The Mule was prepped and ready to go. The goods were stacked safely and securely, as much as a nod to their value as to Mal's erratic driving. Everyone else was ready and waiting, getting more irritated by the second as they watched Simon chase his sister around the cargo bay.
"River!" He called again.
"No!" she yelled, stamping her foot like an errant child. "Won't."
He held up his hands. "Please mei-mei, everyone is waiting to go."
"And getting mighty i-rate," Jayne added, shifting in his seat. "I done told you we shouldn't take her."
"And leave her on the ship?" Zoë raised an eyebrow. "After last time?"
Jayne shuddered at the memory of returning home after a heist to find that River had discovered a hitherto undiscovered ability to override all locks and had escaped her quarters to redecorate the others. It had taken them hours to dismantle the Eiffel Tower made of food tins that she'd painstakingly created in the kitchen, even longer to realize that they had no idea what was in the label-stripped cans.
Dinner had been interesting since.
Thankfully she'd only got as far as hiding one of Wash's dinosaurs in each of their rooms, before she'd been contained.
Jayne sunk down in his seat. "Jus'think the Doc oughtta be able to handle his crazy sister is all."
"Oh I think she knows who's in charge," Mal said fondly with a hint of impatience. He'd seen how River would slow just enough to let Simon near enough to catch her before she'd dart out of the way, like a game in which she didn't want him to give up hope.
It had been cute. Twenty minutes ago.
"Doc!" Mal warned.
Simon knew that tone: it meant that the captain was losing patience.
"River, you have to put your shoes on!" He held up the objects.
"No. They're ugly!" River pouted and danced away, her bare feet pattering on the cargo deck floor.
"The planet will be dirty," Simon wheedled, "You don't want to get your pretty feet dirty do you?"
River gave him her best 'you-do-know-you're-an-idiot-right?' look.
"Maybe I should stay," he offered.
"We could all stay," Kaylee tried, making Simon smile in appreciation. She'd only be walking into town anyhow, what with the Mule only seating four and if Simon wasn't going, well she didn't want to walk alone.
"We could play in the infirmary," River said and looked directly at Mal's mercenary. "We could dissect Jayne."
Mal and Zoë both choked back a laugh at the way all the blood drained from the tough man's face.
"No-one's staying," Mal said firmly, "And you, stop scaring my hired gun," River pouted, "and put your gorram shoes on."
"She doesn't like them," River said, "They're hot and heavy and make her feet sore. She can't dance in them, can't feel the earth or Serenity."
In dancing away from Simon she'd gotten close to the Mule and was unprepared for Mal's sudden lunge. He grabbed her by the waist and hauled her into his arms.
River wiggled but Mal wasn't letting his iron grip go. No matter what effect her soft, warm body was having on him as she writhed in his lap.
"Now listen to me, lil witch. You s'pose to be some kind of gorram genius, right?"
"Yes." Her huge doe eyes almost made him forget what he was saying as they stared up at him. Really it wasn't right that such a young girl had such pretty eyes.
Mal turned his thoughts back to the matter at hand. "So what's this planet like?"
River stopped wriggling as she pondered and Mal felt a sigh of relief as she stopped pressing against him so hard.
"Linus, fourth moon of New Mars. Mid-border planet, main trade in grain and livestock. 4,321 deaths since inception." She tilted her head momentarily and corrected herself with a sinister grin. "4,322. Over 1,000 due to mutated strain of Measles in 2502. Terrain-virtually no grass lands, intense heat and humidity lends to rocky soil conditions. 49 inns, hotels, public houses and bars. Local intoxication levels high."
There was a brief pause during which Jayne edged away and Mal closed his jaw.
"R-ight. High levels of drunks and no grass. In my experience drunks ain't exactly graceful or sane and peaceful. We can pretty much book on lots of broken glass. You see them being all public minded and sweeping it up for tourists?"
"No Alliance level sweepers," River said, her hands creeping down to play with his holster. "Glass stays broken."
"What happens if delicate feet step on the glass?" He slapped her fingers away from his gun.
"Slice, dice, Rivers of blood. Sore dancing feet."
"So you want to have them feet bandaged up? You not being able to dance and all?"
River considered. "No."
Mal held his hand out for the combat boots and looked them over when Simon handed them to him. "You're right. They're ugly. I'll give Kaylee some cashy money and you can get some ribbon and lace and whatever gos-se ladies need to prettify themselves. But only if you wear'em, ain't wasting good coin iffin you ain't gonna wear'em, dong ma?"
River nodded her face beaming as she put them on her feet.
"Good girl." He kissed the top of her head, and handed her into the back of the Mule next to Jayne.
Simon gaped as she settled obediently in the seat and laced up the hated boots.
He gave Mal a considering look. "You ever thought of having children?"
Mal glanced over his shoulder to where River edged closer and closer to Jayne, who was all but falling out of the Mule.
"Mal, tell'er to stop."
"Can I dissect Jayne, Simon?" River asked in a sing-song voice. "Ape-topsy."
"Mal, make her stop." Her words sank in. "Hey, who're you callin' Ape?"
"If the mammalian classification fits..."
Mal rolled his eyes. "Who needs kids?"
But as he pulled away with their voices echoing behind him he had a vision of a little boy with tousled brown hair and big brown doe-eyes.