BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL

MAL4PREZ

Easy Tickets: Chapter 5
Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Someone’s watching from above… Inara gets herself a client and an opportunity, Mal doesn’t like either. The crew arrives on Niflheim and Mal makes a new friend.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 3199    RATING: 10    SERIES: FIREFLY

See Chapter 1 and my blog for disclaimers and such.

Except I have to say thanks to VERA2529, LEEH, and GUENEVER for the beta help!

Mandarin translations: put your mouse over the pinyan to get the definitions, or see the list at the end. (I love this – thanks again for the tip, lvs2read!)

* * *

Beyla Skulde’s aristocratic face didn’t change when a woman’s gruff voice came through the receiver in her ear. She also didn’t miss a word that her nephew Peter was telling her about the lovely woman standing next to him; she waited for him to finish his sentence before she lifted an embroidered handkerchief to her face, turned away, and spoke quietly into her right hand: I’ll be right with you.

“Are you all right, Auntie Beyla?” Peter asked.

“Oh, yes, thank you. I have a small business matter which requires my attention. I’ll need a few moments. Could you handle the introductions for me?” She inclined her head toward the elegantly clad guests gathering in the foyer.

“Of course.”

“It is a pleasure to meet you, Miss Serra,” Beyla said to the woman who made such a proper ornament for Peter’s arm. “I look forward to chatting with you over dinner.”

“Myself as well,” the Companion said, and she smiled warmly. “Auntie.”

Beyla smiled her pleasure at the familiarity before she slipped through a doorway behind her and passed swiftly down a short passage. Peter’s haphazard attitude about the family business, not to mention his personal habits, had always worried her. But he’d earned a pat on the head for finding a Registered Companion to bring tonight. Not that she believed he’d been intimate with her; did the man really think old age led to gullibility?

She entered a private office and closed the door behind her, then held her right hand to her mouth again. The transmitter cunningly fit into a ring on her middle finger, and she triggered it with her thumb before she spoke.

“Ginger, my dear, how are things proceeding?”

Beyla powered up the screen in the desktop while the reply came through. These folks are fools. We’ll have their ship in a few. Thought you’d wanna have a look.

Such poor diction. “How kind of you to think of me.”

Locate my signal yet?

“The visual is coming up now.”

The satellite image on the screen tracked to Ginger’s signal, showing a grounded Firefly transport ship and the apparently empty land around it. Beyla touched an icon on the left side of the screen to activate the motion tracker. There were a few seconds of chaos until the system recognized the pattern of the winds that stirred the dead trees, then only four points were highlighted. Three were the strange shapes of people walking as viewed from directly above. The fourth was a woman lying on her back, waving one arm over her head. Beyla used her index finger to draw a box around the woman, and the view zoomed in. The resolution was so high that Beyla could clearly see the ridiculous goggles over the sniper’s eyes.

You got me?

“Yes, thank you. You’ll have the ship soon?”

Shouldn’t be a problem.

“Very good.” Beyla zoomed back out and panned the image over to the ship. It didn’t look like much, but it should be able to reach orbit, and had a cargo bay door large enough to load what she needed.

“Let me know when you reach the harvester, so I can time the rendezvous.”

Will do.

“Good luck, deary.”

Beyla stayed a moment longer, watching the three figures closing in on the ship. Two disappeared under the front of it; the third scrambled up the back.

She was about to switch off the screen when a new figure entered from the side, moving fast. Beyla couldn’t make much of it from the overhead view, except that it was human. She zoomed in on Ginger again and saw that the woman was tracking the runner with her sniper rifle. Ginger had it under control; Beyla had chosen her recruits wisely.

She turned away from the monitor with a satisfied smile on her face, stepping to the window for a moment’s peace. Her Cartel’s platform was positioned over the middle of the rings, which made a large flat expanse below her, perfectly smooth and solid except for the few gaps.

By some convenient accident of cosmic history and gravitational stability, the outer sections of the rings had a different composition than the rest. Beyla could see a small section of them from here; they flashed as the light of the sun broke apart in the crystals. A true fortune, a nearly endless source of valuable material, easy to mine and requiring no expensive transport through the planet’s gravity well.

Her Cartel was making great profit off of those sparkling rocks, enough to keep her in luxury for however many years remained in her frail body. But that wasn’t enough. Beyla wanted her name to become a part of the Alliance’s history. She would see her nephew Peter elevated to a position of power before she passed, and for that she needed more political clout. She’d found a way to get it, and, as a bonus, it meant taking down her primary competition.

Oddly, she was depending on a few washed up Alliance soldiers, a farmer turned small-time criminal, and a battered old transport ship to do it. Her mouth curved ironically; life had thrown her an odd twist of fate.

* * *

One day ago

Mal sat alone at the dining room table, idly chewing a bit of smoked bear. He’d abandoned the deck of cards some time ago.

Everyone else was still asleep. Before long, Wash would be getting up to start Serenity on her long deceleration into Niflheim, and Mal would have to take his sleeplessness to his bunk and strap in. But not yet, he had a little more time to kill.

He thought back on the trip: only one day, and it had been a dull one. Book had provided some company, but Mal wasn’t chatty and they’d quickly run out of things to say. The rest of the crew had hardly made an appearance. Jayne had his beer, Zoë and Wash had each other, and Kaylee had the hovercraft. The mechanic had an assistant, too. Mal knew Simon was up to something with River, but the girl was behaving so he let them have their secrets. Anyhow, Kaylee seemed pleased with the girl’s help.

Inara had hardly come out of her shuttle. He supposed she was busy sorting through potential clients. It wasn’t a bad thing, he told himself. Maybe if she got some work she’d get out of whatever bad mood she’d been in.

Funny – got some work. He still had a hard time referring to she did as ‘work’. Wasn’t how he’d been raised to think of the act involved. Of course, very little in this `verse was the way he’d been raised to think of it.

He felt a wave of annoyance, tinged with a deep bitterness. She’d actually asked his permission. So now, on top of everything else, he had to concern himself with Inara’s sex life. Next she’d be wanting him to hold her hand, lead her to whatever rich loser had contracted with her and hand her over with his blessing.

He pushed the chair back and got up. He was sick of sitting – might as well have a stroll while he still could.

* * *

Inara started to sip her tea, then noticed that it had gone cold and stale. She set it aside and went over the list of offers again.

The first ever visit of a Registered Companion to Niflheim had been well received, and she had offers from half the officers of the top Cartels. A half dozen of them stood out as warranting first consideration. She touched the screen, sending a wave to one of them.

“Balder,” she said warmly to the handsome face on the screen. It was late morning for him, and she’d waved him at his Cartel’s orbital office.

“Please,” he replied with a laugh, “I go by Peter, from my middle name. My parents did love their mythology, but they didn’t spare much thought for modern meanings.”

She smiled, pleased by his easy manner, and studied his full head of blonde curls.

“The modern meaning of the word certainly doesn’t apply to you, Peter.” Indeed, he had more in common with the mythological god who shared his first name: clean white skin and clear eyes that shone with childlike innocence, although the profile he’d sent her placed his age in his mid thirties.

“Thank you, Miss Serra. I take it you got my offer?”

“I did, it’s very generous,” she lowered her eyes modestly.

“One doesn’t often have such an opportunity. And out here ‘not often’ really means never!”

“We are quite a distance from the Core,” she agreed.

“So is my offer enough?”

“It’s more than adequate.”

His eyes lit up even more. “You’ve decided then?”

“Not quite.” She smiled to soften the statement. “I prefer to talk to all my potential clients before I make my decision.”

“I see, I have competition.” He grinned mischievously. “I must tell you all about my plans then, to tempt you.”

“Tempt away.” Inara found herself warming to his exuberance.

“It just happens, we are having the party of parties tomorrow.”

“Indeed?”

“Oh yes. One of the shining stars of the great Skuld house will be finishing his years of exile and returning to Londinium in three days time, and tomorrow is his goodbye party.”

“A shining star?” Inara let her eyes sparkle so he’d know she was teasing him. “Now who could that be?”

“You guessed it. But as silly as it is, anyone who is anyone will be there, which, granted, isn’t a big crowd out here. But… you could take another offer and be just a guest, or you can come with me and be on the arm of the big star himself.” His self-deprecating expression conveyed a different meaning than his words.

“That would be quite an honor,” she replied, trying to be serious, but the look on his face made her laugh.

He sighed. “Seriously, Miss Serra – ”

“Please, call me Inara.”

“Inara then, my Aunt Beyla insists on throwing this dumb party and the fuss makes me crazy. It would spare me a great deal of suffering if the xián huà-mongers had something to wag their tongues about besides the cut of my suit. So you see, I really have a need for you that no one else can match, no matter how tempting their offer…”

Inara laughed at his definition of need. “You are in a difficult spot. I’ll keep that in mind.”

“Thank you, Inara.” He turned as someone off screen spoke. “I’m sorry, always work to be done. Whatever your choice, it has been a thrill just to speak with you.”

“Thank you…” But a thought rolling around in the back of her mind wouldn’t let her be. “And Peter…”

“Yes?”

“It may seem forward of me to ask this…” she looked to the screen for his permission to continue, and he nodded, his eyes alight with interest. “You said you’re leaving for Londinium in a few days?”

“Back to the light of civilization,” he confirmed with a sad sigh.

“You don’t sound happy about it.”

“It’s a drawback of being heir to an up-and-coming Cartel. Once I get back it’ll be all fundraisers and meetings with Parliament and the press all over the place. Can’t have so much as a hair out of place when you live in the Core.”

Inara looked over his full head of hair again; she imagined he’d look just fine with a few hairs out of place. “Life in the spotlight can be somewhat constricting,” she said.

“I see you understand.”

“Yes, I do. However, there are certain things about the Core that one can start to miss.”

“You’ve been out here long?”

“About as long as I can take,” she admitted, then continued hesitantly. “Which is why I asked – ”

He held up a hand in the corner of the screen. “Please, not another word. Of course there’s room for you on the yacht. It would be a relief to have your company for the trip.”

“Thank you Peter. I’ll… notify you of my decision by day’s end.”

“A pleasure, Inara Serra.”

He cut the connection, and Inara’s screen switched to show miniatures of the five men and one women whose offers she was considering. The others would have a difficult time competing with Balder Petrovsky Skuld.

As for the opportunity for transport to the Core, that she’d need time to consider.

* * *

She was still staring blindly at the screen, lost in thought, when the hatch opened with a small clang. She knew who it was, and cursed to herself. Why did he have to show up now, before she had time to decide her plans? Before she’d really thought it out?

“Captain,” she said without looking over her shoulder, “have you ever considered that walking into a lady’s private quarters in the middle of the night could be misconstrued?”

“Ain’t the middle of the night. More like early mornin’.”

Inara glanced at the bottom of the screen, surprised to see that he was right. “My question still applies.”

When he didn’t answer, she turned in her chair. He was standing a few steps behind her.

“Wash’ll be locking us down soon, won’t get another chance to talk before we arrive. I saw your light on, thought I should find out what your plans are.” He tilted his head and looked past her, openly studying the screen.

“I will have a client. There are several options, as you see,” Inara said.

“Not bad,” he replied with a nod, then he leaned over her to point at one of the faces. “I’d go with that one, he looks particularly lusty. ”

She knew she shouldn’t ask. He had that slight tightness in his jaw, a sure sign that she’d be better off keeping this conversation short. But the words slipped out. “How so?”

“Somethin’ in the eyes says ‘please take my money, or I’ll never get laid’.”

Inara felt her ire rising. How did he always manage to do this to her? She realized she needed to finalize her plans, to get him out of the shuttle before they could fight again, so she made her decision.

“Actually, I’ve already chosen my client and it won’t be that one,” she said.

“No? What could be hotter than desperation?”

It was too late; she was angry. Her voice was falsely sweet as she explained. “Actually, you’re not completely wrong. They’re not desperate, but they are eager for my company. Attracting a Registered Companion would be a major victory for any house, one they are willing to pay dearly for. I’ve had extremely lucrative offers from members of the biggest Cartels on the planet.”

“Oh, I see,” Mal raised his eyebrows as if he was mighty impressed. “A bidding war. Must be quite an honor.”

Inara couldn’t stop herself from huffing in exasperation. Was he really saying that sarcastically? Didn’t he realize what a honor it truly was? She’d trained for many years to be able to command such respect.

“Actually, it is an honor,” she replied tightly. “Not that you’d know anything about it.”

He shrugged off the barb. “So how `xactly does it work? Rich folk sit around comparin’ who paid more to get a woman in their bed?”

Inara turned back to the screen and tapped one of the small pictures with more force she’d intended, and Peter’s profile came up. “I’ve decided to accept the offer from the heir to the Skuld Cartel. We’re arriving at an excellent time. He’s leaving for the Core soon, and there’s much celebration planned for the next few days.”

Mal considered the picture. “Well now, he is a pretty one.”

“Yes. Charming too.”

“And he’s paying ‘dearly,’ huh?”

“It’s quite a lot more than I usually receive.”

“Quite a lot? Ah, right – the honor. Sex ain’t the only thing that costs money for these folks, I guess. Now, would it be ethical to sell poor people sex and honor, or is it just food that ain’t allowed to turn a profit?”

Inara bit back a sharp retort. Years she’d spent, her whole life, becoming the best at what she did. He’d never see that. For him, her profession would always be a degradation, and not the position of respect that she knew it was. And he’d always tear her down for it.

When she didn’t answer his question, Mal got a smug look on his face, as if he’d scored a point in their ongoing battle. He went to take a seat on the sofa, probably figuring he’d take advantage of his victory.

When he turned his back to her, something inside Inara worked it’s way free. For weeks, she’d been trying to avoid it, but she wasn’t completely blind to what was happening. Her anger toward Mal was about more than defending her life as a Companion.

She was drawn to him; she felt something for him.

His back was still turned, and he didn’t see her head drop. It was the first time she’d admitted it to herself so openly. But she couldn’t let herself feel it. There was no future here, only continued sparring and pain. And she was doing Mal no favor by staying, by constantly lashing out to keep him at a distance. She couldn’t allow this to continue.

She raised her head as he sat down. He looked at her expectantly, waiting to jump all over whatever she said. But she was done with the fight; she had a way out, and she’d be a fool to miss it.

The decision made, her indignation melted away, and she studied him with new eyes. He looked so tired. He wasn’t a tyrant or a bully; he was just a man struggling to get by. And he had so much weight on him, so many cares.

“Everything costs money out here, Mal,” she said.

He looked surprised at the softness of her tone. “Some things shouldn’t be paid for,” he replied, his voice challenging. Inara wasn’t going to be baited now. “I’m going to an orbital platform, so I’ll leave before Serenity enters atmo.”

To her relief, he picked up on her mood and gave up the fight too. His face relaxed. “Lucky you,” he replied. “You’ll miss the chance to get squished to jelly on the ride in.”

The grav drive, Inara thought. She could at least help with that before she left. She took a deep breath.

“Mal, I am going to offer you something, but I don’t want you to be offended.”

“That don’t sound like it’s gonna involve fun little pills,” he replied cautiously.

“No, it’s not.” She shut off the screen and turned her full attention to him. “I know you like to earn everything on your own, usually through the most difficult means available. But there’s not been a lot of business for Serenity lately. I’d like to help.”

“Huh,” he replied, studying her. Finally he scratched his cheek, then shrugged. “Last time you offered help, didn’t turn out so bad.” His soft smile asked her to remember, but she couldn’t let herself.

“I have a fair amount of money. Especially after this next client.”

Mal’s eye widened in surprise. “Your offerin’ me money?”

“The ship needs work to make it safe, and you spent all you had on the cargo you’re carrying. If you can’t sell what you have for a decent price, you might not be able to fix Serenity.”

He still looked confused, and a little suspicious as well. “I `preciate it Inara, but I gotta wonder – we’ve had tight times before. Why you offerin’ help now?”

Inara shifted uncomfortably, then tried another smile. “Mal, you and I have had some rough times, but I’ve had a good year here. You’ve… usually done your best to accommodate my needs. I want to do what I can to help because I’m….” She couldn’t finish.

“You’re what?”

“I just want to help all I can before I, um…”

Mal dropped his head into his hand. “Just say it.”

“… before I leave.”

He gave her a hard look, then stood up and walked to the bulkhead near the exit.

“You knew I was planning on leaving,” she added weakly.

He turned back. “And you’re offerin’ me a bonus for services rendered?”

“I want to know that you’ll all be okay.”

“So you won’t stay up nights worryin’?” Mal’s voice dripped sarcasm.

“I don’t want to fight –”

“Then what the hell do you want? You wanna buy peace of mind just like you sell honor to some pathetic hún dàn?”

Inara stood up too, but walked toward the incense burner on the cabinet across the room from him. I want to feel safe, she thought, I want to be where I belong. But she didn’t answer his question out loud. “My client is able to provide me transport back to Londinium,” she said neutrally. “I don’t have to pay transport fees, so I have plenty – ”

“Congratulations,” Mal interrupted. He snorted half a laugh. “You really hit the jackpot with this one. Bet he smells like roses, and he’s got a real big diăo, too.”

She turned to him. “Mal, don’t be crude. It’s time for me to go. I don’t belong out here.”

“Then why’d you come in the first place?”

“That’s… not important. But I never intended to stay forever. It’s time for me to go back.”

She looked to him for understanding, but he was a wall to her now. “Fine. Go on, and take all your hard-earned coin with you.”

“Mal, please – ’

“You paid your rent like we agreed, we’re all square.” He turned to leave.

She gave up the argument. There was no point. “Yes,” she said softly. “All square.”

He paused just outside the hatch. “What `bout the danger to the crew, the Alliance lookin’ for me and all that?”

“Oh.” She hadn’t even considered it. “Of course, I wouldn’t say anything that would help them – ”

He interrupted her, his voice suddenly calm. “Not to worry. It’ll be a while `fore they find you, we’ll have time to move on. Just tell the truth, you’ll have the Guild to see you’re treated fair.”

She watched him as he looked back into the shuttle once, his eyes wandering like he was memorizing it, then his gaze settled on her again. Cool and stony and unreachable.

“Let us know where to pick up the shuttle after you’ve moved your things out.”

Inara turned away from him. She hadn’t even thought out the details yet. It was so quick. When would she say goodbye to the rest of the crew? Kaylee. Simon and River. Zoë and Wash. Book. Jayne. Gods, she was even going to miss Jayne!

Inara put a hand over her mouth, as if that would stifle the grief that suddenly swelled in her chest, nearly overwhelming her. Why hadn’t it occurred to her before? Why had she decided so quickly? She needed to think…

“But I… I don’t know – ” she stammered as she turned, but Mal was gone.

Inara went to the hatch he’d left open, closing and locking it, then she returned to sit on her bed. She was still for several minutes, her hands clutching in her lap, her face struggling. But she didn’t give in. She took a several deep breaths, then got up and started gathering the things she’d need for her appointment.

She wasn’t going to let herself cry over Mal again.

* * *

The alarm roused Wash at a truly ungodly hour. He turned it off and would have ignored it and cuddled back up to a very warm and cozy Zoë, but she pushed him away until he slid off the edge of the bed and out of the covers.

“Go do your flyin’ thing,” she mumbled as she turned over.

“Guh?” Wash replied as he sat up and scratched his head. The cold metal of the deck was unpleasant on his bare behind, but it took some time for him to figure out that standing up and getting dressed would likely help with that.

He climbed the ladder out of the dark cozy nest a few minutes later, hair still sticking out wildly. He stopped by the bridge first, announcing over the comm that any crew not sleeping had twenty minutes to strap down before the burn started, then he headed to the galley to put together some snacks and a big cup of really strong tea.

He found Mal sitting in the dining room alone.

“Hey, you up already?” Wash asked as he lumbered down the stairs, stumbling a bit as he wiped his eyes.

“That I am.”

“We okay to burn?”

“I checked the cargo bay, everything tied down. Kaylee’s sleepin’ in the engine room. You buzz her if anything happens, okay?”

Wash looked up from the galley, finally noticing the weariness in Mal’s voice.

“Did you sleep at all?”

“I got four hours comin’ up when all I’ll be able to do is lay in my bunk.”

“Unless you want to come up front and play dinos?” Wash asked, waking up enough to be a bit playful.

Mal returned a tired smile. “Nah, I’ll leave that to you.” He got up and brought his half full mug into the kitchen. He had to wash it and put it away before leaving; there was no being lazy with a grav drive on the fritz. Wash looked at him more closely; the Captain did look tired.

“Not so much with the sleeping lately?” Wash asked.

“Got a lot on my mind is all. Here, let me get that.” Mal picked up Wash’s mug so the pilot could carry both his plate of food and one of the few remaining packages of rice cakes.

“Thanks.” Wash headed toward the bridge with Mal behind him. “Anything you want to talk about Captain?” he asked. “I got nothing but time on my hands, and to be honest I’m running low on storyline ideas for Seeber and Queen T. Rex.”

“Oh, yeah. And how are those two crazy kids doin’?”

“Great. Just don’t let the Queen hear you call her a kid. She can be vicious.” As he entered the bridge, Wash glanced back at Mal. “And how are you, Captain?”

Mal looked sidelong at Wash. “Ship’s already got a doctor ,Wash.”

“I’m not trying to be a doctor.” Wash set his plate down on the corner of the console. “I’m just asking.”

“I’m fine.” Mal held out Wash’s mug.

Wash took his tea and sat down. “Seriously. I’ll be bored to tears up here.”

“You’ll manage.” Mal started to leave but stopped at the hatch and turned back. “ Oh – Wash?”

“Yeah?”

“Inara’s got a client and needs to leave from orbit. Buzz her once we get in and set things up. No need to bug anyone else about it – unless she wants you to.”

“Sure.” Mal really did look worn out, Wash thought. “How long you need to get settled?”

“Five minutes is fine.”

“Sleep well.”

Mal looked back at Wash like he thought the pilot was making fun. Then he nodded. “Right.”

* * *

It was not a good time to have these particular engine problems, Inara thought. She had to lay still for four hours, with nothing to distract her from the thoughts that kept sleep at bay. She considered disobeying orders and getting up to pack, but if the grav failed she’d end up in the infirmary with, at best, multiple broken bones, unable to get away from Mal’s lecturing. She couldn’t imagine anything worse. So she huddled under her covers and tried to blank her mind.

But she couldn’t. Maybe it was best anyway, to prepare herself for the next few hours, as unpleasant as it might be. When they reached Niflheim, Wash would cut the engines in orbit, and she’d have to do it. She’d have to go to the dining room and wait for them to gather, most likely still half asleep. Then she’d tell them she was leaving. They’d be surprised, and sad, but there wouldn’t be time to say all the things that needed saying.

Of course, she could always go straight to her client, then return with the shuttle later to let them know. Then she’d have time to talk to each of them, to leave gifts, and to convince Kaylee to take the money Mal had refused.

The more she considered it, the more it made sense. It would be better to say goodbye to them later, after she had time to collect herself and could do it calmly. In fact, it would be dangerous to keep the ship in orbit any longer than necessary. Better to let them land as quickly as possible so they could work on getting Serenity repaired.

Clients always had business to attend to; Peter wouldn’t need her all the time. She’d find a chance to slip away and rejoin the crew for a few hours, explain the opportunity that had come up. That would work out for the best.

Inara passed the rest of the flight going over her belongings in her head, deciding on gifts for each member of the crew. Trying to convince herself that she was doing the right thing.

* * *

“Ladies and gents, we are in orbit around Niflheim,” Wash announced. “Please don’t get up yet, I need to work out a few things with Inara.”

Mal laid still and waited for the call to the dining room. He knew he would have to go, to hear Inara’s announcement and watch the crew’s reaction, as much as he didn’t want to. What would she do to say goodbye, shake hands? Offer him some incense?

The comm buzzed again: “Okay, she’s gone. Mal, could you come to the bridge and tell me where to set down?”

Mal rubbed his eyes and rolled out of bed, telling himself he was relieved to avoid the drama of a long goodbye. But he couldn’t stop the words that repeated in his head: She’s gone.

* * *

It was mid-morning shiptime when Serenity landed in a run-down docking yard in the city of Alsvidh, but it was late afternoon local. Mal and Zoë left right away to search for buyers, starting with a few recommended by Hans. It took almost two hours of running around before they finally located someone. Apparently, the population had been dwindling recently.

The one contact they found didn’t seem to like Mal much. In particular, she eyed his outfit with distaste, but she was more than happy to buy the cargo. The money wasn’t as good as Mal had hoped, but it should be enough to repair and fuel the ship with some left over. The buyer was eager to get the goods, but she needed time to arrange for transport and security – it wasn’t safe to move such a large store of foodstuffs across town without several gunhands to guard it.

Mal was feeling the effects of his lack of sleep; he left Zoë to arrange the details of the exchange and wandered into the street. He did his best not to look at the planetary rings that adorned the sky, at the occasional glint of sun hitting the orbiting platforms. Inara was on one of those, and most like he wouldn’t see her again before she left for good. He must of really ticked her off, for her to just leave like this. Hell, what else did he expect? Did he really think a Registered Companion would –

Mal rubbed his eyes and told himself for the hundredth time that day not to think about it. He tried to occupy himself by looking around the local neighborhood.

It was a dreary place; half the buildings were falling apart and there wasn’t a bit of green to be seen. The locals didn’t seem to cotton to him any more than the buyer had. Mal watched a woman pushing two children in front of her, eyeing him nervously as she hustled around the corner. What a place to grow up. Mal had spent his childhood surrounded by the fertility of nature, his life centered on the needs of the livestock and the fields. How could people cope with living in a barren place like this?

“Pardon.”

Mal turned toward the voice. The speaker looked to be quite the cowboy, dressed in black from head to toe, and decorated with a bucket hat and a large shiny belt buckle of a bucking bronc. His coal gray coat swung around him as he strutted up to Mal.

“Didn’t I see you gettin’ off a Firefly in the docks earlier today?”

The man’s accent was a little strong, and suddenly the getup made sense. He had to be some escapee from the Core, doing his pathetic best to dress the part of rim world baddy.

“I got off one,” Mal replied. “Whether you saw me doin’ it or not is your business.”

The man smiled, showing straight white teeth that glowed against his tan skin. He ignored Mal’s gruff tone and extended a hand. “Name’s Will.”

Mal shook hands with a little smile that didn’t reach his eyes. Something about this guy bothered him, and his hackles were up. “Smith,” he lied.

“She’s a real beaut. Yours?”

It took Mal a second to recall that Will was asking about his ship. “That she is,” he replied.

“Ah, so it’s Cap’n Smith.” Will’s eyes and his grin showed nothing but respect and admiration. Mal wasn’t buying it.

“That’s right, Cap’n Smith.” Mal aped the accent, then looked over his shoulder to see what was holding up Zoë.

“How much cargo she carry?”

Mal looked back. “You got some particular cargo in mind?”

“Yer a sharp one, Cap’n Smith. S’matter of fact I do.”

Mal felt a slight temptation, but it died quickly. He didn’t like this guy, and he wasn’t gonna go against his gut. He had enough problems for one day. “She’s all hired out. Sorry.”

Will gave Mal a long look. “Sure `bout that? It’s a betty of a job I got.”

“Shame, cause we’re awful busy.” Mal flashed a dismissive smile, but Will either didn’t pick on it or didn’t care.

“You might wanna think twice.”

The man’s tone suddenly wasn’t so light. Mal gave him an up and down look, and his eyes settled on Will’s sidearm, visible when the breeze blew his coat back. That was no rim world peashooter; it was a laser guided pistol. Commonly used by the Alliance military. Suddenly, Mal wanted to know a bit more about this guy.

“Say, that’s a nice gun you got,” Mal said.

Will didn’t look down, but he let his right hand pass over the butt of it. “Had it since the war,” he said, his smile losing just a bit of its pleasantness.

“Yeah, I kind’a figured,” Mal said evenly, meeting Will’s stare.

“Are you sure you’re too busy for a little side job? The pay is good.” Funny how the accent had gone away.

“Doubt it’s good enough. In fact, I’m thinkin’ you can’t afford my rates.”

Will freshened up his smile and put his accent back on. “Now, I’m ready to overlook the color of yer coat, so why don’t you just relax `bout my gun. It’d be a shame to miss out on business `cause of what’s long past.”

“There’s more to a job than money,” Mal held the man’s eye for a long second before he turned away. Zoë had finished with the buyer, and was giving Mal a questioning look.

“War’s over,” Will said to Mal’s back.

“But free will ain’t,” Mal replied without slowing down. “My ship’s not for hire.”

Mal joined Zoë, cutting off her questions with a small shake of his head, and they made their way back to Serenity.

* * *

Zoë led Mal through the crates stacked in the cargo bay, then turned to question him as soon as they reached the open space near Kaylee’s mule.

“Was he Alliance?” Zoë asked.

“Used to be, probably some grunt in the war. Don’t know what he is now.”

“Alliance?” Kaylee asked. She was crawling over the back of the hovercraft, one arm reaching down into it. River stood nearby, covered in grease down to her bare feet and holding an array of tools in her hands.

“No worries, Kaylee. I just made a new friend is all.”

“Really?” she asked with a grin.

“Yeah.” Mal grinned back, running his thumbs behind the lapel of his coat. “He liked my outfit.”

“Well, who wouldn’t?”

Mal nodded to the craft. “How’s it comin’?”

“Needs a new fuel line and some power cells, and then it ought’a be up `n runnin’!”

“Nuh-uh,” Mal replied with exaggerated doubt.

“Uh-huh!” she replied with an open-mouthed grin.

“In that case, how `bout we go out tomorrow and get rid of some of cash I’ll have burnin’ a hole in my pocket?”

“Shiny, Cap’n!”

“Where’d Jayne get to?” Mal asked, moving on to climb the stairs.

“Ain’t seen him all day,” Kaylee replied.

“Confused,” River mumbled. “Looking for himself.”

Mal glanced at the girl. “I really don’t need to know about that,” then started up the stairs. Zoë followed him. “He’s probably passed out in his bunk,” she said.

“Get him up and out here. I want you both to watch over these folks taking the cargo.”

“You don’t trust them, sir?”

“Zoë, I don’t trust anyone on this rock.”

“Why’s that?”

Mal paused on the catwalk, looking back at her. “Cause this place gives me the creeps. Don’t it bother you?”

“None more than half the other places we do business.”

“Huh.” Mal shrugged and turned to continue on his way. “Well, no matter, let’s just get what we need and move on.”

He felt Zoë’s stare following him through the hatch. She was seeing it, seeing that he wasn’t himself. He’d never been able to fool Zoë.

* * *

Translations

xián huà: gossip hún dàn: bastard diăo: penis

* * *

On to Chapter 6.

COMMENTS

Wednesday, May 31, 2006 7:15 AM

MAL4PREZ


Nothing much to note today, except that chapter 6 (day 0) will be out Friday!

Oh… and isn’t the mouseover thing cool?

The format goes like this: <span title="hún dàn"> bastard </span>

Wednesday, May 31, 2006 7:45 AM

MAL4PREZ


Ahhh! I had it wrong -

The format goes like this: <span title="bastard">hún dàn</span>

Wednesday, May 31, 2006 7:59 AM

LEIGHKOHL


that was me above- Leighkohl

Wednesday, May 31, 2006 8:33 AM

HOMESPUN


Yay, more goodness. The way you weave your original material with the known 'verse is just seamless. Voices great as always. Worried for Mal as always. On edge of my seat as always...and won't be online Friday. argh. And thanks for the rollover tip - I've been wanting to use that and didn't know how.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006 9:23 AM

LEIASKY


Excellent as always. I love the banter between Mal and Inara. You write them so well!

I use Firefox as my browser and the mouseover thing doesn't work:(

Wednesday, May 31, 2006 9:26 AM

AMDOBELL


This is brilliant. I like all the little touches, the tweaking of tensions building and layering like the one with the initial job, the one with Inara leaving and the mix of emotions on both sides and now this bad vibe with the fellow in the black coat. We need Jayne on his feet and sharp as a tack along with Zoe as I think Mal had more than one kind of trouble heading his way. Ali D :~)
You can't take the sky from me

Wednesday, May 31, 2006 10:08 AM

2X2


Oh, Inara... *sigh*
I am all manner of worried about what's gonna happen on day 0! Gah!
The snippiness between Mal and Inara was wonderful, as always... Love Beyla, she seems to be quite the interesting Character, and Peter too...

Oh, and I use Firefox too, and the rollovers work fine for me... very cool little bit of code!

Wednesday, May 31, 2006 3:27 PM

BLUEEYEDBRIGADIER


Oohh...lovin' it, mal4prez! You have the voices down to a Joss-like quality;)

And I really wanna see what happens to get Serenity out in the wilds and Will's posse edging up on the ship:S

BEB

Wednesday, May 31, 2006 8:52 PM

SQUISH


Excellent as always. I think the exchange between Inara and Mal is one of the best I've read in terms of portraying them as they were in the series. So, great job! And I could really feel the poignant way Inara went about her work in flirting with Peter.

You are really building the suspense deliciously! Can't wait til Friday!

Wednesday, May 31, 2006 9:21 PM

NOSADSEVEN


On Mal and Inara - You totally capture the lightning-fast changes in tone that fly through so many of their 'conversations'. I love how Mal just misses seeing Inara's brief faltering, and the sharpness he pretends not to feel at her unexpectedly passed departure.

Wash and Zoe - your portrayal of these two reminds me of how much I really love Wash... (I'm usually busy obsessing over Mal!)

It's exciting seeing things start to come together. You've set up your OCs so well, I knew right away that it was Will. And Inara being at Aunt Betty's is just terrifically tantalizing. I can't wait to see how it all plays out!

Thursday, June 1, 2006 3:28 AM

BOOKADDICT


Complex plot again...so great.
I like Inara's confusion about saying goodbye to the crew and her flirting with Peter.

Kaylee & River fixing the mule together is great in both the last chapter and this and I like River's insight into Jayne.

Can't wait to see what happens next.

Thursday, June 1, 2006 9:28 AM

CAPERCAILLIE


Yes - oh, so very fine!

I am so enjoying how you set this series up. That breeze you are feeling is me kowtowing in reverence at your feet.

Is it true? Will there be another chapter tomorrow? That would be so great - Easy Tickets is certainly making its way into my daydreams.

Mal4prez - I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on Fish Job after the series was done. Will you be writing another one of those? It was interesting to read how you construct your plot. Here's crossed fingers and hoping for a "yes".

Caper....the exhausted teacher who may/may not survive exam week - would certainly benefit from some Easy Tickets!

Sunday, July 9, 2006 5:36 AM

SILLYLITTLEDUCK


poor Mal, he thinks Inara left him *sniff* guy just didn't know what hit him.

Inara's leaving (yaay, Inara is lame) okay so I am sad. Poor Kaylee's going to have her little hover mule buzz all killed. Poor dear!

Got to say this story makes me want to forget about leaving any sort of feedback and just go to the next chapter. SO in love with it. good job.

Thursday, July 13, 2006 7:07 AM

RIVERISMYGODDESS


Yay for Inara being involved with the bad guys again, I hope it helps like it did in Jaynestown.

“Somethin’ in the eyes says ‘please take my money, or I’ll never get laid’.”
This line made me laugh hard.

I don't know if'n I mentioned this before, but I really like the part about River spending time in Kaylee's mind and helping her with the new mule.


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