"Those aren't toys," Kaylee said. "Those are agricultural supplies for a new colony. Did you change the job while you were out?"
"Seal it back up," Mal said. "That stuff is perishable, and by breaking the seal, we've started the decay process."
The crew stood around, staring at the crate that was supposed to contain toys for the children of the orphanage on Haven but really contained farming seed and fertilizer that had supposedly been destined for Whitefall. Jayne and Book lifted the facing of the crate back into place and restored the seals. When they were done, Jayne stepped back and looked at Mal.
"Well, Mal, guess we got ourselves another hiccup."
"Yeah, looks that way." Mal muttered another curse in Chinese and then he kicked the crate for good measure.
"That won't hurt the crate," River said.
"It will hurt your foot if you do that again, though," Simon said.
"So, what now?" Jayne said. "That's it then, isn't it?"
"I don't know," Mal said. "I'm thinkin'."
Zoe cleared her throat. "Captain, you know Jonas better than any of us. How likely is he to hold this against us?"
"Worried about us having another enemy?"
"I'm running out of space on the piece of paper where I keep their names written down, sir."
"Yeah. Preacher, how did this happen?"
"I have no idea, Captain," said Book. "I double-checked the numbers. We had the right slot number in the warehouse. The only way this happens is if the warehouse workers put the crates in the wrong slots themselves."
And with that, a silence settled over the crew as they realized what had happened.
"Well, this is new," said Jayne. "Never stolen the wrong goods before."
"Yeah, this is definitely a wrinkle we haven't tried before," said Mal. "All right, I'm open to suggestions."
"Suggestions for what?" It was Wash, who had just come down from the bridge. "Everyone's looking awfully glum here."
"We stole the wrong goods, honey," Zoe said.
"Now there's something we haven't done before!" Wash said. "Now what?"
"See?" Mal said. "Took him all of two sentences to get up to speed on this."
"What do we do?" Kaylee asked. "Captain?"
"Maybe the children want to play as farmers," River offered. "They can grow their own vegetables and work the soil."
"River," Book said, "the orphanage is in the middle of a city that's a hundred miles in diameter. There's no soil except what's in the decorative flower pots."
"That sounds depressing," River said. "Children need space."
"Well, we can't solve every problem at once," Zoe said. "Captain, Jonas is gonna know that he can't open the crate without breaching the shelf-life of the goods that he thinks are in there."
"I was thinking the same thing," Mal said. "If that's the case, then Jonas has no idea that he's got a crate full of toys on his ship. Which means that he's on his way to Whitefall. He won't know anything is wrong until Patience does. Of course, knowing Patience, she'll have already tried to shoot him."
"So that's it then," said Jayne. "We ain't gotta do a gorram thing. Let them shoot each other and then we can sell this stuff to whoever takes over for Patience. Make back our coin, and then some."
Mal considered this. After a moment, Shepherd Book stepped forward.
"Captain, I know that your ship is not a democracy, but I must voice my opposition to what Jayne has suggested."
"Yeah, I thought you might," Mal said. "Wash, go get us on a course for Whitefall. Get us there fast. We want to get there before the shooting starts."
"You got it," Wash said as he headed back up the stairs. "A pilot's job is never done! Until he lands, then he's done until the next job...."
"Zoe," Mal said, "I'm gonna need your help figurin' out how to approach this one. We've got to make a switch without both Jonas and Patience deciding that I'm cheating them."
"Sounds like a challenge," Zoe said.
"Why I'm givin' it to you."
"Wait a minute!" Jayne said. "We're gonna try to get the toys back? Anybody else think that's crazy?"
Simon shrugged. "I think it's kind of shiny," he said. Kaylee grinned at him.
"Doc, I'm gonna do somethin' hurtful to you someday soon," Jayne said. "Mal, how can you even consider this?"
Mal looked at Shepherd Book. "I took a job," he said. "And even though the job's starting to bring some trouble, truth is, that's what jobs do. And there ain't a job in the 'Verse that I'm like to walk away from once I take it."
Jayne shook his head. "I can't ruttin' believe this."
"Hey, look at the bright side," Mal said. "We're goin' to Whitefall to try and do business with Patience."
"Probably be some shooting," Zoe added.
Jayne laughed harshly. "Day's gonna come when you're not gonna be able to buy me off by lettin' me shoot some folk," he said.
Mal considered that. "Well, that's gonna be an interesting day. Come on, Zoe. We need to brainstorm."
It took them the better part of a day to get to Whitefall, which was a pretty miserable and dusty rock way out on the fringes. Malcolm Reynolds didn't much like this world; it was run by a crusty woman named Patience who didn't tend to practice any, and who had a nasty habit of trying to shoot him. She'd succeeded once, but the last time, Mal had got the better of her. He'd done the job, and despite some unkind words as regarding his character, he'd gotten paid. But this one was going to be tricky, no doubt about that.
"OK, Mal, we're here," Wash said as Whitefall loomed before the ship. "Now what?"
"Well, Patience is a woman of habit," Mal said. "So I'm thinkin' she'll want to meet with Jonas in that same spot she chose to meet us in last time we were here. Good spot for an ambush. So we'll go there and hope we're in time to avoid some fisticuffs and general tomfoolery."
Zoe looked at Mal. "'Tomfoolery', sir?"
"What? You know I like to dust off archaic words now and then."
"Part of what makes you charming, sir."
"Thanks for sayin'. Now, if I'm Patience, I'm puttin' two snipers in the hills around that meeting spot, after we took care of the one she ahd there last time. And Jonas is gonna have his own sniper up there somewhere too. So Jayne and the Shepherd will take care of the snipers for us, and then we walk in and make everybody happy."
"Aren't we doin' an awful lot of counting on the Shepherd to shoot people on this job?" Zoe asked.
"Probably, but that book of his is nonspecific as regards kneecaps and elbows, if I remember right. Wash, same landing spot as before."
"Sure thing, Mal," Wash said. "And I've got Jonas's ship on the scanner now. They're landing as we speak, two hilltops over. Looks like we got here in time."
"It's a Christmas miracle, Captain," Zoe said.
Mal rolled his eyes. "Now don't you start," he said. "Let's go get ready. Wash, put her down."
"Sure thing, Captain," Wash said.
Mal and Zoe walked down to the hold, where Jayne and Shepherd Book were waiting.
"Captain," Book began, "I feel I should apologize for having gotten you into this business."
"Did it with my eyes open," Mal said. "But if you're volunteering for a month of mess duty, I don't think I'll hear any objections from the rest of the crew." He glanced around at Kaylee, Simon, River, and Inara, who all just stood there placidly. "And a month it is! All right, Zoe and me have come up with what we think is a nicely nuanced plan."
Jayne grunted. "Book and I take out the snipers and cover you while you and Zoe try to talk some sense into Patience and Jonas?"
"Yeah, that's about it."
"We gotta start comin' up with plans that don't have quite as much 'if' in 'em," Jayne grumbled.
"Every time I ask you for input, your first words are 'I shoot them'."
"Yeah. Not a lot of 'if' when the other guy's got bullets in him."
"OK. Get that crate ready. And Kaylee, keep the engines warm. We may need to make a fast break for it."
"Be easier if you'd let me replace that drive inducer that I keep warning you about," Kaylee said.
"New year's comin'," said Mal.
The scene that confronted Mal and Zoe when they peered over the edge of the knoll above Patience's rendezvous spot was about what Mal expected: Patience sat atop her horse, while her men had Jonas at gunpoint, and Jonas's men had Patience's men at gunpoint. Everybody had everybody else at gunpoint.
"Whole lot of gunpoint," Mal muttered.
"Not too late to find a desk job, Captain," Zoe replied.
"More of us than there are of you, Jonas," Patience said. "And I've got a sniper aimin' at you right now. You're not walkin' away."
"I got a man took out your sniper," Jonas replied. "I'm not stupid, Patience. And my men are better shots than yours. Now how about you toss me the coin and we'll be on our way?"
"All I see here is a big crate," Patience said. "You might as well open her up and let us see the goods."
"Suits me fine," said Jonas. "Randy? Open it."
Keeping his hands visible at all times, Randy popped open the crate and swung it open. "Uh, Captain?" he said.
"This some kind of joke, Jonas?" Patience asked. "That don't look like seed and fertilizer to me."
"What?" Jonas turned to Randy. "What is she gorram talking about?"
"This crate, sir," Randy said. "It's full of...toys."
"This some kind of joke, Jonas?" Patience sounded annoyed. "So you're gonna dump fake goods on me after you have my money?"
Jonas looked uncomfortable.
"Do we go down now?" Zoe asked.
"Shhhh," Mal said. "Things haven't gone south enough yet."
"Patience," Jonas said. "Uhhhh...."
"I'd like to hear an explanation," Patience said. "Before I shoot you myself." She pulled out her pistol.
"Malcolm Reynolds cheated me!" Jonas said.
"Reynolds?" Patience's eyebrows went up. "What's he got to do with this?"
"Funny you should ask!" Mal called out as he rose up and sauntered over the knoll, his pistol in his hand but not aimed at anything. Zoe came behind him, her shotgun in her hand as well.
"Reynolds!" shouted both Patience and Jonas at the same time. Both also pointed their pistols at him, at the same time.
"Well there we go," Mal said. "Two criminals suddenly united in purpose. Warms the heart, eh, Zoe?"
"Sure does, sir."
"Mal, I'll shoot you where you stand," Patience said.
"And I'll shoot you again before you hit the ground," Jonas said.
"Sure," Mal said. "But then you wouldn't hear the explanation and my counter-proposal."
"Explanation?" Jonas roared. "You switched the crates and took the good stuff! What were you going to do, let me get shot and then sell Patience the real goods?"
Mal thought. "Huh. Zoe, that might have worked."
"Surprised you didn't think of it, sir."
"I gotta be goin' soft in my old age."
"Happens to the best of us, sir."
"Jonas, we didn't switch a gorram thing. The warehouse workers screwed up. Those crates were in the wrong spots. We took what we thought was our crate, but it was really yours. And you got ours, thinkin' it was really yours. Kind of an irony, ain't it?"
Patience rolled her eyes. "Right now I'm wondering which of you is the less competent one," she said.
"Well, that would be him," Mal said. "No offense, Jonas, but at least we discovered the problem and we're here to make it right. Now here's our proposal. We take our crate and go on our way. You get your crate, which we stashed about a mile away from here. Then you two finish your business and everybody goes away happy. Or we go away happy and you shoot each other. Whatever you prefer."
"Or I just take all the goods and keep my coin," Patience said. "Mal, you're still not very bright. Neither are you, Jonas. You may have taken out one of my snipers, but I put two up there."
"Yeah, Patience," Mal said. "As to that, we took out Jonas's sniper who took out your sniper. And then we took out your other sniper. So now the only two snipers up there are mine. And they're good, believe me. Aren't they, Zoe?"
"The best, sir."
"Yup. So, Jonas, we'll take this crate now. Yours is a mile that way." He pointed. "No reason for anybody to get shot."
"You takin' my hauler too, Mal?"
Mal shrugged. "I suppose we can leave it behind once we get our goods back on my ship. As a good-will gesture and all."
"Or we can come with you and make sure we get it back," Jonas said.
Mal shrugged. "Or that," he conceded. "We just want our goods."
"A bunch of toys?" Jonas shook his head. "What are you up to, Reynolds?"
"I'm doin' a job," Mal said. "Why does everybody keep asking me that?" He turned to Patience. "Give him the coin, Patience, and go get your box and keep running your little world. Nobody needs to get shot here. It's Christmas."
Patience blinked. "It's what?"
"Never mind. Just get out of here."
Patience sighed. "Every time you show up on this world I end up losing money," Patience said as she tossed a sack of coin to Jonas. "That crate ain't there and I'm puttin' a bounty on you, Mal."
"Yeah, well, I've got a track record here, Patience," Mal said. "I get you the goods and then I get paid. The way a transaction's supposed to be. You're the one likes shootin' people and tryin' to get out of paying, so I'd just as soon you rode off with your men and stopped disparaging me."
Patience laughed. "Fine, Mal, have it your way. But if you don't mind some advice, you need to stop expecting transactions to run the way they're supposed to. That's why you're still flying around in a rustbucket." She gestured to her men, who stood down, and then they rode off.
"She only says that because she can't fly in a ship for ten minutes without puking," Zoe said.
"Yeah, well, let's get this stuff back to Serenity. We've still got a job to do. Jonas, if you would?"
Jonas sighed. "You heard him, men. Let's go. Least we can with him saving our bacon on this one."
Jonas's men grumbled but obeyed. Mal spoke into the mouthpiece on the wire he wore under his coat. "Jayne? Preacher? You can come down now. We're all good here."
"How'd you know where to find us, anyway?" Jonas asked.
"Dealt with Patience before," Mal replied. "Let's move."
"Did you really leave her goods a mile away?"
Jonas shook his head. "You could've kept them, sold them someplace else. Made double profit."
"Thought of that," Mal said. "But I need to be able to do business. No need to make an enemy out of Patience until I have to."
They moved the crate of toys back to Serenity, whereupon Jonas ordered his men to start back to their own ship. Mal ordered his crew to get the ship ready for departure, and then he went outside with Jonas.
"Well, Mal," Jonas said, "it was a pleasure, as always. Now, if that's all--"
"Not quite," Mal said. "I'll be taking the coin that Patience gave you."
Jonas blinked. "What?"
"You heard me," Mal said. "You took coin from me that wasn't yours to take. And despite that, I still came here and saved your gorram hide. Way I see it, you owe me. Let's square up right now. Get it over with."
Jonas stared at him. Mal sighed.
"Jonas, you really want to see what a good draw I am? And what a good shot?"
Jonas sighed and pulled the bag of coin from his jacket pocket and flipped it to Mal. "Every time I wonder how it is you stay in business, you pull something like this out of your hat."
"Not much of a secret," Mal said. "I don't set my sights too high. I just keep flyin'."
"Yeah. Well, do me a favor and don't tell anyone you took my coin from me."
"As far as I'm concerned, it was a payment offered in good will."
Jonas nodded. "Yeah, call it that. But stay away from me for a while, would you?" He lit a cigar and went to join his men. Mal turned and went aboard the ship.
"OK, Wash, let's fly. We need to be in Haven's air within twelve hours."
"We can just make it," Wash replied over the loudspeaker.
Serenity lifted off.
Eleven and one half hours later, they were flying toward Haven. Mal came up to the bridge, where Wash was looking at a scanner.
"So?" Mal asked. "What's the new problem?"
Wash blinked. "I didn't call you!"
"I know, but we're due for the next problem with this job. What is it?"
Wash pointed to the scanner. "Alliance ship in orbit. They haven't scanned us yet, and maybe they won't, but if they do--"
"They might board us," Mal said. "Then again, they might not. They're in stationary orbit?"
"Uh-huh," Wash said. "Right above the part of town where our Shepherd's orphanage is."
Mal muttered several curses in Chinese.
"That's what I said," Wash replied.
"All right. Let me think." Mal thought. And then he pressed the intercom button. "Would everybody please report to the hold? You too, Inara. I need everybody."
The plan was this: Mal, Zoe, and Wash would stay aboard Serenity, in stationary orbit on the other side of the planet. They would load all of the toys onto Inara's shuttle – individually, because the shuttle wasn't big enough for something the size of that crate – and then Inara would fly down to the orphanage in the middle of the night, when Shepherd Book assured them no one would notice something like a shuttle landing on the roof. Then, Jayne, Book, Simon, Kaylee, and River would take each toy individually to a child.
It wasn't one of Mal's most thought-out plans, but it was the best he could come up with on fairly short notice. Mal thought it was a decent enough plan, until Zoe said "Nice plan, sir," which was what she usually said when she thought his plans were scenarios for utter disaster. But that was the plan, and so it was that on the night before Christmas, when all through the orphanage not a child was stirring, a shuttlecraft flown by a registered Companion came down to land on the roof.
"All right, we're here," Jayne said as he grabbed an armful of toys. "Let's get this ruttin' job over with."
"Said with the true spirit of the day," Shepherd Book said. "All right, everyone follow me. And keep quiet. The whole place is asleep."
"They always knew when I was sleeping," River said. "They knew when I was awake."
"She's gonna be all right, isn't she?" Jayne asked.
"Sure," Simon said. "Isn't she always?"
Jayne shook his head as Shepherd Book led them across the roof and into the orphanage via the roof access door, which Book lockpicked open in seconds.
"Real great security here," Jayne remarked.
"It's an orphanage," Book said. "One where everybody knows there's nothing worth stealing."
They went downstairs, where they found themselves in a very large room, with bunk beds running down each side, and a child sleeping in each bed.
"All right, there are four more rooms like this," Book whispered. "Every child gets a toy."
"Right," Jayne said, and he ran off and started randomly sticking a toy on each bed.
"Jayne!" Kaylee protested. "You can't do it like that! You can't give a boy a doll!"
"Why not?" Jayne asked. "They don't like it they can trade."
"Just do it right," Kaylee said.
"What kind of toys did he play with?" Simon muttered.
In this way they went through the room, distributing a toy to each child. Somehow, miraculously, they got through all of the rooms without waking a single child, giving a toy to each one, one toy to each of three hundred children.
Except the last bed, which, when Jayne approached it, he discovered was empty. No child here, just rumpled sheets. Kid probably got up to go to the bathroom, or get a drink of water. "Huh," Jayne thought. He looked at the toy in his hand – a teddy bear – and decided that he rather liked it. He'd always wanted one when he was a kid, and never got one. And this one was real nice, with a bow around its neck and everything. So there was a toy left over. So what? Kid shoulda been there in bed. Kid's loss. He turned and headed back for the ship.
Meanwhile, River was taking her time over each gift, gently laying it on each bed, and whispering a rhyme over each child. What made it take even longer was that she was inventing each rhyme off the top of her head. Simon wondered if he should intercede, but since she was speaking in verse about things that weren't somehow grimly dark or eerily foreboding, he thought it was best to just let her go.
Also meanwhile, Kaylee found herself wondering if it was really fair to try to pigeonhole these kids into girl toys and boy toys. After all, her toys had been wrenches and hammers and drivers and blast drills and parts from a hundred different ship engines, and look how she'd turned out! Nothin' to be ashamed of. It was a fine life, even if once in a while she wanted something a little more than engine parts and dirty overalls.
Also meanwhile, Inara saw that the orphanage's one lone security guard had had his curiosity piqued by some strange noises, and he came shuffling up the stairs to find a shuttle sitting on his roof. He was about to blow an alarm whistle when she came down and silenced him with a look and a flash of leg. It always worked, especially with young men like this. Barely old enough to grow a beard. Staring at her as though he'd just seen an angel. Sad world, Haven, she thought. No wonder Companions almost never come here.
"Is there a girl you like?" she asked him.
He managed to nod.
She removed a ruby brooch from her robe and handed it to him. He gulped.
"Give this to her," she said. "And say nothing of me tonight."
He managed to nod, again. A major accomplishment, that. And so she sent him on his way, knowing that this would be their little secret, forever. Inara could keep secrets, and what would he say? Would he talk of the beautiful woman in the spaceship on his roof? No. Of course not. She smiled.
Finally meanwhile, Shepherd Book went all the way to the lowest level of the orphanage, where the oldest kids were. These kids were in the worst shape, the ones most likely to end up in something a bit worst than Mal's line of work, the ones most likely to end up on the wrong end of someone's gun or floating dead through the Black. He had little hope that a toy, just one toy, would be enough to budge more than maybe one or two of them off the trajectory their lives had them on, but lots of miracles had started from smaller stuff than a single toy. He laid each one on a bed, and tried not to linger too much over the one particular bed, the one over there on the left. On his way back up to the roof, he paused at the door to the headmaster's apartment. He wondered if he might say hello, under other circumstances. Or if he might rather go in there with a gun instead of a bible. He lingered there only a moment and then returned to the roof.
"Are we all here?"
"We're just waiting on Jayne," said Simon.
"Where is he?!"
At that moment, Jayne was muttering, "Where's the gorram stairs around here?" He'd gotten lost. It was a bigger orphanage than he'd though, and now he had no idea how to get back up to the roof. But he had to get up there, fast; the night was getting old and people would be getting up soon. He rushed around, all over the place, looking behind every door, until he found the stairs up. "'Bout time," he said. And then he stopped, because there was an eight-year-old girl looking at him.
"Uhhh...hi there," he said. "You should be in bed, youngster."
"I couldn't sleep," said the girl. "I have bad dreams. I wanted a drink of water."
"Well, you got your drink, so back to bed."
"You're not from here," the girl said. "Are you here to steal things?"
"No," Jayne said. "Not this time, anyway. Maybe tomorrow, haven't figured out the next job yet. Don't know. Gotta keep moving." But he didn't move. That girl just stood there, looking at him. All big-eyed, with her tangled hair and bedrobe that wasn't filthy but had seen better days anyway.... "I think your eyes are stuck," he said. "I gotta go."
"Bye," she said. And she stood there watching as he went halfway up the stairs, where he stopped.
"Aww, gorram it," he said as he turned back and came back down. "This is for you." He handed her the teddy bear. "Hold onto it tight when you sleep. Might help with them dreams. I got a preacher friend who says this is Christmas, so...have a ruttin' happy Christmas." And then he went up the stairs, practically running up them, to get away from the girl with the big eyes.
"That all the toys?" he asked when he got on board the shuttle.
"There were about twenty or so left over," said Simon. "I left those in a playroom."
"We're all ready, right?" Inara called back.
"We're all here!" Book said. "Close her up and let's go home."
Inara guided the little shuttle back into the air, and up into the sky toward the planet's other side, where Serenity lay in orbit.
"What took you so long, Jayne?" Kaylee asked.
"Got lost," Jayne said. "And...there was a little girl. Don't worry, I gave her a toy."
River pointed at his shirt, his red shirt. "A man with a beard wearing red came in the night to give her a present," she said. "Just like the old stories!"
Jayne stared at her. "What is she ruttin' talkin' about?"
"Nothing," said Book.
When they arrived on Serenity, Mal was there, waiting.
"Nice work," he said.
"Thank you, Captain," said Shepherd Book. "I appreciate it."
"I did a job," Mal said. "Soon as that tree gets dry and starts dropping those sharp needles all over my mess--"
"I'll have it down, sir."
Mal nodded and headed for his bunk. "Nice work, everyone," he called out. "Zoe, wake me when we get to Persephone."
A few weeks later they'd done another job, and they all had a little extra money. Not a lot, but some. So they all decided to exchange gifts. Mal wasn't sure whose idea it was, or if it even was anyone's idea, but it seemed to happen anyway.
Zoe gave her dear husband Wash that stegosaurus figurine he'd wanted. Wash gave his beloved wife Zoe a brand new leather vest.
Shepherd Book gave Simon an old copy of a very old anatomy book, a 'classic text' on the subject, from Old Earth. Simon gave River a rose made out of glass, with gold leaf on the petals; she commented on the fact that it had thorns. River gave the Shepherd a new Bible, which she promised him she would leave 'uncorrected'.
Kaylee gave Jayne a new carrying case for Vera, his favorite gun; Jayne gave Inara a robe that she knew she would look stunning in but would never ever ever wear in front of Jayne. And Inara gave Kaylee a new engine stabilizer and one of her own robes.
And Mal? He got what he always wanted. He got to keep flying.
Merry Ruttin' Christmas
and a Happy Gorram New Year!!!