The Teaser Pony
Concept: The crew of Serenity provides passage for horse with an unusual talent, and a woman from Simon's past.
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Spoilers: For all episodes, including the three unaired episodes. Do NOT read if you're remaining spoiler free until the DVDs. Takes place approximately three weeks after "Objects in Space," and presumes that "OiS" was the final episode chronologically.
Legal disclaimers: "Firefly" characters and situations are owned by Joss Whedon and the producers of the show. The story is entirely fiction. Distribute if you like.
"Couldn't be helped, Mal," Johnny Marsh said, grabbing the reins of a mare in his large, rough hands and leading it out of its stall.
"How figure?" Mal argued, trailing behind Marsh as he led the mare out of the stables to the corral. "The gorram stud didn't break into a hard gallop and jump to Xanthus!"
"Another ship came in two days ago," Marsh replied. "About the time you were supposed to. You were late. They were here. So I gave them the job."
"Alright," Mal said. "First, I'm not late. I said I'd be here in four days, all conditions permitting. Conditions did not permit, due to no misstep or neglect on my part. I said I'd be here in six days on the outside, and that's today. I went a good bit out of my way to get here, just to hit orbit and hear that the deal's no good. So now I've got my crew beating the bush in town to scrape up cargo and passengers just to cover our fuel costs, and you're telling me that it's because you hired the first ren yi ship that came along to ferry your prize stallion to Xanthus!?"
"Will you calm yourself?" Marsh sighed, removing the bridle from the mare. "I wanted to use you. We go back, and you do good work. But with two thousand platinum coming from the sale of that stud, I couldn't afford to let sentiment and goodwill get in the way of opportunity and common sense."
Mal gritted his teeth, his eyes drifting past the wooden fence to Serenity, resting a hundred yards off in the field behind Marsh's ranch. Mal was quite aware that two-thousand platinum rode on the deal. His delivery fee would have been twenty percent. Even with the crew's shares taken out, it would still have meant months of expenses covered. An empty fuel tank doesn't care about a priceless laser pistol hidden behind the false panel on the engine room wall.
"Work that scarce?" Marsh asked.
"Getting by," Mal muttered.
"Look, Mal," Marsh said, releasing the mare and allowing her to wander freely. "I feel poorly about this. Your momma did me a kindness, taking me on as a hand back on Shadow, and I know you put in a good word for me back when I was running guns during the war. I've got an idea. There's another job. Now, I'm a little short of coin, what with the upfronts on the stud, but if you're willing to buy into the deal...."
"I don't pay for the privilege of working," Mal said.
"Will ya hear me out? I've got another horse, with a buyer lined up on Atreus. I'll let you have him for thirty platinum. The deal's for three hundred. It's in writing, straight off the Cortex, so by law they can't revoke for two weeks. You keep whatever you get, so that's two-seventy clear for you. No return trip, and this horse has all his papers. It's legal, so no risk that the Alliance is gonna be a problem. Easy money."
Mal scowled. "If it's such an easy job, why's the deal so favorable to me?"
"Because the stud I just shipped ain't legal," Marsh explained. "I got him on the sly. I ship another horse now, and the Alliance starts checking on every ship that's broken atmo here for the past month just to balance my books. I'm already damn near my limit on offworld livestock trades. The last thing I need is the Feds poking into my business with a hot pony on the move. The horse I'm offering you ain't worth smuggler's rates, and I can't sell him honest. Sounds like the perfect job for you."
"Fine," Mal said. "So if the point is to keep the job under wraps, how you figure I'm not gonna let on I have the horse if I got legal papers?"
"I know you, Mal," Marsh replied. "You'll stay out of the way of the Feds, whether on account of your disposition, past indiscretions, or just plain force of habit. You get in a tight spot, show the papers. Otherwise, just do what you do best."
Mal paused, then said:
"I'm gonna want a look at this horse, and see this offer."
"I can do the first right now," Marsh said, walking back to the stable. After a moment, he lead out a horse with a dark chestnut coat, and a narrow white blaze running down between its eyes.
"This one's a keeper," Marsh said. "I'd never let him go if I weren't getting out of the breeding business. No one's better than old Barney here at what he does."
"And what exactly would that be?" Inara inquired, approaching from the stable. Her left hand grasped the azure silk of her dress at her thigh, lifting the hem away from the dusty ground.
Mal turned toward Inara and asked:
"I thought you were staying on the ship?"
"I was," Inara replied. "But since we have yet again found ourselves on a planet with no potential clients for me to meet, I thought I might at least soak up some of the local color. I'm glad I did. You should really stick to geisha dolls, Mal. Horses require a certain expertise."
Inara turned toward the horse, reached out her hand, and traced her finger along the side of the horse's face.
"He's been kicked," Inara said. "More than once, and not just on the face. He's not hand shy, but who knows what other injuries he's suffered? Also, he's walleyed, and cow-hocked. He's too small for draft work, doesn't have the legs for riding, and since he's obviously of mixed breeding, he's of no use for stud."
Inara turned and stared at Mal, a look of smug satisfaction on her face, and said:
"You'd stand a better chance of making three hundred platinum if you offered to shi fei a mare yourself."
"Well, I'd expect you to be the expert on that," Mal replied, stepping forward and squinting at the side of the horse's face. "But I will admit, I did not take notice of the face. Yep, he's been kicked. But he's not hand shy. Not one bit."
"He ain't shy of nothin'," Marsh said.
"How many kicks?" Mal asked.
"More than his share," Marsh answered. "Which still ain't nothin' compared to the times he ain't been kicked."
"Really," Mal said, his mind racing. Thirty platinum was the whole supply fund, plus some of the emergency stash, but....
"Just about every mare I got ain't kicked him, one time or another," Marsh continued. "Half what I got saved is thanks to Barney here. The kicks happen. Not nearly as often for Barney, but kicks happen."
Marsh turned toward Inara and said:
"There's always kicks where women folk are concerned."
"I'm gonna want to see your ledgers," Mal said. "And have a look at that offer on Atreus. Make sure that it wasn't obtained by exaggeration or deceit. But if it all checks out, I just bought myself a horse."
"I'll go get the waves queued right now," Marsh said. He slyly nodded at Inara, and walked quickly toward the ranch house at the end of the corral.
Inara scowled at the horse, focusing on the minute scars on the animal's face.
"Mal, this creature is worthless," Inara said.
"For any conventional use, sure," Mal said. "But whatever book learning you got on horses must've skipped some of the more practical problems involved in making pretty little colts. An omission, I'll point out, that has an ironical element to it. Trust me, just about any stud farm between here and the Core would easily pay three hundred for him, providing they got three hundred to part with."
"Stud farm?" Inara said. "What use could a jiu shi like this be on a stud farm?"
"Well, don't that beat all," Mal said, gently patting the horse on the back. "Put the word out on the Cortex: Today Malcolm Reynolds gets to tell Inara a thing or two about sex."
Marsh stood at the front window of the ranch house, and pulled back the curtain just far enough so that he could see Mal and Inara talking outside. He then pulled a comm rod from his jacket pocket and extended the small speaker outward. When Marsh heard the low chirps that indicated a clear signal, he raised the comm to his ear and said:
"He bought it. Leave now, and you'll be ready when he gets to Atreus."