Serenity missed Wash, just like her crew did.
Those that flew her now, River, Mal, Kaylee, they didn’t have Wash’s finesse. As much as each of them fiercely loved Serenity, Wash was the one who knew how to handle her, and really make her fly. Now he was gone. Serenity feared she’d never fly right again, not like she had with Wash.
Zoë feared that she too would never fly right without him.
She feared for the long years ahead, without Wash by her side. It had been more than two years since a Reaver had skewered him where he sat in his favourite place in the world – at Serenity’s wheel. Two long years, and Zoë had had more than enough to distract herself from the grief. Another heist, another run through the black, another gun fight – and of course, the biggest distraction of all, carrying, birthing and bringing up Hoban Washburne the Second.
All the same, she still didn’t feel quite right. There was a piece missing, half of a whole was gone. She had thought that she, of all people, would be strong enough to move on. She’d lost enough people in her life, especially in the War, but this was different. Wash had been different. He had been an utter idiot, a stuttering, bad-joke-telling, rough around the edges, handsome-if-you-squint idiot. But he’d been her idiot.
How could she possibly convey to Junior as he grew up just how wonderful his father had been? How could she accurately describe to him all of the layers and facets of Wash’s eccentric, random, witty personality? Zoë wanted more than anything for Junior to really know the man his father had been. She didn’t want him just to be some story, she wanted him to come to life as a real man, who’d lived and breathed.
Zoë worried about that a lot. River knew this. As she watched Zoë pack crates onto the back of Mule for the latest drop off, she could hear her wondering what she could do to help Junior know a father who wasn’t there. All of the nights she would lie awake, one side of the bed empty, River knew Zoë Washburne pleaded for that answer. She never found it.
As Mal, Zoë and Jayne set off in the Mule, Hobie waved goodbye from where he sat on the steps in River’s arms. River cradled Hobie tight, as if he were her own, as if she were Zoë. She imagined herself in her place, imagined how she would cope, if suddenly Jayne was gone. She would be right where Zoë had been, carrying a child with no father.
A tear ran down River’s face and she clutched Hobie even closer, pressing her face to his feathery soft hair. She cried for Zoë, and for Hobie, and for Serenity, and for all of them who had a piece of their lives missing because Hoban Washburne was dead.
River and Hobie later lay facing one another on her bed. Hobie was contentedly sucking his thumb, his eyes drooping as he fought sleep. Eventually sleep won the battle. River herself was tired. Neither she nor Jayne had slept much last night…
River sighed and curled into the bed, a little slip of laughter passing her lips. Nothing had changed between them since she’d gotten pregnant. His desire for her hadn’t waned despite the slight changes in her anatomy. As River fell into that inviting abyss of sleep, flashes of memory passed across her mind’s eye.
Jayne’s shoulders moving above her. The low rumble of his voice in her ear. His hands, everywhere, all over, too many places to count. Her dizzying, airless climb to that pinnacle, as they moved in unison…
Memory slowly morphed into dream, and River slept on in peace. Until— something changed. Dream became nightmare. Nightmare… or prophecy? She saw Wash, and Zoë crying for him, and she saw Zoë holding Hobie and feeling alone, and then River herself, on the steps in the cargo hold earlier with Hobie, when she’d imagined what it’d be like to be Zoë. What it would be like… if Jayne were gone.
River started awake then, fear clutching its’ clammy hand around her heart. She leapt off of the bed, leaving Hobie sleeping unawares. She stumbled into the corridor. In a daze, she made her way to the bridge, the walls and the ceiling and the floor swimming around her. Voices rang in her heard, and she spoke one aloud as she heard it.
“Two bullets. One. Two. And then you’re dead. Well. Guess all I really need is one.”
And then the deafening roar of the gun shot exploded inside her head, throwing her off balance. She slammed against a wall, gasping.
Simon was descending the nearby stairs and saw her. Panicked, he dashed over and clutched her shoulders. “River! What is it? The baby?”
“Something’s going to go wrong… on the job,” she choked out. “Send a wave to the Mule. Do it. Do it now. Someone’s going to die… Simon… I think it’s Jayne…”
Simon’s eyes went wide. He backed off up the stairs he had just come down, looking back and shooting her a glance to make sure she was still okay. On the bridge, he didn’t bother to try and explain everything to Kaylee, he just waved the Mule immediately, ignoring her queries.
A crackle came over the comm. “Zoë here.”
Simon’s eyebrows jumped and he leaned closer to the speaker. “Zoë! Is everyone okay? Has anyone been shot?”
“Doc, that you? No one’s been shot. Everything went fine. We’re about a mile from Serenity now.”
Simon frowned and looked up out of the bridge’s window. Sure enough, in the distance over a hill, he could see the Mule. “Okay. Okay… Thanks. I’ll see you then…” He turned and leaned back against the console, feeling a rush of energy leave him all of a sudden. Everyone was fine. Why had River thought someone had been hurt?
“Simon?” Kaylee put her hand on his shoulder. “What was that about?”
“River… she said someone had been hurt. Jayne. She said Jayne had been hurt,” Simon murmured. He looked at Kaylee, puzzled. “River’s never wrong. I don’t know what’s going on with her.”
Kaylee looked at him sympathetically, resting her chin on his shoulder and looking up at his face. “Well she’s got a lotta hormones running about in her. She’s never been pregnant before, you don’t know if it’s interfering with her Reading.”
Simon nodded noncommittally. “Maybe. I don’t know. One can’t exactly scientifically examine the properties of a Reader, can they? Reading isn’t even accepted by the medical community…”
“They’re coming back now, aren’t they?”
Kaylee and Simon turned to see River in the doorway. Her expression was calmer now. She knew she had been wrong.
“Yes. Jayne hasn’t been shot. They’re all fine,” Simon told her.
River rubbed her head. “I heard it. I know… I just know…”
Kaylee went to River. “Well you should be glad that Jayne ain’t been shot honey.”
“Yes. I know,” River agreed. “I should be glad. I am glad.”
Dinner that night was loud and jovial. The job had gone well. It hadn’t been a particularly high paying job, but it was enough to buy them fuel and supplies for the next month. Enough to keep them sailing.
River however was quiet and subdued, not participating in the conversation and laughter. She couldn’t seem to quite find it within herself to be cheerful, even though the job had gone well, even though no one had been hurt, even though Jayne was right opposite her, alive and well.
The incident earlier had jarred her. She felt that familiar madness rising within her again. The temptation to break down and lose control was pulling at her, calling her. Since the Alliance had altered her mind so it couldn’t block emotions, River had slipped into fear, into panic, into anger, as quick as the blink of an eye. In recent years, she’d worked at conditioning and training her mind to control her feelings, almost like someone who’d been in an accident learning to walk again. But there were some times that she was just tired of having to work so hard at something other people barely knew they were doing.
How was one person supposed to deal with so much? Even before she’d been an Alliance experiment, she’d been intensely different. They’d turned her into an assassin, but she had been born a psychic. She’d realised at a young age that she wasn’t just smart, that she didn’t just learn things, she knew things. Things she couldn’t possibly know. They weren’t always good things either. She was filled with the hate and the anger of others. She felt bitterness and resentment that wasn’t hers. She had nightmares about horrors she’d never experienced.
And as she stared across the table at Jayne’s animated face, she wondered if what she had heard earlier had really been anything to do with her or Jayne, and if it wasn’t just bits of somebody else’s life, seeping through into her mind.
That night, River couldn’t sleep. She turned over and lay on her side, looking at Jayne. He was fast asleep, breathing evenly, one arm thrown up behind him on the pillow. He wasn’t dreaming. He was resting, body and mind. She wished she was. She wished she could shut her mind down, shut it down completely. She wished not to hear so much and see so much all the time, and for once, just to rest. She felt like she’d been tired for five years, and she was tired of being tired.
In the last year or so, when Simon did his usual psychological check ups on her, he’d been saying how wonderful she’d come along. How brilliantly she was doing, how amazing it was that she was managing to keep herself so normal when the parts of her brain that usually kept one normal were missing. What a feat that was, a triumph, he enthused, how proud she should be of achieving such well-being, when by all rights, she should still be a babbling mess, like she had been when she’d first escaped the Academy.
So why didn’t she feel triumphant, or proud? Why did she still feel so helpless sometimes? Why did she feel so out-of-control – like someone else was flying the good ship River?
River closed her eyes, several tears tracking down her face.
She was almost five months pregnant. How was she supposed to handle a baby? Another person that she was supposed to nurture, and teach, and show how to act like a well-rounded human being? She didn’t know how to be well-rounded. She didn’t know how to be anything that was normal. Everything that had happened to her in the last few years had been totally out of her hands, by chance, including getting pregnant. She felt like she had no control over anything, like she was spiralling.
Having a child was only now becoming real, as the birth date drew closer. How could she ever have thought she could do this?
On top of it all, visions were trampling through her brain, leaving her even more upset and confused than she already felt. When she finally drifted off to sleep, she had more strange dreams. Everything swirled before her, insubstantial and chaotic. Children’s faint laughter drifted back to her. She felt an intense sense of loneliness. Loud voices. Fear. Shock. And then the gunshot echoing through her head, over and over. Someone was saying her name. Over and over… over and over…
“River! River! Mother-humping hell, would you wake up?”
River groaned and blinked. Jayne swam before her, his expression exasperated. “What—What is it? What’s wrong?”
“What’s wrong? What’s wrong?” Jayne exclaimed. “You were thrashing around, that’s what’s wrong. Nearly knocked me from here to Londinium. Shoutin’ my name too - like I wasn’t right beside you with extremely sensitive eardrums.” He sat back and rubbed his ear with a wince.
River’s head felt heavy, liked she been doped. “Bad dream…”
Jayne arched an eyebrow sarcastically. “Oh ya don’t say.”
River pulled her arms up over her head, trying to block out the sound of that gunshot, but it wouldn’t go away, because it was inside her own mind. Again and again she heard it, but she could do nothing to stop. Who was shooting? Who was getting shot?
Jayne’s irate expression softened just a little as he watched her try to burrow her way into the bed. He tilted his head questioningly and pulled at her arm in his usual abrupt fashion. It seemed affectionate to him at least. River tried to shake him off, but Jayne was stubborn like that and wouldn’t let go.
“What’s wrong?” he demanded.
His large hand splayed across her back and shook her, trying to get her to look at him.
“Bad day. It’s going to be a bad day,” River said into the pillow.
Jayne exhaled loudly and cast his eyes upward. “Another one, huh? Well, you’ll deal, y’always do.”
“I’m glad you think so,” she said distantly.
“Go back to sleep. It’s still early,” Jayne yawned.
River shook her head and lithely slipped out of the bed over him. “Can’t.”
Jayne sleepily held out a hand after her, just brushing the back of her bare leg as she walked away. “Hey. What’s this? Goin’ walkabout again?”
River pulled on a cardigan over her skimpy nightdress. “No more sleep for me. No more. Time for waking hours. Rise and shine. Shine like the sun. I’ll be all right. Always all right. Close your eyes now.”
Jayne raised his eyebrows at her disjointed, utterly nonsensical talk. “This really is gonna be a bad day,” he commented acerbically.
River turned and left the room, her face mournful. “One of many.”
River wandered the ship in a thick daze, almost like she was sleepwalking, but she was quite awake. Quite awake and quite troubled. She heard someone pottering about in the kitchen and she went in. There was Zoë, looking suitably disgruntled, making warm milk for Hobie. He was draped over her shoulder, tears on his face. He looked like he’d just calmed down from a nice fit of temper.
“He’s having a bad day too?” River asked.
Zoë raised an eyebrow and walked around the counter. “Surely is. Woke up in all of a tizzy. Probably had a nightmare.”
“I can relate.”
Zoë sat down at the table and with a yawn, started to give Hobie his bottle.
River stared with glazed eyes. “It’s hard, isn’t it? Doing this all the time. When you do the job, you’ve got Mal and Jayne backing you up. But when you come home, you have to do another job, no one to back you up.”
Zoë remained stoic. “I’ve been to war. I’ve had tough times. But this is the hardest thing I’ve had to do yet.”
River stared at Hobie. “I don’t think I can do it. I know so many things. But I don’t know this.”
“No one does. There ain’t no guide book. Every baby’s different. You just gotta learn about your child, learn their ways. And I had help. I had Mal and Kaylee and Inara all stealin’ this boy from me when it took their fancy.” Zoë smiled.
“But you’d rather it was Wash helping you.”
Zoë paused and then nodded. “I’d rather it was Wash.”
Zoë stood in the doorway of the bridge, her arms crossed and a confounded look on her face. She stared at Serenity’s pilot as he brought them into atmo. He glanced around and saw her standing there, and his whole countenance changed. His back got straighter, the muscles in his arms tensed, his chin tilted up higher.
He looked around again and smirked at her. “Well hello there,” he exclaimed. “Nice day for it, huh?”
“You should probably just keep your eyes on the planet coming up on you,” she intoned sharply.
She didn’t know why, but Hoban Washburne was one of the most annoying people she’d ever met. If he made another attempt at a charming smile again, she was going to break his nose with the butt of her rifle. Every time she was in his presence she felt uncomfortable and jittery, and Zoë Alleyne was not a person prone to uncomfortable jitters.
Wash leaned back, just one hand on the controls. With his free hand he was stroking his moustache and looking Zoë up and down. She fought the urge to shudder. “I could do this with my eyes closed. I was top of my class in flight school. Ever heard of a Crazy Ivan? I patented that manoeuvre. Named it after my Dad. His name was Ivan.”
Zoë merely arched an eyebrow. “Never would have guessed.”
“Yup. There’s not a pilot for a dozen planets that can fly like me.”
“Modest fellow, aren’t you?” Zoë said sarcastically.
Wash just smiled and cocked one eyebrow self-importantly. He seemed not to have heard what she’d said. “Might even go so far as to call me a genius. A genius of the air. A lord of the clouds. A master of the sky.”
Zoë smiled endearingly. “Well Your Highness, you better hang onto your butt ‘cause you’re about to hit that mountain there.”
Wash just nodded and smirked, then he froze, blinked, and did a double take. Serenity was indeed bearing down on the huge peak of a mountain. He gripped the controls with both hands and pulled up with all of his might. The ship’s underbelly just barely glanced off of the rock, and a jarring shake went through Serenity as it gained a few new scrapes and dents.
Wash grinned nervously, frowning at the same time. It was a bit of a paradoxical expression, but Wash was a highly paradoxical man, and Zoë was as perplexed as hell by him.
When they’d eventually landed on solid ground, Wash sat back in his chair and spun it around. “Something you want to say Zoë?” he asked suavely, obviously expecting praise for his quick save.
Zoë made a face. “You bother me.”
“I’m sorry? My ears get blocked sometimes. It’s these high altitudes. Did you say I bother you?”
“That’s exactly what I said.”
Wash’s debonair expression faltered a little, before returning full force – along with his moustache stroking. “May I ask why?”
Zoë shrugged. “You just bother me. I had to say it. I’m sorry.”
Wash shook his head. “No, no, best to be honest. If ya keep things bottled up like that, y’know, it’s bad for your digestion. Your circulation. Your brain patterns. I knew a guy, got so fussed over our flight exams, he spontaneously combusted!” he exclaimed. “Well, that’s not entirely true. He actually blew himself up when he was working on his ship’s busted core containment.” He paused for a moment, biting his lip. “Kind of a sad story really. What was his name? Oh, that’s gonna annoy me all day.”
He looked up, only to find he was talking to himself. Zoë was nowhere to be seen. He sighed melancholically. Yep, she was terse, that woman. Definitely not the wordy sort – which he was. That could be troublesome.
He stroke his moustache and pondered on it some more.
For several months, he and Zoë had nothing more than a working relationship. She just didn’t warm to him, and he was totally baffled as to what this mysterious quality of his was that bothered her so much. He tried to be terse, like her, but it just wasn’t in him. He ended up babbling himself into a shameful mess and ruining everything. She’d just saunter on out of the room with those legs of hers… and that back… and those hips, swaying as she went. Taunting him.
The first time Wash went along to a bar with Mal, Zoë and Kaylee, was also the first time he saw Zoë punch a man’s lights out. And that was it. He knew there and then that he had fallen for her.
He was head over heels in love with this Amazon beauty. He was in love with her fiery glare and her bee-stung lips, with the fact that she had more muscles than he’d ever have, with her two states of being: calm and really calm, and with those shapely hips of hers that he wanted nothing more than to grab in a manly fashion.
But Zoë? She wasn’t impressed with what she saw. He was an over-confident fly boy. He had way too many nauseatingly colourful shirts. He talked so much her ears were tired after five minutes in a room with him. He was a grown man and yet he whiled away hours among his plastic dinosaurs, constructing elaborate plots and character development for them. And that goddamn moustache. She wanted to rip it from his face, stamp on it, shoot it, slice it into tiny pieces, and even then, she’d need to burn it just to make sure it was completely dead.
And yet for all that, there was something about him that intrigued her. He still bothered the hell out of her… but he wasn’t a lost cause entirely…
“This’ll run like a dream once we get this carbon catalyser in,” Kaylee said excitedly to Wash, one day down in the engine room.
They were working on Serenity together, as they were wont to do when Zoë and Mal disappeared off on a job. Kaylee lay flat on her back and slid under Serenity’s engine. Wash knelt by her and handed her the parts as she needed them.
He snorted. “Yeah, no more of that scary stalling when I’m trying to bring us down. It’s really not good for my heart to worry if I’m gonna fry everyone when I break atmo.”
“Ah Serenity usually comes through in the end,” Kaylee replied. “Just gotta work with her.”
“Hey, Kaylee? Do you think I’m a nice guy?” Wash asked suddenly, sitting down and leaning back against the engine cover.
“Of course I do! I think you’re one of the sweetest fellas I ever met!” Kaylee enthused. “Y’know, you got the feel of my daddy about you. He’s got such a way with machines, just like you got a way with Serenity.”
“It’s always lovely to hear a girl telling me I remind her of her father,” Wash remarked, disillusioned.
“Oh, don’t take it that way!” Kaylee slid out, covered in oil. She smiled and rubbed his shoulder, leaving a black handprint on him.
Wash frowned. “It’s just, I wanna be dashing, y’know? Like Mal. Look at him, he just waltzes into a den full of thieves, shoots ‘em all, and waltzes back out with all of their riches – and he always has a smart parting word. That’s dashing. That’s the epitome of dashing.”
“Well sure hon, but you got a different kind of dashing in you,” Kaylee replied brightly.
Wash huffed. “Yeah, only if my kind of dashing involves me dashing away from the den of thieves.”
Kaylee pursed her lips and scooched closer to him. “Is this about what I think it’s about? Are you still sweet on Zoë?”
Wash’s eyes jumped. “Still? As in, you had previous knowledge of this? As in… oh my frilly God, everyone knows, don’t they?”
Kaylee patted his knee wistfully. “Everyone knows.”
Wash shot up and began pacing, running his hands through his hair. “Everyone being Zoë. Zoë knows. This is like a nightmare, only without the fun waking up part!”
“Aw Wash. It ain’t so bad. Zoë likes you!”
Wash stopped and glared at her. “By ‘likes’ you mean ‘tolerates’, don’t you?”
“Pretty much,” Kaylee answered, without missing a beat. “But look, I’m sure I can help you. With one thing at least.”
Wash just looked at her questioningly.
Later, Zoë and Mal arrived back from the job. Patience had shot him and he was limping, his foot gushing with blood. Zoë was helping him across the cargo hold when Wash and Kaylee entered to meet them. When Zoë saw Wash, she released Mal in shock and he lost his balance and keeled over on the floor. Kaylee rushed to him, but Zoë just continued to stare at Wash.
“I knew it!” Wash enthused. “Only I didn’t know it – but now I do! It was the moustache! That’s what bothered you!” He ran a hand over his cleanly shaven face, now totally devoid of any disturbing moustaches.
Zoë just gaped.
“Hello!” Mal screamed, his voice ragged. “My foot’s gonna have to be amputated if you don’t get your ass in gear and help me to the infirmary!”
Zoë blinked and came back to herself. She helped Kaylee get Mal up and bring him to the infirmary. As they passed by Wash to get through the doorway, Zoë smiled at him.
“This is the first thing you’ve done that hasn’t made me wanna hit you,” she said cheerfully.
Wash stared after her, a dazed grin on his face. “So I done good?”
“You done good!” she called after her.
Over the next few weeks, Zoë became increasingly disturbed by Wash’s antics. He was acting like they were betrothed or some such: opening doors for her, pulling out chairs, refilling her drinks. Not that it wasn’t really, really fun not to have to lift a finger to do anything, but every time Wash got that look in his eye, she wondered just what she was going to do about him.
One particular night, all four of Serenity’s crew were headed out. They’d done a job, gotten good pay, and Mal felt the need to celebrate.
Wash stood on the bridge, fidgeting in his brand new, hideously bright shirt, and smoothing his hair back. Tonight he and Zoë would be out in a social situation. That kind of situation afforded some relaxation, some enjoyment – or so he’d heard. He could broach the subject of her maybe talking to him a little more, making eye contact even. Maybe he’d even get to tell a joke she’d actually laugh at.
Times like these, he’d usually calm himself by stroking his moustache, but of course that was gone. Shaved off in Zoë’s honour. Not that she’d paid him much more attention after he’d gotten rid of it, but at least she wasn’t so bothered by him anymore. Damn, he missed that moustache. It had taken him the better part of a year to grow it, cultivate it, care for it.
“She better appreciate the sacrifices I’ve made for her,” Wash muttered. He exhaled slowly, and decided to practise what he was going to say to Zoë on Serenity. He held his arms out grandly. “Ahem. Zoë. You have the finest way with weapons I’ve ever seen. Ugh… you’re such a stupid hun dan Washburne. Right, Zoë… Zoë… you are a warrior. Legendary one might say. You may not have been top of your class in flight school and thought up the Crazy Ivan but you certainly— Nope. Okay. Less about me, less about me.” He sighed mournfully and collapsed in his chair. “Zoë. I think you’re magnificent. You’re a goddess among us mere mortals…”
Wash nearly fell out of his chair. He stumbled to his feet and looked around. Zoë stood there in a slinky, figure-hugging black dress. She’d never forget the mixture of abject terror and utter delight on his face when he saw her standing there. She walked over to him slowly. Despite looking absolutely drop dead gorgeous, it wasn’t her body Wash was looking at. No, he was riveted to her eyes – because hers were riveted to his.
Zoë stopped before him and lightly put her hands on his chest. He almost passed out – she’d never touched him before, not once.
“I… uh, I’m… I think I’m hallucinating. Or… or at least having a very good dream,” Wash stuttered.
“Wash. If we’re going to get to know one another better, you’re going to have to learn to do one thing for me,” Zoë said in a deep, calm voice.
“Anything,” Wash breathed. “I’d do anything for you.”
“Good. Now I want you to shut up.”
He saluted. “Right you are. Done. It’s done. Shutting up now.”
Zoë just smiled. Her fingers snaked down his arm and she took his hand. “Let’s go then.”
That night, she, Wash, Mal and Kaylee caroused about Persephone, enjoying having such friends, freedom and fun about them. They found a lively restaurant and bar called Red’s to set up camp in for the night. Mal was cheerily swinging Kaylee around on the dance floor, more than a few cocktails fuelling his merriment, while Zoë and Wash were huddled up in a corner booth. The ice had finally broken between them.
He was as much of an immature, silly, fast-talking ass as she’d thought he was the first day she met him. But she realised now – that’s why she liked him. He wasn’t some plucky criminal, or a smooth businessman, or a gallant war hero. He was just a fly boy… he was just what she needed.
Mal got a little too merry that night, and drank much too much. He ended up starting a fight with a very large man, when said large man accidentally bumped into him – and apologised for it too. But the drunken Mal obviously misconstrued the man’s courteous apology and polite smile for an insult upon him, and he punched him in the eye.
Zoë and Wash were oblivious to the ensuing fight, despite the fact that several glasses – and chairs – were being hurled across the room. Zoë had reached out and put her hand on Wash’s face. He placed his hand over hers, thinking how lucky he was that a woman like this was simply looking at him the way Zoë was looking at him.
Mal’s shouts, the sounds of bones crunching and furniture breaking, they’d become markers of their relationship, not only their first date. But that night, as Zoë Alleyne slipped into Hoban Wasburne’s lap and gave him the most passionate and the most important kiss of his life, nothing else mattered.
However, Zoë was a dedicated second-in-command. When she noticed Mal being throttled over by the pool table, she sighed and extracted herself from Wash’s arms. Mal’s assailant sniggered when he saw a beautiful woman approaching, wearing in a tight black dress with a slit up the side. He stopped sniggering pretty quickly when one of her high heels became lodged in his crotch.
Wash came up behind Zoë and Kaylee and sighed. “I guess that’s one question I had about the Captain answered.”
Kaylee looked at him. “What’s that?”
“Is he a funny drunk or an angry drunk?”
All three of them looked down on Mal, who was lying on the floor, moaning and clutching his heavily bleeding nose.
“A funny drunk,” they said in unison, laughing.
As Zoë and Wash supported Mal between them and helped him stumble back to the ship, Wash glanced at Zoë over the Captain’s head.
“I guess the night’s over,” he lamented. “It was fun while it lasted.”
They arrived at Serenity and Zoë opened up the doors, and walked inside. “What do you mean the night’s over?” she said with a smirk.
Dumbfounded and more than a little elated, Wash followed her. From that night on, he’d always been following her, right up until the day he died.
River looked in the mirror, smoothing her green dress down over her rounded stomach. It was such a beautiful dress – Inara had made it for her, even embroidering the beading around the neckline herself.
Even though she was somewhat bigger around the middle now, it still fit. She wasn’t so big either that one noticed that she was pregnant immediately, which certainly had been a help to her when she went out on jobs. The kind of unscrupulous folk they came up against would immediately target the pregnant girl when caught in a sticky situation.
Following the job the day before, Mal was in a generous mood, and the whole crew were going out for the night. They were on Persephone, and River had an inkling that they were going to end up in that very same place that Zoë and Wash had had their first kiss in – Red’s. Hobie had been spirited away to a trusted Companion friend of Inara’s for the night, Zoë reluctantly parting with him. She knew she needed a night off, but that didn’t make handing him over to someone else’s care any easier.
River had certainly had the bad day she’d been expecting. She’d hardly left her room and Jayne had kept his distance, knowing how easy they got into arguments when she was like this. Kaylee had had to cajole her for hours to get her to agree to come out with them. So here she was, donning a pretty dress on her tired body, brushing her tangled hair, putting makeup on her haggard face. All in all, she’d tidied up quite well.
But when Simon walked past and knocked on the door, telling her they were leaving in a few minutes, River felt no compulsion to go. As tidy and pretty as she looked, she didn’t feel it. She felt like a hurricane was sweeping through her and all she wanted to do was lay down and let it wreak its’ havoc.
But she was River Tam; she’d faced the Alliance, she’d faced Reavers – she wasn’t about to let a muddled brainpan defeat her.
As it turned out, Red’s was just what she needed. It was lively, cheerful and crowded with all kinds of folk, none of whom gave a damn that she was a genius, or a Reader, or an assassin, or a fugitive. She was simply another girl out with her friends. Anonymity was just wonderful.
The crew knew plenty of the patrons packing into Red’s, so there was so shortage of conversation, or entertainment, or frivolity. Zoë and Mal were engaging in a raucous card game with some trader pals of theirs. Their table was a huge circular one, right in the middle of the restaurant, and Mal was, for once, relishing being the centre of attention without any Feds about to spoil the fun. Red’s was a decidedly Fed-free zone.
Displaying absolutely no restraint whatsoever, Simon and Kaylee were all over each other. Their dancing earlier had almost been obscene, though River suspected Kaylee was at fault for that particular public display of indecency more than the ever virtuous Simon.
River had been talking to Inara when Simon broke away from Kaylee’s possessive embrace and came over.
“There’s a huge dance floor and very loud music, and you, River Tam, haven’t danced once. I must protest,” Simon said laughingly. He held out a hand. “Care to join your very uncoordinated big brother for a turn around the floor?”
River smiled slowly and accepted his hand, putting her shawl aside. Simon had been right – he was very uncoordinated, so River, a trained ballerina with greatest precision her teacher on Osiris had ever seen, had taken the man’s place in leading the dance. Simon wasn’t bothered though as she pulled him this way and that with effortless grace. Seeing her in such high spirits after her bad day was enough.
Kaylee took River’s place beside Inara, and they both watched brother and sister spin about the dance floor.
Kaylee sighed happily. “Ain’t he a marvel?”
Inara agreed. “He certainly is. I’ve never seen two siblings with such a strong bond as theirs. It’s beautiful, the way he takes care of her. The way she takes care of him as well.”
Taking a break from his card game, and spotting Inara and Kaylee getting all doe-eyed over Simon, Mal sauntered over. Not to be outdone by the good doctor, Mal brought Inara onto the dance floor. However, much like Simon, his timing was lacking, and Inara ended up leading. Soon enough, River returned Simon to Kaylee, and took herself outside for some air. Jayne had been dealt into Mal and Zoë’s card game, so he wouldn’t miss her.
Persephone was one of River’s favourite planets. It wasn’t quite Rim, it wasn’t quite Core. It was a delightful anomaly, somewhere in between. It had beautiful buildings, expensive triplexes, rich culture – all stuff of the Core, but it also had a heaving populace of colourful Rim folk. River loved the diversity. She saw none of the Core’s grandeur and pomp in Persephone, but all of the Rim’s rustic charm.
She went to the sidewalk and took in a deep breath. The scents of alcohol, sugar and seafood filled her up. Smiling, she wrapped her shawl around her tighter against the chill of Persephone’s oncoming winter.
It turned out that Red’s wasn’t called after a man with red hair, like River had thought, but after the large, rare tree that grew right outside, its leaves and blossoms a bright, vibrant red. River found herself standing under it. All of its foliage hadn’t been shed yet and as she stood below, leaves and petals kept showering down upon her. She closed her eyes and allowed them to sweep over her, caressing her face and getting caught in her hair.
“Ain’t you a sight for sore eyes?”
River flinched and opened her eyes, looking around. A man was leaning in the doorway of Red’s watching her.
He was tall, with dark hair that was growing long and had been slicked back. He had gorgeous, perceptive eyes and tan skin. He was probably forty or so, though he hardly showed his age, but for the crow’s feet that wrinkled in the corners of his eyes as he smiled. He could’ve been mistaken for a Core man, if not for the knife scar slicing across his jaw, and the rose thorn tattoo snaking up from his collar and around the back of his neck.
He stepped forward, smiling charmingly. “I saw you inside, dancin’ with that wholesome lookin’ young man. He your fella?”
River shook her head, an amused look on her face. “He’s my brother.”
The man ducked his head in embarrassment at the correction. “Well I did see him necking with that pretty little thing in pink, so I guess he couldn’t be yours. What kind of man would even dare look at another woman when he’s got you?”
His dark eyes raked her over, in an almost predatory way, but he managed to make it seem endearing, sexy. He was bearing down on her now, like a lion that had spotted a deer wandering in the wild. He took her hand and kissed it by way of greeting.
“I’m Willem Barstow.”
River merely looked back at him, curious as to what his intentions were. He hadn’t let go of her hand yet, his calloused fingers stroking her knuckles.
He tilted his head. “Aren’t you gonna tell me your name?”
She smiled enigmatically. “Maybe.”
Willem bit his lip. “A woman of mystery.”
River took her hand from his and went to sit on the bench under the red tree. He followed, his long black overcoat streaming behind him in the breeze.
“I ain’t seen you round Red’s before. You ship in from the docks?”
“Why? Did you?”
“You don’t give nothin’ away, do ya?” Willem intoned, leaning toward her.
River fought back a smile and looked away. Was she flirting? She didn’t quite know. She hadn’t done it much lately. When she had though, it hadn’t been this kind of flirting. This felt… dangerous, thrilling. This wasn’t only because Willem Barstow was an incredibly magnetic man… but because she wasn’t exactly available. She was thoroughly unavailable, and she knew she shouldn’t be indulging this stranger’s charms.
With that thought in mind, she stood up. “It was nice meeting you, but I should get back to my friends.”
Willem stood up quickly and grabbed her wrist. “What’s the hurry darlin’? Spare a little time for a lonely man.” He moved around her, setting his hands on her shoulders from behind. He pulled her hair back, almost reverently. “Oh the fun we could have…” he said in her ear.
“You really ought to be steppin’ away from her now… if you wanna kept your family jewels intact, that is.”
River looked up to see Jayne glaring at Willem. Willem looked up at him too and Jayne’s face changed drastically, first to shock, and then to… what was that? Fear? Willem reacted too, a slow grin coming to his face.
“Jayne Cobb? Ruttin’ hell, where you been?” he exclaimed.
Jayne coughed and shuffled. “Damn, Buzz, it’s been a long time. A mighty long time.”
Willem, or Buzz as Jayne had called him, went to Jayne and they embraced like old comrades. Jayne seemed decidedly uncomfortable but soon played the part of the nostalgic old friend as Buzz started rambling on. It turned out that Buzz and Jayne had run together, partners in crime they’d been, as far back as some nine years ago. They’d parted ways after a successful heist and hadn’t seen each other since.
Jayne brought Buzz inside to reluctantly introduce him to the group, explaining their past together to them all. Buzz was welcomed into the fold, and he bought a round of drinks for everyone at Mal’s card game. His countenance had changed from that of the person River had met outside. He was now acting as loud and cheerful as those around him, but River didn’t think it was his real face he was putting forward.
Jayne was edgy as he watched Buzz joke with Zoë.
River frowned. “You’re not happy to see him.” It wasn’t a question.
Jayne looked down at her distractedly. “Huh? Uh… no, it’s just, y’know, it’s been a long while. Things have happened since we last… It’s fine. I’m fine. Shiny. Yeah.”
His features were tense though. She wasn’t fooled for a moment.
“Hey, what was goin’ down between you two when I came out? Seemed like he was fixin’ to charm you.”
River smiled mischievously. “We were just… getting acquainted.”
Jayne raised a stern eyebrow, but mirth danced in his eyes. “Huh. Well don’t you be getting acquainted with no one but me anymore. Got that?”
“I can’t promise anything. I’m a fickle, fickle girl…” River teased.
Jayne growled and grabbed her around the waist. “Fickle, huh? I think I can keep you entertained enough so ya won’t stray,” he murmured in her ear.
His lips met that sensitive patch of skin just behind her ear, where her neck met her skull. The world blurred a little around the edges, and River forgot where she was momentarily. Her hands snaked up his broad back and she laughed unrestrainedly. A bad day had become a good day.
Zoë looked up, catching Jayne and River embracing in the middle of the crowd. She smiled nostalgically. It had been but a few years ago when she and Wash had been here on that first night of their courtship. They’d had their first kiss here, entangled in one another’s warmth in the same booth that Simon and Kaylee were now sitting in.
Someone else besides Zoë was watching Jayne and River – Buzz. He carefully noted his old friend’s hand low on the girl’s hip, her fingers curling into the hair at the back of his neck, the heady air of desire they both had about them. So Jayne Cobb had himself a woman… a girl, at that. Buzz smiled to himself and looked away.
It was the early hours of the morning when the crew of Serenity, plus Buzz, trekked back to the ship.
“It’s a kindness you’re doin’ me, lettin’ me hitch a ride, Captain,” Buzz spoke up.
Mal was stumbling slightly, but was by no means as drunk as he was that night of Wash and Zoë’s first date. He’d made sure he didn’t walk away with any broken nose this time around.
He looked blearily at Buzz. “Well, couldn’t see a reason to turn ya down! Any friend of Jayne’s is… well, not really a friend of mine… But you’re welcome aboard ‘til we get to Jianying anyhow. You can earn your keep by helpin’ us shift cargo and the like. Won’t be but a couple days’ journey.”
“Do you have family on Jianying?” Inara asked, frowning as Mal leaned into her a little.
Buzz nodded. “Yes ma’am. Been livin’ on Persephone a while now, but I always had plans to skip on over to Jianying and settle with my kin.”
Jayne cast Buzz a dark look but kept his mouth shut. That night, Buzz was settled in a free room, the one above River’s in point of fact. Jayne said an abrupt goodnight to River and went to sleep in his own bunk. River didn’t mind. She was exhausted from two straight nights with no sleep. She could sense Jayne’s discontent though… and she knew it was because of Buzz.-O-
The second half.