Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction based on the Firefly 'verse created by Joss Whedon. No copyright infringement is intended; this is purely for fun and entertainment. Only the plot and a few minor characters and locales are from my own imagination.

Rating: PG-13

Spoilers: This story is set pre-series, but after the crew as we know it has all come together (with the obvious exception of Book, Simon and River). There are a few details that refer to series episodes (such as "Out of Gas"), as well as a very vague reference to Serenity, the movie. (Nothing overly spoilery.)

Pairing(s): Wash/Zoë

Author's Notes: This fic was written for the Zoë/Wash ficathon at LiveJournal. (Big thanks to ninamonkey for the beta!)

The Chinese text was researched at The Firefly-Serenity Chinese Pinyinary and MandarinTools(dot)Com. I take full responsibility for any and all mistakes in construction and interpretation of the chosen words and phrases.

I was honored to write this story for the very talented thegranddewru who requested:
- banter
- humor
- sexy moments
- without resorting to potty humor and/or a sad, hopeless ending

I hope it's enjoyed!

Begin the Beguine

by Rummi

– n. a dance which reached the height of its popularity during the early twentieth century of Earth-That-Was, and originated from the Eastern Caribbean sector of the planet. It involved a slow, gradual, close movement between two partners, and has been compared by Earth-That-Was historians to the ancient rumba, which has often been dubbed the "love dance". . .

-- Universal Encyclopedia, 2512 ed. Excerpt

Chapter 1 – Movement the First

Hoban Washburne was no coward, and he resented the insinuation, thank you very much. Couldn't be a pilot in this 'verse and be a coward. Couldn't, especially, sit at the helm of the ship he'd currently been hired to steer and be a coward. That, in itself, was an exercise in daring.

Not that Serenity was a flying pile of feiwu; she wasn't. In fact, she was actually a right fine vessel, once a man got familiar with her inner workings and knew just how to coax her. Not since flight school had Wash met a metal lady whose sentiments he couldn't nudge his way. True, sometimes it seemed she was held together by nothing more than paperclips and the brilliant ingenuity of the pint-sized mechanic, but Wash could tell by the smooth way Serenity handled that she approved of little Kaylee's tinkerings. And so he did as well.

Most people would be surprised by the maneuverability a good pilot could get out of a Firefly-class transport; most people would not be brave enough to even try. Cowards certainly wouldn't. And Hoban Washburne was no coward.

Sure, he was less inclined to go charging into a situation, guns blazing, like some other members of the rather colorful crew he'd found himself partnered with over the last several months, but that didn't make him spineless. If anything, Wash sometimes wondered if he was the only voice of reason on the entire ship: The captain was sometimes a bit overeager to make good on certain jobs so long as it brought some coin onboard; little Kaylee, although sweet and good-natured, had a incurable sense of hero-worship for the man; Jayne, the merc, . . . well, he was just plain crazy . . . .

No, Wash was merely cautious. There was a big difference between caution and cowardice. He'd gotten accustomed to the fact that one often had to embrace a life of crime to get by on this ship, but that didn't mean that one had to be plain stupid about it. And walking into a situation that stood a real good chance of getting them all immediately pinched was just plain stupid.

Wash cast his gaze to the ceiling and prepared to do yet another thing that no cowardly man would dare – something even Jayne avoided on most days: He resumed his argument with the captain.

"Did you just roll your eyes at me?" Mal asked, his previous tirade turning into disbelieving spluttering. "Did he just roll his eyes at me?" Malcolm Reynolds turned to his first mate, at his elbow as always.

"I believe he succumbed to some sort of facial tic, yes, sir."

Zoë Alleyne. If ever Wash had to admit to being afeared of something or someone, her name would probably be somewhere on that list.

It wasn't that she was necessarily scary, but she was cold, she was severe, and she was beautiful. Plus, Wash guessed that somewhere along the line she had probably lost count of just how many men she had killed – probably without even having to try very hard.

And she was beautiful.

Normally, in Wash's presence, Zoë would just cross her arms and strike an irritated stance, shifting most of her weight onto one of her very long, very well-formed legs. It had been that way ever since he came onboard: She'd stare him down with that same stony expression – the kind that made his insides squirm and his pulse race and—

Did he mention that the woman was gorram beautiful?

And, yeah, maybe just a little scary.

Since Wash had signed on as Serenity's pilot, however, that same stony, disapproving expression that enthralled him also made him feel as though he was constantly doing something wrong. He had made it his mission, therefore, to get a genuine smile out of her. Just a small one to start; he was afraid that if he aimed for a hearty belly-laugh right off the bat, funny-man or not, he was just setting himself up for failure. But Serenity's pilot was nothing if not intrigued by a challenge. It was one way to keep himself occupied during the countless hours they spent in the black. Plus, Wash imagined Zoë would look positively breathtaking when she smiled.

He had learned early on that needling other members of the crew, especially the captain, was not the best way to go about earning said smile, but sometimes he couldn't seem to help himself.

Besides, this particular occasion genuinely required someone to play devil's advocate.

Wash cast an earnest, boyish look at the two individuals looming above his chair. "No, sir," he said, attempting to smooth over the captain's blustering by emphasizing Mal's title. "No eye-rolling."

"Then I see no problem," Mal replied. Some of his hostility evaporated into matter-of-factness. "We need this job. I say we're going, so we go."

As usual, no argument came from Zoë, so Wash took it upon himself to be contrary. "Mal," he said gently, resting an imploring hand, palm-up, on the arm of his chair, "I realize we need the money but—"

"You hit the nail on the head, Wash," Mal interrupted, spreading his hands open as though to display Wash's comment as a point for his own side. "We need coin. No amount of 'buts' is going to make that any less true. We got a wave about a job – and a fairly lucrative one at that. We're taking it."

"Never mind it's on a planet that has a warrant out for your arrest," Wash countered dryly.

Mal stared gruffly at Wash. "You keep bringing that up," he said. "And, granted, it's a hurdle, but it also don't make our need for payment any less dire. The sum this Elisha Thornton is willing to pay—"

"Can keep us in the sky for months," Wash parroted. "Yes, you've said." He stood up and pointed to one of the secondary monitors on Serenity's main console. "But I was doing the advanced stat-check for our approach to New Xian, and I came across this on the Cortex." He pointed to a fuzzy, outdated photo that bore the name Reynolds, Malcolm on an official local arrest warrant. "They've got you for trespass, larceny, false pretenses, assault, smuggling deadly weapons . . ."

"Deadly? Those were practically antiques! Wouldn't hold a cartridge if the chamber was welded shut, much less fire, " Mal protested. Then he turned to Zoë. "I still say if those hun dans at that munitions outpost had been a little more cooperative . . ."

"Probably didn't help that that the local law also trafficked there on a regular basis, sir," Zoë added dryly.

"Didn't know that at the time," Mal countered, a touch of genuine innocence in his voice. "Badger was less than forthcoming. We just had ruttin' bad timing."

"Still," Wash interjected, "we're taking a big gamble if you set foot on that planet, captain. According to this, it's only gone as far as the local law, and they haven't positively tied you to a particular ship yet, or to any other accomplices." He spared a quick glance for Zoë. "But if you get ID'd down there, and they link you to Serenity, this warrant will go broadwave. We're talking Alliance involvement, sir, and the significant chance that we'll all be humped as a result. I'm just of the mind that we should think about whether we want to risk—"

"You're the pilot," Mal broke in, his voice suddenly quiet and hostile. It sent a chill through Wash to hear. "And a damn good one; I got no dispute. But I hired you for one thing: to fly this boat. Shiny?"

Too taken aback by the razor-edge in the captain's voice, Wash said nothing.

"The minute I can't pay you for your services, you can opine all you want," Mal continued. "Which is likely to be sooner rather than later, we don't get this job. In the meantime, you keep your thoughts to yourself and do your job, dong ma?"

Wash was about to respond with a biting, less-than-respectful 'Aye-aye, captain,' when Zoë entered the conversation. "What, exactly, do we know about this Thornton, sir?" she asked, cool and businesslike.

Wash blinked. He was surprised by her sudden change of subject. For a moment, he chose to believe she had done it to save him from incurring Mal's wrath, had he ended the argument on the insolent note he'd been planning. More likely, however, she was simply tired of listening to the two of them.

Mal turned to his first mate, his anger almost instantly dissipating. If Wash had asked that very question, Mal probably would have thrown him over the console onto the deck below, but because it was Zoë . . .

Maybe the good captain found her just a little scary as well.

"Not much, aside from what I garnered from Badger before we left Persephone," Mal replied. "High-class aristocratic type. Has himself a reputation to uphold, as well as some cargo he wants to keep hush-hush. He's looking for discretion, and he's willing to pay a shiny sum for it."

"Any particular reason he wants to meet his would-be smuggler in the middle of a fancy party at his own home?" Zoë pressed. Wash could tell, regardless of her unyielding support of the captain, she had her own suspicions.

"Discretion," Mal reiterated. "If an upper-crust dandy is spotted in the shady sections of the local docks, society talks. Man greets guests at his own party–" He shrugged. "–nothing unusual about that. And the only juicy gossip society-at-large gets out of it is who is wearing clothes from last season."

Zoë nodded. Wash swore she seemed unconvinced, almost like a flickering crack in her compliant exterior, but she didn't say any more on the topic.

So Wash took the opportunity to do so. "I still say that if your name gets circulated around that party somehow, society is going to have a bit more to chew on than last year's fashions."

Mal turned to glare at the pilot. "And I still say, you stick to your job; let me worry about mine." He turned and marched toward the bridge door, barking one final order over his shoulder as he went. "Hold course for New Xian."

"Yes, sir," Wash muttered as he sank back down into his seat. His brain was buzzing with frustration. There had to be other jobs they could do – ones that may not be as profitable, true, but also ones that didn't run the risk of introducing them all to the inside of an Alliance prison. How he had gotten himself hired to the crew of a man who didn't listen to good sense when it was practically boxing him in the ears, Wash had no idea.

Well, that wasn't entirely true.

Wash released the autopilot and unlocked the controls, swiveling them into an upright position. Serenity really was a fine vessel. Having the chance to operate her was reason enough.

And, of course, there was the other reason.

Wash turned when he felt a presence lingering at his back. He'd forgotten that Zoë had not followed Mal off the bridge.

She stared down at him – still with that stony, disapproving expression Wash had come to know so well, but there was something else now too: There was a hint of the same frustration that Wash was feeling behind her eyes; it was subtle, but it was there.

"We need the money," she said. "No denying that."

He nodded. For some reason, all the blustering that the captain was able to dish out couldn't make Wash feel as guilty as a quiet scolding from Zoë. "I know," he replied.

Zoë stared out the cockpit window for a few moments, then turned back to Wash. "I'll talk to him, all right?" she said. "In the meantime, hold course and keep your bullheaded thoughts to yourself."

She turned and walked swiftly out, her boots tapping a rhythmic staccato on the metal grating of the fore passage as she left. Wash felt a small smile tug at one corner of his mouth. It wasn't every day that Zoë disagreed with the captain. It was rarer still that she would take Wash's side when he and Mal butted heads over a prospective destination. The notion caused his grin to spread. It was still his goal to make her smile, but the other way around felt pretty gorram good too.

Wash snapped back to reality when the sequence alarm began to sound, warning him that he had been drifting. He instantly remembered that he was no longer on autopilot and spun back to the controls, guiding the ship back on course to New Xian.

The next morning, Wash detoured toward the galley before heading to the bridge. They were still another day and a half from New Xian, but, barring any unforeseen delays, Serenity would reach atmo with plenty of time to spare. Most days, Wash checked the heading before going to the dining area to get himself some coffee. This morning, because he was still feeling slightly annoyed and spiteful, he worked in reverse.

Touché, Captain Blowhard. Take that!

As he entered the galley, Wash noticed that most of the crew was already there, going about their morning routine, and trying to act as though they were not listening to the discussion currently being held between Mal and Zoë in the attached common area. From the sound of it, they'd been at it for quite a while.

"I don't get it," Mal said exasperatedly. "You sayin' I should turn it down? Is that it? You know we're very nearly running on empty out here, Zoë. And we're losing most of what we do have on the burn to New Xian alone." Mal made a futile attempt to keep his voice low, even though his words didn't have far to travel to reach curious ears.

Wash turned his back to them and casually rummaged through the cupboards for a mug, all the while keeping his ears pricked to the conversation. When he found a cup he picked up the pot of coffee. It looked as though only the dregs were left and it smelled like tar – which meant that Jayne had probably brewed this morning – but it was better than nothing, so Wash emptied the remains into his mug and took a sip.

Yep, definitely Jayne's. His nose wrinkled automatically.

"I don't disagree, sir," Zoë replied. Her manner was calm and rational. "The offer's too good to outright refuse. I only suggested that you let someone else handle the run."

"And I said it ain't happening," Mal countered. "So why are we still having this conversation?"

"Because it may be the only way to ensure that we actually get the job," Zoë said. "You said yourself that Thornton is looking for discretion. Meaning no disrespect, captain, but how willing do you think he'll be to hand over his cargo when he learns his new employee has got a rather conspicuous profile with the local law enforcement?"

Mal was reluctantly quiet at that. Wash could tell he wanted to say something, but that he couldn't argue with Zoë's simple logic. He placed his hands on his hips and shook his head. "What, exactly, do you suggest?"

"Thornton sent word out for us," Zoë replied. "Along with an open invite to his party tomorrow night. Which means he'll be expecting us to send representation. There'll be straightforward contact, minor negotiation and minimum hassle. We might want to think about sending someone who'd blend a bit better into that type of setting."

Mal blinked incredulously at her. "If you're suggesting Inara, the answer is no."

"She's a companion, sir. She'd know how to handle herself; they're her kind of folk."

"I said no," Mal insisted. "For one: our business has nothing to do with her. No need to sully her good name by directly involving her in a smuggling negotiation – especially if that negotiation is with, as you said, her kind. Word gets around in high society; it could come back to haunt her, and I won't have that."

"Sir, I just think—"

"And secondly," Mal interrupted, "fancy parties ain't exactly the kinds of functions a high-class whore would attend alone."

"Hey!" groused Kaylee, breaking the façade of 'not listening' the other crew members had attempted to convey.

Mal shot them a stern look. Kaylee, Wash and Jayne immediately turned back to what they had been doing.

Heaving a heavy sigh, Zoë addressed Mal again. "I wasn't suggesting Inara go in alone," she said. "Or anyone, for that matter."

"Well, we're at a bit of a loss in terms of escorts, Zoë," Mal countered. "We've already ruled out myself as a possibility, seeing as how you seem convinced I should keep my distance from this very worthwhile job. And I know you can't mean Jayne, because that would just put an end to negotiations right fast."

As if to solidify Mal's point, Jayne chose that exact moment to noisily spit-shine his favorite knife.

Mal shook his head, his eyes rolling toward the ceiling.

"Sir," Zoë said, "shouldn't we at least ask her? She might be willing to help."

"The decision's made," Mal replied definitively. "Our arrangement with Inara is a mutually beneficial one. All that ends the moment we start dragging her into our business. I have no intention of doing that." He pointed his finger at his first mate. "There's only one way to go about this: If there's negotiating to be done and I can't be there, it's got to be you."

Wash swore he could see Zoë's eyes widen from across the room. For the first time since he met her, she looked genuinely stunned. "Me, sir?" she asked Mal. "You're not serious."

"As serious as I get," Mal answered. "Can't trust no one else to take point on this one if we want things to go right. We need this job." He moved past her and began walking toward the main room of the kitchen.

"I-I realize that, sir," Zoë stammered, quite uncharacteristically. She stepped quickly to intercept Mal and positioned herself in front of his path. "I do. But I'd be lying if I said I was completely comfortable with this."

Wash found himself unconsciously moving out of the pantry area of the galley, listening more intently to the conversation between the captain and the first mate. If he'd taken the time to look around him, he would have noticed that the other members of the crew were doing the same. Everyone's attention was securely fastened to Mal and Zoë.

"Faced plenty of uncomfortable situations before," Mal reminded her. "This one won't be much different."

"I'd say there's a world of different, sir," Zoë maintained. "Bit more ornate than I'm used to, for starters."

"Isn't nothing I wouldn't have had to do in your place," Mal asserted. "You were the one who insisted that someone else take this run. And while I grudgingly admit you have a decent point, the fact remains that someone has to go or we lose this job. I'm sorry if that someone has to be you. But don't worry; you won't have to go in alone."

"Sir . . . ," Zoë began, though she tapered off in an oddly defeated manner. It sounded alien coming from someone who normally exuded such utter confidence. "A fancy party?" she added. "I got nothing against dressing up, captain, but it don't leave me many places to put my gun."

"I'd help you find a spot," Jayne interjected from the kitchen table, smirking lewdly over his knife.

Zoë glared over her shoulder with a disgusted look, then turned back to Mal, who couldn't stifle a grin.

"If all goes as smoothly as it should, you won't need one," he answered.

"Ain't no way he's coming with me," she said, jamming her thumb back in Jayne's direction. "I'd sooner you dressed a gorram monkey in a tux for my escort."

Mal pursed his lips for a moment, then his eyes met Wash's directly over Zoë's shoulder. "Done," he said.

"What?" Wash blurted. His mug of coffee nearly slipped from his fingers.

Kaylee gasped audibly in delight.

"You heard me, Wash," Mal announced. "Seeing as how this whole predicament is your fault, you get to fix it by escorting my negotiator to the job."

"But . . . ," Wash spluttered. "But I . . . . Gaoyang zhong de guying, Mal! How did I end up getting blamed for this? If I recall, I was the one saying we shouldn't even go in the first place!"

"Exactly," Mal said as he stepped past Zoë to stand toe-to-toe with Wash. "And for a job that should have been fairly cut-and-dry from the start, things have gotten a hell of a lot more complicated than they need to be. Besides, given the choices, you seem to be the only man for the job. Am I wrong?"

"No, sir, but—"

"Then it's settled," Mal announced, stepping past Wash toward the galley door. "You said we'll reach New Xian by tomorrow afternoon, local time?"

"Yeah," Wash replied. He spun to face Mal as the captain retreated from the room.

"Perfect. That will leave us just enough time to make the two of you presentable for tomorrow evening's festivities. And, Wash?"

"Yeah, Mal?"

"We lose this job, I'm taking the pound of flesh out of your next cut."

Wash stared wide-eyed at the empty doorway that the captain had left behind. In that moment he absolutely knew he didn't want to turn around. Jayne was snickering from the table, and Kaylee was acting completely overjoyed, but there was one other crew member in the galley whose stony silence echoed far more loudly than any of the other goings-on.

Reluctantly, Wash turned to face her.

Zoë looked back at him with such abject irritation, Wash wondered why he hadn't turned to run away yet. After a moment, she strode toward him, her icy eyes locked on his the entire way.

"Just let me know when we're close." It was all she said to him before she, too, left the room.

Wash had the sinking feeling he'd just gone at least two steps back in terms of earning that smile.

To be continued . . .

Mandarin translations:

feiwu – garbage, junk
hun dan – bastard
dong ma – understand
gaoyang zhong de guyang – motherless goats of all motherless goats