"You're choosing money over Kaylee's life!" Simon yelled over the roar of the engines. "I always knew you were an opportunistic húndàn, but this is going too far!" He'd gotten himself right up in Mal's face and if there was one thing Mal hated more than being told what to do, it was when people got up in his face.
He gave Simon a look fit to freeze the the nuts off a squirrel and let his voice drop to a low, menacing snarl. "Doctor, you're gonna want to take two generous steps back, or else you're gonna find yourself tossed out of that airlock."
Simon shut his trap and backed up more than the required two steps.
"Kaylee believes in you," said Inara. She was flushed and shaking, about as angry as he'd ever seen her. "She trusts you to protect her and you're just going to abandon her? That girl worships you and you--"
Something on Mal's face must have finally stopped her because she snapped her mouth shut, leaving the thought unfinished. Serenity shuddered around them as the engine pods rotated to propel the ship westward, away from Thermopolis.
"I'm the captain of this boat," said Mal, his voice coming out flat with barely-suppressed fury, "which means when push comes to shove I'm the one makes the hard decisions. We don't do this job, Serenity don't fly anymore. So we are doing this job and it's not up for debate in any gorram committees. Dǒng le ma?"
No one said anything to contradict him for a change. The way it oughta be. "Zoe, you're taking Serenity and making that pickup. Me and Jayne are going back for Kaylee in the shuttle."
The barest trace of a smile hovered at the corner of Zoe's mouth. "Yes, sir." Everyone else might doubt him, but Zoe knew him too well for that. Never leave a man behind. Or a sweet, helpless girl who couldn't hardly defend herself against an enthusiastic dumpling vendor.
"Can I ask, Captain," said Inara placing bitter emphasis on the last word, "exactly how you plan on finding her? Go door-to-door asking if anyone knows where the slavers live?"
Mal swung around to face her, eyebrows raised mockingly. "Think that'd work?"
"Probably best to start at the local whorehouses," piped up Jayne, earning himself eyerolls and groans from most everyone standing around him. "What? You're saying we shouldn't look for whores in a whorehouse?"
Zoe shook her head. "They'll wanna take the girls to work somewhere offworld, somewhere they've got no hope of escaping and getting back home."
Mal nodded thoughtfully. "Means they're holding 'em somewhere quiet and out-of-the-way until they're ready to pick up and transport 'em to their glamorous new life."
"What you need is a minnow in the water," said Zoe. "Sir, maybe I should--"
"You ain't exactly their type," said Mal. "They'll be looking for easy targets--weak, helpless. No offense, Zoe, but I don't imagine you know a lot about being vulnerable."
"I reckon that's true," said Zoe.
"You're talking about bait," said Inara.
Mal ignored her, kept his attention fixed on Zoe. "Anyways, I need you with Serenity, making sure that job gets done and we get paid. That getting paid part's important."
"I'll do it," said Inara. "I can be a minnow."
"No," said Mal flatly.
Her eyes flashed in challenge. "Why? Because I'm not helpless enough or because I'm too helpless?"
"It's too dangerous, Inara. They already got Kaylee, I'm not handing you over to them, too."
"I can handle it. I only have to play along until they take me to wherever they're keeping the girls, right? Then you and Jayne can rush to my rescue like a couple of knights in dingy battered armor."
Mal crossed his arms stubbornly. "They won't go for it, they'll make you for a fine lady straight away."
"You let me take care of that."
"I don't like it." Somehow he sensed that he'd already lost, and wondered how and when that had happened.
"Do you have a better idea?" said Inara.
He thought about it. "That knocking on doors plan didn't sound so bad."
She looked at him with those doe-soft eyes of hers, the ones that were liable to make him melt into his boots if he wasn't careful. "Kaylee's in trouble, Mal. Whatever the danger, it's worth it."
And he couldn't think of a damn thing to say to that.
Kaylee was jostled around in the container for what seemed like an hour but was probably closer to half that. She tried to listen to the sounds of the city around her, to figure out where she was, but it was no use. Then she got a big whiff of engine exhaust and realized they'd brought her to one of Thermopolis' many space docks.
She started to panic all over again at the thought of being stowed on a ship and whisked off to Lord-knows-where without anyone being the wiser. What was she thinking sending Jayne off like that? Oh, the captain's gonna be so mad at me. She struggled against the lid with all her might and when that didn't work she tried throwing her weight against different sides of the container, trying to knock it out of the grip of whoever was hauling her around. That didn't work either, though, and then she heard the sound of a ship's hatch opening and closing and boots clomping on deckplates, and she knew she was well and truly cooked.
A minute later she felt the basket start to tilt and she was dumped out on the floor, about as graceful as a cow on a water slide. The sudden light blinded her and she blinked, trying to clear her vision.
She looked to be in the officer's quarters of a mid-sized transport. One of the late-model Monroe ships, maybe an AC-series, with a lot of aftermarket modifications.
It was only after she'd identified the ship that she noticed the folks in the room with her. Two mean-looking goon types--probably the lugs who'd snatched and carried her here--and a plump, middle-aged woman with gray-streaked black hair that was pulled into a loose bun.
The woman was peering down at Kaylee and smiled when she saw Kaylee looking back. "You're a pretty thing, aren't you?" She gestured impatiently at the goon on the left. "Don't just stand there, get that awful tape off her face and unbind her."
The cord around her wrists was cut and the tape on her mouth ruthlessly ripped away, taking a little bit of skin with it. "Ow!" Kaylee pressed her hand against her mouth.
"I am sorry about that," said the woman kindly. "Nasty business, but it's all right, honey, you're safe now." Her words were nice enough, but something in her manner whispered the lie of them.
"I need to get back," said Kaylee, pulling herself to her feet. "I got people waiting on me."
She thought she saw a flicker of irritation flit across the woman's face but it was gone as quickly as it appeared. "What's your name, sweetheart?"
"Kaylee. That's a pretty name. My name's Hope."
"The captain will come looking for me, you know."
"I wouldn't worry about your captain. Why, I'll bet he's forgotten all about you by now."
"He wouldn't never do that!"
"Oh, now you're upset. It's not good for a girl your age to worry so much. Frown lines, you know. Lucky for you I've got just the thing to cheer you up." She picked up a crystal bowl full of fresh fruit--apples and melons and strawberries and some things so fine Kaylee didn't even recognize them--and held it out. "Go on, dear, take one. Goodness, take more than one, you look hungry. Are you hungry, sweetie?"
Kaylee stubbornly shook her head, though in point of fact she was starving, and after eating nothing but molded protein for weeks the smell of those strawberries was like to make her faint.
"Suit yourself." Hope set the bowl down again. "Things are going to be different from now on, Kaylee, so you just forget all about that mean old captain. I want you to think of me as your mama from now on. We're going to have a fine time together, you and me and the other girls. You'll see."
Kaylee thought she might have an idea as to what that meant, and it filled her up with fear. "Please, I need to go home."
The woman smiled a cold, bland smile that didn't make it all the way to her eyes. "Kaylee, sweetie, you are home."
Mal stood outside the hatch to Shepherd Book's quarters, wondering if he had gone a little soft in the head. Hell, he thought, couldn't hurt, could it? He raised his hand and knocked. A moment later Book opened the door.
"Captain," he said, looking surprised, but trying to mask it.
"I heard you were looking after River," said Mal.
Book nodded. "She was rather upset, before, but she seems to have calmed down somewhat."
"She up for a visitor?"
"I don't see why not." Book stood aside, implicitly inviting Mal to enter. He could tell by the shepherd's expression that he didn't quite trust him around the girl, though. Mal tried not to take offense, though it rankled him.
River was sitting cross-legged on the shepherd's bunk, playing with a deck of cards, turning them face-up one by one.
"Hey there, little one," said Mal, as gently as he could.
River's eyes flicked over to him, then back to the cards. "King of kites."
"You like cards?" said Mal.
"Seven of plums," said River, laying the card down on the mattress.
"Sure is," said Mal. "Inara thinks you might know something about Kaylee. That right?"
River looked up at him with those creepifying eyes of hers that always seemed to see right through him. It took all his will not to look away. "Queen of hearts," she said, laying down another card.
This was an unholy waste of time. He'd figured it would be, but at least he'd given it a shot. He turned to go.
"Hope," said River.
Mal turned around. "What?"
"Hope's got Kaylee."
"I don't know what that means." He looked over at Book, but the preacher was obviously just as mystified as Mal. "Is Kaylee all right? Is she... alive still?" It cost him to ask that last part, to give voice to the fear that'd plagued him from the minute he'd heard Kaylee'd gone missing.
"She's alive." River closed her eyes and smiled. "Strawberries are her favorite."
Mal didn't know what to make of that, but pressed on. "Do you know where she is? Can you tell me where to look, where to find Kaylee?"
River turned over another card. Smiled. "Deuce of hearts."
And she was back on the cards. Obviously he wasn't getting anything more useful out of the girl. He tried to take comfort in the fact that Kaylee was alive. He wanted to believe River was right about that part, anyway.
Mal bid goodbye to the shepherd and made his way up to the bridge in search of Zoe and Wash.
He could hear their bickering halfway down the foredeck passage. They shut up as soon as they caught sight of him, though, sparing him the chore of having to find out what it was about.
"Everything set?" he said.
"We'll be at the rendezvous in an hour," said Wash. "Fuel reserves should get us from there to Despina and back if we don't burn too hot."
Mal picked up the jury-rigged transmitter sitting on the console. "This it?"
Wash nodded. "Got it wired into the shuttle's data reader like you asked."
Mal pocketed the transmitter and looked at Zoe. "From what I hear, Ham Kennet's a straight-shooter. Deliver the goods intact, get paid what's agreed on. If luck's on our side it'll be just that simple."
Zoe raised her eyebrows at him ever-so-slightly. "Luck ever been on our side before, sir?"
Mal smiled ruefully. "Not as such, but I hear there's a first time for everything."
He had a sense Zoe wanted to say more; he could always tell. "Got something to say?"
"Don't feel right, splitting our manpower like this. You sure you and Jayne can handle it just the two of you?"
He caught Wash throwing an eyeroll that the man never would have dared in front of Zoe a couple months ago.
"Have to," said Mal. He looked from Zoe to Wash and back again. The tension between them was thick enough to choke a horse. "There a problem I don't know about?"
"No, sir," said Zoe quickly.
Wash opened his mouth to say something and Zoe gave him a look a look that would raise a blister on boot leather. Something hard came over Wash's face at that look, but he shook it off and met Mal's gaze with a glassy smile. "No problem at all, Captain. Everything's peachier than a... thing with a lot of peaches in it."
"Good," said Mal. "Keep it that way."
Inara stared at herself in the mirror, checking to make sure the effect was complete. She'd borrowed some of Kaylee's clothes-- a pair of worn sandals and an ill-fitting floral cotton dress that was fraying at the hems and stained with engine grease. Her usually shining hair now hung limp and dull, knotted carelessly at the base of her neck, and her face was smudged with dirt rather than makeup. The varnish had been scrubbed from her finger and toenails and the expensive scented oils and perfumes washed from her skin. She practiced several expressions, posing carefully until the face in the mirror reflected poverty and desperation. Perfect.
She stepped out of her shuttle and found Mal, Zoe and Jayne at the other end of the catwalk, prepping the other shuttle. When she approached they all went silent and still, taking in the new Inara.
"Well, I'll be," said Zoe, the first to speak.
Inara smiled. "Do I look appropriately helpless, then?"
"I'll say," said Jayne, scratching his head. "They'll be on you like a pack of dogs on a three-legged cat."
"Shut it, Jayne," snapped Mal. "You and Zoe go get the last of those storage bins stowed in the crawlspace."
Zoe gave Inara a smile and a reassuring squeeze on the shoulder as she passed.
"Do I look all right?" she asked Mal when they'd gone.
"Well enough," he said gruffly. He reached in his pocket and fished out a small metal capsule about a third the size of grape. "Wash fixed this up for you. We'll be able to track you with it."
Inara took the transmitter, turning it over in her hand.
"'Fraid you'll have to swallow it," said Mal. "There's nowhere on your--uh--person we can be sure it'll be... safe."
The implications of that hung in the air between them. He was afraid for her, Inara knew, and trying desperately not to let it show. It actually helped, knowing that. Being brave for his sake make it easier for her ignore her own fears.
"You don't have to do this," he said.
She forced a smile. "Yes I do."
He shook his head. "The people on this ship are my responsibility. That's my burden to carry and in exchange I get the privilege of ordering everyone around. But you--Inara, I'll find another way to get Kaylee back."
She popped the transmitter in her mouth and swallowed it before he could say anything else. It tasted metallic and oily and burned all the way down her throat. "Okay, maybe I should have swallowed that with water."
She braced herself for the inevitable unseemly joke, a crude reference to her professional aptitude for swallowing things.
Mal didn't say anything, though, just reached into the shuttle, came out with a canteen and unscrewed the lid for her. Her knight in dingy, battered armor. The water tasted like plastic, but it soothed some of the burning in her throat.
"We won't be able to shadow you too closely, or else we'll scare 'em away. But we'll be able to find you, all the same."
"Mal," she said uncertainly. "Do you think Kaylee's... all right?"
"River says she is."
That surprised her, that he'd talked to River. It made her feel better, too, to know that Kaylee was still alive. She believed it, if River said it was so. She couldn't not believe in the things that River seemed to know.
Mal reached out, rather tentatively, and laid a hand on her shoulder, right at the curve of her neck. The gentle pressure was comforting, and Inara felt some of the tension she'd been carrying wash away. His thumb traced the hollow of her collarbone and she found herself leaning into him, as though gravity were pulling her toward the reassuring solidness of him.
No. It was too much, too close. She stiffened, breaking the spell.
Mal took his hand away and cleared his throat. "Kaylee's quick and clever. She'll know to keep her head down, not start any trouble or draw undue attention to herself."
He was trying to be reassuring, but to Inara it sounded like he was trying to convince himself as much as her.
She forced another smile, and tried to look brave.
Kaylee had never gotten on much with other girls. Most of 'em just seemed so useless. Sure, she liked a fancy dress or a handsome young man as much as the next girl, but she also liked trace compression blocks, and well-stocked toolboxes, and thrilling adventures.
So it was just her luck that she'd been taken to another chamber in the ship and locked up with six other girls. As prisons went it wasn't too bad--in fact it was a whole heck of a lot nicer than her quarters on Serenity. There were eight bunks lined up along the walls and a table laid out with all kinds of delicious-looking foods just sitting there waiting to be eaten. Kaylee tried not to look at the food.
She'd already searched the whole damn place and concluded that there was no way out that she could figure. Spaceships were about as secure as anything and this one was especially tight--no loose panels or screws anywhere that she could find. And whoever'd fixed it up had done a bang up job of it, too, completely rewiring the hatch controls so they were inaccessible from inside the room. Not that she had any tools to work with anyway. If she had, well, it'd be a whole different story then, for sure.
"We have to figger a way out of here," she said.
The girls all stared at her blankly, as if she'd just suggested they take off their drawers and wear them on their heads.
"What are you doing?" said Kaylee, snatching a cookie out of the hands of a red-haired girl.
"Hey, that's mine!" said the girl.
"You can't eat their food!"
"Because they're bad people and that's bad food. They're just tryin' to tempt you."
"Maybe I don't mind being tempted," said the girl, snatching back the cookie.
"How come you're all just standing around like we're at some kind of church social?" Kaylee said, looking around at the other girls. "They kidnapped us! Grabbed us off the street and dragged us here against our will."
"Miss Hope's not so bad," said one of the girls. "She's nice. Gave me this pretty dress to wear and all this fancy food. She promised to take care of us."
"She's a deceiver," said Kaylee. "A low-down dirty deceiver."
"She's nicer than my folks," said another girl. "Miss Hope says she's gonna make me into a lady, nice and proper."
"Yeah, I'll bet. Don't you know what that means?" said Kaylee. "What they're gonna do to us?"
"What?" said a scared-looking blond girl who couldn't have been a day over 16. "What does it mean?"
"It means they're gonna turn us into whores!"
"So what?" said the girl with the cookie. "My pa was gonna marry me off to Stump Magillicutty, I don't see how this is any worse. If I'm gonna share the bed of a man I don't like, at least I ought to have nice things."
"Didn't you hear me? Whores!" Kaylee's voice rose with frustration. "I'm not gonna let 'em make me into a whore."
The blond girl started crying and some of the others tried to shush her up. "Be quiet," one of the girls hissed. "You're gonna get in trouble like Wei-An."
Kaylee's eyes fell on a pretty dark-haired girl sitting on one of the bunks with her knees pulled up against her chest. She was rocking slowly back and forth in a way that made Kaylee think of River. There were angry, purple bruises up and down her arms and legs.
The hatch slid open and a guard stepped in. "What's going on in here? Who's making a ruckus?"
Cookie girl pointed an accusatory finger at Kaylee. "She did it. She was trying to scare us and talking about escapin'! She's fermentin' dissent!"
The guard grabbed Kaylee painfully by the arm. She thought about struggling, but one look at the nightstick gripped in the guard's other hand made her think better of it.
"Come on," he said as he pushed her roughly through the door. "Miss Hope's gonna teach you a lesson."
The shuttle rocked and swayed under Mal's not-so-expert guidance. It had been like this the whole flight back to Thermopolis.
Jayne had finally gone into the back and silently strapped himself in with the shuttle's safety harnesses. He sat there, jaw clenched, rigid as a corpse.
Inara gripped the seat back to steady herself against the turbulence. "Honestly, Mal, you should have let me fly."
"I'm not completely incompetent," he snapped. "I can pilot a gorram shuttle, it's not my fault the atmo's full of air pockets."
The shuttle was taken by a fresh bout of shaking and several sensors began flashing and beeping excitedly. "Okay, it's possible I'm the littlest bit incompetent," he said.
"Would it help if I got out and pushed?" Inara asked dryly.
"For God's sake, turn up the inertial reductors." She leaned across him to adjust the lever on the console just as the shuttle gave a great lurch. It caught her off-balance and she went tumbling into Mal's lap. He grabbed her to keep her from sliding to the floor, then gave her a sly grin.
"You did that on purpose," she said, primly standing herself upright again.
"Truth be told, I wouldn't know how," said Mal.
They managed to dock in Thermopolis without shaking themselves to pieces or crashing into anything important and Jayne set about readying the arsenal of weapons he'd brought along for the rescue mission.
Inara opened the hatch and stepped out into the city. She watched the people around her busily going about their business under the cold, gray sky and wished she'd thought to bring one of Kaylee's jackets.
"Ready?" said Mal, coming up behind her.
She hadn't heard him approach and started a little. Not a good beginning.
"I'm fine," she said quickly. A little too quickly. Pull it together, you can do better than this.
Jayne was already locking up the shuttle behind Mal. Showtime.
"You won't see me," said Mal, "but I'll be right behind you all the same. You hear me? Right behind you. I'll get you out of there before--"
"I know," said Inara.
"You've got my word."
It meant everything to him, his word. It was one of the things she'd admired about him from the beginning. He wouldn't let her down. She knew that as surely as she knew her own name.
"Mal--" she said, and then stopped, afraid she'd betrayed too much, the way she'd said it. She laid her hand on his chest--
--and pushed him gently away. "Go."
She smiled one last time and walked into the crowded city.