It wasn't quite the triumphal rescue that Jack had imagined in his mind.
He should have expected Carter would find something to blow up. Of course, previously, she'd stuck to smaller thing: vehicles, ships, buildings. Half a town was a new order of magnitude for her.
Quietly frantic, they'd reached the township of Big Orden (and if this was Big Orden, then Jack never wanted to see Little Orden) only to discover that the thirty men had been routed by two not-quite-so-sharpshooters and one blonde pilot with a fondness for do-it-yourself explosives made from the ransacked goods of a local hardware store.
Most of the townspeople were even standing.
He glanced over at Reynolds and his crew: the blond man with the painfully colourful t-shirt was hugging the dark-skinned woman with the deadly eyes, while the young mechanic in the grease-spotted overalls looked far too young to be looking after a ship's engines.
The young man who'd turned out to be a doctor had been promptly dragged off by one of the locals to help the actual town doctor with the injured. The guy who reminded Jack of one of his old war-buddies but was quite definitely not Dixon - the beard looked awful - was saying something emphatically to Reynolds, gesturing in Jack's direction with a nasty look in his eye.
He caught a glimpse of T, standing back from the main street, keeping a weather eye on the situation. Jack had little doubt that his friend had the measure of every one of Reynolds' crew, from the mercenary, down to the mechanic.
He knew his friend had the measure of the man who'd been no Shepherd the last time Jack had faced him.
It would be tempting to go over to the now-preacher who was quietly performing the last rites over the dead raiders and demand an explanation. Somehow, Jack wasn't quite up to that. Old habits died hard, he supposed. Although, at least he could send a coded message to Hammond via the Cortex. The old general fretted worse than a mother hen.
Not that Jack and his crew hadn't given him cause enough for fretting.
That was all under the bridge by now.
He barely glanced at the man who paused next to him. "Daniel."
"When were you planning to tell him that his ship's on lockdown?"
Jack glanced at Daniel, noting the disapproval in his crewmate's expression. "Hm. 'Never' comes to mind."
"Daniel. They're smugglers."
Up went the eyebrows. "So are we."
"No, we're freighters," Jack replied. "The difference is a question of legitimacy." No dodgy jobs. A few investigations on behalf of old Alliance contacts, but Jack and his crew had broken with the Alliance several years ago. The ties that remained were of affection, not of duty.
And Jack preferred it that way.
"Sophistry, actually." Daniel looked out over the wreck of the town. "I wouldn't advise letting them take the drug shipment out, but they haven't been paid for the job."
"So they're not going to get into trouble if we just let them go."
"Daniel, we're going to get into trouble if we just let them go. There are rules about these things."
The snort that issued from the man beside him was disbelieving. "I'm sorry? I think I've just turned up in the next 'verse over. Did I hear Jack O'Neill say there are rules to be followed?"
"Very funny, Daniel. No, you won't tell him that his ship's on lockdown. He'll work it out soon enough when he tries to leave."
He wasn't in the mood for another lecture from Daniel. And he was missing at least one crewmember considering that he could see Jonas accepting a plate of food off a young woman who was smiling ingratiatingly up at him. He shook his head. Between Jonas and Daniel, the local girls usually managed to find themselves head-over-heels in love with one of them. Sometimes both. "Go get yourself some of what Jonas is eating. I'm going to find Carter."
Behind him, Daniel huffed, but Jack paid him no attention as he began circling the wrecks of the town buildings.
There were more than a few sideways glances at him as he walked and he was careful to nod and be seen to be amiable. No point in giving the locals anything more to worry about than they already had. Half the town in ruins and bad business prospects.
Jack had the nasty feeling that there was a reckoning coming, simply because that was what reckonings did.
He hunted around for Carter in and out of the shops along the main street, figuring that she wouldn't have ventured that far.
He finally found her hunkered down in the dust behind the water pump watching a young woman drip mud through her fingers.
"Sir?" He'd told her to lose the 'sir' more times than he could count. She hadn't yet, claiming habit was hard to break. Privately, Jack wondered if it gave her the space she seemed to need to deal with him and took it as a nickname of sorts, rather like the way he called her 'Carter'.
"Just checking the damage."
"Yes. Sorry about the mess."
"I'm not the one you should be apologising to," Jack pointed out. "And if this costs, it's coming out of your pay."
"I get paid?" Carter's mouth curved in a brief smile as Jack glared at her quip. "Actually, sir, it should be coming out of the pay of the Mayor."
Jack frowned at her. "Why?"
"Pound of flesh," said the girl in eerie answer. Jack felt the hairs on the back of his neck prickle as he met hazel eyes that looked confidingly at him. "He kept reality for himself, refusing to share it. And like a miser, it ate him up inside, flesh and bone and blood and soul. Spat him out again into the dust."
When Jack looked at Carter for translation, she was looking at the girl with something like pity. Finding his eyes upon her, she coughed. "The mayor sold some valuables to an offworld dealer for a large amount of money."
"But he cheated the dealer," Jack muttered. "And this was revenge?"
"This was revenge," she said.
He nodded. "And the mayor?"
"Sitting in his parlour, counting out his money." The girl answered.
One eyebrow arched at Carter. "Do I even want to know?"
She shrugged, indicating that she had no more idea than he did. Okay.
"Guess I'd better go hunt him down," he said. "Don't go anywhere, Carter. Once we get this town business sorted out, we're off this ball of rock."
"Yes, sir," Carter said, glancing at the girl. "If you don't mind, I might stay here a little longer."
The girl looked up from the patterns she was drawing in the mud and her eyes fixed on Jack. "Can't go anywhere anyway. Won't be reaching the sky at all."
Jack walked away feeling more than a little weirded out by the girl. There was something not exactly right about eyes like that. And her answers weren't completely off the planet, but they weren't phrased right, either.
He shook it off, at least until after the confrontation with the Mayor.
That was the hell of being Alliance reps; you got the dirty work. Reynolds had this smirk on his face that said, quite clearly, 'Better you than me.' But Jack - with some help from Daniel and Jonas - got things mostly sorted out. Mostly.
The Mayor was proving obstinate until Reynolds' mercenary stabbed a bit of meat on the tip of his knife and started eating it with great relish. Then it occurred to him that he'd endangered the friends of some rather dangerous people, and his attempts to retreat and make things right were a thing of great beauty and greater amusement.
They left the townsfolk to it and Jack called in his team. "Right, we're off."
Carter eyed them both. "Sir, may I have a word?"
She took him across the street beneath the spreading leaves of a young oak. This end of the town was more or less intact; it was the other end that was mostly flattened. "This had better be about the Mayor. Or the items that you came down here to get."
"It's about Serenity."
That floored him. "Se-what?"
"Serenity. The ship that River and her brother came in on."
Oh. That ship. "The Firefly."
"Right. Sir... You've locked down the ship."
He supposed Daniel must have been talking to her about that. Complaining probably - trying to get Carter to side with him. The man had his sneaky side when he got on one of his hobby-horses. Sometimes Jack was willing to indulge him, sometimes he yanked the other man up short.
"They're smugglers, Carter. You know that." Jack frowned slightly. "If you're going to argue Daniel's point for him, then don't bother. You're going to get the same answer."
Her eyes could be very expressive, but right now, they were flat and hard. "No, sir, I'm not."
That pricked his temper. "And you would know this how?"
She took a deep breath. "I know this because River Tam - the girl I was talking to at the water pump- went to the Academy on Central."
Jack saw red. For one, brief, blinding moment, he couldn't see anything but red. A moment later, he felt a touch on his arm and his vision cleared. Carter was still facing him, her eyes earnest. "They don't need trouble."
No more than we do.
Down the road, Reynolds was looking itchy to leave. Jack took a deep breath. "You're sure?"
That was good enough for him. He'd learned to trust the instincts of all his crew over the years. "Okay."
From the oak tree to Reynolds seemed like a long way to go; maybe it was just the hazel eyes of the girl that fixed on him as he walked towards them, like a tangible weight on his chest.
Then he remembered the shapes the girl had been drawing in the mud and stopped. Angular characters that Jack recognised - and which the girl couldn't have known. Shouldn't have known.
Unless she'd been to the Academy.
Reynolds saw him pause, came out to meet him, standing between Jack and his crew. Protective. Jack recognised that at least.
They were a lot alike in this at least.
They don't need trouble.
"So, lawman," Reynolds said, "what happens now?" There was a wariness in the man's eyes. Jack guessed that the man might not be outgunned in terms of pure numbers, but he was disadvantaged by having at least three non-combatants in his crew - and one wildcard that he knew nothing about - and knew he knew nothing about.
Jack looked him straight in the eye. "You take your crew, go back to your ship and leave the planet. You don't take the cargo you were sent to pick up. Make up a story, lie, whatever it takes. But you don't take it, you just leave."
Reynolds stared. "That's all?"
Jack shrugged. "Paperwork's a bitch," he said, acting casual.
"Uh-huh." Reynolds didn't believe him.
"No, really, it is. Terrible stuff. I'm better off without it. Just as you're better off without the cargo." That was all the warning he'd give the man. "You're free to go, Captain Reynolds. Good luck to you and your crew." Both 'Shepherd Book' and that kid who's been messed with nine ways to hell.
Jack turned on his heel and walked away, collecting his crew with a wave.
"So...?" Jonas fell into step beside Jack.
"We're going back to the ship," Jack told him. "That's all."
The younger man had more discretion than Daniel. He just nodded. "Okay."
They'd make their way slowly back to the ship, wait until the Firefly - what was the name Carter had given her? Oh, Serenity - wait until Serenity had lifted off and made hyper, then report the illegal goods and the raiders to the local Alliance group. His history would get them out of the interrogation that usually followed, and then they'd be off Lenarth and somewhere else.
And so would the Serenity and all souls on board her.
As Jack caught Carter's eye and saw her smile, he felt oddly relieved for a man who'd earlier been chafing at having nothing to do.
It wasn't quite the triumphal rescue he'd planned.
But it felt good anyway.
Mal finally found Book in the galley, pottering around behind the stores and keeping an eye on River who was thumbing through a book he'd given her and muttering to herself.
"He knew you."
"Shepherds are well known in the 'verse."
"Now that ain't what I meant and you know it. He knew you. And you knew him."
Book ignored the implicit question, continuing to prepare the food. But Mal waited. He was good at waiting when he had to be. Done it long enough while fighting in the war. You got used to waiting. You got used to waiting for answers.
"Inara once said that we're all running from something, Captain." The old man's words were measured, but he never looked up from his work. "Not all from the same thing, but we're all running."
"See, this is where I got a problem, preacher," Mal said. "I know what I'm running from. I don't know what you're running from. And I don't much like being kept in the dark. I like to know what's behind me. Tells me whether I should run faster or stand and fight."
"My secrets are not the kind that catch up with a man," said Book.
"See, you can tell me that now, but I don't know for sure. All I know is that I got a ship full of secrets and the people who're keepin' 'em. I don't want to be rude, Shepherd, but I don't want to be turning around one of these days and finding that your secrets have caught up with us. Gets me worried."
The galley was full of silence, even through the turning of River's pages and the small noises of the Shepherd's food preparation. Finally, Book looked up, and the dark eyes in the lined face looked even older and more solemn than usual. "Captain, let me assure you that my secrets are better off left where they are: safely in the grave of who I was. You'll cause more trouble for yourself if you try to dig them out. And we don't want trouble."
It wasn't a threat. Not exactly. But it was a warning, plain and clear.
"No," he said at last. "We don't."
Book just kept preparing his food with slow, patient movements, and eventually, Mal turned away. He couldn't argue with the Shepherd's words, but he could wait. He was still twitchy about these secrets, but he could wait.
He was still twitchy about today - being caught and being let go.
O'Neill and his crew were ex-Alliance. That much was pretty obvious. So, too, had been the man's intention to ground them on Lenarth and leave them there for the Alliance to find.
So why had the man let them go?
He turned to pass River and was surprised when she offered him the book. Interaction with River Tam was one of those rare things that could end with her laughter, or with her drawing a knife on you.
Mal read the cover. "Myths and Legends of the Greeks. Education in the classics."
"There was a princess of a country," River said solemnly, her eyes never leaving Mal's face, "and she was loved by a god. He gave her the gift of prophecy in exchange for her love, but she reneged on the bargain and was cursed. Whatever she prophesied would never be believed."
Mal had never been into mythology. Real life was difficult enough without adding fairy tales to the mix. "Nice story."
River sobered, her eyes turning sad. "But her people went to war. Thousands upon thousands of men who crashed against the walls of the city and died. So they deceived her people and overcame them, and a prince came to take her away from her home into slavery."
"Okay." Mal put the book down. "I think that's enough Greek legend for today." He shook his head. "It's been a mighty long day and busy to boot."
River caught his wrist. "She was rescued." The girl had a surprisingly strong grip - and if they weren't in morbid and creepifying territory, it was still definitely not normal. "It was a Gate-class ship, out of the Colorado yards. They called her Cheyenne, and sent her free to ride through the 'verse on a worm of light."
Mal had to admit, 'worm of light' sounded very elegant for the ugly angles of O'Neill's ship.
River continued, her eyes still fixed on Mal's face.
"And the name of the princess was Cassandra."
- fin -
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