Malcolm Reynolds is in a bit of a temper.
"Jayne! Why in hell's name ain't this thing tied down. I thought I told you I want this ship secure."
"Ain't no-one getting in or out," says Jayne with a glower. "Feels like that's pretty secure to me."
"Not to me," says Mal. "Not while those boxes are dancin' about. Tighten those straps! Zoe? I got two civilians on board, not to mention these eight crates with the word dangerous written on 'em in more languages than I can swear in, could you tell your fèi fèi shǔ of a husband to go a little easy on the steering?"
Zoe gives the kind of deadpan salute which means she knows exactly why Mal's angry, and it has nothing to with crates, and strides off the bridge. "Yessir."
"Kaylee? Kaylee!" Mal slams his hand down on the intercom. "Kaylee!"
"Not so loud, Cap'n, I ain't deaf." Kaylee swings over the railing and half-slides down the steel rail. "'Course, tone like that might be half the ship is now. You wanted something?"
"Why ain't you in the engine room? You suddenly got another job on this ship 'sides keepin' her running?"
"Yeah, I work a side job keeping grouchy Captains from killin' their crew. She's doing fine on her own. That duel-pipe radiator we picked up on Omega Nine's got her purring like a kitten." She pats the cool metal paneling of the ship with the friendliness of someone who's got an understanding. "You though, you sound like you might need a radiator of your own, cool you down some."
The brewing storm doesn't dissipate, but it lessens slightly. "You try staying even-tempered when you've got a whole bunch of explosive cargo on board."
"You mean Inara's new friend?" Kaylee grinned and twists so she's dangling backwards over the end of the railing, almost of an eye with Mal. "I think he's sweet."
Mal's expression remains stony, heading towards rocklike. "I meant the explosive cargo."
"And," says Kaylee, as though he hadn't said a word, "He's a Captain. You two should have a chat, I bet you've got a lot in common."
"That's a part of myself that ain't something I'm wantin' to find out about. The man called Serenity 'little'."
"You gotta admit, Cap'n, the cabins you've given them are kinda on the cramped side."
"He said he'd ridden ships that coulda fitted Serenity in their cargo hold."
"Ain't no way no big ship could outclass our girl, though, and he knows it. Or else he'd be riding her."
"That makes him a liar. And he's boastful. And he wears that one coat around all the time, who does that! Also, I think he's sly."
"Means there ain't no need to worry 'bout all that time he's spending in Inara's shuttle, then," says Kaylee brightly. At the look on Mal's face she softens, and twists to put a hand on his shoulder with the same placidity she'd shown the ship only moments earlier, one of the two constants in her life. There's a blotch of grease on her pink shirtsleeve. "Maybe he's twigged you don't like him much and he's keepin' outta your way, huh?"
"You sure you're not soft on him?" Mal peers suspiciously at her. "You're getting' mighty defensive here, Kaylee."
"Well, I guess he's kinda charming, and the way he handled that carburettor— brrr." It only takes a glance at Mal's horrified expression for her to explode into giggles. "Y'know Cap'n, I can control myself."
"All of a sudden-like? When'd that start?"
"About the same time a certain ship's doctor…"
Mal holds up his hands. "Woah now. Stop right there. I don't wanna even imagine followin' that sentence any further."
Kaylee rolls her eyes. "So, way I figure, we've only gotta put up with him for another couplea weeks. We drop the cargo, then the passengers." A smile. "Not all of 'em stick around forever, you know."
"Hey, I'm working the righteous anger. Your sense ain't good currency here."
"We're getting' paid in sense now?" asks Jayne, pulling out a handkerchief crackling with filth and wiping his sweaty face as he wanders over. "I ain't havin' none of that."
"Suddenly, everything is clear." The dry tones of Simon Tam reach them as he walks down the steps. Jayne screws up his face in his I-think-I-just missed-an-insult expression, then settles for glaring at Simon anyway. Mal's eyes are skyward.
"Do none of you on my ship have jobs you should be gettin' to?"
"I got to mine," says Jayne, still surly from the useless packhorsing.
"Actually, I was looking for River," says Simon, oblivious to Kaylee's disappointment that he wasn't looking for her. "Have any of you seen her? Zoe said she saw her come this way."
"I don't think I glimpsed her…" Kaylee says, and there's concern in her voice for the siblings.
Jayne shrugs and snorts and moves on. "Girl's like a gorram cockroach," he calls back. "Ain't gonna find her if she don't wanna be found."
"And how many times have I told you not to play your little games of hide and seek in here?" snaps Mal. "The girl ain't allowed near the cargo. Particularly not this cargo and particularly not that girl."
"Which is why I'm trying to make sure she's not— River." Some unspoken instinct means Simon looks up, and then the rest of them follow his gaze to River on one of the upper walkways, leaning too far over the thin railing with her toes all ballerina-skewed as she stares down at the big boxes Mal's being paid a lot to transport. "Mei mei, get down from there!"
She beams like it wasn't a scolding: "Simon!" and begins to make her way down. By the bottom she seems to have remembered her concerns. "It talked to me, Simon. Told me the doctor's coming."
"Well now, the doctor's here, and he's gonna take you right back to your room," says Mal a voice that almost isn't pretending to be sweet. "Ain't that right, Doc?"
Kaylee whacks Mal's chest lightly. "C'mon River," she says, but it's Simon she's looking at. "Let's go get somethin' to eat."
Simon glances at the ground. "Yes, that- that would be lovely."
River rolls her eyes and swans ahead of them both. Mal calls out: "And after you take tea, maybe you could get some gorram work done!"
In Serenity's kitchen, Inara breathes in her cup of jasmine tea and listens to the man talk.
"And I say, you think the ship moves fast, you should try getting drunk with the pilot!" He laughs like a gunshot, and Inara thinks, not for the first time, that he reminds her of Mal.
"Sounds like you've known a lot of interesting people, for a man who claims to be an accountant," says Inara with a smile and half-lowered lashes, pushing back her long, dark hair.
He mimics her expression with a subtlety the Academy would be proud of. "A lot of beautiful people, too." She shivers unnoticeably, and knows that in some ways he's not like Malcolm Reynolds at all.
"So, what are you a Captain of?" Inara asks, and watches as his expression shifts slightly, his eyes harden. The smile doesn't waver, and he leans back all easy, but his arms wind tight around his chest and he grips his elbows white-knuckled.
"This and that," he says airily. "Here and there. Had a ship of my own, once upon a time. You ever been to Boeshane?"
"I haven't had that pleasure."
"Yeah it's uh, it's probably quite a ways from here, and a lady like yourself wouldn't be interested in that kinda backwater anyway."
"You'd be surprised how many backwaters a lady such as myself has been subjected to lately," says Inara with a light tiredness. Then: "I'm sorry, that was bitter. Please, let me refill your cup."
She reaches for it, and he touches her hand for a moment. It's a pleasure to have someone else well-spoken onboard the ship, and though he's a passenger it isn't his status which makes her draw away. The man is a consummate actor; like recognizes like. There's something else playing in those very blue eyes, and his hands are the hands of a military man, not the money-grubber he claims to be. For Inara, danger doesn't hold the allure it did when she was younger. She pulls her hand away.
The moment is broken: Kaylee's voice in the outside corridor rings like a bell. "Somethin' sure smells good." She enters, Simon and River close behind her, and beams with the warmth which is her charm: "Captain Jack! Nice o' you to join us."
"I was just telling Inara some completely inappropriate stories," he says, all teeth and chin. His eyes pause on Simon momentarily, and if possible his grin grows even wider. "You lot should stay and listen, bet I could make the doctor blush."
"Not in front of River," says Simon, expression unreadable. Which isn't exactly a no. River pulls a face.
In the ship's cargo, Mal moodily double-checks the straps Jayne's just tightened; it's been twenty minutes since he sent Zoe up to the bridge and if anything the ship's movements are even more erratic. "Are we playin' an obstacle course or piloting a ship, Wash?" he yells to the empty air, rounds a corner and adds: "…The gorram hell is that?"
'That' is a blue box nestled in between a few crates, the large English DANGER: EXPLOSIVE sign right above it, ominously. Mal would swear on the graves of all his fallen comrades that it hadn't been there five or so minutes ago, and if Captain too-big-for-his-britches Harkness has anything to do with its appearance, Mal plans to put him off the ship, whether they've landed or not.
"Zoe," he tells the comm. "Cargo hold. Now. Jayne, go find our new passenger. If he's not in his room, check the ship for him; tear apart Inara's shuttle if you gotta. Man's claimin' to be an accountant? I'd like him to account for himself."
He turns back to the box. It's still there.
Just as Mal's readying his gun, a man steps out of it, a man in a natty blue suit with his hair all over the place. "Hallo! What've we here then. Somewhere civilized, I think, depends on your definition, I suppose. And there's the—"
"Who the hell are you," Mal asks calmly, as though he isn't about to fire a shot at a man standing in front of three large boxes of high explosive. "And how'd you get on my gorram ship."
"I'm the Doctor. A ship, is it? Oh yes, I see now, light freighter, Firefly class three, that cargo's got Mandarin Chinese all over it making this, ooooh, I'd have to say two four sixty… two? Ursula region? Good movers, these, though not really that defensible without a bit of customization, never really caught on…"
"Two five seventeen," says Mal, caught between stunned and flattered and deciding to go with pissed.
The Doctor hums to himself, and gives them all a lookover that makes Mal feel like he's been put through some hospital scanning machine. "A classic, then. Old-fashioned man, are you? And that coat… hm. Excuse me a moment."
Before anybody can do anything, he's ducked back inside the door and is closing it firmly behind him.
Mal's eyes flicker to where Zoe's emerged from the door above, and she moves over to take up firing position. He motions for her to cover him as he moves forward. He's just about to reach the handle when it swings open again and the man re-emerges.
"Sorry about that, just needed to recalibrate some instruments." He pets the blue paneling fondly, as though she's an old friend. "Not entirely where I wanted to be, but maybe where I was needed."
Mal decides it's best to just come out and ask it. "You crazy?"
"I said, you crazy? Three nuts short of an engine? Ain't no instruments in there, hell, couldn't fit all my crew in there if I wedged Jane's head up—"
"You'd be surprised," says another voice, and a girl steps out behind the first man.
"How many of you are there?" asks Mal incredulously.
The Doctor grins. "Just us! Oh, sorry, I'm the Doctor, as I said, and this is my friend Rose. Do you mind if we have a chat to you about those big boxes? Ones with the red writing all over them."
"Sorry about him," the girl adds almost confidentially to Mal. There's a sort of fond, amused despair in her voice. "Tends to be a bit patronizing towards men with guns."
"Must get shot a lot, then," says Mal, and the Doctor laughs. He gives Mal a look, something in those wry brown eyes reminiscent of the empty space on the edge of the galaxy, and instantly Mal changes his opinion. This man isn't a doctor; he's a soldier.
"As I said, I'm afraid I'm going to have to requisition those crates. Don't suppose I could see the captain of the ship?"
"That'd be me," says Mal. "Only captain on board. Well, that ain't quite the whole truth o' the moment, but this is my ship, and it's my cargo, and more importantly it's my job to get it where it's gotta go."
"Admirable sentiments, I'm sure, but you don't want this cargo to get where it's going. Neither do I, neither does Rose, neither do any of your crew or any of the people on the planet you're going to or, I may even venture to assume, many of the people in this little solar system."
Mal folds his arms. "Just how many people know about this cargo?"
The Doctor pauses significantly. "Well," he says. "The expansive negativity is mostly hypothetical, you understand."
"Found him," comes Jayne's voice from the doorway, and Mal has the pleasure of seeing a man who he don't imagine surprises easily widen his eyes with shock.
"Oh no," he says, just as Mal crows: "I knew it!"
Jack Harkness is manhandled into the room by Jayne, and there's a bit of an unseen scuffle as Jack attempts to shrug the other man off. At last, he growls out, "Lemme go; I can walk unassisted, tha—"
He sees the Doctor, all long-limbed and grinning, and it's in the Doctor's eyes; the wrongness of it. Of him, of being here, and this is the first time he's seen it. Seen Jack.
Rose is the only one who seems to brighten. "Jack?" she cries and runs over to him.
"I just knew you'd have something to do with this," says Mal.
"Not me, Captain," says Jack around an armful of Rose Tyler, which really, is just about the best armful to have. "These two are old friends of mine, but I'm as surprised to see them here as anyone else."
"Are you really, Captain Harkness?" asks the Doctor coolly, and gestures behind him. "Circumstances being what they are?"
"And what are they?" asks Mal.
"End of the world," says Jack.
"End of every world, actually," amends the Doctor.
"Isn't that just always the way."
Mal eyes both of them warily. "I think we all better come sit down and have a chat."
As they walk to the eating area, the Doctor rambles on about the design to the ship, managing to pull grudging admissions about the modifications of Serenity out of Mal like a magician pulls handkerchiefs from a hat. "Near every part in her's been replaced. Twice."
Jack walks close to Rose, breathing in the scent of her. There's something about Rose Tyler that is uniquely 21st Century Earth Female, and even if it's been less than a year since he helped her and the Doctor tow the planet home, he's still missed her sorely.
"I'm so glad you're okay," she whispers to him. "He, the Doctor, I mean, he said you would be. But we left you behind on that awful ship, and I thought…"
"I'm not, though," says Jack, shushing her. "It's fine."
"How did you even get here? I mean, we're centuries out, right? Your time hopper thingy can't've managed all that."
Jack is very aware of Jayne 'escorting' them, close enough to eavesdrop; of the Doctor's surprisingly canny hearing. "I hitched a ride," is all he says, and hey. Technically, it's the truth.
"I'm sorry, Jack," says Rose. And even though she means for forgetting him, for letting him end up who-knows where while she continued on her journey, and even though she can't ever, ever know what she did to him, what she's made of him… something in that free, easy apology salves his heart where he hadn't been aware it was hurting.
"Sontaran Photonic Emulsifier," says the Doctor when they've all seated themselves around the table, Zoe alert by the door, and Kaylee peeps her head in.
"Are you boys talkin' tech without me?"
Mal shrugs. "Come on in, Kaylee, wouldn't mind you helping me pick apart whatever this Doctor feller has to say."
She pulls up a chair, and Simon stands in the doorway uncomfortably. The Doctor looks down on them all like he's addressing a class of children. "As I was saying. You have, I estimate, two metric tonnes of Sontaran Photonic Emulsifier."
"And what's that when it's at home."
"Think nitroglycerin," says Jack, who knows how this time period works. "Then think bigger. Think the kind of stuff that could blow up one of your Alliance moons." He pauses. "A big one."
Mal grimaces. "So I've gotta treat it with a little more delicacy. Believe me, I've been tryin' to get that into everyone else 'round here's skulls." Jayne blanches at the realization of what might have happened if his ropes hadn't been tied tight enough.
"Photonic Emulsifier is used in Sontaran Fragment bombs," says the Doctor; he pauses a moment, as though remembering something long past. "Nasty weapon, effective little killing machine, just what the Sontaran like. They're a very warlike people. They were also destroyed, with their entire planet, a short while ago… or, a long while ago from where you're standing, I suppose, not that your history books would have any record of it but it's nice to be accurate."
"So, you're saying…" Mal tries to get to the root of that sentence. "It don't matter? The people who use it as weapons ain't around?"
"The people who made it are gone," corrects the Doctor, frowning. "The Sontaran kill in battle. They enjoy warfare; rules, honor, that sort of thing."
"Honor ain't always synonymous with warfare," says Mal quietly.
Jack nods, but adds: "Sure, but these guys were all about honor. They wanna battle, to defeat each other. They want to blow small things up, not everything around them. Not themselves."
"Exactly," says the Doctor. "The person who wants to use this as a weapon doesn't want to take out a space colony or two. They've got their hands on some of the rarest and most dangerous stuff in the universe, and if my source is correct, they want to throw it into the sun."
Mal slams his hands on the table. "Let 'em. Get rid of those Alliance bastards. Lemme be straight with you, I'm not too concerned about what happens to the inner planets. That's the way of it on my ship."
"Damn straight, sir," adds Zoe.
"I dunno, Cap'n," says Kaylee. "If the Alliance were all blowed up it'd be even tougher for the outer planets to get any food at all."
"We could keelhaul the debris," says Mal, straight-faced.
"You don't understand!" the Doctor says. "It isn't a matter of a few of what you call the inner planets being blown up. Your entire solar system would go. There's a very good chance of the explosion causing a black hole. Everyone would die. We've got to prevent that, don't you see?"
"What I see is that I need to get paid," says Mal. "What I see is two guys tryin' to pull a con to take my cargo."
"Can't con a conman," says a soft voice from under the table.
Everyone scoots back their chairs, and Simon moves forward hurriedly. "River! What are you doing down there, I thought you said you were going with Inara?"
"Needed to know. When he got here, I figured it might be true. Big bang all over again. It'll uncreate life."
Simon coaxes her out from under the table where she stands with her arms wrapped around her tightly. "You shouldn't be listening to these stories." He glances at the Doctor, Rose and Jack with worry. "My sister, she's not well… if-if she overheard what you said, she might think it's… coming true somehow, or."
"It is coming true," says Rose hotly, but the Doctor is staring at River.
"Well..." he breathes, that long drawn-out sound which means he's found a really fascinating puzzle.
River hunches forward, but she's not scared. She peers out from under her hair like curtains, dark fall over white skin, and tilts-her head just so, and completely ignores Simon's fussing. Tears begin to stream down her face. "They all burned," she says. "They all burned and there's just him and he's so sad and alone, oh god."
"Don't look at that," says the Doctor, not unkindly but Jack, at least, can hear the terror in his voice. "Come away from there."
River's gaze switches to Rose, and her eyes widen. When she looks at Jack, she faints.
"River!" Simon catches her easily and lays her over the table. "What did you do to her!?"
"I didn't do anything to that poor, poor girl." The Doctor's hand is over his mouth. "It's like they opened her brain up and tried to surgically make her a Time Lord."
"A what?" Simon spins around as Rose asks: "Did it work?"
The Doctor just takes Rose's hand. "Not quite."
"And why'd she faint when she looked at me and Jack? I mean, we're pretty normal."
"Must've been delayed," said Jack, giving his best impression of honesty. "From looking at the Doctor. I mean, I've been on the ship with her for days and she's been fine."
Kaylee begins to help Simon take River to the infirmary, and at a nod from Mal, Zoe joins them. The young girl's twitching in her sleep. "I think I'll have to drug her," says Simon regretfully, and he turns an angry gaze on Jack as though it's his fault, somehow.
"She's a reader, that one," Mal says when they're gone, his words seeming flat in a room full of weighted gazes.
"Yes," says the Doctor, with the air of a man who is having a conversation while doing differential equations and baking a cake.
"Maybe you figured that out. But I've seen enough of that girl's brain to trust to it. You folk may be odd, and you may fill me with a righteous anger, but I'm gonna take your word that I'm carrying a whole mess of explosive and the place I'm takin' it won't be good for anyone."
The Doctor's attention seems to return midway through this little speech. "Oh! Well. That's something, at least."
"Now, we got ourselves two problems. One, if I ain't deliverin' it, what the hell'm I gonna do with it? Two, where am I gonna get the money to keep this ship flyin'?"
"Oh, I can pay," says the Doctor, "Don't worry about that."
"…Well, why didn't you say so in the first place," says Jayne. "Woulda saved a lotta arguing."
"As for the other concern… Photonic Emulsifier's power increases exponentially. Bigger than the sum of its parts, as it were. So, if we break it down to smaller pieces," he makes a gesture with his hands about the size of a basketball, "The explosions will be… well. Certainly enough to demolish a city, but not the universe."
"So we break it up, I'll start having a few extra grenades?"
"I'm not letting you use this thing as a weapon." The Doctor's tone is authoritative for a moment before he returns to enthusiastic brainstorming. "We'll find an empty planet, join all the pieces along a fuse line, light one end and hope it doesn't destroy the whole thing. Difficult to replace, planets."
"Who gets to light the wick?" asks Mal.
The Doctor looks at Jack.
"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," he says.
It doesn't seem to take long before they come to it. The Doctor's cracked open the crates ("It needs open flame to explode," he said upon seeing Mal's panicked expression. "The nitroglycerin analogy wasn't entirely accurate.") and now all free hands have been set to work pulling of wads of the thick blue dough-like substance and packing it into balls, which are then joined to the huge ball line of twine-like wick the Doctor just happened to have lying around in his TARDIS. Rose is occupied wrapping each ball with it ("I want to help, Doctor, and if I can wrap Mum's Christmas presents this'll be a cinch, promise.")
"Jack," says the Doctor softly. "A moment?"
Captain Jack Harkness drops the ball he's rolling with an obedience which catches the nearby Zoe's eye. Mal might be interested to know the 'Captain' considers this man something of a Commanding Officer.
In the TARDIS, the Doctor closes the door after both of them and leans against it, staring at him.
"I know, I know," says Jack. "I'm the guy who's gonna be standing there with a cigarette lighter tryna make it catch. You know, you really have to stop getting me to—"
"Jack," says the Doctor. "Spoilers."
"Oh. Yeah." Jack crosses his arms, looks down at the ground. "How long since Satellite Five in your timeline?"
"Not long," says the Doctor. "You look older. Except, well, for the obvious."
"Yeah. Last time I saw you was about eight months ago, on Earth." Jack shrugs minutely, presses his lips together. "But, you know. Crossed timelines. Spoilers."
The Doctor seems to dread his next question. "And how long since Satellite Five in your timeline?"
"Few hundred years," says Jack with an ache in his voice that nothing in the universe can erase. "Give or take a thousand spend under the Earth, I kinda lost track there…"
The Doctor won't meet his eyes, and they're both silent for a time. Then: "And you seemed very happy to see Rose."
"Yeah. I always wondered how she knew I was okay." The Captain chuckled. "Wounded my pride a little, thinking she hadn't even worried about me."
There's a moment where the Doctor pauses, letting Jack know he's deliberately allowing him to avoid answering that unspoken question. "You've got a lot of pride," says the Doctor. "I'm sure it'll recover."
"Probably. But I'm wondering if the same can be said for all my little fragments. I've been chopped into pieces, but never exploded. I bet it hurts like a bitch." He looks at the Doctor, and they both grin, and for a moment in the shared macabre joy of it he sees someone else in those eyes, a man with huge ears and a leather jacket who'd been an arrogant ass and said Brilliant! too much and danced with him in this very room.
Then the Doctor swallows, and straightens, and says "Right then! I'll make your excuses to Captain Reynolds, no need to worry about that." and he's entirely different again.
"You'll come pick me up afterwards, too, I hope," says Jack, striding forward and nudging him. "Or sweep me up. This wasn't exactly an intentional coincidence. The Cardiff space-time rift threw me here, and I really need to get back to Earth." A sly wink. "There are a few people who might worry."
"Oh, I'm sure there's more than a few," says the Doctor darkly, and then: "What were you doing in—"
"Spoilers!" laughs Jack, and flings open the door again with a grin because it's sort of nice to not have the Doctor terribly disappointed in him, for once.