Persistent Mysteries

Author: Shaye

Disclaimer: It all belongs to Mutant Enemy and Henson, and assorted other folks.

Rating: PG-13

Recipient: ghost

Summary: The crew of Serenity find a 500-year-old relic on a desert planet out on the rim. A Firefly/Farscape crossover.

Notes: Written for Ghost for the Multiverse 2004 ficathon. Thanks to Cofax for the speed-machete and to Thea for last-minute suggestions. Chinese cobbled together from the Chinese Pinyinary and LJC's glossary. Yee-frelling-haw, y'all.

There weren't no such thing as aliens. Zoe knew that, as sure as she knew that Mal always had her back, Wash always had her front, and her pistol was always at her side. Zoe knew that.

The planet was barren; the soil coarse and the sun hot. Zoe was looking specifically for the kind of place for a good ambush, but there wasn't much she could work with. Rolling sand dunes or long flatlands, nothing much to aid a person in surprising somebody who didn't want to be surprised.

That was when she'd stumbled across the cavern, and she meant that pretty literally. The entrance was covered with a kind of tarp; must've been some time ago because the wind had encrusted it with a thick layer of sand. Zoe tried to scale what looked like just another dune and quickly found herself in a bit of trouble.

The walls inside were smooth stone, and Zoe wondered just what else the sand might be covering up out there. The only light was coming in through the front opening, but little bits of sand were sprinkling down from the ceiling and she thought there were probably light holes up there, too. Didn't look like to rain on this planet.

The dark, dusty interior was a mess of shadows and big hulking pieces of equipment. Kaylee needed to search through here; she'd more than likely find a few parts she could use back on Serenity.

The place was strangely cool, and now that she listened hard, there was just the faintest sound coming from somewhere near the back. Zao gao, she'd need a light, and hadn't brought one with her.

But this seemed like a right nice place to hold an ambush. She took thirty paces out the front of the cavern and radioed Wash to take her coordinates.

She rode back to Serenity on the mule, and made sure they took a coupla good lights with 'em on the way back to the meet. Kaylee gave Mal a hard look and said she was going with, ain't to reason to stay behind until the fightin's over, just to look for spare parts. She strapped a clean little six-shooter on her hip; Zoe thought Kaylee probably took care of that gun as good as she took care of Serenity.

They had a half-hour to get the tarp covered back over the hole, and brush enough sand over it so it looked unsuspicious to an eye that weren't looking too close.

"Okay, Zoe an' me are outside. Jayne, you stay hid in the cave 'till the action starts. Kaylee, I want you to stay hid for the duration, you understand me?"

Kaylee tried to argue, but after brief time, she subsided. They hustled the two of 'em into the cave.

"So I just gotta sit here in the dark an' wait?" Jayne asked.

"That's what an ambush is, Jayne," Zoe said. "You sit in the dark and wait until they show up. And then you jump 'em."

"I know what a gorram ambush is! I just don't like this place." He looked around the cavern. "It's creepifyin'. And downright cold, after bein' out in the sun." He slumped against the wall.

"What's the matter Jayne, forgot your fur coat?" Captain teased, and then they pulled the tarp over the opening, cutting off his protests.

A few minutes later, the contacts came up over the hill making as much noise as they possibly could. Zoe shaded her eyes from the glare of the sun on the sand and felt for the warm metal of her gun at her side.

The head Bad Guy pulled up and jumped down from his fancy truck, and tossed a bag of coins in the air.

"Well, Captain Reynolds? I don't see my goods."

"You'll see 'em, well enough. When it's time."

They went on in that vein for a good bit, and Zoe tried to ignore the rhetoric as best she could, 'cause somebody could get hurt, with all those gao wan flying around.

Soon enough, all hell broke loose, and it was high time to get with the shooting already.

Jayne gave this unholy yell and threw open the tarp. He rolled right out of the cave, guns blazing, and Kaylee jumped back out of the light.

Stupid, is what it was, to make Kaylee promise to stay inside the cave. Not that she was intent on killing anybody, but what if it got real bad out there and she was just sittin' in here like a big bump on a log? She'd never forgive herself if something happened to one of 'em, even Jayne, and she was just standing around acting all chicken.

Kaylee resolved to go out there and help as best she could. Chin up, she marched right to the opening of the cave, and --

A bullet clipped the doorway right above her and sent a shower of rocks raining down on Kaylee's head. One hit her sharp right on the temple, and she jumped and ducked back inside before anyone seen her.

Her head hurt like nobody's business, and she wiped away a little trickle of blood. Well, that just proved it. She was just Little Kaylee, and hadn't been through no war or nothing. Couldn't even get all the way outside without getting hurt, even though she had the gun Jayne'd given her last year, after that whole thing with Early comin' on board. He'd even taught her how to shoot it. Cap was real hot about that, but Zoe and Inara convinced him it was the right thing.

Kaylee was real glad Inara didn't end up leaving, even if it was because she got caught out with a buncha outlaws like them and had to give up on being a Companion. It was only for the time being anyway, Kaylee was sure of that. They'd come to the bottom of this thing with River and the Academy and then Inara'd be able to go back to the Guild. She couldn't imagine any of 'em wanting to leave Serenity. Things were just fine the way they were, except for the being outlaws part, and the sometimes having to kill folks part. But that was the fault of the Alliance, not any of them. Didn't make her feel a whole lot better about it, not always, but the Preacher always had somethin' real nice to say when she was getting too long in the face over it.

Something was running in the cave here. Kaylee peered as best she could out the door, but she couldn't see nothing. Sounded like strange voices doing most of the shouting, though, so it must be okay.

She lit one of the lanterns they'd brought along, figuring nobody much'd be paying attention to the cave just now.

Sounded like it was coming from near the back.

It was cool in here, but not damp in the least, which'd kept all the equipment from rusting out. There were dozens of parts in here she could use. She did wonder how they kept it cool without resorting to condensed water, though.

"Here," Kaylee said to herself, smoothing her hand over a large hulking thing that looked eerily like a metal coffin. It was cool to the touch.

She held her lantern a might higher. There were wires running up toward the ceiling. Probably powered by heat from the sand up above.

"Kaylee?" Suddenly, she realized the shooting had stopped. Zoe ducked inside.

"Yeah, Zoe?"

"Captain wants to know if you found any..." Zoe trailed off, looking at the big metal coffin; weren't no way around calling it anything else. "What in the...?"

"I think it might be something like River came on board in. It's cold. Looks like it opens over..."

"Xiao xin!" Zoe warned, but it was too late. The catches popped right open in Kaylee's hand, and the lid swung upward like the hatch on a small hovercraft. Big billows of icy fog poured out and Kaylee let out a little shriek and jumped back. Zoe just put her hand on her holster and stepped forward, lighting whatever was inside.

The lantern picked out white hair, then a gray body.

"That has to've been dead some time," Zoe said. "I've never seen a body that gray before. Strange, though. The face is awfully smooth for hair that color. And the flesh ain't dessicated like skin that color ought."

Then the body opened its eyes and sat bolt upright, and Kaylee just about had the fright of her life. She let out a yelp and jumped a foot in the air.

"Zombies!" she cried. "Zoe, it ain't a zombie, is it?"

Zoe gave Kaylee a look that said 'Don't be stupid, ain't no such thing as zombies.'

Zoe looked a little bit closer at that body, though. "You aren't a zombie, are you?"

The body shivered a little -- it had gotten downright cold in here -- and her eyes shifted over to Zoe. Palest blue eyes Kaylee'd ever seen, and it made her skin crawl in a way that had nothing to do with the cold.

Then the body laughed. "I'm not a zombie," she said, in a weirdly accented voice. "But I'm guessing you're humans, aren't you?"

Kaylee looked on in wide-eyed horror. It even took Zoe a moment to recover speech.

"Just a wild guess, but judging by that question...I have to ask. You're not?"

The little gray...alien, she supposed...crawled out of what Kaylee now knew was a cryo-chamber. She rubbed her arms vigorously and held them out for Kaylee and Zoe to see.

"Do I look human to you?"

"W...we thought you was dead," Kaylee answered. She was pretty sure somebody or another'd just tipped the 'Verse upside down. And shaken.


"I need to sit down," Zoe said, and perched on the open edge of the cryo-chamber.

The alien laughed, and Kaylee gave a little laugh along with it. Her. Whatever.

"This is completely fahrbot! I never thought a couple of humans would wake me up. How'd you get all the way out to Dam-Ba-Da, anyway?"

Zoe swallowed so loud Kaylee could hear it. "This planet's called Helios. On account of the solar flares."

The laughter in the alien's face died, and she sat next to Zoe on the edge of the cryo-chamber. "Frell. Frell. What year is it?"

Kaylee told her quickly, but she just looked confused. Then Zoe told her what the year would be in Earth-That-Was time, both the Eastern and Western calendars.

The little gray alien sat there stunned. "B-but that's. That's over 500 cycles from when I..."

Cycles, Kaylee supposed, was probably alien-talk for a year, or close to. That would mean...Lord, that would mean she was alive before Earth-That-Was got all used up.

The Captain's voice called from outside the cavern. "Zoe? Kaylee?"

Zoe sighed. "Let me talk to him." And she up and left Kaylee there with an honest-to-God alien.

Five hundred cycles. Five hundred cycles. Jool's twenty-two cycles were nothing compared to this.

Chiana swallowed. She turned her head, and shadowy, phantom images filled her mind. The place was essentially the same as she'd left it, five hundred cycles ago, when Crichton kissed her forehead and called her "Sleeping Beauty" and promised that he'd be back for her, in a cycle or two, when every bounty hunter in the known universe wasn't looking to take her back to Nebari Prime.

She knew he meant to kill them all, if he had to. Nerri agreed it was the best thing, and she still couldn't believe that the two boys she loved best were fighting together, working underground to overthrow the Nebari authorities.

Had been working together. It was like a dream come true, until it became a nightmare.

The Nebari didn't care for wormholes as much as they wanted a psychic on their side. They had the patience to wait until her mental cleansing was done. And John had convinced her the safest thing was...just to disappear.

She never meant to disappear forever.

John would be dead. Nerri would be dead. Most of her friends and allies would be dead. Rygel could, in theory, still be alive, and she'd be glad to see the sweet old slug. But.

These people were surprised at her alienness. Humans, taking over the Uncharted Territories. Humans, this far out in this much time, and shocked to silence that she wasn't human.

Frell. Frell.

What the hezmana happened while she was sleeping?

The little one -- probably cute, with that girly voice -- called back out the front door. "Uh, Zoe? Don't...don't leave me in here too long, understand?"

Chiana tilted her head. "What's your name?" she asked gently.

The girl turned back towards Chiana. "Uh. Oh. It's Kaylee."

"I'm Chiana."

"Hi. Chiana. That's a real pretty name."

Chiana smiled at her. "Thanks."

Everything exploded in super-bright colors all of a sudden, and Chi could see outside the walls: Dam-Ba-Da's endless sand; the other woman -- who was far prettier than Chiana expected -- talking with a man in a long brown coat; the bodies littering the ground, one stealthy hand reaching inside a boot and drawing something out; just the barest glint of metal in the sun.

Chiana gasped and managed to choke out, "Your friends, they're in troub--"

Before blackness closed around her.

Kaylee usually knocked. It was unlike her to come racing into Inara's shuttle without so much as calling out to her first.

But this was clearly an emergency of some sort, though Inara wouldn't have guessed anything less from the job the four of them had gone on.

"'Nara! Come look! Simon needs your help!" Kaylee looked awful, and not just from the job. She looked pale as starlight. Inara arose swiftly and gathered what few supplies she kept in her shuttle.

Kaylee turned into the light and Inara gasped. "Mei mei, you're hurt!"

Kaylee touched the wound at her temple. "Ain't nothin'. Inara, you gotta come now!"

She grabbed the silk sleeve of Inara's blouse and dragged her down the corridor to the infirmary. Ever since the incident on Artemis, she'd been serving as Simon's nurse, when he needed the help. Oh God, what if Mal was --

Kaylee ushered her into the bright room and Inara stopped short. "Oh my God," she breathed. Simon looked up, his face stricken.

"I don't know what to do for her."

It was a little gray girl lying prone on the table, possibly no more than River's age, but she couldn't be certain.

Because she was most definitely not human.

"Her name's Chiana," Kaylee offered up.

Inara glanced at Kaylee, then stepped forward. Zoe was standing in the corner with her arms crossed. She had rarely seen such a dire expression on Zoe's face.

She touched Chiana's forehead, which felt clammy and too warm, but that was not necessarily an indicator. Simon would know that, too.


"She knew we were human," Zoe said tersely. "Said she'd been asleep for five hundred years, so I gather."

"She's certainly suffering from some typical signs of prolonged cryogenic hibernation," Simon said, "as far as I can discern, at least. I can't be sure, with her physiology..."

The alien girl's eyes fluttered, and she struggled to sit upright. "Wh-where I am?"

Inara hadn't noticed Mal observing through the window. Now he stepped over the threshold. "You're on Serenity. She's my boat, and your warning to little Kaylee here kept me and my crew from gettin' made nice and dead. So I'm grateful to you."

Chiana looked dazedly around the room. Inara peered at her more closely. There was something about the eyes...

"You're blind," she said with some surprise.

Strange first words to say to a person. Her manners were definitely sliding.

Chiana turned sharply in her direction. Inara supposed it was the direction of her voice. "Yeah. For now. It'll sort of come back, later."

"Doc, you ought to know the reason we brought her on board is that Kaylee says she had a bona-fide psychic vision, which'd be what kept us from gettin' shot to pieces." Mal leaned against the wall and crossed his arms.

Simon looked at the girl, speechless.

Chiana slid to the floor and her knees immediately buckled. She put her hand to her head and swore something -- it sounded like "Frell," but that wasn't any language Inara was familiar with.

Well, of course not. Of course not.

"You're tired," she said, taking charge of the girl. Simon was looking overwhelmed and more than a little scared, and all she needed was some rest anyway. "Come with me, I have a nice, comfortable bed."

Chiana laughed. They passed Mal, glowering down on them. So he was terrified as well.

"I've been sleeping for five hundred cycles," Chiana said, and nearly fell to the floor again, if Inara hadn't been there to catch her.

Little dancing fairies on dancing fairy-feet, swirling and twirling and calling River, up two steps and plié, jetté, careful where you step.

Inara's shuttle is (not really hers anymore, but it's her special place and they were all sorry for the disgrace, so they pretend) worm blankets and shiny dirt, but it covers the bones of Serenity, which River likes better than silk and gold.

It's unnatural

"Come in, River," Inara's voice calls. It's just a voice. Inara's hiding. She comes out from behind a curtain, like the man in a magic show.

"I imagined you'd want to see her." Her, a pronoun, indistinct and possibly non-applicable in this instance, depending on how the species reproduces. But River knows who Inara means.

She -- because it looks like a she, and cultural assumptions are very ingrained, easy to fall prey to -- lies still on Inara's bed. River reaches out and touches her forehead. Someone else did this.

"Sleeping Beauty," she says, and kisses the forehead.

"Her name is Chiana."

River says nothing. She has nothing to say pursuant to such a revelation. It's a pretty name, but they all have such pretty names, even Jayne.

"They forgot all about you," she tells Chiana. Ha, not sleeping after all. Tricky thing. Those eyes open, and the little gray girl frowns.

"N-n-no. They didn't. They wouldn't."

"Not your friends." Because there's no reason to be sad, little girl. River takes a strand of shining white hair between her fingers. "The people on Earth. Forgot all about you. Had their own problems. It turned past tense too soon. You became a myth, except that you're real." River glances at Inara, explains, "Most myths are."

"What do you mean?"

"I think she's referring to Earth-That-Was. It's...long gone now."

Inara is always so elegant. Can't admit the steaming, stinking mess they made of it, their poor mother, how they treated her like she'd never, never break.

"We're here because of him," River says to Chiana. Him, her friend, her beloved old friend.


"We'd have died if he hadn't come back. We used his brains to fly faster than the stars."

Quiet, quiet, quiet. She's letting River's tough, stringy words digest.

"That's good. He'd have liked that. He'd be glad."

Gray girl struggles upward, swimming through deep mud. River touches her forehead again. "You see like I do."

Bubbling laughter like bitter water. "I think you see better than me, all around."

"I only know secrets. You know what happens before it happens. You can hold it in your brain." Try not to be jealous. "It's more useful."

Chiana falls out of bed. Inara is watching. She's afraid. She's usually not. Brave Inara.

"It's a pain in the ass," Chiana says from the floor.

River laughs.

How true.

"So let me get this straight," Wash said, and Zoe knew that tone of voice like she knew the sound of a missile at close range. Shepherd Book sat in the corner, pretending to read his Bible, and pretending equally hard that he wasn't listening to every word they said.

"You're telling me that this girl is an alien, and if that wasn't ridiculous enough, she's also psychic and from the past?"

"I didn't say it was especially believable."

"You bet your ass it's unbelievable!"

"It's true," Simon said, interrupting before she had to slap her husband upside the head. Simon stepped through the door of the mess in that cautious way of his. "As near as I can tell, at least. Her physiology is markedly different from anything I've seen before, and that was just during a cursory scan. While I'm not an expert on genetics, I'd venture to guess that it's far outside the realm of possible human mutations. And a cryopod would halt the aging process almost entirely."

"Yes," said Book, finally abandoning the charade. "It might, but surely it's not possible to survive 500 years in cryostasis."

"I've never heard of such an example," Simon admitted, "but then..."

"Simon?" Wouldn't do to have the doctor passing out and cracking his head open. Zoe's surely not trained well enough to fix that.

"The technology ain't been around that long," Mal said from the doorway.

"No." Simon looked relieved that he didn't have to explain it.

"Inara said River's been to see our alien girl."

Simon frowned.

"Well of course!" Wash exclaimed. "Psychics have to stick together, after all."

"Husband." Should be warning enough not to stuff his shoe any farther into his mouth, but she put a hand on his shoulder anyway. He clutched her hand hard.

Simon turned a whole lot paler than he usually was, and that was saying a lot. "I'd better go find her."

"She's still in Inara's shuttle," Mal said. Simon hightailed out of the room and the Captain turned to Zoe.

"We've got another problem."

"You mean two crazy psychic girls on one ship isn't trouble enough?"

"I don't think she's crazy," Zoe said. Her husband gave her a look that said something along the lines of 'look who's doing the crazy-talking now.' "I mean the alien. She seemed lucid enough before she passed out."

"Charming crazy girls or not, we got ourselves a heap of trouble on our hands. I found this in the head merc's pocket earlier." He tossed a data disc onto the table.

"Oh, this can not be good," Wash said.

A loud belch warned them to Jayne's presence before he even set foot in the mess. "What can't be good?" He started rummaging through the cupboards, swearing under his breath.

Zoe picked up the disc. "What is it?"

"A fresh, shiny bounty on doc and our favorite crazy psychic girl."

"We got a favorite now?" Jayne said.

Wash rolled his eyes. "Mal found the bounty on the body of one of the mercs you dealt with earlier. Ta ma de zhe wang ba dan zang huo!"

"They're bounty hunters?" Zoe hated to admit, but she was a might surprised by that. "I'd pegged them as run-of-the-mill petty crooks."

"Maybe, maybe not. But the fact of the matter is, that there's no wanted poster. It's Alliance-issued, real specific information, which means they keep pretty close track of who has it. And when a set of their bounty hunters shows up missing, they're gonna know where to go looking."

"So hide 'em."

The five of 'em all jumped, 'cause the last thing they needed was crazy psychic alien girls wandering around the ship at will. But Inara was with her, guiding her.

"She needed to eat," Inara explained.

"Don't anybody on this ship do anything but sneak around?"

"It's what I'm best at," the alien girl said, which under the circumstances wasn't exactly reassuring.

Inara deposited her in a chair, and Mal got all authoritative and stood over the girl while Inara went to the larder.

"Now, listen miss, I'm grateful and all that you kept us from gettin' shot full of holes, but this is our business, and you can maybe stay on my boat for awhile as long as you make certain you keep it that way. Dong ma?"

"Yeah, I understand, sure. You're distrustful." Inara put a plateful of molded protein in front of the girl, and she ate without comment. "You're fugitives, and believe me, I know all about that. If you wanna hear stories about why it's a bad idea for fugitives to trust random strangers, mention crackers some time when I'm very, very drunk." She gave that little hiccup of a laugh that might be annoying on someone more...human.

Mal gave her a look, and she wasn't even facing his direction, but she saw it nonetheless. "I had a little talk with River. Wonderful girl. Completely fahrbot, but I know all about that, too. I'm just saying, there are lots of ways to hide bodies on Dam-Ba-Da."

"Helios," Zoe corrected.

"Po-tay-to, po-tah-to, to quote an old friend."

The Captain looked more interested than off-put, and that couldn't be good.

"I want to hear about the crackers," Wash said. Everyone ignored him, like he was probably expecting.

"Helios ain't nothing but sand and crappy outposts that only criminals frequent," Mal said. "How d'you propose hiding bodies? Alliance has plenty of scanners see right through sand."

The girl chewed thoughtfully. Zoe had a feeling she knew exactly what she was gonna say, and was just thinking of how to put it. "Nobody found me for 500 years," she pointed out.

"Lady, we ain't been out here that long."

A shadow crossed her face. "But somebody was."

Wash gripped Zoe's wrist on the sly, and his voice shook. "I...really don't want to hear about that."

The girl sighed impatiently. "Look, there are secret bunkers all over that frelling planet. I know, because I used to sleep in one. Find one -- or let me find it for you -- stuff the bodies inside, set off a couple of charges, and get your ship's exhaust to cover it all with sand. Simple. And the walls of the bunker will shield scans a lot stronger than anything you people could come up with, trust me on that."

"How d'ya figure that?" Jayne asked. Grunted, whatever.

She gave him a sharp-eyed look, which was fairly spooky under the circumstances, and said, "Because the people looking for me were the universe's greatest experts on searching out and crushing the weak-willed."

Mal pulled up a chair and sat down. "What's in this deal for you, 'sides the continuation of your stay on our luxury cruise liner here? 'Cause I'm not seein' where this does you any good."

"Are you kidding?" she laughed. "You think I don't want to get back down to that planet at find out what the frell happened to my friends?"

"Huh." He leaned back in his chair.

Zoe crossed her arms. This just had to be a bad idea.

While they were busy covering the tracks of their dead, Chiana stole down a passageway she conveniently forgot to show them, into the old bunker she kitted out when the Resistance was first headquartered here. Aeryn hadn't liked it, that this was where they chose to make their safeguard. In fact, she didn't like it so much she took the children and left. John wasn't happy about that, but since he told Chiana he understood, even if no one else did, she didn't pry. Rygel said the same thing, so she figured it must have been related to the other John's death.

Which she really didn't want to think about, so not prying, for once, had been just fine by her.

The bunker was quiet and empty as a raided tomb. The walls crumbled under her fingers. The area where she and Nerri used to sleep was nothing but dust and ashes, no traces of them left.

John's quarters, the common room, the galley, everything was bare as bones, exactly the way John would have left it, if they'd had to move operations. She didn't know what she was expecting to find; a sign writ large on the wall saying, "Chiana, Nebari contagion wiped out galaxy," or "Scarrans finally got a little too pissed," or "Scorpius finally got wormholes. So long, and thanks for all the fish" or...?

There, under an overhang in a little alcove they'd carved out and fitted for lounging. A tiny, deteriorating scrap of paper, the only thing John's meticulous eye seemed to have missed. She lifted it carefully, hungrily into the light from her lantern.

It was John's handwriting, all right, that mix of English and Peacekeeper Standard, but it was a scrap from an old mission plan. The raid on Metraska III, if she remembered correctly. And why wouldn't she? It was only half a cycle ago for her.

That mission, at least, had been a success.

Zoe and Jayne were none too happy about the latest plan, but Cap thought it was a good one and that was good enough for Kaylee. The plan went off without a hitch, shiny as you please.

There was one problem, of course, 'cause no plan ever goes perfectly right. Chiana didn't find anything more about her friends than a few scraps of paper.

Kaylee found her in the mess early the next morning. Kaylee herself hadn't actually gone to bed, she'd been so preoccupied with the gear they'd picked up on Helios. It was just like being a kid on Christmas morning, 'cept that they'd always been too poor to have more'n a couple presents each.

Chiana looked like she hadn't gone to bed neither.

"Hey there, Chiana. You look like you could use somethin' to eat."

She looked up from studying one of those scraps of paper she'd found, which looked like it might blow to pieces if you stared at it too hard. "Oh. Yeah, I suppose it couldn't hurt."

"My mama always used to say that skippin' breakfast was like skippin' church on Sunday. Course I don't get to church much, but Shepherd Book's real nice about givin' me a few good thoughts."

"I knew a priest. A priestess, actually."

"Really? What was she like?"

Chiana laughed. "Tall, blue and bald."

That surprised an answering laugh right out of Kaylee. "Imagine."

Kaylee babbled on about all sorts of things while she was making breakfast. She told Chiana all about the folks on Serenity and how well they got along with each other and how they'd managed to come aboard.

"And what about you?" Chiana asked when she was done.

"Me? Oh, nothin' special. I was in the engine room with the old mechanic and fixed some stuff, and Captain offered me a job, is all."

"What were you doing in the engine room?"

Kaylee grinned. "I was flat on my back, I don't mind sayin'."

Chiana's eyes widened and she giggled with real delight. "Seriously?"

"Yep. Was the first time havin' sex got me anything more than a sore back and a coupla real happy minutes, that's for sure. Captain fired Bester and everything."

"That is kinkoid."

"You're probably right, but I wouldn't trade it, all the same."

"Was he any good? The mechanic?"

"Aw, fair-to-middlin'."

"Serves him right then!"

That set 'em to laughing again, and Jayne stumbled in and bitched that they'd woke him up with their squealing, so Kaylee asked Chiana to come back to the engine room.

It took awhile, but she got her talking all about her friends on her old ship -- and it was a half-alive ship, ain't that enough to make you flip your lid. It all seemed sorta like a fairy tale to Kaylee, kind of like the stories they tell about Earth-That-Was.

Then she talked about what happened later, the bad guys and the wars and working with the underground. She talked about her friend John, who was from Earth and taught her English just so he could keep from going out of his head. It seemed to make her sad all over again, but the days wore on and she seemed to put it behind her. Just like all the burdens Kaylee could let herself get weighed down by. You just gotta lay 'em down, like her Mama always told her. Sometimes, 'specially with people dying so much, and hurting so much, it was harder than it should be.

Chiana needed a friend pretty bad, and Kaylee had always been willing to make friends. It don't seem so strange to think of aliens being out there when you realize that so many of the Core planets the first settlers come across were already hospitable to living, breathing humans.

Cap made real clear that first night that nobody could say nothing about the real live alien living on their ship, to anybody who weren't already on board. He had to tell Jayne three times that meant he couldn't even tell his mama. Captain showed Chiana the secret smuggling spots to hide in whenever anybody chanced to come on board.

After about a week or so, it seemed like things were gonna swing right back to as much normal as they could come by, so of course that's when it all started to go wrong.

Captain come to her in the engine room just before supper. He leaned hard against the wall and waited until she looked up from adjusting the compression coil so the engine hummed pure and clean.

"Somethin' you want, Captain?" He usually just started in on whatever it was he needed to say. She got distracted by the sound coming from the engine, though. "Don't she just sound beautiful?"

"That she does, Kaylee. You mind if we just sit down for a spell?"

Her stomach started to twinge funny, and she stared at him a couple seconds longer than was strictly necessary. "Sure." She sat against the wall, and he followed suit. "Now what's gone wrong?"

"You know that disc we took from the mercs on Helios?"

"Sure, the bounty on Simon and River."

"Well, it looks like it's a lot more'n just a bounty."

Kaylee twisted a little piece of her hair. "I don't follow."

"It's got some other kind of information on it. We don't know what it is, it's got a passcode lock. None of us here is trained to crack that kind of stuff."

"Didja have the Preacher try?"

Cap gave her this little sideways look. "Yeah, we gave it to him when Zoe and Wash and me couldn't figure it. He couldn't either."

"So...I don't understand. What's the problem? They ain't got any information about Simon and River that we don't know already."

Captain looked away at the floor. Wouldn't even look at her when he started in again. "Remember when River shot those men without even lookin'?"

She wanted to throw up. Of course she did. She still gets queasy every time she has to shoot a gun, but after what happened with Early she couldn't see a way 'round it. "Sure I do."

"What if the Academy knew she could do that?"

Kaylee frowned. The engine was startin' to sound sluggish. She got up and made a tiny adjustment to the compression coil settings.

"What're you saying?"

"I'm just saying that I don't like the idea of a bunch of mercenaries walkin' around knowing something about River we don't."

Kaylee set down her wrench a little harder than she should have. Her Papa would have taken her over his knee for treatin' her tools that way. "Like what?"

Cap stood up. "Ni bu dong ma? She could be a trained assassin, Kaylee! One day she could just snap and murder us all in our beds, and I hear that's far less pleasant than it sounds. Ain't no telling why they did what they did to that girl's brain, but the Alliance is goin' around warning their bounty hunters about it!"

"Hao le ma! I get it!" Kaylee dashed traitorous tears from her eyes. "Okay, so why are you tellin' me about this!"

Mal sighed and leaned against the wall again. "I thought you wanted me to tell you things. Ain't that what this is all about? The gun? Insisting on going along when we do jobs? You gotta know what you're up against Kaylee."

"Well, what are we gonna do about it?"

"I haven't decided yet. Zoe an' me are thinking on it."

"Have you told Simon and River?"

"Had a long talk with Simon about it when we first found the disc."

Kaylee sniffed and picked her wrench up. "You should tell River too. She's ain't a kid, and she ain't an idiot, either."

"Figured I'd let Simon do the tellin' on that end."

She glanced up from behind her curtain of hair. "Murderin' aside, you ain't scared of her, are you?"

He turned to leave. "Petrified, I ain't ashamed to admit."

She grinned. "Liar. You are too ashamed."

He smiled over his shoulder. "Zhuzui."

Inara cornered Mal in the cockpit late that night. She knew he usually sat up late with Serenity after everyone else had gone to bed, but she rarely took advantage of the opportunity that afforded.

Serenity was Mal's first love, and she was likely to be his last.

"You're up awfully late," she said, and he started rather violently.

"Now that's the second time you've snuck up on me in recent memory," he said, swiveling in Wash's chair.

"Perhaps you should expect me more often. At any rate, I think I may have a solution to your little problem."

Mal's eyebrows rose. "What makes you think I have a...problem?"

Inara rolled her eyes. "Quit being juvenile, Mal, I'm not always talking about sex."

"Well, perhaps you could enlighten me as to what problem you're referrin' to."

She sighed. Of course he would have to make this difficult. "I know about the disc, Mal."

He stood abruptly, angrily, but rather than starting toward her he turned to the viewscreen. She could see his shadowy reflection. "You know, I didn't think Kaylee needed to be told not to blab that particular bit of information all over the ship." Whether he was angry that she knew or just angry in general was anybody's guess.

"Kaylee didn't tell me. Simon did, and surely it's his information to tell. I wasn't aware that he'd told Kaylee."

"I told Kaylee."

Inara cocked one eyebrow. How typical.

"Aw, don't look at me like that."

"Certainly. I'll also refrain from commenting on pots and kettles."

Now he did turn toward her, but stood his ground. "Subtle." Mal crossed his arms. "Anyway, this is my ship and surely something like that is mine to tell as well, if I get the feelin'."

"If you insist."


"Mal, I didn't come here to argue. I've been thinking about this for several days. I've found the weak spot in the Alliance's defenses."

"No offense, Inara, but what do you know about the Alliance's defenses?"

"I know that the information gathered by all Alliance academies is stored on one central computer, and that each academy can access that information from a single terminal in each institution."

"Shiny. So all we gotta do is break into the Academy and find out what they programmed into that girl's brain? Why didn't I think of that before!"

She sighed. "Mal, I attended an Alliance academy."

Mal became very still. He wasn't a fidgety man by nature, but this was extraordinary. His next words burst forth heatedly. "So you're sayin' we could break into your whoring school and find out about River? How come you never told me this before?"

"For God's sake, Mal, when are you going to stop calling me a whore? I'd have thought there was ample evidence to the contrary at this point. One doesn't need to belong to a Guild in order to fuck for money, Mal!" To Inara's horror, she discovered there were hot tears staining her cheeks. She brushed them away angrily.

"Well excuse me for gettin' a might tetchy when I find out you been holdin' out on my and my crew! You shoulda told me this ages ago, Inara, or was that some kind of punishment for me bein' a chunren?"

"God damn it, this was a recent discovery! It hadn't occurred to me that the academies might be linked until Artemis! I couldn't think of another way the House Mother could have made the connection so quickly, between River's status and the ship I said I was on. I had a loyal friend confirm it for me, but it wasn't until last week that I thought it might do us any good, and that's the God's honest truth, Mal, whether you believe me or not!"

"Whoa, slow down!" He reached out to her and she pulled away. "You don't gotta go gettin' all excitable on me, I do believe you, Inara. Jesus, I didn't mean nothing by it."

"Look, you have two options. You can either stop belittling me and listen to what I have to say, or you can go to hell."

He rolled his eyes and sank down into Wash's chair again. "Fine. So talk."

"This would have been a lot simpler had I not been shunned by the Guild; I could have simply walked in and requested time to peruse my records. As it is, it's still possible; we're just on a much shorter schedule. We'll choose a House, probably on one of the border planets. Once we're on the terminal, it should be much simpler to break the code than on a disc anyone could stumble across out in the black."

"I see one glaring fault with your plan. No way are you turnin' yourself in. I won't hear of it."

She threw hands in the air. "Mal, I wouldn't be turning myself in. I would be, purportedly, selling you out in order to get my status back. I'd need a hostage. I'm afraid the best option I've considered is Kaylee."


"She's not in any direct danger from the Alliance, and it's believable that Simon might turn himself in to prevent his girlfriend from being harmed. I know it's not strictly the truth, but while Kaylee isn't much of an actress, she wouldn't have to feign affection for Simon."

"I ain't lettin' you put yourself at risk, and I sure as hell ain't lettin' you put Kaylee at risk."

"That's why we're going to a Companion House. Kaylee will be much safer there than in the hands of actual Alliance personnel. And if we're on a border planet, there should be enough time -- while we're creating sufficient distraction -- for you to break in and get the information you need off the House's terminal. It's a good plan, Mal. The Guild is always trying to curry favor with the Alliance."

"I knew there was a reason I didn't like you being all Companiony."

"Aside from the hundred obvious ones

"I'll admit you've got me there."

Inara let out a deep sigh. "The question is, how much do you want that information?"

He did not take the question lightly. He spun in Wash's chair to stare out into the black once again. Finally, not looking at her, he said, "Not that much."

That surprised her. "Well then you're more of a chunren than I thought," she said quietly.

He said nothing. She was about to leave, when he finally turned to her and spoke. "I can honestly say I never expected to hear you use the kind of language you did earlier."

She felt like dropping her head into her hands. There were moments nearly every day like this, when Inara knew she should have left Serenity, for all that she loved it. She kept coming up with excuses for staying; it was too sudden for Kaylee, it was too far out on the rim, the climate was too harsh. Until finally, she approached the House on Artemis and found she'd waited too long. Now there was nothing but the defeat of having the same arguments over and over again, with no way to break out of this cycle.

"You think I haven't heard it before, Mal?" Her voice gave the slightest tremor, but it gained strength as she continued. "You think being a Companion isn't a dangerous profession? Why else would I know how to fight hand-to-hand? Why would I own a gun?" She grabbed for his arm as he made to turn away. "Why would I know enough first aid to earn my keep as Serenity's nurse, Mal, if we never had to patch up other girls in the House who'd come back from bad appointments? Believe me, there are plenty of bastards in the 'Verse who think of Companions as whores, just like you, and they use us however they please."

"Inara. I don't..."

"Of course you don't, Mal. You never do." She turned and walked away, over his protests. At least he had the sense not to follow her.

He'd never understand that she only stayed in a life like that because she loved it as much as he loved his. Anyone would be crazy to be a Companion if they didn't love it. Mal had such provincial mores, the chasm between them was too wide to cross. They were like the city mouse and the country mouse from the old Earth-That-Was folktale.

Never a place where they both could stand.

She rounded the corner and practically ran into Chiana. "Oh God! You scared me!"

The girl was staring at her most intently. "You're a tralk?"

"Excuse me?"

"Look, I'm sorry, I don't know a good word in your language. John didn't teach me the finer points of selling your body for credits."

Inara stormed past her, irritated. "You were listening? How much did you hear?" She didn't bother lowering her voice as they passed the crew quarters.

"Enough." Chiana followed after her.

"So essentially everything."

"You could say that."

Inara took the steps down into the mess swiftly. She selected a large pot and set about boiling some water. A tea ceremony would be soothing, and water heated faster here than in her shuttle. "You shouldn't have been listening. What goes on between Mal and I is our concern."

"He's rejecting a good plan because he cares about you."

"He has a strange way of showing it."

"Probably." Chiana hopped up on the counter and flashed Inara a brilliant smile. "Most men do." Inara couldn't help but laugh softly. "That still leaves a good plan abandoned for a bad reason."

"I may not agree with your reasoning, but I agree with your point. Believe me, the last word on the subject has not been spoken."

"He needs to be willing to give up everything if he's going to win."

Inara stiffened. "Don't ever say that to Mal," she snapped.

"Why?" Chiana demanded.

The water boiled. "Because this isn't a war." Inara took it off the burner. "And because once before he gave up everything and lost anyway." She hesitated, just barely. She tried to hide it by taking a deep breath, but she felt sure Chiana picked up on it anyway. "Would you like some tea?"

Chiana regarded her curiously, head moving from side to side. "Yeah. Sure." She slid to the floor and followed Inara toward her shuttle.

They walked in silence. Once they reached the shuttle, Inara laid out the tea service. The Welcoming Ceremony was something she missed. It had no place here, but the trappings would serve her soul well enough. Part of being a Companion was something akin to religion, and Shepherd Book's kind-hearted overtures could not fill that void.

There were the small cups, several sets for different circumstances. She chose the ones that were engraved with the symbol for tranquility. These were rarely used after a Companion's first few clients; they were meant to soothe frayed nerves through sympathetic magic. She used them often on Serenity.

Inara also set out the tins of fine tea she'd amassed over the years, some of which were distressingly near to being empty. She'd never replace them now.

The teapot was next, her favorite, a simple brown clay with an elaborately-carved handle. This pot she never used with clients.

Chiana watched as she spooned tea into the pot and added still-steaming water. The scent drifted up to Inara and she breathed in the vapor gratefully.

"I wasn't a whore," she said bluntly. "As you heard earlier, not everyone understands that."

Chiana shrugged. "There aren't many days that a really good frell can't make brighter."

Inara laughed. "You obviously didn't understand what I said."

"Oh, I understand fine. I just wouldn't care you were a whore."

Inara poured tea into the cups, which warmed quickly to the touch. She handed one to Chiana. "That's an attitude I wish more people would cultivate."

Chiana cradled her cup in gloved hands. "I could help, you know."

Inara frowned. "With what?" she chuckled.

"With your robbery. A good thief doesn't need a distraction to get in undetected. Sometimes, of course, they can be useful for getting out."

Inara took the first sip of her tea. Her right hamstring was starting to feel strained. If this were a true Welcoming Ceremony, she would disguise the slight movement necessary to ease the pressure by shifting closer to her client.

"You're suggesting that the House Mother never need know the true reason we were there? It's a good idea, but this requires more than an elementary codebraker. I don't believe you're familiar enough with current technology."

"Hm." Chiana set down her cup. "I knew a tech genius once. Brilliant girl. Got shot in the gut." She rose smoothly and surveyed the contents of Inara's dressing table. "Do you mind?"

"By all means."

Chiana selected a pot of Inara's heaviest concealer and began spreading it over her face. "I can get your codebreaker in and out without being noticed. If I could get Jool in and out of Peacekeeper High Command, I can work with anybody. The rest is up to them."

The effect of the makeup was rather startling. It would have to be precisely executed, but Inara was beginning to see how this could be carried off with more of her own finesse than Mal's brute force.

She opened a trunk and removed an elaborate black wig she'd purchased years ago following a period of long illness. She had reason to know it would hold with moderate activity. "Here," she said, and situated it loosely on Chiana's head.

"Drad," she said, and Inara was suddenly reminded that this was an alien girl here in her room. She'd gotten used to looking at the gray skin after a week.

"This would be a dangerous endeavor," Inara said.

"That's the only kind worth doing," Chiana answered, grinning cheekily.

"Why would you risk your life for River's?" Because no matter that they'd successfully hidden the bodies on Helios because of this girl; her loyalties were unproven.

Chiana replaced the makeup pot. Her face was only half-finished. "I want to find out what happened out there. To my friends. And my race, and all the other races. That girl is probably my best chance. There's no telling what's just going to pop out of her head one day. Wouldn't you do the same?"

"Life is dangerous enough without risking it for something you don't need and might never find."

"That's not what I heard going on with you and the Captain earlier."

Inara turned and stowed the wig back in her trunk. "That's different."

"It's not." Chiana touched her arm. "There's another reason. I've been hunted for something I had in my head. My best friend in the universe has been, too. I've been doing this so long, I wouldn't know how to stop."

"That's remarkable, if it's the truth. Some days I think I can't possibly keep going."

"No, you're a survivor. I can tell. I've survived the same things."

She squeezed Inara's arm and slipped out of the shuttle, barely disturbing the air around her as she left.

Pots and pans CRASHING to the ground with a satisfying clatter.

Simon, oh Simon, he comes and he comes and he never gets anywhere. He looks at River and his face molds into the Unhappy River face. "River...?"

Her name is always a question with him, always a quest and "I want it to stop," she says.

They're all looking at her. After all, she crashed the pots. Cause and desired effect.

"I know you want it to stop, River, that's what we're talking about."

Little dots waiting to turn into words which will explicate her situation in terms far too stark for any of them to handle. But it will keep them from talking about her like she is an abstract construct rather than a living-flesh girl full of blood and bile and piss. Simon is always so wrong about her. "NO, no, no, no," she tells him, and it makes him nervous because he's forgotten he used to tell her the same thing, back when he was a boy.

"I never thought I'd say this," Mal says, "but I agree with River."

Mal loves her far more than he will ever, ever admit. She's willing to keep his secret. She keeps a lot of their secrets, like the rare occasions when Zoe seeks an empty place and cries. Or the Shepherd's layers on layers of truth and lies. They all love her, with the exception of Jayne; he fears her, which is nearly as good.

"I want the ARGUING to stop," she says, with great effort, pushing the needed thought out from the clamorous muddle of words and ideas and images dancing across the backs of her eyeballs.

Her head is loud, loud, LOUD and a thousand days passes in her brain before she takes a breath. It hurts more than she can possibly bear, but for less than a second.

They mean so well. The lovely alien girl is masked to look like one of them. It's a game she plays once in a month of Sundays. This unsettles River; it is unnecessarily confusing. For all that she sees inside of things, outward trappings throw her too easily.

"I think..." Wash says, funny Wash, faithful Wash, washing day, "we just got told off by the crazy girl."

He may call her the crazy girl but he never thinks it. She appreciates that about him, because his secrets are nice.

River's eyes narrow and she approaches Chiana. She stretches out a spidery hand to touch the black wig that Inara bought when her hair fell out; she was young and foolish and that is another secret River keeps.

"She cried when they cut it," she says. "Mother needed the money and the daughter cried. It took two of them to hold her down."

Chiana takes her hand. Her secrets are hard to discern, they come across such a vast chasm of time, if not space.

Silence. Simon ruffles his hair and he says, "I know I have no right to ask this of any of you, but...I'll beg if I have to."

"You don't have to ask, Simon, I'm offering."

Simon and Inara had sex once, three months ago. River keeps this secret because there are too many people who would be hurt by it. They laughed about it later. They're still friends. River finds this curious.

"We're all offerin'," Kaylee says, oh, such a firm jaw. Such a firm heart. "All of us who're in on this, me and Inara and Chiana and Zoe."

Zoe, Zoe looks like she has eaten something rotten, but she will help because she secretly has a kind heart.

"Yeah, well, what about me an' Jayne when we have to come in with blazin' guns to rescue you lot?"

Zoe looks sharp as knives and says, "I reckon we won't need rescuing, sir."

"We aren't damsels in distress, Mal." Inara glares.

Chiana, oddly, says nothing.

"Now, nobody's saying that," Preacher breaks in. Peacemaker. Back breaker. "We're just saying that perhaps you should have a backup plan."

"We do have a backup plan," Kaylee says. "Cap and Jayne come in with guns blazin' and get us out 'fore Alliance gets there."

"Hopefully we don't resort to blowing anything up," Chiana offers. Ah, there's a secret. Two. Three. Oh, oh, too many to count. They all look at Chiana now. "That was a joke...sort of."

"We don't...have any bombs on board, do we, Mal?" Wash asks.

"Not unless one of you is a chemistry genius and I don't know 'bout it."

One by one, nine pairs of eyes zero in on River. Simon is first. Jayne is last, because he is slow sometimes.

She sits on her hands. "Don't look at me," she says, and smiles innocently.

"I hate this plan," Zoe said. With feeling. Lots of feeling.

It was this godforsaken dress they'd forced her to wear. Zoe wasn't built for wearing dresses. Particularly not when she was also required to carry a pistol, wear a radio, and possibly kick some ass before the day was out.

"I love this plan," Chiana said.

And that was probably also a large part of what Zoe hated about this plan. It wasn't that she hated Chiana. The girl had a few worrying tendencies, was all.

Serenity was in orbit, for God's sake; Mal and Jayne, the backup, came down with them in Shuttle Two, Kaylee rode along in Inara's shuttle, because that was all part of the plan.

This plan, that Zoe hated.

"That must be it," Chiana said, pointing to the rather large building marked "House Naidrina," with all manner of curlicues and other completely unnecessary frippery dripping off the front.

"You don't say."

"Oh, come on," Chiana said, skipping a little. Skipping! "You gotta admit that this is pretty exciting."

"I gotta admit that this is pretty humiliating."

"Even tough girls can wear dresses. Aeryn...actually, I never saw Aeryn wear a dress, either."

"I got no objection to dresses in principle. I wore a dress at my wedding, and I wore one to my mother's funeral. But in practice, I can't even walk in this goddamn thing."

Chiana stopped and gave her a long, hard look. "You just gotta relax."

"She me?"

"Relax. You don't have to walk like you have a pole up your--"

"Finish that sentence and I will kill you."

She sighed. "Here. Your shoulders are too far back. Look, just stand like you normally do, okay?"

"I can't. It's too tight. This is Inara's dress, if you'll remember." Inara's most voluminous dress, let out to the farthest extent possible. And it was pink. She hated pink almost as much as she hated this plan.

"Stop complaining, you look great."

Zoe rolled her eyes. Made-up, tied up, kitted out and such manipulation of body and face and breasts and hair as she'd never even thought possible. "I look like a damn fool."

Chiana clutched her arm. "Okay, look, there's the group coming back from the baths. Right when Inara said they would. See? This plan's going to go off without a stitch."

"Don't you mean 'hitch?'"

"Whatever. Come on!" She slipped into the crowd of made-up, pushed-up girls as fluid as water. Zoe heaved a sigh and followed after her, trying not to walk like she had a pole up her ass.

As they passed a group of men staring so hard their eyes were like to fall out, a particularly brave man broke off and approached Zoe. "Pardon me, but I was wondering if you were free --"

"Coa ni zuxian shi ba dai," Zoe snapped.

He paled and faded into the background.

Chiana and Zoe didn't migrate toward one another until they got well inside the House. The plan was for Zoe and Chiana to slip inside the room holding the terminal right before Inara showed up holding Kaylee at gunpoint. Gun had to be loaded, and Zoe could only hope that Inara knew what she was doing. The chances of that being about fifty-fifty, all told. Not exactly odds she'd want to gamble her life on.

But, here she was.

They were both keeping a silent count. Zoe got to one hundred and slowly made her way over to the door Inara'd marked out on an unsurprisingly detailed map she'd drawn.

It was hard to remember Rule Number One, as stated by Inara: don't scowl at anyone. Scowling just felt so natural.

By the time Zoe passed the door, casually enough to be sure, Chiana was finishing the last little manipulation in picking the lock. Zoe, for her part, woulda waited until Inara got here in hysterics and then kicked the door down. So maybe there were parts of this plan that didn't suck after all.

"Okay, Gadget Girl," Chiana said, and Zoe glared. "It's all yours."

Zoe slipped behind the terminal and touched her radio transmitter, hidden under a brooch the size of a man's fist. "Husband? You better start talking."

Wash's voice came through with minimum static. "Whatever you say, oh love of my life."

She clamped down firmly on any latent desire she might have to actually smile at the sweet fool. "Just get me in and out of here as fast as possible. I need to take this dress off."

"Ooh, can I help?"

There was something of a ruckus outside the closed door. Now or never. "If you can get me out of here before Inara starts shooting people, you can do whatever you want."

Inara explained all nice and sweet beforehand that she was gonna have to really act like she didn't care one whit what happened to Kaylee, but it was a surprise all the same to see her go so stiff-necked and serious the moment before they even stepped out of the shuttle. She guessed that's what made Inara a Companion and Kaylee nothing but a farm girl who liked a good tumble now and then.

She don't even have to pretend to be scared when they got within sight of the House and Inara put an honest-to-God loaded gun against her neck. She shivered a little, and Inara whispered, just the quietest little voice, "Be strong, mei mei."

"Aw, I'm just upset I'm the only one didn't get to dress up all pretty, is all," Kaylee said, trying to make Inara feel better even if she weren't supposed to hide one ought of the very real fear she was feeling.

Inara don't even knock, or use the big velvet cord that probably rung a set of chiming bells or something, she just marched right up to the door and threw it open. A few girls right in the doorway gasped, 'cause Inara borrowed one of the Captain's very fine, very large guns for the occasion so's everybody would know she was serious. "I want to speak to the House Mother," Inara said, and boy, if she talked to Kaylee like that, Kaylee'd sure as shootin' do anything she asked.

A coupla real pretty little girls shrieked and ran off into the back of the house, calling for the House Mother. The rest of 'em looked at Inara with these big cow eyes, like none of 'em had ever seen somebody being held at gunpoint. Border planets weren't no place for girls like them, but here they were nonetheless. Even Kaylee'd seen somebody get shot 'fore she came on board Serenity.

She tried to look real scared. Inara pressed the muzzle of the gun a little harder into her neck and Kaylee didn't fake the little squeak she made. "'Nara, you don't gotta do this," she said. Inara pulled her hair a little harder and...

Oh, God. Oh. For just a second, Kaylee couldn't breathe, 'cause all of a sudden it was like she was back in the engine room again, getting tied up by Early. She knew Inara'd never really hurt her, but the fear came rushing back and Kaylee didn't have to act at all.

She burst into tears, and Inara rubbed the back of her neck a little, but it didn't help. Too much terror just racing through her veins, making her heart beat two times for every second that passed. "Inara, please," she wailed.

"Be zui," Inara snapped. "You just shut up before I pull this trigger. Don't think I won't."

"WHAT is the meaning of this!" a big voice boomed, old and grandmotherly and enough to put the fear of God into a normal person. "Why, if it isn't Inara Sera. Have you come back to spoil our home, then?"

"Beatriz. I wasn't aware that you were Mother at House Naidrina. What an unexpected pleasure."

"The Guild shunned you far later than they should have, Inara, traipsing around the rim with a band of petty criminals and importuning the name of Companion. We'd all heard stories. I spat on the ground when I'd heard you were finally caught out."

"Oh, Beatriz, you might want to wait until I've told my tale before you threaten me. I have a prize for you, here."

"You gotta help, me, lady, please don't let Inara do this to Simon..." Kaylee gasped, like she'd just made a horrible mistake. "Oh!"

"I've come to make you an offer, my dear. The Alliance has a fine bounty out on two of the passengers aboard my ship, and I've grown tired of existing on the fringes of society. This girl, our sweet little Kaylee, will draw them right to you, where you may do with them as you please. I'd recommend contacting the Alliance immediately. Simon and River Tam are within your grasp, as is the sizable reward."

Inara sounded so much like she meant those things, and she weren't doing anything to soothe Kaylee now. Kaylee let out what was probably a pretty pathetic wail, all told, but the cow-eyed girls jumped, so it musta been okay.

The big mean House Mother took a long look at Kaylee, and another at Inara, who was decked out in all her best and finest clothes, like she hadn't been for months since she got shunned.

"And what do you want in exchange, Inara? Surely this isn't merely a gesture of goodwill."

"I'm surprised to have to ask, Beatriz. I want my position back. I want my status fully restored within the Guild. Oh, don't worry, I won't be stopping at House Naidrina. Zenith is far too provincial for my tastes. I'll find a House much closer to the Core, and you needn't trouble yourself with me ever again."

The House Mother stood there staring at the two of 'em for a couple minutes, looking like she was thinking it over. She kept looking off to the side, though, and Inara's hold on Kaylee's hair kept getting tighter and tighter, like she didn't even know she was doing it. Finally Kaylee caught the clue, and looked over in the direction the House Mother was finding so fascinating.

Oh, Mother of God, there was a big bald guy standing there, arms crossed over his chest and looking mighty displeased. Didn't Inara know this place had bodyguards, or was she just not thinking of that?

"Your offer is intriguing," the House Mother finally said, "but you'll have to forgive me if I doubt its authenticity. I don't trust you, Inara, and I never have. I remember when you left House Madrassa, and though you may not realize it, I remember why. If you'll excuse me, I'll contact the Alliance before I agree to any of your terms."

Oh God, she was heading toward the room where Zoe and Chiana were. That weren't hardly enough time for them to get out of there. Inara yanked Kaylee back so hard she saw stars. "No!" she cried.

She pointed the gun right at the House Mother.

"Okay, I'm in their system. You ready for the uplink?"

"Yeah, do you see anything on River?" Wash's voice, hollow through the comm.

"Hold on, I'm scrolling through it all."

Zoe worked furiously at the terminal while Chiana watched. Frell, there was too much here. How many kids were they doing these experiments on, anyway?

"Tam, Tam, we go. R. Tam. Damn it!"

"What? Zoe, what is it?"

"There are four R. Tams," she said, hands flying still.

Chiana crept to the door and put her ear against it. It'd gotten eerily quiet out there, but if she listened really hard she could hear Kaylee crying.

"This is it. You getting this, Wash?"

"It's coming through great, sweetie."

Suddenly they heard Inara shout "No!" very clearly through the door. Several microts later, there was a series of gunshots. Zoe looked up, alarmed.

"We have to go. Now."

"Agreed," Chiana said.

"Husband, can you break the uplink from there?"

"Yeah, yeah -- motherless dog-humping elephants, Zoe, what's going --" Zoe ripped the brooch off her dress and hitched up her skirts. There was an impressive assortment of weapons hidden under there.

Chiana's dress was slinky and there was no room to conceal her intentions, much less a gun. "Here, give me one," she said, and Zoe tossed her a pistol.

"You know how to use that?"

"Point and pull the trigger, I'm guessing."

"There'll be recoil. Not much, but steady your arm before you shoot. That's a six-shooter, means you only have six rounds."

"Six rounds! That's frelled!" More gunshots from outside, and the sounds of a window breaking a little too nearby for comfort. Girls were squealing and running around all over the place out there. "What am I going to do with only six shots? Give me another one!" She held out her hand.

"These two are mine. Here." Zoe produced a long rifle from somewhere underneath her skirt.

"No wonder you walked like you had a pole up your ass!" Chiana tucked the six-shooter in the sash of her dress and pressed her ear to the door again. There was some kind of struggle going on outside. "Ready?"

"Wait." Zoe pulled a lever on Chiana's gun. "You gotta do that every time you take a shot, understand?"

"You people and your inferior technology!"

"On three. Okay?"


Zoe counted to three, and Chiana threw open the door, yowling. They ran forward into chaos.

She'd been so wrong. God forgive her, she'd been so wrong.

Inara never expected to find Beatriz as the House Mother at House Naidrina. They'd never gotten on when they'd both been at House Madrassa. The last she'd known, the House Mother was an old crone by the name of Zhang Seng. But Inara's information was at least six months out of date, and God, this was about to get very bad, very quickly.

Beatriz turned to call the Alliance -- likely from the very room Zoe and Chiana were in -- and she certainly wouldn't be making any deals. Kaylee's face when she'd looked over Inara's shoulder told her all she needed to know -- the guards had been summoned, and Inara didn't trust Beatriz not to simply have her shot.

"No!" She trained Mal's gun on the old bat, fully prepared to use it if she had to.

Beatriz stopped short. "Why, Inara, surely you don't begrudge me the privilege of verifying your tale?"

"You'll take the credit for yourself, and happily send me to prison along with the fugitives. No, Beatriz, I want a signed document stating the terms of the deal, pending capture of the Tams. I'm sure you can have one of your girls fetch ink and paper from her rooms."

Beatriz's gaze flicked off to the side once more, and she gave a barely perceptible nod.

Without thinking, Inara let go of Kaylee and spun, pulling off three shots as she turned. The girls screamed. The bodyguard standing behind her fell to the ground, surprise etched all over his hulking face.

A series of bullets lodged in the wall nearby, fired by a second bodyguard who'd appeared out of nowhere. Kaylee dragged Inara into a shallow alcove that offered dubious protection at best. She noticed Kaylee had produced her own gun from one of her jumpsuit's copious pockets. Kaylee fired off one of her six precious shots.

Beatriz was shouting, the girls were screaming, and one fragile-looking redhead was staring, stricken, at a spreading red stain in the body of her dress. Inara didn't know whose bullet had hit the girl, but she cursed herself as the girl fainted, leaving a trail of red slime on the wall behind her.

"Inara," Kaylee said, nodding at the still-open front door.

"Not yet," Inara said. "We have to give Zoe and Chiana more time."

Gritting her teeth, Inara leaned out to take a shot. A window in the back of the hall shattered.

Kaylee gasped and fired off two more rounds. A boy coming around the corner with a huge laser rifle swore and ducked back behind.

Suddenly, an unholy sort of war cry tore through the House. A door burst open, and Inara saw Chiana and Zoe tumble into the hall, weapons at the ready.

"Okay, Kaylee, we're ready."

"Sure thing, Inara."

The boy with the laser rifle swung out from behind the wall and aimed right at Kaylee. Kaylee was already on the move, however. The laser blast hit the wall right where Kaylee had just been standing.

"Zoe!" Inara shouted, and she and Kaylee edged toward the front door.

"Uh, Inara, can't go that way," Kaylee said, panic overwhelming her voice.

Police pervaded the street outside. Oh, ta ma de. At least it wasn't the Alliance.

"This way!" Chiana called out to them, and Inara saw what she meant to do. There was a courtyard in the back of the House, and beyond that, presumably, a warren of alleys and narrow streets.

Kaylee fired off two more shots at the boy with the laser gun. He let out a sharp cry and fell on his own rifle.

"Come on," Inara cried, pulling Kaylee after her.

A girl from the House, fierce anger staining her face red, stepped out in front of them with a chair raised over her head. They stumbled backward just in time to avoid it crashing down on them. Inara, faced with little choice, swung Mal's gun into the side of the girl's face. It connected with a sharp crack, and she fell out of their way.

There was a brief lull; Inara and Kaylee ran for the back of the house. Zoe crouched in a corner, picking off snipers in the upper mezzanine one by one. Kaylee fired once in the same direction, but her shot went wild. Chiana was nowhere to be seen. Zoe swung in behind them as they burst into the courtyard.

There was Chiana -- her arms held in an iron grip by the second bodyguard.

Suddenly, a bright, gruesome globule of red bloomed from the bodyguard's forehead; Chiana shrugged him off as he fell, and behind him, Inara saw Mal in the door of the shuttle, waiting ten feet above the courtyard.

They ran. Kaylee scaled the rope ladder first, then Inara. Chiana was about to start up, when the back door burst open and the Police swarmed the courtyard.

Shots were fired. Kaylee, already at the top of the ladder, tried to fire, but her gun only clicked desperately. She was out of bullets.

Zoe shouted, and when Inara looked back, Chiana was on the ground. Zoe grabbed the girl under the arms, then set one foot on the ladder, looped her free arm through, and shouted at Mal to go.

Mal shouted to Jayne, and the shuttle rose swiftly through the air, far out of firing range. Inara almost lost her grip. She held on tight and prayed, declining to scale the rest of the ladder.

Less than five minutes later, they were landing near her own shuttle. She jumped five feet to the ground, as she'd seen Zoe do. She nearly twisted her ankle.

Zoe pushed past her, Chiana in her arms, to get into Shuttle Two. "She needs Simon," Zoe said tersely.

Mal caught her eye. "Go on, Inara. Meet us back at Serenity."

The hatch closed, and Inara was left staring as Shuttle Two became a tiny speck in the sky.

She heard sirens. Inara roused herself and made for her own shuttle, and the relative safety of the black.

"Da xiang de gou cao zhe xiao gu, Zoe, what's going ON down there!" Wash rips the radio off his head; throws it, stomps and tromps and throws a fit.

"What's wrong, son?" Preacher-man asks, and River raises her brows. Oh.

"It's all gone wrong." She shakes her head. "Guns and guns and pretty maids all in a row." She looks up. "They're in trouble," she states.

"I know that!" Wash shouts. He shouts at her so rarely. It would hurt her feelings if she didn't know he's breaking inside for Zoe. If she could see like Chiana, River might be able to tell him it will be okay.

Or not. And she wouldn't lie.

"That's it, we're going down," Wash says, sits furiously in his chair and pulls levers to wake Serenity from her sleep.

"No!" Simon protests in horror. "They're calling the Alliance down! We can't risk River like that!"

"We can't risk my wife like that!"

"Hold on, we should just stop and think about this for a minute, gentlemen --"

"Your wife is a better fighter than you are! Mal and Jayne are down there, what do you think you might do that could make a difference?"

"I gotta tell you, Doc, I don't especially care if all I can do is throw myself in front of her before she gets shot. The Alliance are on their way anyway, and we're not going to be any safer in orbit than we are on the ground!"

"We ought to wait for the Captain's instructions!"

River screams. "STOP IT!"

Mal's voice crackles over the radio. "Now, that there's a new record. Second time I've agreed with River in three days. Y'all are to stay right where you are until we come back from this job."

River runs and she runs as their angry voices burst forth again, everybody arguing, not about her, but because of her. And she isn't upset, it's not that, it's just that (she never did like to hear people shouting, it wasn't the most effective way to communicate) it's just so LOUD, everyone talking at once.

The rest of Serenity is quiet, quiet like a tomb and she runs away from the cockpit. Girls dying left and right. Inara's hurt. Kaylee almost gets shot.

River sees it all.

She runs into the cargo hold and waits, buries her head under her arms and sings, loudly, old songs from when she was a babe. Try to drown them out. It never works, but she never stops trying.

Hours, years, perhaps only seconds later the doors of the shuttles burst open, Mal's first, but Inara's right after, and everyone is shouting at once again, Mal shouting for Simon and black ink staining everyone's hands.


It's blood.

River creeps up the stairs, flows like wind through the halls and peers through the infirmary window.

Chiana, in all her pretty clothes, her human-mask rubbed nearly clean off. She's dying. She's dying right there on Simon's table and he has no idea what to do about it. Inara's wig has fallen off, and Chiana's white hair stands in a black-stained halo.

Her secrets are spilling out of her now, thick as her blood is; more thickly, washing over River in waves. River touches the glass, traces words in a language she'll never know. "Poor little girl. Lost your friends," she whispers, "or they lost you. They died one at a time, not all at once. 'Verse cracked apart and got sewed back together, but they couldn't get the seam right." She leaves the window, trails her hand along the wall, creeps into the infirmary where Simon and Inara are busy digging around in Chiana's guts.

"The universe bled," River says distinctly, "and when the parasites came, they infected everyone like they'd infected you once before, fed until there was no food left. And then the angels came with their blue swirls and wiped the husks away."

Chiana's eyes flutter, just once. She's very close to them now.

"River, I need you to stay out of my way!" Simon says.

"It's too late now," River says. "She's already seen them, and she's not turning back. She misses them too much."

"Who?" Inara asks, very very pale.

"Her friends." River touches Chiana's forehead one last time. "They didn't have time to wait for you. They're sorry. But you'll find out."

Simon's machines make all manner of shrill noises and whistles, but it's not too loud in River's head now. She looks at Inara. "It wasn't your fault," she whispers.

Kaylee and Zoe and Mal and all the rest are staring at her. They'll never quite know what to do with her, maybe, even if they find out exactly what she is on the inside.

"I...she's gone," Simon says.

Tears wash down Kaylee's face. Inara sits on the bench. Zoe grinds her teeth.

River kisses Chiana good-bye.

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