BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL

JANE0904

Playing Parts - Parts I to VII
Sunday, November 4, 2007

Maya. Post-BDM. For those of you still reading, here's a catch-up on this story since it, like all the others, were lost in the hack. A new chapter is to follow. To precis, Serenity has taken on a group of actors as passengers, and have been coerced into taking roles in the play.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 1521    RATING: 0    SERIES: FIREFLY

The Prologue

She stared at herself in the mirror as she pinned up her long hair. Her roots were showing again, she noted. Have to run the brown colour through it again in the shower. Not that it looked bad, but more people might recognise her if they knew her natural colour. Finally satisfied, she lifted the wig from the block and manoeuvred it into place. Gray hair pulled tight into a bun, and already it had changed her appearance, even as she held it in place with grips. Picking up the brush, she dipped it into the paintbox and began to apply shadows and lines. Tilting her face first one way then the other, she added dimension, hollowing out her cheeks, making her forehead more prominent. As last she sat back, an elderly woman looking at her from the glass. She nodded, a small smile lifting one corner of her now thin lips.

Someone knocked. “Janith?”

“Uh huh?”

“Five minutes to curtain.”

“Thanks.” She stood up and smoothed the plain brown dress over her hips. “Showtime,” she whispered.

---

Act I - Ezra

“Just you make sure you keep in touch.” Mrs Cobb straightened Jayne’s collar for the fifth time.

“I will. And you be letting me know how you are. Use the Cortex screen I got ya, even if it’s just to leave messages.”

“We could have used the feedstore’s.”

“Don’t want you having to go all that way just to speak to me.”

“No, well. But you shouldn’t have spent your money on us.”

“Weren’t that much,” Jayne said quickly. “And it was Kaylee boosted it so the signal’ll go further.”

“Thank her for us, then.”

“I will.”

Mrs Cobb ran her hand down her son’s face, as if trying to memorise it. “And you be good.”

“Ma, I ain’t a kid no more.”

“You always will be to me. And it don’t mean you don’t have to be good. Don’t forget, as soon as you get that little girl to say yes, you call me. I’ll arrange the biggest wedding this planet’s ever seen.”

Jayne felt a tug at his insides. “Ma -”

“Now, you just promise me.”

He looked down into her eyes, and wished he felt like he was ever going to see her again in person. “I promise, Ma.”

“Good boy.” She patted him on the shoulder, knowing what he was thinking. “Now, you’d best be getting back. Your captain is bound to be wanting to get going.”

“Yeah, Mal don’t like hanging about.” He stared at her for a moment, then hugged her tightly to his chest. “I love ya, Ma.”

“I know. And I love you too, Jayne. And I’m so proud of you.”

“Ma …”

---

“Perfect!” The man stood in the doorway to the Firefly and grinned widely, his voice filling the cargo bay.

“Excuse me,” Kaylee said, coming down the stairs a little timidly. “Can we … is there something I can do for you?”

“Only if you’re the captain of this fine craft,” the man boomed, not seeming to have a volume control.

“Well, no, I’m the mechanic, but –“

“Then you keep her in such good condition?”

Kaylee warmed a little. “I do my best.”

“I can see that you do. And it is a marvellous best, as well.”

“So what can we do for you?” she asked, something about this man with his big shoulders and bigger belly just making her feel like she was special.

“I want to hire this vessel.” He winked at her. “And her crew, of course.”

“Just … wait there a minute.” Kaylee held up a hand. “Right … there.”

“Not going anywhere,” the man said.

She stared at him for a moment, then hurriedly ran towards the upper cabins. “Mal?” she called down one of the open hatches.

“Yeah, Kaylee?” He moved into her vision, buttoning his shirt.

“Don’t wanna disturb you, but there’s a man in the cargo bay offering us a job.”

Mal glanced behind him, then hurried up the ladder. “Did he give a name?”

-

“Theodore Hawkins, at your service.” He shook hands, and Mal wondered if he’d ever have the use of his fingers ever again. “But you can call me Theo. Actor/manager of the Hawkins troupe. Have you heard of us?”

“Well, sir, I have to say, no I haven’t. But then I ain't been in too many theatres in the past few years.”

“Hawkins?” Kaylee squeaked. “Ooh, I saw you once! In something about a soldier and his one true love, and he thought she’d died, and she thought he had, and it all ended with them finding each other but it was too late, and they died in each other’s arms …” She sighed happily. “It was qi miao.”

Theo beamed. “Ah, the sweet tale of Eleanor and Rodrigo. Of course, that was probably when I was younger. And somewhat less on the corpulent side.”

“It was a few years ago, back on Phoros …” She realised what she had said, and blushed. “Not that I meant that –“

“My dear girl, I am perfectly happy in my own skin. And if I like my food, then what’s the harm?”

Mal watched the pair, trying not to smile. His mechanic still acted like a girl somedays, even though she was a mother and wife. Still, she didn’t have the monopoly on not behaving like a grown-up sometimes. And he needed to get the conversation back onto a business footing. “So, Mr Hawkins –“

“Theo, please.”

“Theo. You want to hire us?”

“I have several engagements on the outer moons, and my own transport has let me down, very badly. Suffice it to say we don’t have such a pretty or gifted an engineer as your own.”

“Oh, I'm just a mechanic,” Kaylee put in, her face open and bright.

“I doubt you are just anything.” Theo sank his head into his many chins and beamed at her. “But I do need someone reliable to get me and my troupe where we need to go.”

“And where would that be?” Mal asked, feeling this was getting away from him somehow.

“First of all to Carson’s Moon, then Amity and Whitefall before heading on to –“

“Whitefall?” Mal began to shake his head.

“I'm sure Patience won’t try and shoot you again, Cap’n,” Kaylee said quickly.

“Patience? Would that be the dear sweet old lady I dealt with?”

Mal raised his eyebrows and couldn’t help but laugh. “Not quite the description I’d use of the old wu po.”

“Cap’n!” Kaylee berated him.

Theo chuckled. “If Whitefall is a problem, I'm sure we can accommodate a change. Of course, it would be disappointing a number of our fans …”

“No,” Mal said, seeing Kaylee’s hopeful face and giving up. “Whitefall ain't a problem.”

“Besides, we might not need you for the whole run. As soon as my ship’s up and running again, they can meet us. In fact, I wouldn’t be looking at all if my other vessel wasn’t off working the other side of the Rim.”

“How many of you are there?”

“Eight all told, plus our props. Will that be a problem?”

“No, we can accommodate you. When do you have to be on Carson’s?”

“Day after tomorrow.” He held up a hand. “I realise this is short notice, but I’m willing to pay well above the normal rate.”

“Cap’n, what about Inara?” Kaylee put in. “Carson’s Moon ain’t exactly the same direction as Lazarus.”

“’Nara …” Mal mused.

-

“We’ve got a job,” he said, leaning on the doorway and looking into Inara’s room.

“That’s nice for you.” She continued her packing.

“For me, yes. For you … Not sure.”

Inara gave him one of her looks. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“If I take it, we can’t take you back to Lazarus. Least, not yet.”

“Oh? How long would the delay be?”

“Probably at least two weeks. Maybe more. It looks as if we’re taking a troupe of actors on a tour of the Rim.”

“Actors?”

“Man by the name of Theo Hawkins.”

Inara‘s eyebrows raised. “The Hawkins Troupe?”

“I gather you’ve heard of them.”

“They’re famous, Mal. I’m surprised you haven’t.”

“Well, I don’t frequent that many playhouses.”

“Why are they riding with us?”

“You make it sound like we’re a bunch of cut-throats,” Mal complained. “I have a reputation myself, you know.”

“Mmn. So why are they riding with us?”

Mal exhaled noisily. “Their ship’s broken down, and we’re available. Truth is, he seems mighty pleased with Serenity. Said we’d make an ideal tiring house. Whatever that means.”

“It means he’d use the cargo bay as a sort of room, where some of the action takes place.” She sat down on the edge of the bed. “The tomb scene in Romeo and Juliet, the inner sanctum in Lost Edifice, the lovers’ tryst in -”

“I get your drift.”

“It would be fascinating to see behind the scenes,” she went on, adding, “And I’ve got nothing to head back to Lazarus for.”

“What about the girls?” Mal pointed out.

“They’ll be fine with Mrs Boden. Another couple of weeks … they’ll think it’s Christmas all over again. And I’d love to watch the Hawkins Troupe in action.” She looked up. “I saw them once, on Sihnon, when I was a child. I think they did … yes, it was The Mask of Aramis.”

“Not Eleanor and Rodrigo?” Mal asked.

“No. Why?”

“Seems to me any number of my crew’ve seen these actors except me.”

“Oh, then you’re in for a treat.”

“So I take it you’re staying?”

“I’m staying.” She looked around her cabin. “Will you need the space?”

“No, I think we’ll be fine. I’ll let you know if otherwise.”

-

“Mr Hawkins, seems like you’ve got yourself a ship,” Mal said, walking back out into the sunshine of Ezra and holding out his hand. They shook firmly.

“That’s wonderful,” Theo said. “I’ll just collect everyone and be back shortly. When can you be ready to leave?”

“Soon as everything’s loaded.”

“Then I won’t delay.” He smiled broadly at Mal, bowed deeply to Kaylee, and headed back into town.

“Who was that?” Jayne asked, striding up to the Firefly.

“Our next job.”

“Right.” He went to walk past, but Mal stopped him.

“You okay?”

He paused. “Yeah. I guess. Just … she ain’t gonna last much longer, Mal.”

“You’re sure?”

“I can see it in her eyes. She knows, too.”

“You could always stay.”

“I tried. Knew you wouldn’t … but she said no. Told me I had a life of my own to live, and a woman to get back to.”

“She’s right.”

“I know.”

There was silence for a moment, then Mal dragged a handful of notes out of his back pocket. “Here. Get what you can in the way of supplies. There’s gonna be a number of us.”

“Sure.” He turned back towards the town.

“Don’t you want to know who they are?”

“Is it gonna make any difference to me?”

“Probably not. But they’re actors.”

-

“Actors?” Freya said, fastening Jesse’s diaper and pulling the soft stretchy pants back up.

“The Hawkins Troupe. And if you say you’ve seen them play, I’ll divorce you,” Mal threatened from the doorway to the nursery.

“No, I haven’t.” She lifted her daughter up into her arms.

“Good.”

“I have heard of them, of course.”

Mal shook his head. “I’ve never felt so uncultured.”

“How old is Mr Hawkins?” Freya asked, smiling at him.

“Theo?” Mal flicked his eyebrows. “Told me to call him that. He’s … fifty, fifty-five, maybe.”

“Then he isn’t the first. I remember my parents going to see them once in a special performance in the Grand Theatre on Osiris. My mother was particularly enamoured of the leading man, that he reminded her of her first love, but I’m sure that would make your Theo too young.”

“Maybe he’s aged well.”

“Maybe.” She passed him into their bunk. “Still doesn’t explain what he’s doing out here.”

“What do you mean?”

“You don’t work at the Grand Theatre if you’re a travelling stock company. The Hawkins Troupe was one of the best.”

“Maybe they’ve fallen on hard times.” He followed her up the ladder, admiring her buttocks as he did so. He never got tired of looking at them.

“Perhaps.” In the corridor above Freya paused, waiting for him. “You know, there were rumours that Hawkins was an Independent sympathiser. I wonder if that made it hard for him to work during the war.”

“Maybe.” He hitched her around the waist and pulled her in close. “You can ask him at dinner.”

“You don’t ask guests who they sided with, Mal.”

“I do.”

“That’s because you’re a philistine.”

“Probably. If’n I knew what that meant.”

She leaned forward and kissed him softly, catching his bottom lip between her teeth. He moaned slightly.

“You know exactly what that means. And talking of dinner, hadn’t you better get Jayne to put that table up again in the cargo bay?”

“He’s out hunting food and stuff. Besides, they’re bringing pretty much their whole kit and caboodle with them.”

“Then you’d better make sure they leave enough room to sit down.” She walked into the galley where Bethany and River were waiting, Ethan swinging his legs. “I have a class to teach.”

“I’m still captain,” he called after her.

“Always,” her voice drifted back to him as he turned down the stairs.

---

Janith looked up as Mikel stuck his head around the door.

“You packed yet?” he asked, his blond hair falling in his eyes as usual.

“Nearly done.”

“Just got a call from Theo. He’s managed to pick up a transport until the Cressida is back up and running.”

“That old ship just can’t handle it like she used to.”

Mikel nodded sadly. “I know Theo doesn’t want to junk her, but I can’t help thinking he’s gonna have to look for something a bit newer.”

“Doesn’t he have enough money put away? I mean, he is Theodore Hawkins.” She picked up the last of her dresses, taking care to keep the small gun concealed in their folds.

The young man smiled. “The way he tells it, he’s as poor as a church mouse.” He laughed. “Nah, I think if he had the cold hard cash he’d get her done up properly. Like she used to be, when the highest and mightiest of the Alliance would come calling to watch him act.”

“Poor Theo.” She put her dresses in the case and closed the lid. “So what ship are we meeting?”

“Theo said it was a Firefly.”

Janith paused for a split second, but Mikel didn’t notice. “Firefly? Do they still operate?”

“According to Theo. Called something like Serendipity.”

“Really.” Janith picked up the case. “And when are we joining them?”

“Day after tomorrow on Carson‘s Moon. That is, if Pol can get us moving.”

“Why? Is there a problem?”

“According to her, we can’t take off yet. Something to do with the manifold pressure.” He shook his head. “I don’t understand these things.”

Janith smiled. “Nor do I.”

---

Act I cont - Ezra

“What’s going on?” Hank asked, sticking his head out of the doorway and looking at most of the female members of the crew hanging over the top catwalk railing, staring down into the cargo bay.

“Watching,” River said, not taking her eyes off the action below.

“It’s the Hawkin’s troupe’s stuff,” Kaylee supplied, throwing him a grin. “I ain’t never seen anything like it before. It’s just all so … glamorous.”

“Really?” He walked to the edge and stared down as a roll of what looked like painted canvas was carried up the ramp by two young men who appeared remarkably like each other. “Is that it?”

“Don’t be so negative.”

“Just saying it looks like, well, nothing much.”

“You have no romance in your soul.”

“Oh, he does,” Zoe said, coming up behind him and joining the others.

“Not you too,” Hank complained.

“Just curious.”

“It’s wonderful,” Hermione breathed.

Another canvas hanging was brought in, this time partly unrolled.

“Pyramids,” Bethany whispered. “With camels,” she added as the backdrop was leaned against the wall.

“Ooh, look at those dresses,” Kaylee squealed softly. “Almost as pretty as yours, ‘Nara..”

“Prettier,” River murmured.

“Well, they’re certainly different,” Inara agreed.

Simon leaned in the doorway to the common area. “I’m not surprised River’s enjoying this,” he said to Freya, who was standing next to him, Ethan on her hip. “She always loved to dance, and this is pretty close.”

“This might be good for her.” She looked at him. “How’re her hormones?”

“Fairly level. Just a couple of hiccups.”

“Like putting those chilli peppers in the stew last night?”

“That was … interesting.”

“I didn’t know you could go that colour.”

He laughed. “Not something I’d like to do on a regular basis.”

“She’s still saying the food doesn’t taste right.”

“That’s no excuse to nearly poison us!”

“Just be glad it wasn’t something worse.”

“That’s actually true.“ Simon shuddered.

“Mama?” Ethan asked, pulling at her arm, his eyes huge. “What’s that?”

A young red-headed woman was carrying a chest of costume jewellery, and she smiled at the little boy as she put it down in the corner. “Treasures,” she said, running her hands across it. “From long lost kingdoms and dragon’s caves.”

“Thank you,” Ethan whispered, and Freya grinned.

Jayne came out of the shuttle. “What’re you … oh.” He shrugged. “S’just a load of play actors,” he grunted. “All make believe.”

“Don’t you like make believe, Jayne?” Kaylee asked. “Pretending to be something you’re not.”

“That’s called lying. And I’ve done me my fair share.”

“It ain’t lying!” Kaylee protested.

“But it is, young damsel,” Theo Hawkins said, calling up from the cargo bay floor. “But it’s lying with style.” He swept his arm into a deep bow, almost touching the decking, before straightening up and laughing, going back to help with the rest of the equipment.

“See,” Kaylee said, sticking her tongue out at Jayne. Bethany giggled.

“We could’ve helped,” Mal said, standing outside the Firefly.

Theo grinned. “We know what we’re doing, captain. We do it all the time, making up and striking the set. It’s no problem.”

“Yeah, but you’re paying.”

“Then you could knock off a few credits.”

Mal pointedly ignored the suggestion. “Not sure we can take much more,” he said, watching as his vessel was quickly filling with gaudy and impressive fakery.

“That’s it. Just us now, captain,” Theo assured him, waving his hand at the half dozen people who had been helping and were now assembled in the dust, wiping down their hands. “These are my troupe … well, some of them. You’ll get to know everybody, but that’s Toby, Riley, Victor and George - they’re twins, in case you hadn’t noticed - Dana, Chiang … and this is my wife.” He smiled at a dark-haired woman, much slimmer than he was, with an indulgent look in her eye. “Etta.”

“Ma’am.” Mal nodded his head towards her.

“Captain. This is very good of you.”

“I’m getting paid, Ma’am.”

“Etta, please. Nothing says age to me like being called Ma’am. Or I’ll start calling you ‘boy‘.” Her eyes glittered at him in amusement.

“Etta.” Mal smiled. He’d only just met this woman and he already liked her. “Well, better get you all settled in, then we’ll be taking off.”

“I hope we won’t make you too cramped,” Etta Hawkins said, patting him on the arm.

“We’ve just dropped a few, so it won’t make much difference. And we’re used to carrying passengers.”

“But not with this amount of luggage,” Theo put in.

Mal laughed. “No, that’d surely be the case.”

“If you need any help with the cooking or cleaning, just tell me. We’re good at helping out,” Etta insisted.

“I’d be grateful, at least with keeping things tidy. As for the food, a couple of us are pretty decent cooks, so I don’t see any necessity. Unless you’d like to.”

Etta grinned, losing ten years. “I think you’d be surprised at some of the dishes we can come up with. Some of the places we’ve been have had strange cuisines.”

“Just don’t make anything that looks back at me.”

“So stewed pig’s head is out?”

Mal grimaced. “Pretty much.”

She laughed again. “I’ll make a note of it.”

“Let me just …” He half-turned, calling back inside Serenity. “Frey.”

“Here,” she said, handing Ethan to Simon. “My lord and master needs me.” She smiled, making her way out into the sunshine.

Mal put his arm around her waist. “This is Freya, my wife. Frey, can you show these good people to their rooms?”

“Surely can.” She grinned. “If you folks would follow me, we’ll get you settled in.”

“That’s more than kind,” Theo said, taking her hand and whisking it to his lips.

“I think you’re probably a bad man,” she said, laughing.

“Of course. I have to live up - or down - to my reputation.”

Everyone followed her through the cargo bay into the common area. Dana, the redheaded woman, glanced up at the catwalk, her eyebrows raising at the sight of the big mercenary before continuing through the doorway.

River growled lightly under her breath.

Mal strolled up the ramp. “Jayne, I think you’d better be getting the big table put back up in here, if you can find room.”

“Mal, I just finished taking it down!”

“Then you’ll be practised. Go on.”

The big man muttered under his breath as he stalked off to find his tools.

“Kaylee, you and River hang on. Everyone else, find something to do.” He waited until they were alone, walking up the staircase towards the two young women.

“Cap?” the young mechanic asked.

He looked at them. “I need you to keep an eye on Jayne for me.”

“Because of his mother,” River supplied.

“Yes.”

“We spoke about it,” the psychic said softly. “Before I said goodbye to her. About what will happen. She said she didn’t want Jayne to be hanging over her, worrying her with his lost boy look.”

Mal couldn’t help the small smile. “I conjure it was exactly those words, too.”

“It was.”

“Is she really that bad?” Kaylee asked, her normally sunny disposition dampened. “I mean, can’t anyone do anything?”

“It’s only a matter of time,” River explained. “She knows.”

“So does Jayne,” Mal added. “That’s why I need you two to watch him for me.”

“I can do that,” River protested mildly. “On my own.”

“I know. But you’re having the odd bad day, and Kaylee can catch up the slack at times like that. Just make sure he ain’t gonna break something, or someone.”

“Are you gonna speak to Hank?” Kaylee said. “You know, just in case?”

“I intend to.”

“Jayne will know.” River shook her head. “He’ll know you’ve told the crew to pussyfoot around him.”

“Not telling them to do that. Just mind what they say.”

“Better not.”

He raised his eyebrows at her. “And if Hank makes some crack, like he’s more’n likely to do? Who’s gonna clear up the teeth?”

“I won’t let it get that far.”

“You can promise me that? With your good and bad days? And I’m saying this from the point of view of getting a mouthful of chilli yesterday.”

“Simon’s watching me. I can watch Jayne.”

“All the time?”

She tapped the side of her skull. “I always do.”

Mal nodded, understanding perfectly. “I reckon maybe you do.”

River headed towards the shuttle. “Besides, Freya took the chilli away,” she added over her shoulder.

---

Janith adjusted the dampener control minutely, then listened carefully. They should all be busy, but it didn’t hurt to be sensible. There was no sound outside the bridge. Sliding out from under the console, she smiled. It would take Pol a while to figure this one out. Long enough to delay their rendezvous with the Firefly called something like Serendipity at least. She sighed. Just like him to muck up her plans, so far better not to give him the chance. She smoothed her skirt and went to find Mikel. Just to practice on, of course.

---

Act II - The Black

River had felt Serenity take off, her fingers running delicately through the start-up procedure, pressing on empty air, flicking the three switches above her. Her mind’s eye saw the flames extinguish, and the sky turn full of stars.

“Mal’s talking to Hank, ain’t he?” Jayne said, humping a section of the table back into the cargo bay.

“Yes.” River sat on a crate, a pad of paper on her lap, her pencils in a pot next to her.

“He likely to have a word with all of ‘em?”

“Yes.” She drew a line firmly, smoothing the carbon across the surface. “I told him not to, but he’s the captain.”

“Yeah.”

“Are you angry with him?”

Jayne looked at her, the air of delicate steel about her, somehow even more so now that she carried his child. He couldn’t help it - he swept her into his arms and sat down, letting her curl around him. The pad of paper fell to the floor.

“No, ain’t angry, River. Kinda got used to him interfering. Thinks he’s doing the right thing.”

“You wouldn’t have knocked Hank’s teeth out.”

“Might.”

She pinched him on the pad of the arm. “No.”

“Just saying it’s possible.”

“Zoe would be mad.”

“Yeah, there is that.” He grinned. “Well, can’t be sitting here, no matter how pleasant it is. Got work to do.”

“I can help.”

“No.” He spoke firmly, holding up a finger. “You know what your bro said. Gotta take it easy the first few weeks. Don’t want nothing happening to you or the kid.”

“Looking after me,” she smiled.

“Always, moonbrain. I figure there ain’t a better aim in life than that.”

“Used to be alcohol, guns, and women of easy virtue.”

“Still like a drink. And I ain’t giving away my girls.”

“But you have me now.”

He grinned. “Yeah.”

He kissed her gently, then a little harder, and she felt the hairs from his goatee on her cheeks and chin. She sighed happily.

“My Jayne,” she whispered into his mouth.

“Well, your Jayne has to get on, or Mal’ll have one of his hissy fits and I’ll be cleaning the barnacles off Serenity’s keel without a suit.”

“No barnacles in space.”

“Don’t think that’ll stop ‘im.” He stood up easily, as usual her weight feeling like the softest of feathers in his arms. Turning, he placed her back on the crate, then bent down and picked up her pad. “Here.”

“Thank you.”

He grinned and walked back out to get the next piece of table.

River carried on drawing, the image swiftly coming together, vaguely aware of Jayne moving stuff around in the bay as she concentrated on the picture in her head.

Someone came up behind her, his footfalls almost silent for a big man.

“That’s beautiful,” Theo said, looking over her shoulder. “You have the eye of an artist.”

And the hands of an assassin, she thought sadly, but didn’t say. “Thank you.” She held up the large pad of paper at arm’s length. “I’m not sure I got the eyes right.”

Theo scrutinised it carefully. “I think you have captured your Captain perfectly.”

“I’m doing everyone, making them into a mural.”

“An admirable undertaking.” Theo sighed. “Now, if only I could find someone to touch up our own undertakings.”

She smiled slightly. “You mean your painted scenery?”

Theo’s lips twitched. “That I do. Some of them are showing signs of wear. I wonder, my dear, if you would be so kind? I’d normally ask Mikel, but he’s on the other tour and, for obvious reasons, unable to do so.”

“Do you always work with so few?” River asked, getting to her feet and walking across to the backdrop of the pyramids that had so captivated Bethany before.

“It didn’t use to be like that,” Theo said, sighing theatrically. “In my father’s day we had stagehands, carpenters, flyers and wingmen, expert seamstresses and special effects artistes. Now, we all have to do more than one job. My wife, for instance, plays opposite me, creates all of our costumes, and helps with the make-up. But it’s a noble tradition. Shakespeare himself acted as well as wrote for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. I expect he rented out the cushions, as well.”

“A penny a time.” She laughed unexpectedly. “I think I’d rather have been a groundling.”

“As would I.” If he was surprised at her knowledge he didn’t show it.

River touched the peeling paint with a delicate finger. “What happened?”

“To Shakespeare?”

“To the Hawkins Troupe.”

“Ah, that, my dear, is a long and very dull tale.”

“Mal is going to ask you at dinner.”

“Then perhaps I should wait to tell it until then, and bore everyone at the same time.”

She looked over her shoulder and smiled at him. “I don’t think anyone will be bored.” She turned back to the pyramids. “The Sphinx is in the wrong place,” she noted.

“How do you know?” he asked, surprised.

She shrugged. “Just know.”

“Well, I suppose it comes under poetic license,” Theo said, joining her. “Nothing in here is real.”

“No.” She put her head on one side. “Except us.”

“And I’m sometimes not sure about myself.” He laughed, a booming sound that echoed in his deep chest and full belly. “Well? Will you help us?”

She grinned suddenly. “I’d love to.”

“Good. Good.” Theo clapped his hands together, rubbing them as if for warmth. “Now, when’s this food supposed to be arriving?”

“Not for an hour or so.”

“An hour? I can’t wait that long. I need sustenance.” Theo tapped his stomach. “I can’t keep this wonderful figure without regular injections of food.” He smiled. “I’m sure my wife has something packed away for just such an emergency.” He crooked his arm, elbow towards her. “Would you care to join me?”

“Sorry, but that’ll have to wait,“ Hank called over the catwalk. “Got a message for you, Mr Hawkins, just come through. From someone called Polka.” He shook his head. “Someone really called that?”

Theo laughed. “Her sisters are Tango, Valeta, and Quadrille.” He leaned towards River as if they were co-conspirators. “A very musical family.”

“I’m guessing they ain’t happy with their parents,” Hank said, chuckling.

“Quite the contrary. It appears to have given them something of a unique outlook on life.”

“Yeah. Just hate to think what that might be.”

Theo looked at River. “I’m afraid our little assignation will have to wait.”

“Another time.”

“Oh, indeed. And I shall look forward to it.” He bowed low, then walked up the stairs.

---

“Captain, I have a problem.” Theo barely waited until they were all sitting down around the large table in the cargo bay, the food ready and waiting in the centre.

“Problem?” Mal looked across at him.

“I may have hired you under a misapprehension.”

Mal tensed. “What kind of misapprehension might this be?”

“I have received a message from Polka. She’s my second … she runs the Cressida, my other ship. It appears they’re plagued with problems at the moment, just as the Troilus is, and … well, the truth is she won’t be able to meet us on Carson’s Moon.”

“I see.” He reached out and took a hunk of bread from the platter.

“It means I might have to cancel our performance there.”

“No!” … “Theo, you can’t!” … “But what about -” The voices of the rest of his troupe shouted over each other.

“I don’t want to,” Theo said loudly. “Of course I don’t. But I’m not sure there is an alternative.”

“There must be something,” Etta said, putting her hand on her husband’s. “How soon will the Cressida be ready to fly?”

“Pol didn’t know. It could be a few days, it could be a month. And the truth is, even if we changed the production, we might have to cancel the rest of the tour anyway.”

“Oh, Theo.”

“How far off are they?” Mal asked, chewing on a morsel of crust.

“Not that far, not really, but … why?”

“I was just wondering whether we couldn’t make a detour. Kaylee’s damn good with engines - she might be able to figure out what’s wrong with Cressida’s.”

“That would be good of you, but they’re in the wrong direction. We’d never make the first performance if we did that.”

“You make it sound as if you’d be doing more than disappointing your audience,” Inara said shrewdly.

“We have money tied up in this,” Theo said, shaking his head. “These performances will bring in enough for us to rest for two months, recharge our batteries, train new people. Without it, we’ll have to split up again, and that means we can’t do the big shows.” He sighed deeply. “This is just what I didn’t want.”

“Anything we can do to help?” Mal asked. “I mean, if you’re sure Kaylee can’t -”

“I don’t see how.”

“What were you planning on doing? The play, I mean?” Simon asked.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Hank looked up. “A what?”

A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Theo said, smiling fondly, if a little sadly. “It’s a love story. Actually four love stories. With fairies.”

Jayne grimaced. “Fairies?”

“Oh, it was my favourite Shakespeare play,” River said dreamily.

“Mine too,” Freya agreed. “We did it at school once, and I played Titania.”

“Tit-who?”

“I love that story,” Inara added. “The forest, the moonlight, Hermia and Helena, Lysander and … oh, what was the other’s name?”

“Demetrius,” Zoe put in unexpectedly.

“You too?” Mal asked, almost as if he was being betrayed by his first mate. She merely gave him one of her looks back.

Theo went on, “It’s one of our most famous productions, and as it happens each of the planets we are to visit has requested it. But now, without half of my cast members, I don’t see how …”

Etta squeezed his hand.

“Well,” Mal said into the ensuing silence, “I’m thinking maybe we should eat first, talk about alternatives after. I’m pretty sure we could come up with something, if we all put our heads together.”

“Sure we can,” Kaylee said, passing a dish of delicately fragranced rice down the table.

“Why?” Theo asked. “Why would you even consider trying to help us? You don’t know us.”

Mal loaded his plate with vegetables before answering. “Maybe I’m just being selfish,” he said, handing the bowl to Freya. “Maybe I just wanna get paid.”

“I don’t believe that.”

“Then maybe I’m feeling contrary.”

Theo smiled. “I think you’re a complicated man.”

“Maybe that too.” Mal shrugged. “Better eat, before Kaylee gets mad at us leaving the food to get cold.”

“No, I wouldn’t want that,” Theo said, nodding his head towards the young mechanic. “Not after this magnificent repast has been set before us.”

“It ain’t that magnificent,” Kaylee said, colouring prettily.

“It’s good food,” Mal said stoutly. “So let’s eat.”

Everyone tucked in, some with more enthusiasm than others. It was notable that the actors were subdued, almost to a man, eating in virtually total silence. Even the looks Dana was throwing at Jayne didn’t lighten the atmosphere, only making River move her chair closer to her man’s.

Finally it was too much for Freya, feeling slightly overwhelmed by the emotions of so many extrovert and creative people washing up and down the table. “So, Theo,” she began, wiping Ethan’s fingers and knowing all eyes had lifted to her. “How come you’re out here flying around the Rim and not wowing them in the Core?”

Theo stared at her, then laughed, a warm sound that lifted all their hearts. “Wowing them? My dear Mrs Reynolds, it’s been a while since we did that.”

“Then why don’t you tell us about it?”

Theo looked at his own wife, who nodded slightly, and Mal tried to stop the smile that threatened to lift his lips. It was fairly obvious who wore the trousers in that match.

“I’m sure no-one wants to hear about our ancient history …”

“Course we do,” Kaylee said encouragingly.

“And the Hawkins Troupe is famous,” Inara added, dabbing at her lips with her napkin. “Quite a number of us have seen you, or at least heard of you.” She shot a glare towards Mal, who ignored it.

“Well, I suppose if you insist …”

“Please,” River said, cutting her food into tiny portions and chewing each one assiduously.

“Then since you ask so nicely …” Theo smiled. “The tale of the amazing Hawkins Troupe, and its sorry fall from grace.”

“Fall?” Hank asked, then quietened down when Zoe put her hand on his arm.

“We were founded by my father, Andreas Hawkins, some fifty years ago. I took my first tottering steps as an actor playing his son, aged three. A little group, numbering not more than ten at any one time, playing the smaller houses on Persephone. But he was good, and so was my mother. It took them a long time, but they built a reputation, not least of which was for reliability. You booked the Hawkins Troupe, you knew you were going to get professionalism as well as a damn good show. When finally their overnight success came, it was on the back of years of hard work.”

“The Core?” Inara asked.

“Yes, dear lady. They … we were invited to some of the grandest theatres, from Osiris to Londinium, Sihnon to … well, everywhere. At first we travelled by liner, but after a while my father bought a ship of his own, Troilus.” He smiled in fond remembrance. “He loved that ship. Considered it the modern equivalent of the handcart of the old troubadours and balladeers. He said it kept him in touch with his craft. In fact, the success was so great that after a few years he invested in a second, the Cressida, and created another company, with me as its head.”

“So what happened?” This time it was Kaylee, entranced by the tale, and the way Theo spoke. She could almost see the pictures in her head.

“My mother died. Quite suddenly.”

Her hand rushed to cover her mouth. “Oh, I’m sorry.”

“It wasn’t your fault, child. It was no-one’s. A condition she never told anyone about, until one day she just …” He dropped his head for a moment, and Etta took his hand in hers. Seeming to take strength from the contact, he looked up again. “My father lost interest at that point. I was called home and given singular responsibility for the Troupe.”

“He shouldn’t have done that,” Etta murmured.

“What else could he have done?” Theo said quietly, and it was obvious that this was an old argument. “And should I have said no?”

Her lips closed tightly to keep words from spilling out.

“Missed her,” River whispered into the silence.

“That he did,” Theo agreed. “He followed her quite quickly - within the year, in fact. And I was head and sole proprietor of the Hawkins Troupe. Still successful, still playing to full houses on all the inner planets, hardly ever venturing further than Ariel or Persephone.”

“So what changed?” Mal asked.

“The war. As it changed so many things.”

Mal nodded. “I’ll agree with that.”

“Suddenly we found many of our most famous productions were banned, from Richard the Third to Serrault’s Army.”

“Why?” Hank wanted to know.

“Stories about civil wars,” Simon explained. “Rebellions, insurrections …”

“Exactly.” Theo nodded. “And others were censored, cut to pieces … I couldn’t stand for that. I took my ships, my company, and went further out.”

“They let you?” Mal was surprised.

“Short of arresting us, I’m not sure how they could stop us. Of course, if I’d known what was going to happen, how our reputation would suffer …”

“You’d still have gone,” Etta said.

He looked at her and sighed, long and hard. “Probably.”

“And the rumours of you being a Browncoat sympathiser?” Mal sat back in his chair. “Any truth to them?”

“Captain, I baulk at any kind of restrictions, whether it be civil liberty or telling me what I can or cannot perform. And the reception we got on Independent-favoured worlds led me to believe that I was right.”

“At one point the Alliance had a Federal warrant out for his arrest,” Toby put in, his slightly accented voice putting him closer to Dayton Colony than Osiris.

“They thought I was a spy.” Theo laughed. “Me.”

“Really.” Mal gazed at him.

“Captain, is this going to cause a problem? If so, I need to know now.” Tension suddenly filled the cargo bay.

“A problem?”

“The warrant is no longer valid, and the Alliance have no current quarrel with me. They already made life as difficult for us as possible, not allowing the troupe to perform Core-wards, keeping us scraping a living. But if you have an issue with -”

“You know why my ship’s called Serenity?” Mal interrupted, his toffee voice low.

“I … no.”

Mal sat forward, smiling a little. “Serenity Valley. Last battle of the war. Zoe and me, we were soldiers on the ground. Wearing brown. My wife was another Independent, though she didn’t get to Hera, on account of being blown up elsewhere. We none of us have any love for the Alliance, Theo. We fly below their radar as much as possible, but we’ve stuck a few thorns in their paws on occasion.” The smile grew in warmth. “So you’re welcome on my boat. You and yours.”

For a moment it looked as if Theo was lost for words. But only for a moment. “Thank you, Captain Reynolds.”

“It’s Mal.”

“Mal.”

“But we still need to figure out what to do about your predicament. Like I said, if we could get to your other ship, Kaylee could probably fix her up, no problem. But if you’re sure about doing your show on Carson’s Moon -”

“I am. I have little left beyond my reputation, and if I have to start cancelling just because I don’t have a full complement of actors then that …” Theo stopped and gazed at Serenity’s crew each in turn.

“Mal, why’s he looking at me like that?” Hank asked, feeling increasingly uncomfortable.

“Ain’t just you,” Jayne said. “He’s staring at all of us like he’s planning to buy and trying to work out how much per pound to offer.”

“We could double up.” It was almost as if Theo was speaking to himself. “It’s been done before. It’s almost traditional. Titania and Oberon with Hippolyta and Theseus, Philostrate and Egeus, then the fairies could be reduced in number …” His eyes began to glaze.

“Theo.” Etta’s voice brought him back to earth. “You can’t possibly be thinking what I think you‘re thinking.”

He turned to her. “Why not? There’d be enough of us then. And we’ve got two days for rehearsals. Not word perfect, of course, but if it was just the minor roles -”

“Theo, what’re you suggesting?” Mal asked, interrupting.

“Theo, you can’t,” Etta said, ignoring him. “You can’t just drag these poor people into your plans.”

“They said they wanted to help. And if it’s the only way -”

“Theo.” Mal‘s raised voice cut across them. “Are you suggesting we could take parts in this play of yours?” he asked, trying to get it clear in his head.

“If you could, there’d be enough. I could make a few cuts, take out some of the less important scenes, make it so that -”

“I can’t learn lines. Ask the doc here. I’m crap at it.” His mind was on the hospital scam on Ariel, and the time it had taken him just to learn that the patients were cyanotic, not cynical, and they were unable to resuscitate them, not that they kicked.

“He is,” Simon agreed. “Really bad.”

“Hell, I can do it,” Jayne said, smirking, ignoring the look the young man gave him.

“You have any idea what you’re saying yes to?” Hank asked, his eyes wide in surprise.

“It’s just pretend. Been doing that all my life. What’s the difference if you’re all dressed up to do it?”

“Oh, if only you knew.”

“You know, we’re lucky. I think we’ve got enough women.” Theo looked around. “Otherwise we’d have to go down that other traditional route.”

“What?” Jayne asked, his brow drawn down.

“There’s a great tradition of men performing the female parts,” Theo said. “In Shakespeare’s day, there were no actresses. All the greatest roles, such as Cleopatra, Desdemona, Juliet … they were all performed by men.”

“Ya mean they dressed up?”

“Dressed up, wigs, make-up, the lot.”

“And they weren’t sly?”

“Well, some of them probably were, but it wasn’t considered odd. All of Elizabethan theatre was the same.”

“Something downright fishy about the whole thing,” the big man muttered.

“Theo, stop,” Etta said firmly. “We can’t possibly expect these good people to agree to this crazy scheme of yours! Shakespeare isn’t like learning the ingredients on a soup can!”

“Then they carry the text. It’s been done, Etta. Bordrimo use to carry his script with him all the time -”

“He was eccentric. And a drunk.”

“He was also very good, just as we are. And by Amity we‘d have the wrinkles ironed out.” He grabbed her hands, pulled them to his chest. “We can do this, Etta.”

“They haven’t said yes, yet.”

He stopped, his enthusiasm dampened. “Ah.”

“I’ll help.” Everyone looked around, surprised to see it was Hermione who had spoken up.

“Noni?” Mal looked at his ward. “What was that?”

“I’ll help,” she said again, a pale blush across her cheeks. “Reilly used to take us to the shows sometimes, on Mead. It was wonderful. I’d love to be in one.”

“Child, bless you,” Theo said, beaming at her.

“And me,” Kaylee said. “Don’t know how good I’ll be, but sounds like fun.” She nudged Simon.

“What?”

“You want to do it too, don’t you?”

“Kaylee, I don’t know -”

“You told me about when you were small. Doing that stuff with River, putting on plays …”

He paled slightly. “That was private, Kaylee.”

“I’m already doing scenery,” River put in. “And I can act.”

“I want to help too,” Bethany said quickly, not wanting to be left out.

“I think you’d make a delightful fairy,” Theo said, and she preened a little.

“Me too,” Ethan said from his chair next to his father. “I want to be a fairy.”

“Whoa, now, hold on there,” Mal said. “I ain’t said yes to any of this yet.”

“But you will, won’t you?” Kaylee leaned forward, hope burning in her eyes. “Always wanted to wear those costumes, get dressed up … please?”

“It sounds like fun,” Inara put in from further down the table.

“This is crazy,” Mal said. “We ain’t none of us actors, and I conjure we’re gonna prove it if we go any further.”

“So you ain’t never pretended to be what you ain’t?” Jayne pointed out.

“That’s not the same.” Mal glared at him but the mercenary was unrepentant.

“Mal,” Freya said quietly, making him look at her. “It does sound like fun.” And it would be good for Inara, she added mentally. Take her mind off Sam.

That ain’t fair, Frey.

Maybe not. But it’s true.

He pondered a moment, then looked back at Theo. “No-one takes part who doesn’t want to, dong mah?”

Theo grinned wider than should have been possible. “Volunteers only,” he agreed.

Mal looked around his crew, at the various expressions of excitement, trepidation and downright fear. “Well, looks like you’ve got yourself some actors,” he said, and sighed as the table erupted.

---

“Jayne, if I cut you in half, would you have ‘stupid’ written all the way through?”

“What? Why?” The big man glared at Hank as they stood in the corner of the cargo bay behind a makeshift screen.

“It’s your fault. You said it would be easy.”

“You don’t have to do it if’n you don’t want to. Mal said.”

“And Zoe said I had to.” He tugged at the doublet he was trying on.

“You do everything Zoe says?”

Hank stared. “Did you just hear what you just said?”

Etta looked at them critically. “I’m going to have to let out the body on this one,” she said, moving Jayne around so she could see the back of him. “But the length’s right.” She turned to Hank. “This one fits okay, but is too long in the arms.”

“I can push ‘em up,” Hank offered, doing exactly that to the sleeves.

“They won’t stay that way.” Etta tutted under her breath. “Trouble is, Milo’s built like an ape. His arms are longer than everyone else’s.”

“This his?” Hank looked down at himself.

“It’s what he wears most often, yes.” She smiled slightly. “Actors have habits they don’t like to break. We believe they bring us good luck.”

“Like carrying grenades,” Jayne put in.

“I don’t think she quite meant it like that,” Hank said dryly.

“Same luck.”

“At least Theo isn’t insisting on the hose,“ Etta said quietly, studying Jayne‘s powerful thighs. “I’d never find any to fit you.“ She sighed. “Doesn’t mean there’s any less work to be done, though.”

“Why don’t you ask the doc?” Jayne suggested, trying to make more room inside the tight doublet by flexing his muscles. “He’s pretty good at stitching.”

“I don’t think sewing up bullet holes and stab wounds is quite the same,” Hank pointed out.

“Still a needle and thread.”

Etta nodded slowly. “Even if he can only sew on a button, that might help.”

“Anything to not have to learn lines,” Hank added quietly.

“I’ll go ask him.” Jayne strode out from behind the screen, and came face to face with Mal in the centre of the bay. “Mal, what the tyen shiao duh …” He stammered to a halt, lost for words, at least for a moment.

“What?” Mal asked, turning, fabric flowing out from his hips.

“Looks like you’re wearing a dress.”

“You think?”

“My Ma had something like it once. Hated it on her, too.”

“You’re just jealous.”

“Jealous? Of what?”

“Because you never get to wear one.”

“You think I want to?”

Mal smoothed the fabric over his chest. “Thought I’d try out for one of the female roles. Like Theo said they used to have.” He looked up. “Think it’ll work?”

“I think Frey’s gonna have words ‘bout you in a skirt.”

“Why? Just means I’m more ready for action with her.”

Jayne actually blushed, just a little on the tips of his ears. “Mal, that ain’t the kinda thing you oughtta be saying around people like this.”

“People like what?” Mal stepped towards him, his eyebrows raised.

“Ya heard what Theo said. About some actors being sly …”

“You think it’s catching?”

“Don’t wanna find out.”

Mal had backed him against one of the stacks of boxes. “Really?”

“You try’n kiss me, I’ll …”

“You’ll what, Jayne?” Mal asked, leaning towards him and pouting a little.

“I’ll think of something.”

“Sounds romantic.” He tapped Jayne’s shoulder coquettishly, and had to restrain from laughing as the big man pulled away as fast as possible.

“Captain, leave him alone. He’s feeling fragile.” River stepped into the bay. “And that colour suits you.”

“You think?” Mal looked down at the blue material. “I wasn't sure whether to go with the brown.”

“Goes with your eyes.” She turned her own on Jayne. “And that isn’t a dress,” she said softly. “It’s formal robes for the master of the revels.”

“Come again?”

She took his hand and squeezed it. “You look nice,” she said, attempting to change the subject.

He was about to say he felt like he should be parading down Whore’s Alley, but was interrupted by the rest of the crew filing into the bay, shepherded inside by Theo.

“Ready?” he boomed, his usual bonhomie back in place.

“Not sure if that’s the right word,” Mal said, “but looks like we’re all here.”

“Good.” Theo started handing out copies of the text he‘d printed from the Cortex. “It’s not all just dressing up,” he said, smiling at everyone. “We do actually have to put on a play, and that’s going to take work.” He clapped his hands and his troupe appeared from various corners and behind props. “We’ll act out what we can, and you can see how the play unfolds.” He turned to his wife. “Etta, you’ll have to read Hermia, as we don’t have -”

“I’ll do it,” River said quickly.

Theo looked at her. “Are you sure?”

“’And in the wood, where often you and I, upon faint primrose-beds, were wont to lie, emptying our bosoms of their counsel sweet, there my Lysander and myself shall meet, and thence from Athens turn away our eyes to seek new friends and stranger companies.’” Her voice carried into the superstructure, clear and word-perfect.

“How …” Theo stood amazed.

“I read it last night,” River admitted. “I know it all.”

A slow smile spread across Theo’s face. “My dear, you are any manager’s dream come true.” He looked around his cast. “And now we’re all met, I think it is time to begin.”

With the dining table moved back, there was just enough space for a tiny stage, and Theo led Etta into the centre.

“’Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour draws on apace …’” Theo as Theseus began.

Until a while later …

“’… and each several chamber bless through this palace with sweet peace, ever shall in safety rest, and the owner of it blest. Trip away, make no stay: meet me all by break of day.’”

As Theo as Oberon’s final words fell into silence, Kaylee couldn’t help herself. She started to applaud, the others joining in in fits and starts, until the cargo bay was filled with the sound of clapping.

The actors moved forwards, variously bowing and curtseying, basking in the glow of adoration.

“Ah, an actor’s ambrosia,” Theo said, beaming. He turned to River, standing wide-eyed. “And you did magnificently, my dear. You have a natural talent.” He took her hand and bowed over it.

River dropped in a deep curtsey. “Thank you, kind sir.”

Simon, sitting with his arm around Kaylee, Bethany at his feet, couldn’t help but smile widely. His sister, her abilities, being lauded by this man of the theatre.

Theo stood straight, turning to his audience. “There is a final speech, made by Puck, but as it stands I’m not sure who’s going to play him. The boys could read in his lines, of course, and I’ve cut a number of the less integral speeches, but … it’s an important part. I’m not sure anyone can actually double up -”

“Sir?” Hermione stood up. “Can I try?”

“The man said it was a him, Noni,” Mal said quietly, one arm circling Freya‘s waist.

“I did,” Theo agreed. “But Puck is a spirit, a sprite … and I’ve seen him played very successfully by girls.” He looked at Hermione. “You’d like to try?”

“Yes, sir.”

He put his large hand on her shoulder. “Then Puck you shall be. You’ll have to study hard over the next two days, but we’ll all help.”

“Thank you.” She blushed and sat down again next to Inara, who put her arm around her.

“Well done,” she said, and Noni grinned, holding her script close to her chest.

“Can I be a fairy, Daddy?” Ethan said, looking up at his father from where he sat on the decking.

“Of course you can, young Master Reynolds,” Theo said.

Ethan turned his blue eyes on the big man. “And Jesse?”

“And me?” Bethany put in.

“All the babes.” Theo laughed. “Our forest is going to be full of sprites.”

The little boy grinned and clapped his hands.

“Well,” Theo said, smiling at everyone. “It appears we are all called to this place in good order. I suggest we take ten minutes to refresh ourselves, then I will tell you what parts you will have and we shall begin rehearsals in earnest.” He looked at Mal. “If that’s all right with you, captain.”

“Long as my boat don’t fall out the sky while you’ve got my mechanic enthralled, I conjure it’ll be fine.”

“Then to work!”

---

“They’re what?” Janith lifted her head to stare into Mikel’s eyes.

“Putting the Dream on. Theo’s managed to persuade the captain of that ship and his crew to take part.”

“You mean he’s …” She stopped herself before she said too much, before she made it clear it wasn‘t Theo she was thinking of.

“I wish I was there. Theo may be a great man, but … this isn’t likely to go well.” Mikel couldn’t help it - he laughed.

Janith pulled at the golden hairs on his chest. “That’s not fair. I’m sure they’re going to do their best. And it’s not Theo’s fault that Pol can’t get Cressida back on line.”

“Pol thinks it’s deliberate.” Mikel ran his hands through her long brown hair.

“What?”

“That someone’s sabotaging us.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

“I said that, but she kept going on about it being different systems all the time, and that they couldn’t just go like that.”

“But they patently are.” She kissed his naked chest, just above his well-defined abs.

“She won’t believe it.”

“So does she think it’s one of us?”

Mikel laughed again, his naked body vibrating under Janith’s. “I said to her, what do we know about ships?”

“Quite right.” She nipped his skin with her teeth, making him hiss with pleasure and forget the entire conversation as the blood fled his brain.

---

The next two days were filled with rehearsals in the cargo bay, sewing relays in the dining area, and the occasional streams of Chinese obscenities as lines were forgotten and cues missed.

At one point Mal encountered Zoe in the corridor outside the engine room.

“Hiding, sir?” she asked.

“Just keeping out of the way. You?”

“Absolutely.”

“You know, it never occurred to me before, but there were times during the war that were actually preferable to this.”

“I know what you mean, sir.”

“Why’d I say yes to this?”

“Because you’re a soft touch, sir.”

“Really? I figured it was feminine wiles.”

“That too.”

“Mal, Theo wants to go over the opening again,” Hank called up the stairs.

Mal looked at his first mate. “Next time I even consider saying yes to something like this, shoot me.”

“No problem, sir.”

And now it was almost time.

River put down her brush and surveyed the backdrop for the forest. She had let her imagination run riot, making it full of dark shadows and half-seen images, of centaurs and unicorns, wild men and masks.

“My dear, you are amazing,” Theo said, standing back and staring during a break. “I would never have believed it could look so awe-inspiring.”

“Too much?” she asked, her head on one side.

“No. Not at all. I always thought there should be something a little dangerous about it.”

She smiled. “Then we’re ready.”

“You may be,” Mal said, walking down the stairs from the bridge. “The rest of us feel like we’re been dumped in the deep end with our hands tied.”

“You’ll be fine,” Theo assured him.

“I need to wash,” River said, looking at the multi-colours all over her hands.

“Well, stop by the infirmary on your way,” Mal ordered. “Your brother said you haven’t been to get your hormones checked the last couple of days.”

“Been busy.”

“Albatross, you know the deal. Hormones checked or locked in the shuttle. Your choice.”

Kuh ooh duh lao bao jurn,” she muttered, then looked up guiltily, her face the image of her niece‘s.

“Don’t care what you think of me,” Mal said, successfully hiding a smile. “Infirmary.”

“Yes sir, captain,” River said, ripping off a smart salute then running out of the cargo bay.

Theo watched her go, then turned to the other man. “I haven’t liked to ask before but … is that young lady pregnant?”

Mal nodded. “Yep. Her and Jayne’ve been an item for a while now.”

“I’ll let Dana know.”

“Dana?”

Theo nodded. “Toby mentioned that she’d been talking about your man. Being very complimentary about him.”

“Ah. Yeah, better let her know he’s taken. River won’t take kindly to someone trying to muscle in on her territory.”

“The trouble is Dana tends not to listen. I wouldn’t want the mother-to-be hurt in any way.”

Mal smiled a little. “Theo, I’d put my money on River. Believe me.”

“Mal, we’re landing in five.” Hank’s voice echoed through the ship.

He crossed to the com. “Thanks, Hank. Got the right co-ordinates?”

“Exactly what Theo gave me.”

“Shiny.” Mal released the com switch and looked at Theo. “So, what’s the plan?”

“I’ll go and see Mr Carson while the boys set up. Toby will show you what to do, where to put things. There should be chairs ready for the audience that will need to be put out, but otherwise it’s just going over your lines again.”

Mal swallowed, feeling just a hint of nerves up his spine. “Glad I’m just reading it. You sure they won’t mind?”

“My dear Captain, I’ve cut your lines as close to the bone as possible, and I know you’re getting familiar with them. If you need to use the book, do, but no-one is going to complain. Not with the great Hawkins in the lead role.”

“That how you see yourself?” Mal asked, smiling slightly.

“In here, on board your vessel, you are captain. But out there, on that stage, I am God.” He turned, stalking away.

“He really feels like that, doesn’t he?” Mal murmured.

Freya came up behind him and wrapped her arms around his chest. “I think he does.”

“Is this going to work?”

“He thinks so.”

Mal turned, holding her against him. “What about you?”

She smiled, snuggling as close as possible. “Have you seen the look on Hermione’s face? And River’s? They’re adoring this. And as for Bethany in that little costume of hers …”

“Oh, I know they’re having the time of their lives. But is it going to work?”

“It’s theatre, Mal. As soon as the lights go down and the curtain rises, you’ll see the magic.”

“Ain’t got a curtain.”

“Just imagine we have.”

---

Act III - Carson’s Moon

Two o’clock, local time, and the great and the good, the high and the mighty, as well as the low and the lowest of Carson’s Moon were congregated in the makeshift arena outside town. Serenity looked almost festive, with streamers attached to her cargo bay entrance as well as to her thrusters.

“She looks …” Mal fought to find the right word, and only found the wrong one.

“Don’t say it,” Freya warned, pulling Ethan’s wings into place.

“Pretty,” the little boy said, wriggling.

“Stand still.” She adjusted them once more, then sighed as he wriggled again.

“Serenity looks pretty,” he insisted.

“I think so too,” his mother agreed, giving up and turning to making sure her own costume wasn't revealing more than nature intended.

“Looks like a tart’s bedroom,” Jayne said, coming down the stairs and trying to appear comfortable in his doublet.

“Jayne!” Kaylee said, bringing Bethany and Hope in from the lower crew quarters, all of them dressed in diaphanous outfits.

“Does,” the big man muttered, unrepentant.

Bethany skipped forward. “I'm a fairy, Uncle Jayne,” she said, turning around so he could see her wings, the twins of Ethan’s. “Are you one as well?”

Jayne shook his head firmly. “Nope. I’m Snug.”

“Snug?” The little girl made it sound like it was a sneeze.

“And a lion.”

She grinned. “Heard you roaring.”

Jayne shrugged. “Well, gotta practice.”

“You know your words?” Mal asked, hitching his robes a little higher.

“More or less.” The mercenary pulled his script out of his pocket, if the jumble of papers could be considered a script. “Kinda.”

“Kinda?”

“Know my cues and the last words. Theo said that’d be enough.”

Mal rolled his eyes.

“This is going to be fun,” Zoe said dryly, sitting on the sofa, Ben on her lap, chewing happily at his plasticast teething ring.

“Hey, how’d you get out of it?” Jayne demanded. “Weren't you gonna be a fairy too?”

“I am,” she said darkly. “Fairy Zoe.”

“So you’re gonna go on out there looking like that?” He waved his hand at her normal clothes.

“Someone has to look after things while you all have fun,” she said, unable to hide the smirk.

“Still wanna know who you paid.”

Hank sighed, pulling his doublet away from his neck. “Should by rights be me,” he muttered, obviously repeating something he’d said before. “Being the pilot. Ready to fly us out of here in case of an emergency.”

Jayne grinned. “You weren't kidding when you said she told you ya had to be in it, were you?”

“Would I lie to you?” Hank sighed dramatically. “Anyone seen my lantern?”

“It’s in the cargo bay with the rest of the props,” Freya said, then tried to take a deep breath. “Is it just me or is anyone else’s heart palpitating?”

Simon stepped out of the infirmary, smiling. “Palpitations? Someone has palpitations? I'm ready to deal with any palpitations that may present themselves.” He almost fell over his own feet but righted himself in time.

Mal glared at him. “What did you take?”

“What?”

“You heard. Half an hour ago you were ready to kill to get out of this, and now you’re … you’re high.”

“Am not.”

“Are too.”

“Am –“

“Boys.” Freya’s voice cut across them. She stood up. “Simon, what have you done?”

“Just taken a smoother.”

“How much?”

He giggled, then covered his mouth with his hand. “Maybe too much.”

Freya sighed heavily. “Come on. We’d better see if we can’t counteract it.” She led him back into the medical bay.

“That’s not fair,” Hank moaned. “I wanted some too.”

Zoe patted his hand.

“Where’s River?” Kaylee asked, watching as Freya injected her husband with something.

“Out with the act-ors,” Jayne said, making the last word sound like two.

“Too good for the likes of us?” Hank asked.

“Probably.” Jayne shrugged. “Hell, won’t be difficult.”

“And Noni?” Mal asked. “I haven’t seen her since breakfast.”

“Don’t,” Hank said quickly. “If you even mention food I might throw up. Right here. Right now.”

“She was hidden away with Etta,” Inara said, coming around the corner from her room, her gown billowing softly around her. “Finishing off her costume. I imagine she’s waiting with the rest of them.”

“Wow.” Kaylee’s eyes were huge. “That don’t look like one of these outfits.” She smoothed her dress.

“It isn’t. It’s one of mine. Theo said I could be a lady in waiting.”

“Seems like it ain't what you know, but who you know,” Mal grumbled.

Simon and Freya stepped out of the infirmary, the former slightly more in control of himself. “Sorry,” he said. “I think I got the dosage wrong.”

Mal laughed, breaking the slight tension. “Doc, if I’d thought to do it first, believe me, I would.”

Etta put her head around the doorway. “Ready?”

“No,” Mal said, straightening up. “But I guess … actually, no, I was right. We ain't.”

“That’s a shame. Because we’ve got two minutes to go and you’re in the first scene.”

“Cao,” Mal muttered, losing all colour to his face and swallowing hard.

“Mal!” Freya admonished, swatting him on the arm.

---

Some ninety minutes later …

“How could he forget?”

“I said my lines!”

“Yeah, but not in the right order.”

“Didn’t matter. And no-one noticed.”

“We nearly didn’t get Pyramus’ death scene because of you!”

“Hell, so?”

“That’s the whole … Jayne, you got anything between your ears at all?”

The big man turned on Hank. “You forgot your lantern. Had to go back inside for it. Held us all up.”

“Toby covered.” The pilot was turning puce.

“Yeah. Lucky for you.”

“Fiddler did his part better’n you, and he pissed up the lantern!”

“Got the biggest gorram laugh, though didn’t he?”

The two men squared up to each other, and it could all have ended in tears and teeth, except River glided between them.

“No fighting. Have another show to do here tonight. Can’t have Snug and Starveling appearing with black eyes.”

“Wouldn’t be me with a –“

“Jayne.”

He looked down at her, the determination on her face. “Gorram it,” he muttered.

She nodded and smiled at him, then headed up the stairs towards their shuttle.

“It was fine,” Theo boomed, following the actors and crew back into the cargo bay. “First night is always the trickiest. And everyone enjoyed themselves.”

“I did,” Bethany said, bouncing up and down. “I got my words right.”

“That you did,” Kaylee said, lifting her up to sit her on her hip. “Right pretty, too.”

“Everyone was excellent, and we’ll be even better later.”

“Later?” Mal stood up from where he was leaning on the wall. “God, do we really have to do this again?”

“Captain, you should be proud of yourselves. I am.” There was true sincerity in the older man’s voice, and admiration on his face. “I … we all have to thank you.”

“Well, I enjoyed it,” Simon said, wiping his hands over his face.

“You’re still slightly high,” Inara pointed out.

“Not sure I care.”

“I thought you were marvellous,” Dana oozed, moving close to Jayne. “You really scared me when you roared.”

“Well, I think we all need to rest, eat and prepare for our second performance,” Theo said quickly, stepping between them and taking the young woman’s arm. He glanced at Mal, who nodded slightly.

---

“Gorram it,” Polka said, wriggling out from under the console. “That shouldn’t have gone again. I don’t know what the hell’s wrong with it this time.”

Mikel sighed. “So you’re saying we’re not going to make it to Amity either?”

“Can’t see that happening. Not unless a miracle happens. If we’re lucky we’ll be on Borodin for the big performance, but … that’s about as much as I can promise.”

The young man looked up at the woman standing in the doorway to the bridge. “Sorry, Janith. Looks like your big chance is going to have to wait a day or two more.”

Janith smiled. “That’s okay. I know how these things go. Perhaps I can help you, Pol.”

Polka shook her head. “I doubt it. It’d need someone really clued up on ships to be able to help me. I feel like I’m just winging it as it is.”

“Well, if you want me to try, let me know.” She turned back into the body of the craft, a smile on her face.

---

By the time of the second performance, the sun had almost set, and the staging area was softly backlit by the glow of the Firefly’s engine. Kaylee had rigged other illumination, but there was something other-worldly about the setting now, and River’s backdrop seemed to come alive as the slight breeze moved the canvas, making the fantastical creatures appear to move amongst the painted trees.

This time the audience sat hushed, expectant, many of them old hands who’d seen the afternoon performance and had come back again, dragging husbands, wives and kids. There was an air of tension, a readiness to suspend disbelief for the next couple of hours.

As Freya said to Mal as he prepared to set into the soft pool of light, “See? I told you there was magic.”

And Frey was right, Zoe decided, watching the play from the corner of the cargo bay. She saw Theo play not just Theseus, Duke of Athens, but take on the role of Oberon and make it his own. She had never thought to see a more unlikely king of the fairies, but he made his girth regal, giving Oberon a gravity she had not imagined.

Even the crew were inspired. Mal played his two roles with an assurance as if he’d been doing it all his life. River was bewitching, and Noni a revelation as Puck, all mischievousness and quick footed. Jayne roared, Hank handled his lantern with aplomb, and Simon was the most stately wall ever to appear on Carson’s Moon.

But it was the fairies, with the babes dressed in gossamer with tiny wings on their backs that made her eyes mist, and clap with the rest of the audience as they made their way off-stage.

Finally, the applause still ringing in their ears, the entire cast filed silent back into the cargo bay and Kaylee dimmed the lights outside, leaving only the Firefly’s glow to show the audience their exit.

Theo looked at his extended troupe, standing in twos or threes, still overwhelmed by the experience.

“Thank you,” he said sincerely. “It may never be as good again, but that was magnificent. There was truly magic abroad tonight.”

“And it ain't even midsummer,” Mal concurred.

“If I may I’d like to put some of the other scenes back in,” Theo went on quietly. “Work on them on the way to Amity.”

“I've a notion we can talk on that tomorrow,” Mal said. “I think we all need to grab some food and shut-eye right now.”

---

Most everyone found it difficult to drift off that night. Words and pictures were tumbling through almost every mind, and the overflow made Freya wakeful until she eventually gave in. She turned over in bed, poked Mal in the side and said, “I need something to help me sleep.”

“Mnffgng?”

She leaned over his ear. “I need something to help me sleep.”

Her husband pried open one eye. “So you woke me up to tell me?”

“I thought you might be a gentleman and get it for me.”

“Whatever gave you the impression there were gentlemen on this boat?”

She sighed and pushed the covers back. “Looks like I was sadly mistaken.”

He put his arm across her, keeping her from getting up. “How come you can’t sleep anyway?” he asked, lifting himself onto his other elbow and peering at her.

“Too many dreams.”

His face softened, and he smiled. “And you decided to share that nugget of information with a man who was actually enjoying some himself?”

“Thought I’d be generous.”

“Thanks.” He could feel her pulse under his hand by her breast. “So what do you want?”

“Ibenofin. 10ccs.” She smiled. “Think you can manage that?”

“Hey, did I say I was going? Just asked what you wanted.”

The smile froze. “Fine. I’ll get it –“

He grinned and kissed the tip of her nose. “No. I will. Might take me one or two goes to get it right, but … anything for the woman I love.” He slid out of bed, grabbing his pants and tugging them on, barely doing up enough buttons to make sure they didn’t slide off his hips. “But if I find you’ve dozed off when I get back, I’ll be mightily peeved,” he added, climbing the ladder in his bare feet. Her laughter followed him into the corridor.

He didn’t dawdle, the metal decking being somewhat chill this time of night with the EC turned down. Hurrying through the darkened galley and down the stairs he realised the lights were on in the infirmary, and a figure he recognised was lurking inside.

“Jayne? You doing something I ought to be worried about?” he asked, stepping into the blue room and feeling even colder.

The big man, clad only in a pair of shorts, grunted and pulled a bottle of pills from inside a cupboard. “River couldn’t sleep. Sent me down for something.” He glanced over his shoulder. “You too?”

“Frey.”

“Yeah. All these goings-on ain’t likely to be conducive to resting well.”

“Conducive?” Mal smiled. “I think you’ve been spending far too much time hanging around Theo. Or maybe Dana.”

Jayne shook two tablets from the bottle into the palm of his hand. “Dana?”

“Don’t act so innocent. I'm fair sure you’ve seen how she’s been looking at you.”

“Can’t stop someone looking.” He paused for a microsecond. “Well, you can, but it’s messy. I mean, there’s total removal of –”

“Nice try.”

“Huh?”

“At changing the subject.” Mal leaned on the medbed and crossed his arms. “Come on. You must’ve noticed.”

“Hey, I'm human,” Jayne blustered a little. “Sure I noticed. Bit hard not to when she’s trying to hang on your arm.”

“I thought Theo was going to have a word with her.”

“Figure he did, but she ain't listening.”

“Jayne, you know what’ll happen if River notices.”

The big man slumped a little. “She already has.”

“Oh?”

“Asked me about it tonight. One of the reason I ain't asleep either.”

Mal felt his lips twitch. “And?”

“And what?”

“What did you say? I mean, I figured Dana was just your type.”

“My type?”

“Female and breathing.”

Jayne looked disgusted. “Mal, you know I ain't gone with no-one since River worked on me. Don’t ever intend to, neither.”

“That’s a big undertaking, Jayne.”

“S’what happens when you love someone.”

Now Mal did smile. “Yeah, I worked that one out myself too.”

Jayne sighed. “Aw, Mal, I ain't gonna do anything. River’s too important to me to mess it up.”

“That doesn’t mean Dana isn’t going to try. And you know what hormones can do.”

“Yeah. I do.” He looked down ruefully at the tablets he still held. “Don’t have to worry about me, Mal. And I’ll try and keep an eye on moonbrain.”

“See that you do. I don’t think Theo’d be very pleased if he found he was missing an actress, and the outer bay doors just happened to be open.”

Jayne chuckled. “Might be worth seeing, but no. Prob’ly not.” He stood straight. “Better get these to River ‘fore they melt.”

“Better had.” Mal watched the big man stalk out of the infirmary, then busied himself getting Freya’s drug of choice. The smile still played about his lips: he really hoped she hadn’t gone to sleep, since he was pretty sure she’d love to hear about that little conversation.

---

Janith slid the plans she’d drawn out from the bottom of her underwear drawer. She’d made sure everyone was occupied, even Mikel, and locked her door, but she still listened for a moment before unfolding the sheets. Finally she was happy, and laid them flat on her bed. A slim finger traced the power lines and water pipes into the Bose estate, and she was pretty sure they were accurate. Her memory had always been good, and she’d trained it over the years to be able to call things to mind from just a single glance.

It had always come in handy, none more so than for her current venture. Being able to remember lines, moves, even the dance routines Rolly had insisted on putting into one of their repertory plays, made her cover seem like a breeze. And of course just playing the part was very gratifying, when no-one had any idea who she really was.

She ran her hand through her hair, slightly abstracted as she stared at the sewer system. Not a nice way in or out, but if necessary she’d do it. There’d been times she’d been up to her ears in crud, although it wasn't her most favourite position. She smiled. That was on top, smiling like the cat who’d eaten the whole aviary and not just the canary. Now, if only he’d play the birdie in question …

---

Act III – The Black (Part II)

By ten the next morning they were out of atmo and heading for Amity, a little less than thirty hours distant. Theo was as good as his word and had most of them in the cargo bay rehearsing the extra scenes.

Most, because Jayne was in the galley, grabbing some late breakfast. Someone had left a pot of oatmeal on a low heat, and he stirred it well before spooning some into a bowl and adding sweetener.

“I think you’re sweet enough,” Dana said from the doorway, looking at him with her head on one side.

“Ain’t interested,” Jayne said roughly, leaning on the counter and eating.

“Now, that’s not nice,” she accused, pouting.

“Sorry if I hurt your feelings, but I’m taken.” He didn’t sound sorry at all.

“So I understand. Theo told me. By River.” She smiled and walked towards him.

“Yep. Got that right.”

“But she’s a girl.” Dana smiled, standing close to him and putting her hand on his arm, feeling his muscles. “Strong man like you needs a real woman. Someone who won’t break when you touch her.”

“Figuring you don’t know River,” Jayne said around a mouthful of food.

“And you don’t know me.” She bounced a little and hitched herself onto the counter. She began to swing her legs, her skirt getting higher with every kick. “I tend to get what I want.”

“I ain’t for sale.” He went to move past her but she put her legs out straight, effectively trapping him.

“No?”

Jayne looked down at their length, their shapeliness, the small butterfly tattooed on her ankle, and for just a single moment felt the flash of temptation. Then he shook his head. “Nope. Got me a woman and believe me when I say I don’t wanna handle any more than that. Thanks for the offer, and all, but you ain’t what I need.”

“Are you sure about that?” She rubbed one foot up his thigh towards his crotch.

He put his bowl down and took hold of her ankles, moving them to one side. “Pretty much.”

She slid to the ground and pressed her body against him, close enough so that she knew he could feel her heat through their clothes. “When you change your mind I’ll be waiting in my room.”

“Girl, you ever hear when someone says no?”

“Not when they mean yes.”

Jayne stared at her then laughed. “Well, hear it now. I’m saying no, Dana. Not interested.” He grabbed the last spoonful of oatmeal and thrust it into his mouth. “Gotta go,” he said, slightly indistinctly. “Got work to do.” He strode out of the kitchen towards the cargo bay.

Dana sighed, twisting her red hair on her finger, not hearing the light footsteps coming from the other doorway.

“Leave him alone,” River said softly.

The actress turned quickly, finding the young woman standing very close. “As far as I’m concerned there’s no wedding ring on his finger, so he’s fair game.”

“You don’t know …” River sighed. “You can’t.”

Dana stared at her, narrowing her eyes. “What are you talking about?”

“Darkness. Taking advantage. Can’t see the wood for the trees, won’t see the danger until it’s too late.”

“Are you threatening me?” Dana asked, almost laughing.

“Why threaten when you can promise?”

For a very long moment Dana just stared, then asked, “Are you totally crazy?”

“Mostly,” River admitted. “But who isn’t, these days? And you won’t have him.”

“Sweetie, why don’t we just see who wins?”

“I will.”

“Dana,” Etta called, her voice projecting through Serenity. “Rehearsals. Now.”

“Time to be wonderful,” Dana said, and flounced out of the galley.

River stood for a moment, chewing on her lip, then followed, her mind well ahead of herself.

“Nice of you to grace us with your presence,” Toby said, leaning back on a crate, managing to look relaxed as he glanced up at Dana coming through the top doorway. “Although I’m sure you think your interpretation of Helena is so perfect you don’t need to rehearse like the rest of us.”

She scowled at him, the look marring her natural beauty, as she headed down the stairs. “Why don’t you go and -”

“Dana,” Theo said commandingly. “Behave.”

“I didn’t start it,” she insisted. “Toby did.”

“Well, I’m finishing it.”

“That just isn’t –” She’d almost reached the bottom of the stairs when she seemed to falter, her foot stumbling on the step, and she pitched forward. She tried to regain her balance, but came down heavily on her left foot, and everyone in the bay heard the crack. She screamed and fell to the floor. Immediately Mal and Simon moved forward, Freya and Zoe only a step behind, while Theo and his troupe were still in shock.

“Doc,” Mal said.

Simon nodded and went down onto his knees, beginning to examine the affected limb. “Sit still,” he ordered, somewhat unnecessarily, as Dana showed no signs of trying to move.

Theo had regained use of his body and voice. “Oh, my. Dana, dear, are you all right?”

“Apparently not,” she said, tears forming in her eyes, then yelled, very loudly.

“It’s broken,” Simon said, rolling his jaw to try and alleviate the ringing in his ears. “I’ll need to set it, but … sorry, Dana, you won’t be doing anything much for the next few days.”

“But I have …” She took a sharp breath as pain shot up her leg. “Have to work.”

“Seems to me the doc said that ain't gonna happen,” Mal put in.

“Mal, can you help me?” Simon said, getting his shoulder under Dana’s left arm.

“Sure.”

Between then they carried the young woman into the infirmary, Theo and Etta fussing as they went.

“But what happened?” he was asking. “I don’t believe you could just –“

“I don‘t know,” Dana admitted, biting her lip against the pain. “I just … I don’t know. It hurts.”

As they put her onto the medbed, Simon quickly reached for an analgesic.

Freya hadn’t followed all the others into the common area, but stood looking up at the top catwalk. River was standing there, gazing down. She caught the other woman’s eye, an odd look on her face, then turned and hurried into her shuttle.

Freya ran up the stairs two at a time. “River.” She ducked through the hatchway.

The young psychic turned innocent eyes on her. “Yes, Freya?”

“What did you do?”

“What did I do to whom?”

“To Dana.”

River shrugged. “Nothing. I wasn’t even there.”

“River, don’t lie to me. You know it doesn’t work.”

The young woman paused a moment, as if holding an internal debate, then said, “She was trying to make Jayne want her.”

“That’s no excuse for hurting her!”

“She did that to herself.”

“Then why are you …” Freya’s eyes darkened a little. “What did you do?”

River looked down at her bare feet. “I might have …” Her voice trailed into nothing.

“What, River?”

River’s head came up, and the innocence had gone, replaced by bare defiance. “I suggested she might like to lose her balance.”

“Suggested.” Freya took a deep breath, trying to control the anger building up inside her. “You don’t do that.”

“She was after Jayne!”

“I don’t care.” Freya shook her head. “River, what we have, what we can do … there’s responsibility with that. I know I don’t always follow the rules myself, but … you could have killed her.”

“It was only a couple of steps.” Her brows raised a little. “I didn’t actually expect her to break anything.”

“Why, zi nu? If you were that worried, why didn’t you just talk to Jayne?”

“I did. He laughed. Said he wasn't interested in her.”

“Then why didn’t you believe him?”

“Because he’s a man!” Suddenly tears were pouring down River’s face. “She was throwing herself at him … did you know she cornered him in the kitchen? Just now?”

“No, I didn’t. Did he respond?”

“No!”

“Then why did you?”

River didn’t answer immediately, just dropped onto the bed, her hair falling down around her face. “I don’t know!” she wailed.

Freya could feel the sorrow and anguish pouring off her, and sat down next to her. “River.” There was no response, just more crying. “River.” She took her hand, holding it tightly even when the young woman tried to pull it away. “Control it, River. I know it’s hard, and I know you wouldn’t have done this if you weren't pregnant.”

“Might.”

“No. You wouldn’t. Not any more. Maybe before, before you grew up, but now … no. It’s the pregnancy.”

River sniffed and looked up. “I … there was just something telling me to …”

“Your baby?”

“No. I don’t think so. There’s no conscious thought, not yet.”

“Then it was the imp.”

“The imp?” River looked confused.

“The imp on your shoulder. I have one. Mal does, and so does Jayne. We all do. It tells us to be bad, to take that one extra step we know damn well we shouldn’t, whispering in our ear that it won’t matter, not this once.”

River was nodding. “Yes. Like that.”

“You don’t have to listen. That’s the whole point of control. To be the one who decides.”

“Not the imp.”

“Exactly.”

River sighed and laid her head in Freya’s lap. “I'm sorry.”

“Not me you should be apologising to.”

The girl froze. “You think I should?”

“Honestly, no. Dana won’t understand, and neither would Theo or any of the others. They’d just be afraid of us, and that wouldn’t help you at all. Just … don’t do it again.”

“I won’t.” She paused for a moment then suddenly giggled.

“What?”

“Theo. He’s an actor short. To play Helena.”

“Well, yes, but …” Freya’s eyes widened. “No.”

“I think he’s heading this way.”

“No, River, I'm not going to –“

“Mrs Reynolds, could I have a word?” Theo boomed from the doorway to the shuttle.

---

Mal stepped onto the bridge, glancing around. Empty. She had to be hiding somewhere, but he’d searched most of her usual places, and he was starting to get … not worried, but maybe a little concerned. Theo had come back from his conversation with her to announce she’d told him, in no uncertain terms, where he could go, and what he could do with himself when he got there. He’d asked Mal to have a word, and he’d agreed. Which would be fine, if only he could find her. He’d almost got to the point of asking River is she knew where his wife was, but figured that would look like he’d lost her. Nowhere near the truth, of course. She was just … mislaid.

He exhaled heavily – not a sigh, he told himself. He’d been doing too much of that lately, he realised, so it was definitely just an exhalation of breath. Possibly with meaning.

Turning on his heel, he was about to check their bunk once more when he heard a slight sound behind him.

He raised an eyebrow and stepped quietly to the steps leading down into the small avionics bay under the bridge window. Knowing he was going to feel foolish if he was wrong, but aware no-one else would see him being that way, he called out, “Frey, I know you’re down there. You wanna tell me what you’re doing?”

For a long moment there was no sound at all, and he began to wonder if he’d actually imagined it, then there was a small noise of someone moving a little.

“No,” she said finally.

“No … what? You ain’t gonna tell me, or you ain't down there? ‘Cause if you’re someplace else you’re doing a damn good job of throwing your voice.”

“Someplace else.”

He smiled and leaned over the opening. “That sounds like something River’d say.”

“Maybe it’s her down here, and not me.”

“Not you?”

Cao.”

“Really. And here’s me with Ethan and Jesse listening to you swear like that.”

In a moment Freya’s head popped into view, then she glared at him. “They’re not here.”

He looked around, feigning surprise. “You know, I conjure you might be right.”

Hwoon dahn.”

“Now is that a nice way to talk?”

“It could be worse,” she threatened darkly, then dropped back into the semi-darkness.

He lowered himself down, sitting on the step so he could look at her. “You wanna tell me why you’re here? And I don’t mean that in a philosophical sense, before you start. I mean, in my avionics bay, now.”

She looked up from rearranging herself on the blanket covering the small amount of floor space. “I don’t want to be Helena.”

“Fine. Tell Theo.”

“I did.”

“Oh, yeah, that’s right.” Mal tried not to smile. “Guess he didn’t listen.”

“He’s like you.”

“Ouch. That’s wounding.” He moved a step further down. “Why don’t you?”

“Because I’ll make a fool of myself.”

“So what else is new?”

She thumped him on the thigh and he winced in earnest. “I don’t want to. Why isn’t that enough?”

“You were a fairy. You’re being promoted.”

“Fairies don’t get –“

“Then just think of it as … as an upgrade.”

“Mal –“

He pulled her towards him so her head rested against his leg and began to stroke her hair. “You’d be shiny.”

“No, I wouldn’t.” She relaxed a little as she always did when he touched her. Well, not always. “Why can’t Inara do it? She was a lady in waiting. She even has the clothes and everything.”

“Well, there’s one damn good reason. She ain't as good as you.”

Freya looked up. “You can’t mean that. She was a Companion, trained in ways to make … well, trained to fake it.”

“She told you that?”

“She can act, Mal.”

“Well, not as good as you.”

“That’s not true.”

“It is. And that’s what Theo said too.” Mal finally let his lips curve. “Frey, honey, Helena’s an important part. A big part.” He felt her shudder against him, but carried on regardless. “You saw how River handled her role – she needs someone just as good to play against.”

“But I'm not –“

“Yes, you are.” His hand paused at the nape of her neck. “I know you can do this, ai ren.”

She sighed, and he wasn’t in the slightest disposed to consider it just exhaling. “I don’t … It’s just, in front of all those people –”

“Do you know it?” He moved his forefinger just behind her ear. “The words. You know ‘em?”

Freya’s eyes were closing. “I … yes, I suppose so,” she agreed reluctantly.

“All of it?” He was now playing with her earlobe, and there was a sound almost like a purr coming from her throat.

“All … all of it,” she stammered. “Even the … the cut scenes … gorram it, Mal.”

“Want me to stop?”

“No.”

“Good.” He pulled her a little closer. “Frey, you’ll be great. And I’ll be so proud of you. Not that I ain't anyway, but … even more so.”

“That’s not fair.” She swallowed, then leaned fully back against him. “I hold to my original opinion of you.”

Mal laughed. “Don’t mind. But I’d kinda like to know how come you’re hiding out down here? Rather than your usual perch.” He was referring to the maintenance platform high in the superstructure of the cargo bay, accessible only by a series of ladders, where he’d found her more than once before.

“I can still hear them from up there.” She smiled. “You know, it looks like someone else had the same idea as me. This blanket was hidden in the corner, and there’s a few other bits and pieces.”

“Just so long as it wasn't Hank and Zoe,” Mal said, pushing his hand down inside her shirt, feeling the soft swell of her breast above her bra.

“You mean …” She glanced down at the blanket, and he almost laughed at the disgusted look on her face.

“Don’t think there’s enough room in here for that, xin gan,” he said, adding quickly, “Not that I've ever tried.”

“So all this …” She nodded down at his hand still cupping her. “… was just a way of getting me to agree to playing Helena?”

“Can’t say I recall you agreeing to anything yet.” He squeezed gently and was rewarded by a sharp intake of breath. “But I still intend to follow through.”

“Really?” She was concentrating on what his fingers were doing. “Where?”

“My boat, as I recall saying once or twice. My bridge. And I can lock the door.”

“Is this bribery?”

“Possibly corruption.” He began to massage. “So, what’s the answer?”

Her breath hitching in her throat, she sighed again, this time with pleasure. “Go and lock the damn door.”

---

“What did you say to her, Captain?” Theo asked, his stage whisper filling the cargo bay.

“I … appealed to her better instincts.” Mal hid the grin that threatened to erupt.

“I think you probably did more than that,” Etta said, her own voice little more than a breath. “She looks … satisfied.”

Mal didn’t blush. Not quite. “Etta, she ain't the only one.”

Theo roared with laughter.

---

Act IV – Amity

Theo had been right – the two performances on Amity were good, but didn’t have the magic of the evening on Carson’s Moon. Perhaps it was due to the setting, in an open area dead centre between three factories, or maybe it was the fact that it rained most of the time, but it was just a play. Still, everyone seemed to enjoy it, even the audience.

“Traditional,” Theo said, wiping his face with a towel after the second show. “In Shakespeare’s day all performances were outdoors, rain or shine.” He looked at Kaylee. “And thank you, my dear, for at least attempting to put up an awning for us.”

She smiled. “Worked a bit.”

“More than a bit. At least we’re not soaked through.”

“And it’s stopped raining.“ Jayne tugged off his doublet, dropping it onto the table. “Mal, Toby and me are going into town. Get a couple of drinks. You wanna come?”

“Aren’t you tired?”

“Nah.” The big man ran his hand down his goatee. “Just need some space. And River’s okay with it.”

“Jayne, you’re getting henpecked.”

“Ain't.”

“Besides, I’m not sure there’s time. I wanted to be away from here soon as everything was packed up –“

Theo interrupted. “It would be better if we could wait until morning, captain. Give everything the chance to air off before closing up.” He shook his head. “We did this once before, and within a couple of days found we had to throw away half the props because they’d gone mouldy.”

“Besides, I feel like a drink,” Simon put in, hanging up his own costume before glaring at Jayne and doing the same with his.

“Me too,” Hank added.

Jayne glared at them all. “Don’t recall inviting you.”

“Then we’ll just happen to be in the same bar.” Hank slapped Jayne on the back. “You can pretend you don’t know us.”

“We’ll come,” Victor and George added together, twins to the last. “You can sit with us. And we know Riley‘ll join us.”

Chiang shook his head. “Not me. I’m for my bed.”

“Wimp,” George said good-naturedly.

“And who’s gonna wait up for you?” Mal asked, crossing his arms, then realised it didn’t have quite the same impact when he was wearing what was essentially a dress. “If we have to leave the door open for a while I don’t want anyone just deciding to come and see if there’s anything worth snatching -”

“I will,” Kaylee said brightly. “Got me some sewing to do anyway, seeing as Bethany’s torn her outfit again.” She laughed and explained, “Keeps catching her wings in things.”

“You sure, mei-mei?”

“I’ll keep her company,” Zoe offered.

“I’ll sit up too,” Inara put in.

Jayne gazed at each one of them in turn. “You know they’re gonna be talking ‘bout us, don’t you,?” he said to Mal.

“They always do, Jayne.”

“So … you got any objection? To us finding a bar?”

“Guess not. Just don’t come back drunk. Or get bound. I’m not paying to get you out of jail.”

Jayne grinned. “Like I would.” He ran up the stairs and hurried into the shuttle to change.

Ten minutes later and the unlikeliest collection of men headed into the darkness.

Theo watched them as the cold pinpoints of stars started to shine through the diminishing cloud. “Won’t River mind?” he asked, glancing at Mal.

“River? Why should she?”

“It’s just … well, what with Jayne and Toby getting on so well –“

“Yeah. Odd, that.”

“Not really. I think Toby’s past is perhaps more shady than he lets on. But that’s not what I mean.”

“Then what –“

“I meant what with River being jealous of Dana.”

Mal shook his head. “Sorry, still don’t …” He stopped. “You mean Toby’s …”

“Sly. I thought you realised.”

“Uh, well, no. Not that it makes any odds to me, but … no, had no idea.”

“He usually keeps to the occasional lover off ship, but …” Theo shrugged, his large frame making it very expressive. “I just thought River might get jealous of him too.”

Mal laughed. “Theo, I don’t think you need to worry about that.” His humour died away a little. “Though, if Toby does try anything Jayne‘s liable to get more‘n a little annoyed.”

Etta came up to them, putting her hand on her husband’s arm. “Why don’t you both go for a drink? Then you can keep an eye on them.”

“My dear, I’m too old to go crawling bars,” Theo pointed out.

“I wasn’t suggesting any actual crawling. Just … make sure they come back in one piece.”

Theo looked at Mal, who raised his eyebrows thoughtfully.

“Suppose we could,” Serenity’s captain said. “And we wouldn’t exactly be drinking much, since we’d be working.”

“It would only be right.”

Mal glanced at Freya, who put up her hands. “You do what you want. I was going to suggest an early night, but … go. Have fun.”

“We won’t be late.”

“You already are,” she pointed out, but had to smile ruefully as Mal and Theo hurried out after the others like a couple of young boys out on a dare.

“Theo won’t let anything happen to them,” Etta said, putting her arm around Freya’s shoulders. “He treats them all like they’re his children, and I’m sure he’ll extend the same to your crew.”

“I suppose.”

Etta studied her, noting the little worry lines between her brows. “You know, I’m thirsty. Why don’t I make us some tea?”

At the table Kaylee looked up. “Did I hear tea mentioned? ‘Cause I’ve got some cookies hidden away that’d go down real well with something hot.” She put her sewing down. “Have to keep ‘em hidden or else Jayne eats ‘em.”

“I think I might have some chocolates left,” Zoe added. “From when Hank bought me that fancy box for my birthday. Hidden pretty much for the same reason.”

Inara stood up. “That sounds like a really good idea. Let me give you a hand.”

Etta clapped her hands. “Good. Then we can sit down and talk. And you can tell me all about your adventures.”

Kaylee groaned. “How long have you got?” she asked, and Freya chuckled.

to be continued

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Secrets - Part XVII
“Bored now,” River said and span on her heel. Her body moved out of the way of the bullet even as she lifted her leg, her foot connecting solidly with Linc’s jaw. [Maya. Post-BDM. While Inara's illness is no longer a secret, Mal and his crew go out to find Molly.]

Secrets - Part XVI
“Then do it again.” Mal was aware he’d used his sergeant’s voice from the slightly wounded expression on his old friend’s face, and made himself take a step back. “It’s like you said, Monty – in the dark there’s no knowing where that girl’s got to. Like as not she took it into her mind to go visiting, got lost and mistook the time. She could be huddled up in someone’s barn right now, fast asleep.” [Maya. Post-BDM. Serenity heads back to Lazarus and Inara finds her sickness finally getting the better of her.]

Secrets - Part XV
Monty stroked his beard. “Maybe they’re afraid of us for when the war’s begun, of what we’d be capable of. Considering we held the Alliance nearly to a draw last time.” [Maya. Post-BDM. Mal and Monty talk, Serenity takes a trip, but there's trouble on the horizon.]


Secrets - Part XIV
Jayne looked almost abashed, his usual expression when anyone mentioned his home planet. “Even took some work on a fishing boat on Melbourne once.”
“That must’ve been hell. For a man who hates fish guts with a vengeance.”
“Didn’t help.”
[Maya. Post-BDM. Just a little fluff before getting back to the nitty gritty ...]


Secrets - Part XIII
"Perhaps you want to think on this. Lecomb sent a bounty hunter – several, in fact – to find some jewellery and kill a girl on the quiet, so nobody knows he lost them in the first place. Perhaps you should consider whether he might not employ someone else to kill you, just so you can’t tell anyone either.” [Maya. Post-BDM. Simon finishes the job, and Mal talks to Philo again.]

Secrets - Part XII
Her face looked back at her, make-up only a little smudged and appearing almost normal. Almost. Hard to see that she was dying. [Maya. Post-BDM. Everyone's waiting for Simon to work his magic, but Inara has secrets of her own.]

Secrets - Part XI
Freya gazed at him for a long moment, and he felt her stepping through his mind. It wasn’t to find anything, and he wasn’t even sure she knew she was doing it – it seemed more as if it was some kind of displacement activity while she thought. At last she said, “Corrupt it.” [Maya. Post-BDM. Simon explains what he's found, and Mal makes a plan.]



Secrets - Part X
He went to check the coffee pot, and decided that, while it might do for degreasing the welding that needed doing in the aft storage locker, as a beverage it left a lot to be desired, and poured it down the sink. “We might as well go sit with the rest, considering River couldn’t keep her mouth shut and everyone’s waiting for Simon to come up with something.”
[Maya. Post-BDM. Mal/Freya-centric chapter, and longer to make up for not posting in a while!]


Secrets - Part IX
“Everything a good forger needs to create some first rate IDs. Think he is? A good forger, I mean?” “Well, Monty has better contacts in the shady side of life than even me.” “No. Really?” Hank’s eyes were wide with feigned disbelief. [Maya. Post-BDM. Moving towards the nitty-gritty ...]

Secrets - Part VIII
Mal looked at the man, seeing years put on him that hadn’t been there that morning, the lines around his eyes and the sallowness of his complexion. “I can’t say I blame you, not for any of it. People do bad things when they’re in a corner, and although a Shepherd might say a sin of omission is still a sin, I’m not like to hold it against you.”
Maya. Post-BDM.



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