Written by: KMSpider
Kmspider at aol dot com
Summary: The day that celebrates freedom
"Sorry, Doc. There's worlds aplenty where you and your sis might find a high time, but the only thing this here world's got aplenty is Alliance all about. Ain't no way you and little sis can go to the Festival."
"My apologies, Captain. I had to ask."
Mal didn't miss the resigned disappointment in the boy's eyes, or the sad little twist of lips that might have passed for a smile ghostingover the boy's face like a shadow cloud as he began to turn away.
He glanced up to see Inara watching the exchange, her dark eyes flicking to his own, their intent not to be ignored. He knew that lookfrom her, and didn't like it much. 'You're the Captain, do something about this!' it near screamed.
Mal sighed, knowing that there wasn't much he could do, and turned with the young doctor, slinging an arm over the boy's shoulders as he walked out of the cargo bay, pointedly ignoring the surprised and wary look THAT garnered him. Simon didn't expect kindness out of him. Kind of made Mal twitch if he thought on it too hard.
"Maybe Shepherd Book and Kaylee can pick you up something. Carmel apples, cotton candy, balloons, or the like. Maybe a stuffed toy for River."
A tiny smile crept over Simon's face, as he stopped and faced Mal. "Thank you, Captain. That would be most kind. I'll go speak to them about it now."
Mal let him go, ignoring the fact that the smile seemed forced, and kind of painful, than glanced at Inara's disapproving stare. "What?"
Simon knew better than to speak to Kaylee about picking anything up for River and himself at the festival. He had no doubt that she would, all too willingly. He also knew it would spoil it for her. She'd spend so much time worrying about them she'd probably rush back to the ship sooner than needed. He didn't want that. He wanted her to have a day to enjoy. Opportunities like this were rare.
Simon stepped through the common area outside the infirmary and headed for his own bunk, rummaging through his luggage and pulling out a few spare coins.
He stepped back out and walked back to the Shepherd's room, seeing the door ajar.
Simon knocked lightly on the lintel, and the Shepherd look up from his book, giving him a warm smile.
Simon returned it, and took it as an invitation to step in.
"I wondered if I could ask a favor of you, Shepherd."
"Certainly, Doctor. What is it?"
Simon turned his hand to reveal his money, saying, "I was wondering if you wouldn't mind picking up a few things for River when you go to the festival today. It's not much. Just a few trinkets, maybe?"
"Of course, Simon. You're not going yourself?"
"No. The Captain doesn't recommend it. Too much Alliance."
"Do you have an idea what you want me to get?"
"Anything, really. Kaylee will be with you, so you could ask her advice. Just don't let her know, at least, not until the evening. I rather she had a fun day, not worrying about us. You know how she'll fret otherwise."
Book smiled at the young man and let the coins fall into his open palm. "I'm sure, between us, we'll find the perfect gift."
Simon gave him a radiant smile. "Thank you, Shepherd."
The Shepherd watched the young man leave, his own smile falling away, contemplating the young man. It wasn't easy for the boy, struggling with the restrictions of his new life; the loss of freedoms, the scarcity of coin, the full-time burden of caring for his tortured sister. And, not the least, having to miss the simple pleasure of spending a day walking around the Festival on Beetle in the company of a pretty girl like Kaylee.
Perhaps he could have a little talk with Kaylee later about easing Simon's burden. Book jingled the coins in his hand, then slipped them into his pocket.
Simon looked up from the book he was reading aloud, and glanced at his sister's sad face.
"No, mei mei. Sorry."
"Lots of prizes lost."
Simon looked down at the book in his hands, and slipped the bookmark between the pages, closing it.
"Maybe we could have our own fun," he suggested.
River's eyes brightened. "Lions, and tigers, and water balloons!"
Simon blinked, ideas turning over in his head, before his face broke into a huge smile. He got up off the floor, and laid the book at the end of her bed. "Stay here, mei mei. I've got a surprise," he said, giving her a kiss on the forehead before he headed to the door, shaking one finger at her. "And don't peek!"
"I'll make the prizes!"
Simon grinned at her, and headed for the cargo bay. It was near impossible to keep anything from her.
The rest of the crew had long ago left. Mal and Zoe were headed out to meet a contact, and were not expected back until very late. Inara was off meeting a client. Book and Kaylee had gone to the festival, and Jayne was either at the festival or picking up a whore for the night.
On Mal's orders, Wash was staying with the ship, and babysitting the Tams. When Zoe returned, they would go to the festival together.
It wasn't until Simon's rush through the bridge, asking to borrow Wash's dinosaurs, that Wash began to wonder just what the Tams might be doing during their downtime.
If it had been Jayne who asked for such a favor, the answer would have been a flat-out 'no', but with the doctor, Wash found himself answering 'yes' before he even thought to ask why he wanted them.
Simon politely thanked him, then scooped up the small army of plastic toys in his arms and raced back down the stairs.
Confused, Wash sat for a long minute before finding himself following the young man back from whence he came.
Coming into the cargo bay from the top stairs, Wash stopped dead in his tracks, ignoring Simon, who continued to pound his way down the steps, arms ladened with plastic toys.
The main cargo bay ramp was cracked a quarter of the way down, letting in fresh planet air, thick with the smell of animals, food, sweets, and hay. The sounds from the nearby festival filtered in like an echo of long forgotten times.
The cargo bay itself had been transformed. Crudely, but with bright splashes of colored cloth hanging from the catwalks, and strings of ribbons dangling from the metal ring they used for Hoopball. Colored paper had been cut and made into chains, draped from Jayne's workout bench to the stairs above it. The floor of the bay was covered with pastel chalk designs: pictures, circles, triangles, and hopscotch.
There was a ladder off to one side, the portable stretcher leaning against the wall, old planking stretched between them, making a series of slightly unsteady shelves.
Simon's medical rubber gloves had been blown up and were attached to a dartboard. Each finger had been tied off, so they wouldn't deflate when the palm was popped.
Another bucket held a bunch of the gloves, near to bursting full with water. Yet, another bucket held bright colored balls and cloth beanbags.
Wash watched Simon race to the impromptu shelves and lined up the dinosaurs, tying some of them to strings that hung from the catwalk above so that they dangled.
Then Simon picked up two buckets, running down toward the infirmary, then bringing them back half full, carefully marking the level of water on the inside.
"What are you doing?" Wash called down, confused.
Simon looked up, but it was River's voice that answered him as she joined her brother, carrying her own buckets. "Carnival!"
Carnival? Confused, Wash glanced toward the open cargo bay doors. "Isn't the Festival outside?"
"Day of Freedom. Glitter in the sky. Can't go outside. Too many bees," River replied, grinning. "Our party's inside."
From the look on her face, River didn't seem to mind at all.
Wash hurried down the steps, joining the siblings. "Can I play?"
If anything, River's smile got bigger, and she giggled.
Simon smiled at him too. "I don't suppose you'd have any music you could provide?"
"Yeah!" Wash enthused. Pointing a thumb over his shoulder, he said, "Just let me…"
"We'll wait," River replied. "Need more buckets."
Minutes later loud jaunty music was pouring through the ships comm system.
Simon finished lining up the liquor jugs below the catwalk, just as Wash walked back.
"What are those for?"
Simon handed him a rope with a 's' hook on the end, and joined River on the catwalk. Wash joined them as they leaned over.
"The point is to be able to hook the finger hole of the jug and lift it up. You have to move it, then lift the next. Then put them both back in their original place. First one to finish wins," Simon explained. The jugs were encircled by chalk marks on the floor, denoting their original positions.
For just a moment, Wash thought the competitive look in Simon's eye seemed frighteningly familiar. Oh, yeah. Zoe didn't like to lose either. Come to think of it, neither did Mal or Jayne.
The ropes were lowered to equal lengths and left to dangle a moment until they stopped swinging.
"Go!" Simon called out, rope slipping through slim doctor fingers until the 's' was level with the finger handle and he tried to hook it.
The others weren't slow to follow his example.
Minutes later, Wash gave the rope a good yank and his jug left the floor first. "Yes!"
"Now move the other one. Than back."
Wash followed instructions, finishing with: "I won. I won!"
"Rats!" Simon replied, laughing.
River let go her rope, and reached into her pocket, pulling out a pin and a handmade blue ribbon. Quickly she wrote, 'jug lifting' on the ribbon and pinned it to Wash's shirt.
Proudly Wash pushed out his chest. "First Place."
Grinning, Simon grabbed River's hand, tugging her along, even as she scooped up Wash's hand and pulled him along. "Come on, time for darts!"
After a vigorous game of Hopscotch (which River won), which followed the darts (which Simon won—five points per palm, ten for fingers, twenty for thumbs; three darts each), River announced it was time for the bucket races.
"Bucket races?" Wash asked.
Simon had shucked his shirt, and was sitting on the cargo bay floor removing his shoes and socks, and rolling up his pant legs. River was already in one of Kaylee's hand-me-down dresses, and almost never wore shoes.
"The object is to stick your feet into the buckets, go as fast as you can around Jayne's workout bench and the stairs, pass outside the yellow pole, and slop as little water as possible. Points for speed, and water retention."
River already had her feet in her buckets, and was impatiently bouncing up and down. Amazingly, she created waves, but spilled no water.
Wash plopped to the floor next to Simon and pulled off his shoes and socks.
Once the boys were ready, Simon called out 'Go' and they raced off. Both being taller than River, the boys had lengthier strides, dragging the buckets across the floor with their feet, but as they laughed and struggled around the first turn, pushing each other out of the way, they both ended up on their butts. Simon managed to keep most of the water in his buckets, but one of Wash's overturned. River blithely sailed by them, squealing in delight as she eluded their grasping hands, and cleared the finish line. Both men were soaked, but laughing too hard to care. Simon finished second.
Still laughing, Wash hardly objected when his precious dinosaurs were used as targets for beanbags. River won, even managing to hit one of the swinging dinosaurs and knocking one off the shelf with one beanbag.
Next was 'laundry clips dropped into a bucket', from the highest catwalk. Wash was the winner, having managed one that didn't bounce out, and got another shiny new blue ribbon to add to the collection pinned to his shirt.
Simon was first to be disqualified from the three-way water balloon toss when the water-filled medical glove burst in his hands as he caught it. Considering he was already soaked, and still wearing just his tee-shirt and rolled up pants, he didn't complain too much. River won when her water glove burst in mid-air, having clipped a catwalk, and soaked Wash on its way down. Wet hair plastered to his head, he gladly pinned the blue ribbon against her sweater.
And again, River won the ball toss through the spinning Hoopball ring.
It wasn't until the last competition that things got truly intense.
It was decided that the person with the most wins (River) would be the target. She would race back and forth on the mid-level catwalks while the boys tossed water balloon gloves at her. All the while, they had to be moving about the cargo bay floor on two of the large wooden spools that were empty (the kind that were made to roll up large coils of wire). In addition to trying to hit River, they also had to try to dislodge each other, and throw off the other's aim. The bucket of refill gloves were to be kept on the stairs by the workout bench, so the boys had to keep going back for more. Meanwhile, River was allowed to toss water gloves down on them.
It was in the middle of all this excitement that Mal and Zoe returned. No one noticed their return until the cargo bay ramp hit the ground and dimming twilight flooded in from outside.
Simon and Wash looked up, surprised to see the Captain and his first mate standing under the catwalk, thumbs hooked into their gun belts, heads tilted identically to one side, staring at them.
"Care to explain this, husband?" said Zoe's cool, dry voice.
Simon and Wash instantly released the grip they had on each other's shirts, nearly falling off their perch, water gloves slipping out of their hands to crash and splash on the Captain and Zoe's boots.
"Ooops," Wash mumbled, before slapping a smile on his face, feigning ignorance of all current events, even though he was still perched atop a moving spool. "Hi, Lambytoes. Have a good meet and greet?"
Mal's eye twitched and he reached up a finger to rub at it. "Wash, what the hell happened to my cargo bay? Are the two of you drunk?" Mal had never seen Simon so… relaxed… or so… shoeless.
Mal's voice sounded calm. That was a good sign, wasn't it?
Before either pilot or doctor had the chance to answer, a sweet voice was heard from above. "Bombs away!"
Simon's eyes widened in horror. "River, no!"
Too late. Four water balloon gloves were crushed into the grating below River's feet, bursting above their heads, soaking both members of the command crew.
Hands flying to his mouth to stifle his gasp, and to hide a look that hovered somewhere between horror and laughter, Simon was grateful that neither the Captain nor Zoe drew their weapons and shot them all on the spot.
Wash, on the other hand, didn't help matters at all. He burst into a fit of giggles and fell off his perch.
Of course, it was at that moment that Kaylee and the Preacher choose to come back to the ship. They'd brought toys, prizes, sandwiches, and the largest peach pie that anyone had ever seen before. Jayne was right behind them.
Head bend down, face hidden under his cowboy hat, and not noticing his soaking crewmates, or the decorated cargo bay, Jayne brushed by all of them, and headed for his bunk. At least that was his intention -- until a water glove hit him square on the back, soaking his shirt. His stride across the bay stopped dead, and he turned slowly, with a certain… feral grace. Simon winched, and gulped loudly. From the catwalk above, River waved sweetly at Jayne.
Wash laughed harder, and even Mal's lips twitched.
Jayne rushed toward the stairs, bent on revenge, until Simon leaped from his spool, and grabbed the back of his shirt, dragging the mercenary to a halt.
"Leggo, Doc. I'm gonna kill her!"
"No, Jayne! You have to use these!"
Jayne looked down as the young doctor pushed three water filled medical gloves into his hands. One caught a sharp corner on his belt buckle and soaked the front of his pants instantly.
Jayne scowled at him, then ignored Simon's open-mouthed shocked stare of surprise, and took one of the balloons and crushed it over Simon's head, making him wet from head to toe. Well… wetter, if that were possible.
While Simon blinked the water out of his eyes, Jayne suddenly burst into laughter, anger suddenly gone, scooping his own cowboy hat off his head and plopping it down on the young doctor's. He hefted the last balloon in his meaty hands, yelling up to the catwalks. "You better run, little girl. I'm gonna get you fer sure."
River shrieked with laughter and raced to the far end of the catwalk, ducking when Jayne's balloon sailed past her and shattered against the wall, soaking the dinosaurs below.
Another balloon sailed down from above, hitting the laughing pilot, making his paper ribbons droop against his shirt. He only laughed harder.
Mal turned to Zoe. "Your husband's gone plumb insane. And I think he's taken the Tams with him."
"You may not be wrong, Sir," she replied, just as seriously, staring down at the laughing creature, trying not to laugh with him despite her own sodden state.
It didn't take long for Jayne to find the last of the water gloves, Simon keeping him supplied, pelting one after another at River as she raced back and forth along the catwalk, nearly doubled over with laughter. He only got her good once, but it was enough to soak her from the left shoulder down.
One of Jayne's missed tosses even cleared the catwalk completely and headed for the Preacher and Kaylee. Book saw it coming, though, and tugged the young girl aside so that the water splashed harmlessly outside.
Book and Kaylee joined Mal and Zoe, watching their crazy crewmates. "I got pie, Captain! We get the job?" Kaylee asked.
Mal held up a slip of paper. "We got the job." Then he put an arm around Kaylee's shoulders and kissed her on the head, ignoring her surprised squeal when he soaked her with his wet clothes.
Jayne was down to his last water glove when he slipped on a puddle, sliding across the floor, cutting Simon's knees out from under him in the process, bringing him crashing down on Jayne, breaking the balloon over both of them. Instead of bellowing at the doctor as he usually would, he scooped the young man into his arms and started tickling him. The doctor wiggled and squealed, but couldn't get away. Jayne wouldn't let go, even when two balloons landed square on his back, courtesy of River. Instead, it took Wash barreling into him from the side to knock the two loose. The three tumbled over and over in a mess of limbs, laughing and wrestling, before they finally came up for air.
"Damn, Kaylee!" Jayne yelled at the mechanic, "You'd better feed the doc some of that pie soon. Fatten him up. He's too darn skinny. Purt near cut myself on his ribs!"
Simon lay sprawled on the floor, clothes wet and streaked with moist chalk dust, breathing hard, body still shaking with the occasional giggle. He levered himself up onto his elbows and did his best Jayne imitation. "Feed me, woman!" he bellowed.
Of course, the fact that he couldn't sustain it and fell into another fit of laughter didn't help him sell it any better.
"I'd best go get the plates," intoned the Preacher, with mock severity, unable to keep the twinkle out of his own eyes. He headed up the stairs to the galley, passing River on her way down.
River joined Kaylee, leaning over to sniff the pie. "Umm."
Kaylee was grinning to beat the band. "Let's go set up a place to eat, sweetie," she said to River, heading to the lowest stair landing and putting down the pie.
Mal glanced at Zoe, then back at his crew. "You're all gonna clean up this mess first, RIGHT?"
"I didn't make it," Jayne complained, which Mal choose to ignore.
Wash and Simon sat up and exchanged glances, before each giving him the sloppiest salute he'd ever seen, and grinned. Mal rolled his eyes at them. Before the Preacher returned, both of them were dancing across the cargo bay with mops in their arms to the music that still blared from the speakers.
Kaylee and River were sitting side by side on the stairs going through the bag of goodies that Kaylee and Book had brought back.
Mal had left to change his clothes, as had Jayne. Zoe sat on the other set of stairs apart from the girls, a fond smile on her face as she watched her husband clown through the chores with Simon, singing made-up, off-key, off-colored lyrics to the music.
Book came down the stairs and joined her, setting down the plates, a smile gracing his own lips. Beside the plates he placed a bottle of Kaylee's engine wine and some glasses.
"I was afraid that today would be one of those painful learning days for both Simon and River. The restrictions of their situation can seem fairly harsh when everyone around you is allowed the freedom to enjoy themselves."
Zoe's warm brown eyes glanced over at him, than back to her husband, unable to stop smiling. "Seems they found a way to amuse themselves."
"And it would appear that your husband was of assistance in the matter."
"No sure how much of this was Wash. He don't usually take up play when we're off the ship."
"Kind of reminds you just how young Simon really is."
Now she did meet and hold his gaze, her smile dimming slightly. She looked over her shoulder at the girls going through the prizes behind her, than back at Book. "He plays older than he is, but he don't have that many years on River or Kaylee."
"I'd guess… five years?"
"That'd only make him about twenty-three, twenty-five? Still wet behind the ears." Zoe looked over and gave the young man an appraising look.
"Got that right," said a voice behind them. They looked up to see the Captain sitting down behind them. "Them boys done yet? Could do with some pie." Mal was smiling, and reached to pour himself a glass of wine.
Jayne came down the stairs, stopping halfway to assess the games that the Tams and Wash had invented. Suddenly his eyes brightened. "Little Man, you let them throw stuff at the dinosaurs?"
"Sure did, Jayne. But you'd have to beat River to win!"
"Hot damn. Wouldn't mind taking out a few of them my own self."
"Take a shot, Big Guy."
"No touching guns!" River called to him, as she jumped up from her seat and tugged Kaylee's hand. She scooped up beanbags on the way, handing three to Kaylee, and keeping three for herself, before she skidded to a halt next to the mercenary.
"Wasn't gonna shoot them, little girl."
"Best not," Kaylee advised. "You'll make Wash cry."
"He will at that," Wash sang to the tune over the intercom.
Hours later, the pie demolished, and the wine, all but a trickle at the bottom of the bottle, the crew settled on the end of the lowered ramp, watching fireworks explode into huge colored shapes in the skies above The Beetle Festival.
In front, Kaylee leaned against Simon, who was rumpled, cheeks still smudged with chalk, but finally dry. Jayne had gotten out Kaylee's lawn chair, and River was using his legs as a backrest. Wash and Zoe curled into each other's arms, while Shepherd Book stood behind them, spending more time watching the group, than watching the display. Inara had returned just before dark, and she and the Captain sat shoulder to shoulder, sharing a corner of the doorway, paper cups still holding a sip of wine.
"Did you make it to the Festival?" Inara asked him quietly.
"Didn't have to. Had our own party right here. I'm thinking of promoting the Doc to Entertainment Director."
Simon glanced over his shoulder, and shot the Captain a grin, before returning his attention to Kaylee's brightly lit face, illuminated by colored flashes.
"The fireworks are above you, Doc," Mal called out, eliciting grins and giggles from the group, as Simon blushed, and then got poked in the side by Kaylee, before he threw an arm around her shoulders.
Mal got poked, too. He looked down into Inara's beautiful face.
"Leave them be," she scolded him.
She merely raised an eyebrow at him and he shut up right quick. She smiled in return. Didn't hurt to let the woman think she'd won once in a while. Mal toasted his cup of wine in her direction and together they downed the last of it.
"Wish you'd made it back sooner," Mal commented.
"Oh? Why's that?"
"Would have loved to see you in the bucket races."
"Hush. You'll miss the fireworks."
"Oh, I think we got fireworks aplenty, right here," said the Shepherd in a low voice.
Giggles erupted again, and it was Mal's turn to blush.
"Don't you have some praying to do, Preacher?"
"Why, thank you, Captain. I think I will."
Book talked right over him. "I'd like to thank the Lord for today. For showing us how to grasp joy from the jaws of despair. For giving us the pleasure of each other's company. And for keeping us all safe."
"Amen," the others echoed.
"Ah, I'll let you sneak that one by me, Preacher. Make sure you thank him for providing us with new and exciting crime, too."
Book rolled his eyes at the Captain's antics, and Inara poked him again.
"Watch that finger, Woman! I'm starting to bruise there."
"Maybe if you'd behave yourself, Capt'," Kaylee called back at him.
"What'd be the fun of that?"
"Incoming!" came River's voice sang out.
A second later, the last of water-filled gloves exploded against Mal's crossed knees.
Inara yelped and rolled away, laughing.
"Girl! You just wait! There's a septic vac chore with your name all over it!" he grumped as he brushed excess water off his clothes. He looked up to see his entire crew staring at him. Even Jayne was giving him the evil eye. "What?"
Collapsing under the pressure, he raised his cup in the air. "Here's to freedom. Long may its breezes fill our sails."
Like magic the scowls disappeared, and voices raised in agreement. "Here, here."
A hand reached down, and Inara helped him to his feet. She raised her own cup. "And here's to our Captain, the only man with enough wind to fill those sails even on a becalmed sea."
"Did you just call me…?"
"Shut up and drink, Mal."
"Aye aye, Captain!"