Of all my challenge stories this year, this one was my favorite. It was *such* a bizarre sort of request and ended up being such a blast to write. I had a ton of fun doing it, and it makes even me giggle, so I think it came out all right.
Again, it was originally posted on spacesantafic, but I'm reposting it here for my own archiving purposes, and so that I can fix boo boos that went up in the original version.
Title: Never After Midnight (Now a SOTHA Award Winner!)
Author: SullenSiren (sullensiren(at)gmail(dot)com)
Characters: Mal-centric, but ensemble appears
Summary: Mal is asked to deliver an unusual pet. Things never go smooth.
Disclaimer: I do not own Firefly, Mal, or any of the other licensed trademarks hinted at in this story. Please don't sue.
Feedback: Would be adored!
Author's Notes: Written for spacesanta. I drew executrix, who asked for Mogwai, tribbles, and triffids. I hope two out of three is okay!
"Jayne, load it up," Mal motioned to the multitude of very heavy boxes arrayed on the mule's tag-along.
"Aww, how come I always gotta do the heavy liftin'?"
"'Cause you can't do the heavy thinkin'. Get busy."
"Zoe could help."
Mal quirked an eyebrow at the sulky response. "Fine idea. You wanna suggest it to her, then?" He grinned slightly as Jayne grunted and began unloading the crates. "And don't break nothin', neither. Can't afford to replace none of this cargo."
"What is it, anyway?"
"Cargo. All you need to know."
Mal turned and walked away, might pleased with himself. Jayne might backtalk him, but he weren't fool enough to do the same to Zoe. Then again, ain't many men that were fool enough to give Zoe any lip.
"I'm glad to see I caught you in a good mood, Captain Reynolds," The voice spun Mal around, hand going to the gun holstered at his side. He relaxed seeing the speaker was a wizened old man with slanted, merry eyes and a long pointed beard.
"Good way to get yourself shot, sneakin' up on a body like that."
"Forgive me, Captain Reynolds. I only meant to get your attention."
Mal frowned. "Don't recall giving you my name. Don't recall knowing yours either – seems all sorts of unfair."
The old man smiled. "I am Zhang, Captain. Something of a merchant on this planet."
"You don't say. And you're callin' my name in public why?"
"I have a small job that needs tending to, Captain. It is not difficult, but it is of great personal importance, and I wanted to make certain I hired a man who would perform the task – a man of integrity. From what I gather, you are such a man."
"Seem to know an awful lot about me, when I'm only just knowin' your name."
"I am a careful man, Captain Reynolds. You may ask whatever questions you like. Perhaps you will allow me to buy you a drink, and we can discuss some business?"
"That's dependin' on the sort of business we're talkin'."
"It's a simple task, Captain. I have one, very small, very rare cargo that needs transport. It is not illegal. Merely a family pet."
Mal's eyes narrowed. "What sorta pet?"
The old man smiled. "We'll talk about it over tea, Captain."
The box was tucked into a corner of the hold, well away from the light sources. There were holes punched in it, and it barely took up any room at all. Shouldn't have been at all noticeable, as much pi shi as they had loaded up on this boat.
Except it was singing. Weren't a bad sort of noise really – kinda a cooing sort of sound – but any sort of noise was bad. He didn't much want it noticed.
As usual, luck wasn't with him. River padded on bare feet down the stairs, bypassing all the other crates without a glance and heading directly toward the singing one. She didn't lift the lid off, just lay flat on her belly and stared through the hole. He sighed and made his way over. She gave no sign she knew he was there until she spoke. "Illogical biological makeup. Biped design. Doesn't fit into any classification of mammal, but clearly not cold blooded." She poked a finger into the hole and the cooing noise took on a happy little rumble. River smiled. "Soft. Thinks. What is it?"
"It's cargo. Nothin' more." She gave him a half smile and a knowing look and he amended. "Just a critter. Someone's pet. Dropping it off on Athens."
"Him. Dropping him off. He thinks of himself as male, though I don't see any outward sexual characteristics."
Mal blinked, staring at her. "It . . . thinks?"
River rolled her eyes at him. "He," she corrected him again, ignoring the question.
"Fine. He ain't dangerous, right?"
She shrugged. "Cute. Jayne likes him. He was talking to him earlier." She turned and drifted back up the stairs, pausing to turn and look at him. "Follow the rules."
He didn't bother to ask how she knew about the gorram rules. Girl always knew what she weren't supposed to, and he didn't particularly want to think about Jayne cooin' at a box of weird animal neither. "I intend to, darlin'."
It was the singing that drew him. It was cooing and happy-sounding. And about half the happy didn’t come from that critter. "Kaylee!"
She jumped and turned around, shoving something behind her back. ("Something" squeaked in protest and stopped singing.) "Cap'n! Didn't hear you comin'. You need somethin'?"
"Yeah. Need you to put that thing back in its crate and leave it be."
She frowned and gave up hiding it, cuddling it back to her chest. It made a happy little noise, large ears wiggling contentedly. "But . . . he's all alone in the Hold, Cap'n, and it's cold, and he's all cold and . . ."
"There a part of 'put it back in its crate' you ain't hearin'?"
She frowned at him. He knew that look. It were Kaylee's way of tellin' him he was being a hun dan, without actually sayin' it. "But Cap'n . . ."
"No 'but Cap'n's'. Don't even rightly know what that animal is. Could have all sorts of diseases. Could bite your nose off in your sleep. Leave it be, it'll be off the ship soon enough. Dong ma?"
She cuddled it against her chest like a teddy bear and Mal could swear the gorram thing gave him a chastisin' sort of look. "Yes, Cap'n."
"Good, that's settled then." Mal left with a vague sense of Captainly authority. He firmly ignored Kaylee's voice, which was explaining to the critter that Mal didn't really mean to be so cranky, he was just gettin' a mite tired of his right hand and takin' it out on them.
Which weren't at all true. He used his left.
Wash was not a subtle man. Mal could hear him say one word over the comms and know if there were somethin' wrong. 'Course Wash didn't never restrict himself to one word. Mal was startin' to wish he did. "Captain, we got a little . . . a few . . . multiple problems down here. Might want to come take a look. Now. Immediately."
Honestly, he didn't know how that voice didn't grate on Zoe's nerves.
Mal made his way up to the cockpit, only to find it was lacking a pilot. He cursed beneath his breath and turned to go try the engine room when he heard Wash's voice – like nails on a ruttin' chalkboard when he got all excitable – coming from Zoe's bunk. (Was always Zoe's bunk to Mal. Wash just happened to keep himself there too.)
He kicked at the stairs. "You two decent in there?"
Zoe's voice rang through. "Fully clothed, sir. Get down here."
Wash being all panicky weren't nothin' new. Zoe givin' him orders . . . didn't happen unless there was a reason, and Mal hurried down to see what it was.
First thing he saw was that durn critter, big ears drooping sadly, little arms folded over its white belly. Damned if the thing didn't look guilty as all hell.
Second thing he saw, soon as he turned around, was another critter that looked just like it. Only its hair were all spiked up.
Third thing he saw was about five more of 'em, rollin' about on Zoe's bed.
Last thing he saw was Zoe's face. It didn't look happy. "Wash . . . you got five seconds to tell me why there's a whole litter of them things runnin' around."
Wash flicked nervous eyes toward Zoe. "Well see, it's a funny story. You'll laugh, really. It's just so bizarre-"
"I did it." Zoe interrupted.
Mal blinked at that, feeling a deep sense of betrayal. (Not so much that Zoe had done it, but more that he couldn't blame Wash for it.) "Zoe . . . you . . . alright. Let's hear it."
"Weren't any water in its crate. Wash and Kaylee were in here playing with it after Kaylee took it back from Jayne again. Thought it might be thirsty. Tried to give it some, but managed to spill it. Then more of 'em just sort of . . . happened."
"POPPED OUT! They like, exploded from out of its skin Mal. Little tiny fuzzy things. They got big fast though. They're so cute. Kaylee'll think it's shiny – she can keep one now."
"Ain't keepin' one! I – this – POPPED OUT? Zoe, you best fix this!"
Zoe gave him one of those looks that said she were a hair away from breaking him in half like a toothpick and looked at the critters on the bed. "Right. You all crawl back inside of daddy."
The creatures looked unimpressed, and the one with the spike seemed to smirk a bit. The critter who'd started this whole gorram mess slunk back against the head of the bed, looking a mite scared. "Fine just . . . fine. Put 'em all in crates and don't touch 'em till we get to the drop off. I mean it. Zoe . . ."
She didn't sound all that apologetic, and he gave her a look that said he knew that. She didn't smile or nothing, but Mal knew Zoe real well, and he could see the smile that wasn't there. Damn woman.
"You didn't listen." Mal turned around to see River hovering, her head cocked to the side, a look of smug amusement on her face.
"What's that, darlin'? You know you ain't 'sposed to be in my bunk without askin'."
"You failed to listen to warnings. I told you to follow the rules."
"Now that weren't none of my fault – Wash-"
"Not what I me-ant." River sing-songed.
"What did you me-an then?" He did the same back to her, knowing it was childish and not particularly caring.
She grinned, wrinkling her nose. "No food after midnight."
"Ain't midnight yet."
"By what standard?"
"By what standard were you given the instruction? Alliance standard time? The time on Greater Sparta, where he was acquired? The time on one section of Earth-That-Was? The time on Athens, where we're taking him?"
Mal scratched his ear. "I . . . don't rightly recall asking.
"Tactical error. Out now."
She grinned and climbed back out. He averted his eyes politely.
Down the hall, Inara screamed.
They were never taking on live cargo ever again. And he ruttin' meant it this time.
"What in the gorram hell is that thing?"
"It's what that turns into when you don't watch the clock right," Mal snapped, pointing at the critter in Jayne's arms. Inara stood behind the two of them, peering over their shoulders – and she weren't wearing much, which was more distractin' than he cared to admit.
There was a . . . thing hanging from the drapings over her head. It was green and wild eyed and laughed. And the laugh were all sorts of unsettlin', too. "Told you that those . . . frou frou scarves and things weren't gonna be nothin' but trouble."
Inara glared daggers into his back. "I think the thing hanging from the bedding is more the problem, Mal."
"Yeah, but if they weren't there, it'd be easier to grab it now, wouldn't it?"
"Do you really want to argue about this now?"
"Ain't arguin'. Stating. Jayne, get it down. And don't leave no dirty on Inara's pretty bed. That's gotta pay the bills."
Jayne – who'd been caught between staring at the green thing, and staring at Inara – grunted. "Can't I just shoot it?"
"No shooting in my shuttle! And we don't even know what it is!"
"We know it's alive. 'Live things can be shot."
"No shooting," Mal echoed. "Just grab the gorram thing!"
"FINE!" Jayne shoved the creature he held – the one that started the whole mess – at Inara. Mal wondered what in the hell Jayne was doing with it to begin with, but didn't bother to ask.
Inara held it awkwardly, and it made a sad little sound of regret, looking at Mal with big liquid eyes that seemed to say that it was sorry.
"Ta ma de hun dan! Mal! The gorram thing bit me!"
Mal looked back at the animal in Inara's arms. "Yeah – you better be sorry."
Inara looked at him like he was losing his mind, and he weren't all that sure it wasn't true.
He hit the button for the comms from the cargo hold. "Alright – everybody up to the cockpit. Jayne lash down everything in the hold and anything else loose. We'll blow the little bastards out!"
He ducked to avoid one that flew at him from the catwalk. They'd gotten into the sprinkler system, and there were more of 'em by the minute.
Jayne didn't so much answer as holler something about bitin' and bastards. Mal didn't get the specifics, but the general picture were more than enough. He left Jayne to his own defense – things weren't no more than knee high on him, couldn't do *that* much damage – and high tailed it. He had to kick and punch and shoot his way through, but he made it up the stairs. Was headin' for the cockpit when he ran smack into Kaylee, who stared up at him with wide eyes. "Cap'n you can't-"
"Don't even start with me little Kaylee, them things is making a wreck of our ship – much longer and we'll be dead in the air from their mucking around in things. Ain't nothin' to be done but-"
"Oh hell no – little monkey-faced bastards are in my engine room! You blow 'em the hell out Cap'n! I was just gonna say you can't open the doors without riggin' the doors to the quarters open, since they's set to go into lock down before the doors open. I'll fix it – look out!"
Mal turned in time to see a green thing launching itself at his face. He shot at point blank range and it fell to the floor between him and Kaylee, both of them sprinkled with green goo.
"Maybe we oughtta just stick to cows. Or little dollies."
Mal frowned at mention of the dolls, but nodded as he blew the head off another one of the little monsters. "Maybe so."
It took near fifteen minutes to make sure all the doors stayed open behind them and everything were locked down that could be. Book were off at his abbey – and Mal weren't all that happy about the timing, neither. Preacher was a good hand with a gun.
They all huddled together in the cockpit, Doc wrappin' bandages around a cussin' Jayne's arms and legs.
River sat behind in the co-pilot's chair. She kept correcting his grammar.
Rest of them were a bit beat up, but came through alright. "Who wants to do the honors?" He motioned to the button that would open the airlock and suck the little bastards right out of his ship."
Kaylee jumped up and slammed a hand down on the button.
"Cameras that are still up aren't showing anymore, Captain," Wash told him cheerfully a moment later. "Think we're in the clear. Has anyone ever heard of anything like those things?"
"Antiquated myth on earth-that-was. Monsters in the machines – turning the gears back on fingers and noses." River giggled. "The one with the hair was mean. He bit Simon on the rear." A general chorus of laughing and catcalling came up as the Doc' turned a few shades of red and gave his sister a look of betrayal.
Mal didn't pay any attention. "Bi zui!" The others went quiet and he could hear it . . . something was singing.
He stalked across the cockpit and pulled open the locker in the back.
Damn little thing looked up at him with big eyes, tips of its ears dropping and its cute little face looking shy. "Someone better explain. Quickly."
He looked around, picking out Kaylee and then Wash. Both of them looked more surprised than they oughtta be if they'd put it there.
"Ermm . . . Mal . . ."
Mal turned to stare at Jayne, who turned an interestin' shade of red. "Jayne . . ."
"Weren't his fault that Wash got him wet, or that you fed him wrong! He's just a little fella – like a teddy bear."
"It's the whole reason we got in this qing kuang in the first place!"
River walked up behind him and leaned forward to poke the creature gently in the stomach. It cooed softly. She looked at Mal and corrected him with a grin. "He."
Mal sighed and rubbed his head. "He," he agreed. He gave Jayne a stern look. "Two days to Athens, and then he's off and we're paid. Dong ma?"
Jayne grinned a bit. "Shiny." He picked up the critter and opened the doors, striding away. He was babytalkin' at it. There wasn't anything right about Jayne babytalkin'.
River grinned and called after him. "Don't feed him!"
Mal sighed contentedly and sipped the tea he'd made. Kaylee'd put everything back right that the damn things had tore up. Dropped the thing off on Athens – Jayne'd taken it his own self – and gotten a tidy profit from it, even with the repairs. Ship was back out in the Black, Shepherd was picked back up – all was right with his world.
He stopped with the cup halfway to his mouth, managing to splash tea down the front of his shirt when he heard a low, trilling sort of noise.
Almost like singing.
He groaned and stood, following the sound. It was moving. He followed it down to the Cargo hold, where the Shepherd had just walked beat him into. Sitting on a crate nearby was the little ball of purrin' trillin' fur he'd just set there.
Mal glared at it. "Care to tell me what that is?" He pointed accusingly at the fur. It trilled back.
Book grunted and sat up from beneath the weights. "Oh – the children near the abbey were giving them away. They seem to suddenly be all the rage as pets – everyone appears to have one, even a few of my brothers were taking one as I left. They're quite harmless. They do little more than make that soothing noise. I thought perhaps River would find it calming."
From the catwalk above his head, River threw back her head and started to laugh.
Mal threw her a dark look and then blinked at the furball. "Weren't there only one of those a minute ago?"
Book looked over in surprise, River's laugh grew louder and Mal rubbed at his head forlornly.
No. More. Live. Cargo. Ever.
He meant it this time.
pi shi= shit
Ta ma de hun dan= motherfucking son of a bitch
Bi zui= Shut up
qing kuang= mess/"situation" (negative connotation)
Dong ma= understand