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Christmas Cargo

By Jen McCain

Scifi

Chapter 1

Kaylee was quite certain that nothing was better than Christmas. Except for sex. Preferably with Simon, but seeing as how she hadn’t had sex with Simon yet, she was only just guessing. So when the Captain mentioned Christmas trees as he sat down at the supper table, Kaylee could hardly sit still. The rest of the crew gave the Captain a hard time, but Kaylee thought the idea was shiny.

“Where’s the money in that?” Jayne asked. “The ones I got for my ma didn’t cost nothin’ but the sweat it took to chop ‘em down and haul them to the house.”

“You’d be surprised,” Inara said. “On Sihnon, a good tree would go for over 500 credits.”

“For a tree? Don’t make no sense,” Jayne said, with his mouth full of food.

“Which is why you ain’t in charge of this boat, Jayne,” Mal said.

“Who’s the buyer?” Zoe asked.

“Badger.”

River looked up from her supper. “To harass or pester persistently.”

Kaylee wasn’t sure if River was referring to Badger or the food she kept poking at on her plate.

Zoe arched an eyebrow. “After what happened on our last trip to Persephone, I didn’t think we’d be payin’ Badger a visit for some time, sir.”

“Money’s good.” Mal shrugged. “Apparently, Badger is a mite taken with River. Don’t rightly know what went on while I was out dueling, but he took a shine to our crazy little vixen. He’s eager to catch a glimpse of her again.”

“River is not about to have any contact with those men,” Simon said. He put down his fork and looked ready for a fight.

Jayne’s foot tapped at Kaylee’s under the table. She could just make out the smirk curling the corners of his mouth.

Simon had a protective streak. Kaylee thought it was sweet. She wasn’t about to give a second thought to any of the notions that Jayne had been trying to put into her head about what a close family the Tams were.

“I have no plans on takin’ River with me to Badger’s,” Mal said. “More ‘n like, I’d just get a whole lot of questions I ain’t prepared to answer. But that don’t mean it ain’t a bad idea. She can’t be hidin’ in your bunk forever.”

Jayne gave Kaylee’s foot another tap. His grin was unmistakable. Kaylee kicked him in the shin.

“Ow!” Jayne hollered. “What’d you go and do that for?”

“Ain’t no call for those thoughts!” Kaylee said. “You’re just jealous ‘cause you don’t have anyone watchin’ over you.”

Mal looked at the two of them. “I thought River was the only reader on this boat. Somebody wanna tell me what’s going on?”

They glared at each other. “No.”

“Then shut up,” Mal said. “Lest you two wanna be eating in your bunks.”

“Sending them to bed with no supper has a more Dickensian quality to it, don’t you think?” Wash asked.

Mal pointed a fork at him. “Don’t you start. Or you’ll be the first to go.”

“Yes, dad.”

* * *

Looking at the deep rich dirt on Angel was like looking into the black. It held promise. Possibility. The planet was one of the great success stories of terra-forming. Anything could grow on it. Endless days of sunshine, sweet rolling hills, and thick black soil perfect for planting.

‘Course, the Alliance had their hands in all that dirt. There wasn’t a speck of land on it that wasn’t controlled, tagged, and meddled with. Mal stared out at the vast rows of crops and sighed. What a waste. There were some things that were better left to the folk, and farming was one of them.

They were outside of the Core, but just barely. The planet was the agricultural center of the Alliance, and as such, made Mal equal parts wary and excited. There was nothing he loved more than pulling a job right under the noses of the Alliance. Nothing beat the satisfaction of a job well done, money in his pockets, and the Alliance none the wiser – unless it was the Alliance being wiser, but not being able to do a gorram thing about it.

Beside him, Kaylee was bubbling with excitement. In order to accompany him, she’d foregone the trip to town to pick up supplies and check the post. It wasn’t until he saw Kaylee admiring the long rows of greenhouses that he understood her sudden fascination with farming.

“I don’t think there’s one thing down there you can afford,” he warned her. He didn’t want her to get her mouth set on something sweet and fruity only to spend the rest of the day pouting when she didn’t get it.

“I can look. And smell. Smellin’s the next best thing to eatin’,” she said. “Can you smell that?”

The air smelled of grass and trees. “Damn sight better than those cattle we moved,” he said.

In the distance, a lanky man wearing pressed pants and a crisp shirt walked towards them. He didn’t look much like any farmer Mal had ever known. Mal doubted he’d ever gotten his hands dirty.

Mal looked at Kaylee. “Now you stand there and look sweet. Badger says this is a new client. He’s never done business of this sort. We need to look respectable, not drooling over whatever tasty thing your nose thinks its smellin’, dong ma?”

Kaylee nodded.

“Malcolm Reynolds?” the man asked as he approached.

Mal nodded and shook the man’s hand. It was firm, calloused. Maybe the man had put them to good use.

“I’m Ira Slack,” he said. “Heard good things about you.”

“I ain’t heard a thing about you, so I’m sorry I can’t say the same,” Mal said. “This here’s Kaylee. Best mechanic in the ‘verse. She was anxious to see some green this morning.”

The man laughed. “You’ve come to the right place.” He led them down the well-tended path that cut straight through the tilled fields towards the outer buildings of the farm.

“Smells like Christmas.” Kaylee took a deep breath. “Wish I could put that smell in a bottle and carry it with me.”

Ira sighed. “That smell is costing me money. It’s the reason why I’m having to sell these through… unofficial channels.”

“On account of their smell?” Kaylee asked. “Seems that would make them worth more, if you ask me.”

Mal shook his head. “A lot of growth accelerants and additives are illegal under Alliance laws.”

Inside the hi-tech barn, workers were quickly shoving freshly cut trees through a wrapping machine and packing them into containers.

“My foreman, Mullins, insisted they were untraceable. He was wrong. But he’s a good man. First time he’s led me wrong.” Ira introduced them to the big man, who was overseeing the operation.

“We’ll be done here in an hour, boss,” Mullins said.

“Excellent.” Ira turned to Mal. “Time enough for a tour of our facilities.”

“If it’s all the same with you, I’d like to stay here and watch the packing,” Mal said. “I like to know the ins and outs of my cargo. However, I do know of someone who might be interested in taking a peek at what you’ve got growin’.” He motioned to Kaylee, who had wandered away and was staring out the door at the greenhouses.

Ira smiled. “My dear, how would you like the grand tour? We may have some apples that are just about ripe.”

Kaylee spun around. The smile she gave him was brighter than sunlight.

Mal just hoped Kaylee wouldn’t talk the poor sap out of too much produce.

* * *

Jayne liked the feel of things. The vibrations in the soles of his feet when Serenity hit atmo. The heavy weight of a gun in his hands. The soft curves of a woman beneath him. These things could be counted on to react in a certain way: The jerk of the boat as she steadied herself. The recoil as he fired off a round. The moans from a woman getting her pleasure.

By Jayne’s way of thinking, if he knew how something was going to react, he could react one second faster. Knowing that had saved his hide on more than one occasion. Trouble was, the folks aboard Serenity never seemed to react in any way that Jayne could make heads or tails of. Just when he’d think he had one of them pegged, they’d up and do something surprising. Like this morning, when Mal had all but ordered him to baby-sit Inara.

Wasn’t that Jayne didn’t like her. He liked her just fine. Liked to imagine what she was doing in that shuttle of hers when she flew off companioning. The word made Jayne laugh. It was whoring. Wasn’t nothing wrong with it. He’d bedded plenty of whores, but he saw no use in dressing the job up with pretty words. And having a tumble with a local lady was exactly where Jayne wished he were, instead of trudging down the road into town with a Shepherd and a Companion.

Mal had asked Wash to stay with Serenity to get ready for the pick up. Zoe had stayed with him. It wasn’t too often they got the boat to themselves. Jayne suspected they were making the most of it. With Mal off seeing to the cargo, that left only Jayne to go into town and pick up the post with Inara and the Shepherd.

The market place was crowded with people. A variety of shops, restaurants, and bars lined the narrow road.

“Nee ta ma duh tyen-shia suo-yo duh run doh gai si,” Jayne muttered, as he walked past a house of half-dressed women looking in his direction.

“Please, don’t let us keep you from your plans, Jayne,” Inara said. “I’m sure you’d rather be occupying your time in some other manner.”

“And have Mal toss me out the airlock if your dress so much as gets dirty?” Jayne said, the crowd parting around him to get out of his way. “No thanks.”

Inara smiled. “I’m surprised Mal even bothered. We’d probably be safer without your presence.”

“She’s right,” Book said. “Trouble does seem to have a way of finding you.”

“How’s about we forget about finding trouble and find a drink instead?” Jayne suggested, gazing at a bar. “Bet with ‘Nara with us, we could get special treatment.”

Book looked at Inara. “I wonder if this is how Jesus felt when he had the devil tempting him in the desert.”

“Hardly. The devil would’ve been far more attractive than Jayne,” Inara said.

“Hey! I got ears!” Jayne said.

“I never suggested that you didn’t,” Inara said, turning around with a teasing expression on her face. “You also have a mouth, but that doesn’t mean you–”

As she turned, a man jostled against her, knocking her slightly off balance. With one hand, Jayne kept her on her feet. With his other hand, he grabbed the man by the scruff of the neck.

“No harm done, son. Just a misstep, that’s all.” Book gave Jayne a pointed gaze that directed him to look at the man’s shoes. The man might’ve been dressed as common folk, but he was wearing the shoes of a Fed.

“Watch where you’re steppin’, next time.” Jayne released the fellow, who glared at him hard before disappearing into the crowd.

“Feds dressin’ as farmers? That ain’t right,” Jayne said. “It makes my palms twitchy.”

“Feds?” Inara asked.

Book nodded. “Alliance officer, most likely.”

“How can you tell?”

“The shoes.” Jayne knew that well enough. He was just mad the Shepherd had noticed it before he had. Oftentimes if a man in disguise made a mistake, it was with his shoes. After sizing up whether or not a person was armed, the first thing Jayne looked at was their feet. Those bright polished boots the Alliance were so fond of were hard to mistake for anything else.

An hour later, they were traipsing up into Serenity. Jayne carried the boxes of supplies with no help from the Preacher or Inara. Not that he expected Inara to help him carry anything, but the Shepherd sure could’ve. They’d worked out together for too long for Jayne not to know that underneath all those religious words, the Shepherd was a whole hell of a lot stronger than anyone gave him credit for.

The scent of pine was so strong it made Jayne’s eyes water.

“Huh,” Jayne said, looking at the stacks of crates.

He figured on finding the cargo bay turned into a forest. On closer inspection he saw that the trees were wrapped up real tight and shoved into packing crates. The boxes he was carrying banged against one of them. He readjusted the boxes in his hands, jostling them around in the process.

“Careful with those!” Simon raced down the stairs with Kaylee following right along behind.

Before Jayne could take another step, Simon was hovering around, flitting from one side of him to the other. Jayne fought the urge to swat him away, but with the boxes in his arms that wasn’t possible. He settled on glaring at him instead.

“Those medications are very delicate,” Simon said. “It’ll be a miracle if they made it this far intact and with you manhandling them -”

“Aw, quit your belly-aching, I ain’t gonna drop ‘em.” Jayne shoved the boxes at Simon, who staggered under the sudden weight.

The Shepherd picked that moment to come to the rescue, lifting the supplies easily out of Simon’s hand. He gave Jayne a disproving look, which always made Jayne think of his mama who used to give him a good smack to the back of the head when he’d gotten out of line.

“They aren’t just for River,” Kaylee explained. “They’re for all of us. And Simon’s stitched you up more than once.”

Jayne ignored the lot of them and turned to Mal. “Had a run in with the Feds.”

“I sent you to check post. How hard can that be?”

“Weren’t my fault. He run right into ‘Nara,” Jayne said. “Nearly knocked her off her feet.” Jayne knew he wasn’t the smartest person on this boat, but he knew that any mention of Inara in trouble would get Mal’s attention.

And just as Jayne predicted, Mal crossed the cargo bay to Inara. “You all right?”

“I’m fine, it was nothing,” Inara insisted.

Mal studied her as if to make sure she was telling the truth. Jayne never could understand why Mal didn’t just get her naked and get it over with. The two of them together were like a pair of bad grenades. You never knew which one was gonna detonate first, but when one did it would take the other with it.

“He wasn’t wearing any Alliance uniform,” Jayne said. “Dressed like regular folk.”

Mal looked at Wash. “When did you say the last Alliance cruiser was here?”

“Last week, stayed two days,” Wash said, anchoring the last strap around the cargo. “I can go recheck if you want?”

Mal shook his head. “No bother, we’ll be leaving here shortly.”

“I don’t like it. Feds like to make their presence known. Ain’t like them to sit back and watch,” Zoe said.

“Unless they didn’t want to spook who they were looking for.” Mal glanced at River who was sniffing the tree boxes.

Jayne rolled his eyes. It always came back to that crazy girl and her brother. He regretted the day he ever laid eyes on the two of them. They weren’t nothing but trouble.

“They would’ve been all over us the moment we hit atmo if they were after her, sir,” Zoe said.

“Most like. Still, best we be getting out of here.” Mal hit the button to close the cargo bay doors. “Wash?”

“I’ll get this sleigh headed towards the North Pole in no time.”

Kaylee was heading off with the doc when Jayne remember the letter. “Kaylee.”

She turned around. The frown on her face made him want to keep the letter to himself, but Inara and the Shepherd had both seen him take it from the postman. He shoved his hand into his back pocket and pulled out a crumpled letter.

* * *

The ship was filled with cargo. Supplies were restocked. And they hadn’t gotten into any trouble. Only way it could be better was if they’d had some coin in their pockets, which they would as soon as they dropped the goods off with Badger. All in all, it had been a good day. At least it had been until Mal walked into the galley and got a glimpse of the Christmas tree standing in the corner of the room.

“You know anything about this?” Mal asked Jayne, who was sitting at the table cleaning his guns.

“It ain’t yours?”

“No, it ain’t mine! What would I want a go se Christmas tree for?”

Jayne shrugged. “Thought you’d decided to keep it, like you did with one of them bobbly head dolls you liked so much.”

“I didn’t keep one of them dolls.”

“That ain’t what River says.” Jayne grinned.

“Since when did you start believin’ one damn thing that girl says?”

Jayne just shrugged and chuckled.

“Bee-jway!” Mal said. He turned and marched down the hall towards the engine room only to be intercepted by the Shepherd.

“Might I have a word with you Captain?”

“A word. No more,” Mal said. He wasn’t in the mood to hear whatever grievance the Shepherd had. It changed from day to day and it was hard to keep up with.

“Weapons.”

“All right, I admit, you’ve piqued my interest. Go on,” Mal said.

“Thought it might.” Book smiled. “The Abbey has a small cache of weapons they’d like to get rid of. Though you might be interested in purchasing them once we arrived at Persephone.”

“I’ll think on it,” Mal said. “What’s an Abbey got with a mess of weapons anyway?”

“We have to protect our flock,” Book said.

Mal nodded, and walked on to the engine room, where Kaylee was tinkering away beneath the engine.

“What’s the first rule I told you about workin’ on my boat?” he asked.

Kaylee wiped her eyes, then patted the side of the engine compartment. “Keep her in the sky.”

Mal sighed. “Ok, the second rule then?”

“No sex in the engine room.”

This wasn’t going as smoothly as he had hoped. “Third rule?”

Kaylee stopped what she was doing. “What are you playin’ at, Cap’n?”

“I ain’t playin’, lil Kaylee. This is dead serious.”

At that, she frowned and went back over the first two rules, counting them off on her fingers. “Keep her in the sky, no sex in the engine room, um…. no pets on board?”

He shook his head, giving up. “We never take the cargo! NEVER!”

“But didn’t you take one of them dolls with the bobbin’ heads?”

“I did no such thing! I was just… examining the merchandise,” he said. “Didn’t keep the gorram thing. I sure couldn’t have a look at it in the cargo bay. I heard enough of River shrieking when we loaded the boxes and she caught a glimpse of one of them.”

“You gotta admit, they were scary.”

“They were at that. But that ain’t the point,” Mal said. “The point is you NEVER take the cargo.”

“Ain’t takin’ it. I bought it,” Kaylee said, though she didn’t sound the least bit happy about it. In fact, she looked downright upset about it. “With my own money. Straight from the tree man back on the planet. He helped me pick it out, said it was the best of the bunch. So don’t go gettin’ your trousers in a knot on account of a little tree. It’ll be fun making the place all Christmasy. We ain’t had a tree on the ship since I came aboard. I miss all the holiday cheer.”

“Your eggnog last year was plenty enough cheer for everybody. Damn near cheered us right to death,” he said. The hangover had been so bad, the memory of it still beat in his head, right behind his eyes.

“So, I can’t keep it?”

“Fire hazard.”

“It’s been chemically treated,” she said.

“You don’t have any decorations.” Of course, he was talking to the girl who, if given the chance, would’ve covered the entire insides of the ship with sunshine and flowers, so he didn’t actually expect that reason to fly, but he had a reputation to uphold.

“River and I are gonna make some. Inara gave us some real pretty paper to use.”

Mal pointed a finger at her. “It’s gone the day after Christmas.”

Kaylee stood on tip-toes and kissed him on the cheek. “You ole softy.”

“Just don’t expect any presents from Santa,” Mal said.

“Couldn’t leave any cookies out for him anyway. Jayne would eat them.”

Mal got a good look at her. Her eyes were puffy like she’d been crying. “You all right? You don’t go hidin’ out under the engines unless there’s something troubling you, or Serenity’s broke.”

“Got a letter from home is all,” Kaylee said.

“Bad news?”

“Not a whole lot of work for them lately,” Kaylee said. She smiled, but it didn’t quite meet her eyes. “But it’ll work out. Things always do.”

Mal kissed her on the top of the head. “’Course it will,” he said, even though he knew that wasn’t always the case.

As he walked out the door he ran into Inara, who was carrying a stack of paper. “You shouldn’t encourage her,” Mal grumbled.

“Yes, Scrooge, I’ll keep that in mind,” Inara said and she walked past him. “Mal?”

He turned around.

“We’ll be on Persephone at least a day won’t we? I have several clients I could contact if I know what time frame I’m dealing with.”

Mal nodded. “One day. No more. So you’ll just have to settle for men without stamina. With your clientele on Persephone, I’m sure that won’t be a problem.”

* * *

Kaylee listened to them bantering. It made her sad. If she couldn’t convince Simon to kiss on her, least the Captain and Inara should get together. It was only fair. Kaylee knew that things weren’t always fair, but that didn’t stop her for hoping for them just the same. When she was growing up sometimes hope was the only thing she had. She just wished she had more now to give back to her family. Hope didn’t help pay off debts.

Inara walked into the engine room. All delicate perfect skin and shiny clothes. She looked to pretty to touch.

Inara smiled. “Here’s the paper. They aren’t the most festive of colors but -”

“Thank you ‘Nara. They’re perfect.”

She knew she didn’t sound like her usual cheerful self, because Inara frowned, and knelt down beside her. “Don’t let Mal keep you from enjoying your tree. Just because he doesn’t like to celebrate doesn’t mean that we can’t have a wonderful Christmas.”

Kaylee reached a hand out and traced the hem of Inara’s dress with her finger, barely skimming over the tiny rows of beads.

“I bet you make a lot of money companioning,” Kaylee said.

“Given the amount of money that went into my training, not as much as you might expect,” Inara said.

“You have to pay money to become a companion?” Kaylee asked. She had always assumed that anyone pretty enough could just join up.

Inara nodded. “My family paid quite a bit for me to begin training.”

“Guess I could always work at a place like Nandi had,” Kaylee said, still fiddling with the edge of Inara’s dress. She knew she was talking crazy, but she didn’t care.

“Kaylee!” Inara sounded like she didn’t know whether to laugh or to scold her.

Kaylee shrugged. “Ain’t like I don’t like doing it. Simon won’t give me a second glance, anyway. And the money would be nice.”

Inara took Kaylee’s hands and tugged her to her feet. “All right, what’s going on?”

“Nothing.” Kaylee didn’t want to meet her gaze. She knew the second she looked at her she would tell her everything, and she didn’t wanna go bothering people with her troubles.

Kaylee could feel Inara’s eyes on her, waiting. She peeked up at her, and burst into tears. Inara pulled her into a tight embrace and let her cry it out. No soothing words or white lies to cover the pain, just gentle caresses down her back, and soft kisses to the top of the head.

She pulled the crumpled note out of her pocket and handed it to Inara.

Inara delicately flattened the paper, before reading it over. “It doesn’t sound too dire. Once the we get to Persephone, I’m sure your cut of the money will be – ”

“I won’t have a cut.” Kaylee wiped her nose with the back of her hand. “I already spent it on extras for Serenity last time we were docked. Made a deal with the Cap’n. They weren’t important things, just little things I thought she needed, and I found ‘em cheap. Cap’n paid for them since I didn’t have the money, but only if I promised to pay him back out of the next job.”

“I’m sure if you tell him, explain to him that you need the money,” Inara said.

Kaylee shook her head. “You know it wouldn’t be right. And don’t you tell him either. He worries about us enough already. He don’t need to be adding my family to the list of his troubles,” she said. “I just wish I hadn’t spent the money on the tree. It wouldn’t have been much, but it would’ve been something.”

“Why did your parents give you permission to fly on Serenity?”

“They didn’t really give me permission,” Kaylee said. “They told me I was grown up enough to make my own decisions.”

“They treated you like an adult.”

Kaylee nodded. “Suppose so.”

“And that’s what they’re doing now by telling you what’s going on. Not because they want your money, or want you to worry, but because you’re adult enough to hear the truth of their situation,” Inara said. “You said yourself that your father has been unemployed for periods of time while you were growing up.”

“Yes.”

“But they sheltered you from the reality of it because you were a child,” Inara said.

“Maybe,” Kaylee sighed. She knew that Inara was probably right, but that still didn’t stop her from wanting to help her folks out.

“Come on.” Inara took her hand.

“Where are we going?”

“To decorate your Christmas tree,” she said. “Before you get anymore ideas about joining the Guild.”

Kaylee giggled.

* * *

Mal went into the kitchen for supper to find Wash and Zoe eating at the small table in the corner. River and Kaylee had confiscated the main dining table and turned it into an assembly line for Christmas decorations.

The two girls were absorbed with their work. Multicolored paper in dark shades of reds, blues, browns, and silver were stacked neatly beside River, while a jumble of thin wires that looked like the inner workings of Serenity herself were tangled in front of Kaylee.

River’s hands were a blur. She folded the paper with unnerving precision as she constructed intricate origami decorations. As soon as she finished one she handed it to Kaylee, who poked a hole in the top of it and slipped a wire through it in order to hang it up.

Mal pointed at the wires. “My ship ain’t gonna fall out of the sky without these, is she?”

“Nah, she’s shiny, Cap’n,” Kaylee said, with a grin. “Just scraps. Would’ve tossed ‘em soon as we got to a recycle bin.” She set the finished decoration delicately onto the table and started on the next one.

The pile of ornaments covered half the table already. Little paper guns in various makes and models all in red, ammunition rounds in shades of blue, and several large knives with serrated blades constructed out of thin brown paper. The only thing that looked harmless and relatively normal were the perfectly shaped silver orbs. Mal had no idea how River had made them, he’d never seen anything quite like it.

“S-43 Axis grenades. They reflect the light,” River said, simply.

“She’s right, they do,” Jayne commented from the stove where he was piling a heaping mound of the Shepherd’s latest protein concoction onto his plate. “Can’t even camo the gorram things. Paint slips right off. I tried once.”

“The molecular structure of the metal is a repellant,” River explained.

“Festive,” Mal said.

Inara walked into the room. Mal looked at her and smiled. “Nothing puts me in the Christmas spirit more than a small paper arsenal.”

She ignored his comment, and offered Kaylee an elegant red and gold silk shawl. “For the base of the tree.”

“We can’t use your pretties! They’ll get all mucked up on the floor.”

“Stain resistant fabric,” Inara said, wrapping it around the base of the tree.

“Stain resistant?” Kaylee pondered Inara’s words. “Guess that would come in handy in your profession. I wish they made some stain resistant coveralls, those would definitely keep me a mite cleaner. Hell, I’d settle for stain resistant skin, I have to scrub for ages to get the gunk off me.”

“I could help you out with that,” Jayne said.

Kaylee swatted him as he walked by. “Hush!”

He laughed and wandered off with his bowl of food and sat down next to Wash, and Zoe.

“It’s a lovely tree,” Inara said.

“It ain’t a tree if it don’t have a hat,” she said wistfully, giving Jayne a pointed stare. “My daddy always put one of his hats on the top of the Christmas tree, said it freshened them up and made them smell good the rest of the year.”

“You ain’t using one of my hats,” Jayne said. “I don’t wanna smell like a tree.”

“Seeing as how your natural smell ain’t all that aromatic, you might wanna think on that a bit longer, Jayne,” Mal suggested.

Wash said, “He’s so tall, with that fresh pine scent he might be mistaken for at tree.”

Jayne glared at him.

“A big bad scarrrrrry tree,” Wash added. “With guns!”

Before Jayne had a chance to respond, Mal spoke up. The very last thing he felt like listening to was a battle of wills between Jayne and Wash. “We’ll be landing at Persephone in the morning,” Mal said. “Jayne, I want you to go with the Shepherd to the Abbey.”

“Does this Abbey got any nuns?” Jayne asked.

Book looked towards the heavens.

“Jayne!” Kaylee said.

“What?” Jayne grinned. “Those robes they wear would be like opening a present on Christmas morning.”

“All right, that’s it,” Wash said. “Jayne’s ruined Christmas for me forever. I’ll never be able to open a present again without thinking of naked nuns.”

“Good honey, that’s one less gift I have to buy for you this year,” Zoe said.

“But you were going to buy me that slinky dress!” he complained.

“What goes on in that bunk of yours, stays there,” Mal said.

“As lovely as I would look in such attire,” Was explained. “My present is to watch Zoe in the slinky dress.”

Mal looked at Zoe. “You married a dumb one. I told you not to do it.”

“Couldn’t help myself, sir,” she said. “He bothered me. Only cure was to marry him.”

Wash leaned over and kissed her neck. “Can we move this meeting along captain, cause I really need to bother my wife.”

Mal sighed. “I ain’t the one talking about naked nuns and cross-dressing.”

“What do I have to go to the Abbey for anyways?” Jayne asked.

Mal said. “Book said the Abbey had a few guns they want to be getting rid of. Book will handle the details. You’ll check out the merchandise.” He glared at Jayne. “And keep John Thomas in your pants.”

“I don’t know what’s scarier,” Wash said. “The fact that Mal knows the name of Jayne’s pecker or that I do.”

* * *

Kaylee loved the buzz of excitement before landfall. The Captain would be walking the corridors making sure everything was in order. Jayne would be gathering up his guns ready to protect the cargo. Inara would be off to get herself beautiful for companioning. Wash would be at the helm, giving them his silly landing reports as they got closer and closer to atmo. Zoe would be right behind him, an eye of calm in the middle of all the energy.

Kaylee was always with the engine, keeping her running smooth, making sure that no one could tell the difference between the moment they left the black and the moment they hit atmo. She was leaning against the wall listening for any sound of trouble when Inara joined her.

“Shouldn’t you be getting ready?” Kaylee asked. Not that Inara really needed to, she always looked ready to go, but Kaylee got the feeling there was some kind of ritual Inara went through before meeting with each client.

“I have a business proposition for you,” Inara said.

Kaylee raised her eyebrows and laughed. “Oh, I was just kidding about joining up with the Guild!”

Inara smiled. “I was thinking more along the lines of a business transaction. I know someone’s who’s interested in a tree.”

“Interested?”

“My client is a very busy man and hasn’t the time or energy to decorate for the holidays, so I suggested that I make my shuttle inviting for the season,” Inara said.

“You can have the tree, just as long as you bring it back,” Kaylee said.

Inara laughed. “I don’t want to take it! I told my client that such preparations would cost extra.”

“So…you mean…you want to rent my tree?”

“Perhaps I did too good of a job at persuading him about the simple joys of the season,” Inara said. “He was so taken with the idea that he wishes to purchase the tree and return with it after our appointment.”

“He wants to buy it from me?” Kaylee asked, her excitement growing.

“Trees are very expensive. I made him an offer. Feel free to turn me down,” Inara said.

Kaylee smiled. “How much?”

* * *

Mal stood in the cargo bay watching as Badger and his men unloaded the crates. One by one they opened the crates, unwrapped the trees, and carried them into the back of a truck. The cargo bay floor was cluttered with tree wrappers.

“Takin’ them an awful long time with each tree, sir,” Zoe commented.

Mal said nothing, only watched as one of Badger’s men disappeared into the back of the cargo truck with another tree.

Mal walked across the cargo bay floor. “You wanna tell us what’s going on here, or do I have to guess?”

Badger frowned. “Don’t think I’m getting your meaning.”

“Think maybe there’s something you ain’t telling us about this cargo?” Mal asked.

One of Badgers men came back into the cargo bay. “Last tree was just a tree.”

“I am surprised, the great Captain Reynolds stealing cargo,” Badger said. “Word gets around on this, you won’t find a job on either side of the system.”

“Now best speak plain, and let me know what it is you seem to think I lifted,” Mal said.

“Don’t play the fool.”

“Only fool I see standing here is you,” Mal said. “I’ve been up front from the beginning.”

“And I want to know what you did with the other tree,” Badger said. “Did you think you’d get away without us knowing the difference? You had to have known we would check.”

“What exactly is it you’re checking for? Root rot?” Mal asked. “Never took you to be much of a gardener, ain’t that something.”

“I want the wraiths. All dozen of them,” Badger said. “Now you can make this easy and just hand them over. Or me and my boys can have us a look-see around the ship. Maybe I’ll run into that charming passenger of yours. She still around?”

“Ain’t a passenger,” River said, mimicking his accent. She appeared out of nowhere. “Member of the crew.”

“That right, sweetheart?”

“That’s right, Badger.”

“What’s your job on this flying piece of luh-suh?” he asked.

She shrugged. “Annihilation or eradication. Pests and rodents are an acceptable alternative when no other targets are in range. Practice.”

“I like her.” He laughed, then looked back at Mal. “But I still want those wraiths.”

Wash frowned. “What’s a wraith? Sounds like something I wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley.”

Zoe said, “Wraiths are needle thin bullets designed to feel like a pin prick going in. Do their damage unseen…”

“Then you drop dead a little while later without ever knowing you’d been shot,” Mal said.

“Definitely not something I want to meet in a dark alley,” Wash mumbled.

“And definitely not something you could afford anyway,” Mal said. “They’re worth a fortune. Almost impossible to get your hands on one.”

“And yet, we’ve been flying all this time with a boat load of them,” Zoe said. “Don’t seem right, sir.”

“Would’ve been nice if we’d known about this, Badger,” Mal said. “Don’t rightly care to be transporting cargo when I don’t know all the details.”

Badger shrugged. “It was just a minor detail. I told you what you needed to know. Now where’s that other tree?”

“We decorated it,” Mal said. “Felt like dressin’ Serenity up for the holidays.”

“You? I never took you for a Christmas cheer kinda man,” Badger said.

“Bought it before we left atmo back on Angel,” Mal said. “Don’t feel much like givin’ it up.”

“Keep the gorram tree, just bring me those wraiths,” he said, smiling at River.

“Let me see what I can do,” Mal said. He didn’t want to leave the cargo bay, but he didn’t have much of a choice. Zoe gave him a quick nod, and positioned herself near River, as Mal walked out the door. Once this thing was over he was going to give Simon a piece of his mind, and maybe a piece of his fist. That doc had to keep a tighter leash on that girl before somebody got killed. Mal just hoped that someone wouldn’t be his ownself.

* * *

Kaylee decided that she didn’t really need a tree to celebrate Christmas. The ornaments she and River made were more than festive enough without all that green. She thought she even might keep them up year round. She was standing on the edge of one of the couplet generators stringing up the decorations when she heard feet pounding down the corridor. The Captain never ran like that unless he was angry, or the engine wasn’t working.

He burst into the room. “Where’s the Christmas tree?”

“The tree ain’t here,” Kaylee said.

“What do you mean the tree ain’t here?” he said. “You begged and pleaded to have that thing on my boat.”

“Sold it. The money was more then I’d make in a months of jobs, and my parents needed the credits,” Kaylee said.

“That what’s been eating at you?” he asked.

She nodded. “Didn’t want to bother you none with my problems, seeing as how you’re always worrying on us.”

“Hows and whys don’t matter right now, all that matters is that we get that tree back here,” Mal said. “Where is it?”

“‘Nara’s got it.” Kaylee said. “What do you need the tree for?”

“Don’t have time to explain,” the Captain said. “I gotta call Jayne.”

And just like that he was gone, leaving her holding a string of ornaments and a whole lot of unanswered questions. Typical.

* * *

There wasn’t a whole lot to see at the Abbey other than a bunch of tired old men. Jayne followed Book down a long hall and leaned against the doorframe while Book poked around in a supply closet. If they hurried, he might have time to make a few stops of his own before they left atmo, but the way the Shepherd was taking his good old time, he doubted it.

“Once we’re finished here, I’d like to have a cleansing,” Book said. “It won’t take me long.” He dragged a large metal trunk out of the closet.

“You just left the boat. What do you plan on doin’ between now and then that’s gonna get you dirty enough to shower?” Jayne asked, eyebrows raised. “You sure there aren’t any nuns at this place?”

Book chuckled. “It’s a spiritual cleansing, similar to confession,” he explained. “You should try it. Might do you some good.”

“I don’t see how saying my wrongs right out loud for another soul to hear’s gonna make God feel any more forgiving,” Jayne said. “Hard enough to keep myself in one piece, without frettin’ over which commandments I’m breaking while I’m doing it. What’s a Shepherd like you got to confess, anyway?”

“Wasn’t always a Shepherd.” Book unlocked the trunk and flipped open the lid. Inside were guns. Dozens of them. Most of them were of a higher caliber than those that simple folk would have around for protection.

Jayne’s eyes widened. “These yours?”

“They belong to the Abbey.”

Sure they did. But Jayne wasn’t complaining, the Shepherd was right handy in a fight, even if he didn’t shoot to kill and a person’s past was there’s to keep or give away as they saw fit.

Jayne picked up the gun on the top, let it sit in his hands, feeling the weight of it. He checked to make sure it was unloaded, then pulled the trigger. “We don’t have the money to pay what they’re worth.”

“The Abbey is aware of that,” Book said.

“We’ll take ‘em. All of them.”

Jayne was loading up the trunk, making sure the guns were packed properly, when Mal’s voice came through on the com, all thin and crackly through the speakers. “Jayne, you there?”

“Yeah.”

“We got us a situation.”

“Don’t we always,” Book commented.

“I need you to find Inara,” Mal said. “Badger and his men are after a tree.”

“A tree?” Jayne wondered what kind of weird sexual act would require a tree, but he didn’t get to ponder it as long as he would’ve liked.

“No time to explain. Kaylee’s tree is on Inara’s shuttle. Badger wants it.”

“Why for?”

“A whole passel of wraiths are lodged in the trunk,” Mal said.

Jayne grimaced. “Told you we were being paid a lot of money for haulin’ them trees.”

“Save the “I told you sos” for later, just bring those wraiths back so we can get this thing settled,” Mal said.

“Wraiths?” The Shepherd said. “Those were banned years ago.”

“Think that means a gorram thing?” Jayne asked, sticking one of the guns into his waistband. No such thing as being too prepared. “You wanna grab one of them guns there, Shepherd?”

Book looked at the trunk. “No, not one of those.”

Jayne reached into his ankle holster and handed Book one of his own. “These are far better at getting confessions outta people, than some spiritual washin’.”

* * *

Every confrontation reminded Mal of the war. He couldn’t help it. His instincts took over, which meant barking orders at whoever was on his side. Luckily, Zoe was right behind him most of the time. Felt good to have her standing there, watching his back. Always ready with a fist or a bullet or a snide remark. What he didn’t like was River standing nose to nose with Badger. It made him all kinds of anxious.

Badger looked up at him. “Where’s my tree?”

Mal smiled. “Kaylee’s taking the ornaments off it now.”

Badger rolled his eyes. “I don’t have time for games, Reynolds.” His hand drifted towards his gun.

“Good, neither do I,” Mal replied, and reached for his gun.

He never had a chance to fire. River got in the way of his shot, launching herself at Badger and sending them both tumbling to the floor. Mal dove for cover as one of Badger’s men took a shot at him. He heard the sound of Zoe’s gun firing. By the time he was back on his feet, it was all over. Two of Badger’s men lay dead on the cargo bay floor. Badger was wrapped up in a plastic sheath that had come off of one of the trees. His head and his feet were the only thing exposed. The rest of him was immobilized. He was unconscious, but looked to be alive as far as Mal could tell.

River stood over him without so much as a hair out of place. One bare foot rested daintily on his chest. “Badger-in-the-bag. Like Pwyll and Gwawl.” She stared at Mal. “But I am not your suitor.”

“That’s good to know.” Mal always found the best way to deal with her peculiarities was to respond neutrally.

“Mythical and epic, but no less true.”

“Right,” Mal said, looking to Zoe for some kind of assistance.

Zoe shrugged, not seeming to care what the girl said, just pleased that the confrontation was over.

“Comprehension isn’t necessary,” River said, then frowned down at Badger. “He smells bad.” She stepped over him and wandered out of the cargo bay.

“You might be right about takin’ her with us on jobs,” Zoe said.

Badger moaned. “Come on now, cut me loose. Ain’t no need for this. We had a deal.”

“The way I see it, it’s one thing to carry a boat load of trees. Quite another to be carrying cargo that could get me locked up the rest of my life.” Mal calmly bent down and picked up a package of wraiths out of one of the dead man’s pockets. He pulled out a cartridge and loaded it into his gun.

“We could renegotiate the terms of the deal,” Badger said.

“Renegotiate?” Mal said.

“That seems generous of him, sir,” Zoe said.

“I dunno. I’d kinda like to renegotiate a bullet into his belly.” Mal aimed the gun at him. “He wouldn’t even feel it.”

“I’ll up your final cost by 50%,” Badger said.

Mal cocked the trigger.

“Double! I’ll double the original cost. We’ve been in business a long time. Mullins didn’t tell me about the wraiths until after you’d already picked up the merchandise.”

“Mullins?”

Badger nodded. “He’s gonna have my hide if you don’t give me those wraiths you stole.”

“It wasn’t stolen. We paid for that tree.”

“I don’t care what you paid for it. Just get them back here and we can get the money and I’ll split my share with you down the middle.”

Mal smiled.

* * *

“Think she’s naked in there?” Jayne asked, as he stood outside the door of Inara’s shuttle. He sure hoped she was. It didn’t seem right that he’d been living on the same ship as a Companion for this long and he still hadn’t gotten so much as an accidental glimpse at too much skin. He looked at the Shepherd, who gazed heavenwards, mouthing unspoken words.

“You prayin’ that she is?” Jayne grinned.

“The opposite, if you must know.”

Jayne rapped on the door. One second went by. Two. Three. Jayne was about to knock again when the door opened. Inara had on a robe pulled tightly together. Leave it to her to be composed even during sex. It was a shame really. Jayne liked his women with a little more fire in ‘em than that.

“What are you doing here?” she hissed. “I told Mal under no circumstances were any of you to ever inter–”

“Just give us the tree, and you can get back to your….business,” Jayne said.

“The tree?”

“There is a small fortune worth of illegal ammunition hidden inside it,” Book explained.

“I can’t just bring it to you. Kaylee sold it, for quite a bit of money I might add.”

“There a problem?” A male voice said from behind them.

Inara looked over her shoulder, her expression instantly softening. “It’s nothing. I’ll be right there.” She stepped outside and shut the door behind her. “Do you have any idea who I have inside here? If he so much as got an idea that anything illegal was going on – - ”

“Who’s in there?” Jayne asked.

“There’s a reason why I keep my clients anonymous. It’s to protect the crew as much as anything.”

“If we don’t get that tree back there will be trouble,” Book said.

“Just get him out of there long enough for me to get the goods,” Jayne said. “Won’t take but a minute.”

Inara shook her head. “I can’t just tell him to leave. There would be too many questions.”

Jayne grinned. “Tell him I’m a better lay.”

Inara rolled her eyes.

“You may not have a bad idea,” Book said, thoughtfully.

“What?” Inara said. “Have you both lost your minds?”

“I assumed that portraying disgruntled clients would be preferable to having to explain that we’re associated with the ship,” Book said. “Go get your young man. I’ll take care of this.”

Inara looked at them warily.

“Trust me, I’m a Shepherd.”

Inara nodded and walked back into the shuttle.

Jayne stared at him. “Is that why you got into the Shepherding business? So people would take you at your word and nothing else?”

A moment later, Inara came back with her fellow. He was a middle-aged man, all bedecked in silk robes. He didn’t look the least bit happy. Jayne didn’t blame him. Nothing was worse than getting interrupted when having a bit of fun between the sheets.

Book stepped forward. “Forgive us for intruding, sir. I assured Miss Sera that we will compensate her for your time. I was wondering if I could have a quick word.”

The Shepherd took the man side and whispered to him quietly. His eyes widened and then he smiled. He looked at Jayne. “Go ahead, young man.”

Jayne went inside. He hated the way Inara’s shuttle smelled. It didn’t smell like sex, that was for damn sure. Sex would’ve been a whole lot better than the thick eye watering spicy smell that hung in the room. He knelt down beside the tree, tipped it over slightly and tugged on the bottom. The fake stump slid off, and Jayne pulled out the small container of wraiths and tucked them into his trousers. He fixed the tree back upright, and headed out the door.

“Ready Shepherd?” Jayne asked, almost disappointed that he hadn’t any opportunity to use his weapons.

But Inara’s client had other ideas. “Sir, it’s generally expected that you should thank a lady for allowing you to enter her home,” he said.

“Thanks ‘Nara,” Jayne mumbled.

As he and the Shepherd walked away Jayne said, “What’d you tell him anyway?”

Book smiled. “Oh, only that you were a past client who had pledged your love to Inara and offered to marry her. And left a ring for her under her pillow hoping to change her mind.”

Jayne rolled his eyes. “He thinks I was there for a ruttin’ wedding ring?”

“I didn’t see you coming up with any other ideas.”

“When Mal threatens to space me, you better come to my rescue and tell him it was your idea,” Jayne said.

“Don’t worry, son,” Book said. “I’ve got your back.”

Jayne had heard those words from a lot of people over the years. This was the first time he actually believed them.

* * *

Kaylee paced back and forth along the catwalk above the cargo bay. Down below, Jayne was babying the guns that he and Book had brought back from the Abbey. He had them all laid out on a mat, and was examining each of them.

“The trigger on that one sticks,” Book pointed out.

Jayne examined it closer. “I’ll fix her up good as new.”

“Think it looks like a Claire?” Book asked.

“You don’t know one thing about namin’ guns, do you?”

Jayne and the Shepherd wasn’t a friendship that she ever would’ve guessed. The two of them together were an entertaining pair. Any other time, Kaylee would’ve grinned at their antics, but she was nervous. Even too nervous to trust herself to tinker with Serenity.

The Captain wasn’t back yet.

Earlier, the Captain, Zoe, and Jayne had taken the wraiths and gone off to Badgers. Jayne and Zoe had come back, all smiles and happy faces, saying that everything was taken care of, that the Captain just had a few errands to run.

Kaylee knew better than that. The Captain never ran errands. He got Jayne to do that for him. Something was wrong and it was probably all her fault. All over a Christmas tree. Just thinking on it put knots in her stomach.

There was a knock on the cargo bay doors. Book pushed the button to lower the ramp. Kaylee clutched at the railing on the catwalk and leaned down to get a better view. She didn’t believe was she was seeing.

The Captain was dragging a Christmas tree into the cargo bay. It wasn’t the same one Kaylee had bought back on Angel. This was a tall scraggly looking thing. The needles were falling off, leaving a trail behind him.

“Cap’n?” she asked.

“Couldn’t have that paper arsenal goin’ to waste now could we?” he asked, grinning up at her.

Kaylee decided it was the prettiest tree she’d ever seen. She raced down the stairs to get a closer look. “I like her. She has personality.”

“Thought we just got rid of all those gorram trees,” Jayne said.

“You didn’t shove a nun down in that box from the Abbey did you?” Mal stopped long enough to see all the weapons.

“Figured I didn’t need ‘em. Not since I have ‘Nara to marry.” Jayne grinned.

“Marry?” Mal stuttered.

Book laughed. “I have to admit, that particular ruse wasn’t one of my better ideas.”

“I wonder what their babies would look like?” Kaylee said. “Would they be all big and burly like Jayne? Or delicate like ‘Nara?”

“You best go get the doc, Kaylee,” Mal said, as he hauled the tree towards the door.

Kaylee frowned. “Why? You hurt?”

“No, but I’m gonna be sick somethin’ fierce if you don’t stop talking,” Mal said. “Jayne having offspring is all manner of wrong.”

Kaylee thought Jayne would be a good daddy, all protective and fierce like a papa bear. “Jayne could name a boy or a girl after him!” she said. “And knowing how much he likes the ladies, there might be a few lil Jaynes running around out there already.”

Jayne froze in place as if the idea had never crossed his mind. “You think?” He acted like he expected one to suddenly jump out of a corner.

Kaylee didn’t have a chance to hear what words of comfort the Shepherd offered him, cause she had to catch up with the Captain who’d left the cargo bay in disgust. By the time Kaylee found him, he was already standing the tree up in the kitchen and was talking on the com link, “Get us out of here, Wash.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You ain’t mad at me ’bout the tree, then?” she asked.

“Mad?” Mal frowned.

Kaylee shrugged. “Didn’t mean to cause such a ruckus over a little tree.”

“Your tree fiasco’s the best payoff we’ve had in months. Badger gave us twice what he intended,” he said, and headed towards the bridge.

Kaylee smiled. The tree really did look perfect. It reminded her of Serenity. She might not be quite perfect on the outside, but with a little work she’d do the job better than any other tree out there. Kaylee was certain of it.

“But that still don’t mean I’m gonna go back and pick up all these needles that are trailing all over my boat!” the Captain hollered.

* * *

Even the grainy quality of the com screen wasn’t enough to keep Mal from seeing the rage in Ira Slack’s face. “Thank you for letting me know, Captain Reynolds. Mullins will be taken care of.”

“Thought it best you know what kind of man you got working for you,” Mal said.

“You’ll be compensated for your troubles,” Ira said. “Least I can do, given the circumstances.”

“Wasn’t expecting that, but I appreciate it.” With a curt nod, Mal shut off the screen and sat back in the pilot seat. The job hadn’t gone according to plan, nothing ever did, but they all had come back without a scrape, and they had a good heft of coin in their pockets. It didn’t get much better than that.

He followed the sound of laughter down the hall and into the galley where the crew had gathered to decorate the tree. A couple of jugs of wine sat on the counter. Mal helped himself to a small cup, when Inara approached him.

“So, I hear that you wouldn’t let Jayne make an honest woman out of you,” Mal said.

Inara rolled her eyes. “Do you have any idea the trouble I went through trying to explain to my client what happened?”

“Nope, but I sure would’ve liked to have seen it,” Mal said.

Inara raised her eyebrows. “Oh really? I never realized you had voyeuristic tendencies.”

Mal choked on his wine.

Inara laughed. “I thought you didn’t like Christmas.”

“I like to partake in the festivities as much as the next man, I just prefer to do my celebrating on a nameless day,” Mal said.

Inara frowned. “Nameless day?”

“Dates with names you gotta watch out for. Those are the ones that’ll get you,” he said.
“Sooner or later a Christmas will roll around and someone will be missing from that kitchen table.”

Inara gasped. “Mal.”

Across the room Kaylee was laughing as Jayne hoisted her up in his arms to set his hat on top of the tree. River and Wash were hanging decorations, little red guns and brown knives that sparkled. Zoe and Book were laughing, and even Simon had managed to loosen up with some help from Kaylee’s wine to have a wide grin on his face. Given the amount of alcohol he’d consumed, he wouldn’t be smiling tomorrow.

“Sure enough, it’ll happen,” Mal said, softly. “And all the days they’ve been gone won’t hurt as bad as this day will. Cause we’ll all know for certain what was going on this day, because it has a name.”

Too many days had names. Mal hated every single one of them. He stared at the kitchen table from across the room, not wanting to imagine which space would be empty, but knowing without a doubt that eventually one of them would be.


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