Mal awoke to the incessant beep of his alarm around seven thirty in the morning, groggy. Altering the watch last night had him getting up a few hours earlier than he was used to. Rough dreams had plagued his sleep, too, but he could not recall them now. Getting dressed, he splashed some water on his face to shake out the cobwebs. He gave himself a once-over in the tiny, grungy square of a mirror. He looked tired. A good cup of tea was in order, but he was captain and there were things to be done first. With a sigh, he resigned himself to fighting the fatigue a little longer and climbed out of his bunk. Looking in on the bridge was his first order of business.
"Mornin' sir," she greeted him.
"What's the report?"
"We'll be in the Heinlein system in less than an hour. Should be at Paquin not much after that."
"And Ving? Heard from him yet?"
"Got a wave about two hours ago. He was askin' about you. Don't know if that's a good or a bad thing."
"Well, at least he remembers." Mal had not dealt with Ving for near a full three years, but they had lost a disturbing number of good friends and business partners to the Alliance's "scorched earth" tactics leading up to Miranda. And some of us lost more than that, he glanced at Zoe who was calmly manning the helm. Nothing you could do about it, he told himself right away so he could at least pretend he believed it. Dwelling on it now was not going to help. It would only bring up the bitter realization that, as precious as it was that they were flying again, things were never going to be the same. But one thing had not changed. They still had to work. That meant getting back in touch with old acquaintances and making new contacts. It was risky dealing with folk he did not know he could trust, but he figured the odds were not too bad against him, especially considering if he did not risk it, the chance of starving was one hundred percent. "Got a few things to take care of before I relieve you," he changed the subject. "Can you handle it for a few more minutes?"
"Not a problem, sir."
"Thanks," he clapped Zoe on the shoulder.
He descended from the bridge and strode through the foredeck to River's open hatch, where he paused. An odd smell wafted up from inside. Curious, he reached out to knock.
"Come in," River called. He dropped his hand, miffed. He was still adapting to her being able to pick up on things like that. They all were.
"I'm gonna have to institute a rule that you can only read my mind when we're face to face," he called as he clambered down. "Why does it smell like paint in he…" As he stepped off the last rung, the room answered his question and he stood agape. It was covered in flowers. He rotated his gaze around. They were everywhere. Roses curled up over the ceiling on spiral vines. Daisies decorated the walls. Flowers in every color of the rainbow filled every blank space. Mal's jaw snapped shut as he found his pilot, smudged with paint, kneeling on her mattress and calmly touching up the wall at her bedside.
"Di yu du biaozi du ma, what the…" he couldn't finish and just stared some more. "You wanna explain yourself?" he demanded when he found his voice again. River paused in her work to take in the room as well.
"I wanted to make it as beautiful as it could be," she said placidly. "Colorful. Cover all the cracks."
"Should have done it a long time ago," she took no note of his question. Her voice softened, like she was talking to herself more than him. "Keep it warm and safe. Replace the haze. It might help me remember, if the colors change again." She looked at Mal as if he had a clue what she was talking about.
"Yeah, that's great." He covered his annoyance, scratching his forehead at the same time. "Look, we need to discuss last night…"
"I'm fine," she set down her brush and the tray she was using as a palette.
"You sure 'bout that?"
"'Cause it weren't no pleasure bein' scared up like that."
"I'm sorry." Her chin dropped.
"If you're gonna be on my crew, I gotta know you ain't gonna lose focus or go all crazy," –he saw her twitch at that word and wished he had not used it- "on me when we got trouble on our tail. I gotta know I can trust you." He eyed her beneath arched brows. She met his gaze momentarily and nodded. "Good. Don't think it don't please me to see you actin' more normal-like, but I will have your brother put you back on the meds, or I'll take you off duty if I can't trust you to make that call yourself. Also, just 'cause you're on the crew now don't mean you can do as you please with your bunk. Next time you want to do somethin' like this to my ship," he waved about the room, "ask first." She nodded again. "I got nothin' against you decoratin' the place a bit, but… where'd you get the paint from anyhow?"
"Of course," he muttered, rolling his eyes at the ceiling. "So, are we clear on everything?
"Shiny. File this conversation under 'Things I Have To Do To Keep The Captain Happy'." She nodded once more, eyes downcast again. Mal felt like a bit of a heel for lecturing the girl after seeing her condition last night, and he did not think that this was exactly the kind of conversation her brother had in mind when Simon suggested he talk to her, but she had to know that her position was probationary. He would absolutely not jeopardize his crew's safety, regardless of how he felt towards her. She had a job to do, and if she could not do it, she was out. That was that. He started climbing the ladder.
"Captain?" she stopped him.
"What is it?" he swung back down and faced her.
"Can I go with you on the job?"
"I don't rightly know…" he started to say after a beat, mildly taken aback that she actually took the initiative to ask.
"You were thinking of taking me already," she interrupted him. Mal flushed slightly.
"Well, I suppose I was," he admitted, leaning against the wall. "After last night, though…" he trailed off with a sharp look for her, one that caused her to drop her eyes again. It was true that he had been planning on having her along all the while. He had no clue what to expect when he set foot planetside and she would be a boon if trouble came calling, no question. From what he could gather these past few months, the Alliance was trying to sweep as much of what had happened under the rug as possible, but rumors still got around. And even though there had not been a bulletin on the Cortex since before Miranda, he did not delude himself into believing that they would not take the chance to tie up loose ends if they had the opportunity. On the other hand, Paquin was far enough from the Core that any significant Alliance presence was unlikely. The major entertainment centers would have feeds and patrols to keep the tourists safe, but that was why he was not landing there. And if something was to go bad, he would rather River inform of it before it happened so they could make a quick exit. But he also did not want her having another episode like the night previous while they were in the thick of things. He hoped it was just an isolated incident and that his and her brother's fears were unfounded. In any case, at the moment the risk of walking into an ambush trumped his concerns about her state of mind. If she said she was fine and could handle herself, he was just going to have to trust her. Besides, she was going to have to get involved eventually, and this would be a nice way to ease her into that. Hell, maybe getting off the ship for even a brief spell would even do her some good. He made his choice. "Fine, you can come." A genuine smile lit up her features. "It's just a meet with our contact to find out what's available in the means of work. Nothin' 'specially dangerous."
"You don't need to reassure me. It's Simon who will need convincing."
"Reckon you're right about that. What say you let me deal with him." He smiled conspiratorially, and she returned it. "Be ready to go by 1800," he said and started to climb the ladder again.
"Captain?" she called him back once more. He groaned, jumping back down.
"What?" he asked with strained patience.
"Can I pilot us in?"
"Now that I will have to think on," he answered. Her shoulders drooped in resignation, but she did not protest. "Anything else?" She shook her head. "Good. Now get this cleaned up. No more." He gave her the serious eye and climbed out.
As he exited her bunk, Jayne, bushy-haired and sleepy-eyed, was just slogging up the ladder from his own room. When the stench of paint hit the mercenary's nose, though, he came alert with a spate of coughing.
"Whew! Stinks to high heaven!" Jayne wrinkled up his nose. "What she doin' down there?" he jerked his head at River's hatch in disgust. "She get into some o' Inara's stuff?"
"She painted her room," Mal answered with a shake of his head.
"What for?" Jayne asked.
"Hell if I know. Said she wanted to make it pretty or somethin'. Now it's all covered in flowers."
"Well, why'd you let her do that?"
"I didn't," Mal snapped. "She just did it on her own."
"What're you so bent outta shape for? You let Kaylee paint her door."
"That was a door, Jayne. This is an entire room."
"Well, if she ever leaves, I guess you're just gonna have to hire another woman pilot, then," Jayne grinned. Mal gave him a warning look, but the man was not discouraged. "Preferably a pretty one, maybe with blond hair." Mal rubbed his eyes and turned for the dining area. An ache was starting to form between his brows, either from being tired, the reek of paint, or both. "Uh, Mal?" Jayne called to his back.
"What?" he whirled around, more than a little cranky now. Jayne looked surprised by the sharpness of his tone.
"Uh… nuthin'. Nevermind," the man gave a little innocent shake of his head, but the corners of his lips were just starting to twist into a grin again. Mal shook his head in exasperation and headed down the forward stairwell to find Simon.
The infirmary was where one could usually count on finding the doc, but when Mal stuck his head in this morning, it was empty. He took a jaunt down to the passenger quarters next, but Simon's door was open and his room vacant. He had not seen him in the mess when he passed through on his way downstairs, and he was obviously not in River's room. Recently, Simon going MIA meant only one thing- Kaylee. And since he remembered Kaylee's bunk had been open, that left only one place to look.
"Oh, I warned that hu li jing…" Mal muttered, taking the rear stairwell two steps at a time. His suspicions were confirmed when he reached the engine room door. It was closed. It was never closed. He sidled up to it and peered through the window, then looked away swiftly. "Yep," he said after getting less than an eyeful, but more than what he wanted to see. He rapped loudly on the metal door. "Is there a doctor in the house?" He heard scuffles and hushed voices. The door cracked and a sliver of Kaylee appeared. Her hair was a little more mussed than usual, but least she was clothed, or what he could see of her was.
"Hey Cap'n," she greeted in her usual sprightly manner, though her cheeks appeared a little flushed.
"Hey Kaylee," he matched her cheerfulness. "I'm lookin' for Simon but I ain't found him anywhere. You wouldn't happen to know where he might be?" he asked innocently. He saw Kaylee contemplate the lie before she even spoke a word and he could not help but smile internally. She knew she was caught, and she was a terrible liar, but he had to admire her spirit for trying.
"Umm, nope. Haven't seen him."
"Really? 'Cause I'm sure I looked everywhere else, and this here's the only place I haven't been. Thought maybe he'd come up here to give you a quick check-up." Simon's embarrassed face slowly appeared a ways behind Kaylee.
"Well, how 'bout that! Guess he was here. I was right after all." Kaylee lowered her eyes sheepishly, her ears burning red now. "Kaylee, I believe we've had this discussion before," Mal dropped the sarcasm for his Captain's voice. "What you do on your own time, in your bunk, with whomever ain't none o' my business. But when you're in the engine room, you're on my time and it is my business. Don't make me tell you again- no fornicatin' while on duty! Dong ma?"
"Yes Cap'n. Sorry."
"Now tell the Doctor to stow it. I wanna have a chat with him."
"Yes sir," Kaylee nodded.
"Next time I'm sending in Jayne with a vid-capture," he shouted as he walked away.
"Uh, Cap'n?" Kaylee asked. Mal stopped, slouched his shoulders in defeat, and turned slowly.
"Umm, why do you got flowers on your behind?"
"You got flowers on your rear." She twirled her finger for him to turn around. "They look like… pansies." Mal stared at her in confusion for a split second before horror dawned on him.
"Oh no…" He wiped hastily at the seat of his trousers and pastel paint smeared his hand. A torrent of curses poured from his mouth while he twisted furiously in a circle, trying to see behind him. Kaylee started giggling. Simon peered around her and joined in laughing as well. Mal stopped spinning and glared at them with fury. "It ain't funny!" he hollered. That just made them laugh harder. "This is your fault!" he jabbed a finger at Kaylee.
"Me? How's it my fault?" Kaylee protested through a guffaw.
"You gave her the paint! It's your fault, too," Mal rounded on Simon next.
"What did I do?"
"She's your sister."
"Of course. So it's automatically my fault."
"Damn right! You're supposed to be keepin' an eye on her, not jiao pei with my mechanic!" Their laughter only redoubled as Mal whirled and stormed toward the foredeck. "River!" he shouted, almost running over Inara who had to press herself against the wall to avoid him.
"Excuse me!" she threw him a dirty look as he shoved past. Then, "Mal, why do you..."
"Don't start!" he yelled back without looking. Behind him, Simon and Kaylee were now beside themselves with hysterics. "River!" Mal shouted down her ladder when he reached her room. "You're on laundry duty for a month! And if you can't get these gorram flowers off my ass, I'm takin' a new pair o' pants outta your pay!" He stomped to his cabin, swung down, and slammed the hatch behind him.