"Can you watch River?"
Simon was always asking the captain this question. He'd be off with Kaylee for a date or to buy supplies, and he didn't trust his mei mei to behave while he was gone. Jayne wasn't fit to watch a cat, let alone an entire person. Zoe might have been a good choice, but the one time they tried it River politely demanded that the captain stay with her instead.
It wasn't babysitting. No, River was an eighteen year old pilot with plenty of stability. The problem was River's high spirits and high rewards on her arrest warrants. When it was suggested that the Tams weren't a threat anymore, the Alliance doubled the price just to get back at the people who weakened their regime. River found it amusing. The thrill was enough to make her skip away from the ship, seeking a bit of fun. After she returned with a few bruises and a news report about a scuffle in a town square, she was no longer allowed to be alone on the ship. Ever.
Mal didn't mind keeping his albatross company. Actually, he enjoyed spending time with her. This time, everyone else was off to buy things for the ship. He agreed to watch her, but soon after his exhaustion from another sleepless night took its toll. A nap was needed, so he told River in his best captain voice, "Don't do anything stupid." She promised that she wouldn't and the captain retreated to his bunk. After being asleep for around an hour, he suddenly felt a wave of cool air wash over him. He sat up and gaped in disbelief.
His extra clothes, coat, blankets, and even sheets had disappeared. There was only one way someone could have gotten his sheets while he was still sleeping: extraordinary grace. He cursed in Chinese, bounding up his ladder. "River!"
He searched the bridge and other bunks, noting that they had also been ransacked. He tried the kitchen and engine room, but she wasn't there. Once he got onto the steps and went towards the passenger dorms, he stopped and stared at the sight before him.
The infirmary, passenger dorms, hallway, sitting area, and part of the cargo bay had been covered by sheets, blankets, clothes, Kaylee's hammock, and even Jayne's ugly orange hat. River's face popped out of a seam between Mal's coat and Jayne's trousers. She blinked her eyes innocently. "Captain."
"Wanted to build a fort," she explained breezily. "The Fort of Albatross Bay."
He folded his arms. "You stole every piece of fabric in here to build this and you didn't ask."
"Hypocrite. You never ask before you steal."
She had a point. He wasn't giving up the argument just yet. "I told you not to do anything stupid."
"Yes, but you didn't mention anything about thievery. Sneaking about takes cunning and skill. Definitely not stupid."
Why was he even bothering? She was a genius, a mind reading genius, and she would always win. "Tear it down," he ordered. "And then put it all back where you found it. I don't want your brother finding out I let you do this."
"Didn't let me," she laughed. "I cannot dissemble the fort."
"Studying architecture with textiles and magnetic support configurations to determine how density and thread count effect the duration and capability of a stable infrastructure."
He rubbed his forehead. "Okay, so this is an experiment?"
"Precisely. Wanted to see if there could be a village of garment huts."
"Does it matter?"
"Yes. Very much," she went back inside, shouting, "Captain can't come into the Fort of Albatross Bay. Entry strictly forbidden."
She had vanished in the village of garment huts, and he was frozen on the steps. Part of him was irritated with her for building and refusing to demolish the fort. Another part of him was confused as to why it was such an important investigation in that whimsical brainpan of hers. But, the part that really got to him was that he had been denied access.
He went down to the seam between his coat and Jayne's trousers, raising a fist to knock. Obviously, such a thing was problematic, so he cleared his throat. "River."
Her head poked through, inches from his face. "Yes, Captain?"
"You won't let me come inside."
"What'd I do?"
"It's for members of the Albatross Republic only."
He scratched his head. "The what?"
"Albatross Republic. People who have been granted passage by the Albatross herself."
"That's you," he pointed, attempting to figure it out. "So…I haven't been granted…"
"Back to the what in ruttin' hell did I do to not get in part. What in ruttin' hell did I do?"
She smiled at him, laughing. "Need the stamp to enter."
Stamp? What stamp? Before he could do anything, she leaned on her toes and kissed his cheek. Without a word, she stood back and opened the coat-door. He smiled and wandered inside, avoiding questions in case she'd toss him out on the spot.
It was pretty gorram neat, he had to admit. It was like being in a big, colorful tent. She had thrown pillows on the floor and left out her notepad and pencils. Apparently, she had been lying on the floor and drawing.
"This is…something…" he commented with a small smile.
"I am aware," she nodded, going back to her drawing. She patted the spot next to her. "Must do as the Albatross says."
He sat down and she handed him a pencil and piece of paper. "Draw."
"You can. Just aren't good."
"Hey," he pouted, "that's not a nice thing to say."
She smirked impishly. "You thought it."
They sat in the fort, drawing like two school children. He was actually enjoying himself and the interesting thought processes of River Tam. Curiosity got the best of him, so he asked her. "You weren't gonna let me in?"
"Had to exclude you to make you want entry. Reverse psychology. Needed you here in the first place."
His brow furrowed. "Needed me?"
"It's our fort."
She smiled at him and continued drawing. He thought about it and smiled himself. As she swung her feet, drawing on the floor, he spread out beside her and stared at the ceiling of vests, rugs, and suspenders. She always won.
"Can anybody else come in?" he questioned. "When they get back?"
"The Albatross Republic is population two. Me and you."
He grinned, resting peacefully on a lump of pillows. She failed to mention that the stamp was an imprint of her lips on his cheek, but they'd deal with Simon later. He wasn't allowed in the fort, and if they had their way the fort wasn't going anywhere anytime soon.
For Julia Rose.