"What do you mean, they gave the job to someone else?" Mal demanded.
"Sir, they claim there's something between us and the goods that we don't have the expertise to handle. They won't let us go in Venture Gorge."
"Won't let us-? Zoe, since when do folk get all choked up about the criminals they hire to loot stashed goods?"
"I'm not sure sir, but they gave the job to the crew of the Impala."
Mal set his jaw at that, and Zoe went to get her shotgun. There was no way Mal was going to let Dean swipe another job out from under them.
The Impala's crew wasn't difficult to find. They'd taken over the only tavern in the little town of Gorgo. Literally. When Mal, Zoe, and Jayne walked in, the local barkeep was backed into a corner, having been chased out from behind his own bar by Ellen, Dean's "negotiator" and cook.
"Don't even know how to pour a decent brew. You just sit there, son, and learn," Ellen warned, filling foaming mugs for the rest of the crew.
Sam, the first mate and Dean's brother, was flipping through some old reports in the back of the bar. He hadn't even acknowledged Mal openly, but Mal knew Sam had registered his appearance instantly. Bobby, their quartermaster and sawbones, was at Sam's table, and cast a weathered eye over Serenity's crew.
The pilot, Castiel, was deep in conversation with Anna, Dean's enforcer, both of them looking as grim as death. Jo, Ellen's daughter, was leaning against the bar with a clear view of the door. It also gave any entrants the clear view of the large knife sheath on her hip.
Dean was sitting just behind her, and leaned back to catch Mal's eye with an insouciant grin. Winchester was as good a shot as he was a mechanic; he knew every inch of his own ship and its inner workings, and could squeeze an amazing amount of performance out of the aging-but-sound Impala. Combined with Castiel's stone-cold perfect flying skills and an entire crew who could and would take up arms at the slightest provocation, Dean's ship was getting a reputation as bounty hunters.
There was no damn reason for the Impala to get involved in extracting goods from a crashed freighter, particularly because it was so deep in Venture Gorge that no one could fly to it. Dean knew Serenity was in the area, and anyone here was here just because of the job.
"Mal!" Dean called cheerfully. "Care for a brew?"
"I care to know why you're being so mighty unneighborly," Mal said, trying to keep from losing his temper.
"What, the job? Mal, I'm just trying to keep you and yours safe," Dean said seriously. "I like you. Hell, I respect you, and any one of my crew will tell you that's something I hardly ever do."
There were almost simultaneous snorts of agreement from every corner of the room. Sam also rolled his eyes, but scarcely looked up from his reading.
"Not to put too fine a point on it, this ain't your kind of job," Mal said.
"Now there you'd be wrong," Ellen said, filling another glass and shoving it down the bar in their direction. Jayne grabbed it immediately and tipped half the beer back, only giving Jo a half-glance this time. Last time he'd ogled Ellen's daughter, he'd found himself drug backwards over a bar with a revolver to his throat, courtesy of her mother. And a knife pressing uncomfortably south of the border, courtesy of Jo herself.
"The signs are all very clear. This task was meant for us," Castiel broke in, his raspy voice sounding like an Alliance pronouncement from on high. It always set Mal's teeth on edge.
"I don't particularly care what deserter or criminal or beast with pretty fur is running around in the Gorge, that's your gig. But the goods? That's us," Mal said. "Anything else is just taking the food out of our mouths," he added with a slight smile.
"Don't try to play the sympathy card with us before you know what you're dealing with, ya idjit," Bobby growled.
"Bobby," Dean said, cutting him off before he could get wound up and going. "Mal's got a point. What's living in the gorge, that's us. The goods, that's them. We can share."
"Mighty kind of you." Mal said, stomach a little sour from having to essentially beg work from another captain, especially Dean Winchester. But they'd been stuck on the Rim for months and they weren't going to get off-planet without fuel, so it was this job or nothing.
"What ya huntin' down there? Anything valuable?" Jayne asked, nose practically twitching at the scent of possible profit.
"Werewolves," Dean said blandly.
"Fine," Jayne groused. "If you don't want to take a man seriously-."
"Alliance don't believe in Reavers either. But you all know damn well they're there," Dean said, his tone so deadly serious that it sent a bit of a chill up Mal's spine.
"That's your bounty?" Zoe asked, just as intense as Dean. "Earth-that-was boogeymen?"
"Werewolves, vampires, ghouls, ghosts, whatever else tends to pop up on the Outer Rim. Alliance won't send help for 'hysterical colonists,' even when there's nothing left of a town but a few empty buildings and some bloodstains," Sam piped up from the back.
Mal looked from one member of the Impala's crew to the other, and saw no hint of mocking in their faces.
"All right then," he said finally. "We’ll be seeing you around, I suppose."
"Full moon's tomorrow. Stay in your ship the next three days, and don't open it up for nothing. If the Impala doesn't lift by then, then they got us, and you'd better run. If we lift, then you can go get the goods at your leisure." Dean smiled at Mal disarmingly. "You're better at popping those old wrecks anyway."
"Good doing business with you," Mal said stiffly, and inclined his head just a fraction at the rest of the Impala's crew. Turning on his heel, Zoe and Jayne followed him back to Serenity.
"Sir, you believe a word they just said?" Zoe asked.
"Maybe so. Tell Wash to shut the ship up. We go for the goods after the Impala lifts in three days. Before then, don't crack any of the seals."
"What, you actually giving that pretty boy's words weight?" Jayne asked incredulously.
"I warn every captain against Reavers, whether they believe me or not, because I've seen what they leave behind when they hit a place. I think Dean's doing the same, and I reckon three more days on this rock might be a small price to pay to get airborne with all our bits intact," Mal said.
Zoe blinked at Mal once, and went upstairs to talk to her husband.
For the next three nights, unearthly howls were heard from the confines of Venture Gorge, and scans picked up the far-away sounds of bullets ricocheting off rock. Kaylee had been more than a little shaken, and River had had screaming nightmares every single night. No one had been particularly interested in leaving the ship, particularly after they realized that the whole town of Gorgo was buttoned up as tightly as the ship. The morning of the fourth day, the howling and the bullets has stopped, people emerged from their homes, and the Impala lifted, a wave coming in from Castiel.
"The evil has been dealt with. Food for the mouths of your crew awaits you, Captain Reynolds. Captain Winchester sends his regards."
"Kindly of him," Zoe commented, as they drove the mule down the narrow confines of the canyon to get to the crashed freighter.
"Kindly would be if he didn't go and stiff us. More than likely to be stripped bare, and that ship of theirs loaded with what's ours," Jayne muttered.
Mal had been about to respond when the rounded the bend to see the wreckage ahead of him. The twisted metal of the wreck was to be expected. What wasn't was the claw marks in the rock walls, the splashes of blood all over the ground, and the occasional gleaming bits of silver from smashed projectiles imbedded in the stones all around them.
"This was one hell of a fight, sir," Zoe said, crouching down to examine the faint marks in the dust from scuffling boots.
"That's for damn sure." Jayne was warily examining the area, as if he expected enemies to pop up at any second.
Mal set his jaw and went for the freighter, weaving his way through some of the shattered outer struts before getting a good look at the sealed bulk units.
"Everything's here," he said after a minute. "They didn't touch a thing."
"They sure as hell got paid, though!" Jayne protested. "Heard it over the radio; they's flush."
"Flush, and they left a few thousand credits' worth of supplements and seed for us to liberate," Zoe commented.
Mal didn't waste any more time getting the goods out, dividing them up; part for the people of Gorgo, the rest as Serenity's payment.
"I do think I believe him," Mal said finally, with a last look around the claw-marked and blood-spattered canyon. "No liar is that honest."
"You should let him buy you a beer next time we cross paths, sir," Zoe said, fingering the butt of her shotgun at the thought of the enormity of the firefight that must have happened here.
"Maybe I'll buy him one," Mal said, looking up at the cloud trail of the Impala as they turned the mule back towards Serenity.