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"Captain," Wash said, studying the control readouts thoughtfully, "remember that little ship we noticed an hour or so ago?"

Mal nodded. "Yeah. What of it?"

"Still there. Getting closer. And waving us."

"Well, let's see what they have to say." The screen blurred and resolved into the image of a woman. She wore a black uniform of some sort, wire-rimmed glasses, and her hair was pinned back from her face severely. There was no doubt that if one single strand dared to slip out of place, the consequences would be dire.

She studied the camera for a moment before speaking. "Captain Malcolm Reynolds?"

"That's me, how can I help you?"

She blinked and glanced at a readout, then back at the camera. "Captain Malcolm James Reynolds?"

A murmur of surprise went through the crew, who were standing behind Mal being nosy as usual. He rolled his eyes. "Yes indeed, now was there something you needed?"

"Urgent business, Captain Reynolds, to do with a member of your crew." She studied her readout again. "I would appreciate it if we could expedite the docking process. My time is valuable, and I presume yours no less."

Mal glanced at Wash, who shrugged. "Not Alliance," the pilot mouthed, and Mal nodded.

"All right. Bring your ship around and we'll send out the airlock."

"Much obliged, Captain," she said, and with a small nod, she switched off the screen.
****
"I thought she'd be taller," Wash stage-whispered as the woman stepped through the airlock. "I mean, we only saw her on the screen...but I had the impression she was taller."

She was, in fact, quite small, the crown of her head roughly on the level of Mal's shoulders. Small but very officious, as she consulted a file of printouts and ignored the handshake offered by the captain.

"I won't take any more of your time than necessary, Captain Reynolds."

"I appreciate that. You said this had to do with one of my crew?" He glanced over his shoulder at the lineup of brigands and rogues he kept around to swab the decks and keep things amusing. "Any one in particular?"

"I'm looking for a Mr. Jayne Cobb." She held up a Cortex photo as if Mal wouldn't be familiar with his crew members. He felt his jaw clenching with familiar frustration. Not at all a surprise...

"May I ask what he's done?" he asked through clenched teeth. She blinked, adjusted her glasses, and consulted her file again.

"His failed to renew his membership within the stipulated timeframe. He'll have to be recertified."

"Membership?" Mal asked, utterly baffled, as Jayne's voice overrode his with a frustrated, "Oh, gorram. I knew I forgot to do something."

"Yes," the woman said, standing on tiptoe to look over Mal's shoulder at Jayne. "Yes, you did. More than six months ago. You've led me on a merry chase, Mr. Cobb."

"Jayne, what the hell is she talking about?" Mal demanded, turning to face his crew.

"I am speaking, sir," the woman continued, tugging on his coattail until he looked at her again, "of Mr. Cobb's status as a licensed mercenary in good standing. Said standing is, unfortunately, lapsed."

"Licensed?" Wash asked, looking from the captain to Jayne to Zoe, as if his wife would somehow make sense of this. "They get licensed? Since when?"

"Since always," the woman said, calmly flipping through her folder. "Good heavens, you don't think we let everyone run around like children on holiday, do you? Nothing would ever get done. No, no, the licensing board manages things quite thoroughly..." She found the printout she was looking for and leaned around Mal to hold it out to Jayne. "As you can see, you'll have to go through a full set of recertification exams."

"Aw, hell," he groaned, taking the sheet and holding it up to the light. "All of 'em?"

"Every one," she said, patting her immobile hair. "Though we can waive the practical if your captain is willing to sign an affidavit confirming your competence in the field."

"Is it funnier if Mal won't sign?" Wash asked eagerly. He wilted a little under the glare he got in return.

"This is not a laughing matter, Mr. Washburn," she said severely. "I'm sure you wouldn't be laughing if the Guild of Small-Craft Pilots dropped by for a surprise field inspection, would you? Or if the First Mate's Union was to arrive to run an evaluation on your wife?"

Zoe's eyes went wide and she gripped Wash's arm firmly. "That's enough, dear," she said, a note of worry in her voice. "No need to tease the woman, she's just doing her job."

"She couldn't really send the union after you, could she?" Wash asked, glancing from his wife to the woman and back again.

"It's a simple matter of looking up her steward in the registry and making a few calls," the visitor said, removing her glasses and rubbing at her forehead. "But really, I think we all have better uses for our time."

"I have a question," Kaylee said meekly, peeking out from behind Mal. "You're a mercenary?"

"Good heavens, no," the woman said, putting her glasses back on and staring at Kaylee as if the mechanic had lost her mind. "They subcontract out the bookkeeping." She turned back to Jayne and held out the folder. "All of your review materials are here. I saw in your file that you nearly flunked flexible ethics on your last certification, so I included an extra handout on that. Please review thoroughly, Mr. Cobb, I have no desire to repeat this procedure more times than necessary. We're both professionals, and I'd appreciate courtesy as such."

"Yes, ma'am," he said, accepting the file and staring at it like it was full of snakes. "I really am sorry about this. Time just got away from me..."

"It does no good to be sorry after the fact," she said, patting her hair again and giving Mal a brief nod before turning back to the airlock. "I'll return in one week to administer the examination. Good day."

There were a few long moments of silence after she was gone, as everyone tried to think of something, anything, to say. The only sound was Jayne flipping through the readouts. Finally, he closed the file and sighed.

"Gorramit," he muttered, slapping the folder against his thigh. "They've gone and made changes to just about everything. Mal, I might not be much good to you for the next week, I've got a hell of a lot of studying to do."

"Okay," Mal said, aware that his voice was coming out kind of high and funny, but finding himself unable to exert any sort of control on the situation whatsoever. "You do that, then."
*****
"You look like you're going to be sick," Kaylee said sympathetically, squeezing Jayne's hand as they stood in the cargo bay and watched the airlock cycle through the steps of connecting the licensing board's ship to Serenity.

"I might," he said, glancing miserably down at the readouts clutched in his other hand. "Ten pages of menacing facial expressions- ten. I hope I got 'em all. I just don't know..."

"You'll be fine," Kaylee assured him.

"What happens if you're not?" Wash wondered aloud from the catwalk. "I mean, what do they do?"

"Don't even joke about that," Jayne sighed, rubbing the back of his hand across his forehead. "It ain't nothin' good."

The tiny, officious woman stepped off her ship and glanced around the bay. "Are you ready, Mr. Cobb?" she asked, holding up another folder. "It's a three-hour exam, so I'd like to get started."

"Yeah," he said, handing the printouts to Kaylee and nodding. "Mal said we can use the dining room, come right this way..."

She followed him up the stairs, adjusting her glasses and checking a list of items printed on the front of the folder. "And you have your one notecard for use on the essay section?"

"Yes, ma'am," he almost whispered, handing it back to her. She studied it for a moment and slipped it into the folder.

"I'll give that back to you when it's time for the essay. Right! These doors seal, correct? I cannot allow any interruptions once the clock starts..."

They vanished into the dining room, and the rest of the crew hovered around the bay until Mal shouted at them to find something to do before they all found themselves fully licensed but unemployed.
****
"Why do they make you wait a week for the results?" Jayne asked, from his designated Chair of Moping at the back of the bridge. "Still no wave, Wash?"

"Believe me," the pilot muttered, rolling his eyes, "the nanosecond I hear from our little friend, I'll let you know. If only so you'll get off the bridge and quit talking about it."

"This is a big deal," Jayne protested. "If I don't get my license renewed..."

"You still haven't told us what happens then," Wash began, but stopped as the control panel lit up. "Well, here's your wave, anyway."

Jayne stood quickly and ran a hand over his hair. "Okay."

The screen lit up with the by-now familiar face. "Mr. Cobb?" she said precisely, squinting at her own monitor. "Hello."

"Hi," he replied in a strangled tone. She adjusted her glasses and flipped rapidly through a folder.

"It is my duty as a representative of the Mercenary Licensing Board to inform you..." She paused for breath, and Jayne went through several different shades of red and pale before she completed the thought. "...that you passed your examinations and have been reinstated as a member in good standing." She permitted herself a small smile in response to his yelp of joy. "I'll transmit the documentation through the Cortex immediately, and your membership account will reflect the change in status within three business days. Please don't forget to take care of this in a more timely manner in the future."

"I won't," he said, nodding solemnly before breaking back out into a grin. She nodded approvingly.

"Very well. Oh, included with your documentation will be some information on continuing education programs we're running on the border worlds, should you come into some time off. Swift payment to you, Mr. Cobb." The screen went black.

"Congratulations," Wash said, grinning as Jayne did what could only be described as a small victory dance around the bridge. "If I remember flight school properly, there's only one thing in the 'verse to do after you pass an exam."

"Is that what I think it is?" Jayne asked.

Wash shrugged and hit the autopilot button. "If you're thinking of getting stinking drunk and forgetting everything you just memorized, then yes, of course."

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