Title: Probably Trouble
For the Twisting the Hellmouth FFA Challenge: #2396
Pairings: Zoe/Wash, Kaylee/Graham, slight hints of Jaylee if you are so inclined.
Disclaimer: The usual. I’m a big geek and Joss is god.
Kaylee had never been nervous on the streets of Beaumonde before. Of course, she’d always had someone else with her before. She would’ve even been glad of Jayne’s coarse commentary on the nightlife right at this moment. Maybe even especially Jayne’s company, large and armed with about a dozen guns and knives and such.
She knew she was being followed.
She’d been in a gas lit dumpling shop with Zoe and Wash and had decided to return to Serenity to pick up her forgotten credit chits before moving on to a bar with them to meet with Jayne and the Captain. She was stuffed with dumplings and tea, and had been eyeing off a good looking fella who’d been drinking tea at the table beside them. He’d smiled at her, brown hair and blue eyes that wrinkled at the corners, like a younger version of the Captain, and she’d been right taken with him. She reckoned he’d been right taken with her too. But then he’d gotten up and left and the flirty fun was over. Kaylee had sighed. “Guess I’ll head back to Serenity, pick up my credits and meet you at the White Feather?”
Wash looked surprised. “By yourself? No, I’ll – “
“I’m a big girl now, Wash. Promise I’ll be fine. It’s not even four blocks down, and I do remember the access code.”
“We’ll meet you back here, Kaylee. Then we’ll go on to the Feather together. How’s that?” Zoe had looked almost indulgently at the younger girl. Kaylee shrugged. She’d spotted the brown haired man out of the window again, standing by the kerb like he was waiting for something. Or someone? She wondered, remembering the warmth of his smile. Wash followed her gaze out the window and frowned.
“Um, maybe we should go with you –“
Zoe elbowed him, also spotting the man by the kerb.
“Be careful, Kaylee. You never know about people.” She smiled. “Have fun. We’ll wait here for you.” She’d been obscurely proud that Zoe hadn’t made a big deal about her needing an escort. She was a grown woman, and she could get sick of the Captain and Wash always forgetting that.
She’d stood beside him on the kerb and grinned. “Waitin’ for something?” He’d looked down, and she’d been disconcerted to see something like exasperation cross his face.
“You? Oh, um, yes, I’m waiting for my friends to arrive.” He shut her down, looking at something else, and turning away slightly. “Sorry to be rude, but you need to move along now, Miss.”
“Oh, okay then,” she said, her smile slipping only a fraction. “Just thought I’d say hi .Introduce myself. My name’s Kaylee.”
He’d not changed his expression, but his gaze flicked up across the busy street for a moment. His entire demeanor changed suddenly.
“I’m serious, Miss, you need to get along now. I’m really not interested in whatever you’re selling.”
Kaylee took a step back, blushing and frowning furiously.
“That was rude,” she said bitingly. “I ain’t selling nothing. I just came to say howdy, seein’ as how you and I were all smiley in the dumpling house.”
He said nothing, offered no response. He seemed watchful, and like he wished she would leave.
“Fine then,” she snorted, and turned away toward the docks.
“Wait,” he called after her. She stopped, and looked at him as he caught up with her. He took her hand and squeezed it.
“I really meant no offense,” he said with a small smile.
“Sure you didn’t,” she replied archly, still upset by the brush off. She pulled her hand away and kept walking.
Two blocks later she was sure she was being followed.
She kept seeing the same man every time she turned around, looking at her intently, keeping an exact distance behind her. Kaylee shivered and pulled her jacket more tightly around her shoulders, suddenly chilled and afraid. What should she do? What would Zoe do?
If she went back to Serenity, she’d be alone there. She’d have to open the door to get in, and that would make the ship vulnerable as well. Additionally, there were several empty docking spaces on either side of them, and the space was pretty empty this time of night. No, heading back to the ship was probably not a great idea. Stick to the populated areas, the well lit areas. Head back toward the dumpling house and meet up with the others. Stay casual, don’t show fear. Safety in numbers, especially when a number of that number is armed. She almost giggled at that thought and hung a sudden left into a side street crowded with hawkers’ carts. If she remembered correctly, she could get back to the dumpling house by heading up the street that connected just up ahead. It curved back around and intersected about a block up from where she wanted to be. Easy, she told herself, gritting her teeth and stepping around a pile of iguana parts waiting to be deep fried. She risked a glance over her shoulder. He was still there. She took note, remembering his appearance in case she needed to identify him later – tall like the Captain, Wash’s colouring, Jayne’s casual gait. He was wearing some sort of dark coverall and looked to be armed. She gulped back a scream when a hand descended on her arm, and whirled to face the vendor who had grabbed her.
“You want idlis, lady?” His dark face loomed in her vision as he waved some sort of fried snack at her and she shook him off. She stumbled as she turned away. Suddenly trying not to show fear was harder than it had seemed and she almost broke into a run. For a moment, she stood still, panic pumping through her body as she fought the impulse to flee, or to cry. She bit her lip and things came back into focus. She started walking again, wending her way through the crowded street toward the first intersection. When she reached it and turned left, he was still following her.
Kaylee thought that the last time they’d been to that dumpling house, she and Jayne and Wash had taken this route to double back around. This road was meant to curve, she was sure of it. Anytime now, it would curve around. Anytime now.
When the road refused to curve back, or even have any sort of side street that would connect through, Kaylee began to panic in earnest.
This street was mostly shops, and trading hours were long over. Foot traffic was thin. Any side streets came off to the right, not to the left. There were alleys coming off to the left every twenty or so feet, but they were obviously dead ends and no use to her at all. She wondered if she could have missed a turn off in her panic. Fighting to swallow her heart back down to where it belonged, she turned around, not bothering to try for any subtlety. He was closer than ever, and looked like he wasn’t bothering to hide any more either. He met her eyes boldly and gave her a small, cool smile, like the ones Jayne wore sometimes before a fight.
She gave up on the bravery and ran.
Zoe and Wash lingered over the last pot of fragrant tea. Zoe watched her husband tell a story that she had heard before about some incident during flight school. She remembered to laugh in the right places before glancing at the animated cat timekeeper on their table. Wash followed her gaze.
“Kaylee should be back by now, wife, don’t you think?”
She nodded, her face suddenly grim and business like.
“We should go after her. Just to make sure,” she replied, and tossed some credits onto the table to cover the meal.
“Are we sure she isn’t just… with that guy…?” Wash murmured, handing his wife her coat.
“He brushed her off. I saw it.” Zoe pulled on her coat and handed Wash his hat. He took it and frowned. “
“He brushed her off? Should I be offended for her sake?”
Zoe shook her head good humouredly and hoped they weren’t heading into trouble.
Serenity was dark when they reached it and Zoe could taste trouble before she even touched the keypad and opened the door. It was obvious that Kaylee wasn’t there, and hadn’t been there.
“Kaylee?” Wash called into the dark hold, as he jogged toward the catwalk stairs, calling again.
“She ain’t here, honey,” Zoe murmured. She frowned. Four blocks. What kind of trouble could she have met in four blocks? Zoe remembered the brown haired young man. She had seen him leave in the opposite direction to Kaylee after their brief conversation, but she didn’t discount him entirely. Wash returned to her.
“Not here. What do we do?”
She smiled at him quickly, a grim smile but a real one. She walked to the mule, slid the pistol from its grip under the seat and checked it.
“Go get Mal and Jayne. Tell them what’s happened and that I’ve gone to try and track her down. I’ll backtrack between here and the teahouse and try to find some sign.”
“Alone? Should we split up?” Wash’s brow creased with concern and his worried tone broke her focus.
“No time for chivalry, husband. Go find Mal. We need the whole crew on this.” She handed him the pistol and met his gaze. After a moment he nodded and took it, tucking it into his waistband.
“What do you think happened?” he asked.
“Go get the others,” she ordered. Wash looked as thought he wanted to say more, but her tone brooked no opposition. He adjusted the pistol in his waistband and, with a final last look at his wife, headed out of Serenity’s bay doors to the White Feather bar.
Kaylee pelted up the street away from her pursuer. People dodged out of her way with muttered curses but she didn’t notice. She was too busy moving fast, swallowing sour panic, trying to get away, listening hard for heavy thudding footsteps behind her. The pavement was strangely rubbery and cloying beneath her boot heels and seemed to be sucking at her feet, slowing her down. Her momentum was carrying her forward and her fear gave her stamina and when the figure darted out of the alley and pulled her into the shadows she nearly slammed to the ground. The scream she’d been gritting her teeth against broke out and was swiftly silenced by a hand clapped over her mouth.
“Quiet!” someone hissed against her ear. She was jerked back against a masculine chest with one arm across her face to silence her and the other wrapped around her arms and chest. She kicked backwards with all her strength but was rewarded only with a curse and a tightening of the arm around her chest.
“Shut it!” the voice hissed again. “I’m not the one out to hurt you, Kaylee.”
Her captor hauled her toward the alley mouth and peered out. With a sudden, abrupt movement he shoved her backwards, further into the alley and away from him, and launched himself at Kaylee’s pursuer, who had just moved cautiously into range. The two men rolled once as they collided and hit the ground and the few people around scattered as a gun went off. Kaylee screamed again and backed away, further into the alley, her mind frozen with panic. She wasn’t supposed to be the one in the firefights. She wasn’t built for it. She turned, searching for an exit at the far end of the alley but saw that it ended in a brick wall further in. She turned back to the fighting men, and saw that the one that had been chasing her was now lying still, shiny, dark blood seeping from somewhere under his body. The man who had grabbed her rose unsteadily to his feet and lurched toward her, a surprised expression across his face. Kaylee scrabbled backwards out of his reach as he collapsed at her feet, a similar oil dark stain across the front of his shirt. She looked down at him with wide eyes, her heart throbbing in her throat and her breath coming in tight gasps, and recognized him as the man from the teahouse. He rolled onto his back, grabbing at his side and groaned as he saw his hand covered in blood. He looked up at her and groaned again.
“Sorry,” he mumbled painfully and passed out.
A whole ten seconds passed in still, shocked silence.
“Hey!” shouted a man from the gathering crowd, “what’d you do, lady?”
Kaylee looked up, stricken. “N-nothing! I – nothing…” She looked at the two men, one probably dead, and one unconscious, and thought she might cry. Instead she wiped her hands down her coveralls. Her shock was making her right hand feel uncomfortably numb and itchy all at once. The street was filling with people, staring at the two men and at Kaylee. She needed to get out of here, back to Serenity. Find Mal, find Zoe, get away from here.
“Kaylee!” someone called sharply from the edges of the crowd. Kaylee didn’t look up until a hand landed on her shoulder. Zoe.
“Kaylee, come on mei mei, we gotta get out of here. Security will be here any minute.”
Zoe started to steer her away, pulling and cajoling. Kaylee looked down at the man at her feet and wiped her hands down her coveralls again.
“We gotta take him. He saved me, I guess.”
Zoe looked down at him with an assessing look in her eye.
“He’s pretty much done for, Kaylee, and we gotta move fast.”
“Zoe, he saved… me… He…” Kaylee set her jaw and bent to slide an arm under the prone man’s shoulders. Zoe sighed in irritation and bent on his other side. The two women levered him upright as his eyelids fluttered and his legs began to move slowly, like he was underwater, trying to walk between them. The crowd resisted at first, but parted to let them through.
When Wash reached the White Feather, he spotted Jayne immediately. The big merc was sprawled hugely across the laps of three bosomy whores who were alternately rubbing his feet and feeding him treats. He looked like a dog getting a belly rub. Wash crossed the smoky room to him and dropped his boots by his feet.
“Get up, Jayne. Where’s the Captain?”
Jayne looked annoyed. “Wha? What you want Wash? What the hell are you-?”
“Trouble,” Wash said shortly, taking a step back as Jayne lurched upright, a dark expression on his face. “Kaylee’s missing.”
The darkness cleared and Jayne swore. “Damn fool girl probly just found herself a fella.”
Wash shook his head. “Zoe thinks there’s trouble. Me too. Where’s the Captain?”
Jayne’s brow broke into a worried frown. “Missin’? Well fuck. Let’s go. Now. Cap’s over by the bar there.”
Wash pushed through the crowd, through the smoke thick air and the whores and the gamblers. It took forever to reach Mal. By the time he and the Captain returned to Jayne, the merc was up, dressed, armed and impatient to be gone.
Zoe took Kaylee and the wounded man straight back to Serenity. It was a long trip, as the man was heavy and virtually unconscious, and Kaylee was stumbling every other step. It took most of Zoe’s self control not to dump the fella and just sling Kaylee across her shoulders, or to snap at Kaylee to at least walk straight – but one glance across the top of the stranger’s dropping head at Kaylee’s tear stained face made her hold her tongue. She was angry at Kaylee for insisting that the man come along, and angry at herself for giving in. She was angry at the man for whatever trouble he had gotten Kaylee into. She hoped the Captain had finished his dealing – they were going to need to be out of here much sooner than expected. Too many people had seen them dragging the fella away from the fight, and some of those people may be able to connect them to the ship. If there was any follow up, Zoe didn’t want it descending on the ship and her crew.
“’M sorry, Zoe,” Kaylee sobbed on the unconscious man’s other side as they dragged him past the idli vendor, who gaped at them as they passed. Zoe sighed and shook her head.
“It’s okay, Kaylee. What’s done is done. We gotta get back to the ship. Wash has gone for the Captain and Jayne.”
“I couldn’t go back to Serenity, I was being followed by this other guy,” Kaylee went on, her voice indistinct and stricken. Her grip on the man shook and Zoe felt her slip a little.
“Hold it together, Kaylee,” she said, regretting the sharpness in her tone. “Fall apart once we get back to the ship. Then we’ll talk. First we just gotta get there. Look at that, it’s only a few more blocks, okay?”
“My hand hurts,” Kaylee stated, sounding no calmer, but more resolved.
“Are you injured?” Zoe demanded, puffing a little. The man was heavy. Why hadn’t she checked the girl more carefully before they started walking?
“No, it just burns a little. It’s fine.”
Zoe felt Kaylee’s grip and stride strengthen again, although the snuffling continued. She was angry at herself again for snapping at the girl. Together they shuffled and dragged the man toward Serenity, his boots scraping across the paving stones and Kaylee’s muted sobs trailing after them.
Jayne met them on the street where it intersected with the main way to the docks. He loomed out of the crowd at Kaylee’s side and grabbed her arm.
“Kaylee! Damn girl, what the hell happened?”
His gaze flicked across to Zoe, who nodded all was well. For now. He jerked a thumb at the bleeding man.
“He’s with us,” Kaylee said faintly. Jayne released her and took the unconscious man from between them, slinging him across his shoulders neatly. Kaylee swayed a little, but recovered herself. Jayne looked pointedly at her.
“You hurt? I can only carry one of ya.”
“It’s just shock, Jayne. You got a squawker?” Zoe asked, shaking out her aching arms. He nodded.
Zoe retrieved it and pressed the button to tune into the ship’s frequency. She was answered with a crackle, then a barked reply. “Jayne?”
“Sir,” Zoe said, calm as ever, “it’s Zoe. We got Kaylee, plus one more wounded. We need to make a move.”
There was a moment of silence and Zoe imagined Mal grinding his teeth. He did that.
“Fine. See you at the dock.”
Zoe nodded at Jayne to get moving and he began to maneuver through the crowd toward the ship. Kaylee and Zoe trailed in his wake.
“Honey? What the hell happened?” the squawker in her hand demanded. She considered turning it off.
“We’re nearly to the ship, Wash. See you soon.”
They reached Serenity only a few paces before Mal did. He met Zoe’s gaze across the top of Kaylee’s head as he pulled her into a quick embrace. Zoe’s expression was troubled, and promised the captain a long explanation later. He sized up the strange man as Jayne set him down with a thud on the cargo bay doors.
“Gently, Jayne,” Zoe chided, and knelt to arrange the man’s limbs more comfortably. She pulled aside his shirt to expose a bleeding wound in his side, with a snapped off blade still embedded in his flesh.
“Who’s this?” Mal asked, kneeling beside her and looking grimly at the wound. Wash thumped down the stairs and crossed to them.
“It’s the tea house guy,” he said. He looked at Kaylee and Jayne. “Why is the tea house guy here?”
Jayne shrugged. He laid an arm awkwardly across Kaylee’s shoulders. She looked stricken and stiff, but stepped into the merc’s unfamiliar comfort.
“He hurt you?” Mal snapped back at Kaylee. She shook her head.
“He killed a guy who was chasing me. Just took him down fast, like Jayne. Guess he got stabbed doing it.”
“He got a name?” Mal wondered aloud, patting pockets as Zoe wadded his shirt against the wound.
“He never said,” Kaylee replied. “Should we get a stretcher?”
“Yes,” said Zoe decisively. “Jayne?”
Jayne looked at her with a sullen expression. “I already carried him,” he protested, but followed Wash to retrieve the stretcher to move the man to the sick bay. Mal pulled a slim wallet from the man’s pocket. He lifted it to his nose.
“Leather,” he muttered. He flipped it open. It was empty but for a plastic card with a small, non moving capture of the man and some small writing.
“Driver’s License,” the captain read. “State of… Cal-i-fornia. For one Mr Graham Miller.” Mal frowned. “It’s like an ident card, but none I’ve ever seen.”
The man stirred slightly and groaned as Zoe applied pressure to his wound. Kaylee dropped to kneel by his head.
“It’s okay, you’re safe now. You’re on Serenity with us. We’re taking care of you.”
Mal met Zoe’s gaze again across the man’s body. They were in silent agreement, it seemed, that this was probably trouble.