The groans and creaks of entry still echoed through Serenity's hull as she settled planetside for the first time in nearly two months.
"Kaylee, you comin'?" Mal hollered into the engine room as he headed for the rear stairwell with River in tow.
"Keep your pansy-pants on, Cap'n. Gimme half a chance to get her powered down," Kaylee shot back. River tittered.
"That 'pansy-pants' gou shi is gonna get real old real fast," Mal warned while scowling at River. He hustled his young pilot down the stairs to the common area where the rest of the crew had already assembled.
"So, what's the plan?" Jayne bugged him right away.
"As soon as our mechanic gets down here, I'll fill y'all in on it," Mal answered brusquely. He folded his arms and leaned against the wall by the infirmary to wait on Kaylee. She skittered down the stairs a few moments later, wiping a sleeve across her sweat and grease-stained brow. "'Bout time," Mal eyed her as she passed. She glared back at him and was about to make some comment in return when she noticed River.
"Oh! You cut your hair!" she exclaimed, instantly forgetting Mal's words. River nodded, smiling. "Wow! It looks so different! But pretty, too," Kaylee fawned.
"Thank you," River replied. "Inara did it."
"Really?" Kaylee turned to the Companion. "Can you cut my hair, too?"
"Maybe sometime, mei mei," Inara returned with amusement.
"That'd be shiny."
"Can we have the hairstylin' conversation some other time?" interrupted Mal. "We got work to do here."
"Hmph! More like Cap'n Grumpy-pants," Kaylee muttered and screwed her face up into a scowl mimicking his annoyance. That elicited chuckles from the others. Even Zoe smiled a little. Mal ignored the mocking and launched into his explanation of why they were here.
"Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Paquin," he started. "Here's how it is. I know this is the Verse's playground and such, but we are not here to play. We're here to find work. That means no shore leave." Groans, mainly from Jayne and Kaylee, erupted. Mal held up a hand to still them. "Complain all you want. Ain't happenin'. No one leaves the ship without my or Zoe's express permission, and even then not by themselves. I don't think I gotta remind you what we all went through. The government's man may have let us go, but that don't mean he speaks for the entire Alliance. I don't expect 'em to come lookin' for us out here, but no sense in riskin' it." Mal paused to glance around at his crew and make sure they understood his orders. From the suddenly sober looks on their faces, they did. "Now, we're set down on the edge of town where the meet with Ving, our contact, will take place tonight. It'll be Jayne, River, and myself. Zoe, you'll have the ship." A mildly surprised look settled on his first mate.
"Sir, are you sure?" she asked.
"Yes I am. You hold the fort." Zoe's face darkened and she crossed her arms, a clear gesture that she did not approve, but she did not question the decision further. "Meantime, there's chores to be done. I want lists of any supplies we might need so we can get 'em 'fore we depart. Jayne, check how our ammo's holdin' up. Zoe, take an inventory of our consumables. Doc, you got the infirmary. Kaylee, gimme a standard inspection and see if we're short any spare parts that might leave us driftin' without 'em. Have River help you. Money's tight, so necessities only. Let's get to it," Mal dismissed them. The gathering broke apart and his crew drifted off to various parts of the ship to take care of their respective tasks. Mal turned to head upstairs, his thoughts dwelling on his own assignment- reviewing Serenity's ledger. With nigh on four months without a job he was not too keen to find out just how tight their reserves were, but it had to be done.
"Um, Mal?" Inara's voice halted him partway up the stairs. She was the only one left in the commons now, hovering there almost out of place. "Did you need me to do anything?" she asked, demure. Mal realized he had completely forgotten about her. He was so used to her taking clients on a world like this and setting her own schedule that it never even crossed his mind that she was no longer in a position to conduct her business on Serenity.
"Uh… well, you know Serenity as well as anyone. Just… help out whoever needs it, I s'ppose," he floundered to find something for her to do.
"Oh. Okay," she agreed, but her eyes turned downward. Stabbed by guilt, Mal quickly attempted to change subjects.
"Ahem… so, been in touch with the training house yet?" Inara shook her head.
"I haven't. I still haven't decided."
"Uh-huh. Well, when you do, just let me know. I don't mind makin' a stop for you, you know." Mal felt heat rising up his neck to his cheeks as he spoke. Inara gave him a half-embarrassed, half-guilty nod and quickly exited the commons which had grown uncomfortably warm all of a sudden. After a second, and not wanting to give the feeling any more thought than that, Mal shook away the awkwardness and got about his duties as well.
Silence. Deafening silence. The knife made no noise as it was thrust towards her. She grabbed the wrist connected to the hand that held it and twisted. No! Stop! she shouted at the same time, but her voice did not carry. Neither did her body listen, but continued twisting, guiding the blade still in her attacker's grasp into another assailant coming from behind. The stabbed man's mouth opened in a soundless scream and he crumpled to the ground. More attackers came after her, surrounding her. Somehow she knew they were the enemy and that she must kill them all, but that made no sense. She did not know what she was doing or why. Wait! she shrieked with all her might, trying to sort through her confusion, but her body still did not obey. It went on the offensive, spinning and slamming her boot into the face of the man with the knife. Blood and saliva sprayed. It should have been too dark to see it, but every droplet stood out in the strange blue-white glare that did not seem to come from any source in the room. A gun came at her next and she dodged to the side, grabbing the arm of the man wielding it. As he fired the weapon, she aimed it expertly at another of the attackers hiding behind her, the shot striking him in the chest. Still in control of the gun, she lashed a kick into an oncoming attacker, flipping him onto his back. The owner of the gun used the distraction to swing at her with his free fist, but she ducked and landed a punch in his gut. He doubled over and her elbow impacted his nose with the squelch of crushed bone and cartilage. Then she spun away, wrenching the firearm from his grasp and planting a ferocious roundhouse kick to his head in one smooth move. He fell and did not get up. There was only one of them left now. The gun was in her hand, pointed him, but he had a pistol trained on her from above. The captain's face, stark and pale in the odd light, stared back at her through her gun's sights. His weapon did not waver, but he hesitated to fire. She took the opportunity. No! He's not one of them! she tried to stop herself, but despite a desperate effort her finger inexorably squeezed the trigger. Before the hammer fell, though, Simon suddenly appeared from the darkness on the edges of the room. Simon! Help me! she cried. His lips formed silent words. Blackness swirled around her and suddenly she was falling down, down, down. The darkness drew her under and she screamed.
River shot up in her bed, gasping. Her voiceless scream still rang in her head, but her throat felt as raw and tight as if she had been doing the real thing. Heart hammering in her throat, she instinctively swept her eyes over her surroundings. The pastel petals decorating the walls and the lingering smell of paint assured her she was in her bunk. Her marathon pulse rate started to slow and her chin sank to her chest, eyes closed. She stayed that way for at least two minutes, taking deep breaths until her body's rhythms were back to normal. Only then did the aching in her hands register. She opened her eyes and looked down at them, realizing she had her sheet in a death grip with both fists. Wincing from the stiffness, she uncurled her fingers and released the covers.
"River, you up yet?" the intercom by her bedside suddenly burst to life with Mal's tinny voice. She uttered a short shriek and her hands reclaimed their vice-like hold on the bedclothes, her heart rate skyrocketing once more. "River?" Mal called again.
"I'm awake," her voice was just a croak.
"Well get yourself movin' 'fore I leave without you," Mal ordered.
"Yes sir," her reply was stronger, but far from steady. The intercom clicked off and she shuddered. Her chest, clammy with sweat, was already turning sticky as the dry, recycled air sucked the heat and moisture away from her skin. Trembling both from the chill and the unspent adrenaline pumping through her system, she stumbled to the sink and soaked her face in the cold water, letting the shock of it run the nightmare images from her mind. That was the Maidenhead, she knew. She had a clear enough recollection of the place initially, before they triggered her. The rest she had gathered from Simon and the others afterward. But that was no second-hand perception this time. She knew the difference well enough now. So where had the memory come from, then? Had she repressed it? Been forced to forget? It did not make sense if it had been in her brain this whole time, yet she could not access it. What had caused it to reveal itself now? Toweling off, she caught a glimpse of herself in the tiny mirror above the sink and froze. For a second she did not even recognize her own reflection. In that brief space, she swore she saw someone else. Eyes, hard and emotionless, locked onto her own. There was no trace of softness to the lips, just a cold line without compassion. The shorter hair did something to accentuate those features. It was a face that knew no remorse and did not give killing a second thought. It was the face of the girl in the dream, murdering those men and very nearly the captain as well. It was her face. She was the one responsible for those deaths. She knew that from the others' recollections of the incident, but to see it from her perspective for the first time, to know and have it confirmed by her own memory… "No," she gasped, backing away from her reflection, but the face did not change. "No!" She tore her eyes away. She stood for a minute or more with her back to the mirror, shivering, afraid to turn around, afraid she might see it again. That's not me, she told herself, closing her eyes. She knew it was true. Simon had told her. Everyone had told her. It was not her fault. The Academy had done it to her. She could no more control their conditioning than any other bodily reflex. But then why on some gut, instinctual level did she not believe it?
Fury, hot and unreasonable suddenly burned away her fear. She ripped open the drawers beneath her bed and pawed around until she found the dress she had been wearing that day. Anger seething, she snatched it up and tore it with her bare hands. Why!? She ripped the cloth to shreds as her mind tried to rip the memory from her consciousness. Why did they do this to me? In a few seconds, it was over. She was breathing hard, and the dress was nothing more than scraps on the floor. She stared at them for a few seconds, surprised and even a little frightened by her own vehemence. Then, gathering some semblance of rational thought again, she scooped up the pieces and threw them into the refuse chute. She returned to the sink without looking at the mirror and tore off her sweater and bra. Soaking the towel under the faucet, she wiped the sticky residue from her chest. Goosebumps quickly stood out on her naked torso and she started shivering again, but she did not care. She scrubbed her face down next, almost violently. The friction and cold brought her mind closer to normal. She used her discarded sweater to dry off and shuffled through the drawers once again for a new outfit. She came up with another dress, this one a silvery-gray and sleeveless. She slipped off her skirt, put on a clean set of undergarments, and slid the dress over her head. She found one of Inara's old robes that she had kept, silver and green, and threw that on as a cover. Then she dashed up her ladder, eager to escape from her room and the dark things lurking.
The waning light of the ruddy protostar Heinlein set the sky of Paquin ablaze in reds and lavenders in some places, bruised violet and deep purple in others. The system's distant primary star, Red Sun, or Zhu Que, was already at some elevation above the eastern horizon. It shone bright crimson in the sky, but only provided slightly more light than both of the planet's tiny moons. In the deepening twilight, Simon watched Jayne, Mal, and River descended the loading ramp and disappear into shadows as they strode towards the little town beyond their landing site, its lights just beginning to come up. He heaved a sigh. Kaylee slipped next to him and wrapped her arm around his waist, laying her head on his shoulder.
"Don't worry. She'll be fine. The Cap'n'll take care of her. He means it this time." Simon grunted and smiled without mirth.
"I remember what happened the last time you said that."
"Well things is different now," Kaylee turned him to face her, draping her arms around his neck and giving him a kiss.
"You're right," he said. "But I can't help worrying. I've been doing it for so long. I don't think I know how to not worry about her."
"Well, maybe I can help take your mind off it a little," she said, sweet and seductive, pressing closer to him. She drew his mouth down into a much longer, deeper kiss. His eyes closed as he tasted her lips. He reached his hand around the small of her back and squeezed her tight. She made a little growling sound in her throat. Then he broke away slowly. "Mmm," Kaylee grinned, eyes still shut. When she opened them, though, he was looking off into the darkness again where the figures had vanished.
"Simon," Kaylee turned his chin towards her.
"I know. I guess it's just… did she seem a little off to you?"
"Maybe a mite quiet, but that don't mean anything."
"Not just that, but… she seemed… different. I don't know. Maybe I'm still getting used to the new haircut. Or maybe I'm just overreacting at what happened the other night." Kaylee sighed and moved away a little. "Kaylee…"
"No, I understand," she said, trying but failing to keep all of the disappointment from her voice. "It's just, I thought we could spend some time together. Alone, you know. You wouldn't have to worry about River… or anything."
"I'm sorry," he trailed off, apologetic. He stuffed his hands into his pockets while his eyes wandered to her shoes. She was right, of course. And so was Mal. He could not fuss and worry over every minor shift in River's temperament. She had gotten better by all accounts. And despite his misgivings about the previous night's disturbance, it might have been nothing. He was a surgeon, not a psychologist after all. It was possible it was entirely healthy, a necessary part of the healing process. And deep down he could not deny that a part of him really hoped that was true for purely selfish reasons. Maybe he was the problem, feeling guilty and overcompensating with overbearing concern. In any case, what would more worrying about it accomplish tonight?
"I'll try," he said, raising his face to Kaylee's again. "I won't worry. Promise," he crossed his heart and smiled with effort. Kaylee shrugged and gave him half a smile. He looked out again, this time at the velvet sky, stars starting to appear in its creases. "How about this- let's sit outside and watch the stars come out. I'll get some food, you get the wine, and we'll have a little romantic dinner right out here."
"Really?" Kaylee pepped up.
"Okay. But you get the wine," she poked him in the chest. "I'll make the food."
"Deal," he grinned more genuinely this time. He offered her his arm and they strode side by side back into the cargo bay.
River's eyes darted to and fro about the town, which was rather bustling for such a small backwater. People shuffled here and there, occasionally jostling her if she was not paying attention. Their thoughts jostled her, too, and she struggled with them, trying to ignore the jumbled mental conversations. In part that was good because it forced her to divert the bulk of her awareness to maintaining her control. She knew as she left the ship, though, that Simon had not missed the strain the recent dream-memory had left on her. As much of a boob as he could be about other things, when it came to her, not much escaped his perception. With faint annoyance she wondered if being a reader was hereditary. That might explain a lot about the bond they had shared since childhood. However, as far as she could tell, Simon did not have a lick of psychic talent. He was just an overly-protective brother doing what overly-protective brothers did. She almost walked into someone again and she shook her head as she skirted around him, trying to focus her attention on the immediate. Mal noticed her semi-distracted state and took her arm, drawing her close to him.
"You okay?" he asked near her ear. She nodded.
"I'm fine. Just a lot of noise." Mal regarded her skeptically. "I'm fine," she reiterated, putting more confidence into the statement. The captain released her, but she could sense his concern was not completely assuaged. Like Simon, Mal was a worrier, too. He just did not like to let it show.
As they neared the center of town, they paused to one side of the street. Jayne looked up and down its length.
"Where we headed?" he asked.
"Over there," Mal jerked his chin towards a somewhat squalid, one-story building across the way, squeezed between two equally squalid taller buildings. A faded, dirty sign proclaimed it The Elephant's Tusk in both English and Chinese characters. The characterization of the establishment's namesake creature made River believe that the artist had never seen an elephant in his or her life. The three headed in that direction. "Remember, we don't use our real names," Mal spoke to both of them. "If anyone asks, I'm Captain Bill Roberts, and our ship is the Roberts' Fortune."
"Why'd you get to name the ship after yourself?" Jayne complained.
"Why does it matter? It ain't real anyways. If no one asks, don't worry about it. But in case they do, you gotta know what to say. Anyhow, Jayne, you go by Jim and River'll be…"
"Ariel," River interjected. Jayne scowled at her choice of names.
"Now why'd you go an' choose that for?" He spat to one side. "I done apologized for it already."
"Not the planet," she clarified. "The air spirit. Imprisoned in a tree, freed by Prospero and wanting to serve," she gave Mal a significant look. "It fits."
"Who?" Jayne asked. She tossed him a lopsided grin.
"Besides, Ariel is a boy's name."
"It is?" She kept smiling, and Jayne finally grinned in return. "Well, all right then… Ariel." With mock chivalry Jayne held open the door to the tavern, allowing her to step delicately through. Mal followed right behind them.
The floor of The Elephant's Tusk was below ground level and they descended a small set of stairs to reach it. River took in the scene. It was already fairly crowded, folk milling about at the tables and starting to line the bar. Behind the counter was a stocky man with a shiny bald pate ringed by short black hair. Innumerable stains decorated his once white apron.
"Keep your eyes peeled, albatross," Mal muttered to her as he scanned the room. "And your brain, or whatever it is… just do your thing." She nodded silently. "This way," Mal led her and Jayne towards the bar. They pulled up stools a little ways down from the nearest patron. Mal folded his arms on the countertop and waited. Jayne spread out and slouched backwards against the bar, glancing around, but River sensed the alertness beneath his casual action. He was taking in the room, the people, and all the ways in or out, assessing possible threats and dangers. River did the same thing, figuring it made good sense. Maybe Jayne had never read Shakespeare, but he knew his way around a barroom brawl or two hundred. It was a few more moments before the bartender finally sauntered their way.
"What'll it be, folks?"
"Hi, Ving," Mal greeted him. The bartender stared at him a second before recognition struck.
"Hey, Mal!" his face lit up and he clapped the captain on the shoulder.
"Shhh!" Mal hissed, leaning in over the bar. "Not so loud. Don't want anyone other n' you to recognize me. I'm Captain Bill Roberts."
"Oh, got it… Bill," Ving issued a sly smile and a wink. "These yours?" he nodded to Jayne and River.
"Yeah. Jim and Ariel."
"Didn't know you had a daughter, Mal… er, Bill."
"She's not. New pilot."
"Pilot?" Ving leaned back, hands on his portly sides. "Why she barely looks old enough t' be outta grammar school."
"She's a real prodigy," Mal stated. Ving's gaze lingered over River, and his direct attention shot a flash of insight into her mind. River realized the bartender found her attractive and was having some distinct thoughts about her. Very distinct. She had caught Jayne leering at women more than once so she was not ignorant of what to expect, but to actually have that kind of attention focused on her was far more disturbing than she was prepared for. Shuddering, she turned away, repulsed by a feeling of almost akin to being groped, but mentally. She tried to concentrate on something else, not wanting to find out what other interests might be on the man's mind.
"Hmph. So, what happened to that fella Wash you had last time?" Ving asked, finally taking his eyes away from her. A heavy silence settled over them. River felt the sadness creeping up that was always there whenever Wash's name was mentioned. It was impossible not to occasionally feel his absence throughout the ship, especially around Zoe.
"Job went bad," Mal answered, which was as close to the truth as anything. Ving's smile disappeared as he understood.
"Oh. Sorry. I thought Zoe seemed a bit harder 'n usual. How's she takin' it?" Mal shrugged. "Well, my condolences," Ving offered. "So, what'll it be?" he asked again.
"Whiskey," said Mal.
"Here, too," Jayne concurred. Ving's eyes went expectantly to River next. She looked down at the legs of her stool.
"She'll be fine," Mal answered for her.
"You ain't gonna let her drink?" Jayne cut in.
"I brought her along for a reason. Don't do no good if she can't think straight. And I'd expect an amount of moderation from you, too," Mal replied with a paternalistic eye.
"You know I ain't got a problem holdin' my liquor," Jayne snuffed with pride, though Mal's expression did not change. "But, c'mon, Mal…"
"It's Bill," the captain emphasized with a glare.
"Sorry, Bill," Jayne corrected with a roll of his eyes. "It's only one drink. How d'you know she don't want one?"
"I've never tried it before," River uttered quietly.
"There, see. She ain't never tried it before. You gotta let her have at least one," Jayne proclaimed, like it was some sort terrible punishment that River had never tasted alcohol and should be denied the opportunity now. Mal shifted his look to River, debating.
"Fine. One," he stressed to Jayne, holding up a finger.
"Shiny," Jayne flashed a devilish grin at her. "She'll have a whiskey, too."
"Three whiskeys," Ving repeated and head down the bar. Jayne continued grinning and chuckled a little to himself. He only got that look when he was about some mischief. River did not need to be a reader to know that much. But nor was she really able to determine exactly what surprise he had waiting for her. That made her more than a trifle apprehensive about the whole thing. When Ving returned a short moment later with three small glasses full of the brownish liquid, she picked up hers and slowly scrutinized it, not sure what she was expecting to find.
"It's whiskey, girl. You know what whiskey is?"
"An ethanol mixture distilled from the fermentation of grain," she answered, still staring at it.
"Yeah… well, lookin' at it don't do nothin' for you. You gotta drink it. But you gotta do it right, see?" She watched Jayne demonstrate. "You gotta take it down in one swallow, like this." Throwing his head back, Jayne dumped the alcohol into his mouth and gulped. He slammed his glass on the bar and hissed, eyes squinty. "Now that's good whiskey." He turned to River with that impish grin again. "Your turn." Hesitant, River studied her drink some more. "Well, c'mon," Jayne pressed.
"Ja… I mean, Jim," Mal cautioned, his own glass still full.
"Aw, Cap'n. She's gotta try it," Jayne smiled loosely. Mal shook his head and downed his glass as well. Feeling Jayne's expectant eyes on her, River finally gave in to the pressure. Tilting her head back, she paused with the glass in the air, and then poured the whiskey into her mouth. As soon as she swallowed, the liquid turned to fire and burned her gullet all the way down. Eyes wide, she gasped and began coughing and retching, clutching at her throat. Jayne laughed. "Thatta girl!" He pounded her on the back which made her eyes water even more than they already were.
"It burns!" she rasped, staring incredulously at Jayne, wondering how he had not been affected by it.
"It's 'spposed to," Jayne confirmed. "You get used to it." River doubted she ever wanted to get used to that. She coughed some more, surprised by the very strange, hot feeling in her belly. It was still burning even inside her. "You want another?" Jayne asked.
"No!" she spat emphatically.
"Come on. Ain't doin' you no good to sit around at a bar an' not drink."
"I said one," Mal reminded him. "Besides, she didn't even like it."
"That was just to get initiated. It don't count. Just let her try somethin' else that maybe she'll like." Jayne persuaded. "Don't wanna leave her with a bad taste an' all."
"One more. That's it, then," Mal relented.
"Shiny. Whaddya say?" Jayne spun on his stool to River. She eyed him dubiously. "See, that's the spirit," he took her look for a yes. "Barkeep!" he hollered.
"So how'd you like it?" Ving asked her, grinning as he returned. River shook her head and made a face. Ving laughed.
"Let's try somethin' less pow'rful. What d'you got that's girly-tastin'?" Jayne asked.
"Got some flavored rums. Mix 'em with tonic water and a little syrup and they're smooth and sweet as frosting on cake," he looked from Jayne to River.
"How 'bout it?" Jayne urged.
"Maybe not," River declined, although it at least sounded better than the fire-water whiskey.
"She'll have one," Jayne went ahead and ordered it for her anyhow.
"Comin' up," Ving called, moving down the bar to prepare the cocktail.
"An' another whiskey for me!" Jayne shouted to his back.
Night on Paquin had truly fallen, though the colors of twilight still lingered on the very edge of the western horizon. Sitting at the top of the Serenity's loading ramp, Simon and Kaylee had finished their frozen protein mush dinner and were lounging in chairs next to each other. They each had a cup of wine, the jug resting beneath them. Kaylee snaked her hand across the space between them and intertwined it with Simon's.
"You know," Simon started, eyes on the distant orb of Red Sun, "if it weren't for helioforming technology, this would be just a rock of ice. Instead, we got a beautiful planet with a beautiful sunset that I got to share with a beautiful woman." His face cracked into a silly little grin.
"Awww, that's sweet," Kaylee rolled her head towards him, beaming. "See, you can relax and be a sweetheart."
"Though it might just be the wine talking," Simon added. It was true, though. He had probably gone at least a half hour without worrying about River. Still hand in hand with Kaylee, his eyes drifted back to the sky to ponder the stars when a strange noise reached his ears. He perked his head up at the sound.
"What's that?" Kaylee asked, hearing it, too. Simon set his cup down and heaved himself out of the chair, feeling a temporary weakness in his knees from the alcohol. Kaylee joined him a second later. The noise approached, slow and steady, but it was not until it was close enough to be illuminated by the cargo bay's interior lights that they could make out what it was. Kaylee gasped in surprise and delight when she spied it. An old-fashioned gypsy-style caravan plodded past them. There were four wagons in all, each drawn by a huge draft horse. The cloth covers of each wagon were a patchwork of bright colors and patterns, seeming without any purpose other than to be highly visible. "Now isn't that shiny?" Kaylee said taking a sip of her wine.
"What's out there?" Zoe's voice startled the two.
"Oh, Zoe, it's a gypsy caravan. Look!" Kaylee's delight did not spread to the other woman. Zoe simply took in the passing caravan with her usual stoic reserve. There were a few groups of people trailing behind it and she considered them with a soldier's wary eye, though they looked like regular folk to Simon. He saw no weapons present on anyone, nor any need for her vigilance. Eventually her stance relaxed a little, hand dropping away from the butt of her gun. "Oh, I gotta go get Inara. She'll wanna see this. Be right back!" Kaylee set her cup down and skipped off to find the Companion. Simon went back to his chair and picked up his drink. Taking a sip, he caught a glimpse of Zoe over the curve of the rim. She was silent, closed, watching the caravan but not really seeing it. For the first time, he saw the hollowness in her eyes. Sharp pangs of sadness and guilt struck his chest. She had been little more distant recently, but he thought that was normal. After all, she had lost her husband in a rather violent manner. But only now did he see that the distance hid a pain that was just below the surface, and he wished he had paid more attention. He wished even more that he could say something to help, even though he knew it would be futile. Zoe had steadfastly refused most every attempt by anyone to comfort her, even the captain. He hoped she was finding a way to deal with it on her own.
"Look at 'em, Inara," Kaylee bounced back onto the ramp, dragging the Companion by the arm. "Ain't they gorgeous?"
"They are very pretty," Inara agreed as she joined them in observing the caravan. The wagons had all stopped by this time, forming a little semi-circle not far from the ship. A few of the occupants milled about, tending the horses and such, while more regular folk seemed to be drifting in.
"Wonder what they're doin'?" Kaylee asked. An orange flare lit their faces and suddenly a fire sprang to life. A couple of figures piled on some wood, and it soon became a roaring blaze. The regular folk crowded around it, talking jovially and generally seeming to enjoy themselves. "Maybe they'll tell stories and such," Kaylee suggested. She was clearly enthused by the whole idea.
"I don't know. Maybe," Simon mused, finding his curiosity a little engaged as well.
"Wanna go?" Kaylee turned to him with eagerness.
"Wanna go down an' see what they're up to?"
"Kaylee," Zoe cautioned.
"Aww, come on, Zoe."
"Ghost stories and such aren't really my cup of tea."
"S'Okay. You don't have to come if you don't wanna."
"Cap'n doesn't want any of you goin' off by yourselves," Zoe reminded her with an arch look.
"Well, you could just sit and watch us from here. It ain't more'n ten meters from the ship," she suggested hopefully. Zoe stonewalled a few more seconds before issuing a defeated sigh that was almost a growl.
"Fine," she crossed her arms, nearly scowling. Then, in resignation, she dropped her arms and flopped into Kaylee's empty chair. "Might as well get comfortable," she grumbled.
"Shiny!" Kaylee beamed cheerily. "You comin' Inara?"
"No thank you, Kaylee. I'll just stay here and keep Zoe company. If you don't mind," Inara turned to the other woman. Zoe motioned wordlessly towards Simon's empty chair and Inara filled it.
"All right. We'll let you know what it's like," Kaylee reported. Then she took her wine in one hand and Simon in the other and walked towards the growing crowd.
As he and Kaylee got closer, Simon noticed people were taking seats on the bare ground around the fire, facing the train of wagons. Standing in front of the vehicles was a small cluster of what he presumed were the gypsies themselves. Their clothes were simple and no different from the audience, a sharp contrast to their gaudy wagons. All of them were holding instruments, though, and the muddled sounds of their tuning drifted over the crowd.
"Oh, they're gonna play for us!" Kaylee hissed. She found a spot near the front of the small crowd and dragged Simon down with her. She looked over each of the players, pointing out their instruments with childish delight. A piper, chipmunk-cheeked and sporting dreadlocks down to his waist, warmed up with some trills and scales. Two guitarists sat on stools near the back, leaning over their strings and tuning pegs. A hand drummer absently thumped random rhythms. A fiddle player, the only woman of the group, ran her bow gently over the strings, tuning each one as she held the instrument beneath her chin. A second piper, his long hair a crazy bush of dark curls, blew into something that looked and sounded like bagpipes. "Why's that guy wearin' a skirt?" Kaylee whispered to Simon, singling the bagpiper out.
"I think it's a kilt," Simon corrected.
"A kilt. It's an ancient style of dress, worn by the Scottish people back on Earth-that-was."
"It looks like a skirt," Kaylee sniggered a little.
"It basically is," Simon shrugged. Then the random noises of the players died away and the crowd subdued as if on cue. The dreadlocked piper stepped forward into the light of the fire.
"Much thanks for comin' out to see us tonight," he welcomed everyone with a quiet, gravelly voice. "Please sit back and enjoy our show." That was the extent of his introduction. He fell back in line with the other musicians and, glancing to either side, raised his flute. He took a deep breath. Without hesitation and in perfect unison, the band joined in with him and began their first song. It was a simple, mournful tune they played, carried by the lilting of the flute and the drone of the bagpipes. The drummer stayed silent, the guitarists only strumming with the chord changes. The fiddle blended with the timbre of the bagpipes so the two were almost indistinguishable.
The effect on the audience was immediate. There were no words, but the music spoke of memories. Perhaps it was the ancient melody, but it aroused more than just personal remembrances. It was history. There was a whole life in the song. Not just one, but many. Innumerable lives lived and died. It was a longing, an ache for things past and gone, but not forgotten. The crowd remained hushed, listening, wrapped in the music and their own emotions. The song itself did not last long, barely a minute and a half. But in that brief span, every man and woman had taken a journey through time into their past. The few seconds of silence after the band finished attested to the music's power. A log popping loudly in the fire eventually stirred some from their reverie. Polite clapping ensued.
"That was…" Kaylee trailed off.
"Sad," Simon finished for her after a space.
"Yeah. Sad. But not sad like crying sad. Sad like…" she could not find the words to finish, but Simon understood well enough.
Sometimes there aren't any words for what you feel. That's what music is for. River had said that to him once, back when she used to dance. Back a lifetime ago. The sadness the song stirred up took on a more personal meaning. A poignant hollow settled just below his sternum. River had been stolen from that life, and he had given up his trying to bring her back to it. Instead, they wound up on Serenity. There they found a refuge, a place safe… well, mostly safe from the Alliance where she could hopefully heal. That was all he wanted. And yet he had found something else, too. Something he never expected. Kaylee shivered and drew closer against him. Her warmth and nearness filled that hollow inside. His previous life was gone, but he had gained another. And maybe, just maybe, it was worth it. He wrapped his arms around Kaylee and she leaned back into his chest as the gypsies began the next song.
Mal watched over his two crew members at the bar with growing amusement. By now he had lost track of how many drinks Jayne and River each had. Jayne was still mostly coherent, but River was clearly well on her way to getting drunk for the first time in her life. He had truly meant to limit her intake to one, but after allowing her a second drink (as Jayne was right, the whiskey shot did not count), he noticed a change in her. She smiled more. She met people's eyes, and not in that creepifyingly intense way, but the normal way human beings did when in regular conversation. She listened to Jayne tell stories, and even chatted with Ving a little. And as the bar filled up, it became pretty clear there was little to worry about in terms of trouble. He did not need River to read the crowd to tell him so. These were all just regular folk out to enjoy themselves. So he had not protested when Jayne ordered another round for her, and another after that. Now she was laughing and smiling in a carefree way that he had never, ever seen in the girl. It was almost scary. What was even scarier, though, was that she and Jayne were behaving like best pals. He supposed alcohol could work miracles if it could make those two get along. He took a sip of his drink, enjoying the flavor and the sting of the liquor. No doubt he would incur Simon's wrath when he brought her back, but seeing River enjoy herself as she was now would make it worthwhile. He did not have the heart to take it away.
The place was packed now, and a band had even shown up and begun to entertain the patrons. The brisk business kept Ving on his toes so far, but as the band started in, he got a brief break in the action and wandered Mal's direction. They leaned their heads close so they could speak privately and to counter the noise around them.
"So, lookin' for work?" Ving surmised. Mal nodded.
"As long as it's payin' and it ain't near the Core, we're interested."
"Still stayin' out of the Alliance's way?"
"If I can help it." Mal took another sip.
"All right. I checked around and I think I got somethin' that might interest you." Mal listened. "There's this local casino owner. Runs the Trilogy, a bunch of floating gambling houses out on the ocean. He's got four of 'em."
"Anybody tell him four ain't a trilogy?" Mal remarked.
"I don't ask," Ving held up his hands. "Anyhow, the big boys didn't want no small time up-and-comer spoilin' their neighborhood and runnin' off their Core world clientele. They wouldn't give him a permit to build in the city, so he built a boat instead. Also, didn't care much for the hoity-toities and big fish from the Core. Focused on attractin' the well-to-do on the Border and the average John Q. Citizen. Soon he's got enough for another boat, and another. Then some of those big fish start migratin' his way. That gets the big boys' attention. So they declare war and do everything legal and elsewise to make his life di yu. He's tough, though. Got muscle and support of a lot o' the locals. Pays 'em well that works for him. Got loyalty."
"So what's the job?"
"The big boys got the ear o' the local politicians, so they got his shipments all tied up. Takin' weeks to sort through the forms and such. He needs someone who can slip through. Someone not local."
"Sounds do-able," Mal nodded.
"You up for it, then?"
"Yeah, I'm in."
"All right. He's gonna wanna meet ya so he knows who he's dealin' with."
"Can you set it up?"
"Thanks, Ving. This guy got a name?"
"Everyone just calls 'im the Gangster of Boats."
"What kind of gorram name is that?" Ving just shrugged his shoulders. Mal shook his head and finished off his shot.
"Here y'are!" Jayne nudged River as he hopped back onto his stool. He handed her another tumbler brimming with she did not even know what. At this point, it did not matter, though. "Gan bei!" he shouted, raising his own full glass.
"Gan bei!" she cried in return, delighted. She downed half of her glass while Jayne took all of his in one gulp. She had gotten used to the burning as Jayne predicted. In fact, she did not even notice it anymore. All she felt was a warm, pleasant feeling in her stomach that slowly spread like little tingling fingers throughout her body. She had never felt so good in her life. When she was younger she had listened to her brother and his friends recount some of their tales of adventures, or misadventures, involving drinking. She always thought it was rather foolish for intelligent human beings to willingly imbibe something that made them do such things, especially when they usually seemed to regret them later. But now she was starting to understand. Furthermore, when she concentrated on it, she was astonished to realize that the voices in her head were gone. The emotions of the crowd still affected her, but they were almost uniformly enjoying the evening as much as she was. It was the individual conversations and snippets of thoughts that, in a large group like this, made her feel like she was being shouted at by everyone in the room that had disappeared. Well, not quite. In actuality they were still there, but they had retreated to an indistinguishable rumble that the merriment and music easily overcame. She could not say if it was the alcohol or something else that was responsible for it, but either way she reveled in it.
The band wrapped up another number to the raucous applause of the bar. River joined in with them wholeheartedly. Although she was not familiar with any of the songs so far, the band played with such enthusiasm that it was impossible not to enjoy them. They were simple and honest tunes, and she could not help but tap her feet or clap along with the crowd.
"Thank y'all very much!" the leader shouted into the microphone. "Wow, what a great crowd! Tell ya what, let's spice things up a bit. Any y'all out there musicians, come on up here. We'll have ya sit in for a song or two. Come on up!" the he invited everyone with a sweep of his hand.
"Jayne, you play guitar," River turned to him. "You should go."
"Aw, I don' know. I ain't never played with no band before, or in front of a crowd like this." He turned to the bar and drained another shot he had waiting for him.
Is he being bashful? River stared at him in shock. Then a defiant expression grew on her face. What was the point of being a musician if one's music never got heard? She was not going to let that stand. She pounded down what was left of her drink and grabbed Jayne's arm.
"Come on," she tugged him bodily off his stool.
"Hey, watch it!" She paid his protests no heed and dragged him through the crowd. "Now hold on a second. I didn't say I'd do this."
"You're going to play," River shouted back at him over the noise. Reaching the edge of the stage, she shoved him forward. He stumbled into platform, throwing a displeased glare back at her.
"Evenin' mister. You wanna join in?" the band leader asked him from above. Jayne hesitated, glancing back at her one more time. She smiled encouragingly, if a little off kilter from the alcohol.
"Uh, I guess so," he shrugged.
"Shiny. Come on up here," the leader offered a hand and helped the big mercenary up to the stage. "What'd ya play?"
"Acoustic, I guess," Jayne's eyes were darting over the thronging crowd and River saw a little fear creeping into them.
"Here ya go," a battered dreadnought was thrust into his arms. Then, taking him by the shoulder, the leader pulled him into a little ring with the rest of the band to one side of the stage, just close enough for River to listen in. "Guys, this here's…"
"Uh, Jay… Jim. I'm Jim," Jayne managed to remember his alias just in time.
"Jim. Okay, Jim. So, what d'you wanna play?"
"Uh, I don't really know. I ain't played in a while, an' never with a band."
"S' no problem," the leader assured. "There's gotta be somethin' we all know."
"How 'bout this one," the drummer offered a suggestion that River did not recognize. "Sound good?"
"Yeah, I know it. But I'm not sure…"
"Relax, Jim," the band leader clapped Jayne on the back. "We'll start, an' you jus' join in whenever you feel like. Okay?" He returned to the microphone and the other musicians retook their places, leaving Jayne standing alone, still a little dumbstruck. "All right!" the leader shouted, recapturing the crowd's attention. "We got Jim up here with us," he extended a hand towards Jayne, "and he's gonna help us out on a little tune that I think y'all know." The crowd applauded and the leader swung his own guitar over his head, smiling loosely at Jayne. "One… two… three… four…"
The song began with a reverse strum by the twelve-string player and a steady thump from the kick drum. The crowd roared and cheered in recognition. The band leader and picked a complex melody over the root while the bass player held the bottom line. They went through the main phrase twice before Jayne joined in, adding his guitar to the melody line. River saw how nervous he was at first, but he quickly settled into the rhythm of the song. Meanwhile, the people around her were stomping their feet and clapping to the driving pulse of the drum. Smiling, River joined in with them. The song shifted into a louder section with the electric guitar player screeching out some distorted line, and the crowd roared louder. Then it descended into quiet passage, a little more free form, where the electric player coaxed out a mellow solo. At the end of it, the main melody returned and carried the song through another verse. River was fascinated by Jayne's fingers as they danced over the fretboard. He was loose and smiling now, sharing grins with the other band members. It was an odd juxtaposition to see the guitar, looking so delicate in his huge arms, and yet hear the beautiful noises he called forth. River found a new notch of respect developing for him.
The song came to a close with a repeat of the chorus phrase that built in speed and intensity and ended with a crash. The crowd cheered their approval, and River heartily contributed. Jayne nodded his thanks, face cracked from ear to ear with a smile. The leader motioned him over to another meeting with the band. After a few seconds, the huddle broke apart.
"Jim's gonna do one more with us," the leader proclaimed. "So how 'bout some warm thanks. Jim!" Jayne received a rousing round of applause. In the darkness she could not be sure, but River thought she actually saw him blush. "Okay, this is another one you know," the band leader began his introduction. "It's an old one, but I don't think you've heard it like this before." He and the other twelve-string player had exchanged their acoustics for fiddles, while the keyboard player, who had been offstage for the last song, rejoined the group. "Okay, here we go!" the leader shouted. A rising synthesizer sweep and crashing introduction of drums and bass led off the song. They were unfamiliar at first, but as soon as the fiddles jumped in with the melody, uproarious applause ensued. River instantly recognized the song, a traditional classic hundreds of years old from times on Earth-that-was. However, as the full band kicked in, she realized she had never heard it played like this before. It bounced and rocked and swung. Its energy enveloped the crowd and her with it. Out of nowhere, someone grabbed her elbow and flung her into a spinning promenade. Momentarily terrified, she quickly realized she had been caught up in a group that had started to dance. Laughing wildly, she allowed herself to be swept up with them. It was a simple country hoedown- stomping feet, clapping hands, slapping knees, and lots of bouncing and spinning on her toes. The old impulses, the freedom and joy she had always felt surged through her for the first time in she could not remember how long. Faces whirled by as she passed from one dancer to the next. They were all smiling, all completely wrapped up in the movements as she was. It was beautiful.
Halfway through the song the dancers halted to watch the musicians as each took on a spotlight solo. The fiddle players dueled with each other before resolving into a common theme which the whole band expounded on. Then the keyboardist took his shot with a dazzling series of runs and chords. Finally, Jayne stepped forward. His fingers flashed across the strings, plucking out an impossibly fast melody over just the bass and drums. River laughed and clapped, nothing short of impressed by the man's talent. The rest of the band then rejoined with the pre-chorus phrase and extended it just a little longer, building the energy to bursting. River hurled herself into the renewed dancing, unaware that the crowd had left a small space for her. Her hair and her dress swirled around her as she leaped and twirled, only stopping when the music came to an explosive end. The crowd voiced its enthusiastic appreciation once more with hoots and cheers. Out of breath and dizzy, River found strangers coming up to her, complimenting her on her dance. Mildly embarrassed and more than a little drunk, she smiled shyly. Then room started to tilt a little too much for her to keep her balance. Fortunately, before she tumbled sideways, Jayne appeared and threw his arm around her.
"Damn, girl! I didn' know you could dance like that!"
"I didn' know you could play like that," she replied, words slurring. Her lips and tongue did not want to move quite right for some reason. It did not matter though. She was happy. Jayne led her back to the bar where she was grateful to find her stool waiting.
"D'ya see that, Mal?" Jayne asked, forgetting the captain's alias again.
"Yeah, I saw it," Mal had a slight smile for her.
"That was a mighty fine display o' talents there. Here, one on the house for each o' ya," Ving slid two drinks their way.
"Them's the last ones," Mal said.
"Aw, man. We's jus' startin' to have some fun."
"We gotta get back some time." Jayne muttered something unpleasant back at Mal that River could not hear, but he turned to her and held up his glass in salute one more time. River did the same, though she wobbled a little and had to grab the edge of the bar to steady herself. They downed their drinks together.
"C'mon. Let's go." Mal rose and laid some bills on the counter. Jayne did the same.
"I gotcha covered," he said to River without looking at her. Any other time she would have protested his charity, but she was too woozy to comprehend at this point. As it was, he had to help her off the stool. She was giggling and clinging to him as he weaved behind Mal through the crowd and towards the door. Then they were outside, the cool air a bit of a shock, but also a relief from the heat of the bodies inside. With Mal in the lead, she and Jayne stumbled into the night, arm in arm.
The flickering firelight played an odd dance of shadows across the gypsies and their attendant audience. It had been a long time since Simon had seen that effect, and it brought back memories. Their parents had never been the outdoors type, but when they were younger, he and River had at least attempted to "camp out" in the yard of their estate a few times. He had also gone on a trip or two with friends while back in school. Not that there were many places to go camping on a planet like Osiris. It was impossible to completely escape the impingement of civilization. But even though he knew there was a village just a short distance away, out here where he could see the stars he felt like he and Kaylee were hundreds of kilometers from anyone other than this little group. He did not feel afraid, or even alone, though. He felt safe, comforted. It was like they and the rest of the crowd were some unique kind of family, bonded together in this particular place and time for this single event.
Family. That brought up another set of memories, ones that he had taken pains to mostly ignore. For the first time in a long time, he found himself wondering about his parents. What were they doing right now, beneath these same stars, but on another world half the Verse away? Were they still searching for their missing son and daughter, or had they given up? Did they even care? A small knot formed in his stomach when he recalled his father's warning about continuing his attempts to find River. He knew he was crossing a line, and that his father would not forgive him for it. If only he had been able to convince them, to make them see what he saw in River's letters. But they were blind to it, and now it was too late to change any of that.
As if sensing his mood, the gypsies started into another song, this one also a sad tune. The flute player had switched to a wooden whistle, its low, hollow keening the perfect vehicle to set the mood. The drummer entered next with a simple, syncopated beat that never wavered throughout. The guitarists joined in, playing a complex fingerstyle pattern at the introduction before descending into chords for the verse. The flautist sang first, his rough-edged voice not exactly musical, but not unpleasant, either. After the first verse, the female violinist added her voice in harmony. By contrast, it was sweet and pure. It fit with the natural, plaintive timbre of the flautist, complementing him perfectly. The song spoke of memories once again, this time of an old sailor, his prime long past and life at an end. As he recalled all that life had given and taken from him, he was preparing for his final voyage. It was a bittersweet story as the old man accepted his fate with both regret and hope. It ended the way it began, with the whistle fading down to silence, leaving only the drum to beat on alone.
Simon sat in silence, touched by the song and alone with his thoughts. Against him, Kaylee rested, breathing steadily. She was asleep. The clapping of the audience started her awake, though, and she sat up and stretched.
"Sorry," she turned to him with a yawn. "Guess the wine's takin' hold," she offered a slight smile.
"Yes," Simon murmured. He was also feeling drowsy from the wine, but contemplative as well. He wondered why all the songs the gypsies had played were so sad or regretful.
"Thank y'all again for your attendance," the flautist announced. "It's been a pleasure. If you've enjoyed the show, there'll be some of us comin' 'round so you can show your 'preciation. Thank you." Simon saw two of the gypsies wandering through the crowd with hats in hand. Every so often, someone from the audience would drop something in. He realized that must be how they lived, traveling and performing, collecting what they could from their audiences.
"Did you enjoy the show?" a pleasant female voice asked him. He looked up into the face of the fiddler standing before them. By the firelight, Simon saw her features were sharp and well-defined. She had a rather pointed nose and thin lips that nevertheless gave her a warm smile. Her blue-green eyes were the color of shallow seas, offset by long tresses of deep, deep auburn hair. She was attractive in a very natural sort of way.
"Oh, it was lovely!" Kaylee volunteered. "You sing so beautifully," she added with a hint of pining.
"Thank you," the woman nodded in kind appreciation. Simon looked at the hat in her hand and felt embarrassed that he had no money. He really wanted to contribute something. He untangled himself from Kaylee and rose.
"Um, I'll be right back, miss. I just want to go get something…" he pointed towards Serenity, with a look at her hat. She smiled again, also with a hint of embarrassment. Hoping she would not mind waiting, and that he actually had enough money to spare giving her something, Simon headed off at a jog towards the ship.
"Is that your ship?" the woman asked Kaylee as they both watched Simon disappear up Serenity's ramp.
"Yep. She's my girl."
"Oh… no!" Kaylee laughed. "I'm just her mechanic."
"Ah. Have you been to many worlds?"
"Oh, everywhere," Kaylee waved her hand.
"That's wonderful. I've always wanted to travel the Verse but I've never been much farther than this."
"That's the way I was, too, before I joined her crew."
"How long have you been here?
"Oh, we just landed today. Cap'n's lookin' for work."
"I see. When do you leave?"
"Two or three days, I reckon," Kaylee answered, not at all put off by the woman's curiosity. "Wherever the job takes us. Mostly on the Border and the Rim, though. Cap'n don't much care for dealin' with the Alliance." She snapped her mouth shut over those last words, not sure she should have revealed that much. She covered her slip-up with a big smile. "Oh, here comes Simon," she spotted him trotting towards them. He pulled up a little breathless, dug some money out of his pocket, and shoved it into the hat.
"It was a… a very lovely concert," he said with some awkwardness.
"Thank you very much," the woman smiled gratefully. "Have a pleasant night, sir, miss." She nodded to each of them and continued her round.
"She's nice, and so pretty," Kaylee commented. "Simon, am I that pretty?"
"Yes, you are," Simon did not hesitate. Kaylee beamed and gave him a big kiss on the lips. Then she yawned. "I think it's time for bed," Simon said in response. "Zoe didn't look like she wanted to babysit us any longer."
"Mmmm. You gonna tuck me in?" Kaylee asked.
"Of course," he thumbed her nose and smiled.
At the head of the open ramp, Zoe slouched alone in her chair. The cool night air filtering in chilled her nose, but she hardly noticed it. Simon and Kaylee had promptly sequestered themselves in Simon's room once they returned. Not long after, Inara quietly collected her chair and disappeared as well. The gypsies' fire was just glowing embers now, and all of their audience had long since headed for home. She stared out into the silence, the occasional insect noise the only thing disturbing the night.
It really is a nice night, she remarked to herself, hoping to keep her mind off of other thoughts. She was tempted walk out and gaze up at the stars, but that would only be another reminder of what she did not want to think about. So she kept her eyes fixed out into the darkness, staring at nothing and trying to feel nothing. That was until the voices interrupted. She stood up rapidly, gun hand at the ready. They sounded rowdy, laughing much too loudly to be sober. She steeled herself for trouble. Out of the blackness Mal faded into being and her tension quickly eased.
"We're back. I'm gonna button her up for the night," he said, climbing the ramp.
"Roger that," she responded. "But where's…" Her words stopped cold when she beheld the sight before her. Emerging from the night, Jayne and River were laughing hysterically and practically falling all over each other as they stumbled aboard the ship. She had to rub her eyes to be sure she was seeing clearly. Mal was operating the ramp's controls and watching the two with a bemused smile. "Sir?" she stared at him with all manner of questions in that one word.
"They had a little too much to drink. Especially that one," he pointed to River.
"We jus' had ourselves a good time, didn' we Ariel?" Jayne announced loudly. River nodded, still laughing too hard to speak.
"Ariel?" Zoe threw another questing look at Mal. He just shook his head a little.
"What's going on out here?" Simon appeared in his pajamas, awakened by the noise and squinting the sleep out of his eyes.
"Simon!" River shouted with glee and tried to run towards him, but stumbled and fell. She broke into another fit of hysterics, Jayne joining her.
"River, are you okay?" Simon hurried to her aid, concern waking him up quickly. "What on earth…" His face screwed up as he knelt next to her, smelling the reek of alcohol that even Zoe could pick up a good dozen steps away. "Are you…" He spun to Mal. "Is she drunk?" he demanded.
"Just a little bit," Mal smiled.
"I can't believe this! You let her drink while you were out there!?"
"Hey now, Doc. Back off some," Jayne intruded, trying to conjure up an intimidating tone. "She's had a good time. Was dancin' n' everythin'. Didn' know she could dance like that."
"You let her drink with Jayne!?" Simon's incredulity shot up several notches.
"What's all the fussin'?" Kaylee stumbled out from the passenger area now, also in her pajamas.
"Jayne's right. She had a good time. I ain't never seen her havin' so much fun and enjoyin' herself as tonight. Maybe you oughta let her out more," Mal suggested.
"Do you have any idea what could have happened?" Simon fairly shouted at Mal. By this time Inara had appeared as well, taking in the scene from the common area doorway.
"Well, nothin' did," Mal's tone harkened the end of the discussion. "Now, it's late, and we all should get some shut-eye. Tomorrow might be a busy day. Go on, now." He shooed them out of the hold. Simon glared daggers at the captain as he helped River up and guided her towards the infirmary. Kaylee came to assist.
"What happened?" she asked Simon, their conversation trailing out of hearing as they left the hold. Inara disappeared back towards her room as silently as she had arrived. Jayne headed for his quarters as well, going up the foredeck stairs.
"G'night, y'all," he hollered to no one in particular.
"So…" Zoe turned to Mal after all the commotion died.
"Got us a prospect. Ving's gonna set up a meet with the client. Should hear from him by tomorrow." He started climbing the stairs. "You should get yourself some rest, too," he ordered her as he ascended out of sight.
"Yes sir," Zoe responded, but she did not move. The hold was silent again and she was alone once more. After a few more moments, she sighed heavily and followed after the captain.
Each night she hoped it would be different. Each night it was the same. Sometimes she wandered down into the hold. Sometimes she sat in the mess. Tonight, she was on the bridge. She stood by the window, eyes on one of Paquin's moons. Her dark hands absently rested on one of the dinosaurs, now since permanently attached to the console. She ran her fingers over the hard plastic, hoping maybe to find some remnants of his touch lingering there so she could feel him once more. Then she stopped herself, realizing the futility. It was like this all the time, the desperate search for something to cling to, followed by the cold, harsh realization that there was nothing left. A shudder went through her and she closed her eyes, swallowing the emptiness back down into her stomach. She turned on her heel and silently made her way to her room. Climbing down, she closed the hatch, undressed, and laid on the bed. She stayed that way, awake but unmoving for so long that the lights shut themselves off automatically. Even in the darkness, though, the images in her mind still ran deep.
When she joined Mal, Serenity was just a ship. His offer was the best option in a distinctly shallow sea of opportunities, so she followed him without much question, just as she had during the war. She had not even liked the ship at first. Neither had she liked him. But Wash had brought color and laughter and happiness to the dull gray walls. He also brought something else she had not even known she was lacking. After that, Serenity was no longer just a vessel, she was a home. And Zoe was no longer just a soldier and first mate; she was a soldier, first mate, and a wife, although not always in that order. She took on her new role with aplomb that even surprised her, and it awoke something else even more surprising that she never thought she would desire. But that dream died before it could be born. She had not even known until it was too late, and then it had been taken from her as well, along with most everything else that had brought life to her world. The walls of Serenity had turned dull and gray again, except for the memories haunting them. And as bad as the bridge was, her bunk was much worse. The sheets still smelled like him, but the bed's emptiness was all too present, a painful manifestation of what was inside her. The entire ship was full of reminders that never left her alone. If she could just draw them out of the steel and circuits and form them into sinews and flesh, she would at least have something. But that was impossible. Serenity was not her home anymore, but a prison, inescapable. She knew if she ever left, it would be to step out into the black and never return.
She rolled onto her side, eyes glassy. She wanted to pull the covers up over her head, curl into a ball, and cry. But she had too much pride for that. So she just lay there, staring at the wall, waiting for sleep. Unable to do anything else, she pictured Wash- his ginger hair, bright Hawaiian shirts, easy smile, and most of all, his laugh. She both cherished the memory and was tortured by it, but she could not stop it either way. She was desperate to capture anything that would remind her of what he was like, lest she forget the happiness she once felt. But that was just a memory as well. Even his ashes were lost to her, scattered to who knew what corners of that little satellite by now. Nothing remained except a pain with no remedy. She lay there, curled around the emptiness which sat like a stone at the very core of her heart. Sleep was a long time in coming.