Serenity was a young ship. Well, not in the structural steel, but the name was new and the captain and the crew and any number of spare parts.
This had a few drawbacks, namely the fact that no one had heard of her. Yeah, maybe as Firefly class transport ship #597249 or whatever the hell, but not as Serenity. Not in anyway that might be useful. A low profile was a great way to keep clear of the Feds, but there was such a thing as too far under the tracking. Witness Serenity's larder.
Malcolm Reynolds took one look at the quantity of stored protein paste and turned around in disgust. Suddenly getting a little something to eat didn't seem like such a hot idea.
"That, my friends, is the muckiest dirt hole this side of Canton," Wash says, gesturing out the cockpit window in that grand way that sometimes takes the pilot. "I give you Weland, the job that's finally going to make us fabulously wealthy, right Mal?"
The crew stare out the window in disappointment at the blue and brown ball rising before them, outside in space. It's pretty small for a planet or a moon or whatever Weland is calling itself. It's one more chance to make a little money. It isn't exactly promising.
Wash sighs. "It's the job that's finally going to make us fabulously wealthy. *Right, Mal *?"
Wash thinks he's funny. Wash tries too hard.
Mal raises his hands in surrender. "It could happen. Not saying it will, but it could happen." He never looks away from the planet in front of him. "Zoe, back me up."
"Sure, captain," she says, raising an eyebrow in her role as dutiful but unimpressed first mate. "Anything could happen."
They stare at Weland some more.
"They won't have much of a scrapyard, hunh?" Kaylee pipes up from behind them, hugging her greaseproof coverall to herself, and Zoe just shakes her head.
A scrapyard they had in Brisingatown, it was everything else they didn't. Or - well, they had everything else too, but most of those were closed. Dead town, ghost town, except for the scrapyard. Now, that wasn't dead.
Just like they'd heard tell, there was a scrapyard a little outside of Brisingatown. 'John's Junk' the sign said and it looked like it ought've been a quiet little place.
Ought've been, because the place was jumping with cultivators and autoscythes. Also, the people who were digging, trading, and wrangling their way through all the heaps and barrels of John's junk to get the right part for them.
It was a hard thing, being a man on call to keep track of a machine-addict in a place like that. Just into sight range, and the girl was already wrist deep in the extra cheap, slightly broken barrel.
"You know, this looks like a bad time," Mal said, grabbing his mechanic by the sleeve, and giving the crowd a wary eye. "What do you say we come back later, after things quiet down some, hey, Kaylee?"
"Not happening!" she said, pawing though several interchangeable gear shafts before picking one that looked more dented than broken. "I leave now, and the good stuff'll be gone."
"Now, this looks to be a major investment of time. Time which we do not have. We need information and we need a cargo, and somehow I don't see either of those coming from these part-happy shoppers if they're anything like you, yes?"
"You don't need to stay, Captain," Kaylee wheedled absently, ogling the sea of parts and fellow mechanics in front of her. "I can ... mingle. Maybe get the parts and the lowdown too? Oh, I'm good with mechanics, you know me."
Oh he surely did, too well. Last mechanic he'd seen her with got her singing drunk. The first one had had her, breaking several indecency laws.
Mal let go. "You sure? This is a strange planet. You get yourself lost and we're out an engine doctor, you hear me, Kaylee?"
A heavy hand came down on his shoulder. "Don't you go worrying about a thing, General Worrywort!" boomed a deep female voice from behind Mal. "That little thing'll be in good hands."
He whipped around, out from under the hand, pulling back for a punch to find himself looking at a giantess. "Ta gao*!" he sputtered.
She was the tallest woman he'd ever seen, with arms as thick as his leg.
Kaylee put down the part and turned around belatedly. "Hi, I'm Kaylee!" she chirped up at the woman. "You know this place?"
"Know it?" the big lady laughed. "Hell, I own it! John's junk, and I'm John. I always have time for a new customer with such a fine eye for parts as yourself. Especially one with the luck to show up in time for my famous Founder's Day sale. Tell your brother, there, to make himself scarce."
"Bye, bro!" chuckled the girl, wiggling her fingers in a mocking farewell. "Find work! See you in a few hours, don't wait up."
They vanished into the crowd, arm in arm.
"Brother?" choked Malcolm Reynolds, wondering when he had lost control of his crew.
"On spec! Nobody goes anywhere on spec!" Wash snaps, looking up from his cards. They're watching the ship while the captain and Kaylee do a reconnoiter.
"Hard times." Zoe says, putting a jack of spades down on the ten sitting on the galley table.
"I can see that," he admits, dropping a jack of hearts on top of her spade. Her point. " I know, hey, low pay, bad food, but going to an entire planet on spec? I'm sure someone would have given us a job."
Zoe pauses to inspect her hand briefly. Damn, too many spades, have to draw one. A club. No use yet. A two of hearts. Not the best, it'll do. She puts it down. His point. "Someone might - if we knew anyone. But we're new to this business, you know that. The captain won't sign on with some boss to get his connections, so he figures we can make our own."
"What about my connections? I've got connections!" Wash squawks, slapping a four of hearts on her two.
"And we've used them," she says levelly. A four. Her club is a four. She puts it down on the hearts. Her point.
"Not all of them," he reminds her, drawing several cards before putting down a four of spades.
"The ones we could." Zoe says, refusing to back down an inch. Spades, spades are her strong suit. Her six of spades on his four. Her point. "Wash, some of your employers have been a little extreme."
"Extremely respectable or extremely not? What are you trying to say here?" Wash asks, dropping a six of hearts on top.
Hearts, she's not good with hearts. She draws another three cards before getting a nine of hearts. She puts it down on Wash's six. Her point. "Both, and there are places we can't or won't go. I thought you understood that. Brown Coat vets aren't welcome everywhere. We lost."
"So you lost a stupid civil war. That doesn't mean you have to go shouting it to the skies," he points out, dropping a ten on her nine effortlessly.
Damn him and his hearts. Wait, she has a ten of spades. Much better. Her point. "You've met the captain and you ask that?"
Wash pauses, amused. "Good point." He drops a diamond on her spade. A diamond? Her luck.
Diamonds, diamonds, how does she top a diamond? She can't. Zoe takes five cards before turning up a five of diamonds. His point.
"So, why Weland?" he asks, putting a five of spades on her diamond. "I thought we had a job and Mal was just being hinky about it. You know, what the ship jockey doesn't know won't hurt him."
Spades, nice. Is he humoring her? "No such luck. You know when Mal had me off asking after where everyone else was flying?" Zoe reminds him, putting her second six on his five. Her point.
"What, you mean the time our captain had to go start bar fights all by himself?" Wash remembers, amazed. Seven on her six. He has spades too, and he's humoring her? "Those guys were coming here?"
"No, and neither was anybody else. Figured there must be something here," she says. Eight on his seven. Fine. He wants to play it that way, she'll take the point, and let him choke on it once he figures she knows. Her point.
"Hunh. Well, I've yet to see it," he snorts. Eight of hearts on her spade. He's playing again. Did he just read her?
"Me either." Zoe admits. Wait, she has a heart from when she was looking for a diamond. Nine of hearts on his eight. "Tell me if you do." Her point.
So Mal was walking the streets of Brisingatown while Zoe and Wash were stuck on the boat and Kaylee was doing God knows what.
Brisingatown wasn't exactly a ghost town. He exaggerated, it'd been known to happen. But still, only a few people. Token shopkeeper or two, more likely to be asleep than not. Not even that many habituals were stumbling around the bar. Quiet, quiet day in a town that looks like it saw hard use. Dead, tired, hungry.
There was something familiar about this. If only he could put his finger on it.
Off in the fields surrounding the town, he could hear the swish crack of the autoscythes, a sound that he was never likely to forget, as many years as it ever was. Reminded an old country boy gone exile too much of what home used to be. A lot of swish cracks, actually. More than might be expected.
He was remembering. Wait for it, wait for it, it would come. Follow that thought.
Farming, means some years are a little better, some worse. Drought's always around the corner. But some years, everything grows. There's no real reason, it just does. Then you can't give the stuff away. It takes everyone you can find and all the hours in the day just to bring it in.
They weren't starving. They were drowning in food!
So, if they were doing well, why did everything look so poor?
A good question.
Several minutes later and he had a small bill on the counter of the feed store.
"Tell me," said Mal. "Is this a company town?"
The clerk had been sleeping, alright. He must still have been half gone, because he wasn't getting the import of the money in front of him. "We're free farmers, here, not indentured men! It's an insult to say otherwise!"
Mal put another bill, a bit bigger. "Cut the crap and just tell me, tell me true, if this is a company town or not. That's all you've got to do, and the money's yours."
"Yes," admitted the clerk, a small mousy heap of a man. "All our exports go through one company, Lirex Agricultural. They have some kind of sweet government deal."
"All I needed to know," Mal said, and left, glad that Kaylee was better at mingling than him.
So Kaylee is talking about rewiring compassitators, and Robert, who's almost as cute as his friend Silin, is saying that pure copper works better for the cause than any alloy, when she gets this call on her com.
It's the captain, of course, and he explains what he needs her to do and compassitators are right out the window until she's done with it.
Her ship is in the transport line, she explains, and well, it seems like Weland had more to transport than they thought, and Lirex doesn't bother them too much what with Serenity being a smuggler's ship and all. Does anybody have a little extra to skim off the top?
I didn't know you were a corporate shill, says John seriously. Might not have asked you back if I did. You have to be careful with that, asking for money offends lots of people.
No, Kaylee explains, they aren't corporate at all, and they're just asking for food, they're the ones who'll be coming back with the money, and John laughs.
There won't be any trouble finding suppliers.
Serenity has been reparked in the barnyard of a major local farm. Horowitz is young, ambitious, with no love for Lirex. He wants to be known as something of a frontrunner on Weland. A man who takes chances. Those who aren't too busy with the harvest have come to watch some smuggling take place. It's a good thing that Horowitz's wife is the law in Brisingatown.
"We've got room for another layer of grapes," Zoe says, driving up to her captain in the little hauling cart called the mule. "Are there enough, or should we fill in with other fruit?"
"Not rightly sure," Mal says, pausing a conversation with a skeptical farmer. "But probably. Does Wash know enough to layer straw between the crates for berries? Those are expensive, we don't want them shifting overmuch."
Zoe smirks. "No worry there. Kaylee knows her way around a fruit basket and she takes food packaging very seriously, especially after our recent meals. She's strict. Wash's complaining that if he'd wanted to join the army, there was a war he could have joined years ago."
"Damn right," the captain smirks back. "You tell Kaylee to go easy on him. We've got enough cases of shellshock on this boat already."
"Yes sir!" she says, saluting and then backs the mule up to the storeroom door to fetch more cargo.
She can still see Mal as he turns back to the impatient Farmer Munsen, who has come to watch the spectacle, but suspects a scam.
"So those fools are throwing their lots in with you, why should I? There's no reason for you to be back if you leave with a full hold." Munsen growls, grabbing him by the suspenders, then letting him loose. "How do I know my watermelons will turn into cash?"
He grabs the farmer's shirt collar and shoves him right back. "Look, this can go one of two ways; we stiff you, or we come back with the money." Mal says sharply, settling his suspenders along with his strained patience. "If we stiff you, you don't lose much given Lirex prices, and we never show our faces here again. If we come back with the money, you get the money, we get a cut, and maybe you call us back the next time you're running surplus."
This isn't just for Munsen, it's for all the farmers who don't have the nerve to ask. "Do you want to make a little money or do you want rotting tomatoes? These crops won't last and you know it. You can't advertise for transport on the cortex because Lirex will catch on. You can't send someone out to fetch a ship because by the time the ship picks up the goods and gets back to a selling port most of them will be off."
"Maybe," says Munsen, but it's obvious that the thought of cash will win.
Enough business deals had been closed already that Serenity's crew were considered friends of the town, and invited to the Founder's Day celebrations that night in the square. Serenity was parked nearby as a curiosity for the children and a pledge of trust.
With a harvest that good there had been no need for anyone to stint, especially in front of the whole town, so the tables had more real food on them then he'd dared to look at up close for months. Big bowls of mai fun and mashed sweet potato, several roast geese and dumplings in a lot of different colors. Salivating in front of clients wasn't professional, but it was near impossible to avoid.
"Are those sweet bean buns?" Kaylee asked, hungry and hopeful. She grabbed for one as soon as she saw the nod from one of the cooks.
Some of the locals started passing out pipes filled with the local stupidweed. "Have some Asharteth, Kaywinnit," Mal could hear one of the mechanics from the sale telling Kaylee.
"Smells nice," she said cautiously. "It won't do anything strange or make me not hungry or anything?"
"Oh no," said John. "It increases all your appetites. You'll wish you could remember it all in the morning."
"Oh!" Kaylee blushed. And took the pipe and smoked it for a little while before returning it to the one who gave it to her. She wouldn't be coming back to the ship until late, that was sure. Still and all, she was more interested in food.
Wash had no such problems and kept smoking the pipe he was given, far longer than most of the locals, who seemed to want to be a little sober at least.
Zoe passed on it, as did Mal, but maybe the fumes were getting to her, the way she played with Wash's hair.
"We had a good haul today," she said, low voiced, working on finishing a giant bowl of soup. "Even if they never have a crop like this again, it'll help make a name."
"I know," Mal admitted. "But they'll call us back, sure enough. Once they start getting fair price, they'll never be happy with Lirex again. This year may move smooth enough, but some of them will get cash hungry, start giving us more and Lirex less. Get less careful and suffer. There'll be a reckoning or two for this bounty."
His first mate gave him one of her looks. "They're big boys and girls, sir. The decisions are their own. They want to play the smuggling game, it's their look out."
"Yeah," said the captain, glancing around at the hall of happy people around him, "That it is."
"Wassa problem, Cap?" slurred Wash, looking up from more goose than one man should ever eat. "Twenty percent cut of what we got now'll be enough to go on for months! No protein paste for us, nossir. Maybe enough for wages and money and buying pretty things..." He leered, waving his pipe in Zoe's direction.
She put down her spoon and took the pipe away from him. "I think you've had enough, don't you?"
"Oh, I'll never have enough..." Wash crooned, wrapping sturdy arms around her neck and staring up at her all full of adoration.
"That's it," Zoe sighed, heaving herself and her armful of pilot off of the bench, and to a slightly staggersome upright position. "Up we go, you've had enough. We're going back to the ship, right , Wash?"
They were a handsome couple - in a strange totally nonvisual sort of way. Strength there, to match strength. Suddenly the future started to make a little too much sense. Well, so be it, these thing happened. At least John or any of her group wouldn't be going off with them when the ship left, he didn't think.
"Asharteth looks to be strong stuff," Mal agreed. "You go cart your lost sheep home. I'll keep an eye out for any new deals, make sure Kaylee stumbles off to the right party. Don't worry about privacy none, I won't come back too soon."
"Come on back to the ship, Captain," Zoe said.
"I couldn't," he said, trying to find a way to say it which wouldn't kill his pride. "This is a big night, you should be enjoying yourself."
"It'll be a party. Always room for one more." Wash said solemnly then giggled. Zoe kissed him on the nose, then looked toward Mal.
"No, I mean it, come on back to the ship," she said, drawing him under her other arm, and he came.
Wash was none too steady on his feet and he swayed some. The pilot wasn't a lightweight, neither, so it should have been no surprise that he managed to bump Zoe into the doorframe or Mal into a bench. But it was, and that must have been some strong stupidweed to hit them as were just sitting by it, because Zoe started laughing and he joined in, and Wash was just looking at them all stupid eyed and adoring as he struggled to keep a good grasp on them and they staggered back to the ship.
Mal managed to hit the door open panel with his shoulder and they made it back to Wash's bunk in mostly one piece. Mal dumped Wash on the unmade bed and Zoe tossed his feet up, boots and everything. She dropped herself on the bed too, and Mal sank to the floor. They were still laughing some, between the panting, and Wash sort of draped one of his arms off the bed and was petting Mal's abused shoulder drowsily.
"I'd best be going," Mal said when he finally caught his breath proper, but Wash's hand tightened on Mal's side, and Zoe laughed a little more.
"You'll make it down your ladder like that?" she asked, leaning herself over Wash's middle, resting her elbows on the pilot. "Come on."
Mal looked up at her and if this wasn't Asharteth, he didn't know what it was, and if it was Asharteth, it was good stuff. Zoe held out her hands and he grabbed on and Wash let go and she pulled and Wash grunted and Mal was dragged onto the bed and Zoe and Wash. Wash had wandering hands.
"Zoe, you want him doing that?" Mal choked out, still gasping from the big pull, and Wash's hands were everywhere. Slow, but that wasn't more innocent or anything.
Leaving would be good, but he didn't and he couldn't and this had better be Asharteth because otherwise he shouldn't have been doing this, but he did. Mal rolled into the space between Wash and Zoe and reached out gentle for the leather around her neck and traced it up to her hair, soft.
She smiled and he didn't know what it meant and Wash's hands were wandering again and now Wash was the one laughing, just a little.
Zoe started loosening her pants and kicking off her boots and Mal wanted to watch, but Wash began trying to tickle Mal and he was too gone to do it at all well. Mal tried to brush his hands away up, down, anything less annoying.
"Git," slurred Wash, trying to slap away the hands that were slapping his away.
"No, you git!" Mal said, and slapped right back.
Wash started unbuttoning Mal's buttons, and Mal tried to button them right back up with one hand, while unbuttoning Wash's with the other, by way of revenge.
Now Zoe started laughing again, hard this time, and that set Wash off, and her hands started wandering too, and Mal's head really began to swim.
He didn't understand this at all. Not how they got there, not what it meant, and not what the hell Zoe was thinking or Wash was going to think come morning. But he was covered in hands and drowning in laughter and then Zoe threw a boot at the lightswitch and then it was dark.
It sort of seemed like enough.
Wash is a sprawling mass in his sleep. His face is mashed into an odd shape by the pillow and his arms kick out at odd angles. He makes the soft sounds of a good man after a hard day's work. Zoe likes that. Mal lies silent. He probably thinks she's asleep.
Zoe knows him. Enough to know that he's back to thinking about what happens next time the money runs low and whether or not any goose will ever taste that good again or any dumplings will ever be that plump. About what if this will be the only night like this and what if it isn't.
She shakes her head. Tonight's full and warm and comfortable. Tomorrow's not here yet.
Zoe rolls over and proceeds to distract her captain. Again.
*Requisite Random Chinese - Ta gao means She's tall
Random Chinese brought to you by Grey Bard's Amazing Firefly Fortune Cookie Language Class