A/N: I was wondering who would have the guts to fence the Lassiter, and why; then this scenario popped into my head and Icouldn't cut loose of it. Post "Trash" and "The Message," pre-BDM. Post-FFXII.P.S. ... This one's for Tersa. xoxox)
"You certain this isn't a bad idea, sir? Letting a buyer on the ship is -"
"This fine gentleman's the only soul in twelve clicks wants even a piece of the Lassiter, Zoe," Mal said. "If he's got fifty million and wants to meet my crew 'fore he turns it loose, fine. He'll do it on my turf."
Zoe crossed her arms and frowned. "And you're not thinking this is trouble."
Mal offered a terse smile. "I'm not one to argue a man's interest in negotiations, especially if it means sitting pretty after. You just check his coat at the door, and we'll be shiny."
"I heard he used to be Alliance," Kaylee piped from the catwalk, darting a conspiratorial glance at Jayne.
"Alliance?" Jayne shook his head. "Mal, are you flat crazy? If he's got the feds in his pocket..."
"He ain't bringing the feds," Mal said, irritated.
Kaylee fidgeted. "But Inara said..."
"I know what Inara said," Mal said, raising one hand, "And I ain't keen on discussing it. I'm grateful for the warning, mind – I don't like the smell of feds any more than the next man. But even if our contact was Alliance once, he ain't now. It's clear from the check we ran on him. He's a smuggler, freelance like us, and he's not looking to get picked up any more than we are. So let's everyone relax, put on a smile, and get this milk run over and done with, dong ma?"
"We're on the ground, captain," Wash said over the intercom, "And right on top of the beacon this guy set for us. So far so good... Yeah, we've got an open wave with his signature on it. It's a boarding request for two."
"Open her up," Mal said.
The cargo bay doors unfolded with a grumble and a whine to revealing two figures, a man and a woman. The former let his golden eyes saunter about the cargo bay, drinking in Jayne, Kaylee, and Zoe as he approached, his hands behind his head. The latter carried a large black drawstring bag on her shoulder, and kept her eyes firmly on Mal as she strode forward, stiletto heels clanking on the grate beneath her feet.
"I think you'll find I'm unarmed, as agreed," the man drawled, holding up his hands as Zoe approached him. "I've left my rifle behind, and you'll find no daggers of any sort. Mind, there's a concealed sheath on my boot, just there – but you'll find that empty."
Zoe patted him down, nodded, turned to the woman standing beside him. She didn't speak but merely spread her arms to either side politely, ready to be frisked, and blinked matter-of-factly. Her outfit was scant black leather and steel plate; it was plain to see she wasn't concealing anything bigger than a toothpick, and Zoe didn't bother to touch her.
"Welcome aboard Serenity," Mal said, as Zoe stepped back. 'I'm captain Malcolm Reynolds. This is Zoe, my first mate, and that's Jayne, with the sour look and the weapon. Just so you know where we stand on funny business, He'll be sending you to your great and fluffy Lord if you're here to con us."
Jayne sighted down Vera's barrel; The man smiled indulgently at him.
"A pleasure to meet you and yours at last, captain Reynolds," he said, offering a small bow. "My apologies if taking us aboard is any terrible inconvenience, but I make it a point to acquaint myself with those I deign to do business with. No better way to do that than meet him on his own ground."
Mal nodded. "It's mighty kind of you to take an interest, mister..."
"Begging your pardon. Balthier, at your service – and this is my associate, Fran."
Mal ducked his head to the mute, cocoa-skinned woman at Balthier's side. "A pleasure, I'm sure – but I'm here to make a transaction. I'm one for smooth business, and not a lot of chatter. You understand."
Balthier nodded, let his eyes wander around the cargo bay once more. "She's a handsome ship, if I may be so bold. I noticed the customized aft burners as you were coming in – quite a clever modification. Your mechanic knows his trade, by the look of things."
"Yes, she's quite the catch," Mal said, smiling tersely at the continued meaningless banter. "We're lucky to have her."
"She? – ah, but of course," the pirate said, catching sight of Kaylee again; she'd gone bright pink. He bowed to her. "Only a fine young lady such as yourself would have the aptitude for such a clever fix. I imagine you find she burns cooler if you turn the conduits aft, now that the exhaust return is only occupied with the draft from the two main engines?"
Kaylee bounced on the balls of her feet. "She likes it best when I keep her running low and cool," she blurted, "but for a quick vertical getaway when there's fuel to burn, all I've gotta do is flip the aft coil, and hook it in..."
"Backward! A stroke of genius," Balthier declared, with a small smile. "But begging your pardon, my dear. You are...?"
Kaylee bobbed her head, blushing fit to burst now. "Call me Kaylee. I... nice to meet you."
"Miss Kaylee, you run a fine operation. Modern engineers may say what they will about a firefly, but they're truly a pleasure to sail. Wouldn't you agree?"
Kaylee bit her lips and nodded happily. Mal rolled his eyes.
"Now we're all acquainted – Fran, was it - I'd be mighty grateful if you'd put that bag on the floor where we can see it," he said to Fran. "We don't want trouble."
"I'm pleased to hear that we're of similar mind on the matter," Balthier said, as Fran lay the bag between them and untied it to display a fat jumble of stacked notes. "It's all there; fifty million credits in untraceable paper, as requested. It's enough money to buy a handsome little moon of your own, if you so pleased. I hope you don't mind large bills..." He set his foot on the bag and raised his eyebrows. "But I'm afraid we won't be relinquishing it without our hands on this Lassiter you're so anxious to be rid of."
Zoe produced the weapon from a crated sitting nearby and held it up for Balthier's consideration. He beckoned for it with a small coaxing smile, and she laid it in his hands. He winked at her; she frowned.
"A handsomer weapon I know not of," he commented with a grin, and shoved the bag toward Mal with his foot.
"Crime and punishment, Pirate," A cheerful voice drawled from the galley doorway. Balthier turned toward it and squinted.
"What's that, darling?"
River Tam stepped out onto the catwalk high above the rest of the crew and leaned hard on the railing. "He's the leading man," she said to Kaylee, quite conversationally; the corner of her mouth twitched. "Not looking to die today. Not next week... Not ever," she decided, turning to Mal. "You get a career of good honest thieving, with a shiny statue on world to keep you well out of trouble, you don't worry about dying all that much. Specially when you're two steps ahead of everybody with a gun."
Balthier smiled, intrigued; but when she turned and looked straight down into his eyes, her expression went slightly wild. He quirked an eyebrow.
"You're crime and punishment all in one. Judge, Jury, and executioner," she said. "The others didn't like it. They sent you to a fiery grave, but you got lucky ... the rain put it out. You flew away, and they never caught you. It's what pirates do. You fly..." She smiled at Fran. "Don't you?"
"You've heard of me, have you?" Balthier said, uncertain if he should be alarmed.
"No," River said lightly, and wandered back into the galley.
"You'll be forgiving that one, mister Balthier," Mal said, with a little awkward smile. "She's not quite right in the brainpan. Sweet, though. Harmless."
"Oh, harmless indeed, I'm sure, the poor girl," Balthier agreed. "I've seen the all-points wave sent out for her head. In fact, I believe her bounty's higher than mine."
Mal swallowed hard. Balthier rewarded his discomfort with a radiant smile.
"Captain Reynolds, please don't misunderstand me. I'm not interested in the alliance's money; I'm rich enough on my own power. Now..." he studied the Lassiter with a calm, affectionate smile, as if admiring a new pet. "I imagine you and yours are anxious to be in the sky and on your way again. A pleasure doing business, I'm sure. I do hope our paths cross again."
As he followed Fran out the airlock door, the pirate's eyes wandered over the entire cargo bay one last time.
"Serenity," he mused. "A lovely thought."
The doors closed, and Mal called up to Wash on the bridge. "All's shiny, Wash. Let's get flying."
"That was quick," Wash commented.
"Smooth business," Mal said. "Hell, it does exist. If I were a superstitious man I'd be right unsettled."
"I'm right unsettled for both of us, Sir," Zoe remarked dryly, tying up the bag of credits and slinging it over her shoulder. "That guy sure was a piece of work, weren't he?"
"They... he was so... I mean, they... wow," Kaylee stammered.
"Back to work," Mal warned mildly. Kaylee skittered back toward the engine room; nobody missed her scarlet face and idiotic grin.