Author: Jedi Buttercup
Summary: Roads ain't never as straightforward as they look. 750 words.
Disclaimer: The words are mine; the worlds are not. I claim nothing but the plot.
Prompt: For the "Back to Firefly" challenge, prompt #101 "Mal, River: ROAD"
Notes: Set after "Serenity" (2005). The title, and some of River's words in the story, have been borrowed from J.R.R. Tolkien by way of Bilbo Baggins; they just seemed to fit.
Funnily enough, jobs had grown easier to find after Miranda, not harder. Part of that was due to the Operative, not that Mal was much inclined to thank him for it; the man had kept his word, cleared their records and called off the search for River. With Alliance presence in the Burnham quadrant down to barrel scrapings after their battle with the Reavers, folk were skittish; they looked to have other people do more of the fetching and carrying they would once have done themselves. Lost cargo might be an inconvenience, but lost lives were irreplaceable.
Upside was, crew was eating better than they had in months, and Kaylee was near to pleased with Serenity's state of repair, a thing that had rarely happened since Bester brought her aboard. They were flush enough he'd even put out a 'wave for a new pilot; 'tween him and Zoë and River they'd been able to keep Serenity in the air since they'd buried Wash, but couldn't none of them do fancy maneuverings 'cept River and even her, not reliable-like. Besides, it were a waste of her talents to tie her to that chair when she could be out on jobs.
Most days, anyhow.
Mal sighed and stepped back onto the ship's cargo ramp, ignoring Jayne's impatient cursing, Inara's worried looks, and Simon's patient coaxing in the background. River wasn't paying 'em any mind, either; she was staring intently at the packed, dusty earth at the end of the ramp, prodding it carefully with one graceful, bare toe. The rest of her remained firmly on ship's territory, and he couldn't have that. Not when she was meant to vet the new pilot candidates for him.
"Mean to tell me what's so fascinating 'bout that dirt, little albatross?" he asked.
She blinked slowly as she looked up at him, old woman's eyes in a young girl's face. Hard to believe she'd just turned eighteen; some days she seemed older than he was, and some days hardly more than a child. She had the elliptical speech patterns common to the ends of the age spectrum, too; Mal'd got used to puzzling a meaning out of the strange things that tripped off her tongue, but often as not even he couldn't make head nor tail of it.
"It's a dangerous business," was her answer today, a thoughtful frown tugging at the corners of her mouth as she glanced up at him.
"What's dangerous, sweetheart?" he asked, absently patting the gun at his hip. There weren't supposed to be anything hinky 'bout their contact in this town, but then again, as Jayne might say, what Mal planned and what took place were seldom all that similar.
"Going out of your door," she said softly, turning her gaze outward, following the path from the landing area to the edge of town. "No knowing where you might be swept off to."
Mal took a deep breath, then let it out again, scratching at his forehead. Why the girl had picked today to spook over the nature of roads, he couldn't feel to speculate; maybe the prospect of acquiring new crew had her musing in her River way about the nature of beginnings. Regardless, this most definitely weren't the time for it.
"I'd have to agree with you there," he said, slowly. "This weren't exactly the life I had in mind when I followed that recruiter all them years ago. Roads ain't never as straightforward as they look. There anything in particular to worry 'bout with this one, though?"
She smiled suddenly, an uncomplicated joy lighting up her features, and shook her head at him. "Not this time, Captain. An old friend fallen on hard times awaits; he'll be glad to see Jayne and Inara. Can't tell you who it is, though."
"And why's that, I wonder?" Mal asked, raising his eyebrows.
"He wants it to be a surprise," she said, in a matter-of-fact tone, then returned her gaze to the dirt at her feet. She traced a line from side to side with one toe, then finally stepped over it, skipping gaily to her brother's side.
"Of course he does," Mal muttered resignedly, shaking his head as he rejoined his crew. Wouldn't hardly be a proper day in his 'verse without some unexpectedness to it.
He hummed one of his mother's old walking songs under his breath as the five of them headed into town, and smiled to himself when another voice began to hum along with him.