Title: Gather Seashells While You May

Author: Jedi Buttercup

Rating: T

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

Summary: Zoe's a bit better acquainted with Serenity's newest client than Mal had been expecting. 2000 words.

Spoilers: Firefly, post-Serenity; Dresden Files very post-novels

Notes: 24 Days of Ficmas 2011, Day 4: for dhark_charlotte. Prompt: "Zoe/Harry past relationship - (quote from Texts From Last Night). Post movie, Zoe has started to heal and they run across Harry when Mal answers an ad for a job. Harry needs a particular element for a potion/spell and wants to come along to make sure it's gathered properly."

Mal eyed the tall man in the trenchcoat across the small, round table. Fanty and Mingo hadn't told him the customer would be coming along for the ride when they 'waved him for a meet; probably 'cause they knew how he felt about clients jogging his elbow. Paying passengers were one thing; passengers who thought they had a right to tell him what to do and when to do it were something else altogether.

Especially since it meant the man must have already paid Fanty and Mingo their middleman's cut his ownself. Man as could afford that could have afforded to contract with a much more reputable ship. That rang warning bells in Mal's suspicious mind in the key of 'trouble'.

"Mr. Dresden," he opened the conversation diplomatically, eying the man for clues as to his background and motivation. "I hear you're interested in the fishing on New Melbourne?"

That was an understatement, actually; there was some kind of mineral or other suspended in solution in the planet's oceans. Honestly, he hadn't really followed Simon's excited chatter on the subject when the crew had dissected the twins' wave, but Mal gathered it was pretty rare. He wasn't too sure how the client planned to get the mineral out of the seawater afterward; according to the job specs, all they were supposed to have to do was empty the greywater tanks, fill 'em up, and return directly to Beaumonde. Might take on a little rust, and they'd have to flush the tanks again once emptied, but for what the man was paying it would have been worth it. He wasn't too sure that assessment still applied.

"More or less," the guy replied, eyeing him back. "If by fish you mean, you know, scoop up something in the water. Jerry said you guys could handle that?"

"Jerry?" Mal blinked at him, taken aback. "You mean- Mingo?" He'd never heard anyone use a diminutive for the younger Rample brother other than the first half of his name. Couldn't imagine the twins allowing it. They got peeved enough when anyone made joking references to Fanty's full name, 'Fantastic'. Something about disrespecting their mother.

Dresden grinned, one of those really aggravating 'I know a good joke that you don't' smiles that always made Mal want to knock the smiler's teeth down his throat, 'cause it was usually at his expense. The Operative had smiled like that. And that creepifying bounty hunter, Early.

"Yeah. Mingo; he thinks that makes him sound like more of a businessman, or something," he said. Then he shrugged a little, mock-bashfully. "I've known them a long time."

"Uh-huh," Mal said, sitting back a little. If this was meant to be breaking the ice, he wasn't impressed. More like, it made him wonder what Dresden would be calling him in a year's time. "And why is it you feel the need to come along as we do this fishing? Generally, a man asks me to do the job, I do the job. Eyes over my shoulder make me feel like I'm not trusted, in which case, why hire us at all?"

Dresden's smile faded a little, and he tapped the fingers of one hand idly against the table. Light flashed off several rings on his knuckles; they looked like they were braided of several colors of metal, throwing little shards of color every which-a-way as they moved. "Because you need the money. And there might be a couple of details of collection I didn't mention to Tom and Jerry?"

Mal didn't even want to know how the other man got 'Tom' out of 'Fantastic'. "Right. Of course," he said, dryly. "This stuff you're lookin' to dredge out of the water that valuable, then?"

"To the right people," Dresden admitted. "I'm sure you'll forgive me if I'm not too keen on spreading the details of how to get it 'round the 'verse."

"Then why not fly out and get without all the hassle of hiring me and my crew?" Mal asked, narrowing his eyes at him. "Surely you could afford a better ship. More privacy."

"The Beetle's all the ship I normally need," Dresden shrugged. "But the size of her greywater tanks, I'd have to make four times as many trips. I'm not going to buy a bigger vessel just for this; there'd be just as many questions. And I'm factoring that privacy into the price tag of your contract."

Well, at least that much made sense; vessel as old as theirs, with their kind of reputation, was near guaranteed to be cheaper to buy off than a shiny Alliance merchie. And if they tried the blackmail route... well, without the proper method, how much was their knowledge really worth? Not enough to shut off yet another income funnel. With half their contacts dead at Alliance or Reaver hands, and most of the rest pissed enough to sell them to the Alliance next chance they got, Fanty and Mingo were the best clearinghouse they still had access to. Even with that xīniú forty percent fee.

...Which Dresden had already paid, this time. Mal pursed his lips. "All right. Here's the deal. You stay out of the cargo bay and the bridge on the trip, just like any ordinary paying passenger. When we get to New Melbourne, you do what you gotta do- so long's as it doesn't inconvenience any of my crew, or damage my ship. You do not inconvenience me or my crew, period. Then we take you where you gotta go. You hand over the platinum, and we go our separate ways."

Dresden thought that over, then nodded. "We have us a deal, Captain," he said, and offered his hand.

Mal was feeling a mite better about the prospect by the time they arrived at Serenity. Dresden had returned from the rooms he'd rented over the Maidenhead carrying only a fancy carved staff and a smallish, threadbare knapsack slung over his shoulder. That cut down a bit on the foreboding image presented by that long, black coat, and the rambling conversation that followed about the uneven levels of technology on the border worlds and how that had led to his preference for the hardier models of ship, ticked over a switch in the back of Mal's brain that normally only triggered for crazy, yet harmless folk truly dedicated to their jobs, like Kaylee. Or Wash.

It helped that no one got in their way nor gave them a second look along their route, neither; was almost like there was some kind of invisible barrier holding the docks at a distance. Was a bit of a relief, actually; there were a couple creditors on Beaumonde he'd been looking to duck 'til they came back, flush. Maybehaps the tall presence at his side was keeping them away?

In which case, Dresden's presence aboard seemed more like to be an awkward piece of furniture knocked loose in the footpath than a deliberate barricade, unless there was something seriously untoward he didn't yet know about him. And hell, Mal was already looking forward to Jayne's attempts to loom over the man, given that he was more'n a head taller than even Mal. Might bring a few laughs to a ship been sore lacking for 'em of late.

He was, in fact, fair ready to introduce Dresden to the rest of the crew with a not entirely feigned smile when Serenity's hull hove into view; and that smile widened even more as the cargo hatch door opened at the hand of his first mate, looking particularly fetching in her tan blouse and vest that day.

"Zoe," he said, gesturing toward the beanpole of a man at his side. "This here's..."

Zoe's expression went suddenly flat, a shift that made the Sergeant in Mal instinctively want to duck for cover. "Harry. Blackstone. Copperfield-"

"Hey, hey, no need to break out the big guns!" Dresden actually lurched backward at his side, raising the hand not clutching the staff. "Zoe Alleyne, as I live and breathe!"

"Might want to check your pulse, then. It's Zoe Washburne, now," she said- and though her tone was just as stern, Mal nearly did a double-take at the tiny smile lurking at the corner of her mouth. She knew this guy.

"You know this guy?" he blurted, brain/mouth filter temporarily disabled in surprise. Zoe'd never been what you'd call bubbly, but she'd been brightening by slow degrees since they set off the rockets for Wash after Miranda. Not to the point of smiling, though; and this guy comes in and immediately...

...what was the phrase she'd first used to describe Wash? 'Something about him just bothers me'. Wŏ de tiān, a; this was courting behavior from her. This guy was an ex.

"You might say that, sir," Zoe said, eyes sparkling just a bit, and took a step back into the ship, holding the door open for them. "Dresden," she said, speaking the guy's fourth name- man must have Core heritage; even Inara didn't have that many names- with audible relish. "Been some time."

Dresden swallowed, Adam's apple bobbing in his throat. "Uh, yeah. I suppose it has." He glanced nervously around her as he waited for Mal to precede him through the door.

Zoe's slight smile grew a little at that, 'til even Dresden could see it; though it made him hunch his skinny shoulders even more, to Mal's amusement. "Yes, I told my husband. No, he's not here; though I would have paid good platinum to see that meeting. Lost him to Reavers, nigh on a year ago."

That straightened him out, where the smile hadn't. "My condolences," he said, almost absently rubbing his left hand with his right, as though to soothe an ache. "Though I'm glad you were able to find the happiness you were hoping for."

"Take your happiness where you can, right? Or have you changed your philosophy since the last time I saw you?"

"Is there any possible answer to that that won't end with me bleeding?" he replied, rallied for a try at charming as he jerked his chin at the mare's leg riding the sheath at Zoe's hip.

"Ask me again before we leave New Melbourne," she smirked, closing the door behind him. "Should have known it was you when I saw where Fanty and Mingo were sending us. You been back since?"

"No," he shook his head, still staring at her. "I checked the listings for the Loring, but..."

"Yeah," Zoe cut that short. No profit in raking over yet another old loss. "So. You have things to stow in your quarters, or you want the ten credit tour first?"

"Quarters, first," he gestured with the staff.

"Follow me." She swept a hand toward the hatch at the back of the cargo bay into the lower level of the ship proper, and they both walked away without so much as a look back.

"...Nevermind me," Mal said to himself, bemused, shaking his head. "I'm just the Captain." He watched them go for a minute, the tight, curly hair of his second bobbing just below the shoulder of the salt-and-pepper, shaggy-haired beanpole beside her, then followed at a slower pace, ears peeled for any other details he might pick up.

"...still remember the last thing you said to me, you know," he caught after a minute, drifting back between the clanging thumps of Dresden's staff against the metal grating.

"Made that much of an impression, did I?" Zoe replied, dryly.

"...never... another woman... dare," he replied, words fading out a little, then raised his voice again, mimicking Zoe's Border diction. "You can think of my virginity as your little souvenir from our relationship."

Zoe's laugh, low and amused, followed after him.

Mal raised his eyebrows and turned toward the stairs for the bridge. Much as he'd like to twit Zoe about that one, he valued his diăo exactly where it was.

This was going to be one interesting trip, one way or another.


xīniú - cow-sucking
Wŏ de tiān, a - Dear god in heaven
diăo - dick