Part VIII—The Job
Disclaimer: I own none of these characters.
Summary: Conclusion. The job goes pear-shaped, and Mal finds himself in need of a little help.
"Mighty quiet for a warehouse," Zoe observed, climbing out of the mule.
Mal walked up to her, having landed the shuttle a stone's throw away. "It surely is," he agreed, gun hand hovering over his holster by force of habit. "Jayne, take a stroll around back of the building."
Jayne nodded and moved silently off to do his job. Mal and Zoe approached the front of the building, moving as if they were joined at the hip. By the time they'd reached the entrance, Jayne was back. "Nothin' movin'," Jayne said. "Weren't no windows low enough to the ground to see in, neither."
Mal nodded. "Guess we'll just have to knock then."
Taking up positions on either side of the door, Zoe and Jayne stood ready. Mal knocked sharply on the door. Receiving no answer, he gingerly opened it. He had just enough time to see a man slumped over a battered desk before the first bullet hit him in the chest.
Inara sat in her shuttle, listening to the sound of Anya working on her painting. "Your strokes are too broad, sweetie," she said.
Anya frowned, examining her work. "How'd you know that?"
Inara laughed, delighted to have caught the child out despite her blindness. "I can hear the brush strokes. I know you're using the larger of the brushes."
Anya sighed, and Inara heard the rustle of paper as the child began again. "Now it won't be dry when Mama gets back," the little girl complained.
"It will be dry in time for dinner," Inara said kindly. "You can give it to her then."
Anya worked steadily until she was satisfied with her picture. Laying it across the low table by Inara's couch, she crawled up next to the Companion. "After I clean up the brushes and put away the paints, is there anything else I can do for you, Miss Inara?"
"As a matter of fact, there is," Inara said. "I'd like to walk to the galley, and I need to borrow your eyes. Will you walk with me?"
"Course," Anya said, feeling very grown-up to be asked. She set about to clean up the painting supplies, while Inara moved carefully around the shuttle to retrieve her robe and slippers. As she bent to put on her slippers, a wave of nausea hit her and she was abruptly dizzy. She grasped the closet door to steady herself. "Anya," she said shakily. "Go get Dr. Simon."
The force of the gun blast jerked Mal backward and he fell with a loud grunt. Zoe pulled him quickly out of the doorway, as bullets continued to fly around them. "You still here, sir?" she asked, firing blindly into the building.
"Yeah," Mal grunted, trying to put pressure on the wound to stop the alarming blood flow. Jayne cursed viciously as a stray bullet grazed his left arm. "Can you see anything?" Mal ground out.
"Looks like eight, maybe ten inside," Jayne said. "Got any ruttin' idea why they'd be shootin' at us?"
"Not a clue," Mal answered, as Zoe and Jayne pulled him further behind the shelter of the mule. The three hunched down behind the mule as random shots continued whizzing past them. Zoe quickly pulled back the tattered material of Mal's shirt, and saw that there was little time to waste if Mal was going to make it back to Serenity breathing.
A disembodied voice called out from somewhere inside the warehouse. "Y'all will be needin' to step on away from them crates and put yer guns down now. We ain't got no problem killin' ya' to get 'em, but it don't have to be that way. You hear me?"
"I hear you," Mal said, in the strongest voice he could muster with a gaping wound in his chest. "Coulda' just asked 'fore you put a gorram bullet in me."
"Didn't think you were like to just give up the goods peaceful-like."
"Why the hell not?" Mal asked, both annoyed and perplexed. "Came here to deliver 'em, didn't we?" As he spoke, several men came out of the warehouse holding weapons trained on the three of them. Zoe and Jayne did not move, but Mal could feel their coiled readiness like a physical force.
The man who had spoken came out into the bright light of the day. "You ain't got the slightest idea what you're carryin', do you?" With that, he opened a crate and pulled out a doll. Ripping its head off, he fished around for a moment in the stuffing and pulled out a small vial. "See, I got me a cousin in Highgate works in the toy factory. Slips in these little beauties so's the good folk here can get all the drops they need. Supply and demand, you understand."
Mal cursed under his breath, wondering when his jobs would ever go smooth, as the thieves began detaching the trailer from the mule. "All right," he said. "You're gettin' what you came for. Ain't no need for killin'."
"S'pect there's need aplenty," the man said conversationally. "Can't have you goin' back to Highgate with a story 'bout my dear old cousin. Best you die right here in the dirt, I'm thinkin'."
As he pointed his weapon at Mal, Zoe and Jayne sprang into action, both weapons instantly pointed at the man. "You shoot me," he said, and my men'll take you out 'fore I hit the ground."
"Maybe," Zoe replied coolly. "But you won't live to see it."
Everyone stood frozen for a long moment, each person measuring the odds as Mal's blood soaked the ground beneath him. Suddenly a shot rang out, and one of the thieves pitched forward soundlessly. Taking advantage of the distraction, Zoe and Jayne began to fire, clearing a path as Mal pulled himself into the mule. Looking out over the hood of the vehicle, Mal saw the source of the shots that were aiding in their escape, as Jim Bowden stepped out from behind the warehouse.
"Huh," Mal said, just as he slumped to the floor of the mule.
Inara smiled up at Simon, thinking that he really was a fine-looking man. Simon returned the smile. "Sometimes the sudden return of vision can be a disorienting experience," he said. "You're sure you're seeing clearly?"
"Quite sure, Simon," Inara replied, her relief and joy evident in her expression. "It was just a jolt, after seeing nothing but black for the past three days."
"Would that all the jolts this crew gets were as pleasant," Simon said, as he stood to go. "Just take it easy for the rest of the day, and give yourself time to readjust to the sighted 'verse."
"Thank you, Simon," Inara said. "I really appreci…"
River burst into the room, hair flying wildly behind her. "Simon, come quick. Mal's been shot. They're on the way back now."
Mal's eyes fluttered open and he saw the subdued lighting of the infirmary during Serenity's night. Feeling as if a boulder had taken up residence on his chest, he concentrated on the effort of breathing.
River's head came into his field of vision. "Welcome back, ai ren," she said softly, running her fingers through his hair. "Missed you."
"Wish the guy with the big gun had," Mal said wryly, a little loopy from the meds. "Getting' kinda tired of bein' shot outta nowhere."
"I can see how that would be the case," River said. "Running out of new places, Scars over scars."
"Guess you'll be wantin' to find yourself a new man, one all smooth and pretty," Mal said, his eyelids fluttering closed again.
"Think I'll keep the once I've got," she replied, placing a gentle kiss on his slack lips.
The next time Mal awoke, the infirmary lights were bright and it was Simon's face that greeted him. "How are you feeling, Captain?" he asked, checking vitals as he talked.
"Like the mule ran over my chest," Mal replied.
Simon nodded. "Understandable. I had to do quite a lot of work there. Bullet passed very close to the heart. Less than an inch's difference and you'd be dead."
Mal closed his eyes. "Then I guess I'm lucky the man weren't an accurate shot. And lucky I got a good trauma surgeon onboard. Thanks, doc."
"You're quite welcome," Simon said. "If you will listen to me for a change and actually rest up for a few weeks this time, you should be ready to go back to your exciting life of crime before too long."
Mal snorted. "I wasn't even tryin' to do crime this time," he said indignantly, as Zoe entered the room. "Good to see you, sir," she said, coming to stand beside him.
"Good to be seen," Mal replied. "Everything under control?"
"In a manner of speaking," she answered. "After we got you back to Simon, we went back and dumped the cargo at the warehouse. Figured it'd be best if it looked like we'd made the delivery and gone before the thieves hit the warehouse. No need to be drawing' undue attention."
Mal nodded, though the motion caused his head to swim. "What about Bowden? I saw him comin' 'round the corner, picking off them as was shootin' at us. He get out all right?"
"He did," Zoe confirmed. "He wants to talk to you."
"I ain't exactly able to get up to take a wave right now," Mal said.
"Don't have to," Zoe answered blandly. "He's waitin' outside."
"He's on my boat?" Mal asked.
"Tell me we ain't still sittin' dirtside," Mal said.
"No, we're flyin'. Just sorta' took on a passenger, so to speak."
Mal sighed. "And I need to talk to him now?"
"Think that would be best, sir," Zoe said, looking at him intently.
"Fine," Mal said. "Bring him in."
Zoe went to the door and motioned Bowden in. He approached Mal's bed, extending his hand. "Glad to see you're among the living, Captain Reynolds," he said.
"Mind tellin' me why you were at the warehouse?' Mal asked, not really in the mood for small talk.
"Of course, Captain. When Zoe agreed to meet with me, I decided it might be prudent to arrive a little earlier than scheduled. Examine the landscape, so to speak. You must understand that I knew nothing about you, other than that my niece has found a safe haven here. I saw you all leave the ship, and thought I might take the opportunity to see what it is you do. As it turned out, I suppose it was a good thing I did."
"Yeah, thanks for the help," Mal said warily.
"Well, I could hardly let my niece's guardian be killed before I had the chance to talk with her."
"I'm assuming you've had your talk?" Mal asked, looking between Bowden and Zoe.
Zoe nodded, but Bowden spoke. "Yes, we have. And I've been able to meet Anya as well. She's a beautiful little girl."
"Yes, she is," Mal said, beginning to feel unaccountably nervous. 'We're all real attached to her."
"I can see that," Bowden said. "You're created quite a family atmosphere here. Your crew seems very close-knit."
"They're good people," Mal replied, glancing worriedly at Zoe, who stood calmly listening to the conversation. Mal wondered, not for the first time, how she managed to do that.
Bowden took a deep breath, and exhaled slowly. "Captain, while you were…indisposed, Zoe and I had a rather lengthy conversation about Anya's best interests." Seeing Mal tense at the words, he went on quickly. "It's obvious she loves Zoe, and feels comfortable here, and equally obvious she doesn't know me well enough to feel any bond with me. But, as I said before, she's my only living relative. Seeing the nature of the work you do and the life you lead, I feel less than comfortable leaving her here."
"I protect what's mine," Mal said, his voice containing a not-so-subtle warning. "As does Zoe."
Bowden held up his hands. "I have no doubt of it, Captain. But so do I." He looked at Mal intently, his blue eyes the exact shade of Anya's. "I don't want to disrupt her life. I want to fit into it."
"I'm a mite fuzzy as to why Anya didn't know about you," Mal said evenly.
"It's a long story, Captain."
"Shorten it, then," Mal said.
"As you know, Anya's family is from Paquin," Bowden began. "My brother and I were orphaned in our teen years. Our parents died in an outbreak of plague. Paquin had no doctor then, much like now. But my brother and I survived, and we worked a little farm together until we were grown. Then the war came and we sold the farm, and split ways."
"Why?" Mal asked.
Bowden sighed. "We had a heated difference of opinion about the war. John was convinced that the Independents were justified in demanding their freedoms, and I was equally convinced that Paquin would only benefit by Unification. So, he joined the Independent Army, and I joined the Alliance Army. Needless to say, the split was a bitter one."
"You fought for the Alliance," Mal stated, looking at Zoe.
"I did," Bowden said. "It wasn't until time passed that I realized how very wrong I was to believe that Unification would solve the problems of our world." He paused for a moment, overcome by some private memory. Visibly shaken, he continued. "By the time I figured it out, I was three worlds away from home in an Independent prison camp. When the war ended, they released me, and I tried to see my brother, not knowing how badly he had fared at the hands of the mighty Alliance. He refused to see me. I never got to tell him what had happened to me, never got to make things right between us. He died before I could persuade him to talk to me. Then, Anya and her mother moved to Greenleaf, and that's where they were taken by slavers, like Zoe here. I thought I'd lost any chance of finding my family until the adoption papers showed up on Greenleaf a little while ago. That's when I contacted you."
Mal nodded. "And what is it you want?" he asked pointedly.
"As I said, I want to be a part of Anya's life. I haven't the coin to travel with you as a passenger, so I'm offering you my services as crew."
Mal blinked rapidly, thoroughly taken aback by the unexpected turn of the conversation. "You're askin' me for a job?" he said.
"It's the only way I can think to pay my way, if I want to be with Anya," Bowden said simply. "I think I've proven I'm a decent gun hand, and I'm not averse to hard work of any kind."
The two men stared at each other, each sizing up the other with experienced eyes. After a long pause, Mal looked at Zoe, who nodded almost imperceptibly. "All right," he said, turning back to Bowden. "S'pose I can always use an extra set of hands and a strong back. I'll give you a try, Mr. Bowden. But understand this. You cause any problem on my boat, Anya's uncle or no, I'll have no trouble puttin' you out the airlock. Dong ma?"
"I understand, Captain," Bowden said. "I'll cause no trouble, and the name's Jim."
Mal nodded in acknowledgement. "Zoe, show Jim where he can bunk."
"Yes sir," Zoe said, motioning Bowden to step outside. Turning back to Mal, she said quietly, "And thank you, sir."
Mal nodded, suddenly exhausted. "Keep an eye on things, Zoe. Think I might need to rest a mite now." His words trailed off, as he surrendered to sleep.
Author's Note: So ends another tale of the 'verse. I hope you found the reading of it as pleasurable as the writing was for me. As always, special thanks goes to the kind souls who provided such lovely feedback along the way. For those who are interested, there are, of course, more tales to tell, and hopefully time to tell them someday soon!