"I will never understand what that girl is seeing in him," Mal said, shaking his head. Across the intervening dust and occasional sauntering vagrant of Eavesdown Docks, River and Badger spoke animatedly.

He queried Wash and Jayne, watching similarly, and they looked just as bemused. The hot sun seemed to intensify, and Mal reached up a hand to shade his eyes. Jayne wafted a hat through the air, trying to create himself a spot of a breeze. The three of them leaned against the mule, parked where it had been in the shade of Serenity not long since, but shaded no longer now the sun had reached its zenith.

"Herself," Inara interjected quietly, surprising all of them given that Inara wasn't having much to say of anything, of late. Mal looked askance at her where she was perched on the charred seat of the mule in clothes dialled down a level from her usual grandeur, browns and creams that wouldn't be amiss on any spacefaring gal of, she had assured him at least, inordinately impeccable taste. She held a parasol borrowed from Kaylee, and Mal was considering taking all abandonment of his hard-earned manly image for the sake of joining her under there.

Under all their questioning attention, Inara carefully elaborated, "River's brain has been altered - somehow - to sense the thoughts and feelings of others. That much we know. Badger... he sees her. He desires her. We all want to be given that kind of rebirth through another's eyes. Every girl wants to be seen as beautiful... and for River, I would imagine, whole. It's only... a little more literal, in this case, than ordinarily."

She shrugged, and turned away from their stares. The parasol obscured her face.

"Is this going to happen every time someone takes a shine to the girl?" Wash asked, laughing, his voice raising its pitch in incredulity.

"Maybe." Inara's voice was sarcastic, beneath the parasol. "But it was also new, and... I don't think it can be so easy, to find someone who really does care purely enough that the experience wouldn't be... repellent, in a way."

"Badger and pure?" Mal quipped. "Strikes me something about that theory just don't sit right."

"You don't have to be a saint to love," Inara said. She tipped the parasol back and swept her eyes around them all. "After all, even Jayne loves his mother," she finished dryly.

"Hey!" Jayne protested.

Mal laughed, and after a moment quietened, returning himself to watching the two. "It's a tale of forbidden romance, broken dreams and woe, all right," he murmured, folding his arms. "They start exchanging tokens or kissing, and I may just cry."

Wash dug an elbow in his ribs, and leaned over to advise, with a tip of his head toward Inara, "The chicks won't love you for that kind of talk, sir. Take it from the married guy."

"Yes, Wash," she said. "Because my illusions of the captain as a romantic and considerate soul are in severe danger of being shattered."

Across the dust, Badger and River broke apart, and Badger strode off hatless into the chaos of the market. Mal watched him corner a couple of his men who'd been sniffing around a while in the shadows. Words were exchanged, then they meekly fell in behind him as Badger walked away, his back becoming lost among the crowds.

"Well, looks like we don't need to be having no worries on account of Badger." Mal glanced between Jayne and Wash. "Not that we were having worries on account of Badger." And maybe it wasn't the most sensitive of things in the world to let River walk back into the midst of a round of raucous laughter.

He quieted, and asked her, "You sure you're sure we can trust him not to sell us out to the feds first chance he gets?"

"I'm sure." She craned her head, looking into the crowd, focusing on nothing. She didn't seem unhappy. More like... distant. "He won't betray us. Too afraid... too involved, now."

Mal followed her vague gaze, then switched to Inara, then back to River. "I guess we can trust that."

"You know it," River said, and delivered a slap to his rump as she walked around him and on up into the ship.

For a moment, as the whole bunch of them stared after her, there was silence. Wasn't to anyone's surprise Jayne being the first to start up laughing again, nor that the other two followed him prompt when he did. Mal had enough on his plate with staring.

"Reckon you can let go of your backside now, captain," Wash said, uncharitably gleeful. "At least, I don't think she's coming back to assault you again."

Inara was laughing so hard she all but fell off the mule.

"Little girl's growin' up," Jayne said, leering, then a bit more uneasy, "What the hell do we do iffen the next turns out to be one she wants to keep?"

"Worry," Mal supplied. "Worry for all we're worth."

"Heck, that's real unromantic of you, Mal."

"Believe we got that one covered already. Don't care for romance. Care for keeping my fugitives hid and my ship running, and no gorram complications in between."

There was a whisper of shifting cloth as Inara slid off the mule and followed River inside, and he watched her slim, graceful figure disappear into the shade of the hold, which was so dark in contrast to the sunlight that once past the threshold she couldn't be made out at all.

"Maybe we should go join them," Wash said, looking over his shoulder too. "Might be that Harrow's responded to your wave by now."

"No hurry." Mal leaned against the mule next to Wash and Jayne in the discomfort and the heat of the sun, breathing the dust stirred up on the air by feet and hooves and wheels, the noise of Persephone in his ears, standing and sunning in a stolen moment midst the sure-to-be-fast-returning chaos. Stayed there 'til Kaylee walked down from the ship to tell them Harrow's message had come in.

Sir Warwick met him in the grounds after the crisply hostile gate guards were through making him wait an uncivil long while. Didn't escape Mal's notice that the fellow was going armed, and he was given to recollect that since Sir Warwick had figured to second him against Atherton in that gorram duel, he must be fair confident of his ability to stand up to criminals and smugglers should a situation turn ugly.

Did make him wonder why Sir Warwick had so very much reason to believe this was a situation would turn ugly. He'd come armed himself, but that was no more than habit. "Reckon you're a mite less than happy right now, 'bout us tailing out - " Mal began.

"You break dock with no warning, no message? Show a blatant disregard for all our prior arrangements? I'd say that's a reason to be more than a 'mite' unhappy, Captain Reynolds," Sir Warwick said, with irritation. Of course, he usually sounded irritated, which did make the situation a fraction hard to gauge.

Either way, they'd halted their walking less than thirty yards from the gate, and Harrow had his hands at his sides and Mal had his folded over his chest.

"Granted, and if you'll just let me explain - "

"Please do." Sir Warwick swept a hand between them, inviting.

Which made Mal feel all kinds of uneasy and on-the-spot and was no doubt supposed to, feelings he tried to shove aside for the sake of speaking his piece. "Short version. Got ourselves a peck of trouble with the local Alliance. Had to cut loose, didn't know if we'd been tagged. Any message we could've sent ran the risk of implicating you. Figured we wouldn't want to set the law on our favourite customer. Kaylee'd miss the fancy meals too much." He bit off any more, reached over and brushed down Harrow's shoulders placatingly, and got his hands slapped away for his trouble.

Sir Warwick turned aside, taking a few steps further along the path, looking thoughtful. "It shows forethought. And professionalism - if you're telling the truth, of course."

"I'm telling the truth," Mal said, hard. "Don't ask me to elaborate. You don't want no part of the other business."

"But your Companion, Inara, did - or so I hear."

Mal froze. He took a careful breath, and counted a bit, 'fore he said, quite calm, "You heard about that here?"

Sir Warwick's brows twisted up in something almost amusement. "She's an adjunct to Persephone's high society, captain. Of course we heard about it. If one of their over-powdered and perfumed number wears the wrong dress, it's known by all within an hour. If one becomes a tagged Alliance fugitive... well, let's just say Atherton Wing isn't going to stop gloating for a while."

Mal swore, comprehensively, in any language that came to hand. Took him a while to work his way back around to coherent speech. "Gorram it. Last thing I wanted was Inara involved. She never was meant to be a part of it. Just renting space, is all. Not one of the crew, so much. Not one of the crew at all." He stared over the lush, green grounds, stretching for miles. Not his world. Inara's world. And now not hers any more. "Ruined her, is what I've done."

"I'm sure that's not what happened." Sir Warwick's response was brisk. "If for no other reason, Captain Reynolds, than that I severely doubt any claim that Inara would make a decision in ignorance or under duress. In any case, please deliver to her my regards, since it seems we will not be meeting this year at the ball."

"Right," Mal said numbly. "I'll do that."

"I'd suggest you take care on Persephone, captain," Sir Warwick added. "After last year's events, there are too many people here who know of Inara's Serra's association with you."

He nodded slowly, no words to speak.

"And if I have your assurance that your ship will, this time, be there..." Harrow frowned in a way made sure Mal knew he was still harbouring no shortage of irritation. "You can expect my cattle by the end of the afternoon. Business, after all," he added, "is still running."