"Sweetheart, you have to wake up now. River? You gotta help me out here." Mal supported her body with one hand as she sat slumped against the wall in the alley. He risked a quick look back at her before returning his attention to the street beyond their hiding place. He heard the girl murmur softly. She was trying to come around. Not quick enough, though.
A dark figure swerved into the alley from the main street, and Mal brought his gun up, finger on the trigger. He relaxed again when he recognized the silhouette. Jayne moved silently through the dark and hunkered down next to him.
"Anyone see you?" Mal kept his voice low.
"No one who's gonna be able to tell about it," replied Jayne. "She still out?"
Now that he had someone to cover his back, Mal turned his attention to the girl. The cuts and bruises weren't all that visible in the darkness, but he could see the swelling around her eye. He tamped down his rage and let an icy calm fill him again.
"River? Honey?" He shook her gently, trying to force her back to awareness. He could sense her struggling against the drug, but it was still winning.
"We gotta get her back to the ship. I don't know what they used on her, but she ain't shakin' it off." He put a hand to her face in an unconscious gesture of comfort. "Could be she's hurt worse than I figured."
"We stand a better chance of making it back in one piece if we just sit tight 'til the ruttin' locals go to sleep," Jayne countered.
"And what if she dies while we're waitin', Jayne? What then? You wanna be the one to tell her brother we let he die 'cause we didn't want to chance someone seein' us?"
"That ain't how I meant it," Jayne said, sounding edgy. He swept his glance from River to Mal to the street. "I ain't got no love for neither of 'em, that's plain, but this . . . What they did ain't right."
"Then we take her home. Now." He lifted River in his arms, aware of how light and fragile she felt. He turned to Jayne. "Check the street; see if we're clear." He waited while the merc edged his way out of the alley and cursed the bad luck that dogged them. It was supposed to be a simple stop-over. When was he going to learn that it was never simple? Not for him or his crew. Never.
Serenity'd been running a little hot, Kaylee reported to him. She was pretty sure that the problem would be fixed with a minor repair; she could pick up the part at any halfway stocked junkyard. They had just dropped the Shepherd off at Broodstone Abbey for a couple weeks of solitude and meditation. They were on the way to meet up with Inara. The closest world that would have what she needed and not take them too far out of their way was Greychurch. Set down, get the part, slap it in, back in the black in no time.
That's how it was supposed to go.
Greychurch was a rough world, and the port they set down in would never be on the tourist run - unless the tourist had a desire for having his pocket picked or his head stove in due to an inconvenient meeting with a scavenger out on the prowl. There was a minimal Alliance presence - enough to keep anarchy from sweeping in but too few to put a dent in the random crime that seemed to be the basis of the local economy.
Mal wasn't fired up about Kaylee heading out into the port, but she was the only one who knew what she was looking for. Wash had piped up that he needed a new gauge for the proximity panel, and he'd be going along, too; he'd play bodyguard for the mechanic. Mal had laughed dismissively and ordered Zoe to go as backup for them both.
River had begged to go along with Kaylee, but there was no way in hell that was going to happen. She tried to get her brother to speak for her, but the doctor was no more about to let her off the ship than Mal was. She tried to convince Mal with her own brand of indecipherable logic. Some such talk about getting a part of her fixed, too; how she was fading away, no air, no earth, no sun. Mal wasn't swayed, but he had to admit to the fact that both the Tams were looking paler than usual lately. The girl especially was ghost-like.
The hard truth of it was that Mal had to restrict them to the ship for the last few landfalls. Too many Feds; too many people. The doctor had seen the wisdom of it, but his sister had her own world where wisdom didn't count for much. It made it hard to hold a reasonable conversation with her - like the one Mal tried to have when he explained in simple words why she didn't get off the ship this time, either. He had about run out of his not so infinite supply of patience when she suddenly smiled beatifically at him. Mal eyed her warily.
"All is understood within, " she confided in him conspiratorially. "It flows like a stream. Connected here." She lifted a hand gracefully to her head. "Connected there." She touched Mal's shoulder. "It streams." She extended her arm, her hand pointing past him. "Just follow the stream."
She looked at him expectantly. He sighed.
"I have no idea what you're on about, I'll tell you plain. But I'm takin' this to mean we have an understandin'. Right?"
"Like a stream," she agreed.
"Uh-huh. OK then, I have work to do. Best maybe you go help your brother out for a while 'til the others get back." He rubbed his neck, then glanced around to be sure they were alone in the common area. "I'll work on gettin' you someplace where you can run free for a spell. You just gotta be patient for a little bit more is all."
River nodded sagely at him, and Mal left her there, not really sure if he could claim this one as a victory or not.
"I can't find River." The doctor stood over him, throwing a shadow on the bolt he was trying to tighten.
"Maybe she's merging with the ship again." He grunted and applied more pressure. His hand slipped off the wrench and cracked against the panel he was working on. "Chùsheng xai-jiao de xiang huo!"
"I'm not joking. I can't find her anywhere." His voice was dead serious.
Mal stood up and placed his stinging hand under his other arm.
"When's the last time you saw her?"
"It's been at least an hour. When she left the infirmary I just assumed that she went back to her room. I've searched all over the ship. I checked her room again just to be sure that we hadn't kept missing each other." He paused. "I must have overlooked it at first. Her jacket is gone."
"Zhen qisi ren!" He took a deep breath. "All right. She probably just wanted to follow Kaylee. They're doubtless all together by now."
Simon looked unconvinced. Mal wasn't that convinced himself.
"You stay here." Simon started to protest, and Mal cut him off. "In case she comes back on her own. I'll get Jayne and we'll go look for her." He started walking back toward the crew quarters. "And when we find her, I'm considerin' investin' in some chains for that door of hers."
"She doesn't mean to cause trouble." Simon walked a line between apology and defense.
"What she means and what she does are two separate worlds, Doctor."
They'd reached the hatch to Jayne's quarters and Mal pounded on the door. No answer. He headed toward the cargo bay, Simon tight on his heels.
"She just wanted so badly to walk around, feel solid gound under her again."
"Well, it seems she got her wish, don't it?" Mal peered over the catwalk and saw Jayne sitting on the bench next to the weights. "Jayne. Get your things. We're goin' out for a bit. Little sister decided to go for a walk."
"Maybe someone should warn the locals - you know, so they can defend themselves," Jayne smirked as he wiped the sweat from his face with his towel.
"This isn't funny," Simon bristled.
"Depends on where you're sitting, don't it?" Jayne responded, staring a challenge.
Kaylee's clear laugh interrupted the brewing fight; from the cargo bay, they could hear the voices of their crewmates getting nearer. Mal started down the steps from the catwalk, but Simon flew past him.
Out of the gathering twilight walked Kaylee, Wash, and Zoe. Kaylee and Wash were laughing at some shared joke; Zoe just looked relieved to be back on board.
"I got the part," Kaylee proclaimed triumphantly, waving a piece of metal around like a trophy. Her smile faltered and then died when she realized how grim the other three were looking.
"Captain, what's wrong?" Zoe asked.
Simon rushed past them to look out the cargo bay door, then turned to the three who had just returned.
"River didn't find you?"
"River? River didn't come with us. Simon - what's going on?" Kaylee asked, worry clouding her face.
"She left the ship. About an hour ago now. We . . . we were hoping that she caught up with you." Simon wasn't even trying to keep the fear out of his voice.
"No. No, we ain't seen her since we left." Kaylee put a comforting hand on his arm. "Simon, please don't worry. I'm sure she's all right. We'll find her, you wait and see."
"Sir." Zoe motioned Mal over to one side. "This could be real bad."
"What do you know?" Mal was getting a sinking feeling in his gut
"I got buttonholed by the old woman who runs the junkyard. While I was waiting for the two of them." She nodded her head back toward where Kaylee and Wash were trying to calm Simon. "She told me to keep a close eye on Kaylee. Said there was a band of slavers working the port."
Mal hung his head and muttered dark curses before straightening again, a plan already in his mind.
"You keep the others here. And they don't need to know your news. No need to worry 'em more than they already are."
"You think they took her?" Zoe kept her face neutral, but her voice carried her concern.
"I think we ain't never gonna run out of back luck."
He walked over to where Simon stood with Kaylee and Wash. He looked back at Jayne and with a curt nod of his head motioned for him to join the rest of them. The merc threw down his towel and crossed to stand with his shipmates. Mal could see him trying read what was really happening.
"Here's the deal," Mal addressed Simon, Kaylee, and Wash. "Jayne and I are gonna go round up River." He cut Simon off with a fierce look before the doctor had a chance to speak. "Kaylee, you get that part swapped out. When we get back I want off this ruttin' rock congmang. Wash, you can wait on replacin' your gauge. I just want to go. Dong ma?"
Wash and Kaylee nodded.
"I'm going with you." Simon wasn't making a request.
"No. You're not. Jayne, get your stuff together." Mal strode across the bay and started up the stairs towards the crew quarters.
"Captain . . ." Simon was on Mal's heels.
"We ain't discussin' this." Mal didn't break stride. "I got one Tam disobeyin' orders and causin' me no end of trouble; you lookin' to make that two?"
"She's my sister," Simon insisted.
"And she's my crew. I'll see to this."
They were on the crew deck now, and Mal stopped so suddenly that Simon stumbled into him. Mal nimbly stepped aside and Simon began to tumble, catching himself at the last moment.
"I ain't got the time to watch after you and look for your sister," he said pointedly. "I don't need you trippin' over your own feet and gettin' in the way."
Jayne passed them on the way to his quarters; he kept his mouth shut and pushed open the hatch, then disappeared down the ladder.
"You'll find her?" Simon made it more of a statement than a question.
"I always do," Mal replied smugly, belying his worry. It's what the boy would expect.
"I'll be in the infirmary, then. Doing . . . something." He headed back down the catwalk and Mal watched him go until he was out of sight.
Jayne climbed back up to the corridor. He had a gun holstered, knives in his belt and his boot, Vera strapped across his back, and he carried his long duster. He dropped the coat on the deck as Mal surveyed him with a critical eye.
"Vera stays. We don't want to be too obvious with this business."
Jayne didn't argue. As he lifted Vera's strap over his head, he asked in a low voice, "What's going on, Mal? What ain't you telling everyone?"
"Slavers." The word held all the emotion that he wouldn't let the doctor see.
Jayne's eyes narrowed and his lips pressed into a thin line.
"How we playing this?"
Mal looked at him, and hard smile broke across his face.
"We're goin' shoppin'."
It was the last bar in town. Mal and Jayne sat at a table near the rear entrance. The table was big enough to fit at least six people around it, but neither one of them was willing to sit with his back to the door or the open room, so they sat near each other, backs to the wall, staring out at the smoky, half-filled barroom.
"You think they moved her off-world already?" Jayne was tipped back in his chair, looking to the casual observer like just another bored space jockey.
"Don't know." Mal flipped another card over. "We left our callin' card at every ruttin' bar in this hellhole. Now we sit and wait."
"I hate waitin'." He rocked rhythmically, surveying the room.
"Not so fond of it my own self," Mal agreed.
They sat in silence, Jayne rocking, Mal pretending to focus on the game of solitaire in front of him.
"You think they, you know . . . messed around with her?"
Mal looked at him, trying to gauge the reason behind the question.
"They'll get more for her if they don't touch her. I'm hopin' they're smart enough to know that."
"Yeah, but they could - and still try to pass her off as, you know . . . untouched."
Mal laid the deck on the table and picked up the whiskey bottle. He poured shots for the two of them.
"What's your deep interest here, Jayne?"
"Nothin'. Just talkin' is all." His tone was defensive.
Mal stared at him. Jayne brought the chair back down to all four legs and leaned in to whisper raggedly.
"She's just a girl, all right? I don't like her no how – crazy ass and creepy – but she's just a girl. It's one thing for a woman to take to whorin' 'cause she likes it. Hell, I'm glad they do. But she didn't ask to take to it. It's just not settin' right with me." He rocked back again and glared at Mal. "That OK with you?"
Mal's attention had turned to the two men who just entered the bar, and he ignored Jayne's challenge. They'd called the bartender over, and after a short conversation all three of them turned to look over to where Mal and Jayne sat. Mal kept flipping the cards.
"You see 'em?"
"Yeah. These are our guys." Jayne sipped on his whiskey and looked to be following the game of solitaire that Mal was playing.
"Cool and easy, Jayne. Cool and easy."
The two newcomers crossed the room and stood in front of the table, slightly flanking Mal and Jayne. They were unremarkable looking: middle-aged, average features, big, rough, armed. The one closest to Jayne spoke first.
"Hear you boys been lookin' for us."
"Don't believe we have," replied Mal evenly. "Course I could be speakin' out of turn. Now my friend here, mabye he's the one you mean." He spoke to Jayne. "You been lookin' for them?"
Jayne raked his eyes over them lazily.
"What I'm lookin' for sure as shit don't look like either of them." He leered at the one standing closest to him.
The two strangers exchanged a look. The one standing next to Mal stepped up.
"My partner misspoke. He meant that we know what you're looking for, and we got just the thing."
"And what might that be?" Mal asked, all smiling innocence.
"What we're all looking for, friend. A little female companionship."
Jayne brought his chair crashing down to the floor and then leaned forward, crossing his arms on the table.
"I dunno. We got special needs."
"We got special inventory."
Mal and Jayne looked at each other and grinned. Mal kicked out a chair and nodded toward it.
"Take a seat, friend."
The building was near the center of town; it housed one of the more popular bars. Even here - four flights up - they could hear the music and the shouts from down below. They walked the long, dim corridor in single file, Mal and Jayne sandwiched between the two slavers.
Mal scoped out the area. The floor was quiet; only four rooms from what he could tell. Either the rooms were unrented or the occupants were asleep or still out on the town. There were stairs at the end of the hall, just past the last doorway. A grimy window was set in the far wall; outside the window he could make out what looked to be the ladder for a fire escape.
The slaver in the lead stopped at the last door on the right. He turned to Mal and Jayne, with his hand on the doorknob.
"Just a look, boys. Verify the goods, that's all. No pay, no play."
He waited for them to nod their assent, then he slid his card through the pad and opened the door. They stepped through to a large, unkempt common area. One of the men hit a switch on the wall and the overhead light glared down on them. Across from him, Mal could see another room; the door to it was shut.
"Yeah, it's lovely. Where's our girl?" He turned on the leader with a smile in his voice and a deadly grin. "You wouldn't be thinkin' of cheatin' us now, would you? Lure us up here to your lush rooms and steal our money?"
He was answered with a patronizing laugh.
"Xialai. She's right through that door there. A might anxious, ain't you? Maybe we set the price too low. What do you think?" He looked at his partner.
"I think we're done negotiating," Mal broke in. "For what we're payin', she better be somethin' really special. And she ain't been popped, you said? 'Cause we're payin' extra for that. I'm a man who don't take kindly to being cheated, you understand."
"She's a virgin." He grinned. "I checked her myself. Tight as a drum. Sweet little thing. It woulda almost been worth it. But business is business."
"The proof is in the seein'. Just cut the jabber and let's do it," Jayne rumbled.
"Right through here, gentlemen."
Mal steeled himself as he walked through the door, but even at that it took all his control not fall on the slaver with tooth and fist and nail. River was splayed on a mat on the floor. Her skirt was around her thighs; her black shorts hadn't been pulled all the way back up. Her hands were chained over her head; she looked as if she had been beaten. For a heart-stopping moment Mal couldn't tell if she was breathing, but he saw her chest move almost imperceptibly and his own breath returned to him as well. He didn 't dare to look at Jayne yet.
"She looks pretty beat up. She more than the two of you tough boys could handle?" He was amazed to hear how normal his voice sounded as he drawled the question.
The two men laughed agreeably.
"She is a fighter. I won't deny it. Makes her just more worth the effort, though, don't it? You're gonna have some interesting times with this one."
"She looks dead." Jayne sounded put out.
"We had to give her something special. The regular stuff wouldn't keep her under. Don't worry, she'll come around soon enough." Sensing more of a profit in the offing, he crossed to the small table next to where Mal stood and opened a drawer. Mal could see vials and hypos. "For an extra 50 I can throw in another shot. Make that first time a lot less strenuous for you." He straightened up and winked at Mal. "Seems to me, though, that you're the kind of man likes to have 'em scream and struggle."
"Yeah, that's me."
In one seamless motion Mal pulled the slaver to him, unholstered his gun, put it to the man's stomach and pulled the trigger. Shocked eyes stared back at him. Mal moved the muzzle up so it was over the dying man's heart.
"Meet you in hell." And he pulled the trigger again.
There was a groan and a thud behind him. He let the body fall away from him and turned to see that Jayne had slit the throat of the second slaver. His body twitched for a moment, then went still.
"Find the key," ordered Mal, as he began searching the body in front of him. "Come on. Come on!" No key. Jayne's cursing was proof that he had no luck, either.
Mal crossed to the table and pawed through the drawer. There it was. In two steps he was by River's side, down on one knee. He fumbled as he tried the lock, and he forced himself to take a deep breath and slow down. Coolly now he freed her from the chains. He crossed her thin arms across her chest and with a grimace pulled her shorts up as gently as he could. A shadow fell across him; Jayne was standing over them, his face tight.
"I wish we could kill 'em again," he said.
A sudden pounding on the outside door froze them both.
"Rawlins! Rawlins, you in there?"
More pounding. They could hear muffled voices.
The pounding stopped just as suddenly. Someone laughed. The voices faded away.
"We gotta get out of here. Get the window. Wait a minute!" He stood and went to the table again and tossed a few random vials at Jayne. "Take these. The doc might need them to figure out what they gave her." He stuffed a few into his own pockets as he spoke.
Jayne was at the window, forcing it up. It was warped with age, and he managed to only get it half-way open. Mal lifted River and deposited her on the fire escape landing as carefully as he could manage. He put one leg across the window ledge, then spoke softly.
"Cover our backs. I'll be waiting down below. Don't get followed."
Jayne nodded impatiently, and once Mal was outside on the landing, he forced the window down again and locked it for good measure. As Mal lifted River and prepared to climb down the ladder, he saw the merc edging carefully back into the main room.
As light as she was, the girl was dead weight, and it took longer than he thought to make it down to the alley. Once there he sat her on the ground up against the wall of the building, then trained his gun on the entrance from the street. He thought he heard her murmur, so he reached behind him to steady her.
"Sweetheart, you have to wake up now. River? You gotta help me out here."
He shifted River in his arms and tried to beat down the worrying in his mind. Where the hell was Jayne? He was working through a backup plan when Jayne sidled into the alley again. Mal gave him a wide-eyed glare; Jayne ignored him
"There's another alley couple streets up. Leads to a small road that runs around the outskirts of town."
"How's it out there?" Mal pointed with his head toward the main street and shifted River in his arms again. She moved her limbs weakly and muttered something low. The cold must be helping to fight off the drug, Mal reasoned. Either that or this was another one of her unexplained skills.
"River?" Mal ducked his head to look at her more closely. "River, it's the Captain. We're taking you home. You hang on."
She whimpered and he rocked her as he would a baby.
"Shhhhh. Shhhhh, now. You'll be all right. Everything's gonna be all right."
"She's not doing too good, huh?" Jayne asked, trying for a indifferent tone and failing.
"She'll be fine once we get her back to the ship. You lead."
They moved down the alley; River suddenly started thrashing her arms and legs weakly, but it was enough. Mal stopped, struggling to keep his hold on her. It only seemed to frighten her and she tried to fight him in earnest.
"Simon! Simon, help me!" River's voice was soft and harsh, dry, drugged.
"It's not Simon, it's the Captain. We're taking you back to Simon, but you have to be quiet, OK? Can you do that for me? River?"
She put a hand to his face and then pulled it away quickly, still not recognizing him, starting to panic again
"Not Simon. Mal. It's the captain," he said in what he hoped was a soothing voice.
"And Jayne," the merc added.
"The men . . . The men, they took me and they . . . Not the other ones. Two, but not the other ones . . ."
Mal cut her off, quietly.
"We got you now, and we're taking you home. Those men are gone. You don't have to worry no more about that. But you have to be quiet now. Real calm."
"Mal?" Her voice was stronger.
"That's right," he smiled at her. "Now we're gonna just go up the street a bit and then head over to a road that's a sight more deserted. We'll have you back with your brother in no time."
"Simon." Mal could see her eyes unfocus. "He's so scared. Scared for me."
"Tell you the truth, darlin', there's a whole lot of folks was scared for you tonight," Mal muttered. "Let's get movin'," he ordered Jayne.
"I followed the stream. Like I promised. It was so beautiful. So clear."
"Beautiful, was it? Ain't that grand," he soothed her.
Mal couldn't decide if this was the drugs talking or not. Suddenly he remembered River going on about a stream earlier, and he guiltily held her a little tighter. He should have figured something was up with her. Should have known. Should have made sure that someone kept an eye on her.
They stopped at the edge of the alley. There were a few dark shapes to be seen on the dimly-lit sidewalks.
"River - you just stay calm now. Can you do that for me?" He tilted his head to make eye contact with her. She was shivering in the cold night air.
"That's right. Almost home." He looked at Jayne. "Go ahead of us."
Jayne stepped out onto the sidewalk, and Mal followed right behind him, letting the big man's body block the view of what he carried in his arms.
A drunk lurched down the sidewalk toward them; Jayne plowed ahead and the man bounced off him and landed on his ass in the street, his curses quickly turning to drunken laughter at his situation.
Two more streets. Almost clear.
"Hey! Hey, you two! Where are you taking that girl?"
Three solid citizens hurried across the street toward them. They each carried some kind of shockstick.
"Mal?" Jayne whispered it, his hand hovering over his gun.
"Don't hurt 'em if you don't have to."
Mal cursed inwardly. Citizen Watch. Fools and idiots. And where were they when River was being snatched in the first place? He cursed them again.
"Where are you men taking that girl?" They stopped a healthy distance away, but Mal could see one of them had a comm at the ready to call for help.
"Daddy?" Mal almost jumped when River put her arms around his neck and hugged him tightly. "Daddy, I want to go home. You said you were taking me home."
"I appreciate your concern, gents, but this is a family matter," Mal said, following her lead. "My girl here took it into her head to run away, got herself into a bit of a bad scrape, as you can see. We're just wantin' to take her home now."
"Is that true, child? Are these men holding you against your will?" The man seemed to be the leader of the little group.
"I want to go home." River turned liquid eyes toward her would-be rescuers and continued in a plaintive voice. "Why won't you let my daddy take me home?" She turned her face toward Mal again, and said with a hitch in her voice, "I'm cold."
"You heard her. Now we're goin' on our way. Unless it's your meanin' to have her die of the shock and the cold?"
Mal didn't wait for a response; he motioned for Jayne to start off again and he followed closely behind him. He didn't look back to see the reaction of the Watchmen, but no one challenged them as they continued on their way.
Jayne turned into a side alley; at the other end Mal could see it opened into another roadway. Almost home.
"You are a marvel, girl. I'll give you that." Mal grinned down at River.
She smiled back at him and then tapped him lightly on the chin with her index finger.
"I am cold," she said apologetically.
"Jayne!" he called softly. "Hold up." He looked down at River. "Think you can stand?"
She nodded, but he set her down so she could lean up against the side of the building anyway. He shrugged out of his duster and then wrapped it around her and rubbed her back and arms and shoulders to bring the warmth quicker.
"She OK?" Jayne had come up behind him.
"She's OK," River responded solemnly. She took a few trial steps away from the wall and her knees started to give out on her. "Her knees aren't," she frowned as she started to sway.
Both men reached out quickly to keep her from falling. Mal moved next to her, ready to scoop her up again.
"I can take a spell at carrying her. Yknow, if you're tired or something," Jayne offered gruffly.
"I got her fine. I need you to watch our backs." Mal picked her up again and smiled at her. "Ain't you just the popular one tonight." He could have bit off his own tongue as the words left his mouth, but River showed no reaction to his thoughtless remark.
They started back down the alley again, almost out into the road now. They stopped at the edge while Jayne checked it out quickly, then hurried back to them to give the all clear.
River laid her head against Mal's chest. She smiled a true smile.
"I can feel your heart beat. Strong." She raised her head and looked to Jayne. "I can hear your heart. Soft." She placed her hand on her own heart. "My heart beats. Safe." She let her head fall again against Mal's chest and seemed to be talking to herself now. "All connected. All flows."
"Like a stream," Mal finshed for her.
"Like a stream," River repeated.
"We're almost there," Jayne told them, pointing toward the distant light spilling from Serenity.
"Almost there," River assured them all.