"Two bamboo, two bamboo!" River sang. "That's another point for me."
"Aha, and there's the green dragon I've been looking for." Margot snatched the tile uncovered by River's bamboo and matched it. "Tied again!"
River pouted. One small hand crept spider like along the 'turtle' of mahjong tiles as her eyes searched, suddenly she turned her head sharply towards the aft corridor. "They're back."
Margot frowned. "And much too soon."
River rolled her eyes. "Things never go smooth."
There was a clatter of boots on metal steps and Mal Reynolds came through the aft hatch with Maxx Williams right after him, both wearing looks of disgruntlement.
"Soh Ya Feh Tian (Foiled again)?" River asked sympathetically.
"You could say that, lil' girl -" Mal began, and was interrupted by Maxx.
He was staring at Margot like she was a bloody sheeted specter. "Duchess?"
"Hello, Captain Williams," she replied calmly, voice shifting back to the clipped, high class accent she usually didn't bother with.
His mouth worked a moment before more words came; "Where's Django?"
"Contrary to common belief we are not joined at the hip," she replied crisply. "He's about his business, I'm about mine."
Mal had been looking back and forth between them, the stonkered expression on his face uncannily mirroring the one on Maxx's. "Django?" he repeated, an octave or two higher than normal. To Maxx; "She's the Duchess?" To Margot; "You're the Duchess, Django's Duchess?"
"I don't believe I care for the possessive case," she answered dryly. "And I'm quite sure Django wouldn't."
"What're you doing on my boat?" Mal demanded.
"Exactly what I was about to ask," said Maxx.
"She said she wanted to go to Athens, she said she was a fellow of the Athenaeum!" Mal explained.
"I am," said Margot.
Mal pointed rudely at Maxx. "He says you're the Duchess!"
"She is!" said Maxx.
"That's right," Margot said patiently. "I've been a lot of people, Captain Reynolds, you know that."
"Is a lot of people," River muttered, mostly to herself.
"Mal!" Zoe's voice echoed urgently down the aft hall, "Mal, get down here!"
"Cap'n? Cap'n Maxx, where are you?" another, unfamiliar voice chimed in with a note of panic that got the two Captains hurtling out galley the door and down the steps to passenger country with Margot and River close behind.
The lounge was crowded with the members of both crews and all of them seemed to be talking at once. Suddenly Maxx Williams found himself with an armful of tearful girl in crushed and stained satin. "They got Jack." Sue sobbed. "They got Jack and maybe killed Hwa. You gotta do something Captain!"
"Where's Nyota?" he asked urgently, stomach plummeting. Was there no end to this night's disasters?
"In there." Sue detached an arm to wave towards a pair of glass doors, any view through same being thoroughly blocked by Rawhide and Joe. Maxx insinuated himself between them looking into a shiny white, surprisingly well equipped infirmary. Nyota was sitting on a stool with Devil applying a dressing to her right arm and shoulder. Hwa was lying on the examining table with a kid Maxx didn't know bending over her.
The boy straightened up, he couldn't have been a day older than Joe if that. His eye fixed on Devil and his voice came clear if somewhat filtered through the mikes. "You a doctor?"
"That's right," she answered without looking.
"Leave her. I need another pair of hands here." Devil opened her mouth but before she could protest the boy continued; "Zoe? Zoe, get in here and see to the minor casualty."
Maxx heard Nyota tell Devil she'd be all right, then Reynold's second was saying, "Excuse me, Captain Williams," and slipping between the doors to take over bandaging the Companion while Devil and the kid donned masks and gloves.
"Simon's a good doc, Core trained," Malcolm Reynolds said from behind Maxx. He turned to see the man had Sue on one side and a beautiful stranger in the bloodstained remnants of a fancy evening dress other. "According to Inara here, her party didn't go quite as planned neither."
Sue dropped her champagne glass and dropped to the floor at the first gunshot, pulling out her little derringer with one hand and fishing out a clutch of flash-bangs with the other. All around her people were screaming and running in panic or taking cover and pulling a weapon, thus neatly indicating who was Core and who Rim as well as who was like to die and who to live.
Sue might be Core born but she'd spent three years on wild and woolly Gold Rush - and four months with Jack Leland. She used up her two shots plugging one masked, black clad invader square in the chest and getting another in the leg then threw her flash-bangs and scuttled under cover of the light and noise towards the card room where she'd left Jack, Nyota and Hwa.
The door was now a gaping black hole in the damask hung wall. Sue pulled her knife and dove through, impacting and stabbing another black clad man firing into a smoky darkness barely lit by red emergency light. One of his comrades grabbed her and got slashed then she was loose and inside, crouching behind an overturned table and trying to spot her employer.
She heard the unmistakable retort of his stick-rifle. "Jack! Jack, where are you?"
"Sue?" his voice came out of the gun-smoke and shadows. "Do you have cover?"
"Yes!" she shouted back, trying and failing to spot him.
"Then stay where you are!"
"All right." She felt in her pocket for more flash-bangs, blessing the impulse that had led her to load up. But before she could throw there was a flash and a crash followed, while she was still blinking afterimage out of her eyes, by a crack and a groan, then a scream. Disregarding orders she jumped up and ran towards the sounds, tripped over a supine body and fell, landing on her hands and knees in a sticky pool of warm blood.
Inara had been sitting beside her client, Sir Bontriumph, when all hell broke loose. He shoved her down and under the game table, covering her with his body as he pulled his gun. Jack Leland and his women were down there as well, the man with his fancy walking stick leveled towards the door. The Chinese lady had pulled a handful of diamond studded star shaped pendants off her necklace with one hand and pulled her garter dagger with the other and was holding it like a gun. Nyota, startlingly, also had a gun in one small hand, and a hair-pin stiletto in the other, with elflocks falling from her formerly elegant up-do. Since Companions never go to a client armed, (what was Nyota thinking?) Inara herself was barehanded - though not exactly helpless.
The door-wall blew in, powdering the room with fragments of plasterboard and damask as black clad men charged inside through the dust to be mowed down by concentrated fire from rifle-stick, dagger-gun, Bontriumph's repeater and Nyota's tiny revolver. Those behind them took warning and cover, shooting out the lamps and plunging them all into red tinted darkness.
"Hwa," Jack said, "please tell me these aren't your guys."
"They're not - we're smarter than this," his bodyguard answered.
"And yours would be wearing uniforms, Jack," Nyota reminded him.
"So they would." Somebody out there twitched and Jack snapped off another shot. "Any idea who these reubens are, Bontriumph?"
"Not a clue," the other man answered. "Damned odd actually, on this planet the underworld pretty much confines its violence to its own."
"I think we may be looking at a change in policy," Inara contributed.
Jack glanced at her, fished under his tails and handed her a derringer, "If it isn't against your principles, Miss Sera."
"Not at all," Inara assured him, searching the smoke for targets.
Shapes moved against the light from the outer room and fell before another barrage of fire, either hit or taking cover. There was some disturbance or struggle and Jack fired again. His young companion's voice came out of the smoke and confusion:
"Jack! Jack, where are you?"
"Sue?" he called back. "Do you have cover?"
"Then stay where you are!"
Hwa turned her head sharply, "Jack -" and the wall behind them blew up.
Blinded and choking Inara kicked and punched at enemies she couldn't see, heard a sharp crack and a man's groan - then Nyota screamed:
Inara clenched her hands tightly in her lap to still their trembling. "Somebody brought lamps from the main room. Sir Bontriumph, Mr. Leland and half a dozen other leading citizens were missing, people were wounded, Miss Hwa -"
"There was blood everywhere, Cap'n Maxx," Sue broke in shakily. "All over the floor, all over me..." she looked down at her stained dress in horror.
"So I see," said Mal Reynolds. "Maybe you can help with that, Inara?"
"Of course." The Companion visibly pulled herself together. "Come with me, Sue, my shuttle is this way." She led the girl through the crowd, collecting a bandaged Nyota on the way to the cargo bay.
Mal and Maxx were left sitting on the low table facing the corner couch, looking at each other. "This ain't just about guns an' money any more," Maxx said grimly.
"Looks like our 'Ser Toh' wannabe's getting a mite above himself," Mal agreed "We're gonna have to do something about that I guess."
Suddenly River was there, tugging at his sleeve. "Captain, Captain, some up to the cockpit, wave you ought to hear."