Maybe they should've left as soon as the party started to get... strange. Packed it in, returned the advance from Jerry Li, said sorry, but we couldn't get the super-special-secret artifact from the upstairs bedroom. Maybe next time. Yeah.
Except that Mal got pissed off, and defensive, and that pretty much put paid to anyone showing a lick of sense until after he got his own way. Didn't matter that the plan was shot to hell because two out of seven of the crew weren't gonna be able to participate like they'd planned.
Being naked does make lock-picking and stolen goods concealment just a tad difficult.
"Y'know, as security measures go, this ain't much of one." Mal smiled tightly at a dowager who was checking out his package, and nodded to her husband, who seemed more than a little irked by his spouse's interest. "But I gotta say that what it lacks in class it makes up for in effectiveness."
"It's not a security measure, it's a party trick. And a cheap one, at that," Inara said, smiling serenely and fanning herself as she scanned the half-naked crowd. Well, quarter-naked. Every fourth noisemaker that had been distributed at the door had turned out to be a "defabricator". Mal hadn't even known such silliness existed, and here he was, buck naked in the middle of a fancy party and experiencing a distinct draft over his sensitive parts, just because their nitwit of a host thought he was so clever.
Most of the women still had all their clothes– it was either an unwritten rule of chivalry, or more likely because the male guests knew what kind of trouble they'd be in if their dates' clothes were disintegrated– but about half the men were now trying to retain their dignity without the aid of boots, cloaks, ceremonial swords or nifty sashes. Some of 'em weren't managing too well without the fripperies, enough that a few were hiding behind marble columns and the potted palms in the corners, which Mal absolutely refused to do, damnit. He had noticed Inara was very deliberately keeping her eyes at shoulder-level and above, and that only made him more ornery. It wasn't like she hadn't seen it all before, on him and who knows how many other guests.
Mal snarled, audibly, at the way his night was going.
Inara sighed. "I already apologized for not being previously aware of Glenn's party favors. What else do you want me to say?"
Mal turned his snarl into a frigid grin when one of the waiters shot him a dubious glance. He took a glass of champagne from the man and whispered tightly, "I want you to say you'll hide the wo dan she painting in your skirts, to make up for me not being able to hide it in my coat. Is that too much to ask?"
"When I'm the invited guest here? Yes. I got you the invitation as part of my entourage on the condition that I'd have plausible deniability about what you and the others were… up to." She flicked a glance downward so fast that Mal wasn't entirely sure he'd seen it, although her smile got a shade more demure and smug. "Actually risking being caught with stolen goods is out of the question. You'll simply have to improvise."
"How in the hell am I s'posed to do that, with me naked as a peeled potato, and Simon hidin' in the men's room? Feifei's too shy to strut himself upstairs and inspect the antiques like we planned, and the way Kaylee was droolin', I can't be blaming him. 'Sides, it's not like he could hide the painting on him any more, either."
"Well, you could always have Jayne do it."
"And if I could approach him without attracting any attention, I would." He lifted his glass at a coterie of fluttering debutantes, and a wave of giggles nearly knocked him over in response. "But I'm getting a little too much admiration to be sashaying over there, plus he's avoiding me, the coward. Afraid he's gonna be next if he comes in from the garden."
"Then you should probably just… relax. And enjoy the refreshments." Inara rolled her eyes at another soundless snarl, and abruptly abandoned Mal to the tender mercies of the young ladies who'd been drifting ever closer.
"'Nara? Inara!" Oh, someone was going to pay for this. Especially when he caught Kaylee waving at him from across the room, before giving him a thumb's-up and a cheeky grin. All he needed now was Zoe sizing him up and shaking her head sadly, and maybe River telling him how far he deviated from the standard, for this to be his worst party ever.
As it happened, Zoe and River had better things to do.
"Do you understand what your part of this is?" Zoe asked quietly.
River cocked her head. "Not touch the floor. Not touch the Tiffany lamp. Unlock the security alarm from above. Unroll the canvas. Hand it to you through the window."
"Simon's going to be angry."
Zoe's mouth twitched. "Simon should've ducked when he saw what happened to the Captain's clothes."
A wicked smile ghosted across River's face, leaving a facade of primness in its wake. "True. Shame is unbecoming on a man. Must walk proud, or cower to cover himself."
"Kaylee, are you ready with the diversion?" Zoe said into the wave-networked brooch their mechanic had rigged up.
Snickering from the two-way feed on their earrings. "Do we even need it? Most of 'em are looking at the Captain, and the ones that aren't, are all giggling and drinkin' and stuff."
"Best to be sure. On my mark, ten minutes. Mark."
"Mark," River whispered, turning and already starting to glide up the stairs.
"Sweetheart, I'll let Mal know he's got nothing to worry about. Unless River feels like keeping the painting for herself," Wash said through the receiver, then River touched her dangling earring to turn off the signal, concentrating on weaving her way through the celebrating crowd.
She danced out of the way of groping hands, spun around a semi-clothed couple making for a sheltered alcove, then skipped by an almost-nude conga line making its way back to the party, cha-cha-cha, hop-hop-hop. She paused to study a tall blue box blocking half the hallway, and closed her eyes, feeling waves of disorientation coming from it.
No time. All time. Come in. Stay back. She stumbled away from it, trying to forget what she'd almost seen, then found her path again, imitating the revelers around her, her stagger purposeful instead of accidental, and finally arrived at the correct door. The tiny explosive in her purse was supposed to take care of the lock, melting the alarm and freeing the mechanism, but it was unnecessary, as the door swung open under her fingertips. Beggars can't be looking gift horses in the mouth, so happenstance helped those about to help themselves.
Reaching up, River swung herself above the floor by using her fingertips on the lintel of the doorframe, and somersaulted over and onto the dark leather couch–
--and landed on a naked male body.
"Eee!" River quickly stifled her shriek, freezing in place, eyes wide, every muscle arched away from the person she'd landed on.
"Hmph. Hellooo, sweetheart." Instead of reaching for her, the man leaned back, hands behind his head, tight muscles stretching, smiling bright and welcoming. River blinked at him, her heart pounding, and he imitated her, the grin on his face widening. "Just thought you'd drop in?"
"You're not supposed to be in here." How could he not know he wasn't supposed to be here? How could he look so comfortable being pounced on, since he was here? "Here is not where you're meant to be."
"Neither are you," he mock-whispered, still relaxed. Soft brown hair, nakedly clear blue eyes, and… well. River yanked her gaze back up to his face. Mal was beautiful when naked, and so was Simon, but this, this was... impressive. And much more present, in a way that neither her brother nor the Captain ever was. Simon was always angry-sad-worried-preoccupied; Mal was angry-hiding-defiant-sneaky. Feeling about her, feelings around her, but not aimed at her.
This man was sneaky, and slightly preoccupied, but over and above and through all that he was amused. And, worryingly, although not obviously, aroused.
"I don't want to hurt you." River slithered backwards over what felt like miles of warm male body toward his feet, gathering herself for a kick to his face or a punch to his stomach. "You'd better leave. Now."
"You first. I was napping." His eyes drifted almost-shut, clearly still watching her through too-long lashes. They snapped open again after a moment. "Still here?"
River darted a glance at the window, then her watch, then back at the stranger. Six minutes and counting down. She only had six minutes to get the painting out of the case, and hand it through to Zoe, and–
--the case was open. The painting still hung there, but the case was open, and the alarm was dead quiet next to it.
She whipped her head back to the man, and he lifted his eyebrows at her, then pursed his lips. "You know, I just realized-- we haven't been properly introduced. So rude of me." He sat up, and took one of her hands very deliberately in his, then gently kissed her knuckles. "Captain Jack Harkness. At your service."
Wondering delight, then a dozen years of etiquette rose up to be smashed by necessity and twisted by circumstance, and River bit her lips, hard. "Wu Jane Smith."
He smiled, and shadows gathered around the corners of his eyes. "Of course you are."
She should hit him. She should clock him with the lamp that wasn't Tiffany, land an uppercut like the one she'd seen Zoe deliver to a man on the last planet but one. She could feel her arm bunch up in preparation–but then he lay back on the couch and yawned. "Don't let me stop you. My pals are late, so I think you get the divine M instead of me."
No time, no time, nothing to do, and– he wasn't a threat. Or a problem. Zoe would be furious, Mal would yell, and yet, she knew what she knew. And there was still the job.
So River jumped from the couch to the armchair, leaped to the surface of the end table, then swung her way over to hang from the hanging plant. Anyone else would have been too heavy for it to bear; anyone else wouldn't have had the skill to vault this far. With one hand, she reached over, and peeled the painting away from its backing. It was heavy, but not so heavy she couldn't hold onto it. Carefully, centimeter by centimeter, rolled it up into a tube, using only two fingers. Simon would have been there to take it from her, but he was hiding, etiquette not enough to clothe him. (Unlike Captain Jack.) Exactly at the moment the purloined portrait became too heavy to bear, the window opened, and Zoe's hand darted through the opening.
River handed it off to her silently, then watched the hand with its treasure disappear. One minute until Kaylee's diversion.
Hand over hand, River turned herself around, to study Captain Jack. Pushing off the wall, she swung out over the couch and landed on top of him again.
"Sorry." She sat up quickly, rearranged the filmy scarves layered over her dress, and studied the tips of her silk ballet slippers. Darting a glance at him, she said, "Your friends?"
"Off in a closet somewhere, probably." The Captain sighed regretfully. "They distract easily, and when the Doctor's sweater was zapped off... well. It's not like I blame Rose, but–"
"Wanted to join them," River blurted, then put her hand over her mouth. The feeling had bled through so strong, for a second she was him, and the feeling was so familiar, because sometimes she wanted... wanted as much as anyone else.
"Yeah. Too late, though, I was already in here being naughty when I heard them go tripping by." He smiled ruefully. "And the main thing is, the painting's gone. Doesn't matter who has it. Just matters that it's not here." His smile turned wicked. "And I'll make them pay for ditching me later."
"Oh." This was being drunk, wasn't it? Dizzy, warm, overwhelmed. Captain Jack Harkness, walking alcohol.
"In the meantime," he clapped his hands together, "we've got one last jump and we're free!" Effortlessly, he got to his feet on top of the leather cushions, making the couch squeak, and held out his hand to her as if for a dance. "My lady?"
River curled herself upward around his wrist, and returned his smile, poised on her toes. She could swear she saw stars twinkling off his teeth.
"Three," they both said, and leaped for the top of the doors, caught them, curved around them, then spilled out into the hall, laughing.
By the time she got back up to her feet, still giggling, he'd curled an arm around her waist, steering her for the staircase down to the party. "You weren't injured in the fall," she noted, looking him over, then smirked. "Not a bruise on you."
"Excellent balance I've got. I always land on my feet." He spun her out, then reeled her in, close, oh, so close. "Of course, if you want to put a few bruises on me, I won't object."
She sobered. "I'm not allowed."
"I'm broken." River danced backward and away, on demi-pointe, then curtsied. "And I might break you. Careless with my toys."
"I'll take my chances." Captain Jack captured her hand, spun her around, around, around, caught her and dipped her down, down, down, hand warm and steady at the base of her spine, face leaning closer and closer to hers....
Kaylee's fireworks went off, smoke and sparks and the sprinklers, and people were shrieking and rushing around. Alarms started to sound, blaring through the room, and somewhere she could hear her name, but it had nothing to do with her, because his lips were on hers, and all the gravity was gone.
warm lips, soft slow, tease, and tongue, and slick, and oh
sweet and sad, and lost, and a stab of emptiness, and then all of it lost in steaming warmth spreading through every muscle
familiar, and there was a voice, saying good night Princess, see you in your next life
--and she was being yanked back, soft suction between their lips brutally broken, and as first kisses go, this one, wet and dancing and with a warm, naked, focused male, was spectacular, and over far too soon.
"Hey!" she yelled back into Simon's face, dripping wet. Ridiculously, he was wearing a tea towel while trying to hold onto her arm. "Kissing here! Not your business! Go find Kaylee!"
She spun away and back into Jack, and managed to land her lips on his for another burning singing zinging seven seconds before two sets of arms were dragging her off him.
"Pardon us, but we gotta get our crazy girl home," Mal was saying, pushing her toward Simon, not fair, not fair, she did all the work, she deserved kisses! She elbowed Simon in the gut and would have dived forward again if Mal hadn't stuck out his arm to stop her, playing crossing guard for her emotions.
Jack suddenly grinned again, surprised and laughing. "Damn. Sergeant Reynolds?"
"Corporal?" Mal squinted at the Captain (no matter what Mal thought, Jack was a Captain, River could tell) through the indoor rain of the sprinklers, and pushed his hair off his face. "Go se, man, it's been forever."
"Got that right. She with you?"
Mal cocked an eyebrow at her. "Manner of speaking, yeah."
"She's something else." Jack's smile burned right through being thwarted, to all the warm still-kissed parts of her mind, and she grinned back at him as Simon tugged on her arm.
"Oh, really. Coming from you--" Mal was shepherding them outside to the lawn, around the shivering and squawking guests, until they got to the outside gate. "I don't wanna know."
"River?" Simon again, suspicious, inconvenient sometimes but never more so than now. "Listen, I don't know what she told you, but she's my sister, and--"
"Say no more." Jack looked understanding and grim, and River pouted at him, catching the twinkle in his eyes. Brothers, fathers, captains, bothers, smothers. Didn't matter. Naked kisses were the best.
Jack tilted his head upward, to see a blonde head poking out of the window above them. The window to the room they'd just stolen a priceless painting from. River glared at the woman, and she gave River a perplexed look in return.
"Come on! It's time to go!"
"Damn. Sorry to kiss and run, but--" He saluted Mal, shrugged at Simon, then frowned over their shoulders. "What's that?"
Simon turned around, Mal didn't, and Jack swooped in for one last wet naked steamy mmmmmkiss.
"Oh, fine, if that's the way you're going to be," Jack said, resigned, and then grabbed Simon, and laid a kiss not-quite-as-scorching (but certainly warm enough to bruise) on her brother.
"Simon!" Kaylee squeaked from behind Simon, and at the thoughts going through the mechanic's head, River took a moment to wish Jack would kiss Mal next.
Jack broke it off, leaving a spluttering and shocked Simon to fall against Kaylee, and then turned and climbed up the same trellis Zoe had climbed down only fifteen minutes before. At the top of the third storey he stopped and turned around, swung out to salute her.
"See you next life, princess," he called.
River gave him her deepest curtsy. "Au revoir, Capitan."
A flash of a grin, and then he was inside. There was a whirr, and a rush, and--
-- not time, no time, all time, space folding and unfolding and--
"Who was that naked fast man?" asked Wash.
Zoe just looked bemused as she came up to them, handing Mal a beach towel to wrap himself up in. "Captain? Was that the corporal?"
"Yah-hunh. I'm thinking we should check the merchandise while the checking's good." He slicked his hair out of his face, then knotted the towel like a toga. "River? You sure you got the right picture?"
She sent him a withering look. "Marilyn in primary colors, repeated in sequence, frozen forever." She turned on her heel. "Kisses don't pay bills."
A million light-years and a thousand time-years away, Rose was worrying in Jack's direction. "You said it was important, that if the painting wasn't taken, it'd be used to pay off those warlords on Zavos 7 -- how can you be so blase' now?"
"It was taken. Just not by us." Jack kept his eyes closed, smiling to himself. "And what was most important?" he said, straightening up and opening his eyes. "Was that the sonuvabitch who ripped me off two planets ago doesn't get his hands on it. Anything else is gravy."
The Doctor was trying to look stern, but failing miserably. "That was a priceless artifact, Jack. And you have no idea who has it?"
"Nope. So sorry," Jack sing-songed, and closed his eyes again.
Inside his head, he was remembering a girl humming a waltz, one that he'd heard somewhere before; a haze of icy fog, concealing precious, unseen cargo; and a soft kiss good-night.