TITLE: Mr Niska & the Ancient Art of Marriage Counselling
AUTHOR: Roseveare
LENGTH: 22,500 words approx
SUMMARY: It's probably a bad sign when the old adversaries start to show up in threes. Action/humour. Chapter 1 of 6.
NOTE: There's a story missing here. Last summer, I originally wrote 4 that took place consecutively, of which this is number 4. The story that falls after 'Reliance' and 'Persephone Stopover' and before this one will be posted eventually, but in the meantime there are only a few references to it in this one, and it should make sense as-is.
Mr Niska & the Ancient Art of Marriage Counselling

Chapter 1

Might've seemed a shiny idea to the fellow came up with it, to have one of the more lurid channel feeds from the cortex projected onto the ceiling - gave everyone an uninterrupted view and all while taking up minimal space - but it was a hell of a pain in the neck after more than half an hour in the bar. It strobed on the edge of vision, reflected off the glasses and off the polished ebony-black of the table surfaces, made its presence felt as a constant flicker of light and sound in the darkened bar. He'd had headache enough to begin with.

Mal hated Athena Station. Have to travel a long way to find a more garishly synthetic place. Existing under the pretence of being on the more hardened edge of life out on the rim while it catered to those well enough off as to be giving a damn about tasting a bit of that image for kicks, it squatted out by Ariadne on the route from Boros, a sprawling collection of bars, clubs, hotels and gambling dens used by some as a stopover and some as a gorram resort. But for whatever inexplicable reason, Zoe liked it and Kaylee liked it and Jayne liked it, and that made for two counts of him pushing trouble if he slipped it by on a run that passed within an hour of the glitzy eyesore.

Still, they could all use a break, and docking charges were waived courtesy of the establishments who made more money - in extortionate amounts - off roping their clientele inside to spend. So he'd allowed they could set themselves to 'overnight' there.

Jayne, who mainly liked it on account of the drinking, same reason for him liking every bar and waystation they happened upon, had solved the problem of the ongoing crick in the neck by sprawling flat over a pair of seats and watching on his back. 'Course, that made drinking a problem of its own, but Jayne didn't seem to have much mind for that judging by the stains already on his T-shirt. Zoe and Wash seemed to bask in the opportunity of being a couple, 'mid the light and noise and carnival atmosphere, sitting aside together at the next table along. That left himself to the mercy of Kaylee, 'cause apparently captains didn't get the same option to stay at home in the quiet like preachers, doctors, crazy girls and non-practicing whores.

"Know you don't like it here, cap'n, but don't you think it's awful pretty? Look at the way the lights all reflect," Kaylee tried, leaning over a full drink almost bigger'n she was to sip off the top of it, trying not to get a paper parasol up her nose in the bargain.

"Busy thinkin' for the most part on my headache," Mal retorted, edging down a mite further in his seat and watching a Blue Sun logo flash its reflection in the surface of the table. "And best make the most of that pail of orange sludge, 'cause I ain't stretching to another of what that cost."

"You ain't no fun at all, cap'n," she laughed. Drew moisture rings in the surface of the table with the base of her glass, and managed to find some kind of rhythm somewhere in the blare of noise to bounce her head and shoulders along to.

"Seems to be the majority claim, and I can't say I'm one for contesting the issue."

She reached over to plant him a sound slap on the arm. "Ain't true. Admit it, you wanna cut loose an' have some fun, just like any of the rest of us... well, 'cept Simon, apparently. You're just tense 'cause of Inara and everything. You need to loosen up."

"Yeah." Jayne surged up over-quick and slammed his empty glass down on the table in front of Mal, who eyed it unsympathetically. "You need to get another drink, Mal. Work off that tension." He swayed on the stool, looking a mite wall-eyed - not drunk, on account of the fact none of them had the funds to get drunk on this joint's prices.

"I am not tense..." Mal began sharply, and faltered, clearing his throat in the face of two disbelieving expressions. "I am mourning my hopes for anything resembling a quiet drink in this gaudy nuthouse." He glared at Jayne. "Not throwing no more money away on this overpriced goat's piss. You want it, you got paid a perfectly decent cut from Sir Warwick's cows, and who'd I be to stop you tossing what you got left of it down the waste compressor?"

"Gorram it, Mal," Jayne griped. "Kaylee's right. You been grumpier'n hell since we left Persephone."

"Well, now, I don't never recall that good mood I was in had me subsidising your incapacitating yourself by way of overpriced beverages best fit to sterilise crockery."

Jayne bit short a curse and stomped off up to the bar, practising his intimidating sneer on anyone got too close to being in his way. Mal followed his progress - easy enough by the aisle of space he cleared 'round him. As Jayne unconcernedly jumped the queue, his eyes wandered to a couple of tables in the corner beyond the bar, proven unpopular due to the older model air recycling unit up on the wall close by, as the things tended to belch out a chilly breeze. The sparsity of crowd in that corner afforded him a clear view of the group seated around one of the nearer tables. A profile caught his eye... two... a third. He squinted, inwardly damning the fluctuating light.

"Cap'n?" Kaylee's voice broke in, speaking quite loud. Maybe she'd said something already he'd gone and missed.

He stood, scraping his stool back, hand drifting down to check the pistol at his hip, and his eyes not leaving that bushel of folk in the corner.

"What is it?" Kaylee asked, her concern ringing through clear. She started to get up and he set his hand on her shoulder; gently pushed her back down.

"Just some people over there I'd be needing to exchange a few words with," he told her calmly. "You, little Kaylee, can stay right here and finish your drink." He stepped around her stool and was not unaware of how behind him she got up and took herself over to Wash and Zoe, interrupting their husband-and-wifely canoodling to deliver a fast-whispered call to arms. Mal consciously slowed his steps some, giving Zoe opportunity to come up closer on his back, but anger still carried him onward, and he was barely aware of how the closing aisle that had opened for Jayne sprung elastically back into being to accommodate his passage. Strode past the oblivious Jayne leaned arguing at the bar with a fistful of its attendant's shirt and emerged into draughty space where the ambient noise was overshadowed by the din of the recycler's blast.

"'Scuse me." Planted his hand on a shoulder hard with tight muscle and sparse flesh covering the bone, and dragged its owner around in his seat; made good and sure the face - surprised, annoyed, mouth halted partway through speech - was the same as he remembered before he hauled back and landed his fist firmly in the middle of it.

The fellow went down hard. Landed badly, taking his stool with him, the hand that snatched for the edge of the table all but pulling that over, too. Glasses smashed and split as they hit the floor, and Mal reached down and twined his fingers around the man's collar to haul him partway up again, aware of hands whose first reaction was to reach for a gun stalling all around him in the very public setting. The fellow he had a grip on recovered himself enough to start a move and Mal promptly hit him again, opening his other hand as the blow connected and letting him fall.

By that time the flunkies had finally figured there were options further down the list than shooting on a station with a Fed contingent, however small a one, on hand. Zoe laid out the first that lunged and she and Mal were preparing for the onrush when their captain barked an order that held them in place. Given he was pitching to be civil-like, Mal let him get up to one knee. Holding himself up with one arm hooked over the righted table, the fellow looked mightily pissed as he demanded, "What the hell do you think you're doing?"

"Thought that one was self-evident." Mal drew back a foot, figuring on a kick in the gut for extra measure.

They were drawing a fair bit of attention by now, bar fights being the spectacle of choice over cortex streams anyday. Jayne over by the counter was watching with interest and had the attendants arm casually pinned under his own, preventing him reaching the alarm that would bring security running.

"Stop!" the downed captain yelled, arms rising to shield himself. Utter confusion mixed with the annoyance on his face, and Mal relaxed his readied kicking foot. Somewhat. "I don't know what you think I did," the fellow grated, and his voice had a slower catch that was almost a drawl even in fury. "I'm telling you, I don't know you."

"The hell you don't!" Mal delivered the kick with a special malice and watched the fellow curl up around his midriff.

There was a click as Zoe levelled her sawn-off calmly at the flunkies, who'd made a start on surging forward again. Mal shot a glance her way; her expression was cool, committed, though he knew she didn't have the first idea as to the root of all this, any more than Jayne did, or the rest.

"Sir - " the one woman among the group began nervously.

"I said I don't - " the captain hissed with what he had of breath, on the floor with his arms over his gut and his teeth grit in pain.

The girl gave them all an unfathomable look as she slid down to his level, with a slow caution paying courtesy to Zoe's sawn-off, and spoke quietly into his ear. The captain's face went from fury to dumbstruck, then made its way around to caginess as he looked Mal up and down with recognition finally in his eyes.

"Didn't expect I'd be seeing you again," he said, without any kind of inflection at all.

"Well, now. Would imagine there's a truth, given last time you saw me was when you left me bleeding to death." Mal wouldn't have minded, at that reminder, getting a couple more kicks in, but there was a girl in his way - albeit one that, granted, he had no great love for either, and it seemed the moment had regrettably passed. He was aware, though, of movement in his peripheral vision, as Zoe became a bit more free with that gun of hers.

"Any time you care to be explaining that, sir," Zoe prompted easily. "Might help me decide how many bullets ought rightly be put where."

Some of the SS Walden's crew looked like they'd be appreciating that explanation more than a little themselves, and Mal reluctantly said, "Time we launched the shuttles when the catalyser went, I stayed on board, got us the replacement part? This here'd be that kindly good Samaritan provided it, a sitch in exchange for a bullet in the gut. Real bargain, wouldn't you say?"

Zoe's chin rose a fraction. She levelled the sawn-off with deliberation. "Reckon we should return the favour?"

"Oh, hey - wait," the captain said, finally making it to upright, girl under one arm, broken glass debris crunching under their feet. "Now, I can see how you'd be a mite ticked..."

"With the bastard shot me in the gut, left me for dead and tried to steal my ship from under me? Could say I'm holding a tiny grudge."

"...I think we're working under a misapprehension here," the fellow continued, with a forced-sounding laugh, although for the rest he could fake conciliatory well enough. "We didn't never intend to let you die." He looked 'round his crew with an expression told them they better look sincere and look it sharp. A couple of them nodded obediently.

Mal found himself laughing. Was a certain ridiculousness to it all. He swatted Zoe on the shoulder with the back of his hand. "Best put away the gun. Think we might be making some of these good folks nervous."

"Sir." She looked dubious about his sudden switch to high spirits, but holstered the gun, though she kept a hand close by it and her face stony, declaring good and clear it was just a half-second short of being out and pointed at all and sundry again. Over at the counter Jayne glared dourly and made his own hand look itchy.

Mal stepped forward and clapped a proprietary hand to the shoulder of the SS Walden's captain, stealing him off the girl. "Riding past for the moment the issue where I don't reckon I believe a single word of that, I think we might live and let live, should circumstances allow. Circumstances bein', 'course, that I'm thinking a bullet in the gut is a thing requiring a certain recompense." He righted the fellow's stool with a flick of his foot, sat him down, brushed him off, and smiled broadly into his glare. Mal jerked his head to Wash and Kaylee, who'd moved up to hover at Zoe's back; to Jayne watching grinning at the bar. "You're buyin'," he told the other captain. "Hope you brought enough to cover plenty of little bits of parasols and fruit on sticks."

"I'm thinking Simon maybe nixed something in there he shouldn't have," Zoe observed, leaning around him to tap her knuckles on his skull as they headed back to the ship, both of them stepping quick as they might without drawing any more attention than their sorry state already merited.

Mal flicked her hand away. "Brain's just fine - though I'll give you the headache... which ain't helped by any more taps on the head I don't need." He painfully explored his near-swollen-shut left eye. "'Sides, that was one hell of a bar fight. Best in a while, wouldn't you say?"

"It's always worrying when you start looking for the fights, sir."

He rolled his eyes. Eye. Best to give up on any wild ambitions for the left one for the near future. "Was it not a hell of a fight?" he repeated.

"It was..." Her face twisted up. "I can't say I wouldn't have preferred not to have my husband and Kaylee caught up in the middle of it."

"Hey, Jayne got them out okay, and no sense dwelling."

"And you don't think we should have reported Captain Lewis and his people to the authorities? They tried to kill you, sir."

"What? No!" Mal frowned at her, scandalized. "I am not snitching nobody out to the Alliance. 'Sides, their word 'gainst mine as it is, way our luck's tweaked they'd lay something worse on us by way of return. And wise men do say 'never let yourself get caught up in legal proceeding when you got three tagged fugitives on your boat'." Lowered his for saying the latter. He added with a grin, "Might give him pause if there's a next time, old corpses showing up and beating on him." Laughed. "Reckon I startled 'em some for sure. Dead man walking. See that girl's face?"

"I did." Zoe nodded. She leaned in conspiratorially, and he leaned in too, thinking she had something important on her mind, but as it happened all she confided was, "I think you're drunk, sir."

"It's a distinct possibility," he allowed. "Liquid refreshment bein' free and all - now, that one, you got to allow me. You people been griping at me all evening 'bout wanting to drink."

"You knew it would end in a fist fight," she said.

"Let's just say I'm hoping Captain Lewis is gonna have that pain in his gut a fair long while to remember me by."

Zoe's sighed, albeit with disgust rather than defeat. They were nearing the docking ports where Serenity was berthed, where the glitter of the rest of the station gave way to function and disrepair - the businesses on Athena might subsidise the docking facilities, didn't mean they'd throw in any more funds than they absolutely had to. Twenty-odd years of unidentified stain and surface fatigue decorated the walls.

They headed up the tube to Serenity. Book and Inara were in the hold, talking to the new-returned Kaylee and Jayne, or trying to leastways, given their coherency level had had better moments, and they looked up as Mal and Zoe came in. Mal didn't miss Inara's eye-roll as she saw him. "Ouch... I heard there was a bar fight."

"There often is," Zoe said.

"That was... kind of my point."

Couldn't be any sort of good when the two women were exchanging those sorts of looks over him. Mal broke off from Zoe's side, strode on past Inara and up the steps onto the walkway, calling back down, "Wash on the bridge?"

"He went up to run a check," Kaylee provided, and at least she wasn't on his back now, though that likely had something to do with a comfortable level of inebriation.

"Fine." The walkway seemed to sway a little more than normal, and pondering upon it slowly reached him the conclusion that maybe Zoe had a point. He wondered if the staff had finished scraping Lewis and his boys up off the floor just yet, and that thought provided a warm, happy glow that carried him up the last of the steps onto the bridge.

"Whoa!" Wash looked up and mock-cringed away. "Nice one with the eye..."

"Think it impressed Inara," he agreed, and glanced past Wash to the pilot console and a flashing readout. "What do we got?"

Wash half-turned, fingers hovering over the controls. "Message for you, 'Malcolm Reynolds', marked priority," he chirped. "Still, looks like it's been sat here the four hours since we left."

Mal tipped his head. "Best run it, then. Could be someone wants to make us rich and we don't know it."

His pilot laughed and flicked a switch. Any bent toward joviality died quick for them both at seeing the face that appeared on the screen.

Wash loosed a long and expressive string of Chinese, one hand rising to his forehead and hovering there. The way he sat back in his seat had an air about it of backing as far from the screen as he might.

"Niska," Mal said.

"Ah. Mister Reynolds," the old man greeted happily, and Mal had to remind himself he was watching a recording. "You are well, yes? Now, you will remember I had some reservations from your last job for me - " A waved hand flashed across view, dismissive " - forget them. They are gone. I feel very much, in fact, that we can do business again." Niska nodded eagerly, all self-congratulation. It did little enough for Mal's nerves, watching and waiting.

The screen's image shook and there was a burst of static, in which something new was dragged into focus. Something, Mal noted as the interference level dialled down some, that was skinny and red-haired and spitting mad fit to bust. He blinked, disbelieving his eyes, and was aware of Wash sinking back so completely in shock as to give the impression of trying to hide inside his chair, gulping a soft, "Oh, my."

"Malcolm, sweetie - " came the new voice over the message recording. "Don't listen to him! Don't you do it! He - "

A smack of a burly hand - not Niska's, who wasn't ever a fellow to do his own dirty work - sent her falling out of view, replacing her with Niska's less attractive mug again.

"You see?" The old man carried on nodding, cordially like he was inviting them to cocktails. "I have your wife, Mister Reynolds. This business... it is between us; none of her doing. Such a pity, to involve the young lady. But you and me... we can do business again, yes?"

Mal choked, and swallowed, and managed to stop with the gaping long enough to stutter, to an equally stunned Wash, "Seems like it's the day for running into old friends..."