"Come in, Serenity," Inara tried again, with growing impatience and - maybe - just a touch of concern she would admit to. "This is shuttle one, coming in to dock... Request acknowledgement... Damn it, Mal, answer me."
But there was no answer. True enough, the dawn was still a clear band on the horizon, but Mal usually kept a watch while on a world like Persephone, even if he wasn't awake himself already. And she could see that shuttle 2 was missing. Biting down on her lower lip, she punched in the automated docking codes and guided the shuttle back to its familiar rest. Serenity accepted her, locking them into place with a mechanical grind followed by a swift, sharp 'ker-chung' that reverberated through the smaller ship. Inara finished powering down, gathered her robe tighter around herself as she stood, and caught up a gold rope-belt to tie around it. Then she headed purposefully through the door that marked the boundary where her domain ended and Mal's began.
Serenity seemed to be sleeping soundly, her power on low. Inara trod the walkway, bare feet casting a dull metallic ring down into the void of the cargo bay below with every fall. She aimed for the passenger quarters first, and knew there was something wrong when she found them dark and empty, doors gaping open. Shepherd Book might conceivably have taken the time to visit the local abbey, but there was no reason for Simon or River to leave the ship at all - and every reason for them not to.
She found weapons laid out in the kitchen, but what was there looked like the dregs someone had decided not to arm themselves with. "Mal?" she called, trying anyway. "Malcolm!" Further on up the ship, the crew quarters were a match for the passenger ones, and the bridge was silent and unoccupied.
"Oh, no," Inara muttered, and gave a small sigh. "What have you involved yourself in now?" She stood on the empty bridge, her robe no protection against the shiver that seized her. Hesitating, she wondered what to do - if there was anything she could do.
But even as she lingered, she heard a faint, familiar sound resonate throughout the ship, and felt the equally faint vibration that partnered it travel up into her bare feet. Shuttle 2 had just docked.
Taking a steadying breath, Inara returned along the length of the ship, and in her haste almost bumped into Shepherd Book as he emerged from the shuttle port, Kaylee supported at his shoulder.
"What happened?" was her instant shocked reaction, but Book was already shaking his head against her initial fear.
"She's not hurt. Only had a little too much to drink earlier tonight, and... it's complicated."
"Shh, sweetheart," Inara said, folding Kaylee into her arms as the girl moaned unhappily. "And the captain?" she asked, already able to see the shuttle was empty behind Book. "Where's Mal? And everyone else?"
The preacher smiled, grim worry underlying. "There was some Alliance trouble. River was spotted and taken. Captain's out springing her and Wash now."
"Against the Alliance?" She remembered the scatter of weapons on the table. "Has he lost his mind completely? You're surely not telling me that Mal's gone into an Alliance enforcement station with all guns blazing?"
"Had to get River," Kaylee mumbled, trying to straighten. "And Wash. Simon and Zoe... well. And, hey, need to fly this thing, right? 'Sides, it woulda been all of us, he said. Every one of us with a price on our heads sooner or later, we didn't go. They'd tell 'em. Wouldn't be able to help it, in the end."
"Yes," Inara agreed breathlessly, feeling very cold as the full danger crashed over her. "Yes, it would be. So Mal..."
Book laid a hand gently on her shoulder. "I'm sure they'll be - "
The main door clanked below and Zoe's voice unmistakeably floated up, issuing orders. Inara laughed weakly. "Don't tell me, preacher... you have informers in very high places."
He glanced innocently upward. "Perhaps."
"Oh, good." At her breast, Kaylee gave a little sigh of relief and relaxed so much Inara thought for a moment she'd passed out, and struggled to stop her ending up on the floor because little Kaylee was heavier than she looked.
"Here." The shepherd awkwardly took Kaylee back, and inclined his head down toward the growing commotion in the cargo bay. "I'll get her to the kitchen and pour some coffee into her. You go."
As she began to descend, she could see Simon and River dragging something dark inside, pulling it into the shadows to the edge of the bay. They both looked unusually animated, their voices hushed but clearly delivered with fervour.
"It's necessary - " Inara caught, as River tugged at whatever it was. Her face pinched in annoyance, she glared up at her brother.
Simon spoke so quietly she heard only fragments. "I don't see how... the captain... we should at least..." The doctor dropped their burden entirely and halted, his open palms underlining his objections as he waved them in helpless protest.
"Simon!" His sister continued to struggle alone until he reluctantly resumed his aid.
Inara stepped off the ladder, staring over her shoulder at the pair and wondering if she ought to intervene. Then Wash stomped in, complaining loudly to Zoe over his shoulder, and she had to sidestep in fear of a collision. The marks on his face momentarily wiped all else from her thoughts.
"I mean, why? What is this? Is it me - you don't think it's something about me, do you? What if I have... 'torture me' vibes? I'm just saying, it could be a growing problem."
Zoe caught him at the base of the stairs. The smile on her face had anger simmering not far beneath it. "Their problem, when I catch up to them, dear." She leaned in to him, faltering her purposeful stride to cup her husband's bruised face and kiss him. She cut the gesture short and broke away apologetically as he flinched.
"Ow," he said pointedly, and pulled her back for a more comprehensive effort.
"Wash." Mal's voice parted them again, and Inara spun, her chest feeling tight at the affirmation he was still alive. "Need you up on the bridge getting us all far away from this rock. Time for kissing later. Take us up out of the world."
"Yes, sir." He rolled his eyes, then caught Zoe's. The contact stretched like elastic between them as he headed up the steps away from her.
"We ain't clear yet," Mal said, to nobody and everybody, as Wash disappeared. "Not by a long way." He was hanging heavily off Jayne's arm, worrying traces of dried blood on his face. "The door, Jayne."
Jayne dutifully peeled the captain off his shoulder and sort of draped him against the wall while he went to do as ordered. Mal clutched at the wall a little frantically for a moment before seeming to steady, by which time Inara was already at his side with a supporting arm to offer. "What happened to you?"
"Some kind of new Alliance toy. Balance is still a bit - " He almost toppled over, trying to turn to address her, and she ended up staggering with most of his weight. She wrapped her arms around his chest and tried to right him again. "Like I said." He was half laughing, albeit a wheezing laugh. "I'm all right." His arm crept around her waist, strictly of necessity, the other rising to seize the fingers that reached for his face. She couldn't help but notice the tremor in his limbs.
She rolled her eyes. "Sometimes I think you do this on purpose," she said, and with some difficulty because Mal was heavy, as she already knew from a certain swordfight. "So... what happened to your promise you wouldn't be doing this, this trip?"
He tried to shrug and it proved ill-advised. "It was out of my hands, and... you can't be blaming me for this one?"
Jayne slammed the doors shut behind them and buzzed up to Wash that they were all locked up and ready to scoot, sooner the better. He almost hadn't even cut communication before Serenity gave that familiar shudder that meant her engine had started up. Then Inara had to fight to keep herself and her wayward captain upright against the sensation of take-off in addition to all the rest.
"I'll consider special dispensation this one time," she said. "But someone will have to do me the kindness of telling me exactly what's been going on first."
"If you can be getting me up to the kitchen and a decently fierce mug of coffee," Mal said, with tired good nature, "I might even have to start thinking about proposing."
Inara winced, and avoided looking him in the eye as she helped him on his way.
"Never goes smooth," Mal said to himself. He slumped at the kitchen table, a hand-held cortex link and an empty mug in front of him. Seeing how the sensation of vertigo wasn't showing signs of going away any time soon, he had both elbows planted firm on the table top out of a general distrust of his own balance - and the world at large, that seemed dead set against the idea of staying still. He had a headache and a worsening temper not helped by his vision keeping blurring.
A tentative touch on his arm drew his attention from scouring the cortex.
"Anything?" Kaylee asked.
"Only Simon and River's old warrants."
She tapped his arm again as he bowed his head back down. "Could take hours," she offered. "Days, maybe. You know that. Won't do any good you keepin' starin' away at that thing, cap'n."
He pushed it away and sighed; broke Kaylee's grip only to wrap her fingers around his with slow, deliberate motions that didn't upset his head, and held her hand over the table. "I know... you feeling any better yet, mei mei?"
"A bit. How 'bout you?" She seemed faintly embarrassed to be asked.
"Just tired and dizzy is all. The no-sleep issue probably not helping matters." He squeezed her hand. "I'm sorry, Kaylee. Wouldn't have done it if we hadn't sore needed you up and about."
"No, no," she told him a little woozily. "I'm just... I feel so bad I got drunk like that. Nothing like bein' real useless when you all need - "
Her bitterness surprised him, and he cut her off quick. "You weren't useless, girl. Where would we have been without you and your planning? River and Wash would still be in there and us all with a ticket to an Alliance jail. I reckon you and Simon might just be a right match after all, criminal masterminds both." He squeezed her fingers again and smiled.
"Thanks, cap'n." She relaxed forward, smiling, setting her head to the table and splaying her hair over their joined hands, and rolled her head slowly to the side to look up at him. "That's real sweet of you."
"Nothing but the truth. 'Sides which," he added, "not one of us was expectin' our night of living the finer life would end in gorram firefights and close as damn it all-out warfare... though, thinking on it, I have no idea why. Runs smooth as clockwork, this tweaked luck of mine."
Kaylee laughed softly. Her fingers moved lazily over his. Her hair tickled as she moved. "Your hands're shakin'," she murmured.
"Yeah." He returned his attention to the cortex link, brushing strands of Kaylee's hair out of the way. After a few minutes, he felt her grip relax, and heard the rhythm of her breathing change.
It wasn't much later when he heard footsteps and looked up to see Inara standing in the doorway. Her eyes fell on Kaylee and her smile softened. "The snoring wounded. I wondered what you'd be up to."
"Being 'up to' anything mostly involves falling right down again at the moment." Mal smiled back, then as he saw her expression change added, "It's improved some, don't worry. Reckon I'll be fine after I get some sleep."
"Which you probably should be doing," Inara remarked.
He pushed the cortex link away again, this time with purpose, switching it off. "Still not sure I'm up to standing and carrying Kaylee to her quarters, though," he continued. "I don't suppose you could - "
"When I mention 'Companion training', that didn't generally include weights," Inara prodded gently.
" - see if you can't rustle up Jayne," Mal finished.
She laughed, and her hand trailed over his shoulder in a vague pat that was in danger of being something else as she drifted past and left the kitchen again, a soft, "I'll have a look," floating in her wake.
He leaned back in the chair - but resumed his former position post-haste because despite what he'd told Inara, the world still felt none too secure. As days went, he reflected, he'd had better. Couldn't even say they were still free and flying - everyone might have gotten away intact, but that, it could be a while before they knew with any certainty.
Zoe had taken Wash off to their quarters soon as they broke atmo and he'd set course. Simon and River had disappeared somewhere soon as they'd come on board, and about that, he should probably worry - 'specially as he wasn't too sure where Jayne had gotten himself to either; he could faintly hear Inara calling his name.
It was Book she returned with, though, a short time later. The preacher gathered Kaylee up with some effort, albeit respectably little for his age. He shot a tight smile back at Mal, a look that lingered an odd length of time for a man who wasn't any spring chicken hauling a girl who wasn't any lightweight, and then made his way with difficulty - not up toward the crew quarters with their troublesome ladders, but down the ship to the guest rooms.
"I better go with them and get her settled down," Inara said, and followed. After a while, he heard their voices faintly in discussion, too faint for him to make the words out. But he had a notion from something in Inara's tone that they were talking about him. Shortly after, the voices died and slow, measured footsteps returned to the kitchen. Book entered, walked to the chair at the foot of the table, and seated himself directly opposite Mal.
"Something wrong, preacher?" he asked after a moment. "There some reason you're sat there studying me like I should be in a sideshow?"
Book folded his arms on the table before him, interlacing his fingers. "I'm just wondering if you shouldn't see the doctor. Have him check you out. It hasn't escaped my notice you still seem to be having some trouble."
"It's a bit of dizziness. It'll wear off. Already has been." Mal sighed. Last thing he was feeling like was subjecting himself to Simon's concerned testing and prodding. "...But you're right, preacher. Weapon none of us recognise and all, it's probably for the best." He grimaced as he moved in his seat and the world reeled, again, and he looked up archly at Book. "Mighty good of you volunteerin' to lend a hand."
Through the open door of her room, River could be seen sitting cross-legged on the bed. Her back was very straight, and she turned Badger's hat carefully between her hands. There was something dark lying across the bedclothes in front of her.
Mal had gone past, leaning heavily on the preacher, before the picture in its entirety quite registered. He faltered, and he and Book backpedalled to stand and stare in through the open door.
"I'm not seeing this," Mal said. "Tell me, shepherd - you reckon hallucinations would be a symptom of this thing I got zapped with?"
"If they are," Book said slowly. "I think I must have gotten a dose of it, too."
River was sitting on the bed with Badger - fully clothed and thoroughly unconscious, thank God - sprawled on top of the sheets.
"River," Mal said firmly, catching her attention. The hat stopped turning. Dark eyes silently ate into him. "You care to explain how come Badger's in your bed and on my ship?"
Simon and Jayne, a little way further along the corridor, broke off an argument when they heard the sharp question, finally noticing he was standing there, and what he was standing seeing. He turned from River's uncooperative silence to them, and Book struggled a moment to keep him upright as balance took a holiday. "Why do we have Badger?" he persevered. "Jayne? You feel like shedding some light on this?"
"Uh..." Jayne started, then broke off to get in Simon's face and hiss, "Told you." He looked back at Mal, flustered. "Weren't me, Mal. Hell, I'd be glad to see the back of the little cuss. Moonbeam bagged him all her own self, I swear. Got this one to help her drag him aboard." He jerked his thumb toward Simon, then leered with ugly mirth, like he just really couldn't help himself. "Reckon she's plannin' to keep him like some sort of pet. Took a right shine to him, seems."
"My sister has not - " Simon began angrily, rising to defend River's honour.
Mal halted him with a raised hand. "While I get the point, even considerin' the delivery, that bein' a mind-reading genius with a couple of loose screws in the brain pan don't make her dead below the waist... Badger?" He cast the two a pained look. "Girl, are you off your nut? Well, I mean..." He floundered.
River rolled her eyes and lifted them, and started to count the stains or the ceiling or some such, but chose to shed no more light on the subject.
"Either way," Mal said, collecting his thoughts with some difficulty. "That is not the issue. The issue would be that Badger there is unlikely to be too happy when he eventually wakes up. The issue would also be that I do not go 'round abducting folk I need to do business with - or at all - "
"He knows she's worth money," Simon pointed out nervously.
Mal stopped. He opened his mouth, and then paused, realising he really didn't have the energy or patience left for this, not to mention that it might well have actually been the best option in the circumstances. "Fine," he said, swallowing the protest. "Just keep him out of my way and keep him out of trouble when he wakes up, all right? And her, too. I got too many other things on my mind to be dealing with right now."
He took a breath. "Simon. You've doctorin' to do. Preacher's got some concerns 'bout this Alliance thing I got zapped with."
"Oh! Yes, I'm... I'm very sorry, captain. I should have - "
"You had to deal with your sister's yen to add kidnapping to her genius portfolio. I understand... Jayne?"
"What, Mal?" The merc still looked guilty. But then he usually was, of something.
Mal pointed. "Chaperone them. Doctor's got work to do." He killed Simon's protest with a glower.
Jayne's face fell, and he looked blankly through the doorway at River, who gave him one of those sickly sweet smiles that usually spelled trouble for the recipient.
"Aww... gorram it, Mal! I tol' you, I ain't done nothing!"
NOTE: If this seems an ending that leaves some threads hanging, that's because I have written another story that directly continues after this one. I'll upload it here soon.