Title: The Perfect Job

A/N: Some time after movie events.

Summary: Jobs seemed to be running smoother now that Serenity's resident Reader wasn't crazy.

Disclaimer: I do not own Firefly, Serenity, Characters, etc.

Another perfect simple job, Mal thought with a happy breeze ruffling his hair. His crew was ready to head out - the clients already loading to leave. He caught the youngest of his crew's eye and nodded to her.

River Tam was worth her weight in gold, pure and simple. He couldn't be sure - but it seemed to him that even when she wasn't reading trouble before it came their jobs seemed to go smoother when she was on 'em.

He watched her wander just over a hill, and mentally kept track of her while Zoe and Jayne stood talking to the men. He shook hands with his contact one more time and motioned for Zoe and Jayne to start up the mule and went to follow River's tracks.

His heart skipped a beat when he rounded the top of the hill and didn't see River. But one sweep had him seeing that the field full of flowers had a River shaped void at its center. He sauntered over there, a smile playing on his lips.

She lay there - big yellow flowers surrounding her - staring at the bright blue sky. He looked down at her, and the pull in his gut caught him off guard as it usually did, and, just as he usually did, he pinched it off before any waft of it could flow to River's all too perceptive mind.

"I heard the rapture of the bees and wanted to see the source of their pleasure." She said, looking straight into his eyes. "So beautiful."

"Can't disagree with that," He didn't flinch away from the gaze, though he knew it was dangerous. She saw well enough (too much) without giving her a clear path into his thoughts. Mal took a steadying moment so that his face didn't betray him and looked away, "Haven't you ever seen a field of poppies before?"

With all the grace of water, River rose to her feet then bent to caress a velvet orange petal, "Not since I was very very young."

Mal swallowed, "I guess they didn't give you a lot of flowers at that academy of yours."

River smiled, letting him know that the comment didn't send her back in time to dark memories, and shook her head.

Mal motioned back towards to the drop, "Well, enough dawdling. Sun's setting. We're pushing off."

River obediently started back. Every order he gave she followed without question, even those that were inaudible. It bothered him now and then because it set him wondering how closely he resembled those who'd trained and cut into her.

Mal reached down and picked a poppy, ignoring the warning bells in his conscience . He caught up to River and offered her the flower without looking at her. Her fingers did not touch his as she accepted it.

Mal forced the tightness in his chest to relax and in companionable silence they walked back together into the searing light.

She tensed two steps before they hit the top of the hill and Mal, finely tuned to the any change in her countenance, had his gun drawn before his eyes adjusted to the light. What he saw was the equivalent of a tactical disaster. Both his clients and their cargo were surrounded by a dirty looking group of mercenaries . Zoe and Jayne were on the ground by the vehicle - most of the firepower was trained on them. Smart mercenaries... Damn.

Two men started forward, both wearing costumes similar to Mal's, "Captain Reynolds, I take it?"

"Idiot scum I take it?"

"Your reputation doesn't fail you," The taller man grinned and they stopped at the bottom of the hill and tipped his hat, "Name's Hitchens and this here - this is my team. We're in the same line of work - you and me. And there's something you have, I want."

"You're not my type." Mal said, less concerned with what they wanted and more interested in working out a strategy in his head that wouldn't get them all killed.

"We've heard conjure you got a Reader on your crew."

Mal kept his gun trained on the first speaker and didn't so much at glance at River at his side. He shrugged, "We've got a bunch of readers on our crew- we're a real scholarly bunch."

The man next to Hitchens spoke up - excited and greedy, "Heard legends 'bout a girl on your boat. Little doll, they say - warned you when bullets would fly before the guns could be drawn. Some said she could see through vaults just by looking the keeper in the eye."

Hitchens smiled dangerously, "Seems to me someone like that would be a real commodity for folks in our line of work." The man's gaze caught onto River and he looked her up and down hungrily, "Now, this here girl is a slip of a thing, kinda exactly the way she been described."

"She ain't nothing to do with your line of work." Mal said, tightening his grip on his gun and mentally kicking himself. Worth her weight in gold she was and he'd been dangling her around like a fool for any thief to see.

Hitchens nodded, "Thats right, and thats what I want to fix. A little business proposition is what I have for you. All you need to do there Captain is leave with your crew. I'll let you and your clients here go on your way- I won't bother their take or your coin. You just leave that little girl right where she is."

"She's part of my crew."

"Not anymore." Hitchens looked around, checking the positions of his men, "You keep stallin' and bullets start flying, and you don't need a psychic to know you're all going to die."

Mal inhaled deeply, "You let my clients go first with their cargo- you want me to be a businessman here- well this here - its bad for business." After some half-hearted debate the mercenaries did just that.

Then, in the pause that followed, for the first time, he turned his head to look at River who did not look away from the men. He spoke only loud enough for her to hear, only a breath above thought. "I'm trying to find a way around this, sweetheart and it ain't coming to me. I've got myself a good shot..."

"But not fast enough when they've got Jayne and Zoe in hand and no cover in sight."

Mal nodded, "You know what you've got to do Darlin', and I'm sorry for it."

She looked up at him without fear or judgement or even affirmation. Mal nodded and thought as distinctly as he could. 'Not one of 'em can leave this place alive.' Bad enough he'd gotten her a reputation as a Reader- if he let anyone cotton onto her skill at fightin' and they'd all be lost past finding. Running at every dock. 'Not one of em can leave here alive.' He punctuated the thought again, to be sure.

River nodded - turned to face him, tucking the poppy carefully in Mal's pocket, "Keep this safe for me."

Mal covered her hand on his breast pocket - not thinking anything other than how much he appreciated her simple acceptance. He nodded then, knowing he needed to be with Zoe and Jayne - it was simple tactics... the more spread out you were - the more vulnerable.

Hitchens' voice cut through his thoughts, "Very touching Captain Reynolds, and lucky too- didn't realize she had womanly uses-"

Mal shot the man's hat off, all thoughts of the plan out of his head. River swiftly stepped in front of him with her arms raised to shield his face as all guns trained on him.

"Well, thats convenient- she went ahead and proved her ability. This day is just getting better. Throw your gun down Captain or the rest of your crew gets left too... Bleeding in the dirt. Ask your Reader if I'm serious."

Mal hesitated, he couldn't help it, leaving one of his people, ruse or not, took a moment.

"Throw your gun down Reynolds!"

River looked up at him from her place as his shield and gave Mal a smile- a wicked gleam just dawning in her eye, "You heard the man, Captain," she said softly, "Throw your gun down... about fifteen meters in front of me to the left if it pleases."

Mal winked at her and made a show of throwing it down, "Only got six bullets in there bao bei." he told her conversationally as, with his hands clearly visible, he ambled down the hill towards the mule.

"Five will do." she called after him.

His nerves were buzzing but he managed to get to where Zoe and Jayne were being held - even while the whole of his focus was on the solitary figure on the hill. As soon as they were in the mule she started walking, as beautifully as if she were descending the palace stairs of a dress ball. She stood among the wolves, letting the tall one touch her face and shoulder. Mal clenched his jaw to keep from swearing, urging her to get on with it in his mind though he knew she was just waiting until the math was all lined up.

He gunned the mule at the exact moment his pilot rolled for the gun. Zoe and Jayne recovered weapons, but using them, they knew, required more precision than usual. With River doing the fighting it was difficult to say that the intended target wouldn't be on the ground and River in their place by the time the bullet got there. Mal created the diversion she may not have needed and ignored how she cringed when she broke Hitchens' neck.

There was an eerie silence when it was done. Mal pulled the mule around and jumped out to walk to River. There was blood spatter on her dress and her countenance had lost that dreamy beauty that had taken his breath away on the hill. She looked up at him when he approached and held his gun out to him, butt first. He didn't repeat his sorry for what she'd had to do, nor praise her for it. He'd just nodded and gestured everyone into the mule.

He looked over at her several times on the way to the ship but it was difficult to read her face with her hair whipping wildly around in the wind. He was relieved that, from what he could see, there was no trace of regret. As they met up with Serenity she looked over at him curiously as if she'd noticed his mind on her, but he just threw her the coin purse with a nod and a thought to nudge her toward the safe.

Mal knew she wouldn't pursue whatever she'd picked up on. And he knew he should leave it at that; it had just been another job, done and gone and nothing special. But there was an urge in him to say something more... something he knew he wasn't ready to have out in the open air.

So he slipped the poppy from his coat to the pilot's chair before River had made her way there. He thought maybe it might carry a trace of his feelings for her, a scent of how he saw her. He risked it this once, counting on the studied indifference that he normally coated his thoughts with to throw her off. After all, how could she sense more than what he was unwilling to fully discover himself?

But even as he nodded cooly at her as they passed in the passage way he knew his own heart. Truths like this had a way of sneaking out into the light. His resolve would eventually weaken. And somehow he knew that all the things that kept him carefully uninvolved now would in some crazy irony melt away. Hell, Mal knew he was stubborn, but even he knew he couldn't remain unmoved forever. Time maybe it would take, but not forever.

View more of Ada's stories at