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TITLE: A Longe and Tendre Tale of True Love and Deepe Devotione
AUTHOR: Mnemosyne

Disclaimer: Not mine!
SUMMARY: Once upon a time there lived a girl named Birdy who loved a dashing knight…
RATING: PG-13/light R
FANDOMS: Firefly/The Inside crossover crack!fic
CHARACTERS: Birdy/Sir Daniel (Danny Love), with appearances by the Serenity crew and mentions of some folks from The Inside. This is one crazy, cracked-out, candy-coated crossover
SPOILERS: *hysterical laughter*
WARNINGS: None!
NOTES:
I started this a couple of weeks ago as a “pick-your-own adventure” story for Alia, who was having a very bad day at work. She told me I should post it for y’all when it was done, and so here it is! The heroine of the story is Birdy, who you should know from reading Alia’s AWESOME Firefly AU, “Wingtip”. If you aren’t reading it, GO DO SO NOW; you don’t know what you’re missing. But even if you haven’t read it, all you really need to know about Birdy is that she’s sweet and small, and looks exactly like River, only a little rounder where River is sharp (the hips, the face, etc). Alia and I have, for some reason, decided that Birdy and Danny Love (from The Inside) would make THE most adorable couple; that’s where this story comes from. Please enjoy!






Once upon a time in a deep, dark forest, there lived a sweet girl. Her name was Birdy, and she was dearly loved by plants and animals alike. She loved nothing more than to dance with the willow trees when they shimmied in the breeze, or to share the daily gossip with the ducks down by the riverbank. The world was sunny and bright in Birdy's eyes, unsullied by darkness and fear.

There was only one blight in the girl's idyllic lifestyle: the wicked ogre who lived in a cave on the far side of the river. While the rest of the forest sparkled with life and greenery, the ogre's cave was dark and hollow, and seemed to suck the light out of the air and turn it into darkness. It was a very unhappy place to look at, and so Birdy tried to avoid it as much as possible.

One day, Birdy was playing ball with the bunnies. She had a cushy sponge ball that she had fished out of the reeds years ago, and it was one of her prized possessions. She would throw it to the bunnies, and they would punt it back to her with their broad, flat feet. It was one of her favorite games.

But oh no! One of the bunnies kicked too hard! The ball went sailing over Birdy's shoulder and landed in the sparkling river. The current caught it, and it went whisking downstream.

Right towards the ogre's cave.

"Oh no!" Birdy squeaked, jumping up and scampering towards the river. "Come back, ball! Come back and play!"

"WAIT!" a voice boomed behind her. "Don't go in the water!"

Birdy blinked and froze, one toe already dipped into the water. Craning her head around slowly, she looked up.

And up.

And up.

A knight was behind her, outfitted in gleaming silver plate armor and seated on a powerful white horse with a dappled nose. His visor was down, but she could see a pair of sharp blue eyes watching her through the slot in the front of the man's helmet. His broad shoulders -- made broader by the armor -- supported a luxurious cape of sapphire velvet, the back of which bore a herald of a howling wolf, stitched in silver thread.

"Oh..." Birdy murmured, brown eyes widening to the size of saucers as she took in the dashing figure. Her own delicate green gown of fluttery fabric seemed shabby in comparison.

"Come away from the water, girl," he said, not unkindly, and reached out a gleaming hand toward her. Birdy discovered that his voice wasn't actually loud, but deep. It moved in her bones like an earthquake and made her skin tingle.

"Who.... Who are you?" she asked in a small, shaky voice.

"My name is Sir Daniel."

"Sir... Sir Daniel?"

"You have the right of it." She could hear the smile in his voice. He flexed his fingers in her direction, the plate armor making a creaking, clanking sound. "Step away from the water, girl. The river is in
flood, and a nymph such as yourself will be swept away on the tide."

Birdy blushed. No one had ever called her a nymph before. No one had ever called her anything much before at all, since most of her friends couldn't speak human speech. "I'm a very good swimmer," she assured him, but lowered her one raised foot to plant it firmly on the riverbank.

"I've no doubt you are," he assured her. "But it would be contrary to my vows to guard and protect if I were to ride on and allow you to dive in without thought."

Birdy giggled. "You speak in such pretty words, Sir Danny," she giggled.

A rumbling laugh echoed through the visor. "Sir Danny? I think I like this name. And it's in the nature of my caste to speak in this manner, especially when conversing with pretty young women."

Birdy blushed again, even redder this time. "You speak pretty like the tiger lilies," she told him with a little nod, then reached up to tug her short hair over in an unconscious gesture. "Birdy was raised by
daisies, and speaks like them, too."

The knight cocked his head. "Birdy?"

"Yes, Birdy." She raised one small hand and waved. "Hello!"

Sir Danny laughed, a warm, rolling laugh. "Well, Birdy, I've never met a girl who was raised by daisies before."

Birdy's eyes lit up. "Would you like to meet them?" she asked eagerly, clapping her hands. "They look quite fine in their springtime frocks!"

"Would you like me to rescue your ball first?" Sir Danny asked kindly, gesturing to the water. "Strongarm can take the current." He patted his horse's majestic neck.

Birdy bit her lip. She wanted her ball back , but she also wanted to show this nice stranger her family garden. What if he brought her back her ball then rode off before she could bring him home? He was a very grand knight. He was no doubt very busy.

"May I ride with you to rescue my ball, Sir Danny?" Birdy asked quickly. This seemed an excellent solution to her dilemma! "I have never ridden a big horse like Strongarm. Only the shaggy ponies with sweet faces the gypsies use to haul their wagons." She reached out a soft hand toward Strongarm's proud face. The horse lowered his head and nuzzled her palm, whickering amiably. Birdy giggled and patted his nose.

The knight rumbled another laugh. "You have a way with horses, Birdy," he said appreciatively. “Strongarm is a fine animal, but rarely friendly to strangers."

"He knows he is very pretty," she said, giving the warhorse a teasing pat on the forelock. "He has vanity, but tempered with gentleness." Leaning forward, she kissed the stallion's satin nose.

The horse shifted a moment later, but before Birdy could straighten up, she found herself flying!

"OH!" she gasped as Sir Daniel lifted her up to sit sidesaddle in front of him. Strongarm was very tall, and while Birdy had climbed trees that were much taller, they were also less likely to start walking while she was perched up in their high branches. Squeezing her eyes shut, she wrapped her arms around Sir Danny's armored torso, pressing her cheek against the shiny metal that protected his chest. Her fingers slipped on the gleaming plate armor, and she scrabbled to hold on tight.

"Ohhhh, he's so talllll," she whimpered.

Sir Daniel laughed softly, and patted her back sympathetically. "Don't worry, Birdy," he assured her. "Neither Strongarm nor I will let you fall." As if to illustrate his point, Sir Danny wrapped one plated arm around her slender waist as his heels tapped the horse's sides.

Birdy squeaked fearfully as Strongarm began to walk forward; she pried her yes open and stared in wonder at the ground moving past so far below her eet. "You must be dizzy very often," she breathed in amazement, watching the ground change to water as Strongarm stepped into the shining river.

"Not for many a year, Birdy," Sir Danny told her, holding tight to her as the water swirled higher up Strongarm's fetlocks.

"Wow!"

Danny laughed again. "Is that your ball?" he asked, nodding forward.

Birdy dragged her eyes up from the swirling water -- it was almost touching Strongarm's belly now -- and saw her spongey ball caught up in the reeds on the far bank, just upstream from the ogre's cave. She tried very hard not to look at the cave, and pointed straight at the ball. "Right there, Sir Danny!" she told him.

Sir Daniel turned Strongarm toward the ball's resting place. Once they were within reaching distance, Birdy bent forward over her knees, small hands straining to pluck the ball from out of the reeds. "I can almost reach, Sir Danny!"

"Let me fetch it for you, Birdy," Sir Daniel warned, tightening his grip around her waist.

"No, no, I can do it!" Birdy wiggled forward in his grip. His armor was shiny and slippery against the soft gauzy material of her dress. Soon she was hanging over his arm like washing on a line.

"Take care, Birdy, you're going to fall in!" Sir Daniel exclaimed, trying to gather her back.

"It's okay, Sir Danny!" Birdy exclaimed with delight as her fingers closed on the soggy ball. "I have it!" She held it up proudly and moved to sit back on Strongarm's broad back, but her foot slipped on the stirrup and she tumbled headfirst into the rushing water!

Birdy found herself choking on a mouthful of water as she scrambled back to the surface. To her dismay, Sir Daniel was already well upstream; the current had carried her far since her tumble. "SIR DANNY!" she exclaimed, gagging on another mouthful of water as she did so. Raising one hand in the air, she waved it wildly. "SIR DANNY, I'M HERE! HELP! HELP!" Despite the water roiling around her, she saw him turn Strongarm's head in her direction; watched the horse begin to plow through the water towards her.

She felt something solid bump against her back and flailed out with one hand to grab for it. When it proved sturdy, she grabbed hold with her other hand and pulled, hauling herself up out of the water and
falling in a gasping heap on the shore, her cheek pillowed on warm, dark earth.

Hang on...

DARK earth? Too dark!

Raising her head, she stared in horror at the yawning mouth of the ogre's cave, which surrounded her like a tear in the face in the world.

"Sir... Sir Danny...!' she quailed, too afraid to shout as she stared into the dark depths of the cave. "Sir Danny... help... oh... Oh please help...!"

Strongarm was fighting the current to get to her, and Sir Danny was calling her name, but she could barely hear him over the blood pounding in her ears. Fear-based adrenaline surged in her veins.

And then she saw the eyes watching her from the darkness.

The eyes blinked, snapping Birdy out of her terrified trance, and she did the only thing a rational person would do in her situation.

She screamed her head off.

"GET AWAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY!" she bellowed, though her high-pitched voice turned it into a drawn-out shriek. To her satisfaction and relief, the eyes flinched away from the sound, and she rolled onto her hands and knees, trying to crawl back into the water so she could be picked up once again by
Sir Daniel.

Before she could reach the water, however, she felt a pair of powerful arms wrap around her from behind, dragging her backward into the cave. "NOO!" she wailed, kicking and thrashing desperately. "NOOO LET ME GOOOO!"

"Shut UP!" the ogre growled in her ear, sounding angry and irritable. "Dumb girl, woke me from my nap!"

"SIR DANNY!" she screamed, reaching desperately for the quickly disappearing light of the cave entrance. "SIR DAAAANNY!"

"Said SHUT UP!" the ogre snarled, and clamped a rough, calloused hand over her mouth. It was so big, it covered almost her entire face.

Birdy continued struggling in the ogre's iron grip, but knew it was hopeless to dream of escape. He carried her deep into the warren of his cave, into darkness so black Birdy thought she'd never see the light
again. Then, slowly, a new light -- a warm, orange glow -- began to creep along the lichen-covered stone walls of the passageway, and soon Birdy found herself being carried into a round chamber lit by a roaring fire that blazed in a large fireplace behind a wrought iron grate. The ogre's hand obscured her view of the rest of the room, until he dropped her unceremoniously onto a rug in the center of the floor.

"QUIT SCREAMIN'!" the ogre bellowed, towering over her. He was wearing tattered canvas pants, which were all she could really see of him from her spot on the floor, eye level with his ankles.

"You are going to EAT ME!" Birdy wailed, curling into a tight ball and trembling in terror. "Oh, Sir Danny, help me! HELP ME!"

"I said," the ogre growled, and she felt his strong hands grab her shoulders, forcing her body to uncurl so he could glare into her face, "QUIT SCREAMIN'!"

Birdy opened her mouth to howl her protest into his face-

-and stopped, the words lodging in her throat as she stared at him.

She blinked.

"Sir Danny?" she murmured in shocked disbelief.

The ogre with Sir Daniel's face blinked back at her in confusion, his scraggly beard all but obscuring his frown.

"River?" he grunted in confusion.


--------------------



The shock lasted almost a full minute as Birdy stared at the ogre and the ogre stared at Birdy. She was the first to recover, blinking away her surprise. "Why do you look like Sir Danny!" she exclaimed. The
resemblance really was quite remarkable; even the eyes were the same, and Birdy had thought Sir Danny's eyes were singular in the world.

"First you tell me why you look like River," the ogre grunted, backing away from her and eyeing her warily. He didn't look much like an ogre, come to think on it. He looked more like a really dirty, surly man who lived in a hole in the side of a hill. The fact he had some moss growing in his hair was the only indication he wasn't as human as the next hermit.

Birdy cocked her head, curiosity temporarily nullifying her fear. "Who is River?" she asked.

The ogre frowned deeper beneath his scraggly beard. "Ain't you met 'er?" he grumbled.

Birdy bit her lip, squinting her eyes as she tried to think long and hard on all the people she'd ever met. "Umm.... nope," she decided after a minute's thought, shaking her head vigorously and sitting up straight
again. "Nope, Birdy has never met another person who looks like her."

The ogre squinted in confusion. "What's birds got to do with anything?"

Birdy giggled. Now that it seemed apparent the ogre wasn't going to eat her, she was beginning to relax. His hidey hole was actually quite cozy, if she ignored the pile of fish bones in one corner and the faint smell of mildew, which she strongly suspected was coming from the ogre himself and not his home. "Not BIRDS, silly ogre man," she chided, batting a playful hand in his direction. "BIRDY." She waved at him. "Hello!"

"Uh... your name's Birdy?"

She nodded happily.

"Who named ya somethin' dumb like that?"

Birdy's face fell, and she felt her lip begin to tremble as tears welled in her eyes. "The daisies named the Birdy girl," she explained, hurt. "They named me for the crane who dropped me in their garden to grow." Fat tears began to course down her cheeks.

The ogre visibly panicked. "Hey now, don't go cryin'," he said quickly, holding out his hands as if to hold back the impending flood.

"You think I have a dummy name!"

"Look, just don't cry, awright? I ain't good with cryin' girls."

"Say you are sorry!"

"I ain't good with apologies neither!"

Birdy felt her hurt begin to melt away, replaced by solid indignation, and would have stood up to give him a piece of her mind if they hadn't been interrupted by a voice coming from the passageway.

"Please forgive Jayne my Jayne. He is very good at making girls cry, but bad at helping them stop."

Birdy looked up sharply, and found herself gazing into a shining, serene face augmented by a gleaming mane of tousled brown hair and a pair of liquid brown eyes.

"Oh my," she breathed in amazement. Raising her hand, she gave a little wave to the newcomer. "Hello, me."


----------------------------



The other Birdy raised her hand and waved back, smiling sweetly, "Hello."

Birdy gaped at the other girl. A her skin seemed to shimmer faintly, like sunlight on flecks of mica. Her long, thick brown hair was sleek and shiny, and hung in loose, effortless ringlets down her back and over her bare white shoulders. The dress she wore flickered like a candle flameviewed through a prism, taking the light from the roaring fire and splintering it into a rainbow shards that showered the room with color.
Birdy felt a joyful laugh bubble up past her lips as a rainbow passed over her nose.

She clapped her hands giddily. "Oh please, who are you?" she asked, a little awestruck as she gazed up into her double's smiling face. "I think I like you very much."

Her mirror image giggled. "You could not pronounce my name," she said shyly, ducking her head. "But my Jayne calls me River."

"Why does he call you River?"

"Cuz that's what she is, that's why," the ogre broke in, visibly irritated at being left out of the introductions.

Birdy cocked her head. "You... are a river?" she asked the other girl.

River beamed, her smile white and shining, like whitecaps on the ocean. "Yes," she answered simply. But not just a river." She gestured behind her to the dark passageway. "THAT river."

Birdy blinked. Reaching out with one hand, she poked River's shin. "Do you have fish in you?"

River laughed and danced away from Birdy's hand, her bare feet hardly touching the hardpacked dirt floor. "No!" she giggled, twirling gracefully. "I am the river's guardian naiad. I am her spirit." Laughing, she flung herself into the ogre's arms. Jayne -- presumably that was the ogre's name -- wrapped his arms around her, holding her gently against his broad chest. They made a funny-looking couple, but Birdy couldn't help but coo when she saw how carefully the ogre held the slender water sprite.

"You been havin' a good day?" Jayne asked, gnobbly fingers combing through River's luxuriant hair.

River cuddled up under his chin, smiling happily. "Yes," she answered. "River made a new friend today."

"Yeah?"

"Mm-hmm."

"Whosat?"

"A knight and his horsey."

Birdy's mouth dropped open and her eyes widened. "Sir Danny!" she exclaimed, covering her mouth with alarm. "He was trying to help me!"

River looked over her shoulder at the other girl, biting her lip. "Oh dear," the naiad fretted. "I didn't know he was looking for YOU!"

Birdy didn't wait for an explanation. Leaping to her feet, she bolted into the passageway, leaving the warmth of the firelight behind her as she plunged into the damp black darkness.

"Wait!" she heard River call out behind her. "You'll get lost!"

But Birdy was too frantic to care. Sir Danny had been so kind to her, and Strongarm was so noble and sweet, and she'd gotten them HURT. They were DROWNING because of her. They'd gone over a waterfall and been dashed to pieces on the ROCKS because of her!

"Bad Birdy!" she sobbed. "You are a bad, bad Birdy girl! The briar bushes were right to scold you and prick your fingers! You are a very naughty girl!"

Within a few minutes, she was hopelessly lost. No hint of firelight remained behind her, and there was no indication of cheerful sunlight ahead of her, either. The corridor was black - pitch, pitch black - and she stumbled along, stepping in puddles and crying her heart out as she ran her hands along the dripping walls to guide her footsteps

Birdy felt like she wandered for hours in the deep, dark tunnels that twisted and turned like a rabbit warren through the bedrock. Her eyes had grown accustomed to the dark, which she discovered was not ENTIRELY dark; it was lit very faintly by some kind of luminescent fungus that grew in sheets along the roof and down the walls.

Sniffling, Birdy took a moment to lean against the wall and assess her options. She could try to retrace her steps and find Jayne and River again; but she didn't relish the idea of tramping back through all those
tunnels. She could sit here and scream for help; but she didn't know what kind of dark, scary creatures might be down here with her, and she didn't want to draw unwanted attention.

"Oooh, I wish you hadn't thought that, Birdy," she whimpered to herself, hugging her slender arms and curling tighter around herself. She felt as though eyes were staring at her even now, assessing the tasty bits to eat first.

No. Waiting around wasn't an option and neither was going back, which just left moving forward. She would keep walking until she found a way back to the surface. The rock tunnels couldn't go on FOREVER. "And if you reach a wall," she said to herself, nodding resolutely, "you will turn around and
put it behind you and head in the opposite direction, because that will mean you are heading UP."

Pushing away from the wall, nodding and muttering encouragement to herself, she began walking again, treading carefully on the wet, slippery floor.


--------------------



An hour later, she was beginning to wonder if she'd made a mistake.

The tunnels seemed to stretch on and on and on, with no end in sight. She was beginning to think that if she kept on walking to the end, she wasn't going to find a solid stone wall -- she was going to emerge on the other side of the world! Her small feet ached from tramping on cold, wet stone, and her delicate green dress was raggedy and tattered. "I hurt," she whimpered to the darkness. "I hurt, and I'm cold, and I want Sir Danny. Please, I want Sir Danny."

"Who's Sir Danny, little one?"

Birdy froze. That hadn't been Jayne's voice, and not Sir Danny's, for certain. "W...Who are you?" she asked, voice shaking with sudden terror.

The voice laughed, and it seemed the laugh was all around her; not echoing, just THERE. "You don't know?" it asked.

Birdy shook her head, then realized that was a silly thing to do when it was so dark. "N...No, sir," she stammered.

"You can't see me or nothin'?"

Birdy swallowed, squinting anxiously into the misty, faint light. "It's...it's too dark, " she mumbled.

"Yes," the voice answered. It wasn't, on further thought, an unkind voice. It was just... there.

"Who are you?" Birdy asked, nibbling her fingertips nervously. Then, very softly, "Are you going to hurt me?"

The voice laughed again. "Oh no, little one," it answered. "See, I'm gonna lead you back to the light." She felt a warm swirl around her shoulders, like an arm being draped behind her neck.

"Ain’t got a name here, little one, but laymen call me the Dark. Course, superstitious folk like to say I'm evil, and so they call me bad. I prefer Mal - means the same thing, but it ain't so wrong-sounding." The
warmth tugged on her shoulders. "Come on, little one. Time to show you back to the sun."

"Um... No thank you, Mr. Dark, sir," Birdy said nervously, trying to inch back the way she'd come. "I think I will find my own way, please."

"Don't you want any help, little one?" Mal asked, sounding confused.

Birdy giggled giddily. A moment ago, that was what she'd been wanting very badly. But now all she wanted was to be alone. "Thank you, but no," she answered again. "It is... very nice to know the Dark has a nice voice, though. The next time I lift a stone, I will be very comforted."

"Gorrammit, it's the bad thing, ain't it?" the darkness asked, swirling around her in swaths of invisible black. "I shouldn't've mentioned the bit about the bad."

Birdy bit her lip, then shrugged a little. "It was a little offputting," she admitted.

"Now see, everyone always says that," the voice said, sounding miffed. "I ain't a bad sort; not really. I can be a mite scary, but ain't nothin' wrong with ME. Ain't my fault I've got this bad reputation. I'm sweet as honey in reality."

"I'm... sure you are."

"Oh, honestly, Mal, you're scaring the girl!"

This was a new voice - female - and Birdy jumped as it echoed down the stone passageway. "Who's that!" she exclaimed before she could stop herself.

Mal sighed near her ear, making her jump again. "The ying to my yang," he grumbled. "The bane of my existence. The thorn in my side, the popcorn kernel caught between the teeth of my life-"

"Also known as his wife," the voice answered, laughter evident by the tone.

"Hello, sunshine," Mal grumbled.

"Hello, dear," the new voice answered. Then, to Birdy, "You may call me Inara. It means "heaven sent," which isn't entirely accurate, but close enough. And it's quite pretty, too, which is why I adopted it." Birdy could hear the amusement in the woman's voice as she continued, "Afterall, if my husband could pick something as grim and boring as 'Mal'-"

"It was picked for me by superstitious skyhogs!"

"Forgive my husband. It comes of being... well, the personification of darkness. He tends to overdramatize."

"I understand," Birdy replied sympathetically.

"Would you like to go back to the surface, sweetheart?"

Birdy's eyes widened. "Oh yes please!" she exclaimed, clasping her hands beneath her chin as if in prayer. "Please, Miss Inara!"

"Now how come she says yes to you and no to me?" the darkness grumbled.

"Because, sweetheart, I don't scare people silly and sneak up on them unawares."

"No, you just drag 'em out of bed in the morning. I ask you which is worse."

"Hush. Now, dear," this was directed at Birdy again, "you just wait one moment. I'm almost there."

Birdy blinked. "You're not here?" she asked, surprised.

"Well... no. Not entirely. Some of me is, obviously, or I couldn't talk to you. But the physical me... isn't yet. Just the thought."

"I'm talking to a thought?" Birdy asked, patting her head as if expecting to feel a hole in the top, spilling thoughts into the still air.

"Two, actually," Inara reminded her. "Don't worry, I'll send Mal away as soon as I get there."

"Oh, he doesn't have to go!" Birdy was beginning to feel bad about not trusting Mal, when he was married to someone as nice as Inara.

"Yes I do," Mal sighed. "Too many women 'round here. Man can't think traight."

Birdy giggled.

"Are you ready, honey?" Inara asked.

"Yes, ma'am," Birdy answered, with a dutiful little curtsey.

"Have a good day, little one," the Darkness said.

"You too, Mr. Mal Dark sir," Birdy replied.

"Oh darlin', I'm a night man."

"Birdy?" Inara asked.

"Yes, Miss Inara ma'am?"

There was the sound of rattling stone, and suddenly the narrow little passageway was filled with glorious sunlight as a hail of pebbles fell out of a crack in the ceiling, revealing a pie-shaped segment of blue summer sky.

The sunlight painted Birdy's upturned face as she basked in the glow.

"Hello," Inara murmured.


----------------------



"Thank you, Mrs Inara Sun ma'am!" Birdy squealed in delight, and jumped up toward the hole. It was too high for her to reach, even when she waved and waggled her arms in the air as she leapt.

"Try shouting, dear," the sunlight suggested near her ear. "I see some people up here. They should be able to help you."

"Thank you!" Birdy repeated. Cupping her hands around her mouth, she shouted toward the hole, "HELP! Somebody! I'm stuck in a hole in the ground! Help! Help!"

She let her hands drop and rocked amiably back and forth, gazing up at the hole and waiting.

A minute later, she heard a hesitant voice drift down to her from somewhere outside. "Hello?" the voice asked.

It was a man, but not Sir Danny. Birdy stomped on her disappointment and raised her hands again. "Hello!" she called. "I'm down below!"

"Am I talking to God?"

"No, you're talking to Birdy!"

"To... What?"

"Not what, WHO." She waved her arms futilely. "I'm in the GROUND!"

"Are you dead?"

"No!"

"Then why are you in the ground?"

"Because the ogre took me!"

"Why?"

"Because I disturbed his nap!"

"How did you do that?"

"By splashing around and yelling when I lost my ball in the river!"

"I'm sorry, I'm confused. Who am I talking to again, and why do you think you're in the ground?"

Suddenly, a woman's face appeared over the hole in the ground. She had warm, honey brown skin and long curly hair the color of cocoa powder. "Wash, dear, stop talking to the air and come help me get this girl out of the ground," the woman said with wry amusement, winking down at the her.

Birdy waved up at her. "Hello!"

The woman inclined her head in greeting. "Hello."

A moment later the woman's face was joined by that of a man with bright blue eyes and fair hair. "Oh!" he exclaimed, grinning down at her. "You're real!"

Birdy cocked her head. "Did you think you were talking to an imaginary girl?" she asked.

Wash gave a helpless little shrug. "Well, you know, strange little forest mushrooms, one or two poorly cooked fish filets, and I could be talking to a tree and think it's my mother."

"No dear," the woman said.

"Hmm?"

"A tree would have a nicer temperament than your mother."

"Ah, this is true, this is true." Wash jerked his head towards the woman. "This gorgeous creature is Zoe, my wife." He beamed. "We're circus performers."

Zoe gave him a look.

"Well, I'm a circus performer," he amended sheepishly.

Another look.

"A one man band?"

Look.

"All right, we're thieves," Wash sighed, throwing his hands up in the air. "Honestly, you try to make a good impression..."

Birdy's eyes widened. "You're... thieves?" she asked cautiously.

Zoe gave her a kind smile. "Nice thieves, sweetie," she comforted. "We only steal from the rich."

"And sell to the poor," Wash added cheerfully.

Birdy didn't know how she felt about being rescued by thieves. But they seemed very nice, and Zoe had big, warm eyes, and Wash had laugh lines around his mouth, and in the end she found herself grabbing their outstretched hands and letting them haul her up out of the cave and into the warm summer day above ground.

"No offense, honey, but how long have you been down there?" Wash asked, giving her an appraising look as she basked in the warmth of Inara's sunlight.

"A few hours," Birdy answered. "Why?"

"Because I can barely see you for the fungus." He picked some moss out of her hair. "You were taken by an ogre?"

"Yep, but he was friendly," Birdy answered, giggling as Zoe helped her readjust her battered dress.

"well that's good. I'm a thief, not a hero," Wash told her. "I would rather not have to battle ogres on my day off."

Birdy giggled again, then took a moment to look at her surroundings. She could hear the river burbling behind the trees off to the left, but the rest of the countryside didn't look very familiar to her. She bit her
lip anxiously. "where am I?" she asked.

"Um... somewhere between the middle of nowhere and the place we haven't gotten yet," Wash answered.

"About ten miles outside of Village Cove," Zoe clarified.

Birdy felt her stomach clench. "I... don't know where that is," she whimpered. Then, louder, "I don't know where I am!"

"Shhh," Zoe soothed, stroking her hair and smiling kindly. "You can come with us to Village Cove. Someone there should be able to help you find your way home."

"But... but..." Birdy looked back over her shoulder at the hole in the ground. She thought of Sir Danny, maybe broken and bleeding on the riverbank. She thought of her happy garden of family flowers, who were probably wondering where she'd gotten to. She thought of her cozy little hollow in the trunk of the big oak tree, where she slept all curled up on a warm bed of goose down and oak leaves. What if going to Village Cove took her away from all that? What if she never found her way back?

"Come on, sweetheart," Zoe comforted, wrapping an arm around the girl's shoulders and gently guiding her towards the river. Wash followed behind. "We'll get you cleaned up and work from there, okay?"

Birdy sniffled, but allowed herself to be led. She didn't know what else to do at this point. If she went wandering she could be lost for days and days in unfamiliar country. At least this way she was with people. "I don't have any money," she whimpered.

"Don't need any," Wash assured her cheerfully. "We just ripped off this REALLY rich bastard named Atherto-"

"Sweetheart?" Zoe interrupted gently. "No names, please."

Wash ripped off a sharp salute. "Yes, ma'am!" He jogged past them, and Birdy followed his feet, watching tearfully as he leapt nimbly onto a sturdy raft that was moored on the riverbank, and picked up a punting pole. Judging by the wicker basket and red-checked tablecloth set neatly back by the rudder, the couple must have been having a picnic shortly before Birdy's arrival.

Zoe led her onto the raft and settled her down on a soft cushioned seat on the sun-warmed side of the little hutch that jutted up in the center of the raft; no doubt it was used for storage and for escaping the elements on cold, rainy days. It was a very cozy raft, Birdy decided, letting her eyes drift over the careworn timber. It was like a little home on the water.

Something warm and wet touched her face, and she found she'd been dozing off as she blinked herself awake. Zoe was gently cleaning her face with a damp towel. "Go back to sleep, honey," the older woman soothed. "We're making good time to Village Cove. My mister is the best man on this river; he'll have us there in no time."

"Aww, I'm blushing," Wash quipped.

Birdy giggled sleepily, snuggling up in the warm sun as Zoe continued to clean some of the muck from her face and hair. "My mister," she repeated, smiling broadly. "That is very cute."

"That he is," Zoe agreed, eyes twinkling. "Do you have a mister, Birdy?"

Birdy thought of Sir Danny, and her smile faded. "No," she mumbled. "I lost him."

Zoe touched her cheek. "We'll find him for you again, honey," she assured the younger girl with a comforting smile.

Birdy sniffled and nodded, but she didn't really believe.


----------------------



They arrived in Village Cove a few hours later. Birdy napped on and off most of the way, but every mile that passed looked more and more alien. She was convinced she was heading in the wrong direction. She had to go back!

"Sweetheart, it's dangerous," Wash warned her when she told him as they moored the raft at the busy dock that gave the town its name. "Believe it or not, not all thieves are as nice as me and Zoe. And there are worse things out there than thieves; things that wouldn't think twice about being very bad with a nice girl like you."

"But I have to go home! My friend needs me!" Birdy exclaimed in frustration.

"You will!" Wash assured her, tying off the knot and turning to take her gently by the shoulders and look into her eyes. "But you have to be careful! Look, Zoe and I have a friend here in town. We can ask him if he knows anything about your friend, all right? He's very smart; knows a lot of people. Will you at least wait long enough to ask?" He gave her a winning smile.

Birdy chewed her lip and looked anxiously at the river. If Sir Danny had been hurt, he might be lying somewhere upstream, wounded and alone and needing his Birdy! But if this man Wash spoke of knew about Sir Danny, maybe he'd know where Sir Danny was FROM, and then she wouldn't have to guess her way along -- she'd know where she was going.

She bit her lip harder and furrowed her brow in thought.

"Okaaaay," she finally sighed, shoulders slumping. "I will go with you and Zoe."

Wash beamed at her. "Atta girl." Finishing off the rope, he slung an arm around her shoulders. "Hey now, buck up," he coaxed, trying to bring a smile to her glum face. "Everything's going to be all right, little bird."

Birdy sighed and laid her head mournfully on his shoulder. "I'm lonely."

"Well now, Zoe and I are here, aren't we?" Wash quickly patted himself down. "Yep, definitely corporeal."

Birdy giggled. "You don't count," she teased.

"You wound me, Birdy, you really do," Wash mourned.

When Zoe returned from paying the docking fee a few minutes later, the three travelers set off across the village. It was a hub of maritime activity -- a place for traders to congregate from up and down the river to exchange wares, news, and money. Birdy found herself missing her quiet woodland home more and more.

Eventually, Wash and Zoe led her into a little clapboard building with a bell on the front door. Birdy had never been in a church before, but she thought it was very pretty. The pews were polished, shiny, and well-loved; the altar was tidy and inviting; and the pretty stained glass windows made her eyes shine happily.

"May I help y- Zoe! Wash! Welcome!" Birdy looked up to find an older man emerging from a back room behind the altar podium. He had white hair pulled back in a bun, and wore simple, spare clothes in shades of black, white and gray. His face was gentle, and his warm brown hands held a careworn book.

"Hello, Shepherd," Zoe greeted the newcomer with a smile, giving him a warm hug.

"I hadn't expected to see you out in this neck of the woods so soon after the... well, the Incident," the Shepherd mused with a smile, pulling away from Zoe to shake Wash's hand.

"Eh, bygones," Wash said with an airy wave of his hand.

"And who is this?" the Shepherd asked, giving Birdy a gentle, genuine smile.

"Birdy," Birdy answered shyly, ducking her head and looking at him through her lashes.

"Hello, Birdy," the man said with a smile and a nod of his head. "I'm Shepherd Derrial Book."

"Hello, Shepherd Book."

"She's looking for a friend of hers," Zoe said. "A man by the name of-"

"Sir Danny!" Birdy broke in quickly, in hopes that the shepherd would recognize the name. "Sir Danny! Sir Daniel!"

"Seems they got separated somewhere upstream," Zoe supplied. "Don't rightly know where."

Birdy bit her lip. "I think I may have broken him," she added miserably. “Or someone may have broken him because of me.”

The shepherd frowned in thought. "Sir Daniel you say?" he asked. Birdy nodded quickly. "Yes. Yes, I think I know this man. Large, right? Blue eyes? Strong white horse?"

"Yes! Yes! That's him!" Birdy exclaimed, clapping her hands gleefully.

“Oh, THAT Sir Daniel!” Wash broke in. “Why didn’t you say?”

“You know him?” Birdy asked, wide-eyed.

“Sir Daniel’s quite well-known hereabouts, child,” Zoe answered with a smile.

“Have you seen him? Has he been here?” Birdy’s mind was racing a mile a minute.

Book shook his head gently. "I haven't seen him in quite some time," he told her. "He does a lot of traveling, from venue to venue."

"Can you tell me where he has been recently?" she asked, crossing her fingers and toes.

"Last I heard, he was doing great feats of derring do up near Belmont- BIRDY!"

But Birdy wasn't listening; she had already started running for the chapel door.

"Birdy, honey, you have to REST first," Zoe told her firmly, grabbing her arm and holding firmly. "You can't go running off up the river this late in the day. It'll be nightfall before long."

"But... but... Sir Danny!"

"Sir Danny is a big, strong man. He can take care of himself, sweetheart."

Birdy bit her lip and stared longingly at the door.

"Do you know Sir Danny well, little one?" The Shepherd's voice drew Birdy's attention back to the other three people in the room. The older man was smiling at her, his eyes gentle and sympathetic.

Birdy bit her lip and sniffled. "No," she mumbled, shrugging faintly. Then, softer still, "But I wanted to know him better..."

"I'll wager he would like to know more about you, too, child," Book replied, as Zoe wrapped a comforting arm around Birdy's shoulders and led her to a pew.

"Really?" Birdy asked, wiping her eyes with trembling hands.

Book nodded and smiled warmly. "Sir Daniel has long been a friend to people in need," he told her. "No one knows quite where he hails from, only that he appeared one day at the height of the old king's tyranny, and slew the old lunatic with one swipe of his sword."

Birdy remembered the gleaming scabbard that had hung near Sir Danny's left hip. "He... he killed the king?" she whimpered.

"He was a cruel man, Birdy," Book said solemnly. "Cruel and wicked. You were young then, no doubt; too young to know. The old king hated sweet children; he would have turned you coarse and cold had he ever known you. He would have done unspeakable things." Birdy felt cold shivers rush down her spine. "Sir Daniel himself was little more than a boy then; hardly old enough to shave. But he killed the old king, and that was when king Webster ascended to the throne."

Birdy had heard of King Webster; the gypsies knew him and told her stories. "The gypsies say Webster is a conniving old coot," she said, leaning on Zoe's shoulder.

Wash chuckled. "They've got it right," he said. "Sly as a fox and slippery as an eel."

"But not evil," Zoe cautioned.

"No, not evil," Book agreed. "Though at times he may seem that way. He's hard; steely. He plays men like puppets. But when he's done with the puppets, he doesn't cut their strings. The old king would have."

"The old king would have," Wash agreed, unusually solemn.

"The old king and his blue leather gloves," Zoe murmured.

There was an uncomfortable silence. It made Birdy feel like snakes were crawling all over her skin. "What happened to Sir Danny after he killed the old king?" she asked, more to break the silence than anything.

Book shook himself visibly, as though waking from a trance. "Hmm? Oh." He smiled. "He fell in love."

Birdy's eyes widened. "He... did?" she asked, trying not to let her voice reflect her heartbreak.

"He did," Book repeated, nodding. "With the new king's daughter no less. Princess Rebecca." Book's eyes saddened. "But nothing ever came of it."

He looked so sad, Birdy tried not to sound hopeful when she asked, "Why not?"

"She was already promised to another man," Zoe said, stroking Birdy's hair.

"Sir Paul of Ryan's Falls," Wash added.

"They were betrothed as children, when King Webster was just a duke," Book continued. "That didn't change when he became a king."

"Sir Paul is a very good man," Zoe added quickly, misinterpreting the look on Birdy's face. "He and princess Rebecca are very happy. Though folks say she still yearns for Sir Daniel."

"Especially on cold nights," Wash added with a twinkle in his eye. Zoe reached out and slapped his arm. "OW! What'd I say? What?"

But Birdy wasn't listening. "So he left," she murmured, trying hard not to smile.

Book nodded. "He couldn't bear to be near her and see her with someone else, so he went into the wild. People see him now and then. Usually rescuing damsels or slaying dragons-"

"-or doing other things that are so heroic, it makes normal men ill," Wash broke in.

Birdy giggled. "He helped me," she said shyly.

Zoe stroked her hair. "Then you're very lucky, Birdy. You were helped by the best."

Birdy sighed, snuggling against Zoe's side. "I want to see him again."


------------------------



Village Cove was a bustling town around the clock, with street vendors selling their wares well into the night. Voices laughed and torches blazed, painting the town a festive red and gold. Now that she was more used to the sights, smells and sounds, Birdy had decided it was the biggest, noisiest, most fascinating place she’d ever been.

It was a shame she had to leave it so soon. But she wanted to go home.

The day had been long, so she begged off early for bed, wishing Wash, Zoe and Book sweet dreams and good night. She hated leaving them behind, since they had been so sweet to her, but they didn't understand her urgency. Sir Danny had been so kind to her, and she'd left him behind to fend for himself when he might be wounded, or... worse.

She didn't like to think of the worse. Worse was bad, bad, bad.

Book gave her a little room up on the second floor of the village chapel, right next to a sprawling oak tree. Birdy waited until she was sure she was alone, then shuffled open the window and crawled out onto one of the tree's gnarly branches. It felt so good to be this close to a plant again; she felt like she'd been away from her happy garden of family flowers for years and years, even if it had only been a day.

The tree was very friendly -- his name was Wind Water And Sky, but Birdy nicknamed him Norbert -- and he was very accomodating as she swung down through the branches to land nimbly on the warm brown earth. "Thank you, Norbert," she whispered, kissing his trunk and patting him gently. "You have been most helpful to this Birdy girl."

Spinning around, she darted through the thin forest that lined the riverbank until she came to the water's edge. Taking a moment to recall the direction she needed to go, she quickly began picking her way along the rocky verge. It didn't take long before she began yearning for Zoe and Wash's comfy raft, or a rowboat like the gypsies used. Or Sir Danny and brave Strongarm, who could have carried her along as though she were a downy feather on their powerful breeze...

She wandered, lost in that particular thought, for several minutes, trusting her feet to guide her safely along. She would have wandered for hours more if she hadn't bumped headlong into another young woman who came darting out of the woods.

"OOF!" Birdy gasped.

"OOF!" the other young woman gasped, and they both fell backwards onto their bottoms on the sand.

"Oh, I'm so sorry!" the other girl exclaimed as soon as they'd recovered their wits, leaping to her feet to help Birdy stand up. "I didn't hurt ya, did I?"

Birdy blinked at this new person. She was cute and bubbly, with bright eyes and an easy smile, though she looked a little concerned right now that she might have injured Birdy for real. "Nothing hurt," Birdy assured her with a little smile of her own. She was still very shy around strangers, even friendly ones like this girl.

"Well thank goodness for that!" the other girl exclaimed, dusting herself off. "Sorry I bumped you. I was in a rush and wasn't lookin' where I was goin‘." She stuck out a hand. "I'm Kaylee. Kaylee Frye. Who're you?"

"My name is Birdy," Birdy answered shyly, taking her hand.

"Well pleased to meet you, Birdy," Kaylee said, shaking her hand. "What're you doin' out here when it's so dark? You with somebody? A beau maybe?" The other girl's bright eyes twinkled mischievously.

Birdy was glad it was dark so Kaylee couldn't see her blush. "No," she said, shaking her head and tucking her arms up around her body. "I got lost. I'm trying to find my way home again."

Kaylee's face became a mask of concern. "Oh, you poor thing," she soothed, rubbing Birdy's arm. "Where you come from? I know you ain't from Village Cove, 'cause I've lived there all my life and I don't remember a pretty thing like you."

Birdy shook her head. "Not Village Cove." She pointed up river. "Come from up there."

"Like around Belmont-way?"

Birdy shook her head hopelessly. "I don't know!" she whimpered. "Don't live in a town, don't live in a city. Live in a garden with a warm, soft bed, beside the chattering river!" She hadn't realized how homesick she was until this moment, as tears began to course down her cheeks.

Warm arms wrapped around her as Kaylee gave her a comforting hug. "Oh mei mei, I'm sorry," she soothed. "I only ever been a few miles out from Village Cove myself, so I don't know where you might hail from." She stroked the Birdy's hair. "My bao bei has family up that way, though. Maybe he can help?"

Birdy sniffled against Kaylee's shoulder. "Bao bei?" she asked, rubbing her eyes and blinking tearfully into her new friend's face.

Kaylee smiled brightly. "My beau." She winked. "But shhh, you ain't allowed to tell no one, on account of him bein' one of the fairy folk."

Birdy blinked. "Your lover is a fairy?"

"Kaylee, sweetheart, please stop telling the world I'm a fairy." The new voice was warm and soft and gentle and masculine, and seemed to come from just behind Birdy's shoulder. But when Birdy swung her head around to look, there was nobody there.

Kaylee rolled her eyes. "Oh, quit bein' such a big baby, Simon," she teased the air. "Iffen I don't get to tell people what you really are, then I'm gonna tell 'em what I want!" She poked at the air, and a soft exhalation like a laugh whooshed past Birdy's ear. "Now come on, let the girl see you, 'fore she starts thinkin' we're both cracked like nuts!"

Birdy blinked, and suddenly a man was there. He was tall and slender, dressed all in green, with a fine-boned face and dark eyes set against pale skin and black hair. He looked very serious, but there was a light in his eyes that made Birdy feel as if she'd known him her entire life. "Hello," she said, a little breathless as she held out her hand to him. "My name is Birdy."

"I'm Basajuan," the man said, taking her hand and shaking it kindly.

Birdy blinked. "But... Kaylee called you Simon...?" She looked in confusion at the other girl.

Kaylee giggled. "'Cause Basajuan means Lord of the Woods, which is just too fancy for my britches. I always been partial to Simon." Kaylee stepped up to Simon's side and wrapped her arms around him lovingly. "Simple Simon," she murmured, resting her head on his shoulder.

Simon smiled and hugged back. "Live simple," he murmured, kissing her forehead.

Birdy felt her heart break a little as she observed the sweet domestic scene. Sir Danny... she thought sadly. I would like to live simple with my Sir Danny.

She blinked as realization dawned. "Did you say Lord of the Woods?" she asked cautiously.

Kaylee beamed at her. "Yep!" she said proudly, patting Simon's chest and grinning up into his suddenly bashful face. "He gets embarrassed though, so I ain't allowed to tell no one."

"You are the Lord of the forest?" Birdy asked excitedly.

Simon nodded. "More or less," he said, blushing despite the dark.

Birdy clapped her hands. "Oh, then you can help me!" She threw her arms around him and hugged him tightly.

Simon choked a little as she hugged him, then laughed warmly and patted her back. He smelled like fresh rain and new leaves. "I know, little sister," he said, hugging her gently. "You've gotten lost, haven't you?"

Birdy pulled back, nodding at him with wide eyes. "I have!" she exclaimed sadly. "Oh, Mister Bassawan, please help me get home? My flower family and all my pretty plants must worry so!"

"That's Basajuan, little sister," Simon corrected her. "But please, call me Simon. And don't worry; I know you, and your family."

Birdy's eyes welled with tears. "You do?" It seemed too good to be true.

Simon nodded. "I do." His somber tone was brooked by an embarrassed little smile. "Lord of the Wood and all. I know just about everyone who lives here. Besides, you live near my mei mei." At Birdy's blank look, he clarified, "My ACTUAL little sister." He smiled, gently tugging her hair. "Though you're so much like her, sometimes I forget you aren't my mei mei, too."

Birdy blinked, then gasped. "River!" she exclaimed. "You're River's brother!" Simon nodded again. "Oh, then you can show me how to get home! You will, won't you? You'll help me get home? And why do I look like your may may? Can you help me find Sir Danny?"

"Whoa now, sweetie!" Kaylee laughed. "One thing at a time!"

Birdy bit her lip. "Sorry," she apologized bashfully.

Kaylee gave her a hug. "Oh now sweetie, don't you be sorry for bein' excited," the other girl said with a grin. "You just gotta go one at a time, so we don't miss anythin'!"

Birdy giggled. "Then I would like to find Sir Danny, please!" She gave Simon an imploring look. "He was near my home. Please take me home? Please?"

Simon chuckled. "Your wish is my command, little sister." He bowed low.

Kaylee sighed happily. "Ain't he shiny?" she asked.

Simon blushed again.

"How do we get there?" Birdy asked, bouncing excitedly, her small white feet dancing on the wet earth of the riverbank. "Please, Simon, please!"

"We're there."

Birdy blinked. "What?"

Simon smiled at her. "Being Lord of the Wood has advantages; like magic, for example." He gestured around them. "Look."

Birdy blinked again, then raised her eyes from his face to look at their surroundings.

She gasped.

Here was her favorite stretch of riverbank, and there was the little nook where she'd tickle the fishes on warm summer afternoons. And there was Warrick, the willow tree, who cried when she left him alone for too long; and Eloise, the pretty yew who loved Warrick but was shy. And there was the little path her feet had worn into the soft green grass, pattering back and forth from her family garden to the river for years and years. And there across the river was Jayne the Ogre's cave, and there upriver, sleeping beside a fallen log, was-

"STRONGARM!" Birdy spun on her toes and flew across the ground between them until she could fall to her knees beside the noble warhorse and throw her arms around his elegant neck. Strongarm whinnied awake, turning his head to nuzzle her thigh, whiffling happily and neighing with relief.

"Oh, Strongarm!" Birdy sobbed, fisting her fingers in his silky mane and letting her tears soak into his sleek fur. "I thought you had been killed! I thought you and Sir Danny had been lost forever and ever!"

Wait a moment..

Birdy sat up quickly, eyes frantically scanning the riverbank. "Strongarm, where is Sir Danny!"

Strongarm neighed encouragingly, and Birdy instinctively moved back so the horse could push itself into a standing position. Then, as if he were bowing to her, he lowered himself down on the knee of his front left foreleg, enticing her to get on his back.

Birdy eyed him warily, suddenly nervous. His saddle was gone, and so was his bridle, and his bare back looked slick and broad. She remembered how hard it had been to stay seated even when Sir Danny had been holding her tight around the middle.

It was really the thought of Sir Danny that gave her the courage to tiptoe up to the big horse and scramble onto his back. Sir Danny wouldn't be afraid. Sir Danny would do anything he could to find her if she'd gone missing. Still, she couldn't hold in a little shriek of fear as the horse heaved himself back into a full-standing position. He was so TALL!

"Where're you goin', Birdy?" Kaylee called from her place beside Simon.

"To find Sir Danny!" Birdy called back, hoping her voice wasn't as shaky as she felt. "This is his horsey, Strongarm. If he's here, Sir Danny is here, too!"

"Be careful, honey!" Kaylee exclaimed as Strongarm began to surefootedly pick his way along the riverbank.

"I will!" Birdy called back, clinging to Strongarm's neck and hugging his flanks with her legs. "Please wait here! If Sir Danny comes back, he will wonder where his horse has gone!"

Before she could hear their answer, Strongarm began to run, his powerful white legs surging. Birdy let out a little scream, burying her face in his mane and holding on for dear life as she was jostled and tossed around on his broad back.

It seemed to Birdy they ran forever, though it couldn't have been more than a minute when Strongarm slowed to a canter, then a trot, then at last a gentle walk, rocking beneath her like a boat on a quiet stream. Birdy had her eyes squeezed shut and was too scared to open them, even as Strongarm came to a stop. "Ohhhh, Strongarm," she moaned, shivering. "You are beautiful but scary. Birdys were not meant to ride horses."

"Strongarm? Why are you here?"

Birdy's eyes flew open. She knew that voice.

"SIR DANNY!" she exclaimed, sitting up and staring between Strongarm's swiveling ears.

And there he was. He was kneeling by the riverbank, gaping in amazement at the small young woman on his horse's back. Strongarm's broad neck had obscured her at first, but now that he could see her, Sir Danny wasn't looking away. "Birdy...?" he murmured in disbelief, as if he truly couldn't believe it was her.

She nodded frantically, tears welling in her eyes. "Sir Danny!' she sobbed, holding out her arms to him. Strongarm was just as slippery as he looked, and she began to slide off, grabbing his neck just in time to keep herself from a nasty fall. "Sir Danny!"

He was at her side in a moment, sweeping her down off Strongarm's back and crushing her against his chest. His armor was gone, presumably packed away with Strongarm's saddle and accoutrements, but his chest was just as broad she remembered; his arms just as strong.

"Ay God, I thought you'd been drowned," he whispered fervently into her hair. "I thought for certain you had fallen into the river and been swept away."

"Oh no," she whimpered, trying to burrow deeper into his embrace, wrapping herself around him like a daisy chain. "The ogre had me, and he was gentle, and then the Darkness showed me to the Sun, and two good thieves brought me to a man of God who gave me a tree that took me to the Lord of the Wood, who brought me home." She raised her tearstreaked face so she could gaze into his desperate blue eyes.

"I wanted so much to find you," she whispered, sniffling. "I was so afraid I'd lost you forever and ever." She touched his cheek with tender fingers. "My Sir Danny," she murmured, awed by how dark his tanned face looked against the pale golden cream of her sun-kissed hand.

He sank to his knees on the rugged green turf with Birdy settled in his lap atop his thighs. "I thought I'd lost you as well," he murmured, raising his hand to cup her face. He had large hands; so large she thought she could curl up in one palm and sleep all night in comfort. "The thought that I had lost such a dear, sweet creature near broke my heart in two."

She rubbed her cheek against his hand and kissed his thumb. "You did not lose me, Sir Danny," she murmured, awhirl with giddy happiness. "All we had to do was find each other again."

"Very straightforward logic for a girl raised by daisies," Sir Danny said with a smile, stroking his thumb across her lips.

"Daisies are very practical," she giggled, and kissed his thumb.

"Are they very romantic?"

Birdy's eyes sparkled. "Girls learn romance from the roses," she cooed, gazing into his bright blue eyes. "Daisies are free and pure."

Sir Danny smiled. "Then they're the finest kind of romance," he murmured, leaning towards her. "They're the kind that only kisses when they mean to."

Birdy blushed, feeling more and more like a rosebud every second. "Sir Danny?" she breathed.

"Hmmm?" he hummed, nuzzling her cheek tenderly.

"I mean to," she whispered, and kissed him long and deep, the way the roses told her it should be. He moaned into her mouth, framing her round pixie face between his hands, and kissed her deeper still, and Birdy knew the roses were right.


----------------------


He made love to her on soft, springy moss, as Strongarm cropped grass further down the riverbank, out of sight of the lovers. The air smelled like cool water and night blooming lilies, and Birdy knew the flowers would soon spread the word to her home garden that Birdy had found her match at last.

She giggled at the thought, stretching luxuriously on the soft green turf, gazing bright-eyed at the moon as it drifted across the star-studded sky. There was some lingering soreness in her lower body, but it was more than made up for by the dreamy lassitude that hung on her limbs like ropes of snow white pearls. Raising her arms above her head, she stretched again, this time lengthening every muscle, every tendon, sighing with satisfaction.

A soft laugh and warm breath near her hip made her look down. "You are quite adorable, Birdy," Sir Daniel informed her, a twinkle in his eye as he kissed her just below the navel. "Adorable and sweet." He kissed her again, this time a little lower, at the very base of her belly.

Birdy smiled, dreamily combing her fingers through his sleek dark hair. "And you are strong and loyal," she murmured, passing her hand over his face. "Sir Danny, do you love me?"

"Yes, Birdy," he answered without pause, kissing higher on her belly, just below her breasts.

Birdy closed her eyes, shivering happily. "I love you, Sir Danny," she cooed.

"I love you, Birdy," he answered, smiling against her skin.

Birdy laughed and sat up, nudging him into a sitting position and leaning forward to kiss and nibble down his broad chest. Sir Daniel laughed. "What are you doing, Birdy my love?" he asked, grinning as his hand stroked down her smooth bare back.

"Playing," she giggled, rubbing her face against his furry chest, breathing in the scent of him. "Sir Danny?

"Yes, Birdy my love?"

She raised her head, gazing up into his eyes. "Will you marry me?" she asked hopefully.

Sir Daniel cupped her cheek, stroking her lips with his thumb before leaning down to kiss her tenderly. "It is I who am supposed to ask you that, Birdy my love," he murmured with a smile.

"Oh." Birdy felt crestfallen, then quickly brightened. "Sir Danny?"

He chuckled. "Yes, Birdy my love?"

"Will you ask me to marry you?"

He grinned. Pulling away from her -- which she didn't like very much -- he quickly shuffled himself onto one knee, taking up her hand and kissing her knuckles -- which she liked very much indeed. "Birdy my love," he said, voice low and gravelly, and it made her skin prickle eagerly. "Will you do me the honor of becoming my wi-"

"YES!" Birdy exclaimed, flinging herself at him and bowling him backwards as she showered his face with kisses. "Oh yes, Sir Danny my love! My Danny love!"

He kissed her passionately, catching her eager lips easily with his own. Birdy let herself melt into him, enjoying the feel of his warm, solid body beneath her and the cool night air that surrounded them.

Until someone cleared their throat nearby.

Birdy squealed and immediately curled into a ball to hide her nakedness. Sir Daniel sat up, wrapping her in his arms as he looked around, trying to find the person. "Hello?" he called out, voice stern. "Who's there?"

"Everyone decent over there?" the voice called out.

Birdy immediately brightened. "Kaylee!" she exclaimed, giggling happily and hugging Sir Danny to show him it was all right. "We're here, Kaylee! But not decent!"

Kaylee laughed. "Yeah, I figgered. Simon kinda got that impression when he was talkin' to your flowers back home, and some of the white ones started turnin' pink from blushin'!"

Birdy felt a blush stain her own cheeks, and buried her face in Sir Danny's neck, giggling uncontrollably.

"This that Sir Danny fella you was lookin' for then?" Kaylee called out, as Sir Daniel helped Birdy up.

“Yep!" Birdy crowed, scurrying around and gathering up his clothes, helping him get dressed. "Say hello, my Danny love."

Sir Danny laughed as she quickly buckled the belt on his trousers. "Hello, voice that is named Kaylee," he teased, winking at Birdy's impertinent little nose wrinkle.

Kaylee laughed. "Well hello yourself," she answered back. "I must say, you sound like a fine enough fella. I kinda want to see for myself what's got Birdy all worked up. You all decent yet?"

"Yes he is!" Birdy cooed, tugging on her own dress. "Come see!" Giggling, she scurried behind Sir Daniel's back, peeping out from beneath his arm.

Kaylee emerged from behind a little hillock. "There you are!" she exclaimed, smiling brightly. She paused in her advance long enough to glance Sir Daniel up and down. "My my, you've got very nice taste, Birdy darlin'," she approved, beaming.

Sir Daniel bowed and straightened. "At your service, ma'am," he said.

"Oooh, ain't he a smooth one," Kaylee giggled.

"I'm going to marry him!" Birdy piped up from her hiding spot behind Sir Daniel. She wanted the world to see her handsome knight, without having to look around his Birdy to do so. Plus she was still a little embarrassed being found naked with him in the grass.

"Awww, really?" Kaylee gushed, clasping her hands under her chin.

"Going to be MRS. Sir Danny!"

"Awwwwwwwww!'

"I know!"

Sir Daniel laughed. "Come here, Birdy my love!" He turned with a flourish, quickly taking her by the waist and lifting her around to stand in front of him. "No more hiding behind me. I want the world to see my beautiful bride-to-be." He kissed her cheek, and she blushed.

Kaylee clapped her hands giddily. "Simon sent me to find you both," she enthused. "Got people for you to meet! Aww, this is gonna be the best family reunion ever!"

Birdy blinked. "Best what?" she asked, cuddling against Sir Daniel's chest.

Kaylee winked. "You'll see," she answered.


----------------------



Kaylee squealed with giddy excitement when Sir Daniel asked if she would like to ride Strongarm back to Birdy’s home. The war horse willingly let the pretty young woman hop on his back and carried her gracefully upstream. Kaylee stroked his silky white neck and talked to him cheerfully as they rode along.

Sir Daniel and Birdy walked slightly ahead of the pair, Birdy perched in Sir Daniel’s arms as he carried her homeward. She whispered to him about what their wedding would look like, and he murmured soft promises for what married life together would bring. Sometimes she’d tuck her face into his neck and drop slow, dreamy kisses along his strong jaw and down his throat. Other times he’d hum her courtly lullabies, and she’d drift between sleep and wakefulness, weaving elaborate dream worlds to the sound of his deep, soothing voice.

When they finally reached home she was drifting in a happy dream, and would gladly have stayed there if an excited pair of arms had not wrapped around her from behind, and a familiar voice exclaimed in her ear, “Oh, dear Birdy, we worried!”

Birdy raised her head drowsily and looked over her shoulder to find River’s shining, iridescent face beaming at her. “River?” she murmured, rubbing her sleepy eyes as Sir Daniel set her on her feet.

River hugged her again, even tighter this time. “Hello, sister-friend,” the water sprite sighed, sounding relieved. “I had so feared you were lost in the deep dark earth. It would have killed you had such been so.”

River pulled back, smiling brilliantly, and took several steps back, into the waiting ogre’s arms.

Birdy blinked, surprised to see Jayne out of his cave. “Jayne?”

“Uh… hi,” Jayne grunted. But he wasn’t looking at her. He was staring at Sir Daniel.

And Sir Daniel was staring back.

“Perhaps some introductions are in order,” Simon said from his perch nearby, on the log where Strongarm had been sleeping earlier.

“Oh dear,” Birdy said with a nod. “I think you’re right.”

Taking firm hold of Sir Daniel’s hand, she led him over to Simon’s side. “Why does my Danny love look like Jayne, Simon?” she whimpered, looking between the Lord of the Wood and the ogre, who was glowering at Sir Danny.

Simon gave her a reassuring smile. “The resemblance is quite remarkable, isn’t it? Between your knight and,” he glanced at Jayne, distaste obvious in his features, “my sister’s… aromatic husband.”

Jayne grunted at Simon, but River kissed his cheek and he quickly settled down.

“As you can no doubt tell, their temperament is very different,” Simon continued, sighing, as Kaylee came to sit on his lap. “Where Sir Daniel is valiant, just, and kind, Jayne is conniving, scurrilous, and mean.”

“What’ve I told you ‘bout insultin’ me in them big words I don’t understand, fairyman?” Jayne snarled.

“Hush, Jayne my Jayne,” River shushed him, sending her brother a stern glare. “No insulting my lover, brother of mine!”

Simon sighed, waving a careless hand. “Yes, well. Long story short, once upon a time, Sir Daniel and that thi- and Jayne were one and the same.”

“WHAT?” four surprised voices exclaimed.

Simon nodded wearily. “Yes, I always get that reaction. You see Sir Daniel and Jayne were once a single man. Well, not a man really; a giant. A little giant. A very LARGE man.”

“Get on with it, dumb cluck,” Jayne growled.

Simon gave him a withering look. “This large man was immortal, a lesser god. His name was Janus. And it was prophesied that Janus would take to wed the Lady of the Water.”

“Me!” River exclaimed proudly.

“Yes, you, mei mei,” Simon agreed. “Well, my parents weren’t very happy with that. They wanted my sister to marry someone grander, someone more powerful, someone with more brains and less muscle.”

“Your parents?” Sir Daniel asked, still looking shocked by the revelations Simon was producing.

“Lower demi-gods,” Simon said, waving them aside. “They had delusions of grandeur, wanted to rise above their station in the pantheon. They saw my sister and me as the way to do it. So they decided to destroy the prophecy by killing Janus.”

This revelation was met by a series of shocked gasps. “Yes, I know,” Simon said with a nod. “But my parents were never the brightest deities on the mountain. Janus was immortal; trying to kill him was like trying to extinguish the sun. My parents are not without power, but what they have was only enough to… wound Janus, so to speak. They didn’t kill him. They split him.”

He looked at Sir Daniel. “Sir Daniel received Janus’s better qualities. His kindness, his graciousness, his chivalry.” He looked with distaste at Jayne. “Jayne, on the other hand, got his slothfulness, his greed, his ambition…” He sighed. “And his immortality.”

“And the Lady of the Water!” River piped up, gazing adoringly up into Jayne’s face.

“And the Lady of the Water,” Simon admitted reluctantly. “It appears irony is not without a sense of humor. Instead of my sister marrying a greater god, she married…. Him.”

Jayne smirked, cuddling River up close.

“But what about Sir Danny?” Birdy asked, snuggling her face into her future husband’s chest.

Simon turned kind eyes in her direction. “Have you noticed, Birdy, how much you look like my sister?” Birdy nodded. “Have you wondered why?”

“Yes,” she answered in a small voice.

Simon smiled wider. “It’s because it’s impossible to deny a prophecy. Janus was promised to my sister long before either was born. Jayne and River found each other, an immortal couple. But what of Janus’s mortal half?”

He touched Birdy’s hand gently, smiling tenderly. “How were you born, Birdy?” he asked.

Birdy rubbed her cheek against Sir Daniel’s chest. “A crane flew me down for the flowers to raise,” she mumbled shyly.

Simon squeezed her hand. “You were a gift, Birdy,” he murmured. “The flowers were right to name you Birdy; you are a daughter of the air. A gift from heaven, sent to balance cosmic forces beyond our control.” He grinned at Sir Daniel. “You are a very lucky man. You’re going to marry a miracle.”

Sir Daniel grinned down into Birdy’s face. “There’s no need to tell me, sir,” he said, stroking Birdy’s hair. “I knew that the first time ever I saw her.”

“Oh, this is so ROMANTIC!” Kaylee gushed, hugging Simon tightly. “River is married to her destiny, Birdy will be married to HER destiny, and someday I’ll be married to YOU!” She kissed Simon passionately.

Birdy shared a look with River, and both girls giggled. “Will you do my hair for the wedding?” Birdy asked.

River nodded quickly. “What will you do for a bouquet?” the river sprite asked.

“I don’t know!”

“Would you like a bouquet of seafoam?”

“Oh, that would be lovely!”

“And seashells in your hair!”

Sir Daniel kissed the top of Birdy’s head and looked at Jayne. “We are very lucky men, sir,” he said, inclining his head.

Jayne cuddled River closer to him, possessively. “Yeah, you just keep yours over there, and I’ll keep mine here,” he grunted.

River rolled her eyes. “He’s just jealous because I kissed you,” River explained.

“You did what?“ Birdy exclaimed, hurt.

“Oh no no!” River exclaimed, shaking her glorious head. “I did not mean to! I thought he was my Jayne, so I kissed him. He was so surprised to see me, he fell into the water!” She hung her head. “I did not know he was yours at the time.” She looked up, tears in her eyes. “I am sorry.”

Birdy giggled and hugged Sir Daniel tightly. “I understand,” she cooed. “My Sir Danny is irresistible.”

River hugged Jayne tightly. “So is my Jayne.” She kissed his green, mossy beard.

Birdy beamed, then laughed as Sir Daniel swept her up into his arms again. “May I meet your family, my lady?” he asked with great ceremony. “I’ve yet to beg their permission for your hand in marriage.”

Birdy cooed as he began to carry her into the woods, back towards her family garden. “You don’t have to beg, my Danny love,” she purred, kissing his nose. “They already say yes.”

And as they walked, the trees all bowed their heads in the breeze.


THE END!
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