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Catching the Flood

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Love has its tides; before ebb tide you must take advantage of the flood.
Chinese Proverb

 

When their little Firefly touched down on Persephone, she was looking a mite banged up and a touch worse for wear. She flew a straight sight better than she looked, and that was the most important thing on board. Serenity had more than a few friends on Persephone, some of them even above-board. Mal and Zoe headed out in search of work, a shopping list tucked away if they got money enough for their needs. Kaylee sat down on the cargo bay's ramp, a sign next to her in English and Chinese advertising transport rates. Wash was inside, settling in with his dinosaurs and keeping an ear out on the communications channels. Simon and River were otherwise occupied inside the ship. Jayne had left quickly, not saying where he was headed. That was just as well with Kaylee; she would rather read a book and take in some sun. She missed Shepherd Book, but realized that the pull of the black wasn't for everyone. He had others to preach to, and she didn't begrudge him leaving. Plus, she was sure she would see him again. Most people loved talking to a good preacher once in a while, especially one that didn't necessarily turn everything into a message from God.

"Do you do deliveries, child?"

Kaylee looked up into a grizzled old woman's face and smiled. "Of course. Just about anything, really. What do you need?"

"I have a letter, but it's very important. It's for my son on Kashmir. He's in one of the mining towns there, sends home money every time he can. Can you take it to him personally? You seem like a nice girl, and such an honest face. I can trust you with this."

Touched, Kaylee smiled and blushed. "That's sweet. I'll get this to your son. Don't worry."

The woman smiled, giving Kaylee a toothless grin. "I was hoping you would say that, my dear."

The old woman handed her a letter bound in tape and dropped some money into Kaylee's outstretched palm. She watched the woman walk away, blending into the crowd. She tucked the envelope into her book, then continued to read.

One by one, the crew filed back to the ship. Mal and Zoe found a few transport jobs and a hint about a potential heist on Granite. It wasn't that far from Granite to Kashmir, and there were plenty of places on Kashmir that were a little less than savory. Mal thought that even Simon and River could walk about for a spell on Kashmir and take in some sun. River had actually begun dancing about the cargo bay in her bare feet on hearing the news.

Jayne was the last to get on the ship, swearing up a storm. "Ben tiansheng de yidui rou," he muttered, stomping up the ramp past Kaylee. "I didn't do nothin'."

"What happened, Jayne?" Kaylee asked, folding up her chair and tucking her book under her arm. The mercenary shook his head and kept going past her, still muttering to himself. "Oh well," she said, shrugging. She put everything away and hit the button to bring up the ramp, and then signaled to Wash that they were ready to go.

***

 

The job at Granite actually went down fairly easily. All parties very nearly shook it; the other guys got stole from fair and square. Kaylee thought it was right nice of the captain to leave them something to buy dinner with, at least. She didn't hear the whole story, but apparently dropped pants figured in there somewhere. It must've been a doozy, but she missed the windup by making sure one of the distillation coils didn't snap in half while she was at dinner. She didn't think washing dishes in undistilled urine would do anybody any good.

She smiled at Simon, who flushed a bit and mumbled something halfwitted. River laughed for him, and tilted her head to the side. The girl swayed in her seat, dancing to music only she could hear, and laughed at a funny thought that flitted through her mind. Kaylee liked her in this kind of mood. She was fun to play games with, and she seemed like a little sister Kaylee would've loved to have had back home. "Mis promesas pueden volar," River sang as she left her seat, twirling her plate in her hands. She pirouetted, grinning at Kaylee. "Solamente tú puede ahorrarme," River chirped, waving a hand in front of Simon.

"Where did you learn that?" Simon asked, grinning at River's infectious laugh. "I haven't heard you speak these languages before."

"You were away at school. And then I was away. No time to listen. I like languages. I like what they say between their words." River deposited the plate gingerly on the counter beside the sink. It was Kaylee's turn to do the dishes. "Je souhaite que je pourrais me rappeler tous ce que j'ai perdus, tous ce que j'ai voulus pour être."

"Flawless accent there," Kaylee said, impressed. She'd heard Inara speak French once. It was one of the Romantic languages, Inara had said. Spanich, Italian, Portuguese and Romanian were, too, but Inara had learned French and Italian only. It tended to impress some of the higher ups that she knew these languages; everyone knew how to swear in Chinese.

"Merci beaucoup," River said, bowing deeply. Then she gave a curtsey before running out on the tips of her bare toes.

"I wish I'd learned a language," Kaylee murmured.

"I actually know French," Simon murmured, looking up. He helped Kaylee clear the dinner plates from the table, acutely uncomfortable under her amazed gaze. "I learned it a long time ago, but I think I remember enough that I could probably teach you."

"Really? Shiny!" Kaylee grinned at Simon and impulsively hugged him. "That would be fun, don'tcha think? Xièxie!"

Flustered, Simon only nodded. He seemed transfixed by her smile. "Yeah. I'll look for some lessons in my workpad. We could start tomorrow if you like."

Kaylee waved him off, then began washing the dishes. Simon wandered back to his room, where River was coloring with pencils. "Why did I do that, mei mei?"

"You like her. You like her like her."

Simon glared at River. "You're a seventeen year old genius. Why are you talking as if you're six years old?"

"You understand that best," River said simply, not looking up. She shaded the face she was drawing, then looked up at Simon. "You're kinda dumb sometimes."

Simon smiled, then sat down next to her. "Well, we can't all be scary geniuses like you." He picked up the drawing River was working on. It was Kaylee at the dinner table, holding her chopsticks in hand. "This is really good."

"For you. Until you have the real thing."

Simon flushed. "Mei mei..."

"Well, if you're so impatient, just say something. She likes you."

"I know. That's the problem. What do I have to offer her? What could she possibly see in me?"

River looked up at Simon, that half grin on her face. "Your stitches are neat. You smile at her and it makes her all wobbly inside. And you make everything okay when you can. You try and try and try, and you never give up. Even on me. And you make her smile."

Simon swept her up in a hug. "You always did know what to say," he said, grinning. "Thanks."

"Now I'll start on another one. Temporal influences passed, and now it won't be the same drawing I was working on." She handed the sketch over to Simon. "You keep it, it feels like you now, not like me anymore."

He pinned it proudly on his wall. "There. It looks good right here."

River huffed gently and then took her pencil to the next piece of blank paper. She could be a mouse, creeping across the floors, knowing all the nooks and crannies of the ship. She could hear the thrumming of the engines, the quiet heartbeats of the crew. She could feel their thoughts, soft and warm, sleepy thoughts, waiting for dreamtime.

River always seemed to be waiting for dreamtime to end.

***

 

Kaylee found Harristown easily enough on Kashmir. The mining town was just outside the dock city, and Mal let her play mail carrier alone. Simon and River stepped down in the dock city, and went off in search of things to buy. River didn't like the boots she had, or the ill-fitting dresses that were randomly picked up for her. She liked dark, dramatic colors. They made her stand out, and didn't look anything like the pale blue of the Academy. She didn't like anything that might remind her of the Academy, and Simon didn't mind taking her shopping.

Mal, Zoe and Jayne spent some time in the local bar, attempting to pick up other work. Wash actually locked up the ship after a bit and stepped out to spend time with River and Simon. He liked the girl, and they seemed to share a wacky sense of humor. "The wind will blow us back home," River had said serenely when Mal reminded them not to stray too far. Mal had rolled his eyes and ducked after Jayne into the bar.

Partway through the shopping spree, River stood stock still. "Trouble. He likes her too much, the lady lied to her."

"River?" Wash asked, confused. He looked at Simon, who was staring at River with a troubled look on his face. "Translate to English, I don't speak psychic."

Wash started when River touched his arm. "Kaylee's in trouble," River murmured clearly. Her eyes were wide and almost fearful.

Simon bolted for the door. River and Wash followed suit, but they quickly lost sight of him. Wash turned to River with a worried look. "Aiya, women wanle," Wash murmured. River nodded, then suddenly grabbed his hand. "What?"

"They're coming."

Wash looked around, and saw the others leaving the bar, sure enough. They walked over, and he told them what River had said. "Damn fool doc, not figgering the crazy loon could say where little Kaylee is," Jayne muttered.

River shook her head. "Not when she sleeps. Her dreams are too soft and black."

Mal looked concerned. "You're saying they're taking her to the black?"

River shook her head again. "Her thoughts are gone. I don't feel them flutter and fly."

"Must've knocked her out, sir," Zoe murmured. She looked around the sleepy town. "Don't suppose we'd find out who she was supposed to deliver that letter to?"

"Worth a shot. At least we'd find Simon," Mal said. "We'll split up. Zoe and me, we'll go that way," he said, pointing to his right. "Jayne, you go with Wash and River. Go that way, we'll cover more ground," Mal added, pointing to his left. "Call on the comm if you see something that don't add up."

They split up, each going in a different direction. Zoe and Mal found Simon soon enough, knocked out on the ground behind a building at the edge of town.

The others didn't find anything at all.

***

 

Stars were yellow and red and white on black. Stars always seemed real friendly in the black, if only because most of 'em held terraformed worlds and new friends to make.

Kaylee wasn't liking her time on Kashmir much anymore.

Her vision was full of stars. Etoile, her memory whispered to her in Simon's voice. He had taught her numbers and some words of things, so she was counting chopsticks and books and stars and chairs and tables. They had laughed, working on her pronunciation, making sure she had it as close to perfect as she could get it. They had even tried working on spelling, though French didn't spell straight like English did, and Kaylee couldn't spell too great in it yet. Un, deux, trois, quatre, cinq, six, sept, huit, neuf, dix... She could see the letters in Simon's straight script, her own looping letters too girlish next to his.

Someone had hit her on the back of the head. Sadly enough, Kaylee knew how that one worked. It hadn't been in such a long time, though, not since she'd left Pa's farm, really. She'd been real good, working on machines and bits and pieces of things, and of course making Serenity fly on spit and polish. It worked, bypassing things here and there; Serenity was a tinkerer's dream boat to fly on. Kaylee was always busy, and there was so much of it that she loved. It wasn't a job, it was a love. Just another of Kaylee's many loves, along with strawberries, dark chocolate, frilly dresses, pink and Simon.

Simon. He would know what it was called when your head was feeling awful fuzzy and all you saw were stars. He would know why stars were red and yellow and white. Simon knew all sorts of stuff, could be stiff and proper, but he never made her feel stupid for not knowing book learning. She wasn't stupid, but she wasn't smart like he was. Her knowledge was simpler, more concrete, more piecemeal. But it worked, and she had a place.

Kaylee wasn't stupid, she knew Simon was feeling lost and lonely out in the black. It wasn't for everybody, though he seemed to be getting better at being in it. He was a fancy doctor, a trauma surgeon at one of the biggest and best hospitals in the Core. He could've been a director one day, with fancy society ladies on his arm. But he had given it all up for River, and while he certainly said it was worth it, Kaylee couldn't help but wonder if a small part of him missed it still. The Core was a big place, and he had been a big fish. Now he was in a tiny little pond with tiny little people, and she wondered if it stung.

Her head hurt. It was almost an effort to think, but she kept at it. Sooner or later, she'd have her eyes wide open and all, and see what happened. Right now, her eyes felt gritty and swollen shut, and she knew she was on a mule riding somewhere far out of Harristown. It had hardly been a town, with dirt roads and a few sorry-looking board buildings. Maybe it had once been pretty nice looking, but it looked as though hard times had hit and stayed. Kaylee could sympathize, having seen too many towns like it in her life. The one she had grown up in was only marginally better, but the Fryes had always kept themselves afloat. They weren't afraid of hard work, and they knew that hard work usually got you something good.

There was probably just a misunderstanding here. She probably didn't introduce herself properly to the people, and they didn't know she was delivering a letter. When they got to wherever they were going, Kaylee could explain it better.

Hopefully, the situation wouldn't seem so bad then.

***

 

"Zhe shi shenme lan dongxi?" Simon hissed. He hadn't enjoyed being told that not only was Kaylee missing, but that he had been attacked trying to find her. And worse yet, he didn't remember any of it. Jayne was teasing him mercilessly, but he couldn't remember anything.

And Kaylee was still missing.

Simon tried to push himself up to a sitting position, but his head swam and his vision grayed out at the edges. With a groan, he let himself collapse back onto the stretcher. "How long was I out, then? How long has she been gone?"

"Near as we can figure, close to two, three hours," Mal said from his perch along the cabinets. "So far, Zoe is still asking the townfolk about that letter Kaylee had to deliver. Did she say anything about it?"

"Just... Some old lady asked her to deliver it to her son."

Mal seemed thoughtful for a moment. "Now little River said something before you took off, didn't she? She knew Kaylee was gone when it happened."

Simon tried to think back. His memories felt muddy, and it seemed as though slogging through the mess was tiring him. "You'll have to ask her," Simon muttered after a while. "I can't seem to remember what she said. The lady lied, something like that."

Mal nodded, then pushed himself off of the cabinet. "I think I will. She's pacing the cargo bay. You rest up. We'll find her. You can't go far on this dustball without transportation."

Simon could feel himself falling back into unconsciousness. There was something about that comment that struck him wrong, but he couldn't quite place it just yet. His head hurt, and it felt as though it were wrapped in batting.

Mal left the tiny infirmary and headed to the cargo bay. Sure enough, River was still pacing, stomping about in the bulky combat boots. Her hands were twisted together, nervously. She was staring at the floor, waiting for Zoe and Jayne to return from their search. "You got an inkling on where Kaylee might be?"

River looked up, tears shimmering in her eyes. "He liked the look of her too much, I said. And she lied to her, it wasn't just a letter."

"Do you know where she is?"

"In the dark now, deep in the tunnels, left right left right, tunneling down in the dark." River grasped her temples as she shook her head. "I can't hear her, can't feel it, I lost it, I lost it."

This was one of River's better days, too. Mal hated to think how this could have been if it were one of her bad days, when even the thinnest thread of conversation was too much for her. "Are there tunnels 'round these parts?"

"Dust. It's black, can't breathe, arms are black with dust."

"Mining someplace?" Mal pressed, insistent.

"Can't breathe, can't see. Stars, red and white and yellow on black, all over, stars everything, everywhere. Can't breathe, sharp, too sharp, can't follow it down."

Mal changed his mind; this swiftly was becoming one of her bad days. "All right. I'll go off and join Zoe and Jayne. You stay here, if Kaylee gets loose and comes back. We won't take off without her, all right?"

River nodded miserably as Mal strode down the gangplank. She watched him with overlarge eyes that brimmed with tears. Something didn't feel right; it wasn't an ordinary kidnapping. But she couldn't place what was different just yet. River couldn't feel Kaylee's thoughts, couldn't feel the minds of the townspeople. Something didn't make sense. If she could only make her thoughts keep still, if she could only find the feelings, River knew she could figure it all out. She just needed a little more data to make the calculations...

***

 

Jayne spat on the ground, not liking the answer he had just received. Which was really just as well, since he hadn't had a fight in weeks, and Mona was just itching to get involved in a good old fashioned dogfight. She'd only been used once after she'd been christened with the name, and that was quite a bit ago.

"Say it again, I got bullets with your name on 'em."

"Good. I could use 'em. Don't like it here much anyhow."

The dusty-faced individual in front of him didn't seem overly concerned by Jayne's behavior. He had apparently seen worse; this worried Jayne, truth be told. It meant that they had stumbled across something much bigger than themselves, and Mona was too small a gun for the job. Vera-sized problems were not solved with a Mona.

"Let's try this again, nuòfu," Jayne said through grit teeth. This time he jabbed Mona into the man's ribs hard enough to make him grunt. "A girl with way too much smile on was deliverin' a letter to some wan ba dan, and now is gone. That girl was mine, and I want 'er back. Dong ma?"

"Can't have 'er back, I tole ya." The man's eyes shone with something that looked a little too crazy for comfort. It wasn't quite as bad as River on a bad day, but it was getting clsoe. "It's all done right up, ain't no one come back from it."

Oh. That was new. "Really?" Jayne pressed harder with the tip of Mona's nose. She was solid steel, so that had to have hurt. "And where is it?"

Beneath his dirt, the other man paled. His eyes shone with fear now, not crazy. Jayne preferred fear; you could work with a man that was afraid of something. "No. Not 'less you really got those bullets for me."

"I could spare ya one," Jayne said, sounding a touch more obliging. Whatever this man was afraid of, he apparently had no loyalty to it. "If ya talk, that is."

"The factory," he gasped.

"That don't do me no good," Jayne snapped, irritable. He leaned in on Mona, got himself another good grunt for his effort.

"They all die there, horrible-like."

"Now how is that? Nothing horrible about a bullet in the gut."

The man shook his head fiercely. "He's got a doc on board, wicked man."

"A doctor bein' wicked. Now somehow I don't think that's true."

"It is.... You don't understand. The doc ain't right in the head. Never was when he touched down on this rock."

"So?"

"Doc's workin' 'er up."

Jayne shook the other man's shoulder roughly. "Fer what?"

"Ain't no girls here, he took 'em all. And they all killed 'emselves proper soon after. We had to bury 'em, had to dig down deep and look the other way."

"The doc do that?" Jayne scratched his temple with Mona's barrel. The man in front of him didn't seem to even notice that he could have escaped.

The man shook his head desperately. "No.... Doc ain't nothing but sick. He don't act right."

"And this other him you're talking 'bout?"

"But he got that girl, the one with the letter. Him. His old lady sends 'em once or twice, whatever looks like it's heading this way."

"So he likes to beat on 'em?" He'd heard of such a thing before, but couldn't imagine someone hitting a whore so badly they would rather kill themselves rather than hold a hand out for more money. Then again, he was brought up right. You didn't disrespect women, even whores. His Pappy was strict on that from the beginning. Whores had a tough enough time of it as it was, and they didn't need any more disrespect. They were women, too.

The man shook his head. "The girls here before, that's used to be done, that's normal. But we don' know what's up there. Nobody goes in the factory that don't end up dead."

Jayne couldn't imagine Kaylee dead. She was too happy for that, too bouncy. Rather like his real life little sister, truth be told, and Jayne hadn't liked it when his real life little sister decided to up and get herself married to some hundan that didn't deserve her. "And you? Why you need a bullet in the brain so bad?"

"I've seen it. I've seen the factory. It's hot out here, it's tolerable. But it's cold in there, all cold and white. Ain't nobody come out o' there whole in the head, catch me? And if they know I told, I'll head there too."

"So a bullet in the pan is better?"

The man nodded fiercely. "The mines ain't right. It's doin' something to us, I know it. And I feel like I can't take it no more."

"In that case, since you're so helpful-like, I think I'll even be merciful today." Jayne smiled at the man, who had stopped shaking. "Yessiree, I do think I will."

"Make it look like I ain't tole ya nothing," the man pleaded. "The dead don't always stay dead 'round these parts."

Jayne paused for a moment. "What?"

The man nodded. "Ain't natural. Ain't right. That doc up there, he ain't right, and I don' wan' go like them he works on."

"Then you best start running," Jayne said softly. "I give you two seconds and I cut you down."

The man nodded, a desperate look on his face. He started running, and Jayne turned around shot him in the back of the head at once. "Two," he muttered under his breath. He walked over to the dusty man and kicked him over, onto his back. There was a surprised look on his face. There, that would do him all right.

Zoe came running, her gun drawn. "What happened?"

"Thought he could fake me and run," Jayne muttered. He eyed Zoe. "I guess we gotta try again later, when they ain't prepared."

She looked around the street, eyes squinting past the sun's glare. No one was around, but she had the feeling she was being watched. She nodded and put her gun down. "Fine. We'll try again."

They both felt eyes on their backs as they left.

***

 

Cold and white. Thrumming machine, heartbeat. Breaths. Someone stroking her hair, soft and gentle. Breathing too loud. Her arm ached, and she didn't understand. Her heart began to pound, she felt drugged. Someone was here, and she didn't want them to be. Something was happening to her, and she didn't like it one bit.

"There now. It'll be all over soon. Just had to fix things, make it right," the voice next to her said. It felt oily somehow. It touched her and rolled across her mind and she couldn't open her eyes and she could feel the panic begin to build.

Engine that was not engine. Something cold and white just past eyes that refused to open. Her eyelashes made a screen, and she could see white and lights beyond it. It seemed almost like a surreal doctor's room, but nothing like Serenity.

Something cold at her arm, then a sharp sting like a needle. Her fuzziness descended.

Cold and white. And dark.

***

 

River cried out, feeling herself fall. The floor of the cargo bay was cold, and it shocked her out of the rest of the dream. If she was dreaming. She didn't know anymore; Simon told her that she had psychotic symptoms, that it looked as though she had a schizophrenic break even though they both knew better. But it helped to have him name things, it helped to have something to look up in the archives on his computer. It helped to have something to look for when she saw drop boxes as they passed. Psychosis. Out of touch with reality. Lack of reality testing. Delusions, thought disorders. Hallucinations, flights of ideas, loosening of associations. Not knowing where anything ended and something else began.

It was just words. Words and words and just words again.

"River!"

Simon. He would be confused. He might think she was trying to hurt herself. He would quote statistics; too many schizophrenics committed suicide. Too many had concordant and comorbid illness. He would be worried about her, she would feel guilty even though she knew it wasn't her fault she couldn't think or communicate properly. It wasn't right, but it wouldn't change things. She had never felt this way before the Academy, but now this was all she could recall.

"Mei mei?"

He was cradling her now, his crazy schizophrenic sister. He had given up a world for her, and she didn't think she was even worth it.

"She's cold," River whispered. She felt the remnants of Kaylee's mind as they slid over hers. It was calmer that way, brighter. Kaylee always lived and loved in a simple way, all of herself given at once. It was calming to know this. "He comes and takes your life, this life begs a lot."

Simon's hands tightened on her arms. River didn't mind; that was feeling. "What has he done to her? Has he hurt her?"

"I don't care where it's been before," River said in a voice not her own. Her thoughts swam with it, taking in the feel of the other mind. It was almost strange like hers. "Make the best of it, just a little bit. That's what feeling is. This is the factory. I can make what I want."

Jayne and Zoe were back. Their thoughts slid in and added to the mix. They were radioing for the captain. Little words sliding around, little words from a little man and covered in dirt. Simon was talking, though River had already lost the thread of that aspect of reality. She had to reverse her brain, backtrack and follow back and pick up another lost thread. "Doing it, sir," River was saying, not even aware of what she was saying. "Just following the protocol."

Sounds reached River through the haze, and it sounded like someone hitting the roof. Simon. He let loose his heart once before, had it rent to shreds. He had picked up the pieces, set his hopes all on her. He was afraid to love again, though he already had. He only just realized it.

"Pick up your heart, Simon," River whispered into his chest. "She's waiting for you."