Wine Glasses and Wire Cutters by Fish and RSB

Wine Glasses and Wire Cutters By Fish and RSB

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All in all, it looked to be a right fine party. Nothing too fancy, nothing too drab, just the right kind of party for respectable people gathering on a fine summer evening. The servants were wearing their Sunday best, and all looked to be thoroughly thrilled to be serving such fine and dandy guests. They even looked to have real fruit being served about on those nice silver serving trays. And the band. Well, the band wasn't playing none too loud, but Malcom Reynolds was fairly certain that if he could hear them, they'd be playing something nice and slow or reeking of a rich artist with too much time on his hands.

Mal lowered his binoculars as he shifted around. The tree he was in, a fine climbing tree to be sure, didn't have much in the way of luxuries, and he'd been crouching in these branches for a bit longer than he'd planned.

He spotted two familiar figures just arriving at the party and leaned forward to get a closer look. The looking glass showed him a young man who certainly fit in at first glance with the rest of these moneyed individuals, but his walk was a bit stiff, as if he weren't entirely comfortable. In contrast, the dark-haired beauty that accompanied him didn't so much walk as glide across the courtyard; she was entirely at ease at this party, and the coolness with which she moved suggested that she would have been at ease if the estate itself were collapsing. Grace, that's what it was. Grace, and-

The tree shook a little and that made Mal shake a little. He hadn't been paying enough attention to- well to anything really. Trying to remain perfectly calm, he slowly turned and looked down towards the trunk of the tree. He belonged here, it was the most natural thing in the world for him to be in this tree. Grace. "Hi," he offered genially.

"Sir?"

Breathing a sigh of relief, Mal lowered himself out of the tree, and leaned up against the estate wall over which he'd been... observing. "Zoe. Didn't hear you coming," said Mal. He held his binoculars low, wishing the pockets in his worn brown coat were big enough to accommodate them. "What's the good news?"

"We've got a job, sir," replied Zoe. She produced a piece of paper and offered it to Mal. "Looks like a pretty easy one for a change, too."

"That'd be a welcome change," Mal agreed. He took the scrap and gave it a once over before putting it back in his pocket, then started to pick his way through the bushes back towards the ship. "Let's be on our way then, don't want to keep our man waiting on us."

Zoe fell into step a little behind Mal. "Captain? What were you doing in that tree?" she asked with a thin smile.

Without missing a beat, Mal glanced back over his shoulder at her and said, "Birdwatching."

Behind him, the faint tune of a waltz finally began to reach Mal's ears.

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Inara tightened her hold on Simon's arm as she swept into the courtyard, smiling serenely at the waiter who offered her a glass of fine champagne. At her prompting, Simon reached stiffly for one as well, his tension betrayed by the fact that he made no move to drink it.

"Relax," Inara instructed softly as they wandered towards the ornate fountain in the center of the courtyard. "There are no Alliance personnel here."

"So you've said," Simon replied vaguely, and although he still scanned the faces of the guests warily, she could feel his nervousness fading. A fine mist played about her cheeks as she raised her glass to her lips, enjoying the light waltz that drifted through the evening air.

"Inara!" a melodic voice called, and she turned, her plum chiffon dress blowing lightly against her ankles in the soft summer breeze. Forcing a smile onto her soft features, Inara watched the approaching figure with a sort of grim satisfaction.

"Saoirsa," she said warmly, leaning over to kiss her lightly on the cheek. "What a pleasant surprise. I had no idea you were attending."

"I'm here with Manuel, of course," Saoirsa answered with a delicate laugh.

Inara smiled benignly. "Of course."

"And who are you escorting this evening?" the companion asked, looking with interest at Simon, who took a quick sip of champagne to hide his amusement.

"This is Simon," Inara said by way of introduction, and Simon took Saoirsa's hand and bowed politely. "Simon, this is Saoirsa. I studied with her years ago."

"You studied with her," he repeated with a well-concealed smirk. "How...interesting." Inara shot him a discrete glare.

"I must run and catch up with Manuel," Saoirsa said brightly, glancing over her shoulder at her client, her diamond earrings tapping gently against her neck. "I'm sure we'll see each other later this evening."

"Of course," Inara said again, watching Saoirsa's heels snap over the ornate mosaic that circled the fountain.

After a pause, Simon cleared his throat awkwardly. "I thought she was the reason we were here," he said, raising his eyebrows.

Inara's only response was a slight blush as she slipped her arm through Simon's and guided him towards the mingling crowd.

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Shepherd Book mopped the sweat off his brow, and waited for Jayne to set himself for his turn lifting weights. Though the two had initially been on opposing sides of a lawman's life, Book had proven himself reliable and at least a little useful aboard Serenity. And Jayne had a proper spotter to work out with, at last.

Jayne set himself, and lifted the weight, straightening his arms, then lowering them and letting the bar settle against his chest for a second before pushing it into the air again.

"I understand the crew'll have work again, soon," Book offered conversationally.

"'Bout time, too," grunted Jayne. He lowered the weight and began to press again. "Hain't had a proper job in too long. Din't sign up on this boat to spend it sittin' around with a preacher making myself all the more handsome." Jayne faltered, and let the weight sit on his chest for a moment. He started to lift the weight, but only made it halfway, before his arms started to shake. This began to puzzle Jayne, and he started to say, "What the-" but he was cut off by a violent sneeze, and the weight almost jumped out of his hands.

Fortunately, Book caught the weight before it crushed Jayne, and he lowered it back onto the arms of the bench. Jayne sat up and wiped his nose on his arm, then sniffled.

"Seems to me as you might be getting a little under the weather," Book said, handing Jayne a towel.

Jayne wiped his forehead, then his nose. Jayne snorted and declared, "I ain't never been sick a day in my life." He looked up as the loading ramp began to lower, and started to get to his feet as Mal and Zoe came aboard, but another sneeze escaped him, sitting him back down on the weight bench. He turned to look at the Preacher, who was giving him a discerning look. "Too much gorram dust in here," he growled.

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"That piece of go-se," Kaylee muttered to herself as she tossed the spanner a bit too forcefully into her toolbox. "I hope he's enjoying himself, all fancied up while I'm stuck here fixin' the whoo dahn engine. Chur ni-duh."

Mal lounged against the doorframe, clearly enjoying watching the young engineer take her frustration with Simon out on her instruments. "Now Kaylee, that's not a very nice thing to say," he said patronizingly, smirking when she jumped guiltily and turned to face him.

"Cap'n!" she answered in a startled voice. "...hi. I didn't see you standing there."

"Obviously," Mal replied flippantly. "Care to join me in the mess for a whoo dahn meeting, or would you rather stay here and curse?"

Kaylee flushed and got to her feet, wiping the oil off her hands with a dirty rag. "Sure, I'm coming."

Mal bowed her out of the room with a flourish, and they made their way through Serenity's dimly lit corridors to the mess. Pulling out the chair next to Jayne, Mal spun it backwards and sat down, snagging a slightly shriveled apple from the bowl on the table. Zoe and Wash were already seated across from them.

"I think I should get to carry a gun. Why don't I don't get to carry a gun?" Wash asked his wife plaintively.

"Because you don't know how to shoot one, dear," Zoe reminded him patiently.

"Okay, that's not the point. The point is..."

"The point is that I hired you to fly this boat, not shoot holes in her," Mal interrupted good-naturedly. Wash opened his mouth to retaliate, but Mal talked right over him. "We've got a job, people."

There was a pause. "Well what is it?" Jayne finally asked around a mouthful of apple.

"We're being paid to shut down Thethys' main power grid," Mal said matter- of-factly.

"Oh, is that all? Just shut down the power to Persephone's biggest city?" Wash asked insincerely.

"Yes," replied Mal casually. "Anyone else?"

"Sir, perhaps you could explain why we're shutting down the main power grid," Zoe suggested helpfully.

"Oh. Right. We've been hired by another group of fine, upstanding gentlemen, who are planning on doing something all very legal and proper in the dark. I didn't feel it appropriate to inquire further.

"Wash, you're driving. Kaylee, you'll handle the mechanical side of things. Jayne..." Mal's voice trailed off as Jayne sneezed all over the apples. "...you'll be stayin' here, and Zoe, you're with me. Do we have an understandin'?"

"Why am I stayin' on the ship?" Jayne asked thickly, rubbing at his red nose.

"Because you're sick," Mal answered bluntly.

Jayne looked affronted. "Well, I ain't never heard nobody put it that way before."

Mal gave him a bemused look. "We'll go as soon as it's dark."

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Nodding politely in agreement with the local minister of water reclamation's comments, Inara managed to deftly place her partially emptied champagne glass onto a servant's tray. "How fascinating, Minister Rhodes. I had no idea that water reclamation was such a delicate business."

"Delicate," the minister repeated, smiling agreeably. "Not unlike yourself, my dear, if I do say so myself."

Inara laughed courteously. "Of course you may, Minister Rhodes."

Minister Rhodes beamed and took another sip of his champagne. "Why, I daresay-"

"Inara, uhm, dear," Simon spoke up. "I think perhaps its time we allowed some of the other guests to enjoy your, uhm, your delicateness." The doctor set his empty champagne glass onto a passing tray and picked up another one. "If it pleases you, of course, Minister Rhodes."

"Well, of course, I'd hate to be accused of hoarding such a precious jewel all to myself."

"It was a delight speaking with you," Inara said gracefully as she and Simon started to move away. Once they were far enough from the talkative minister of water reclamation, Inara breathed a grateful sigh of relief. "Thank you, Simon. That was actually quite well-timed."

"I went to a lot of parties with my parents before my sister..." explained Simon. He cleared his throat. "I remember how boring it was to listening to those people carry on and on and-"

"On, forever and endlessly."

Inara hid her amusement as Simon stiffened in surprise. She offered the newcomer a sincere smile. "I hope that not all of the people I meet tonight will be so bland."

"If I can help it," the man said, smiling easily. "I will be the last." He took Inara's hand and bowed courteously. "I am Manuel Neveu, your host and servant, my lord and lady."

"Enchanted," Inara replied, curtseying. "I am Inara, and this is Simon."

Simon shook Manuel's hand. "This is quite a party, sir. I can quite honestly say that I haven't seen anything like it in quite some time."

"My thanks for your kind words," Manuel said with a slight nod. He regarded Inara for a moment, fingering his mustache. Then his eyes lit up and he snapped his fingers. "Ah! Inara! Of course, you must be the one dear Saoirsa mentioned to me earlier this evening. You honor my home, m'lady."

"As we are honored to be in your home," said Inara smoothly.

"Ah, aha," chuckled Manuel. "You and Saoirsa certainly are cut from the same cloth." As Manuel checked his pocket-watch, he missed a brief bristle from Inara, who regained her composure as Manuel looked up. "Ah, I can see that it is almost time for the evening's entertainment. Come, and enjoy the finer luxuries of my home. I have contracted some very special and unique entertainment, a juggler. Not just any ordinary juggler with his flaming pins, my dear!" Manuel laughed as he moved ahead to lead the party guests into his home.

"I'm afraid I don't understand," Simon admitted softly.

"Haven't you heard Wash talk about some of the planets he's been to?" Inara asked, smiling. She gestured to the several small shapes lounging in and around the fountain.

Simon peered at the fountain, then glanced back towards the estate. "We're going to be entertained by someone juggling frogs?"

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"That was surprisingly simple," Wash commented as he sat at the controls of their newly acquired vehicle. "If only all our jobs went this well."

"All of our jobs start out this well...they usually just don't end this well," Mal commented, leaning back in his seat and stretching his legs out in front of him. Beside him, Kaylee was rummaging through her toolkit and muttering thoughtfully to herself. "Are you ready for this, little Kaylee?" "Ready as I'll ever be, Cap'n," she answered absently, scrutinizing two indistinguishable wrenches carefully. Choosing the one in her right hand, she slipped in into the kit.

"You'll do just fine," Mal said reassuringly, patting her on the head. She spared him a brief glare. Wash spun around in the driver's seat.

"Can I have a gun?" he asked hopefully.

Mal scowled. "No. Drive."

Zoe squeezed her husband's arm reassuringly. "It's for your own safety."

"Well what if something happens to you guys, and you need to be rescued, huh?"

"We'll take our chances, dear."

Wash mumbled bitterly to himself, refocusing on the controls when they began to beep. "Thanks for the vote of confidence. We're almost there. And I'll be sure to ignore your anguished cries when everything goes terribly, horribly wrong, as usual."

Kaylee glanced nervously at Mal. "Terribly, horribly wrong?" she asked meekly, but Mal just shrugged in response. The craft set down with a light bump in a sidestreet adjacent to the rear of the power plant.

"Let's make this go right," Mal said pointedly as he, Kaylee, and Zoe climbed out into the alley. "Don't get too comfortable," he added to Wash, who stared back with a 'who, me?' expression on his face. The trio skulked around to the plant's back door, and Mal crouched down and stared intently at his watch.

"Go," he whispered as the display hit the hour, and Zoe tugged at the handle of the now-open door, the security systems having been deactivated for the shift change. Creeping into the building, Kaylee led the way towards the primary generator. The engineer knelt down, hastily opening her toolkit and fishing around for a spanner. She went to work on the casing, wrenching it open to reveal a mess of wires, cables, and turbines. Reaching for a pair of wire cutters, she stuck her hand carefully into the machinery, extracting a yellow wire.

"Cuttin' this should shut down the turbines," she explained quietly. Pointing to a different cable, she added, "An' cuttin' this one will disrupt the power flow from the batteries, blackin' out the city."

"Good," Mal replied, perfectly aware that he had no idea what she was talking about. "Take your time." Kaylee crossed her fingers for good luck, took a deep breath, and snipped the wire.

"Tzao-gao!" Mal cursed as Kaylee's head snapped back. Her hand jerked away from the wire cutters as she convulsed, and Mal automatically caught her as she fell backwards, relieved to find that her body no longer carried a charge. "Kaylee?" he asked, hoping for, but not expecting, a reaction. He glanced up at the generator as he heard the turbines slowly whirring to a stop.

Zoe lifted her fingers away from Kaylee's neck and spoke to the captain. "She'll be fine." She paused, then added, "I think."

Mal frowned at her. "You think?" He turned back to the generator and picked up the cutters. "Ok," he breathed, eyeing the wires uncertainly. "Which one did she say again?" He reached into the casing and pulled out a blue wire, then promptly replaced it and plucked a red one instead. Mal fitted it between the two sharp blades, and then screwed his eyes shut and cut the wire. He opened one eye and glanced around. Zoe breathed a sigh of relief. "It's dark," commented Mal. "That's good, right?"

"Right," Zoe agreed, starting to collect Kaylee's tools. Mal began to gather Kaylee up when he heard a door opening to his left.

Two pairs of footsteps echoed loudly in the darkened generator room, and a high-pitched voice demanded, "Who are you? What are you doing in here?"

Mal paused, then extended his arms towards Zoe. "Take this." He spun around quickly and landed a solid blow on the technician's jaw. His fist connected a second time, and the other technician collapsed with dull thud to the floor. Mal turned back to Zoe and gently took Kaylee from her. "Thanks."

"You're welcome," Zoe said with an odd look as they ran for the exit. They slipped outside into the alley and the back door locked itself noisily once it closed.

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Inara and Simon applauded as the juggler completed a dazzling display. The rest of the guests were just as impressed, if not more so, and they erupted in adoration for the jugglers. Plural. It turned out that their gracious host had hired not one exotic juggler, but two. The primary juggler was expertly sending five amphibians through intricate loops, while the second tossed expensive wine glasses into the air. There was of plenty of 'ooh'- ing and 'aah'-ing going around.

"I don't believe it," Simon said, amazed at the spectacle unfolding before him. "Whoever thought to toss frogs into wine glasses for high class entertainment?"

Saoirsa smiled modestly beside him. "Actually, Manuel spoke to the jugglers before they arrived and convinced them to try it. I'm so pleased that they were able to manage it." Manuel grinned proudly.

"How very... original," Simon complimented.

"Your creativity is impressive," agreed Inara, absently brushing a stray lock of hair off her neck. She turned her attention back towards the entertainment as the lighting flickered, then plunged the ballroom into darkness.

"Oh, is this more of your ingenuity at work?" Simon asked, peering about the room.

Manuel frowned. "...No. Saoirsa, please come with me." Saoirsa smiled apologetically and followed her client as he left to investigate the matter. They hadn't gone very far from the murmuring guests, when another clamor erupted as the ballroom's three front windows shattered simultaneously.

Reacting quickly, Inara took a hold of Simon's arm and dragged him under a nearby buffet, making sure not to disturb the tablecloth. Simon started to protest, but she instructed him to be silent by holding a finger to her lips. Outside, the guests began to complain loudly, their voices striving to rise above the clinks and clatters of valuables being dropped into bags.

Simon leaned closer to Inara and whispered, "Do you think this has anything to do with the captain?"

"Probably," Inara answered. She resigned herself to being cramped beneath the buffet and attempted to make herself comfortable.

At length, Simon asked, "So, I know this isn't exactly the best time to ask, but what do you have against Saoirsa?"

Inara considered the doctor for a heartbeat before responding. "She is Manuel's private companion."

"And this bothers you?" he pressed, trying to understand the strange sequence of events that led him to be crouched under a table full of appetizers.

"It is uncommon for companions to be employed by a single client," Inara elaborated. "It's almost as if she's married to him, and marriage is an institution that I'm not particularly fond of."

"Well, you and Saoirsa seem to have a lot in common," Simon observed.

"Of course," Inara nodded. "She lives in a mansion, I live in a shuttle. She never has to worry about whether or not she'll get to her next client on time, while Mal sometimes arrives on-planet two or three days late."

"She can afford to host lavish garden parties where the guests are overawed at a man who can juggle frogs into wineglasses," Simon suggested as he noticed one of the amphibians in question joining them beneath the buffet table.

"Exactly," Inara said softly.

"I can see why she might... irritate you," Simon said sympathetically.

They squinted as the ballroom was bathed in unexpected light.

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"Cap'n, lights!" Kaylee slurred loudly, and Mal looked down at the woman in his arms, whose unfocused eyes were fixed on the building behind them.

"Let's hope they're a figment of your imagination," Mal grumbled, annoyed but unsurprised to find the power back on line. Zoe shot him a resigned look, and he grumbled, "Forget it. With no engineer, we're dead out of luck."

Wash pushed open the door and helped Mal get Kaylee inside. Staring between the unconscious young woman and the well-lit power plant, he commented, "I guess things went about as well as they usually do."

"Yes. Drive," Mal answered shortly, in no mood for small talk. Wash turned back to the controls, pushing a few plastic dinosaurs out of his way. Mal decided not to comment.

"Well, the Feds are sending a patrol over to a party in West Thethys, so it sounds like we're not going to get paid. Again."

Mal glanced up quickly. "What party?"

"Hosted by a fellow named Manuel Neveu," Wash said shrugging nonchalantly. Mal froze.

"I guess we're goin' to crash a party then," Mal said slowly, trying to disguise the worry in his voice.

"Why?" Wash asked bluntly.

"Why, so you can treat your lovely wife to a nice, fancy evenin'. And this also happens to be the very same party that Inara and Simon are attendin'."

Wash looked at him, a mixture of curiosity and alarm on his face as he started the engine. "How do you- ?"

"Don't ask, honey," Zoe interjected with a knowing smirk.

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Judging by the profuse swearing echoing loudly in the ballroom, Inara guessed that things were not at all going according to whatever plan the thieves had devised. Even better, someone had activated an alarm of some kind as soon as the power came back online, and the screaming and yelling told her quite plainly that the excitement would be over soon enough.

Then an electronically enhanced voice boomed from outside the ballroom. It was an Alliance officer, demanding that the thieves surrender immediately.

Poor Simon's spine attempted to straighten itself, and he bumped his head on the underside of the table, startling the frog that had been relaxing beside the doctor's shoes. The frog apparently decided that a change of scenery was in order and departed. Fortunately, nobody noticed the brief clatter from the table, nor the re-emergence of the fugitive amphibian.

Inara reached out to calm Simon down as his eyes darted about in increasing anxiety. "I- I can't stay here..."

"Try to relax, Simon," Inara advised soothingly. "The Alliance isn't here for you or your sister, and they don't even know you're here. All we have to do is wait them out."

"No, you don't understand," Simon countered, clearly growing more fearful. "Standard Alliance procedure... they'll get all over the estate... comb every square decimeter of it-"

"Not until they subdue the intruders," Inara interrupted coolly. She had to keep him calm, and make sure he didn't raise his voice. A talking table would attract all the attention they didn't want. "And we'll find a way to escape unnoticed amidst all the confusion."

The threadbare plan Inara described clearly didn't inspire much confidence in Simon, but his shoulders slumped and he appeared to calm down a few degrees.

"Mal will come for us," Inara assured him. She and Simon looked up as the tablecloth rustled. It was the frog, deciding that the table might be a better shelter after all.

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It was times like these that Mal found himself appreciating the strict adherence to procedure exercised by Alliance personnel. The Alliance patrol was focused entirely too much in the wrong place, and positioned poorly at that. Shaking his head, Mal lowered his binoculars and wished he could devise some way of making the Fed's look all manner of foolish; but he was here to get Inara, and the doctor, out before too many more things went wrong on this job. He paused and wondered if he was still on the job.

"How's it look, sir?" Zoe asked from below.

"Just shiny," Mal replied, glancing down through the branches. He made his way out along one of the thicker limbs and lowered himself down carefully on the other side of the wall. A few moments later, Zoe joined him. "Now, all we gotta do is wait for the Feds to-" He cupped a hand to his ear, expectantly.

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The burst of gunfire was more than enough to frighten Simon's unexpected guest into his coat pocket. It was also the moment Inara was waiting for, the moment when all the guests would be shrieking in confusion and surprise, while the thieves foolishly tried to fight back against the law.

Carefully, lifting the cloth on the side of the table closest to the wall, Inara dared a quick peek out. She couldn't have asked for better luck. The guests had been herded away from the large French doors that led into the courtyard, and were mostly cowering behind small, overturned dining tables. The thieves had done much the same, and they were returning fire at the Alliance patrol that was attempting to gain access to the ballroom from the exact same broken windows that the thieves had used.

She motioned for Simon to join her as they crawled away from the firefight, towards an exit that led into the estate. Simon hesitated. "We can't just leave these people here..."

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Mal and Zoe skirted the edges of the courtyard, keeping the fountain between them and the ballroom, where the Alliance boys were having a grand ol' time trying to bully their way in. Mal had a satisfied smirk on his face, and he stopped to watch the gun battle.

"Sir, I don't think now's the time," Zoe began.

Mal exaggerated a frown. "Oh please can I stay and watch the brave heroic Feds save the day?"

"Maybe some other time, captain," Zoe said taking Mal's arm and leading towards one of the servant's entrances away from the ballroom.

"Couldn't we just-?"

"No." Zoe maintained. As an afterthought she added, "Sir. So what are going to do?"

"Don't worry," Mal assured her, slipping into the estate. "I've got a plan all figured out."

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"Simon!" Inara whispered urgently, clenching her hands in frustration when her warning was ignored. Peering around the edge of the tablecloth, she crouched low and ran after him, holding the hem of her dress out of the way as best she could. "Simon!" she repeated reproachfully as she knelt next to him. "What the guay were you thinking?"

"Keep constant pressure," he said by way of an answer, grabbing her hand and placing it over a hastily folded square of cloth. Inara sighed but did as she was told; the two of them were bent over a victim of the crossfire that flew between the Alliance forces and the thieves. The man had been shot in the chest, and Simon muttered to himself about collapsed lungs and traumatic open pneumothorax. "I understand that you want to help, but if you're not more careful..." Her voice trailed off as the barrel of a rifle was pointed solidly at Simon's head.

"Get back with the others," the man said gruffly, prodding Simon's temple for emphasis. Inara got slowly to her feet, keeping her hands visible.

"Okay," she said agreeably, smiling easily. "Whatever you say."

"Over there," he ordered, gesturing towards the largest group of party guests. Inara took a few measured steps in the indicated direction, then abruptly broke into a sprint for the nearest corridor. Amid the gunshots she heard a muffled curse followed by quick footsteps as the thug ran after her.

Ducking into the nearest room, for she knew she wouldn't get far in heels and a floor length dress, she bolted the door and searched frantically for something to use as a weapon. A relieved smile broke across her face as she noticed the display of swords on the far wall above the fireplace. Shattering the display case with a bookend, she ripped a sword from its mounting and swung around just as the thief broke through the flimsy lock and stormed into the room. She dove to one side, narrowly missing a bullet as she sprawled behind the mahogany desk, the sword still clenched tightly in one hand. Inara heard the click of an empty chamber, followed by a clatter as the gun was tossed aside, useless without a fresh clip. Pushing herself to her feet, she brought the sword horizontal, with the tip pointing slightly down towards the man's abdomen. Watching her warily, the thug moved over and removed a second sword from the display, holding it confidently with two hands, a leering grin on his face. Inara moved just as cautiously out from behind the desk until they were facing one another across the open space of the Oriental rug.

Her opponent made the first move, bringing his sword down heavily towards Inara's chest. She sidestepped the swing easily, guiding her blade towards his exposed right side. He parried, raising his sword and forcing hers with it. His sword lifted high above his head, the thug took it down hard, and Inara flipped her weapon flat so that his blade slid harmlessly down towards the floor. She easily brought her sword around in a wide arc, ending it at his neck and placing the sharp tip suggestively on his throat. His eyes wide with humiliation and surprise, he let his fingers relax and the sword dropped noisily to the floor.

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"Sir?" Zoe began, as they crept through the corridor. "That was a really bad idea."

"I don't want to talk about it," Mal said brusquely. He turned down another corridor and paused as he heard the distinct sound of swords clashing. Curious, he stopped at the slightly ajar door, and peeked in, finding Inara keeping a suspicious looking fellow at sword point. "Inara?"

"Hello, Mal," she greeted warmly. "Zoe."

Mal craned his neck to get a look at the thug's face, then straightened. "Inara, would you be so kind as to remove your sword from this gentleman's throat?" Inara glanced at him curiously, but did as Mal asked. The captain brandished his pistol, then thumped the thug soundly on the back of the head. As the unconscious man slumped to the ground, Mal turned back to Inara and asked casually, "Aren't you missing someone?"

"Oh, Simon!" Inara exclaimed. She hurriedly tossed the sword onto the desk and quickly retraced her steps, with Mal and Zoe following closely behind. As they entered the ballroom, they immediately spotted Simon speaking with a medic, while various Alliance personnel finished securing the thieves.

Simon watched the medics leave, then turned and scanned the room, finally spotting Inara, Mal, and Zoe standing awkwardly amidst the Feds. He hurried to catch up with them, and they discretely turned down one of the side hallways. "Is it time to go already?"

"Well it is a lovely party," Mal allowed conversationally. "But the longer we stick around, the more likely it is we're gonna get pinched. You're going to get pinched."

Simon nodded. "I see your point."

"Isn't it unsettling to be around so many Alliance personnel?" Inara inquired.

"Helping was more important," replied Simon. "And it looks like that man is going to be fine. So it was the right thing to do, right?"

"Right," Inara agreed as they stepped out of the estate, and headed towards where Wash was parked. She greeted a startled Wash and sat down in one of the back seats.

"Hi Inara," Wash said, surreptitiously sliding his dinosaurs aside. He turned to Mal. "Did anything go terribly, horribly wrong?"

"No. Drive."

Zoe climbed into the front seat and kissed her husband on the cheek. "Miss me?"

"Terribly, horribly," Wash admitted.

Simon spoke up from the back. "Why didn't anyone tell me Kaylee had been electrocuted?"

Kaylee blinked up at him blurrily. "Who got electrocuted?"

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Jayne met the rest of the crew as they boarded the ship. He had a miserable expression on his face and clutched a dirty handkerchief in one hand. "What took you guys s'long?" he demanded, rubbing his runny nose.

"It's complicated," Mal told him. Jayne coughed, and Mal gave him a once- over, then suggested, "You should really see a doctor about that."

Jayne directed a glare at Mal's back as the captain carried Kaylee to the infirmary until a violent sneeze overtook him.

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Mal sat at the edge of the catwalk overlooking the cargo bay, letting his legs dangle idly. He regretting not being able to stick around long enough to get paid, but as his employers were being handcuffed by Feds at the time, it seemed like he got the better end of the deal. And if he was going to look at it optimistically, they'd at least gotten the job done, albeit briefly. Hearing footsteps on the metal grating, he looked up to find Inara walking towards him.

"Hi Mal," she said, smiling and lowering herself to the deck next to him.

"Hello Inara," he answered, scooting over to give her more room.

"Have you been to see Kaylee yet?" Inara asked ask she ran a lock of hair through her fingers.

"I most certainly have. I'm glad to see that she's already goin' on about backup generators and reserve power and the like. Seems as though she'll be back on her feet right soon enough."

"She's looking better," Inara agreed, dropping her hand back into her lap.

"I reckon you handled yourself pretty well back there," Mal said casually after a brief pause.

"Yes," Inara said with an enigmatic smile. "I suppose there are some advantages to living among thieves." "How so?"

"I never would have gotten such a practical education if I had limited my clientele only to those rich and inventive enough to hire frog jugglers."

"Odd combination," Mal commented.

"It's lucky that you knew to come get Simon and I," she added somewhat abruptly, looking at Mal with an expression that seemed disturbingly similar to amusement.

"Did Zoe tell you?" he asked nervously, and Inara's lips curled into a half- smile.

"Tell me what?"

"Nothing," he said a bit too quickly, leaning back on his elbows and trying to look relaxed.

Inara broke the silence that had fallen between them by asking, "I suppose my next question is, what were you doing there?"

Mal swallowed uneasily. Grace, he reminded himself. Grace. He had every right to be up in that tree with a pair of binoculars...

"Birdwatching."

FIN