The Eavesdown Docks were smelly, loud, and crowded, as usual. The tall, broad-shouldered man in the worn leather duster didn’t seem bothered, as he strolled down the row of ships, but Kaylee could tell he was searching for something. His eyes caught and held on the bright flash of color on her rainbow-striped parasol, and he headed toward her.
Kaylee dusted off the embroidered teal jacket she wore over her well-used coveralls, and looked up at him with an impish grin, pausing in the midst of picking up her lawn chair. The corners of his full lips lifted in response. “Goin’ to Boros, stranger?” she asked. “You’re just in time; the best ship in the ‘verse is just about to take off. Rate is fair…need a lift?”
“As a matter of fact, I do. How lucky I arrived when I did.” He adjusted the knapsack he carried on his shoulder, and moved closer to extend his hand in greeting. “A pleasure to meet you, Miss…?”
“Kaylee,” she replied, blushing when he took the hand she offered and clasped it between both of his own, bowing over it with a smile as warm as his rumbling, richly accented voice. She gathered her scattered wits and fondly patted the ship. “This beautiful lady is Serenity, by the way. Best get on board quick, mister; Captain don’t much like waitin’.”
“I’ll hurry, then; I try to avoid annoying people on first sight. It’s bound to happen sooner or later, but it’s more interesting to build up to it. And please, call me Alistair,” he chuckled, paying his fare.
Kaylee nodded and led him into the cargo hold, but she giggled inwardly as she thought, ‘If he looks at me a few more times with those honey-colored eyes and that little grin, I’ll call him whatever he wants. Preferably while naked on the engine room floor. Wǒ de mā, between this Alistair and that fancy Dr. Tam, this should be a real interesting trip.’
‘Well, this should be an interesting trip,’ thought Alistair. The passengers were gathered in the ship’s dining area as the captain reviewed the rules for the trip. Alistair suspected most of them would get broken. He maintained his expression of mild cheerfulness, but his eyes flicked between two of the passengers: a nervous young doctor in a conspicuously expensive suit, and a weathered-looking man who seemed ill-at-ease in casual attire. The third passenger, a religious type, seemed relaxed enough, but the other two both got antsy when the Captain forbade the guests to go to the cargo bay unaccompanied. This surprised Alistair not at all.
Then Captain Reynolds announced a minor detour to Whitehall, ostensibly to drop off medical supplies for the Alliance. The doctor, Simon Tam, asked about the nature of the supplies, and got a vague reply. If this ship had ever willingly helped the Alliance, Alistair would eat his boots. He had a suspicion, as he watched the all-business Captain interact with his First Mate (a lovely, pleasant woman named Zoe who might as well have worn a flashing sign around her neck that said, “Try me; I will end you.”). But he reined in his wandering thoughts. Their politics didn’t matter; he wasn’t here for them.
Alistair pulled off his coat and draped it over one arm as he followed everyone back to the cargo bay to retrieve any necessities; he didn’t have any luggage, but it allowed him to keep an eye on everyone. Dr. Tam spent all his time checking the little dials and displays on the large cargo crate he’d brought. Dobson, the casually dressed man, was excessively clumsy, repeatedly dropping things and tripping over people. ‘Is he really that much of a bumbling fool, or is that part of his cover?’ Alistair wondered.
He greeted Kaylee, the pretty mechanic, as she passed by, and she responded with a warm and guileless smile. Her brown hair with a hint of gold and brown eyes with a hint of green were not remarkable on their own, but something about her smile made her light up and pull an answering grin from anyone near. Alistair hoped she’d stay clear of all this; it wasn’t right to put an innocent like her in danger.
Then her eyes slid down, admiring the way his simple button-down shirt hugged his chest, and lingering on the fit of his worn trousers. ‘Well,’ he revised, coloring slightly, ‘maybe not that much of an innocent.’
He had another surprise on the heels of the first, when an utterly stunning woman floated down the stairs to greet Kaylee and Captain Reynolds. The long, glossy, ebony waves of her hair framed her flawless olive skin, and even from where he stood, her dark eyes looked like pools of liquid warmth. Everything about her was graceful, beautiful, perfect…which made sense once the Captain crassly revealed to the religious man that this Inara was a Companion. Shepherd Book, surely a lay brother of the Chantry judging by his reaction, radiated discomfort.
Alistair hadn’t seen a Companion since he’d left Leliana in Londinium…not that it mattered. Companions, despite the Captain’s derision, were far more than whores. They trained for years to meet the needs of their clients, whether that included counseling, massage, simple conversation, or more…personal services. And because of all that, they had very exclusive clientele. In the life he currently led, this was as close as he was ever likely to get to one. He sighed. Maker’s breath, she surely was exquisite, though.
As much as he enjoyed the view of the two lovely women (well, three, if one counted First Mate Zoe…but since he thought she might shoot him for ogling, he didn’t)…he wished they were elsewhere. The shepherd too, for that matter. Maybe even the pilot, Wash, though he seemed the kind of man Alistair would probably get along with. Because the chances were high that everything would go to the Void before long, and the presence of innocent bystanders was bound to be trouble.
Malcolm Reynolds prided himself on having a finely honed ability to recognize trouble. Zoe would say he was terrible at actually avoiding it, but that was irrelevant. What mattered was that he had taken on four passengers, and the only one who didn’t make his brain itch was the gorram shepherd.
The clumsy one, Dobson, was…off, somehow. He didn’t move right, and his stumbling was throwing up red flags Mal hadn’t been able to piece together yet. Simon Tam was obviously hiding something, and he’d never seen a man so bad at being inconspicuous. The last one, Alistair, seemed likable enough. (Little Kaylee obviously thought so; she eyed him and the doctor like she was at an ice cream shop trying to pick a flavor.) But every now and then, the man’s gaze would go from mild to calculating, and he’d glance between Dobson and Simon like he was waiting for something to happen.
But they all enjoyed dinner, and the only thing that happened was Jayne letting his mouth run off without any brain attached, in that special way he had. Mal sent him out, and everything settled down again. And it stayed settled, right up until Wash told him somebody on board had hailed the Alliance to broadcast their location. Being as the crew may have done a bit of salvage recently that wasn’t, strictly speaking, legal, and the loot was currently hidden behind a secret panel in the cargo bay…quality time with an Alliance cruiser was not high up on Mal’s to-do list.
Mal stomped off to check the cargo, and pulled up short when he found Dr. Tam in the cargo bay, exactly where he wasn’t supposed to be. And that’s when the guns came out.
‘Bloody Void,’ Alistair cursed inwardly. ‘There are guns coming out already, and we haven’t even been on the ship a full day. The templar didn’t waste any blighted time.’ Alistair had shadowed Simon when the young doctor slipped off to the cargo bay, but he hadn’t expected the Captain to come striding in and punch the man right in the face. Even so, that much could’ve been handled. The Captain’s gun was drawn as he wrongly accused Simon of being an Alliance Fed, but he didn’t seem the type to murder someone out of hand. Alistair was about to intervene when a far more serious concern presented itself. The Chantry brother (who was probably also more than just a shepherd, given how silently he’d entered the cargo bay) quietly pointed out the Alliance templar, weapon trained on his prey.
‘Andraste’s flaming knickerweasels.’ This was exactly how he hadn’t wanted this to go…though it was rather amusing to see Mal’s reaction at learning Dobson was here for Dr. Tam instead of the crew.
And then, as Shepherd Book edged closer, the stupid templar raised the likelihood of bloodshed by a thousand percent by telling the captain he planned to arrest everyone on board.
“Come now,” Alistair said, stepping into the light, “use your head, man. Surely you don’t expect to take on a whole crew by yourself, when you aren’t even in armor.” Mal’s ears perked at that, and the look of confusion that slid across his face showed that he’d just realized what variety of Fed Dobson was. The shepherd, interestingly enough, didn’t react at all, but Simon went white with panic as his eyes flicked frantically toward his storage crate. Alistair sighed. ‘Definitely no spy potential there,’ he thought. ‘The man would give up all his secrets by accident in his first five minutes.’
Dobson sneered, but his eyes held no hint of recognition. ‘So, this templar is a fool who hasn’t done his homework,’ Alistair thought. ‘That does explain a few things.’
“I don’t have to take on anyone. There’s an Alliance cruiser en route to intercept us in about twenty minutes, and I’ll have all the help I need,” said Dobson, oozing the nauseating brand of arrogance unique to the worst templars, the kind who enjoyed wielding power over the helpless. Alistair was repulsed he’d ever had any association with men like that, but the past was what it was.
The shepherd tried to get everyone to calm down, but then Kaylee popped up to see what all the fuss was about. And Dobson, idiot that he was, shot her.
‘Sweet Andraste, he shot her.’
Simon rushed to the mechanic’s side without thinking, only belatedly noting the templar had been disarmed by…the shepherd? He shook his head. Not important; he had a patient. He and the companion laid Kaylee back on the ground, and pulled her clothing out of the way to see the wound. He swore; it was a stomach wound, and the girl was going into shock. His mind was rapidly listing the surgical tools and medications he would need, when he heard the pilot’s voice on the intercom saying the cruiser had arrived. A cold panic flooded his spine, and it only got worse when the captain threatened to turn him over to the law. He couldn’t allow that to happen, not after everything he’d gone through…not ever.
With every instinct in his body screaming at him to save Kaylee, he stepped away. “Change course,” he said, sounding far more calm than he felt. “Run.”
“Hell with you,” the captain replied, his voice tight with anger. “You brought this down on us! I'm dumping you with the law.” And the cargo hold erupted with conflicting opinions, all frantic in their urgency. Simon’s fingers shook with the need to grab his instruments and preserve the fragile life at his feet, but he couldn’t risk the life he’d sacrificed everything for. Silently, he prayed to Andraste that the man would make up his mind quickly. “You know how crucial the next few minutes are,” he urged.
The other passenger – Alistair, was it? – strode up to Captain Reynolds, taking care to show his empty hands. “Allow me to make this simpler, if I may,” he said. “I’ll explain everything soon, but for now…know that if the Alliance finds me here, no one will go to prison, because they will kill us all.”
After a moment of complete dumbfounded silence, the captain spat a string of curses that scorched the air. With a furious glare at the mysterious man, he ordered the pilot to run. Relief flooded the doctor and, with Alistair and Mal, he carried Kaylee to the infirmary while Inara fetched his medical bag.
The captain’s furious eyes met his and Alistair’s in turn. “When this is over, we’re all gonna have a personal chat.”
Simon didn’t bother to look up from his work. “Won’t that be fun.”
‘Well, wasn’t that fun,’ Alistair thought wearily. He’d been shooed out of the infirmary while the doctor frantically operated on Kaylee with the help of Captain Reynolds and Inara. The cargo hold seemed eerily silent. Lost in thought, he climbed the stairs and sat on the balcony overlooking Dr. Tam’s high-tech crate, his feet dangling through the rails. He sent a quick prayer to the Maker that Kaylee would recover…mostly because she was a spark of light who didn’t deserve to be caught up in this mess, but partly because if she didn’t, he suspected he and Simon Tam would be the next casualties.
‘Wouldn’t that be just perfect,’ he thought. ‘The most wanted man in the Core Systems, killed by happenstance on an unknown smuggling ship in the outer rim. Duncan would’ve loved the irony.’ He laid his head tiredly on the metal railing, laughing to himself.
“Something funny, stranger?” First Mate Zoe had strolled up behind him, silent as a cat. Alistair was momentarily glad for his exhaustion; at least it had prevented him from squeaking like a little girl.
“It’s Alistair. And no, not terribly funny, really. But in a Maker-forsaken disaster like this, one has to either laugh or cry…and crying detracts from my rugged manly image.” He gave her an open, winning smile…and to his astonishment, after a moment she rolled her eyes and gave him the barest hint of a smirk, sitting on the floor beside him. “If it helps,” he hazarded, “I believe Kaylee will be fine. I’ve seen Simon Tam’s medical credentials. The way his superiors spoke of him, the man could’ve rebuilt Andraste from the ashes alone.”
Zoe relaxed slightly, but studied his face. “And just how is it that our mild-mannered passenger happens to know so much about an Alliance fugitive he’s never met, and expects Feds to kill him on sight?”
“Mild-mannered? Really? You couldn’t think of anything more, I don’t know, glamorous, perhaps? How about, ‘the dashing mystery man, steeped in intrigue’?”
She shook her head, laughing. “Yeah, you and Wash are gonna get along just fine. Assuming the Captain doesn’t kill you first, that is.”
“That would tend to put a damper on future relationships.”
Just then, Captain Reynolds strode out of the infirmary below them, heading for the doctor’s large shipping crate. Simon tried to intervene, and Reynolds had his thug, Jayne, restrain the man. “Let's see what a man like you would kill for,” he said, and pulled the crate’s release lever. Alistair tensed as Simon cried out in protest, but it was too late.
The lid rose with a hissing sound, clouds of frost rolling out of the box. Simon struggled against his captor as the captain shoved the lid away and looked inside. From this vantage point, Alistair and Zoe could easily see the contents…and everyone but Simon and Alistair was stunned to realize it was a teenage girl, peaceful in a light cryosleep.
Captain Reynolds blinked. “Huh.”
He turned to Simon with a face full of questions, but before he could speak, the girl burst from her frozen cocoon, wide-eyed and screaming. Simon called out, trying to calm her, but her frantic gaze met Alistair’s, and she gasped. “You. I know you; you’re him. But…not?” she stopped, eyes scrunching shut in pain and confusion. Alistair sighed.
“Actually, no, Miss Tam. I’m not. I’m his brother, in point of fact, just like Simon is your brother. Though I’ll admit I do look like him. I’m handsomer, though.” His eyes never left the frightened young mage as he stood and bowed. “Alistair Theirin, at your service.”
“Theirin?!” Inara exclaimed. “Not…not that Theirin?”
“I’m afraid so,” he said, his usual cheeky grin feeling wooden. “But if it’s any consolation, I’m quite sure my dear brother would like to see me dead far more than any of you would. I try to avoid indulging him, however. Even the Alliance Prime Minister shouldn’t get what he wants all of the time.”
“Well,” said Mal, after a long pause broken only by Simon frantically calming his sibling. “That…certainly does change the landscape.”