The Nine - Chapter One

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With Inara away on Serenity, Kaylee's mother and sisters were pressed into service to help with wedding details. It was busy work, and helped keep everyone's mind away from their recent troubles. News of their anonymous benefactor had spread through the family like wildfire. The women idly wondered about the source of their good fortune while they worked.

Jayne and River had convinced Simon to accompany them to Astra on the cargo run, under the thin pretense that Zoe wanted to go, and he might be needed. River had also whispered in his ear that she and Jayne had a surprise for him, but wouldn't reveal it until they arrived on Astra. Simon had finally relented, explaining to a disappointed Kaylee that Zoe really needed him along if she insisted on making the trip.

"Glad you're coming along," Goldie whispered in Zoe's ear, as he helped her up the ramp. "I hated the thought of being gone a week with you laid up, and no one to wait on you."

"You're pushing," Zoe growled, and Goldie chuckled.

"What I'm good at," he replied, and Zoe smiled in spite of herself. She would be staying in one of the passenger dorms, since climbing ladders was out of the question. She had also made it clear that Jayne was in charge. She was just super-cargo.

"Hell, Zoe, if you're goin', ain't no point in me being. . ."

"Jayne, Doc says I ain't able," Zoe interrupted. "And, truth be known, I ain't. I just wanted to go along for the ride. It's a bit. . .loud in that infirmary at the moment."

"Yeah, I 'spect it is," Jayne nodded. "All right, then. Need something, holler. We'll be pullin' out in just a few."

"I'm good, Jayne," Zoe assured him, resting in the cushion of pillows Goldie had arranged for her. "I might could get used to this. But don't tell Goldie I said that."

"Mums the word," Jayne grinned. He made his way to the bridge, where River was going through her pre-flight, Chelsa watching every move.

"Ready to fly?" he asked, and River nodded.

"Just waiting on the word from Goldie," River assured him. "Are we loaded?"

"That we are," Jayne nodded. "Liam's making a final check in the bay, and Zoe's snuggled into a dorm room. We're set."

"We're good, River-girl," Goldie's voice rang out a second later over the inter-com. "Set when you are."

"Let her fly, then," River smiled. Companion shuddered ever so slightly, and then she was flying, climbing into the sky. Jayne stood behind her, observing but saying nothing. He couldn't fly, knew almost nothing about it. And River didn't need any help, anyway.

The ship made the climb out with no trouble, and soon they were on course for Astra. River engaged the auto-pilot, and looked at Chelsa.

"Let's take a look at your room, sweetie," she smiled brightly. "We can decide how you want to decorate it, and we'll pick up what we need on Astra." Chelsa smiled in return, and Jayne watched as his two girls went down the passage way.

"I'm a lucky man," he murmured to himself, not the first time he'd done that. He was still looking off into the black when Liam limped up onto the bridge.

"We're good, boss," the younger man told him. "Everything's shiny."

"Good," Jayne nodded. Liam eased his way down into the co-pilot's seat, and stretched his leg.

"How's the leg?" Jayne asked. Liam shrugged.

"Doc says it's mending," he replied. "Hurt some til it does, I reckon. Ain't so much."

"I been shot a time or two myself, kid," Jayne grinned. "I know a lie when I hear it." Liam grinned sheepishly.

"Gotta walk on it, no matter, boss," he told Jayne. "Might's well lie and say it's okay."

"What I usually do," Jayne nodded. "Don't work for me neither." Both men shared a laugh. Liam looked at Jayne after a minute, turning serious.

"Boss, is Miss River gonna teach Chelsa? On ship I mean? Like in school, like?"

"She is," Jayne studied the younger man carefully. "Why?"

"Well," Liam looked uncomfortable. "I. . .thing is, I left school a year or two back. Or so," he added. "My ma, she's right sick, and it got to where wasn't enough coin to pay her meds and such. My brothers, they help out, and so do I. Thing is, I ain't. . .I mean, I ain't dumb, mind. But I don't have a. . ."

"You want River to teach you, too?" Jayne asked gently. "Is that it?" Liam flushed a little, but nodded.

"I was hopin' she might be willin'," he said quietly. "But I wanted to make sure it was okay with you, first off. I mean, I wouldn't let it interfere none with my work. Just when I was free, and all, I though I might be able to learn a bit. Read and write better, and such like."

"I'm sure River wouldn't mind that, and I sure don't," Jayne told him, thinking on his own past, and how Inara, and River, had helped him.

"Mind what?" River asked, walking back on the bridge.

"Teaching Liam alongside the ni zi," Jayne told her. She looked at Liam.

"Of course not," she told him at once. "I'd be delighted."

"Thank you, ma'am," Liam told her, and River blushed at that.

"I think 'River' is sufficient, Liam," she told him demurely.

"And while we're at it," Jayne chimed in. "I ain't the boss. Just call me Jayne, kid." Liam looked pleased at the thought of calling Jayne by his first name.

"Okay, boss. . .Jayne," he corrected himself. "That's what you want."

"It is," Jayne nodded. "Why don't you sit here and watch the bridge, and Miss River and me'll see about rustlin' up some eats."

"Yes, sir," Liam nodded. The couple headed off the bridge, leaving the young man flushed with pleasure.

"I noticed that Liam is wearing a very familiar looking knife," River said as the two reached the galley.

"Blooded him on Aberdeen," Jayne told her softly. "Killed a slaver with it. Told him to keep it." River nodded.

"Nice of you," she told him with a smile. "Seems like a lot of that, these days."

"Don't start," Jayne groaned, just as Simon walked in.

"Start what?" he asked. "And now that we're on our way, would you mind telling me why it was so important that I come along with you?" Jayne and River exchanged glances, and Jayne nodded. River looked at her brother.

"Jayne and I," she said, taking her husband's hand, "wanted to buy your wedding rings, Simon." Simon's mouth dropped open, then closed abruptly.

"I can't let you do that!" he exclaimed, when he found his voice. "You two just got married, for love of the 'verse! And adopted a child! You need every copper!" River looked at Jayne in satisfaction.

"Told you," was all she said. Jayne frowned. He looked at Simon.

"Simon, thanks to the land that Mister Guilford gave us as a weddin' present, and the fact that Mister Harwell paid for our honeymoon, we're set pretty well, at the moment. I got a good bit o' coin laid by, of late. Ain't been spending it like I used to," he grinned.

"Thing is, we want to do this for you," he continued. "Mean a lot to us, Simon," Jayne added. Simon looked at them for a full minute, struggling.

"I. . .thank you," he finally managed. "I was glad, really, that you asked me along, because I hadn't thought this through very well. It just seemed like the thing to do. After. . .well, I started panicking."

"Well, you can stop," River smiled, hugging her brother tightly. "Baba has to pay for the wedding, because that was the deal he made with Kaylee to get her to go with us to pick up Private Companion. We're paying for the rings, and I think it's a safe bet that the ceremony is in good hands. So relax, and enjoy the trip."

"Thank you," Simon returned her embrace. "I will."

"Simon," Jayne said, remembering what Liam had said. "Liam tells me that his ma is right sick. Reckon when we get back, you, me, and him might run over and you check on her? Sounds like they got it a mite rough. Ain't no doctor on Argo compares to you." Simon flushed at that praise, especially coming from Jayne.

"Of course, Jayne. Soon as we get back," he nodded.

"Thanks," Jayne smiled. "I'll tell the boy."

"I need to go and check on Zoe," Simon said, heading out to the stairs.

"Better knock first," River called after her departing sibling. "Goldie might be 'checking' on her, by now!" she giggled. She turned to face her husband.

"Well, Zhang fu," she smiled. "That was quick thinking."

"I have my moments," he grinned.

"You certainly do," she murmured, kissing him softly.

"We better get started on that dinner," Jayne mumbled. "Else we ain't gonna make it."

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Mal heard the bullet's impact before he heard the shot. He was on the walk in front of his office, about to walk up the steps, when he dropped the portfolio he'd been carrying. He stooped to retrieve it just as he heard the whap! of the bullet hit the wall over his head.

Moving on instinct, Mal rolled forward, coming to rest behind a ground car, pistol in hand, all while the shot was still echoing across the street. He popped his head up carefully over the car, looking. Several people had stopped along the walks, having heard the shot.

Mal waited, looking up and down the street, but nothing was out of place. Taking a deep breath, he stood, expecting another shot.

There wasn't one. Sighing in relief, he picked up his notebook and continued into the office. He met Toby Bontrager coming toward the door.

"Was that a shot I heard, boss?" Bontrager asked, gun in hand. Mal nodded.

"Someone saying hello," Mal told him. "Bullet stuck in the wall. Might see about gettin' it. And see from the angle it went in where it mighta come from."

"Right," Bontrager nodded, heading out the door. Mal walked steadily to his door, collapsing in his seat the moment the door closed.

He had faced death many times before. Been shot at more times that he could remember, let alone count. But this hadn't been war, it hadn't been someone trying to rob him, or keep him from stealing, of even keep his share of the cut.

This had been a cold blooded, deliberate attempt on his life. A calculated try at killing Malcolm Reynolds. As he sat in his chair, pondering the happenstance that had kept him from being shot, his cortex receiver blinked. He hit the button.

"Yes, Evelyn," he said, not looking at the screen.

"It's not Evelyn, Sheriff," a raspy voice drew his attention back to the screen, where a hooded figure was staring back at him.

"Who might you be?" Mal asked, trying to keep his voice calm. "When you ain't hidin' I mean?"

"I'm not someone who plays around, Sheriff," the masked figure replied coldly. "You've been warned." The screen went blank, leaving Mal blinking at the screen.

Must be puttin' the heat on somebody, he decided, leaning back.

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"Kaylee, that's wonderful!" Inara exclaimed over the cortex. "I'll be back in two days, and we'll start working on things!"

"My momma and sisters are already goin' at it, 'Nara," Kaylee bubbled. "But I really want your input. I want it to be wonderful!"

"It will be, mei mei, I promise," Inara smiled. "And Mal is paying for everything, just like he promised."

"'Nara! That's something else!" Kaylee almost squealed. "Somebody opened a big account for my folks in town at the bank! Fifty thousand platinum! Enough to help all my family get settled again. The Willis' too!"

"Oh, mei mei!" Inara gasped. "That's incredible! Who did it?"

"Don't know," Kaylee shrugged, looking thoughtful. "Letter said it was anonymous. Someone wanted to help, 'thout us knowin' who, I reckon. But 'Nara it means that my family can get started over! I can't even tell you how much that means to me!"

"You don't have to, sweetie," Inara smiled. "I can imagine. That's a very big helping hand."

"I wish I knew who did it," Kaylee was almost sad. "I'd hug the stuffin' out of 'em!" she giggled. "After losing Ethan, and losing ever'thing they all worked for all these years, this was a real pick-me-up for ever'body, 'Nara. Gave'em something to look forward to."

"I'm so happy for you, mei mei," Inara felt tears welling in her eyes. It wasn't every day that someone did something like this.

"Thanks, 'Nara. I better go, I guess. Cap'n made arrangements with disaster relief to get some temporary shelters set up, and Mister Guilford said we could put'em here, at the plant till we decided what we was gonna do. And he said we could use the room where the Thanksgivin' dinner was for the weddin'! Ain't that great!"

"Yes it is," Inara smiled. "That's a wonderful place for it, too. Large enough for even your family!" she laughed. Kaylee laughed too.

"I'll see you when you get back, 'Nara!"

"Okay, mei mei," Inara agreed, and the connection broke.

Inara reclined in her seat for a few moments, thinking. Who had made that anonymous contribution, she wondered? It wasn't a small thing.

Maybe things are finally turning around, she mused, a smile playing on her lips. For all of us.

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"Looks like a rifle round, boss," Toby Bontrager said, laying the slug he had dug out of the wall on Mal's desk. Mal examined the heavy bullet, conscious of how lucky he'd been.

"Good thing they missed," Toby added.

"Just luck," Mal shuddered. "Dropped my notepad coming up the steps. Bent to pick it up just as the bullet slapped overhead." Toby shuddered as well.

"Boss, we can't let this go," he said quietly. "If they think they can intimidate you. . ."

"Don't even know who 'they' is, Toby," Mal pointed out. He told his investigator about the cortex message he'd received.

"I don't like that," Toby said softly. "Masked man, disguised voice, hacking into the cortex. That points to a fairly high degree of sophistication, Mal. We're up against the first team, here." Mal nodded.

"Toby, I don't aim to be intimidated into backin' down," Mal told him pointedly. "But how do we fight what we can't see?"

"Well, first thing, we try and see can we backtrack that hack," Toby pointed out. "I gotta buddy, works for Argo Marshall Service. Let me WAVE him, see what he can do to help us, quiet like."

"Okay," Mal nodded. "Sounds like a plan. What else do we have goin'?" he asked. "I know I ain't been much help, last couple days."

"Well, we're still nowhere on Marley's murder," Toby sighed. "Ain't like with dearly departed Tito. This one ain't so easy. But," he smiled, "I did get a pretty good tip on a big shipment o' drops, coming into our fair neighborhood, three days from now. I wanted to sorta surprise'em, that's all right with you."

"It is," Mal nodded. "I want to keep hittin' things hard as we can. You best take precautions, yourself," Mal warned. "You're the reason most o' this is gettin' done. Someone smart'll figure that out, sooner or later."

"I am," Toby assured him. "Meantime, I think you need a driver," Bontrager smiled. "I think deputy Baker would do nicely."

"No," Mal shook his head at once. "I don't want no one else in the line of fire on account o' me."

"Look, Mal," Toby leaned forward. "This is liable to get ugly. You go down, and the rest of us are dog meat, anyway. Without you, we're done." Mal looked at the other man for a moment, finally nodding.

"Tell me what you need," he said.

"First off, you need to slack off goin' on jobs," Toby said flatly. "You done proved you ain't afraid to do the work. Now it's time for you to be the politician. Let Baker be your driver. She knows the parish pretty well, and she's a crack shot. Might surprise someone thinks it's easy to take you, know what I mean?"

"Having a woman driver might make my home life a bit rough," Mal grinned, though there was little humor in it.

"Being dead'll make it still rougher," Toby told him bluntly. "Like I said, it'll look obvious that you're using her cause she's a woman. They won't be expectin' a hellcat, and that's just what she is."

"We'll get her some high quality armor, and the best hardware we can find," the investigator continued. "And, it's temporary. Just till we find out who's behind this."

"All right," Mal nodded reluctantly. "You're the professional, we'll play it your way. But," he smiled, "I may need you to explain all this to Inara."

"I can do that," Toby nodded. "She want's you alive, she'll work with me."