COUNTDOWN TO CHRISTMAS: 5. "Ghosts of Christmas Present"
Sunday, January 16, 2005

"The Captain returns with more than a few surprises for his unsuspecting crew."



SUMMARY: "The Captain returns with more than a few surprises for his unsuspecting crew." The usual disclaimers apply. The characters and 'Firefly' are the property and gift of Joss Whedon and Mutant Enemy. No infringement of copyright is intended.


A "Firefly" story

Written by Alison M. DOBELL

* * * * *

After the hearty breakfast and the cake cutting the men had gone off to cut wood and help with the heavy chores while the women cleared the tables and got busy preparing the Christmas Dinner. Somehow overnight gifts had appeared and were crowded now beneath the huge tree. Luckily the weather had stayed fine, just a light cool breeze rifling through their hair. Mr Frye and the menfolk stacked the wood then got busy hanging paper lanterns round the outside of the house and in the branches of the trees. Kaylee watched everything with a joyous look upon her face, the happiness so great she could hardly contain it. It kept spilling out and producing indulgent smiles in anyone who looked her way. Captivated though Simon was he was alarmed at his sister's sad comment. They sat at a trestle table that had once been groaning in food. Now it lay bare but for the jug of lemonade and glasses upon it. He was pleased that the others were too busy to join them.

"River, why's the Captain sad?" He whispered.

Her eyes glittered with unshed tears. "Heart's broken. They took everything he had, even the ashes."

He frowned, his heart going cold. "Who, *mei mei*? Who did this?"

She blinked, focusing on Simon now. "Not who he thinks. How do you fight the enemy if the enemy wears the face of a friend?"

Simon did not know how to respond other than with another question. Anything to bring some clarification to the confusing world in which his sister lived. "*Mei mei*, where's the Captain?"

It took a moment for her to speak again, her eyes caught by the sway of now glowing lanterns. Even though it was barely ten o'clock the sky was dim and overcast and the merry lanterns shed their welcome coloured light as they were lit one by one, dancing in the breeze like dragons and phoenixes chasing the fiery pearl of wisdom across the sky as if in their fickle wisdom lay the answers to every age of man. "Coming now."

"Coming?" What did she mean? Had he gone somewhere? She grew cognisant again and dazzled him a bright smile.

"Bringing more questions than answers."

Before he could ask what she met River sprang to her feet and laughed. Her hands reaching for Simon, dragging him out of his chair as she began to dance around him. Even though her words had troubled him the sight of such carefree happiness on her face melted his heart with gladness. She leaned in to tug his hands once again, pulling him with her to the cleared space that was the makeshift dance floor. "Come on, Simon, we have to learn the steps."

As the small chores of the day were completed more and more of Kaylee's family joined Serenity's crew. Inara Serra watched and smiled quietly. Mrs Frye wiped her powdery hands on her apron and paused on the doorstep, her husband twirling Kaylee in a fast box step and managing - whether by accident or design - to exchange her for River so that Simon was now in the arms of their youngest.

"Ya don't know how it makes me feel to see my Kaylee so happy, Miss Serra."

Inara's smile widened as she glanced at Mrs Frye. "Please. Call me Inara." The Companion turned her head and followed the energetic dance, amused by how flustered Simon was becoming. "Kaylee is very dear to us all."

"Don't mind my askin'," Mrs Frye's voice tailed off, suddenly self conscious. Inara gave her a knowing look.

"You want to know what I am doing with this crew?"

"I meant no offence, it's just..."

"None taken. I hire one of the Captain's shuttles, an arrangement that suits us both. I get autonomy over my life and he gets a small income from the rental."

"But a *transport ship* for a fine lady like you?"

Inara laughed. "Mrs Frye, I admit Serenity has a varied crew but these are good people."

Mrs Frye gave her a shrewd look. "I heard tell those old Fireflies were smugglers' ships."

"I admit that not every job is strictly legal. Work can be hard to come by and we can't afford to be too fussy about the jobs. Most of the time it works out though."

"Thought you on'y rented a shuttle, Miss 'Nara?"


Mrs Frye smiled gently, neither eyes nor ears missing a thing. "You said *we*."

The Companion reviewed their conversation in her head before responding. "Serenity is their home, Mrs Frye." She paused a half-beat. "Mine too."

Her host nodded slowly then gave all her attention to the festivities as the day unfolded and shadows lengthened towards dusk. The weather still mild for the time of year, the lanterns and Christmas lights bathing the twirling faces in a glow that went soul deep. Jayne and Shepherd Book helped Martin Frye and some of the cousins build a fire, the cut wood joining branches and pine cones on the merry blaze. Charlie Pritchard, one of Kaylee's cousins on her father's side, had been persuaded to get his fiddle and now pretty much everyone was either on their feet dancing or tapping their hands and feet wherever they were sitting or standing. It got so loud and raucous that it took a while before anyone realised they had company. It was the squeal from Kaylee that turned every head and brought the music to a truncated halt. Zoe's mouth dropped open in surprise. Wash could not stop the king-sized grin swallowing up his face. He heard Jayne Cobb guffaw then reel off a stream of swear words in Chinese that sounded oddly affectionate from the mercenary's gruff lips.

Now the noise had died down they could all hear the mule labouring under the weight it carried. Malcolm Reynolds' guiding the vehicle around rabbit holes and awkward dips to keep it upright but relieved as his crew were to see them it was not the Captain of Serenity they could not take their eyes off of. Despite his heavy heart the Captain could not keep the grin off his face at their stunned expressions. Pulling up just short of the outlying tables and chairs he switched the engine off and turned to help Monty disentangle himself from his long robe. He could hear Jayne choking with laughter, Kaylee's voice high-pitched and keening with happy while Wash swore on the lives of his favourite dinosaurs that he had never seen such a sight in all his life. Shepherd Book's eyes narrowed as he took a few steps closer to the mismatched pair.

"What are you supposed to be?"

Monty grinned and thrust out his already impressive bulk, the red plush robe only just covering his huge girth. He looked like a badly upholstered and overstuffed armchair. One that had definitely seen better days. "Ho, ho, ho, MER-RY CHRIST-MAS!"

Kaylee flung herself into his arms, everybody now crowding forward with a pile of questions and lots of laughter. Wanting to know where the Captain had been, how come Monty was dressed up in that get up and what the *diyu* was going on. Jayne managed to wipe a tear from his eye and leaned in close to Monty's face, "Who the gorram are ya supposed to be?"

"I am Father Christmas you ignorant *baichi*!" He rumbled.

Everybody was making so much fuss of Monty that the Captain had a chance to slide away. He needed to speak to Martin Frye. Kaylee's father gave him a nod and two sloped off towards the house. Zoe frowned and took a step to follow but Wash gently tightened his hold on her waist, the warm breath from his mouth fanning her cheek as he whispered gently in her ear. "*Fang xin, bao bei*. Time enough to quiz Mal when he comes back."

She glared at him then immediately softened. Not mad at him just frustrated. Why hadn't the Captain told her what he was up to? She did not like being outside the loop. It startled her when River Tam appeared beside her and gave her a solemn look. Her voice soft, quiet but intense. "It's not you he doesn't trust."

Zoe blinked then River was gone, helping Kaylee and Jayne steer Monty towards the huge Christmas tree. She frowned at the sack he was carrying. Wash gave her a little squeeze. "I think the Captain just wanted to surprise us, *bao bei*." He murmured as he kissed her cheek.

She relaxed against him but as she looked back at the house her eye met the Shepherd's and for a moment all the happy laughter, the banter and light hearted mood faded into the background, like the sun being momentarily eclipsed by a cloud. Although it lasted but a second the coolness across her heart remained and she wondered what the good gorram it meant.

* * * * *

Martin Frye looked at the little pouch of coin placed in his hand but made no move to count it.

"It's all there, Martin, an' with my thanks."

"I trust ya, Mal, though I was wonderin' where in *diyu* ya had got to. Have to say some of your crew were beginnin' to get more than a mite unsettled." He did not add that he had been getting worried his own self. Returning to Shadow had not been the kind of thing he would have recommended but he understood the Captain's motivation. Looking at the man now he knew that decision had cost the man more than the coin in his hand. "Find what ya were lookin' for?"

The Captain could not hide the pain that hurt him soul deep, his eyes haunted by a grief that never slept. Though he shuttered it away swiftly that brief glimpse tugged at Martin Frye's heartstrings. "*Bu qu*."

He knew he should not push or pry but could not help himself. "What happened, Mal?"

For a couple of minutes neither man spoke. The Captain looking down at the table top but not seeing a gorram thing. Martin Frye was about to reach out and touch his arm, enquire whether he was alright, when the Captain looked up. "They're gone, Martin." He whispered sadly.


The Captain swallowed slowly, his eyes shiny with unshed tears. "My family. All gone."

Mr Frye frowned, knew Mal was upset but was also confused. "Mal, ya told me you'd lost your folks." He said gently. "Were gonna go visit their graves."

"That I did on'y the gravestones were gone."

Kaylee's father looked shocked. Sure he must have misheard. "*Shenme*?"

"Someone removed the gorram headstones." Mal took a gulp of air then forced himself to calm down a bit. "But that ain't the worst part." Martin Frye stared at him, unwilling to ask the Captain what in the nine hells could be worse. "They dug up the ruttin' graves."

Horror stole over Mr Frye's stunned face.

"They took the coffins, Martin. Not a one of 'em left to say so much as a prayer over."

"*Wode ma*! What twisted *tamade hundan* would do a thing like that?"

The Captain raised his head and looked at him with eyes so bleak it was hard to imagine anything living stirring in those hollow depths. "Alliance!"

For a moment neither man spoke. "What ya gonna do, Mal?"

A firm resolute expression drew a line under the pain and heartache, a dark and dangerous gleam slowly locked away like a promise set in stone. He glimpsed the Captain's implaccable and not inconsiderable will grace those stony's features with the ghost of a smile. A smile that chilled his heart some. "First we got us some merry-makin' to take care of, Mr Frye."

The formal address put Martin Frye on notice, the Captain telling him it was time to rejoin the others and make like nothing was amiss. He nodded. Put the money for the fuel away then followed the Captain out of the house. Silently impressed with the way the man put his own pain and sorrow aside to get on with the serious business of keeping his crew happy.

* * * * *

Her head hurt but it was nothing. The bruises on her face pretty much fading memories on her burnished skin but the imprint on her mind was permanent. When he was gone she had time to think, to remember, and then the crashing stupidity of her own blind infatuation would come back and mock her. Her brother had tried to warn her but had she listened? No. She had turned on him. Helped them turn him into a fugitive for standing up to something she was too much the *baichi* to see. Now she was reaping her reward and even amidst the hurt and the ache she could not help loving the man she was coming to despise even more than her own battered and bruised reflection.

* * * * *

Kaylee could not remember a shinier Christmas. Everyone was there. Her family and friends, the crew. Everyone. And now there was Monty looking fabulously ridiculous in the *lese* red robe that only just met around his middle, but though it was make-do and he didn't really look like those old faded pictures of Santa Claus from the tales of Earth-That-Was it touched her that the Captain had gone to the trouble to find Monty and turn this already shiny Christmas celebration into something real special. She reached behind her and clasped Simon's hand. Reassured when he squeezed back.

They were all outside, the huge bonfire constantly being fed by the eager hands of countless neices and nephews piling on wood under the watchful eye of her Uncle Ray. Everyone was smiling, even the Captain had a twinkle in his eye though he had said but two words to any of them since he and Monty had arrived. Not surprising really seeing the fuss her folks had made when they got here but now all the questions and the waiting were over. Jayne still could not stop laughing and sniggering at Monty but a hard dig in his side from Zoe did at least make his mirth more muted. "Wa'n't doin' nothin' wrong." He mumbled sourly, then he smiled again.

"What do you suppose is in that bag, *bao bei*?"

Zoe gave her husband a level look. "You'll just have to wait an' see, *zhangfu*."

The sound of someone clearing his throat made Zoe and Wash turn their heads, the Shepherd giving them a look that told them to be quiet and pay attention. Wash grinned but both nodded. Monty was speaking now, his big booming voice drawing their complete and undivided attention to where the big man sat beneath the huge glittering tree. Kaylee noticed other bags now round his feet next to the one he had brought with him. Excitement and anticipation raced through her from the tips of her hair to the ends of her toes. Simon sidled closer so he could put his arm around the wriggling fidetting mass, amused and drawn to her. River sat the other side of Kaylee but seemed distracted. Inara Serra sitting next to the girl, the Captain on her right next to Jayne Cobb. Behind them the Shepherd stood like some old style patrician except his stern visage was ruined by the open laughter in his merry eyes. Around them all the warm happy swell of Kaylee's family cradled them in their festive joy. A collective happiness that was all kinds of precious.

Monty started to dip into the first sack, no one surprised when the presents were for the youngest cousins, nephews and neices. Kaylee clapped her hands in joy, eagerly telling Simon exactly who was who and why each and everything to come out of that sack was absolutely perfect. Malcolm Reynolds felt his lip twitch in amusement. Kaylee. The light for them all. A hand on his arm made him turn his head to see Inara watching him closely. "How long have you been planning this?" She whispered.

His eyebrows rose. "Why Inara Serra, what could you be suggestin'?" She smiled. "Alright Mal, keep your secret for now but I should warn you - I'm a registered companion and I *will* find out."

Inara had only been teasing but something dark and painful flickered in the Captain's eyes before he could mask it, his body stiffening slightly. His voice flat but polite. "Just wanted to celebrate Christmas with my crew, Inara."

She felt immediately sorry though she wasn't sure why. "Oh Mal..."

He cut her off before she could get all sincere and apologetic on him. "Sssh, we're comin' to the good part."

Thus diverted she glanced to the front again. Monty now dipped his hand into the big bag he had brought along with him. Next to Inara, River was wriggling in her seat, a big smile on her face. A hand over her mouth trying not to blurt the secrets out.

"Shepherd Book?"

Heads turned. The Shepherd looked surprised then cautiously pleased. River turned to look back at him as he hesitated. "You have to go up and take it. See what Santa brought."

"There is no Santa Claus." He murmured. But he made his way to the big tree and decided it would not hurt to play along. The package was not so much wrapped as covered. No brightly coloured paper and fancy doings so much as a plain sheet of brown paper tied up with string. But the string was tied in a bow. He supposed that was good enough. Taking his cue from Monty he smiled and nodded at him.

"Thank you, Santa."

Monty grinned, enjoying himself. "Have to open it."

"I was going to..." He waved back towards his seat.

Santa shook his head then looked out at the assembled family and friends, his voice booming out seeking the ears of the children. "What do you think? Should he take his gift away or open it so we can all see?"

The kids squealed, yelled for him to open it now, the adults joining in as if the children's voices could mask their own. Somewhere in the gathering Malcolm Reynolds smirked. Shepherd Book realised he had no alternative and opened his present. His hands froze, eyes widened. The size and shape of it had convinced him it was a bible. A perfect if predictable gift. What he was not expecting was this. A hand bound book from Earth-That-Was. It was a Book of Saints adorned in illuminated script. He felt something prick his eyes. Where in the nine hells the Captain had found it he did not know but he was all aware that what he held was worth a King's ransom. He looked up, clearly moved, and let his eyes seek out the face that he was looking for. When he found it he solemnly said, "Thank you, Santa. I shall treasure it always." But he was looking at Serenity's Captain.

Monty alternated between presents for Kaylee's family and those for the crew. When he came to Kaylee's she could hardly walk for excitement. Simon gave her a friendly push and her cousin Jedidiah grabbed her hand to pull her through then she was on her own stumbling feet, blushing furiously and wondering what in *diyu* the Captain and Monty could have got her. Monty leaned down and handed a big box wrapped in yellow paper. It was fastened with string and her name was written on the paper in a large looping bold hand. Blinking back tears she took it and gave Monty a kiss on the cheek, "Thank you, Santa."

He beamed at her and waited as she turned to face everyone then opened it, her hands stopping, her eyes widening then a big grin splitting her face damn near in two. Laughing she dipped her hand inside and brought out the biggest, juiciest strawberry any of them had seen in a good long while. The laughter and clapping hardly registered but the juicy fruit did, the ripe skin broken by eager teeth then sucked into her mouth with unrestrained pleasure. It seemed to take forever to get all the gifts handed out but no one minded. Inara was truly pleased with her small case of Silver Needle Tea, Jayne stunned by the self-sharpening knife case for Binky. Had never seen one in his whole life though he had heard tell of such. Simon stared at the old microscope not knowing what to say. It was a handsome gift if totally unexpected and too antiquated to be of modern use in the infirmary but it was the history attached to it and obvious thought that had gone into it that moved him. Kaylee hugged him and gave him a strawberry. Looking up into those happy brown eyes he thought it was possibly his best Christmas ever.

Zoe was nervous. Hated the notion that she and Wash would have to open their gifts in front of the others but so far nothing had exploded, nothing had gone wrong. The Captain was actually smiling - okay, it was a little smile but it *was* a smile. What the good gorram was she panicking about? River caught her nervous eye and clucked, "Only good things today. Worry tomorrow."

She blinked, not calmed in the least by the genius's idea of reassurance. Zoe frowned then her head snapped up as Monty called Wash's name. He was not in the least reticent, conviced the Captain had gone and bought him a new dinosaur. He wanted Zoe to go with him, she wanted to hide in the crowd. In the end it didn't matter. Santa Monty was laughing at them both and now called Zoe's name as well. With some good natured shoving and encouragement Zoe and Wash went over to the tree. Zoe looked back to send a particularly venemous look back at her Captain and friend. A sure promise that she would get him for this later.

The gifts they were handed surprised them both. Two little boxes. One in red, the other in green. Zoe looked at Wash. The whole gorram place had gone quiet. Even Monty had stopped his teasing, his kindly eyes watching closely for their reaction. He had not understood Mal's insistence at the time but now things were slotting into place. Zoe tentatively opened her box and her mouth dropped open in shock.

"*Shenme*? What is it, *bao bei*?"

She did not answer Wash in words but slowly lifted the silver chain, the links sliding over her fingers as she unravelled it to reveal the oddly shaped pendant hanging at the end of it. "What the good gorram...?"

Then Wash was feverishly opening his box and sure enough he also had a silver chain and something hanging on the end of it. He lifted puzzled eyes to hers. "What do you suppose it is?"

Monty laughed and leaned close. "Ya have'ta put 'em together."

"We do?"

"Yeah Wash, ya do."

Zoe took her pendant and held it up to Wash's. The odd jagged side of both then came together in a perfect, flawless fit. It was a silver heart. Her hand trembled as tears pricked her eyes. Wash caught her hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. "It's okay, *bao bei*." He said quietly, too stunned to express his own feelings but knowing exactly how she felt. It was Monty who gently told them to turn the heart over. Once the two pieces were aligned it read 'only together can the heart we share be whole'.

Then Zoe was crying, Wash was hugging her and Monty happily assured everyone they were not upset. River was pretty much wriggling with impatience in her seat, her neck craning and looking for Kaylee's cousin Charlie. Not relaxing until she saw him talking with Martin Frye, a glass of punch in one hand, his fiddle in the other. Then Monty called her name and before Simon could say anything she leapt to her feet and instead of running over to the tree she turned to the Captain and hugged him. "Thank you, I will, I promise!"

He chuckled and kissed her cheek. "Go on, best not keep Santa waitin'."

Then she was running, her combat boots kicking up little sods of earth as she ran. Inara watching with curious eyes, wondering what in the nine hells he had got Simon's sister. But Mal wasn't telling. Wouldn't spoil the girl's fun for anything in the 'verse.

Monty bent down and handed River her package. With excited hands she tore at the packing, red ribbon sliding off the box, the lid dropping at her feet as she removed the contents. Heads peered, her squeal of joy bringing smiles to their faces as she took the shoes out of the box. Not just any shoes. They were made of silk, worn and old but well looked after. They were pink and soft with special reinforced toes. River hugged the ballet shoes to her heart, kissed Monty on the cheek then sat at his feet and tore off her boots, putting the shoes on and strapping them tight, her eyes now searching for the fiddle player. Charlie caught her eye, knew what she wanted and handed Kaylee's father his punch. With a smile he dipped his head at River, she curtsied back at him and everyone moved back.

Watching River dance was like watching an angel in motion. It fair took the breath away. Not a one of them was immune. After that there was a long merry sit down meal, dancing and singing and celebrations that went right through the night. Zoe and Wash got the big spare bed for another night and long after they had sated their passions they lay quietly talking in each others arms. Zoe ran a light loving finger down Wash's cheek. "You're very quiet, *zhangfu*."

"Just a little taken aback by Mal's gift, *bao bei*." He looked at her slowly, not wanting the words to come out wrong and spoil the moment. "Why did he do it?" He asked in a hushed voice. "It's not like the Captain likes me that much..."

She cut him off quickly. "Of course he likes you."


"He just had to get used to the idea of us bein' together, *bao bei*."

Wash swallowed and fingered his neckchain. "It's such a handsome gift..."

"It's just the Captain's way." Said Zoe gently, her voice soothing.

He blinked, not wanting to misunderstand her. "His way?"

Zoe nodded, leaned in and gave him a slow warm kiss. "Of lettin' you know he approves."

That startled him. He sat up properly and stared at her. "You mean...?"

She laughed and it was such a free and happy sound that any reservations he had been feeling fled. "Yes, Wash. In Mal's eyes you're family now. Accepted."

He blinked back the threat of tears then they were hugging. It wasn't that he didn't like Mal, didn't trust him. The man was just so contained and complicated. So gorram confusing. His mood as quixotic and mercurial as his actions. Having this sign of validation was something he had not known how much he craved until he held it in his hands. Relaxing he hugged his wife to him and felt a deep content steal into his soul. His heart so full and at peace.

"Think you can sleep now, sweetie?" He pulled back enough to look into the beautiful depths of his gorgeous but deadly wife. "Who says I'm tired?"

"But I thought..." She never finished that sentence, her husband rolling her down on her back and getting busy reminding her just why in the nine hells she had married him.

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*mei mei* = little sister *diyu* = hell *baichi* = idiot *bao bei* = precious/treasure *fang xin* = don't worry (lit. ease your heart) *bu qu* = no (lit. no go) *shenme* = what *lese* = crappy *zhangfu* = husband *tamade hundan* = fucking bastard


Sunday, January 16, 2005 7:06 PM


Mal's gift to Zoe and Wash was such a sweet gesture.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005 5:42 AM


Just when I think I know what's going on, everything shifts and gets more complicated. Very sweet, with a delicious undercurrent of foreboding.

Sunday, March 27, 2005 11:52 PM


River, River, River...

I do so love you asides of her. I think she's written extremely well in your all of your series.

Keep flyin'


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His head still ached from the rutting probe but after the men had satisfied themselves that his story was true a thousand questions peppered the air like machine gun fire.

The vessel was shiny, sleek and black with nowhere near the bulk of an Alliance ship. Something about the way it moved through the Black was more than a little creepifying.

Personally she didn't care if Serenity was towed off to a junk yard and stripped into spare parts. She had promised the ship to Jer and his crew as a bonus but it looked like scavengers had beaten them to it.

UNFINISHED BUSINESS: 2. "Counting Chickens"
The fact that her eyes were hard and sharp with intelligence kind of chilled him. Smart women always made him uneasy, it just weren't natural.

What in the nine hells were they so afraid of? Then he remembered Tracy. The body mailed to them by their old war buddy and all the trouble that had brought down on them.

If it was too gorram wet to hunt for rabbits what in the nine hells was his son really hunting? And was it something on four legs or two?

The man was in a terrible condition, his pulse weak, and for some reason he was soaking wet which did nothing to staunch the blood soaking through his clothing and seeping from the poorly tended wound where he had been shot.

THE DICHOTOMY SERIES: 9. "All The King's Men"
The man sighed like the weight of the of the 'Verse was on his shoulders but unlike anyone else he looked like he could carry the weight.

THE DICHOTOMY SERIES: 8. "All The King's Horses"
Without warning something came through the opening and rolled with a metallic clang across the ground before exploding.

THE DICHOTOMY SERIES: 7. "Friend or Foe"
Then he found himself falling, the whole world silent as in slow motion the hordes of *diyu* came to swallow him up and everything disintegrated in fire, blood and pain.