Summary: Picking up a job at a circus was bound to have complications, or “Why did it have to be gorram snakes?”
Characters: Malcolm Reynolds, River Tam, Simon Tam, Kaylee Frye, Zoe Washburne, Hoban Washburne, Inara Serra, Jayne Cobb, and Shepherd Book
Disclaimer: Joss Whedon’s, not mine, and not for profit. Also, apologies to Samuel L Jackson and Harrison Ford.
Original story: Big Damn Motherfucking Snakes on a Transport by Lyrastar (watergal)
Notes: Thanks to Lyrastar for writing the story – it was really fun to attempt to remix, and musesfool for organizing the challenge. Extreme thank yous to my wonderous superbeta skripka who went above and beyond, and to all the NSPs who were there for last minute hand holding and answers to questions, especially budclare, kelly_girl and kernelm.
Beaumond. Not a bad place to go to pick up work. Not a place he’d ever expected to, mind you, but word had come from Li Shen that there was an easy transport job for good coin, even legitimate-like. And it didn’t seem too far a stretch, that hearing of the job, people would have thought of him and his crew. Ferrying a bunch of circus folk to a new gig for a few weeks had the potential to be a mite more interesting than most, but Mal felt a certain degree of kinship to those the world could choose to turn their backs on as freaks. They had their secrets, wanted their privacy, took to making money off how nature had made them different. Honest, in their way -- following the rules they set out, plain for all to see whether they take it as cheating to decide for themselves, and mostly only fleecing those that could pay.
And if it gave the crew a chance to get out from underfoot, even if not for long, well, that was a bonus. After clearing security, they were allowed to make their way under the big top. Fairground would likely be as appropriate a description as circus, but truthfully it was a right mixture of both. However named, it was a sight to see. Kaylee reacted most obvious, wide-eyed, hands to her mouth in delight, words failing her in the face of so much shiny, but the rest weren’t unmoved. They were greeted by a cacophony of rainbows, clothed in patchwork, shimmering with sounds and endless possibilities, which were summarily cut through by Mal’s voice, constructing limits within the infinite space.
“Zoe, you’re with me. Everyone else, back here in three hours, which I’m reckoning is just enough time to get into some trouble. Jayne, if you are late again...so help me, I will not be going through another hen house in search of you.”
Jayne shrugged, and the rest of the crew nodded or voiced their assent, before dispersing to what amusements they chose to find.
Inara curtsied, properly respectful, and was answered with a corresponding bow. It was expected, welcome, but so unaccustomed it almost made her flinch. According to the knowledge once passed through her house, this was a great hidden resource for certain supplies mostly unavailable on the rim. And she had a list, longer than the record of all the potential clients she had ever declined, that she really did need to replenish.
Despite the unexpectedness of the call, she was greeted with a civilized cup of tea, unexpectedly tart and smokey on her tongue. She would have to see about purchasing some of that, as well. Master Aathilali was known for his many herbal mixtures, few of which were available to the wider public. But also for his charm, of all things, including the boa lying at his feet. She smiled, genuinely, and started the small talk that was customary to precede such business as she had here, delightfully and refreshingly ordinary.
River got lost, but not in her feet. She closed her eyes against the coloured whirr, only to see brighter, moving pictures fragmented as she herself, flying through the air without the use of a net, feeling the currents brush skin, a caress at each twist and turn, freedom free fall. Flying without feathers. She took Simon’s hand and found Kaylee’s with her other, and plunged into the crowd, with them stumbling behind her until they found their pace. But when Kaylee saw the rides of metal pieces, rising into the air, it was she who took the lead, bringing them up to the feet of a giant spinning wheel. Her head tilted back with every step nearer, the ride seeming higher and higher the closer the came. Watching entranced, Kaylee was oblivious to the way Simon watched her, as they both were to River’s smile.
The barker, recognizing her posture, slowed the wheel, and unhitched the bar, and called, “Step right up, here’s a bit of a travel, see the whole grounds in the blink of an eye! Wanna ride? A third bit for you and your friends, pretty girl!” He had to repeat himself before Kaylee’s attention could be called from the top of the machine, aided by a tug of River’s hand.
Kaylee reached her hand deep into the pocket of her coveralls, producing the requisite coin and placing it in the outstretched hand, all before Simon had managed to undo the button on his pocket. “My treat, this time,” she said at his protest.
“It might be a squeeze for three,” the barker interrupted, seeing a chance for more cash.
“Oh, we don’t mind,” River said, just shy of coyly, before manhandling Simon to sit, in true sisterly fashion.
Somehow, Kaylee got wedged in the middle, practically on Simon’s lap. River grinned wide, leaning forward, calling, “Going up!”
“Uh, Kaylee, do you really think it’s safe? I mean...”
“Relax, Simon. People got off and on perfectly fine as we made our way over here.” Kyalee patted the bar holding them in place, comfortingly, setting them to swinging, “Don’t you pay him no mind, I know you won’t drop us,” she said, conspiring. Then, glancing down, Kaylee directed her conversation back to the occupants of the bench, all joy and wonder, “Just look at the view!”
Simon’s jaw slowly unclenched as they rose higher, until the crested the top, and the moment of weightlessness caused his hand to tighten on the closest thing, which happened to be Kaylee’s arm. River whooped. As for Kaylee, her gleeful shrieks of laugher accompanied the entire ride.
Wash gripped the rubber ball in his hand, shifting his grip, and stared, half way between accusing and contemplative, at the rows of brightly coloured pins. He knew the game was rigged, but he also knew there had to be a trick somewhere. He had cast himself as the brave archer--ball thrower--disguised as a country bumpkin, or maybe an old man, set to win the prize to claim his lady love. Now, he had three chances left, and the tension was mounting. He gripped the ball tighter, imagining jeering crowds rather than one bored attendant, drew his arm back, closed his eyes, picturing dark eyes and a slow smile, and let fly! He opened his eyes apprehensively, to be greeted by the sight of ten pins, still standing tall. “I’ll defeat you yet!” he muttered.
“Two more balls left,” the attendant (in his head, Wash had dubbed him Will, despite the lack of an indent tag) droned, perfunctorily. He prepared to throw again, telling himself to visualize victory, when the ball was plucked from his hand. His bewildered outrage faded abruptly when he recognized the good Shepherd.
“You don’t seem to be having much success. You do know these games are stacked against the players, don’t you?” Book commented dryly.
“Let it never be said that an unfair challenge stood in the way of me obtaining a prize for my fair wife. I laugh in the face of such odds. And then I lose.”
“Shall we see if I can help you beat those odds? I have a certain knack...”
“Should you even be gambling?”
“I wouldn’t call this gambling.” Book kindly left off adding, “More a sucker’s bet.” Wash gladly surrendered the remaining projectiles, as Book took up position. Faster than he could blink, Book’s hands were empty, and eight of the ten pins had toppled over.
The attendant’s eyes widened in astonishment. Book pointed to a large furry creature with four limbs, a black body with a tuft of white fur around its head, in the shape of a creature of Earth-that-was. “He’ll take that one.”
“And I shall call it, Yi-y...” Wash trailed off, mesmerized by the vision striding towards him. “Zoe, weren’t you with the captain?”
“Finished up early.” She snuck a quick kiss in greeting, “Thought I’d see what you got up to, husband.”
“I won you a prize, with my manly muscle and skill. And maybe some help from Shepherd Book.” Zoe took the animal from Wash’s hand and hauled him in for a more serious kiss.
Book's eyes twinkled in amusement.
Jayne, creature comforts accounted for, with a drink that had passing acquaintance with alcohol in one hand, some bit of fried dough the vendor had called a beavertail in the other, made his way past the tents. Some promised to tell his fortune (he knew that already--weren’t worth the coin), some promised death-defying acts of derring do, which he did all too often now for it to hold more than a passing interest.
Besides, he just didn't like clowns.
The sound of knowing laugher, raucous rather than mean, led him to poke his head into a dark room, where a voluptuous lady, spilling out of her bangles and scarves, was in the midst of telling a dirty joke. Jayne elbowed his way to the front of the room, growled “Git!” to a far smaller man, and settled himself down to enjoy the show.
Everyone reassembled, more or less on time, Zoe with a strange stuffed creature tucked under her arm, and Simon somewhat windblown. “Well, this here’s who we’re to be escorting for the next few weeks, some whom might be known to you, but this here is Master Aathilali, Wing and Wang, Genevivre, Melisand, and Euryale. There're more who are meeting us at the ship. This here’s my crew, such as they are. You’ll all have time to be better acquainted, if you so chose, when we all get on board and after I give you the grand tour, such as it is. This way.” Mal decided it was best to ignore the leer Jayne was giving the Waszinski Triplets and focus more on getting the rest of Master Aathilali's freakshow settled.
It wasn't an insult if it was the truth, Mal reminded himself. Besides, he wasn't about to say it out loud.
Simon fell into step with Wing and Wang, introducing himself as the medic. He was fascinated. Conjoined twins--a medical problem to sink his teeth into, but not a problem, really. Not something he was expected to fix, not something that really needed fixing, but an example of the wonders of the human body, of survival and compromise.
“Is it... difficult? To not be able to be separate? Do you ever want to be alone?” Simon reddened, taken aback at his forwardness.
“Well, we have never known –“
“-- what it is to be separate. But after so long, we suspect --”
“-- that to be without one another, would indeed be very difficult.”
It was not easy, he thought. Then Simon grinned, ducking his chin, abashed. “So, I suppose you hear that question a lot?”
“Or some variation thereof. Yours was kindly asked.” A wry smile implying most were not, “But we do sometimes still –“
“-- finished each other’s sentences unprompted.”
That prompted Simon’s full smile, with white teeth gleaming, though behind his eyes was the desperate question of whether he and his sister would ever again be that close. If she would always be his phantom limb, even when she was, in a sense, right in front of him.
Four days in, however, some slight complications arose. Jobs, it appeared, weren’t ever meant to go smooth. Circus, he figured, bound to have opportunities to be less smooth than most. He might say the sight before him was not what he had expected on entering the cargo bay that morning, but by this point in his life, Mal sometimes felt he had truly grown out of having expectations.
She stood calm, in the centre of the cargo bay, still but for the slitherings of the reptiles twining around her slim limbs, coiling around her wrists, ankles, waist, neck. “You can move, you know, I have not turned you to stone. I did not lie with the oceans,” River said, conversationally.
Simon stared at her, alarm overweighing repulsion. “Mei-mei, those are very --”
“Simon, reptiles are very clean.” Then her earnestness gave way to giggles; she morphed from goddess to child, confiding, “And they tickle.”
It wasn’t that he was terribly averse to transporting creatures--the cows weren’t too bad in hindsight, but he knew cattle. He suppose he could say he knew a few snakes too, but he didn’t like the two legged ones much more than he liked the ones that were currently making river their own personal jungle gym. If he knew he was transporting them, sure. For all that he’d grown accustomed to handling surprises, it was not something he enjoyed overmuch. It made him grumpy.
“Why did it have to be snakes?” Mal groused. “Gorram snakes on my gorram ship.”
He hit the comm, and his voice echoed, tinny, bouncing through the metal space. “Everyone, looks like we got a bit of problem, here. Seems we were carrying passengers we didn’t know about, and they hatched. So I’d like everyone to fan out, careful-like, and see if they can round up any stray baby-snakes. Do not, I repeat, do not get bit. That’s an order. And work your way to the cargo bay with whatever you find.”
“I’ll – I’ll go see if we have any antivenin on hand, just in case.” Simon left, with a worried look back towards his sister, his reluctance evident in his posture. Mal was just about done deciding whether he should stay in the cargo bay with River and her new friends, or go out on the search his ownself, when something landed on his shoulder.
He stifled a manly scream, and turned, coattails whipping after him at the speed. “Master Aathilali, I really would appreciate it if you wore boots or some other footwear that makes some degree of noise when you walk. I misslike stealth, right about now.”
Inara burst in behind Master Aathilali, clearly having to run to keep pace with him, and even then falling behind, earings jingling as she breathed deeply, catching up, proffering a very large woven basket, which Master Aathilali set in front of him.
Mal waved his hand at Inara's jewelry. “Like that. Bells. Bells would be good. Or really any frippery that announces your presence.”
“Captain, I do not believe a search is necessary, for they do not call me snake-charmer for nothing.” And from the folds of his robe, he produced a small whistle, worn wood, plain and unadorned. “If you would please activate your communication system so this may be broadcast?” He placed it against his lips.
The sound it made was near unsettling, almost liquid, shifting, atonal and somehow sinuous. The hairs on the back of Mal's neck rose as the snakes slid from River and took their place in the basket on the deck.
River frowned, but then her eyes lit briefly before drifting closed, and she hummed, feeling the music in the stretch of her neck and the curl of her wrist, weaving seamlessly, body and voice a serpentine twirl. Mal’s eyes fell away, wishing the girl wasn’t so unconsciously putting him to mind of a viper in their midsts.
Instead, he watched as the snakes came, trickling one by one. His crew came following after, too. Mal wondered if anything was able to resist the eerie call, though he was glad, as the likelihood of rounding them all up by other means was slim to none. He was not fond of the idea of finding a snake here and there for months to come.
The last snake slithered into the basket, and Inara gracefully secured the lid. Master Aathilali played a phrase or two more, then removed the whistle from his lips. Mal watched his crew shake off their slight daze and sighed. “Now that that’s settled, we carrying anything else I ain’t been appraised of?”
“Not from me or mine, and but from you and yours? Not for a long while yet.” Mal snorted, and Master Aathilali gave a knowing, albeit charming, smile.
“That was mighty ambiguous. This is the first I heard we were transporting a fortune teller. Respecting, I don’t need my fortunes told. I’ll make my own, thank you kindly,” Mal grumped as he turned away from the basket and the far-too-many snakes it contained. His crew was still standing around, either looking confused (in Jayne's case) or smug (in Inara's.) "Ain't you all got someplace else to be?"
A brief chorus of "No, sirs" answered him, and he turned back to see River folding herself next to the basket and Master Aathilali. "And you, girl." Mal pointed at River. "Don't you go letting snakes out on my boat."
River smiled. "We're fine now, Captain. All done exploring."
"Right." Downright unsettling, it was. "See that it stays that way." Mal left the cargo bay to the sound of giggling.