Title: First Impressions

Author: Jedi Buttercup

Rating: T

Summary: Firefly, ST:TNG. Even an eyeball estimate of their technology put this so-called United Federation of Planets light-years ahead of the Anglo-Sino Alliance. 2200 words.

Disclaimer: The words are mine; the worlds are not. I claim nothing but the plot.

Spoilers: Firefly, set post-series but pre-Serenity; general Star Trek: TNG, with a tiny reference to "Darmok".

Notes: For wnnb_darklord, who asked for Firefly and/or ST:TNG, with Wash and/or Data. I couldn't quite work Data in-- this is pretty Firefly-centric, and more like a prologue than a full story-- but it's as complete as I could make it for a one-shot. How would Our Crew react, should their two worlds meet?

"So, opinions? Anyone?" Mal asked, staring expectantly around at his bemused crew.

Wash held his tongue as the others commented on the ungodly size of the ship their visitors had come in, the mind-blowing presence of actual aliens mixed in amongst their thousand-strong crew, and the fact that-- contrary to everything the Alliance had ever taught them-- their Captain had claimed the Earth was still alive and well and teeming with lifeforms. If he'd been telling the truth about all of it-- well, once the core worlds found out, interesting would be too mild a word for the public's reaction.

Wash wasn't really all that concerned about the bigger picture, though; even an eyeball estimate of their technology put this so-called United Federation of Planets light-years ahead of the Anglo-Sino Alliance. (He'd love to get his hands on the helm of that beauty of a ship; he'd bet she could fly circles around Serenity despite her unwieldy dimensions, no disrespect meant to his current lady). Her crew acted so polite and magnanimous about it, too, military uniforms and all. No matter how much they might claim to want peace, whether it was true or not, Wash wouldn't be surprised if that combination drove Parliament to shoot-- or sabotage-- first and maybe consider trusting the corpses afterward. He could not imagine any outcome of the two governments meeting that wouldn't eventually result in happier times for those slipping about the border worlds.

There wasn't much the Federation could do that would be worse than the Alliance, after all. And even in a worst-case scenario? A government spanning that many star systems wasn't going to have time to hunt down a few piddly little freighters in the middle of nowhere. Nor would the Alliance, once their attention was redirected outward. More chaos meant fewer agents available to hunt them down; meant more opportunities for profit, and a wider range of ports they could harbor in safely.

Still, there was going to be an adjustment period, no matter what happened. And it was always the little things-- the details everyone else overlooked-- that caused the most trouble in the long run, Wash had observed.

"This may sound petty, but-- it's their date system that's really bothering me," he blurted, grasping Zoë's hand as he voiced one of those little details. "I have a hard enough time keeping track of our anniversary as it is, how am I supposed to remember a bunch of strange number strings instead? Might as well just throw a dart at a data slate and hope the output's relevant."

Mal snorted. His tone was serious as he replied, but Wash could see the reluctant amusement in the crinkles around his eyes. "Somehow I don't think it's their calendar that'll pose the biggest challenge to treating with these people. Or didn't you catch all that goushi about acquiring wealth? Or not acquiring it, as the case happens to be?"

Zoë squeezed Wash's hand, her eyebrows describing elegant arcs of disbelief. "The day any government's envoy actually puts the bettering of humanity over feathering his own nest is the day you bury me, sir. I don't trust any man that claims otherwise."

Inara sighed. "I hate to say it, but in my experience, you're not wrong," she said.

"You mean they'd take our money away? What the hell'd we do for a living then?" Jayne grunted. "What do they do for a living? How do they ever get anything done? "

"Their 'Federation' no doubt provides," Simon said mildly, mouth set in a worried line. "And no doubt provides more to those who serve it most according to its interests; the pattern is not a foreign one in human history. They would not be unlike the Alliance in that respect, actually; value is value, whether it carries a monetary assessment or not."

Wash cast his eyes in River's direction at that. Since the crew's encounter with the bounty hunter Jubal Early, she'd grown steadily saner and more uncanny at the same time. They all knew how much value the Alliance put on the skills they'd cut into her; there was no telling how Picard's Federation would react to her abilities.

Dark eyes lifted from an absent study of the table to meet his gaze. "They'll mean well," she said, a faint, wistful smile curling at the edges of her mouth. "They always do."

The hair on the back of Wash's arms stood up a little, and he shuddered. "Idealists, huh?" he said, stroking his thumb over Zoë's. "Ought to get along well with you, then, Mal," he added mildly, carefully not mentioning all the times the Captain's misplaced nobility-- not to mention Zoë's unconditional support-- had cost them, leaving Serenity half-starved for fuel and luxuries.

There was a reason Wash had not piloted for either the Alliance or the Independents during the war; he might be a dreamer, but he was also a pragmatist, and the outcome of that rebellion had been obvious from the outset. The eventual outcome of Mal's one-man continuation of same was pretty obvious, too, if no one managed to talk some sense into him. If Zoë wasn't going to-- well, in the end, Wash wasn't going to manage it either, he'd come to realize. That didn't mean he had to like it, though.

"So, should we take them up on this dinner thing?" Mal pressed the question again.

"Long as they come here, 'stead of us going there," Zoë said, after a brief pause. "Don't see why not. Don't much relish the possibility of getting lost on a ship that large without our weapons, and we can't predict their behavior like we could when it was the Alliance inviting us aboard."

"True," Mal nodded. "Don't expect we can force them to disarm, if they really want to take us over; there's only a handful of us to however many hundreds of them. I'll be sure to ask it, though, all polite-like, when I call 'em back up. River-girl?" He turned to their Reader, prompting her for further comment.

She shook her head. "Fangxin, Captain. They don't want to hurt us. But--" She frowned, drawing her eyebrows together slightly, staring off through the far bulkhead. "Put away Captain Harbatkin; this isn't the time for false finery. She'll know, and then the jackstraws might fall in another pattern."

"She'll know? Who, she?" Mal frowned back, straightening more alertly in his chair.

"She'll know?" Simon echoed, then drew a sharp breath. "River, are you saying that they have a Reader, too?"

Her gaze focused again, and after a moment's hesitation, she nodded at her brother.

"Well, now," Jayne rumbled softly. "That puts another color on this horse, entirely."

"Not necessarily," Kaylee spoke up, twining the ends of her hair around her fingers. "I mean, just 'cause they have a Reader, too, don't mean they're after ours. River says they don't mean to harm us. And how could they know?"

"River knows she's here," Wash had to point out, though he always hated to burst her bubbles. "What's to say she couldn't feel River's presence from further away? We have no idea how powerful she is, or whether she's had more training, or even whether Readers are as rare in their culture as they are in ours."

"But they speak our language." She frowned, brushing a strand of hair behind her ear with one grease-stained hand. "And they talk so nice; we all saw their conversation with the Captain. None of that 'I'm so important' fei hua you always get from Alliance folk. They can't be that different from us, I don't care what kind of fancy gadgets and titles they got."

"Wish I could be as optimistic as you, Kaylee," Mal said, wistfully. "But, if River's right..." He pondered a moment longer, then shook his head. "Well, it don't make no never mind, either way. Like I said, they could overpower us no problem, they took the notion into their heads. But I'll take that warning, little albatross." He glanced around at all of them again. "We invite them aboard, keep the more questionable cargo out of sight, but play it straight as we can. No fuss. They want to think we're representative of the people in this sector? We don't challenge that assumption, but we don't lie to them, neither."

Wash sighed; as far as that went, Mal was right. And put another spin on his earlier musings. "No, we just thank the good Lord we were taking the back lanes again," he commented. "The whole reason we charted this course is that there's an Alliance cruiser stationed coreward of here. What do you imagine might have happened if the Enterprise had met that cruiser first, and tried their 'come in peace' speech on some purple-bellied Captain completely convinced of the righteousness of his government?"

Book leaned forward in his chair, then. The good shepherd had been still and quiet for most of the conversation; everyone knew he was growing more and more dissatisfied with his place aboard ship, just as everyone had noticed Mal's arguments with Inara growing more frequent and more acrimonious since their stop at the Heart of Gold. Both generally tried to stay out of the crew's jobs, these days. But when Book did have something to say-- something not quoted from the scriptures from which he took his traveling name-- it was usually worth hearing.

"I hesitate to characterize this Picard and his crew as naïve, particularly if they have a Reader of their own," he said. "But if they do have a Reader of their own on whom they habitually rely for an assessment of any given first contact, then it follows that they might be more easily fooled by strong belief in the goodness of even the most destructive of causes. I have no doubt that they can take care of their own very effectively, and the Alliance may ultimately pose them no threat. It's equally possible that they may pose no threat to the Alliance, should their appearance prove more dangerous than the reality of their weaponry. But should our meeting with them, and any subsequent meetings with Allied personnel, turn them against those less fortunate in this quadrant, no matter how briefly they are fooled...."

Zoë swallowed. "We'd stand no chance at all. None of us would; Haven's the biggest gathering we got of former Independents and smuggler-folk established out from under the Alliance heel, and they don't got but the one gun-mount in the settlement. If they came to believe we were terrorists...."

Mal blew out a breath. "We're chasin' at shadows, now. Let's just get through this dinner 'fore we run mad with panic. We take our mei-mei's advice, don't lie, and see where the chips fall after."

"I trust you want me to participate, then, to impress some degree of culture on the conversation?" Inara said coolly, watching Mal with careful eyes.

"I'll want all of us there," Mal said, avoiding her gaze to frown at Jayne, "'cept maybe you, if you can't keep a civil tongue."

"Hey," Jayne objected, though he didn't seem surprised at the accusation. "I can be good."

"See to it that you do," Mal told him. "We want to make a decent impression on these people."

"I think we all get the picture, Captain," Simon said with a sigh.

Well, it sounded like that was Wash's cue. "Shall I place the 'wave, then, Captain?" he asked.

River giggled, though, before Mal could answer, as though someone had just whispered a secret in her ear. "Temba, his arms open," she announced, grinning delightedly. "Jalad is waiting."

"Oh-kay," Mal said, slowly, raising his eyebrows at her. "Unless that means something bad, I'll just take that as my cue to go invite some folk to dinner."

River had no further comment; she just continued smiling, in a not quite creepifying way.

"Better hide the knives," Jayne commented, warily. "She's the one you should be worryin' about, not me."

Book cleared his throat. "I'll get started on dinner, then," he said, rising from the table. "I was keeping a few tins of vegetables and vat-grown meat in the back of my cupboard against a particularly celebratory day; I'll see what can be done with them."

"I'll help," Inara said, pushing her teacup away as she rose gracefully to join him. "I have some packets of spice in my shuttle that aren't among the selection in the general pantry."

Mal glanced one more time around the crew, then nodded. "All right, then," he said, gesturing Wash toward the forward passage. "After you."

"Renci de Fozu, qing baoyou women," Wash muttered under his breath. Compared to all the other crazy things he'd seen and done since first boarding Serenity, dinner with another crew-- no matter how strange-- didn't even rank among the top ten most dangerous. But he couldn't shake the nagging feeling that the next few hours would completely change their lives, regardless.

It always was the little things that proved most important.

He squeezed his wife's hand one more time, then pushed his chair back and headed for the cockpit, hoping for the best.