"Doc, go shop for your medical stuff. Take Kaylee and River with you. Should be safe from the Alliance out here. We're going for supplies. Jayne, stay with the ship."
"Gorram it Mal, we've been out for weeks!" the mercenary railed. "I'm goin' nuts if I have to stay on one more day."
The captain and Jayne faced off, the glare between them hard and cold. River shivered as the frequency wormed its way into her brain. Jayne's angry thoughts could pierce bulkheads – there was no hiding from it.
"I can stay," River said softly. "I don't have to get off."
Jayne's face lit up at the idea of going into town after all.
Mal looked at the girl hard. She'd been better after Miranda, as if being on the planet had made it easier to bear the weight of the memories. She still had her episodes, but mostly she was stable. A damn good pilot. Dependable, when it came to flying - she could be curled up in a corner with her memories, but if Serenity needed a steady hand at the helm River would be there in an instant.
Simon was about to open his mouth to protest, but Mal held up his hand, and for once the younger man silenced.
"You don't want to go out?"
She shook her head. He realised suddenly that she hadn't been off the ship in months, and then only briefly. She hadn't been left as officially 'in charge' of the ship, but it wasn't like he didn't trust her to be fine.
"Fine," he decided. "Jayne takes a comm unit, doesn't go far, and stays sober. You keep a comm unit on your person. Anything wrong, anything, you call him back. Dong ma?"
River nodded. Jayne did too, after a stern Captain look. Staying close to the ship wasn't what he'd had in mind to do, but it sure as hell beat staying on.
Jayne pocketed a comm unit and all but ran down the ramp and into the rain, off into the port district before the captain could change his mind. Simon left with Kaylee, apparently satisfied that River really did prefer to stay on board. Zoe shared a look with Mal, and he nodded before walking to the back of the cargo bay.
"The watch is armed, River," Zoe said, explaining. "Cap'n is getting you a weapon."
"'Bout time I trusted you with this, huh?" Mal said, returning and handing River a small gun. "Close the ramp, you can keep the hatch open for some airflow. Don't let anyone in 's ain't one of ours. Ain't nobody on this rock that I have dealings with that don't send a wave before droppin' by. If you have trouble, any at all, contact Jayne and us," he held up his comm unit before clipping it to his belt. "No confronting on yer own, hear me?"
"Understood," she said solemnly, understanding also that leaving his ship in her hands was a big thing, something more than ownership and danger and practicalities - and right in the corner of love, the same love he'd spoken of when talking to her about flying.
"We will be a picture of health," she said, slipping the gun into a pocket of the cargo trousers she was wearing. Kaylee and Zoe had gone shopping with her when last on Persephone, and she'd found clothes that were fit for a pilot instead of for a little girl.
"You will be, won't you?" he said, and it wasn't a question. "Good. Going."
She hit the button as the captain stepped off the ramp, closing the ship.
Alone with Serenity now, River made the rounds, checking every room and every space. Like with the ships on the seas of earth-that-was, fire is the biggest danger to a ship and her crew, and she quietly checked for the scent, sound, sight or feel of it. As she drifted from engine room to the galley/dining room she made sure the firefighting equipment was in its place, everything complete and ready for use.
She brewed a cup of fake tea from a powder and took it up forward, where the dinosaurs quietly guarded the bridge, and then made her way down to the cargo bay. She opened the door-shaped hatch in the ramp, giving the moist planet air chance to sweep through the ship, bringing the scent of warm rain with it. The clamour outside seemed far away, dulled by the sound of rain. She could ignore it, a newly learned skill, and let it flow to the back of her conscious mind like white noise.
She settled on the stairs in the front of the cargo bay, with a clear view of the opening without being directly in sight herself. If anyone came, she could act before they saw her. Not that she expected anyone; she thought she would feel it if that happened, and she didn't. No matter; for the captain's trust in her she would sit there anyway, holding the fort.
She watched the damp air sweep up some remaining woodshavings, making swirls in the air.
The cargo bay was quiet, but she'd never found that uneasy. When there was no one on the ship but her there was no one to drown out the quiet sounds of Serenity, the feel of the ship itself, the great slow heart of the ship that had saved her.
Oh, it was Simon who had pulled her from the cold hands that had turned her into alliance property. He had sacrificed everything to rescue her and she didn't think a future could ever be repaid, though perhaps it could be balanced in some way. Perhaps she had already started that.
But it was Serenity that had saved her. Had been the first steady ground she had felt under her feet in years, the first place she landed on and could keep to her feet.
Like a drowning victim they'd pulled her aboard, given her blankets and tea, and that first night when there had been nothing but memories and the smell of disinfectant, the slow beat of Serenity's rhythm had grounded her, given her something to hold on to.
She was standing on her feet, these days. Stable. How ironic that the only steady ground she'd found since she was fourteen was on a ship, out in space where there was no up or down, and the only thing that mattered was the ship's gravity keeping the decks under her feet. Maybe she wasn't so much stable as adapted.
She dangled her feet over the edge of the platform and grimaced at the taste of the tea. Maybe Zoe would find some real tea at the market. Nobody else cared for it – Simon had always preferred coffee, and had long since given up on finding a drinkable substitute. Zoe liked tea just as she did, and it was nice to share that small thing with the tall woman, even if they never shared many words.
She didn't like going off the ship, unsure if her feet would walk on real ground, if her ears wouldn't be overwhelmed by the sound of a market, if her mind wouldn't be flooded by the noise of thousands of minds. Serenity was her refuge, the world she'd found her balance in, and she was ever conscious of how fragile it really was. Bad dreams sometimes had the ship disappearing as soon as her feet stepped off the ramp, dissolving into thin air, never having been. A figment of her imagination as she tried to focus away from needles and blue hands.
She knew that was only a dream image conjured from the depths of her fears, but she hadn't dared take the risk in any case. Besides, she enjoyed being on the ship, felt no desire to get off. Some of the others would get cabin fever – notably Jayne, who would get all manner of irritable and volatile on long voyages. She could feel his frustration at being cooped up, but she couldn't share it. As long as there was enough real food aboard, she had no problem with staying in the air for weeks at a time.
River stifled a yawn and re-focused her attention on the open hatch. It had been nearing artificial night in ship's time when they made landfall on the planet, but the local time was only eleven in the morning. Inter-planetary jetlag could be a problem; especially because they kept a watch around the clock when they were on the ground. When the others came back she would probably arrange to catch a few hours sleep so that she would be rested enough to take a night watch.
It would be a few hours though, before they returned. She didn't begrudge them their outing on this relatively safe planet; it would ensure an influx of energy and stories, not to mention fresh food and interesting items picked up at the market. This kind of stop usually put everybody in a good mood, and happy people made Serenity feel good, and a happy ship made River happy.
She retrieved a pack of cards from the common area and set up a complicated card game she'd thought up during a long night of insomnia.
She'd tried teaching the others, but most of them didn't have the patience to catch on and even Simon hadn't managed more than a round without getting hopelessly tangled in all the exception rules she'd established. Jayne had just watched in bemused fascination and then offered her a game of Strip Tall Cards, which Simon had vetoed.
She didn't quite know why. She'd have the mercenary out of his clothes in no time at all, and Simon knew it. Perhaps he'd been more worried about the idea of her winning than at the idea of her losing… not that she thought the captain would let the game come that far.
She got up to sit down at the other side of her setup, carefully considering her next move.
"Hello ladies," the captain stepped through the hatch and she put down the gun she'd aimed at the opening on hearing someone approach. He stood still, taking that in.
"Everything shiny here?"
"In a figurative sense we are sparkly." Not in a literal sense, obviously, but he could see that. The cargo bay badly needed scrubbing out since the horses they had transported the week before; there hadn't been enough clean water on that planet, so they would do it here.
The captain grinned at her, not fazed at all, and closed the hatch so he could open the ramp. Referring to Serenity as an entity, with life and emotion of her own, was natural to her captain.
Zoe drove onto the ramp with the quad, its flat trailer loaded high with supplies. Her mind was laced with content; at the peaceful planet stop, the fresh provisions they had found at the farmer's market, the scent of rain.
"We put out barrels this mornin'," the first mate called as she turned off the quad engine. "Should have plenty of water for scrubbin' her down."
"Communal deck scrubbing," River said. "Very nautical activity. She approves."
"I expect she does, at that," the captain says, climbing the stairs to where River was and looking at the cards. "Playing that game again, huh? How's it going?"
River looked down at the cards.
"I beat me," she said, baffled. How did that happen?
The captain's laughter rang around the cargo bay.