Jayne laid Illyria on the couch in the common room and pulled a heavy blanket around her. He pillowed her head on his leg and smoothed her hair away from her face, tucking it behind her ear, and was rewarded by a faint exhale and some motion. He briefly closed his eyes and leaned his head back in relief. "'llyria?"
"Jayne." Her own eyes didn't open. "Did it work?"
"Yeah, babydoll." She'd probably pummel him for that later. He didn't care. "You done real good."
"My head aches fiercely, I am cold, and my mouth feels as though a chinchilla has taken up residence in it." She sighed. "The musculature of your leg is pleasing to me, however, and I enjoy your hand on my hair. I would like to rest here awhile."
"Take as long as you please. I ain't goin' nowhere."
She snuggled down. "Good."
Spike and Fred sat up on the catwalk with their legs dangling, watching the new Slayers train in the cargo hold with Angel and Book. Inara had gone back to her shuttle, and Kaylee had fled to the engine room, while Simon, Wash, and Mal looked on anxiously from various positions on the steps.
"I'da thought you'd want to be down there training with them," Fred said to Spike.
"And miss sittin' here with you? Not on your life." He smiled at her. "I'm glad you're back, Freddi. We..." He stopped and shook his head. "I missed you."
"Did you? Because you seemed awfully friendly with Illyria." She kept her eyes on the action below them. "Who killed me. Not that I'm bitter."
How to explain to her? He'd been a member of Angel's team, yeah, but never a really trusted part of it, no matter what he did--the eternal outsider looking in. And Illyria's killing of Fred had been incidental, really; Big Blue's actions hadn't had any actual malice to them. Knox, now, that little bugger could burn in several hells as far as Spike was concerned, but Illyria herself, in his mind, was fairly blameless for Fred's death. Which probably didn't make any sense, but there it was.
The others had blamed her, though, and made her even more of a pariah than he was. Why they hadn't thrown her out on her arse was a question for the ages, but they hadn't, and she'd stayed, and it had just become natural and right to take her out on patrol sometimes. Two outcasts, fighting the good fight and never getting the credit for it. Made his poet's heart swell with the irony, it did.
None of that really helped him explain it to Fred, though. He settled for, "It's complicated, pet. I'm not sure I understand it myself." He wondered if she'd let him get away with it.
"Our whole lives are complicated," she snorted. "Look at us now." River kicked Angel eight feet across the cargo bay. "Why is it that every time I say 'life will never be the same,' I'm right? I swear, Feigenbaum should have made a study of my life; he would have had a field day. Did we do the right thing here? Will we ever really know?"
"All we can do is our best." He scooted closer to her.
"Spike..." Oh, Lord, here it comes; she's going to shoot me down, he thought. "I like you. I do, okay? I just, I need some time. Time to process everything that's happened to me, time to mourn Wes and Gunn and my parents and everything else I've lost. All right?"
What he wouldn't give for a cigarette right now. The Captain had glared at him pretty hard for lighting up, though. "Sure, Freddi. Take all the time you need."
Dr. Mathias would be proud, River thought as she sent Angel across the cargo hold with a roundhouse kick to the chest. The people at the Academy had conditioned her for combat, but they had never envisioned this.
Better, faster, stronger. Her mind was still fragmented, still picking up everything from everybody and processing it badly, but her body...Outwardly, nothing had changed, but inwardly, her muscle and bone density had increased exponentially. A tumbling run ended with her foot connecting solidly with Angel's jaw. "Off the charts"? Matthias had no idea what that really meant.
Primal memories told her what to do, how to move, when to counter. She and Zoe worked as a team, methodically taking down the vampire until he raised his hands in surrender. The Academy had trained her as an assassin against inconvenient humans, and she'd known that was bad and wrong and hated every second of it.
This? This was destiny. This was right. And as Spike came down and joined their dance, she knew that no power in the 'verse could stop her--and if the Alliance wanted to come after her now? They'd better be very careful.
Simon decided he didn't want to watch anymore. They'd turned his baby sister into something that frightened him, and while he could see the necessity, that didn't mean he had to like it. The passenger common area was too close to the cargo bay, so he made his way up the stairs to the kitchen. Apparently Wash was tired of watching Zoe whale on the vampires as well, because the pilot followed him.
A glance into the crew lounge showed Jayne seated on the couch with Illyria's head pillowed in his lap as she slept. And wasn't that funny? The rough mercenary and the imperious God-King had bonded faster than Simon would have believed possible. Simon hadn't thought Jayne capable of love, but he seemed well on his way to being head over heels. The 'verse was sure a strange place, he thought, pouring himself something to drink.
Wash had already joined Jayne and Illyria. Sitting alone in the kitchen held little appeal for Simon; if he'd wanted to be by himself, he would have gone to his room. He grabbed a chair and nodded to Jayne. "How's she doing?"
"Resting. Bother her and I'll pound you." Oh, yes. Head over heels. "How's Zoe and River?"
"Beating the go se out of vampires," Wash answered. "It's really disturbing."
Jayne snorted. "Thought you liked being married to a Warrior Woman."
"I do! But the way she moves now...is she still human?" And that was the crux of Simon's fear, right there.
"Yeah, dumbass. What else would she be? She's just a little stronger than what you're used to, is all. She's still Zoe." Jayne looked at Simon. "And River's still River. You two is gettin' worked up over nothin'."
"I wish I could be as blase as you about all this," Simon said.
Jayne stroked Illyria's hair, and she smiled in her sleep. "It is what it is. Deal with it as best you can and move on. You think too much, doc."
"I suppose that's true." Simon stared moodily at his mug. "Hard to just turn it off, though."
Jayne lifted his eyebrows and gave Simon a suggestive smile. "Maybe you ought to go see Kaylee. Seein' as how we're walkin' into an apocalypse and all."
"Kaylee?" What did the one have to do with the other? "What? I don't--"
"She seemed pretty freaked out by the whole Zoe-and-River-turning-into-superwomen phenomenon," Wash said. "You could go see her and be freaked together. Like a bonding thing."
"You think she'd like that?"
"You really are completely clueless, aren't you?" Wash said pityingly. "Yes, she'd like it. Go."
Jayne's voice followed him into the hall. "For someone who's supposed to be smart, sometimes he ain't."
The rest of the ship had gone to sleep before Illyria awakened. Even Jayne dozed on the couch, although she was sure that the slightest threat would have had him leaping to her defense. She felt much better, but it would not do for her Qwa'ha Zahn to be exhausted. She sat up. "Jayne. Go to bed."
He stirred and opened his eyes, instantly alert, she noted with approval. "You all right?"
"I am well. You should rest. Closing the Hellmouth will be no easy task, even for those of us with practice."
He stood and stretched, working out a kink in his neck. "Okay, I'll head down to my bunk." He met her gaze with an appraising stare and a grin she recognized as roguish, having seen the same expression on Spike's face many times. "Wanna join me?"
"Perhaps later. I have my own preparations to make."
"All right." He seemed disappointed. "'llyria? What happens after we do this thing? You stayin'?"
"I have chosen you as my Qwa'ha Zahn." She rose to her feet and tilted her head. "How can you guide me if I do not stay?"
"Mal might not like it."
"Your Captain will see the advantages of having me aboard his ship in due time. He is not a fool."
"That's so," Jayne acknowledged. "C'n I at least get a goodnight smooch?"
One of the reasons she had chosen Jayne to guide her was his boldness, coupled with his ability to make her smile. She stepped into his embrace and kissed him. He milked it for all it was worth, of course, but she eventually broke it off and gave him a little shove toward his bunk. "Go. Sleep."
"Yes, ma'am." He pressed his lips to the top of her head once, and left.
Illyria stalked in the opposite direction, towards the engine compartment. Jayne was not the only one who should rest; the other humans had a large task ahead of them. She wondered if they would even be able to sleep, with all they had experienced this day and all that was still to come.
Simon and Kaylee had managed it. They slumbered, cuddled together in Kaylee's hammock; it didn't look comfortable, but it had apparently worked. All was well with them, and Illyria headed downstairs to the passenger area.
Spike and Fred had found separate berths there, and Book was in his room as well. Their sleep was not as peaceful as that of Kaylee and Simon, and Illyria found herself wondering if humans slept together for other than the practical considerations of warmth and sex. She might have to explore this further with Jayne.
"He'd like that." River's voice in the gloom of the passenger lounge did not surprise her, considering the fact that she was not in her bunk.
"Why are you not sleeping? A Slayer is stronger than most humans, but you must preserve that strength with rest."
"Can't. All the voices going scratch, scratch in my mind, gnawing like mice." She sat in a corner chair in the dark room, legs tucked under her. "Anxious and afraid. They sleep, but they're fretful." The girl's eyes were luminous. "All except Jayne. Jayne's in love. With you."
"He said nothing--"
"That wouldn't be manly. Can't talk about feelings. Doesn't make them any less real."
Illyria often felt thrown around humans. Their actions were senseless, their emotions inexplicable. This? Her life was filled with things that would send others gibbering into the night, but this was surreal even to her. She found that her legs would not hold her up, and she sat abruptly on a handy couch. She had no idea what to say, or what to do with this information.
River nodded as if she had spoken. "Oh, he'll deny it if you ask him outright. Skate around the subject and do double axles and triple toe loops until the judges give him a six for avoiding it so well. Can't tell him you know about it, not in so many words. Can't tell him that you love him too; he'd run away."
Did she love Jayne? Was she capable of that emotion? She did not know. His strength pleased her, as did his ability to cut through obfuscation and speak the truth. She enjoyed kissing him. Whether all that equated to "love"... What was love? And how to explore the feeling when they could not even talk about it?
"I should converse with the Companion about this," she said, half to herself. To River: "You have given me much to think on."
"I'm the ship's phenylalanine hydroxylase. More useful than they realize." She smiled.
"Never forget that, even if the others do." Illyria left her then, and stopped outside Inara's shuttle. The smell of incense wafted out as she opened the door.
"Doesn't anyone ever knock--oh, it's you." Inara looked up from where she knelt in front of a shrine. "Of course the God-King of the Primordium would never do anything so base as to ask a mere human permission to enter their room."
Illyria chose to ignore the sarcasm. She had gotten good at that, dealing with Spike. "I wish to speak with you about Jayne."
Inara seated herself on the opulent sofa. "Why in Buddha's name would I want to talk about Jayne? I avoid Jayne whenever possible, and try never to hold an actual conversation with him."
"You are the Temple Priestess of this ship, versed in all manner of human emotions and rituals. Including the matters of the heart, as humans put it." Illyria sat in the chair opposite Inara.
"Jayne has a heart? Okay, he loves his weapons, I'll concede that much. Other than that?" Inara sipped from a delicate teacup. "I'm fairly certain he has no idea what real love is."
"Nevertheless, I have it on good authority that he is in love with me."
The Companion choked on her tea. Sputtering and coughing, she put the cup down and finally said, "Um, what?"
Apparently Inara was flappable after all. Illyria tried not to let her amusement show. "That was my reaction as well." She tilted her head. "You have rules you are bound by, yes? What I say to you, you cannot repeat to anyone?"
"Wait, no, I'm not like a priest or anything, and my shuttle isn't a confessional. I hold my clients' information in the strictest confidence, of course," Inara said with a wave of her hand, "but you're not one of my clients. Maybe you should talk to Shepherd Book."
"He is male."
"That's true. But you're not even human. What difference does it make who you talk to?" Inara obviously did not want to be having this conversation.
Illyria was not going to let her get out of it. "I wish to know..." She paused, and took the plunge. "How to love him back."
"Oh. Well." Was that pity on Inara's face? "Illyria, I'm not sure there are any mechanics I can teach you. Love is what it is. You feel it or you don't."
"That is not very helpful." No! She would not feel grief in this matter. She would find an answer, somehow. She was Illyria, the Immaculate Embodiment of Rule. A simple thing like love should be larvae-play. "Thank you for trying." She rose and made as dignified an exit as possible.
Inara's gaze followed her out of the shuttle. "You poor thing."
Illyria plopped onto a couch in the crew lounge, crossing her arms and tucking her bare feet beneath her after dissolving her boots. She scowled into the darkness of the ship's night. Then she realized that brooding like Angel never accomplished anything. She craved action. Jumping back up, she stalked up the hall to the crew quarters. Jayne's bunk was...here. She could stand guard over it--
Against what? Five steps to and fro, her thoughts followed her like a caged and angry lion. Finally she stopped, her hand on his door. "I am the Shaper of Things," she told herself fiercely. "And Jayne will be happy to see me, if he even awakens." She pushed the portal open and stepped down the ladder.
He slept with a slight smile on his face. She climbed into the bed next to him, not knowing what to expect. But when he rolled over and wrapped around her, burying his nose in her hair, she knew they were both safe, and both home.
Mal glared at Jayne and Illyria at breakfast the next morning. He knew where she'd spent the night, but if them two wanted to do...whatever it was they was doin', well, short of throwin' 'em out the airlock, weren't much he could do. 'Cept glare. And they didn't even notice.
They were due to hit Santo that evening. What they'd find once they got there was anyone's guess. It was still off the Cortex, which was plenty disturbin'. The instruments had picked up some sort of turmoil on the surface of the little moon, localized at one particular point out in the middle of a desert, so Wash had plugged the coordinates in, and they were headed thataway.
The day was spent in training and conditioning. Apparently, Slayers were expected to engage in a bunch of hand-to-hand combat, which startled him. He always figured that shootin' monsters from a distance might be to their advantage, but the close-in kill seemed to be the preferred thing.
Problem was, they didn't have much weaponry suitable for that. Jayne's knives were about it, and naturally, he had enough for everyone, but stakes and swords and stuff like that weren't things Mal had just layin' around the ship.
They had a plan. He didn't know if it was a good one, but there it was. Wash did a flyover first, just to get the lay of the land. Mal didn't know if it was his imagination or not, but the moon seemed darker than normal, even on the daylight side.
They landed about half a klick from the main source of the disruption, and he deployed his people the way they'd planned. Wash and Kaylee stayed on board, getting the ship ready to take off at a moment's notice, while Simon had the infirmary prepped for any emergency they could imagine and a few they couldn't. Inara and Book were stationed at the airlock, her with her bow and him with a couple of big-ass guns, in case anything got by the rest of them.
Spike tried to talk Fred into hanging back with Inara and Book, but she'd have none of it; she just gripped the flamethrower Kaylee had ginned up for her tighter and shook her head. Illyria pouted at Jayne when he insisted on coming along (and the sight of the God-King of the Primordium pouting was a sight to behold), but weren't no way that hun dan would stay behind with a tussle like this in the offing. He'd brung Vera, along with some lesser rifles, handguns, knives, and several grenades, which dropped the volume of Illyria's objections but not the content.
Inara had made some remark or other about Mal needing to be a hero one last time and getting himself killed for his trouble, and he'd snarked back that he didn't know she cared. And then she'd kissed him and told him to be careful, which surprised him quite a bit.
Then he and Angel argued about who would take point, until little Fred glared at them both and set them on opposite ends of the line, with the Slayers and Illyria taking point instead. They still didn't know how they were gonna close the ruttin' thing. Angel had been there when they'd dropped a school on one, and Spike had once had some sort of amulet that done the job for good and all, but this particular Hellmouth looked to be on open ground with no handy schools around, and they was mighty short on magic necklaces.
As they got closer to it, Mal noticed that it had the odd quality of emitting a dim red glow while seeming to suck any other light into it. And...things...was comin' out of it. Things that slithered, things that flew, things that shambled, things that oozed. It was downright creepifyin'. He thought he'd seen some bad stuff in the war, but the even the Alliance hadn't tried something like this. Leave it to lawyers...
A six-legged critter the size and general appearance of a plow horse, only with a scorpion's tail and pincers, galloped out of the darkness at them. Jayne blasted away at it with Vera, which turned its attention right on him. Illyria intercepted it, ripped its tail out by the root, and beat it to death with its own stinger.
And then all manner of beasties descended on them. He caught flashes of action out of the corner of his eye. Zoe, River, and Illyria were the very picture of grace as they spun, sliced, and kicked through the maelstrom. Angel and Spike held their own, Angel fighting in grim silence, while Spike looked as if he took savage joy in the battle. Fred's flamethrower and Jayne's guns were playing havoc among the demon army, and Mal's own guns were givin' a pretty good account of themselves.
Of course, it couldn't last. Illyria screamed out a curse as Jayne went down under a pack of whatever-they-weres, looked like huge squirrels or some such silly thing. Just shiny; demon rodents. Mal had thought Illyria was a whirlwind before; he hadn't seen anything yet. She tore through them like a chainsaw through tissue paper, leaving pieces of demon scattered about the landscape.
"Is he dead?" Mal yelled, because Jayne weren't movin'.
Illyria scooped her Qwa'ha Zahn up. His head lolled against her shoulder, and he was bleedin' really bad. "He lives, but he needs the doctor." Her boot connected with the jaw of another demon.
In spite of all they could do, they was bein' pushed back toward Serenity. Their pitiful little army couldn't stem the tide as ever more creatures spilled out of the open Hellmouth. Mal swore in Mandarin. "Fall back! Fall back! Back to the ship!"
They reluctantly gave ground. Spike went down next, as a six-foot-at-the-shoulders wolf-looking thing leaped on him, knocking him out with a blow to the head with its sizeable paw and ripping into his shoulder with its fangs. Angel rescued him by the simple expedient of blowing an enormous hole in its ribcage, but that left them another soldier short, as Spike was out for the count. Angel, still fighting, slung him over his shoulder and carried him back.
Finally, they were at the ramp of the cargo bay. More wild firing, and they staggered inside the ship and let the ramp close them in. Wash took off, incinerating the demons that were too stupid to get out of the way of the thrusters.
Mal sat down abruptly among the chaos. Illyria was practically in hysterics over Jayne, Fred weren't much better because of Spike, and they were all in various states of injured-ness. The battle had happened so fast that Mal hadn't seen most of the others get hurt, but he had some bruised ribs and four deep cuts on his arm, where something had scratched him, that wouldn't get better by themselves.
Illyria and Angel carried Jayne and Spike to the infirmary, Fred following behind. Mal took stock of Zoe and River, but they weren't more'n nicked here and there. From what he'd heard about Slayer healing, they wouldn't even need any tissue seal, which was a piece of mercy.
Angel came back a few minutes later and sat beside him. The vampire put his chin on his hand and said, "That went well."
"Maybe we shoulda got the lay of the land a little better before we walked into a battle weren't none of us ready for." Mal wasn't really pissed off, but he wasn't real happy either.
"I think I have an idea."
"Do tell." After Angel explained it, Mal said, "Well, hell, I wish you'da thought of that earlier."
"Me too. Can your pilot do it?"
"Wash can land on a cat and give you back live kittens. You think it'll work?"
"I hope so. You might want to tell him to be ready for a mystical backlash."
"Oh, I'd hate like hell to get knocked out of the sky by a random energy surge. That would be bad." Mal heaved himself up. "I'll go talk with him." He looked around the cargo bay. "Where'd everyone go?"
"Unwinding, probably. Slayers like to eat after a fight."
"Huh." That weren't all they liked to do, Mal noted as he stepped into the cockpit. Zoe had Wash pinned to his chair and his shirt half off, kissin' him like mad. "Hey, you two! Get a room!"
"We had one, Sir. 'Til you came barging in." Zoe was unrepentant.
"Wuo de ma..." Mal slouched into the co-pilot's chair and briefly put his hand over his face. "Okay, Angel thinks he knows how to close that thing for good and all. And this time it don't involve us gettin' et by demons."
"Shiny; I'm in," Wash said. "What do we have to do?"
"Hover over the hole with the thrusters on full burn pointing into it and turn the whole area into glassy slag."
"Why didn't we think of that before Jayne got turned into a scratching post for a bunch of demon squirrels?" Zoe asked.
"Because we're dumber'n rocks?" Mal answered. "Well, whatever, we've thought of it now. Let's get it done and hope it works."
Wash delivered a sketchy salute and turned them back toward the Hellmouth.
Jayne floated back to consciousness, slowly becoming aware that he was in the infirmary, stripped to his skivvies, under a sheet, with a needle in his arm. He hurt, but not as much as he thought he ought to, bein' as his last memory was gettin' ripped to shreds by a bunch of mean and furry little critters. Whatever painkillers the doc had used on him were workin' just fine.
Simon was alternately applying tissue sealant and sewing him up where the cuts was too deep for that. And Illyria sat beside him, holding his hand. "I gonna live?" he croaked. He tried to sit up, but Simon shoved him back down and continued working.
"Barely." Was those tears on her face? "You should not have gone with us."
"Miss a tussle like that? Naw. It was fun up 'til the part with the gorram squirrels." He reached up and put his hand on her cheek. Hadn't meant to make her cry. "Did we win?"
"We beat a strategic retreat. Angel and Mal are discussing our options."
"They'll figger it out." He turned his head to the side and twitched violently. "Should they be doing that?"
"Spike was injured almost as badly as you," Simon said without stopping his work. "Fred volunteered her blood to help make him better."
The sight of Fred's wrist over Spike's mouth was just...wrong, even though Spike was still unconscious himself. "We oughta pick up a cow or something for them two vampires, if they're gonna stay." A wave of dizziness passed over him, and he closed his eyes, taking some deep breaths.
Simon finished up, peeling off his gloves and standing back. "You should rest, Jayne. The artificial blood will replace what you lost, but it'll take awhile for you to fully recover."
He didn't open his eyes. "Tired, for sure. 'llyria, you gonna be here when I wake up?"
"I will not leave your side," she assured him.
"Good. That's...good..." He faded out.
"He'll be fine," Simon said to Illyria. "You got him to me on time."
She scrubbed at the traitorous tears on her face. "I should not be so attached to him. I felt much grief when Wesley died. I would rather not feel that emotion again."
"Well, you won't have to this time. If he--"
"Bloody buggering hell!"
"Spike is awake," Illyria said unnecessarily.
"Whose bloody stupid idea was that?" Spike sat up and glared wildly around the room, wiping at Fred's blood on his lips.
"Mine!" Fred crossed her arms and glared right back. "You want to make something of it? You were injured, Spike. You needed blood. I gave you some. End of story."
"Oh. Um. Well," he responded, abashed. "Ta very much, pet, but you might've been hurt."
"Think I care?" She jumped up and started pacing around the cramped infirmary, waving her arms. Simon ducked to avoid being hit in the head. "You were just lying there, and no one knew what to do, and so I just did it, okay? I've lost enough friends. I don't need to lose another one." The stress of the last few days finally caught up with her, and she buried her face in her hands.
"Oh, bloody...I am such a stupid git," he muttered. "Come on, Freddi. Off to your room with you. Have a good cry and you'll feel better." He guided her out of the room toward the passenger bunks.
"Is that true? A good cry makes one feel better?" Illyria asked Simon.
"Often." He puttered about, setting the room to rights.
Where going in with guns blazing hadn't worked, going in with the thrusters blazing was far more effective. After putting out the glow coming from the Hellmouth, Wash did some sweeps and made sure that nothing was alive within a fifteen mile radius of the thing. Mal clapped him on the shoulder and commended him for his good work.
"And now," Mal said darkly, "it's time to go meet our contact. Let's find out who's pullin' these strings."
They flew to the little town that was the agreed-upon rendezvous spot and fueled up. Now Mal knew why they wanted to meet at night, vampires having a sun allergy and all. Their contact hailed them at exactly the time he was supposed to, and Mal opened up the cargo bay door and met him with Zoe, the box that Angel had been inside between them.
The man stepped forward, putting his hand out. "Malcolm Reynolds? I'm Reynard Warner, representing Wolfram and Hart. I trust the cargo was no problem?"
"Oh, the cargo weren't no problem at all. All the accessories that came with it, though...those were all manner of trouble." Mal didn't take the outthrust hand, choosing instead to put his hand on his gun.
"Accessories? I'm afraid I don't understa--oh, crap." This last was said as Angel, Spike, Fred, and Illyria stepped into the light cast by Santo's sister moon.
"Crap indeed. You wanna tell me why I'm transporting not-quite-human cargo against its will? I ain't never held to that, and I thought I made it plain when we struck our deal. We have some sort of miscommunication?"
Warner's gaze slid from Spike's torn and bleeding Hawaiian shirt, to the claw marks down Mal's arm, to the fading scars on the back of Zoe's hand, to the bruise on Fred's face, the cut across Illyria's eyebrow, and finally to the healing bite wounds on Angel's arms. Something told him that far more had gone wrong for him here than just the discovery of what this ragtag crew had been carrying. Obviously, he'd underestimated the Captain, who hadn't really seemed to be much at all when they'd spoken over the Cortex and arranged the job.
"You owe me some coin," Mal said.
"But--he's--" Warner sputtered.
"Job was to get this box and its contents to this particular spot at this particular time. Ain't my fault there was a spill. Contents is intact. What you do with him is your deal and no part of my business. Same with what he does to you." Keeping his right hand on his gun, Mal held out his left. "The coin."
"All right, all right." He reached into his suit jacket.
"Anything comes out of that other than money, and you'll be riddled fulla holes," Mal warned him.
"Fine, fine. Keep your shirt on." He withdrew a packet of money and tossed it to Mal, who counted it.
"Mighty fine." Mal didn't relax. "Angel, you goin' with this man, or is there someplace else you want me to drop you?"
"I think he's has caused me enough trouble. If it's all the same to you...Fred? You had a destination in mind?"
"Persephone," she said promptly. "Close enough to the Core to be somewhat metropolitan, and far enough out that the authorities shouldn't look too closely at us. And it's not far from here."
"What a coincidence," Zoe said. "Ain't that where we're headed next, Captain?"
"I do believe it is. You." He pointed at Warner. "Off my boat. Next time you want to transport human cargo, pick someone else."
"He's not human--" Warner began.
"You itchin' for a demo of just how not-human he is? Didn't think so." As Warner scuttled away, Mal said, "Damn, we got paid! That was a hell of a bluff I just run, weren't it, Zoe? I didn't really expect him to pay us."
"Well done, Sir. Guess this means we'll be eatin' for the next little while."
"That we will." Mal hit the button that raised the ramp. "Wash, take us into town," he said over the intercom.
"You may have just made an enemy of Wolfram and Hart," Angel said.
"Somethin' tells me he was a loner in this one. And if he weren't, well, his bosses ain't gonna be too happy with his big fat failure, are they?"
"You think he opened the Hellmouth by himself?" Fred asked, as most of them headed back to the kitchen. Illyria peeled off and went to the infirmary and Jayne.
"Might have," Mal said. "Didn't see no one else hangin' about. Word of what happened gets out, maybe it'll give others pause before they try it again. Which is why I left that hun dan alive. Well, that, and he paid me after I only threatened him a little bit."
"We had plenty of lone nuts in Sunnydale," Spike said. "Wouldn't be the first time."
They all grabbed seats around the kitchen table, except Zoe, who got them some mugs and a bottle of Kaylee's engine hootch before joining them. Now the job was done with, they could relax and unwind a little. Soon they was swappin' yarns and laughin' together like they'd known each other for years.
They'd earned some coin, saved a world, and made some new friends, Mal thought. All in all, not a bad job.
"Things never go the way you plan, do they, Princess?"
"No, they don't. I suppose this will have to do, though. No one died; I can so call that a win."
"Shame you couldn't get Wes in on it. He'd have enjoyed it."
"Someone else had other plans for him. You know how it is. The more seniority you have, the more oomph you've got with the higher-ups."
"What'll happen next?"
"They'll pick up a sheep in town so Spike and Angel will have something to eat on the way to Persephone; and then when they get to the Eavesdown Docks, Spike, Fred, and Angel will ride off into a figurative sunset while the Serenity crew finds another job. I'm pretty sure Badger has something lined up for them."
"Pullin' strings again?"
"Just a nudge! Don't look at me like that."
"Jayne and Illyria...didn't see that one comin'."
"I guess it works if you squint. Hey, you hungry?"
"Feelin' a mite peckish. Could use a beer."
"There's this great new place. You'll have to dress better than that, though."
"Always goin' on about my taste in clothes..."
"How do you get to be a Higher Power and still wear those things? That has got to be the ugliest jacket..."
Still bickering about his clothes, Cordelia and Doyle walked up the street of the celestial city, arm in arm.