What Begins with an Apple, Part 1a

What begins with an apple must end with a horse.

A/N: (Rather long, I know, but this is the beginning of a rather lengthy fic, so all things in proportion.)

Chinese words in text are translated in the glossary at the end of the chapter. In this story, there's also some Latin and Greek, and a little bit of Russian, Japanese, and Gaelic. These, too, are translated in the glossary.

Rating: My stories are typically K+ to T. You will not find detailed descriptions of blood, gore, and sex, but you will find situations appropriate for mature readers, innuendo, implication, and (gasp) swear words. This story is rated T overall, mostly on account of its sexual innuendo content. No explicit sex scenes.

Pun Warning: I feel obliged to add a pun warning to this story, as I may in fact have exceeded the legal limit. (This chapter is relatively pun-free. But it will get much, much better (worse?) before the end of the story.) For those averse to punning: Duck and cover!

Time frame: I'd like to note that the time frame covered by this entire story is 4 ½ days. Keep this in mind, as it will take much, much longer than five days to post this story.

I'd like to thank my wonderful beta readers, my sister and Bytemite, for taking the time to read this entire story in raw form, and for their many helpful comments and suggestions. (And in the case of my sister, thanks for reading the story in a much rawer form, asking questions, demanding answers, and provoking a thorough re-write which led—some 30,000 words later—to many improvements.) I want to thank my sister for specific additions to certain scenes of this story (particularly some involving Simon, Ip, and the Operative), and Bytemite for very useful feedback and discussions of other scenes (especially those involving Mal, Inara, and a special guest). I'd also like to thank my friend Julie, who acted as Official Fowl Consultant and Chicken Wrangler for this story. Also, thanks to my daughter, who read the opening line of this story on my computer and made a comment that turned into one of Jayne's lines in this chapter.

Phew! Oh, so you want an actual story? And here I thought you were reading this just because you love my author's notes so much. ;-)

What begins with an apple must end with a horse.

"What begins with an apple must end with a horse."

River's pronouncement was met with puzzled silence.

Most of the crew was gathered around the dining room table. The Captain was still out cold in his bunk, recovering from what all agreed had been a very stressful day on Beaumonde. They were flying undisturbed through the Black now, headed toward Beaumonde's Trojan planet Hektor to deliver two crates of live chickens before flying on to their final destination of Bernadette. The events of the last twenty-four hours had left everyone aboard distressed, exhausted, injured, or traumatized. Simon had discovered his own face and River's staring out at him from a missing persons bulletin—he was wanted in connection with the "disappearance" of a missing child, his own sister. Kaylee had discovered that someone had attempted to sabotage Serenity, complete with a booby trap set to blow up anyone who tried to fix the damage. River and Ip had had a close call with the Hands of Blue, and avoided kidnapping or assassination only because Ip had recognized one of the Blue Hands as a man who owed him a favor. River had killed the other Blue Hand in his moment of distraction, but he had spoken most of the safeword phrase, putting her into an incoherent state. Simon had been obliged to sedate her. Mal and Zoe were ambushed on the way back from a meet, with Zoe hit squarely in the chest and saved only by her body armor. Inara, too, had had a bad day, as her physically stressed body tried to deal with great emotional distress that was not lessened by her knowledge that much of it could have been avoided, had she chosen differently. Ip, Simon, and Jayne had loaded a massive amount of cargo double time, and only Jayne was not suffering from the physical effects of the unexpected workout. The Captain had, in the last twenty-four hours, negotiated two deals through to closing, obtained a lead on a fence for the illegal cargo he was carrying, fought a gun battle, field-dressed Zoe's injuries, carried her all the way back to the ship, assisted in the infirmary, commanded the crew through a crisis, defused a detonator, loaded cargo, and piloted the ship in a hasty departure with worries of pursuit by the Blue Hands, the Feds, and the unknown attackers. Then he collapsed in a heap in his bunk. No one expected to see him up and about before noon.

"What's that s'posed to mean?" Jayne demanded around the large chunk of apple in his mouth.

"What begins with an apple," River repeated, bobbling her head like a Delphic oracle strung out on oblatory incense, "must end with a horse."

Ip and Simon stared at each other. Ip had learned by now that many of River's strange pronouncements contained kernels of truth—for those who could follow the meaning. At the moment he couldn't see it at all, and he could tell that Simon was still thinking it through. The only connection he could see was the bowl of apples in the center of the table. All of the crew—those present anyway—were partaking of the fruit. He absently reached for an apple and felt the muscles in his back spasm, while his arm muscles complained in the aftermath of their unexpected workout. As for horses—all he could think of, in his current state of mind, was: (A) there were no horses in space, and (B) didn't somebody say something like that years ago?

"It's clear enough what it means," Simon began, and Ip and Jayne turned equally confounded faces toward him.

Oddly enough, it was Jayne who lost his stupid expression first. "Ah, gotcha," he said. "Apple falls on the ground, horse comes along an' eats it."

"Jayne, I don't think that's exactly what River—" Simon began.

"Well, you gotta admit, it makes a certain kind of sense," Kaylee inserted. "I mean, practically speakin'."

"'Course it does. Horse eats it, turns it into—"

"Too much detail, Jayne, thank you," Simon interrupted, gritting his teeth.

"Well, at least there ain't no Grizwalds in these apples," Kaylee said with a smile, as she prepared to bite into her apple. "Right, Jayne?"

"No ruttin' idea," Jayne replied, and Kaylee hesitated for one appalled second. "But I don't figure the Cap 'd order 'em with Grizwalds. Grenades cost extra."

"You mean you didn't buy these apples, Jayne?"

"Nope. I figgered we already got leftover fresh fruit from Bandiagara, so I just got more of them choice combustibles—"

"Comestibles," Simon corrected.

"Compostables, whatever," Jayne responded. "The protein packets. Cap musta had the apples sent down to the ship hisself."

River picked up a golden apple from the bowl, and contemplated its skin as if the secrets of the 'Verse were inscribed there. "Καλλίστῃ Kallistei," she intoned. "For the fairest."

"That'd be Inara," Kaylee said with an easy laugh. "She's still on the bridge. Funny, ain't it, to think of Inara takin' a trick at the helm. She said the Cap'n himself asked her to fly Serenity."

"Well, Zoe's still in the infirmary," Simon noted, "and River was out cold at the time."

River gave Simon a dirty look. "Put me down like a mad dog. Gorram needles." She did not care for Simon's reliance on heavy sedatives when she had a psychotic episode.

Simon returned his sister's dirty look. "Not like I had much of a choice, River. I'm glad you're feeling a bit better now." Brat.

"I know what you're thinking, Simon!" Brat yourself.

Simon grinned, but then his look turned serious. "River, 妹妹 mèimei, I'm just glad you're not in the custody of those Blue Hands 混蛋 húndàn—or worse. The thought of them taking you back to that place…"

Ip visibly shuddered as he remembered those moments in the alley when he expected to be killed. When River suddenly snapped the neck of one of the Blue Hands. And the other turned out to be…Bill. A man he'd thought of as a friend. Bill the hitman. Bill, the secret, corporate assassin. For Blue Sun.

Kaylee noticed Ip's shudder. "Well, it sure was one helluva day, weren't it, Ip? I think we can all agree on that."

Everybody murmured their agreement on that point, and Ip felt his bleakness recede a little. His day had been an escalating series of creepy incidents, piling on one another like he was a character in a badly-written spy novel or a B-grade film noir—seeing River's face on the missing children bulletin at the restaurant, fleeing through the hallways of the Geology Building of Dunsmuir University, climbing down the outside wall of the building from a third floor window using a rope made of labcoats, facing the Blue Hands' rod of death, and the sickening snap of the neck—. Ugh. Ip felt the apple bits coming back up, and fought to control the urge to vomit. River reached out and took his hand, and he felt steadied. He looked around. He was safe. Surrounded by…family. Friends. Even Jayne was a steadying presence. Ip took a deep breath.

Jayne pulled out his big, sharp knife. With an intent, menacing look he brandished it in the air, aiming it toward—thunk. Jayne pulled in the apple speared on the end of his knife, removed it from the blade, and began cutting it into slices.

"What're you up to, Jayne?" Kaylee asked, as the tension receded and everybody relaxed again.

"Just cuttin' some apple slices to take down to Zoe. She wouldn't touch it if I brought her a whole one."

. . .


"Yes, I am," Inara answered, without any attempt to be anything but perfectly direct. She'd been up all night, and her defenses were completely down. Mal could have asked her anything at that moment, and she would have been incapable of telling him anything except the unvarnished truth.

"You need sleep." River slid into the pilot's seat. "藕断丝连 Ǒuduànsīlián." Inara looked sharply at her. The expression on River's face could have meant anything, or nothing. "Καλλίστῃ Kallistei," she said, offering Inara an apple.

Inara took it with a murmur of thanks. "Are you feeling better?" she asked with a yawn, as it occurred to her that River must have recently awoken from the sedated sleep Simon had put her in after the attack on Beaumonde.

"Better," River answered. "Not good."

Inara nodded. "Can you fly?" she yawned.

"Yes. Sleep now." River began the standard checks of the ship's log and systems.

Inara left her flipping switches, and made her way wearily to her shuttle.

. . .





Καλλίστῃ Kallistei [To the fairest (Greek)]

妹妹 mèimei [younger sister]

混蛋 húndàn[bastards]

藕断丝连 Ǒuduànsīlián [lit. "Lotus roots may break, but the fiber remains joined" (idiom meaning "Lovers part, but still long for one another")]

Καλλίστῃ Kallistei [To the fairest (Greek)]

Next chapter coming soon. Your comments are most welcome.