Timeline: Post-BDM

Disclaimer: Words are mine, world ain't.

a/n: Written for the lj community girlsavesboyfic, in which a woman has to save the world and/or the day, possibly a man or two along the way as well. Feedback is always welcome.

I. River

Sitting on the steps of the cargo bay, River watches worry spread through Serenity, creeping over her floor like a cloud, chilling River's ankles, bare beneath the hem of her dress.

On the outside, the job the Captain laid out for them the night before hadn't seemed to hold much threat – a rich man's rich son had run off with, in his words, a woman of the wrong sort. Usually a thing like that wouldn't be of interest to anyone outside the family, as Kaylee had pointed out (River knew she was thinking of a boy she'd run off with when she was fifteen, and how shamed they'd been when the boy's daddy dragged them both back home). But then there was the note.

"Seems our man Mr Torsten received this three days ago, and he's dead certain it's genuine," Mal had said, setting the data sheet out on the table. "Still can't get the proper authorities to take him seriously, so he's turned to us instead."

River had looked at the note, lying innocent and shining on their table that spoke of family, and knew that they would take the job; knew without reading, because the phrasing filled her mind too much to need it.

All the note said was: It isn't what it seems. Get me out. It was signed by Ned Torsten, and so he'd become their target, a rich Core kid of nineteen, here on a planet of dust paved over with cobblestones, trying to make itself appear more than it was.

Crazy paving, River thinks. Use everything to hand to fill in spaces. Her space is on the ship; always on the ship now, always ready to fly at whatever notice Mal can manage to give her. So she sits, watching and thinking, her own thread of anxiety twisting around others, knotting itself up in Zoe's inner assessment of threats, in Jayne's mental inventory of the mobile armory he's strapped to himself.

Mal, strangely enough, is giving off no anxiety at all, and she's about to go off and seek him out, make certain he's not ignoring risks once more when his hand appears in front of her face, offering her a gun.

"Arm up," he says, when she makes no move to accept it. "Need you with us today." Her boots drop to the grating with a thud beside her, fallen from Mal's other hand. "Left those lyin' around again. How many times I gotta tell you, they belong on your feet."

"They belong where I put them. Can't speak properly to Serenity with them on." Still, she pulls them on, feeling the worry-chill flee from her ankles, chased away by leather and buckles and the assurance that this time, she will not be left behind.

"Be that as it may," says Mal, watching her carefully, "figured we might be needin' you on this job, suss out where and what our kid's gotten himself into."

"And if we need a quick getaway?" Zoe asks, looking up from where she's been prepping the mule, practical details well in hand.

"Like as not kid's just gotten himself stuck here when his lady love found somebody she liked better," Mal says. "Or maybe he's tired of her and ain't got the means to get himself off planet. Any case, I ain't expecting to come up against anything worse'n a jilted prairie bride."

"Curves are very sound engineering," River tells him, climbing aboard the mule. "Pliable and balanced, bend but don't break."

"Kaylee!" Mal yells, taking his place on the mule, waiting for his mechanic to bounce her way out of Inara's shuttle. "Ship's yours, try to keep her on the ground and not, you know, on fire or anything 'til we get back. And you," he says lower, turning to River, "can save your lecture on architecture 'til then."

"You have harsh angles," she says. "Stiff planes. They'll get you in trouble."

"Lucky thing I got you to help me out of it, right?" he asks, and then Jayne climbs on and there's no more time for talk, just the brace of her feet out in front, set firm against the whiplash of Mal's driving.

The main street in town confuses River, until she twists her perspective around enough to see, and everything clicks; this a border town made to Core expectations, a town with saloons instead of bars, an abundance of horses and tubes that will glow neon by night, and a lack of metal that simply makes River feel the world is made paper-thin.

"We stand out," she says to Zoe, as they loiter near the door of the latest tavern, trying to look engrossed in posters advertising the virtues of the ladies of Madame Zha-Zha's Pleasure House. River's hands itch to correct the inherent paradox, but she lacks a pen, and anyhow, her growing sense of normality tells her graffiti is not the path to an inconspicuous appearance. She turns away to avoid temptation, and sighs. "We're reality within fiction. This place is warped, poorly refracted through a lens."

"Shoulda brought along that fancy bonnet Captain took a liking to," Zoe says dryly, watching a pair of women pass them on the planks of the sidewalk, feet echoing like hooves under flowery skirts. "How they gettin' on in there?" she asks, indicating the bar with a tilt of her eyes.

River blinks, letting her world blur, and then she sees flashes; smoke and haze, Mal and Jayne. Mal watching everything and nothing, Jayne watching blonde curls and white shoulders, Jayne watching the annoyed expression on Mal's face as the Captain hisses, "We're here to work, Jayne, not for you to get some play."

She smiles, focusing again on Zoe, clear and sharp, waiting with steady patience. "They are both themselves. Nothing yet."

"Looking more and more like nobody in this town's seen our man, or least like they're not willin' to talk about it if they have. Might be making more use of your talents to find him if this keeps up."

"Many notes," River says, shaking her head. "A cacophony of symphonies, hard to pick out one instrument. Need a melody to listen for." Zoe just raises an eyebrow at River's fractured patterns, and nods.

River doesn't explain, because she can't, not really, the way Zoe both settles her and sets her on edge, the unruffled nature of Zoe's thoughts contrasting with an innate wariness and a wish – buried too deep down for her to articulate, if not too deep for River to see – that River had never been. It's been a long time since Miranda; long enough for River to discover that in some cases, time moves in circles and some wounds won't ever fully heal, the two of them always catching on each other's edges, hurting all over again without intent. So Zoe tears her up inside with a conflict of happy-sad, and looking at River reminds Zoe of too many things, and this is a broken thing River's not sure can ever be fixed.

She might just be able to prove herself worthy on this job though, because suddenly she does hear something odd, a whisper like a snake in the grass, hissing knowledge, forbidden and familiar. "Wait here," she murmurs to Zoe, slipping across the street, in and out of foot traffic until she stands before a building more elegant than most, pillars and white paint and a sign proclaiming it The Temple, smaller print beneath declaring, Companion services available.

"Lies," River says, quiet and secret for her own ears as the hissing undercurrent in her thoughts grows louder. "Liar. Thief."

She has just enough time, as the establishment's door opens, to turn away, making her way back to Zoe with calm and purpose, not looking behind to track the flash of fire-bright hair. Too red now to be Saffron, she thinks. Poppy, maybe, or Scarlet. Bright red like blood.

"Did you see her?" she asks, stopping beside Zoe once more, though the question hardly needs to be asked, the way Zoe's eyes are tracking through the crowd.

"Oh yeah. And I'm thinking that's no coincidence. Where that woman goes, trouble follows."

"We should follow," River says, tugging Zoe along by her elbow, clinging to her side, trying to look like daughter-sister-friend. Anything innocent.

"She know where our target's at?" Zoe asks, watching Saffron pick through the wares at a fruit stall, the colors bright and sharp and pretty like the woman herself.

"I don't know," River admits, slowly. "Thoughts are all of...fruit. And sex. And – oh. I don't think fruit is supposed to go there," she says, wrinkling her nose. "Can't hear everything at once," she explains, off Zoe's look of I-don't-really-want-to-know. "It made my behavior unacceptable. That's what Simon's medications are for. Still..."

Still, focusing hard, there's something there, under the fruit, and the plans for the fruit, under the fancy purple silk she's wearing, under the facade of Companion training Saffron's relying on now – there are flashes of boy, and platinum, and something more that wriggles away from River, washed out in a tide of dizziness and nausea that's coming not from Saffron, not from River herself, but another direction entirely, a familiar frequency that never quite leaves her, not entirely.

She gasps, clutching Zoe's arm for support. "Sick," she manages to get out, turning on the sidewalk and swaying without rhythm. "Not me. Jayne. Mal."

Zoe doesn't hesitate an instant, abandoning Saffron still standing at the fruit stall without a thought, supporting River's tottering progress back towards the bar, and even through her own panic and the rapidly fading pull of Mal's thoughts, River can feel the beat of Zoe's pulse, steady and even. Soothing.

"River?" Zoe asks, giving her shoulder a sharp squeeze. "What's goin' on? We gonna be walking into an ambush here?"

"Don't know," River mumbles. "Fading away. Can't hear them anymore. Gone into darkness."

"Can't say as that's reassuring," Zoe says, releasing her hold on River to push open the tavern door, one hand hovering over her holster.

But the bar is peaceful, down to the thoughts within it, and Zoe's quiet interrogation of a barmaid sees them pointed with a smile to a back room.

"Said they were feeling a bit woozy, so they put 'em back here," Zoe says into the gloom of the hallway, "but that sure ain't right, cause I never knew either of them to be a man couldn't hold his liquor."

River has seen a flash of red hair in the barmaid's memories, and already knows the truth before they open the door, and before they open every other door they can find afterward.

Mal and Jayne are gone.

"We're gonna get 'em back, right?" Kaylee asks, and her voice is shrunken and dim with worry, small and forlorn in the wide space of the cargo bay.

"Of course we will, bao bei," Inara tells her, taking Kaylee's hand, and River watches with detached jealousy, missing Zoe's firm presence beside her.

The two of them had spent a frantic half hour in the alleys behind the town's facades, coming up empty of any trail they could read, physically or mentally. They'd also spent fifteen highly instructive minutes behind The Temple, where River had pressed herself against the rough wood, splinters and paint flaking under her fingers. There had been some things she would have been happier not knowing (half a dozen new uses for food, three unexpected consequences of extreme flexibility, and a wide and startling variety of male body-hair patterns), and confirmation of one thing she'd suspected – their target was inside, though he hardly seemed aware of his own name, much less any desire to escape the place.

On their return to the ship, Zoe had taken Simon (bewildered and altogether hopeless, in River's opinion, but still their best option) to scout out The Temple's interior and operations. The yelp of his voice as they pulled away, asking, "You want me to do what?" had been less than comforting. Really, Simon could be so very old-fashioned.

The hum of the mule returning pulls River back into now, into the voices being thrown into the ship's emptiness, attempting to stave off panic with plans.

"River was right," Simon says, climbing down from the mule, feet landing with a clang. "They're claiming to be a registered Companion house, run by a woman called Ava Dixon."

Inara is too controlled to snort, settles for a laugh that is a quiet huff. "Hardly. There's no Companion house on this planet, or on any planet within several days of here, for that matter."

Zoe stands with her arms folded, surveying her troops. Crazy paving, River thinks again. Make what you have be what you need. When Zoe speaks, her voice hasn't shrunk, isn't swallowed by the ship; it reverberates, and River thinks she can feel it, right through the soles of her boots. "It's illegal to pass yourself off as a Companion without a license, ain't that right?"

Inara nods. "Highly illegal. The Guild is very powerful; they've made certain the fines and prison terms are high enough to dissuade anyone from trying. Well, almost anyone, apparently."

"Don't seem to be much that puts Saffron, or Ava, whatever she's calling herself now, off doin' anything."

"And you still think she's behind all of this?" Simon asks. "You did say she didn't go anywhere near the bar where Jayne and the Captain were."

"Spread her lies there before," River says, sorting through the knots in her mind. "Not today. But the barmaid knew her. The likelihood of a coincidental relationship between these incidences is small enough to be negligible. Pieces are missing, but the whole remains the same."

Simon doesn't even blink, just nods at her, and the ship seems a little less empty, River's mind less turbulent. "Alright, so we believe Saffron's involved, even if we don't know exactly how. What do we plan to do about it?"

"We got two different objectives, as I see it," Zoe says, heading over to the weapons locker, gathering and loading, mapping out a strategy. "We need to get the Torsten kid out of that place, and we need to find and recover Captain and Jayne."

River catches an unfurling, a drift curling up like smoke off incense, and turns to Inara before the other woman begins speaking.

"I think I have an idea," Inara says, measuring up Kaylee with a practiced eye. "Though I'm not sure any of you will like it."