Serenity was in trouble, and so was her crew. They just didn’t know it yet.
Mal was bringing the ship down on a planet called Three Hills. It was a Rim planet, and like most other Rim planets, it was dusty and dry, and a law unto itself. It was also Kaylee’s home. Kaylee had told the crew the night before at dinner that the name had come from the fact that there were three very defined mountain ranges on the planet, which were clearly visible from space. The first settlers who’d gone to the planet after terraforming had noticed this as they were coming in to land, and it’d been dubbed Three Hills ever since.
They were headed to a township called Flora to bring their latest cargo to its buyers. All money had already been dealt with before they’d even put the cargo on Serenity, to this was just a routine drop off. Afterwards, on account of the hearty payment they’d just gotten, they were spending three or four days in Kaylee’s home town of Meadow on the other side of the planet.
Kaylee was so excited she was bouncing around the ship with even more fervour then usual. Because she could feel what Kaylee was feeling, and because she was happy for her friend as well, River too was excited by default. Mal was being driven near to madness by the two giggling young girls causing mayhem on his boat. At that particular moment, both of them were giggling down in the engine room while Kaylee was meant to be repairing railings in the cargo bay and River was meant to be co-piloting.
Simon and Kaylee had never been particularly reserved about their affection for one another. Kaylee especially had no qualms about making out in the cargo hold, in full view of the ‘verse and its cousin. Jayne and River though were usually fairly private about their relationship. So private in fact that it had taken the crew quite a time to cotton on to the fact that they were conducting a romance right under their noses.
As she and Kaylee laughed it up, Kaylee reminded River of this.
“I still can’t believe you two managed to be so covert about it!” Kaylee exclaimed. “If that’d been me, I would’ve been higher’n a kite!”
River, who was swinging in Kaylee’s hammock, smiled. “I was,” she said fondly. “But we didn’t want it ruined by Mal and Simon throwing Jayne into the airlock. I think it would’ve damaged our relationship.”
“Just a little, yeah,” Kaylee laughed. “You gotta tell me though, what set it all off? I mean, with me and Simon it was definitely what happened on Mr. Universe’s moon with the Reavers ‘n’ all. It took a near-death experience for me to finally snag your brother!”
River laughed softly. “Simon’s never been smooth with girls. But then, neither has Jayne. Simon was always uncomfortable around women, never knowing what to say or do… Jayne was just uncomfortable about women. He knew the right things to say, but he just never said them. Never wanted to. Never really felt the need to get close to a girl.”
“That’s so sad,” Kaylee mused.
“No. It’s just… Jayne. He had plenty of chances to settle down with a woman, but he just didn’t. Always liked to be on the move.”
“He’s got the best o’ both worlds here then. He’s got the girl and the travelling all on one boat,” Kaylee remarked. She poked River in the leg. “So? Get to the story! When did you two start your little liaison behind all our backs?”
“Well… our first date was on a heist…” came a high, nasal voice from the doorway. Mal stood there, a vapid, air-head look on his face. He had one hand perched on his hip in a very fey manner, and his other was twirling imaginary hair. “Our eyes met over the body of the man I’d just skewered and it was love at first sight!” he exclaimed in breathy voice, fanning himself.
Kaylee tossed a wrench at his head, which he barely dodged. “Bi-zui! We was havin’ a girly chat Cap’n. Ain’t for your ears, so out!”
“And your imitation of my voice was incorrect and badly pitched,” River pointed out.
Mal gave her a wry look and pursed his lips. “Hi. Remember me?” he said, waving. “I’m the Captain! That means I’m in charge and I get to tell people what to do!”
“Now your voice just sounds like a petulant child’s!” River said cheerfully.
Mal’s mouth dropped open. “Shut up!”
Kaylee and River looked at each other simultaneously and then broke into laughter.
Finally, Mal threw his hands up and stomped out of the room, muttering under his breath. He met Jayne just outside. “You tell ‘em what’s happenin’ ‘cause I can’t hear my own gorram thoughts with them giggling like a bunch o’ school girls!”
Jayne grinned lecherously. “Did someone say school girls?” he asked, peering into the engine room. “Please let there be uniforms!”
River, not bothered with getting up from the hammock as she was so comfortable, merely threw a trinket of Kaylee’s at him in indignation. “There will be no school girls with uniforms!” she exclaimed.
Jayne’s eyes sparkled roguishly. “Without uniforms on? This just keeps getting’ better ‘n’ better, don’t it?” River and Kaylee just set him with stern looks and he backed down, holding his hands up in surrender. “I get it! I’m out-numbered. Look, I’m just tellin’ ya’ll that we’re headed out on the drop. Won’t take no time at all, so don’t get comfy down here. When we go settle in over at little Kaylee’s homestead, you ‘n’ me are havin’ us some alone time.”
Kaylee grinned widely, her tongue caught between her teeth, and raised her eyebrows at Jayne’s take charge tone.
“Can we go fishing?” River teased. “Kaylee said there’s a creek full of salmon near her family’s house.”
“No, we can’t go fishin’!” Jayne said sternly.
He walked over to her in two long strides and bent down over the hammock. River smiled up at him, mystery and mirth dancing in her eyes.
“We can go to the river all right, but what we’ll be doin’ will most likely scare all them salmon away,” he said to her, his warm, cinnamon scented breath dancing on her neck.
Kaylee muffled a giggle and Jayne nudged her away with his foot without looking at her.
River reached up and grabbed his shirt, pulling him down to her for a short kiss. “Be careful. Don’t get dead. I would very upset.”
Jayne pretended to consider this and then nodded decisively. “Hell, I’d be upset too! I’d be dead!” he chortled.
River smiled. “Good. Now please leave. Kaylee and I have girly things to discuss.”
Jayne rolled his eyes and smacked one last kiss onto her lips. “Shiny,” he announced, standing up straight. “Kaylee, fix that railing on the walk above the cargo bay, won’t ya? Mal leaned against it earlier and damn near fell twenty feet to a splattery death. Not sayin’ it weren’t funny seein’ him act all casual-like about it in front of Inara, but I just don’t wanna have to clean up the mess if someone were to go over the side.”
Kaylee mock saluted him. “I’ll get right on it.”
Jayne nodded shortly, heading to the door. “Since it’s just you women left on the ship, ya’ll be watchful now.”
“Simon’ll be here,” Kaylee pointed.
“Yeah. Like I said, just the women left,” Jayne said completely seriously.
Kaylee and River’s matching glares sent him on his way, but his barking laughter could be heard echoing all down the hallway.
“I’m gonna go see if Simon’s finished checking on Inara yet,” Kaylee announced.
“Tell her I wish her antibodies good luck in defeating the virus!” River told her.
Kaylee blinked and then nodded cheerfully. “I’ll tell her you hope she gets well soon,” she laughed, shaking her head.
Recently, they’d spent a few days doing some business on St. Alban’s, the icy moon that had been home to Mal and Zoë’s war buddy Tracey. Mal and Inara had spent their last night there watching some master carvers make colossal ice sculptures. Inara had been fascinated – Mal politely interested. Nevertheless, both had caught cold on account of spending so long out in the freezing snow and wind.
Mal had griped and moaned about his runny nose and incessant sneezing, but had shaken it off pretty fast. Inara on the other hand was still laid up in her shuttle recovering. Simon was over there trying her out with some experimental medicines.
River sighed contentedly, remembering the question Kaylee had asked about her and Jayne getting together – before Mal had rudely interrupted that is.
They’d never really had a specific beginning. After the crew found out that she was a Reader, there’d been a change in how Jayne had treated her – but then that could be said for all of them. None of them had treated her quite the same. Some of them had been more guarded with their thoughts and secrets, knowing she could see them if she tried. Others merely took it in their stride, using her abilities to aid them in the work they had to do.
Maybe it had been that that had really begun to alter Jayne’s view of her— when she had saved their lives with her knowledge, when she had given them the upper hand on jobs. She’d know when a part in the engine was going to fail, saving them from falling dead in the water. She’d know which moons and planets not to land on, which ones were trouble. She’d know which heists would go their way, which ones wouldn’t. She’d know who was lying and who wasn’t. More than once, she’d told Jayne in her own cryptic way who was going to shoot at him first and who he should shoot first.
It had given him a begrudging respect for her.
It had been a gradual, simple beginning to their friendship. They’d started off with a very effective working relationship. When Zoë and Mal automatically partnered up in a gun fight, Jayne and River were obviously then left with one another. Between Jayne’s natural instincts and River’s foresight, they’d made a formidable team.
Spending time together on a job had led to spending time together afterwards talking about the job. River was Jayne’s ultimate foil. Any one of the usual snarky comments that passed his lips, whether it was directed at her or someone else, she always had a retort for. If he could shoot a man from fifty feet away, she could shoot him from a hundred.
And Jayne had really hated being bettered at something he’d been doing longer than she’d even been alive.
Nights spent sparring, with words and fists, had only given them more time to get to know one another, understand one another. River had always known how Jayne worked, the way he thought, but those times gave him a chance to figure her out somewhat. He’d come to realise that while he worked through the steps from A to B to C and so forth, she skipped from A to Z and then worked backwards through the steps.
Their progression from fighting and snarking to kissing hadn’t exactly been a groundbreaking one. They fought with just as much passion as they kissed, it was almost a natural sequence of events.
One night down in the cargo hold she’d been annoying him purposely and he’d been reacting just as she expected. He’d become so angry in fact, that he’d done something she really hadn’t expected. He’d grabbed her shoulders, furious and irritated, and at a loss over what to do next. In the end, his final solution had been to just yank her to him and plant the longest, hottest, most shocking kiss on River that she’d ever had— up to that point at least.
And after... they hadn’t lived happily ever after. The rest hadn’t been easy. There had been denial— on both sides.
Jayne had had issue with the age gap. She’d still been barely eighteen at the time, and he thirty-seven. He’d been weary of Mal and Simon’s reactions, never mind the rest of the crew’s. He still hadn’t quite trusted her psychic abilities, didn’t like her seeing things he didn’t want her to see. And he was of course eternally cautious of her beating him to a bloody pulp too.
River had worried over Simon, worried over how he would worry when he found out. She’d wondered how much sense a shipboard romance would make, the trouble it would cause— and not only because they were Riverand Jayne. Their names were universal examples of two opposites. And she’d been scared. Not scared of his temper, or his violent tendencies, because she was capable of knocking him on his ass in a second.
She’d been scared of the implications of getting into her first proper relationship, let alone with someone like Jayne. She hadn’t been sure she was up to it, hadn’t been sure if her mind was leading her astray yet again. She hadn’t known what to expect, because while the Academy had forced her to mature at lightning speed in some areas, they’d made her regress in others. She had still been very much a child as regards love and intimacy and romance.
But in the end, their hearts had won out over their heads. Their natural attraction to one another had drawn them back together like magnets. But they’d still held a very love / hate view of one another. They’d argued just about anywhere, and about anything, even during heists, when they’d be shooting people while glaring at one another.
But they’d always made up whether it was an hour, a day, a week, a month later.
And now they had a comfortable rapport. No set obligations to spend all free time together, or to sleep in the same bed every night. There had never been any spoken promises about the future, just a feeling that things were as they should be for now. He’d never thought about kneeling before her with a shiny ring, and she’d never expected him to. Her pregnancy hadn’t even compelled either of them to think about marriage. River was never one for convention, and Jayne didn’t set much store by it anyhow. They were happy as they were.
She and Jayne had found one another, found solid ground (most of the time) and found their child. Everything would be all right.
Only… all of a sudden, everything wasn’t all right.
River sat up in the hammock, swinging her legs over the side. In a slight daze, she walked to the engine room doorway, standing there for a few very long moments.
She raised her hand and rapped against an imaginary door. “Knock, knock…” she murmured.
A split second later, two loud knocks clanging on Serenity’s main entrance echoed through the ship.
River blinked. “They’re here.”
In an instant, she set off at a sprint through the ship. On reaching the doorway to the cargo bay, her eyes went wide and she lurched forward. Kaylee was hauling the heavy door open.
“No!” River screamed at the top of her voice.
Just as she had opened it, Kaylee looked around at her, confused.
River ran down the walk to the railing, pointing behind Kaylee warningly. But it was too late. Several men entered the cargo bay, one pulling Kaylee to him, trapping her in place with an arm across her collarbone. Kaylee started in fright, looking around at the strangers and trying to struggle away.
A young man with fair hair and deceptively kind eyes stepped away from the rabble of men, and walked to the centre of the cargo bay, looking around appraisingly. River knew immediately that he was the leader of the group, despite being only her age. His gaze rose to River, and their eyes met. His handsome face broke into a warm smile.
River returned the smile, but she did so because she had seen into him. She knew what had happened. What was about to happen. And she knew what she had to do. She dashed across the walk and to the left. Immediately, the men below dissented, pointing guns at her and shouting for her to stop.
She wasn’t trying to escape though. They just didn’t know that. She ran to the door of Inara’s shuttle and yanked it shut. Then she opened the key pad on the wall beside it, and tapped in the lock code. It was now locked from the outside. Simon came rushing to the door on the other side, looking at her through the small window, bewildered.
River gave him a pleading look, hoping he’d know what to do, just as a man dragged her away. On seeing him and the others behind her, Simon’s expression changed drastically, and he instantly began to pound on the door, desperately trying to get it open. River just shook her head calmly at her brother and cast her eyes skyward. Simon frowned intensely, watching her comply with the men and walk down to the floor of the cargo bay.
“Who are you people?” Kaylee demanded, still trying to fight her way out of her captor’s grip.
“They met with the captain,” River said softly.
The blonde man, their apparent leader, nodded. “Yes, we met your Captain Reynolds and the others in order to make a nice, simple trade,” he said in an even voice. His tones were gentle and rounded, what would be called a British accent on Earth-That-Was.
“Then why are you here?” Kaylee asked him sharply. “The captain’ll be back ‘fore ya know it if the trading’s done.”
“I highly doubt that young miss,” the blonde man replied smoothly.
“What’s that s’posed to mean? What have you done to them?” Kaylee asked, panicked.
He ignored Kaylee and looked to River. “My name is Warren Pryce. I had an arrangement with Captain Reynold’s contact on St. Alban’s for the goods to be delivered intact and in full. That arrangement has not been honoured. As such, we’re here to extract a reimbursement of sorts.”
“The deal was settled with the guy on St. Alban’s. It ain’t our fault if there’s somethin’ wrong with the cargo!” Kaylee exclaimed.
Kaylee looked to River, who was just standing there in front of Warren, gazing at him pleasantly. She had a friendly smile on her face. Kaylee was totally bewildered as to why River was being so calm, talking to this hun dan who trying to take over their ship. She didn’t expect her to go all warrior girl on their asses seeing as she was pregnant, but she surely expected some kind of action from her, some kind of smart plan.
“She’s right,” River said softly. “We were just the transport. We brought you the crates. We have no idea what’s in them. None of us went near them.”
Warren smiled endearingly at River. “You seem like a very polite young woman. I’m polite as well. That is, until I’m crossed. I have been crossed today, and I’m no longer feeling polite. Now you can cooperate with my crew and I, or you cannot. If you choose not to, then you will bear the consequences,” he said in a low, business-like tone. He gestured to River’s pregnant stomach. “And I don’t suspect, miss, that in your current condition that you’d very much like to suffer my wrath, would you?”
Kaylee’s eye flared. “You can’t just threaten a pregnant girl like that! What kinda people are you? We ain’t got nothin’ to do with your cargo! River! Ain’t ya gonna do somethin’?”
Kaylee looked at River expectantly, pleadingly, but River just looked back at her, expressionless.
Warren sighed heavily. “Remove her please. Tie her up and stay with her,” he ordered the man holding her.
The man smiled at her as she protested. “Aren’t you a fine little piece o’ pretty? We’ll have some fun, you and I.”
“I can’t promise that my men won’t harm her, or you for that matter,” Warren said calmly, while Kaylee screamed and shouted.
“He doesn’t have to take her away,” River said softly, as the man dragged Kaylee up the steps to the second level.
“I’m afraid he does,” Warren replied impassively.
River stepped forward, her blank and courteous expression fading. “What I meant was is that he’s not taking her away.”
Warren raised his eyebrows, blinking at her sudden change in manner. “Excuse me, what was your name? River? Well, excuse me River, but I believe I am the one in charge at the moment. I’m the one with all the men behind him pointing their guns at you,” he told her, a slight smile on his face. “You are in no position to give orders.”
“River, don’t listen to him!” Kaylee shouted, kicking her captor in the knee.
River stared at Warren for such a long time that his men started to shift tensely, waiting for what she’d do. “Why are you out on the Rim? Mother and father are waiting for you on Londinium. They miss you very much. Ever since little sister died, it’s been so hard for you to face them. But you should Warren. You should.”
Warren blinked disbelievingly, his lips parting.
“What she talkin’ about?” one of his men asked.
“Are you Core-bred?” another demanded, glaring at Warren.
“’Course he is! That prissy accent o’ his didn’t fall outta the sky, did it?” a tall man snorted.
“You’re playing a very dangerous game,” Warren hissed at River.
“I’ve played ones far more dangerous before,” River returned, starting to circle him. “And if you do what I know you’re planning to, you’ll understand what dangerous really means Warren.”
Warren narrowed his eyes. “Are you challenging me?”
“Don’t need to,” River whispered.
Before Warren realised what was happening, River ducked down, her leg sweeping out gracefully, tripping him up. She swung around, snapping the gun out of one man’s hand and breaking his wrist in the process. She turned and hit a second man in the head with the gun, knocking him out. She shot a third man in the leg before spinning around at lightning speed to train the gun on Warren and his remaining two men.
Up on the walk, Kaylee cheered excitedly, before the man holding her placed a hand over her mouth.
Warren stood up from the floor, brushing his clothes off. “Spry for a pregnant girl, aren’t you?” he sneered. “Put down that gun before you hurt yourself.”
“You should be more worried about me hurting you,” River returned.
“No. You should be more worried about him hurting her,” Warren spat, pointing.
River looked up to see that the man holding Kaylee now had a gun pressed against her temple. River merely trained the gun on Kaylee’s captor with a steely expression. “Should’ve fixed that railing Kaylee,” she said in an even tone.
Kaylee’s terror turned to realisation as she looked at the railing in front of her. The seconds immediately afterwards passed in a blur for the young mechanic. Kaylee stamped her heel down on the man’s foot. He growled, but didn’t let her go. She took her chance nevertheless while he was a little distracted. She twisted, facing him, and lifted her foot, placing it against his hip. With all her might she pushed against him. The man stumbled backward into the railing, pulling her with him.
For a moment he just lay against it, holding her on top of him with an iron fist. But then the railing’s broken edges began to give way from the bolts, already weakened by lengthy disrepair and by Mal falling against them earlier. The man’s eyes widened, and he struggled to stand up straight, but Kaylee’s weight prevented him.
At the last second, Kaylee snatched herself up, and watched with a mixture of relief and horror as the railing collapsed. The man fell backwards off of the walk and landed with a sickening crunch on the cargo bay floor. River used the distraction to her advantage, swinging into a roundhouse kick and knocking two of the men to the floor.
Warren sneered at her, reaching for his gun. River raised her own, but it wasn’t her that ended up shooting him through the hand.
“And here I was worryin’ about ya’ll the whole way here!”
River looked to the entrance to see Mal standing there, gun raised. Zoë came in behind him, grimly surveying the scene.
“Where’s my boy?” she asked.
“Still sleeping in Kaylee’s bunk,” River said shortly.
Zoë nodded, taking her word for it, and went to the injured Warren, yanking him up off the floor. Simon entered, carrying a groggy Inara in his arms, followed by Jayne. Jayne immediately stepped over to River, taking the gun from her and tossing it away.
“You all right?” he asked, placing a hand on either side of River’s face.
He leaned down to her eye level and inspected her.
“I’m fine,” River said softly.
“We came as fast as we could,” Simon told River. “When you locked the shuttle door I knew you meant for us to escape and fly over to the drop point to pick the others up… but Inara was in no shape to pilot the shuttle. I’m afraid I had a crash course in flying.”
“And he literally means crash course. Damn near landed the thing on top of us,” Mal stated with his usual cynical humour. He looked up. “You all right little Kaylee?”
Kaylee nodded mutely, and so Mal turned his gaze to Warren, his expression now not so kind.
“What made you even think you could step foot on my ship and attack my crew, boy?” he demanded of Warren.
After Jayne was satisfied that River was okay, he joined Mal and Zoë in interrogating and then throwing Warren’s crew off the ship one by one.
Kaylee was still up on the walk. She sat on the grating, arms clutched around her knees, staring at the body of the man she’d pushed off. She couldn’t bring herself to move. She just stared at him, at the shiny red streams of blood creeping across the floor from his cracked skull. What had she done?
River was watching Kaylee carefully, as were Simon and Inara. Inara told Simon to put her down, assuring him she was all right. She knew he needed to go to Kaylee. Simon dashed to the upper walk to Kaylee, and River went to help Inara to the common room sofa, since her shuttle was still parked outside Serenity.
Simon knelt down tentatively by Kaylee, placing a hand on her back. “Kaylee? Are you okay? Did he hurt you?”
“No… he didn’t hurt me. I hurt him. I killed him Simon. I killed him!” Kaylee cried hoarsely.
Simon pulled her to him. “Oh bao bei, you had to do it. You had no choice. They were here to hurt you. You had no choice…”
Kaylee just pressed her face to his shoulder, trying to burn the image of the dead man’s body from her mind.
“C’mon Joe, no one’ll miss us!”
“What are you talkin’ about? ‘Course they’ll miss us! We can’t just disappear!”
“I do it all the time!”
“That’s ‘cause you don’t get in no trouble for it! I will!”
Sixteen year old Kaylee jumped in front of Joe as they walked along Meadow’s main street. “Aw Joey, don’t be a spoil sport! We could have a lotta fun today!” she said in a teasing tone.
Joe placed his hands on her shoulders and bodily set the diminutive girl aside so he could keep on walking. “No! Mr. Frye won’t get mad at you! I’m the one who’ll get fired from your pa’s shop if we take the afternoon off!”
Kaylee merely smiled brightly and slipped her arm through his. Leaning her head on his shoulder, she peered up into her boyfriend’s blue eyes. She didn’t think there was a set of prettier eyes in the all the ‘verse— even if he was a boy. They were just so big and so startlingly blue, with such sweeping dark lashes all ‘round. She could look into those eyes all day and never tire of them.
William Joseph Mason, or Joe to just about everyone, was one of the most handsome boys in all of Meadow, if not the most. Along with his deep, intense eyes, he had the silkiest hair, all turned golden and white blonde from the sun. He was nigh on a foot taller than Kaylee, with shoulders that went on forever and a torso rippling with muscles. Sometimes Kaylee could hardly sleep nights for pondering on how gorgeous he was.
And he was all hers!
Kaylee just knew that Darlene Mitchell was steaming over losing Joe to her. But Darlene had been too uppity for a boy like Joe. He had wanted someone uncomplicated, kind, and full of life, someone like his Kaylee. But damn it if she didn’t like to get her own way a lot! Joe scowled down at Kaylee’s big bright smile. He knew that look of hers all too well. He’d been working summers at Frye’s Fix-It since he was eleven years old, and Jefferson Frye’s only daughter had been steadily wrapping him around her little finger in the seven years since then.
He couldn’t ever resist Kaylee’s twinkling little eyes and her teasing smile – but today he would. He was already in her pa’s bad books for dating his little prodigy. He didn’t even want to know what he’d do if they skipped off work together. Joe was eighteen now and trying to learn his trade over at her pa’s shop.
He loved watching Mr. Frye fix all the clapped out shuttles and mules that looked like they’d never run again. Over the last couple of years he’d picked up a lot, and hoped Mr. Frye would take him on full-time now. Knowing the inner workings of a machine and learning to listen to how it all worked came naturally to little Kaylee and her pa, but Joe had had to work hard at it. He didn’t want to get fired from the job he loved so much.
Vivianne, Kaylee’s momma, had sent the two of them down to the General Store to pick up some cuttings for supper while Frye’s Fix-It was closed for lunch. Kaylee had set her heart on spending the rest of that beautiful summer day down by Brydon’s Creek. She and Joe could spend the whole day all alone. She wasn’t about to give up on persuading him yet. She usually won out in the end anyway.
“Kaylee you can just stop lookin’ at me with them big doe eyes,” Joe said sternly, trying to remain indifferent to her charms.
Kaylee put a wounded look on her face. “We been workin’ all week Joe! Daddy won’t mind none!” she said cheerfully, brushing her lips against his neck. “We can spend the day swimmin’ down at Brydon’s Creek… layin’ in the grass… C’mon Joe, weren’t it no fun last time?”
A tiny shiver went down Joe’s spine as he thought of that ‘last time’ she spoke of.
“’Member Joe?” Kaylee asked in a seductive voice. “You ‘n’ me spent the whole evenin’ down at that creek… laughin’ and playin’… and makin’ love… Don’t you wanna do all that again?”
“Ai ya,” Joe swore under his breath. “You’re gonna be the death of me Kaywinnet Lee Frye,” he said as he yanked her down a side-street.
Kaylee let out an excited squeak as he pushed her against the alley wall. “I guess you do remember!”
Joe pressed against her, burying his face in her neck, breathing in that earthy scent. It was engine oil and it was grass and it was strawberries. It was Kaylee.
“I’m serious,” he murmured into her skin. “When your daddy finds out what we’ve been doin’ down at that creek all those times he’s gonna get his shotgun and make a rug outta me.”
Kaylee laughed gently, sending a torrent of pleasure over him. She ran her fingernails over his biceps, turning her sun-kissed face up to him. “I won’t let him. We’ll run away together!” she giggled. “That way we can just live down at that creek and make love in the grass all day long…”
Joe let out a groan. “Don’t tempt me. Just don’t tempt me…” he murmured as he kissed her.
Kaylee sighed happily and fell into the intoxicating bliss that came with kissing Joe Mason.
“Well, well. If it isn’t Kaywinnet standing in the gutter like she ought to be!”
Joe and Kaylee pulled apart, and looked up to see none other than Darlene Mitchell standing in the opening of the alleyway with an arch look on her face. A few of her pals were standing behind her with similar expressions on their faces.
“Go take a jump into the creek Darlene!” Kaylee said sweetly. “Might cool off that hot head ‘o yours.”
“Funny, Kaywinnet,” Darlene snapped. “I guess that’s why Joe’s still with you— ‘cause you’re so funny. It sure ain’t for any other reason.” She raked Kaylee up and down disdainfully with her eyes.
Joe grabbed Kaylee’s hand suddenly and pushed through the group of girls. “I guess you’d know all about funny Darlene,” he said to her. “Seein’ as how funny Murphy Patterson thought his last date with you was.”
Darlene’s mouth dropped open and she merely gaped as Joe stalked off, Kaylee in tow.
“Joe! I didn’t know you had it in ya!” Kaylee exclaimed.
Joe just laughed. “Always did little Kaylee.”
He and Kaylee continued to chuckle over the look on Darlene’s face as they walked into the General Store.
Mrs. Freeman’s eyes lit up as the two entered. “Why Kaywinnet Lee Frye you just keep gettin’ prettier and prettier every day!” she exclaimed in her high-pitched voice. “And William Joseph Mason! Ain’t you the handsomest young fella this side o’ Three Hills!”
“Hi Mrs. Freeman,” Joe said laughingly, ducking his head in shyness.
“We came for some cuttin’s for Ma,” Kaylee told her. “Just a few slices o’ pork thanks Mrs. Freeman.”
“Sure thing little Kaylee!” Mrs. Freeman said.
“Why does she always gotta say our entire gorram names every times she sees us?” Joe muttered to Kaylee.
Kaylee snorted with laughter, and nudged him. “She’s a kind old woman Joe. Leave her be!”
Just then two men roughly pushed in between Joe and Kaylee and stalked over to the counter. A third slammed the door shut, and turned the sign to ‘closed’. Joe and Kaylee looked at them, startled. Kaylee gasped as one pulled out a gun and pointed it at Mrs. Freeman. The other shoved Joe and Kaylee backwards with a warning glare. Joe grabbed her hand in a vice-like grip, tensely watching.
“You got a fortnight’s takin’s over in that safe old woman. We know it sits there every week ‘fore ya deposit it in the bank, so don’t even try to deny it,” the leader said. “Open the safe and put the cash in them money bags and we’ll be on our way all quiet-like.”
Mrs. Freeman looked terrified but did as they said.
“Ruttin’ hell!” the man at the door exclaimed. “The law’s headin’ this way boys! Best move it!”
“What’s the law doin’ down this side o’ town?” one of them asked in a panic.
“Hurry up lady!” their leader snapped.
Joe’s eyes slid toward the store window. He could see Deputy Fisher walking across the street toward the store, obviously unaware of the robbery, as he was walking quite slowly and casually. He was mentally willing the man to hurry up. His heart sank when he veered off to the right to talk to some fellow in the street.
Joe looked at the two men at the counter, who had their backs to him. Then he looked at the man at the door, who was too busy watching the deputy to notice Joe looking. He gave Kaylee a small smile before running to the shop window.
“Deputy! Deputy Fisher! There’s a robbery!” he shouted, banging on the window.
Kaylee’s heart leapt into her throat in utter fear. The men panicked, and in a flurry of action, their leader pointed his gun in Joe’s direction. Kaylee watched, as if in slow motion, as he pulled the trigger. A surge of adrenaline rushed through her and she jumped forward, pushing the robber down. As they hit the floor, Deputy Fisher and a few other men burst in, grappling with the robbers.
Kaylee struggled to sit up, disoriented from the fall. Mrs. Freeman screamed as Kaylee stood up unsteadily. The old woman was standing by the store window. A young man was kneeling on the floor next to Joe, who was bleeding heavily from a gunshot wound to the chest.
“Oh my God!” Kaylee cried. “No, no, no…”
She threw herself beside Joe, gripping his hand as the man pressed his coat against the gushing wound. Joe turned his head toward Kaylee, looking dazed. A few tears of pain slipped out of the corners of his eyes and ran down his temples. He smiled at Kaylee.
“We should’ve gone to the creek Kaylee,” he whispered. “We should’ve gone to the creek…”
Kaylee gazed out over Brydon’s Creek as the July sunset was slipping down over the horizon just beyond it. She’d always loved the creek at this time of year. Everything looked so green and fresh and sensuous. So inviting. It made her just want to stay there forever.
Serenity had set down in Meadow yesterday evening, and Kaylee had near fallen into her momma’s arms. The crew had been welcomed into the Frye home where a big supper had been laid out. All of Kaylee’s brothers had stopped by that night to say hi to their little sister and meet the famed crew she talked about so much in her letters and waves.
Kaylee had fallen back into the comfortable, bustling atmosphere of her home, watching all of the action around her. Mal, Jayne, her daddy and all her brothers had started an epic card game which lasted well into the night. Her momma Vivi had fussed over Simon, so glad to finally meet the gorgeous young Core doctor her girl had snagged. Kaylee didn’t think her mother had let Simon out of her sight at all since they’d arrived.
Vivi had made a still sickly Inara one of her home cures— a thick, warm broth that had brought colour back to the ex-Companion’s cheeks in no time. Her momma had had bucket loads of advice for Zoë on how to handle Hobie’s oncoming terrible twos. She’d had a chat with mother-to-be River as well. River had thought Vivi was one of the wisest people she’d met, and said so in her usual candid way.
Kaylee had felt detached from all of the cheer and action though. She couldn’t get that man out of her head, couldn’t forget how he’d looked just before he fell to his death. She couldn’t forget that it was because of her that he was dead. Kaylee sighed heavily and leaned back against the tree she was sitting at. She heard a rustling behind her and glanced around. Her daddy Jefferson was stomping through the bush looking for her.
“There ya are! That fella o’ yours has been lookin’ all over for ya!” he blustered, sitting down beside her.
“Simon? I’ll go find him later.”
Her father grunted. “Strange sort, ain’t he? With his big manners and words. Ain’t no cause for such politeness ‘round these parts. We’s just plain folk.”
“He’s just being nice Daddy,” Kaylee insisted. “Simon’s from the Core. He’s born ‘n’ bred that way. You should be glad I didn’t bring home no tattooed crook or nothin’.”
“I guess I should,” Jefferson nodded. “You been mighty quiet since you got home little Kaylee. Not like yourself. Everythin’ all right on that boat?”
“Fine.” Kaylee pressed her lips together.
“Your momma does that too. Presses them lips o’ hers together when she’s spinnin’ a falsehood.”
“Don’t you ‘Daddy’ me Kaywinnet!” Jefferson said sternly. “That captain o’ yours told me there was some trouble on the boat yesterday. Some hun dans caused some bother for you. Said you had to do yourself some killin’.”
Kaylee was silent.
“Daughter, I want you to tell me if you’s troubled about this.”
“I just… I killed him Pa. I mean, I ain’t no fighter. Not like the Cap’n or Zoë… I do it when I gotta, like that time with the Reavers I told ya about. But I ain’t never just killed an ordinary man before,” Kaylee said, her voice shaking.
Jefferson put an arm around her shoulders, giving her a stern glare. “You did what you had to do. Times is tough! Can’t wait for the law to come runnin’ when you need help! When someone is tryin’ to hurt you, tryin’ to take your life from you… well you just gotta give ‘em what for Kaylee!”
“I just don’t feel right Pa,” Kaylee murmured.
“I know. For someone sweet such as yourself, it don’t come easy, do it?” Jefferson sighed. “And I’m tempted as hell to pull you off o’ that boat… but I trust that captain. Mal, well he’s got a damn brave soul, he does. I know he would’ve killed that fella hisself if’n he’d have been there.”
Kaylee let out a little sob and rested her head on her father’s shoulder.
“Child, you remember that day in town when them hun dans shot your Joe?” Jefferson said softly.
Kaylee’s heart panged as he said that. “I was just thinkin’ about that.”
Jefferson nodded. “Well darlin’ you just better recall what you done that day. There was three men with guns pointed at you and you just knocked that fella shootin’ at Joe clean over!”
“I had to…”
Jefferson grinned widely. “Well ‘course ya did! When it comes to your life and the lives of them that you love the most, all that matters is that you do what you gotta do. And you did. You did it that day, and you did it yesterday. And if all your stories o’ bandits and purple bellies and Reavers is truth, well you done it plenty other times too darlin’!”
Kaylee smiled thinly. “I guess.”
“You was brave yesterday to face that man, just like you were brave that day down in the General Store little Kaylee. Don’t you dare feel guilty,” Jefferson told his daughter sternly.
“I couldn’t have said it better myself.”
Both looked up to see Simon standing before them smiling. Dressed in a loose shirt open at the neck and with his hair pushed back off of his face, he looked radiant and at home in the presence of Kaylee’s family. Kaylee’s face lit up on seeing him standing there.
“That’d be my cue to pass the torch,” Jefferson said, getting up. He leaned down to Kaylee’s ear quickly. “That boy’s all right. A bit uptight, but a good sort. He’ll see ya through, daughter,” he whispered.
Kaylee gave her father a watery smile as he stood up straight. Simon took his place by her, pulling her against his chest.
“Kaylee, are you all right?”
“Oh Simon… I just felt so guilty,” Kaylee said tiredly. “But my Daddy made sense. He always does. I know I did what I had to.”
Simon kissed her forehead. “You did bao bei. I’m only sorry I wasn’t there to protect you.”
“You protected me more by flyin’ off to get the others Simon!” Kaylee insisted. “You did what was right too.”
There was a comfortable silence, before Simon spoke again.
“Your family’s amazing Kaylee. It’s no wonder you are like you are with such people around you.”
“They like you too. My momma ain’t never gonna let you leave, and my brothers, well they joke and kid around, but they’re just proud as anything that I’ve got such a kind man takin’ care o’ me.”
Simon smiled as one of his blushes crept up his neck. Kaylee laughed and slipped her arms around his neck, kissing him delightedly.
“You’re so damn cute Simon Tam,” she chuckled. “So full of propriety ‘n’ honour. What am I gonna do with you?” She looked at him squarely. “I know what… I’m gonna make you take leave of that propriety ‘n’ honour for a little while.”
Simon raised his eyebrows challengingly. “How?”
Kaylee swept a hand out, gesturing to the expansive landscape around them. “We’re alone. All alone. Down by a beautiful creek. And I don’t think we’ve ever had the opportunity to make love off of Serenity…”
Simon’s face froze in a disbelievingly smile. “Kaylee Frye you’re a vixen. Do you take all your conquests down here?”
“Only the ones I truly, truly love,” Kaylee whispered.
Her Joe flitted into her mind then. That untouched young love she’d had for him would be eternally connected to this creek. And now so would her love for Simon. Kaylee smiled to herself. Oh, how the circle just went round and round. Here she was, back at the start… with Simon. And damn it if she didn’t know in her heart of hearts that she was going to marry this man…
Simon’s warm, loving eyes dropped to her lips as he leaned in. “We’d better get started then, hadn’t we?”