DISCLAIMER: No, I donít own them. To my profound disappointment.
CHALLENGE: Written for Passion & Perfection's Big 5000.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

By bluflamingo


The captain had said, after the cows and the near death in a sword fight, that there'd be no more dealings with Badger. Zoë had nodded, said, "No, sir," and made a note to stock up on ammunitions, ready for the next time, so she wasn't entirely surprised when the captain announced that they'd got a job, then added, "With Badger."

Judging from the rest of the crew's reactions, she was the only one.

"That hwoon-dahn," Jayne said, and Kaylee exclaimed, "Captain!" like he'd just suggested giving Serenity to the Reavers; Wash said, "You'll recall the weeks we spent getting rid of the smell of niou-se last time we took a job with Badger," and Book nodded and added, "And that he held us hostage at gun point."

Sometimes, Zoë was grateful for Inara and River and Simon, who knew there was no point arguing and didn't feel the need to do it anyway.

"And you'll recall that I'm still the captain of this gorram ship," Mal said. "Which ain't now and never will be a rutting democracy. We're taking this job and that way we can all eat next week. End of discussion." He glared round at everyone, including Zoë, who hadn't said anything. "Zoë, you got a minute?"

"Yes, sir," Zoë said, ignoring Wash's betrayed expression with an inward sigh. Arguments about loyalty to your husband versus loyalty to your de facto employer were something she was still trying to learn to love about being married. She didn't hold out much hope on that one.

"Good. And if the rest of you got nothing better to do, there's always call for the waste tank to be cleaned." That got everyone, even Jayne, moving, faces still unhappy. "Wash, set a course for Ainsi."

Zoë didn't recognize the name, something that was happening less and less often lately. "This going to be anything like the last job we took with Badger?" she asked. She wasn't particularly reassured when the captain sat down opposite her with a hand gesture that she'd learnt a long time ago meant yes, but I know you're not going to like that answer. "Should we be asking Inara to start fencing lessons again?" she asked. "Because we've enough room in the cargo bay, and we can always put down mats."

"Any fighting's likely to be shooting," the captain said. "There's a club, one of the people staying there's got some trinket Badger wants to get his hands on."

"It going to be surrounded by Feds again, or did he not get to that?"

The captain frowned. "Just because we've had some unfortunate dealings with Badger in the past, ain't no reason to assume this time will be the same."

"No sir. No reason to assume it won't be though. Better to be prepared."

"And on that subject," the captain said. "I'm going to need you to do something for this one."

Zoë wasn't the least bit surprised to find the entire crew loitering in the cargo bay when she made her way down the steps. Some days, they were nothing if not predictable, and it wasn't often that anyone on Serenity got dressed up.

"Look at you," Kaylee said, touching the green shawl Zoë had round her bare shoulders. "You sure you don't need anyone else to come with you? I've still got my dress."

Inara put a hand on her shoulder and pulled her gently away. "We'll be fine, mei-mei. Also, there's likely to be shooting, and we wouldn't want to damage your fine dress."

"There's no call for anyone to be shooting at you or anyone else," the captain said firmly. "Everything should be smooth."

"So you're just sending me cos I look fine in a dress?" Zoë asked dryly, smoothing the material to fall more naturally over the thigh holster under it. The ankle-length dress clung in the bodice, but the skirt was made of something stiffer, the slit not quite high enough to show off the holster when she moved.

"Damn fine," Jayne put in from the doorway, grinning when Zoë glared at him.

"That's my wife you're ogling." Wash came down the last few steps to kiss her, careful of the make-up Inara had spent twenty minutes applying. "Joo-yee."

"You too," Zoë said. She let Wash touch her carefully styled hair, pushing a strand back into place, then stepped over to Inara and offered her arm. "May I?"

Inara smiled, her eyes bright with amusement, and linked her arm through Zoë's. "You may."

Ainsi was in the middle of its winter, the grass at the edge of the street crisp and white with frost. Zoë pulled her shawl more tightly round her shoulders and felt Inara press closer, drawing warmth from each other.

"Which way?" she asked. Inara nodded to the right, down a darkened street. "You sure?"

"I've been to more parties here than Mal's gotten involved in fire fights," Inara murmured.

They'd been in enough fire fights that Zoë figured Inara probably did know where the club was. "Lead the way."

Inara inclined her head in agreement and stepped carefully down the street, her heels crunching the ice beneath them.

"How do you walk in those?" Zoë asked quietly, hearing her voice carry and echo back in the empty, dark street, glad for the low heeled boots she'd dug out for the trip.

Inara laughed. "You grow accustomed to it. Companion training is very comprehensive."

Zoë'd heard a bit about companion training, and a bit more since Inara joined them. "I'm sure," she said, and they turned a corner, revealing a brightly lit metal building, draped with red and yellow flags and a large sign declaring the name of the club to be Gingerbread. The front door was open, letting the pale blue light inside wash out over the street and the line of waiting women, huddled together in couples like her and Inara.

"Follow what I say," Inara murmured as they joined the end of the line. "They know I'm a companion here, but they won't believe you're my client."

"So we're in love," Zoë said, even though they'd been through all this before they left the ship; Inara didn't often get involved in their jobs, which made it easier to be patient. Somewhat.

"Well," Inara said, stroking her fingers lightly up Zoë's arm, "Maybe not exactly in love."

"Right," Zoë said, feeling a shiver down her spine that had little to do with the cold.

The club, when Inara had smoothed their way in with a smile and a soft-voiced compliment that made the woman on the door blush, was warm even with the door open. It wasn't as crowded as Zoë had expected; there were maybe a half dozen couples on the dance floor, moving slowly to the muted sound of strings, and around two dozen more women scattered along the bar and in chairs set up against the far wall.

"I guess it's companion etiquette for me to buy you a drink?" Zoë asked, following Inara to a table.

Inara nudged her gently into a seat. "I'm not here as a companion, so I think it's allowed for me to buy the drinks."

According to Badger, the trinket was in a room on the third floor, belonging to one of the long-term guests at the club. Zoë followed Inara across the club with her eyes, watching her greet one of the other customers, and carefully let her gaze slide away, picking out the door to the guest quarters, right by the bar and in full view of everybody. Including the bar tender, and the woman on the door. So much for Plan A.

"Zoë?" Inara asked, trailing her hand across Zoë's neck as she set the small cups of tea on the table. "Is there a problem?"

Zoë leaned across the table to take Inara's hand, concentrating on the smoothness of her skin, rather than on the flash of Inara's cleavage showing at the top of her dress. Just because she and Wash had an agreement about partners beyond their marriage didn't make it a good idea to take it up on a job.

"Zoë?" Inara asked again, a line appearing on her forehead.

"Everything's fine," she said. "Do you have any money with you?"

"A little," Inara said. "Why?"

"Enough to book a room?"

Inara blinked, then smiled slowly. "I'm sure we could manage it."

Zoë swallowed the last of her spiced tea and half-rose. Nothing for it but to put on a show of lust and hope it didn't get too real. "Would you care to dance?"

She guided Inara across the dance floor, as close as she could get to the door to the guest quarters, just in case the opportunity to slip through presented itself. They had to be due a stroke of luck eventually.

Inara's hands on her waist drew her closer. "In lust, remember. Stop looking like you're casing the place."

"Yes, dear," Zoë said, wrapping her arms round Inara and letting Inara rest her head on her shoulder, Inara's hair brushing soft against her bare skin. They swayed gently to the music, which seemed less jarring once she was dancing.

"This is nice," Inara said after a while. "You're a good dancer."

"Used to go dancing before the war," Zoë offered, a little surprised at herself for saying it. She didn't like to talk much about life before she'd joined up with the Independents. "Not to this kind of music though."

Inara pulled her head away to look up at Zoë, a warm, flirtatious smile flitting across her face. "I never would have thought that of you."

Zoë reminded herself firmly that Inara was a companion, used to making people feel wanted even when she didn't want them. The bright light in her eyes didn't mean anything, not on a job.

When Inara laid her head back on Zoë's shoulder though, Zoë let her hands slide down, just a little, resting on the curve of Inara's ass; after a moment, Inara pressed a little closer, and Zoë let herself smile, just a bit.

Dancing with Inara wasn't like dancing with Wash, who danced the way he did everything else, with a sense of humor and a lot of drama; Inara was collected and sophisticated, and moved with smooth grace, sliding between leading their movements and letting Zoë lead, and it was easy to fall into the motion and forget that she wasn't there with a partner she was going to spend the night with. Too easy.

"There's no men here at all?" she asked quietly.

Inara shook her head. "Not on this continent, but there's another land mass on the south of the planet, where the men live. One month of every year, everyone who chooses meets on an island to…"

"Ensure the survival of the human race?" Zoë suggested, making Inara laugh.

"Yes. That." She side-stepped a couple who'd clearly had too much to drink, then added, "Actually, it's not uncommon for male companions to be taken on during that month. Female companions tend to visit during the other eleven."

"Yeah." Zoë knew there were all sorts of civilizations in the verse, even though most had been set up to match those that existed on Earth-That-Was. It wasn't the strangest thing she'd heard. "Think they've had long enough to believe we're in enough lust to want a room?"

Inara ran a hand down Zoë's side, over the curve of her breast, her waist and hip and the slight bulge of the gun. "They'd have believed it the moment we walked in the door," she said, her breath cool against Zoë's over-warm skin, and Zoë didn't ask why she'd let them go through with the drinks and the dancing if that was the case.

Their room was two doors down from the room they needed. Zoë handed Inara the key. "Wait in there for me. I'll only be a minute."

"Don't you need a look-out?" Inara asked, turning the key in her hands. "What if someone comes?"

"She's meant to be away for the night," Zoë said. "If she comes back, I can hide, but people will get suspicious if they see you out there."

Inara's frown didn't ease. "If you're sure…"

"I'm sure. Go on."

Zoë waited for the door to close behind Inara, pleased when it didn't lock, then crouched to peer through the keyhole. The room inside was dark and silent, too early for the occupant to be asleep, and the lock gave after a moment with her knife. She slipped quickly inside and closed it carefully, leaving a slight gap so it wouldn't lock again.

When no-one leapt up screaming, she risked turning on a light.

The room was obviously lived in and looked like it had been left in a hurry – the covers were still thrown open on the bed, clothes strewn over every surface and several books open on the desk. Zoë sighed; tidy rooms were much easier – and quicker – to search, and she couldn't risk staying long when the room was supposed to be empty.

She started on the large, half-empty closet. Badger had provided a picture of the trinket, six inches high, pure gold, shaped like a cat with a paw raised to hold a large, full heart. Zoë couldn't imagine anyone wanting it, least of all Badger, but she supposed even Badger could find someone in the verse he wanted to romance. She just didn't want to think too much about it.

There was nothing in the closet, or the trunk at the foot of the bed, and by the time Zoë had gone through the three boxes under the window, she was starting to get nervous, eager to be out of there. She looked round the room again, trying to guess where it might be hidden, and spotted something solid half-hidden under a pillow, which turned out to be a small lock box when she pulled it out.

The lock box took a few seconds longer to break into than the room had, but buried under three silk scarves was a small gold cat. "Hello," Zoë said softly, slipping the figurine into the bodice of her dress. It would look a little odd, but hopefully she wouldn't run into anyone.

She slipped into her and Inara's room, lit by a single bedside light, and closed the door as carefully as she had in the other room, listening to the snick of the lock closing.

"Did you get it?" Inara's voice asked from behind her.

"No problem," Zoë confirmed. She withdrew the figurine from her dress and turned to Inara, expecting her to be ready to leave.

Instead, Inara was lying in the double bed, her hair unpinned and spread across the pale gold pillows, the covers drawn up just far enough. She smiled when Zoë caught her eye. "They'll be suspicious if we leave too early. Mal isn't expecting us back on the ship until morning."

Mal, Zoë thought darkly, hadn't mentioned that to her. "I'll sleep on the floor," she said quickly. Everyone on the ship knew Inara wasn't shy with her body, but that was no reason to make any kind of assumptions. She'd made it very clear what she thought about relations between her and the crew.

Inara blinked. "Oh. I'm sorry, I thought –" She drew the covers higher. "I should have thought, with Wash."

"Wash and I have an understanding," Zoë said, bending to remove her boots. Maybe Inara's policy on inter-ship relations wasn't so clear cut after all. "Not Mal and not Norina."

"Norina?" Inara asked.

"Ex," Zoë said simply. "You don't mind if I share the bed with you?"

Inara sat up, the covers slipping down to show skin golden in the lamp light, and reached out a hand to Zoë. She took it and let Inara draw her close enough to reach for the ties of her dress, opening them and smoothing the material away from her shoulders.

The dress puddled on the floor and Zoë stepped away from it. Inara's fingers traced lightly down her body, catching on the thigh holster and circling the edge of the leather to find the clasp, making Zoë gasp. Inara smiled up at her, placing the pistol carefully on the bedside table.

"Are you coming?" she asked, and Zoë nodded silently, sliding between the covers and pressing close to Inara, tilting her head to kiss her, slow and deep.

"I think I could be persuaded to share," Inara said finally, cupping a hand round Zoë's breast and stroking her nipple softly, and Zoë smiled, kissing her again.

"Didn't I say this would go off without a hitch?" the captain asked when Zoë and Inara got back to Serenity the next morning, taking the figurine carefully from Zoë.

"Yes, sir," Zoë agreed, and didn't say anything about how things always went more smoothly when he and Jayne weren't there to cause trouble.

The captain nodded to Inara. "Thanks."

"My pleasure," Inara said, gliding past him. "You can take my cut from next month's rent."

Zoë left him sputtering in the cargo bay and went up to the flight deck, sliding her arms round Wash's neck. Wash leant back into her body and grinned up at her. "Looks like someone had a fine time of it last night."

Zoë thought about Inara's body, smooth and warm under her hands, about Inara saying, "whenever you want, Zoë," as they'd left the club, the bartender smiling knowingly. It had been easy the way things with Wash were easy, the way his knowing and acceptance, like hers of him, was easy. "You might say so," she agreed.

The End

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