[And dude, I forgot about my plan to write 500 words/day until I had written almost that many words in this. I ended up making almost 3 days worth of quota. I win. I started around 3pm and had televisual commitments, hence the lateness of the fic. Apologies.]
Sits, looking, and moves on.
The leaves crackled as they turned into smoke.
Fred spoke about oxidation and chemical reactions. "Fire is the classic example of a chemical change. Once burnt, an object can never return to its previous state. This is, however, a false dichotomy. Paper torn -- an example of a physical change -- can never be fully repaired. Modern recycling does mean a torn paper can be recreated as a whole one, but an infusion of fresh wood pulp is still necessary; some mass has been lost to energy."
Kaylee leaned over and touched a finger to Fred's lips. "Hush, sweetie." Fred did not stop staring intently at the burning pile of leaves, but Kaylee felt her stiff posture relax slightly.
It was nearly a year since they had taken her aboard. Someone had made the mistake of asking Mal to help him ship human cargo, and needless to say, the "cargo" never got to its destination. It had taken the better part of a year, but they'd finally dropped everyone off where they wanted to be. Everyone except Fred, that is. She hadn't really believed she was actually on a spaceship until Mal had brought her up to the bridge -- her previous ship boardings obviously windowless. When asked where she wanted to be dropped off, she just started mumbling something about "interdimensional portals" and looked like she was ready to cry. He told her she could stay on the ship, and she nodded her gratitude.
She refused to talk about her enslavement, but she had been a scientist in her previous life. A theoretical scientist, Kaylee learned early on, after the first time she asked her for suggestions about engine improvements. She got an earful of babble about quantum particle babble, and at a loss as to how to ask the girl to stop without sounding rude, she had caught one gesturing hand and kissed her on the lips. Fred had been startled into silence, and Kaylee stood still, her lips still on Fred's. Fred reached out with her free hand and pulled Kaylee toward her, kissed her back.
Fred kissed like she was exploring, but also like she was looking for something specific, like she had done this before. Kaylee had never kissed a girl, but she followed Fred's lead, and it felt so comfortable.
"Cap'n's coming." River's matter-of-fact statement jolted them both apart, though Kaylee noticed abstractedly that Fred still held one of her hands in her own.
"River!" She tried to balance kindness and indignance.
"You didn't want him to catch you like that, did you?" she asked.
Kaylee opened her mouth to protest, but then realizing that River was exactly right, she shut it.
Hearing the thought, River smiled triumphantly and walked out. As she reached the doorway, however, she turned and, with a mock-pout, said softly to Fred, "She never kisses me like that."
Kaylee blushed deeply, and River was gone before she could even begin to think of what to say as a response.
Fred grinned at her, and then the Captain walked in.
They still hadn't done much more than kiss -- though they did so openly in front of everyone by now -- but Kaylee felt none of the awkward dancing she had around Simon. It felt like she had often imagined swimming must -- that you stop being conscious of your exertions and just feel the bliss surrounding you, seeping into you.
The last "passenger" lived on one of the moons orbiting Kaylee's home planet -- a place she hadn't set foot on in nearly two years -- and by tacit agreement, they set down the next day. It was early morning planet time, but Kaylee came from farmers and they were always up early.
"Kaywinnit Lee Frye! Is that you?" A stocky woman in a dress that turned out to be white with strawberry print strode up to the approaching party -- which was being led by Kaylee, who was holding Fred's hand though Fred still managed to hang behind Kaylee.
"My own blood, returned from the black. Was beginning to think we'd lost you for good."
"Aww, Momma, you know I send you letters ev'ry time we're at a station."
The woman slapped her handkerchief against Kaylee's cheek. "That ain't no substitute for seein' my own girl in the flesh and you know it."
Kaylee finally dropped Fred's hand and embraced her mother. Though shorter than her daughter, Mrs. Frye nearly pulled Kaylee off the ground she hugged her so fiercely.
"Now where are my manners?" she said, letting go. "I haven't even said hello to your friends. And I see you've picked up some new faces."
"This is Fred." She tugged Fred forward.
Fred stuck out her hand awkwardly. "Winifred Burkle, ma'am. Pleased ta meet you."
Mrs. Frye shook her hand vigorously. "Ain't they been feeding you on that ship? You ain't barely got any meat on them bones. I'll make you my extra-special stew tonight."
"Now, Momma, don't you start."
"What? I'm just concerned about the girl is all. You still look good and healthy. You ain't got enough food to go around for alls you?"
"Okay, okay. Introduce me to the rest of your friends."
"This is Simon." She gestured, and he bowed graciously.
"He's our doctor. And this is his sister, River."
River bounded up to Mrs. Frye and hugged her. "Don't worry," she whispered in her ear. "I eat plenty. But I want some of your cornbread tonight."
"Why gracious, chile."
"And you met the Cap'n," Kaylee said, hurrying on.
Mal inclined his head slightly and smiled.
"And Wash and Zoe. You met them, too. Pilot and first mate. They're married now." Wash hugged his wife as if to indicate the truth of the statement.
"And there's also Jayne, and Inara."
Jayne shuffled his feet and tried to look respectable, and Inara curtsied gracefully.
Inara had dressed simply for the occasion, but her clothes were still of finer material than Mrs. Frye had likely ever seen. She kept her shock in check, though.
"And Shepherd Book."
Book shook Mrs. Frye's hand warmly. "You've raised a fine daughter, Mrs. Frye."
Mrs. Frye wondered if he knew how pleased she was to hear that from him.
She took another moment to take in the gathered group and then composed herself. "Why you've got a city full of people on that there boat. I'd best get dinner started now if I wanna feed you all."
"Oh that's a great kindness, ma'am," Mal said, "but we've got plenty back on Serenity. We wouldn't wanna put you out. We were just in the neighborhood and couldn't deny Kaylee an opportunity to see her family."
"I am not letting you go back to that ship and eat another day's worth of molded protein. You all come back to the house and meet the rest of the family, and you stay for lunch and supper."
Mal knew when to back down from a fight, his previous history notwithstanding, and truth be told he was pleased at the prospect of some home-cooked food. And so it was that a week later Serenity was still planetside. Though Mal couldn't stay out of the air too long, and everyone could sense they'd be leaving soon.
Summer had lasted overlong on Kaylee's home planet that year, and the first frost had only come last night. Kaylee's father had gathered up the leaves that had fallen so far for his customary First Frost bonfire.
River hadn't slept that night. She claimed she could smell the frost coming, and she wanted to see it.
"Jack Frost, creeping in on little cat feet, right?" Simon had said, trying to impress her with his playful knowledge of Earth-That-Was.
She had fixed him with one of those "You know nothing" looks, however. "Fog," she said flatly, "comes in on little cat feet."
River had brought a variety of objects out with her, to examine the distribution of frost patterns, and when Fred walked out onto the back porch the next morning River asked, without looking up, "Would Bose-Einstein condensation form comparable patterns?"
Kaylee came out later to find them engaged in animated discussion of which she only understood every third word, and she dragged Fred back into the house to have breakfast. River came in after the last of the frost had disappeared.
And now here they were, watching Mr. Frye's bonfire.
River walked by them. "Poets talk about winter as death, but trees need time to rest." She said it as if she were addressing them, but one never knew. Fred smiled, though, and because she was smiling, Kaylee smiled, too.
But if the world could remain within a frame like a painting on a wall.
Then I think we would see the beauty.
Then we would stand staring in awe at our still lives posed like a bowl of oranges,
like a story told by the fault lines and the soil.
-"Bowl of Oranges," Bright Eyes