The next installment of my post-Serenity novel.
Chapter Two – Dinner Belle
“What do you think, Zoe,” Mal asked. “Should we just surrender now? Or go out with guns blazing?”
“I’m not the blazing type, sir,” Zoe replied.
They were still watching endless lines of soldiers marching past, but this time from a more casual setting. Despite all the different traditions, religions, creeds, and habits that mankind exported in their mad dash from Earth That Was or whipped up afterwards, one thing remained constant throughout all the worlds: whenever more than a few people gather together, a bar will occur. It may be a tavern, a pub, a club, or a dive, it may have a polished bar or a few planks over some barrels, there or may not be people dancing voluntarily, but it will always have the same irreducible elements that define a bar: smoke, the smell of old alcohol and older sweat, a sense of welcome if you belong and menace if you don’t, and darkness deep enough to hide in if you’ve a mind to. This one had more than enough of all of that, with extra helpings of disreputable denizens who looked like they might take offense at a visitor’s intolerable habit of breathing. It was an excellent place to do business when your business might not withstand close scrutiny.
Right now it felt like a bunker. There had been bucketloads of soldiers visible around the Eavesdown docks, no surprise there. But the rest of the city seemed to have more than their fair share of military presence as well and that bothered Mal all the way down to his chewy center.
Persephone was about as close to the Core as he felt comfortable these days. There was a hefty chunk of upper class folks and their snooty ways here, and too much Alliance presence for him to ever be completely at ease, but Persephone still had a sizeable seamy underbelly where naughtiness managed to thrive. The fanciest mansion here was still no more than three streets from a brothel, smuggler’s bar, or gambling den, and that made Mal right warm inside.
Only now the Alliance had stepped up their peace-keeping endeavors and large, armed fellows in overly clean purple-and-gray uniforms were all but occupying the place. The bar – no name, it never needed one – was located in an out of the way neighborhood on a narrow, muddy street filled with tiny restaurants, colorful shops, and mysterious doorways, and the soldiers marching past three abreast plainly didn’t belong. All the more so as they weren’t stopping for anyone, glaring straight ahead and pushing civilians aside or just knocking them down and marching right over them. You could barely throw a rock without hitting an Alliance officer and from the look of the disgruntled locals somebody was about to try just that.
Mal had spent enough time in the war to know what it felt like before hostilities commenced. It felt like this.
They moved away from the window to a more secluded table as Kaylee came back from the bar with drinks. “Looks like they got more blazers than we do, anyway,” she said.
“Yeah, but all those guns, they’re bound to get in each others’ way,” Mal said. “Might be we’d have the advantage.”
“You’re right, sir,” Zoe said. “Which means that if you went out there by yourself, you’d be invincible.”
They gathered around a battered table where a clean-shaven man named Tommy Stove was waiting. He was elegantly attired in a suit and tie, as out of place here as the soldiers but in a much more dapper way. “Perhaps if you all stay in here they would all just shoot themselves out of frustration?” he asked.
“That’s what I asked Santa for this year,” Mal said. “That and you telling me where I’m taking your stuff.”
“It’s an orphanage on Rea,” Stove said. “Infants and older children, mostly abandoned on the front step. The local church runs the place.”
“They got no parents?” Kaylee asked.
“If they did, they couldn’t go around calling themselves orphans, could they,” Mal said, taking a long swig of his beer. “Rea ain’t that far away, how come they don’t just pay for standard post? Be cheaper than hiring us, wouldn’t it?”
“You ain’t gonna charge orphans, are you, cap’n?” Kaylee asked, shocked.
“No more than what they can afford. I’m just a soft-hearted man. Who needs to fuel his ship and feed his crew so they don’t become orphans themselves.” Mal said meaningfully.
Stove smiled. “Of course you’ll be paid, I’d expect no less. I hope you won’t mind if the profit margin’s not as steep on this one, though.”
“Well, I suppose we can struggle on without the trunks of precious gems and platinum I usually charge, since it’s for kids and all. And after you tell me why you need a smuggler for a job a mailman could handle.”
Stove spread his hands wide. “You wound me, sir. You think I would neglect to tell you everything you needed to know for a safe and productive journey?”
“I’m just a suspicious old bastard, truth to tell, Tommy.”
“That’s how you get to be an old bastard,” Stove said, clinking his glass against Mal’s. They drank to it, and Zoe and Kaylee joined in. Stove dabbed at his lips with a cloth napkin before continuing. Kaylee stopped halfway through wiping her mouth on her sleeve, embarrassed. Stove smiled at her kindly. “Glad to see you haven’t changed a bit, Mal. It’s just clothing, dry goods, and medical supplies. Lately the restricted list for medications has been more… restrictive.”
“Alliance don’t want people healthy?” Zoe asked.
“The Alliance doesn’t want people buying their drugs from anyone besides the Alliance,” Stove said. “And if poor people can’t afford their prices, well, there’s no shortage of poor people, now is there?”
Mal looked into his empty glass. “So this helps poor kids and pisses off the feds?”
“An economy of actions,” Stove agreed.
“You’re on. Load the ship.”
“That I will. You’re a good man, Malcolm Reynolds.”
“Uh huh. Just don’t expect me to adopt none of them kids. Got no room on the boat and it takes forever to cook one up proper.” Kaylee smacked him on the arm as Stove hid a smile behind manicured hands.
“Don’t be so mean to the man,” she said. “I’m sorry Mr. Stove, Captain don’t always remember how to talk to someone ain’t a criminal.”
One of Mal’s eyebrows shot up. “Ain’t a… Kaylee, do you know how Tommy Stove got his name?”
“From his parents, I expect, just like normal folk. Oh, God, you ain’t an orphan, are you?”
“No, no,” Stove said, laughing. “My name is Thomason Chow II. My interests cross the lines of legality much like your captain, here. I got my nickname when I was having a disagreement with a gentleman and was forced to make my point with a coal shovel that was near at hand.”
Kaylee looked at his pristine white shirt and silk vest. ”I don’t understand.”
Mal put his arm around Stove’s shoulders. “Guy goes down like a sack of beans. The fella’s friends ran out of the bar, screaming—“ and Mal and Stove looked each other in the face while yelling simultaneously, “’Tommy stove his head in! Tommy stove his head in!’” They broke up laughing. Kaylee turned to Zoe, who just shrugged. Finally Mal wiped his eyes. “Man gets a name like that, half his fights are over before he even gets there.”
“Oh,” Kaylee said. “Well, it was very nice to meet you.”
“The pleasure, I promise you, was entirely mine,” Stove said, and he kissed her hand. Still chuckling, Mal pulled her away.
“Stop licking my crew,” he said. “She’s already got one slick city boy to outwit, she don’t need another. ‘Sides, you’ll be busy enough working around the toy soldiers out there to do any wooin’.”
“These are hard times, my friend. When a government gets angry, everyone feels the lash. But they’ll calm down eventually. They always do. ”
Mal clapped him on the shoulder. “Well, hope you don’t mind me getting out of the area while they find their happy place. C’mon, folks. We got orphans to help.”
Back outside the soldiers were gone, but their presence could still be felt in the angry glares and the general lack of cheerfulness in the locals. “Kaylee, you go pick up those… what did we need?”
“Stabilizing mounts, cap’n. They’re the—“
“Yeah, whatever.” He handed her some cash. “This cover it?” She nodded. “Get some and get back to the ship, I want to get in the air as soon as we get loaded.”
After she left he stood there with Zoe, watching the shopowners quietly hawking their merchandise as if they had a grudge against it.
“You getting that ‘bend over’ feeling, sir?” Zoe asked.
“All this powderkeg needs is a match,” Mal replied. “And I don’t want to be here when it drops. C’mon, let’s go. Might be we avoid Persephone for a time.”
Thing is, River remembered being crazy.
At the time it was the only sensible reaction to what she was experiencing, which was everything. Memories, her own and others. Unfettered emotions running hot and cold through her whole being. Thoughts and dreams and fears from everyone around her, like a thousand Cortex screens at full blast, all tuned to something different, with tastes and smells and tangible terrors added. Desires. Nightmares. Little white lies. Unspeakable secrets of despicable acts that couldn’t be borne by a sane mind. Having your brain busted into by doctors in a secret government experiment so they could scoop out all your filters, jack up your psychic ability, and leave you open to anything at all that came your way, all that did wonders for your abstract thought.
Really, sometimes she was amazed she got through it.
And sometimes, like now, she almost wished she could wrap herself back up in the warm, soothing blanket of delirium. She was sitting on the counter in Serenity’s small sickbay, watching her brother Simon work, but she was also deep inside his thoughts while he inventoried his medical supplies and she was wistfully remembering the last restaurant he was in and she was worrying about his sister’s mental state and she was daydreaming about Kaylee and she was thinking about scratching his leg and she was trying not to notice Jayne in any manner whatsoever and she was wondering what the captain was going to yell at him for next. And this was a calm time for him. During times of stress everyone’s thoughts turned to raging rivers and she was swept along helplessly in the mental turmoil until something solid presented itself for her to latch on: Mal’s determination, Kaylee’s optimism, Simon’s love, even the cool surfaces of the ship itself helped anchor her to reality. And there were always diversions…
Jayne Cobb, mercenary and Serenity’s staff muscle, was sprawled on the examining bed taking up more room than he really deserved, awkwardly pulling off one of his boots. From the sound it made as it came free it was obvious to the casual and probably panicked observer that he didn’t remove them very often. “Hey doc, I get this hideous stench coming up here, like all the demons o’ hell are coming up between my toes and bringing their diseased daughters with ‘em. You wanna look at it?”
Simon shuddered without turning around. “You might try washing your feet now and again. It’s a new procedure, still being tested, but I hear it does wonders. Shouldn’t you be off being fierce at someone?”
“Captain’s out getting the job, didn’t want to draw too much attention from all those purplebellies by having such an obvious he-roic warrior along with him,” Jayne said, with some satisfaction.
“And he worded it just that way, did he?”
“Didn’t have to. Men like us, we got an understandin’.”
“Yes,” Simon said, making a note on his inventory. “I believe he understands you quite well.”
“Damn straight.” Jayne stuck out his leg and planted his foot on top of the counter directly in front of Simon’s face. “Got kind of a cheese-ish texture, don’t it?” Simon spun around, gasping for breath and quickly turning the same color as the offending gunk. “One of them soft, oozy cheeses, like broo,” Jayne said happily.
“That’s brie,” Simon said, coughing. He lunged at his shelves and thrust a small bottle into Jayne’s hands. “Here. Rub this between your toes, coat it on thick, leave it on. Do it every day until this runs out.”
“Instead of washing?”
“After you clean your feet. Both of them. Every day.”
Jayne scowled. “I might have to get me a second opinion on that. Cure’s worse than the disease, I’m thinkin’. Too much washing up robs a man of his musky essence. Ain’t that right, girly?”
To River, Jayne Cobb was a predator. His thoughts were in the now, never any further, never any deeper. Blood and excitement and sex and food and the hunt and the kill were all he craved, that was easy enough to see even if you couldn’t get into his mind. Deeper down was the need for a pack, a place to belong. Even the ribbing he gave Simon — and River could tell Jayne knew exactly how uncomfortable he was making her brother – was, to Jayne, just friendly fun. Which made him fair game, as far as she was concerned. She smiled sweetly.
“It makes it easier to know where you are, and that’s a blessing,” she said matter-of-factly. “Otherwise Kaylee, Inara and I would be too nervous to bathe one another every Saturday night.” She did her level best not to react at the expression Jayne’s face erupted into. “And if you’re going to imagine me naked, please get it right,” River said. “I’m not shaped like that and I have a small birthmark on my—“
“Hey, no fair, you ain’t supposed to look in my head,” Jayne yelled, slapping his hands over his ears. He grabbed his boot and fairly leaped off the bed. “Just, just get out of there! Ain’t no place for, for… ” In another second he was out the door. Incredulous, Simon started to say something but River shook her head slightly, stopping just as Jayne stuck his head back in. “Just stay out,” he told her again, and left. His footsteps – one clang, one soft thump each – echoed through the ship as he fled.
There was a long, silent moment while Simon gaped at her, and then they both broke up laughing. “Was he really…?” Simon asked.
“Apparently,” she giggled.
“River, you don’t have a birthmark.”
“I know. But now he’ll spend all his time wondering about it.”
Simon smiled; a wide, happy smile that cheered her. He didn’t smile like that nearly enough, but lately she had been seeing it more and more, especially when Kaylee was nearby, and River was remembering how to bring it out herself. Even more wonderful was the thick wave of brotherly love that washed over her like warm, frothing surf. “So,” he said, “does this mean the latest meds are working? You’re more… I mean, you’re not having… have you been sleeping?”
“I sleep. I sleep and I dream, and sometimes I dream my very own dreams that I thought of myself. There are butterflies,” River told him. She crawled up on the examining table and pulled her knees up to where she could rest her chin on them. “I’m more me, now, since Miranda. But I’m still everyone else and it gets loud.”
“That may not be anything I can address,” Simon said. “Now that you can tell me more about the results we’ve gotten a lot closer at balancing your brain’s chemical profile, but the reading, the… whatever it is you’re experiencing, it’s really out of my field.” He picked up his pad again.
She felt comfortable here, with him, on this ship, safe and protected. It soothed her to reach out and feel his rock-solid belief that she was his sister and she could be fixed, especially when she didn’t really believe it herself. Everyone else on the ship had a small, hidden reserve in the back of their mind when they were talking to her, where they were a little scared of her. Except for Jayne, who kept his concerns right up front where he could get to them faster. But Simon was her brother. He’d already sacrificed everything to keep her safe. His determination to make her well was an anchor. Still, she was glad he’d taken up with Kaylee. They were good for each other in ways a brother and sister can’t be, except on some planets. Pretty bad ones.
River was also suddenly aware that she could think of seven different ways to incapacitate her brother from the position she was in. A simple misdirection, and then watch his thoughts to tell when it was safe to… River shook her head once, violently, while Simon was looking down. When she wasn’t paying attention, tactics occurred. Another unfinished legacy from the Academy.
She watched Simon finish his inventory for a time, trying to remember how to just be River. She’d done it, once, long ago, without even thinking about it. How could it be so difficult now?
“Do you ever wonder if I’d have been happier if you hadn’t rescued me from the academy?” she asked, trying not to notice how he flinched. “What would have happened if the doctors with their white coats and their stainless steel fingers had finished their task, stepped back, and pronounced me done? Would I be in control? Would I be at peace?”
Horrified, Simon dropped his pad to gather her into his arms and hug her tight. “I don’t know, mei-mei. I don’t know. But you will be soon. I swear it. I swear it.”
Swept up by his silently howling thoughts of guilt and determination, River thought she would have been. Of course, she would have been a relentless, remorseless, telepathic killing machine, but she would have been at peace.
Peace, River thought, swimming in the hug, was overrated.
The Second War for Independence almost didn’t happen.
Mal and Zoe spent some time running a few last errands before getting the call that Kaylee was aboard and the ship was loaded. On the way back they kept to side streets and back ways as much as possible to avoid the troops, who seemed to be everywhere. They even hid a few times, disappearing into the shadows of an alleyway when they heard the sounds of marching. They were only half a mile from the ship when everything went to hell.
A small boy ran out into the street after a lost ball and an Alliance soldier tripped over him, falling full length into the mud with a splurging sound. Dockworkers, merchants, and would-be passengers burst into laughter at the sight.
He shook off the helping hands of his fellows and stood up, dripping and furious. He spun on the child just as a young woman, barely in her twenties and clearly pregnant, dashed forward and wrapped the boy in her arms.
“Please, I’m sorry,” she begged in a loud, clear voice guaranteed to break any beating heart within earshot. “He didn’t mean it! Don’t hurt him!” She seemed to glow in the fading sunlight, an angel in peasant’s clothing.
The soldier relaxed a bit. “I wasn’t going to… ow!” he yelled, as the boy moved to kick him again. The first shot had nearly broken his shin and the gorram kid was coming back for another!
Months of garrison duty, months away from his family, months policing filthy people in filthy neighborhoods who did nothing but hurl abuse. And vegetables, rotten vegetables. And sometimes bricks! One man had been knocked cold by a thrown water bucket. The soldier had heard of soldiers in other parts of the city getting beaten, even killed. This place was dirty and loud and hot and… and it smelled! And now filthy children were knocking him into the mud and laughing at him!
Unseen by the crowds, the boy stuck his tongue out. And that last little gesture of defiance and scorn was enough. His training washed away in a torrent of rage, the soldier raised his arm to backhand the boy across the mouth and teach him some respect. His was such a towering, overwhelming anger that it was nearly a full minute, with the crowds around him watching breathlessly, before he realized his arm wouldn’t move.
He looked back over his shoulder to see Mal holding it in a grip tighter than steel. “Could be that’s a bad idea, officer,” Mal said. “If you don’t mind my sayin’, sir.”
“Let go of—“
Mal moved closer so that his mouth was next to the soldier’s muddy ear. “You really don’t want to strike an adorable widdle boy in front of his pretty pregnant momma and a few thousand unhappy people, do you? Sir?”
The cool breeze of rationality blew through the soldier’s mind, allowing him to see the filthy rabble around him as what they were: potential insurgents. The girl and the boy remained motionless. His troop was still standing behind him, watching him carefully. It did not escape his notice that not one of them had moved to stop this person from laying hands on him.
He relaxed. Mal let go of him and backed away immediately, lowering his head in a respectful nod as he disappeared back into the crowd. It seemed the entire street let its breath out at once. People began moving again. The hustle and bustle of the docks started up, like a paused vidcast back on ‘play.’ Responsibility settled back in. “All right, men, we’ve got a job to do,” the soldier said. He took a deep breath to settle himself. “Let’s—“
There was the loud crack of someone nearby being struck, a body hitting the ground. The soldier turned back in time to see a nobleman facing him, his hand still red from the blow. Behind him the little boy was lying unconscious in the mud, cradled in the girl’s arms. She looked terrified and angry, but she wasn’t looking at the nobleman who had plainly smacked the kid. She was looking at the soldier. For a brief second, the soldier felt he was watching a carefully rehearsed play, one that would continue even if some of the lines got flubbed. “How dare you, you gutless purplebelly!” the nobleman yelled, on cue, and he leaped.
“But you were the one who unh!” the soldier protested, and then the nobleman moved out of the way and the crowd descended on him and his men and he didn’t say anything else at all.
The crowd was an angry mob now, roiling like a cloud of angry bees, searching out more soldiers to punish. Fights and screams could be heard, and the whoomps of the soldiers’ rifles. Tommy Stove stood in the alleyway where Mal and Zoe had stood just minutes before, sucking his knuckles. “You want something done right…” he said.
The man next to him was bland, inoffensive looking, invisible. It seemed to be his chief quality, although that could have been because his other qualities were so hard to make out. “But it was supposed to be Reynolds that jumped the guy. All that effort—“
“No matter. He was there, the riot happened. We can connect the two easily enough. By the time this story spreads he’ll have single-handedly killed two platoons,” Stove said, and looked thoughtful. “He didn’t jump in, though. He’s changed.”
And in front of them Persephone began to burn.
The ship was loaded and ready to lift off when Mal and Zoe, unaware of these events, ran up the ramp. “Let’s go, people! Everybody we care about aboard?” Mal yelled.
“Everybody plus Jayne,” River’s voice said through the intercom. “Lifting off.”
Mal closed his eyes and enjoyed one of the feelings he loved most in all the worlds; the feel of his ship trembling beneath his feet as it pulled away from a planet. He sighed happily. “And we’re off again,” he said. He opened his eyes. “Although not before someone built a little fort. What the hell is this?”
Huge stacks of crates balanced precariously around the cargo bay, six and seven crates high, creating canyon walls along both sides of the bay and leaving a wide open area in the middle. Jayne’s head popped up from around the side of one of the stacks. “Had to, Mal. Kaylee called in and said she was comin’ with stabilizing whatevers and we didn’t know how much room they’d take up. No one told me they wuz little things size of a ham sandwich.”
“You didn’t know what stabilizing mounts were?” Mal demanded. He crossed his arms over his chest. “No one on this ship knew what stabilizing mounts were?”
“Wish to three green hells I did, I wouldn’t had to lift those gorram crates so high. Why? Do you know what stabilizin’ mutts look like?”
“Me? No! But someone around here besides Kaylee ought to. Zoe, I’m thinking we need to… where’s Zoe?”
The two men looked around, but Zoe was nowhere to be seen. “Took off for her bunk again,” Jayne said. Mal frowned, then shook his head to clear his thoughts.
“Gonna have a lot to do this trip,” he said. “But first, there’s… Jayne? You been up to something?”
Jayne looked wary. “Why? Somebody said I was? People lie, Mal.”
“No, that ain’t it. You…” Mal took a step closer and sniffed. He smiled. “You smell like flowers in the sunshine, Jayne.”
“That ain’t me! That ain’t me! It’s this ointment stuff doc give me to… I’m gonna go work out. You wanna work out? I need to do a couple sets, maybe ten or twelve. I’m gonna—“ He took a deep whiff of himself. His nose crinkled. “Gorram it! How many crates I gotta move to get rid of this?”
Mal grinned. “I’ll leave you to your… whatever. There’s better ways for a man to work up a sweat.”
“Inara, I always hoped I’d be able to sample your skills someday. I have to say, it was certainly worth the wait.”
“Go to hell, Mal,” Inara said sweetly.
“I think I’m there. You have to get military training to make chili that powerful?” Mal wiped his moist forehead with a large napkin, leaned back from the dinner table, and smiled. Around him the rest of the crew made various appreciative remarks about deserts, burning coals, volcanoes, and flaming tongues. Inara Serra, Companion, House of Sihnon, stunningly beautiful, a professional lover of some of the most important men and women alive, currently on indeterminate hiatus, watched everyone eat the meal she’d prepared and tried not to look too pleased. It got easier when Mal kept going.
“Looks like the way to man’s heart really is through his stomach. Not the direction I would have expected you to take, truth to tell.”
She raised one elegant eyebrow. “I know all the many ways to a man’s heart. When you’re involved, through the stomach is the only palatable course.”
Between them the others moaned, as if being presented with another episode of a very familiar dinner theater. Kaylee rolled her eyes. “Captain, I thought you guys weren’t gonna fight no more. Inara’s a great cook. Everything was wonderful, Inara.”
“Never said there wouldn’t be fightin’,” Mal said. “It just ain’t the kind that needs medical attention afterwards. This here’s more along the lines of bloodless skirmishes.”
“I can’t draw blood? Pity, I was about to start in on your new look,” Inara said, pointedly looking at the plain shirt, drab pants, and mud-covered boots he was still wearing.
“I was in disguise, in a very delicate political situation. Now I know you don’t know much about intrigue that happens away from the sheets, so—“
“Disguised as what? A mudpie?”
“Ain’t easy hiding my noble visage. Think I should have gone with some big ol’ shorts and a flowery shirt?”
Mal, Inara, and most of the rest laughed at the image and then froze solid, remembering too late that the member of their crew who had favored such attire was last seen with a harpoon through his chest and that his widow was sitting between them. Zoe, unsmiling, bit into her bread again. She chewed carefully, swallowed, and looked around. “Is this the part where you abruptly remember my dead husband and apologize for living?” She set the mug down, carefully. “Don’t. Makes no difference to me and everyone’s getting whiplash trying to talk around me.”
“All right, then,” Mal said. “Time to bring something up, then. Should we hire a pilot?”
“What? No! River’s been doing so good!” Kaylee said, still flustered. “Why do we need someone else?”
“We keep using her as a thug-detector on jobs, leaves us no one to raise the ship during our panicky getaway. ‘Sides, she’s good, but Wash was great. I got used to great.”
It seemed to Inara that the edges of Zoe’s mouth might’ve curled up a little at that, but it might have been a shadow. Best not to ask.
“We got one good pilot, one good engineer, one good doctor. Seems to me we need more than that.”
“We take on more crew, we split the take more ways,” Jayne said. “I don’t see my wage getting any bigger that way.”
“A new person might mean a new Fed,” Simon said. “We don’t know if River and I are still on the wanted list.” Beside him River nodded. Inara glanced at her. Did she look distracted? She was darting back and forth with her eyes, staring around the room like someone was giving her a headache and she couldn’t tell who. Poor thing. Inara suspected the answer was “everybody.” River turned to her very deliberately with a look like a puppy offered a treat when she expected a whack, and Inara’s heart broke just a little bit more for her.
Leaving this ship and its crew had been one of the hardest things she had ever done. They were getting too close, she was feeling connected, related, intimate, all the things that complicated her life. The way she felt about Kaylee, the others, and especially the way she was starting to feel about Mal, it was just too much. Inara knew what happened when you let people inside.
And then events transpired, and Mal came to rescue her and do something noble, like he always does, and she found she couldn’t leave him again. She hadn’t tried working as a Companion since then. Which wasn’t that long, really, but she was no closer to deciding what to do. So, for now, she cooked. And watched. And waited.
“Neither of you are wrong,” Mal said. “So that leaves just us, and what with the Alliance getting all hissy it looks like we’ll be stayin’ mostly to ourselves for a bit. So here’s what we’re gonna do. Trip to Rea’s gonna take—“
“Twelve days, three and half hours,” River said.
“—so we got some time to kill. We’re gonna start cross-training.” Groans and expressions of shock, disgust, and confusion circled the table. “Little Kaylee, can you teach me how to fix this boat?”
“Um… yeah. I mean, I guess so. Enough to rig stuff for emergencies, and stuff, if you want.”
“Good,” Mal said. “You shouldn’t be the only one here that can fix a flat. Now, Inara’s taken over the cooking detail, for which we are all grateful, and I recollect that Companions also get medical training.”
“EMT and life-saving measures,” Inara responded promptly. “As well as certain advanced classes in physiology.”
“I don’t doubt it. So from now on you need to spend more time with the good doctor here, catching up on your first aid and combat medicine. Doc gets hit, we need someone can medic him while the rest of us is shooting back. And Simon here gets beat up every other day, seems like. Calm down, doc,” he said, waving Simon back into his seat before he could finish taking offense. Kaylee kissed him on the cheek as he sat back down. “No one’s expecting you to become a brawler.”
“Not with those arms,” Jayne said. Simon glared at him.
“But it wouldn’t hurt you to pick up a few defensive moves, so plan on getting tossed around a bit for the next few weeks while you learn how to defend yourself.”
Jayne sat up straight. “Captain Reynolds? Sir? I would like to volunteer my tireless, dedicated services for this important responsibility.”
“I’m touched. Forget it, Zoe’ll teach him,” Mal said. Zoe remained impassive. Simon’s relief spread across his face. Then he looked at Zoe again. His smile faltered slightly.
“Why her?” asked Jayne, plainly disappointed.
“’Cause when you bounce his head off the deck over and over, you’re doin’ it for the fun of it. When she bounces his head off the deck over and over she’s doin’ it to teach him how to stop anyone else from doing it. But I do want you to teach anyone who’ll learn about firearms, including target practice whenever we’re on the ground and have spare time.” Jayne grunted, apparently appeased.
“I can’t wait,” Simon grumbled. Zoe saluted him with her fork.
“That’s the uninspiring spirit I expect from you,” Mal said. “This is gonna continue long after this trip, until everybody here can at least fake every other job, so don’t nobody start looking ahead to the end of school.” He glanced at Zoe. “Job we’re in, people tend to get hurt. We can’t afford to have irreplaceable crew. Everybody here’s got something to learn, everyone’s got something to teach. Now, we’ll all need to—“
River had been sitting quietly, holding her forehead. Now she rose gracefully and walked around the table to stand in front of Inara.
“I want you to teach me,” she said.
The room went utterly still, with River waiting patiently and Inara staring at her with her mouth slightly open and everyone else blasted into a state of shock.
Simon broke first. “River, what are you doing?”
River kept her eyes on Inara. “You can’t teach me everything, Simon. I want to know what she knows.” She held out her hand. “Will you teach me?”
Inara stared at her for a long time. River remained serene. Finally she nodded and took River’s hand in her own. Pointedly ignoring Mal’s look of worry, Kaylee’s look of confusion, Simon’s look of blossoming outrage, and Jayne’s look of… well, Jayne, she smiled.
“Of course I will.”