"This is not good," Mal finally conceded, taking a seat beside Inara.
"I didn't think so," she agreed. "I suspect Morado had us figured from the start. After all, he was the client who told me about the plan to take River. He must have known we were connected. If he was able to put all those things together – including River's whereabouts when even the Alliance hasn't been able to pin her down – well, it makes me worry that Serenity's in a lot more danger, and from more than just him."
"Seems to have gotten a lot on his own."
"Maybe it wasn't on his own," she replied, looking up at the ceiling.
"Now, look, I know Jayne doesn't come off as the mo-"
"Not him, Mal, though I must admit I had my doubts. No, me. You're not the only person in this verse that's had occasion to make someone want to kill you."
"Kill you? You know, some of your clients never did strike me as bein' awfully clever. There's plenty other activities I can imagine that'd be a great deal pleasanter."
"Ain't you gonna tell me about this enemy of yours? Nandee told me about a Dulcimer she killed. Yours must be even better."
"Well, tell it to me anyways while I screw around with the docking mechanism. Might be able to buy us a couple of minutes' time that way."
Simon stopped at the corner of the square. Predicting River's behavior was nothing short of miraculous, but he did have an idea of what would draw her, once and if she got past the shock of whatever drove her out of Serenity. She liked people – if they were in a good mood. She liked music, dancing, and celebration. If she really could read people's minds, the party going on here, an annual festival of something involving one of the few plants that could be grown and harvested on Buggered, would draw her.
His eyes scanned the crowd for several minutes, ignoring bumps and jostles from the people around him. There.
Simon's message crackled over the communicator. "I've found her. Meet me at the Timuron Square, the southwest corner."
"Finally," Jayne muttered, taking off for that direction. Book and Mal heard and came as well.
"Two by two, hands of blue," River sang softly to herself. They liked to hunt, and while it wasn't them, the same kind of chase was on. It might be enough to use the crowd as camouflage, but she couldn't count on it.
She reeled as her mind automatically came up with fifteen different conceptions of camouflage. Predators in tall grass and a purloined letter danced along with the people around her. If a violent demonstration took place in this square, the correct placement of tactical snipers would be one behind the chimney of the third building on the north side, a second placed in the oleander bush beside the comestibles store, and a third just behind the bar of the tavern on the southern side. There were twenty three possible immediate exits from the square, and another fifteen that would work given extra time, a set of encryption cutters, or a crowbar. The fat man in a red shirt, laughing at his neighbor's joke, didn't want to go home tonight to an empty house. The skinny brunette two people over was planning to seduce him. It was nice the way things worked out. The crocuses planted on the eastern side of the square were wilting because of too much rain. That, and the soil was acidic.
Simon had reached her side. He had an extra jacket with him that he pulled over her.
"The others will be here soon. Come on."
He took her by the arms and guided her out of the crowd just as Book ran up.
"She's all right?"
"I think so. I want to get her back to the ship as soon as possible."
Jayne and Mal joined them.
"Let's go," Mal jerked his head. "Jayne, take point. Book, you and I are flanking. Simon, do you have a weapon?"
Simon looked over from River. "No. No…I wouldn't know-"
"It's okay. Let's just move."
They took it at a dog trot, the quickest Simon could get River to move. She kept trying to pull away, wanting to look at something or veer off from something else. He could never tell what stimulus would attract or repel her.
Serenity sat at the end of the landing sites one hundred yards away, Zoe on watch with a business-like shotgun in her hands. River stopped again, looking around her like a cat chasing a dust mote.
"Gorram that Morado anyway," Mal swore.
Simon almost fell over. "Who?"
"Morado, guy who paid us for the cargo that scared your sister off."
"Mora- Why didn't you tell me this before?" Simon gaped.
"Why on earth would that matter?"
"Because Morado is another word for purple in a language from Earth-that-was," Simon answered. "River's been-"
The barrel of a gun pointed at him interrupted his answer. River screamed at the top of her lungs. Her reaction gave Simon the chance to move, swatting the gun away and then hitting the owner in the nose with his fist. Someone else's fist hit him just above his ear, hammering him down to the ground.
"MOVE!" Mal yelled. "Zoe, I need backup!"
Two hands dragged Simon back up to his feet. Shots were being fired, but all he did was twist, trying to put his eyes on River. Mal had her by the waist and was brooking no hesitation on her part.
"C'mon, doc," Jayne growled. "I ain't draggin' you the whole way. You're takin' my attention away from Vera."
"Move it, Captain!" Book shouted.
Putting his feet under him seemed like an impossible task, but he managed to keep them moving along even though his vision doubled and greyed at the edges. There was a sudden increase in the firing and a lot more yelling than before.
"Hit the girl, and you'd better save the last bullet for yourself!" Someone roared.
Zoe was there, shotgun in hand, pumping out round after round. Hands took him from Book and Jayne. Kaylee.
"Hang on, Simon. You're bleedin'."
Zoe's shotgun kept firing. There was even more yelling.
"Go, Zoe! Just go!"
"That's an order!"
He pulled away from Kaylee and forced his eyes to focus past the ramp into the cargo bay. The tableau lasted a fraction of a second, but burned into his eyes. Jayne stood at the end of the ramp, two men dead or dying at his feet. Zoe took aim at the crowd of men half encircling the captain. Mal was holding an unconscious River in his arms. He kicked the closest man in the groin, turned and threw River at Book, and without a backward glance rushed back into the fray.
The ramp closed. Jayne stumbled back, looking like he might kick the ramp back down again just to get back to the fight. There was a moment of total silence.
"Zoe, we've got some kind of an armed merchant cruiser heading in, Perseus class. They're locked and loaded."
"Get us out of here, Wash," she answered in a steady voice.
"The captain!" Simon gasped.
No one would meet his eyes.
"Hold still, doc," Kaylee finally said, putting a wadded up cloth to his forehead. "You're bleedin' pretty bad. Don't expect you saw the knife when that guy hit you."
"How long do we have, Mal?" Inara asked.
"Oh, I'd say two days at the most. I can't imagine Morado just handing you or me back if he gets his hands on River. He's only keeping us around until the matter's decided."
The coupling had been the only place where he'd met with any success, and even that was limited. With the mechanism's governor circuit scrambled, it would take a good engineer a couple of minutes to override it. That might just give them enough time to think of a clever quip or hide behind the one potted plant in the room.
"Stop that," he said.
Surprised, she looked up.
"Your fingers. You'll be tearing holes in them next."
"I thought I'd broken that habit," she replied ruefully. "It seems not."
"Lotta habits do that."
"You ever going to quit being a Companion?"
Were she in a room full of Companions, they would have laughed at her for how easily her composure dissolved around this man.
"That's a rather moot question, don't you think?" she asked back. "In two days' time, it will be decided for me."
"Not a moot question to me. There are some things a Companion can't do while she's a Companion. There are some things that some men wouldn't consider doing with a Companion."
"You mean a whore."
"I mean a Companion. Most whores I've ever met dream of the day they can afford to reform."
She stood and started pacing the small space. "You. You take the things I tell you and turn them into knives to cut me. Why should I ever stop being a Companion when it keeps me safe from the likes of you?"
Her voice rose until she almost shouted the last word and Mal was on his feet as well.
"You've never been in danger from the likes of me, 'Nara, 'less you count someone seein' you as you really are as a danger."
"I am a Companion," she yelled back at him. "That is what I am. I can no more change that, than you can change being captain of Serenity."
"Always perfect, always controlled, always serene!" he shouted.
"YES, DAMN YOU!"
He kissed her. Took her by the shoulders, pulled her up to him, and laid his mouth on hers fully expecting that he would lose a limb or some other vital appendage after the surprise wore off. He did not expect her to kiss him back. He did not expect her arms to twine about his neck and pull him closer or for her lips to open to his, deepening the kiss until he thought he might just fall in, never to be seen again. His arms went around her, and he held her tightly against him. The kiss changed from violent anger to need in the span of a few seconds. He was aware that as their lips met again and again, they breathed tiny noises and words.
"Shhh, it's all right. I've got you."
Her body began to arch against him, and the smell of her, warm and fragrant, about turned his mind to thick soup. Again, with deep need, she met his kiss. Her nails began to dig into the skin of his back and neck, through his shirt. She was moaning so softly he couldn't hear it, only feel the vibration of her voice against his lips. And then, a shudder passed through her, and her nails dug in until he barely stopped a surprised cry of pain. She went limp, as though only his hands were holding her up, and her head fell back from his just a bit.
"Inara," he breathed. "Did you just…"
Before he could frame the smallest question, a tremor shook the capsule. Inara's eyes opened.
"That wasn't me," she whispered.
"I know it. Someone's docking with us."
"He must have gotten ahold of River."
Mal carefully let go of Inara, letting her get her feet back under her before he released her completely. The airlock door gave a couple of half-hearted "k-chunks" as whoever was on the other side discovered the problem he'd set them up with. They had a minute, perhaps two.
"Get behind me, Inara." He turned, pushing her back.
"I can fight," she answered in a tight voice.
"I know you can, but I go first."
A quick scan of the room gave him the same information as the previous fifty searches. Nothing there made a decent weapon, and there was no real cover. The door stirred again, a second time, and then irised open. He tensed for whatever might come through.
"Captain?" A cheerful head of tousled hair peeked out.
"You're hurt," Kaylee noticed as he, Inara, and the crew met up in the cargo bay. Zoe looked over to check on him, but Jayne stayed preoccupied with Vera.
"The back of your neck. There's spots of blood," she pointed out.
"Oh, that. It's no-" he stopped, and his eyes caught Inara's. Nothing in the verse could persuade him to say the scratches she'd left on him were nothing. "It's not anything that'll scar. Simon, how're you?"
Aside from the bandage wrapped around his skull and a certain wan paleness, Simon looked fine, but didn't act it. He only nodded curtly at Mal. River stood next to him, fidgeting in the manner of a bored preschooler.
"Maybe someone'd better give me a run down of what happened after Morado showed up," Mal suggested quietly.
"Skulls have joints other than the jawbone," River replied. "Only they fuse by the time a person grows to adulthood. Pathologists can identify how old a person was when they died by how complete the fusion is."
Simon's jaw muscle flickered in and out with tension.
"Right. How 'bout someone other than River?"
"The thing of it is, Captain," Book began, "River was the one who figured out where Morado was holding you and Inara."
"How'd she do that?"
"By setting up a rendezvous with him under the guise of giving herself up. She got him alone for a couple of minutes," Zoe explained, "and then-"
"She tortured him," Simon spat out.
"We don't know that," Kaylee objected. "We were outside just like everyone else."
"How else would you explain the screams? What was left of him when we finally went in?" Simon demanded.
"The guards ran in," Zoe continued, "and she shot each one as soon as their head popped through the door. With Morado's weapon."
River had crouched down on the cargo bay and begun drawing designs on it with her fingertip. As far as he could tell by watching her movements, the designs started with a happy face and became more complex.
"Remember what she was like when Jubal showed up?" Kaylee asked, a twist of shadow passing over her face from her own memories of the encounter. "She woke up from the hit she took, and it was like that. She told everyone exactly what they needed to do, what to say, where to go. When we got into the room she'd met Morado in, she'd already written down the coordinates of this little module he'd stuck you two in. Soon as Wash'd plotted the course, she just kind of…faded back to where she usually is."
"Morado?" Mal asked, wondering just how much stranger things might get.
"Catatonic," Simon answered. "Not a mark on him, but he was in a complete fugue state and wouldn't respond to any external stimuli. I can only assume that my sister did something to him. I couldn't say what."
Inara knelt beside River and touched her on the shoulder.
"You cannot say, or guess," River said, looking up at her, "for you know only a heap of broken images, where the sun beats, and the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief, and the dry stone no sound of water."
"What. Was. That." Mal asked.
"T. S. Eliot," Book replied.
"I will show you fear in a handful of dust," River continued, then got to her feet and wandered off.
"I gotta get off this gorram ship," Jayne muttered.
"We've set course for Persephone," Mal announced as he sat down at the dinner table where Inara reposed. "Should be there in five days or so."
"I hope this adventure hasn't made things too difficult for you, financially that is."
"Us? Nah, we made a relative killing off of it. The upfront payment Morado put down, plus Kaylee knows a guy willing to take those chips off our hands. Then we also have the exact coordinates of that little vacation spot you and I were holed up in. I figure we ought to be able to clear a stack off just that, since Morado won't be lookin' at using it anymore."
"About that, Mal," Inara replied. "I don't want you to think that what happened –"
"You keep pickin' at that, it'll never heal."
She looked down at her hands and realized that three of her cuticles were ready to bleed. She put her hands in her lap and met Mal's eyes, flinching a little at the intensity of that gaze. "What I need you to understand, Mal, is that, regardless of what happened on that little tub, you have not been and will never be a client of mine."
His expression slowly changed into a wide smile. "Inara, honey, I wouldn't have it any other way."
He pressed his palms to the table, stood, and walked over to the kitchen. "Want some coffee? Or actually what tries unsuccessfully to pass for it on this ship?"