Rating/Warnings: PG-13 for the Mandarin, I suppose, or perhaps just for Jayne.
Summary: River brings aboard a friend, and Mal insists that he is in charge of the situation.
AN: This is so utterly musesfool's fault, and also Neon Genesis Evangelion's, which was on when we started talking about this. It never fails that my first fic in a fandom is like utterly on drugs, and I get the main character's name totally wrong.
While Captain Malcolm Reynolds didn't set much stock by the sort of book-learning the doctor wiled away the hours with, it was a fact that pilots needed to know a fair bit of mathematics, spatial geometry, vectors, quantum trigonometry and the like.
This being the case, Mal knew there weren't nothing the matter with his figuring, and he figured sure enough that when they had set down on this icy rock, he'd had but five crew members and a companion, and not one of them had had eyebrows the size and color of red licorice whips.
"Aw, ain't he the sweetest thing you ever saw!" Kaylee cooed, dropping to her knees beside the stowaway.
"And just what is that?" Mal demanded, fighting off the cute of Kaylee in cuddle mode to make the stern face captaining required in situations such as these.
"It's a penguin, Cap'n!" Kaylee rolled her eyes at him.
"Obviously," Jayne added, eyes aglow with the warm light of potential on-ship game hunting. One hand dropped to his belt to finger a grenade lovingly.
"I know it's a penguin, girl," Mal replied sharply. "What I aim to know is how a penguin came to be aboard my ship. Any thoughts, little one?"
"He followed me home, Captain." River stared up at him with big brown eyes, in her little girl shift, with her little girl hands clutched behind her back, smiling the fakest, fakest little girl smile that Mal had ever seen. And that counted the time Jayne offered to trade him Vera.
"An' he can follow you right back off," Mal said, crossing his arms.
"Sir?" Zoe stuck her head in the bay and called down at him. "We set to go?"
"No, we ain't!" Mal hollered back. "We got us a stowaway."
"Penguins ain't stowaways." Kaylee now had the penguin actually in her arms, and it was wriggling its big webbed toes, and Mal had to look away before his retinas fused.
"His name's Fred," River announced. Mal shot a dark look at Simon, but as usual when something needed done about his sister, the doctor was pretty much as useful as a cow in the cockpit.
"Why is there a penguin on the ship?" Zoe asked, squinting at it as she came down the stairs, boots clanging dully on the metal. Mal held up a hand to quiet her.
"Zoe, as Captain, I think you should let me handle this." Mal turned back to Kaylee and River. "Someone tell me why there's a penguin on my ship!"
"Well, we can't leave him!" Kaylee clutched Fred tighter, and Fred peered at Mal with oilslick eyes and waggled an eyebrow. "Penguin herdin' is the prime source of protein on this planet!"
"We can't take him, neither!" Mal shot back, gritting his teeth as he squinted into the eye of the cute. "There ain't no room for passengers who ain't working on this ship. And he ain't trained, I bet you."
"Speak, Fred!" River said, and Fred went "Rawk!" right back.
"You know what kind of training I mean." Mal put a hint more warning in his tone to let the girl know he weren't playing her game much longer. They had cargo needed fetching and a ship needed launching.
"Aw, Cap'n," Kaylee stood up, penguin still cuddled firmly to her chest, "he's just a tiny thing, he won't take up no space at all! Just till the next port, please, Cap'n? Fred'll get eaten if we leave him here!"
"You know, there've been many studies on the therapeutic effects of psychotic patients caring for pets," Simon spoke up at last. Mal's temple throbbed.
"Serenity's a spaceship, not a nursery!" he snapped.
"Serenity likes Fred," River said, swinging her hands a little. "Says his feet tickle."
"I said no," Mal shouted, "and I meant no, and mine's the final say round here!"
"It cannot," Mal said through gritted teeth, "set up here while I'm flying."
"Fred likes the cold of deep space," River reported solemnly. She was sitting in her chair, Indian-style, Fred nestled in the space between her legs. Mal cursed himself for the dozenth time for being fool enough to bet against River's freakery. He'd said, under duress of Kaylee being all girly, that if that penguin was smart enough to use a litterbox he could ride to the end of the universe and back again.
Course River didn't say nothing but "in the box, Fred!" before the gorram thing was up to its scaly ankles in sand.
"I don't care what it likes," Mal said, fingers tightening on the stick. "Cockpits ain't the place for penguins!"
"Penguins are the best pilots in the animal kingdom," River didn't even look at him, just stared dreamily out the windcreen, "because they yearn for flight in their souls. It's the Suzuki method."
"I ain't made myself plain, apparently," Mal said, voice rising. "I am the captain, and that is a penguin, and I say…"
"Would you two pipe down in there!" Kaylee hollered from outside the door, where she was fixing some corroding pipes. "At least with Fred a girl can hear herself think!"
There was a few minutes of silence in the cockpit, except for the purr of Serenity.
"They'd need thumbs though," River said finally.
"Gorram penguin," Mal muttered in time to the pulse of Serenity's engine turning over, "gorram women, cào qingwa de liúmáng…"
"Don't curse like that in front of Fred!" Kaylee yelled.
"Do you mind, Captain?" Zoe asked levelly, and it was only cause of his rigorous military training that Mal's jaw didn't drop right to the floor. Zoe, Inara, and Kaylee were sitting at the galley table, cups of tea in front of them.
Fred, nestled in between Inara and Kaylee, had his own teacup.
"Last I checked," Mal said sharply, "galley was public space."
"It's woman talk." Inara gave him a slow blink with innocuous eyes. "And last I checked you didn't fancy that very much."
"All I want is some gorram tea!" Mal crossed his arms. "And Fred ain't a girl!"
"Cap'n, there ain't no way you can tell a girl penguin from a boy penguin," Kaylee said in tones of deep skepticism. "You can barely tell a girl penguin from a plain girl. 'Sides, Fred don't kiss and tell."
Stomping tealess back to the cockpit, the last bastion of manliness available to him, Mal ran into Jayne striding towards the galley.
"They're in there," Mal warned, figuring that even if usually he enjoyed letting Jayne suffer along with him, the occasion called for brothers in arms.
"I know that." Jayne grinned excitedly. "It's woman talk!"
"Has everyone on this ship lost their gorram mind?!" Mal hollered at Jayne's hurrying back.
The next day when Mal arrived at the haven of his pilot's chair, he found Fred already strapped into the copilot's seat, sitting and staring serenely out the window.
"Look, are you just fooling with me?" Mal demanded. "Cause I know there ain't no way no how you strapped yourself into that seat!"
"Rawk," said Fred, and Mal hadn't known penguins to have shoulders, but clearly they must if Fred was using them to shrug at him.
Grumbling to himself, Mal flopped into his chair and wrapped his hand around the stick, soothed by the familiarity. Fred went back to staring at deep space.
"You are a peaceful sort," Mal admitted grudgingly after a stretch. "But it don't make no nevermind, because next stop is your port of call."
Fred eyed him.
"It's an arctic planet." Mal wondered about the workings of a universe that would manage things so as to have a Captain on his own ship explaining his actions to a penguin in the co-pilot's seat. "So you should be right at home. Find a nice girl penguin and have lots of little Freds…you are a boy, Fred, ain't you?"
"Well regardless, they'll be lots of penguins to choose from, boys and girls, pick your fancy, ain't nothing wrong with…"
"Sir, are you telling the penguin he needs to get laid?"
Mal looked over his shoulder to scowl at Zoe, who was standing in the doorway with a bland expression. Mal could see the flicker of hilarity in her eyes, however, one he didn't brook much with as it was usually at his expense.
"Do you mind, Zoe?" Mal raised an eyebrow. "This is man talk in here."
"Rawk," said Fred.
"Gorram it, I'll miss you, Fred!" Kaylee sniffled, kneeling in the snow with her arms around the penguin. "It just won't be girl talk without you!"
"There must be hundreds of them," Jayne said in wonder, looking out over the sea of Freds, milling about and rawking at each other along the frozen shore. His fingers twitched for a weapon.
"Zoe," Mal tilted his chin towards Jayne, "you better get him out of here before he breaks out the grenades again. Go find out about our cargo."
"You never let me have any fun," Jayne complained, but he scuttled a mite faster when River gave him the eye and shifted one boot on the ice a little.
"You run along now, Fred." River reached down to disentangle Kaylee from Fred, and patted him on the head. "And don't you let anybody eat you."
"Rawk," Fred answered, bumping River's palm, and then he waddled off, slipping down the hill and disappearing into the crowd of other Freds, big ones and small ones, boy and girl Freds.
"I can figure the boy and girl penguins right away," Mal announced, crossing his arms.
"Which is which, then, you're so smart?" Kaylee wiped her nose with the back of her mitten.
"The boy penguins are the ones've got those handsome eyebrows, obviously," Mal peered out over the Freds. "And the girls are them as have the slighter builds, the more delicate constitutions."
"RAWK!" said a penguin easily twice the size of Fred as it beached itself on the shore, and half a dozen baby penguins came running to get regurgitated on.
"Not a single word," Mal said, waving a finger in Kaylee and River's faces. "Let's just get our cargo and be on our way."
When they got into the hold, they were practically deafened by the echoing 'RAWK's that were filling the hold.
"What the hell is going on in here?" Mal demanded over the noise, putting his hands over his ears.
"It's our cargo, sir!" Zoe shouted back. She gave the crate next to her a little kick and Mal's heart sank as several beady eyes blinked at him out the air holes. "Protein delivery!"
"No," said Mal, as Kaylee's eyes grew round and wavery. "Oh no…"
"Rodney!" River was poking her fingers into one of the crates. "Susan! You guys better secure your tray tables and buckle your seat belts, we're taking off. And no smoking either, Fernando."
cào qingwa de liúmáng--Frog Humpin' Sumbitch (no really)