Title: Aboard, About, Above, Across

Author: Jedi Buttercup

Rating: PG

Disclaimer: The words are mine; the world is not.

Summary: The Lady Tam was surely dressed for floor-twirling antics, and not the foufy-skirt type like what Kaylee preferred, nor the violent sort that had ended with Jayne on the floor, neither. 2100 words.

Spoilers: Set Post-Serenity movie, with canon pairings

Notes: Post-canon fluff! For the Jossverse Let's Get It Done challenge. Dedicated to the memory of my 9th grade English teacher.

"Now what in tarnation?" Mal broke off his conversation with Inara as the sound of laughter echoed up from the cargo bay. "Ain't heard that sound in a passel of Sundays."

Inara turned to listen, the graceful curve of her throat as much a distraction as the laughter below. But where the one was more a promise now than a mystery, the other was sorely tickling at his curiosity. River'd been a hell of a lot calmer since they'd purged the ghosts of Miranda, but she'd found no more to smile at than the rest of 'em, much less- giggle.

"I think Simon was planning on reviewing River's lessons today," Inara smiled at the sound.

"Since when does that girl need lessons? She's fair to knowin' half the Cortex already since we let her at the edufeeds," Mal snorted. Ostensibly, it was so's she could sit for her pilot's license the next time they put in at the Eavesdown Docks, but task the girl to read one manual and she'd happily link-hop for hours. Wasn't hurting her flying hours none, nor cutting into her chore time, so he hadn't put a stop to it, but she was more like to be rapt and dry-eyed from that, not hysterical.

Inara rolled her eyes, reaching out to press a hand against his shoulder, turning him toward the door of her shuttle. "Not those sorts of lessons. Her parents sent her to the Academy in the first place because it promised to combine a top-tier academic experience with the arts she loved. She's practicing dance."

"And that's fair to make her bust a gut?" He thought on that a moment, then pictured the doc trying to follow along, and felt the corners of his own mouth tug up in amusement. "Ah, now. This I've got to see."

He stepped through the airlock out onto the catwalk overlooking the bay, leaning his arms against the railing. Inara settled next to him, shrouded in soft silk and warm scent, and he breathed it in as he looked down at his youngest crewwoman's antics.

"No, Simon, that's not the way it goes!" River giggled.

So far, as he'd expected. The doc had an exasperated look on his face, hands on hips as he faced his sister. He was wearing one of his old starched shirts under a shiny vest what didn't even pretend to fit no more, not since he'd finally put on some muscle; it made him look vaguely piratey, 'stead of all stuffy like it used to. But River, on the other hand...

"Well, then show me more slowly this time!" Simon said, gesturing with an expressive hand.

The Lady Tam was surely dressed for floor-twirling antics, and not the foufy-skirt type like what Kaylee preferred, nor the violent sort that had ended with Jayne on the floor, neither. The hob-nobbing sort, all tights and shiny slippers and miles of slim pale arm on display. Mal blinked as she threw her head back in another laugh, averting his eyes from the snug fabric clinging to her torso, and gave the probable source of that fancible wardrobe choice a speaking look.

Inara's smile widened at his blush. "Girl's growing up, Mal. No harm in letting her enjoy it."

"Yeah, but do I have to see it?" he complained. He tended to forget his new pilot and Reader was a woman-shaped creature most of the time; having it brought so forcibly to his attention was giving him flashbacks to Kaylee holding forth about her nethers, something no Captainly figure had any business to knowing about the mechanic he thought of as his mèimei.

"You sound like a scandalized father," Inara snickered. "Don't tell her that, or she'll think you disapprove. Now, look: she's going to try it again."

"I do disapprove," he muttered darkly under his breath. But he dutifully turned his attention back to the show below at her admonition, just in time to watch River tug her brother around to face the back bay doors into the lounge. Then she took position beside him, and gracefully lifted one knee.

"Now, it starts like this," she said, and launched into a rapid-fire sequence of nonsense words, steps, turns, and gestures. "Aboard. About. Above. Across. After. Against..."

"Wait, wait, hold up!" Simon had made it through the step forward, the turn, and the reach overhead before falling behind the pace his sister had set, and he turned to her in exasperation. "I told you, I skipped past this part in Compositions," he said.

River hadn't stopped this time, though; she was still going, twirling, bending and gesturing with oddly graceful abandon, throwing teasing grins at Simon every time her motions brought her back around to face him. "...along, among, around, at, before, behind, below, beneath..."

"What in the tiān xiăodé?" Mal frowned, watching her as she swooped toward the ground at 'beneath'. "Is she-? Are those prepositions?"

"...between, beyond, by, down, during..."

Inara clasped a hand over her mouth, stifling a sudden musical laugh of her own. "Oh! I'd forgotten this! They teach it during the first year of apprenticeship at House Madrassa; it trains girls still uncertain in their own bodies how to move gracefully to a rhythm and maintain presence of mind at the same time. It's particularly helpful for kinetic learners. I'm not surprised they teach it in other Alliance schools, as well. She must have learned it before she went to the Academy."

"...off, on, over, past, since..."

"Not just Alliance schools," another voice commented, from the other side of Inara.

Mal jumped a bit, then shot a mock glare around the Companion at his first mate. "Gonna put a bell on you one of these days."

"Might oughta have Simon check your hearing first," she replied back, mildly, then nodded down to the cargo bay floor. "I learned the dance, too; several generations of my family grew up shipboard, and my Great Aunt Ruth favored lessons as could keep a child's feet as busy as her mind. Kept us from getting into too much trouble, if we burned off most of our energy by dinnertime."

"...upon, with, within, without!" River finished up with a flourish, holding her last pose for a moment before breaking down in another giggle. Then she reached for her brother's hands and tugged him back into position. "It's easy, Simon. This is the common list! There's only forty-four of them."

"Only," he mock-groaned. "I'll never get it." But the frustration had already seeped out of the line of his shoulders; there was a wistful warmth to the smile he aimed at her, one entirely absent the guilt that plagued the boy all too often and made him difficult on the matter of taking River along on jobs.

"Don't be silly! Here," she said, positioning him for that first aboard step. Then she turned and waved to the back of the cargo bay.

Kaylee came out to join them then, of a sudden. Unlike the Tams, she was dressed in her usual clothes- but she held herself like she was all dolled up in her favorite ribbons and bows, anyhow. And Simon lit up fair to put the running lights to shame as he caught sight of her.

Kaylee beamed back, then glanced to River; River nodded enthusiastically, then took a step over to the side.

"May I have this dance?" Kaylee asked her boyfriend, all formal-like, sweeping into a mimed curtsy in front of him. And no awkward thing, neither, like she'd managed when she was on Mal's arm; the girl had clearly been practicing.

Simon's blush grew more pronounced, a bit blotchy against all that fair skin, but he did his best to bow with his knee still up where River'd put it. "If you don't mind taking the lead...?" he said.

Kaylee laughed in reply, her voice like bells chiming. "Don't mind if I do," she replied, then daintily lifted her knee as well, and began the chant, in about a third the speed River had been going.

Zoe murmured along as they went, one hand curved over her gently swelling abdomen, and Mal swallowed hard, thinking about their own next generations growing up along that model. Sooner or later there'd be little Frye-Tam's running about as well, and someone'd have to teach the lot; and as for, well...

He wasn't going to think that far ahead. But... the thought did warm him, a bit. He leaned a mite closer to Inara, feeling the warmth of her all along his left side, and chuckled as Simon bobbled the diving-forward motion of into, nearly tripping over Kaylee's feet as they moved in a tight spiral around each other, rather than the side-by-side demonstration River had preferred.

Kids aboard. It was something Mal would never have considered before. But with their records clear for the first time in years, and so much of the abiding rage that had drove him since the war finally bled away, he thought he might could use a little peace and... well, he supposed he had to say it... family.

What a ramshackle schoolhouse they'd make. Mechanical engineering with Miz Frye; culture and history with Miz Serra; biology and chemistry, of course, with Mister Tam. Physical education, maybehaps, with Jayne- and a little gun safety, too, when they were old enough to see their family carrying 'em around and start to be curious. Didn't want nobody treating 'em like toys. He'd cover literature; he'd worked his way through his Ma's library as a kid and acquired an abiding love for the written word he didn't much have cause to share, these days. Zoe could cover maths; River-girl might figure like she breathed, but she'd probably frustrate anyone not quite as quick as her. The arts, though. He thought River might enjoy being the one to teach them about beauty.

He could almost feel dark eyes turning up to him at that thought; Mal glanced down over the railing and was met with a luminous, wet-eyed smile. Then his pilot blinked the moment away, clapping her hands while Kaylee and Simon stumbled through the last few steps.

"See, you nearly got it that time!" Kaylee said, turning back from without to demonstrate a little within with lips and tongues.

"Mmmm. Though I still maintain I'm at a disadvantage, up against people who learned this so-called Preposition Dance as a child. Did you know your brain loses most of its early plasticity by the time you're..."

Kaylee shut Simon up again with an even more thorough kiss.

Zoe chuckled over the sudden silence and called down. "Then how about we send you a better model for comparison?"

"No, I... what?" Mal turned to his first mate in horror as he suddenly realized what she was up to. He surely did love to hear the sound of her laughter after all she'd been through since losing Wash, but did it have to be at his expense? "I just remembered, I have Captain-y things I need to be doing..."

"Oh, do be a good sport, Mal," Inara told him, reaching out to snare his hand as he tried to pull away.

He was entirely unable to prevent his own fingers from entwining with hers, nor his head from inclining toward her as she leaned up to whisper in his ear.

"...And I might see my way clear to... an equally enthusiastic reward?" she murmured, before letting go and making a shooing motion toward the floor below.

Mal sighed, then bowed his head and shuffled slowly down the steps. "I'll have you know, I'm doing this only under duress!" he complained to anyone who'd listen as Simon and Kaylee finally came up for air.

Kaylee grinned brilliantly at his appearance. "You never learned it neither, Cap?" she said, merriment dancing in her eyes. "See, Simon? There is someone behinder than you."

"Hey," Mal objected again, for form's sake, clasping a dramatic hand over his heart. "How do you know Jayne ain't behinder than both of us? Did anyone think to ask him?"

River took that opportunity to treat that arm as a handle, dragging him over next to her brother. "Jayne's not here," she said seriously. "You are."

"Whatever you say, little Albatross," he sighed theatrically, and assumed the position. "Hey, so what prompted all of this, anyway?"

"Passing through," she replied, with an intent, solemn smile.

Aboard ship; spun about; above world; across storm? He surely did hope she was right.

Mal smiled back, girded his figurative loins, and cast himself after River's lead once more.