It wasn't supposed to be like this. Inara was meant to be an asset, not a liability. Still, Mal supposed that from the start he'd figured something like this would happen eventually - Companions out here just asked for it. Hell, they were all asking for it out here. But he hadn't figured it would play out quite like this.
It's late when the wave comes, and most of the crew are asleep, or on as good as. It doesn't bode well when a wave comes unexpected, but Mal relaxes slightly when he sees it's from Inara.
He tenses right back up as soon as he sees the look on her face.
"I've got a problem."
Probably the gorram shuttle. Kaylee'd been making noises about regular wear and tear, but Inara had insisted it still had a ways to go before she was forced to be ship-bound for a few days. Especially when there were respectable clients in range.
"Not quite." Inara is pushed out of screen view, and replaced by an arrogant looking dandy. The client, no doubt. "I have a job for you."
"Don't see how that's a problem. We offer reasonable rates, even for," he pauses, "a fine gentleman such as yourself."
"I don't intend to pay for your trouble. I will be holding Companion Serra as a measure to ensure your cooperation. You will see her again when you've completed your instructions. I'm sending them separately. Your window is nine days." The man smiles, a tight little smile of power and assurance. "Work fast, Captain Reynolds."
The wave clicks off. Mal curses and quickly looks over the set of instructions they've been sent.
Smiling, Inara tries again. "There really is no need for this, Stephen."
Stephen, who had thus far received only positive ratings from other Companions, grimaces at her. "Your training is of no use here. And yes, there really is a need for this."
"They do work at reasonable rates."
"I have no intention of paying when I already have you as surety."
She shrugs slightly, and looks away. "I think perhaps you overestimate my importance to Serenity's captain. It's the Guild you should be more worried about."
"When I'm done, the Guild won't be able to touch me." Stephen turns away, the lines of his back tense. "And I overestimate nothing. This sector is full of stories of Inara Serra and the captain who keeps interfering in her work relationships. I believe he was stabbed for you? Didn't I hear something about him defending a house full of whores, simply because you asked? They'll do what they have to do to get you back."
"You're joking, right? This is some kind of funny game, something you and Inara cooked up to tease us when we should be sleeping." Wash is half laughing as he says it, but Mal just stares at him, and the laughing stops.
"It ain't a joke. Inara's in trouble, and we got a set of instructions."
"Why don't we just go and get her? Did you check the shuttle's beacon?"
Mal shrugs. "Beacon's been disconnected. We can't get at her, I don't know where she is, and like I said, we got a gorram set of instructions about how to get her back."
There's silence, and then Kaylee asks, "But pastries? I don't understand. Why can't he just go and get his own? Ain't he got some kind of house chef?"
"Yeah." Wash leans forward. "Who kidnaps for pastries? Does he have some kind of sugar addiction? Is there a pastry or sugar embargo we haven't heard about?" He turns to Zoe. "Honey, if we can't get sugar for your tea, are you going to kill us all in our sleep?"
Zoe looks like she wants to start laughing, but Mal clears his throat, and she stops smiling. He sits down at the table, pushes the print out of the instructions forward. "I ain't in the mood to figure out some ruttin' rich folk's whims. He's got Inara, he wants some gorram fancy pastries only the Alliance makes for their gorram upper officers, and he's gonna get the pastries unless someone else's got some other plan to get back our Companion."
Kaylee's face scrunches up the way it does when she gets real worried. "You think he's hurtin' her? Think she's all right?"
"We got us a couple of words, she says 'em, I know she's in real trouble. She didn't say 'em, so I figure she can handle herself for a few days. But we only got nine days before we make the pick-up, so let's get on it with the plan. Kaylee, you figure out this technical babble, I can't make head or tail. Maybe he sent us somethin' that'll help. See what you can figure, let me know in a couple of hours." She nods at him, picks up the information, and wanders out of the room.
"Wash, we got coordinates for the facility where these fancible, kidnap-worthy pastries are made. Get us heading there, but not too fast. Try to stay under the radar."
"Sure thing, Mal." Wash leaves too, and then it's just Zoe, Simon, and Jayne left in the room.
"Zoe, check the weapons, see what we got that's small and concealable. Jayne, Simon, you stay here. We've got to talk."
"Are you out of your mind?"
Mal knew this would be Simon's first response. There ain't enough trust about plans between them, and Simon is just a pain in the ass too often. "No. It's the only way this will work."
"Mal, you honestly want me to walk into an Alliance facility and pretend to be a -" he pauses, "sous-chef, and walk out alive?"
"What? These sous-chef people got some kind of code of honour? They like to kill you if you don't know some secret word?"
Simon rolls his eyes. "You know that's not what I mean."
"Relax. You did it once before. No one recognized you on Ariel." They can speak about it, Simon knows why the Ariel job went south now. But out of the corner of his eye, Mal sees Jayne squirm a little.
"That was not the same thing! No one looks too closely at people in a hospital, especially if you're wearing a uniform and look like you know what you're doing."
Leaning into the table, Mal says, "We'll get you a uniform. We'll get you an ident card. You'll do it, and Jayne will go with you."
"Jayne." Simon's voice is flat.
"Yeah. He'll do right by you." He turns to Jayne, fixes him with a hard stare. Usually this is enough for Jayne to back down, acknowledge Mal's got the upper hand. But this time he doesn't. "There won't be any repeat mistakes."
"And he'll be masquerading as what? Another chef?"
Simon throws his hands up in the air. "What kind of sous-chef has a bodyguard? Are you insane?"
"Well, there's no way we're gonna be sending you in alone."
"Oh, how reassuring. Whereas having Jayne there won't give me away at all."
There's silence, and Jayne gets up, fixes himself a drink, and sits back down. Then, "What about some kinda safety inspector? For the food? Maybe they got some kind of guards, what with people gettin' pissy about possibly bein' shut down."
Mal and Simon both turn to Jayne, and Mal might not know what Simon's thinking, but he himself is feeling a bit like he just got walloped. "Inspector?"
Simon's smiling a little. "Actually, that might work."
Mal sits back. Well. Seems odd Simon just goes and feels good about Jayne's plan. "Shiny. We'll get working on the uniforms and ident card."
"There's just one thing, Captain." Something about Simon's voice makes Mal scowl. Boy can just never shut up and do as he's told. "I don't think it's a good idea to send Jayne in with me."
Gorram hell. "I don't care if you two ain't playin' nice right now, you do the job you get told."
Simon looks away, right shifty. "It isn't that."
There's a little pause, and Simon's still not meeting his eye. Finally, Jayne says, "He's distractin' when he's in uniform."
It's like he's been walloped again. How is it these things are going on in his boat, him not knowing? "I am not hearin' what I think I'm hearin'."
"Yeah, Mal, you are." Jayne is smirking a little, but he also looks kinda shifty.
"There is too much ruttin' on my gorram boat!"
"You're just jealous 'cause you ain't gettin' any of it."
Mal rubs his head, 'cause of all of a sudden, it's damn painful. After a moment, he turns to Simon, and says, "I'm just trying to get back one of my crew. You and Jayne do as you're told, and keep your mouths shut about your bedtime fun, and we'll get the pastries, and get Inara, and then the two of you can play dress up all day for all I care. We clear?"
Simon shrugs. "Zoe just might be better."
Mal gets up from the table and leaves the room. Fast.
Somehow, it's miraculous, 'cause things seem to go according to plan. They get an ident card (Book plays a role in that, and Mal's got all sorts of questions he knows he'll never get answered) saying Simon is Alan Winter, Food Inspections Agent. He gets a uniform, and Mal tries not to notice when Jayne casts shifty looks in Simon's direction.
It weren't something a man needs to know, them two together. He never thought Jayne would've been able to keep it a secret so long either, but looks like both Jayne and the doc are low down, dirty, deceivers. More'n he'd guessed.
After they get the cargo safe in the ship, all packed up in fancy little refrigerated crates, and they're setting out for the meeting point, Jayne tells it like it was.
"Simon, he just waltzes right in there, high as you please, and starts pokin' his nose here'n there, and findin' all kinds of problems."
Mal ain't surprised to hear that.
"Them little chefs, they were all cowerin' as he walked 'round, pointin' out one thing and another. They kept eyein' me too, all scared-like." He grins.
Simon's almost relaxed about the job now it's done, his face all smiles. "It was as though they expected me to start ordering Jayne to shoot them if I found one more hygiene citation." He pauses. "It really was appallingly filthy in that kitchen. It would have warmed your heart, Mal, if you'd seen the condition the Alliance officers' mess is in at that facility."
Jayne takes a long drink and gets back to the story. "Then them pastries get brought in - they don't even make 'em there, just bring 'em in from somewhere special -"
"Somewhere cleaner, I hope," Simon interrupts.
"And Simon takes one look at them, sticks his finger in a couple, and says they ain't fit to eat, he's takin' 'em to disposal, and if anyone so much as complains, they won't have a job before the day's done."
"So, we got 'em?" Kaylee's grinning, maybe also eyeing the doc, and it's giving Mal an uncomfortableness.
Simon's still smiling. "We got them. It was actually remarkably easy."
Jayne laughs. "And it were fun, scarin' all them little men."
Later, Mal's down in the hold, and Kaylee too. She's opened up a case, and she's eyeing the pastries the same way she was looking at Simon earlier. Mal wants to say she's got a better chance at getting the pastries, but he ain't that mean. Anyway, she probably knows.
"Oooh, Cap. They're real pretty." Kaylee's looking at the rutting little concoctions like they're platinum, or possibly puppies. 'Cept puppies ain't for eating, not unless you're Jayne. "You don't think - he don't need all of 'em, do he? He won't notice one little one missing?"
"Hell, you eat as many of these gorram pastries as you want, Kaylee. We got us five crates of the things. Inara won't mind you enjoying her ransom."
Kaylee's face lights up. "Really?"
"No." He glares at her. "I ain't gonna have my mechanic gorging herself sick in the middle of a job. Anyhow, we don't know how many he wants. Don't want to risk it."
She looks so disappointed he can't help it. "Fine. Have the one. I mean it, Kaylee. One."
"Oh. O.K. One's shiny! Thanks, Cap." She reaches out, her hand hovering over the tray for a few moments, like she can't decide which looks best, even though they all look the same to Mal. Big and fluffy, and doughy and pink with icing and cream. Finally, she picks one, and the look on her face as she's about to bite into it is enough to make a man blush. Mal looks away, busying himself with the other containers, even though they're already secure.
He turns around, sees Kaylee rubbing her jaw. "What?"
"It's got somethin' in it!" She stops rubbing, and Mal sees she's holding something, wiping off the cream, and Mal sees it, all sharp angles and clear crystal.
Ah, hell. If that's what he thinks it is, things just got a whole lot more interesting. In a bad way. Before he has a chance to take it from Kaylee's hand though, Jayne walks into the hold.
"Hey! You didn't say nothin' about gettin' to eat some of 'em." He has a pastry in his hand before Mal can stop it, and Kaylee says, "Jayne, be careful, there's -"
But it's too late. Jayne's just stuffed the pastry into his mouth, biting down happily, and then,
"Ow. What the ruttin' hell?"
It's confounding to watch. Jayne somehow manages to simultaneously remove the crystal, swallow some of the pastry, and spit blood. "My gorram tooth!" He's still chewing, though. Jayne don't let anything get between him and his food.
Kaylee's holding her crystal out to him. "Is this what I think it is?"
Reaching out, Mal takes it, feeling the cold smoothness of its sides. "Yeah."
"What is it?"
Mal looks up to see Jayne holding the other one, wiping blood and crumbs from it. He sighs. "It's trouble." He ain't surprised though. The job never made sense from the beginning. Who kidnaps for gorram pastries?
They meet in the infirmary, all crowded close, so Jayne can get his tooth looked at, and Mal can explain the situation.
"The pastries are full of data crystals."
Of the crew, only River doesn't look surprised.
"So," Wash starts, "The Alliance is shipping data in pastries? Is it just me, or does that seem extra elaborate and kind of silly?"
"It ain't just you. There's no need for the Alliance to move intelligence that way. Kaylee took a look see at one of them, and it ain't official."
Everyone turns to Kaylee, whose teeth are fine. She'd had the grace to not chomp down hard on her pastry. "He's right. There's all kinds of stuff on there, mostly background on people. Money stuff, and some personal stuff, secrets I figure. I looked up some of the names on the Cortex. They're rich folk, government folk."
Mal nods. "This can't be a regular thing. It must have been set up for weeks, a way for him to get secrets, probably to use 'em to get higher up. Blackmail the government types, know their little vices. Don't matter much. We still finish the job."
Jayne looks up from the examining bed. "You said they were trouble."
"Thought they could be, if we'd got official secrets or orders. But it's just personal, nothing the Feds will be wanting to get back. Looks like the only official secret we have on board is still River."
From the edge of the room, River smiles at him. "Secrets." She looks to Simon and Jayne, Simon bending over the table, looking into Jayne's mouth.
"Right. Secrets are just everywhere. Everyone rest, we got some time before we hit the meet point. I'll wave Inara's shuttle, make sure she's still O.K. Good work."
They all move out, Mal last. As he's leaving, he hears Simon say,
"You're going to need a crown."
"Hell, I ain't wearin' no fancy hat. That's Mal's thing."
Simon sighs. "I mean for your tooth. A filler for where you've chipped it, and something to build it back up."
"Why didn't you just say so?"
Jayne and Simon. It's shuddersome.
Inara answers almost immediately. "Mal."
She shrugs, delicate, annoyed. "I'm bored. I've lost work opportunities. I'm going to have to file an official complaint with the Guild when I get back. Paperwork is so tedious."
So, she doesn't seem to be too badly off, then. "But not hurt?"
She shakes her head. "Just my pride. I should have been able to see this coming." She looks up, and then moves out of view, replaced by the dandy.
"Did you get the goods, Captain?"
Gorram rutting rich folk, just wanting to get richer. "We did."
"Good." He clicks off, and Mal thinks that as soon as Inara's safe and sound, this man will need a decent punch in the mouth. To start.
Kaylee's with the engine, sitting and messing with parts Mal's pretty sure should actually be in the engine when they're flying. Mal doesn't look too closely, 'cause he ain't sure he wants to know what she's doing in case it starts to worry him. "Kaylee. Got any ideas about how to rig these crystals so he can't access them? Without him knowing we did it?"
She smiles up at him. "Never thought you'd ask."
Kaylee does something to the crates, but Mal doesn't ask for details. With her, it's always better to just pay attention to the results, not the process. He don't understand half of what she says anyway, when she really gets started.
When she's done, she looks up and says, "They'll be fried. But the cakes will look as good as new. He won't know until he tries to use one of the crystals."
Shiny. Now for part two of his plan.
The drop goes well. Inara's shuttle reconnects with Serenity, and she comms that she's safe, just as Jayne stacks the last of the crates in front of Mr. High and Rutting Mighty's shuttle.
Idiot didn't even bring any muscle, he's so certain.
"We did what you asked. I think I'm like to hurt you should we see each other again."
Smug looks just seem to be flying from this man's face. "The places I'll be going would never let your type in."
"Well, that don't exactly make them exclusive." He walks a few paces away, then turns and walks back. "Oh, by the way," he points behind him, "Jayne here don't like it when he gets pulled away from jobs that actually make him money. I believe he has somethin' to say to you. Jayne?"
Crate number four, closest to the fancy shuttle, explodes. The shockwave sends the client reeling forward, perfect for Mal to get in a good punch. "Oops. Guess I couldn't wait until next time I see you." He leans down over the man, and says, "And Jayne's never been one for subtle words."
Later, he goes to check in on Inara. She smiles up at him as he enters the shuttle, and Mal can count the times she's done that on one hand.
"Of course. Thank you for coming for me." She stands. "Tea? I was just going to make some for myself."
Normally he'd figure these were wiles, but right now she looks happy, relaxed. So he nods. The tea take a few minutes, but he doesn't sit, and she doesn't ask. When she brings it to him, he drinks slowly, and she stands near him, drinking her own tea. It's a bit tense, and a bit calming, he can't quite put his finger on it.
Finally, he says, "That was the dumbest gorram caper we ever pulled."
Inara smiles, and hooks her arm into his. "At least you didn't end up naked and stranded in a desert."
Well. There is that.
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Title: The Pastry Caper
Author: Ana [email] [website]
Details: Standalone | PG | gen *slash* | 18k | 10/15/05
Characters: Malcolm, Kaylee, Inara, Jayne, Simon
Summary: Inara is supposed to be an asset, not a liability.
Notes: No warnings. Spoilers for the series, but not the movie.
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