TITLE: Masquerade


A/N: What the hell is wrong with me? I thought once the Chosen-verse was finished I'd take a bit of a break…apparently no such luck. Wash and Book are alive – I don't care, I like 'em that way. Post-Miranda.

Jayne couldn't quite believe how much he wanted to kill Mal at this very moment. Seriously, of all the hair brained, ridiculous schemes the man could have come up with why the hell did he think this was a good idea? He'd start with the toes and work his way up, breaking everything he found in between.

Yup, that'd work.

It had started innocently enough he supposed. Since the Miranda broad wave six months ago most of the 'verse had rebelled against the Alliance, their fury at the cruel decisions of the unified government causing massive uproar. As the dust had begun to settle things were slowly being rebuilt.

Even the Core planets were now embracing the concept of an Independent 'verse whose system was based on mutual assistance and co-operation. Rim planets and Core alike were trading more freely now, each supporting one another. Medical assistance from the Core was exchanged for the farmed produce of the Outer planets. Each planet now had their own separate system of governance that was interconnected with every other planet in some way – the Federal Law Enforcers had taken over from the Alliance soldiers, allowing some measure of peace to spread throughout the 'verse.

Which had proved lucrative for 'security specialists' such as the crew of Serenity. Now Mal's team was hired for protection gigs, infiltration units, and private clean-up work. The stories of the rebel Browncoat and his fierce crew had spread far and wide, with the rumours of a strange witch allowing them to up their price – why settle for a standard security team when you could have one with a Reader?

So when they had received this particular job it had been met with much anticipation. Federal Enforcers were good for keeping the peace, but there still reigned some small parts of Core society that clung to the old ways, seeking to rebuild the Alliance they refused to doubt. As such the crew of Serenity had been contacted to infiltrate a party, some upper class go se, for information gathering.

The plan was definitely solid – sending a Reader into a room full of Alliance minded people would allow for extremely fast results. More helpfully, the party was a masquerade, so even those who had heard stories of Serenity's dark little secret would be unaware of her presence.

Mal had decided that River should be sent in with an escort, a 'bodyguard' as the Core folk put it, as was the tradition among young, single society ladies. Mal had been prepared to go himself, until he'd gotten gorram shot. The doc had him on rest until the leg wound was properly healed, since the round had hit the bone, shattering Mal's femur. The Captain would recover fully, but not in time for the party.

Simon couldn't go – the ship's doc had definitely improved his combat skills, but he still wasn't trained for these situations. Zoe was now six months pregnant, and both Wash and Mal were being ridiculously protective of the overburdened first mate. Wash would be needed if they required a speedy getaway, and Book was comfortable enough with his age to laugh at any suggestions.

Which left Jayne.

Now, on any normal day Jayne would be more than happy to play 'big scary man'; hell, he'd damn near invented the role. But this was some fancy dress up thing, and he hadn't worn a suit since his Grandpa had passed away when he was ten. If Jayne knew the word vociferously he would have used it – he had protested, vociferously.

To no avail.

They'd landed on planet an hour ago. Jayne knew they were expecting him to dress up (hell, 'Nara had spent the better part of four hours poking and prodding his suit into place), but when they'd informed him that a certain standard of hygiene would be required Jayne knew he should have known better.

Simon's smirk should have given him some warning.

Still, he was the first to admit he wasn't the brains of the operation, so when Wash had asked him to come look at something outside he'd done so without question. The second he stepped alongside the ship a bucket of liquid soap had been dumped on his head by a giggling Kaylee, and the high pressure hose had been turned on him by his evil Captain.

He wasn't sure which was worse – the sting of the water, the soap in his eyes, or the way his ruttin' crewmates had laughed like little maniacs. He'd relented, stripping his shirt off and growling the entire time – Mal had only turned off the hose when Jayne had threatened to strip to his birthday suit.

And damned if the women hadn't stopped laughing at that thought, their heads tilting simultaneously to one side.

Oh, there would be payback, make no mistake about it. Still, when Inara had pointed out that Jayne wasn't likely to have acceded to a request for a proper shower, the mercenary was forced to give some ground.

Didn't mean he had to like it.

So now he was waiting in the cargo bay, ignoring the way Simon was laughing at his attire. The black suit and charcoal shirt were at least the right size, thanks to Inara's tailoring, and he hadn't been forced to wear a tie. Plus, Mal had been so concerned about retribution for the surprise shower that he hadn't forced Jayne to shave his goatee.

Kaylee and Zoe had given him strange looks when they'd seen him in his fancy gear, something he wasn't sure he liked. Still, the suit didn't restrict his movement too much, and he had plenty of weapons stashed on his person, not to mention the two hand canons his 'bodyguard' permit allowed him to wear. The black mask was designed to sit over his eyes only, and he'd made sure it didn't restrict his peripheral vision too much.

He fiddled with his earwig again, growing more and more impatient. Where the hell was the girl? Nobody had dumped a bucket of soap on her, hell she'd simply perched herself on a nearby branch and enjoyed the show. He wasn't sure how the scruffy little thing was going to pass in high society, but a sharp glance from Book had silenced his tongue.

It wasn't that she weren't alright lookin' in her own way, but the baggy dresses, the tangled hair did little to show a Core girl off. He couldn't quite summon the hatred he used to have for her, not after she'd dived into a roomful of Reaver's and come out without a scratch. Hell, any other woman and he'd have suggested a good tumble in the sack after that display.

Course, any other woman wouldn't have damn near ripped his balls off at the Maiden Head.

He grunted as he did yet another weapons check – throwing knife strapped to his forearm, extra pistol strapped to his ankle, hand canons in hip holsters, and a single grenade in his boot (he hadn't told Mal about that one). Where the hell was the ruttin' Crazy girl? Better ta get this over and done with quick.

He heard the footsteps before the rest of the crew, turning towards the entrance to the cargo bay.

Ma de.