Disclaimer: It belongs to Joss and all those business people. I’m just playing.
Rating: PG to NC17. I will not put warnings on each chapter, because I don’t want to give things away. In general, don’t be getting into any of this if you’re not prepared for adult storylines, violence, explicit sexual content, and - oh my - bad words.
Many thanks: to several fireflyfans.net members: LEEH and VERA2529 for hours of beta reading and entertaining discussions of many random things. LEIASKY, TAMSIBLING, and LEIGHKOHL provided additional beta time on the early chapters. The talented MPHILLIPS did the lovely artwork. (Ain’t it nice?) FEI and www.chinesetools.com provided many colorful Chinese phrases. One of AMDOBELL fine fics provided a useful plot bunny. (I won’t tell which yet!) Finally, kudos to GUILDSISTER for her inspirational fic The Blue Sun Job.
Links: Prequels: The Fish Job (FFF) (LJ) and Easy Tickets (FFF) (LJ). Timing, pairings, and canon blurbs are in my FFF blog.
Chapter 1/14: The Mall
The crew’s latest job is in an unusual place, as is Mal’s mental state.
The woman stood out, but not in a good way.
It wasn’t the combination of shining blond hair and mocha-brown skin; her face was pleasing enough to stand up to any attention that the contrast would draw. But the hair was so obviously a wig – a very cheap wig – that it wasn’t clear why she bothered.
Her lack of respect for fashion also showed in the rough olive-green overcoat she wore. Besides being bulky and stained, the garment had no business covering anyone’s body on such a warm, sunny spring day. The coat did fit the shabby hovercraft she sat in. The thing looked like it’d been tacked together from the remnants of a junkyard.
The whole thing – woman and vehicle – was light years out of place here in the big city. Bradford Miles couldn’t help but slow his steps and stare as he passed by, and the woman noticed. She gave him such a challenging glare that he thought she might jump out of that monstrous vehicle and do something violent to him. He had a few second’s fright as he estimated her height and strength as being much greater than his own. But then she smiled, her wide mouth curving lusciously. She really could have been a stunner, if someone had taught her how to dress and put her in a decent vehicle.
Awkwardly, he smiled back. “Afternoon, ma’am,” he said.
“That it is,” she replied in a lazy drawl.
The direct gaze of her big, dark brown eyes seemed to cut right into him, as if she was taking in more details about his person than he was aware of himself. Bradford looked down at his watch and hurried his feet again, glad to have an excuse to avoid further interaction with her.
Once he’d passed by, he quickly set the encounter aside. Persephone had its share of strange characters, and he had more important things to worry about. He was running late. Quickly, he covered the last dozen meters of the side street and hustled around the corner to the entrance of his place of employ.
Just a year old, the mall’s three levels meandered under skyscrapers for more than a dozen blocks. The high-rises of the city weren’t dense, so the shopping space was bright and airy, with natural light pouring through the glass outer walls as well as the clear ceiling above the wide central aisle. It was a pleasant place to work, and Bradford was proud to have a position in one of the more popular and expensive shops: Tech Dreams, called TD by those in the know. Located on the lowest level near a juncture where the gallery bent along an angled city block, it featured every kind of high-tech gizmo which could entertain or inform or, at the very least, incite jealousy. Teens and adults alike spent hours at the displays and product demos, as this store was the first on the planet to offer the newest and trendiest fads from the Core.
On this particular afternoon, he saw as he hurried along the gallery, shoppers were sparse. It was mid-spring; schools were still in session and any youth playing hookey were enjoying the sunny day in outdoor parks. A few adults made use of the quiet time to run errands, but those didn’t tend to involve the type of expensive luxury gadgets that Bradford sold.
Sure enough, Tech Dreams was nearly empty. He was fine with the slow time. He wanted to get started on the task that would likely keep him and his co-workers in the store late that night – a new item was due to be released the next day, and the display needed to be set up.
He went into the stockroom to have a look before he got started out front. The delivery had been made just that morning, and several bundles of dark blue boxes filled the space, still bound together and wrapped in clear plastic. TD’s senior manager, Ms. Vernai, had already promised to open one of the boxes and let them all try out the uTex once all their work was done. Bradford figured it was some managerial theory that the product would sell better if the workers knew all about it – not that the uTex would need help getting sold. Whatever, he was just looking forward to play time and hoped the day would pass quickly.
He barely got started clearing shelves when his thoughts were jarred by a sharp, high-pitched voice.
“I need a uTex. Right now.”
He turned to find a girl standing with her arms folded sternly in front of her. She looked to be a few years younger than him, probably just finishing high school, and had a delicate build and brown hair piled up on her head in big loopy curls. She wore a short blue dress and was dolled up with enough make-up to please a circus clown, though her eyes were only barely visible through the large pair of sunglasses that blocked half her face.
She was pretty, and Bradford felt a second’s attraction before he noticed the sour, impatient pinch of her mouth. She glanced around quickly, as if she didn’t want to be seen. Perhaps she thought that coming to a mall was an embarrassment, even though it was the best shopping area on the planet.
Her shaded eyes finally settled on him again, and her tone grated on him painfully.
“Dŏng ma? Don’t you work here? I need a uTex.”
Bradford decided that he definitely didn’t like her. He had encountered this type of customer before: too wealthy to have to go to school when everyone else did, too impatient to wait for the actual release date of something she wanted, and too snooty to be nice to a guy who worked a full time mall job so he could afford night classes at the local tech school. But he didn’t have to force a smile to his face – here was a prime opportunity to wield the power of his position. It was a big no-no to sell anything before it was officially available; he wouldn’t have been able to get her a uTex even if he’d wanted to.
“I’m sorry to disappoint you,” he told her smoothly, “but they’re not out until tomorrow.”
“They were delivered today, weren’t they?”
“Yes, they’re in the storeroom. They’ll be priced and set out over night –”
She interrupted him, and gods be his witnesses, she actually stomped her foot when she did it. “But I want one now! Can’t come back tomorrow!”
“I’m really am sorry,” he said complacently, “but you’ll have to wait.”
Her face set stubbornly, and she leaned forward to look at his nametag. “Bradford?” she asked, like it was a pathetic word, not worthy of being someone’s name.
“At your service,” he replied with exaggerated deference.
The girl didn’t seem to notice that he was making fun of her. “My father is very important,” she said. “He told me that the new uTex would be available today, and I want one.”
He smiled. “It looks like your daddy was wrong.”
She straightened, seeming to grow an inch in her effort to look down her nose at him. “My father is never wrong,” she snapped, then she looked around the store again, this time checking each person as if she were doing a roll call. Two costumers browsed on the far side of the store, and his co-worker Shelly was pricing items a few rows over. The only other person present was the manager, but she was in the stockroom.
“I need to speak to your manager,” the girl demanded just then, as if she could read his mind.
Bradford sighed, then shrugged in resignation. “Hey, Shelly,” he called. “Can you get Ms. Vernai?”
“Right away,” was the cheerful reply. Shelly flashed him an amused glance; she’d probably been listening in. Bradford looked at the two other customers, wondering if they were bothered by this, but they weren’t even watching. The men both had their backs turned as they studied displays on the far wall near the stockroom entrance.
“Is it true?” the girl asked.
He turned back to her. She still had those glasses on, and it bothered him. It was like she didn’t want him to see her eyes, like she was hiding something.
“Is what true?” he asked.
“What they say about the uTex? I have an extensive music and vid library, and I expect that there is enough–”
“The chip capacity is a hundred times bigger than the old model. I’m sure it’ll work fine for you.”
Even with those glasses, he could feel her staring daggers at him for interrupting. After a tense pause, she continued. “…that there is enough storage space and I also expect the capture quality to be very high. My spring formal is two weeks away, and I want it recorded perfectly. There’s no second chance for my senior prom. It’s vitally important.”
She articulated those last two words with forced care, her fists clenching at her sides. To tell the truth, it was a little scary – as if she was talking about some kind of missile test that might save the future of humankind. Bradford squinted at her; some girls did get weird about formals, even approaching psychotic.
He turned and saw Ms. Vernai emerge from the stockroom, following Shelly toward him, and he sighed in relief. He was ready to hand the self-centered, obsessive little bitch off to someone else.
He never noticed when the two shoppers, the only ones in the store, began moving toward the entrance to the vacated storeroom.
Jayne Cobb studied an object that he’d been trying to figure out for some time; it was a black metal cylinder, and the rotating section on its end looked sharp. Could be a weapon. Maybe it’d take little round chunks out of someone if you handled it right…
But Jayne didn’t see the use in that – it’d just get a person mad more than anything. He squinted at the pictures on the box again, then furtively rubbed a finger against his nostril. His eyes lit with understanding, and he glanced aside to see if Mal was looking before he gave it a try.
“Ow!” he whispered as a few of his nose hairs pulled out painfully. He snorted at the trimmer and set it down in disgust.
Mal was a little further down the wall. Jayne had gotten in quicker and claimed his spot in front of bathroom gadgets on one side of the stockroom entrance, leaving Mal the strip of shelves on the other - children’s toys. Just now, Mal was holding a spangled purple contraption against his arm. He clicked a button then jerked his arm away in surprise.
“Good lord, I hope that ain’t permanent,” the captain muttered to himself as he studied a new mark on his skin.
“What?” Jayne asked, and he leaned over to see. A pink and purple horse-like thing, sparkles in its mane and tail, was painted on the captain’s forearm.
“Is that a uni-corn?” Jayne asked in a whisper as he squinted at it.
“Comes right off,” Mal whispered hopefully, and he wiped his arm against his shirt. He looked again, then frowned and pulled his sleeve down to his wrist.
Jayne might have had some fun with that, but just then River’s raised voice caught his attention. She had all three workers busy. They clearly wanted to get rid of her – who wouldn’t? – but weren’t having much luck.
“I travel extensively,” she was saying. “I need to know that I can access the cortex and send and receive waves from any location. My social life is extremely – excuse me, are you even listening? My social life is extremely important. Father says it’s never too early to be forming connections that may be useful later in life, and my whole career hinges on…”
Jayne and Mal shared another look, then Mal tipped his head toward the stockroom door, and in they went.
Mal paused to send a heads-up through the comm, letting the rest of the crew know that things were beginning to go down. About time, too, Jayne thought. This wasn’t exactly his idea of fun, passing time in a gorramn mall. He’d had to clean up, trim his hair and beard so he wouldn’t look suspicious. Kaylee’d done the barbering since Inara was long gone, and she’d had to get him drunk before he’d let her do it. He’d had to wear his civvie outfit, too. The same clothes he’d used on Oeneus when he’d snuck on an Alliance base to spring the captain: a plum silk blouse that he was longing to set on fire.
But this was a job that’d pay, so he’d put the shirt on and marched into the mall like he was told. He’d sat his ass on a plastic bench next to a plastic plant, watching old ladies and half dressed teenagers go by. Sāobī looked down their perky little noses at him like they were wondering why their gardener wasn’t at home taking care of their gorramn daisies.
Jayne had been here all morning – had to wait half the day before the crew was ready, the staff in the little techie shop was in the right place, and there were no customers in the way. Then he and Mal’d moved in, posing as shoppers, and their ninety pound diversion had stepped up to do her thing.
“But you’re not answering my question!” River went on, her voice carrying into the stockroom like the wall wasn’t there. “It’s about more than a communication tool. This will be an essential part of my life as a student. I’ll be starting college next year. I need something with advanced mathematical tools for calculation and plotting, as well as for solving symbolic functions. I’ll be starting in differential equations, you know. I passed out of college level calculus. Father says it’s because I…”
Jayne grimaced. “Girl’s got a helluva mouth on her, huh?”
“No more talk,” Mal replied sharply, all business now. “You look for the goods. I’ll set up the transport.”
Mal had already found what he needed, and he started ripping open a box of hoverboards, the kind that got kids in trouble when they rode them around on the neat landscaping outside the mall. Jayne nodded and started winding through the aisles, looking for the boxes. Badger had shown them what they’d look like, and it didn’t take long to find what he was after.
8 days ago
Badger looks up from his desk when the three of them walk into his office, his face showing the kind of amused surprise that begs to be punched off.
“Well,” he says, “As I live and thieve – Malcolm Reynolds. Word had it you was out a’ the game. Gone all political.”
“Word had it wrong,” Mal replies coolly. “As usual.”
Jayne stays behind Mal’s right hand, Zoë to the left. He don’t like dealing with Badger; it never ends well. But Mal’s still the boss, even if he’s a little off in the head, so Jayne stands tall with a hand hanging near his gun, waiting to see how things fall out.
“That the truth?” Badger asks Mal. “You weren’t running weapons to a heap a’ trouble out on Oeneus, trying to take down the fine Alliance guv’ment?”
Jayne takes a slow step to the side so he can see the gunhand behind Badger’s desk better. He also catches a glimpse of the innocent, shocked expression on the captain’s face.
“Trying to…?” Mal says in disbelief. “Now why would I do such a fool thing? I am a peaceful man.”
Badger snuffs a short laugh. “Yeah, you’re peaceful and I’m two meters tall. Didn’t I send you to a right nice little party a while back, and you ended up starting a fight? Got yourself into a duel over that fancy lady a’ yours when you ought’a been talking business?”
Jayne has his attention on the men standing around the edges of the room, but the sudden shift in Zoë’s stance draws his eye.
“You got a job for us, or what?” she asks, interrupting whatever Mal is about to say. Jayne knows why she’s speaking up like that – ain’t no one allowed to talk about Inara in front of Mal.
“Eager, are we?” Badger asks, with a curious look at Zoë that turns into a toothy grin. “You miss me, precious?”
Mal looks over his shoulder to give her a glare. Jayne’s been working with these two long enough to get that Mal’s saying, What are you doing? I got it. But usually that kind of look is aimed at Jayne, not Zoë.
“Zoë here’s been pinin’ away,” Mal says, then he turns back to Badger and grins. “Aw, shucks. I missed you, too. Things been way too simple on my boat. How ‘bout you give us a job to complicate life up how it should be?”
“Mm-hmm.” Badger stands up and comes around the desk. He gives Mal a long look, like he’s sizing him up. “Now, why do I have the distinct feeling that you ain’t so free and clear?”
“Free and clear of what?”
“Take a guess. I ain’t keen on giving you a job just so as you can get nabbed by whoever you pissed off out on the Rim. Not only blow the deal, but lead the hounds you got on your tail back to me. I don’t fancy hounds much.”
Mal’s eyes flicker toward a few of Badger’s gunmen and makes a doubtful sound. “Un-hunh.” He goes on before Badger can reply to the suggestion. “Well, you can put your doubts to rest. We just helped the Alliance fix a bit of nán dù going on out towards Niflheim. Fact is, the Feds are more than a bit happy with us right now.”
Badger studies Mal’s confident smile doubtfully. “I could have something for you,” he says. “Call it a test, to see if you really are back in business. How d’you feel about toys?”
Jayne has to answer that one. “Depends on what you mean,” he says. “We talkin’ the adult kind?”
Wash idly twirled a dinosaur and tried to ignore the grumbling of his stomach. He was pondering the crappy things about being a pilot – this was one of them. The rest of the crew got to visit a place of light and civilization and sparkly nice goods for sale; they were probably having fruit smoothies and yuán xiāo, and – āi yā – those cinnamon bun things, all butter and cream cheese frosting. And here he was, stuck in this nasty dark warehouse, staring out the windows of Serenity’s bridge at the tiny bit of blue sky he could see through the open doors, nothing to do but wait for the call to action.
“Master of the Sky,” he mumbled to himself. “Lord of the Black. I float on the wind, even when there is none. I need no treats to feed my passion. Don’t need shopping. Don’t need… stores. Boring clothing stores. Stupid girl things. Dresses… slinky dresses… and nighties … mmm, lace nighties. Black lace... white lace… pink…”
A fairly long quiet period passed while he was lost in his thoughts, very pleasant thoughts of pink lace against dark chocolate skin and guesses as to what he’d have to do to convince his Amazonian wife to wear such a color, but then a soft, precise voice interrupted him.
“How’s the job going?”
Wash fumbled a bit as he set down his dinosaur. “Um, it’s uh… there are stores. Stores with clothes and lacy… things… and… how are you doing, Simon?”
“How do you think?” Simon replied, his clipped words betraying his tension. Wash sighed – he didn’t want in on this battle. It’d been going on for days, ever since River had walked in on the planning and done an impromptu – and uninvited – audition for the role of distracter. There was no denying that she did it well, and she got what she wanted out of it – a chance to take part in a job.
And Mal’d got an earful from the doctor. Several days worth of earfuls, in fact. It was likely that the doctor’s concern for Mal’s mental state was the only reason it hadn’t come to blows.
“Shepherd Book will take care of her,” Wash said. “And it’s only a mall. How dangerous can it be?”
Simon shrugged noncommittally, and Wash thought about it for a few seconds.
“She doesn’t have any kind of… purchasing power?” he asked. That got Simon to smile.
“Then it’ll be fine. You have nothing to worry about.”
Simon shook his head. “I really hope not. Have you heard anything at all?”
“They’re in the store. It should be a few minutes before they have everything ready to go, and a few minutes more for Zoë to get them away. Maybe you and Kaylee should get ready.”
Simon nodded, but for a second he looked more sad than worried. As he turned and left the bridge, Wash sighed again.
Can’t talk about Inara in front of Mal. Not good to mention Kaylee in front of Simon – or vice versa. Avoid River because the broken hearted I-need-a-boyfriend whining is getting old. And, as always, keep as far from Jayne as possible.
It was getting tough to carry on a conversation on this ship.
Simon found Kaylee on the sofa outside the infirmary, hunched up at one end with her legs folded under herself. She nodded a hello to him as he sat down, but then looked away. She didn’t appear to be interested in talking.
At least she was here, out in the common space and not locked up in her quarters or elbows deep in some compartment of the engine room. Simon would almost swear that she’d been avoiding him, and just about everyone else on the crew.
“They’ll be coming soon,” he said, and Kaylee nodded. He tried to think of more to say, but nothing came to him. They sat still for a long minute, then Kaylee stirred and sat up a little.
“You think they’ll all be okay?” she asked.
“If they’re not, I’ll… ” Simon didn’t finish, not wanting his frustration to get the better of him now, when there was nothing he could do. He’d fought this tooth and nail, and he was still bitter about being overruled. Even if this job was taking place in a somewhat safe location, the captain had no business getting River involved in his criminal activities.
As for River – she’d glowed at the idea of spending time in a mall, the first happiness she’d shown since they left Niflheim nearly two weeks ago. It’d actually challenged his resolve; more than any orders from Mal or arguments from Zoë, the plea in River’s eyes had been hard to refuse.
“It don’t seem right,” Kaylee said, her soft words breaking into his train of thought. “It ain’t right sendin’ the captain out on a job, the way he is….” Her voice trailed off uncertainly.
“But he doesn’t know,” Simon replied. “We can’t just force him to stay on the ship if we can’t explain why. ”
“I know,” Kaylee replied in a quiet voice. “I know.”
Simon put his thoughts of River aside as he studied Kaylee. It used to be that conversation flowed easily and comfortably between them, but that had changed. Ever since Niflheim.
He folded his arms in front of him, then raised a hand to touch his neck, remembering how Kaylee’s mouth had pressed there. She never spoke to him about it, and Simon didn’t have the courage to bring it up. It was as if it had never happened. No – if that was true, she’d still be talking to him like she used to. It was worse than if it had never happened.
He was relieved when the silence was broken by the comm.
Time to get to work, kids, Wash’s electronic voice called out. Captain’ll be on his way home from the mall in just a few seconds, loaded down with lots of fun toys!
Kaylee sighed and headed toward the engine room without saying anything. Simon had a small part in this job himself; he was to wait in the cargo bay and operate the door so Wash could lift off as quickly as possible. It was good for Simon to be there, ready, just in case his services were needed. It wasn’t likely that there’d by any physical injuries since there were no armed guards at the mall, but he wasn’t sure how the captain would react to the mental stress of a job.
He also wasn’t sure he was up to providing the kind of help that Mal might need. Simon had stretched his abilities already with River, and now he had another patient with a condition he didn’t understand. He’d been spending a great deal of time doing research lately, trying to figure out what was happening to Mal, and how it could be treated, but he hadn’t made any real progress. He didn’t know much more than he had the day Inara left the ship, the day that Zoë’d told him about Mal’s condition.
Zoë sat in the mule, pulled into a loading zone on an empty side street. She shared cheery words with passers-by when necessary, but kept the engine idling in case the parking police came sniffing around. She had to be free to move when the call came through. Timing was critical to her part in this job.
She adjusted the horrible blond wig that draped over her head like a rug, making her sweat despite the cool breeze that topped the perfect spring day. There hadn’t been much money for getting disguises, but the biggest danger in this job were the cameras that would be reviewed later for any identifying marks on the perpetrators. Disguises were important, even bad ones.
The wait stretched longer than she liked, and she decided to check in.
“Hey, Shepherd,” she said into comm mic. “How they doing?”
River is… impressive, Book replied, his voice amused but soft as he spoke to her from the central gallery of the mall. I wish I could move in closer so you could hear her.
“She’s got talents, no doubt,” Zoë replied, but River’s part wasn’t what she wanted to know about. “How ‘bout the other two?”
No sign yet. But with River going on like she is, they have lots of time.
He had a point about that. If River really was being so effective as a distraction, she was taking a whole heap of pressure off of Mal. Zoë was grateful to the girl for that – and grateful to the Shepherd as well. Simon certainly would have locked her up, keeping her from this job, if Book hadn’t agreed to watch over her.
“I do thank you for goin’ along,” she told him.
It’s been entertaining. But perhaps we shouldn’t be talking so much at the moment.
“Right,” Zoë said abruptly, and she set the comm aside. It stung her that Book’d had to call her on that; she should know better than to chat unnecessarily.
Nerves, that’s what she had. She was full of more worry than such a piddly job deserved. But it wasn’t the crime that had her hackles up; it was Mal.
12 days ago
“Okay, I’ll bite,” Mal says to the crew at the dinner table. “Who’s Inara?”
Zoë’s sure it’s a joke, but Mal’s face says otherwise.
“See?” River tells her brother. “Broken.”
And that’s enough of that. Zoë gets up before any discussion can start and pulls Mal away from the table; this needs to be handled without the rest of the crew looking on.
Mal goes along with her, seeming amused. “You gonna show me something?” he asks as she leads him toward Inara’s shuttle – or Shuttle One as it’ll be called from here on out.
“You bet I am,” she says. She doesn’t speak again until the shuttle’s hatch is shut behind them.
“You know where we are?” she asks.
Mal squints at her, then takes an exaggerated look around. “Um – Shuttle One?”
“Yeah, but it ain’t been called that for a while now.”
Mal looks at her sideways and scratches his jaw thoughtfully. “Shuttle yī?”
Zoë takes a deep breath. “Sir, you got to cut this out. I know she did you wrong, turning her back on you like she did, but this ain’t gonna help.”
“All right, I’m used to this from River, but you usually talk sense to me. What’s goin’ on?”
“She left, sir. It ain’t fun, but you got to deal with it.”
“What are you – ?”
He rolls his eyes. “Oh – right. This again.”
“The Registered Companion who rented this shuttle for more than a year,” Zoë continues doggedly. Mal exhales impatiently and turns away with a shake of his head, but Zoë moves around to stay in his sight. “The woman who walked off this ship just this morning.”
“Zoë, I think I’d know if I had a whore on my boat.”
“She’s a Companion.”
“Whatever – it makes no sense! What the hell would somebody like that be doing here?” He laughs. “Can you imagine – folks comin’ to my ship to buy a tumble from a fancy lady? Ain’t no way.”
Zoë nods reluctantly; she has to give him that. “It was… odd, but the rent money helped us get by. Inara was helpful too. Rich folk always want a Companion to visit their world, she got us landings places we wouldn’t have got to otherwise. It worked out.”
She realizes that she’s rambling, and Mal’s staring at her like she’s truly fā fēng le.
“Why you doin’ this, Zoë?” he asks.
“What exactly you trying to convince me of?” He spins slowly with his hands out, looking around the dark, stripped-bare space. “There ain’t no one here. There never was.” But his voice is weak, with a hint of desperation – like maybe he isn’t quite sure about what he’s saying.
Zoë shakes her head. “This is asininely stupid,” she says to herself, then goes to the comm and calls up to the dining room.
“Kaylee! Kaylee, I need you.”
The answer comes a few seconds later. Yeah, Zoë?
“You got a capture of Inara?”
“Bring it to Shuttle One.”
Mal don’t look comfortable about what she’s planning. “Zoë, this is crazy…”
“Just hold on a sec, captain. It’ll all make sense when you see this.”
He turns away from her, exasperated. Zoë moves to stand by the hatch, ready to stop him if he tries to leave. By now, she has no doubt that he isn’t acting. He really don’t remember Inara. But his manner has an edge of defensiveness, like he don’t want to argue about it too much, like somewhere in his head he knows he’ll be proven wrong. She has to keep him here until she gets through to that part of him.
Kaylee arrives after a tense minute, holding the capture. Zoë takes and activates it – it was taken the night before, as Inara packed. Zoë holds it out toward Mal; he doesn’t look at it, just stares at Zoë’s face.
“This is Inara. Sir,” she says softly.
Mal’s jaw works sideways a little, but he reaches out and takes the capture. When he finally looks down at it, Zoë sees a spark of recognition in his eyes. He moves a hand to touch the screen.
“Zoë – I…” he starts, then he raises his hand to his forehead. His breath is coming short.
Kaylee sees it too. “Captain, you okay?” she asks.
Mal’s hands are getting shaky. The capture slips out of his fingers and falls to the deck, and he steps back away from it. His right arm reaches out to find the bulkhead behind him, and he leans against it, still with his other hand on his head, now clutching his hair as if he’s in pain. Kaylee gets to him right away, holding him around the waist when his knees appear about to buckle.
Zoë leans over to pick up the capture. She shuts it off and holds it tight against her side.
“Captain?” she asks. “What’s goin’ on?”
Mal doesn’t answer; he’s pale as a ghost. Zoë moves closer to help support his weight. “Let’s lower him down,” she tells Kaylee.
“No,” Mal says, his voice faint. “No, I got it.” He puts a hand on Zoë’s shoulder and pushes her away. Kaylee nods that she has him, so Zoë steps back to give the man some space.
“Well, that was odd,” Mal says, then he gives a short, uncomfortable laugh. He wipes a hand over his forehead and looks at the thin sheen of sweat that comes away on his fingers, then glances at Kaylee as if surprised to find her under his arm.
“Hey, Kaylee,” he says. “It’s all right. I’m okay.” Though he wavers a bit, he’s standing under his own power. Kaylee lets him go.
“What were we talkin’ about?” he asks, then answers himself. “Oh right – the shuttle.” He takes a few more breaths, still pressing one hand against the bulkhead to help him balance, then nods at Zoë. “You’re right. We ought’a rent it out. Could make some decent money, if we get the right kind’a person.”
“Yes, sir.” Zoë exchanges a look with Kaylee before she adds, “I wonder why we didn’t think of that before.”
“Too busy, I guess,” Mal replies. He wipes at his face again. “Too bad – we could’a been makin’ some honest money all this time. That’d of been helpful.” He shakes his head a little, then stops and leans against the bulkhead, like the shake wasn’t a good idea.
He looks at Zoë and smiles like he’s embarrassed at his state. “I’m – I’m feeling kind’a woozy.”
Zoë looks at Kaylee again, and gets a short nod of understanding. “It’s probably that bump on your head, Cap’n,” Kaylee says. “From those hijackers. Maybe you’d best go rest.”
Mal starts to nod, then winces a little. “Yeah, I’ll do that.”
They watch him leave, then Kaylee turns to Zoë, her face showing how overwhelmed she is. Zoë’s feeling much the same. She goes to the comm and calls Simon to the infirmary – the doctor better as hell have some clue as to what’s happening.
Simon is so dense, River thought. This is easy. I can handle crime just fine. In fact, I excel at it.
She hadn’t enjoyed herself so much in a long, long time. Her parents would never have let her be such a pain to someone they’d consider a servant, and thus worthy of a certain level of impersonal politeness, but River had seen many of her peers act like this. It wasn’t a challenging part to play.
“But you don’t understand,” she said, scolding the poor shop workers as if they were children. “My Father is very important, and he knows everyone. When he says something, it happens, and he told me…”
She saw a little ball bounce out of the storeroom, but she didn’t miss a word. She had to keep the three employees occupied where they all stood – near the mall entrance. Mal and Jayne silently started out of the storeroom, each pushing a large cart of goods in front of them. They’d just cleared the door when the little ball hit the glass back wall of the store and exploded.
It wasn’t a large concussion – it was barely enough to punch a hole through the bottom of the floor-to-ceiling window, but the glass splintered throughout. Mal broke into a run, pushing a tightly bound bunch of dark blue boxes ahead of him. River couldn’t see all of it from where she stood, but she knew from the smoothness and ease of the pack’s motion that Mal had gotten the goods loaded onto a few bound-together hoverboards that he’d commandeered from the storeroom. A few steps from the window, he gave a hard push, leapt forward, and flung himself over the top of the pack, resting on his stomach and grabbing hold of the bungees that held it all together.
He ducked his head, and the whole wall shattered as he crashed into it and passed through. Jayne followed behind, flopping onto his own pack of electronic goodies just in time to meet the shower of glass that came pouring down on him.
River took a few eager steps toward the destroyed wall, wanting to see how the getaway went. A shabby hovercraft with a tall, dark-skinned blond at the wheel arrived from the left in perfect time. A pair of magnetic grapples trailing the mule found their marks, and Jayne let out a whoop of joy as his ride took a sharp right turn and abruptly picked up speed, with the captain and his “cart” pulled along just behind.
River checked the mall side of the store; Book was standing in the gallery, ready to make sure that she made a clean getaway of her own, but she wasn’t ready yet. She turned back to Bradford and looked him up and down. He was a little square in his shop worker outfit, but cute enough. Good height. Nice skin.
She tilted her head sideways in a move she’d seen other girls in the mall use.
“So,” she said, “are you busy tonight?”
|dŏng ma:||  understand?|
|nán dù:||  trouble|
|yuán xiāo:||  sweet dumplings|
|āi yā:||  damn|
|fā fēng le:||  gone crazy|