Length: 25,000 words (in 5 chapters)
Summary: Mal and the gang stopover on Persephone to arrange a spot of honest smuggling - before the day's out, River's fixing up with Badger and half the crew need rescuing from Alliance custody.
Notes: Follows 'Reliance'; 2nd of 4 more-or-less self contained Firefly stories I'll be posting.
"What kind of a client invites his smugglers to dinner?" Wash asked, swinging back in his pilot's chair, a laugh in his voice.
"Oh, you remember Sir Warwick Harrow," Mal said, stepping back from the communicator as it fizzled to static. "Interesting sort of a fellow. Got us some cows eight months or so back, if you recall. Also got me a mighty fine collection of stab wounds last time we were arranging business." He folded his arms and leaned back against the lockers.
"Ah." Wash's chin lifted knowingly and he flicked a finger to point it at Mal. "Check. That one. The cows, I definitely remember."
"And the stab wounds."
"As if we could forget." Wash frowned. "So he's got, what, more cows for us? I thought after last time we weren't doing that any more."
"Sad to say, we need the money. We're still hurting from Icarus and our last job didn't begin to start covering. So. Back to some good old-fashioned crime for a while." Mal clapped his hands together and pushed off from the locker, galvanising himself to action. He flashed a tight smile. "Best find me my favourite date... can't wait to see her light up when I tell her she's an excuse to be wearing that cake of hers again. Hope you got a suit packed somewhere," he added, heading down the steps to the main part of the ship.
"Wait! Wha - ?"
Mal turned on the top step. "Man said 'bring the crew along'. Guess that means you and Zoe both get chance to show off your fancy table manners. Come on, Wash - compared to Kaylee and my own self, why, the two of you are positively cultured. Shouldn't be any great trial. And the food has to be better'n what we've been eating here these past weeks, you can't deny."
"Well, that's true," Wash allowed.
"See if Inara can't lend Zoe a slinky dress." Mal tossed the suggestion over his shoulder halfway down the steps.
Book, Jayne and Inara were in the dining area. "What's this I'm hearing about real food and Zoe wearin' a slinky dress?" Jayne asked - overeagerly - as he walked in.
"Got a client. Warwick Harrow. We know him - "
Jayne was nodding already. "Fellow with the cows. Thought we wasn't doing them again?"
"Well, we are," Mal emphasized, annoyed. "Man's a good client and we can use the money. Just have to get used to the place smelling a mite fresh for a few weeks, is all."
Inara wrinkled her nose. "And the talk of fine food and dresses? You'll forgive me if that makes me start feeling concerned, in light of what happened last time. The last thing I want from this stopover is to be helping you back to Serenity while you're bleeding all over me again."
"Absolutely no swordfights," Mal promised. "Just a quiet dinner 'tween friends and partners in crime and misdemeanours."
Inara practically choked on a sip of her drink as she caught up. "Sir Warwick Harrow invited you to dinner?" she asked with a substantial amount of plain disbelief.
"And why not?" he challenged. "Got along plenty well enough in the past. Business partners, you might say." He hooked his thumbs in his suspender straps and smirked at her. "Oh, I can well imagine what you might say, Inara, 'bout him being some lofty Lord and ourselves mere lowly 'petty crooks', but... man's got a job for us. Told us he'd iron out all the fine details over dinner. Tonight. Guess that's just the way his kind of gent is used to doing business." The ship wobbled slightly as she entered atmosphere and Mal looked up out of the small windows in the ceiling at the colour of the sky. "Believe it's in the region of four in the afternoon right now, so there'll be a bit of space lag. No matter."
"I'll get myself ready," Jayne said, rising eagerly.
Mal stared him down, eyebrows raised. "You'll be staying right here."
Jayne made a long noise of disappointment in the back of his throat. "That ain't fair, Mal."
"Since when was 'fair' ever an issue on my boat? Harrow might've said to bring the crew but I ain't stupid and I'm reckoning what we got here is more'n he's figuring to contend with. Seeing as how we've to do business with the fellow, I'm taking those crew technically qualify as crew and can manage rudimentary table manners - and don't look at me like that. Folks who're spoilin' to get taken out someplace nice public shouldn't ought to be those exercising their body's less savoury functions around the mealtable on a regular basis."
Book, behind the counter in the background, suppressed a laugh. Jayne sulked, slumping back down in his chair to another mumble of, "Ain't fair."
Mal turned to Inara. Corner of her mouth had turned up, amused. "Inara, I - "
"I have a client," she said quickly.
"Well. That's nice for all of us, then. Whole lot of us making some profit out of this trip dirtside. Exactly what I like to see. Long as it ain't our old friend Ath, leastways. But as I was about to say, if you can spare the time 'fore you leave to get Miss Kaylee and our first mate spruced up and decked out fine..." He frowned, breaking off, and studied her face closely while he asked, "It's not Atherton, is it?"
"Mal... Since, thanks to your intervention, Atherton Wing threatened to mutilate me if he ever saw me again, I'd consider it unlikely I'll be accepting any proposals to spend intimate time with the man for the near future."
"Uh." Mal drew his chin up and jerked it in somewhat of a nod, trying to exude 'satisfied'. "Good. That'd be all right then... So who is your client?"
"It's private," she stressed.
"Right." Awkwardly, he looked round 'til he remembered something he ought do and focused his attention on Book. "Shepherd, I'm afraid..."
"That's quite all right," the preacher reassured with a smile. "I know I don't really qualify as one of your crew."
Mal grunted. "Need you here to stop Simon and Jayne killing each other. Reckon you can pull it off?"
"Mal..." Jayne grumbled.
"Might take more than a few prayers," Book allowed, throwing Jayne a conciliatory look that soothed the merc's pride. "We'll all be fine," he concluded. "But... if I had your past record with the society of this planet, captain? I'd be worrying about my own skin."
"Sure you're gonna stay in that thing, 'little' Kaylee?" Jayne asked, with a laugh that could definitely be described as 'lascivious'.
She punched him on the arm. "Hey! Ain't my fault the other one got ruined. This is... it looks okay." Her eyes beseeched Inara for backup.
"You look adorable," the companion said, glaring at Jayne.
"What... happened to the other one?" Simon dared to ask. He felt, as always, removed from the preparations taking place around him. Those who were going to dinner were readying themselves to leave; the captain in a dinner jacket and a vest that were by now looking rather tired, bloodstains and some careful mending still visible upon close inspection; Kaylee squeezed into one of Inara's old dresses, which strained to accommodate her curves.
Kaylee pulled a sad face. "Poor thing got caught when a circuit board I was working on sparked off. Looks fine all hung up there in my room, but it's got these burnt brown speckles up one side you don't see - no good anymore for wearing. Still, it ain't like it's an easy thing to sit down in anyway." She smoothed her hand down the gold fabric. It had red trimmings so dark they were almost a rusty brown. She looked pretty. And... 'voluptuous', Simon decided, was probably the word.
"Just... don't breathe out too hard," Inara advised, wincing slightly. "And try not to eat too much."
"Futile words if ever I did hear any," Mal commented, and softened his own words with a flash of a broad smile.
"You'll be fine," Book said.
Simon took a breath. "You look very nice," he told her. It probably came out somewhat... 'stiffly', as she'd say.
"Thank you, Simon." She rewarded him with a grin, and looked at Mal with intent. "Can't he come? He's got the right get-up if any of us do."
The puppy-dog eyes were a formidable weapon in Kaylee's arsenal, but somehow the captain resisted. "Can't leave the boat on Persephone. Him and his sister both. You know that. Law here knows of them too well."
"It ain't fair."
"I hear that word again tonight and there won't be nobody going to any fancy dinners." Mal settled his gaze on Simon more with an air of rote as he said, "No leaving the ship." Of course, the captain understood that the last thing he'd want was to increase River's danger of recapture.
Thinking of her was all the reminder his brain needed to focus on her whereabouts; instinct by now long ingrained. She was standing by Kaylee, the expression on her face intent as she looked down. As he watched, River reached out and touched her fingertips to Kaylee's gold dress - so lightly Kaylee didn't even notice - and frowned down at her own, which was somebody's discard and sagged in the places it was too big, as though she was remembering when fine clothes had been the stuff of everyday. They had nothing of hers anymore, all left at home or at the Academy. He'd brought her out naked in a box. With all that had been going on with her otherwise, it was the first time it really occurred to him that might sadden her.
Simon edged forward quickly, caught her hand and squeezed it, and he pulled her back so she wasn't crowding Kaylee quite so much. "Next time we have money," he promised.
"It's only a skin," River said dourly, frowning at him, her eyes half-hidden by lowered lashes. "You can shed it. Holds you together... shapes and fits."
He wasn't sure if that observation meant she didn't want a new dress.
"You know, you're right," Mal observed, who Simon hadn't even realised was paying attention to the exchange. "Girl needs clothes bad. Make sure we see to it, next amenable planet she's okay to leave the boat."
"Y-yes. Thank you."
Wash and Zoe chose that moment to make their entrance, hand in hand down the steps. Mal's jaw worked a moment before he accused, "You've been holding out on us."
The two of them looked the part far more than Mal or Kaylee. It seemed that at some point in their travels they'd picked up well-tailored clothes that could have been made for just such an occasion; Wash in a suit that flattered his build, Zoe in a long green dress that clung to her figure and was simply astonishing, on a woman Simon was used to seeing in work clothes stained with sweat and dust.
Still, it was Kaylee in ill-fitting gold that his eyes returned to. He even found himself resenting Mal the opportunity to wear her on his arm.
"Where'd you get the threads," Jayne asked Zoe, after he'd finished picking his jaw up off the floor.
"Wouldn't you like to know."
"Well... yeah." His eyes narrowed on Wash.
"My husband don't bend under pressure." Zoe's elbow dug into his side.
Wash shifted and announced, robotically, "I will never talk. There isn't anything you can threaten me with that rivals what will happen if I do."
"See?" Zoe said.
River dragged her hand from Simon's and walked away, making almost a dance of ascending the steps to the rhythm of a slow, invisible tune - and he hesitated, torn between following her and staying around to see the dinner-goers off. So he missed whatever it was that Jayne said next, only turned around in the midst of everyone laughing with, as usual, little idea as to the nature of the joke.
"Time to go," said the captain, clapping his hands and rubbing them together. "Wouldn't want to keep a bona-fide lord waiting, now, would we?"
"Take care, captain," Book said, mischief in his eyes, and Inara opened her mouth to add to that.
Mal said, "When are you people gonna let that drop?" He held out his arm to Kaylee, who surreptitiously checked out his rear profile, scrunched up her mouth in thought a moment, then nodded approval before she accepted, all of which went entirely over the captain's head due to the fact he was still glaring at Inara. "I'm letting this one defend her own honour if it turns out she needs to. Such as it is." His smirk disappeared into a half-laugh, half-gasp as she vengefully prodded him in the ribs.
"Just don't come back full of holes, and we'll be happy," Inara said dryly.
Simon looked around vaguely, feeling an expectation he say something and having, as usual, little to contribute. "Good luck with the business deal," he settled on.
Mal laid out a grateful open palm toward him in a 'see?' gesture. "Least someone cares to take seriously the key point behind all this inanity."
Wash and Zoe hung decoratively onto each other, an air of excitement creeping through despite the compulsory nature of the occasion. Jayne had remembered that he was sulking, and applied himself to it again with determination, but Simon joined Book and Inara in seeing the party off as they headed down the ramp.
Kaylee swung on Mal's arm like he was a piece of street furniture, inclining herself backward to wave coquettishly to Simon as she was all but hauled away.
"Ain't it keen?" Kaylee said excitedly, practically bouncing in her seat. "Little thing's half spaceship and half ground car. I ain't never been in one before, but I read up on them on the cortex." She leaned forward and tapped the chauffeur on the shoulder. "Say, how high've you taken this sweetie? I hear they can't break atmo, but with a couple modifications you can near skim the upper atmosphere."
"Kaylee." Mal caught her shoulders and drew her back to her seat with a muted laugh. "Let the man do his job. I ain't too keen on finding out how these things feel hitting the dirt."
Wash, not completely without interest himself, held his wife's hand in his lap and said to no-one in particular, "Looks to have a decent manoeuvrability to her," and subsided, aware of Zoe rolling her eyes in his peripheral vision.
"Persephone looks real pretty from up here," she said, with a certain determination. "You don't get to see all this coming in the landing paths over the docks."
"Man must have some money to afford the flight permit," Wash agreed. "Most folks'd buy something like this and never fly it more than ground- or low-level. Overpopulated rock like Persephone doesn't much like crowding its skies. Permit costs more than the neat little ship." And he was aware of Zoe rolling her eyes again, and shooting them imploringly over his head and Kaylee's to the captain.
Mal remarked, "I'm getting to thinking that maybe Jayne wouldn't have prettied up so bad after all as a date. 'Course, he wouldn't have fit into any of Inara's frocks..."
"I know you don't mean that, cap'n," Kaylee said sweetly, standing up in her seat - making the whole mini-ship wobble in the air - to plant a kiss on his brow.
"Kaylee - " They all spoke in unison, and the transport wobbled again as everyone reached across the pull her back down.
"All of you behave," Mal said. "Wouldn't be much of a thanks to Harrow for having us chauffeured from the docks, now, if we crashed his dinky hovering toy car."
Which did the trick well enough, even if it perhaps didn't make a lifelong friend out of the chauffeur. The man offered with a certain sour inflection, "It may be of interest to you, sir, that we're coming in over Sir Warwick's estates now."
Wash leaned over Zoe to join her looking out the window. The ground below ceased abruptly to be the busy industrial clamour of Persephone's main spacefaring metropolis, ceding to an expanse of green at the line of a high wall that became clearer as they lost height. Fields dotted with livestock - speckled cattle, the fluffy white blobs of sheep, and a few distant brown smears that might be horses. An avenue of trees led inwards to the main house, and close by, a flat grey area that could only be a landing pad.
"Wow," Kaylee said. "That's a whole big chunk of prime land cut out the middle of the city. I've even walked down that street there, and never knew all this was just over the wall..." She smiled up at Mal. "Few more weeks of cows is looking more shiny all the time. Ain't that right, cap'n?"
"I got no objection to cattle." Mal was staring back in the direction of the wall as they came in to land. "Mighty big wall. I'm thinking this place has itself some major security and defences, too." Wash turned to him a puzzled look. He was sounding, of all things, nervous.
Kaylee also caught it. "Oh, but Sir Warwick's one of our favourite customers, right? Apart from you getting stabbed last time, I mean. Got nothing to be worrying 'bout stuff like security for."
"Captain's just allergic to the smell of this much money," Zoe observed. "It'll pass. Let the fine beverages come out, and it'll pass real quick."
Wash joined in the laughter, though it did strike him - just a little, at the back of his mind - that it wasn't often all of them got this high on life without getting kicked in the tail, state of their luck. "There's the man himself," he said, pointing out to the edge of the landing pad as the engine's soft purr died to silence, recognising mainly the red sash from the second-hand descriptions. The man himself was squat and maybe a bit sour looking, and didn't seem too much like a fancy lord.
Mal figured out how to unlock the hatch that swung up the whole of the roof from the inside, confounding the chauffeur just as he was coming around, and jumped down oblivious to the set of steps that hadn't yet been set in place. Wash suppressed a smile. The captain was a fish out of water in these environs if ever there was one. Still, he made a graceful enough show of picking up and lifting Kaylee down after him, leaving Wash and Zoe to wait patiently for the chauffeur and the steps while he strode out toward the squat man wearing the sash.
Who in turn approached to meet him half-way, where their hands clasped easily in greeting. So... maybe the captain wasn't doing so badly after all.
"Captain Reynolds." The sour man cracked a smile that had a lot of cunning but a measure of warmth, and Wash squinted, surprised by what he was seeing, detecting a certain likeness of spirit between the two men.
"Sir Warwick." Mal even managed to tip his head slightly in a deferential greeting without a note of rebellion. "How're you doing? Sure is a fine place you got here... and mighty good of you to invite all of us over, too, might I say... My engineer Kaylee here, you've already met..." He set his hands on her shoulders, presenting her, then turned and beckoned Zoe and Wash closer. "This here's my first mate, Zoe." Harrow took her hand and bowed deeply to kiss it, thus proving the powerful innate magic of the Green Slinky Dress, picked up in the more profitable times just after the raid on Ariel and saved for nights in out of sight of the rest of the crew, and most particularly out of sight of Jayne. "And my pilot Wash."
Wash inclined his head awkwardly, darting a worried glance sideways to Zoe, where she stroked her fingers over the hand that had been kissed, a flattered smile on her face. And... yes, he couldn't help but feel the Green Slinky Dress had powers too dangerous and potent to be loosed on the unsuspecting world at large. He'd been dead set against it, he would say, if it came to violence. He'd all but begged her to borrow something from Inara instead.
"Now we're all introduced," Harrow said, with a slightly arch, gruff amusement Wash suspected was a permanent part of his persona, "Let me show you inside. Everything's ready and waiting."
"Lead on," said Mal, with an easy grin.
It wasn't the noise. Really, that was too dull to hear until right up close. It was the vibration, like the noise was reverberating right the way around Serenity's hull and making the air buzz inside his eardrums. Jayne scowled at the door, listening to the faint hammering and pondering on the situation for all of a minute 'fore he yanked it back, sidestepped, brought his hand down on a descending arm, tugged and threw, and slammed the door back closed again. He leaned on it and glowered down at Badger, while outside Badger's flunkies started hammering with fists and gun butts and other things somewhat less effective 'gainst Serenity's tough skin even than the wrench. Speaking of which...
Jayne took a couple of steps to bring his foot down on the item in question before Badger could reach it. "Now, this here's an interesting situation," he observed.
Badger looked up and pulled a quick face, then collected himself, picked up that self from the floor and brushed it down; took off his hat to straighten it out and then jammed it back onto his head as he stood straight. He set his jaw and faced off against Jayne as though he was about a foot taller, not to mention wider, than the skinny rat-bastard he was. "Want to speak to that captain of yours. Ah-ah - you're going to tell me he ain't here. Know how I know that?" He tapped the side of his head with an index finger. "'Cause Badger knows when his so-called business colleagues have been going behind his back, that's how."
"Huh," Jayne grunted, rolling his head to one side.
Badger's expression turned mighty sour. "Warwick Harrow," he snapped. "That's my deal. I set it up, didn't I? Arranged the introductions. Now your Captain Reynolds is trying to cut me out. I hear things, see? Got contacts. I know he's set up some meeting with Harrow himself, to which I ain't invited."
"You ain't the only one." Jayne snorted, drew back his leg and kicked the wrench into a corner, out of sight among a mess of crates. It was echoed by another crash quick after, and he frowned uneasily at the door.
"Oh, and that - " Badger turned aside and flipped his hat a few times in the air. Nonchalantly. "Suggest you let my people in before they start trying to blast down that door."
Weighing how pissed Mal would be about Badger's people getting themselves cosy on board his ship again against yet more bodywork repairs pulled up a clear winner. Jayne snorted but hauled open the door. A couple of scruffy henchmen fell through.
"That's grand." The hat stopped its dance in the air, retreating to his head accompanied by a satisfied nod. "Now we can talk civil. Where's that pretty first mate?"
"She ain't here, neither. I'm in rutting charge. You got a piece to speak, speak it to me."
"Fine." A mocking challenge to the word. "So why don't you tell me how it is that your captain's trying to cut me out of this perfectly smooth deal we got going with Harrow?"
Jayne shrugged. "I dunno. Ain't like he ever tells any of us anything anyway."
Badger rolled his eyes. "What gorram use are you, then?"
"Generally, I kills things." He flexed his arm with a smirk, ignoring the flunkies' guns as they levelled. "Cap'n won't be back 'til late. Got a dinner date. Took those as had rutting table manners." He smiled, showing his teeth. "Y'can wait if that's what you want. Sure Mal's just itching to have that chat with you, anyhow."
A laugh bubbled down from somewhere overhead. Jayne turned sharply and looked up to see River sitting on the top steps leading down from the near walkway, her knees bent up, the oversize dress stretched tight over them, with its end flopping down long past her feet.
"Just what you think you're laughing at?"
The girl said earnestly, "Don't worry. You wouldn't get the joke."
Which apparently made it Badger's cue to laugh. Fellow was looking all sorts of interested in River. As she turned her eyes to his and curled her lips into a smile, his laugh dried up and he pulled off his hat, fingers squeezing around its brim, crushing it against his chest as he gave an awkward little bow. "Remember you, girly," he said, sounding hoarse all of a sudden. "Didn't expect to be seeing you again. Thought you was just a passenger on this wreck."
"We're all passengers," River said with something of a wicked gleam. Her accent had changed to match his, and Jayne remembered last time. An odd thing, but then they hadn't known the half of what they did now, 'bout what the government had made her capable of. "Just there's some as knows it better than others. Some knows what journey they're on and some don't. I'm thinking I know which you be." She leaned her head forward keenly and winked.
"Oh, no." Badger had got himself one hell of a nervous stammer there. "Won't catch me out like that this time. I know you ain't from the Colony."
"You don't know where I'm from, though," she said, in her own voice. "You don't know which is real, or... you can't be sure." She stood, flattening out her dress with tugs of fists clawed tight, and it seemed as though Badger wasn't the only one harbouring a little tension. She slowly made her way down the steps, that smile furtively creeping around the edge of her expression, manifesting in odd glimpses and flashes.
"Uh-uh," Jayne muttered under his breath. "Ruttin' crazy girl..." Where was the useless gorram doctor when ever he was needed to keep his insane sib in check? Hell, where was the gorram preacher? Far as he was concerned, only one he didn't want to have here dealing with this situation was Jayne Cobb.
"Pleasure to meet you," River said in Badger's accent, holding out her hand.
Badger didn't seem to know what to do with his hat. Fumbling, he stuck it on his head. When he took River's hand and leaned down to touch his lips to it, he had to clutch at the hat to stop it tumbling right off. Embarrassed, he straightened, smiled determinedly, hand still holding his hat in place, 'parently forgotten in the moment. "A pleasure." Jayne snorted and got a sideways glare for his trouble. "A real pleasure, miss."
River was still staring quizzically at her hand. She lifted it up and examined it at all angles in the light. When she brought it down again, it was to reach for Badger. Jayne winced and could only watch out of one eye, wishing he'd closed both, as the crazy girl returned the favour. "Awww... she's gonna have to disinfect that mouth somethin' diabolical," he groaned.
"Will you shut up?" Badger swung around on him. "We're having us a moment here." He turned back to River, who had her hand to her lips - hell, maybe the girl was gonna puke. Jayne backed off a way. "What's your name, love?"
"Wouldn't you like to know," she responded, conspiratorial.
He chuckled. "Woman of mystery, eh?"
"A few." She was speaking normal again. Badger was pretty lucky to have caught her on a less-crazy day. 'Course, if she was screaming, throwing things and cutting folks up, it might put paid to a few of those sexual fantasies. Or maybe not. Never could be sure what was gonna float a fellow's boat.
"Well, they call me Badger." The man pointed at himself. "Not my real name, 'course. There's not so many as knows that. But I'll tell you what - anytime you want to share yours, I'll start considerin' showing mine." He grinned.
"Think I'm coming all over tearful, the two of you findin' each other has moved me so," Jayne sneered. "Hell, she's stark crazy, you're a ruttin' lowlife snake... prob'ly a match made in Heaven."
"I told you to quit butting in," Badger began irritably, then seemed to notice his men still hanging around getting the whole show, and pulled on his lapels with a sudden rush to reclaim his businesslike air, such as it was. He tipped his head to River and said to Jayne, "Your captain's over at Harrow's right now, is he?"
Getting rid of the fellow and packing the crazy girl back off to her brother to be decontaminated seemed a hella good idea to Jayne right them. "That's right."
Badger nodded. "Good. Then I'm thinking we'll go join them. Since we're all of us here those who've been unfairly left out of proceedings." He looked around them all and smiled smugly.
"Join them?" Jayne started to ask. And: "...'We'?"
"That would be the pronoun I used." His jerked his head and the flunkies levelled their guns. Jayne thought about the nearest gun, which happened to be in his boot, and didn't reach for it.
"Sure. Fine by me. Hell, I wanted to go to begin with." He eyed between Badger and the flunkies and River, and said to the latter, "You - get," pointing back up the stairs. "Go pester your gorram brother."
"Oh, no..." The hand that patted his shoulder almost earned itself a handful of broken fingers 'fore the flunkies came to attention again. "What you're not getting here - when I say 'we', I'm thinking the lady deserves an escort to a fine dinner much as any of us." He let go of Jayne's shoulder to hold out his arm for River.
Jayne held his breath, waiting on River doing something crazy, or at the very least telling the man where to get off, and maybe if they were real lucky combining the two and stabbing him through the eye with the nearest sharp instrument. 'Stead, the girl just asked, "We're going to the party?"
Badger's smug smile near split his face in two. "Yes, we are."
Damn crazy girl took his arm and accepted his escort cool as could be.