile

SUMMARY: She looks down at the apple, and smiles quietly, but it ain't enough; Mal can't see it in her eyes, and that's where he likes it most. Set directly after "The Message". One-shot.

INSPIRATION: Damn it all, but I just love the cute friendship between Mal and Kaylee. Can't help myself. This is just a little snapshot of it, my little view of it.

NOTES: Any Chinese I employ in this short little piece are phrases that've been used on the show, as I've no idea how to speak it myself, so don't shoot me on the nuances, please. Translations can be found at the bottom.

He hears her in her hammock, the light rustle in the engine room that means she ain't where she ought to be. For the gorram life of him, he don't know why she keeps that hammock in the engine room when she's got a perfectly fine bunk all decorated with her flowers and lights and the other shinies she likes so much. She's explained it to him, but it don't make much sense, really. Little Kaylee figures Serenity's her lullaby, and she ain't got no connection to anything so much as she got a connection to that ship.

Simon hasn't managed to say a damn thing to repair the rift between him and Kaylee. That hand-holding business down on the world looks like a bit of a show after seeing their silence during dinner, but mayhap that's just the Doc's way. Ain't Kaylee's way, though. His mei-mei puts it all out there in the open.

He reckons he wouldn't do this for any of the other crew, but Kaylee ain't just crew to him, ain't never will be. She didn't serve under him in no war, she ain't hangin' round just for the money, she don't have no mysterious agenda. She's just there for Serenity, just like him.

She been through a bit too much today, though. And didn't eat much, so he's got the few fresh provisions left to them, and he's going to get a smile out of his girl if it takes all night. Strawberries would be a nice touch, but they don't get many of them, and that winter on St. Albans didn't leave room for much of anything in the way of fruit, but there's some apples that Tracey's family handed out to 'em, and they look well enough.

She's swaying in her hammock, her eyes on Serenity's engine. She looks a little too somber to be his Kaylee. She glances up at the sound of his footsteps, and a tired smile twitches the corners of her mouth before it falls apart.

"Hey, Cap'n," she greets, but it ain't much in the way of her usual cheerfulness.

"Bit late for you to be up, bao bei," he tells her, propping himself on the floor with his back to the engine room wall, facing her. His hand nudges up and gives the hammock a gentle push, as it's at risk of coming to a stop. Her lips don't quirk up again, even at the pet name, her eyes remaining dark.

"Can't sleep. Was talkin' with Serenity." She reaches out to touch the metal of the ship, her fingers stroking along it fondly.

"Can't eat, can't sleep…somethin's botherin' you, little Kaylee." He tosses the apple up in his hand and holds it out to her. She hesitates.

"Already ate my share, Cap'n."

"Fei hua," he snorts. "You didn't touch it at dinner."

She doesn't look at him. "Wasn't hungry, much. Still ain't."

"You will be, once you take a bite." He leans forward, takes her hand, and places the apple in it. "Eat it. That's an order, dong ma? Can't have my mechanic dyin' of starvation."

She looks down at the apple, and smiles quietly, but it ain't enough; Mal can't see it in her eyes, and that's where he likes it most.

"Don't know why you always act so harsh, Cap'n. You ain't nothin' but a big softie." She lifts the apple to her mouth and takes a big bite.

"I ain't. I'm a mean old man." But he smiles at her—a little one, but he don't smile at all, usually; she gets the nicest bit of him, and that's just how it is.

"Nah, Cap'n. You're real nice. Just pretendin' otherwise, is all." She stares at the apple, clearly still unhappy.

He gives her hammock another gentle push. "Tell me what's botherin' ya, little Kaylee."

She bites her lip, and then, as though it takes some force of will, takes another bite out of the apple. "Just Tracey dyin', I reckon. Don' seem right. He was just nervous, was all."

"Always thinkin' the best of people, mei-mei. He had it comin', messin' with our Kaylee."

She shrugs, still lookin' at the apple. "Shouldn't've been in the way."

"No, Kaylee girl." His hand keeps the hammock going now, tryin' to soothe her. "Weren't your fault. Don't think it for a second."

She stays quiet, but takes another bite, at least. He can tell she's starting to come out of this mood; she can't help but lick the sugary juice from her lips.

"Ain't just that, is it, mei-mei?" he presses quietly.

She bites her lip, teeth digging into the soft flesh, and gives a quiet sniff. "Sorry, Cap'n. Just a little worn down, is all. Feelin' a little low."

"Always a cause for you feelin' low, though, ain't there," he says gently.

"'Spect you don't wanna hear 'bout it, Cap'n. Bit silly of me, I reckon."

"'Spect I'll always wanna hear 'bout what's botherin' you, s'long as I can do somethin' to fix it." She shakes her head of tangled brown hair, certain strands gleaming more golden or red in the light from the engine room. "It's the Doc, innit it?"

Another sniff. "He just don't notice me none, seems like."

"How could any man not notice you, bao bei?"

"I ain't pretty."

He raises his eyebrows. She looks up at his silence, her eyes glimmering with tears, not meeting his but wandering past his face to look at the engine. The quiet presses on for a few seconds, and he finally says, quietly, "I'm waitin' on you to apologize to yourself."

"It's true, Cap'n. I'm just…plain. Me and my mechanicin' and my grease." She reaches up to tuck some of her hair behind her ear. He wonders how she can't see it.

"Ain't true. You're the prettiest girl in the 'verse."

Her eyebrows furrow. "Only girl in the 'verse, accordin' to Simon. Seein' as Serenity's our world, and every other girl is married or professional or closely related." There's less despair, and a little more anger. He's getting there.

"Doc gets a bit tongue-tied, is all. Ain't used to someone as genuine as you."

Her warm brown eyes finally meet his, a question in them.

"You're just shiny, mei-mei. Covered in engine grease or all dressed up in that layered pink cake." He gets a little smile at that. He knows she likes the memory. "And you're shiny all the way through. Pretty don't even cover it. Prettiest girl on this boat, for damn sure."

"Nah. 'Nara's—"

"It's Inara's trade to be pretty. Don't mean nothin' like the way your shiny does. Your smile lights up a room. Lights us all up. It's genuine, like. Doc'll come around." He squeezes her foot to reassure her, and he gets his reward; she's smiling, and it lights up her eyes, and it does light up the whole room. The whole damn ship, in fact. Even though one tear has fallen, and traces over the curve of her cheek, she's smiling. He gets to his feet.

"Thanks, Cap'n."

He leans down, his hand cupping her cheek, and presses a kiss to her forehead. "Don't lose any more sleep over it, bao bei. And eat the rest of that apple. I better find it picked to the core in the mornin'."

"Yes, sir." It's in her voice, infectious; she's herself again, and out in the black, that keeps Mal steady more'n anything in this 'verse does.

mei-mei - little sister

bao bei - darling

fei hua - bullshit

dong ma - understand?