Title: Black Market Beagles
Author: babies stole my dingo (agilebrit)
Fandom: Firefly
Rating: PG
Length: Short story (a little over 2000 words)
Disclaimer: Joss Whedon is the genius behind these characters; I am but a lowly follower. I make no money from any of this, so please don't sue me.
Notes: Well, you know me and dogs. Wash's mention of Beagle smuggling spawned a plot bunny...
"Take us out of the world, Wash! We got us a job," Mal said, coming into the cockpit and slouching into the co-pilot's chair.

"Shiny." Wash flipped some switches and began his takeoff sequence, then noticed Mal's grouchy expression. "Um, Mal, you usually look happier when we have a job. Something about this one not settin' right with you?"

"Remember when we smuggled those cows? What was it you said about transporting something smaller next time?"

Wash frowned. "I think it was...black-market Beagles?"

Mal leaned his head back and closed his eyes as Serenity broke atmo. "Yeah. Beagles. Tell me, Wash...was that a notion out of your own head, or did you know something you ain't tellin' the rest of us?"

Wash stared incredulously. "We're smuggling Beagles? What on Earth-that-was for?"

"Seems some idiot decided he wanted a wild game hunting preserve for small predators. Wolves and bobcats and servals and such. Well, those things eat rabbits, so he imported a bunch of them. He assured the locals that nothin'd get through his fences, but I ain't seen a fence yet that'll keep a rabbit from going where it wants to go."

"So, some of the rabbits got out and started multiplying like...rabbits," Wash deduced.

"And now they're eatin' the grass that rightfully belongs to the cattle, and the ranchers are a bit hot under the collar about it. So Mr. Mighty Hunter, in an effort to smooth things over, is holding a bunny roundup. Using Beagles." Mal put his hand over his face. "Which are apparently bred for the job."

"Huh."

:-:

Kaylee looked like a kid at Christmas as the dogs came aboard, Mal noted sourly. Ten big crates, holding six Beagles apiece, took up a goodly portion of the hold, but food and water for all of them didn't use as much space as Mal'd thought it would. They were smallish dogs, he saw. Maybe they wouldn't be as much trouble as he'd feared.

Later that night, he changed his mind. Jamming his pillow over his head in a vain attempt to drown out a cacophony of howls, he muttered to himself and swore that never again would they carry live cargo. At least, not live cargo that made noise. He finally threw his pillow across the room in frustration and decided to head down to the hold to see what was what. He tugged a shirt on over his pajama bottoms and climbed, barefoot, out of his bunk.

He was nonplused to see River sitting cross-legged on the floor, surrounded by a half-dozen dogs. She'd apparently opened one of the crates, and two of the friendly little critters sat in her lap, while the other four snuggled up as close as they could get to her. As he was taking in this somewhat pleasant (he had to admit) sight, she lifted her head and howled toward the ceiling. Every single dog followed suit, not just the ones she had out.

"River! What the hell are you doing?" he asked after the chorus had died down.

"Baying," she said, as if it was the most natural thing in the world, like he was the crazy one for asking.

"Why?"

"They're hounds. It's what they do. They hunt their prey beneath the moon and stars and are as much a part of the night as the shadows thrown by firelight. Their song makes the forest come alive." She smiled fondly down at the Beagles.

"Well, that's right poetical, but it's three in the morning, and they're loud enough to wake the dead, for certain. Can you at least play with them when everyone's not tryin' to sleep?"

"It's not the same in the daytime. Then they're just dogs."

Mal's brain hurt. He could swear there was actual physical pain. River certainly saw the universe differently than any other person he'd ever encountered. Knowing that, however, was not getting him any closer to a good night's sleep. "River..."

"I understand." She rose gracefully to her feet and made a motion to the dogs. He blinked as they obediently jumped into their crate.

"Much obliged."

And this, Mal reflected, was just the first night. He had the feeling it was going to be a long four days.

:-:

Mal woke up to the sounds of a dogfight the next morning. "What has my idiot crew done now?" He threw some clothes on and raced down to the hold to find a furious Kaylee and a somewhat shamefaced Jayne holding onto a pair of Beagles. Even the dogs looked faintly embarrassed; the one Kaylee held had a red gash across its nose, while the ear of Jayne's dog was slit down the center and leaking blood all over the floor. Four others sat down in a semi-circle a little ways away, watching the proceedings with cocked heads.

"Someone wanna tell me why my valuable cargo is bleeding?"

Kaylee hugged her Beagle and glared at Jayne. "Go on, tell 'im."

"Well, I didn't mean nothin' by it. We was lettin' this bunch out for a little exercise, and I had some leftover protein from breakfast. I tossed it onto the floor, and next thing we knew, these two was goin' at one another somethin' fierce." The big man hung his head a bit. "They's such mild little things, I didn't think they'd fight."

"Do the instructions "Feed Separately" ring any kind of bell in that thick skull of yours?" Mal demanded.

"Well, they do now. Won't happen again." Jayne scratched his Beagle behind its uninjured ear, and it licked him on the chin. "Honest, Mal, I like dogs. I wouldn't make 'em fight on purpose."

Jayne seemed so uncharacteristically upset that Mal believed him. "Why'n't you take 'em up to sick bay and have the Doc have a look? They don't seem hurt too bad, but best not to take any chances."

:-:

"Top three percent of my class. What am I now? Nursemaid to a bunch of black-market Beagles," Simon mumbled, even as he carefully sprayed some tissue sealant over the wounded ear. "Keep an eye on him; make sure he doesn't shake his head too much for the next couple of hours. He'll split it right open again if he does."

"How'm I supposed to do that?" Jayne complained. "Keep it in my bunk whilst I clean my weapons there?"

"I thought you liked dogs?" Kaylee was still mad.

"I do. Doesn't mean I want fleas in my bed."

"They don't have fleas!" Kaylee kissed her dog on top of his head. "Did that nasty man just insult you, baby? He's one to talk about fleas..."

"Hey!"

Simon had had enough. "You two, out of my infirmary with those animals. And if they need medical help again, I'll go to them. Don't bring them in here, please."

"They're cleaner than some humans I could name," Kaylee said, shooting Jayne a nasty look.

"Get. Out," Simon said between his teeth.

"Oh, fine," she huffed. Still bickering, she and Jayne left.

"How much longer?" Simon asked the ceiling.

:-:

Taking care of sixty dogs was a lot of work. Between feeding, cleaning, and exercising them all, the crew that didn't have other things to do had their hands full. Even Zoe was press-ganged into helping, and it was she who noticed...

"Sir? Did you know this one's pregnant?"

"Preg--No! Taikong suoyou di xingqui dou sai jin wo de pigu! All I did was check to see if they had cold noses and health certs. Pregnant? You sure?"

"Yessir. And not only that, but from the way she's just sort of layin' there and panting, I'd say she's about ready to pop." The anxious mother looked up at Zoe with a pleading expression.

"Well--Make her stop!" Mal's face, Zoe noted with a snort of internal laughter, mirrored the dog's. She carefully made sure her own expression was blander than bland. Mal continued, "Bad enough having dogs on board. I don't want puppies too!"

Zoe couldn't help it; she laughed. "Sir, if it's her time, it's her time. Ain't nothing to a dog giving birth. I'm sure Simon can handle it, if need be. Most of the time, though, these things take care of themselves. Just give her some space. Maybe River'd like to hold her paw or something."

"Oh, sure, all we need is that fung luh girl thinking she's a veterinarian." Mal threw up his hands. "Zoe, next time I even consider taking a job like this, hit me over the head 'til the notion passes."

"Yessir."

They moved the dog into the lounge where it was quieter, and over the next few hours, everyone in the crew came in to see how the birthing was going. Kaylee contributed some clean rags for the mother dog to lie on. River, indeed, held her paw or rubbed her ears, which actually did seem to soothe her. Even Jayne stuck his head into the room every now and again to check on her, although he said the whole process was "unnatural." Inara and Book sat reading, glancing up on occasion to see how it was going. Only Simon stayed as far away as possible. "Nothing against dogs," he said before fleeing, "and call me if she needs help, but I have...other things to do."

A puppy popped out every forty-five minutes or so, and Mal seemed surprised that the dog knew exactly what to do. "See, sir? Nothin' to it," Zoe told him, leaning on Wash, who'd put the boat on autopilot and joined them. An hour and a half had passed with no further action, and five puppies nursed at the Beagle's belly.

"Oh, nothin' at all." Mal gestured around the room at his idle crew. "Other than the fact that my ship has come to a complete stop while we waited for a dog to give birth."

"We're not stopped, Mal," Wash assured him. "Still on schedule. Maybe even a little ahead."

"Good. Sooner we're shut of this, the better. Let me know if anything changes." Mal left the room and headed in the direction of the cockpit.

"He seems a little cranky," Wash observed.

Zoe's shoulders shook with silent laughter. "You think?"

:-:

"Cap'n?" Kaylee stuck her head into the cockpit.

"Oh, God, what have they done now?" Mal put his face in his hand. He'd been doing that a lot on this run.

Kaylee twisted her fingers together. "Oh, they're all fine. Mama dog's doin' really well, and the babies seem healthy. Anyway..." She trailed off awkwardly, then took a deep breath. "Canwekeepone?"

"Keep--?" Mal nearly came up out of the chair. "No! We're contracted to deliver them all, Kaylee, or had you forgotten that little detail?" He glared at her.

She shrank a little, but plowed ahead. "We're contracted to deliver sixty. We've got sixty-five now."

"We have to deliver all the adult dogs. You gonna take away a little baby puppy from that brand new mama? You know how much trouble a puppy that age is to raise up? And then it'd probably die anyway. Kaylee..." His expression softened, because she looked like she was about to cry. "This ain't no kind of life for a dog. Think about it. Hell, half the time we don't got enough to eat ourownselves. You want to add a Beagle to the crew? Really?"

She let out a big sigh. "I suppose not. But they sure is nice dogs."

Mal had to admit that was true. Other than the fight precipitated by Jayne's ill-advised attempt at giving them a treat, they were all quite friendly, both with the crew and each other. Facts was facts, though, and he was the Cap'n and had to make the hard-headed decisions. "Much as it pains me to deny you, little Kaylee, the answer's gonna have to be no."

She sighed. "All right."

Her shoulders were all slumped as she left. He wondered if he was going to have a mutiny on his hands when they delivered the dogs, 'cause didn't no one like it when Kaylee was sad.

"Liu kou shui de biaozi he houzi de erzi. Are we there yet?"

:-:

To Mal's utter relief, the rest of the trip went off without a hitch, as did the drop-off. For once, no one shot at them or tried to cheat them out of more than their share. He didn't think anything of it when he saw Zoe, Wash, Jayne, and Kaylee having a confab with their contact. It was a mite suspicious when they all shook hands, however, and Kaylee looked almost like she had when he'd given her that damn dress on Persephone. He stopped Zoe on her way back into the ship.

"Somethin' goin' on I need to know about? I already told Kaylee she couldn't keep one."

"And we would never overrule you, sir." Zoe's expression, as always, gave nothing away. That made him even more mistrustful. He'd gotten skilled at reading her over the years.

"And you have but-face, Zoe. So what's the 'but'?"

"Well, sir, the four of us chipped in and bought one anyway." She raised her hand to stop his imminent explosion. "It's to stay here until you either change your mind or she's in a position to keep it permanent."

He considered. "And she's happy with this arrangement?"

One corner of Zoe's mouth quirked. "Yessir. She considers it a good compromise."

"Well. Okay, then. Mighty fine." He found himself grinning. All told, it hadn't really been a bad job.

Maybe they could do it again sometime.

the end