Chapter 4: Not Even a Mouse
Mal hated waiting. Zoe had called before going into the warehouse, but that was an hour ago. It had been too long. He longed to pace, but with his foot throbbing like a chao-shang tza-jiao duh tzang-huo, that was pretty much out of the question. So all he could do was fret. He despised fretting. It was so passive.
Just when he'd decided that he'd better call Wash, the comm panel buzzed. He pressed the button and snapped, "You're late! What took so long?"
"We came as quickly as we could, Captain Reynolds," said an unfamiliar voice. "We've been looking forward to meeting you."
Mal checked the panel; the signal was coming from Zoe's comm unit. "Is my first officer with you?" he asked.
"She and the big one are with my boys. They're fine, for now. Open up, and they'll stay that way."
Mal pressed the button that piped their conversation throughout the ship. "What do you want?"
"Just a little conversation with you, face to face. You have two minutes to open up, captain, or we'll call our friends and tell them to dispose of your crew."
Mal balled his hands into fists.
"Captain? One minute thirty seconds."
Mal swore silently through his teeth. "Come on up. I'm on the bridge--straight back, up the stairs, and then forward." He hopped on one foot over to the cargo-bay door controls and entered the codes to open the ramp.
River stood in the engine room. Her head was tilted to one side, her expression blank. She gave no sign that she had heard their exchange.
Mal weighed his options. He was outgunned and outmaneuvered, and he wasn't exactly agile at the moment. He'd given the intruders explicit directions to the bridge, and he was hoping they came straight up. With any luck, they weren't after Simon and River and had no idea that they were on board.
In the end, he stashed his gun in the locker by the hatch and settled back down in the pilot's chair to wait. He was facing the hatch when they entered.
"Can I help you boys?"
"You can get up and come with us," the cleanest one said. "A certain Mr. Niska is willing to pay a king's ransom to get his hands on you. If you come along with no trouble, you'll make it easier on yourself and your crew."
Mal took a deep breath to steady himself. He'd suspected, but hoped it wasn't so. "Niska, huh?" He swallowed and then smiled wanly. "I don't suppose I could interest you boys in a counteroffer?"
All three burst out laughing. "Yeah," the leader gibed. "For the money we'll get, we could buy your whole ship three times over. Save your breath. Now, c'mon, get up!" He grabbed Mal by the shoulder and hauled him out of the chair.
Mal managed to get his good leg under him first and hopped two steps before losing his balance and coming down on his right foot. He caught himself on the console, knocking the crutches over, and sucked air in through his teeth. "We're gonna have to take this nice and slow," he gasped.
The ugliest of the bounty hunters bent over and picked up the crutches. He held them out until Mal, still leaning heavily on the console, turned around and took them from him. The leader gestured down the hallway with his gun, and Mal worked his way slowly out of the hatch and down the short staircase. The men followed.
"You know, dealing with Niska is a mighty risky business," Mal remarked conversationally. "He's got some very strict views on what constitutes a fair contract, and he don't take kindly to any disagreements. You might think twice before getting involved with 'im."
The third man grunted and spoke for the first time. "We just need this one job to come out right, and then we'll never deal with him again."
Mal nodded sagely. "You see, that's how it always starts. But if the job don't go smooth, well, then, you've got a nasty enemy. And if it works out, well he'll just keep askin' you to do things for him until the day you can't deliver the goods. And he's not exactly known for takin' no for an answer."
"Just keep movin'," the leader grumbled.
"I'm just sayin'. I'm not the first person who's gotten on Niska's bad side. Seems to me that everybody gets there sooner or later. A word to the wise." He paused to pick his way carefully down the several stairs into the dining area. "'Course, I don't know why I'm botherin'. Nobody ever thinks that . . ." His commentary trailed off and he came to a standstill.
Before him, a dozen or more mice were sitting at attention in an evenly spaced arc that stretched across the entire room. They were looking past Mal, their clever little eyes fixed intently upon the guns.
"Keep movin'!" the blond man growled, pushing Mal from behind. Mal stumbled a few steps forward and the mice in his path scampered to the sides. They immediately froze again, their attention once more fixed upon the weapons. Their whiskers twitched frantically.
Their movement caught the attention of the bounty hunters. They all looked down at their feet and pointed their guns at the rodents. "What the hell is this?" one of them muttered.
While they were looking down, River, clutching a large gun in her hand, stepped from the hatchway leading to the engine room. She winked at Mal.
Without taking her eyes from the captain's, she pointed the gun and shot three times in quick succession. Mal flinched and covered his ears with his hands. Stunned, he looked over his shoulder and saw two of the men with holes in their foreheads. The third, directly behind him, was on his back, clutching his gun hand. River strode past the captain, the gun held out before her, and finished the wounded man off.
All around the room, tails were whisking out of doorways and under cover.
Mal slowly turned. He blinked at River and tried to get his mind working again. "Wha the who? How?"
River lowered the gun and smirked. "The mouse police never sleep," she remarked.
He swayed a bit on his crutches and stumbled backwards, trying to regain his equilibrium. He backed into a chair and the right crutch went flying. With a muffled curse he crashed to the floor. The chair bounced off his right leg, making him cry out.
River pulled the chair away, dropped to her knees at his side, and put her left arm around his shoulder. Mal grabbed her other hand, wrapping his fingers around hers and the gun still clutched there. "What say we put that down?" he asked. She looked at her hand for a moment, as if she had no idea what he was talking about. Then she smiled and opened her fingers wide, surrendering the gun to him. He hurled it along the floor into a far corner.
He took a moment to breathe. "You wanna tell me what just happened?" he asked shakily.
She glanced over at the dead men, unconcerned. "They were going to take you away, to hurt you." She touched Mal's face. "I couldn't let that happen."
"I wasn't a fan of the idea, my own self." His lips twitched in a half smile, and then his face suddenly clouded. "Tzao gao. They've still got Zoe and Jayne. We've got to get hold of Wash." He started to twist to the left in order to turn over and push himself off the floor, but River grabbed his hands and shook her head.
"No," she said. "They're coming. They're safe."
He studied her face, wanting to believe her. And found that he did.
"Okay," he replied. "And Simon?"
River wrinkled her nose at him. "He would have gotten hurt again. I locked him in the infirmary."
Mal laughed. "That's twice I owe you!"
She started to get up. "I should--"
He grabbed her arm gently. "Hey, no, don't go. I, uh, there's somethin' I've been meaning to ask."
"He'll keep. Right now, it's just you and me, and I need you to answer something for me, honest like, before the others get back."
She stared at him, waiting.
Mal looked at her very earnestly, trying to be gentle. "Are you getting better?"
She flinched away from him, breaking his light hold, and looked up with wide eyes. He locked eyes with her. "River?"
She shook her head violently.
"It's okay," he comforted her. "I never thought so. I know Simon thinks that he can find some magic potion that will chase away all your nightmares, that if you just concentrate on getting better, then all the darkness will go away. But that just ain't so. It don't work that way."
"He wants me to go back, to go back to what was, to be his mei-mei. But when I look back, I can't see the sunshine anymore--it's all in shadow."
Mal closed his eyes for a moment before continuing. "I know. You can't ever go back to that. And you can't ever get over what's happened. Things like what's been done to you, they change a person. You don't get over that. But if you dwell on it every day, it'll chew you up from the inside. You have to stop living in the past and start living for the moment. If you can make it through enough moments, you might find yourself contemplating a future someday."
"I don't know if I can do that," she whispered.
He grabbed her hand and held it between both of his. "You can! Trust me--I know about this. And I know something else. I know that you're not just brilliant: you're also strong. You survived what they did to you, and you led Simon and Jayne to safety on Ariel. You saved Kaylee's life at the Skyplex. You outwitted Early. And you just saved my hide--with the help of some, uh, friends. You're not Simon's mei-mei anymore--you're becoming something that has the Alliance pissing in its pants."
She jerked her hand away. "I'm becoming a monster!"
He snatched the hand back and held it tight as she tried to free it. "No! No! That ain't true. Listen!" She stopped struggling and stared at him wide-eyed. "You're becoming a . . . a guardian. And if we're both going to have bounties on our heads, then I'm thinking that Serenity could use a guardian."
"She has a guardian: you."
"Well, we've seen today just how much help I can use with that. Seems like these days I'm the one needs rescuing." He waved a hand towards his swollen foot.
She stared at his toes. "Not your fault. I'm the one who made you fall."
He reached out and touched her hair. "Hey . . . "
She turned her head and met his eyes. "I didn't mean to. I just keep imagining that Early will come back, that he's going to hurt Kaylee or Simon and take me away. And it's worst at night, after Simon gives me something to help me sleep. I get nightmares."
He nodded. "I know a little bit about those nightmares. Kaylee, too. But look, when the danger is real, you focus and you fight it. It's the waiting in between that's hard. But those imaginings about what could happen are getting dangerous. They got me hurt. How about if you focus on what is happening, on the jobs we're taking, on any vermin setting up housekeeping. You can be a part of my crew. Serenity pulled me out of some deep dark places; she'll do the same for you if you let her."
Her face lit up. "Part of the crew?"
"Yup. Heck, I'd even take you along on jobs, but I'd likely have to meet your brother with pistols at dawn or some such. You cover my back better'n Jayne, and you probably have an even better criminal mind than your brother. 'Course, I'm gonna have to get creative about how to pay you. Truth is, I'd have to short someone else if I give you a straight cut of the proceeds. You'll just have to trust me to find something leftover for you now and then. I hope those terms are acceptable."
She threw her arms around him and squeezed him hard.
"Okay," he gasped. "I'll take that as a yes." He placed his hands on either side of her head and turned her face up to his. "There's one other part of this deal. If you're gonna be my crew, then we have to be able to trust each other. You can trust that I will do everything in my power to keep you away from the Alliance. I've done it till now, and I'll keep doing it. I'll even take your crazy ramblings seriously, 'cause I think you know what's happening before any of the rest of us. But if I think that you're shirking your duties--drifting off into dreams rather than focusing on Serenity, or speaking in riddles that I don't understand when you could be telling me stuff plainly--well, we'll have to reconsider this arrangement. Can you live with that?"
She nodded solemnly. "I will try to be good crew, sir. But, please . . . I think . . . I think that when I drift away, it's because I feel something just out of reach, and I'm chasing it, trying to see it, to understand. Sometimes the chase leads me further than I mean to go . . ."
"We'll all be here to call you back. You know Simon is here for you. Serenity is here. And I'll be here. I don't leave my crew behind." He spoke the last words like a solemn vow.
"I know," she sniffled, and then she crumbled into tears.
"You know, back in the Army, I never had to deal with weepy recruits. They all must've cried on each other's shoulders. But ever since I came to captain Serenity, it seems like all I do is comfort bawling crewmembers. You gotta tell me, is it me? Am I that mean that you all just dissolve when I look at you?"
She sniffed and smiled at him. "It's only the taking that makes you what your are," she observed cryptically.
He sighed. "There, you see? That's just the kind of outburst that leaves me wonderin' if I'm doing the right thing here."
He cocked his head as muffled clanging and voices signaled the return of the others. "Thank the Lord! We're saved. I do believe the cavalry has arrived."
Most of the voices were calling out for the captain. Simon's voice rose above the others, screaming for River. Mal winced. "Sounds like he can't decide if he wants to find you dead or alive!"
Once footsteps reached the nearest stairwell, Mal called out, "Stand down, people! We're safe." A moment later, Jayne appeared by the hatch, back to the wall and a gun at the ready. He glanced once around the corner, saw the bodies, and then blew out all his tension in a loud gasp. "Gorram it, Mal. We ran all the way here, figurin' they'd've snatched you by now."
"Didja now? That was right selfless of you."
Zoe strode in, holstering both her guns. She looked around at all the bodies, taking in the precision of the shots that had brought them down. "You're not wearing your gun, sir," she observed.
Mal put his hand to his hip and glanced down. "Huh. Whaddya know? What are you trying to say, Zoe?"
"Not a thing, sir. Niska's men?"
"More or less. Looking to collect a bounty Niska's put out." More footsteps pounded up the stairs. Mal steeled himself for Simon's arrival. The doctor burst through the hatch with Book close behind.
"River! That was a heartless, stupid thing to do! I've been going insane wondering if you were safe!"
"I had to be sure you wouldn't get yourself shot again," she replied calmly.
"You could have been killed! Those men were armed and ruthless."
"But they weren't very smart," Mal put in.
Zoe nodded towards Mal's toes. "You're bleeding, Captain."
Simon looked over and made a face. "That's got to hurt, Captain. I'll have to reset those toes." He knelt down and gently touched the swelling around the ankle. "And the swelling is much worse." His tone was disapproving.
"Yes, doctor. If it makes you feel any better, it also hurts like a sombitch."
"It's a comfort," Simon replied. He stood, put his hands on his hips, and glowered down at the captain. "And I think this is a good time to remind you of our deal. The crew is back safe: you have an appointment with me in the infirmary."
Mal glowered right back for an instant, but the throbbing was quickly becoming all-consuming. "Right. That was our deal." He started to push himself up, but Jayne and Book stepped up and each took an arm. They hauled him upright and handed him his crutches.
"I'll be prepared when you get down there," Simon assured him. "Jayne, could you make sure he gets down without breaking the other leg?"
"I can get there under my own power!" Mal assured Jayne quickly. "Just stand by to manhandle me over the tricky bits."
Jayne grinned. "I'll spot for you. Just holler if you need me to jump in."
River scampered down the stairs ahead of them, closely followed by Simon. Mal paused before proceeding and looked at the Shepherd and then at Zoe. "I don't recall sending the preacher along on this job," he remarked.
"I followed along to provide spiritual guidance," Book explained.
"It was quite a revelation, sir."
"More along the lines of a psalm, actually," the preacher mocked. "But the sermon will keep, captain. Don't keep the doctor waiting."
"I appreciate you watching over them, Shepherd," Mal said. He then swung his way across the room and slowly picked his way up the hatchway stairs.
The journey to the bottom level was an ordeal. Now that his foot was hanging down, it was throbbing so badly that the skin felt like it was going to burst. Jayne was uncharacteristically quiet, letting Mal concentrate on staying upright, wordlessly taking his weight over the hatch seals and on the steepest stairs. When they reached the bottom, Mal was sweat-covered and shaking.
At the bottom step, Jayne suddenly froze, staring fixedly at the passage to the cargo bay. Mal looked, too, but didn't see anything. He cocked his head. Ever so faintly, he could hear something. Lilting music. But he seemed to hear it within his own head.
Jayne stepped stiffly towards the cargo bay. As he was still gripping Mal's arm, Mal had little choice but to stumble along as best he could. Simon looked up from the infirmary as they passed and stepped out to look after them. With a wondering expression on his face, he trailed after them.
In the cargo bay, River was dancing. Her steps were joyful, her feet flashing, her legs kicking high and her shoulders arching back. Her pounding steps provided a beat, but somewhere the men could hear pipes and drums, a Celtic tune. And a high-pitched squeaking.
Small forms darted along the floor and the stairs, their noses working, their whiskers twitching. One intent mouse scurried over Mal's bare foot, its tiny nails tickling his skin. In a few moments, a dozen or more mice formed a half circle around River.
Not one of them could be described as a big ol' mean-eyed, yeller-teethed liou mahng.
With her audience gathered, River's dance changed. It became less frenetic, even mournful. It spoke of forsaking the sky and running through the grass, finding homes in the cool earth, eating fresh grain. Acres wild.
One mouse hopped a few steps forward and stood up on its haunches, its paws folded before it as if in prayer. Two more followed it. Then a fourth scampered to the top of the ramp and looked out.
The sun beckoned.
Jayne, his eyes glazed, took a lurching step forward. Mal grabbed his shoulder. "Jayne," he said firmly, "I'm still gonna need your help to get to the infirmary."
Jayne shook his head and took a deep breath. He looked around, seemingly surprised to find himself in the cargo bay. Simon just gaped at his sister.
River stood with her back to them, her arms raised, watching the mice as they flowed over the ramp and disappeared among the stalls and equipment scattered around the skyport. She dropped her right shoulder and swept her arm down, letting it pull her around to them. She met the captain's eyes and smiled.
"Hey!! Did you see that!" Kaylee enthused, bustling up the ramp with Wash in tow. "About twenty mice just ran down from the ship all at once!"
"Yes," Wash chimed in, "they were moving so fast, I thought it must be a rat race."
An hour later, River stood in the infirmary doorway watching Simon fuss with putting bandages away when Zoe walked in. "Where's the Captain?" Zoe asked.
"He's in the empty guest quarters," Simon answered. "He said the infirmary was too exposed."
Zoe cast a glance at the wide doors and the single narrow pallet in the center of the room. "He's got a point."
"You don't need him for anything right now, do you?" the doctor asked. "I gave him something for the pain and it looked like he just might sleep for a while. He was trying to fight it, though: I've never seen a person so set against sleeping."
"No control when you sleep," River muttered from the door to no one in particular. "Too vulnerable. Dragons sleep with one eye open."
Simon looked at her with his stricken face. That usually meant a shot of some sort was coming. She turned and left while Zoe was still providing some diversion.
She stopped outside the captain's temporary quarters, looked to make sure Simon hadn't followed, and then slipped into the room. A single dim light was on in the far corner. The captain lay on the bed, his foot elevated by several pillows. His eyes were closed, but there was a tension to his body that indicated he was not quite asleep. She crept to the bedside and smoothed his hair with her hand. "Sssshhhh," she whispered. "You can rest. I'm watching."
He sighed and she felt him surrender himself to deep sleep.
Author's Note: Most of River's cryptic outbursts are quotations or references rather than random mutterings. Many thanks to William Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, J.R.R. Tolkien and, most especially, Ian Anderson for their words.