They turned a corner, squeezing into a narrower alley that twisted off between ramshackle houses. They'd have to make an arc of some kind so they could head back to the other side of town and reach their ship, parked past the outer ring of barren crop fields that circled the town. Mal got himself tangled up in a linen sheet hanging on a clothesline as he ran through the alley, almost tripping over in the process of wriggling out of it. "What d'you think yer doin'?" demanded an old lady, standing in a nearby doorway where she was folding laundry.
"Well don't go runnin' into my clothes!"
Mal and his crew were already past her. "Then don't hang 'em right in the middle of the alley!" he shouted behind him.
He risked a glance back; besides the old woman, a couple other back-alley denizens had poked out of their houses to see what all the commotion was about, but he didn't see Avery or any of his deputies following. Unfortunately, he knew what that meant. Their horses couldn't get through the cluttered alleys very easily, and seeing as they had to know where the ship was, they were probably just taking up position outside of town. Not like there was anywhere else to go on this gorram moon. In front of Mal, Inara slowed down, obviously thinking the same thing.
"Where to?" asked Jayne.
Mal suddenly realized Wash was waiting on the ship for this very reason. He had almost forgotten about his backup. He got out the radio and gave his pilot a call, relieved to hear Wash's voice crackle through the air almost immediately. "Afternoon, captain," he said.
"Wash, we need you to-"
"Already on it. Heard the gunshots."
"Meet us on main street," said Inara as she grabbed the radio from Mal's hand.
"On my way."
Jayne and Inara nodded briefly to each other as Mal watched in confusion. Before he could ask, Inara handed the device back to him as she headed down a side alley, back in the direction of the marketplace set up along the town's main road, although she was taking a route that avoided where they had just come. Mal gave Jayne and Zoe a sidelong look before the three of them followed her.
Hopefully Inara had a good idea brewing, because main street was probably the last place they wanted to be. Then again, now that Mal thought about it, maybe they could get the drop on Avery and his boys. And they still had to pick up Kaylee! He had almost forgotten about her. Mal knew he should have ordered everybody to stay on the ship while they did the trade.
"Hey, Inara, where are we going?"
"I have to buy something."
Inara ignored him as the group wound their way through the seedy underbelly of the town – not that there was anyplace in this town that wasn't seedy. They definitely weren't being followed anymore, at least. Either Avery was heading for the ship, or he was waiting elsewhere to head them off. After dodging another horribly-placed clothesline, Mal and the group exited a last alley and stumbled out into the marketplace again. The crowds weren't quite as packed as they had been just an hour ago, but there were still enough people milling around that they might be a good distraction momentarily.
Inara headed towards a nearby tent as Mal wondered what in the world she was doing. He saw her smile and nod at an old toothless man behind a stand of jewelry, fish around in her dress, and pull out a wallet, giving him some platinum in exchange for a pair of earrings. "Thank ye kindly!" said the old man. Mal watched incredulously as she put the earrings on and turned back to the group. She gave him a look and tilted her head a little to either side, like she was asking his opinion.
"They're downright gorgeous," he said. It came out sarcastic, but he was being totally honest. Still, he'd never understand women. "You want to do any more shopping?" he asked, this time with more intentional sarcasm.
Inara smiled and shook her head. "That's should do it."
Mal watched in amazement as Jayne followed the old man into the tent for a moment. Here they were, on the run from the law after a deal went south, and his crew was still insisting on doing some afternoon shopping. What was this, a vacation? The old man emerged from the tent again, and Mal caught a glimpse of Jayne behind him holding what looked like some kind of glinting transparent globe, but a booming voice rang out from down the street before he could get a closer look.
"Stop right there!"
It was Avery. So much for afternoon shopping.
Whirling around with his weapon raised, he saw the sheriff galloping down the street with a cadre of deputies to either side, also on horseback. Zoe took aim and fired her weapon, sending one of them flying off the horse and hitting the ground in a cloud of dust. Screams rose up from around the marketplace as townspeople leaped for cover and rushed into their tents. Inara motioned for the old man behind the jewelry table to retreat into his own tent. Mal fired off a shot as the deputies approached – maybe they didn't have the cover of narrow alleys anymore, but the profusion of tents, tables, booths, and confused marketplace shoppers was enough to slow them down a lot. Mal had more than enough time to turn over a nearby table for cover, ducking down with his crew as the deputies fired a few shots over their heads.
"We got you surrounded, Mal!"
He looked over his shoulder; sure enough, several more lawmen on horseback were coming around the corner from the other side of the street. "Come on!" he said in exasperation. "Are half the people in this town law men?"
Zoe turned another nearby table over to give them more cover, but it was already obvious they were outnumbered, and probably outgunned. As the deputies drew closer, forming a loose ring, Mal wondered if Avery would let them give up, or if he'd just blow them away right in the middle of the street. Nah, he thought. Dead or alive, Avery had said. Somehow seeing Jayne had turned the man's mood murderous. Jayne fired off another shot, with whatever that thing was he had gotten from the old man's tent propped up by his side, just out of Mal's view.
"You got a plan, captain?"
"Besides kill 'em until Wash gets here? Nope."
Zoe darted up from her cover for a moment and fired off another shot, grazing one of the deputies as he drew his horse across the street, looking for his own clear shot. Avery's deputies didn't seem to be any brighter than Avery was – other than that punk who had pointed out the weapons shipment were a bunch of knockoffs, anyway – but even if they were stupid, it would only take a moment before they realized they were sitting ducks on their horses and leap off to find cover behind the buildings on either side of the street.
Just as Mal was about to get worried, the dust began to blow around their feet. A deep mechanical whirring sound grew louder above them. He looked up, shielding his eyes against the afternoon sunlight and smiling broadly. Just in time.
"Put down your weapons," boomed Wash's voice from over Serenity's external communications system, "or I'll blow a crater in this little-"
"Transport ship!" yelled one of the deputies. "It ain't got no guns!"
Mal risked a quick look over the overturned table and frowned at the sight of the same deputy who had noticed that the weapons they were trying to peddle were cheap alliance knockoffs. He took aim and shot the man in the shoulder, enough to knock him off balance. He looked at his weapon in shock as the deputy fell off his horse – he wasn't actually expecting the thing to work. Serenity deployed its boarding ramp in midair and descended lower over the town's main street, sending clouds of dust and dislodged tent canvas flying in all directions. A couple more deputies fell to the ground as their horses got spooked and threw them off.
Once the ramp got close enough, Mal leaped up and pulled himself on while Jayne and Zoe gave him a little cover fire, although Jayne seemed to have forgotten his gun didn't work. After Mal was on, he fired off a few shots while Jayne and Zoe followed him up, and they were all on the ship in no time, although Inara took a moment to give one last wave to the old man poking his head out of the tent, who waved back enthusiastically before ducking inside before any of the deputies could bother him. Mal rolled his eyes as they retreated farther back in the hold to avoid any more potshots. That woman made friends fast.
"Sorry we couldn't do business!" he shouted down to the street, unable to resist a parting shot.
He dodged a poorly aimed parting shot from Avery, who was struggling to keep his horse in check on the street below them. The ship began to lift off again as the ramp started drawing up. He heard a faint curse and a shout from his old acquaintance, but couldn't make out the words over the sound of the ship's engines. The ship rose higher into the air, like a leaf on the wind. Through a window, Mal could see the town growing smaller beneath them.
He stepped back into the hold and saw Kaylee standing nearby; it was a good thing she was already on the ship, as he had been just about to figure out how they could contact her and get her out of the town without Avery figuring out she was part of Mal's crew. "I guess the deal didn't go so well?" she asked.
"You guessed right. Everybody okay?"
Everybody looked alright. Although Jayne was holding that strange globe in his hand.
"What is that?"
Jayne looked down at the globe.
"Oh, this? I stole it. That's why they were after me."
Mal took the globe from his hands and looked over it. Some kind of plastic contraption – and inside, a big pile of fruit in a rainbow medley of colors. Just the sight of it made Mal lick his lips involuntarily. He could see why Jayne had grabbed the thing, and it was surprising they had something like this for sale in that miserable little town, even if it was a market day, but still -
"This is what you almost got us killed for?"
"Hey, what do you mean 'killed'?" Jayne objected with a frown of displeasure. "I knocked over that one deputy when I came through the window, didn't I? And that deal was already going south without me getting involved, don't deny it."
"Okay, maybe you have a point there – but Avery didn't go all homicidal on us until he recognized you."
"The captain has a point, Jayne," said Zoe. "What was that all about?"
Wash came down the stairs leading up to the ship's forward compartments and cockpit, leaping off the last step and joining the group in the middle of their conversation. Mal gave him a look, but Wash rolled his eyes – enough to tell Mal that they were on autopilot, obviously. "I hear drama!" he said in a sing-song voice.
"We were just asking Jayne why Avery recognized him. What'd you call him? Mr. Mills?"
Jayne's shoulders slumped as he sighed. "Yeah, I guess I didn't recognize his first name when you guys were talking about him. It's no big deal, it's just – well, I guess I was here a few years ago and I forgot about it. Got into some trouble with the man, that's all. Man like that holdin' a grudge for three years, he obviously ain't stable in the first place. You probably shouldn't have been makin' any deals with him at-"
"What kind of trouble did you get into, Jayne?"
Jayne shrugged. "A little trouble with his daughter. Took something from her."
It was Mal's turn to sigh.
"Do I have to say it?" asked Jayne.
"No, you don't."
"Hey, she was the one comin' on to me, anyways!"
Kaylee shook her head in a mixture of exasperation and disappointment. "Oh, Jayne."
Mal knew he was being a bit unfair, since technically Jayne was right – the deal had already gone south as soon as that meddling deputy noticed the guns were cheap knockoffs instead of real stolen Alliance weaponry. And by flying through that window, Jayne had distracted Avery and his goons long enough for Mal and Zoe to get the draw on them. But he was still mad. And he didn't like landing in some town where one of his crew members had rolled in the hay with the daughter of the man he was trying to rip off. That was what they called a complication. Not to mention Jayne had run off to go walking around town as soon as they landed instead of coming along for backup when they were negotiating with Avery, which was what he was supposed to be doing in the first place.
In a fit of irritation, Mal – still holding the fruit globe - took a step back when Jayne reached for it, opening up the top as he looked around to the rest of the crew. "I'm the captain," he said. "And seeing as we almost got killed as a result of Jayne's past indiscretions, I think commandeering this here fruit is a just reward. So who wants to have some?"
Jayne stepped forward for a moment, his face brightening, but after a stare from Mal, he seemed to actually consider what Mal had just said. "Gorram unbelievable!" he exclaimed before turning around and storming off in the direction of the sleeping area. Mal couldn't help smiling at the reaction, and while Kaylee gave Jayne a sympathetic look for just a moment, she soon forgot about him and turned back to the globe Mal was holding, eyes glittering with anticipation.
"Does it have strawberries?"
"Why, yes it does, Kaylee."
The way she darted forward, Mal thought he was about to be knocked over before he even got the chance to pick anything out of the globe. He managed to get a handful of strawberries out just in time for Kaylee to snatch them up and run off to some secluded corner where she could nibble at them without anyone laughing at her enthusiasm. Wash came up to take his share, followed by Zoe, and finally, Inara.
Mal passed her a handful of fruit which she cradled in the crook of her arm, but still she stood expectantly with one of her hands extended. Mal raised an eyebrow. Someone was being greedy. Still, if she was going to be like that, of course he couldn't resist. It wasn't fair. The woman had years of training to hone her charms. More dangerous than any weapon, as far as he was concerned. She took an extra handful of fruit, gave him a winning smile, and left the hold. With just a little bit left for himself, Mal sat down on a nearby metal cargo crate and started chewing on a ripe orange. There had only been two oranges in the fruit globe – he had grabbed the one for himself before anybody else got their fruit, and Inara had gotten the other one. A fair deal, he thought.
Things had gotten a little hairy down there, but it wasn't a bad haul, really. And they did get to keep the bag of platinum Avery had given them for the weapons, along with a couple of the weapons themselves, even if they were mostly useless. And this peach, well – he couldn't remember the last time he had tasted anything like this. Sweet, cool flesh with just a bit of tangyness, so soft and yielding - the transparent globe must have had some kind of insulation effect, as the fruit should have been warmer after all that running around in sweltering afternoon sunlight. Mal groaned at the taste of juicy orange on his tongue. It was like a flavor explosion. Which sounded like something Kaylee would say, but it a good description all the same.
For just a moment, Mal started feeling a little guilty about not giving Jayne anything.
But only for a moment.
After having retreated angrily into his sleeping quarters, Jayne was laying back in his bunk, reaching a hand across to the side of the bed where Vera lay, quiet and peaceful. He fondled his favorite weapon absently, trying to cheer himself up a little. Up above him, plastered across the top of the bunk, was a picture of his mother. At least he had gotten that pocketbook. But still, the crew taking all that fruit for themselves... sometimes he thought nobody appreciated him. Maybe Kaylee would stop by and give him a few strawberries. She was nice. But no – this was strawberries he was thinking about. No way she was giving those up.
Jayne sulked, folding his arms over himself and jutting out his lower lip. He couldn't really blame Mal, seeing as the captain got a little pissy about things sometimes. But Inara? The two of them had pulled off that heist together, but she was happy to take all the fruit she wanted since Mal was sweet on her, even if that wasn't something the man would ever admit. Apparently she didn't have any concept of team loyalty.
And what stung even more was that pulling off a hit with Inara had been fun! It wasn't often that he did something like that with someone like her. Letting her distract that little punk with her womanly ways while he grabbed the fruit globe, heading off down an alley and running into her along the way – she must have been trailing him – and handing off the globe to her, telling her to hide it with that old man she'd been flirting with earlier since the deputies were hot on their tails. It all worked out perfectly. But he should have known he'd be double crossed. Like his mama always told him, you couldn't trust 'em when they were pretty like that. He never really understood what she was talking about when he was a kid, seeing as he always thought his mama was as beautiful as women got, but growing up – well, he'd figured out what she meant, that was for sure. Like with that sheriff's daughter, for instance. Boy, did he figure it out.
"What are you grumbling about?"
Jayne got up from his bunk and looked over at his door. There was Inara, standing in the frame with an amused look. Jayne didn't realize he had been grumbling. "Nothin'," he said. "What do you want?"
"I was wondering what in the world you were thinking when you grabbed that fruit and ran out of the tent."
"What do you mean? The kid was totally distracted – when else was I gonna do it?"
"You do realize I was just trying to flirt with that assistant shopkeeper to get a big discount, right? I wasn't really even planning on getting it for free. Why would we want to make a big scene when Mal and Zoe were trying to make a trade with Avery?"
Jayne scratched his head. Now that he thought about it, maybe it had been a bad time to go stealing things.
"Sometimes I'm amazed you haven't gotten yourself shot," laughed Inara.
Jayne smiled and gave Vera a loving pat.
"Just gotta be faster on the draw than the other guy."
"Well, it all worked out in the end. And by the way, don't tell Mal; I suppose this is only fair, since we were partners in crime, after all."
Jayne was confused by the comment, but Inara stepped over and pulled a couple of apples out of a deep pocket in her dress – and an orange, too. She dropped them on the sheets beside him, and Jayne licked his lips at the sight. He couldn't remember if he had ever eaten an orange before, and from what he remembered, there were only two of them in the whole fruit globe. And Mal had grabbed the other back at the hold when he was passing it all out.
"Nice earrings, by the way," he said. He had noticed a glint of gold and emerald green coming from a pair of dragon-shaped earrings she was wearing. He wasn't sure if he had seen them before; it wasn't the kind of thing he usually paid attention to. But they were very pretty.
"Thank you," said Inara. She smiled and quietly left the room.
Jayne would have thanked her for the fruit, but he already had a mouthful of orange blocking any speech, having grabbed it and peeled it in record time. Now, this, this was the reason running from those deputies had been worth it. This was indescribable. He closed his eyes as he chewed, lost in heavenly bliss.
Maybe not all the pretty ones were that bad.