Zoe had never taken much to animals. Born and raised in the black on a series of cargo ships, she'd never had much experience of them growing up. They'd hauled livestock on Serenity before, of course, and other than the smell and the noise it hadn't been so bad, but then the captain had been around all those times to see to things, with all the experience of his rancher upbringing.
Now, Zoe watched in dismay as Budge Zabriskie's men loaded the "livestock" into Serenity's hold. Wash, Simon and Book watched with her, their expressions pretty much matching the revulsion she felt. River's expression, on the other hand, was something closer to childlike fascination.
Budge noticed their looks and grinned. "Smell bad enough to stink a dog off a gut wagon, don't they?" He was a great whale of a man, all red-faced and sweating even though it was a cold day and he hadn't lifted a finger to exert himself. "Some folk call 'em stink bears."
Stink was right. They reeked like skunks and already the smell was making Zoe's eyes water.
"But they're wolverines," said Wash.
"Ayuh," said Budge cheerfully.
"But... wolverines," Wash repeated, gesturing helplessly at the wooden crates.
"Someone's actually going to breed wolverines?" said Simon.
"Fur's about as warm and waterproof as you could ask for," said Budge. "Leastways, that's what I hear. Wouldn't wanna get close enough to check, myself."
"No," said Shepherd Book. "I don't imagine you would."
Each of the two dozen wooden crates rattled and bounced as if it contained a tiny tornado. A terrible cacophony of snarling and growling and shaking and clawing emanated from the boxes, filling the cargo bay with a deafening racket.
"Those crates are secure, right?" said Simon. "They're not going to come open or anything?"
"Safe as houses," Budge assured them. He thrust a ledger book at Zoe. "Sign here."
"They smell really bad," said Wash after Budge and his men had gone. "I mean really bad. Not just a little bad, like a leaky septic tank or a bloated corpse, but really bad."
"We get it," said Zoe irritably. "They smell."
Wash opened his mouth like he was going to say something, then snapped it shut and stalked over to the airlock controls.
"River, don't get too close," said Simon. The girl was sitting on the floor in front of one of one of the crates, her head tilted sideways, studying the vicious creature inside.
"They're so loud," she said.
"They are that," Simon agreed.
"All instincts and urges and desires. They need. It drowns out everything else, so loud it's quiet." She looked strangely content in the midst of all the stink and noise.
Zoe bent down for a closer look at the animals. "Don't like their eyes. All red and beady with those slanty pupils. It's not right."
"Like the burning embers of Hell," said Simon.
"I don't know," said Book. "There's a certain beauty to them. They might even be considered cute, if you overlook the teeth. Like tiny little bears."
"Oh, yeah," said Wash. "They're cute, fluffy balls of demonic fury. I'm sure if you let one of 'em out it'd just curl up in your lap, sweet as anything, and gnaw quietly on your thighbone." He shot Zoe one last unhappy look before heading up to the bridge.
Jayne squinted up at the curdled sky and tried not to think about Kaylee and how long it'd been since she got snatched. He and Mal had been following Inara around for a couple hours now, keeping a goodly distance between them, but not letting her get out of eyeball range. He had several guns strapped on under his jacket and Vera hidden in a duffel on his back. A promiscuous display of firearms in the middle of town was liable to attract attention and Vera did tend to turn heads.
He was itching to shoot someone, or to hit someone, but he was starting to wonder if this whole plan was going to work at all. Those slavers had already gotten themselves one girl today, maybe they'd lay low for a while before striking again. Or maybe they'd met their quota with Kaylee and were already halfway across the quadrant by now. He figured there was a pretty good chance they'd treat her okay for the first little while--didn't like to think about what came after that, though.
Jayne was fonder of Kaylee than he'd willingly own up to. The girl kinda reminded him of a dog his ma'd had around the house. Damned annoying yappy little thing, but sometimes it was nice just to have someone around who was actually glad to see him.
Inara had paused in front of a shop window and was pretending to look at the bent pots and pans displayed there. She looked different with the paint all scrubbed off her face, wearing one of Kaylee's short little dresses. Younger and... prettier somehow. More like a girl Jayne might have had a chance with.
He spat on the ground, ignoring the dirty look from the shopkeeper whose doorstep he'd sullied. "She's got real nice legs, don't she?"
"What?" said Mal distractedly.
"'Nara. She's got a fine pair a legs."
Mal scowled at him. "Quit staring at her legs."
"We're supposed to be watching her, ain't we? I mean, isn't that the whole damn point?"
"That what you were looking at when Kaylee got snatched? A fine pair of legs?"
Some of the fire went out of Jayne's belly. He wanted to say something, but didn't know exactly what. "Listen, Mal, about that... Kaylee, she's... well..." He rubbed the back of his head while he struggled with the words. "I just... I feel real bad, is all. You don't even know."
For the first time all day Mal looked at Jayne like he wasn't something that needed to be scraped off his boot. "I got a pretty good idea."
Jayne checked the spot where Inara had been just a second ago and felt himself go cold. "Where'd she go?"
Mal snapped back to attention. "What?"
Jayne studied the display on the data reader. "She's heading away from us. North-northeast about 200 meters. " She should have been plainly visible if the transmitter was reading right.
"She ain't there, Jayne."
"She is, says so right on the thing." Mal grabbed it away from him, as if he could somehow read it better himself.
Jayne scanned the street with his keen sniper's eyes. The light was starting to fall out of the day and it was a busy area, but not so crowded they shouldn't have been able to spot her pretty easy. He caught a glimpse of a bright green rain barrel being carried by two men, just before it turned a corner and disappeared out of sight.
"She changed direction," said Mal. "West-southwest, 250 meters."
"Come on," said Jayne, pushing his way into the crowd. "I know where she went."
Wash stared out the cockpit window, lost in the black. Not the blackness of space--he knew precisely where Serenity was and where she was headed--but the blackness that had crawled up inside of him and nested there.
He was mad. And he was pretty sure it was Zoe he was mad at, although there was a small part of him that suspected he was maybe mad at himself a little bit, too. Thing was, he couldn't rightly recall what exactly he was mad about anymore. Zoe'd done something, or said something, or maybe it was something she hadn't said or done. Didn't matter, because a quiet had fallen between them, and he didn't know how to get rid of it.
Zoe had always been on the quiet side. Not like him--he was always trying to fill up all the silences around him with words. Zoe was a woman of actions, not words; she spoke to him with the playful swish of her hips, the smiles that lingered at the corner of her mouth, the way her eyes would follow him around a room.
Not anymore. She was cold and rigid around him now, and her eyes didn't follow him anywhere. It was a hurtful kind of quiet that lay between them and it... well, it hurt. Honestly, he was tired of being mad. He wished he knew how to go back and undo it.
"Wash." Zoe's voice behind him nearly startled him out of his chair.
He recovered his composure and turned to look at her, eyebrows raised slightly.
"How long 'til we hit Despina?" She spoke with the tone of grim detachment she'd fallen to using with him lately whenever ship's business forced them to interact.
He checked the console. "One hour and twenty-three minutes."
"I want you wearing a sidearm when we meet Kennet."
"Okay. Sure." He'd never heard of wolverine smugglers being particularly cutthroat or dangerous before, but then again he'd never actually heard of wolverine smugglers before. And with Mal and Jayne both gone after Kaylee...
Zoe turned to go, her business with him apparently concluded.
She paused in the hatchway, but didn't turn around.
He wanted to go to her and put his arms around her, hold her tight and bury his face in her hair. But he knew instinctively that if he tried, she'd pull away, and he wouldn't be able to bear that.
"You--uh--you think they're gonna be able to get Kaylee back?" he said. Because that was the other thing that had been gnawing at him. The thought of what might happen to Kaylee; what might have already happened.
Zoe turned to look at him, and something in her face softened just a little. "Hope so."
It was the best conversation they'd had in days. Wash watched her walk away down the foredeck passage, missing the playful sway of her hips so badly it hurt.
Kaylee sat in an uncomfortable wooden chair in an empty storage cabin, flanked by two of Hope's goons. She was pretty sure that if it'd been the captain in her place, or Zoe or Jayne, they'd already have some sort of amazing escape plan worked out. She wasn't them, though. She was just Kaylee, and she was scared.
For the first little while she'd been staring at the floor, at a funny-looking spot near her feet. Kinda reddish. Like blood, she'd realized. After that she kept her eyes off the floor.
Eventually the hatch slid open and Hope came in. She was carrying a long cardboard box wrapped in a pink satin bow, which she set down on a stool by the door.
"Kaylee, Kaylee, Kaylee," she said, shaking her head sadly. "I'm just so disappointed, sweetie. A genteel and quiet deportment is the characteristic of a well-bred person, you know, and we just can't have you rousing rabble among the girls."
"Please," said Kaylee. "Please let me go. I won't tell anyone, I just want to go home. I'm not the kind of girl you want."
"You know what I think?" said Hope. "I think you'd look just lovely with your hair up. It'd show off your neck to such pretty effect. You ever wear your hair up?"
Kaylee didn't say anything.
"No?" Hope continued as if Kaylee had answered. "Well, it's something to think about. I've got very high hopes for you. You're a beautiful, bright girl with her whole life ahead of her and I simply won't tolerate sulking among my girls. But don't worry, I'm not ready to give up on you, yet."
Hope fetched the box and set it down on Kaylee's lap. "For you," she said. "Go on, open it."
Kaylee's hands shook as she untied the bow. Inside the box was an aquamarine brocade dress. It was like something Inara would wear, finer by far than anything Kaylee had ever owned, nor even hoped to.
"I'll bet pink is probably your favorite color," said Hope, taking the dress out of the box and holding it up so Kaylee could admire it. "But I confess I've been dying to see you in blue. Don't you want to try it on?"
Kaylee bit her lip and shook her head.
"Now, Kaylee, a lady always accepts gifts with grace and civility."
"I won't do it," said Kaylee. Her heart was pounding fair to burst, but she managed to muster her courage anyway. "I don't want your stupid presents! You can't just dress me up in fancy clothes and make me into one of your doxies."
Hope sighed and placed the dress neatly back in the box. "This is very unfortunate. I'm afraid you're going to have a bumpy road ahead, dear, if you can't see your way to being more cooperative."
She nodded at the guards, who grabbed Kaylee's arms, forced them behind her back and tied them to the chair behind her. Kaylee thought about the bruises on Wei-An and began, very quietly, to panic.
"If you only gave me a chance, you'd find that I'm a very generous woman," said Hope. "But I don't like to be crossed."
She smiled a wrong kind of smile that filled Kaylee's heart with icy fear.
One of the guards backhanded Kaylee across the face. The shock of it was almost greater than the pain, at first. Kaylee'd never been hit before--not for real like this. She could taste blood in her mouth.
"There are rules, after all, and they must be followed," said Hope.
The guard raised his nightstick and hit Kaylee again, on the arm this time, and she cried out. She hadn't meant to cry out, but when the pain hit her she couldn't help it.
"As long as my girls keep me happy, I keep them happy. Isn't that a nice little system? It works very well. But right now, I'm not happy."
This time the nightstick hit Kaylee full in the gut. She couldn't even double over with her arms tied behind her and the pain was so bad she thought she might pass out. She wished she'd pass out.
It hurt worse than the time she'd been shot, but maybe that was because she couldn't really remember anything about getting shot. She remembered the pain after, but that had been a dull, throbbing sort of pain, not a sharp, dizzying pain like this. Thinking about that made her think of Simon, and how he'd take care of her if he was here, but he wasn't here and she'd probably never see him again, and she started to really cry then.
She didn't want to cry, she wanted to be strong like the captain would want her to be, but she couldn't help it. She was just Kaylee and she was scared and all alone.
It was coming on towards evening and the light was failing as Mal quickened his steps, trying to keep up with the elusive rain barrel and its two bearers. They'd turned another corner and momentarily slipped out of his sights, though. Not good, because they were right near the docks, now, which meant--
"Signal's gone," said Jayne, who was watching the data reader again. "Just plumb disappeared."
They tore around the corner and found themselves staring down a long line of ships parked at the Dunmire Docks. The facilities here were nicer than the Red Key Docks where they usually set down Serenity--and much larger. Nearly two dozen ships in just this one slip alone and Inara could be on any one of them.
"Musta took her on one of them ships," said Jayne. "Transmitter can't send a signal through another ship's hull."
"I know that," Mal snapped. If anything happened to Inara--anything at all--he didn't think he'd be able to live with it. Bad enough Kaylee was in trouble, but he'd gotten Inara into this mess. She'd put herself on the line, trusting him to get her out of this, and by God, he wasn't going to let her down.
Mal turned his attention to the four ships closest to where the signal had disappeared, figuring she was most likely to be on one of those. The first was a small Wren Class container ship. Not a likely place to stash a half dozen girls. Beside it was an old Zhejiang surveyor, which was maybe a possibility, and next to that was a mid-sized private transport that--
He noticed the name of the ship and fought off a cold shiver. It was the Deuce of Hearts.
I'll be damned. They'd called her a witch back on Jiangyin, but he hadn't really believed it. Not really.
"They're on that one," said Mal, pointing.
"How d'you know?"
"Because I do."
Jayne gave him a funny look but didn't question. "Alright."
Mal studied the situation. The Deuce was bigger than Serenity--probably carried a crew of at least eight or ten, plus room for maybe another dozen in the passenger dorms. She was closed up nice and tight, the forward hatch guarded on the outside by two mercenary-looking types. You had to figure there were at least six, maybe even as many as a dozen men in there, most of them likely armed. Versus him and Jayne. Yeah, this was going be interesting.
"So, let's have it," said Jayne.
"Your cunning strategy. You got a cunning strategy, ain't ya?"
"Sure I do," said Mal, trying to sound like he meant it.
"What is it?"
"Gimme a minute, I ain't thought of it, yet."
Mal looked around, sizing up the landscape of the situation, waiting for inspiration to strike. And then it did.
Shepherd Book stepped out into the cargo bay and winced as the stink of the wolverines hit him full in the face. They truly did smell awful. Still, he found something fascinating about them. There was beauty to be found in all the beasts of the field, if you only looked hard enough. In the case of Jayne Cobb, he was still looking, but he was confident it was there to be found, if only a man were patient enough.
Zoe was over at the ammo lockers with her back to him, loading cartridges into the lever-action rifle she carried. She'd been somewhat edgy and out of sorts of late, and Book considered turning around and heading back into the passenger dorm, leaving her to her peace. But though he didn't like to be intrusive, neither was it his way to walk away from a soul in pain if there was something he could offer in the way of help.
So he approached her, making sure to let his footfalls be heard, even over the din of the wolverines rattling and snarling in their cages. "Anticipating trouble?"
"Always," said Zoe. "Then I get to be pleasantly surprised if it don't come around."
"Expect the worst but hope for the best?"
"Something like that."
Book leaned against one of the lockers. "Awfully quiet on the ship with the others away."
Zoe cocked her head in the direction of the wolverines. "Call this quiet, do you?"
"Perhaps quiet wasn't the best word choice. Lonely, more like."
She nodded. "Serenity does seem emptier without Kaylee about to brighten the place up. But don't you worry, the captain'll have her back here before you know it."
"I have no doubt of that," said Book. He hesitated, wondering if perhaps he should just leave well enough alone. Something told him Zoe wasn't likely to thank him for the intrusion.
She glanced over at him. "You got something to say, Preacher?"
Taking that as a sign, Book resolved to broach the subject. "I can't pretend not to have noticed the troubles you and Wash have been having, lately."
She froze, hand still poised over the box of cartridges. "That so?"
He pressed on, despite the hostility he read in her face. "A very wise man once told me that success in marriage requires falling in love many times, always with the same person. Of course, I can't claim first-hand knowledge myself, or pretend to understand what it's like--"
"No, you can't," said Zoe coldly.
Book hadn't expected her to be particularly receptive to his counsel, but he suspected perhaps he should have followed his first instinct and left well enough alone. But before he could form an apology they were interrupted by the sound of someone bouncing down the steps from the catwalk above. Book glanced up and saw Wash making his way toward them. When he looked back at Zoe the anger had fled from her face, replaced a mask of cool impassivity.
"I'm not sure I did this right," said Wash, gesturing helplessly at the holster at his hip.
Zoe wordlessly loosened the strap on Wash's gun belt and yanked it down so that the rig hung lower on his hip. Book discretely wandered over to the wolverine cages, giving the couple some space.
"So, uh, we'll be at the drop-off in twenty minutes," he heard Wash say. "Looks like we might just pull this job off without any hitches."
"You really think it's a good idea to be tempting fate right now?" said Zoe.
Book moved farther away from them, around to the far side of the wolverines.
He stopped, his attention caught by the one crate that wasn't vibrating and trembling with the fury of the beast within. The nails had pulled out in one corner and the lid gapped just wide enough for a small animal to escape.
"Excuse me," he called out to Zoe and Wash. "I think we may have a small problem."
Inara didn't resist when she was manhandled by the two guards and thrust into a compartment on the ship with the other girls. She was enraged on the inside, of course, but she kept her expression studiously meek and mild. The hatch slammed shut behind her and she looked around at the faces of the other prisoners. Six girls, but none of them Kaylee.
She felt a momentary jolt of fear. What if she'd been kidnapped by different slavers altogether? Or what if they'd already sent Kaylee off-world and out of reach?
"Don't be scared," said one of the girls. "They won't hurt you none, long as you behave."
"What are they going to do with us?" asked Inara.
Several of the girls exchanged uncomfortable looks. "Miss Hope's going to make us into fancy ladies," said one.
"Who's Miss Hope?"
"She's our new mama, and she's going to take care of us," said a red-headed girl confidently.
Inara's eyes fell on a girl huddled on one of the bunks in the room, her skin livid with bruises. Take care of us like that, you mean.
Inara walked around the cell, pausing by the buffet table, eyes wide. "I've never seen so much food before."
"It's all for us, if you can imagine!"
"Are there other girls here? Besides us, I mean?"
"Nope, just us, I think. Except for that troublemaker."
"She showed up this morning, started right off making a fuss. Miss Hope's having a talk with her now, but I guess she'll be back."
So Kaylee was here. And possibly in danger, from the sound of it. Inara fervently hoped that wherever Mal was, he was hurrying. In the meantime, perhaps there was something she could do to grease the wheels a little bit.
"How many guards are there outside the door?" asked Inara.
"Just the one, usually," said the red-haired girl. "Why?"
Inara smiled. This was going to be even easier than she thought.
River walked up the stairs slowly, moving to a secret rhythms that pulsed in her blood. Bare feet on metal, fingers trailing along the cold rail. Counting every step as she went. Two. Six. Twelve.
Twelve pairs hanging high, twelve knights riding by.
She was was being pulled by... something. A sense of overwhelming, desperate hunger. Not hers, though.
Around the corner and into the galley she crept. Quiet as mouse--don't scare it. She was big for a mouse, but quiet. Invisible, too. Eyes slid right over her, seeing only what they cared to see. She was just an echo, after all, not a real girl.
Thirty-eight teeth and twenty retractable claws. Scrabbling and tearing and biting to get into a packet of dried apricots. It could smell the food, couldn't get at it. Frustrating. Meat was what it wanted, but there was no meat here. Not for eating, anyway.
River thought it was beautiful, all teeth and claws and muscle. Dangerous and terrible and graceful. And yet so small and vulnerable. Scared, too. Like me. Strange place, strange smells. Everything confusing.
The voice whispered in her head, the one that spoke in facts she almost remembered learning once. The wolverine drives other animals away from its food by baring its teeth, raising the hair on its back, sticking up its bushy tail, and making a low growl.
Just like it was doing now. River smiled (baring her teeth) and growled back.
Jayne watched surreptitiously as Mal approached the two guards outside the Deuce carrying a large box of take-out containers in his off hand. They were all empty containers, of course--Mal and Jayne had fished them out of a dumpster--but you couldn't hardly tell just by looking. As plans went, Jayne wasn't overly impressed.
"This the boat ordered the Eight Treasure Duckling special?" said Mal, all friendly-like.
One of the guards stepped forward warily to talk to Mal, his hand hovering near the sidearm at his hip.
Once Jayne judged they were sufficiently distracted by Mal's yammering dumbass routine, he silently slipped into position behind them.
"So you're saying this ain't Slip E521?" said Mal. "Damn, I really am turned around. Either of you fellows kind enough to point me the right way?"
As the guard closest to Mal reached out an arm to point, Mal sucker punched the guy in the face. Before the other man could react, Jayne had knocked him over the back of the head with Vera's stock. He slumped to the ground, out cold, followed a few seconds later by Mal's man.
"That was fun," said Jayne as they dragged the guards out of sight behind the ship and tied them up with their own belts. "What comes next?"
"Yeah, um, it's not presently coming to mind."
"You ain't got a next step, do ya?"
"Not as such, no."
"Well, ain't that grand."
"Hang on. Okay, here it is. We rush in... and shoot at anyone that stands between us and the girls."
"Use the element of surprise to our advantage."
"Something like that." Mal drew his old service pistol. "Ready?"
Jayne grunted his assent.
Mal swiped the key card they'd pulled off one of the guards through the fancy card reader. The little light on the display turned from red to green and the lock on the hatch clicked. Mal pulled the hatch open and they plunged inside--
Right into the barrels of three guns that were being pointed at them by three more guards, waiting just inside the ship's hold.
"They don't exactly look surprised, do they?" said Mal, raising his hands up into the air.
"Great strategy," hissed Jayne. "Real cunning."