It took a lot of pushing and shoving to load that blue box into the cargo bay: even with the mule and the ATV, Mal couldn't blame his latest customer for circling the crate nervously every time it wobbled on its setting. He himself was in a right high-spirited mood, as the patron in question had paid up front and quite generously.
"Caaareful," the eccentric man protested as his prized possession trembled for the umpteenth time. He held out his hands as if hoping to catch it, but in reality it could probably crush him. The skinny stranger moved as if he hadn't quite grown into his limbs, waltzing about in a tweed jacket, navy trousers and a bright bow-tie. And to hinder his physical talents even further, his unruly brown hair dangled completely in front of his eyes in one fell swoop.
"No need to beat yourself up over a couple scratches, stranger," Mal called to him while he and Jayne worked. He particularly eyed the nicks and scuffs in the bright cobalt paint. "This thing looks like it's had its fair share of travel."
"Yes, well, not so much on cargo ships," the odd man admitted, wringing his hands as the vehicles finally puttered to a stop. "I don't do this normally, hiring out passage…" he licked his lips nervously. "But my, ehm… my usual transport is in a bit of disrepair, you see."
"I know the feeling," Mal assured him with a grin. But at his customer's nervous glance, he quickly wiped the expression off of his face. "Not that I-- we-- that is… I've known other… ships," he lied swiftly. "Fraught with engine trouble. It's real… tragic-like stuff."
The man smiled faintly, seeing through the captain's alibi but not really seeming to mind. "That's okay: it's a bit normal. For me."
Zoë crossed to the control panel to shut the airlock doors while Mal and Jayne started unloading the big blue crate. The captain grunted as they heaved the shipment into place. "What'd you say your name was again?"
"Smith," the man suggested as he trailed after his beloved box. "Call me John Smith."
The crate was set down with a thud: Mal and Jayne both straightened up and fixed the newcomer with stern glares. "Sure it is, kùzi zháohuǒ."
The man's eyes grew wide and his massive square jaw dropped at their language. "Beg pardon?"
Mal's hand started edging dangerously towards his holster. "I've heard a lot of pretty fake names in my lifetime," he growled. "But that one, fella? Yě bùshì hěn yuánshǐ de, if you ask me."
The stranger just smiled at him and gave a smug shrug. "Well I've never really been one for names: most people just call me the Doctor and leave it at that."
"And that ain't gonna do since this ship already has a doctor, so why don't you try again," Mal repeated sternly with one step forward.
Zoë lingered by the com link and awaited orders from her captain. Her captain, however, was in turn waiting on an answer from the lanky man that was now backed up against his very own blue crate.
"…Song," the Doctor admitted at long last, appearing to have thought very deeply about it. "You can call me Dr. Song. Married a Dr. Song once: I suppose it counts. Hope she never gets wind of this, though; I'd never hear the end of it, and one Dr. Song is quite enough for the universe to handle--"
"You wanna give us a reason for all the secrecy then, 'Dr. Song'?"
"No, not really."
Mal would have rolled his eyes if he had been less tense. As it was, he still kept his thumb brushing up against the leather on his right thigh.
"Well, ain't that just… mighty generous of ya," he murmured stiffly.
He still received little more than a friendly smirk in return. "You're in no danger from me, Captain, if that's what you're worried about-- you or your enterprise."
Mal raised an eyebrow. "My enterprise," he repeated.
"You're smugglers, aren't you?" Dr. Song asserted, stretching his suspenders like a smug little schoolboy. "Rickety old Firefly-class transport, roaming the outer rim with guns on your every hip? Figuring that out's not such a big leap."
"Maybe not: but the leap from the airlock is a hell of a lot bigger, stranger."
The odd man hardly batted an eyelash at Mal's hardened voice. Despite all his innocence, he seemed almost… too cocky to be completely harmless. "As I said before, Captain, you're in no danger. If you want me off your ship, then I can find another transport but if not, I suggest you desist with the questions. If I'd wanted to answer them, Id've brought you a pamphlet."
Mal and the Doctor glared evenly at each other for a fair bit of time: one solemn, the other at ease. Eventually Dr. Song leaned one elbow on his box and waited casually for an answer, which was silent when it came. Mal merely smiled back at him, then gave Zoë a nod over at her station. She quickly tuned in to Serenity's cockpit. "River, take us out."
The Doctor's elbow slid off the blue crate and he nearly lost his balance, grappling for the sides of the box while he stared at the com link with eyes wide with horror. He turned his gaze onto the no-nonsense first mate, trembling - though that was possibly from the turbulence of the ship as it took off. "What did you just say?"
Mal's thin-lipped smile had all-but disappeared. "S'there a problem, Doc?"
"You just said 'River'," the Doctor repeated, pointing at the crew members one by one while the gears in his head slowly began to turn. "Your pilot's name is River…" His face grew even more pale, if that were possible, and he began to whisper to himself. "…and you said you've already got another Doctor onboard."
No sooner were the words out of his mouth than he was staring down the barrel of Mal's pistol, Zoë's mare's leg rifle, and Jayne's custom-made LeMat Percussion Revolver and the Mini-gun he liked to call Lux.
"You know, 'Dr. Song'," Mal snarled bluntly. "I'm starting to like you less and less as time goes on."
"Yes, well I'm starting to feel the same way about you and your guns."
"Whaddo you know about River?" the captain demanded.
The Doctor, having recoiled against the side of his box, tried to gesture feebly with his hands while still keeping them somewhat in the air. "Old friends," he attempted in a weak voice. "It might work out better to let her explain it."
"Not sure I wanna let her into the same room with you, nǐ zhège pàntú. Or the good doctor."
"Well - er - yes," Dr. Song admitted with a displeased face. "Probably best where the Doctor's concerned…"
"How come: what's he got against you?"
Their guest was still trying to make hand signs without lowering his elbows, but he was fighting a losing battle. "Crossed timelines can get sort of nasty. Again, it may sound much better if you hear it from River--"
"Well she ain't coming," Mal commanded.
The Doctor wilted under his gaze and tried not to trip while the ship finished leaving atmo: the vessel was shaking and even his box was beginning to wobble again. However, before he could speak, Simon Tam slithered in from the common area and caught sight of the many primed weapons in use.
The Osiris surgeon merely raised a dry eyebrow, as he had grown somewhat accustomed to such inconveniences. "Dare I even ask?" he inquired of Mal: his voice was surprisingly subdued in the wide open space.
"Actually, doc, we were sort of hoping to get your opinion on this," the captain announced rather loudly. He seemed to gain pleasure from the horrified glance that Dr. Song paid to River's brother once the surgeon had been identified: the lanky man seemed unsure whether to speak, run, or try to blend in with the cobalt behind him.
Simon ascended to the base level of the cargo bay and eyed the stranger without expression. "I'm not sure I follow."
"This fella here came in calling himself by the name of John Smith: claims he's a doctor. Ring any bells?"
Simon's brow furrowed, but it wasn't long before he shook his head honestly. "No. Why?"
" 'Cause he says he knows you an' River," Jayne finally growled in his usual country drawl.
At this, the ship's surgeon grew more morose. "Did Alliance send you?" he asked Dr. Song directly.
He received only a blank stare for a good minute. "…who?"
"The Alliance," Simon repeated slowly. "Do you work for the Alliance?"
The Doctor's hands were hardly even at his shoulders anymore, and he gave a shrug of disdain at the question. "Of course not; we never just 'work for hire'."
Mal's pistol drifted closer. "We?"
Dr. Song weakly gestured to himself and to Simon. He seemed to think it quite obvious that they were meant to be grouped together for some reason, but Serenity's surgeon gave him an even look and crossed his arms. "I've never seen you before in my life."
"Well, there's… probably a good explanation for that," the Doctor muttered in uncertainty.
"Which is what?" Mal demanded.
"I'll let you know as soon as I figure that out myself," Dr. Song snapped back. He was starting to wring his hands again.
Goes the Clock
The Doctor got it wrong…"
Everybody froze at the sound of singing, echoing above their heads. Those who could see the walkways over the blue box (mainly everyone besides the poor Doctor) watched a teenage girl drift into the cargo bay while she sang an eery lullaby. The pale wraith wafted down the steps and circled around until she faced the strange man eye-to-eye.
Goes the Clock…
I'm not Professor Song."
"…oh," the Doctor whispered in wonder at her appearance. He squinted suddenly like a scientist examining a specimen. "Hel-lo! Let me see: dilated eyes, faint cranial scars near your hairline, reciting echos of someone else's past… I'd say you're some kind of psychic -- and very effective, too, I might add."
"You keep away from her," Mal growled. But on his words, River started gliding closer.
The Doctor smiled amiably at first, but River continued towards him. Soon he started to back up against his box and fidget uncomfortably as the girl edged forward.
"Frankly, captain, I don't think I'm the one you should be addressing," he squeaked.
"River, stay back."
The Doctor's eyes grew even more wide at the sound of the girl's name, but she didn't heed her captain's order.
"Doc," Mal stammered again. "You wanna explain what your sister's up to?"
"If only I could," Simon muttered at the sight.
The Doctor looked up at them suddenly as if he had been struck at lightening. He stared at Simon, but pointed at River. "Sister?" he repeated dumbly.
Mal steeled himself for action. "River," he growled. "Is that man a danger to us?"
The frail girl emitted a giant grin. "Most dangerous man in the 'verse," she purred. And then she hugged him.
All jaws dropped. The Doctor squirmed within River's grasp, wiggling somewhat helplessly with an expression of utter confusion on his face. Jayne nearly snickered at how scared he seemed to be of one little girl's affections.
"Dangerous like me," River insisted, giving the Doctor one more squeeze before she released him and flitted away, giggling like a child suddenly starting a game of tag.
Now it was Jayne who looked a little queasy while he watched her. "Well, that's just downright unsettling'."
"I second that," Dr. Song declared immediately, weakly raising a hand.
Mal gave River one last glance - she had come to rest at the base of the stairwell and was peering at them through the bars of the railing. He started to lower his pistol carefully. "I suppose if our little albatross there sees no harm in lettin' you be," he began. "Don't see no reason why we shou--"
"NO," the Doctor barked at the sight of River curiously playing with a little electric rod with a green glowing tip. He felt around in the pockets of his coat and then bolted after her in a panic. "No no! How'd you get that? Bad! Don't touch!"
But River took off up the walkway, cackling and cheering in delight at the chasing game. Dr. Song was a fast man, but she was still giving him quite a go.
"No! Bad! Bad… other-River! Bad!"
"Ha," River barked, barreling down the stairs with him just four steps behind.
Goes the Clock
You'll soon learn who I am!"
She swerved into a doorway and scanned the lock, slamming it shut just before the Doctor reached it. He yanked helplessly on the other end. "Don't play with tha-- how did you even learn to use that setting?"
River ran, but Serenity was small, and her eery singing echoed through while the Doctor charged down another corridor to find her.
Goes the clock
My name is River Tam!"
"Uh… Mal?" Jayne muttered glumly.
The captain, who was still busy staring after his two mad passengers in a daze, hardly grunted. "Huh."
"Are we still takin' him to Beylix, or are we gonna shoot him?"
Mal paused, then slowly slipped his pistol into his holster and took a step to follow the mad chase. "I'll let you know when I figger that out my own self."