Disclaimer: recognisable characters, places and so on belong to the mighty Mouse and the god that is Joss.
It was night. Lamps had been lit all along the deck of the Black Pearl, and a full moon shone to add further illumination.
There were lots of people on board. Most of the crew had been tempted back by the prospect of free drink and the company of some of Tortuga's prettiest whores. They had been tempted aboard by the combination of Jack Sparrow's charm and the prospect of good coin, and were busy making the most of the captive audience aboard the ship.
Mal lounged against the rail, cup of ale in hand, and watched the rest of his crew. Jayne was leaning on a coil of rope with a girl in his lap, one hand around his drink and one fondling the whore. Zoe and Wash were nowhere to be seen. Kaylee and River were both dancing to the music of a fiddle, their eyes bright; Simon was watching them.
Inara came across the deck to Mal, dressed in something glittery and clingy. She held out a piece of bread.
"Have you eaten?" she asked.
"A bit." Mal took the bread, and chewed. "You ain't been dancin'."
Inara glanced over at the dance. "Not yet. The girls seem to be enjoying themselves."
"Kaylee does love a shindig," Mal observed.
The tune came to an end, and the dancers all stopped, wiping their brows and reaching for drinks. Turning to Mal, Inara seemed to be about to say something, but was interrupted by the appearance of Jack Sparrow. The pirate captain wove his way through the crowd, dressed in a clean white shirt, a green waistcoat embroidered heavily in deep red thread, and a good pair of breeches. He bowed, extravagantly, as he came up to Mal and Inara.
"Captain. Miss Serra."
"Good evening, Captain," Inara returned.
"I was hopin' you'd do me the honour of a dance," said Sparrow, as the fiddler struck up again.
Inara glanced at Mal, who shrugged. "Go ahead," he said. "Chances are the cap'n's a better dancer 'n me, anyways."
Sparrow grinned at them both, and extended his hand to Inara, who took it. They headed into the circle, and Mal noted that of course Sparrow was an excellent dancer; nimble and graceful, and he apparently knew the steps.
Nevertheless it was somewhat pleasing to watch Inara dance, her face lit up by a smile at something Sparrow had said. Mal leaned back, and watched.
"More ale?" The voice broke into his thoughts.
"Oh. Yeah. Thanks." Mal held out his cup, and Anamaria poured from a jug. She followed his gaze.
"Jack an' his dancin'," she said, in a tone that spoke of long suffering. She put the jug down and lifted her own cup. "She be an odd kind of whore."
"She's a gorram expensive kind of whore," Mal said. "And she don't take kindly to being called one."
"Jack said you took him sailin'," Anamaria said, changing the subject. "Up there." She jerked her thumb towards the sky.
Mal swallowed a mouthful of ale. "S'where we sail. It's home."
"Chacun à son goût," said Anamaria. "Do you dance, Captain?"
"Badly," said Mal.
She drained her cup, put it down and held out a calloused hand. "Then come and dance, badly. She's dancin' with Jack, so we might as well dance t'gether."
Mal considered the proposition; found no wrong in it, and swallowed down his drink.
"Let's dance," he said.
Anamaria nodded at him, and pulled him across the deck to mingle with the crew. The fiddler was playing a lively tune, and she threw herself quickly into the dance, which seemed to involve a fair amount of stamping feet. Mal watched for a few bars of the music and then joined in.
He was, predictably, pretty bad at the dancing, but some of the pirates seemed to be almost as bad as he was. Indeed most of the men stomped rather than danced, with the exception of Sparrow himself and a few of the younger sailors. But it proved to be surprisingly enjoyable, particularly with Anamaria and her dark eyes meeting his with a spark of amusement.
When the tune ended, the fiddler put down his violin and picked up a bottle set by his side. Anamaria gave Mal a short, curt bow.
"Thank you," she said.
He smiled back. "Ma'am."
"Just Anamaria," she returned. "I ain't a ma'am, and I ain't lookin' to be one."
"Anamaria, then," he said. "Pleasure."
He excused himself and made his way up to the heads, which were blessedly quiet for once. When he was done, he paused and looked up at the sky and the stars, and wished they were flying again.
Mal's reverie was disturbed by footsteps, and a bottle thrust into his line of sight.
"Hope you didn't mind me dancin' with the lass," Sparrow said.
"She's her own woman," said Mal.
"You should just ask her," Sparrow suggested. "Worst that can happen is she'll tell you to bugger off."
He took the bottle from Mal's hands, swigged down a gulp, and passed it back to him.
"So where'll you go next?" he asked.
Mal shrugged. "Ain't rightly sure. Depends on the job. Might head t' Persephone, see if there ain't some cargo wants moving off-world. Something'll come up, it always does."
"Aye, that's true enough." Sparrow leaned back against the rail, one hand idly caressing the dark wood of his ship. "There'll be a ship to take, or treasure to hunt down." He looked frankly at Mal, dark eyes showing little trace of drunkenness despite the copious amounts of alcohol he seemed to have put away. "Wish I could have some of your crew aboard the Pearl, Cap'n Reynolds."
"Mal," said Mal. "Which ones?"
Sparrow grinned, the lamplight catching the glint of his teeth. "Young Kaylee, for one. Pretty lass, and she's a talent for the sea."
"She's all that keeps Serenity afloat," said Mal.
"Your surgeon," Sparrow went on, ticking people off on beringed and grimy fingers. "I popped in on Bob earlier. He's lookin' better already."
"If you took Simon, you'd have t' take River too," Mal pointed out. "She's a handful and no mistake."
"She's a mite odd," Sparrow admitted, "but I reckon she's harmless."
"Then you'd be wrong," said Mal. "What'm I sayin'? You can have her."
"Could use a gun too," Sparrow said. "Two, mebbe. Your mate has an eye for a target."
"You ain't havin' Zoe," Mal returned. "Sides, she'd not leave Wash, and I need him to fly my boat."
Sparrow laughed. "Not to fret, mate. I'll not take any of 'em. I wouldn't give you Ana, or Gibbs, or any o' mine, so there'd be no call to poach your crew. I reckon we're both blessed, though, with the men we have."
Mal considered his words. "Yup, that we are." He accepted the rum bottle, and drank. "And our boats," he added. "How did you come by the Pearl?"
Patting the rail, Sparrow met his eyes. "That'd be a long tale, were I to tell it in full. I sailed on her as a lad, and as a man. I was her first mate, and then she was lost in a storm. Sank to the depths. Sank to Davy Jones's locker." He swallowed a mouthful of rum. "So I made a bargain with Davy Jones."
"Who's Davy Jones?" asked Mal.
"The sea," Sparrow said, as if it were obvious. "Fishy sort of bloke. Cursed, like. Anyway I agreed he could have me soul, if he gave me back the Pearl. And he did."
"So what about your soul?"
"Oh." Sparrow rolled his eyes. "Took a lot to get out of that one. I'll tell you the tale another time. How did you come by Serenity?"
Mal had the distinct sense Sparrow was dodging the question about his soul, but decided not to press the matter.
"It was after the war," he said, receiving a blank look in return. "Lucky if you missed it. We'd lost. I wasn't about to work for the Alliance, no damn way. So I went shopping for a boat. She was clapped out, couldn't fly, but she was right, if you see what I mean."
"I see what you mean," said Sparrow.
"So I fixed her up, found a crew. Zoe fought with me in the war. Picked up the others on the way. We make do."
"You wouldn't be anywhere else," said Sparrow.
"Hell no," Mal agreed.
Sparrow let go of the rail, spun on one booted heel, and waved a hand towards the revelries.
"Enough chin-waggin'," he said. "You, mate, need to ask the divine Miss Serra to dance. I promised young River for one." Mal opened his mouth to protest, but Sparrow shook his head with a jangle of beads. "Ain't the way to get the girl. And if you don't want 'er, there's plenty of other lasses on board who'd be only too pleased for your custom tonight."
"Huh," said Mal, but he let himself be towed along in Sparrow's wake back to the dancing.
Sparrow wasted no time in pulling River on to the dance floor, where she favoured him with a glowing smile. Both of them started dancing, hair flying and feet tapping. Mal tried to tidy his hair, but gave up, and made his way around the dancers to where Inara and Simon stood in conversation.
"'Nara." Mal held out a hand. "I wonder if you'd dance?"
She took his hand. "Yes, Mal, I'll dance."
Somehow this dance felt very different from the dance at the ball on Persephone. There, Mal had felt acutely conscious of the people around him - watching him, judging him, wondering how he was dancing with a Companion. Aboard the Black Pearl there was no such censure, but that just meant he was more aware of the dance itself. Predictably, it also meant he tripped over his feet, danced into the rest of the dancers, and made very poor conversation.
Nearby Sparrow and River were dancing like mad things. Out of the corner of his eye, Mal noticed Zoe and Wash had emerged and were wrapped in each other's arms, dancing more sedately.
"This is nice," Inara murmured, smiling up at him. Mal smiled back.
"Didn't think this was your kind o' world," he said.
"It isn't," she returned. "But it's a nice night. And I like dancing."
The music ended, and they broke apart.
"Well," said Mal, "guess we ought to be gettin' back to Serenity. It's late. And we've spent too long without a job."
Inara nodded. "Me too. Where will you head?"
"Hermes, maybe," said Mal. "Wherever's closest."
"I have clients on Hermes," Inara said. "It'll do." She gave him a push. "Go on. You have to drag River away from her captain; I think she's besotted."
Mal turned, realising the music had slowed, and noticed River and Sparrow drifting languidly together. Simon was scratching his brow as he watched.
"Cap'n Sparrow," Mal said. "Jack!"
Sparrow looked up. "Eh? Oh. You off?"
"We've our tide to catch," Mal said, apologetically. "Great party."
"Not bad," said Sparrow, playing with River's hair.
"And her brother …" Mal added, jerking his head towards Simon.
Sparrow laughed. "Mite possessive, ain't he?"
"He worries," Mal said. "That's his way."
"Looks after me," River put in. "Won't let anything happen to me."
"Including a dance, 'pparently," Sparrow agreed. He clapped his hands, and the music stopped. "Mr Jones, Mr Wenders, longboat lowered please!"
The crewmembers named put down their bottles and, grumbling a little, lowered one of the longboats. Sparrow looked around and picked out two pirates who appeared to be less drunk than their crewmates, and directed them to take the oars.
"Well," he said, "you'd better go."
"Thanks," Mal said. "I guess you saved our lives."
"Reckon I did. I'll remember you owe me a favour."
"If we ever make it back," said Mal.
The two captains shook hands. Zoe and Wash, his arm around her waist, nodded at Sparrow and headed down into the longboat.
Kaylee looked up and around at the ship one last time. "I won't forget her," she told Sparrow, earnestly.
He reached up to his tangled hair and pulled out a bead, which he pressed into her hand. "Reckon you won't. If you ever get tired o' metal, lass, there's a place for you in me topmast crew."
She flushed, smiled at him, and followed Zoe and Wash into the longboat.
Jayne still had a girl wrapped around him and was clutching a bottle. He looked, Mal thought, fairly well gone. It took some work to detach the girl without arousing Jayne's anger, but eventually they had him into the boat where his chin flopped to his chest and he began to snore.
Inara inclined her head graciously to Sparrow. "Thank you for the dance, captain," she said.
He took her hand and kissed it, suddenly more a gentleman than a pirate. "The pleasure was all mine," Sparrow returned.
Inara shook her head at him in amusement.
"Before I go," said Simon, waiting nearby and evidently keen to get off the ship, "how's your man?"
"Doin' well," Sparrow said. "He'll be fine. But he'd not have made it without you. My thanks." He turned to River, and took one of her hands, slipping a ring into it. "Picked this up from a sinkin' ship."
"Came from the water," said River, delightedly. "Like you."
"Almost," Sparrow replied.
"We'll be off, then," said Mal. He met Sparrow's dark, dancing eyes, and shrugged. "We'll look you up, should we come back to this world."
Sparrow nodded. "Likewise, if the Pearl learns to fly. Could be it'll happen. Fair winds, Cap'n Reynolds."
"See you in the black," said Mal, and climbed down into the boat.
He sat and watched the Pearl recede, a glow of light from the lamps reflecting on the waterline. None of his crew was speaking, and the regular splash of oars in water was the only sound.
River and Kaylee were both half asleep by the time they got back to Serenity, so Mal went to deal with the engine while Wash settled down at the helm. In short order they were streaking out into the black.
"Put her on autopilot," Mal said, arriving on the bridge. "Course for Hermes."
"Right y'are," Wash returned, flicking switches. "We'll be there in two days." He stood, stretched, and after bidding Mal a brief goodnight disappeared in the direction of his quarters.
Mal stood and looked down on the world beneath them, spread out in green and blue. Somewhere below was the Black Pearl and its crazy captain. But here, out in the black with the stars surrounding them, Mal knew that he was truly at home.