Six months they’d been patched up and flying, with Mal in Wash’s seat and River in the other. And sometimes Mal thought River was fine, right as rain.
But other times, he thought her brainpan’d gorram-well bounce if you dropped it.
Today, they were just coming down into atmo, and suddenly River looked at him, frantic, bolt upright in her cockpit like she’d been electrified. “Zoe needs you, in the kitchen!”
“What...?” he began.
“In the kitchen!” she said.
There was no time to clarify. He took off at a trot, clanging along the gangway and downstairs.
Zoe, in the kitchen, was calmly cleaning a gun. She looked up at him, mystified. “Sir?”
“You don’t,” he stammered, “need me?”
“What for?” Zoe said.
When he came back, River was upside down in her chair, knees over the headrest, head hanging over the front of the seat.
“Zoe needed me for what, exactly?”
“Maybe it was Jayne,” River said. “You should try Jayne.”
He looked at his instruments, and realised she’d made all the thrust adjustments for descent without him.
“Well, I think I’ll just stay here, representin’ the interests of the right-ways-up contingent,” he said. “Folks who are right ways up do tend to like to land a boat that way.”
“Fine,” she said. “Just so you know, my field of vision is perfectly sound on this angle.”
“Sure it is,” he said.
They landed by a tree in a wide green prairie, a half mile from the outskirts of a sprawling stamped-dirt town.
They were fencing salvage again. Zoe and Jayne went into town on the mule to meet the buyer, and Simon with them to look for supplies. Mal loaded up the buggy with the cargo, ready to follow them once he got Zoe’s call.
An hour and a half later, Zoe still hadn’t called.
Mal went and stood out on the prairie outside Serenity’s open hold, watching the horizon.
He hadn’t been there long when River came out to join him. She made a long series of cartwheels in a circle around him, sun flashing between her ankles as they revolved past.
Finally she stood still. “What do you think that is over there?”
It was a small complex of shanties with wire cages attached, on the edge of town. “Looks like a poultry farm,” Mal said.
“I’m going to check it out,” she said, and as quick as that, she was off.
There was nothing to do but take off after her.
He called Zoe as he went, and thanked the fates when she picked up her com. “Sir,” she said. “There was no sign of our guy at the meet. We got his address, but when we went round there, the door had been kicked in. I have a little more recon up my sleeve, but if that fails, I think this deal is blown.”
“Okay,” Mal said, panting a little, “do what you can, then come back. Uh. Me and River are going for a walk, so: don’t expect any fast backup. We’ll be back soon.”
They could see the chickens pecking in their cages, as they got closer. There was a side gate, and there was a guy inside, sweeping up.
Mal was working up his best honest burgher voice, when River shot ahead and let herself in.
“Hey!” the chicken farmer shouted. “You can’t come in here!”
River let herself inside the nearest cage, and the chickens erupted, squawking, in a white cloud.
“Sir!” Mal called, as the man went to chase River into the cage. Mal raced to block his path. “Sir! I’m sorry, my niece... she loves chickens! She ran ahead! I’m so sorry. She...” here he lowered his voice, “well, she’s kind of special.”
The man startled at something he could see over Mal’s shoulder.
The chickens had all calmed down. River was covered in feathers. She was rising serenely to her feet with a single chicken perched on her outstretched hand, staring her deep in the eye.
They came back, a little while later, and stood under the tree outside Serenity’s hold again.
Mal took a feather out of River’s hair, and gave it to her.
“I’m just saying,” he said. “I don’t know if you should have touched the chicken.”
“The chicken didn’t mind,” she said. She put the feather back in her hair.
“I know,” Mal said. “But the guy. A guy might be okay with your looking at his chicken. But that doesn’t mean he’s okay with some strange woman touching his chicken. If you know what I’m saying.”
“And god knows, I’m a very strange woman,” she said, deadpan.
“I don’t mean it like that,” he protested.
“No.” She cut him short. “But what I’m telling you is, the chicken didn’t mind.”
“Alright, I give up.” He shrugged.
“Do you want to spar?” she said.
She slapped him – lightly, but it was the shock of it. “What?” he said.
She slapped him again, on the other side of the face, then kicked him in the thigh, pulling the impact.
“I’m not going to...” he said, outraged.
“Hit a girl?” she said.
She hit him again, across the cheek, once on both sides. He tried to catch her, but she was fast as a spark on flint. “Come on,” she said. “Just with open hands. Easy.”
Three, four times to each cheek she hit him. Fending her off was like trying to catch a splash of water.
Astonishingly, she kicked him in the jaw, too soft to hurt – her control was incredible. He staggered. Then she hit him again, and danced away.
Then she kicked his knee from the side, so he stumbled.
That was when he made the extreme error of joining in.
She had flipped him onto his back, his ass, his front, his knees, and then his ass another two times, before he cried mercy.
He lay on the ground where she’d put him, panting.
She stood over him, not even pretending to have broken a sweat.
“Are you happy?” he said.
“Yeah,” she said, beaming.
“So now you’re a ray of sunshine, huh?” he said.
Then she was climbing the tree.
He staggered to his feet.
It was some soft-wooded species that grew bent over, and it smelled like antiseptic, now that River was crunching into the bark as she climbed. She loped up the arch of the trunk, hunched over like a long-limbed monkey.
He winced in anticipation but, thank all the gods he didn’t believe in, she was wearing underwear under that dress.
She was leaping from fork to fork in the canopy now, effortless, upright like a dancer.
She was maybe five feet directly above his head. And then – his stomach clenched – she dived...
And now she was hanging upside down, her inverted face not much further off the ground than his was, grinning at him manically. Gravity caught up with her dress without too much further ado, and it slithered down to her armpits. And yes, she was wearing underwear, but that didn’t mean he wanted to see...
From behind his turned back, he heard her scoff witheringly. Then some rustling sounds.
“Okay, it’s fine, you can turn around,” she said with theatrical patience.
When he did – cautiously – he saw she’d tied the flared hem of her dress in a granny knot between her legs, so it couldn’t fall down again.
“So,” she said.
“So,” he said.
“So, I think we should talk,” she said.
“You like to talk upside down?”
“Yes,” she said. “The perspective is salutary.”
“That’s a big word.”
She scowled. “I think you should let me fly the boat.”
He took a step back. “I do let you fly the boat.”
“No, I mean, really let me. Stop babysitting me.”
“Alright, so this is why, when a woman says we should talk, a man should run in the opposite direction without fail.”
“Also when you see her underwear, apparently.”
“You want me to look at your underwear?”
“Cause you’re seventeen! And your brother would...”
“Would you not belabour the point already, thank you!” The bridge of her nose was creased deeply now. “I just...” Then the focus of her eyes shifted to something past his shoulder. He turned around.
The mule had appeared as a little ball of dust on the horizon.
With a kick, River launched off the branch, flipped heartstoppingly in mid air, then landed in a crouch.
Mal’s knees ached just looking at that. “Don’t that hurt?” he demanded.
“I have hyper-conditioned patellar ligaments,” she said.
“Let’s just pretend I know what that means.”
“Alright,” she said.
She stood in something resembling military at-ease posture, hands behind her back, rocking from foot to foot slightly.
He realised he was rocking too, when he accidentally broke rhythm with her. Then he realised: she was copying his posture.
“Are you mocking me?”
“Certainly not, Sir!” she replied. Alright, now she was openly mocking him.
“I should think not,” he chided.
She smiled, and said nothing else. They stood there together, as if in a parade line, till the mule came in.
Zoe had military habits, still: she parked the mule alongside Mal and River, and got out of the pilot’s seat to report. “Sir: no luck, Sir,” she said. “There are a few moons in this system might have a prospect, though.”
River vaulted up into the pilot’s seat and fired up the hover field.
“Hell with this!” Jayne said, and jumped off, stumbling, just as the mule began to rise. “I ain’t gonna...”
That left Simon to hang on rigidly, open-mouthed, as River shot it into the hold.
Mal had to admit, she parked it exactly where it needed to be parked.
On board, Jayne followed Mal up the gangway to the bridge, ranting. “You tol’ me, we was gonna get paid now we done our bit to save the gorram universe. But you sure know how to pick your buyers, don’cha?”
Then they were through the hatch to the bridge. River was there. She jumped up out of Mal’s seat.
“So, great,” Jayne shouted. “Now Little Miss Belongs-in-the-Bughouse thinks she can pilot this thing, and run us right on into the nearest fire planet! Hell, I’d be better off tryin’ to drive this thing myself.” Now he threw himself into Mal’s seat, swivelling around on it. “Not like I know a gorram thing about pilotin’ a space ship, but hell...” He stopped.
Jayne stood up stiffly, his spine on an odd angle. “What the hell did I just sit in?” he said.
Mal peered gingerly over the seat back to inspect the damage.
It was hard to believe what he was seeing.
“What is it?” Jayne demanded.
“It looks like egg,” Mal conceded at last.
“She laid an egg?” Jayne roared. “Since when can she lay eggs? That’s some whole other new crazy thing, top of everything else!”
“Well, she’s evolving into a new species,” Mal said.
River’s face screwed up.
“I mean, a higher species,” Mal clarified. “Definitely a higher species.”
It was always amusing to see Jayne’s face when the seeds of doubt began to germinate. He stood very still, his eyebrows twitching.
“That ain’t right,” he said at last, and stalked out of the bridge.
So then it was just Mal, leaning against the side of his seat, and River, sitting in hers.
“So,” he said. “What was that about?”
“It was an egg,” she said, as if she thought he was simple.
“I can see that,” he said. “Course, most of it to see, was on Jayne’s pants.”
“Yeah,” she said. “Well. Before that, it was an egg.”
“And you were hoping... I’d sit on the egg?”
“No,” she said.
He raised his hands in apology.
“It’s an egg,” she said. “People, you know... cook them, and eat them?”
“So it was a present?”
She gave him a magnificent uh, duh face.
“And you put it on the seat because?”
“You don’t look before you sit down?”
“Well,” he said, “I guess I do now.”
Boots clanged up the gangway behind them. It was Simon, and he was out of breath. “River?”
Simon stopped short when he saw Mal. “Captain.”
“Doc,” Mal replied.
“River,” Simon said, “Jayne says you laid an egg.”
“Well,” River said brightly, “I did.”
“Okay,” Simon said. “So...”
“We need to take off now,” River said. “So you should go below.”
“Well. Okay?” Simon said. He stood there.
River smiled at him.
With his shoulders set unhappily, he turned and went.
“That wasn’t very nice,” Mal said.
“Depends what you mean.”
“Not like you to be ironical.”
“You don’t always know – what it’s like me to be.”
“No, I just mean. If I laid an egg, then I laid an egg. And it’s my egg. You know?”
“Yeah, I guess so,” Mal said. Either she was getting less crazy, or he was getting more, because he kind of did.
“Are we going?” she asked.
He made his announcement: “Attention crew. Ready for takeoff.”
They went through the takeoff sequence, she in her seat, he crouching over his.
He went to engage the thrusters, but she’d already done it. He staggered as the floor started to tilt.
“You should sit down,” she said.
“There’s egg on my seat,” he said.
“Oh yeah,” she said, as if she’d just remembered. “Well, maybe you should sit down somewhere else. Like maybe downstairs?”
“Maybe.” He laughed.
He went to open the throttle, but she’d already done it.
“Okay,” he said. “Okay.”