"You've got ten seconds to tell me why you even dared set foot on my boat before I put a hole where your heart ain't." Mal cocked the hammer of his gun for emphasis.
"Ten seconds-you're going soft on me, Cap," Zoe said icily.
"Now now. No need for dramatics," Saffron demurred, looking up through her lashes, full lips curling into an alluring smile. Inara made a noise half way between approval and irritation. Mal took a deep breath and steadied his aim, carefully adjusting for the lack of blood flow he was currently experiencing. Zoe's arm twitched like she was thinkin' about aiming at Mal instead of Saffron. "I have a business proposition."
"Now let me get this straight," Mal said, staring at the humming object suspiciously. "We're going to steal the Lassiter...before the Lassiter became the Lassiter. Using whatever that thing is." Mal took a judicious step back away from the slate-gray box. There was something creepifying about it. River, on the other hand, danced around and over it like water, but she was crazy so Mal felt justified.
"I stole this from my last husband," Saffron said fondly, beady eyes watching River dance around her precious mystery object.
"I'm shocked," Mal said sarcastically. River reached out and poked the air, then jumped back as if startled. She giggled and did it again. It almost looked like she was playing a game of invisible tag. "What is it?"
"Creepifying," Jayne grunted, and stalked out of the room. He hit his shoulder against Simon on his way out just on principal.
"The flow of things is subject to the perceptions of the one who is flowing. Cause to effect. The nonlinear nonsubjective viewpoint suggests a spheroid paradigm would be most accurate," River announced. She twirled and bowed to the device, then turned to them expectantly. They all stared at her blankly. She rolled her eyes and huffed in annoyance. "It's all wibbly wobbly timey-wimey stuff!" She flounced out of the room after Jayne.
"Wibbly bibbley whats-it now?" Mal called after her.
"It's a time machine," Saffron said smugly. "And I need your little freak to operate it."
"I would like to register my objection, again," Simon said, scowling.
"Registration department is closed, please try again never," Mal said cheerily through gritted teeth.
"You sure this is safe?" Kaylee asked, hovering over River. "This machine don't feel quite right."
"It's perfectly safe," Saffron snapped, tired of their equivocating. "All River has to do is think of the Lassiter, shiny and brand new, lay hands on the box and we'll all be richer than we can imagine."
"You heard about things that sounded too good to be true?" Zoe called from her place beside Simon. Somehow Zoe, Simon and Jayne had all ended up on the same side, and that was a kind of unholy Mal didn't even need to contemplate. Thankfully Jayne wasn't actually saying anything, just polishing his gun and giving Saffron a mix of deadly and lustful looks.
"If he hasn't, that one should be right after all that glitters is not gold," Simon added.
"Enough!" Saffron snapped, shooting Simon and Zoe a venomous look. Zoe's hand twitched towards her gun. It was a probably a good thing Inara had barricaded herself in her shuttle for the duration of Saffron's stay. "I'm constantly amazed you people ever get anything done."
"I'm constantly amazed we keep letting you live," Simon fired back, earning himself an approving, if surprised, look from Zoe. Saffron dismissed them all with a flick of her hair. When her gaze landed on River it softened, turning inviting and intimate. Mal thought she'd never looked more like a snake.
"River, baobei, all you need to do is think of the Lassiter, bright and shiny and new, and touch the box. Can you do that for me?" River cocked her head and stared at Saffron in the most gratifyingly disturbing way. Mal made a mental note to sic River on his ex-wife whenever she came around again.
"A thing long expected takes the form of the unexpected when at last it comes."
"O...kay," Saffron said, her smile turning brittle at the edges. "So that-"
"I will touch and think blue wibbly thoughts of Lassiter." Saffron looked so put out by River's response Kaylee giggled; she clapped a hand over her mouth to stifle the sound and blushed when Simon favored her with a conspiratorial grin.
"Good. You do that. The most important Lassiter that's ever existed." Saffron stepped back to the edge of the room, arms crossed over her (very lovely but devious) chest. That left River alone in the center of the cargo hold, staring intently at the box.
"Well, this is fun," Mal observed after several minutes of silence. River was still frozen in place, a disturbing counterpoint to her constant motion.
"Be quiet," Saffron hissed.
"Oh please, what can be-"
"Cap'n." Mal had learned to pay attention to that tone from Zoe. It had saved his life more than one. "Listen."
A high pitch drone wavered in and out of the highest range of hearing. There was something queer about it, made the hair on his neck stand on end. From the way Zoe and Jayne both moved into aggressive stances they felt it too. Mal eased his gun out of his holster.
"River!" Simon surged forward but Jayne grabbed him and hauled him back. Mal turned back to River and froze. It was like the space around her was...folding. Moving. Alive. He caught glimpses of odd things-shapes and figures, what looked like people, planets, green and blue. The box was humming louder, the tone making Mal's teeth hurt. And in the center of it all, was River.
"Jayne! Let me go! River! RIVER!"
The flickering scenes started to merge together into one blinding light that was slowly obscuring River. Mal raised his gun, prepared to fire at the light at the first provocation.
"If something happens to River you and space are going to get well acquainted," Mal told Saffron. He saw Zoe move to flank him out of the corner of his eye. A quick glance at Jayne and Simon showed them still struggling, though Simon's heart wasn't in it.
The images coalesced into a flickering light that quickly grew too bright to look at. River disappeared into the heart of it. The humming stopped; all sound stopped. The light swallowed it, ate up the sound of the ship and Mal's own heartbeat and for a minute Mal knew what it was to die.
And then the world shattered.
Serenity shook and threw them to the floor, metal moaned and the sound of a thousand voices rent the air. Vision whited out and then went unbearably dark.
Mal came to with stars dancing behind his eyes and his ears ringing. He took stock of his crew: Zoe was checking over Kaylee, Jayne had somehow kept both himself and Simon on their feet, Saffron...was upside down, her feet up the wall towards the ceiling, and out like a light. He cursed himself a fool for not installing security cameras in the hold; this deserved photographic evidence.
"Captain." Zoe gestured to the place where River and the box had been. The light still glowed, but it was fading fast. He could look at it without wanting to rip his eyeballs out, which was an improvement.
The light-though it wasn't really a light, but that was all he had to call it-faded gradually. Mal was relieved that River was kneeling just where they'd left her. When he could finally make out her features she looked calm, eyes closed and looking peaceful, he let out a breath of relief.
A figure rose from the floor.
"That don't look like any gun I've ever seen," Jayne offered unhelpfully from the peanut gallery. He'd pushed Simon behind him-which was the first time Mal could remember Jayne putting anyone knowingly behind himself-and had two guns pointed at what was emphatically not the gun Saffron had promised.
A tall man with blue eyes and a murderous expression stood where their gun should be. Mal checked him over and noticed a distinct lack of laser pistols. What looked like a core-quality semiautomatic gun in a nice leather holster, sure. But nothing that shot lasers.
"The most precious Lassiter time has seen," River said dreamily. She reached out and grabbed the man's tie, rising effortlessly from the floor and spinning around underneath it, as if it were a dance partner. The man yanked it out of her grasp and stepped away.
"Who are you people? Where am I?"
"All good questions we'll be wanting answers to as well. As for us I'll give you the important parts: I'm Mal, this is my boat. The lady scowling over there with her gun pointed at your head is Zoe, the pixie dancing around you is River but don't be deceived: Zoe's pointing that gun at you for protection. And this..." Saffron shot Mal a warning look. "Well we don't rightly know who she really is but feel free to blame her for everything. And you might be..."
"SPENCER!" Zoe flicked a glance at Mal and tilted her head subtly, asking if she should take him out. Mal shook his head fractionally; they'd wait to see how this played out. "SPENCER! GET OUT HERE!"
"Captain, we do not need two crazies on board," Zoe warned, her fingers twitching on the trigger. The man continued to flail about and make such an unholy ruckus that Mal might just have to shoot him on principal.
"Ain't no need to yell, we can all hear just fine, Mr. Spencer," Kaylee yelled at the man, who promptly started turning an alarming shade of red. Mal instinctively stepped closer to her.
"My name," he bit out, "is not Spencer. It's Carlton Lassiter, and you people have five seconds to tell me what's going on."
Jayne started laughing.
"What do you mean space?"
"Is that not something you folks are familiar with?" Kayle asked, patting the poor man on the back. He looked a little peaky.
"Space?" Carlton asked again, going alarmingly pale. His breathing went quick and strained. He started shaking.
"Simon! I think the Lassiter might be dying."
"SPACE?" Carlton felt the world constrict. He was on a spaceship in the middle of space, a thin layer of metal around him and certain death.
"He's having a panic attack," Simon announced. "He needs a mild tranquilizer-" Jayne walked up and punched the man square on the nose.
"Ma always said a good punch was the best cure for a touch a the vapors," Jayne told them proudly.
"That's a slap, Jayne," Zoe informed him. Jayne just shrugged.
"You're a whore?" Carlton asked, scandalized. Inara pressed her lips together in anger and her eyes went flinty. She pressed the cold compress to his nose with more force than strictly necessary.
"I like him," Mal decided.
"So they got boy whores where you're from?" Kaylee asked.
Carlton choked. Inara promised herself she'd buy Kaylee the frilliest dress she could find at their next port.
It took two days for Saffron to try and crawl into Lassiter's bed. Much to the amusement of the whole crew, Lassiter wrapped her up in a blanket, marched her to the kitchen, made her tea, and gave her a speech about how sex shouldn't be used as a way to improve one's self-esteem, bed partners never made good replacement father figures, and respect started with one's self. She could start by wearing something with a neckline.
The bewildered, affronted look on Saffron's face made Mal laugh for years.
"You smell like a criminal," Carlton sneered at Jayne, who stopped cleaning Vera to smile at their passenger.
"Why I guess I like you too, even if you are a gao se lawman." Jayne finished with Vera and pulled Lux out from under the table.
"Is that a modular assault rifle with a modified grenade launcher, able to fire fuse programmable ammunition?" Jayne smirked and released the slide.
"Came with a sniper barrel, too, but I use that to prop up my bunk."
"No honor in killing a man from afar," Lassiter agreed solemnly.
"You got anything else?" Carlton asked.
"Let me introduce you to Lucy."
Simon, the only witness to the unholy alliance being forged in the kitchen, ran for his life.
Carlton watched in horror as head after head of cattle thundered onto the ship.
"What, never seen a cow before?" Zoe asked. Carlton curled his lip in disgust and stomped away. He thought space was supposed to be clean.
The little slip of a girl who haunted the ship had taken to haunting Carlton. Which was annoying and occasionally terrifying, particularly when she popped up in front of him from the ceiling, hanging upside down.
She never said anything, just stared at him with wide, unblinking eyes. After a few uncomfortable moments she would giggle, blush and disappear into the ceiling. Her whispers would follow Carlton for hours.
The first time they let the Lassiter planetside Badger kidnapped him. Somehow-and Mal'd bet every platinum in the universe he knew who talked-news that a person from Earth-That-Was had surfaced in the Rim. That made the Lassiter a priceless commodity. More so than the actual Lassiter. And apparently people were willing to pay for him. Enough that Badger was willing to steal him from Mal and Zoe.
The Lassiter was returned before they'd done more than talk about rescuing him with the directive to get him off planet before any more of Badger's thugs and whores found God. He wasn't worth the price of doing business.
Mal sent Badger Saffron as an 'apology.'
"We can't have him wander away and I'm not leaving him alone on my boat."
"We could dead-lock one of the airlocks or shuttles," Inara suggested sweetly.
"I don't think he's going to get into that much trouble. This ain't a harsh planet, Cap, and not much for the Alliance. No Badgers here neither. Do you really think he'd mess things up bad?" Kaylee asked anxiously. "I mean I could-"
"No," Simon vetoed, herding Kaylee away from the ship. "You really, really couldn't." Mal scowled at them as they disappeared into the crowd. Deserters.
"Standing right here!" Carlton thundered. He put on his best glare, sharpened by years of working with Shaun Spencer. No one even flinched.
"Right, I'll take him." Everyone gaped at Jayne.
"I'm not going anywhere with this felonious miscreant-stop it! Let me go!" Jayne grabbed hold of Carlton's arm and pulled, never slowing down, just walking through the crowd and expecting Carlton to keep up. "I will not bring myself down to your level! I'm making a citizens arrest for kidnapping. Assault. Unwanted touching! Jayne is a girl's name!"
Jayne ignored Carlton, took a quick detour into a shady looking alley and stepped into-
"Holy mother of God," Carlton breathed reverently. Guns covered every inch of the store. There were crates of machine guns, a heavily modified Gatling, a few types Carlton had never seen before but had his mouth watering. "It's Mecca."
Jayne grunted and grinned at the storekeep. "Hollow points. Lots of 'em."
Carlton wandered through the crates and into the backroom while Jayne did his business. What looked like the mutant offspring of an EXACTO sniper rifle caught his eye. It had a bayonet made of shiny dark metal at the end which made the Civil War re-enactor in him leap for joy. Carlton picked up the gun. Its grip was rough, which meant no one had owned it before. The pamphlet beside it talked about smart bullets and a laser targeting system with repeating fire-once he engaged the scope and fired once at a certain target, every round he fired after would automatically go to that same place no matter where he was to a distance of 50 feet. Beautiful.
Carlton ran his fingers lovingly over the surface.
"Lawmen," Jayne scoffed from the doorway. Carlton turned and glared. "That one jams after a couple dozen rounds, heats up too much. Ain't worth a gos se. Not surprised you like it."
"I learned something just for you, Mr. Cobb," Carlton hissed. "Bun tyen-shung duh ee-dway-ro." Jayne laughed and clapped Carlton on the shoulder, sending the other man stumbling into the counter with the force.
Carlton watch as Jayne and the clerk, who had several different kinds of guns laid in front of him, haggled over prices. (One of Jayne's had gotten eaten-his words, not Lassiter's, and Lassiter was not going to ask-on a previous mission and needed to be replaced.) More than once he saw Jayne pull himself up to loom over the man and had to suppress a smile; the shop keeper caved every time.
Finally-after Carlton discovered the second back room, which was filled with plastic explosives and ground-to-air artillery-Jayne had three guns in front of him: a 9mm semi, what looked like a single action Casull revolver, and a Magnum.
"Go with that one," Carlton advised, pointing to the Casull. "Fits several different calibers, hard to wear, almost too accurate. You can set it up with a scope and it won't fail you in the field." Jayne picked up the gun and tested its weight. Fairly light-wouldn't be bashing any heads in with it, but it was a backup piece anyways-with a good balance. Easier to hide than the magnum and the semi was mostly overkill as a secondary anyways.
"Well?" Jayne said to the clerk, baring his teeth. "You heard the prissy stuck-up ching-wah tsao duh liou mahng."
The thing about space travel, Carlton had found in his nearly two weeks of living with space pirates, was that there was actually very little silence to be found. Particularly when you were a time-travelling head detective that no one trusted to be left alone. Which is why Carlton was up at no-hour in the morning-or at least when everyone was asleep-and enjoying the silence. The stillness.
He put the kettle on, leaned against the stove and closed his eyes.
"You need to leave." Carlton knocked over a bag of protein when he jumped. Christ, his heart had tried to leap out of his chest. Once he was breathing normally again he slowly looked up. River was braced against the ceiling, a foot on each wall, one hand wrapped around a thin beam, the other dangling free.
"Do you have to do that?" he asked peevishly. The girl's brow furrowed and Carlton sighed. He should know better; that question had never worked with Shawn. Spencer. Shawn Spencer and since when had his brain decided they were on a first name basis? Carlton scowled.
"He misses you," she told him, as if sharing a confidence.
"Your all-seeing shamus. He doesn't read the way I do, but the similarities are unmistakable."
"You are not telling me Shawn Spencer is actually psychic," Lassiter said in horror-he'd seen enough of River's abilities to feel spooked, though the rational part of his mind still had doubts. She gave him a cheeky look and touched the side of her nose with her freehand.
"Great," Lassiter huffed. Shawn would never ever hear of this. "So why is it suddenly time to leave?" Every time they brought up sending him home the same way he arrived River hid and didn't come out until they'd stopped even thinking about The Box.
"Two by two with hands of blue, they'll come for me, make do with you." Something about the little rhyme set the hairs on the back of Carlton's neck on end.
"Forgive me if I doubt your ability to send me back," he sneered, covering for his inexplicable fear. River's face crumpled and tears welled in her eyes.
"You are the most important Lassiter Time could find. I was operating within established parameters, more data was needed, specificity is key! The data set could have been modified for exclusionary-"
"Okay, okay, I'm sorry, I didn't mean it!" River sniffed and looked at him beseechingly. "It's...okay. You're, uh, forgiven." River smiled and dropped down to the floor. Lassiter blinked; he'd never seen someone move quite like that, like gravity was optional.
"The going is easier than the coming." She spun around, showing off her flexibility, twirling down to the ground and then straightening back up. She was holding The Box. Carlton swallowed but didn't back away. It started to hum.
"Shouldn't I have learned something? Come to some fundamental truth about the human condition or the universe that affects me when I get back to Santa Barbara? Makes me a happier, better person?" River tilted her head as she thought. His vision flickered at the edged.
"Humanity will always need cows."
He really had no response to that. River rose up on her toes and placed a kiss to the center of Carlton's head.
A white light surrounded him and everything disappeared.
The world was very dark. Carlton blinked and held still, waiting for his eyes to adjust. He was...in a closet. He stepped forward and something rubbery squeaked. His fingers found a flimsy plastic toy and when he stood his head hit against a rope hanging down from the ceiling. He pulled it experimentally and a single, bare light bulb illuminated the space.
He recognized this space.
He looked down at the toy in his hands.
He recognized the smirking, smug face in the toy's likeness.
Carlton barged out of the closet.
"Lassie!" Shawn exclaimed. Gus spun around, eyes wide, a popsicle clutched in his hand. Carlton noted they were taking a break from playing video games. They'd been sitting here playing video games while he'd been trapped on a space ship in the distant future. Typical. "Have you been in the closet this whole time?"
"How long have I been gone?" Carlton asked warily.
"Uh," Shawn hedged, "maybe three-"
"Four? Five?" Gus offered.
"Maybe six because we had to skip the matinee of Goonies..."
"Oh yeah, thank you for that detective, I hadn't been looking forward to that for months."
"Seriously, Gus bought the tickets as a self-Christmas present. They made great stocking stuffers."
"You know that's right."
"So between three and seven hours," Shawn concluded.
"Give or take."
"More give than take-"
"Shut. Up." Gus and Shawn exchanged one of their infuriating looks, then turned and stared at Carlton. He opened his mouth to speak but stopped. He didn't have anything to say to them. While Shawn would take "I time travelled a million years in the future. There are cows. It kind of sucks." in stride, the rest of the world would throw him somewhere padded and throw away the key.
Also, even if he were going insane, he didn't have to explain himself. Moreover, a glance at a clock would be more forthcoming than trying to interpret their gibberish. So Carlton tugged at his homespun vest and strode out of the Psych office.
Gus and Shawn watched him go, the door slamming behind him. Gus made a conscious decision not to dwell. Lassiter was back and accounted for, which meant Shawn would stop sulking, and Gus's popsicle was melting.
"Is whatever you're about to say going to ruin my enjoyment of my fruity, delicious snack?"
"What would you say if I told you Carlton just got beamed into a pseudo-dystopian future where there are space pirates and really scary government conspiracies and a really hot but kind of crazy psychic chick?"
"That you are not allowed to eat sugar after 10 pm." Gus finished his treat and read the joke on the stick. He laughed. "Wait-how hot are we talking?"