Take me where I cannot stand
I don't care, I'm still free
You can't take the sky from me
Take me out to the black
Tell them I ain't comin' back
Burn the land and boil the sea
You can't take the sky from me
There's no place I can be
Since I found Serenity
But you can't take the sky from me...
Captain Malcolm Reynolds was usually the first one to exit his bunk in the morning, which, coupled with the fact that he was also usually the last one to retire to his bunk at night, went a long way to making him the way he was. Even on mornings like this one, when the night before he and the rest of his crew had been up abnormally late celebrating a score on Persephone, he was up before anyone else, no matter how much his head throbbed and the metallic taste of too much bad whiskey filled his mouth. But on this morning, as he climbed up the ladder to the hallway and shuffled toward the mess, he slowly realized that he wasn't the first one up this time. Someone was in the mess already, and they were singing. Mal could make out the words – "God rest ye, merry gentlemen..." -- and he inwardly sighed. On a typical day, Mal needed at least three cups of green tea before he was ready to deal with Shepherd Book. Today he figured to need six cups before he felt ready to talk to anyone.
"Ah! Good morning, Captain! There's water on the stove, just off the boil, if you're looking for tea." The Shepherd beamed.
"Yeah," Mal said. "I'll get to the tea in just a moment, Shepherd, but just now I'm a bit flummoxed as to why there's a tree in the corner of my mess."
"Oh, that," said the Shepherd. "I hoped you wouldn't mind. Just a little something I picked up before we left Persephone yesterday."
"I didn't notice you bringing a tree on board?"
"Yes, I was worried about how to sneak it onto the ship, when I realized that God had provided me a perfect way to get it past your eyes."
"And that was...."
"You and Jayne were ripping drunk. Zoe and Wash and the Doctor carried you on board. You weren't noticing anything last night."
"I wasn't that drunk!"
"Maybe, Captain, but you got out of bed and came all the way to the mess wearing your gun, your slippers, and a pair of women's underwear."
"Oh." Mal staggered over to the stove. "I think I'm gonna have that tea now, while you explain why there's a gorram tree on my gorram boat."
"There's no need for language, Captain." The Shepherd folded his hands in front of his chest, in that prayerful stance that Mal hated. Of course, Book well knew that the Captain hated it when he took that tone, which is why he did it so much more often now. Mal just grunted as he fumbled in the cupboard for his favorite mug and the tea leaves.
"Hand me the kitchen robe," Mal said.
"Certainly." Book opened another cupboard and pulled out a bundle of cloth, which he tossed to the Captain. This was the 'kitchen robe', a bathrobe that Mal kept stashed in the mess just for situations like this. He put on the robe as his tea steeped, and just in time, too, because that's when Zoe and Wash arrived. Zoe looked all cleaned up and ready to go, as did Wash, even if no one could tell because Wash generally looked all cattawumpus, with his unbuttoned shirt over a tank top, shorts, and sandals.
"Well, this is very nice," Zoe said. "Care to let us know what you're wearing underneath the kitchen robe, sir?"
"I do not," said Mal. "And you can stop laughing. We've all had mornings like this."
"Not laughing, sir."
"You laugh on the inside," Mal countered.
"It's true, honey," said Wash. "You do. I, on the other hand, plan to laugh joyously out loud at our Captain and his self-induced plight."
"I hold my liquor better than you," Mal said.
"I never get much chance to develop my skills in that regard," Wash replied, "seeing as how somebody's gotta be sober enough to fly the ship. Speaking of which, do we have a destination, Captain?"
"Can I drink my tea first before I think about business?"
Shepherd Book took a step forward. "I actually have a few thoughts as to that--"
"Ooooh, pretty!" And with that, everyone turned to greet Kaylee, who had just arrived in the mess as well, wearing a freshly cleaned pair of overalls over a shirt with little red hearts all over it. "I didn't know we could grow trees on board!"
"We can't grow trees on board," Mal said. "This here is a flight of fancy by the good Shepherd, who I'm sure will be explaining himself momentarily."
"Well, I like it," said Kaylee. "It's shiny."
"It's not shiny yet, actually," said Book. "It will be, after we decorate it."
"Decorating?" Mal said. "A tree?"
"Yes sir," said Book.
"So just the fact that there's a tree on my boat isn't even the strangest part of this whole business?"
"It's not strange, Captain," said Book. "It's a tradition."
"Preacher, you got any notion as to how many weird things people do are explained by casual use of the word 'tradition'?" Mal sipped his tea. "That explains a lot of your whole 'Shepherding' job, you know."
"Traditions become traditions because they mean something to people," Book said. "You've got some traditions yourself, Captain."
"For one, your finding of an Alliance-friendly bar every year on Unification Day. And also your overindulgence every time we get a little more money for a job than you'd planned." He smiled. "At least this tradition doesn't involve a headache and the burning of another set of clothes."
"Yeah, well, I'll be taking that explanation now, if you don't mind."
"Certainly, Captain. It all began on--"
He was interrupted by a loud burst of raspy Chinese as Jayne Cobb staggered into the mess. "Smells like a ruttin' forest in here," Jayne said when he'd finished cursing in Chinese."I hate forests. They remind me of my grandmother."
This, as did many things Jayne said, made everyone stop talking and stare at him.
"What? Oh, I suppose you all think that forests are nice places filled with happy little creatures. Like one of Kaylee's storybooks."
"I don't read 'storybooks'," Kaylee protested. "I'm not a child, Jayne. I'm an engineer and I'm a woman with all the needs of a woman, like—"
"Stop! Please!" Mal burst out. "You know I don't want to hear about that, Kaylee."
"Wash, can you just get us in the air, please?"
"I wanted to hear about this tree first," Wash said. "I mean, since you haven't given us a destination yet for our next job and all."
More silence, until Zoe cleared her throat.
"By any chance, Captain, did you think to line us up a new job when we finished the old one?"
Mal shrugged. "I had other things on my mind last night," he said.
"I'll say," said the newest arrival into the mess. "Although I don't think he was exactly thinking with his mind last night." It was Inara, who looked typically resplendent in her kimono-like morning robe. "Was she memorable, Mal?"
"You don't remember her, do you?"
"You know, I think we've all got off the main topic here, which is why there's a gorram tree on my boat!"
"Well, Captain," said Book, "as I tried to start explaining--"
"A Christmas tree," said yet someone else. Tensions went up as the voice of the ever-enigmatic River Tam cut through. "We had a Christmas tree at the institute. The men there said there would be presents. That was before they started the mental probes."
River stood there in the doorway, with her brother, Simon the good doctor, standing behind her.
"River?" Simon said. "Do you remember something?"
"I remember everything," River said. "I just choose when to talk about it."
"So," Simon said, "you know what the tree is?"
"I just said so," River replied. "It's a Christmas tree. But it's naked. It needs decorations to make it shiny."
"Ah," said Book. "You see, Kaylee? That's what I was getting at. We'll decorate it."
"With what?" Kaylee asked.
"Oh, all sorts of things," said Book. "Ornaments made of painted glass. Little lights. Popcorn that we put on strings. And I even have a figurine of an angel for the very top of the tree."
Jayne cleared his throat. "Anybody else here havin' a hard time figurin' out who's crazier here, the Shepherd or the Doc's sister?"
"I don't think it sounds crazy," said Kaylee. "I think it sounds nice."
"It kind of does," said Wash. Noticing Zoe giving him a skeptical glance, he went on, "What? I've been saying for years that this boat could use some more color on it."
"My boat's got all the color it needs," said Mal. "Look, people, next person other than the Shepherd who talks is on mess patrol for a month. Shepherd, explain this. You've got until I finish my cup of tea, and if your explanation ain't convincing, you're the one on mess patrol."
"A hard bargain as always, Captain," said Book. "It's an Old Earth tradition. The Bible tells us that one day, God decided to come into the world in the form of an infant, so he could save his people. Ever since then, believers have celebrated that night by doing things like exchanging gifts, and bringing trees into their homes to decorate. That's what I'm doing here."
"Shepherd," Mal said, "didn't I once tell you that God ain't welcome on the Serenity?"
"You did, Captain. But it's my belief that God is here, whether you consider him welcome or not."
"Well, be that as it may, you've brought a tree onto my ship without asking me."
"Would you have said 'yes'?"
"No, but that ain't the point. I like to be asked anyway. It's my ship."
"I just thought...it might be a source of pleasure for us," Book said. "You don't have to believe to celebrate."
"You said somethin' about exchangin' gifts," Jayne said. "What's that?"
"Well," Book said, "we could each randomly select a member of the crew and get that person a gift." He noticed the scowl on Mal's face. "Or not."
"We should," Kaylee said. "We don't do enough nice things for one another."
"I let you all stay on board," Mal said. "That's nice of me."
"And your hospitality is known throughout the 'Verse," Inara said. "That's why so many people flock to us to give us money."
"Yeah," Mal said, "I'm a loving man. But as to the money thing, you said something about a job, preacher? You got a lead for us?"
"I do," said Book. "Of a sort."
"Of a sort? The paying sort?"
"Not as such, no."
"Then what is it?"
"There's an orphanage on Haven," Book said.
"Lot of orphanages on Haven," Jayne pointed out.
"Yes, but as it happens, I know this orphanage particularly well." Book looked like he was remembering something...but then he snapped back to the moment. "I would simply like for us to take some of our recently abundant bounty – not all of which was obtained through means the authorities would entirely smile upon – and use it to purchase supplies for the orphanage. We would then deliver said items to the orphanage in time for an upcoming festival."
"Supplies?" Mal asked.
Book nodded. "Food, clothing, and...toys."
"Toys?" Mal repeated.
Jayne frowned. "And we're doin' this in exchange for what?"
Book just smiled.
"No way," Jayne said. "No way, uh-uh. No way I'm givin' some of my ruttin' money to some bunch of orphans. Ain't my fault they ain't got no home. Let 'em grow up, find work, and make an honest livin'."
"Is anyone besides me," Simon said, "unusually touched by Jayne's newfound belief in making an honest living?"
"Shut up, Doc," Jayne said. "Least I ain't hidin' behind a slip of a girl."
"No," River said. "You hide behind a gun that you gave a girl's name."
Jayne's only response to that was a grumbled growl.
"Let me get this straight, preacher," Mal said. "You want us to spend some of the money we've fought and scrimped for and use it to give stuff to children? And you want us to do this on a time frame of...what?"
"Three days, Captain."
"Three days. And we're doing all this with no reward for us?"
"Not all rewards come in the form of money, Captain."
"The ones that keep this boat in the air do," Mal said.
"Come on, Captain!" Kaylee said. "I, for one, would like to do a job for once that don't make me feel like I need a shower after."
"Maybe we put it to a vote of the crew?" Simon offered.
Mal glared at him. "My ship ain't a democracy," he said. "But...Jayne?"
"Can't decide, Mal," he said. "Normally I'd be against this sort of stuff, but I'm thinkin' that if we don't do it, Kaylee here'll be complaining about it for months. Might well be worth doin' to keep her quiet."
"Thanks, Jayne," Kaylee said. "But really, it'll feel good. Don't you all want to feel good about something for once? I mean, feel good about something other than stealin' from the Alliance?"
"There's other things to feel good about?" Jayne asked.
Mal turned to his second in command for help. "Zoe?"
"I don't know, Captain," Zoe replied. "Normally I'm siding with you, but right now, I find myself a bit swayed by Kaylee's youthful exuberance."
"I can't believe I'm even considering this," Mal said.
Shepherd Book put a hand on Mal's shoulder. "I think that maybe some part of you is seeking redemption," Book said.
Mal glared at him.
"Not really helping your cause there, preacher," Zoe said.
Book removed his hand.
"If we do this," Mal said, "I've got some conditions. Kaylee, you are not allowed to badger me for an optional ship's part for one month. Shepherd, you will do all cooking and mess duty for the same month. Jayne, one word that this job makes me soft, and I'm shooting you out the airlock."
"What about me, Captain?" Inara asked, purposely blinking her beautiful eyelashes as she did so.
"Uh...I'll think of something," Mal said. "All right, Shepherd, where are we going first?"
"To buy some toys," Book said. "Which means a trip to Ariel."
"Wash, you heard the man. Let's get in the air. I'm gonna go clean up. Can't believe I'm doing this...." And with that, Mal left the mess to return to his bunk. Wash and Zoe headed for the bridge, and Kaylee left for the engine room. River gave Shepherd Book a look of reproach.
"You didn't tell him the part about the elfin-man dressed in red who flies through the sky to give the children their presents," she said.
"On the whole," Book replied, "I figured it best to leave that part out of it."
"Yeah," Simon said. "That was...probably wise."
Minutes later, Serenity lifted off and flew away from Persephone and toward Ariel.