Serenity glided silently through the Black. But for the lack of ripples, she would have looked like a toy boat floating on the surface of a dark pond. On board, things were nearly as peaceful. It had been quiet for days, in fact. While most of Serenity’s crew was enjoying this unexpected respite, her captain most assuredly was not.
“I don’t like it,” he confided to Zoë. “Too quiet.”
Zoë folded her arms, incredulous. “You prefer to be getting shot at, sir?”
“It ain’t that. Just makes me think, is all. Goin’ on a month we ain’t had a deal go south, been chased off a world, had somethin’ break, even run across the Alliance. We got time and money to spare. In my experience, a run of good luck like that usually ends bloody.”
“You’re not actually worried about this?”
Mal turned to leave, looking uncomfortable. “Just be ready for trouble.”
Later, Zoë found Wash in the cockpit. He swiveled his chair to face her, smiling. The smile vanished when he took in her expression. “Uh-oh. You have the not-so-good face. I don’t mean that your face is not so good,” he added hastily. “I love your face. But you look like maybe things are not so good. What’s wrong?”
Zoë shook her head once, as if to clear it of negative thoughts. “Nothing. Don’t you think it’s just been a mite...quiet, lately?”
Wash heaved a dramatic sigh, giving his wife a look of mock reproach. “We finally get some peace, and you can’t relax. What’s to worry about?”
“Like I said, it’s nothing.”
“You bet it’s nothing. You know, if you can’t take it easy on your own, I might have to do something about it. There’s an empty bunk close by. Don’t make me use it.”
Zoë just smiled, doubts brushed irreverently aside by her husband; the most hopeful man in the ’Verse.
In the galley, Jayne was oddly unobtrusive as he got himself something to eat. When Kaylee walked in he whirled around, knocking a dish off the counter. “Gorrammit—don’t you know better than to sneak up on a man like that?”
She grinned, unabashed. “What’s got you so jumpy?”
“I ain’t jumpy. Just been thinkin’. It’s been quiet around here. Too quiet. Makes me wonder when it’s gonna happen.”
Kaylee’s smile faded. “When what’s gonna happen?” she asked, concerned.
Jayne shrugged. “Dunno. Somethin’. Always does, don’t it? So why’s it takin’ so long?”
Relieved, the mechanic regained her good humor immediately. “Worrywart,” she teased. “You scared me. I thought you knew the ship was gonna blow up or something.”
“Could happen. Ruttin’ thing’s practically a piao la ji dui.”
“She ain’t!” Kaylee said indignantly. “I keep her in good shape.”
Before it could turn into a real argument, they were interrupted by River, who appeared in the doorway and announced, “She likes her name. It’s finally applicable: the state or quality of being serene, calm, or tranquil.”
Kaylee was grateful for the distraction, and even more so when Jayne grabbed his food, growled, “I’ll be in my bunk”, and left.
Kaylee was about to ask River what she had meant, but the girl was already talking again. “Serenity,” she explained. Then her ever-shifting attention changed course, and she smiled. “Let’s play hide-and-seek. Bet you won’t find me!”
Kaylee was always ready to meet a challenge. “Oh, you think so? All right, you’re on. One...two...three...seven...”
River, who had already left through the opposite door, popped her head back in the room to deliver an ultimatum. “No cheating.”
Outside, Jayne bumped into Simon. “Watch it,” he snapped, and continued on his way. The doctor almost called after him. Then he thought better of it. Jayne was obviously not in a helpful mood. After taking a moment to collect his wits, he stepped inside the galley—just as Kaylee was exiting the same door. “Oh! Hi, Simon.”
“Hey. Um, have you seen River?”
“She better hope I don’t.” Simon looked rather alarmed, so Kaylee clarified. We’re playin’ hide’n’seek.”
“Oh. Good. That’s—that’s good.” He ran a hand through his hair, obviously distracted. “She’s been doing so well lately. I want to believe that it’s going to last, but...I’m sort of waiting for the other shoe to drop, you know?”
Kaylee shrugged it off in her usual manner: with a smile and some good-natured ribbing. “Quit bein’ so negative. Why not enjoy it while it lasts? You and Jayne are both a couple of xin lao tai po. Relax. Now, I gotta go prove your sister wrong. See ya!”
She bounced off, leaving a bemused Simon in her wake. “Lao tai po?” he echoed.
Shepherd Book appeared just in time to hear. He looked over his shoulder to where Kaylee was rapidly disappearing, and gave Simon a compassionate look. “Did it again, son?”
“No. At least, I don’t think so.” There was a second of puzzled silence before he continued, “She compared me to Jayne.”
Book raised his eyebrows, choosing not to comment.
While Kaylee and River were occupied with their game and Wash and Zoë were occupied with each other, Mal realized that they were only a few hours from docking on Persephone. He hadn’t wanted to accept a job from Badger, but the self-titled businessman had been right when he said Serenity’s captain was desperate. And, despite Mal’s misgivings, the job had gone smoothly—and paid well. That didn’t mean he was overeager to give Badger the chance to offer him another job, of course.
Later, Kaylee almost ran into a pensive Mal on her way to a hiding spot. “Sorry, Captain,” she said cheerily. “I gotta go before River finds me.”
“It’s great that you’re havin’ fun, Kaylee, but what you really gotta do is get the engine ready to break atmo. We’re gonna be docking in little over an hour,” he told her.
After a wistful look back at where River was counting, Kaylee nodded. “Okay. Is everything shiny, Cap’n?”
Mal looked at her curiously. “Yeah. Why?”
She shrugged. “You seem kinda...tense.”
“It’s nothin’,” he reassured her. “Don’t like dealin’ with Badger, is all.”
River popped up next to Kaylee’s shoulder. “Found you.” She gave Mal a stern look. “Don’t make her name a lie,” she warned him, adding “again” in a very audible undertone before moving off to sit at the top of the stairs to the cargo bay.
After they docked, Mal and Zoë went to take care of business, leaving everyone else to their own devices. Jayne made a beeline for the nearest bar, of course, looking to settle his nerves with a few drinks—and a nice, rowdy brawl. Kaylee sat in her usual spot in front of the ship keeping an eye out for potential passengers. Eavesdown Docks was a great place to find people who were willing to pay for discreet transport off-world. Book joined her outside, enjoying the sunlight. Even Inara, despite her feelings about the disreputable population, went into town to seek a client.
Simon and River, however, stayed inside for this exchange. Persephone might be a border planet, but it was still close enough to the Core to make Simon nervous.
Funnily enough, similar thoughts were running through the captain’s head as he gave Badger his share. The man had threatened to rat them out before, and probably would again someday. Hopefully not today.
“Ten percent, as agreed,” he said, dropping a bag on the middleman’s desk.
“Still think I deserve more for this one,” Badger replied. “Handed you an easy job with a big payoff an’ I get a lousy ten percent?”
“I got mouths to feed and a ship to keep from fallin’ apart,” Mal said evenly. “You don’t. You gonna take it? If not, I’m sure we could find a way to put the extra coin to use.”
Badger placed a protective hand on the bag and glared at Mal. “Anyone ever tell you how wang en fu yi you are? Fine. I assume you want to hear about other jobs I might have?”
“Not necessarily, but that don’t mean I won’t listen.”
“I might know of something on Greenleaf. But the information weren’t cheap, so if you take it, I’ll need more than some fu chou ten percent.”
“Ni xiao hua!”
But Badger was fixing to be stubborn about this one. Mal had to fight back a sigh. Looks like things are heading back to normal, he thought. Ain’t that just peachy.
Chinese phrases and translations: (Disclaimer: I don’t actually speak Chinese, so the phrases I used are probably not completely accurate or grammatically correct. Also, some Chinese words have about a zillion meanings. My source was the pinyin dictionary on mandarintools.com.)
Piao la ji dui – “floating garbage heap”
Xin lao tai po – “nervous old women”
Wang en fu yi – “ungrateful”
Fu chou – “stinking”
Ni xiao hua – “you jest” / “you’re joking”