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Of Kings and Hairy Feet

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Malcolm Reynolds sat back from his plate with a satisfied groan, belly full and mind settled. The food had been good, fresh and well-prepared, the result of a well-paying job gone right. Serenity was flying, his crew were gathered round him, laughing and content and for gorram once not making a lick of trouble, and all was right in his 'verse.

Inara looked over at him then, a soft smile on her face. It was that soft smile that meant she wasn't pissed at him as of yet, and though it would take a lot to get her there, he better not push or she would. Sometimes that smile just egged him on, but tonight he liked the mellow contentment of his people too well to destroy it. He smiled back, and she leaned in closer.

"Wash was telling me that we will be in dead space for two days."

Mal nodded. "True enough. Don't have a lot to worry about in dead space, long as nothing goes wrong with the ship." Little things like a catalyzer exploding, or a crazy-ass captain shooting him in the gut. No one had warned him when he went into the ship-flying business that Murphy had a special reserve collection of laws set aside just for captains of Firefly-class ships named Serenity.

"Then perhaps we should take advantage of the time, do something fun as a whole crew," Inara continued. She was batting those sparkly eyelashes at him as if their power alone was keeping Serenity going. That might be the truth, for all he knew.

"I don't know, folk don't want to get roped into any morale building exercises. Anyone on this ship needs their spirits lifted, I can find them work to do. It's an old proverb, you know. Work builds morale."

Inara did that trick where she looked up and gave the impression of rolling her eyes without being so crass as to actually do so. "Oh, come on, Mal. It doesn't have to be that way. I just meant that one should take an opportunity to have fun if it is presented to oneself."

Jayne leaned in from Mal's left and stuck his fork out, the waving tines a fearsome danger to Mal's nose, or to an equally important eye. Mal had discovered a previously unrealized attachment to his facial structure since that run in with that piece of fei-hua, Niska.

"Yeah, what 'Nara said. I say we go shoot some ball."

Mal was still giving Jayne the evil-but-unnoticed-eye when Book saw fit to join the conversation.

"I think a group activity is an excellent suggestion. It's good for the soul to join in communion with others."

Mal just stared at the preacher for a moment. "Uh-huh. Now, I don't mind if any one of you want—"

"Oooh, I know," Kaylee squealed from the opposite end of the table. It made him think on what activities of his own that might be needing to be kept more quiet, seeing as apparently the girl had the ears of a bat.

"We can play Rings," she continued. "We have just the right number. It'd be perfect."

Simon looked up from where he had been daintily polishing off the rest of the fresh greens Book had tossed together, a look of alarm on his face.

"I don't know. I mean, River. That might be more than she is able to—" He broke off as Kaylee punched him in the arm. Mal had to smile at that; from the way Simon rocked back, his little mechanic hadn't held much back.

"She'll be fine, won't you honey," Kaylee cooed at River, who nodded back solemnly. "She can be the bearer."

River smiled, honest pleasure enlivening her face. "The bearer needs a faithful companion," she said.

"You're right. Simon, looks like you're drafted again to help out your sister. Think you can handle it?" Kaylee smiled at the doc, her dimples showing their deepest. Poor boy didn't have a chance at saying no to the girl.

"Well, I'm not sure—"

"Just like kids again, playing Alliance and the Independents," River interrupted.

Simon's mouth dropped open before he looked at Mal rather guiltily. Ah, to have the life of a rich boy. Strangely, the thought didn't carry the resentment it normally did.

"Well, I suppose I could—"

"Great!" Kaylee exclaimed, clapping her hands once. She reached over and squeezed Simon's bicep with her small hand before turning her frightfully powerful gaze on the rest of the crew.

"That's the first two. Who wants to be the wizard? Cap'n?"

Mal shook his head quickly. "No, don't think that one's for me. Why don't we leave the dying and resurrecting to the Shepherd over here."

Book inclined his head graciously, as though the words were high praise. Damn. Must be losing his touch. Maybe he needed to take a less subtle approach in the future.

"All right, we'll make you the king. Seems right that way, anyhows," Kaylee continued with her plotting.

Mal gave in with a sigh and a smile. There was just no denying Kaylee when she got in one of these moods. That was how he had wound up with gorram flowers painted all over his galley.

"Oooh, oooh," Wash more or less said, waving a hand in the air as he bounced in his chair. "I want to be the elf."

Zoe reached out and calmly captured his hand. "I'm the elf, sweetie. You're the dwarf," she stated, giving no quarter and obviously not expecting resistance.

"But, but, lambytoes!"

"But nothing, husband. Who's taller and more deadly with distance weapons?" Zoe arched the eyebrow of truth. Mal knew that eyebrow well; it had punctured many of his own arguments. Wash slouched immediately at its presence, then looked at Kaylee.

"I'm the dwarf, she's the elf."

"Okay, three of us left! Inara and I can fill out the rest of the companions. Is that okay, 'Nara? I'll play the fool, you can be the tall one," Kaylee pleaded.

Inara looked back at Kaylee, her face cool as she crossed her arms. Mal sincerely hoped she wasn't pissed at his engineer; Kaylee would be a mess of tears within seconds.

"Are you trying to make a play on words, missy? A Companion as a companion?"

Kaylee started to pink up, so Inara dropped the act and smiled. Mal was glad; he had thought he might have to get angry.

"Of course I'll do it, silly. I brought it up, anyway."

Kaylee laughed lightly, though Mal still thought Inara had pushed the joke a little far. But he'd stay out of it. Messing in women's business never got a man anywhere good. Speaking of women, he noticed Jayne glancing around the table, mouthing something at each face. Mal could make out 'king' when Jayne looked at him. Ah. So the man was working it out for his ownself.

"But I don't want to be Boromir," Jayne whined, startling most of the table. True, Mal had to admit it was a bit of typecasting. The roles had fit the group quite easily, come to think of it.

"But Boromir's a great part," Kaylee defended. "You get to come to the rescue, be redeemed and everything."

Jayne was working his jaw around, trying to come up with something to say. Simon was giving the man an inscrutable look, something like glee mixed with anger. It made Mal wonder what the boy knew.

"But...I die. I won't get to play anymore after that."

Kaylee rolled her eyes. "Hell, if that's all you're worried about. You'll be the brother after that. No big deal."

Jayne sat back, apparently mollified. Kaylee grinned wider. Girl must exercise her face muscles daily.

"Great! So everybody in, then? We can start first thing after breakfast tomorrow."

Everyone started jabbering, discussing plans and ideas for each character. Mal stood up. It was gratifying to see each face turn to him.

"Don't stay up all night talking about it. Won't make the experience any better. I'm going to bed. The rest of you might think on doing the same once this mess is cleaned up."

Several heads nodded. He dumped his dishes on the counter and headed to his bunk. Some nights he wasn't sure who was crazier—his crew or his ownself.

Mal leaned against the table, watching as Zoe fiddled with the placement of her crossbow. He'd forgotten she had the thing. She had bought it on a lark shortly after she and Wash got married. Another bit to add to the stack of 'Zoe had a crazy phase' evidence. He didn't think she'd ever used it, though he had no doubt that she could.

She finally got it settled, deciding to let the small green blanket she was using as a cloak drape over a single shoulder, rather than both. When she bent her head to inspect the fall of the blanket, he caught sight of a bit of silver binding her hair. Huh. Maybe he was a bit underdressed for this business. That was her best piece, a clip adorned with knotwork intertwined with a rose and leaf. He thought the last time she had worn it had been on her wedding day. This was going to be a day for crazy-making indeed.

Currently they were waiting for everyone else to show up. He guessed that it was reasonable that the two veterans were the quickest to get dressed. Neither of them held to wasting time that could be used for other things. He was wearing his regular browns, though he had taken time last night to fashion a harness out of a couple of belts and some string. He had even found a vaguely sword-shaped stick to complete the look. It had been a little difficult to strap across his back, but Zoe had straightened everything out once he set foot in the galley. He shifted impatiently, propping one butt cheek onto the edge of the table.

"Where the hell is everybody?"

Zoe just looked up at him, calm as ever. "That husband of mine should be right along. Said he had one last idea to make everything perfect."

"Can't hardly wait. You'd think it was a pageant, as long as they're taking to get gussied up."

He heard steps behind him, then, and turned to see Book entering from the rear hall. He was dressed in full cleric's robes, holding a large walking stick in one hand. His hair was free, though semi-contained under one of the birthday hats Kaylee had made them use at River's party last month.

"Well, you certainly dressed the part," Mal commented.

The shepherd inclined his head.

"I was lucky enough to have most everything at hand. I picked up this stick two planets ago. Thought it might be useful, though I certainly didn't forsee this."

"Well, blame Inara. Or Kaylee. Better yet, blame both of them," Mal rambled.

"You think it's safe to have that hair out, preacher?" Zoe asked.

Book shrugged. "I thought I'd take my chances. Our youngest has grown quite a bit since that last incident," he said dryly.

Mal was still trying to puzzle out that cryptic statement when the hobbits trooped in. Intellectually, he knew that River, Simon, and Kaylee were there, but he couldn't see them for all the looking he was doing at Inara. Their always elegantly accoutered Companion was wearing patched brown trousers, held up with suspenders over a white button-up shirt. The cuffs of the trousers were rolled up to reveal delicate feet. Bare delicate feet, with pink painted toenails and a little silver ring on her left pinky toe. He looked up to find her staring at him in amusement, eyebrows cocked as if daring him to comment.

"Well, well, well, our fearsome Halflings have arrived," Book said. That shook Mal out of his haziness, and he noticed that the other three were dressed similarly to Inara. The doc's clothing was a little nicer though, and he was still wearing his shoes. This seemed to be a point of contention, as he and Kaylee were arguing in whispers as she pointed at his feet. Mal couldn't really blame him—the decks were darn cold. His own feet only left the safety of his boots for sleep and the occasional wash.

He was startled from his inspection when Zoe burst out laughing. He turned to see one of the strangest sights in his recent memory. Wash was dressed in a dark shirt and pants, his ratty grey vest on top and a pair of heavy boots on bottom. He carried a push broom upside down, which Mal was guessing was the dwarf's weapon. But the thing that took the icing was the red pillow case strapped to his pilot's chin.

"Sweetie. Honey," Zoe tried to get out. "What the hell is on your face?"

Wash didn't look a bit intimidated by Zoe's laughter or a room full of incredulous looks. He just smiled and gave the pillowcase a tug.

"It's my beard. All dwarves have them, you know. Plus, if we change games I can easily become bandit-Wash, robbing from the rich to sell to the poor." He demonstrated by sliding the pillow case over his nose and wiggling his eyebrows.

Mal slid closer to Zoe.

"Please don't ask, sir."

"Just. Red sheets? Ain't they a little bright for you?"

"I said don't ask, sir," she replied in that 'I respect you but I won't hesitate to rip out your liver, sir' tone. He backed off, but then Wash jumped right on into the dragon's mouth.

"These? Anniversary present from when we stayed at that little resort planet. Nice place. They had a private bath with this giant marble tub, and the softest sheets of anywhere we've ever been. I picked up a set for my saucy wench of a wife."

Mal tried to slide a little farther from Zoe, just to be safe. She noticed and raised her eyebrow. He stopped and smiled back, his best innocent one that usually got him out of hot water. Or deeper in, if the customer wasn't buying. He cleared his throat."Where the cao is Jayne?"

Everyone shrugged and looked around themselves in a useless manner. Apparently Kaylee had won yet another argument, because Simon was perched on one of the chairs, bare feet held prissily off the floor.

"I'm here," Jayne's voice sounded from the front corridor, along with heavy steps and a strange clanking. Everyone fell silent as Jayne ducked through the hatch. The big man was wearing his best clothes, a nicely-pressed striped shirt and barely-worn denims. He had a red suit coat over the top, and a bandoleer of knives peeked through the front of the jacket. Mal could just make out an olive blanket hanging down like a cape behind him. In one hand Jayne held a huge circular object that might have been a shield or maybe a snow sled. In the other he had the biggest knife Mal had ever seen, bigger than Jayne's usual hunting knife. Its sheath was strapped to his left hip, ready for a cross draw.

"Oh, shuài," Kaylee sighed.

"Quite well done, son," Book added. Jayne perked up at the compliments as if he'd been unsure of his reception. Jayne did have feelings, though they weren't always appropriate to the situation. Mal tried to keep that in mind on those occasions when Jayne wasn't making an ass of himself. It wasn't all that much work, considering.

"'K, everybody ready then?" Kaylee paused as everyone nodded. "I thought we'd start with the hobbits on the run to the first elf city, with Strider. That's you, Cap'n. That way the rest of you won't have to sit out so long. The five of us will start in the bridge and make our way back here. Wash is going to help out with the other parts, since the dwarf don't do much at first."

"Make sure to note the position of my beard," Wash piped up. "Gimli," he said with the cloth around his chin, then pulled it up over his nose. "Not Gimli."

Kaylee giggled, shoving Mal towards the hatchway. "Then let's go, people. Mâshàng!"

Regular little martinet, she was.

Giggles seemed to hound him all 'round as Mal Reynolds, aka Strider, king-to-be, turned toward the bridge. It was going to be a long day.

Mal inched along the corridor, a gaggle of noisy hobbits clustered behind them. Their goal was the safety of the elf city, currently located in Serenity's galley.

"Are we there yet, Strider?" Kaylee called.

"No Pippin. It's going to be quite a long journey. Just keep tight," he called back. He heard a few whispers. Those crazy kids were plotting something, he knew it.

"I'm hungry, Strider," Inara whined. "We haven't had brunch yet."

"You'll just have to wait, Merry. We're on rations."

"I'm hungry, too," chimed in Pippin.

"You know, I could go for a bite myself. How bout you, Mister Frodo?" Great gods and devils. Now Simon was getting into the act.

"Listen. We don't got time for all this whining. I'm in charge and I say we don't eat until lunch. Got it?" He had turned around as his voice rose, and he found them all looking back with various sulks and pouts. Even River. Especially River.

"You're a mean Strider," she said.

Mal rolled his eyes. How was he supposed to make things better now? Just then he happened to catch sight of some movement in front of Zoe and Wash's berth.

"Get behind me, now. All of you."

With a bit of struggle and a squeak of protest when he stepped on Simon's toes, they managed to switch their relative positions in the hallway. Finally he was able to see what was going on. A plastic t-rex was perched on the walkway, a scrap of black cloth tied around its neck. Another dinosaur was poking its head up from the ladderway.

"Ringwraiths," he hissed to the others. "Run for the elf city! I'll defend you!"

The hobbits began moving in an unorganized shuffle toward the galley. He turned back to see Wash climbing onto the walkway, dinosaurs in hand and half his face covered by red cloth.

"Awooh," Wash yelled.

"You won't get by me, you bastards," Mal shouted, and he drew his sword rakishly. Well, he tried to, anyway, but the tip got stuck on one of the strings. He got it free only to bang it into the ceiling.

"Gorram piece of fèi huà," he muttered. He got the sword in front of him as Wash squared up. The dinosaurs darted forward, and Mal banged at them with his stick. Suddenly Wash yelped and dropped one.

"Wash! You ok? I hit you?"

"Ah ha ha ha," the heishôudâng liúmáng said as he darted around Mal. He was menacing River with the t-rex by the time Mal turned around. She was holding up a necklace with a sparkly ring on it. Mal smacked Wash across the ass with the side of his stick.

"Leave her alone, you son of a bitch." He smacked at the dinosaur a few more times before Wash retreated. River looked up at him with a big smile.

"My hero," she said, and then promptly fainted away. Simon just barely managed to catch her. Mal darted forward and knelt next to the siblings.

"She okay, doc?"

River opened one eye. "Stay in character!" she hissed.

Mal stood back up, properly chastened. He thought the rest of the hobbits were going to bust a gut from holding in their laughter.

"Frodo has been badly wounded. We must get him to the elf city quickly," Mal intoned in his best command voice. It worked, because the hobbits lined up, with Simon managing to carry River. Boy certainly had a lot of practice at it, Mal thought as they passed into the galley.

Mal hitched his shoulders, trying to get the belt to slide into a less restraining position as he reached for the plate. He had taken the 'sword' out of its harness, but he didn't want to bother with struggling out and back into the contraption, especially in front of his crew. A man had to have some dignity. Besides, everyone else was still in getup, since they were taking right back up after lunch. They had managed to get on the road to Mordor. Once the wizard had joined the hobbits in their plea for lunch, Mal the Captain had stepped in and declared a break.

"You need to relax, Jayne, have fun with it," Kaylee was telling the big man. Jayne had been stiff as a board through the whole morning, looking like a man cornered by the feds as he spouted stilted lines like a forced confession. Jayne shrugged and studied his plate.

"Just trying to get it right, is all," he sulked.

"That's the point. It ain't gotta be right," Kaylee replied. "Just do what you think Boromir would do and have fun at it."

"You're doing fine, son," the preacher jumped in with his usual placation.

"I'm surprised he knows there is a right way," Simon said sotto voce.

Jayne gave the doc a dirty look, which was pretty much ignored. He looked up at Kaylee then and seemed to weigh something monumental. It was an odd look on Jayne.

"My big sister and me used to play Rings when we was kids. Our momma got us a present one year, a used vid of the Blue Sun version. We used to watch it over and over, and my sis would get real particular if I didn't get it perfect." Jayne shrugged and looked back down. "It's the only way I know how to play," he mumbled.

The whole table fell quiet, unsure how to react to a sincere Jayne. Mal glanced at Inara, who inclined her head toward Jayne. He shook his head sharply. Inara rolled her eyes and sighed.

"Well I think it's wonderful that you have so much experience to bring to us," she soothed.

Jayne looked up at her, his eyes a little wide. Made him look like he'd just gotten goosed. Then he smirked. "Hell, 'Nara. I can bring you lots of experience." He wiggled his tongue suggestively.

"You wish."

"Every day," Jayne shot right back. The table laughed, the earlier tension broken. Could be a Companion was good for more than whorin', though Mal wasn't going to go around admitting it to her face.

"What are we doing next?" Wash asked. The pillow case was settled on his chest now. Mal didn't know that it was much of an improvement.

Kaylee smiled, a full-burn glow. "I thought we'd go to the mines. No sense just wandering around the ship pretending to be walking. Not much fun in that."

Mal wasn't sure how much fun was to be had in any of it, but the rest of the bunch seemed to be enjoying themselves. They had gotten Frodo all fixed up this morning, and had the council that brought in the other characters. Then they'd marched down to the cargo bay and tried to march back up, pretending it was the fierce mountain snowstorm. He had drawn the line at carrying the hobbits. Though all four were slight, none of them was a mere three feet tall. A man could only be expected to do so much in the name of fun.

"Ooh, Shepherd, guess you'll be stepping out for a while," Wash said.

"I'll manage. Perhaps I'll prepare a surprise or two during the period of my death," Book replied.

"You might not want to surprise us too hard, preacher. Good way to get taken out for real," Zoe said, indicating the crossbow settled beside her. Jayne's knife could prove to be another hazard. Maybe Mal should think on putting rules on costumes if they did this again. Not that they were going to. He just had to keep an eye open for potential safety hazards, was all.

"I'll be mindful of that," Book said dryly.

"Yes, please. I'd like to enjoy a day off for once," Simon added.

They continued to joke and plan. Soon enough the meal was eaten up, though they lingered over their drinks. Wash and Kaylee ran off to make sure the ship was running smooth. Inara and River started in on the dishes. Though River didn't have any assigned tasks, she had taken to helping Inara in the last month. It made Mal's heart glad that the girl had some handle on the world around her, enough to want to contribute to the crew's welfare.

Mal stood up and looked for his stick. Soon enough they would be ready to go again, and he needed to have it in place before anyone noticed what a pain up his ass it was.

"Speak friend, and enter," Book commanded the 'door' separating the lounge from the passenger dormitory. Mal had to admit he had the voice for it, a finely-honed preacher's voice. Deep and full and commanding, he could just hear it calling down fire and brimstone.

Book twitched the curtain aside with his walking stick and strode into the next room. Mal's elven first mate and crazy-ass dwarf pilot were right behind. Two of the halflings, Kaylee and Inara, stepped up next. He and Jayne were set to follow when Simon's voice, pitched higher and whinier than usual, stopped him.

"Help, help, something's got Mister Frodo!"

He turned back to see River struggling with a couple of the tasseled sofa pillows. Simon was half-heartedly tugging at them, but River had a tight grip.

Mal looked at Jayne, who waved a hand at him impatiently. He cleared his throat.

"Right." Time for the manly Captain-voice again. "Don't worry, we'll save you!"

He and Jayne stepped forward and proceeded to do battle with the Thankfully Jayne kept his knife sheathed, as he valued his fingers and the lives of his crew. Mal wouldn't have minded losing some of the tassels, though. River kept the action lively, but he finally got a good grip and yanked one of the pillows free. Jayne got the other one half a second later. Their Frodo looked like a wild woman, her long hair messy and sticking to her face, pupils wide, her shoulders shaking a little while she panted lightly. Frankly, it was a touch creepifying.

"Now that we've got that over, why don't you get those little hobbit butts into the mine," he said, after it became apparent that they weren't moving on their own. He caught Jayne giving him a funny look as the Tams scampered away.


Jayne just shook his head and followed them out. How the hell had he ended up with such a da-ì ruò mù ji crew? Next time he let anyone on board he was checking their credentials carefully, keeping an eye out for anything similar to 'crazified', 'lacking the common sense God gave a horse', or 'just plain stupid'.

When he caught up to the others, it was evident that they had skipped ahead a few pages. Wash was the center of attention, wringing his hands theatrically as he screwed his face up into a mighty humorous attempt at sobbing. The red pillow case wriggled like a dead thing on his chin.

"Oh, woe is me, why did this have to happen? Oh my poor, poor, poor cousin who I thought must be safe and sound even though we hadn't heard from him for over twenty years."

Mal rolled his eyes. Wash snuggled up to Zoe, looking up at her with his version of puppy dog eyes.

"I just thought he was put out at the family over that troll-in-the-bedroom incident. I felt bad, you know, but we were just dwarflings then. Now I'll never get to make it up to him!" With a wail he buried his face in Zoe's bosom. She just patted his head. Anyone else would have had their neck removed from the offending body part. Instead she just rolled her eyes and looked put-upon.

"There, there," she said in a monotone.

"Right, then," Mal said. Time to get this thing back on track. "Does anyone know—"

At which point he was interrupted by a loud metallic clang. He looked over and saw Kaylee looking as guilty as could be, one hand held up to her mouth and her eyes as wide as he'd ever seen them. He was surrounded by hams.


Mal opened his own mouth but this time he was interrupted before he could get started.

"Fool of a Took," the shepherd boomed. "Now we're doomed for sure!"

Everyone perked up and started to look around, far from dismayed by the wizard's prediction. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Kaylee fiddling with a small box. A second later a thumping sound filled the small room, a rhythmic pounding that he could feel in the deck plates. She must have tapped into the ship's intercom.

"Turn that—"

"Ahhhh!" Inara screamed, and Mal whipped around to see what was going on. A strange contraption was zooming around the room. It looked like a thin packing tube with inflated surgical gloves attached, one at the top and two on opposing sides.

"Aahhhh, a cave troll!" Kaylee shouted. Mal turned back to ask her what she was doing, but Jayne caught his arm.

"Got to protect the little ones," he said.

They pushed their way closer to the open area of the lounge. Book was holding his stick like a quarterstaff, while Wash was struggling with his broom. Zoe was perched on one of the steps, watching with a raised eyebrow. Considering the fact that her only weapon was a lethal projectile, it was probably the best place for her.

Mal could finally see that the cave troll was attached to some kind of small remote vehicle, zipping back and forth in the limited space in the lounge. He looked over his shoulder to see Kaylee giggling madly while she played with the remote box, the other three obviously giving her advice. When he turned back Jayne was drawing his knife.

"What the gorram hell are you doing?"

Jayne's eyes flicked toward him, but otherwise he remained intent on the troll. "I'm going in. Cover me, Aragorn."

Then he was dancing in front of the troll, a look of deep concentration on his face. He reached out with the knife and popped one of the arm balloons. This brought a shriek from Kaylee and a renewed frenzy of movement from the troll.

"Who's side are you on anyway, Pippin?" Wash called out, having obviously decided that spectator was the best role for a broom-wielding dwarf.

Jayne managed to take out the other 'hand' but was having to move quickly to keep from being cornered.


Mal turned at Book's shout to see River running up to get behind the troll. Mal started forward, but the troll backed into her, and she dropped to the floor. Jayne took off the head balloon with a precise swing, and it went zipping around the room.

Everyone stared at River's still form, the sudden silence creating a sense of dread in the room. Mal had to remind himself it wasn't real. He crept forward, remembering her reaction the last time he had broken character.

"Oh, no, Master Frodo," Simon cried, running forward to his sister.

"Easy now, Sam, let me take a look," Mal said. He was squatting down to do that when she sat straight up. He just barely managed to maintain his balance and not end up on his ass.

"Frodo! You're okay!" Inara called. Kaylee clapped and jumped up and down.

"Of course I'm okay, sillies. Look at this." River's clever little hands moved toward the buttons of her blouse. With a sense of doom Mal realized what she was going to do.

"River!" Simon yelled, his own hands shooting forward to stop her. She looked at him with an annoyed pout.

"I mean, Mister Frodo, sir. There is no need for that, as it is patently obvious that some magically-constructed chain mail prevented you from dying of a blow that should have at least broken several ribs, if it didn't also destroy multiple internal organs and vasculature...." He trailed off as he realized that everyone was looking at him. "Yes. Well, glad to see you're okay. Shall we continue?"

Simon helped his thankfully still-clothed sister off the floor and they moved into the cargo bay. Mal caught Kaylee's shoulder as she tried to slip by.

"That was good work." She beamed up at him. "Can you turn that blasted noise off now?"

Kaylee pulled free of his light grip and smirked back at him. "Oh no, Strider sir, we're still under attack." Then she followed the rest of the group into the bay.

Mal sighed and rubbed his temples. At least his crew was having fun.

When he stepped into the cargo bay, he was met with the sight of most of his crew battling inflated surgical gloves. They looked like some kind of demented roosters, covering the surfaces of the storage crates. Jayne was methodically popping them with his knife. Wash was batting one back and forth with Inara. Book was attempting to pop another with the end of his staff, but so far it kept squirming free whenever he bore down on it. Mal just looked at Kaylee, who rolled her eyes.

"Orcs," she said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the 'verse.

"Ah." He drew his sword, noting that it went much more easily this time, and started attacking orcs. If he pinned them against something, they were much easier to burst. Good to know they were using their hard-won plunder from Ariel toward high purpose.

"Looks like we got 'em," Jayne said a few minutes later, sheathing his knife after routing one last balloon.

"I didn't think it would be that easy," Wash said.

"Don't count your chickens before they hatch, dear," Zoe replied.

"Dear? Does this mean your cold elvish heart is warming to my Dwarven good looks? It's the beard, isn't it?"

Zoe laughed and pecked Wash on the cheek. So much for staying in character, Mal thought.

"Aww, look at the cute interspecies-love," Kaylee cooed.

Book cleared his throat. "We must be wary of our surroundings. I sense a great evil lurking in this place," he announced.

Book started walking toward the stairs, leading them through the open ground of the cargo bay. Suddenly he turned around, a look of astonishment appearing before he opened his mouth to shout, "Run!"

Mal looked backwards. He knew his crew were smart. That particular trait had got them out of more than one pickle over the years. But the creativity they were displaying today was beginning to amaze him. A large cut-out was hanging on the back wall of the cargo bay, clearly indicating a monster of some type. It had large wings and horns, and claws that curved menacingly. He tried to figure out where the red paper had come from, and then remembered that shipment of sweets several months back. The little boxes had been surrounded by reams of red crepe paper. He wondered if the client had received a full shipment, then decided he didn't want to know.

Mal turned back to see most of his crew climbing the staircase. He caught up to them with a few long strides. Book lingered, signaling Mal to go past him. They clustered near the front hatch, watching as Book made his stand halfway up. Cloak billowing in the recycled breeze, he lifted his staff high, the other arm pointed toward the monster. The image called to mind old vids Mal had seen of Moses parting the sea.

"You shall not pass," Book cried, his deep voice blending with the pounding drums to create a sense of power in the room. Mal decided it was a good thing the preacher was on their side.

Book brought his staff down to clang dully against the metal landing, and then turned to face them. He smiled briefly before gasping in shock. He dropped to his knees on the stairs.

"No!" River pushed into Mal from behind, trying to get down to Book. He hooked an arm around her waist to keep her in place.

"Run, you fools," Book called out. He then slumped forward on the stairs, hiding his face against his arm. It was a classy death scene, as good as what he remembered from Blue Sun.

Mal pushed his armful through the hatch, everyone else crowding in behind him. One down, one to go.

Mal leaned against the wall of the lounge, waiting for his turn to jump back into the game. They had just paddled down the river that was the rear stair, and they were now gearing up for the last big scene. Their time in the elven woods had been uneventful. They had sat in the kitchen drinking tea while talking about the past greatness of the fallen wizard. Book had put in an appearance to share in the refreshment, impersonating the lady of the woods while he was there. That was a disconcerting vision, to say the least.


Mal started forward at River's sharp cry, too attuned to her crazy moments for her play-acting to sit easy. Simon tensed beside him as well. Mal felt a strong hand on his shoulder. He glanced back to see Book standing behind him, his other hand on Simon's right shoulder.

"Easy now," he soothed. "It's just a game."

Mal nodded, though Simon was still tense. River was playing out her scene with Jayne, and it wasn't difficult to imagine how bad that could turn out.

Then River was running into the lounge, her face flushed and streaked with tears. "I suppose you want it, too," she spat at Mal.

He was a bit taken aback. Suddenly this game seemed a little too serious. He shook his head, and then reached out to draw her into a hug. River was shaking, but she calmed after a few seconds in his arms. "Hey now. It's gonna be okay. You just head off with your brother and let me worry about things in there."

She looked up at him, her watery eyes big and trusting. "He's not my brother. He's my Sam."

Mal smiled, and then Simon stepped forward to take her hand.

"Thank you," Simon said, his eyes shiny and warm.

Mal swallowed around a tightness in his throat. "Ain't a thing," he replied. He heard a sharp whistle from the bay, the signal for the start of his turn. "Gotta go clean this mess up." He nodded to Simon, River, and Book, and then took strong steps out to the middle of the cargo bay.

Jayne was propped against a crate, a stick wedged between his side and arm. The other two hobbits were gone, presumably carried off by invisible orcs. He hoped they hadn't used up enough gloves to accomplish that bit of physics. Wash and Zoe were perched several feet away, waiting on the stairs for the conclusion. He hunkered down beside Jayne, pushing his shield aside.

"Well, looks like you got yourself in a right mess."

Jayne nodded. "It's what I deserve."

Mal cocked his head to the side. "How you reckon that?"

Jayne waved at the far shuttle bay. "Couldn't save them, they got taken away."

"Huh. Well, I suppose you did your best."

Jayne looked down at his hands. He let out a big breath, and then looked back up at Mal. "And I tried to take it."

Mal caught his breath, suddenly sensing they were no longer playing a game.

"I betrayed the group," Jayne said, his voice barely above a whisper. Their eyes met again and Mal saw something he never thought he'd see in those eyes. Honest regret.

"I didn't get it, Mal." Jayne's voice was rough, cracking a little on his name. Mal felt a sudden flush of fury at the memory of the betrayal, and then it all fell away into a sense of calm.

He reached out and grasped Jayne's shoulder. "I know. But you do now."

Jayne nodded his head slowly, his eyes still wide and pleading. Mal squeezed his shoulder and stood.

"And you won't do it again," he said. Then he walked away. The game was over for today.

Malcolm Reynolds sat back from his plate, belly full but his mind active. He was tired and a touch sore from the day's activity, but mostly it was a good tired. It had been an interesting venture. It hadn't gone like he thought it would, in some ways better and some ways worse, but no one had gotten hurt and they hadn't wound up at each other's throats. River looked recovered from her fright, and if Jayne had been a bit quiet at the start of the meal, he was making up for it now.

"And did you see how that troll head took off after I whacked it?" he was saying.

The rest of the crew chuckled, Wash waving a hand around in imitation of the balloon. River blew a raspberry, long and loud, and while Simon looked a bit horrified, everyone else just laughed harder.

"Pop goes the weasel," she said.

Mal smiled, relieved that River was interacting with them as well as ever. He looked to the side to see Inara watching him with a self-satisfied grin.

"Well?" she asked.

"Well, what?"

"Well, wasn't it a good idea?" she asked with a little huff. Mal quite enjoyed causing those little huffs.

"I suppose it didn't go as badly as I figured, though I'm glad it's over. You all were starting to take on an odor, marching up all those stairs the whole day." He smirked as Inara screeched and smacked his arm. "Ow!"

"I do not stink!"

"Didn't say you did. You have a quite pleasing odor, actually. Is that a bit of a self-confidence problem, then? Thinking bad things about yourself?" He laughed when Inara all out rolled her eyes and crossed her arms under her breasts.

"Honestly. I don't know why I bother with you."

Mal picked up his glass of tea, quite pleased with himself. No, the day hadn't gone like he thought it would, but all in all it had been a good thing. Serenity was still flying, no one was dead, and all was right in his 'verse.