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Sugar and Spice

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Han dragged a hand through his hair and tried to keep up the casually inconspicuous act. He'd somehow never yet gotten around to paying off Jabba with what was left of his reward money, and life since the destruction of the Death Star had gotten successively worse. Just another reason he didn’t believe much in the Force, as if he needed one. You do a decent thing, stop the kid from getting himself blown to smithereens, take out a few Imperial scuzzbags, and what does the universe do? Send you fetching supplies all the way out on Ord Mantell—a planet on the back end of nowhere, generally acknowledged to be a place even less appealing than Tatooine. Add in the fact that Han was about to be brushing shoulders with folks so ornery they’d managed to convince even the Empire not to take them on, and he was about as happy as a nek battle dog with a thorn in its paw.

Though Ord Mantell was pretty much lawless, beyond it there was a whole different ‘civilization,’ if you could call it that. Apparently this distant side of the galaxy did have some kind of central authority types—the ‘Alliance’ ironically enough—but its power base was about as far from here as Imperial City was, and in the opposite direction. With any sort of luck—or a touch of Luke’s Force, if he had any to spare—this particular meet and greet would be falling safely under the radar.

Supposedly.

The fact that his contact hadn’t shown up yet wasn’t auguring well as far as that was concerned, and that concerned Han more than he wanted to admit. The Rebels’ newest base—a hideous iceball named Hoth—sounded bad, and the starship captain was willing to bet the supplies he was waiting for were desperately needed. Han’s wasn’t the only luck that was going sour.

He ran a hand through his hair again, which prompted a mocking hoot and growl from his furry companion.

“I am not going to pull out my hair, and I am not in danger of losing it,” Han grumbled back, shifting his weight and dropping his hand to the butt of his blaster instead. “You might consider a shave, though.”

Chewie gave a short bark of laughter, which shifted quickly to a low moan of warning. Han straightened and peered towards the shadowy doorway, voice sharpening with his gaze.

“Chewie, I think we got company.”

= = = = = = =

“Now I don’t want to hear about any of you takin’ unnecessary chances while we’re on this here rock, understand? We don’t know many folk hereabouts, and they don’t know us. Might be some as say that’s a good thing, but every place has got its own problems, and we got enough of our own without invitin’ someone else’s in to stay. We clear?” Mal leaned on the chair back towards where his crew and assembled miscreants were gathered around the galley table.

Naturally, the doctor needed clarification.

“Where exactly is this place that we’re landing, Captain?”

“No man’s land. Alliance is big, but they ain’t the only bullies in the ‘verse. Other side of this rock starts somebody else’s playground, equally nasty. This spot’s good for them as don’t want to be found, but that makes it a good place to get lost permanently too. Let’s make sure that don’t happen to us.”

Jayne snorted. “Can’t be any worse than the Alliance. I ain’t worried.”

“Should be,” River glared at him from her spot in the corner. “Gaping hole where the soul should be. Blew out all the candles. Light’s growing but not fast enough. Too much wind for a candle that doesn’t know it’s burning.”

“Personally, that’s why I like flashlights,” Wash jumped in before Jayne could say anything else dumb. “Reliable even in a vacuum.”

“Just like us,” Kaylee added cheerfully. “You just let us know where we’re transferring the cargo and we’ll be up and away again with nobody the wiser.”

Mal nodded. “Fine. Contact’s name is Solo, captain of a ship called the Millennium Falcon. Supposed to be meeting us in a nice busy spot, transfer the coordinates for the cargo swap. Zoe, Jayne, you’re with—“

“Cap’n!” Kaylee broke in finally, her hopping act not having gotten Mal’s attention fast enough. “Did you say the Millennium Falcon? ‘Cause I gotta see it, Cap’n, I really really do.”

“—me,” Mal finished, glaring half-heartedly at his girl genius. “Why you so afire to see this particular bird, Kaylee? You makin’ eyes at some ship other than Serenity these days?”

“Course not, Cap’n,” Kaylee’s voice carried all the scorn such a suggestion merited. “But the Millennium Falcon’s not just any ship.”

“Hey, wait,” Wash’s face brightened. “Isn’t that the ship that made the Kessel run in under 12 parsecs?”

Kaylee nodded, bouncing a little on her toes.

“I thought that was a myth,” Jayne objected.

“An’ I suppose you’re goin’ to say the Jedi are nothin’ but a bunch of bedtime stories, too,” Kaylee shot back.

“More like nightmares,” Jayne muttered. “Movin’ faster than humans should, seein’ things that ain’t there, readin’ your mind. Gives a man an uncomfortableness.”

Everyone studiously avoided looking at River.

“But the Falcon’s a legend in piloting circles,” Wash said finally. “I’m with Kaylee, I gotta see this ship.”

“Nope. Need you hands on here in case we need to exit in a hurry, Wash,” Mal shook his head. “Kaylee, you can come along, but don’t be making too much of a scene, you hear? We do the transfer, shake hands, and get going before we attract attention.”

Kaylee grinned and scampered off, ignoring Wash’s muttered “The girls get all the fun on this boat.”

“That so?” Mal smirked a little. “In that case, why’m I taking Jayne?”

“Jayne’s a girl’s name,” River murmured with wicked smile.

= = = = = = =

Chewbacca whined his agreement, shifting behind Han’s shoulder subtly—Han didn’t need to be Kenobi to know that the Wookie was ready to move at the slightest sign of trouble. Han kept his own hands above the table they had claimed in the corner nearest the back door, a deliberate gesture of good faith.

Of course, the fact that they were outnumbered four to two meant he might regret that if things went sour. Again.

He surveyed the folks approaching their position—two men, two women. Three armed and clearly comfortable with that fact, not a bad thing in this galactic armpit, and one whose open expression was likely to get her some unwanted attention. Sweet, Han judged, and completely unaware of the way the taller man with the brown coat and the other woman were not so subtly keeping themselves between her and any of the other patrons. Something in her expression reminded him a little of the way a certain Tatooine farmboy had been not all that long ago. Han still hadn’t decided whether Luke’s new seriousness of purpose as commander of Rogue Squadron and destroyer of the Death Star sat all that well on him, but he certainly didn’t have time to ponder that now.

He stood and gestured to the seats around the table, noting with little more than a glance the fact that the brown coated man nodded at the armed woman and scruffy-looking man, who stationed themselves to each side of the table, looking out at the crowd. Decent tactics—Han liked the caution that suggested, which supported the reputation this Malcolm Reynolds had. When they’d all taken their seats, the only one who sat with no view on the rest of the tavern was the fresh-faced one.

“Name’s Reynolds,” the brown coated man said. “Got a delivery to make.”

No nonsense. Han liked that. “Solo,” he replied equally briefly, “my co-pilot, Chewbacca,” he jerked his head at the furry shadow looming at his shoulder.

“My first mate, Zoe, Jayne, and this here’s Kaylee.”

“Ship’s engineer,” Kaylee smiled and offered Han her hand. Han glanced at Reynolds, who merely looked amused, so Han shrugged inwardly and shook her hand. Her eyes were really wide and kept darting between Han’s face and Chewie’s. Han hid a smile behind his hand as he rubbed his face. If he were a betting man, he’d lay good odds that she’d never seen a Wookie before.

Of course, he was a betting man, or had been. These days he was more the Princess’s fetch and carry man, and he wasn’t sure how he felt about that, either.

“You’re the captain of the Millenium Falcon?” Her face was all lit up like she was meeting some kind of holovid celebrity. Han felt a slow smirk cross his face before he could stop it. He always did fancy the sort of lady who could appreciate a fast ship.

“You’ve heard of the Falcon?”

“Well sure! Fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy. Or so they say. Sure would love to pit her against Serenity some day. Haven’t met a ship yet could catch her on a hard burn.”

Han smiled openly. “Is that so?”

“She’s a good boat, serves us well,” Reynolds interjected. “Don’t fly quite so fast with a belly full of cargo, though.”

Han tipped his head in acknowledgement of the none-too-subtle look the other captain shot him. No flirting with the engineer under the captain’s nose. Fair enough. Maybe later.

He passed the small set of coins across the table, raised his eyebrows a little when the captain pocketed it without counting the contents. “Coordinates are inside,” Han drawled. “Meet you there with the balance of the payment, let you folks get on your way.”

“Much obliged,” Reynolds answered, standing easily. “Zoe, Kaylee, Jayne, time to head out.”

“Oh, Cap’n, can’t I get a look at the Falcon, please? We’re all gonna be meetin’ up again anyways, and Serenity don’t need me for the next hour or two. I left her in real good shape. Please?”

Han looked up at Chewie while Reynolds cast a fondly exasperated glance at his engineer.

“Kaylee, you don’t go invitin’ yourself onto other people’s boats. It ain’t polite. Makes a man nervous to have somebody else’s engineer go pokin’ around.”

Chewie gave a snuffling sort of snort and Han shrugged. “She keeps her hands to herself, I don’t mind the occasional passenger.”

Kaylee was doing some odd clasped-hand pleading bounce which was clearly effective on her captain. Han glanced at Chewie again, daring the Wookie to make a comment about soft-hearted captains in general, or enthusiastic farm-bred innocents in particular. Chewie bared his teeth but said nothing.

“Captain,” the darker woman—Han was pretty sure she was the one introduced as Zoe—looked uncertain.

“Objection noted,” Reynolds replied, then turned back to Han. “I get my engineer back safe and sound at the rendezvous, or I might see my way to makin’ your life real unpleasant. Do we understand each other?”

Han held up his splayed hands and raised his eyebrows. “No argument from me.”

Reynolds and his two crew members left with a nod, and Chewie growled softly.

“I hear you,” Han rolled his eyes. “C’mon, sweetheart, we’ve got pre-flight checks to do.”

= = = = = = =

Kaylee knew that the Millenium Falcon was a smuggler’s ship—who else would take the Kessel Run, after all? But somehow she’d expected a little more flash, something a little less cobbled together and cranky looking. For all its reputation, the Falcon reminded her inescapably of Serenity—and that probably wasn’t just her bias talking.

She took in the ship’s vitals as they approached – engines, gun mounts—what Jayne wouldn’t do for something like that on Serenity, pity they couldn’t manage it and still look even remotely legal—cockpit, cargo bay, balance. Not pretty looking, but graceful in that same way her own ship had, like an ungainly bird that looks silly until it’s airborne.

And once they were inside it smelled familiar too, engine grease and overheated dust and a faintly lingering odor of spice—not the nice incense kind that Inara used, of course, but enough like it to feel homey.

She reached out to pat a hallway panel and then pulled her hand back guiltily. Solo caught her at it and grinned, making a ‘go ahead’ gesture.

“Chewie, go warm her up,” Solo said, jerking his head towards the cockpit. “I’ll give our guest the two-credit tour.”

The massive furry co-pilot—Wookie, she thought, though she’d never seen one on her side of the ‘verse—yowled and headed forward. Kaylee tried hard not to shrink back against the bulkhead as he passed. She apparently failed though, since Solo was smirking at her again.

“Don’t worry. He has that effect on a lot of people.”

Amid the sounds of a ship waking up, Solo gave her the highlights of the Falcon’s interior spaces—medical area, lounge—sadly nowhere near so pretty as the kitchen and dining area on Serenity that Kaylee had decorated herself—crew bunks, and central engine controls. As the tour continued, though, Kaylee couldn’t help but notice something odd.

“Somethin’ wrong, Captain Solo?”

“Han,” he corrected her absently, running a hand along a console in the wall nearby. “And I’m not sure.” He banged a section of the panel which was apparently the intra-ship communications. “Chewie, get down here!”

When the giant furball—Wookie—arrived with a piercing whine, Han scowled.

“Chewie, did you do that maintenance on the shield generators we were talking about?”

There was a shortly barked negative and Han’s frown grew deeper. “What about avionics—did that upgrade to the flight computer work out?”

A slightly longer string of noises that Kaylee couldn’t make head nor tail of, and Han shrugged at the end of them.

“Can’t put my finger on it, buddy. Something just isn’t right.”

Chewie made a sound that Kaylee hoped was laughter.

“Hey,” Han sounded affronted. “I have not been hanging out with Luke too long. You think I don’t know when there’s something wrong with the Falcon?” He pointed a finger at his co-pilot. “You run a double-check on every system before we take off. Better be a little late than end up flying into a building or find out we’re telling the whole Empire that we’re here.”

The Wookie disappeared again and Solo headed over to one of the computers, looking over the readout carefully before spinning on his heel and going over to pull up a floor panel. He dropped into it all easy-like, before Kaylee could even ask what was going on. His head popped up almost immediately though, and he pointed at the box over next to the computer array.

“Pass me the hydrospanner,” he said, then held up his hand. “No, wait. Bring the whole box over here.”

Kaylee brought over the box, but stood only a moment on the edge before shimmying down onto her stomach with her head in the hole. She whistled. “You sure got a lot of patches an’ cross-wires down here.”

Solo grunted. “She’s an old ship, sister.”

Kaylee shook her head. “Naw, that’s not it.” She pulled up enough to rearrange herself and drop into the hole next to him—a decidedly tight fit, but that didn’t bother her none. Up close, Solo was even better looking than across the table and Kaylee was suddenly seriously considering throwing over her torch for Simon. She smiled—after all, she always did appreciate a man who liked engines.

“See here? You’ve bypassed the hub that powers the tractor beams to give more power to the shielding, but that’s gotten all higgledy with the controls for the sensors over here. If you restore the wiring here,” she pointed, throwing herself over one of the pipes that crammed the space to reach her intended target, “and instead run these systems through here, you’ll get rid of all those sensor ghosts you likely got, and a bunch more visibility besides.”

There was silence behind her and Kaylee turned her head to see Solo staring at her—though whether it was because of the way she was draping herself all over his ship or the words coming out of her mouth, she wasn’t rightly sure. “You see?” she gestured again.

Solo blinked. “Thought you’d never seen a freighter like this before.”

Kaylee rolled her eyes. “Ain’t a ship in the ‘verse I haven’t at least read up on, even if I couldn’t get my hands on it. How many times someone put this back together, anyways?”

Han snorted and passed her the tools he was holding. “Too many and not enough. You go ahead and take care of that. I’m going to check the hyperdrive.”

He hauled himself out of the maintenance pit and left Kaylee grinning to herself, hands already busy. She could hear him banging around and muttering somewhere above her, but it wasn’t until she heard him swear and yell for Chewie again that she realized how much time had passed—and that there was something very definitely wrong.

When she poked her head out, Solo was holding a strange little contraption—looked like some kind of mechanical bug—out to his co-pilot for inspection.

Kaylee didn’t speak Wookie, but from the roaring and all, she got the idea that the co-pilot was just as upset and confused as the captain.

“Well, how long could it have been there?”

More roaring.

“Two weeks? You’re sure it couldn’t have been longer than that?”

Short roaring.

“Could have been worse.” Han sighed and let his hand drop a little. “Still, I got a bad feeling about this. You let anybody on at our last stop?”

Short whining.

“All right, Chewie. I believe you. Now we just have to figure out what to do about it.”

“Do about what?” Kaylee asked, coming closer. She held her hand out and Solo gave her a searching look, then dropped the thing into her hand. She held it up and did a little swearing of her own.

“Cap’n—Han—“ she corrected herself, “this here’s a track-n-trade bug. Alliance uses ‘em, or did durin’ the war. Zoe told me ‘bout these things, how the purple-bellies would send in someone undercover to the Independents’ ships, hide one somewhere in the navigation systems. These little critters would just lie there and track for a while, an’ then when they were activated, they’d take over the systems entirely an’ fly the ship off to who knows where. Wherever the Alliance wanted ‘em to go.”

“Any way to find out what it knows?”

Kaylee held it up gingerly to her eye level, half-expecting it to jump at her, even though it was a bug only in name, just a mess of wires and programming. “Ain’t really my area,” she said dubiously. “Maybe the captain would know, or Shepherd Book, he knows all kinds o’ stuff preachers usually don’t.” She shrugged. “Anyways, I think you killed it, pullin’ it out of it’s hiding place. Where’d you find it, anyways?”

“Hyperdrive controls,” Han grimaced. “Should be safe enough to get to the rendezvous, anyway. Don’t want that captain of yours thinking I ditched my cargo in favor of keeping his crewmember. Got people waiting for that wiring and other components.”

“You know, I been wonderin.” Kaylee handed back the bug and went to finish up reattaching the sublight engine feeds. “Who needs all that stuff we’re carryin’ on the hush?” She pulled the flooring back over the maintenance pit and followed Solo towards the cockpit. “Components like that ain’t exactly illegal. I mean, temperature control units and such are a pretty easy thing to get a hold of.”

“Not when you’ve had to leave most of your supplies behind because you’re being chased by Imperial thugs, they aren’t,” Han tossed over his shoulder. “The Empire’s raised the prices on all sorts of stuff you need to set up a base—sensor grids, control screens, wiring, even electrical cables. And they watch to see if anyone they consider ‘suspicious’ is buying in bulk.” Han snorted. “Gotta say this for the Empire—the paperpushers are even more dictatorial than they were under the Republic. Got eyes on all sorts of stuff.”

“So,” Kaylee ventured as she eased into the chair behind his, “you all are fightin’ against the Empire? Like the Independents against the Alliance?”

Han looked back at her briefly. “Something like that, yeah.” He turned back and hit the controls a little harder than Kaylee would have thought necessary. She frowned a little as he tersely got clearance for take-off.

“How long’ve you all been fightin’?”

There was a long pause.

“Some folks longer than others,” Han finally answered. “And some will be at it longer than others, too.”

Chewie yowled something and got a “Shut it, Chewie, just set a course” for his pains.

“Don’t wanna talk about it, huh?” Kaylee nodded to herself. “The Captain don’t like to talk about the war either.” They flew in silence for a while, Chewie abandoning them for the cargo bay to make sure all was ready to take on their freight. Tired of the stony silence mere minutes after the Wookie left, Kaylee stood and eyed the readouts over his shoulder. “That’s Serenity, up ahead.”

Han eyed the sensor screen in some surprise. “Guess you were right about those adjustments,” he allowed with a grudging admiration. He spun a little in his chair and looked straight at her for the first time in what felt like hours. There was a knowingness about his face that made Kaylee wish he wasn’t going to be taking off again to the other end of the ‘verse. “Anything else you’re that good at?”

Kaylee felt her own lips curling up a bit. “I reckon there is,” she let the grin grow. “But too bad for you we ain’t got time to find out.”

Han’s head tipped back a little as he grinned, a kind of half-nod of acknowledgement. “Too bad,” he agreed.

The proximity alarm beeped and Solo turned back to the controls, his hands in their worn brown flight gloves moving like Wash’s, like second nature. It was real nice to see when someone moved like that, like they were part of the ship. Made up for all the cursing and pounding he’d done earlier. Kaylee didn’t ever yell at Serenity. You just never knew when she might be listening, did you?

Solo had picked one of Ord Mantell’s many smaller satellites for a meeting-place—just enough gravity to keep them from floating off it once they’d landed, and easily concealed from anyone watching planetside. As the two airlock doors nudged and sealed together, Kaylee offered her hand to Solo, who took it and held it, serving her up a crooked grin.

“Sure was nice meeting you,” she managed. “Thanks for the ride.”

His grin got a little bigger. “Any time, sweetheart.”

= = = = = = = =

“That went well, sir,” Zoe said quietly on Serenity’s side of the airlock. The last stack of supplies was next to them, waiting for Solo’s massive co-pilot to collect it, and for Solo to deliver the second half of the agreed payment.

“It’s going well so far,” Mal corrected, eyes shifting to her from their focus on the door. “This part coming up, you know the bit with the money changing hands? This is usually the part where things don’t go so smooth.”

“I generally find shooting people is bad for business,” Solo drawled, leaning with casual arrogance on the doorway. He gave a shrug that went down his free shoulder to his fingers, which fanned a little before settling on his thigh holster. He smirked. “Not that it hasn’t happened.”

He stood up straight and tossed the bag which had been dangling by his side at Mal, who caught it, still blinking a little at Solo’s silent appearance, and that of the Wookie behind him. He was just opening his mouth when Wash’s voice rang through the nearly empty bay.

“Mal? Looks like we got company.”

Nearly simultaneously, an alarm started going off on the other side of the airlock. The two captains shared a glance of mutual understanding and parted, Han and Chewie grabbing the last of the packages and hustling through the passageway, and Mal bounding up the stairs two or more at a time, leaving Zoe and Kaylee to shut and detach the airlock.

“What is it, Wash?” Mal demanded even before he was all the way through the door.

“Little thing, almost a blip, but one with teeth. Looks like a bounty hunter. Probably wouldn’t have seen it at all if it hadn’t announced itself.”

“He after us?”

“Don’t think so—seems to be broadcasting a message for our trading partners,” Wash said. “You want me to be getting us out of here?” His fingers twitched near the controls. “Just say the word, Mal, we’re gone.”

Mal frowned. “Let me hear the message.”

= = = = = =

“It’s a beautiful ship, this Falcon of yours,” the smooth voice was dark with a kind of slick smugness that made Han want to shoot something. “A bird of prey. Top of the food chain. Very nice place to be. Kind of makes you think you’re invincible, doesn’t it, a ship like that?”

The voice prattled on, something vaguely philosophical that Han had no time for. He hit the mute button and then the intercom. “Chewie, we ready to go?”

A roaring whuffle and then the sound of electric sparks were his answer. Han sighed. Fine time for the airlock controls to short out. Seemed like stalling was the plan, then.

He tuned back in to hear his approaching would-be predator talking about the mighty being taken out by parasites. “One-celled assassins. Does that seem right to you?”

Han shook his head and clicked on his transmitter.

“If you’re talking about the bug in my hyperdrive, we squashed it,” Han broke in to the monologue. “Though I’d be very interested to find out how you got it there in the first place. Did Jabba send you?”

“You speak very brashly for a man with such a large price on his head.”

“That’s a ‘yes,’ then,” Han sighed, trying to keep the weariness out of his voice. He should probably be grateful that Luke and Leia weren’t here. At least he only had himself and Chewie to worry about. And the crew of Serenity. Why in the seven Sith hells were they just sitting there?

Han started powering up the guns and the engines. “Chewie!”

There was a clang and Han felt the Falcon seem to settle—apparently the Wookie had managed to force the airlock closed, one way or another. About time.

“Get up here, Chewie, we’re taking off!”

There was a blast across the bow and Han swore, punching the console and barely looking up as Chewie barreled in. “Take over.”

He headed for the turret gun, swinging along the ladder with the kind of desperate familiarity he’d like to have a little less of. Strapping in, he tapped his headset for the ship-to-ship intercom.

“Reynolds, get out of here. Tell your engineer we can have that race some other time. Now’s your chance to show off how fast that boat of yours is.”
“You sure?”

Han tapped his microphone off for a moment. “Force save me from honorable smugglers,” he muttered, then tapped his headset on again. “Unless you’ve got weaponry on that ship that my scans didn’t register, you’re more help to me gone.”

“Understood. And Solo—“ There was a long pause. “I wish you better luck with your Alliance than we have with ours.”

Han snorted and flexed his grip on the triggers, watching with relief as the Firefly’s engines lit, rotated, and lifted the vessel up and away from the rock which was vanishing with nearly equal speed beneath them.

“Chewie, where’d that bounty hunter go?”

A series of blasts answered him, and Han swiveled, his own fire raking across his line of sight. The hunter’s ship jinked away, and then further away again before looking like it was about to turn for another pass.

“We clear for the jump to hyperspace yet?” Han growled into his headset. “Because now would be good.”

Before Chewie could answer, Reynolds’ voice cut in.

“Kaylee says you need to—Kaylee, will you just get on this thing yourself?”

And then the clear high voice of Han’s two-hour temporary engineer came breathlessly on the line. “Your navigation computer update, the one you just installed? It’s designed to draw power from the shields to work faster, but I bypassed that when I fixed your sensor array, figurin’ you’d need the shields more ‘n a few seconds faster computer. But if the sensors are on maximum—“

“Kaylee!” Reynolds barked in the background.

“Right,” she added hurriedly. “You gotta turn off the long range and gun turret sensors to give the navicomputer enough juice to compute the jump, ‘cause it’s frozen now. You can fix it later if you replace the—“

But Han had already turned off his sensors in the turret and Chewie had done the same on the bridge, and the sky streaked to starlight, and they were gone.

= = = = = = =

“You think he got all that?” Kaylee turned to look at Wash and Mal, who both shrugged. “He didn’t say goodbye or thank you or nothin,” she murmured, looking out at their own rapidly passing stars.

“I’m sure he appreciated it,” Mal said reassuringly. “In fact, there was something in that last half of the payment I’m pretty sure was meant to go in your share.” He held out a folded piece of the funny plastic paper they seemed to favor on this side of the ‘verse.
Kaylee opened it, read it without making a sound, and then looked up at the captain with an impish grin that made Wash half-dead with curiosity, then bounced out of the bridge humming like she hadn’t since that crazy party when Mal accidentally challenged someone to a sword fight, and even more accidentally won.

“C’mon, Mal, you gotta tell me what that was all about,” he pleaded. “They were more than two hours late to the rendezvous. What happened? Did he send her the Falcon’s blueprints?” Wash’s eyes grew large. “Or something more personal? Incriminating photos? A love letter? I’m dyin’ here, Mal!” When the captain looked unconvinced, Wash tried one more tack.

“And what’s worse, Zoe’s gonna want to know, and I gotta tell her something.”

Mal just grinned. “Earth That Was, people who delivered the mail took an oath not to share the secrets of people’s private post, Wash. Think I’m gonna do any different?”

Wash made an exasperated sound, and Mal chuckled as he left the bridge, humming the exact same tune. Wash shook his head—there was a high percentage of crazy going around these days—and then stopped. Music from the time Mal challenged someone to a duel—nah, that was Wash’s own helping of crazy talking. Solo couldn’t have challenged them to a race, could he?

= = = = = =

Tucked behind one of the thirteen satellites of Ord Mantell, Jubal Early, bounty hunter, wiped a cloth over every surface of his control panels until they gleamed. He had made a tactical error in announcing his presence to his prey, treating them like equals on the field of battle. He would not be making that mistake again.

He wouldn’t forget the ship that had helped deny him his bounty, either. Serenity. Had a nice ring to it. Kind of ship that gave you a sense of security out in the wide open dark. Ship like that made you feel safe—even when you weren’t.

Early smiled.