It wasn't the primary buffer panel this time, or even the secondary, just a bit of loose plating, but it took some time, and Kaylee as well as River, to get this through Captain's head he was so busy ranting.
Eventually he simmered down, settled back into the pilot's chair and started fiddling with one of Wash's dinosaurs, an anatosaurus painted in improbable colors. River eyed him sidelong. He had something to say and so did she. Something he wasn't going to like, might even refuse to believe.
"Had a word with our friend before we left," Captain began abruptly, eyes still on the anatosaurus, "Said he'd done his best to convince those above him to leave us be but wasn't at all sanguine about them taking his advice. Like they'll still be after you, lil' girl, if for other reasons."
"No," River was as sure of that as she'd ever been of anything. "I don't matter to them anymore. It's not me they'll come after now. It's you."
Captain looked at her, startled. "Not likely, sweetheart. You're their precious living weapon."
"You are the man who told the 'Verse about Miranda," she answered flatly, eyes on the Black outside the ports. "You are the man who brought the Reavers down on Alliance ships, who bested their top operative."
"And had a good bit of help in doing all those things," he reminded her.
She nodded. "Yes. You have Zoe and Jayne and me, all dangerous in our various ways. But you are the captain. You make the plans, you give the orders."
That got a snort of laughter. "And when was the last time anybody on this boat did as I told 'em?"
"Miranda." The word struck him silent. River turned to face him at last, reading resistance - and the beginning of belief.
"You went to Miranda and we followed. You asked more of us and we gave it. You bind people to you Malcolm Reynolds and you change them. Simon and I, Jayne and Inara, even Kaylee. We're all different from what we were when we first came aboard Serenity. We can never leave her now, or you."
"I - uh," Captain floundered. "Oh hells, Darlin'-"
"I know," she said gently. "I know you don't want the responsibility - I wouldn't either - but you can't stop being what you are any more than I can." Her lip trembled suddenly. "I'm a living weapon, Captain, I need somebody to point me in the right direction, somebody I can trust. And that is you."
His face changed and so did his sense, suddenly it was all spiky purple. He was angry, but not with her. "That'll be enough of that, young lady! You ain't a weapon or any other kind of thing. You're a girl with some special and dangerous talents I grant but no less of a person for it. I promised you a home on Serenity as long as you wanted it and I hold by that. And if you feel a need of guidance, why I'll do the best by you I can. You got that?"
"Yes, sir," she answered meekly, but flooded with warm blue feelings. "I'm sorry. Sometimes I think like Them, I have to stop that."
"You do indeed," he agreed, calming.
There was a short silence as both thought their own thoughts.
Then: "So you think the Alliance will be coming after me for vengeance do you, lil' Albatross?"
River shook her head. "Not vengeance. Fear. Fear of what you might do next."
Captain snorted at that. "Oh yeah, I'm a big threat I am on my little, bitty boat!"
"You can have more then this boat any time you like and They know it, Captain." River continued, almost pleadingly, "I know you don't want to think about it but you are a born leader and one of the most brilliant planners I've ever heard of much less seen - for all your bad luck." He opened his mouth but she pushed on over whatever he might find to say. "Please, Captain! You can't pretend any more. The enemy knows you for what you are, you must admit it to yourself!"
It was Captain's turn to stare out the ports, breathing hard as he struggled past years of denial and blocks almost as strong as the defenses River herself had put up against Miranda.
"You're dead right about responsibility, lil' girl." he said at last. "I led enough men to bloody death. No more." He closed his eyes tightly for a moment, then turned to River. "All I want is to go my own way with nobody telling me and mine what we should and shouldn't do, nor what to think."
He blurred as her eyes filled with tears. "They'll never let us, Captain, never in a million years."
Slowly, heavily, he nodded. "That is very true. So what you're saying, Darlin', is we got no choice but to fight a war."
"We can't let them get away with it, Captain, we just can't."
She watched him force himself to relax, leaning back in Wash's chair, still idly twirling the model anatosaurus.
"Guess we can't at that," he said at long last. "Well, well. It's not as if I got any other pressing engagements, now is it?"
It was all said and settled. They both went back to looking out into the Black.
Captain's mind was busy. Not planning - not yet - but counting up his losses, all the many, many reasons he had not to walk away.
'I start fighting a war, I guarantee you'll see something new.'
The whole 'Verse was going to see something new. It was going to see Malcolm Reynolds at war. And it was going to see River Tam right at his side. The Alliance had made her what she was. It had made Captain too.
It would regret it.
Oh, how It would regret it!