Title: Bent By Paths Coincident

Author: Jedi Buttercup

Rating: PG-13/T

Disclaimer: The words are mine; the worlds are not.

Summary: Mal would recognize the compact, long-haired man in the worn duds anywhere. 1500 words.

Spoilers: Firefly; "Serenity" (2005); general spoilers for Leverage

Notes: Fusion fic. Translations at the bottom. Title's pulled from the Thomas Hardy poem "Convergence of the Twain".

"Sir, ain't that..."

Zoë sounded pleasantly surprised, an unusual enough occurrence these days. They had damn few allies left after the events leading up to Miranda, and those they did have were mostly scattered across the 'verse. Any friendly meeting on this planet would be a pleasant surprise. Mal set his drink down and turned to take a look, then swore and got up from his stool.

"Laotianye! Damn sure is," he said. He'd recognize the compact, long-haired man in the worn duds anywhere. A real xiongcan shashou in a fight and zhen de shi tiancai in the kitchen, Mal had thought him long dead or he'd have hunted him up for his crew.

"Bartender, a glass of Ng Ka Pei for my friend here," he ordered.

"Friend?" the former Browncoat corporal growled, turning toward Mal with narrowed eyes and tense shoulders. Then the man blinked and stood, flashing white teeth in a smile. "Damn, Sarge, you're a sight for sore eyes. What the gui you doin' here?"

"Might ask the same of you, Spencer," Mal replied, exchanging a hearty backslap with the man.

"And if it ain't Corporal Alleyne," Spencer added, thrusting a hand toward Zoë. "Mighta known you'd still be at the old man's back. Or did some lucky son of a gun finally pass muster?" His eyes had dropped to take in the necklace prominently displayed by the dipping neckline of her shirt.

Enough time had passed to wear the sharp edges off, but conversation about Wash still wasn't a comfortable prospect. Mal rolled his eyes and decided to give her time to formulate an answer. "Now, why's everyone gotta do that? Automatically assume that there necklace ain't mine? There a sign on my face that reads 'Ain't Good Enough For Zoë'?"

His first mate and best friend cut him a sidewise look at that, equal parts appreciative and annoyed. "You really want me to answer that, sir?" she asked, dryly, then nodded to Spencer. "I do go by Zoë Washburne now. But I'm afraid my husband ain't so lucky anymore."

Spencer'd been grinning at their byplay, but his amusement dried up at the solemnly spoken words. "Sorry to hear that, ma'am. Were you married long?"

She sighed, a faint smile curving one corner of her mouth. "Long enough," she said, "and not long enough at all."

"I hear ya," he replied, nodding respectfully. Then he raised an eyebrow at Mal. "So. Both of you here on this backwater rock? I'm guessing you got that ship you were always talkin' on."

"Sure did," Mal said. "A Firefly aught three; named her Serenity. How about you?"

"Heard that name; still trouble makers, ain't you? Me, I signed up as a merc after the war. Bounced around a lot of places, ended up on a short hauler a couple years ago. You heard of Leverage?"

Mal nodded admiringly. "Done well for yourself. Ran into your captain once on Boros; can't say as I have much love for his former occupation, but for coreworld security Ford sure cared more about the goods than punishing those as tried to take 'em. Never did hear why he went private, but I ain't heard nothing but good about him since. Except, well. Mentioned his name to Badger once; which ensuing profanity I would take to be the exception that proves the rule."

Spencer smirked briefly. "Had the displeasure of meeting Badger a couple of times myself. About Nate, though- well, that ain't a pretty story." He raised his eyebrows, expression drawn in serious lines. "Ever hear tell of a place called the Academy that swallows up bright kids and disappears 'em?"

Mal's own eyebrows climbed his forehead and he exchanged an alarmed look with Zoë. How many other lives had that cruel place ruined? "Might have, at that," he allowed.

Spencer frowned, disturbed by that admission. "Most folks haven't," he said. "Don't suppose you met a gal named Parker? Blonde hair, kinda acrobatic, twenty pounds of crazy in a five pound bag?"

Mal quirked a smile at that particularly apt description. "Well now, that sure sounds like our River, but she ain't never been blonde."

"Two of 'em. Wo de ma," Spencer said, blinking. "Well, I suppose if another of 'em was to get free, your ship ain't a bad place for her to go. Might even have been her escape that gave Parker the chance to bolt; she never did tell us who helped her. Nate's son weren't so lucky, though."

"Aiya," Mal groaned. He could already plot the rest of what must've happened. "He doted on that boy. All of five hours I knew him, and Sam was the only personal thing he'd talk about."

Spencer nodded. "Nate's bosses gave the kid a scholarship, told him Sam would have a better life. Until one day the letters stopped comin' and they told him his son had died of some strange disease. He went a little... well, you know what it was like for us after the Valley. Wife left him, Blue Sun put him on compassionate leave, and then he caught a crazy thief trying to pick his pocket in the street one day. She recognized him, mentioned Sam by name, and told him it hadn't been no disease."

Mal shuddered. "He chusheng zajiao de zanghuo," he cursed. "Killin's not good enough for what they did in that place."

Spencer nodded. "And so Nate's been takin' out Alliance lese ever since, chippin' away at every Academy supporter he can find. Helped a lot of other people along the way, too."

Sounded exactly like what he would have done in their situation. A little too much like, in fact; enough that a spark of suspicion lit in Mal's mind. The last thing he'd ever have suspected Spencer of a decade ago was working for the Alliance, but time had a way of changing a man.

"Surprised you never got an Operative sent after you the way we did," he frowned.

Spencer reared back a little at that, his expression mirroring the way Mal felt. "An Operative? Only way y'all should know about those hundans is if you got a hacker clearin' up your tracks as good as our Hardison, or if'n you've met one. And if'n you did..."

"Met one?" Mal pressed a hand against the scar in his abdomen where the Alliance assassin had run him through. "That xiongmen de kuangren killed friends and crew of ours, threatened River, and chased us over half the 'verse before we found a way to make his assignment moot."

They assessed each other a moment longer, taking in the other's explanation and deciding whether they'd believe it. Then they both nodded, reminded again of the long history behind them. Some men changed; Mal would never forget what Tracey had done. But some men didn't, and Spencer was of the same pianzhe de stock as Mal and Zoë.

"Most folk wouldn't have survived facing an Operative," Spencer said softly, eyes following Mal's massaging fingers.

"Most folk wouldn't have survived facing the Butcher," Mal replied, reminding the man of one of his more famous exploits against a particularly blood-thirsty Alliance Colonel during the war.

"Fair enough," Spencer said. Then he quieted, picked up the glass of Ng Ka Pei Mal had ordered him, and tossed back half its contents. "So how long will y'all be here? Sounds like our Parker and your River might oughta meet. And our crew's got a couple days free here while our Companion's busy visiting an old friend."

"By some strange coincidence," Zoë said with a wry smile, "we're here for the same reason. Don't suppose your Companion goes by the name Sophie?"

Spencer snorted. "Sometimes. Don't suppose yours is called Inara?"

"Most times," Mal said. Disbelief threatened again- but that itchy sense of trap that always warned him of the worst times was still stubbornly refusing to activate. "Well, now, ain't that a pretty heap of coincidence. Don't suppose we could talk you into cookin'? You could have the run of our galley; we got us some fancy ingredients ain't no one been able to use since we lost our Shepherd."

Spencer smirked, but nodded. "I'll clear it with Nate and 'wave you this evening," he said, and thrust out his hand again in a clear signal that the conversation was over.

Mal shook it. "I'll hold you to that," he said.

Then he and Zoë watched as the man headed hurriedly for the other side of the room, intercepting a younger man with a frustrated look on his face who'd just walked through the door.

"What're you thinking, Mal?" Zoë asked him, quietly.

Mal watched a moment longer, taking in the frustrated way Spencer spoke to the kid, angry expression in complete contrast with the protective stance he took between him and the others in the bar and the way he gently ushered him back out the door.

"I'm thinkin' our luck might just be lookin' up," he said.


Laotianye! - Jesus!
xiongcan shashou - ass-kicking killer
zhen de shi tiancai - absolute genius
gui - hell
Wo de ma - Mother of God
Aiya - Damn
He chusheng zajiao de zanghuo - Filthy fornicators of livestock
lese - garbage
hundans - bastards
xiongmen de kuangren - violent lunatic
pianzhe de - stubborn