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: fireflyfans.net members: LEEH and LEIASKY for beta, and MPHILLIIPS for the Mal art.
Links: Prequels: The Fish Job (FFF) (LJ), Easy Tickets (FFF) (LJ), and Book I (FFF) (LJ). Timing, pairings, and canon blurbs are in my FFF blog.
Inara goes in search of Serenity; she’s not the only one. Meanwhile,
Zoë and Book tell campfire stories while babysitting a very confused captain
Landsdowne Docks, Persephone
Inara carefully guided her transport into a narrow berth on the shabbier end of the docks. It wasn’t the kind of landing she was used to; the better platforms weren’t available for lowly craftspeople stocking up on supplies. That’s what she was passing as: a craftsmen. A weaver.
Really, it was ridiculous. The only yarn available hereabouts would be made of dog hair. Mangy, flea-ridden dog hair. And yet, her story had been easily accepted by the landing security personnel.
It made her feel oddly buoyant. As a Companion, Inara had always transmitted everything she was asked for – proof of identification, rights to landing, license to practice her trade. She’d never imagined anything other than prompt compliance to the stern voices of authority. The crew of Serenity deserved the credit for teaching her differently, for letting her know how easily the rules could bend. All it would take was a inflated “fee,” paid in cash at the dock offices, and no questions would be asked.
She shut the flight systems down, then, for what seemed the hundredth time, entered Serenity’s code into the cortex. A long moment later, the screen flashed:
RECIPIENT NOT FOUND.
The system’s been shut off, she insisted to herself. Maybe Mal knew that he was being sought after, or maybe it was the nature of the job he was doing for Badger. If only Kaylee had written more detail in her letter…
Inara reached into an inner pocket of her cape and closed her hand over the small envelope. It had become almost a talisman, her one small link to the crew of the Firefly. A few words from Kaylee, words that had tried to be light-hearted and casual, but Inara had sensed the worry underneath them. Worry for Mal.
It made Inara impatient to find him, to make up for leaving his ship in such a hurtful way. She stood and took a quick step toward the hatch, but a glance at the clock on the console made her stop. It was too early in the morning local time to venture out; the docks would still be empty at this hour. She couldn’t risk drawing attention to herself, not with Marone and the OPR agents likely hoping to find her and finish their interviews. Inara’d only feel safe in a thick crowd, even with her carefully crafted disguise.
She had to smile as she looked down and ran her hands lightly over her new clothes. It’d been a long time since she dressed to hide her figure rather than accentuate it. She’d been fortunate enough to find an open bargain store during her late night dash through the streets of Sihnon, and the pieces she’d bought would certainly discourage attention. The black boots were her own and fit well, but the brown trousers were so baggy that she needed a belt to hold them up. The dark reddish-brown shirt was also big and formless. A cape of dark grey worsted wool with a frayed and stained hem covered it all; the hood on the cape would hide her face. She had left off makeup, but knew that she was still striking enough to draw eyes. She’d have to keep her head down and speak sparingly. And when she reached Badger…
Inara sighed and sank back into the pilot’s chair. She still hadn’t settled on an approach to use with him. He wasn’t likely to recognize her; they’d seen each other once, but for only an few seconds. Badger had been focused on Mal at the time, checking that captain had gotten the precious smuggling job from Sir Warren. And, actually, Inara’d had most of her attention on Mal as well, on helping him walk…
“Don’t think about that!” she ordered herself in a whisper, as the memory of Mal’s body against hers came back with a wrenching clarity – her arm encircling his ribs, feeling his breath catch at the pain of his stab wounds even as he light-heartedly mocked his “lazy crew.”
She rubbed at her eyes, pushing the memory away. She had no time for it; she had to focus on Badger. A man like him would understand only two things – money, and violence. She wasn’t the most threatening figure; unless she flaunted her Companion status, she had no power.
Money, then. She’d have to tempt Badger with a job – something believable, something that had to be handled only by the crew of Serenity. It should promise enough profit to make Badger eager to contact the crew, and not carry any danger that would scare him off...
She glanced again at the clock on the console; it would be at least an hour before the crowd on the docks was thick enough for her to feel safe venturing out. She had time to plan.
“Badger. Sounds ominous, doesn’t it?” Will shook his head and laughed dismissively. “You be ready for action, Ginger honey. I think we got us a real crime lord on our hands.”
He laughed again as he strode through the docks. The crowd was thin; it was still mid-morning, local time, and he had plenty of room to stretch his long legs. Ginger had to trot to keep up with him, but she had reason to stay close. She meant to have a bit of a conversation before they got to their appointment.
“Shouldn’t be hard to make him talk,” she said. “A little threat of Alliance attention to his business ought to open him up fine.”
Will turned his head to look down at her, squinting against the clear sunlight coming over the edge of the dock walls. “Now, that is why I don’t let you run things,” he said, then he lowered his voice. “We aren’t here as agents of the law, you damned fool, not as far as anyone we speak to can know.” He held her eyes with a look of warning for a second, then turned his head front again. “But no worries. I don’t need to play that card. I can make anyone talk.”
Ginger pressed her lips together – this was the thing that had her worried. But she’d done some checking up on the trip out here, and she had an idea. “You know, Will,” she said casually, “there’s these regulation kind’a things that apply to folks like me and you.”
He glanced at her again, his eyes sharp and his smile fading. “That so?”
“So it is. I can show you the statute. It says that undercover officers got to be careful, can’t do nothin’ that folks’ll make a fuss and sue about. There’s things can be done to get information – trickery and such – but if that don’t work the suspect has got to be arrested and taken in for safe kinds of interrogation. Won’t take us long to get this Badger fella over to the base, or even in to the Core, if need be.”
Ginger held her chin up, pleased that all those words had come out just like she’d planned. She’d stated the situation as fact, in a public place, so Will’d have no choice but to go along. He couldn’t go attracting attention and spoiling a mission.
She should have known that a man like Will wouldn’t just let it go over easy. Sure enough, his steps slowed down. He was staring down at her – staring hard.
“You can’t be serious,” he said, his voice low like he was making a challenge.
Ginger’d planned this next part, too, but his stare was making her uncomfortable, and her words came out weaker than she’d hoped. “I’m just sayin’… you ought to be a little more careful. Could be that one of these days word’ll get back. Could be that someone’ll hear about how you go about things, and decide that… maybe it ain’t right.”
Will came to a full stop. “And how exactly would anyone be hearing tales about me, Ginger? Are you saying you’ll tell? Are you trying to threaten me?”
Ginger had to drop her eyes away, and she felt uncertainty broiling up in her chest. She’d planned to be cool and serious about this, but suddenly she felt like a little girl reciting arithmetic in front of a classroom full of bullies. She felt like she was about to be hit by a big, fat spitwad and laughed out of the room.
“I’m… I’m just – ”
She was looking at the ground, so she didn’t see him move, just felt his hand close around her arm. He pushed her back against a dusty corrugated metal wall. She wasn’t expecting that; she hadn’t thought that he’d push her around.
“By God I won’t have anyone telling me how to do my business,” he said. His face was up close to hers so he could keep his voice quiet, but his words had an angry shake that made her cringe. “Sure as hell, I won’t take it from an ignorant fool like you. You’ve spent your life with your head buried up the ass-end of some gun or another, and you have no idea how things work in real life. You think those asinine rules apply to me?”
Ginger opened her mouth to argue, but couldn’t. This game was over her head. She surely had little idea how the system really worked; what had she ever done but follow orders without question?
Will’s hand tightened on her arm. “Think about it – how long have we been working together? How long have I been going about my business, exactly how I do it? You really think those suits sitting in their neat and tidy offices care? I guarantee they don’t. They know what I’m willing to do, and that’s why they send me – because I get it done. I do whatever the hell’s needed to get. The job. Done.”
He gave her arm one more hard squeeze, hard enough to make her gasp as a nerve in her elbow twinged.
“You want to tell stories about me? Go ahead. I won’t have to squash you myself, the department will do it for me, to protect me. They need me, and they know it. You need to figure it out, too. I am getting sick and tired of this new attitude of yours.”
He let go and turned his back on her, not seeming to notice the few onlookers who’d stopped to watch the quiet spat. Ginger stayed where she was for a long moment, staring after him. Her thoughts must have shown on her face, because a toothless old man sitting across the way yelled out at her:
“Go on and shoot him, missie! Don’t be lettin’ any fella treat ya like that!”
Will didn't pause or look back. His cockiness made her wilt – he knew she wouldn’t do it. She wouldn’t take her freedom at the cost of being a criminal, hunted down and locked up for murdering her own partner. Will might be able to break the rules and get away with it, but she couldn’t.
The unfairness of it made her right hand tighten, and she realized that, despite herself, she was clutching the butt of the gun on her hip. She took in a deep breath and made herself relax and drop her arm.
So it was – she had to finish this job. She bit her tongue as she hurried to catch up.
Highland’s second moon
Shepherd Book stood in a quiet mist that fell from the gray sky, watching Serenity’s engines fire. The moment would be more poetic if the clouds would part to give a glimpse of Highgate’s nearby disc in the sky above, allowing him to watch the ship rise toward its destination, but that wasn’t likely. The drizzle was settled in like it meant to never let up.
He lowered his gaze and saw all the poetry he needed; Zoë was on the other side of the campsite, her silhouette framed against the flare of the ship’s engines. The sight reminded him of heart-breaking epics of the ancient wars on Earth-that-Was, of Woman standing in solitary and silent pain as her men went to battle.
But Zoë didn’t fit that role, not for more than a few seconds of illusion. Even before the ship disappeared into the low clouds, she turned away and went to the pile of supplies, her face expressionless as she dug out a bag. Book knew full well that Zoë wasn’t one to wait in a safe place while a battle was fought elsewhere, and that made him wonder if the real crisis was happening here, on this hard moon. The idea brought him a chill.
“I’ll gather firewood,” he told Zoë. “Best get it done while the rain is light.”
She looked up and considered him for a few seconds. “That’s a fine idea, Shepherd,” she said. “I’ll join you.”
“But the captain… ?” Book looked over to Mal, who was lying on the mat Kaylee had set up for him.
“He won’t be making trouble for a spell – doc’s meds took care of that. Let’s just be sure the gear’s under cover from the wet. And dig out a lamp; we’ll need it down yonder.”
Book peered down the hill into the narrow valley that held their main source of heat: low, stunted trees crowded together, making a deep black shadow. The slope that lead to them was covered in mossy stones; it wasn’t going to be an easy chore.
It was over an hour before they finally sat down at a crackling fire. The rain had never gone past a thick bone-chilling mist, but it’d still taken ten minutes’ effort to light the blaze. Fortunately, the wood was dense, and once it caught it burned with a long, slow heat. The pile of dead wood they’d gathered and split would last a while, long enough for them to warm up and have a meal.
The sun above the clouds had hardly moved, not as far as Book could tell. He’d been expecting that. This rocky little moon was tidally locked, and it would take a full orbit around Highgate before a local day passed. That’d be nearly three weeks, standard. He didn’t expect to be here more than a day or two, and that would hardly move them on toward evening.
Their meal was heated protein paste. Neither of them had the energy to prepare more, not after all their labors. They ate in tired silence until Mal sat up.
“Where’s my ship?” he demanded as his eyes swept the area. “How the hell’d she take off?”
Book looked toward Zoë – he meant to leave all handling of the captain to her.
“You hungry, sir?” she asked.
Mal’s gaze settled on her. “I ain’t… ” he started, then he sat still a few seconds, clearly confused. “But I saw her take off. She ain’t ready for that.”
“She’s runnin’ just fine.”
He considered that for a second, then frowned at her. “You find a mechanic when I wasn’t lookin’?”
“Go back to sleep, sir.”
Mal turned his scowl on Book, and the shepherd tensed. Mal didn't know him, and he’d made his feelings about being around a preacher clear. It didn't make Book feel real secure.
“Don’t worry about it, sir,” Zoë said before Mal could say anything more. “Sōng kuai – I got first watch.”
The captain’s reaction surprised Book; Mal nodded stupidly at her words, then laid down. The way he blearily did as Zoë said might have been funny, if it hadn’t been such a tragic sign of his deterioration. Book shook his head sadly.
“It’s the drugs,” Zoë said softly a few minutes later. “Simon found somethin’ he says might help. It’ll make Mal groggy, but if it slows down the memory loss, it’s worth it.”
The captain wasn’t quite done; his voice rose faintly from his bedroll. “Tell me the minute she gets back,” he ordered.
Zoë raised her voice. “I will, sir. Right away.”
Mal grunted approval, and that was the last they heard of him for a while.
They finished eating, and Book looked over the gear; a lot was left to be done. They’d need more shelter set up to keep them warm and day in this place. But Zoë made no move to get started – it seemed that she had some things on her mind. She poked a few more logs into the fire then sat back and stared at it.
Book set to fixing some of the precious coffee that some kind soul had tucked into the vittles box for them. The chores could wait; he’d be of more use just sitting by and keeping her company in her ruminations. He'd always been good at being quiet.
“Thank you, Shepherd,” she said when he handed her a steaming mug.
“Méi shén me,” he replied, and sat back with his own coffee. But the long silence he was expecting didn’t come.
“He’s gonna miss that ship,” Zoë said. “Even if he don’t know it, he’ll be missin’ it.”
“Yes, I can see that.”
“You know,” she said, continuing on like she was hardly aware that Book had spoken, “we went by all kinds of worlds after the war. Tried to settle in. Didn’t find a single place that was home until Mal got Serenity.”
Book didn’t reply, just sipped from his mug and watched the pale flames dance.
“There was the after-war stuff,” Zoë said, and she waved a hand like she was pushing the after-war stuff off to disappear with the fire’s thin smoke. Book wasn’t a man to pry, but he found himself wishing she’d pull those stories back, wipe the dust off them and let him have a look.
She went on. “All that left us wantin’ to get clear of most places. Wantin’ to stay away from anything Alliance, and that ruled out a lot. We started our travels right after the first U-Day….” She paused and shook her head, then her face broke into a smile that was more melancholy than anything. “Mal never did handle U-Day well. Not from the very first one.”
“Oh?” Book prompted, but her answer went in a different direction than he hoped. She moved the story forward in time, rather than backward.
“After the first U-Day, we worked a freighter for a while. With Monty. He’s a good man, and we kept busy enough. Didn’t deal with the Alliance much, didn’t have to do nothin’ but carry goods, and from time to time stand behind Monty lookin’ scary, if we were dealin’ with folks we didn’t trust.
“Didn’t have to do any shootin’, not in those days. In the year or two after the war, things happened real quiet. Any gunplay could be reported as an uprising, so even the slimiest of black market crooks thought real hard before playin’ dirty. Jobs were pretty easy. And there was plenty to do, what with all the rebuilding.
“But takin’ orders and keepin’ his mouth shut weren’t things Mal was ever good at.”
“Ain’t blowing that over,” Mal interjected in a sleepy voice. “Mix it up right, ain’t nothin’ gonna break it….”
Zoë didn’t answer this time; she just waited until Mal quieted, then she went on with her tale.
“Mal left Monty’s freighter after a while. Did it tricky-like, too. I was caught up in a job, handling a transaction, and afterward Monty told me that Mal’d taken his leave. Never gave any warning, never even said good-bye. Irked me to no end.”
Book couldn’t help but smile as he nodded. He could see Mal doing as he pleased without allowing any chance for an argument, and it took no stretch of the imagination to figure how Zoë would have felt about that.
She seemed to think it necessary to explain, though.
“I’d made up my mind to keep an eye on him,” she said, glancing over to the sleeping captain, “so I had a bit of worry at how he disappeared. But there wasn’t much I could do about finding him. The ‘verse is a big place, even if you’re stayin’ on the edge of it.”
She drained her mug, then shifted forward to kneel by the fire so she could reach the pot and pour a refill. “After a time I left Monty’s crew, thought I’d try living on solid ground for a while. Mal used to talk of ranching – not after the war, he never talked of his home after the war – but during, he spoke of it plenty. It didn’t sound bad, makin’ a living that way, so I thought I’d give it a go.
“I was working a ranch on… ” She paused as she settled back in her seat, then looked sharply at Book. “Funny how you get in the habit of protectin’ those you did crime with, since the Alliance is always looking to flex its muscles on anyone it can…” She stopped again and frowned, looking thoughtful. “I guess I gave Monty away.”
Book shrugged. “I knew about him already.”
Zoë nodded. “Guess you did – but there’s more to come and I’m a mood to tell about it.” She gave him another piercing look. “You’ll do me and the captain a service if you’ll leave everything you hear right in the place you heard it.”
“I wouldn’t dream of doing different.”
Zoë held his eye for a second, then nodded and continued her tale. “Anyhow, I was workin’ a ranch on Lian Jiunn for a few months when Mal showed up. Just walked in one night, and before I could properly give him a scolding he was off and talking wild, all lit up like he’d just found Christmas. He had plans and needed money to get it all going. A fair amount of money. He wouldn’t tell me what it was for, though, just grinned like a kid with a damned fine secret.”
Her face broke into a grin of her own. “You know, he got me all diverted with his mystery, and I never did tan his hide for disappearing like he did. Tricky wáng bā dàn.
“I told him he should join the ranch. Wasn’t a lot of wages, but with a bunk and eats included, things added up. Long as you weren’t stupid about what you did while visitin’ town.
“But a spot as a ranch hand wasn’t enough for Mal; I could tell it. He had plans. Didn’t say what they were, but he was antsy as hell to get a fistful of money and get back to whatever it was he’d found. Rounding up cattle for a few months wasn’t what he was after.
“The next day, he saddled up a filly and went out for a ride, gave the place a long look.”
Zoë shifted a bit, as if walking through her past was causing her discomfort. She was silent until she found a spot where she could recline on a folded up blanket set against a rock. She gave her vest a tug to make it set on her body better, then leaned back and went on with a sigh. “You need to understand somethin’, Shepherd – and I ain’t just talkin’ about Lian Jiunn – settlers on Border worlds live their lives accordin’ to what they got on hand. They build their homes out’a what they can find, timbers and stones and such. These work just fine in some places, long as you don’t mind the cold air creepin’ in come winter.”
Book might have interrupted to tell her that he understood that very well, but he figured it was best to let her tell it her own way.
“The place where I was livin’ on Lian Jiunn had a monsoon season, and it wasn’t a rare thing to see folk rebuildin’ from scratch after the storms passed, and maybe buryin’ those who got caught in the ruin.
“Some would say that’s just life, but it was a bitter thing to see after the war. Thing is, the people who’d beat us, the ones who’d destroyed worlds just so they could put us down, made promises. They’d done all kinds of talking about how they brought ‘civilization’ and ‘safety’ with them, but all we saw were tax collectors and long lists of new laws, though it’d been near two years since the war ended.
“Mal knew this well, and he saw how it affected folks while he was out on his ride `round the neighborhood. He got back that night with a fire in his eyes. He told me to contact Monty and see if the man would mind breakin’ a few of the more serious laws if it got him some jingly coin in his pocket.
“Of course, Monty didn’t mind. I’ll tell you though – I wasn’t so sure myself. I’d done lots of skirtin’ the edges of what’s legal, not askin’ questions while I’d worked with Monty, but avoiding tariffs and inspections is a different thing from outright stealin’.
“Truth to tell, I think it ate at Mal a bit too. We weren’t criminals, Shepherd. We never set out to be. Just kind’a happened that way.”
Zoë’s eyes caught a bit of the fire, glinting orange as her mouth curved into a humorless grin. “Well, I guess there were all those war crimes. But those would have counted for nothing, if we hadn’t a’ lost.
“The job Mal’d thought up seemed worth taking the step for real. Guess it was just the first start down a road that we’re still on.”
Five years ago, Hăiníng, Du-Khang
There isn’t anything fancy about it. The goods they mean to steal don’t exactly qualify as precious – there’s no cash or jewels, nothing high tech, no weapons, not even any foodstuffs. And it’s fairly low risk. They won’t be going anywhere near a Alliance military base or security installment; in fact, they’ll be staying on the low-rent side of town.
For all these reasons, Zoë’s not too worried about being caught – it’s all about moving fast and being untraceable.
The location is one she knows well. Hăiníng had once been a small Alliance outpost with all the fixings of a town to support its needs, but it’d been destroyed in a particularly nasty battle. The history books (which are already being written, just two years after the war ended) are putting the blame for the ruin squarely on the Independents, though those who’d been there to see it might have wondered. The rebels hadn’t had much in the way of artillery at the time, but the Alliance troops had had plenty. And they hadn’t hesitated to use it.
In any case, after the war the Alliance decided that Hăiníng was going to be rebuilt as the capitol of Du-Khang and the center for Alliance control on this part of the system. Contractors and workers were brought from the Core to handle the new and greatly expanded Alliance base, but in parts of the new city where secrecy wasn’t an issue, a wider variety of workers were used. Even some Browncoats took part in the labors – which is how Mal and Zoë know the place so well.
(Book looked over the fire, meeting Zoë’s eyes with an unspoken question, but she only shook her head and went on.)
They don’t use Monty’s ship for the actual crime. They dig up an Independent troop transport that had been abandoned on Lian Jiunn, and take a few weeks to fix its hurts and get it moving. Then Monty smuggles it onto Du-Khang, hidden in the hold of his bulky ship.
As the sun sets on the day of the job, Mal, Zoë, Monty, and four of Monty’s crew put on their Independent uniforms. (It’s fitting, Mal says.) They take their refinished transport into the Alliance’s construction supply depot on the edge of the new city, dropping out of the night sky in the middle of a collection of warehouses. Mal and Zoë are out first, moving through the shadows with the easy teamwork they developed during the war, slipping back into it like not a day has passed. Within two minutes they’ve rounded up the security joes and piled them in a shed, bound and gagged. No one puts up a bit of fight; they aren’t expecting this, and not a one of them are up to risking their lives to protect their employer’s goods.
Zoë knows her way around these warehouses, and directs Monty’s crew and their mules to the best stuff. High grade concrete is top of the list. Next, steel rebar and the largest and strongest wood beams, the kind one can’t get out of the stunted trees that grow in the sickly environments of most Border worlds.
Then come the tools. Saws, shovels, picks: anything they can pile up in the transport. A bit later they’re clearing out a shed of smaller items – boxes of galvanized steel hardware – when Zoë hears a hovercraft engine. A quick look around tells her that Mal is the only one of the crew missing; he’s back at the transport, sorting the load to make more room. She tells the rest to finish up fast and slips out the door.
A hovercraft with two uniformed men is sitting about fifty meters away, and Mal’s walking out to meet it, waving his hand all friendly-like. Zoë can’t quite hear what’s being said, but she can see that the guards are too confused to be making a fuss. Not yet anyway. The one in the passenger seat, the one closer to Mal, is catching on. He swivels his head between the sarge and the ship parked in the middle of the yard, taking in the scratched but clearly visible Independent flag painted on its side, and the open hold that’s nearly full of construction supplies.
Zoë murmurs a curse and heads toward them, walking fast. The guard looks back at Mal, at the uniform and coat, and even from this distance Zoë sees realization light up his face.
She breaks into an all-out run as the guard with the lightbulb on barks orders at the driver of the hover, and his hand goes to his hip.
Before he can draw, Mal shoots him through the shoulder, taking out his right arm.
The driver of the hover starts to move the thing away, but at the sound of gunfire he drops the controls and dumps himself out of the far side of the craft, trying to shelter behind it. It’s not a bright move, and makes Zoë wonder who exactly these idiots are.
Mal doesn’t hesitate. He runs toward the vehicle in a low crouch and sends a few bullets into the space under it. The second guard goes down with a pained cry, clutching his lower leg.
Zoë’s still a good twenty meters away when the sarge catches up to the slowly drifting hover and jumps in. The guard still in the craft has managed to draw his gun with his left hand, but he doesn’t get to use it. Mal grabs the thing and throws it aside, then pops the guard in the head hard enough to knock him out.
The guard on the ground gets himself together enough to send off a few wild shots and Zoë draws as she dives to her stomach, losing a little elbow skin to the pavement on her way down. She’s ready to take the second guard out, but Mal slides into the driver’s seat and grabs the controls. The hover swerves sideways; as soon as it passes over the guard on the ground, Mal springs out and lands square on him.
Zoë scrambles up and continues on; she knows the kind of rage the sarge has in him, and this situation’s clearly got his blood boiling. He’s still raining down punches when she gets to him.
“It all right, Sarge!” she says, and catches Mal’s raised fist. “You got ‘em. We’re clear!”
Mal gives up the fight immediately, but when he stands up he’s breathing hard and his eyes are wild. He’s spent too much time under the heels of “authority” on this world. They both have, in those months after the war, but Mal’s seen the worst of it by far.
“Get the one in the hover,” Zoë tells him. “I got this one.”
She’s relieved when Mal nods and does as she says – he’s still got a scrap of his senses about him. They drag the guards into the shed with the others; on the way, Zoë notices that the uniforms these two newcomers wear aren’t Alliance military. They’re from some private security company, with badges made of plastic. That explains it – they’ve got no experience, probably haven’t ever fired at anything but practice targets.
If Mal sees this and thinks anything of it, he shows no sign.
Monty and his men have been working fast, the sound of gunfire convincing them that what they’ve got is plenty, and the last load is arriving at the transport. Zoë sees that Mal’s still got his blood running hot, and she tells him to go help. It’s not that she doesn’t trust him to stay with these people, bound and helpless as they are. But… actually, she doesn’t.
This isn’t the first time she’s seen him vent the hate that’s been piling up in him since the end of the war, and she doesn’t want to see it coming out any more than it already has. These people have been beat on enough. Lifting heavy cargo seems the right thing for Mal, to let him work this thing off before he ends up shut inside a ship on the trip back to Lian Jiann.
“Go,” she tells him firmly. “We got to move, someone’s sure to have heard the shots. They need your help so we can be out of here, soon as we can.”
Mal looks at the bound guards, a flicker of violence still burning in his eyes.
“We’re gonna finish this job,” she says firmly, “just so I can find out why the hell you want all this money.”
Mal’s eyes settle on her, and just like that the rage is gone. His eyes soften. “There is that,” he says, a smile spreading across his face. “There certainly is that.” He turns and leaves the shed at a run.
“We got away clear, can you believe it?” Zoë said with a wry smile. “The first job the captain pulled, and one of the smoothest. None of ours got hurt, we got a full load of goods, and they had no clue who we were. Reports on the cortex said it was some raid by the Underground. They thought we were trying to build a base somewhere. It never even occurred to them that we’d be out to help folks have better houses and barns. It’s not something the Alliance ever put any importance on, so….” She shrugged.
“When we got back to Lian Jiunn, Mal made us sell the stuff cheap. We didn’t give it away – he ain’t a fool – but we sold it for a fraction a’what we’d have got on a more settled world. Concrete like that….” She smiled again and shook her head. “The homes those folk got’ll be there `till your God comes raining down fire, Shepherd. Still be standin’ the next day.”
Book nodded. “And did he have enough money for what he wanted?” he asked obligingly. He could guess the end of this already, but he’d let Zoë finish her story.
“Yeah, he did. He handed out cuts of the take, and was plenty happy with what he had left. Said it was enough, long as I offered up some of my own for repairs. At the time, I had no idea what he was talking about. But he dragged me out to a shipyard on Persephone and introduced me to Serenity.
“Honestly, Shepherd, I didn’t think much of her at first.” She tipped her head toward Mal. “I thought he’d lost his mind, sinking all our money into a wreck like that. Guess he just looked deeper than I did.”
Mal must have sensed her speaking of him. He started awake and lifted himself onto one elbow. “Monty?” he said. “Zoë – you gotta get a’hold of Monty. I got an idea. Helluva idea. Poetic, even.”
“Monty’ll be on his way,” Zoë said calmly. “You hungry, sir?”
Mal didn’t answer; he looked around slowly. “Why we campin’ out?”
“Huntin’ strays that went missin’ in the storm. No need to get up. We won’t be goin’ out `till the drizzle clears.”
The captain stared at her dumbly, his face a picture of confusion. Book felt Zoë tense, and he held his own breath. He really didn’t want to spend this outing fighting the captain, and he wasn’t looking forward to constantly guessing as to the man’s frame of mind. Mal had been volatile enough when he was sane; the way he was now, anything was possible.
Mal gave the tent one more lookover, then he threw his blankets back. “I gotta take a leak,” he said.
Book blew out his breath as Mal stepped over a pile of coiled rope on his way out. Count on the captain to prioritize.
“‘Hunting strays?’” he asked Zoë in a soft voice.
She looked at him and shrugged. “It worked.”
Book had another question to ask, but he held his tongue, wanting to wait until Mal settled down again.
It didn't happen. The captain seemed to find something to occupy his mind; he stood out in the light rain and stared down into the valley.
“So…” Book ventured softly. “All that happened right after the first U-Day?”
Zoë looked up at him; a sharpness in her face showed that she read his curiousity and didn’t think much of it. But she didn’t chastise him. Instead, she lowered her eyes and stared into the fire thoughtfully.
Book left her alone. He’d given his hint; she could tell more of her past, or not, as she saw fit. Either way, she surely needed a break. What'd just passed was many times more words than he'd ever heard her string together, and he could see that it was more than just a telling to her. Her eyes had hardly fixed on him while she spoke. Her body might have been on this moon, but her mind was in the past near as fully as the captain's.
“Well, I’ll just get going with the setup,” Book said, and he climbed to his feet.
|sōng kuai:||    relax|
|méi shén me:||it's nothing|
|wáng bā dàn:||SOB|