The purple in the sky was lifting toward gold. The only sounds were of the wind-swept sand and the tumbling brush and the loud popping buzz of the decrepit holo-sign above the saloon blinking on and off haphazardly.
Out in the street the two crews faced each other, each lined up behind their respective captains. With a crooked smile and a slight hitch, Malcolm Reynolds gave a small bow.
Across from him the gesture was returned with a slight salute of finger to forehead.
With that, each side turned and headed back to their own ship. Serenity's ramp was down, the entranceway open, and in the early dawn light they could see the Shepherd waiting. He stood with his mouth slightly agape as he took in the sight before him: the crew hobbled up the ramp; the only ones not looking much worse for wear were Inara and River. As they shambled silently past him, he recovered his voice.
"What the hell happened after I left?"
No one turned or stopped to explain. A dripping-wet Jayne lifted an arm and waved his hand in dismissal.
"Did we get the job?" Book called out.
His only answer was the holo-sign loudly fizzing and popping above the empty street.SALLY ANN'S
"This shouldn't take long, so don't no one get too comfortable." Mal stopped outside the swinging door leading into the saloon and looked at his crew.
"We got time for a drink, right?" Jayne was peering over Mal's shoulder into the dimly-lit saloon.
"A drink. That's it. I want to make a good impression on this client. Word is Mr. Wu's connected. Could mean a lot of jobs for us down the road. Jayne, you gettin' this?"
The merc was dancing from foot to foot like a kid waiting to be let into a candy store.
"Yeah, Mal, I got it. Can we just go in, please?"
Simon eyed the swaying merc. "Perhaps you should have gone before we left the ship," he said sarcastically.
Jayne drew himself up and towered over the doctor. Mal stepped in between them.
"What did I just say?" he glowered at them both.
"Yes, Captain. I apologize," Simon said quickly. "I still don't see why you need me here, though."
"All I need is for you to sit there and look all fancy and rich and smooth. Don't know exactly what this client is looking for, and I want all the bases covered. Just keep your mouth shut and look pretty."
Jayne smirked and Zoe stepped up behind him and slapped him lightly on the back of the head.
"Behave yourself. You heard the captain."
"He started it! Why don't you never whack him?"
"Because mommy loves him better than you," Wash offered sadly, laying a sympathetic hand on the merc's shoulder.
Jayne shrugged him off and started a retort that was cut off by an angry Mal.
"Bizui! I ain't sayin' it again. We want this job."
The three men had the sense to stare shamefaced at the ground. Zoe and Mal exchanged a look of exasperation.
"If any one of you kills this for us, I swear I will shoot you." They looked at Mal with varying degrees of disbelief. "Not one of you can't do your job with a bullet wound to the calf. You just keep that in mind."
With that he set his shoulders and held open one side of the swinging doors for the others to enter.
"Let's do this."
"You sure this is the right bar?" Jayne had taken to carving the names of his guns into the wooden tabletop. He was concentrating on touching up the "R" and didn't see Mal glaring back at him.
"It's the right bar," said Zoe. "It's the only bar. There's nothing else out this far except a couple mining camps. Besides," she looked at the clock behind the long wooden bar, "it's only been a little over an hour. We just have to be patient."
"A man can build up a powerful thirst being patient," Jayne hinted broadly. He sat back in his chair and admired his finished art work. Satisfied, he resheathed his knife in his boot. "We wait too long here we can die of thirst."
"One drink, Jayne. One." Mal nodded to the empty glass sitting in front of the mercenary.
"One drink an hour?" Jayne tried out a wheedling tone. He could see it wasn't working. He tried logic. "Hell, Mal, even the doc here can handle one drink an hour."
"I can hold my liquor," Simon shot up in his seat indignantly. "Not that anyone with any taste receptors left at all would consider calling that niao 'liquor'."
Wash picked up his empty glass and looked at Simon through the bottom of it. "You know, this stuff isn't all that bad. I've had much worse." He turned to Zoe. "Like that night when we finally . . . " His voice trailed off under the icy stare of his wife. He turned to Mal. "One drink per hour, captain. What could it hurt?"
Zoe looked at Mal and gave a small shrug. Mal rolled his eyes, then leaned forward to make himself perfectly clear.
"One more. That's it. When Wu walks through that door, I want to cut this deal and leave."
Jayne surged out of his chair and made for the bar with Wash on his heels. Simon slumped back in his seat and surveyed the empty room.
"How do they keep this place open? We've been here an hour and we've been the only customers."
"Things'll pick up at shift change. The locals have a transport that drops them off for a couple hours every night to blow off some steam and eat up their pay chits. The place gets quite lively."
The two men stared at Zoe quizzically.
"I asked," she said, arching an eyebrow.
Wash walked carefully back toward the table balancing two full shot glasses in his hands. He placed one in front of Simon, then took his own seat.
"Ganbei, Doc!" He held up his drink and waited for Simon to lift his.
"Thank you, no. It's probably not the best idea for the ship's doctor to be poisoned so early in the evening."
"Aw, go on, Simon, try it. I'm not kidding - it's pretty tasty. Besides," he pointed with his free hand back toward the bar, "it's a gift from Jayne."
Simon twisted around in his seat; Jayne was leaning with his back against the bar, holding his drink up in a toast or a challenge. Simon was pretty sure which one it was. He turned back around to three pair of eyes trained on him expectantly.
"I can hold my liquor!" He gave a resigned sigh. "I know I'm going to regret this." In one swift motion he lifted the glass to his mouth and downed the yellow-colored liquor. He closed his eyes for a moment, but other than that showed no sign of distress. Wash let out a pleased laugh; Mal and Zoe exchanged an appraising look. Simon turned back to look at Jayne. The merc raised his glass in acknowledgment then downed the contents as if it were water. Simon settled himself back in his chair.
"What's next?" he asked no one in particular. "Knives at forty paces?"
The door swung open and a group of spacers strode into the room. Mal and Zoe sat up straight and alert. Jayne stood his ground at the bar. All of them studied the new arrivals.
There were seven of them, and five of them had to be kin. Genetics didn't play those kind of games with random strangers. Each of the five - three men and two women - was stamped with the same imprint: tall, solid bodies, high cheekbones, masses of curling red hair. They made a handsome sight, although they seemed to be unaware of their impact. The remaining two were men: one a medium- height, barrel-chested blonde and the other a rangy Asian. All of them were armed.
One of the women broke from the group and walked over to the bar. Nodding briefly at Jayne she addressed the bartender.
"We're here to meet a Mr. Wu. He been around yet?"
"Who are they?" Wash asked in a stage whisper.
"The competition," said Mal. He slammed his fist softly onto the table.
"One an hour," Jayne declared as he set the shotglass in front of Simon. He took his seat at the table and waited for the doctor to pick up his drink.
"I have nothing to prove to you," said Simon. He folded his arms across his chest and stared at Jayne. The merc held his stare with an unsettling gaze of his own, a slight sneer on his lips.
Simon gave a quick look around the table. The captain and Zoe were deep in whispered conversation; Wash was slumped in his chair, head flopped backwards, softly snoring. Across the room the rival crew was drawn up around a table, drinking and talking quietly.
"I'm as much of an idiot as you are," Simon said with a small shake of his head. He hoisted the glass and threw back the shot, then slammed the glass back onto the table. With a lift of his eyebrows and a tilt of his head he passed the challenge on to the merc. Jayne laughed - unpleasantly - and tossed the liquor down his throat, then slammed his own glass down onto the table.
"Whatever you two are up to, you stop it now." Mal looked up from his conversation with Zoe, his voice full of suspicion.
The saloon door swung inward and a small, well-dressed man glided into the room. The bartender paid no him no heed as he continued to stock the bar with fresh supplies; Wash continued to snore. All the rest riveted their attention on the new arrival as he crossed to the center of the room so he could address both table's occupants at once.
"Captain MacFie. Captain Reynolds. A word with you both, please."
Mal and Zoe exchanged a quick look, then the both of them stood and walked to where the stranger was standing. At the other table a man and a woman - two of the siblings - did the same.
"Captain Reynolds?" The man looked questioningly at the four standing in front of him.
"I'm Reynolds," answered Mal. Zoe was standing slightly behind him at his shoulder.
"I'm MacFie," offered the woman. Her brother mirrored Zoe's position, standing behind his sister and off to the side. "You Wu?"
"Alas, I am not, Captain MacFie. Mr. Wu has sent me as his emissary. He has been delayed by another matter. He asks that you await his decision here."
"His decision." Mal smiled coolly at the little man. "When did this become a competition? Because all our contact with your boss never mentioned another crew." He looked at the other captain. "No offense intended."
"None taken," replied MacFie politely. "We burned up a lot of space making it here assuming we had this job." She was addressing the emissary. "It's more than a little disappointing to find that ain't the case." She looked at Mal. "No offense intended."
"None taken," Mal assured her.
The little man was unperturbed. "Mr. Wu's ways are his own. They have served him well, as you no doubt discovered when you investigated his credentials before traveling here. Now please," he gestured to take in all the gathered crew, "he asks that you make yourselves his guests until he can join you. Eat, drink - all of your people will be provided for by Mr. Wu." He bowed slightly toward the bartender, who nodded in assent and then went back to his restocking. He bowed again to the captains and their first officers and then glided back out into the night.
Mal broke the brief silence. "Just once you'd think it'd go smooth."
"You would at that," agreed MacFie. She held out her hand to Mal. "Courage MacFie, captain of Kingdom Come. This is my big brother, Temperance." She nodded her head back toward the larger man behind her.
"Related, are you?" Mal asked innocently, as he shook her hand.
MacFie laughed. "It's a shock, ain't it?"
"Malcolm Reynolds, captain of Serenity. My first officer, Zoe." Zoe and Temperance nodded their greeting to each other.
Mal looked around the room. "Why do I have the feeling this is going to be a very long night?" He turned to Zoe. "Send Wash back to fetch the rest of the crew. I plan to take Mr. Wu up on his hospitality." He grinned at MacFie. "It only seems polite, him being so generous and all."
"Sounds about right," she replied with a grin of her own. "Temp, you go see what they want," she ordered, looking in the direction of her own crew. "I think Captain Reynolds and me should get better acquainted." She was frankly admiring as she raked her eyes up and down Mal's form.
"Well, yeah, that would be great, but no, I should get back to my crew . . ." Mal rambled as he started to move backwards toward the table where Simon and Jayne sat watching the exchange.
"Fon, I need you over here!" Courage called to her crew, and the tall Asian man stood and moved panther-like across the room toward her. Everything about him screamed that he was a merc. He reached her side and Mal tensed, ready for a confrontation. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Jayne standing now, at the ready.
"Honey, this is Captain Malcolm Reynolds of Serenity. Mal, Fon - my husband."
The merc offered his hand with a shy smile. "How do."
"OK, who's who again?" Wash was trying to make himself heard over the noise. The musicians had shown up and were tuning their instruments in the alcove off the main room of the saloon. The place seemed half way to filled just from the combined crews who were now spread out at tables around the room.
Book moved his plate out of the way and crossed his arms on the table as he leaned over to answer. He glanced up briefly as Jayne brushed by him, two drinks in his hand, headed for the table were Simon was slouching.
"The younger woman is Courage, the captain. The older woman is her sister, Diligence."
"She's the other merc?"
"Yes. The blonde gentleman is their engineer, Gustave. He's married to Diligence. Temperance is their older brother and the first officer. Fon, the Asian gentleman, is married to Courage."
"Yes. The younger brother is Justice. He's their pilot."
Wash was nodding his head vigorously through the recitation. He pointed to the table across the room that held a laughing Kaylee and River as well as the youngest of the MacFies, who was obviously the center of their attention. "So who's that?"
"That shy and retiring thing would be our youngest, Baby Love."
Book and Wash looked up to see Temperance standing there. He was returning from the bar, a drink in one hand, a plate of food in the other.
"You mind?" He nodded to one of the empty seats at the table.
"No, not all. Please, join us." Book pulled back the chair for their guest.
"Baby Love?" Wash's eyes were very wide, and he was losing the battle to keep a straight face.
"Yeah, it's a tough handle, poor kid." Temperance dug into his food, unconcerned with Wash's burst of laughter. "But, it's our way. The youngest is Baby 'til he dies." He dazzled them with a smile. "Just glad it weren't me."
"I hope you don't take offense, but I must say that as a preacher I am quite in awe of your family's naming convention."
"No offense. It's our way. Got a list of the virtues: cardinal, theological, contrary, what have you. A babe is born, a name gets checked off the list. When you reach the end, you just start over." He shrugged. "Don't pay to be a slave to nomenclature anyhow. You understand that, I'm guessin', Wash."
"Me?" Wash was caught off guard. "Wash isn't that unusual." He turned to face the grinning Shepherd. "It isn't! And I'm sorry," he turned back to MacFie, "I don't mean to be rude, but were we even introduced?"
"Your wife told us your name." They all turned to look at the table where Zoe was seated with Mal, Inara, Courage and Fon. She looked to be deeply engrossed in the conversation.
"Huh." Wash idly played with the fork in front of him. "I wonder what they're talking about."
"Complications? For a fact?" Courage took another swig of her drink and contemplated Mal.
"Why am I lookin' the bad guy here?" Mal leaned forward in his chair. "We do a dangerous job." He enunciated clearly. "Every member of the crew needs to be focused or it's gonna get real ugly real fast. It ain't no time or no place for split loyalties."
"We do all right, Captain," Zoe said matter-of-factly.
"Yes, we do, and that's my point, right there."
"And that's beside the fact that Wash is my husband?"
"Yes. No." He unconsciously rubbed his left ear. "I know how that plays out between us, and I got no complaints. Outside of the part where I wished you hadn't. But it still stands that the job is messy enough without adding," he searched for the word, "complications," he finally gave up.
"To my way of thinking, ain't no one will fight for you like kin." Courage put an affectionate hand on her husband's arm and he covered her hand with his much larger one.
"To my way of thinking - you ain't never seen my crew." Mal looked proudly at Zoe. "Best gorram crew in the 'verse."
"You think maybe you've had enough, sir?" Zoe laughed and looked at the empty glass in front of Mal and the nearly empty bottle in the middle of the table.
"What?" Mal said defensively. "A captain can't extol the virtues of his very fine crew to another captain without his sobriety being cast aspersions upon?"
"You were doing fine up until that last part, sir." Zoe's eyes slid over to Inara's and the two women exchanged a smile.
"And just where do you think this extraordinary loyalty springs from, Mal, that makes your crew so willing to fight for each other?" Inara asked him.
"From . . . loyalty. And comradeship. And being crewmates together," Mal answered her warily.
"It springs from the love you have for each other, Mal. It's love - not sharing the same crew quarters. You don't risk your lives for each other because it's the job. You do it because Serenity is your home, and you're all family now. It's love, Mal, plain and simple." She looked at him with just a trace of smugness on her beautiful face.
"Oh." Mal leaned into her, a sultry look in his eyes. "Love, is it?" He was very close to her now; his voice dropped as he continued. "Well, love - that kinda changes things."
"Love changes everything, Mal." Inara replied, staring deeply into his eyes, her voice as low as his.
"She's doing that Companion thing now, right?" Courage checked with Zoe.
"Yep," said Mal, sitting back in his chair.
"Yes," replied Inara simultaneously.
"Too bad. You make a fetching couple. And I'm guessin' there's more than game playing going on here. I'm rarely wrong about these things, ain't that so?" She looked to her husband for agreement, and he nodded seriously.
"I'm sorry to disappoint you, Captain MacFie, but this very much falls into our idea of 'complications.'" She caught herself too late. "Mal's idea of complications."
Mal caught it, too, and it earned her a saucy smile.
"It ain't complications, I'm telling you plain. You work for what's yours. You fight for what's yours. Ain't nothing simpler than that." Courage splashed liquor in everyone's empty glasses, then raised hers in a toast. "What the hell - to the complications that really ain't!"
They all raised their glasses in response; Mal and Inara hesitated just a second before joining in the toast, their eyes locked on each other. In unison they tossed back the drinks, even Inara. Mal raised his eyebrows in surprise, then his face broke wide with a silly grin. She crafted her expression into a mask of haughty distance, but she could only hold it for a moment before she gave into a girlish smile.
"Someday you're gonna have to tell me where you learned to knock back a drink like that," Mal leaned close and whispered to her.
"A Companion's training is quite extensive," Inara replied primly.
"Uh-huh," he answered, obviously unconvinced. He laid his arm on the back of Inara's chair, then settled back in his own. For her part, she managed to sit so that her body was leaning into his arm behind her without calling attention to the fact.
"I know I was praising the closeness of the crew, Mal, but still . . ." She pointed to the table where Jayne and Simon sat, a pile of empty glasses between them. "That cannot be good."
"I realize that you believe you're being clever, but we have not been here for seven hours." Simon surveyed the many empty shotglasses strewn about the table and the full one before him.
"Well, you know what they say, Doc. Time is relative." Jayne sat easy with his arms crossed, a full shotglass in front of him.
"Speaking of relative, I should go check on River." Simon started to rise from his chair.
"She's fine, Doc. Kaylee's with her. And one of them eerie-ass family fellas. Just relax yourself - you worry too much. Drink up." His large hand swallowed the small glass as he lifted it up, preparing to drink.
"It's not going to work, Jayne. I'm not going to get drunk and pass out so you can pants me or whatever it is you have planned in your miniscule mind to publicly humiliate me." Simon had sat down again but refused to take up the glass of liquor.
"Why are you so mean all the time?" There was an edge of honest hurt in Jayne's voice, and he lowered his glass.
"Me? Mean? I'm not the one with the constant barbs and the physical harassment and . . ." Simon stopped as he saw Jayne's eyes get bright. The big man was well and truly upset. An instant understanding of what was happening to the mercenary flashed across Simon's face, but the merc was already far too drunk to see it.
"No. You're absolutely right, Jayne. I've been a boor and I owe you an apology." Simon smiled brightly.
"Aw, it's OK. You ain't never been no kind of a pig, though. Just kinda stuck-up and snooty." Jayne grinned at Simon and lifted his glass again. "To boars!"
"To boors!" Simon responded heartily, and when Jayne threw his head back to down his drink, Simon poured his shot onto the floor.
Jayne pounded his glass on the table and beamed at Simon, who reached over and took the empty glass from him
"Next round's on me," Simon said.
The noise level had reached a dull, constant roar about 10 minutes after the miners had arrived from their shift change, and it looked as if it was going to stay at that level until they were ferried back to their camp in a few more hours.
The crews had shifted around over the course of the evening, trying to keep themselves amused while they awaited word from Wu's emissary. Book stood to excuse himself and addressed the couples sitting around his table: Zoe and Wash, Courage and Fon, Mal and Inara.
"This has been a most enjoyable evening, but I should get back to the ship. I still have some reading and studying to do before I turn in." He turned to Courage. "It has been a pleasure to meet you, Captain. And Fon. If I don't see you before we all leave, God speed on your journeys."
Courage rose and took the Shepherd's hand in hers. "Preacher, it's been a real honor. If you ever get out our way, you be sure to stop by and see our folks. They'd be tickled for sure. Don't get many Shepherds out that far on the Rim. Heck, they might just add your name to the baby list." She gave out a hearty laugh and the others joined in. Only Book's laugh was hesitant as he took his leave of them.
"Nice fella," Courage observed as she watched Book make his way to the exit. "Seems a little - I dunno - worldly for a preacher, though, don't he?"
"Hadn't noticed," replied Mal.
The music started up, something fast and catchy. They all sat for a while enjoying the tune; Courage stood and held out her hand to Fon.
"Honey, dance your Captain around the floor." With a grin he rose to obey her; before he could whisk her off she bent to whisper very loudly to the others. "There's no one can move across a dance floor like a trained merc. It's the reflexes, don't ya know." She winked and grinned and then allowed herself to be led off by her husband.
"I like her!" Wash declared decisively. "She's a bit nutty, but I like her."
"The whole crew is feng kuang, but they must have somethin' going for them, or Wu wouldn't have brought them here," Mal mused out loud.
"So you won't feel too bad if the decision goes in their favor?" asked Inara.
"Hell, yes, I'll feel bad. I will be high and righteously pissed. We're still the better crew. Job should be ours by right." He tapped his fingers on the tabletop in time to the music. "It is a torment to be sittin' and waitin'."
"It's all part of the job, sir," said Zoe complacently, leaning against Wash.
"Yeah, well it'd better turn out to be," Mal replied morosely.
Wash stood and held his hand out to Zoe.
"Honey, dance your pilot around the floor." Zoe remained seated, staring at Wash, but he pulled her to her feet and kissed her soundly. He turned to Mal and Inara and intoned dramatically, "There's no one can move across a dance floor like a warrior woman. It's the reflexes, don't ya know." Then he headed out to the floor, dragging a laughing Zoe after him.
Inara smiled after them and Mal shook his head. "It's a contagion. My crew is doomed. I'll have to shoot them all and start again."
"All of them?"
"It's the way of contagion, woman," Mal answered in a mock serious tone. "It's a kindness to shoot 'em. Put 'em out of their misery."
"And me, Mal? Will you have to shoot me, too?" Inara was looking at him out of the corner of her eye.
"Well, it surely depends." She looked at him full-on, and he continued, searching her face, his arm still around the back of her chair. "How crazy do you intend to get? Because it's a fact that some insanity in a person is a good thing."
"It is?" she asked softly.
"It surely is. You stay too sane, you never take a chance. You never take a chance," he moved his hand so that his fingers lay lightly on her back, "you might as well not be drawing breath." He moved his fingers slowly in a circle, almost as if he weren't aware of his actions. "So you see, you got to be a little crazy to be alive."
"Then I guess I'm more than a little crazy right now." She moved her back sinuously in response then stopped and simply relaxed into his touch.
"I won't shoot you, Inara. Not for being alive." Neither one of them was moving.
The band switched to their next number - something very old, very slow, that filled the mind with images of night and heat and smoldering touches.
"Dance with me," Mal breathed, close to her ear.
Inara stood slowly and held her hand for him to take. She led him onto the floor and found an open space among the crowd. They stood and faced each other, swaying to the song; Mal pulled her to him gently and Inara fit herself to him, arms around his neck, head against his chest. His hands were around her back, cradling her to him. He breathed in her scent as they moved slowly and sensuously in a circle, their bodies under the spell of a rhythm older than they could imagine. His breath on her hair caused her to arch her neck in delight. His hands moved on her back; her hand stroked the skin of his neck. The music played on.
"They look so perfect together, don't they?" Kaylee sighed.
Jayne tried to focus on the slowly moving mass of bodies.
"Who? Who looks perfect?" He continued to stare, out of focus.
"The Captain and Inara." She turned to Simon, who was taking Jayne's pulse. "Don't they look romantic?"
"Yes. Quite." He dropped Jayne's wrist and held one of the merc's eyes open. He peered into it intently.
"Simon, you ain't even lookin' at 'em."
Satisfied with what he saw, he turned and obediently sought out the couple on the dance floor. His eyes widened with surprise.
"Oh. Yes. They . . ." He turned to Kaylee. "Did you know about them? I had no idea." He turned back to look at Mal and Inara, fascinated.
"Well it ain't as if it's a regular thing with the two of 'em, but it's there for them with eyes to see. Them with eyes that ain't always buried in a text book or a microscope."
"He's trying to fix me. He works too hard, though. He never listens to me." River looked accusingly at her big brother.
Kaylee wrapped an arm around her in sympathy.
"Oh, sweetie, I know. We all want you to be fixed. And you will be. I know it. Your brother is the smartest, best doctor in the 'verse. And beyond. But . . ."
"But he works too hard. It makes him sad. And cranky."
"I'm right here!" Simon raised his hand in the air. "And I'm neither sad nor cranky, thank you."
Both girls stared at him skeptically.
"All right. A little cranky. But only because I let myself get carried away tonight." He shook his head ruefully. "I'm afraid he's rubbing off on me." He turned back to Jayne who was happily swaying in his chair trying to watch the couples dance. "A normal person would have passed out long ago."
"I still can't believe you did that," laughed Kaylee. "He's gonna be so mad tomorrow."
"He won't remember a thing. As far as Jayne knows, I was just as drunk as he was." He caught the two young women in a stern glare. "Unless someone turns me in."
"You can trust me. Just like the time when you snuck onto the Boudin's estate and . . ."
"River!" Simon cut her off, and she smiled at him gleefully.
"What? What did you do?" Kaylee poked him playfully in the ribs.
He squirmed, ticklish.
"It was nothing. A childhood prank. That my sister promised never to reveal." He looked at River meaningfully.
"I'll never tell. Cross my heart and hope to die." She crossed her chest with one hand and then rested her hand on her heart.
Simon took her hand from her heart and gave it a quick kiss.
"Don't die, mei-mei. Just don't tell Jayne."
"Don't worry. Jayne is afraid of me. Runs away when he sees me. Afraid what I'll tell him."
The three of them turned to look at the happy, oblivious merc.
"He is kind of a big baby about some stuff," Kaylee offered.
River and Simon shared a look, and then Simon turned back to the crowded dance floor.
"I know this is going to sound strange, but I never thought that miners danced."
"Everybody dances, Simon," said Kaylee. She reached out and slowly stroked his hand. "I dance. I love to dance."
Simon's lips curved into a small smile as he looked intently at Kaylee. Suddenly he shook his head and cleared his throat. "River. I shouldn't leave her alone."
"I'm a big girl, Simon. I'll look after Jayne. Dance with Kaylee." River pushed him bossily.
"I don't know." Simon remained unconvinced.
Kaylee stood and pulled Simon up with her.< p>"We'll be right here, Simon. We can see her the whole time."
"You're sure?" Simon asked River again.
"Go!" River pointed imperiously toward the dance floor.
With a grin be bowed formally before Kaylee.
"My lady, if you would do me the honor?" He straightened up and was greeted with her glowing smile.
"It would be my pleasure, sir," she curtsied, and even in her coveralls the effect was charming.
Happily, the young couple moved onto the floor and Simon whirled Kaylee in a fancy maneuver that filled her with delighted surprise. Other couples moved around them and cut them off from River's sight. She could spy Mal and Inara, still entwined although the music was much faster now. Zoe and Wash danced by, their faces shining and happy. She moved to sit next to Jayne.
"Little sister," he greeted her sunnily.
River lifted one of his eyelids, copying the movements of her brother earlier. She peered into his eye, then sat slowly back in her chair, a thoughtful look on her face.
Jayne leaned toward her, his face serious. He took a deep breath and waggled his eyebrows.
"You wanna dance?"
The local constabulary never did sort out how the brawl started. The miners all pointed at the strangers in their midst. The two crews were vehement in declaring their innocence. It was a clear case of "they said/they said." By the time they had finished their investigation it was long past the hour for the miners to return to their camp. The constables herded them all back on their transport and sent them off into the waning night. That left the spacers.
They were seated around the only two tables that still had all their legs intact. Some of the crew were teetering on chairs that were unstable now from missing legs or weakened joints. All except two of the women were showing scrapes and bruises and cuts and torn clothing of one description or another.
"I should hold you here just on general principle," the chief constable lectured them. He looked at the wreckage strewn around the bar.
"We didn't have nothin' to do with starting this, Constable," Mal protested, standing. "We're just here waiting on a job. Shoulda come through a while ago now."
"Sit down," ordered the constable.
"He's telling the truth, lawman. We were told to stay here by our employer." Courage had risen as well.
"Sit down, the both of you," ordered the constable again, more sternly. Reluctantly, the captains obeyed. "Let me get this straight - you're both working for the same employer but you don't really have the job yet?"
"Yes." Mal and Courage spoke in unison.
"And who would this myserious employer be?"
"Constable Hernandez?" The bartender called the constable over to him with a languorous wave. They whispered between themselves for a while, and then the constable crossed back to address his captive audience.
"There'll be no charges. Damages are being covered by your employer." There was a shift and a murmur among the crews. "I want you off my moon by dawn. After that, I don't care who you work for, you're going to jail." He strode angrily to the door and turned to face them all once more. "Dawn!" He pushed through the doors and was swallowed up in the grey light.
Mal slammed his hand down on the table in frustration and then quickly lifted it, wringing it in pain. He stood and started to take a closer inventory of his crew. He noticed Courage doing the same with her people.
"Kaylee, you OK?" She had a cut on her lip and one of the flaps on her coveralls had been ripped off. Simon was standing over her, checking her face and arms. River was to the other side of her, unharmed and solicitous.
"I'm OK, Cap'n. I went down pretty quick. Sorry, I wasn't more help."
"Never you mind about that. I'd prefer that the women on my ship stay out of brawls as a rule. Except for Zoe, of course." He grinned at his first officer who was tending to a cut on Wash's hand.
"Thank you, sir. I think."
"You two all right?" Mal was standing by their side now.
"Just fine, sir." Zoe had a few bruises, but nothing that she hadn't experienced before.
"One minute I was dancing with my wife; the next minute a very large man is trying to step on on my face." Wash looked at Zoe lovingly. "Sweetie, we really are going to have to try to go someplace where people don't want to kill us."
"We will, dear, " Zoe replied soothingly.
Mal moved toward the back wall and looked down at the unconscious Jayne. Simon followed and stared down at the merc, too.
"He gonna be OK?" Mal asked.
"Yes. According to River, he took a swing at one of the miners, missed, and then just passed out cold."
"Well, we're gonna need to get him out of here eventually."
"I'll get him up, Captain. You don't have to worry."
"And what about you, Doctor. You got a nice shiner there." Mal pointed to the black eye already showing on Simon's face.
"He was so brave, Cap'n!" Kaylee had moved up beside them. She touched Simon's eye gently, but it was enough to cause him to wince. "He stood right over me once I fell and fought them miners off. Wouldn't let no one come near me."
"He's quite the hero," said Mal, fixing Simon with a mildly mocking look.
Simon ignored his tone and attempted to determine if the captain was in need of closer medical attention.
Mal shrugged him off. "I'm good, Doc. See to the others."
Inara stood off to one side against the back wall, and Mal finally went to her.
"You're sure you're all right? No one hurt you?" Mal didn't touch her, but it was evident how much he wanted to.
"Mal, I told you, I'm fine. I did just as you said: I got River and we hid." She looked at him, a hint of anger in her eyes and voice. "I can defend myself, you know. Probably as well as you can."
"I'm sure you can," he said smoothly. "And it gives me no end of relief to know that, I want you to understand. But someone had to see to River, and you seemed like the logical choice. I promise, the next bar fight we're in - you can defend me 'til there's not a man standin'."
She looked at him and a smile stole over her face.
"I'm going to hold you to that, you know."
"I'm kinda looking forward to it my own self," Mal replied and he nudged a lock of her hair back into place from where it had fallen loose.
"I see that you have passed the time without falling prey to boredom," a voice loud and cool and genteel stole across the saloon.
Wu's emissary was back. He stood just inside the door and cast a neutral glance around the nearly destroyed interior. He picked his way gracefully through the debris and took up his former position in the center of the room.
"Captain MacFie. Captain Reynolds." They started to move toward him, but he held up his hand to stop their progress. "I regret to inform you that my employer has made other plans. He thanks you for your time and your consideration, and he assures you that this decision in no way implies that your services will not be welcome at some future date. Good day." The little man turned and started toward the door.
The room exploded with the sounds of indignant disbelief. Mal and Courage hurried toward the emissary but were brought up short by the loud, unmistakeable sound of a shotgun being primed. Behind them. They turned slowly to face the bartender as he stood calm and expressionless, the shotgun held in his steady hands. They turned again to face the emissary. He bowed politely once to them, once to the bartender, and then he turned and slid gracefully back into the coming dawn.
"Son of a bitch," Mal muttered.
"If that don't beat all," Courage added.
"Closing time," the bartender said.
"And that's when you tossed the pitcher of water on me?" Jayne held a forkful of food as he leaned around River to get more direct eye contact with Simon, who was sitting at the end of the bench from him.
"We been over this, Jayne," Mal broke in wearily.
"I just wanna get it clear in my head, is all, Mal," Jayne said, still looking at Simon.
"We had to leave the saloon or be arrested for overstaying our welcome. You were unconscious and not responding to other stimuli." Simon put his own fork down and looked back at Jayne. "It is a standard medical field procedure, Jayne."
"So I got knocked out, huh?" Jayne addressed the rest of the crew gathered around the dinner table. "Bet I put up one helluva fight," he said with satisfaction and attacked his food again.
"I'm sure the tale of your night at Sally Ann's will live for many a year, son," responded Book, diplomatically.
Simon and Kaylee concentrated their attention on the food in front of them.
"You asked me to dance," River said, nudging Jayne in the arm with her elbow.
"I ain't never gonna be that drunk, little girl," Jayne said while shrugging away from her. "It musta been your brother. Got pretty drunk there, did ya, Doc?" Jayne laughed with his mouth full.
"It was not my most stellar evening," Simon admitted. He looked over at Jayne. "I've promised myself that I will never again lose that much self-control."
Kaylee leaned over slightly and looked at him with big eyes.
"As a doctor," Simon amended. Kaylee smiled warmly and sat back.
"First time for everything, Doc," Jayne replied smugly. "I'm guessing it put a little hair on your chest. Suppose we'll have to wait to hear back from Kaylee about that."
"Jayne!" Kaylee rammed her elbow into his rib. Mal fixed Jayne with a baleful look.
Wash hurried into the room and took his place beside Zoe. He lifted the napkin off his waiting dinner and gave his wife a quick kiss.
"I've put a lot of space between us and there, Mal, as ordered." He inhaled over his plate, a look of optimism on his face, then sighed and started to eat with resignation. "I did some checking around while I was up there, piloting us into the Great Beyond. Guess the name of Mr. Wu's mother."
"You're joking, right?" Zoe replied.
"Sally Ann!" Wash looked around the table, self-satisfied and grinning.
"Think Wu owned the place, sir?" Zoe asked Mal.
"It's a nothin' place on a nowhere moon. Don't make sense," Jayne said.
"A man like Wu probably has a dozen of these little hidden-away operations spread across the system. It could come in handy for all sorts of reasons," Book offered vaguely.
"Guess that means we won't be running the next time he calls," Wash declared.
"He calls, we'll run," Mal said. "It's business, Wash. Can't take any of it personal. Besides," he looked sideways at Inara, "it wasn't all bad. Met a crazy crew. Had some drinks, some food. Danced."
Inara met his eyes briefly, then she faced forward again and smiled demurely.
"Got in a brawl. Nearly arrested. Evicted from the planet," Wash continued fondly. "Good times. Good times."
Over the laughter, Book raised his cup.
"To Sally Ann!"
Eight hands joined his, cups upraised in cheer.
"To Sally Ann!"