“So, how long you think it'll take Kaylee 'n your brother to stick their heads clear of their bunk and notice we're not there?” Squinting at the sinking sun, Zoe gave up on scanning the skyline for sight of their ship and turned to River instead.
“That depends on many factors. Some don't bear contemplation. It could be some time.” River leaned back against the shell of their disabled shuttle and wrinkled her nose at Jayne, sprawled out snoring some feet away in the dust, and Mal, in much the same condition, if considerably less dusty. They'd had to drag Jayne a lot more, what with him being so much heavier. “Ought to have been smart enough to watch their own drinks,” she said, prodding Mal with her foot, earning some unintelligible grumbling and a halfhearted swat that wouldn't have served to brush away a fly in return.
“They weren't to know Saffron had a sister workin' this job with her,” Zoe pointed out, but that was all the charity her aching and sweaty back was willing to give the men; half-hauling the two of them several miles out of town after they'd let themselves get drugged up only to find their shuttle useless, com and all, when they got there had put her in something of a tetchy mood. War, torture, gunfire – she'd face down any of those with Mal, glad enough. But dragging Jayne along by his smelly boots while River wilted next to her under the Captain's stumbling weight – well, she wasn't gonna be letting him hear the end of it anytime soon, that much was certain.
“I don't understand the attraction of being drunk,” River said, and listening to the sounds Jayne was making, the likes of which had no right coming out of a human, Zoe couldn't much blame her. Still, she could remember a couple attractions herself.
“Ain't all bad,” she said, tipping her head back to see the sky, the first stars of the night just beginning to show up. “I remember first time I went steppin' out with Wash – well, I guess you'd already know.”
“I do. But not from your mind.” River looked over at her sideways, like she was trying to gauge Zoe's mood, probably using more senses than sight to do it. “We talked a lot, when I couldn't sleep. He only ever talked about flying and you. And shadow puppets.”
“Always did fancy himself an artist with those hands. He wasn't half wrong there, either.” Getting up, she dusted her hands off and ducked into the shuttle, flipping on its emergency lights so they'd at least stand a chance of being spotted. “Still then,” she said, returning to her seat next to River, “you know alcohol's got its high points if he told you that one.”
“Yes,” said River, smiling. “Though he was very insistent that he'd never have shaved off that mustache sober.”
Zoe snorted. “Yeah well, do a lot of things tipsy you might not otherwise. I remember first time I got drunk – must have been all of fourteen years old. Me and my cousin Myla went sneakin' off our ship, on a little backwater planet like this one, where they didn't care how old you looked, long as you had some coin. So we drank way too much of the cheapest stuff they had – and when we finally stumble out of there, what do we see tied up outside but a horse. Now,” she said, looking over at River, who was doing a credible job of appearing interested even though she had to know exactly how the story was going to end up already, “I expect that don't sound like much to you, but being raised on a ship, we'd never been around animals much. So we see this horse, and it seems like the best idea in the 'verse that we take a ride on it.” She paused, laughing a bit to remember two girls staring up at a regular horse like it was the most fantastic thing they'd seen.
River giggled. “It didn't go well?”
“Think I fell off that damn horse half a dozen times. And Myla, she just sat there in the street laughing till she cried. Anyhow, I finally get up there, sitting all proud and tall, when this woman comes out of the bar and says, 'You know, you ain't gonna get far on my horse, seein' as you're on it backwards.'”
“You weren't!” River said, eyes wide.
“I was,” Zoe insisted, through her own laughter. “I'd fallen off so many times I was too turned around to know which end was which. Lady was nice about it, though.”
“Why, what did she do?”
“She didn't shoot us for tryin' to make off with her horse.”
After a time, their laughter died, and River huddled closer, yawning and resting her head against Zoe's shoulder. “Do you think they'll come soon?” she asked, holding her hands up in front of the shuttle's bright beam of light.
On a flat bit of boulder across from them, the dark shape of a heart danced briefly as Zoe put her arm around River and looked up to the sky. “Yeah, little one. They'll come soon.”