River found herself, as she so often did, sitting in the cockpit in the middle of the night, enjoying the comforting sight of the stars and the peace of dreaming minds.
Except one. Mal was awake in his room, laying out a plan in his mind for their next job and thinking that he was getting a mite hungry. Sure enough, moments later, River heard the telltale sound of his hatch opening. He headed toward the kitchen, and when he returned a few minutes later, he came to the bridge instead of his room.
"Thought you were in here," he said, sitting in his chair with his snack in hand. Then he noticed the bundle in her lap and dropped his voice to a whisper. "How'd you get babysittin' duty at this hour?"
River smiled down at her sleeping little niece. "I volunteered. She wouldn't stop screaming and Kaylee was very tired."
"I find it right amusin' how that baby shuts up every time you hold her."
River grinned. She smoothed her finger over the soft, soft hair on Ren's head. Simon and Kaylee had named their daughter Serenity—because of everything Serenity meant to both of them—but little Serenity River Tam hadn't been but a day old when Mal declared the name "too big for such a teeny girl" and took to calling her Ren. It stuck. "I love being with her," River confessed to Mal. "She's so quiet."
"Darlin', you got a boatful of people who'd take exception to that."
River laughed. "I mean in her mind. I don't mind her crying—her mind is so quiet. So simple."
The past few months had been good to the crew of Serenity. They left the Core, choosing to stay more toward the Outer Rim, and with no one chasing after River—aside from the occasional rabid reporter trying and failing to get interviews—it was easier to carry out what work they could get.
"You know what today is?" River asked, pulling her eyes off of Ren to look at Mal.
Mal frowned slightly. "Ren's a month old today, ain't she?"
"Yes. But it's also been two years since I woke up on Serenity."
"Has it, now? Well, ain't that somethin'." Mal smiled. "And still sailin'."
"I never thanked you. In the two years I've been here, I've never thanked you." Ren started to stir in River's arms, her simple, forming mind waking up, and River sensed hunger. In a minute she'd likely be screaming at the top of her lungs for Kaylee.
"You don't gotta thank me, River," Mal said quietly.
"I want to. Back on Osiris, you told me I was a survivor, but so are you. My presence here didn't make it easy for you to survive." River's memories on her early life on Serenity were still there, but mixed so much with the instability of her mind at the time that it seemed almost like a dream at parts. But she understood. She had done some very crazy things that would have made most, if not all, captains throw her off the first week.
Mal hadn't. If not for that, River knew that she would be dead, or worse. She wanted to say all that, but her emotions were so strong right now that she wasn't sure she'd get it out clearly, and she wanted to be perfectly clear.
And Ren was starting to make noise. River stood to her feet, carefully cradling the baby in the crook of one arm, and walked over to Mal. She leaned over and kissed him on the forehead. "Thank you."
Mal took her free hand and squeezed it. "It wouldn't be the same without you, my little albatross." Ren's piercing wail cut the air, and Mal winced.
"She wants her mommy," River said.
"Best get her there, then. And get some sleep sometime tonight—we'll be landin' on New Hall tomorrow morn for our job and I'm gonna need you on the ball."
River headed out of the cockpit. "I always am." She stopped outside Simon and Kaylee's hatch and banged on it with one fist, though she already sensed Kaylee coming to the door, no doubt having heard Ren screaming.
"This is your home, Ren," River whispered to the screeching baby. "It's a good home, with good people. You'll see."
From the room behind and below her, she heard Jayne bellow, "Would somebody shut that baby up?"
As Kaylee opened the hatch, River looked down at Ren and amended, "Well, mostly good people."
Hope you enjoyed reading it—I had fun writing it, and am having more fun writing the next one. :)