NOTES: Okay, I'll be the first to admit that I don't completely understand the monetary system Joss has going on in Firefly. I get that credits are the basic system of currency, and that platinum is used on the border worlds as something a bit more standard than paper money, but I'm not exactly sure what each is worth in the form of goods or services. I'm going by Safe, and thinking that if 25 credits are worth a herd of cattle, or even if it was 25 a head, that's still at least about $100 American per cow—I'm guessing. Google was not my friend when I tried to look it up. Also, 100 is a nice, round number to work with, so let's say that it was 25 credits a head and work from there.

Therefore, if 25 Cis$100, then 1 C is$4, which means that 10 Cis $40, and 20 C is$80. And so on.

DISCLAIMER: Joss is the master of the 'Verse. Mutant Enemy is the giant playground of our dreams. FOX still holds some rights to the show, I believe…the less said about that, the better. And Universal is my hero. They own all this. I'm just playing with them for a while.

THE HUSTLE

MOON J12-I-XV 91

(BOREAS)

The crew of Serenity had been to some real crap-heel rocks, but this definitely was one of the biggest pieces of go-se that they'd ever set foot on. Hell, the saloon didn't even have holo-pool—they had to use real billiard balls made of porcelain. But, since there was so little life on the newly terraformed moon, there was also no Alliance presence. The Tam siblings were actually allowed out and about to stretch their legs (with Kaylee and Book to keep an eye on them) while the Captain, Zoë and Jayne made a contact and set up a meet to do some business. The crew all met up again at the saloon for dinner at 17:00 hours, ship time.

About halfway through some very sloppy artificial protein-on-a-bun, a pair of gruff, unwashed, clearly armed men shoved their way through the swinging doors, threaded between the tables and made their way to the bar. The few others in the saloon watched them warily and muttered under their breath.

"Scavengers."

The crew turned to stare at River. She had her eyes still on the two men at the bar. "Dogs. Run in the street, the alleys, picking up the garbage that others throw away. Territorial."

Jayne glared hard at the Doc. "Would you shut her up?"

"Oh, be quiet, Jayne. She ain't done nothin' wrong," Kaylee defended her friend.

The first man—bearded and taller than the other, had a body like a Blue Sun Coffee barrel, and probably just as pasty under the button-down shirt that once might have been white—called for the bartender to hand him the pool balls, he wanted to play while his food was gettin' cooked. The shorter of the pair snorted and threw back the rest of his whiskey, then readjusted the fit of the hat on his head.

"Jayne?" Mal looked over at his hired muscle. "You feel like makin' a little cash?"

The mercenary grinned.

"Mal, this isn't going to end in a bar fight like the time on Santho, is it?" Inara asked, primly seated at the far end of the string of tables they'd pushed together. It was still a curiosity to Mal that she hadn't found a place to get off his ship yet; not that he was complaining too hard about it.

"Why, I do not know what you mean. I was simply going to go and offer those boys a friendly two-on-two game of pool. Nothin' sinister in that. Jayne? You comin'?"

"Right behind ya, Mal." He drained the last of his beer and scraped his chair back from the table.

Mal wiped his mouth with the napkin, threw it down onto his empty wooden plate and led Jayne over to ask for that friendly game of pool. Zoë puffed a sigh through her nose and wondered how long it would be before those two got the rest of them in trouble. Keeping the Captain out of trouble was almost like having a child already.

Simon leaned into Inara. "Is this going to end badly?"

"Let's hope not. But perhaps we should pay for our meal now, just in case."

The remaining seven at the table anteed up their bill, and Book volunteered to go up to the bar and pay. Quiet conversation filled up the length of the table while the sound of billiards clacking into one another, accompanied by muttered expletives from the pool players, added background noise. River concentrated on the game, her new meds making it easier for her to drown out the thoughts and words of the others at the table.

The big man leaned over the raised edge of the table and rested his wrist against the felt to steady his cue. He aimed at the scuffed, dirty snowball that rested on the grass and pulled back his branch, just so much. Quick push forward, tunk, and the comet went out, hit the edge of its universe, rebounded back at a perfect mirror angle to hit a purple stripe, both rolled….Twelve ball bounced off the corner of the side pocket.

"Tian sha!"

Mal and Jayne grinned.

"River?"

The girl's head swiveled 'round to look at Kaylee's questioning face. "Whatcha lookin' at, sweetie?"

"Watching the game. It's very interesting."

"Oh. Who's winnin'?"

"Not sure. I'm still trying to understand the rules."

"Mmn. Well, I'm not gonna be much help. Don't know the rules my own self. Zoë?"

The First Mate looked over at the two younger women, a residual smile on her face from something Wash had said. "Zo, you known the rules to pool?"

"Well, basically, little Kaylee, each player, or each team, tries to hit the balls into the pockets. Whoever gets a ball in first—either solids or striped—that's the group of balls claimed by that team. Then, you just try to get all seven of your balls into the pockets before the other team gets theirs in. Whoever sinks all of theirs first, and then the eight ball in, they win. That's basically it."

"Black," River said and added a slight nod. "Eight. Always the last one in line." She turned her attention back towards the pool table to watch the next player.

Jayne took his turn at the table. Leaned over his weapon. Sighted. Tensed the appropriate muscles, and the cue ball shot forward to clip the side of the five ball where it teetered on the edge of the side pocket and then was tipped in. He released a savage cheer for himself, and went to line up his next shot.

"From what I've observed, Jayne is better at the game than Mal is," Inara confided. "But Mal is better at talking to distract his opponents. There's actually a kind of poetry in the way the two hustle together."

"Oh, yes," Wash agreed. "I've always suspected poetry was in Jayne's soul; it just needs the right time and place to coax it out. Bordellos and pool tables seem to be those right places."

Inara smiled along with the rest of the crew in response to the joke, but her heart twisted in her chest. The one person who might have notices was studiously ignoring the thoughts of the others with the help of a seven-syllable long medication, and was currently too involved in taking mental notes to bother.

River raised herself up from the chair and found her way across the room to the game the four men were so absorbed with. Jayne was eyeing his target, his back to her, while the Captain and the two men schmoozed about nothing, all the while sizing each other up. No one noticed the wisp of girl as she ghosted up to them. When River finally reached the table and got her first good look at it, Jayne had made his strike, and the cue ball rolled across the green velvet, hit below one of the pale markers on the raised rim, and rebounded off to strike a blue ball. The table wore a diamond necklace. Exact, precise measurements came between each jewel, and lines formed in the girl's head.

Jayne straightened up when the two ball hadn't gone in like he'd hoped. Finally, he noticed the girl. He cussed at himself for not feeling her come over. He tried to keep a watch on her out of the corner of his eye, so's he knew exactly where she was, and what sharp objects were in the vicinity at the time. Just couldn't believe he left hisself open like that.

"Hey, Doc! You wanna come get your sister?"

Mal looked up from his conversation with one Silas Irving—the tall one—to see River gently touching each diamond on the far side of the pool table. She wasn't hurting nothin', but Jayne always was a mite jumpy around the girl ever since that whole butcher's knife incident. Man needed to learn to let it go, in his captainly opinion.

"River? Honey?" She glanced up at him, distracted and annoyed that he had interrupted, and then refocused back on the table. "Whatcha doin'?"

"Drawing pictures. Angles of reflection. Snowflakes falling all around Pythagoras."

He wasn't quite sure who Pythagoras was, but the man sounded brainy, and he definitely knew what angles were. Girl was a genius who used math to kill folk. Mal had a wonderful idea. Simon was half out of his chair by that time, but Mal waved the boy back down. He'd watch little sister for a bit, and maybe he could just find her a game to amuse herself with.

"River," he called her attention, his most charming and disarming smile on his face. "Come talk with me a minute." He gently took her arm when she'd rounded the table—the side near Jayne, causing the mercenary to back up a pace to let her pass with a wide berth. Mal lead her off to the side of the taproom, over to a quiet place by the wall, and stood over her to further provide a little privacy. "You know how to play pool?"

She looked up at him, eyes clear as water for once, and the expression on her face un-fooled. "You want me help you take their money."

"That would be the notion, yes."

"First chess, now billiards," she whispered. Daddy's always wanted to use her intelligence to show off. Still…it was a chance to play, interact…. More than she usually got to do. River shook her hair out of her face and looked up at the Captain. "Two conditions."

Mal's eyebrows raised. "And what might those be?"

"If I win, I get a share of the cut," she demanded.

He crossed his arms while he considered. "Sounds fair enough. Five—"

"Fifteen percent."

"Fifteen!"

Everyone in the bar looked over at them.

"Mal?" Jayne called over.

He turned to look back at the players at the table. "Be right there." Mal refocused on River. "Fifteen percent? Isn't that a little high for you only playing half a game?"

"Ten. Last offer."

The Captain's face was tight, and he looked like he was trying to swallow a worm. River tried not to smile, then figured that a big smile to remind him how cute and wonderful she was, was exactly what the situation called for. Whether it was the smile, or whether he just decided to put faith in his littlest crew member, Mal jerked his head in a nod. "What's the other?"

River lifted her hand and pointed. "Jayne can't call me crazy for a week."

Jayne heard his name and looked over at the two of them, his eyes wide, with a "who, me?" look on his face. "What now?"

Mal actually had to duck his head to hide a smile. "Jayne, would you join us over here for a sec?"

"Hey, now," Tweedle Dum barked. "What's goin' on?"

"We'll be with ya in just a minute," Mal assured them. He gave Jayne a hard look and jerked his head for the man to join the party over by the wall. Jayne pissed and grumbled, but he heeled like a good dog. He'd get a biscuit later if this behavior continued.

"What the fuck is goin' on, Mal?" Jayne growled.

"I'm gonna put River in for me."

"What, to play pool?"

"Yup. We were just negotiating the terms."

"To play pool?"

"Yes, Jayne. What is so difficult about that concept for you?"

"Mal, has she even picked up a cue before?"

"Cue," River repeated. "A wooden rod of varying lengths with a felt tip coated in blue chalk. No, I've never held one before."

"There. Ya see?"

"I see a genius who can probably tell me how many time a man can shit between one star and next, and I'm puttin' her in the game."

River ducked her head and giggled while her brain started doing the calculations. Jayne was not as amused, however. "What's that got to do with me?"

"I've given my word on the financial end of the bargain, now it's your turn. No callin' River crazy for a week. Whatta ya say, Jayne?"

"I—what?" Jayne huffed and puffed looking back and forth between Captain and girl, and finally he answered, "Ah, come on, Mal. You know I won't be able to go a week."

"Five days," River haggled.

"Two," Jayne countered.

"Four."

"Two an' a half."

"Four."

Jayne looked at the Captain for support. Mal put up his hands and leaned back. He was not a part of this. Jayne pouted. "This is a stupid idea. Fine, four, but ya better stay outta sight so's I'm not tempted."

"Agreed." River stuck out her hand to Mal, who took it and shook on the deal. She knew better than to try to shake Jayne's hand. He was on a short leash, but that didn't mean he didn't bite.

"Gentlemen." Mal turned back to his two marks, who were getting antsy while the three of them had talked off to the side. Things like that usually boded other than well. "The girl over there said that she'd like to play, so I'm gonna let her take my spot in our game."

The two men looked over to where Jayne and River still stood by the wall.

Jayne growled out of the corner of his mouth, "Try t' look innocent. Won't do no good agreein' if they don't catch on we're playin' 'em."

River tilted her head to the side, folded her hands in front of her, smiled at the two dirty men, and widened her eyes to look even more like a little girl. Jayne rolled his eyes. "I said 'innocent', not—" She turned to glare up him. He narrowed his eyes in return. "—goofy. Wasn' gonna say it."

Crazy or just goofy; either way, the men weren't going for it.

"The nian qing de? That little bitty thing? Don't look like she c'n hardly see over the side of the table, much less play," Silas argued.

"Besides," his partner said, "we got money ridin' on this game, if you remember. Ain't gonna scrap it just 'cause you wanna cater to the brat."

"Oh, I don't intend to scrap it." Mal shook his head. "She'll play, in my place, for the fifteen credits."

Dee and Dum huddled up to talk it over, and then—grudgingly—agreed to let River play Mal's spot.

River clapped, and just about skipped over to the pool table to take the cue from Mal. Jayne followed reluctantly. It took another few minutes to show River how to hold the stick properly, and how to line up a shot. To her credit, River sure as hell made it look like she had no idea what to do when she went to take her first shot after the short man—whose named turned out to be Tiny—had his turn and missed sinking the ten. River could barely hold her cue, so Mal got her a shorter one from the wall. Then she had trouble actually hitting the white cue ball, and when she did, it rolled wide of the six ball, which was hopefully what her target had been.

"Woops."

"You sure you wanna keep that bet on the table?" Tiny asked.

Mal's face was tight with restrained annoyance, but he gave the two men a confident smile. "Oh, I have faith in my girl."

Silas took his turn at the table and sunk the nine, and then the eleven. He and Tiny only had three more balls to get in before they could take a crack at the eight and win the game. Jayne and River had to get four out of the way before they had a shot. Jayne took out both the six and the one, and managed to put the three just at the edge of the far left corner pocket; an easy shot if River could line it up right. Tiny scuffed the side of the fifteen, and then it was River's turn again. All she'd have to do was bounce the cue ball off the side and tap the orange ball in. She hit too low on the white cue and it popped off the table and rolled across the floor until it got stuck under one of the bar stools.

"Sorry! I'll get it!"

Jayne couldn't decide who he wanted to strangle more. Mal was currently within easy reach, but wringing River's scrawny little so-called genius neck would be so much more satisfying. Mal himself was having trouble not going to grab the girl by the shoulders, shake her and ask, "If ya can shoot three guys without looking, and then fool that hundan of a bounty hunter, why why why can't you play a simple game of pool!"

River brought the cue ball back to the table, an absolutely chastened expression on her face. She looked so sorry, and so tiny in that hand-me-down red dress that Mal almost forgave her. Almost. There were still seven credits riding on this game. It wasn't a fortune, but it was still more than Mal was comfortable with losing when he could've held onto it.

"Hey, honey," Silas called out. "Why don't you try that shot again? Go ahead. We'll call that first one a practice shot."

It was obvious by his tone, and the way he and his friend leaned against a nearby table that they were mighty glad they'd agreed to let the girl play. This was the easiest money they'd ever won. The only real competition was getting so agitated that he'd fudge his next shot, and then the game would be theirs, easy as noodles.

River put the ball back on the table in the same place it had been before she'd hit it. She pulled her cue stick back up and set her hands in just the position the Captain had told her. She shot, and this time it stayed on the table. Unfortunately, the fear of bouncing it off again made her hardly put any pressure behind the hit, so the ball didn't get much further after it hit the bumper on the other side of the table.

Silas swaggered on up to the table and hit ten, thirteen, and fifteen in one after the other. He couldn't get a good shot at the eight ball, but the game was pretty much in the bag. Jayne got the three in, but scratched the two, and Tiny sunk the eight.

"Looks like it's our game," Tiny crowed. "Real nice of ya ta let the little girl play, really it was. You got a real charitable heart. Zhu fu ni. Thank you so much."

"No!" River ran to them and grabbed a fistful of Silas's shirtsleeve. "Please, lemme try again? I can do better." She looked over her shoulder to Mal, eyes just a'swimmin'. "Please? One more game."

"Well…" Silas muttered.

Mal shook his head "I don't think—"

"Double or nothing!" she offered.

"We'll take it!" Tiny answered. "Hell, we'll even let ya have the first shot."

"Good." River let go of the other man's sleeve. "Now, go put the balls back in the triangle thingy."

Mal looked ready to eat Book's Bible. Jayne was wringing his grip on his cue stick. "The triangle thingy, Mal!" he yelled in the Captain's face. "Damnit! I knew this was a stupid idea."

"What's going on over there?" Inara asked from the dinner table. "You're getting awfully loud."

"The crazy girl's losin' us money!" Jayne shouted back.

"Jayne," River snapped. He looked over. "You broke your word. You just added a day."

"Xi niu qing wa cao de liu mang fei fei de pi yan!"

"Watch your language, Jayne," Mal warned. "You'll make the ladies blush."

Tiny pulled the rack off the balls and stepped back from the table. "Here ya go, darlin'. You go ahead and line up your little shot. Take all the time you need, I do believe our food is ready."

Silas looked up to the bar, where two plates of food waited at the end. "I'll go get it."

The bigger man went on up to the bar, and Tiny leaned back against that table while River made her way to the end of the table where the cue ball waited on its throne. Mal and Jayne stood at the far end of the table, both spilling anger out all over the place. It made River hesitate. She could see Inara, Simon and Kaylee stand up from their table to come watch. Protective. River took a quick breath and shook her head to get rid of some of the noise.

Silas came back with his and Tiny's food. He and the other man set about eating their sandwiches, while the crew of Serenity tried to see over to the pool table.

River leaned over her cue, hands in position, a line in her mind going from the white ball to the cluster at the far end of the table, and then breaking into dozens of different rays, intersecing and breaking in hundreds more. She pulled the stick back. She glanced up at Mal and Jayne at the other end of the table. And she smiled.

Mal straightened up. What was this now?

River thrust the head of the cue forward like she'd done this a hundred times, and won each one of 'em. The white ball rolled until it collided with the numbered balls, and all of the fifteen billiards scattered across the table. The seven ball rolled into the corner pocket.

"Red. Symbolic of speed, passion, anger, and thought to induce hunger." River looked over at Silas and Tiny. "Looks like we are solids again."

Jayne leaned into Mal. "Ya mean she was fakin' it?"

"I hope so. Certainly looks to be that way."

They looked at each other. Jayne broke out in a grin. "Sixty credits. Shit!"

"Told'ja."

River lined up the four, and sunk it. Then the six, and then the three. After that, there was just no comfortable angle to shoot from, so she just aimed into a clump that had formed to spread them out. She smiled up at Silas. "Your turn."

The two scavengers had stopped eating to watch the little girl sink ball after ball, and they were having the distinct feeling of being cheated. Silas cleared his throat and took up his cue again. He glanced over at the girl as he tried to find a good shot. She smiled sweetly at him and rocked back on her heels, one hand still confidently wrapped around her own cue. He tried to shake off the feeling that he'd just been played, and that he should have known better.

Silas bent over his cue again and aimed at the twelve ball. It didn't go in, but it hit the fifteen which had been right by the side pocket he had been shooting for and knocked that one in. There was no other angle to shoot from after that, so he had to settle for hitting the nine closer to the left top corner pocket. Jayne saw his chance and grinned around the cigar in his teeth. He made up for his earlier lapse in concentration that resulted in his scratched turn by dropping both the five and the two balls.

Tiny was livid. His opponent only had two balls to go before they won, and his partner had only been able to sink one so far. This was a crock! A sham! A gorram joke! Who'd've thought the biddy little girl could actually play? He took his turn anyway. He chewed his greasy bottom lip the whole time he lined up his shot, took it, and downed the ten. He got a little of his confidence back and managed to knock in the fourteen and the nine. Just as he was about to shoot the cue at the ten ball, the girl yelped.

"Ow!" River dropped her cue stick and held her right hand in her left. "Ow, ow, ow."

Simon leapt to his sister's side at her first outburst. "What happened?"

She held up her hand for him to see. "I got a splinter. In my thumb. It hurt."

"Oh," Simon said. He looked and found the offensive piece of wood near her fingernail. It didn't take too much to work the splinter out—it wasn't in too deeply. In fact, it didn't seem like it would hurt that much at all. Simon mentally shrugged it off as part of River not being able to filter her emotions and feelings. It made sense that a small pain, unfiltered, would hurt more.

Jayne and Tiny had a moment of communion in their response to the girl's shout. What a nuisance. "Can I take my shot now?" the little man asked.

"You already did," River pointed out.

"Huh?"

"You hit the cue ball when I said ow," she told him. Sure enough, when he turned to look, the cue ball was half way across the table from where it had been a minute ago. "You didn't hit anything. My turn again."

River sunk the last two solid colored balls in less than a minute, barely pausing to line the shots up on the table. The angles were all in her head, and she knew exactly how many pounds per inch of pressure to apply to achieve the desired results. The only thing left to do was assassinate the eight ball, and the game was theirs. White hit black at a one hundred sixty degree angle after ricocheting off of the far wall to drive the eight ball into the top right corner pocket. River looked up at the two men with a bright smile. "Our game. Real nice of you to let me play, really it was. You got a real charitable heart. Zhu fu ni. Thank you so much."

Mal covered his laugh coughing, one hand over his mouth. He had to hand it to the girl, she's really had them going for a minute there. Jayne was even in a charitable mood: he wasn't barking at River for once, and he was happy about his pay-day. Their opponents were a mite upset, however.

"Wait just a gorram minute!" Tiny hollered. "You cheated us! You set us up! You shu ma nyaow bastards, you hustled us!"

The bar went very quiet. Everyone who had a gun put their hand near it, ready to draw if something got out of hand. Those who didn't braced themselves, ready to duck for cover in case of a brawl or a shoot out. River put her cue down on the table and stepped in front of Silas Irving. She looked up at him through her lashes and hair, head tilted to the side. "Are you angry with me?"

The big man was surprised, and the next moment, his expression had softened into something more bemused than angry. "Gorram, girl. That was a hell a bit of playin' you did. Zhen de shi tian cai."

"What?" Tiny snapped. "You're just gonna let 'em off?"

Silas glared at his partner. "Yeah, they played us, and played us good. We let 'em, so we deserve it. Shoulda known something fishy was goin' on when they insisted she play." He turned back to River and put an arm around her shoulders. "Got me a daughter about your age. Dumb as a post, just like her mama. You are a gorram genius. Could teach my Becca a thing or two, you could."

"Xie xie," River replied.

Tiny went off to swear in a corner.

Silas turned to Mal, his arm still over River's shoulder. "Now, I'll be honest with ya, I ain't got sixty credits ta part with." At which Jayne got a little less happy than he had been a moment before. Silas held his hand up when he saw the big man's grin wilt. "But we got the fifteen, and we just did a salvage job out at the new military base, so you can have a cut of the goods we picked up to do what ya like with—unused construction material, and the like."

"That is real generous of you," Mal said. "I understand about the not havin' the money ta throw about. We'll keep the bet at the original fifteen and call it even." He held his hand out the hustled man. Silas looked from the offered hand to the Captain that it belonged to. A grudging respect grew up, and he took that hand and shook it.

Silas handed over nine credits, and turned around to find his partner. "Tiny! Get yer sorry ass over here and pay up!" The shorter man grumbled the whole way over, and River silently compared him to a wild boar, rooting around in his pockets for truffles.

Once Tiny had parted with his hard earned cash, he set for the door. "Can we get off this dung heap moon now we lost all our gorram money?"

"Yeah, yeah," Silas muttered. He turned back to give the Captain and the mercenary a nod of respect, and then looked down at River. "Now, you take care who you hustle from now on, here? Not everybody's as nice as me."

River smiled sweetly at him, went up on her toes and gave his cheek a kiss. Silas smiled back and patted her on the head before he followed his grumbling partner out the door of the tavern. River turned to her Captain for confirmation. "Did I do good?"

"Hell, yeah!" Jayne said. "Now, where's my half?"

"Hold on a minute," Mal told him. "Gotta give River hers first, then I'll split it with ya." He turned his attention to the girl as he pulled out one credit and a half-note, but then he paused and looked at the girl real close. "You knew he had a daughter, didn't you?"

River looked down, embarrassed about being caught doing exactly what Jayne and the others were afraid she did all the time. "Didn't look. First thing he thought when he saw me: 'She looks like Becca.' New thoughts, and loud…couldn't block it out. Then I might have just…fostered the comparison, a little."

"Look," Jayne said, "I don't care what'cha did, but I'm awful glad ya did. You keep on winnin' us money, and I might just see clear ta not hatin' ya no more."

"Reciprocity," River reminded him.

"Yeah, whatever. Now, can I get my cut?" Jayne asked.

Mal puffed air out through his nose in annoyance and wondered if Jayne had ever really matured past the age of nine. He divvied up the remaining money so that they both had 6.75 C. When Jayne moved off to buy himself a bottle of whiskey for the road, and River was about to join the rest of the crew as they gathered their things to return to Serenity, Mal caught her arm gently at the elbow. She turned to stare up at him, questioning.

Daddy smiled down and pulled out another credit from his roll. "A full fifteen percent. You earned it. We got the cash, and we got out without havin' ta shoot folk. That earns a decent cut, if nothin' else does."

The girl took the money and smiled up at him. "Xie xie, Captain."

Kaylee and Simon both joined the two of them first, not having returned to the table with Inara. Kaylee slung a familiar arm over the girl's shoulder and bumped her hip playfully. "So, Miss Smarty-Pants, what'cha gonna buy with yer cut?"

River looked down at the money in her hands. She thought of all the things she could use the credits for: a new dress that fit, a hair cut, books, paints, science journals to read up on the new physics discoveries made in the past years. For an instant it crossed her mind that, had she stayed home, with her real parents, she would have had fifteen or twenty credits a week in allowance, to go an buy pretty close, or shiny jewelry, or any old thing she'd felt the urge to buy. Now, she was content to hoard the two and a quarter credits she had to her name.

"Saving it," she announced. "For when it rains."

"Smart move," the Captain said.

River remembered her earlier promise to reward a certain guard dog with a biscuit if he had good behavior. "Oh! Almost forgot." She rushed over to the table and snatched up the half a biscuit she hadn't eaten from her plate before the thin wife of the bar keeper had a chance to pick it up.

Jayne had made it back to the rest of the group by that point, and he sneered at River's saving of the little bit of food. "What's she keepin' that for? We got better bread back on board."

River turned and handed him the half a biscuit with a complimentary smile. "Good boy."

Jayne looked down at the biscuit, and then at the girl, and then over to Mal, who was laughing under his breath, along with the rest of the crew. "Did she just call me a dog?"

"It growls and slobbers. What must it be?" River said with a smile.

"I'm not a dog, ya little bitch," he snapped at her and threw the piece of bread onto the floor at her feet.

"Jayne," Mal warned, all laughter gone.

"A bitch is a female dog," River replied. She clicked her tongue. "Same species. Better watch out, or your metaphors might mix. Two by two we all go aboard."

"What the hell was that supposed to mean?"

Captain got the reference. Preacher did, too. "Now, River," the Shepherd started, "that's not—"

River laughed. "So serious! Joking is allowed, you know."

Simon moved closer to his sister and glanced at the Captain, Shepherd Book, and the mercenary. "What was she talking about?"

Mal had eased down when River had said she'd been joking, so he was now able to honestly tell the Doctor, "Not a thing. Little sister's just got a wicked sense of humor."

Jayne still had his eyebrows pulled low in confusion. First the girl had said he was a dog, and then somethin' about metaphors, and then…. "Huh?"

"Nothing, son," Book told his, and placed a hand on the big man's shoulder. "It's been a nice trip. I suggest we go back to the ship before something happens to spoil it."

"Now that is a good idea, Shepherd," Mal agreed. "Everybody ready?"

They nodded.

"Let's get home then."

Kaylee found her way to Simon and River as they flocked to the door of the saloon. "That was real good what you did," she complimented River.

"Thank you," River said. She glanced at her friend. "Kaylee? Wanna play jacks when we get back?"

"Sure," Kaylee agreed.

"How much do you want to bet that I can beat you?" River asked.

Simon's mouth dropped open. "Great! Now my sister has a taste for gambling. Things just keep getting better and better."

The door swung shut to leave the other patrons of the saloon in peace, with the echo of loud giggles ringing behind them.