"Christmas is in exactly seven days, three hours, twenty-six minutes, forty-five seconds, and ten milliseconds…" River informed the crew at dinner.
Jayne stared at the psychic strangely. "How'd you know? We can't figure days when we're this far in space."
She gave him a typical River look and stuck out her tongue. "Girl knows things."
"Why are you tellin' us about this, darlin'? Not much we can do about it," Mal shrugged as he dug into the bread basket. "Like Jayne said, we're far in space. Corner of no and where."
"Only two days from a moon. Can make a stop," River argued.
"I'd love to celebrate! It'd be real shiny to have an actual Christmas. We need it after the year we've had," Kaylee agreed, shrinking into Simon's side when Mal glared.
"No. No stops. No exceptions. We have a drop and we cannot be late."
Zoe raised an eyebrow. "Sir, they have a point. It would be good for morale. Not that you would know anything about cheerfulness and the Christmas spirit."
The entire table laughed and Mal frowned. "Hey, what's that supposed to mean?"
"Gorram, Mal. Don't you know how you are? Captain Tightpants…" Jayne gruffly laughed and everyone joined him.
"Stop that. I can be fun. I'm more fun than the doc over there."
"That is not true. I'm plenty of fun," Simon defended. "I agree. We should do something for Christmas."
"I guess that'd be okay," Jayne nodded.
Mal gasped and pointed at his crew. "Mutiny! You can't all turn against me like that!"
"If we can make the drop, I think that this is how it has to be, sir…" Zoe smirked, thoroughly enjoying watching the captain squirm.
"Can. Will. Plenty of time," River nodded in confirmation.
"Gotta trust the pilot, Cap'in!" Kaylee grinned excitedly.
"Please?" River begged, batting her big eyes.
The captain instantly turned into mush at the pleading look on her pretty face. Grumbling, he held up his hands in defeat. "Fine. We'll do this Christmas thing."
"We can get the gifts on the moon," Simon suggested.
"Gifts? We gotta get gifts? I don't wanna spend my ruttin' cut on everybody else. That's my money," Jayne groaned.
Kaylee clapped her hands excitedly. "I know! We'll do Secret Santa. All we gotta do is get one gift for one other person. And we'll put a limit. Nobody has to spend too much that way."
"I think that works. I'll get a bowl. Someone else grab some paper and pen," Zoe said as she stood up and got a bowl.
Simon happened to have a pen in his vest pocket from his work in the infirmary earlier, so he gave it to Kaylee. She started to write their names on a napkin. Once that was done, she ripped them into pieces and folded them over. Zoe mixed them up and everyone had to draw a name. They each looked at their picks. Simon groaned at his choice, Kaylee cheered, River and Mal remained stoic, Zoe nodded in acceptance, and Jayne shrugged apathetically. After quibbling over the price limit, they decided on a number and it was all settled.
"This is already so shiny! We need to decorate! I'm sure we got some things around here that'll work as Christmas decorations. C'mon, River. We have stuff to do!" Kaylee pulled River from the table and Simon decided to follow.
"I can't believe this. They're going to turn this boat into a festive mess," Mal complained like a four year old.
Zoe patted him roughly on the shoulder. "Sir, you are definitely my nomination for the most Christmas spirit."
"Oh, ha-ha. I can't believe you're going along with this, Zo. It's plain crazy. We're criminals. We live on a spaceship. Days ain't supposed to matter."
"Even criminals celebrate Christmas," she breezily answered, exiting to her bunk.
Jayne looked over at Mal, indiscreetly taking everyone's leftovers and dumping them on his plate. "We usedta celebrate on my old boat. I mean, it were just gettin' real drunk on eggnog and throwin' knives at a picture of a tree. Hit the star, get thirty points. Most points got an all-expense paid night with a whore. If that ain't spreadin' Christmas cheer, I don't know what is."
Shaking his head, Mal retreated to his bunk with his little slip of paper. He drew River's name and had no idea what to get her. It didn't help that she was a reader. Forget surprise. She'd probably know what he got her before he even bought it. Still, he did want to get her something nice. She was his little albatross, and he got all manner of twitchy thinking about how much he cared about her. He tried to think of a gift all night, but it didn't come to him.
The following morning, he tiredly went into the kitchen. He stopped and rubbed his eyes to be sure that he was seeing things right. Paper snowflakes were hung from the ceiling with old wire from the engine room. They used more of that wire to string together empty protein pack wrappers, which were cut into festive shapes. Grumbling about gorram holidays, he made some coffee and wandered onto the bridge to talk to his pilot. Maybe she'd give him an idea about the present.
"I see you decorated the kitchen."
She spun around in the pilot's chair, sporting a Santa hat. "'Tis the season."
"Where'd you get that hat?" he wondered curiously.
"Made it. Old sweater Simon didn't want. Ho ho ho. Sees you when you're sleeping. Knows when you're awake. Knows if you've been bad or good."
He smiled fondly. "That brings a whole new creepifying meaning to that song. Have you made a list?"
"Checked it twice. You're on the naughty list. Again."
"I'd expect nothing less, darlin'. So, what're you hoping to get from your Secret Santa? I'm hoping for something practical. Like bullets or real coffee."
She gave him a breathtaking smile. "Will get exactly the right thing. Not worried."
"Really? Not at all?"
"River is not worried, Captain. Twelve days of Christmas. Understand?"
He waffled, completely unable to take as much as a guess at that one. "Um, sure. I have captain stuff to do."
She smirked as he quickly left and ran into Zoe in the kitchen. "Zoe, I gotta ask you something. You're a woman."
"Last time I checked, sir."
"I picked a woman from the bowl last night. I have no clue what to get her and when I asked she didn't help me at all. What should I get? Any ideas?"
Zoe sighed, as Jayne had asked the same thing just minutes earlier about his pick. "Women like pretty things. Clothes. Shoes. Handbags. Flowers. Anything that seems extravagant."
"Are you sure that she'd like that?"
"Every woman is different. That's all I can tell you," Zoe smirked amusedly. "Good luck. And, I would avoid the cargo bay today. Just a warning."
Naturally, Mal had to go right to the cargo bay. Kaylee and Simon were busy putting up the tree. But, it wasn't a tree at all. It was one of Jayne's very large guns precariously balanced in a makeshift stand. They had attached arms made of everything from spoons to chopsticks to medical equipment and spare parts. Somehow, it was all staying attached to the gun. Simon attempted to drape an odd strand around it while Kaylee hummed and worked on ornaments.
"What in ruttin' hell is that? That's not safe!" Mal shouted from the catwalk.
"It's not loaded. Jayne said the safety is on and everything. The arms are firmly attached with magnets River created. I really can't explain it more than that," Simon replied calmly.
"Nothing is gonna stay on there," Mal argued as he got down for a closer look. He pushed on a chopstick and it didn't move. He pushed harder and it stayed in place. "How is it doing that?"
"River. She's a genius," Kaylee laughed. "Wanna help me make the ornaments, Cap'in?"
He stared blankly. "I think I'll pass."
"What about these lights?" Simon inquired hopefully. "You should be able to reach up there."
"We really need your help," Kaylee continued.
Reluctantly, he took the strange lights and tucked them around the barrel. Simon quickly spun the lights around and plugged them into a weird contraption. When it lit up, it looked like paper lanterns around it. From far away, it could pass for a Christmas tree. Mal looked the whole thing over in awe. How had River finished all of this overnight?
"Didn't sleep," she giggled as she snuck up behind him. "Hold me."
"Wh—what?" he stuttered.
She rolled her eyes. "Hold me. Must place the topper."
Gingerly, he lifted her up and she plopped Jayne's orange knit cap on the gun. He set her down and she went to help Kaylee with the ornaments. They were protein packets, paper drawings, bullet sculptures, a few of Wash's dinosaurs, a wooden cross for Book, some of Kaylee's earrings that Inara gave her, and little balls made from the same old sweater as River's hat.
"It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas," Kaylee sang cheerfully.
Mal scowled. "No singing. Humming is okay. Whistling in small doses. But no gorram singing. You got Christmas and you got your tree. That's it."
"Bah humbug!" River proclaimed. "Scrooge."
"What?" he pouted. "I don't even know what that is."
"That's a character from A Christmas Carol. It's a book by Charles Dickens from Earth that Was," Simon chuckled. "You are a Scrooge, Captain."
"Well, whatever it is, I'm not."
Mal left them to their cheerful decorating, hearing their laughter as he walked away.
Once they set down at the little moon, they went their separate ways to buy their gifts. There were many stores in the seaside town, so it wouldn't be an issue to find variety. Mal went into six different shops and still couldn't find the right gift. Stopping into his seventh, he discovered that the only thing within their allowed budget was a pair of shoes. They looked like they would fit her and they were the same shade as her purple dress. But, he knew that she wasn't a fan of shoes for any reason.
"Great. Seven shops and still nothing," he grumbled.
Just before leaving, he spotted something in the window. It was a necklace with a little gold pennant of a bird. He took a closer look and couldn't find the price. After calling over the owner, she took out the necklace for him to see.
"It's a seabird," she explained. "They're all over around here. This is a very popular gift. Sailors get these for their wives all the time. The lore is that this bird is a ship's good luck."
He nodded slowly. "I am familiar with the notion. How much is it?"
She told him the price and he scowled. It was much higher than the budget. He did like it quite a bit and he could see her wearing it…maybehaps just that. Quickly, he shook the thoughts from his head and sighed sadly, "As much as I know she'd like it, can't do it. We have a budget."
"I'll take twenty off."
Though it was still too much, he said it before it registered. "Shiny. Do you gift wrap?"
That night, everyone returned to Serenity with their gifts. They put them under the gun tree and waited anxiously for Christmas. The ladies took to singing carols and calling Mal a Scrooge when he complained. Jayne got into the spirit by drawing a crude tree on the side of a crate so they could take turns throwing knives at it. Instead of a whore, they agreed that the prize was unlimited drinks for one night. River wasn't allowed to continue playing after they discovered how talented she was. Zoe took the prize, much to Jayne's dismay.
On Christmas Eve, they gathered around the table for protein eggnog. Kaylee raised her mug with a strong smile. "Here's to Wash, Book, and Mr. Universe. We don't talk 'bout them much, but we remember 'em. Oh, and here's to Inara who left for the Training House all them months back but'll always be family. She'd be celebrating tomorrow too if she wasn't Buddhist. Cheers!"
They toasted and chattered amongst themselves. Simon and Kaylee were acting like kids, chasing each other around the room. He produced homemade mistletoe, which he created with help from his sister, and held it above their heads. They kissed as Jayne and River teased them mercilessly. River got the idea to steal it from them and toss it to Zoe. She smirked and raised an eyebrow.
"Sir, I think that this was meant for you."
She gave it to him and he blinked, completely clueless what he was supposed to do with it. Slowly, he went to a doorway and hung it by a leaflet. When he looked down, River was waiting on him. Awkwardly, he pecked her on the forehead and excused himself to his bunk. They had a good chuckle once he was gone, all aware of his not-so-secret fondness for the pilot.
After Mal went to sleep, he pushed dreams out his mind that shouldn't be there. River was a friend, and he appreciated everything that she had done. She was the one that was there for him when Inara left a second time. She was there after they lost their friends. She was there through it all. He hated to admit that he was attached. When he opened his eyes and saw her in his bunk, he rolled back over and assumed it was still a dream.
He leapt like a scared cat. "River? What are you doing in my bunk?"
"Now or in that dream you just had?"
"Not…I didn't mean…don't do that! I meant now."
She grinned and put the Santa hat on his head. "Christmas morning. Presents. Merriment. Traditions. Come on, Captain Claus. Holly jollies await."
Floating away and up the ladder, she left him to it. He smiled softly and got dressed. He decided to keep the hat on just to see what everyone would do. They gathered by the gun tree and cheered upon seeing him. He sat on a crate beside River and Zoe as Kaylee distributed the gifts. "Nobody say who got who yet. We gotta guess! That's the real fun part. Who wants to go first?"
"Me!" Jayne exclaimed excitedly. He was seated on the ground in front of the tree, shaking the small box by his ear. Cautiously, he opened it and examined the item. "Gorramit…it's a new knife sharpener! And it has a picture of a naked girl on it!"
Kaylee was seated on a different crate with Simon wrapped around her. She smiled at his reaction. "Now you gotta guess who it was, Jayne Cobb."
"Zoe," he declared, pointing a finger.
"No. It wasn't me," she laughed.
"It was me," Simon admitted guiltily. "Do you know how many looks I got when I bought that? I had to go into the seediest pawn shop you've ever seen."
Jayne shifted uncomfortably and inaudibly muttered, "Thanks."
"Me next!" Kaylee decided as she ripped open her box. "Ooh! It's a wrench in pink! And are those tiny suns on there? They are! This is so shiny. It had to be Simon or River."
Hesitantly, Jayne raised his hand. "The shop girl helped me pick it."
"Oh, thank you, Jayne! I love this."
Simon wanted to go next. He had a new vest with extra pockets to keep his medical instruments in. Grinning, he glanced at his sister. "River, did you get me this?"
"I did," Zoe grinned. "Merry Christmas, doc. The captain should be next."
Mal had a heavy box and discovered that he got a small supply of specialty ammunition. "This is shiny! Shoots clean, far, and deadly. So, it wasn't Zo or Jayne or Simon…couldn't be Kaylee. River, you got me this."
River smiled brilliantly. "That is the correct assumption, Captain."
They had a brief moment before Zoe opened her gift from Kaylee. It was a pair of stylish, yet practical, boots. River was last and looked down at the tiny package. Everyone knew that it had to be from the captain. She held up the necklace with wide eyes and a big grin.
"Albatross," she murmured quietly. "Thank you."
"Don't mention it, sweetheart."
They wished each other a good day and split up to enjoy their various gifts. Mal and River stayed by the peculiar tree with their items. She turned to him without a word and he knew exactly what to do. He put the necklace on her and then redirected his attention to the ammunition.
"These are the best bullets money can buy. There are an awful lot here for our budget," he commented quietly.
"Real gold jewelry. Far too much of it to be within budget either."
He smirked. "How much did you go over?"
"Approximately the same as you."
They chuckled and he nodded towards the rest of the ship. "Did any of them go over?"
"No. Just us."
"You didn't have to."
"Neither did you. Would have liked anything."
"No you wouldn't."
"I would. It'd be from you. Twelve days of Christmas."
He frowned with embarrassment. "I really didn't get that the first time you said it, little one."
"Partridges in pear trees, turtle doves, hens, birds, rings, geese, swans, maids, dancers, lords, pipers, drummers. None of these gifts are desirable with the exception of five rings, yet the narrator is singing about the reception of such presents. The only plausible explanation is that a gift sent by a particular person carries emotional complications which in turn can distort the value of ordinarily unfavorable objects. If you apply this logic to someone outside of the carol, it is probable that a similar effect can take place."
He attempted to digest the information, but it didn't happen and he had to say, "Captain-dummy talk."
She rolled her eyes. "Doesn't matter what you got me because of who you are."
"First line of the carol, Captain. On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…"
His eyes grew seven times bigger and he turned five shades of red. "You…is that…are you saying…true love…but River…we…this…I'm…"
She stood on her toes and pressed a kiss to his cheek. "Everyone knows you feel the same except you."
With that, the slip of a girl skipped away. For thirty minutes, he stood in the same place in the cargo bay. He couldn't. He wouldn't. He shouldn't. Did he? No, that wasn't right. What did a criminal know about right? Maybe he did. What if he did? She did. If he did and she did, where was the problem? Was there a problem? He did spend half his cut on a necklace for a holiday that he didn't want to celebrate just because it was for her. If that wasn't a sign, what was? He did. He completely did. Well. That was a revelation. Finally, he found the ability to move and he sluggishly went to the kitchen where Zoe was trying on her new boots and Jayne was sharpening his knives.
"Sir, you look like you've seen a ghost…" Zoe commented, unable to keep a straight face.
He pointed to the bridge. "Did you know that River…?"
"Yes," Zoe and Jayne said in unison.
"And that you love her back," Jayne grunted.
"And don't know it or won't do a thing about it," Zoe agreed.
His mouth fell open. "How long have you known?"
"Since 'Nara left," Jayne laughed.
"You did spend a lot of time on the bridge with her, sir. It was kind of obvious."
"And everyone else knows this?" Mal demanded.
They nodded in unison, "Yep."
"Simon doesn't want to kill me?"
"Sir, we've known for months. He's gotten used to it already. Just grab the mistletoe and go get your real Christmas present: the pilot."
Pausing, he grabbed the mistletoe and went to the bridge after several crude jokes from Jayne and stifled laughter from Zoe. When he got up there, River spun around in the pilot's chair with a big smile.
"You know what I'm going to say, right?"
"Doesn't mean that you don't have to say it."
He held up the mistletoe. "This is as close to saying it as I get."
She smirked and they kissed for a long moment. When they pulled back, he grinned happily. "Maybehaps I like this Christmas celebrating thing."
"You're still Scrooge."
"I am not."
"I don't know what that means."
"Don't have to, Scrooge."
"I'm wearing a gorram Santa hat and holding mistletoe. I can't be a Scrooge if I'm doing that."
"Incorrect theory. Actions are meaningless if spirit is absent. You require more spirit."
"How am I gonna get that?" he wondered right before she kissed him again. He pulled back with a contented expression. "Well, if that's how I get spirit I want it to be Christmas every single day."
"No one else can tell days this far into space. Today doesn't have to end."
"Now you're talking. Merry Christmas, River."
"Merry Christmas, Captain."
A/N: It's been awhile since my Firefly fics, so I had to do this. Merry Christmas!