“Mate in seven, you ask me,” a voice said from behind them.
Mal gave the chess board another, more careful look. It was battered, worn, and probably the best the dingy bar on the small moon of Callista could offer. “Well, I don’t see as how it’s gonna be mate in anything soon, my own self. Zoe, you see it?”
“No, sir,” she replied loyally, if not necessarily all that honestly. “I figure it mate in ten,” she added bluntly. So much for loyal but dishonest.
“Oh, come on!” Malcolm Reynolds protested. “I’m not that bad a chess player. Am I?”
“Do you really want her to answer that, Captain?” Wash asked teasingly from his perch on a chair a few feet away, where he had been gleefully kibitzing the both of them for the whole match.
Jayne, who was sitting next to Wash and drinking, said nothing.
The person who had offered the comment in the first place shrugged and returned to his drink. “Eh, your game,” he replied disinterestedly.
“Yeah, my game,” Mal agreed. “And since this is my game, I’ll lose it my way, dong ma?”
“Oh, I get it,” the stranger agreed affably.
“Well, alright then,” Mal said, and returned to his game.
At the bar itself, a few seats to the left of where the chess-savvy fellow was sitting, a rather nasty specimen of humanity grabbed his mug, rapped it on the table several times for attention, and said loudly, “Toast!”
“Now, why does this seem a mite familiar?” Mal wondered aloud.
“Now, I’m sure all of you maggots know well and good what day it is…” he started, giving the bar a look that said that if they didn’t know, he’d want to know the reason why.
“Oooh, wait, I know this one!” Wash said cheerily. “Is it…-“ He trailed off as Zoe put her palm over his mouth.
“Sorry, he’s a little thick in the head,” she said apologetically. “Isn’t that right, dear?” she added acidly, glaring at her husband.
“Muhu,” he agreed around her hand. “Mm phhhkkkrr nnn ppphhhhttttt.”
“That’s nice, dear,” Zoe replied absently. “Please,” she added to the thug, “go on.”
“Why, thankee, little missy,” the thug replied with a lecherous glance. “Like I said, this is Unification Day!”
“Knew it sounded familiar,” Mal muttered.
“Yeah,” Jayne agreed. “Sounds an awful lot like that hun dan that got you in that bar fight. Looks kinda like him, too.”
“Ah, I got him, Jayne. Not the other way round.”
“This,” the thug continued, utterly oblivious to to the conversation, “is the day we finally sent those coward pisspots what called themselves Browncoats running!”
“Am I gonna have to start another bar fight?” Mal wondered aloud.
“Looks like you won’t have to, sir,” Zoe murmured. “He’s gonna start it for you.” And, wouldn’t you just gorram know it, there was the chess expert, walking up to the thug.
“Wo de tian, a! Is he a gorram idiot?” Mal asked the ‘verse in general, rolling his eyes to the heaves.
“How ‘bout you say that to my face?” the man asked.
“I said the Independents were pisspot cowards. You gonna do something’ about it?”
“Just say you’re a bu ke yi shi gong ji who oughta mind his betters.”
The thug frowned. “You know, your duster looks a little…”
“What, green? It’s green, not brown!”
“Yeah. Weird kinda green. Mottled, like. Like somebody dyed it green.”
“Whoah,” Chess-player said. “Hold on a minute, yeah?” Seeing that the thug was off balance, he slammed his mug right on the crown of the thugs head.
Mal sighed. “Great. Another bar fight. Ni ta ma de tianxia suoyou de ren dou.”
“I hear that, sir,” Zoe agreed, discreetly drawing her sawed-off.
The chess-critic slammed the thugs head against the bar top a few times, turned to face a very hostile bar, and said, “Right. Who’s next!”
Half the bar stood up to take up his challenge.
“Oh. Go se.”
Mal got one of the brawlers with solid right hook, kicking another firmly in the groin. “Well, this is kinda fun!” he shouted to Zoe, who just grunted, and slammed her sawed-off into someone’s jaw. “Or… not,” Mal muttered.
“Hell, I’m having fun!” Jayne shouted, laying about himself left and right with a pool cue. “Here, take that! And that! Yeah? Your mother!”
Wash, on the other hand, was not enjoying himself. “Oh, wu de ma and all her crazy nephews! Help me!”
A flying glass hit his attacker solidly on the head.
“Thank you!” Wash shouted in the general direction the glass had come from.
Mal hit the ground hard when they threw him out the window. He tried his best to roll out, like the lieutenant had taught him during the war, but he didn’t quite succeed. Well, there’s a ‘nother thing the doctor’s gonna have to deal with, he thought to himself. Aloud he asked, “Everyone okay?”
“Just shiny, sir,” Zoe growled, picking herself up off the ground.
“Ow,” Wash said, not getting off the ground. “Bruises, can we say bruises?”
“Think so,” Mal replied. “Lemme try. ‘Bruises.’ There, see? Now get up.”
“Don’t wanna. Nice ground.”
Zoe sighed, and picked him up.
“Oooh. Nice wife. Wife is much nicer than the ground.”
“Do I have to carry you?” she asked mildly.
“That be nice, yeah. Hey, Mal, I think I’ve got a great new way of getting around! We all get the ladies to carry us.”
“Don’t know ‘bout you, Wash, but I’m pretty sure you’re fixin’ to get dropped.”
“Oh,” he muttered. “Just forget it, then, yeah?”
Zoe, ignoring her somewhat ludicrous husband, asked Mal, “What about him, sir?”
“Who? Oh, him? What about him?”
“Yeah,” ‘him’ grunted, picking himself off the ground and futilely trying to brush the dirt off of his green duster. “What about me?”
The bar doors slammed open, and the thug walked out, holding a nasty shotgun in one hand, and a revolver in the other. Several equally nasty looking people, equally heavily armed, followed him. “Guess what, Browncoats?” he asked.
“You’re a recovering lobotomy patient, and you’d like a donation?” Greencoat sniped.
“Shut it, wimp,” the thug snapped. “Wasn’t talking to you! Ya’all are no longer welcome on this here world.” He lazily raised his guns. “And we got the iron to back it up!”
“The iron, maybe. You got the brass?” Mal asked quietly. “Wash,” he whispered, “tell me you got River piloting my boat.”
Wash didn’t have to say a word, which was fortunate, given the fact that he was far too busy staring at the threatening guns pointed at him. He just pointed vaguely behind him.
“Huh?” Mal grunted. “Don’t see nothin’…” He paused as the unique whine of Serenity’s engines became audible. “Oh. Shiny.”
Serenity hove into view, to the obvious startlement of the Thug Squad. “Go away,” Serenity’s loud-speakers thundered, “or I will kill you with my brain. Also with a large missile launcher. Blue Sun Mark-V Honest Dave Rocket Launcher, to be exact. Three kiloton yield per missile, accuracy rating 7.6 on Guns and Ammo’s Accuracy Meter. Not that it matters from this distance.”
“W… wha… ta ma de!” the Thug-in-Chief stuttered. “Fuck, just take ‘em! But don’t let me catch you coming back!”
“But I’m here to buy passage on a ship!” Greencoat muttered. “What the go se am I supposed to do?”
“How much you got?” Mal asked. He pointed to Serenity, which was lowering the boarding ramp. “I happen to have a ship. We happen to take passengers. If they happen to pay.”
“Well, this is Serenity. We got a galley you’re welcome to anytime, thoug we do got us mealtimes if you take a fancy to eatin’ with the crew. Book can cook a mean dish, I tell you that.” Mal got a predatory gleam in his eyes. “You could have a go at cooking yourself, if you like, or if you got real specific tastes.”
Greencoat chuckled. “Tired of this ‘Book’ person’s cooking, Captain?”
Mal winced. “Nah. Just looking for variety.”
“Sorry. Can’t cook anything worth a good gorram ‘cept for peanut brittle.”
“Oh, well. There’s also crew quarters, which you’re to stay out of unless invited. Don’t think that needs to be said, but still. Erm, there’s a coupla guest quarters, feel free to take whichever one you like, though they’re all pretty similar. Fold out toilet and sink, bed, stuff like that. Nothing fancy. If you like, we got two shuttles…”
“You rent out shuttles?” Greencoat asked curiously.
“Oh, sure. To long-term passengers. One used to be occupied, but… well, she up and left. Wasn’t one of the proper crew, anyway, so it don’t matter none.” He sounded like he was desperately trying to convince himself of that.
“You’ll have to introduce me to crew,” Greencoat said politely. “I dare say they’re an interesting bunch.”
“Oh, that they are. Motley crew, you might say.” Mal frowned. “Forgetting something. Oh, yeah. Cargo area’s also kinda off-limits. Sorry, don’t mean to sound all bossy and such, but we’ve had problems with thieves- ”
“Don’t worry, Captain. Lot of Browncoats turned to smuggling after the War. Nothing to be ashamed of with me; though I do get why you hide it.” His voice was exceedingly dry.
“Well, sure don’t know where you get ‘smuggling’ from-”
“Please. You’re obviously not worried that I’m going to run off with a crate of gee-gaws hidden under my shirt. Firefly class makes a great smuggling ship, all those hiding spots. I’m no Fed, Captain.”
“I ‘spect a Fed would say something an awful lot like that, friend.”
“A Fed would have taken that to be as good as a confession and had you bound by now. Like I said, I’m no Fed. Fought the Purplebellies in the War, damned if I’m gonna become one.”
Mal sized him up. He certainly didn’t look like a Fed. Beat up grey BDU’s, battered combat boots, thread-worn white shirt… only things the man had that weren’t half-way to the dumpster was his duster- and the awful dye-job showed pretty bad- and his revolver, which was old but well cared for. “Well, if it turns out you are, I’ll space you without a thought, dong ma?”
“Sure. Do the same in your place,” he replied casually.
“Well… uh, good.”
Mal gathered the crew in the alley to meet the passenger.
“Right, crew, this is… um, oh, go se, I didn’t even ask!”
“Not a worry, Captain,” Greencoat said. “It didn’t come up. It’s Kendrick, actually. Kendrick Dawson.”
“Right,” Mal said. He turned back to the crew. “Everyone, this Kendrick Dawson. He’s bought passage on the ship, and thus… is a passenger. You know, with all that entails.”
“Passengerly stuff,” Wash supplied.
“Yeah, right,” Mal agreed. “Anyway Kendrick, this is the crew. The smart-ass there is Wash; ships pilot.”
“I am a leaf on the wind,” Wash explained.
“Very Zen,” Kendrick acknowledged. “Time is a river, life is a journey, the pilot is a leaf.”
Mal shrugged. “Okay. This here is Shepherd Derrial Book. Like the title says, he’s a Shepherd, came outta the Southdown Abbey, if that means anything to you.”
“Shepherd,” Kendrick grunted, nodding shortly.
“Does my position pose a problem?” Book asked mildly.
“Not my place to have problems, is it, Shepherd?” Kendrick replied. “Anyways, don’t preach at me, and we’ll be shiny, yeah?”
“Very well,” Book replied graciously. “I don’t make a habit of proselytizing to the unwilling, anyway.”
“Moving on,” Mal said loudly, in a ‘shut-up-and-let-me-talk’ tone. “This lovely young girl is Kaylee, our mechanic.”
“Hi,” she said brightly. “Welcome aboard. Hey, your coat looks just like Mal’s, ‘cept for the color. Did you serve in the War?”
“Uh, yes, actually,” Kendrick stuttered, caught off guard by the human whirlwind of cheerfulness that was Kaywannit Lee Frye. “Private, actually, I was, I mean. A Private.”
“Wow. Did you ever serve with the Captain?”
“Can’t say I recall him.”
“Again,” Mal growled, “moving on. The exceedingly well-dressed fellow is the ship’s doctor, Simon. As a paying passenger, you can go to him if you manage to get banged up. Might want to have him check you for a whaddya call it, concussion. We all got thrown pretty hard.”
“How many fingers am I holding up?” Simon asked, putting his hands behind his back, smiling faintly.
“At least none, probably no more than ten,” Kendrick replied immediately.
“He’s fine,” Simon informed the captain. “Abstract reasoning like would be harder if he was concussed.”
“Oh, great. Don’t want a concussed passenger. Next on the list is Jayne. Say hello, Jayne.”
The big man who was sitting in the corner and cleaning his gun just grunted.
“Wait a minute! Jayne Cob?” Kendrick asked, excited. “The Hero of Canton? That Jayne? He actually looks like the statue!”
“You’ve seen the statue?” Mal looked surprised and somewhat worried. “You know, never mind. Don’t want to give him a swelled head.”
“Guess that means I can’t sing the song. Ah, well. Can’t carry a tune in a cargo ship, anyway.”
“Thank goodness. Anyway, the girl who’s skulking in the back is River. She’s a little shy, you know?”
“Not shy,” River said defensively. “Not having anything to say is not shy.”
“Well, near enough.”
“River,” Kendrick murmured. “Simon. You know, I hope you two choose false names the next time you take on a passenger, ‘cause that passenger might just be a Fed, who might just realize that you’re River and Simon Tam. That Fed would probably have you bound by law before you could say-“ He broke off, staring the guns that had appeared in the hands of Mal, Zoe, and Jayne.
“Don’t shoot?” he pleaded meekly.