BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL

HARRIET VANE

Honeyed Thorns: part two of five
Sunday, July 6, 2003

Inara leaves, Mal’s arrested, Kaylee’s rescued by a talk, blond, and handsome stranger and Simon gets a history lesson


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 3839    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

CHAPTER TWO "De di di yi di yu xia da dai yu lu shang de di di jin ming."

"The best laid plans of mice and men, sir," Zoë told him with stoic compassion.

The majority of the crew, with the exceptions of Kaylee and Inara, was milling around the cargo bay. They had docked and the hatch was open, Mal had been ready to start his great expedition into Shinon looking for work. Instead he found himself re-organizing his small crew. A crew so small that it really shouldn’t have taken any thought at all to organize.

"Why?" Mal continued. "Why do I even bother thinkin’ over these things, making plans and such."

"So what, big deal," Jayne grunted. "Preacher goes with ‘Nara. Ain’t like we needed him."

"But we did need him," Mal said. "Now who’s gonna look after River?"

"Perhaps River could come with us," Book suggested, trying to fix the scheduling mess his compassion had made. "Between Simon, Inara and I . . ."

"Y’all could what?" Mal scoffed. "Quiet her when a bloody lan ri sign makes her go all nuts? Drawing the attention of hundreds of people mighty close to the Core? Shinon’s not exactly the rim. Alliance MP’s do patrol these streets."

"River," Simon said, turning to his sister who was watching the argument with a slightly bemused expression on her face. "If we left you here alone would you . . ."

"No," Mal snapped. "We are not leaving the girl here alone."

"She’s seventeen," Simon said defensively. "On Osiris she was allowed to stay home alone from the age of ten."

"On Osiris," Mal retorted, his anger mounting at whoever dare defy him. "She didn’t have a bounty large enough to tempt a Shepard," he turned quickly to Book, "No offence, on her pretty little head. Nor did she have those brains in that aforementioned head scrabbled like Sunday’s brunch."

Simon didn’t have a sharp reply. He pressed his mouth shut and glanced away.

"The girl ain’t stayin’ alone," Mal reiterated.

"Then I’ll stay with River," Simon said. "If Inara—"

"And I don’t like the idea of a tagged fugitive givin’ tours of the ship," Mal practically yelled, overpowering Simon’s objections. "We don’t know who’ll go through here, what if someone’s seen yer mug up on the post office wall?"

"What if someone at one of your bars recognizes me? Or people on the streets?"

"I like you were I can see who sees you," Mal answered. "This ain’t just you and River, you know, you get nabbed, we all go down."

"If you want me to stay locked up in the hold for the next two days that’s fine," Simon said peevishly. "Just tell me."

The conversation was quickly turning into a fight, the kind of fight that would end up with Simon’s nose being broken, Zoë figured. Mal was tetchy because today was the day Inara left, and Simon was tetchy for some other reason, and the first mate didn’t want to have to clean up blood off the hull plaiting. It was time for someone to be the cool voice of reason.

"Sir," she said crisply.

"What?" Mal snapped in reply.

"I’ve never been good at making contacts," she said. The change of subject was so sudden and drastic that all of the captain’s anger dissipated. "You know that."

"Suppose I do," Mal said, bewildered.

"Sendin’ me out to a bar ta find work would probably just end up with me tryin’ to keep Wash from getting the filling beat out of him by the suh langs who whistle at me."

"Hey," Wash protested weakly.

"Sorry, Hon, but it’s true," Zoë told her husband before turning back to her captain. "Let the preacher and Simon go help Inara. Wash and I will stay here. I can show anyone around who needs showin’ and he can keep River occupied and out of the way."

"We cover less ground," Mal pointed out.

"Ain’t no use covering barren turf," Zoë answered.

There was a pause where Mal examined her very critically. The rest of the crew was holding their breath, trying to figure out what his response would be. Zoë stared at him with utter confidence. It was no surprise to her when he grudgingly nodded and said, "Fine. It’s clear y’all will do whatever you want regardless, might as well assent and pretend I have a say in it."

"Yes, sir," Zoë told him dryly, managing to keep her self-satisfied smile well hidden. It only peeked out at the corners of her eyes.

"Now that’s settled," Mal sighed, "Preacher, Doctor, you two got something you ought to get doing?"

"I, ah, I suppose so," Simon said uncertainly. The boy looked a little cowed, as if he knew how close he’d gotten to a beating and was ashamed he’d let himself go that far. He turned to his sister and started delivering his standard brotherly lecture, "Now, River, you be good for Wash and Zoë, do what they tell you to and don’t make any trouble. If you get too frightened for any reason just let them know and –" his speech was interrupted by Jayne’s high-pitched whistle.

"Hay there, little Kaylee," Mal called up to the girl who was walking down the stairs to the cargo bay floor with all the grace and pomp of Cinderella arriving at her ball. "You look ah . . ."

"Quite nice," Wash finished, his voice squeaking a little. He sounded like he was about to break out into excited giggles. Zoë couldn’t blame him, Kaylee did look quite nice, and quite different from how they were all used to seeing her. There was something perversely amusing about it, like she was a toddler whose tears of frustration evoke a parent’s mirth more than pity. She was wearing a traditional Chinese gown, more or less. It had the traditional high neck and was made of beautiful purple silk with golden bamboo shoots and lotus blossoms. But it was somewhat shorter than tradition dictated; about two inches above her knee, and the slits on either side made it less traditional yet. Her hair was pulled up in a bun, fastened with two chopsticks, and just enough of it was left out to be sexy without being messy. She was wearing makeup too, more than Zoë thought was really tasteful, her whole face seemed to shimmer.

After taking in Kaylee’s appearance, the first mate turned her attention to the men around her. Mal looked somewhere between horrified and amazed. Zoë fully expected the next words out of his mouth to be "go back to your room and change into something decent, young lady." Book looked like he would quickly second that opinion, although he’d never tell the girl that himself. Jayne, in his Neanderthal way, seemed to be drooling and Simon was struck speechless, in total awe.

"Well thanks," Kaylee said, smiling down at them brightly.

"Why you so dressed up?" Mal demanded.

"We’re gonna go to a bar right?" Kaylee asked.

"Bar," Mal said. "Meaning coarse men and drinkin’ and lots of smoke and Kaylee you get your pretty little self back upstairs and change into something decent."

"This is plenty decent," Kaylee snapped. She started hurrying down the stairs instead of turning and hurrying back up. "I never get to go out no place."

"You got to go to the party on Persephone," Mal said.

"And you got us, well, me, kicked out ‘fore it was over," Kaylee snapped. "I’m goin’ out into a nice city. I wanna look pretty."

"And you do, mei mei," Mal said, sweetening his temper a little as she approached. "But you look too pretty. You’ll draw unwanted attention."

"With all due respect, sir," Zoë said, stepping forward. "You’re looking for a job in a place where we got no solid contacts. Seems to me you want all the attention you can get."

If Zoë had been anyone else, the dark look in Mal’s eyes would have made her afraid. But she knew that she was right, and she knew that Mal knew it too. He hadn’t asked Kaylee to be eye-candy, but if she’d chosen to do it herself, he might as well make the best of it. But, instead of admitting that, he turned away from his first mate and spat, "What are you today, crew’s advocate?"

"I thought that was my job, sir," She replied coyly.

"Keep it up and you’ll be out of a job," Mal grumbled. "Is it just me, or is this day going from awful to intolerable?"

"Anything I can do to help, sir?" Zoë asked earnestly.

"You’ve helped plenty, thanks," Mal said with a sarcastic smile. Zoë nodded and stepped away, knowing that pushing him any further would probably be pushing him over the edge. Her attention quickly shifted to what was transpiring between the pretty mechanic and the awestruck doctor.

"Kaylee," he finally managed to say, approaching her with trepidation. "You look --"

"River," Kaylee said loudly, making a point of being rude to Simon. "Tell yer brother that I ain’t talkin’ to him."

"You’re not talking to me?" Simon asked. Zoë felt a twinge of compassion at seeing the devastated look on the doctor’s eyes. She wondered if that was the reason Kaylee refused to look in the boy’s direction, it’d be hard to be furious at a person who looked as heartbroken as Simon.

River, however, could see the boy and, Zoë figured, feel a little bit of that pain made so clear by his face. "Er yo er bau," the young girl said angrily, taking a step towards her brother.

"River," Simon said, his voice wavering a bit. "We both know that Kaylee has a good reason to be mad."

"’Viewed from the summit of reason, all life looks like a malignant disease and the world like a madhouse’," River told Simon, although she was glaring at Kaylee spitefully. "Johann Wolfgang von Goethe."

"Well that’s the cat callin’ the kettle black if I ever heard it," Jayne laughed.

"Pot," Wash corrected, shaking his head and snickering.

"Wha?" Jayne asked.

"The pot calls the kettle black," Wash laughed. "Did your family use words when you were growing up, or did they just grunt?"

"Pots don’t talk,’ Jayne told the pilot snidely.

"And cats do?" Wash asked.

"Enough!" Mal snapped. "Jayne, Kaylee, we’re leaving!"

"Aren’t you going to wait to say goodbye?" Book asked.

Mal glanced around at his assembled crew and waved, "Bye."

"To Inara," Book said with emphasis.

"Maybe I’ll write her a note," Mal quipped, "Send it to her over the cortex." Then he barked, "Kaylee, Jayne."

"Hey, preacher, tell Inara I say goodbye, ok?" Jayne asked as he followed Mal down the hatch and into the bright streets. The sun had set so now Shinon’s light came blazing from the gigantic red planet it was orbiting. This was more than enough, considering every light beam was reflected a billion times.

"I will," Book promised. "Kaylee, do you have any messages?"

"I’ve said all I care to say," the girl said bitterly before turning and starting down the hatch. "Thanks anyways, though," she called back over her shoulder as she jogged to catch up to Mal and Jayne

"Wo jue de feng bao gun gun yu zi wei," Zoë muttered, watching them go.

"Smell it a mile away," River said, as if to affirm the first mate’s foreboding. "Dark clouds, lighting thunder and rain, leaves the world fresh."

* * *

"You know, little Kaylee," Mal said as they sat in their second bar of the day, a real dive called The Iridescent. Jayne had accepted a challenge to a game of Dwarf Tossing so, while the majority of the half-drunk crowed in the bar cheered and yelled and placed bets, Mal drew his girl aside for a conversation he’d been working out in his mind since before they’d left the ship. Had it been any other member of his crew, with the possible exception of River, he would have spoken his mind a good deal earlier. But he didn’t want to embarrass the girl by chastising her in front of Jayne, and he didn’t want her to think for a moment that he was trying to do anything other than help her. "I know you’re a girl, and I know girls like, on occasion, to be pretty. But I can’t help but think, on this occasion, you’re doin’ it fer all the wrong reasons."

"What would you know about my reasons?" Kaylee asked tersely.

"Hey, now," Mal snapped back at her, a little too viciously, he realized, when the girl winced. He made a conscious effort to soften his voice. "I know that you got all qu si at Simon but that don’t mean you ought ta play this kind of trick on him."

"Don’t know what your talkin’ ‘bout sir," Kaylee maintained. She was lying and he could tell and he was pretty sure that she knew he could tell.

"I think you do."

"Cap," She said, she was either exasperated at the fact that she wasn’t being believed or, more likely, nervous because she’d lied about doing something she knew she oughtn’t and had been caught in it.

"Look, I’m sure you got every right to be mad at Simon," Mal said. "Heaven knows I’ve been ticked at the boy once or twice myself. But what I don’t like, is your madness is findin’ its way into meanness. I don’t want that for you, little Kaylee. You’re better than being petty."

"No, I ain’t," Kaylee insisted.

"I think you are," Mal said in his most fatherly way.

"It’s just," Kaylee said with a sigh, "I don’t know what to do. It’s like he’s made a ice or something."

"And you bein’ mean to him helps this problem, how?" Mal asked.

"I guess it don’t," Kaylee grumbled. "I just think, maybe if he can feel fer a second the way I feel when he’s all frozen and cold and distant he’d get a hint and maybe melt a little."

"You can’t make him do what you think he ought," Mal observed compassionately. "Can’t make him take a shine to you."

"But he does," Kaylee insisted. "I just know it."

"Yeah, well," Mal muttered. "I know it too. But the boy’s had a hard time and . . ."

"And his grousin’s gonna do nothing for it."

Mal laughed, "You, on the other hand?"

"Is it selfish a me ta want . . . him?"

"Selfish isn’t the word I’d use."

"If you were Simon . . ."

"We’d be on our honeymoon now, Little Kaylee, if I were Simon," Mal said, pulling the girl towards him into a warm hug. Kaylee giggled and blushed sweetly at the idea of a honeymoon with Simon, then she laughed outright as the idea of a honeymoon with Mal. "See, now, ain’t you glad the boy’s a little slow?"

"No," Kaylee said, shaking her head and chuckling, although her chuckles quickly turned to sniffles. "I ain’t glad a anything regarding that boy. Not today."

Mal nodded, resigned. "Fine. Today the doc’s simmering in the pot of your discontent. But I don’t want him all puppy-faced and depressing on account of you once we’re off this rock. Forgive and forget."

Kaylee laughed. "I’ll try."

"Shouldn’t be too hard," Mal observed. "After putting him in his place such as you did this morning I’m sure he’ll be begging to eat out a the palms a yer hands’."

"You’re sweet," she said, leaning precariously off her stool so she could kiss him on the cheek.

Mal was basking in the warmth of his mechanic’s affections when a cracked, harsh old voice called over the roars of the dwarf tossing, "Hey, Sugar Plum, how about you spread some of that sweetness around."

Kaylee’s face twisted from her cute smile into a visage of utter disgust as she turned around and looked at the man who was calling to her.

Mal had seen many dirty old men in his life, but this fellow was somewhat more dirty and less old than the average. He was fat; well, yet sloppily, dressed, his hair was somewhat reminiscent of an oil spill and his eyes were such a light brown they seemed yellow. It was they eyes that bothered Mal so much, because they were not only undressing his sweet little mechanic in a most ungentlemanly way, Mal could tell they were also envisioning her in some very unladylike like positions.

"Ignore him," Mal ordered, releasing Kaylee from the hug so he could position himself between the disgusting man and the relatively helpless girl. "Maybe he’ll go away.

But the man didn’t go away, he only came closer, "What’s yer name, sweet cheeks?"

"Leave the girl alone," Mal stepping up to the man who, in addition to being dirty and old, also reeked of wood alcohol.

"You’re real pretty," the drunk said, smacking his lips as if he were talking to a sandwich that couldn’t wait to be eaten. "How much?

"Excuse me?" Kaylee asked, annoyed.

"How much money you want?"

Mal laughed, more out of anger than amusement, "Look, Mister, this girl ain’t a whore, although, I do hear Shinon’s got quite a few nice ones. Why don’t you go off and find one of them?"

"I ain’t talkin’ ta you," The man slurred, taking an aggressive step closer. "Come on, pretty thing, how much?"

"Cap," Kaylee’s voice was nervous and Mal knew she was looking to him to protect her.

"For the last time," Mal told the man, "She ain’t for sale." As he made this assertion he put his hands on his hips, pulling away the flaps of his duster and making his pistol perfectly clear. "Now, why don’t you go romance a bottle of scotch or something?"

"Do you know who I am?" the drunk asked, puffing out his chest as if to display a row of medals. Of course, he had no such adornments, the only thing on his shirt worth noticing were a series of stains that may or may not have been from vomit.

"I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say an er shin, yo bing, chee yo tong, lau shien shung."

"You gonna wish you’d shut your qiao li, shao dah dzuay ba." The man said, rolling up his sleeves.

Mal laughed as he turned to look at Kaylee, "Ya hear that, the suh lang thinks my mouth is qiao li?" He turned back to the man he was insulting and smirked. "I always thought it was qiao pi myself."

The next thing he knew, the drunk swung at Mal and managed to place a powerful, if not perfectly executed, right hook right on Mal’s temple.

Kaylee screeched, drawing the attention of the whole bar. The captain staggered. He’d been pretty sure that the argument, such as it was, would probably end in blows. He just hadn’t expected the drunk to land any. Mal did the only thing he could. He stood, ignoring the way the whole room seemed to be swaying, and squared his shoulders. "I don’t want to fight you," He told the drunken man, who was wearing and insufferably self-satisfied expression. "But I don’t see how I got a choice."

Kaylee screeched again as Mal threw his first punch. And she kept screaming as two of the bars patrons suddenly threw themselves on top of Mal while a third ran to comfort the drunk, who was reeling from Mal’s punch.

"Jayne," the girl called, near hysterically. "Jayne!"

The mercenary dropped his dwarf and ran to pull the larger of Mal’s two assailants off. The fight began in earnest then, fists and sweat and blood and Kaylee off to the side, watching helplessly. Even as Mal kicked the shins of the bastard who’d just punched him in the gut, he wished he’d found a way to take his first mate and not his mechanic on this little enterprise, for all their sakes.

The fight ended much more suddenly than it started, when the unmistakable BANG of a gunshot froze everyone in the bar.

"You two," the man with the gun said, pointing his very standard-alliance-looking pistol at Mal and Jayne alternately. "Are bound by law on the charge of assaulting an officer."

The two brutes Mal and Jayne had been fighting with suddenly took out handcuffs. Mal stood there, powerless, as his pistol was taken from him and his hands were forced behind his back and cuffed together.

"Fay hwah!" Jayne said, spitting blood and saliva to punctuate his point. "We was the ones assaulted."

"The old man is what, chief of the MPs?" Mal asked. He was suddenly regretting not bothering to find out while the bastard was so self-important.

"You know I am!" the dirty old man said. He’d found his feet and was dusting off his filthy jacket. "You’ll rot in jail ‘till you die for attacking me."

"You saw what happened," Mal said, turning to the officer with the gun who was clearly in charge. "He threw the first punch after making unwanted and inappropriate advances on my mechanic over there." Mal nodded in Kaylee’s direction. The poor girl looked terrified, white as a ghost and her jaw was trembling just a little as she hugged herself tightly. She’d lost all of her confidence and, with it, all her sex appeal. Now she just seemed lost and alone and frightened. Mal realized with a sudden sense of dread that, if he was hauled off to jail, she’d be left alone in a bar full of perverts just like the one he was being arrested for laying down.

"Be that as it may, I’ve got to take you in," the officer said, holstering his gun.

"This ain’t right," Mal said angrily.

"Kloskie," the officer said, addressing the officer that was holding Mal’s arm in an iron grip. "I’ll take him. You make sure the Captain gets home safely. I think he’s had enough."

"Yes, sir," Kloskie answered, stepping away from Mal and towards the very drunk Captain of the Military Police on Shinon.

"You’ll rot in jail," the Captain laughed as Kloskie lead in behind the bar, presumably to a back door he could slip out of quietly. "I’ll come and see ya!"

"We done nothing wrong," Mal told the officer in command. "You know he won’t be sober enough in the morning to remember the fight or what he ordered you to do."

"Clearly, you don’t know him very well," the officer said with a sigh. "We have to take you to headquarters. We’ll process you as drunk and disorderly -- "

"We ain’t the one’s who’s drunk," Mal said emphatically.

"You’ll spend a night in the pen and be released at noon tomorrow."

"Gan jin yue, xing xing, ji tia yang," Mal muttered.

"It’s not justice, but it’s the best you’ll be able to get," The officer said apologetically. "Now come on."

Mal was shoved towards the door and, rather than put up a fight, started walking obediently in that direction. Jayne followed his captain’s lead, muttering curses under his breath the whole time.

"Cap," Kaylee said, running up to him and keeping pace as they were escorted through the bar towards the front door. "What should I do?"

"Get back to Serenity," Mal ordered. "Tell Zoë what’s up and I want all a you to sit tight. Jayne and I’ll be back a little after noon tomorrow and we’ll get the hell off this gorram rock."

"Yes, sir," Kaylee said, nodding. "I’ll do just that."

They reached the door and were all momentarily blinded by Shinon’s overpowering light. If Mal had been thinking, he would have tried to mount an escape at that moment. But the MPs seemed fairly prepared for such an attempt. The officer’s grip on Mal’s arm was too strong to be broken.

He and Jayne were quickly shoved into a MP vehicle and as they were carted away, Mal couldn’t help but stare out the windows at Kaylee, who watched them, chewing on her lower lip and squeezing her right hand in her left so tightly that her knuckles were white. Mal knew she was worried sick about them, but he was fairly sure that all her worry for them was nothing compared to how worried he was about her.

* * *

"I can give you, oh, a dozen cells for hundred Credits, maybe hundred twenty platinum."

"Really," Wash said. "Ten platinum a Cell seems awful high."

"It’s tough times," the salesman replied. "And the Cell’s are in high demand. I’m lookin’ to come up short this month so . . ."

"Stop," River yelled, jumping off the running up to Wash. "It’s wrong."

"Jiang, sweetie," the pilot said, smiling at her even though his voice made it clear he wasn’t at all happy with her behavior. "What are you doing?"

"Helping," River said, smiling up at him before turning very serious. "You said I could come if I helped."

"I meant with the lifting and the carrying and quite possibly directions," Wash explained to the young girl. "Not with haggling prices."

"But he’s lying," River insisted innocently. "He doesn’t know you as well as I do. He thinks you’re dumb.”

"Thinks I’m dumb?" Wash asked, turning to the fuel cell dealer with a hurt puppy-dog look on his face.

The dealer, a bony man in his mid fifties with thinning black hair and very white teeth smiled at Wash graciously. "Ah-ha, and who is this little pretty?"

"Jiang Warren," River said, eager to tell someone her allies. “I’m his niece.” They’d formed this lie in case anyone asked why a seventeen-year-old girl was shopping with a thirty-year-old man and after visiting three whole shops, to get new tires for the mule, to have Serenity’s water tanks topped off, and to order six weeks of standard rations for 8 people to be delivered to the ship, not one person had questioned River’s presence. She was starting to get annoyed.

"You must just charm all the boys," the fuel cell salesman said, clearly under the misconception that if he flattered her both she and Wash would forget that he was trying to cheat them.

"Yeah," Wash said. "It’s not uncommon for men to want to take her away. Captain usually kills them."

The salesman laughed heartily, when he saw that neither Wash nor River seemed to consider that a joke, his laughter dried up.

"Didn’t kill Jayne," River pointed out, as if to calm the clearly disturbed salesman. "Just threatened."

"So about those power cells," Wash said again. "Did you say they’d be eight platinum a cell?"

"I said . . ." the salesman started.

"Dried cells are a toxic hazard," River said, interrupting the salesman. "Improper disposal can lead to serious environmental risks." The girl laughed. "But you know that."

"I said five platinum a cell," the salesman said quickly. "If you pay cash now and don’t never come back. Neither of you."

"Well," Wash said, looking at River impressed as he stuck his hands into one of the many pockets of his flight suite where all the coin was. "We’ll take two dozen."

* * *

The planet was going down. The bright red ball blazed as it slipped under the horizon. It’s reflection off all the mirrored surfaces of the town was about the prettiest thing Kaylee could ever remember seeing. She was caught in the beauty of it and, even though she should have been hurrying back to Serenity, she couldn’t keep herself from stopping and watching. She didn’t know how long the planet-set had her enthralled, but it seemed like only seconds after the last inches of the red disk had dissolved behind the horizon, a hand touched her shoulder.

Kaylee started and turned to the person standing just to her right. He was a small man, not much taller than her, with a wiry frame, hollow cheeks and dark brown eyes that looked too big. "Hey, darlin’ got the time?"

"Ah," Kaylee said, a little uncertainty. The man scared her, but she knew he shouldn’t, so she tried to swallow her fear and act normally as possible. "Sorry, no."

The man took a step closer to her, he looked furious. "You ain’t got a watch?!"

"No," Kaylee said, she could hear her voice tremble. She wanted to turn and run but her blood had suddenly turned cold and she was frozen in place.

"Well, what have you got?" the man said, pulling out a knife. Kaylee couldn’t help but whimper as the stainless steel blade was pointed at her. Everything in her was screaming that she should run, but she couldn’t quite remember how.

"I’m gonna scream," she told the man. "And . . ."

"And no one’ll care," the man said, pushing her violently backwards, into the relative dimness of a narrow ally. Kaylee was so shocked that she didn’t even try to stay balanced. She fell on the ground hard, skinning her elbows and ripping her dress.

"I don’t have anything," Kaylee whimpered, trying to scoot away, but not moving nearly fast enough. "Please don’t hurt me."

"You keep quiet and I won’t hurt you," the man said stepping closer to Kaylee, licking his bottom lip in a way that filled her with indescribable terror.

"Tian pai jiu," the girl whimpered, pressing her eyes shut and bracing herself as much as possible for what was going to happen next.

What did happen next was not what she’d expected. There was a crash, and a bang, and a series of grunts and instead of being grabbed or stabbed or touched, she was left perfectly alone, trembling on the ground. After a few torturous seconds Kaylee realized that her prayer had been answered and she found the courage to open her eyes. In the glow of a thousand lighted windows she could see the silhouette of a man, tall, broad shouldered, muscular, with a rugged heroic chin and blond hair in a mess of curls. He was standing over the form of the man with the knife, his fists in balls and his face chiseled into a vicious glare.

Kaylee starred at the two men in front of her for a moment in utter and complete shock. She wasn’t able to blink or breathe. She was, somehow, both filled with complete relief and utter terror.

Her heart started again when the Adonis-like man turned to look at her. His eyes were a piercing, vibrant green, like a field of spring grass or a perfectly ripe Granny Smith apple, almost too green to be believed. When he looked at her she felt like he saw not only her, but also everything that made her up, her hopes, her dreams, her fears and her secretes. Her heart was pounding in her ears, her breath came in gasps and Kaylee felt more venerable than she’d ever felt before. The world seemed to be reeling, and the green-eyed man seemed to be its axis.

"Are you alright?" he asked, with a voice like a cello, deep, powerful, and full.

"I, ah," Kaylee stammered. Her eyes were caught in his and all other thoughts were driven from her mind. "You saved me."

"It was my pleasure," the man said, kneeling down so that his amazing emerald eyes were parallel with hers. "Are you hurt?"

"No," she said, shaking her head without jarring her eyes from his.

He broke eye contact, looking down at her left arm as he reached out and took it. His hands were strong and gentle and rough from years of labor. "You’re bleeding," he said, looking at her elbow which had, indeed, been skinned raw and blood was leaking out.

"Ain’t nothing," Kaylee said. The sight of her own blood drew her somewhat from her state of utter shock and she was able to twist her arm and her head to try and get a better look at it. "I’ll have Si—the doc look at it once I get back to the ship."

"You live on a ship?" The man asked.

"Yeah," Kaylee said, nodding, and blushing for no reason. "Prettiest little Firefly you’ll ever see." She shifted her legs under her so she could stand and he quickly, placed his hands on her arm’s helping her up. Thrills ran through her body as he touched her.

"Well, I’ll have to see this ship," the man said, "Do you think you could show me?"

Kaylee smiled, her eyes narrowing into slits and the bridge of her nose crinkling into a series of charming wrinkles. "Sure, I’d love ta."

His left hand slid down her arm, making the girl near dizzy with euphoric sensations. It caught on her hand and he nodded his golden head towards the main flow of the street. Kaylee nodded and started pulling her new find towards Serenity.

* * *

"I can’t thank the two of you enough for all your work today," Inara said graciously as she led the doctor and the preacher through the halls of her new home.

"It was our pleasure," Book said warmly as the walked through the House Madrassa. It was the brothel Inara had worked at before leaving Shinon and, apparently, they had jumped at the opportunity to have her back.

Of the two brothel’s Simon had ever visited, it was definitely the nicer. The ‘Heart of Gold’ was little more than a wooden sack on the edge of town. This was an opulent mansion, a maze of sexual pleasures. He knew he was blushing as he walked down the halls and he couldn’t help it. His mind was too quick and his imagination to vivid to not speculate about the sounds coming from many of the rooms. And he felt like the companions they passed in the halls, those who were not presently working a customer, were sizing him up, figuring what kind of girl he would like, figuring what kind of girl he could afford – almost as if he were an item for consumption. He didn’t like the feeling at all.

Book, however, didn’t seem the least bit uncomfortable with his soundings. Perhaps after praying with the girls at the Heart of Gold the shepherd had found a way to see the women not their job. Or perhaps it was because his collar made them see the man not the potential business opportunity. Either way, Simon’s discomfort was magnified by the fact that he was alone in it.

"And here we are," Michiko, the house Misstress, said, leading Inara, Book and Simon into a room about twice the size of Inara’s shuttle with vaulted ceilings and white plaster pillars and a bed large enough to fit the whole crew of Serenity, a visual image Simon immediately regretted conjuring up. "It isn’t much, but it’s the best we can do for the time being."

"It’s beautiful, Michi," Inara said, her excitement showing in her voice. "Compared to what I had been working with."

"I wanted to give you a balcony," the misstress said. She was an old oriental woman, too old to be considered attractive by conventional terms, but she held on to her beauty by what seemed to Simon like limitless grace. He’d thought Inara graceful, but Michiko outshone her in that respect the way Shinon’s sun outshone its planet. Inara had introduced Michiko as her mentor, and Simon could see that all of Inara’s most enchanting mannerisms had been inherited from this very misstressly companion.

"It wouldn’t be appropriate to force one of our present Geisha’s out of their well earned position. Still, Huan xing, I know you’ll earn your way there soon."

"It’s very kind of you to give me M’Lady status," Inara said. "After such a long absence, and the way I left . . . I was worried you wouldn’t have me back at all."

"Don’t be silly," Michiko laughed gaily. "I am delighted you returned, both as your mentor and as the house mistress. It is good to see you, and it is better to have you back to bring in business. I’m sure you’ll work your way back to Geisha before the end of the month."

"The house is organized by levels," Inara explained to Simon and Book quickly. "The higher you are, the more extravagant your room and the more you’re allowed by the guild to charge for your services. M’Lady is the third highest stage, then Geisha."

"That’s where Inara was when she left," Michiko explained, a glimmer of pride in her eyes. "And moving up. I’ve never met a companion with more raw potential."

"Michi," Inara said with a scolding tone. "You’ll make me blush."

"You’ll be a priestess by this time next year," Michi predicted with utter confidence.

"Is that the highest?" Simon asked.

"Yes," Inara said. "There’s only one of those in each house."

"Are you the priestess Miss Michiko?" Book asked with a polite smile.

"Goodness no," Michiko laughed. "I’m the mistress, I take care of the girls, not the men."

"Oh," Book said, turning to Simon. "Well, that’s nice."

"I’m not going to need most of my tapestries and curtains here," Inara said, walking over to the wall and running her hand over the beautiful dark gray limestone walls. "The shuttle was such a mechanical place I needed to humanize it. This room breathes. It’s open and sensual, very little needs to be done. Thank you Michi."

"How many times do I have to tell you it’s my pleasure, dear?" Michi asked with a laugh. "Now, I’d love to . . ."

She was interrupted by the small radio box in Book’s coat pocket crackling to life and Zoë’s clear voice saying, "Serenity to Book, you there?"

"Excuse us," Book said, smiling at Michi and Inara politely before turning and answering Zoë’s call. Simon inched towards Book, hoping to hear what was going on on Serenity, leaving the two companions to discuss just what Michi would love by themselves.

"Zoë," Book said into the transmitter. "Can I help you?"

"There have been some developments," Zoë said. The first mate’s tone of voice made it clear that these developments weren’t good. "Captain and Jayne got arrested."

"Arrested?" Book gasped. "Are they alright?"

"I ‘spect so," Zoë explained. "They were taken to the Central station and thrown into the drunk tank. Called from there. Captain says, they’ll get out tomorrow at noon," Zoë’s voice continued. "I was wondering if you could find your way over to the station and check to make sure what they’ve been told will happen actually happens, maybe see if you can get them off a little earlier."

"Put in a good word?" Book asked. "Testify to their character?"

"We want to get them out preacher," Zoë replied, absolutely serious. "I wouldn’t mention their character."

"I’ll see what I can do," Book promised. His eyes darted to Simon, who was listening intently and looking very concerned. "But I don’t think that I should bring the doctor along with me, to the police station."

"He’s a big boy, he can find his way back," Zoë said. "Worse comes to worse, Inara can see him back. She knows her way around the town."

"Simon," Book said, turning to the boy. "Did you –"

"I heard," Simon nodded. "I know the way."

"That will be just fine," Book told Zoë over the radio. "I’ll call you from the station, let you know how things went."

"Good," Zoë clipped. "Serenity out."

"I think I’d better leave right away," Book told the young doctor as he put the transmitter back into his pocket. He steeped back towards where the two lovely companions were standing. By this point they’d finished their shop-talk and were waiting expectantly to hear Serenity’s.

"What’s going on?" Inara asked, taking a step towards Book. Her voice was full of concern.

"The captain got himself into a spot of trouble," Book said with a reassuring smile. "Nothing he can’t handle, I’m sure, but still, I think I ought to go, see if I can help."

"Where is he?" Inara asked, "Maybe I could . . ."

"No," Book said quickly. "I’m fairly sure my help is all he’ll need."

"Or accept," Inara nodded bitterly. There was a pause and then she looked up at him, her large brown eyes looking almost tearful. "Then I suppose this will be goodbye."

"It was a pleasure knowing you, my dear," Book said, stepping up to the Companion and embracing her warmly. "You’ll always be in my prayers."

"And you in mine," Inara replied. Simon saw a tear building in her eye, but she wiped it away before it could reach her cheek and smear her mascara.

* * *

"Honey, I’m home!" Wash called, his voice bouncing off the walls of the cargo bay, which actually seemed bright and cheery compared to the soft light and deep shadows of Shinon once the sun and planet were down.

"Already," River said, sucking in a breath and looking around the cargo bay suspiciously.

"Come on up to the cockpit," Zoe’s voice said over the com.

Wash walked over to the com panel and pressed the button, "Before or after we unload."

"Before," Zoë replied. Wash opened his mouth to ask another question, but before he got a syllable out, his wife answered it. "River too."

"Aye, aye, sir," Wash said back to the com before turning to River, who was still sitting on the mule watching him. "You heard the lady."

"I don’t like it," River told the pilot seriously. "Why do bad things have to happen?"

Wash tried very hard to shake off her comment like a joke, although the deadly serious look in her eyes made it hard. "I don’t think a slight delay in unpacking is necessarily a bad thing. Neutral, perhaps; the lazy might even consider it good."

River smiled at him wistfully, "Do you think everyone can have your ending? Did it take a wizard’s spell or a witch’s curse?"

"Um, I think we really need to head upstairs now," Wash said, starting up the metal staircase, looking at the girl eagerly, urging her to follow him with dopey gray eyes.

She nodded seriously and followed Wash up the metal staircase, muttering to herself, "Upstairs, downstairs, upon my lady's window, There I saw a cup of sack and a race of ginger, Apples at the fire and nuts to crack, And a little boy in the cream pot up to his neck."

They didn’t get to the Cockpit. At the top of the stairs, Zoë was waiting looking as jumpy as Wash had ever seen her look. Of course, Zoë was the most unflappable person both Wash and River had ever known, and so ‘jumpy’ for her meant not kissing Wash hello after their hours of separation and drumming her trigger finger mindlessly against her thigh.

"What’s up?" Wash asked seriously, not bothering to pout over the lost kiss or lift her mood with a joke.

"Captain and Jayne got arrested," Zoë said in a hushed voice.

"Arrested?" Wash squeaked. "Like, by the military police?"

"There was a bar fight," Zoë said, her voice low. "They were taken for being drunken and disorderly."

"Taken, as in ‘to jail’?"

Zoë nodded, "Word is they’ll be released by noon tomorrow. I sent the Preacher over to the station, see if he can talk the authorities into letting them out a little early."

"So they are in Jail?" Wash asked.

Zoë nodded.

"Are we afraid the police are going to come here and search for contraband or Tam shaped fugitives?"

"No," Zoë said. "That’s one thing we don’t have to worry about."

"Then why the hush-hush?"

"There is another thing," she said, glancing over her shoulder towards the kitchen. "Kaylee got attacked and brought back a new friend."

"A friend who attacked her?" Wash asked.

"No," Zoë sighed. Wash could see the events of the day were wearing her thin, he wished she’d relax long enough for him to kiss her. He’d been told that his kisses made all her frustrations melt into a little river and flow away. But Zoë was a warrior and she would keep fighting this battle, whatever it was, until she’d won. Then she’d give herself time for kisses. "Apparently, this guy saved her."

"Lancelot," River said spitefully. She was ignored.

"Prospector," Zoë continued. "He’s interested in renting the shuttle."

"Oh," Wash said. "Well, that’s . . . good, because, you know, we’d have to . . ."

"I don’t like him," Zoë clipped.

"Me neither," River interjected.

"Don’t trust him," Zoë continued. "He looks all wrong."

"All wrong?" Wash asked.

"He’s too good, too pretty."

"He’s pretty?" Wash asked.

"He looks like a man who always gets what he wants," Zoë explained.

"What do you think he wants?" Wash asked.

"Right now, Kaylee," Zoë said with another nervous glance towards the kitchen.

"He wants Kaylee?" Wash said, his voice squeaking a little.

"But I don’t think it’ll do to give him anything more to tempt him." she said, turning towards the young girl hovering behind her husband. "River, I want you to stay in Wash and my room until I tell you otherwise."

"But," Wash interjected as they headed down the hall to their room. "Where will we sleep?"

"I hope he doesn’t stay the night," Zoë said, kicking open the hatch.

"He will," River said as she headed down the ladder. "Can I play with the dinosaurs?"

"Sure," Wash said.

"Just don’t leave any in the bed like last time," Zoë added.

"Sorry," River said, looking up at them from inside their quarters.

"Just be quite for a few hours," Zoë instructed. "I’ll bring you dinner when I can and let you out soon as he’s gone."

"He won’t leave," River told Zoë very matter-of-factly. "Not until he can’t stay."

That wasn’t what Zoë wanted to hear, especially from a girl she thought just might be psychic. Still, she was strong and stoic and just nodded at the young girl. "Well, you don’t have to worry ‘bout it," she said, closing the door.

"Come on," Zoë said, turning to her husband, all business. "Time to meet the perfect man."

"You think he’s perfect?"

"Kaylee thinks he’s perfect."

"But you don’t, right?" Wash asked, having to jog a few steps to catch up to his wife, who was quickly heading to the kitchen. "I mean, you think he’s a pretty boy pansy, right?"

Zoë stopped and laughed softly. Wash breathed a little easier; things were always all right if he could make Zoë laugh. "I think they’re no such thing as the perfect man," Zoë said, turning to her husband and pecking him delicately on the lips before pulling back and patting him on the cheek. "That’s why I settled for you."

"Well, lucky me, then," Wash said, much relived. "Cause I got the perfect woman."

Zoë laughed beautifully and kissed him again. "Not perfect, but damn close."

* * *

"You didn’t have to do this," Simon told Michi as the pair road through Shinon’s streets in the House Media’s privet transport. Simon hadn’t seen a vehicle this nice since he’d left Osiris. It was the type of transport in which his parents used to go to their fancy parties; solar powered, sleek and dark on the outside, with tinted windows so nosey Parkers couldn’t see who was traveling in such a luxurious car. The inside was just as plush, with leather and wood interior, a gorgeous sound system and more room than two people could reasonably use while just sitting. Simon had ridden in such vehicles hundreds of times throughout his life, but instead of being comforted by its familiarity he was made slightly uncomfortable by its sheer opulence. He could see the people walking down the street, people with dirty and torn cloths, people who didn’t look like they had a home to go to, and he felt a sudden but deep empathy with them. "I could have walked."

"Don’t worry, Simon," Michi said with a warm, almost grandmotherly tone. "My job is to make sure the girls are happy, and I could see Inara was not happy with the thought of you walking in Shinon alone," she chuckled warmly. "She’s always been a mother hen."

"Mother hen," Simon mused, "I suppose that’s a good way to describe it."

"So she took care of you on the ship too?" Michi asked.

"Not took care of," Simon said uncertainly, "I mean, she didn’t . . . she always wanted to make sure that I was doing all right. My sister too. And until this last week, she was the most . . . I mean, she’d . . . she always knew just what to say to everyone."

"That’s the mark of a good companion," Michi said with a proud tint to her voice. "Making every situation comfortable."

Simon laughed, marveling for a moment at how Inara’s small kindness had made his first few weeks on Serenity, if not comfortable, not nearly as horrific as Jayne and Mal would have had them been. "I’ll miss her."

"She’s the kind of person you’ll always miss," Michi said. "You’re never in a situation where Inara’s presence wouldn’t be an improvement."

Simon could think of several situations’ he’d been in where he was glad that Inara hadn’t been there, but that was more because he’d been in several situations he wouldn’t wish on any human—especially one he admired as much as the companion.

There was a pause before Michi ventured onto a slightly different topic of discussion, "I don’t suppose you know why Inara chose to come back to us, do you?"

"Ah," Simon said. "I’m not exactly sure, she . . . she said she missed home."

Michi laughed softly, "Missed home."

"And I know she wasn’t getting as much work as she would have liked. Serenity . . . we tend to avoid the larger planets and that sometimes . . . most times, really, made it hard for Inara."

"She seems to have been doing well enough," Michi observed.

"I don’t know," Simon admitted. "She certainly would never have had to worry about being turned out, Captain Reynolds is somewhat tyrannical but I know he’d have tried to move heaven and moons to keep her from leaving."

"If he’d do so much, how come he let her go?"

Simon hesitated before finally saying, "He’s a tyrant who believes very much in freedom of choice."

Michi laughed, "That seems a contradiction."

"I know," Simon said. "It’s hard to explain. He’s, he’s a very unique kind of man."

"I see," Michi said, smiling wisely. "You admire him greatly, don’t you?"

"I suppose so," Simon said. "I mean, I owe him so much that it’s hard . . . hard to see him objectively."

"I wish I could meet this great man."

"Well, as I understand it he’s in jail right now," Simon said with a sigh. "So if you wanted to visit him . . ."

Michi laughed again; she laughed a lot, Simon noticed. He suddenly felt very guilty for how he’d treated Kaylee over the last week. He hadn’t heard her laugh for over six days and he missed it. As soon as he reached Serenity, Simon decided, he’d seek the pretty mechanic out and apologize. He didn’t want to go another hour without hearing her laugh.

"You know," Michi said after a moment. "You two aren’t at all what I expected you to be."

"Excuse me?" Simon said, his mind had been on Kaylee and the twist in the conversation had taken him totally off guard.

"I was under the impression that the ship, Serenity, was somewhat disreputable," Michi said. "Neither you nor your Shepherd friend seem like scoundrels or pirates, and you certainly don’t paint the picture of your captain as master criminal."

"Serenity is disreputable," Simon admitted. "But it’s also filled, well, mostly filled, with good people who are doing their best with the hand life dealt them."

"How very philosophical," Michi said, impressed.

"Inara told me that when I first came on board. I think it’s true."

"And what, do you think, is the hand Inara was dealt?"

"I never ventured to ask."

Michi smiled, "How very polite."

Simon wasn’t sure if the companion was poking fun at him or complimenting him. Her tone was somewhat ambiguous. Accordingly, he wasn’t sure whither he should thank her for the compliment, or chuckle at his unusually good manners.

She saved him the trouble of deciding by continuing with the conversation, "I take it then, you don’t know why Inara left Shinon in the first place."

"Ah," Simon admitted, "No."

"It’s really her story to tell," Michi said, drawing the words out hesitantly.

"She’d tell me if she wanted me to know," Simon said, wondering what Michi was trying to get at.

The old companion chuckled, "It's not good for the house to have woman coming and going. The clientele likes to have security. They like to know the women they favor will be there next time. A relationship is built and it’s bad business all around to break it."

"Are you worried that Inara is flighty?" Simon asked. He was bewildered by this whole conversation. He didn’t know why Michi had chosen to have it with him and he felt a little guilty, talking about his friend’s personal life behind her back.

"What changed?"

"What?" Simon asked, the conversation track had lost him again. He had less trouble talking with River.

"You said that, until this last week, she always knew what to say. What changed?"

"Oh, ah, well . . . she decided to leave."

"That’s it?"

"Not a lot of people were . . . supportive. She . . . some of the crew had a hard time accepting her decision. They felt betrayed."

"Why? Doesn’t she have the right to do as she pleases?"

"Of course, nobody thought that . . . well, the ship is so close. You spend weeks alone in deep space with the same eight people and that’s what happens. And nobody really knew she was unhappy, I mean, she—she was always taking care of everybody else and so, I guess, she never wanted to burden anyone. But I don’t know that," Simon added quickly. "I’m just guessing."

"Of course," Michi smiled. "She took care of you too. She wouldn’t dream of burdening you with what she felt or thought."

"I don’t think she’ll leave Shinon," Simon said, feeling a little more confident, but not much. "She really was alone, in a lot of ways, on Serenity. We visited an old friend of hers who owned a Bordello and – and I think she saw that comradeship and wanted to be a part of it."

"So you really believe she missed home?"

"I really do," Simon nodded, then, noticing the somewhat discontented look in Michi’s eyes, added, "But you don’t."

"I’m going to tell you the story of why she first left, Simon," the older woman said. Her voice was hard and authoritative and Simon didn’t dare protest and insist that Inara had a right to keep her skeletons locked away in her own closets. "And when I am done, you tell me again if you think she missed home.”

"All right," Simon agreed, because he didn’t feel he had the option not to.

"Inara is special, is wonderful, she has more raw potential than a hundred girls. Did you know that?"

Simon shook his head mutely.

"In the Academy everyone knew that, she shone like a star in every one of her classes and it all came so naturally to her that she didn’t even understand how amazing she was."

"I understand that," Simon said, his mind drifting back to River as she was when she’d been a carefree schoolgirl with a plaid jumper and braided hair.

"Of course, a large part of being a companion is being congenial," Michi continued. "Which she was. The only people who didn’t like her were those that were jealous of her. And those girls, of course, Inara could ignore."

"Naturally," Simon nodded.

"There was one classmate, though, she couldn’t ignore. A man named Braeden. He was a year younger than her, near the bottom of his class and . . . and I don’t even know how to describe their relationship. She tutored him, probably because she felt sorry for him. As you’ve noted, she likes to take care of people."

"She does," Simon agreed.

"And then she graduated, and they were separated for a year. That’s when I meet her, when she came to work here. She didn’t speak of him to us, naturally, that part of her life was behind her. But, every now and then, he’d send her a wave and for almost a half an hour she’d be totally infuriated, which for her, of course, means sitting alone and fuming."

"Why?" Simon asked. "What could have been in those letters to make her so mad?"

"I honestly don’t know," Michi said. "When I asked her about it, she told me they were friends, but she always seemed a little guilty saying it. Finally, I got her to explain there had been some incidents back at the Academy. Apparently, he’d needed a tutor because he’d suffered from clinical depression, and then she’d forced him to get help, and he’d done better. I think she wanted a thank you, and she never got one."

"Still," Simon said. "Inara doesn’t seem the type to . . ."

"The thank you was just the beginning," Michi said. "Once Braeden was out he was very successful. Now, naturally, so was Inara. But there are so few male companions that even moderate talent can place a man in a very comfortable position. Whether he knew this or not, he certainly flaunted his success in front of her. She tried to be kind but she was being condescended too, and she knew it. Finally, on day, after one of his off-hand comments made her so mad her hands were trembling, I told her to stop talking to him. There had been a cycle, you see, he’d been upsetting her consistently for three years. She was fighting tenaciously for his respect and, for whatever reason, he would not give it to her. Why keep up the fight? I asked her. Better by far to just let him go and live happily. And so she did, she sent him a wave saying she didn’t intend to speak to him any longer. For about three weeks she was bombarded with his correspondences demanding explanations and reimbursements for various gifts and justifications for her actions. He was being an ass."

"And so she left?" Simon asked, bewildered. Inara seemed far too brave to be scared away by unwanted letters.

"No," Michi laughed. "Bastard killed himself."

"Oh."

"And in the note he blamed her."

"That’s terrible," Simon said softly.

"Inara broke down after that," Michi explained. "In her own, completely composed way. She decided that she had to leave Shinon immediately. More then that, she needed to leave the companion’s life, immediately."

"But she’s still a companion."

"True, in the occupational sense," Michi said. "But she does not lead the life a companion leads, she does not associate with, on a regular basis, the kind of people a companion associates with. The life she built she abandoned."

"Maybe now she’s realized she wants it back," Simon ventured.

"Maybe," Michi said, with a tilt of her head. "Or maybe she’s just running away again."

"I’d like to think the best of Inara," Simon insisted.

"I’d like to know the truth," Michi responded. "If she’s coming back because she wants it all back, then that’s wonderful and I’m glad to have her. But, as I suspect, if she’s coming back because something on Serenity shook her as much as Braeden’s note shook her, then I’d much rather she went back to that ship and worked it out."

"I don’t know what could," Simon said. "She seems unshakable."

"Like I said," Michi told him with a smile. "Inara is a very good companion."

* * *

The jail was clean, which was a good thing. And the dinner they’d been served was edible, another plus. All in all, Mal had to say that Shinon’s jail was the nicest he’d ever visited. And then there were his cell mates, the nicest bunch of drunken louts a fellow could hope to be penned with.

There was Jayne, of course, who was enjoying himself thoroughly trading sexually explicit stories with a local pimp. And then there were two kids about sixteen or seventeen, who’d obviously been picked up on illicit substance charges; they were higher than kites. One of them was bawling like a baby, terrified of what would happen when his father came to pick him up. The other was totally mellow, every once and a while he’d chuckle at one of the stories he overheard form Jayne or the pimp, but most of the time he was staring off into space. And then there was a very old, horribly smelly, loudly snoring, drunk sleeping on the smallish sized cell’s only bench. When Book came down the hallway Mal almost hoped the preacher would be arrested so he’d have someone to talk to.

"Well, now," the captain said, stepping up to the bars and leaning against them smugly, as if he owned the place. "What’s a respectable preacher doing in this den of iniquity?"

"Looking for lost souls," Book replied. "I seem to have found some."

"Yeah," Mal sighed, turning too look once again at his cell mates. Jayne had left his conversation with the pimp and was heading towards them, but other than that, things were the same as they had been for the last four hours. "We have a full house of lost ones tonight. Any ideas as to how to save them?"

"Some," Book said, nodding. "How would you like to hear my sermon on the futility of a selfish life? Or, perhaps, the standard blaze and hellfire routine? If you like, I can work in lepers."

"Oh, I like Leopards," Jayne said, coming up to the combination. "Saw one in a drug lord’s palace once when I was doing some pick-up work. Like a kitten with teeth that could kill you."

"Jayne, nice as it is to see you got a softer side," Mal said, "I’d like it if we could maybe stick to the topic."

"There’s a topic?" Jayne asked.

"I’ve talked to the officers in charge," Book said with a low voice. "It seems this sort of thing happens all the time. The Chief of police is a drunkard and a skit chaser. He checks the muster every morning to make sure the men who he had thrown in jail last night are in there. If he didn’t see your pics then he would find the officer that released you and fire him."

"You’re kidding," Mal said, amazed. "And people put up with this?"

"Apparently he’s the governor’s brother in law," Book said with a low voice. "All you have to do is sit here quietly for a night and you’ll be released in the morning."

"Gai si shou na ge zhuan xie fa gui jin ran fen gui gen," Mal spat. "And may the man burn in hell a year for every hour an innocent man’s penned."

Book nodded and folded his hands, "Amen."

* * *

The shipyard seemed oppressively dark. The soft glow of the building’s lights wasn’t enough to beat back the shadows of the various cargo haulers and planet hoppers. Simon’s mind wasn’t burdened by the darkness, he didn’t even notice it. He couldn’t stop thinking about what Michi had told him. It wasn’t so much the unsettling details of the story that bothered him, it was that he couldn’t figure out why he’d been told the tale in the first place. Simon couldn’t help but feel that elderly companion wanted him to do something, he just didn’t know what.

The young doctor walked wearily up the hatch and was rubbing his eyes as he pushed the door controls, releasing the airlock and opening the door. He walked in, slightly disappointed that River hadn’t been sitting in the cargo bay eagerly awaiting his return, but it probably was because she was off playing like a normal girl. He had to remind himself that that was a good thing.

Simon walked into the empty cargo bay and forced his thoughts to shift from what had happened to what would. He would go to his room and change into clean cloths, splash some cold water on his face and comb his hair. Then, once he’d washed off the day’s grime, he’d find River and ask her about her day. Then he could find Kaylee and apologize for that morning. Kaylee had the type of anger that burned hot and burned bright but didn’t necessarily burn long. If Simon could be patient and take the heat for a little while, eventually she’d cool and everything would be back to normal.

The doctor smiled at the thought of his normal relationship with Kaylee, the stolen glances, the casual touches, echoes of laughter. And as he climbed through the doorway that lead to the common area he heard her laughter, joyful and unabashed, and his simile got bigger. However, when he reached the top of the stairs and saw what was making her laugh, his smile disappeared altogether.

She was lying on the couch, pinned under a man. For a split second Simon thought that she might be in real danger, that he should run and attack the brute who was assaulting her. He thought he should be her Knight in shining armor. But as soon as those thoughts entered his head, they were quickly debunked by the man pulling himself off of her, laughing heartily, as she dove on top of him. Simon wasn’t quite sure but he had the feeling he was looking at two people in the throes of a ferocious tickle fight. He starred, confused and slightly upset, at the mirthful couple for a second before the now-dominant Kaylee saw him out of the corner of her eye.

"Simon," She said, totally stunned, and totally defenseless when the man accosted her with a barrage of tickles. Her playfulness was lost, however, and she tried to push him off, instead, she lost her precarious balance and fell off the couch and the man, hitting the floor and her head on the chest in front of the couch on the way down.

"Kaylee," Simon said, the thunking of her skull against the hard wood of the chest drawing him out of his state of shock. He jumped down the stairs two at a time to rush to her side.

The other man, however, was already at her side. He garbed her left arm and was pulling her back up onto the couch as she pressed her other hand against the bumped spot on her head, "Sugar," the man said, still laughing. "You gotta be more careful."

"Hey there Doc," Kaylee said, still a little dazed. "You surprised me."

"And you me," Simon said stiffly. He wanted to reach out and touch her forehead where she’d been hit but he didn’t know who the interloper was and he half suspected it was him. "I think we need to go to the infirmary."

"Are you the doctor?" The man asked jocularly.

"Yeah," Kaylee said, "Drake this’s Simon. Simon, Drake."

Drake stuck his hand out for a friendly handshake, smiling broadly. Simon could feel a very uncomfortable twinge of hatred twisting in his chest but he forced himself to ignore it and take the man’s hand. Drake seemed nice. He seemed open. He seemed decent. Simon couldn’t think of a logical reason for his skin to crawl and his teeth to be set on edge when he touched the man’s hand.

"It’s good to meet you," Drake said. "Kaylee here’s said all sorts of nice things."

"Oh?" Simon said. "Well that’s . . . nice of her." He turned to the girl who looked a tad nervous, "Kaylee, I’d like to examine you’re head."

"It’s fine."

"I’d feel better if we went into the infirmary and you convinced me," Simon said, making his voice sound as authoritative as he knew how.

"Oh, Sugar," Drake said, patting Kaylee’s hand. "He doesn’t look like the type who takes ‘no’ for an answer."

"Yeah well," Kaylee said, pushing herself up and walking around the chest to the infirmary. "Always do what the doctor orders."

Drake laughed, "He wishes!"

Simon tried to laugh, but didn’t have it in him. He didn’t even acknowledge Drake as he followed the girl into the infirmary and shut the heavy door behind him.

"Guess you’ll be wanting an explanation," Kaylee said with a sigh, turning and looking at Simon.

"Who is he?"

"Prospector," Kaylee said. "Wants to rent the shuttle."

"Prospector?" Simon said, nodding. "Where did you meet him?"

"He saved me."

"Saved you?"

"From a mugger. Punched the guy out."

"He’s quite the hero," Simon said, not able to keep sarcasm out of his voice. "I should go and thank him."

"Simon don’t," Kaylee pleaded.

"Thank him?"

"You’re hurt," she asserted compassionately.

"Why should I be hurt?" Simon asked with a shrug. "He didn’t punch me."

"Don’t be like this . . ."

"Like what?"

"Like I just broke your heart."

"I don’t know what you’re talking about," Simon said flatly.

"I know I was mad at you this morning," the girl said. "But this isn’t revenge and this ain’t meant to be mean. He saved me and . . . and he’s funny and smart and he likes me and so . . . ."

"What day is it?" Simon said sharply.

"What?"

"Can you answer the question?"

"Monday?" Kaylee asked uncertainty.

"And what City are we in?"

"Shinon, but Simon—"

"And who’s the captain of the ship?"

"Captain Reynolds?" Kaylee answered again, "But he don’t . . ."

"And what’s four times nine?"

"Thirty-six," Kaylee said, resigning herself to his bizarre questioning.

"I don’t think you have a concussion," Simon said dryly.

"Gee doc, thanks," Kaylee sniped sarcastically. "You obviously wanted to talk so can we talk."

"I wanted to make sure you were all right," Simon said. "That’s all."

"We fight, you and me," Kaylee said sadly.

"Not all the time."

"But when we do it’s bad."

"I can’t be who you want me to be," Simon said, clearing his throat. "Why would I be mad or upset if you found someone who can? I’m," the bottom seemed to drop out of his voice. Kaylee waited silently as he swallowed and tried again, "I’m happy for you."

"It ain’t him over you," the girl tried almost frantically to explain. "It’s just . . ."

"We never had anything, Kaylee," Simon said firmly, as if he were trying to convince them both. "I shouldn’t care if you start . . . if you . . . if you’re with someone else?"

"I don’t want to hurt you," Kaylee said softly, she looked near tears.

"You didn’t," Simon said coldly, pulling open the door and motioning for her to exit. "And you’re head is fine so you and Drake can get back to your . . . whatever you were doing."

"Don’t be like this," Kaylee asked sweetly. "I want you and Drake to be good friends."

"Yeah," the man said, standing. He was about as tall as Mal, three inches taller then the doctor, and nearly twice as muscular. Every second Simon could feel his illogical hatred grow stronger and stronger. "I think we could be good friends."

"I think I should go find –" Simon started, not bothering to acknowledge Drake.

"Wash an’ Zoë," Kaylee quickly interrupted.

Simon stared at the girl for a moment, utterly baffled.

"They’re up in the cockpit," she continued, nodding in that general direction and trying to tell him not to make a fuss with her eyes. "You should go see them before you do anything else."

River was hiding, Simon realized. There was a strange man here, flirting unabashedly with the mechanic and because of him, River had to hide. "Right," he said, nodding his head bitterly before turning and walking back into the cargo bay. "Of course."

"Nice meetin’ you Simon," Drake called through to the doctor’s back as he hurried up the stairs.

"My pleasure, I’m sure," Simon muttered, all but rushing through the door into the cargo bay to get out of the room with that damn man in it.

To Be Continued . . .

COMMENTS

Sunday, July 6, 2003 9:00 AM

GINOBIFFARONI


Love the Wash - River parts. Two characters that really work together.

Dwarf tossing. brillant

Can't wait for the next

Monday, July 7, 2003 8:51 AM

HIMBERRY


thats awesome! i cant wait to see whats happening next.

Friday, November 28, 2003 9:17 AM

TEELABROWN


You've done wonderful things with River. And Wash ans her do really work out well. Very nice, I have to find the third part...


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