Title: "Deuce of Hearts"
Summary: When a member of the crew goes missing, Mal and Inara team up to bring her home.
Spoilers: None, really. Takes place at some non-specific time in the series between "Safe" and "Heart of Gold," pre-BDM.
Author's notes: Written for andsheloves for truthsome_fic. This story is meant to read like a lost episode of Firefly. It's an ensemble piece and not overly shippery, but there's some Mal/Inara and some Zoe/Wash (and even some Mal/Kaylee, but Not In That Way) for those looking for Ye Olde UST.
My eternal thanks to carmen_sandiego for the beta and for the camaraderie and for talking me into doing this in the first place. And endless love and gratitude to _gruntle_ for additional betaing, moral support, hand-holding, and weapons and combat consultation. Oh yeah, and I shamelessly swiped two lines of dialog from The Empire Strikes Back, because Mal and Inara are so totally Han and Leia.
I'd often like to lie atop a hill,
Instead I suffer hardship, lacking money.
Golden flecks in the ash of cassia wood,
My great ideals decline more year by year.
As the sun goes down, a chilling wind appears,
To hear cicadas makes me sorrow more.
Malcolm Reynolds had never been overly fond of quiet.
It was always in the quiet times when things seemed to fall apart. Not in the big flashy moments, or the exciting, heart-in-your-throat situations. No, when things fell apart all on their own they tended to do it when no one was looking. Like a shooting star falling out of the sky when there was no one around to even notice.
Things had been quiet on Serenity for a while now and Mal didn't like it, not one gorram bit. Work had been scarce of late. Real scarce. He'd sent out discreet inquiries in all the directions he could think of, and when that hadn't worked he'd sent out some more, not-so-discreet inquiries. So far nothing of any use had turned up, though, which was... discouraging.
Money was a becoming a serious issue--fuel and decent rations were both dangerously low. On top of that, his crew had been idle for far too long, cooped up on the ship without much in the way of a purpose. It was a recipe for disaster, and Mal didn't have the faintest notion what to do about it.
It was a problem--one he needed to think on some more. First, though, he was going to eat some breakfast.
Mal ran his hand uselessly through his hair one last time before climbing the ladder up to the foredeck. It was morning, or what passed for morning out in the black--a meaningless, arbitrary designation, meant to keep folk from losing their minds in the endless span of time.
He heard the fussing and hollering before he even made it halfway to the galley.
"You make her give it back, Doc, or I'm comin' over there and takin' it from her!" bellowed Jayne.
"It's just a can of beanie weenies," said Shepherd Book. "You can't let the girl have it?"
"It ain't just a can of beanie weenies, it's the last can of beanie weenies and she stole it outta my bunk!"
"How do you even know that?" said Simon.
"I been saving 'em! I had a can stashed under my bed and now they're gone and she mysteriously come up with a can of franks and beans wasn't in the pantry last night."
Mal leaned against the hatchway, taking in the scene with a mixture of despair and irritation.
Simon and Book were standing in front of River, trying to shield the girl from the advancing Jayne. River, meanwhile, seemed to be completely unaware of the tension in the room.
"Wieners are made of mechanically separated chicken," she said to no one in particular. "Synthetic beef product. Sodium phosphate. Sodium erythorbate. Sodium nitrite."
"Let the girl have the beans," said Zoe quietly. She was sitting at the table, staring down into her coffee cup like she was reading secret messages there.
"Girl took something that's mine and I'm just supposed to overlook that?" said Jayne. "A grown man can't be letting a girl--"
The shepherd sniffed. "Who's the grown man?"
Jayne spun on him. "You wanna dance, preacher-man?"
"So now you're going to beat up a preacher over a can of beans?" said Simon derisively.
Jayne jabbed a finger into Simon's sternum. "I ain't talkin' to you, Doc, so whyn't you go shove that namby-pamby dick a yours up a--"
"Jayne," said Mal sharply. Everyone turned to look at him. Everyone except Zoe, who'd surely known he was there all along.
"Do us all a courtesy and sit down and shut the gorram hell up. You heard Zoe."
"You really lookin' to get into it with me?"
Jayne cussed under his breath, but sat down at the table like he'd been told.
"It's too much sodium," said River, wrinkling her brow in concentration as she studied the label on the contested can of beanie weenies.
Mal turned on Simon. "I catch her nosing around in any of the crew bunks again I'm confining her to the passenger dorm full time, you hear?"
Simon pursed his lips resentfully, but didn't backtalk any, which was a blessing.
"Symptoms of sodium toxicity include edema--excessive accumulation of serous fluid in tissue spaces or body cavity--and hypertension," said River.
That crazy damn girl was gonna be his downfall, he just knew it. Mal walked over and poured himself a much-needed cup of coffee. He took a drink and nearly gagged on it. "What in the hell is this?"
"It's coffee, sir," said Zoe.
"That ain't coffee. For starters it's cold. Also, tastes like bilge water ."
"Funny how coffee don't tend to brew right when you just soak the grounds in cold water for a spell."
Mal felt the first dull throb of a headache coming on at the base of his skull. He rubbed his fingers across his forehead, trying to stave it off. "Stove's still broke?"
"Not like we have any real food left to cook on the damn stove anyway," said Jayne.
Mal shot him a look. "You gonna hobble that lip or do I need to do it for you?"
"He has an adversarial relationship with his food," said River. Mal couldn't tell if she was talking about him or Jayne and didn't much care to know.
He grabbed himself a bowl of the protein paste they'd all been eating too much of lately and took a seat across from Zoe. "Just once, I wish I could eat my breakfast in peace and quietude."
Jayne snorted. "Wish in one hand, shit in the other, see which one gets filled the fastest."
Mal slammed his cup down on the table with enough force to leave an imprint in the wood. Cold coffee-water splashed over the tabletop.
"Maybe I'll just eat my cold protein mash in my bunk," said Jayne.
"You do that."
Jayne angrily pushed back his chair and stormed out of the room, nearly shoving Wash up against the bulkhead as they passed in the hatchway.
"What was--" Wash started to ask, but dropped it on a look from Mal. He shrugged and grabbed a bowl of food for himself. "Wave come in for you, Mal, on a delay. From Espinosa."
Now that was interesting. Mal just wasn't sure if it was the good kind of interesting or the bad kind. Achilles Espinosa was a fellow he'd met just after the war. They'd worked together on an old salvage boat for a spell, until Espinosa had come into a chunk of coin under somewhat murky circumstances and started up his own operation. Nowadays he was mostly retired from smuggling and spent his time running a casino on Santo, but he could always be counted on to have more than a few pokers in the fire.
Zoe looked at Mal sharply. "What's that about, you think?"
"Could be he's got wind of a job for us." Mal quietly took note of the fact that Wash sat himself down by the doctor--at the opposite end of the table from Zoe.
"Could be he's missing that 50 platinum you owe him," said Zoe, never even glancing in her husband's direction.
Which could only mean things were still sour between Zoe and Wash--just one more damn problem Mal had to worry about.
There'd been arguments aplenty between those two over the years, but this was something else. Hell, they'd spent most of Wash's first year on the boat at each other's throats, and a lot of the time since, even after they'd gotten lovesome with one another. Arguing was normal; it was the silence between them now that Mal found unnerving. He knew better than anyone that the quieter Zoe was, the more dangerous she generally became. And a quiet Wash--well, a quiet Wash was just downright unsettling.
Mal pushed back his chair, grateful for an excuse to make himself scarce. "Reckon I'll go find out what Espinosa wants."
He made his way to the bridge and pulled up the prerecorded message. Espinosa's grizzled mug filled the screen, grinning crookedly.
"Malcolm Reynolds," said the old rocket-jock. "Been a long time. I got a piece of information I thought I'd pass on, just to be friendly and such."
Mal rolled his eyes. If Espinosa was being friendly then Mal was a little leather-winged bat.
"Contact of mine on Beylix knows of a guy got some cargo needs transporting. He's in a bit of a hurry, see, and willing to pay extra to get it moved in the next day or two. I thought maybe if you were in the area... look up a fellow named Durant, works outta Thermopolis, tell him I sent ya."
Now that was definitely promising, Mal thought. This panned out he might just have to give Espinosa a big ol' kiss on the mouth next time he saw him.
"Guess that's all. You be taking care of yourself out there, Reynolds. And you might want to think about stopping by my place on Santo pretty soon--one of these days I'm gonna come looking for that seventy-five you owe me."
"Fifty!" Mal protested futilely to the recording. "It was fifty, you mangy old cur."
"Pass on my regards to Zoe," Espinosa went on. "Assuming she's still tagging along after your sorry ass, that is." The transmission ended.
Mal shut off the display and leaned back in the pilot's chair, a slow grin spreading across his face. A job. A real, honest-to-god job. Maybe things were finally starting to look up for a change.
"Kaylee!" Mal roared as he walked toward the engine room.
Instead of Kaylee, he found himself face-to-face with Inara, which threw him a little. "Inara. I was--what're you doin' in here?"
Kaylee crawled out of from under the engine. "Hey, Cap'n!"
Inara smiled serenely. "Kaylee was just showing me how Serenity's propulsion system works."
"You look surprised, Mal."
"I just didn't know you were partial to machinery and such. Wouldn't have thought it was quite your cup of tea, so to speak."
Kaylee practically beamed with pride. "That's what I thought, Cap'n, but Inara said she wanted to know more about how Serenity works."
Kaylee's cheerfulness was in sharp contrast to the frayed tempers plaguing the rest of the crew. It'd take a powerful thunderstorm to rain on Kaylee's mood. No matter how bleak things were, she could always be counted on for a smile. It was one of the things Mal treasured most about her, though he'd never admit to it. Not out loud, anyway.
"It's fascinating," said Inara. "Such a complex set of systems and Kaylee knows how every inch of it works."
Mal recalled why he'd come into the engine room in the first place and tried to look stern. It was hard enough sustaining a scowl around Kaylee without Inara turning up and distracting him with her bare midriff and shiny lips. And the smell of her--all flowery and herblike--it made his head swim.
"What's the matter, Cap'n? You look cross."
"That's on account of I am cross, Kaylee. You know why? 'Cause my breakfast was cold. I thought you were gonna fix the gorram stove."
She shook her head. "No can do, that was our last heating element that burned out."
"Can't you--I don't know--magic it back together somehow?"
"Nope. Got completely fried--it's nothing but a melted lump of metal, now. Gonna have to get a replacement somewhere if you wanna use the stove."
"Ain't no money for a replacement. And no time, neither. Wash is gonna be making a course correction, slingshotting around Triumph to point us toward Beylix. Set it up the way he needs--we ain't got no fuel to waste."
"Beylix? Why are we going--Cap'n, did we get a job?"
"Might be. Got a lead on one, anyhow."
Kaylee's whole face lit up. "Well ain't that shiny! See, Inara, what'd I say? Cap'n always looks out for us, sure as eggs is round."
"Yes, he does," said Inara, her dark eyes sparkling with something Mal couldn't quite read. He was never sure what was going on in that head of hers. Unless she was mad at him, of course--then she was easy to read.
"I believe eggs are really more of an oval kind of--well, egg-shaped, actually--but I take your drift." Mal pretended to study the press regulator so he didn't have to meet Inara's unsettling gaze. "Just tell me you can hold her together a little longer, Kaylee. Can't afford to have anything else breaking down until we get paid."
"I'll keep her in the air, don't you worry. Oh, hey! I could get some heating elements for the stove when we get to Beylix, and that fuse regulator we been needing, not to mention--"
"No shopping until we get paid."
"I've got some redundant parts squirreled away, I could sweet talk Woo-Ping into trading for some of the stuff we need. Leastways an old heating element for the stove."
"That's my girl." Mal reached out to ruffle her hair, but Kaylee ducked and batted his hand away, flashing a smile sweet enough to melt even his mean old heart.
Kaylee grabbed the knapsack she'd packed with spare parts to entice Woo-Ping and sprinted down the stairs and across the cargo bay. Unfortunately, she was running so fast her foot caught on a deckplate in the airlock and she went careening down the ramp, barely kept her footing, and only managed to come to a stop by crashing into Jayne.
"Gorram it, girl, get offa me!"
"Sorry!" said Kaylee.
"And that's why we don't run on the ship," said Mal. Beside him, Zoe was covering her mouth to hide a laugh.
Kaylee pretended to look contrite. "Sorry, Cap'n."
He pointed a finger at her. "You got one hour, not a minute more you, you hear?"
"Jayne, you're going with her."
"What?" said Jayne. "Aw, Mal, I don't wanna go to Woo-Ping's, it smells like a baboon's armpit in that place."
"Then you should feel right at home," said Mal, slapping him on the back.
The captain turned and looked pointedly at Wash. "No one leaves the ship. We're only staying on this rock long enough to work out the details of this job so there's not to be any sightseeing today."
Wash gave a mock salute. "Aye aye, Captain. Anyone tries to leave, I'll duct tape 'em to the hull."
Kaylee stood on her tiptoes and planted a kiss on Wash's cheek. "Take care of our girl 'til I get back."
Normally she was the one left behind on the ship with Wash while the captain and Zoe and Jayne were out on jobs. They'd passed a lot of time together, her and Wash, partners in worrying, waiting on the others and taking care of Serenity. Much as Serenity was the captain's ship, most times Kaylee felt like she and Wash were her real parents.
"Aw, shucks, ma'am." He batted his eyes at her, pretending to look bashful.
Kaylee expected to find Zoe smiling at that, but instead she gave Wash a look sour as a lemon and turned away.
The captain grabbed Kaylee by the shoulders and gave her a gentle push. "Best get a wiggle on, Kaylee."
"Sure, Cap'n, see ya later." Kaylee slipped her arm around Jayne's elbow and dragged him toward Woo-Ping's.
"One hour!" Mal yelled after them.
Of all the cities in the 'verse, Thermopolis was one of Kaylee's favorites. It weren't much to look at, on account of the dense cloud cover that surrounded the whole planet. And, sure, Beylix was the system's garbage dump, which meant that it was mostly nothing but scrap yards and refuse centers and recycling stations. But that was exactly why Kaylee loved it.
Because what was considered trash on the Core planets was treasure out here on the Rim. Thermopolis, the biggest city on Beylix, was teeming with junk dealers, scrap shops and yards full of all manner of rebuilt ships. Also smugglers, thanks to the lack of Alliance interest in what was mostly considered an abandoned trash heap.
You could get just about anything in Thermopolis, so long as you didn't mind it being used, reconditioned or rebuilt entirely from old parts. Kaylee had been trading with Woo-Ping almost as long as she'd been aboard Serenity. He was mean haggler, but she could always count on him to have the parts she needed, and he was usually interested in the extra stuff she brought him.
"Isn't it nice to be off the ship for a change?" she said.
"Yeah," said Jayne. "It's gorram joy to stand around watching you bicker with that old man over a two-bit piece of junk for forty-five minutes." He took the knapsack from her and swung it over his own shoulder.
"Don't be such a grump. If I can get him to take one these old hydro pumps off my hands, I'll buy you a mooncake on the way back to the ship."
"Oh, goody," he said, rolling his eyes, but she could tell he was secretly pleased.
Kaylee didn't mind Jayne so much; he kind of reminded her of her brothers back home. He could be a real wáng ba dàn, no denying that, but deep down she knew he had his soft spots, just like everyone else.
"Hey, will you look at that?" he said, pausing in front of shop window. "You know what that is?"
Kaylee peered through the grimy glass. "A gun?"
"That there's a McCoy T-51 sniper rifle."
"It's very... long," said Kaylee, trying to seem interested.
"She's a real beaut. Bolt action with a five-round clip. That there'll stop a charging bull with one shot from a klick away. Only 500 of 'em ever made."
"You wanna go inside and have a look?" said Kaylee.
Jayne looked torn, but he shook his head. "No time. I'll come back next time we're hereabouts. If'n it's still in the shop, that is. Those things don't gen'rally sit on the shelf for long."
He seemed so sad, Kaylee couldn't hardly bear it. "Go on, Jayne. I can go to Woo-Ping's on my own. 'Sides, he gets a look at you he'll probably try to charge me twice as much." Woo-Ping had never developed much liking for Jayne.
"Sure as shootin'. Go on, git."
Jayne handed her back the knapsack, clapped her on the back nearly hard enough to knock her over, and disappeared into the shop.
Truth be told, she was glad to be rid of him. Jayne always got bored when she was shopping for parts and he was a right grouch about it. This way she could enjoy herself without listening to all his bitching and complaining.
The day was about as bright as a day on Beylix ever got and Kaylee's feet were well-acquainted with the route from the Red Key Docks to Woo-Ping's shop in the Tinker's Quarter. Wan sunlight filtered dimly through the clouds giving a soft, hazy cast to the city and everything in it. The breeze carried the smell of smoking meat and steamed cabbage and sent the colored lanterns strung up along the store fronts swaying prettily.
As she walked, Kaylee's eye was caught by a thrift shop with a pretty lavender robe hanging out front. She stopped to run her fingers along the embroidered hem and snuck a glance at the price tag. Even four credits was rich for her, but Lord, it was pretty. If only--
A hand clamped down over her face as someone grabbed her from behind, forcing her back down a narrow alley between the shops. She tried to wrench herself away but the man was nearly as big as Jayne and he had her pinned with a forearm across her chest like a tree trunk so she could hardly even breathe. And he'd slapped some kind of tape over her mouth so she couldn't scream, even if she'd had the breath for it.
Kaylee saw another man loom out of the shadows in the alley and then she was shoved up hard against the wall while they tied her wrists together, so tight it made her eyes water. The bustle of folks in the street felt like it was miles away, for all that it was only a few yards. She could see the knapsack full of parts lying on the ground where she'd dropped it. Someone was gonna steal it, and she'd never get that heating element for the stove.
One of the men jerked her away from the wall and next thing she knew they'd lowered some kind of big barrel on top of her and then turned it over, spilling her awkwardly onto her head. Then a lid slammed down over the top, throwing her into pitch blackness except for the light trickling through a few small holes in the top.
Kaylee felt herself hoisted roughly into the air and carried away, off into the city.
Fear washed over River like a tide. Tugging at her, pulling her down.
Trytoscreamtrytorunawaycan'tcan'tcan't. Heart rate increasing, adrenaline pumping. Cold sweat, taste of fear. Struggle. Fight. Pain.
And then darkness.
Round as an apple, deep as a cup.
She was gone, taken away.
Serenity felt it, too. River was acutely aware of the ship's grief, a low, keening throb that ran down the walls and through the floors, up through the soles of feet, along her legs and straight into her heart like an arrow made of ice and steel.
And all the king's horses can't fill it up.
Zoe followed the captain back onto to Serenity with something approaching regret. It'd been nice to step out in the world again, even if it was a hóuzi de pìgu of a planet like Beylix. She wasn't usually one for getting landsick, but the last couple of weeks had been hard. No work, no money coming in, fuel and rations running low. Situation like that was bound to have an adverse effect on morale, make the close quarters on the ship feel even closer.
She hoped the troubles she and Wash had been having were just a symptom of that, but she had a fear it wasn't that simple. Fraying tempers among the crew were to be expected, but whatever was happening to Zoe's marriage was new to her.
Last few weeks, she and Wash had grown distant with one another, cold even. They hardly ever talked and when they did they usually ended up sniping at each other. It'd gotten to the point she could barely stand to have him touch her anymore. Not that Wash had seemed particularly inclined to touch her.
Zoe couldn't even remember who'd started to pull away first--which maybe meant it had been her. All she knew was they were like two strangers living in the same space and it'd got so she could hardly stand it.
It made her uncomfortable to think that Mal had to have noticed--he knew her too well, kept too sharp an eye on his crew for something like this to pass under the radar of Malcolm Reynolds. Bless him, though, he never said a word. Zoe just hoped the rest of the crew hadn't picked up on it. Not too much, anyway.
At least now they had a job to look forward to--a decent one, even--and the promise of a shiny paycheck at the end of it.
Wash and Jayne had just finished up dumping Serenity's waste water tanks with Shepherd Book's help and they all looked up expectantly at the captain's return. Zoe couldn't help noticing the way her husband didn't even throw a glance in her direction.
"What's the news?" said Wash with a cheer that probably only she knew was forced.
"Got ourselves a job," said Mal.
Jayne whooped and Wash's smile got a little more genuine, though it still didn't turn her way.
"It's on the simple side," said Mal, "but the money's good. Pick up a shipment of livestock here on Beylix and transport it to Despina. Practically a milk run--we can be done and paid in a few short hours if we hustle."
"Livestock?" said Jayne. "Ain't cows again, is it? Hold stank like a cow's ass for a solid month after the last time."
"T'ain't cows," said Mal. "Something called cara--carca--"
"Carcajou," supplied Zoe, suppressing a smile.
"Yeah, that. Somewhat smaller and fuzzier than cows, I reckon. Breeder on Despina wants to raise 'em for their fur but the Alliance got strict rules against importing and exporting the little devils."
"How come?" said the shepherd.
Mal shrugged. "Don't know and don't care to."
"And the pay's good?" said Jayne.
"Three hundred in pretty platinum coins," said Mal.
Jayne whistled in appreciation. "Not bad for a one-day job."
"Seem a little strange, getting paid so much for something so simple?" asked Book.
"Skirting the Alliance is never simple," said Mal. "And anyhow I'm disinclined to look a gift horse in the pearly whites just now. Feels like a reliable job, though, right Zoe?"
The captain handed Wash a data disc. "There's the coordinates for the pickup, somewhere outside of Sinclair. They need the goods delivered today, so let's grab some sky."
"Yeah, uh, Captain... about that," said Jayne, looking suddenly guilty as a dog who'd stolen the Christmas goose.
Mal raised an eyebrow. "Jayne, you fixin' to ruin my fine mood?"
"It's just that Kaylee ain't back yet."
Zoe noted the way Mal's jaw clenched and winced inwardly.
"What do you mean, she ain't back?" he said in an unnaturally quiet voice. "Kaylee's with you, Jayne. I distinctly remember giving you an order to that effect. Don't you remember me giving such an order, Zoe?"
"Yes, sir, I do."
"She told me to go on, Mal! She said she'd be fine, and I thought--"
"What'd I tell you 'bout thinking?" the captain snapped. "I tell you to go with her, it ain't up to you or Kaylee to say otherwise."
"I'm sorry, Mal, I--"
The captain turned his back coldly on Jayne. "Zoe, take Jayne here and fetch little Miss Kaylee back, would you please?"
Zoe almost felt sorry for Jayne. Almost.
Inara hadn't been especially sorry to miss out on the excursion into Thermopolis. Beylix wasn't exactly her kind of planet--perpetually gray and cloudy, populated primarily by smugglers, scavengers, and junk dealers. Part of her wished that they were staying longer, though. Too many people sharing a too-small space could be wearing after a while. Everyone had been in a temper lately and Inara thought a few hours of shore leave, even in a depressing place like Beylix, might do them all some good. Even her shuttle had begun to feel confining to her, and so she'd come up to the galley with a book of poetry to take advantage of the relative peace of the common area while most of the crew was away.
Inara flipped through the pages of the book, looking for the spot she'd left off, and then paused, listening. She thought she'd heard something--a sort of muffled whimpering.
She followed the sound down the aft passage and into the engine room where she found a small, frail form cocooned in Kaylee's hammock. It was River, her long dark hair cascading over the edge of the brightly-colored fabric. She was shaking and muttering to herself the way that she did whenever something very bad was about to happen.
"River?" Inara moved toward her, trying to shake off the prickle of foreboding.
"Gone," River was saying over and over. "Gone. Gone. Gone."
Inara laid a gentle hand on the girl's cheek. "What's the matter, baby?"
"They took her away. Closed the lid up tight."
Inara's mouth went dry and she took an involuntary step backward.
River followed her with wide, tear-stained eyes that saw far too much. "Who will Serenity talk to now? Who'll understand her?"
"Inara?" Shepherd Book appeared in the hatchway. "I thought I heard--" His eyes fell on River. "Is she all right?"
"I don't know," said Inara. "She's had another... episode."
"I'll fetch her brother."
"Shepherd," Inara called after him. "Have you seen Kaylee?"
He turned and gave her a sharp look. "Funny you should ask."
"Seems she hasn't come back yet. Captain's in a foul fettle, I hear."
Inara felt herself go pale, and turned away from the shepherd so that he wouldn't see the fear that must surely be written on her face.
"Gone," River continued to whisper to herself. "Gone. Gone. Gone."
"Wash, how we lookin' for fuel?"
Wash's voice crackled over the comm system. "Not great, Mal. The course correction used up a lot of our reserves."
Mal grimaced. "Can we get the job done? That's what I need to hear from you right now."
There was a pause. "It'll be a close thing, but yeah, as long as we get straight there and back with no distractions."
"Suppose we better not be having any distractions, then."
Mal walked back over to the mule and glared at it. Gorram starter had given out on him. Serenity was falling apart around him and if they didn't get this paycheck--well, he didn't like to think about that.
He pulled a power wrench out of the toolbox, only to discover the power pack had given out so it was about as useful as box of hair. He cussed and hurled the wrench across the cargo bay, then winced as it bounced off an ammo crate.
Why couldn't things ever just go smooth? Kaylee knew better than to go and wander off like that. He'd been in a fine mood, too. Now half of his crew was out taking a walkabout instead of on their way to doing the perfectly respectable smuggling he'd lined up. And here he was couldn't hardly get anything done anyway for worrying about Kaylee.
Probably the girl had just got carried away wrangling with Woo-Ping over engine bits and she'd be back in no time, full of apologies. Except the longer she was gone the less likely that theory was starting to seem. There was a client waiting on them, and time was rushing by, moving toward the moment when Mal was going to have to make a decision, one way or the other. A decision he didn't want to make.
He shook his head, trying to push it all away and concentrate on the work at hand. One obstacle at a time, that was the way to do it.
Inara. Must be his lucky day. Mal didn't even have to look at her to know that it was gonna be one of those conversations; he could tell from her tone, all uppity and tense.
"If you come to ask me to dance, I'm gonna have to regretfully decline," said Mal, reaching for another wrench. "There's work to be done and I don't seem to have enough crew about to do it at the moment."
"River's upset," said Inara. "I found her in the engine room crying."
He looked up sharply. "She didn't touch anything, did she?"
"No, she... she seems to think Kaylee's in some kind of danger."
That gave him pause. He tried not to show it, though. "Wouldn't put too much stock in that girl's babbling. We both know she ain't got both oars in the water."
"But Kaylee's missing, isn't she?"
He concentrated on the mule's starter, grateful for something to look at that wasn't Inara. "Wouldn't say missing. More like late. Probably got distracted by some shuài fellow she saw in town."
"You don't believe that."
He grit his teeth and tugged ineffectually at one of the bolts. "And you'd know all about what I do and don't believe?"
He gave up on the mule, straightened and looked at her levelly. "I understand the worry, it being Kaylee and all, but don't waste your time frettin'. Zoe and Jayne'll be along any minute now with the girl in tow and I'll give her a year of septic flush duty for being such a thorn in my side."
"And if they don't find her?"
Something in his jaw clenched just a little bit. "We got a pickup to make on the other side of the planet won't be waiting on us forever."
Inara looked at him incredulously. "You'd actually go off and leave her here?"
He made a concerted effort to keep his voice calm and even. "In case you haven't noticed, we ain't so well off we can afford to turn down a job like this. A member of the crew decides to go AWOL we ain't got the leisure to wait around."
"Mal, you can't!"
"Don't tell me what I can't do on my gorram ship!" So much for calm and even.
But Inara didn't even blink. "Yes, I get it, you're the captain, you're the boss of us all. This isn't about who gets to give the orders--"
"This is about I got a job to do ain't got nothing to do with you. I don't barge into your shuttle telling you how to do your whoring, you don't stand in my cargo bay telling me how to do my smuggling. I seem to recall we had an understanding to that effect."
The smooth facade Inara usually wore slipped a bit and Mal got a glimpse of what lay behind it: fear. "Kaylee would never run off for no reason," she said in a quiet voice she hardly ever used with him. "If she's not back yet it's because she's in trouble."
Some of the anger drained out of him. "I look like some kind of soft-in-the-head idiot you reckon I don't know that?" he said quietly.
Inara opened her mouth to retort but Mal held up his hand. "Don't answer that, it might ruin my fine mood."
"Is it true that Kaylee's missing?" Simon stepped out of the hatch to the passenger dorms, looking anxious as a mother hen. Just what Mal needed--more folks working themselves into a flippy-hiss over Kaylee.
Fortunately, Zoe saved him the trouble of talking to Simon by showing up with Jayne on her heels. Just the two of them, Mal noted grimly.
"Well?" he said, knowing he wasn't going to like the answer.
"She's nowhere, Mal," said Jayne. "We looked everwhere, too. She's just gone. Never even got to Woo-Ping's."
Mal looked over at Zoe. She had that crinkle around her eyes that she got whenever she had bad news to deliver. "I'm guessing there's more," he said.
"Found these hanging up outside the magistrate's office." She pulled a couple of paper fliers out of her pocket and laid them out face-up on one of the storage bins.
Mal peered down at them, felt Simon and Inara come up beside him to do the same. They were missing person notices. Both for sweet-faced girls who'd disappeared recently.
"Talked to the clerk," said Zoe. "Seems near half-a-dozen girls have gone missing in the last two weeks, mostly from around the Tinker's Quarter."
"Damn," said Mal.
"What does it mean?" asked Simon.
"Slavers," said Zoe flatly.
"I thought slavers usually kidnapped men for the workhouses," said Simon, ever two steps behind the parade.
"Different kind of slavers," said Mal, rubbing his brow with the back of his hand. "Different kind of house, the kind full of young girls."
"Oh," said Simon, finally getting it.
Mal's eyes flicked over to Inara before he could stop himself. Every single time he'd thrown the word whore at her came back to him, pricking like burrs under his collar.
She stared back at him full of cold blame. Look what you've done to Kaylee now, those dark eyes were saying.
"Slavers ain't so bad," said Jayne. "Least they'll keep her alive. Better'n organ dealers."
Sweet little Kaylee with the teddy bear on her coveralls. The girl who'd insisted on painting flowers all over the kitchen of his ship and who could replace a blocked intake valve in 43 seconds flat. An image came to him of Kaylee, flat on her back with some meaty, bedsore of a man holding her down, ripping those teddy bear coveralls off of her, forcing her legs apart while she struggled and cried--
Mal lashed out at the closest thing to hand worth lashing out at and punched Jayne square in the face. Taken off guard, the big man went sprawling on the floor.
"Bèn tiānshēng de yī duī ròu!" Mal spat, still trying to rid himself of that image of Kaylee.
"Ruttin' hell!" Jayne wiped at the blood running from his nose and glared up at Mal with angry, violent eyes.
Okay, so hitting a granite-jawed maniac who could probably punch a rhinoceros to death with his bare hands wasn't exactly Mal's best idea ever. No taking it back now, though. Zoe took a warning step toward Jayne, hand on her weapon, quietly reminding him of his place in the hierarchy.
Mal clenched his fist, trying to ignore the pain in his hand. "Gorram it, Jayne, this is your fault."
"My fault?" said Jayne, pulling himself carefully to his feet.
"If you'd gone with her like I told you to, she'd be safe on the ship right now and we'd be halfway to a paycheck on Despina."
"Or maybe Kaylee'd still be just as taken and I'd have a bad case of being dead from trying to protect her. You ever think of that?"
"And that'd be a powerful shame, would it?" Mal walked over and angrily punched the button to shut the airlock. With his sore hand. He winced and rubbed his knuckles.
"This isn't helping Kaylee," said Simon. "How are we going to get her back?"
Everyone looked at Mal expectantly. That's the way it was. Things went pear-shaped they looked to him to come up with a plan. It was only later that they started in with the arguing and the complaining.
Cap'n always looks out for us.
He stared at the comm panel. "We need that money in a bad way."
"Mal!" The reproach in Inara's voice rubbed him like sandpaper on a sunburn.
Sure as eggs is round.
He hit the comm. "Wash, get us off the ground and make for that rendezvous in Sinclair."