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Favor Points

Chapter Text

May 2, 2514

One of Raquel Sullivan’s favorite things about Santo's port district was the corner kiosks that sold iced tea. Upon leaving sweets shop where he had met with his old contact, Sully headed straight for the tea cart at the end of the block, thumbing his pocket-comm on as he made his way through the busy pedestrian crush.

"Jin Dui," came a tinny voice through the cheap comm mic. It was the captain, he thought... Fatima or Abby would have both said hello in some friendly fashion like normal people, before stating the ship's name in that warped-by-the-military fashion.

"Sully here," he reported as he reached the tea cart. He looked the prices painted on the canvas awning, then pulled a one-yen note from his pocket and pointed at his choice.. The old man operating the cart nodded and took his money. "I just finished that sit-down I warned you about. Mendi is glad to know I'm still in the game, and promises to keep us in mind for future work."

"'But?'" came Captain Cooper’s dry retort. "I hear a 'but'."

"Mendi heard our next port of call is Beylix, so he asked me for a favor. I do owe him a few small favors -- that’s a long story for later -- so I said yes. He swears it is just a small one."

"How small?" The captain sounded dubious.

"Mendi promises it’ll be small enough to fit in my coat pocket. And I am familiar with both the pick-up and the delivery addresses." Sully wasn't going to say more than that -- not on ship-to-ship comm. Cooper, wisely, didn't ask for more details, either. "I’m headed over to the Pearl District now. Do we still need those hydroponic boosters from Candleford's? I could swing by and get them on my way."

"We're good. Hoss and Chang have taken care of it."

The old man had finished with Sully's order -- a mix of sweetened milk and tea the color of red clay, poured over chunks of ice into a plastic sandwich baggie with a straw, then deftly tied with a rubber band. Sully happily accepted the drink, looping the band over his wrist snugly before taking a sip through the straw. "Ambrosia!" he announced, smacking his lips with pleasure.

"Nǐ shuō shénme?" came back Cooper's disembodied response.

“Good tea,” Sully said with a grin and a nod for the tea stall vendor. He took another appreciative sip, then moved along briskly. "I should be back in two hours then. If I’m any later, send out the cavalry."

"Roger that," came the captain's reply.

Sully thumbed off the comm, then took another sip of the iced tea as he flagged down a bicycle rickshaw. Two of them immediately jostled for his fare -- "Pushkin Street in the Pearl," he told them, at which point the less hardy of the pair shook his head in negative. Sully stepped into the open air cab of the second as he told the pedaler the destination address. Then he sat back to enjoy the ride and his iced sweet tea as the rickshaw swung back into the stream of traffic.

The sweet, creamy red tea nearly lasted the distance. Sully spent the ride sipping and thinking. He wondered, not for the first time, how much Cooper and Hoss had dealt with the black market during their years in the War. He suspected they had. You didn’t have to warn the captain about not saying too much over the ship’s comm channel. Likewise, penny-pinching as she was, Cooper had not flinched when told he’d agreed to do a job for free when old favor points had been called due. Maybe she hadn’t understood that part of it, Sully wondered? No, more likely she was just canny about the insecure comm line, which any bored sod with a scanning app could be listening in on while the ship was at dock. Or… well, this being Santo, anyone listening to random comm channels was likely some skuz looking for their next score, or for information to sell in hopes of earning their way into the Bratva. The Red Brotherhood had ruled Santo’s busy port since the arrival of the first terraforming ship. Sully knew his old friend Mendi had close ties with the Bratva -- and was likely even a member of the thieves-in-law. The jovial old candymaker seemed harmless enough… but the crosses tattooed over his knuckles and into the meat of his upper fingers held some Bratva meaning. Sully had never asked. Some things you simply didn’t stick your nose into, not if you wanted to keep your nose, and Bratva business was certainly one of 'm.

Sully had called on his old friend in person today, to explain his shift in employment from captain of his own tiny one-person Gnat, to first mate aboard a Firefly. He had gone in expecting Mendi to bring up the issue of favor points. He had owed Mendi, after all, for having finessed a certain customs issue the Carolyn Jane had suffered through during her last visit on Santo. And just because Sully had lost his beloved little Gnat didn’t mean that he wasn’t still in favor-debt. Plus Mendi was the best kind of contact. He was fair, he valued his friendships, and he was steadfast by his word. If you honored your arrangements with Mendi, and ran a quiet ship that didn’t have a bad rep with the Federales, then Mendi could always broker a good, paying job for you. Mendi's working relationship with Sully's Uncle Slim went back decades, and Mendi had arranged some of Sully's first jobs after he had launched out solo with the Carolyn Jane. Sully figured that today's job offer was a trial of sorts. If the Jin Dui delivered to Mendi's satisfaction, then there would be future low-risk/guaranteed-profit delivery jobs available to them at their next visit to Santo.

Were the jobs illegal? Sure as hell most likely. Not always, though -- sometimes it was simply more convenient, for one reason or another, to move goods through grey market channels than it was to fill out all of the necessary Alliance forms and filings. Sully had once made a very tidy shilling making a rush delivery of twenty pounds of barbecued duck from Sihnon to Bellerophon. Sometimes you just smuggled, and you didn’t ask...

The pedicab made a lurching swing to the right, risking collision to draw up precisely in front of the address Sully had given. Sully thanked the pedalar and paid his fare as he stepped out. The address was a fragrant piroshki shop. He breathed in deep as he walked through the doors, and traded smiles with the dimpled young thing behind the counter.

“I’m here to see Vasilyev,” he said. The blonde’s dimples disappeared and she gestured for the 'Employees Only' door at the back of the shop. “Back there, then through the door marked supplies,” she said.

Sully followed directions and found himself in a long, narrow room without windows, which was lit almost entirely by a series of light tables and desktop comp units. Sully knew a forger’s workspace when he saw it. He nodded and smiled to the short, wiry woman who looked up from the light table she was bent over, glaring at him through a pair of thick glasses. He couldn’t help to notice that her nose was runny.

“Vasilyev?” he said, turning on the wattage. “Mendi sent me he about a delivery.”

The sour expression on the forger’s face did not change. She bent down and reached under the light table, dragging out a floral carpet bag. “There you go. Get the little bastard out of here,” she grumbled, pushing the bag toward him with one foot while wiping her nose on her sleeve. “I’m allergic to the damn thing.”

Sully gingerly reached down and picked up the carpet bag. The weight inside of it seemed to move, and -- gǎo shénme guǐ? -- it whined.

Sully kept his “we’re all professionals here” face on with an effort, and calmly unzipped the bag for a look-see. The perfume of stale urine wafted out, making his eyes water. Inside, wrapped in a skanky-looking towel that no longer had an identifiable color, was a smallish, black-and-white creature that cocked its smushed-faced head up at him and perked up a pair of pointy ears. It whined again, then gave him a cute little smiley-faced pant.

“A dog?” Sully couldn’t help himself. The question just popped out of him.

“It won’t bite,” came the forger’s retort. “It bounced back real nice from surgery; you should have no problems with it. Got no food to send with you, but the beast has et pretty much anything we threw in there. Just don’t mess with the sutures, and for god’s sake, get it out of here!” The woman punctuated the orders with a wet, angry sneeze.

Shōudào,” Sully replied, zipping the bag shut again. Vasilyev was already turning back to her work, so he slung the carpet bag straps over his shoulder and saw himself out.

When he felt comfortably far away from the piroshki shop, Sully left the busy sidewalk for an alley, where he put the carpet bag down on top of a discarded crate. His charge had been quiet so far: he wanted to have a closer look at it. The bag unzipped with another waft of pee-stink. The creature was burrowed into her dingy towel, but she peered up at him hopefully. It was one of those ugly/cute sort of dogs, with a short, flat-nosed face and big dark eyes. Its pricked ears were held at half-mast, giving it an air of being cautiously optimistic. Sully didn’t really want to leave the poor thing in the smelly bag, but he wasn’t sure how the beast would react if he tried to remove it. He zipped the bag all the way open, and the creature wiggled out, eagerly covering his hands in wet kisses. She -- it was a she, he could see the spay incision now -- seemed clean enough despite the damp and smelly bag. She had a super-short ebony coat, with some white patches on the face and body, and what looked like a single inky thumbprint in the splash of white on the forehead between her ears. She seemed to be a happy little critter, and she let him look at her belly without a fuss. Several stitches, somewhat healed. She didn’t look like she cared much about the red incision or the sutures, and she certainly didn’t seem to be in any pain. There was a cheap, silvery woven collar around her neck, and no tags. The dog let him hold her baby-wise in the crook of his arm and busied herself with licking his ear. Definitely friendly. Seemed pretty young, no puppies of her own, trim enough that he could feel her ribs, but her hips weren't gaunt. No tail, but that looked natural, not as though she’d been docked. Sully’s family had owned a few dogs back on his family farm, but those had been barn mutts, kept around to guard the stock and equipment. This little thing didn’t look like a mutt to him, but she wasn’t a purse pet either. “You’d be no good as a ratter,” he told her, “but you don’t look like some froofy-white mop-Alliance-ladies’ ankle-biter to me. Well, whatever you are, you’ll just have to do, won’t you?”

The dog made a happy little “roo”-like noise and lapped his cheek in what might be agreement. She did not squirm to get away, and seemed genuinely grateful to be out of the smelly carpet bag.

“Let’s make a deal, then. You don’t try to get loose, and I won’t put you back in the stinky bag,” Sully offered. His answer was a gusty sigh and a happy, panting smile. “Rightio then,” he said, and headed back for the busy street, still carrying his favor points in the crook of his arm.

---to be continued---

Chapter Text

Sully found the captain in the galley. Cooper was kneading bread dough on the flour-dusted steel galley counter, while Hoss sat at the long wooden dining table, the insides of a small water pump spread out before him. Chang was in the observation galley, futzing away at the refurbished smart-paper wall screen.

“Hunting your ghost again?” Sully said to Chang as he strode past.

“Somebody crossed the damn streams,” Chang grumbled back -- that must be programmer-speak of some sort, Sully assumed, since it made no sense to him. The systems-man gave Sully a distracted glance as Sully walked by, then rocked back on his heels in an all-out double-take. “What’s that?”

“Just a little job,” Sully replied, heading for the aft end of the table. “That little favor I told you about.”

Chang’s exclamation had not gone unnoticed by the ship’s engineer, nor her captain. “A dog?” Cooper said sourly, while Hoss’s face lit up like a birthday cake.

“Bǎo bèi!” the big mechanic cried, reaching out at once. The dog recognized a fan when she saw one and began to wiggle enthusiastically. Sully passed the pooch over and deftly swept up the small pump parts before either Hoss or his new friend scattered them hopelessly across the deck.

“Your ‘little favor’ is a dog?” Cooper said, her tone dripping somewhere between annoyance and disbelief.

“Mendi didn’t say it wouldn’t be live cargo,” Sully said to the captain by way of explanation, commandeering an empty tea cup and depositing the bits and pieces in that. “But she’s a harmless little thing. The creature won’t cause too much trouble between here and there, and she can’t eat much.”

“Your ‘little favor’ is a dog,” Cooper repeated, her tone remaining unimpressed. She wiped her hands clean on a kitchen rag and reached after her cane, limping over to the table while the subject of her attention squeaked and chattered gleefully in Hoss’s arms, performing what looked like a full-body wag as the mechanic cuddled her and made a fuss of his own.

“Oooo! Who’s just made of cute? You! You’re made of cute! Bao bei bao bei bao yu bei bei!”

"So what's the full story?" Cooper asked, watching Hoss and the dog with the beginnings of a smile lurking around her lips.

Sully parked himself on a corner of the table and launched as requested. "I went to Mendi regarding future work. He says he's got nothing for us now... but then he called in favor points and said he had a small delivery to be made on Beylix, if that was where we were headed next. I do owe him and Mendi's continued friendship is a worthy investment, so I put on my first mate laurels and said I would be happy to make his delivery."

"Uh huh." Cooper nodded acceptance of that. She was still watching Hoss as the big mechanic babbled over the dog in multilingual puppy-goo-goo speak. “Details?”

The captain didn’t seem have ruffled feathers over Sully’s taking the initiative on this score, and recognizing that, Sully felt some lingering tension leave his gut. "Delivery is to Lucius Londinium Stylings near the spaceport on Beylix,” he explained. “I've ferried goods before on Mendi's behalf, Mendi’s always been solid with me in the past. So I figured -- hey, nothing fishy in the request, it's going to be a low-mass and no-heat. The largest I've ever carried for them before was a security-sealed ice chest to a biomedical firm."

Chang had left off his programming to join them. "But a dog?" he said in disbelief.

"Sure," Sully replied. "The third party I picked the pooch up from was a forger. There’s some nice equipment in her place, so let's keep her in mind as a future just-in-case, shall we? The forger said not to mess with the dog's sutures. Mendi deals a lot in information. So maybe they've implanted a memory chip or something in the dog. Who'd expect to look in a dog's tummy for contraband? Or who’d think to implant a false microchip ID somewhere in her with information secreted away on it? Lots of ways you could use her as a smuggling vessel, and with a cute little puppy face like that, who’d ever suspect?"

"Or maybe someone just wants to give their mother a present, and they don't want to fill out the Alliance Ag Department’s export forms for companion animals, much less deal with the hassle of meeting standard quarantine laws," Captain Cooper suggested. "Granted, it'll be a 10 day transit for us to Beylix, which would satisfy the required ISO period, but if there's any chance the dog's stolen property to begin with... there's reasons to avoid filling out the required health certification prior to transport."

Chang's eyes had lit up way back at Sully's suggestion of secreted data chips. He had pulled a mini-reader from his cargo pockets and was now reaching after Hoss's wiggling armfull. "Let me scan her and see what's--" he began to say.

"Stop!" both Cooper and Sully said in unison, while Hoss closed a huge hand around Chang’s wrist in restraint. Chang turned a startled look on them. Sully had to chuckle in sympathy. He knew his own curiosity was prodigious, but a good numbers man like Chang could never walk away from a puzzle. Solving puzzles for a guy like Chang was as necessary as oxygen. "Don't do that," Sully said repeated. "We're honest smugglers. We don't mess with the client's merchandise, and we don’t want it to flag at the destination as having been tampered with in any way."

"Especially don’t want to mess with Santo clients," Cooper added with a smirk.

Chang's bewildered expression lingered for another moment before vanishing as comprehension dawned. "Oh... Hǎo de. I get it. Santo. Russian Mafia. Right. Okay." He pocketed his reader unit reluctantly. "And this Mendi guy is part of the Red Brotherhood?"

"He's networked into the Bratva, although I've never been clear to what extent," Sully answered. "Mendi can make things happen and he knows who to talk to. And I can't say for sure about Lucius Londinium, but chances are they're a profitable front."

"If that's the case, and this dog is a vory v zakone mule, why aren't they sending the beast out on one of their own ships?" Chang asked, scratching the back of his neck.

"Maybe one vor brigadier doesn't want another brigadier to know what he's up too?" Sully shrugged. "Sometimes it's best to take a job on its face value and not know too much more. Because if the avtorityet begin to think you know something you shouldn't, you get dealt with. Usually you don't even have a clue they're coming after you, either. Just -- shhhhhhhk!" Sully slashed a finger across his own throat in illustration.

Abby came strolling in from the aft corridor then, and stopped short when she saw Hoss’s wiggling armful. “What’s that?”

“It’s a dog,” Chang supplied helpfully.

“Just a small job,” Sully corrected him. “Doing it on favor points.”

“It’s most darling little bǎouyu!” Hoss exclaimed.

“Why is there a dog on the ship?” Abby asked, still looking aghast.

“We’re delivering it to Sully’s contacts on Beylix,” the captain answered. “He’s paying off a favor.”

“Oh great,” Abby frowned, rolling her eyes. “First it’s chickens and goats down in the cargo bay, and now a dog. What next? Horses? Swine? A trained dancing bear?”

“I wouldn’t mind hauling a herd of cattle or sheep,” Cooper obliged, limping back to her waiting bread dough. “We could make some money there, maybe.”

“When I signed on, I thought I’d be working on a cargo ship, not a flying barn,” Abby continued to grouse, skirting the table to get a cup of tea from the galley.

“We’ll only have the critter for a few days,” Sully said. “She’s being delivered to Beylix.”

Hoss made a sound of protest at that. The big mechanic put the dog down on the tabletop long enough to reach into his cargo pockets, no doubt after some bit of candy. Sully saw that and scooped the dog up, not wanting to learn what the gastronomic results might be of canine nervous system overdosed on sugar.

“The mutt had better be gone,” Abby grumbled, giving them the side-eye. “I don’t want to live in a barnyard, where dogs are allowed to put their dirty little feet on the table I’m going to be eating my meals off of. And I am not -- NOT! -- picking up after the creature if it makes a mess!”

“It’s Sully’s job. Sully's favor points, Sully’s dog, Sully's mess,” Cooper said, with a look of her own for her first mate.

“I wouldn’t mind taking care of--” Hoss began to offer.

“Sully’s. Dog. Sully’s. Messes,” Cooper said again, firmly. “Hoss, we need you fixing things, not babysitting the little bundle of cute. Dong ma?”

Hoss grumbled at that, but didn’t argue. Sully accepted his own responsibly with good grace -- the dog couldn’t tip the scales at more than 12 pounds, so how much fecal matter could she produce, anyway?

“Does she have a name?” Chang asked.

Good question. Sully hadn’t been given one for the creature, after all. He looked into the creature’s black and white flat-nosed face, searching for that answer.

“Bǎo Yù,” Sully said then, with a glance at Hoss. The big mechanic beamed with pride, as Sully had seized on one of Hoss’s terms of endearments. “What do you think of that?” Sully asked the dog herself.

Bao Yu blinked at him and panted happily. Sully imagined that she rather approved.

Bao Yu wasn’t the only job they collected off the docks of Santo. In the few days’ layover they had on dock before departure, Cooper and Sully managed to wrangle up two more. The first was three cargo containers of surplus furniture, discarded as second-hand by a ritzy Santo hotel chain but being delivered to a more rimward-Beylix millionaire eager to refurbish his mansion considered far more en vogue, sight-unseen.

The second job was a passenger-with-freight deal, which came aboard only an hour before the Jin Dui’s scheduled departure. Mother Superior Iris was a tall, lean figure beneath flowing black robes, with a face the color of goat milk and an expression that struck Sully as permanently curdled. She oversaw the boarding of her five junior nuns, their baggage, and their four huge casks of apple butter with the precision of a ranking Alliance quartermaster.

“My sisters are all sworn to vows of silence,” Mother Iris said, formally addressing Captain Cooper, but sweeping the gathering of curious crew with a fierce glare. She turned that tomahawk stare on first Chang and then Hoss, then settled her attention on Sully with a ferocity that was unsettling. “Do not attempt to lure them into conversation,” the woman said, delivering the command like a hatchet-stroke. “They will spend their time between meals at prayer. We require only bread and broth; the transit is to be a time of fasting and introspection for my sisters. Any business your ship and crew have with my sisters and our passage, you will bring to me.”

“Yes ma’am,” Captain Cooper said, with a warning glance of her own for her first mate. Sully made a face back at her, not sure whether he was insulted or amused that his pretty mug was the one being singled out as the one most likely to rise to the challenge of nun seduction. Sully couldn’t think of a worse hobby to develop for the coming 10 days of transit.

Bao Yu, however, found the nuns utterly fascinating. Or rather, she found their casks of apple butter fascinating. Irresistibly so Every trip Sully took down to the cargo bay with the dog so that she could ‘do her business’ at the stable pod also meant several minutes of trying the pry the little dog’s inquisitive nose away from those casks.

“C’mon!” Sully groaned with exasperation. “Next time we come down here, I’m going to have to leash you. Don’t make me drag your buns, pooch!”

Bao Yu ignored the threat. As soon as she had finished piddling, she had dashed out of the stable pod and flung herself at the cluster of casks, squeezing herself into the center of their arranged square. Once there, she snuffled about noisily around the base of those casks, pausing only to bark and then dig frantically at the deck.

“Bao Yu! Come here girl! Come!“ Sully whistled to the dog, slapped his thigh to summon her, then responded to bare desperation. He got down on his hands and knees and tried to grab her, but the flat-faced creature danced just out of his reach and continued to paw at the side of one of the casks in bulging-eyed determination.

“C’mon!” Sully pleaded. “Baby, come here! Look, if that Mother Superior catches us down here messing with her cargo, you and me are going to be in a world of hurt. The Holy Mother’s righteous flame will roast us both to a crisp -- so come on! Let’s scoop ‘n scoot!”

Bao Yu planted her hindquarters on the deck and gave him a flat, annoyed stare. She barked at him once, as if in exasperation. Then her ears perked, and she turned her head up to look up the cargo bay stairs. There were footsteps at the top of the forward stairs, heading downside. Sully made a face and reached out his arms, and this time, Bao Yu launched herself at him. He caught her and stood, putting immediate distance between them and the casks. Sullivan was innocently carrying the dog back up the the aft portside stairs as Mother Superior Iris stepped down onto the mid-deck catwalk. He felt her suspicious eyes on him as he made his escape through the crew lounge hatchway -- and hyperconscious of being near the passenger cabins and their silent holinesses, he hurried across the lounge and headed up the far aft stairway as fast as he could while maintaining a modicum of his manly dignity.

“Nuns,” he muttered to Bao Yu. “God, I just hate nuns.”

Bao Yu gave a little hiccup-like sound of agreement and before nuzzling his ear and resting her chin on his shoulder with a happy little sigh.

May 16, 2514

The next ten days of transit between Santo and Beylix passed without any nun seductions -- or without Bao Yu getting caught disturbing the casks of holy apple butter. The junior sisters spent their time in their cabins, fasting and reflecting on whatever sins they had to reflect upon, while the ferocious Mother Superior kept a close eye on the lower crew lounge, ensuring that no one dared interrupt her charges in their silent communions. Outside of regular duties, the Jin Dui’s crew kept mostly to the galley and upper crew lounge -- not even Captain Cooper wanted to provoke the senior nun’s righteous wrath. But having all of the crew spending their social hours in one spot meant that Bao Yu always had an instant audience, and the little dog seemed to know exactly how to squirm her way into every non-nunnish heart aboard. Hoss loved to spoil her with treats from the galley, while both Abby and Chang could always be counted on for a game of fetch. Fatima loved to pick Bao Yu up and cradle her like a baby, while Halo liked to pretend he didn’t appreciate her, but always found lap space for her under the cover of the galley table while playing out one of his collection of board games.

Upon reaching Beylix, the Jin Dui’s first stop was a brief landing at the Carrickfergus Abbey, where the Mother Superior and her gaggle of nuns rolled their casks of apple butter down the gangplank out of the cargo bay and left with their junior vows of silence unbroken. Then the ship settled down at the Port of Beylix, where the ship would take a couple of hours at the dock to tank up her fuel reserves before relocating to their intended layover for the rest of their stay downworld, a prime lot at Sully’s Uncle Slim’s scrapyard. The two-hour layover at the capital was Sully’s window of opportunity to turn Bao Yu over to her contracted owners, bringing Mendi’s favor to its promised end.

Captain Cooper shared his taxi ride, Sully heading for the address Mendi had given him, and Cooper inbound for the Portmaster’s in hopes that a protest in person would get them a break on the Port Beylix’s prohibitive day-use fees. “It’s only a few blocks from the Port Authority, so I’ll catch up with you there. You’ll find me waiting in the lobby for you when you’ve finished,” Sully said, as the taxi pulled over in front of his delivery address, which proved to be a haberdashery. He opened the taxi door and slid out, then turned back to reach after Bao Yu. To Sully’s surprise, the dog was standing on Cooper’s lap, licking the captain’s face while she scratched the dog’s ears.

“Bái bái Bao Yu bèi bèi!” the captain chuckled. “She may be a brat,, she said, pushing the flat-faced canine over into Sully’s reach. “...but she’s a been a sweet little brat, and a boost to morale for this run. I do hate to see your little favor points go,” Cooper said.

“I won’t tell anyone you said those words,” Sully said, although he found himself touched by his captain’s confession. “I’m going to hate to give her back, but after all, we’re just the means of transit. After I pass her on, she’s probably going to become some local dragonlord’s pampered pet and live the good life.” He scooped Bao Yu up and gave his captain a parting wave as the taxi door shut and the vehicle swung away from the curb. Bao Yu gave an eager chirp and began to wriggle under his arm; Sully turned and realized he had disembarked the vehicle right in front of a kebab cart. He saw the sign reading “Hawt Gut Dawgs” and immediately turned away, catching Bao Yu’s chin and forcibly turning her focus away from the food cart’s sizzling offerings.

“Turn your little face away, xiǎo gōngzhǔ,” he teased the dog. “That might have once been your cousin!”

Apparently cannibalism wasn’t a taboo for Bao Yu, because all the way up the middle of the block and through the haberdashery’s front door she continued to squirm about in his grip, with full intention to get loose and beg, bribe or steal herself a kebab. “Not that I blame you,” he teased the little dog as he opened the door and stepped through. “Those kebabs do smell good. But no. Just. No.”

The haberdashery was empty except for hundreds of blank white plasfoam heads all wearing hats, and a very bald woman behind the sales desk. “I’m here to see a man about a dog,” Sully smiled at her, unable to resist the lure of the phrase. “Mendi sent me.”

The woman’s face was as dispassionate as all of the disembodied heads on the shelves surrounding them. She pointed at the counter in front of her. “Put it there.”

Sully looked down into Bao Yu’s smushed face, and found his smile faltering. Now that the time to return the dog to her owners, he was surprised at his sudden reluctance. He had grown far too fond of the little brat. He gently put Bao Yu down on the counter as indicated. The dog made a quiet “meep” noise and looked up at him nervously. Sully rested a hand on her back, keeping her in place as the store clerk fumbled to unclip the dog’s worn collar. The woman wrenched the dirty silver collar loose with a yank. She inspected the inside seam, then nodded to herself with a grunt of satisfaction. “Okay,” she said to Sully, hardly looking at him or Bao Yu. “We’re good. Just drop the mutt off with Hawt after you’ve left.”

“What?” Sully had been so convinced the dog’s spay incision was cover for some type smuggling, he had never looked twice at the ratty, stained old collar. Touche, he thought, recognizing a successful ploy, before his brain moved on to seize on the second half of the bald woman’s statement. “Do what?” he asked.

“Dump the beast off at the corner food cart,” the woman replied, her stare finding him now. Her eyes were pale and her gaze flat. “We’re done with her.”

Sully’s stomach turned. Bao Yu gave a strangled “meep” and he found he was holding her crushed protectively against his chest. “The hell I will,” he growled at the bald woman, then struggled to modify his tone it something that could pass for polite. “After all, there’s hardly any meat to be had on her, is there? Why don’t I just take her instead?”

The bald woman shrugged. “Suit yourself. Hawt’ll at least give you a cred or two--”

Sully was out the door and gone before she could finish her sentence. He shot a cautious look toward the kebab stand at the far end of the block, then hot-footed it the opposite direction. Bao Yu had stopped her mad wriggling, at least, and panted happily as he carried her away.

“You heard the captain,” Sully promised Bao Yu under his breath. “The crew needs a morale officer, and you’ll work for kibble, won’t you? The captain can’t say no to that, can she?”

Bao Yu gave a happy meep to that, and snuggled in for the promised rendezvous with Captain Cooper at the Port Authority offices. Sully wasn’t sure what Cooper would say about taking on Bao Yu full-time, but he was certain Cooper could be charmed into it. And if charm couldn’t win the day… well, he’d find a way to turn it into a favor. The captain was a savvy enough trader. Cooper knew favor points were always a wise currency to invest in.