DISCLAIMER: Joss made the 'verse. We just play with it.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Takes place after Objects in Space, after Inara has left Serenity, but before the events in the movie. Includes some baseless assumptions on Book's backstory. I hope and pray Joss one day contradicts me with a new movie, comic book or novel. :-)
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Originally written for the femslash_today Sweet Dreams and Flying Machines Ficathon.
SPOILERS: "Our Mrs. Reynolds," "Trash," "The Message," Serenity.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
Shepherds, Guns & Money
You just get a feeling for this sort of thing. You either got attuned to it or you got dead, real quick. Mal Reynolds downed his drink and slid the glass towards the bartender for a refill. At his left, Jayne Cobb was working on yet another full pitcher and grimacing at the taste. "Do ya think they make it taste like puke on purpose? Discourage people from drinking too much of it?"
"No, just the opposite," Mal explained. "They're hoping people will keep buying it. They think the taste will grow on 'em."
"Hell," Jayne muttered, filling his glass again.
Mal turned, casually taking his newly filled glass from the bartender. "Fella's had his eye on us for a good five minutes," he muttered.
"I got eyes, don't I?" Jayne grunted. His ran the back of his hand over his lips and looked over his shoulder. "Think those two yay-hoos in the booth are with him?"
Mal looked. "They're big and they're ugly and I wouldn't wanna run up against 'em. Our luck, they're his muscle."
Jayne grinned slowly. "Well, we're big, too. But we're pretty."
"All that and a handful of credits'll get ya in trouble, town like this," Mal said. "Feel like finding out what's so damn interesting about us?"
"Oh, I do," Jayne said.
They turned together and walked across the bar, meeting their admirer halfway. "Well," Mal said. "Decided you needed the up-close perusal?"
"Mal Reynolds?" the man said. His blonde hair was limp against his forehead, left long in the front and back. He wasn't a fighter; the clean and smooth planes of his cheeks and forehead showed he'd never been cut. Probably never even been out in a sand storm. He had trimmed fingernails to boot. Almost made Mal want to take his hand, look at them real close to make sure a man had nails so pretty.
He resisted the urge to take the man's hand, instead puffing his chest out and looking Mr. Fop dead in the eye. "My friends call me Captain Mal Reynolds. Strangers in a bar, well... you can call me sir."
Jayne twitched his lip. He didn't like banter; it took time away from the fighting.
The man smiled. "Very well, then... sir. My name is MacKenzie. I represent Doctor Jonas Pond. We'd like to speak to you about a piece of merchandise you recently came to possess."
Mal frowned and looked at Jayne. "You follow that?"
"Nah," Jayne said. He looked over his shoulder; they were gaining the attention of the rest of the bar. "Our inconspicuous-ness is starting to wear thin here, Mal."
"Right. What he said, only... pithier. We're wasting time and beer standing here talking to you, so if you don't mind..."
"The weapon you stole from Mr. Durran Haymer."
Mal stopped in the doorway and turned slowly. "Steal is a terribly loaded word, Mr. MacKenzie."
"Impugns our character," Jayne said.
Mal looked at Jayne in a way that made the bigger man embarrassed for knowing, let alone speaking such a big word. He cleared his throat and popped his neck, hooking his thumbs on his belt. Mal sighed and said, "Why don't we take this outside, gentlemen?"
MacKenzie stepped between Mal and Jayne, the two armed men from the booth following him out. When they stepped into the sunshine, MacKenzie said, "I am certain you gentleman have heard of Dr. Pond before?"
"Can't say as we have," Mal said. He looked at Jayne for confirmation. "Pond?"
Jayne ticked off on his fingers. "Lessee. Lake, Ocean." He thumped Mal's shoulder and said, "River."
"Yeah," Mal snickered. "We got a River if you're interested."
"What we are not interested in, Captain Reynolds, is playing games. The men standing beside me are not what one would call humorous."
"I find them pretty amusing."
"They will surely kill you if given half a reason. Dr. Pond is a renowned collector of weaponry. His collection contains, among others, a morning-star mace, a Shrike light machine gun, several P90s, Israeli Desert Eagle Pistols, a Series-4 Deatomizer, a phased plasma gun... I don't think I need to continue."
"No, no," Mal said, scratching his chin. "I'll buy two tickets. One for me and one for the little lady."
"Captain Reynolds, Dr. Pond requests your presence at his museum."
"He wishes to purchase the Lassiter from you."
"Well, now," Mal said, slowly smiling. "That may be the best news we've had all day."
"The problem with unloading cargo like this is middle ground," Kaylee said, lifting the crate and sliding it to the back. "See, you need someone disreputable enough to buy stolen property, but someone honorable enough that you don't have to worry 'bout them paying ya."
"Ah," Simon said, watching as Kaylee bent down to unlatch the cover on the Lassiter's hiding spot. It was at the very back of the cargo hold, covered by crates most of the time. Jayne had only uncovered it a few months before the heist and reckoned that even those familiar with a Firefly's hidey-holes would have a difficult time finding the gun here.
She knelt down and removed the Lassiter from the crate, carefully unwrapping it and brushing the barrel with her fingertips. "Mighty fine weapon," she sighed, turning it this way and that.
"You, uh, could... probably point that elsewhere."
Kaylee smirked and rose, leveling the gun at his chest. "Oh, why would I wanna do that? I have you at my mercy now."
Simon stumbled as he backed away from her. "Kaylee..."
"What could I have you do? Hmm..."
"This isn't funny."
"Oh, it's a little funny," Mal said, walking onto the catwalk and smirking down at the standoff. "Make 'im cluck like a chicken, Kaylee. That's always good for a laugh."
"Not what I had in mind, Cap'n."
"Now, Kaylee, there are ladies present. And Jayne."
"Huh?" Jayne said, tearing his eyes away from the spectacle. "What about ladies?"
Kaylee turned the gun upside down in her hand and said, "Just playin' with him a little is all. 'Nara said it wouldn't fire anyway." Mal came down the stairs and she handed him the laser. "Everything looks in order. Other than the rust. And the wear on the handle. And the..."
"It's a perfectly fine, piece-of-crap, antique weapon," Mal said. He slipped the laser into his holster, taking his regular gun and hooking it in the back of his belt.
Simon frowned. "I... don't understand. You're taking the Lassiter with you?"
"Wouldn't it be smarter to leave it hidden until the deal is through?"
Mal shrugged. "Probably. If this Pond fella is lookin' to steal it from me, where's he gonna look? My ship, all these little nooks and crannies Firefly-class vessels are known for. But the one place he knows I wouldn't be dumb enough to hide it..." He patted his holster.
"Genius," Simon said, "disguised as stupidity."
"It's my niche."
He left Simon, Jayne and Kaylee at the back of the cargo hold, walking back up to the catwalk. "Get the mule prepped. We're leaving in twenty."
Wash frowned at the display. "You're sure this MacKenzie guy is on the up-and-up? Cause I'm lookin', and all I'm seeing on this moon is a lot of... moon rocks."
"And clouds," Jayne pointed out. He was sitting at the navigator's console, hands resting on his chin as they entered orbit. He squinted, trying to see if the one they were about to go through looked like a duck.
"Said it'd be here," Mal said. "We got no reason to distrust him."
"Not much of a reason to trust him, either," Book said, walking onto the bridge.
"Preacher," Mal said by way of greeting. "Might wanna turn the other cheek or whatever it is you fellas do around crime. Wouldn't want you sullying your nose."
Book smiled. "Oh, I assure you, I'm plenty sullied by association." He crossed his arms over his chest and said, "I overheard Kaylee and Simon in the cargo hold... the name Pond was being bandied about. Judging from the moon we're closing in on, I'd assume it was Doctor Jonas Pond?"
"The preacher knows a crook," Mal said. He looked at Jayne and said, "Think I'll stopped being surprised by him someday?"
"Doubtful," Book admitted. "I've got too many surprises up my sleeves." He pointed at the screen and said, "You'll be getting a proximity alarm in a moment."
Wash opened his mouth to ask what he'd be in proximity to when the alarm began to chime. He adjusted his course and turned to face the Shepherd. "Now you're a psychic?"
"No," Book said softly. "Just followed Mr. MacKenzie on this route before." He turned to leave, pausing by Mal's shoulder. "There's an old adage about counting your silverware once an untrustworthy guest has left your house. Once you leave Dr. Pond's presence, I advise you check you wallets. And the fillings in your teeth." He shrugged and said, "It wouldn't hurt to count your fingers."
He walked off the bridge and left the three men in stunned silence.
Jayne was the first to speak, looking at his hands. "Ten. Right?"
River was in the common area, stretched across the threadbare couch and watching as the clouds whipped past the window. Condensation, evaporation, accumulation. Wisps, like feathers, like breath on a cold day, like clouds. Her eyes were wide, not wanting to miss a single formation. When she was little, she'd seen geese in the clouds. Dinosaurs, rampaging through the ancient fields of Earth-that-was, monsters and fairies and demons and fantasies.
Now, she saw only the clouds. Billions of water droplets, suspended in midair by a perpetual cycle of condensation and evaporation.
Oh, and a duck.
The man below them frightened her. So she tried not to think of him. Tried not to think of what he had in his treasure chests, what he prized above all else. Murder. Pain. Death. These that killed, these that shall kill, holding the power like that. Like it made him god or God. But he wasn't. He was neither. He was Doctor Jonas Pond, a small man.
Still. He was a man. And man could do all manner of ugly and harsh things to things in their path without being a god.
He frightened her.
Pond's complex was built into the side of a mountain, a landing pad sticking out from the rock face like a finger. It appeared like a mirage through the haze, solidifying quickly as MacKenzie touched his shuttle down on the circular landing pad.
Wash settled Serenity right behind, taking up almost all of the remaining space. As Mal, Jayne and Zoe came out of the cargo hold, MacKenzie approached and held his hands out. "Welcome, my friends, to Dr. Pond's moon. It is a pleasure to have you."
"Yeah, I'll bet," Jayne muttered around his cigar.
"Mr. Cobb, you're more than welcome to smoke that fine cigar out here, but once we're inside..."
Jayne growled and dropped the cigar to the ground. One of the lackeys moved to extinguish it, but Jayne waved him off. "I'll pick it up on the way out."
The tagalong looked to MacKenzie, who nodded subtly to let him know it was okay. The man looked at the discarded cigar like it was destroying his world and stepped solemnly back into place.
"If you will kindly walk this way, my friends."
They followed him over the landing pad to the main entrance, waiting as he keyed in the code. One of the lackeys paused, turning to look over his shoulder at the rusty heap of space junk they had floated in on. Something about the ship... something within the ship.
He scanned the surface carefully before being forced to look away. MacKenzie had opened the door and it wouldn't do very well to be caught staring.
If he'd looked a moment more, he would have spotted River Tam's face in the kitchen window, watching him.
The main hall of Pond's complex bore witness to the man's name. The walls were three-fourths glass, revealing an expansive aquarium system. The hall felt incredibly cold and sterile, the water dancing on their faces as they followed MacKenzie deeper into the building. Mal couldn't help feeling a little dirty and tossed-up compared to the room. The glinting of light on metal just seemed to intensify how long it had been since he'd really scrubbed up.
Jayne, oblivious to Mal's discomfort, paused to watch a shark go overheard, amazed at the sight, and hurried to catch up with the rest of them. "How big's this thing?" he asked.
MacKenzie looked at the aquarium as if seeing it for the first time. "It circles the entire complex. It's above us as well, although there are very few places to view that angle." He smiled and said, "Dr. Pond believes even the fish deserve a modicum of privacy."
Zoe raised an eyebrow at Mal and followed MacKenzie around another corner. Waiting there was a man in a blue jumpsuit, his hands clasped behind his back. His black hair was pushed back out of his face and he wore a pair of deep blue sunglasses that completely hid his eyes. He turned at the sound of their approach and smiled brightly.
Something about the smile made Mal want to shoot him.
"May I see it?" he asked, slightly breathless.
"Dr. Pond," MacKenzie said softly.
Pond looked at MacKenzie and nodded. "Yes. Yes. Tact. Captain Malcolm Reynolds, I assume?"
"You assume correctly, Dr. Pond. Surely like to know how you heard about the little artifact in our possession."
Pond laughed, loud and hard. "Ah, yes, well, well, you haven't exactly been keeping it a secret, hmm? A man like myself, in some circles, I have to associate with... disreputable people. The same disreputable people too afraid to touch what you were trying to sell. But me? Me? I'm untouchable."
He turned and looked at Zoe. "Zoe Washburne. Still carrying the Mare's Leg, I see?" He looked at Jayne and gasped. "Oh, yes. If I may be so bold, Mr. Cobb?"
Jayne glanced at Mal and handed over his rifle. Pond took it and exhaled slowly. "A Callahan full-bore auto lock rifle." He turned it in his hands and examined the stock. "Customized trigger. Got that done after you appropriated it, hmm? Yes?" "Double cartridge thorough-gage." He whistled and said, "How much?"
"Vera ain't for sale."
"Not what you told me," Mal muttered.
Jayne glared at Mal and took his gun back.
Pond sighed and clasped his hands in front of him again. "Now, formalities have been made. May I see it?"
"What makes you think we have it with us?"
"Captain Reynolds. I just identified both of your companion's weapons by sight." He looked down at Mal's holster and said, "I would like to see the Lassiter."
Jayne snorted. "Genius disguised as stupidity, huh?"
Mal glared at him and slipped the weapon out. "Just as advertised. It don't shoot, though. We figure you'd know all about that, but we wouldn't want you saying..."
"No, no, no, no, no, the Lassiter hasn't fired in centuries." He caressed the barrel and lovingly folded his finger around the trigger. Just as Mal was about to ask if they wanted some alone time, he looked up and blinked awkwardly. "Ah. Yes. Um..." He handed the weapon back and said, "We'll arrange payment so you can be on your way as soon as possible."
"If you agree to our price, that is," Mal said with a charming smile.
Pond glanced at MacKenzie. "Agree to your...? Captain Reynolds, I believe there's been a misunderstanding."
Mal sighed and Zoe tightened her grip on her rifle.
"No, no. We'll pay, that's not the misunderstanding. It's just... we're prepared to pay whatever your asking price is. Money is no object when it comes to the Lassiter."
Mal felt a smile growing on his face. Been a long time since he had a deal go in this direction.
MacKenzie invited the crew to come off the ship and enjoy the facilities. Wash and Zoe immediately retreated to the water garden, where they could watch the fish from the point-of-view of an inverted fish bowl. Shepherd Book chose to walk the promenade, see the aquarium in its entirety and observe the fish while on the move.
Jayne sat outside and smoked.
Mal took advantage of the steam showers. Simon, tempted by the idea of continuously hot water, asked Kaylee to look after River while he found a vacant stall. River looked at him matter-of-factly and said, "She doesn't mind being baby-sat. She minds being talked at."
Simon, sufficiently chided, was left speechless as River looped her arm through Kaylee's and glided away from him. He pushed his hair out of his face and turned, beginning his search for a nice, hot shower.
Kaylee chuckled, watching him over her shoulder as she was led away.
Neither River nor Kaylee saw MacKenzie's man watching them, eyes locked on River as she walked past. His fingers twitched where they against his forearms, his brow beading with sweat. He turned on his heel, following the corridors until he found MacKenzie standing in Pond's parlor. "Mr. MacKenzie."
"This will have to wait, Kranz. Dr. Pond is assembling the purse for the Lassiter. Whatever it is..."
"It is larger than the Lassiter."
MacKenzie frowned. "There is nothing on this moon larger than the Lassiter."
"There is," Krantz insisted. "It's a girl. One of Reynolds' girls. She's a weapon."
"I'm not. I'm not."
MacKenzie hesitated. He'd seen Krantz and his partner, Stern, pick out a hidden weapon from eighteen yards. They'd identified a sword disguised as a walking stick with the slightest glance, saving Dr. Pond's life in the process. If one of them claimed to have seen a weapon...
"Which one? Show me."
River stopped near a porthole and pressed her hands against the glass. An angelfish floated by, pausing to examine the round eyes in the round hole before continuing on. River followed as it weaved through the water, following the current, and smiled. She turned to Kaylee and said, "Who is in outer space?"
Kaylee's smile wavered, but she recovered quickly. "What, honey?"
She pointed at the glass, at the fish swimming on the other side. "That's outer space. To us. Because we can't breath. Go blue and bloated." She ran her fingers down the glass, pondering that thought sadly for a moment. She turned and said, "But to them, we're in outer space. They can't breathe here."
"It's a matter of perspective, huh?" Kaylee said, looking into the porthole as well. She rubbed River's back through the thin dress she wore and said, "C'mon. Let's go find one of them observation rooms like Wash and Zoe found."
They walked on, oblivious to MacKenzie and Krantz close behind them. MacKenzie fell back, rubbing the bottom half of his face. He shook his head and muttered, "Oh, my, my, my."
"What should we tell Dr. Pond?"
"He's shelling out a fortune for the Lassiter. And this Reynolds seems unlikely to accept a cash transaction for a person. We'll have to take the girl from him."
"If we're taking the girl," Krantz said, "maybe we oughta just take that expensive gun, too."
MacKenzie smiled. "Krantz, for an idiot... you certainly can be brilliant at times."
"I'm sorry," Krantz said.
After his shower, which lasted for most of an hour, Mal went somewhere he wasn't supposed to.
While he'd been bathing, his clothes had been taken and cleaned. He slid into his starched shirt, frowning at the crisp way it rested on his shoulders. He'd have to beat it against a rock to get it back the way he liked. He sighed and hitched his suspenders up, leaving the bathroom and wandering deeper into Pond's complex.
He kept his eyes on the fish in the porthole as he walked by. Little fishies, swimming back and forth. Sure, they were pretty. But so what? He shook his head and found a red door marked "Dr. Pond."
He tried the knob. Locked.
He stepped back, considered breaking in. Wouldn't do very well to antagonize the nice man willing to pay whatever price they deemed necessary. He scratched his cheek and continued down the hall.
Shepherd Book pushed open the door and stepped into the dark room. He closed the door behind him, taking a moment to let his eyes become acclimated to the dark. He had taken great pains to avoid being seen by Pond when the collector had invited them to see his complex. To be recognized would have been... unfortunate.
He slowly moved across the room, slowly picking out silhouettes of shapes surrounding him. He didn't dare turn on the lights for fear of being seen; this section had been counted off-limits by MacKenzie, which made Book all the more determined to see what it held. He found a second door and went through, taking the chance to turn on this light.
What he saw froze him. "Dear lord," he gasped, half a prayer and half a plea.
The room was filled with enough weapons to start a system-wide war.
Pond stroked his chin, staring at the wall as he considered MacKenzie's proposal. "The Lassiter would be a great prize," Pond said. "I've felt a bit... unclean purchasing such a piece. It seems to be, a weapon of that power should be taken. Not bartered."
"Precisely, Dr. Pond," MacKenzie nodded.
"Tell me about this girl. The weapon."
MacKenzie hesitated. "Mr. Krantz believes she's a formidable power herself. Capable of untold carnage."
"I have seen this girl," Pond reminded him. "Mal's sergeant-at-arms, yes, I could understand. But... this girl is a teenager. A child, Mr. MacKenzie."
"With all due respect, Dr. Pond... three years ago, Mr. Krantz suggested you purchase an allegedly depleted warhead. That warhead has since been used by Constance to take over a small moon."
Pond hissed at the reminder of opportunity missed.
"This girl is within your grasp, Mr. Pond. In your own home. This opportunity must be grasped."
Pond leaned back, folding his hands together and resting them against his chin.
River trotted ahead, her bare feet slapping against the floor as she hurried to the next porthole like the child she sometimes could be. The porthole was near the ceiling, forcing River to stand on a small ledge and rise onto her toes to look through the glass. She watched in wonder, grabbing Kaylee's wrist when she got close enough and pointing. "Look, Kaylee!" she pushed her finger against the glass, gasping when a fish got too close to the glass.
"We're gonna have to talk to the Captain about getting you a fishbowl."
"Really?" River said. She stepped back and said, "I want a fish like that one."
"I think that's an angelfish," Kaylee said. As she moved in for a closer look, something clanged in the wall behind them. She turned around, looking for the origin, and frowned. "Did you hear that, River?"
River looked at the ceiling and said, "Yeah. They're locking it up."
Two metal doors suddenly slid into place on either side of the corridor, sealing them in. Kaylee's eyes widened, her jaw dropping as she tried to make sense of what had just happened. "They... they locked us in? Why? What's happening?"
River pressed her back against the wall and slid down, covering her face with her hands. "They're coming after me. Just like everyone else."
Jayne was on his feet the instant the door started to slide into place. He took a moment deciding how big the threat was, then dropped to the ground and rolled underneath the steel door. His bulk barely made it through before the complex was sealed entirely.
Simon was shaving when he heard the "thunk" on the other side of the bathroom door. "Occupied!" he called. He looked over his shoulder, expecting to hear movement in the other room. "Hello?" He carried the razor to the door, holding his waist-wrapped towel with one hand. He pressed an ear to the door and said, "I'll be out in a minute if you're going to wait..."
He opened the door and was confronted by a solid gray wall trapping him in the bathroom.
Zoe lifted her head and frowned at the door of the observatory. "Honey... when I told you to lock the door, you didn't... override anything, did you?"
Wash removed his lips from her neck long enough to follow her eyes. "Huh? I... no, I didn't do that..."
Zoe slid off the fainting couch, adjusting her clothes as she walked to the door. Wash grumbled and followed her. She leaned forward, looking at the display next to the door and trying various commands. Nothing worked. She went back to the couch, kneeling on the ground as she dug through her coat for the walkie-talkie.
As she got hold of the radio, Mal's voice squawked over the speaker. "Zoe? Jayne? You guys..."
"Here, Captain," Zoe said.
"I seem to be..."
"Locked in. Us, too. According to the read-out, it's the whole facility."
"You gonna let me..."
"Finish a sentence? No, sir."
"I hate it when we get swindled. Makes me feel like I got something to prove." He sighed and said, "Looks like all we can do is sit tight and wait 'til they tell us what they got planned. Keep in touch."
"Will do, sir," Zoe said. She tucked the walkie-talkie back into her coat and stood. "Well. If we're gonna just sit and wait..."
Wash's eyes lit up and they continued with what they'd been doing.
Jayne stood at the intersection of halls, looking at the steel plates covering every corridor in all directions. He walked up to the closest and found a small panel inset on the wall. He frowned at it, pressed a few buttons and watched the screen change. "Error," the screen read. "Please re-enter your password." He slapped the machine. "We're sorry, that is not the correct password."
He stepped back and pulled his pistol from its holster. He fired into the control panel, sending a wave of sparks rose from the machine.
"We're sorry. We do not understand your request," the screen read.
Jayne spit on it.
Kaylee had already gone through the control panel and had pulled out the guts of the monitor. She examined the connections, trying to figure out which went to the door and how to make them open again. "Not to fret," she murmured over her shoulder at River. "We'll have you out of here in no time."
She turned, saw River in the corner with her hands over her head. Kaylee abandoned the wires and moved over to her side. "Hey," she said, touching River's arm. "It's okay. If we don't get these doors open, the Cap'n will find a way. You know how stubborn he is." River looked up and Kaylee brushed a lock of hair away from her face.
"I'm scared," River whispered.
"It'll all be over soon," Kaylee assured her.
"No," River gasped, closing her eyes and tilting her head against her hand. "No. I'm always scared."
"Oh," Kaylee said, feeling tears in her eyes. "Mei-mei." She sat next to River, wrapping both arms around the girl and holding her tight.
Mal was hitting the butt of his gun against the control panel when one of the doors slid up into the ceiling. "Hey, what do you know? It wo--" He turned and saw MacKenzie standing in the corridor with his goons. "Damn. Thought brute force might've actually worked for once."
"Unlikely," MacKenzie said. "These doors are tamper-proof. If you had attempted to override them, it would have been... unpleasant, to say the least. We have sealed you and your people in as a... bargaining ploy, shall we say? We'll be taking the Lassiter, but you'll be giving it to us. In addition... Dr. Pond requests the young River Tam remain behind."
Mal scoffed. "Out of the question."
"It's not a question. Nor is it an offer, Captain Reynolds. You will give us the gun and the girl. In return, we shall allow the rest of your group to leave this moon safely." He smiled and stepped back. "You have one hour to think about our generous offer. You're a... reasonably bright fellow; you should have come up with a response by then." One of the goons punched a code into the wall panel and the door slid back into place.
Mal cursed in Mandarin and then walked over to the wall panel. He waited an appropriate amount of time, a count of six-hundred, and then copied the sequence he'd watched the goon enter. Nothing happened. He repeated the sequence in reverse, since what he'd seen closed the door.
The door slid into the wall.
"I may not be bright," Mal muttered as he stepped out of his prison. "But I am an observant son-of-a-bitch."
Simon had gotten back into his pants, leaving his shirt draped over the sink. He put the edge of his left foot against the tub, took a deep breath, and charged the door.
His shoulder and the door kissed hello and he was thrown onto his back.
Cradling his shoulder, Simon stared at the ceiling and breathed a weary, "Ow."
Jayne tested with his foot, working it back and forth in the hole. Almost. He opened fire again, letting Vera lick the floor with bullets. When she was silent again, he dropped down and looked into the hole. An access level. Almost every building had 'em. And, from what he could see, the steel doors didn't extend through it. That would be a safety hazard, after all.
Jayne smirked and cleared away the tile debris and lowered himself into the narrow access corridor. Now all he had to do was find Mal and the others.
Kaylee held River, rubbing her shoulder until the girl calmed. "I'm going to see if I can get the doors open, 'kay?"
River nodded and let herself free of Kaylee's grip. Kaylee stood and went back to the control panel, pulling out another bunch of wires. She threaded them through her fingers and picked the red one. Using her pocket knife, she severed the wire and exposed its insides.
The screen went red and an alarm chirped twice. "Sabotage in Progress. Section 10-A. Countermeasures enacted."
A grinding noise, similar to the doors sliding into place, filled the small room. River screamed and jumped up from where she'd been huddled. Kaylee looked at her, wondering why her dress was wet... and then looked at the porthole they'd been sitting under.
The glass was sliding out of position and a waterfall was already pouring through the opening. Kaylee whispered, "Lao-tyen yeh..."
She pulled River close and watched as the water level rise.
Mal punched in the code without looking at the pad. He'd already opened so many of the doors with the same code, it was basically just a muscle memory. He sighed as another door slid open and walked through. As he crossed the threshold of the next section, something banged against the floor.
He put his hands to his hips, half-expecting to see one of his guns missing. Nothing seemed to have fallen from his belt... but a moment later, a bullet tore through the tile just in front of where Mal was standing. He cursed and jumped back, covering his face until the gunfire stopped.
Jayne's head rose from the smoking hole and he looked at Mal. "I was hopin' it was you."
"Are you kwong-juh duh?!" Mal screamed. "You could've shot me!"
"But I didn't," Jayne said, looking at his gun.
"Not for a lack of trying," Mal said. "How'd you...?"
"Access corridor. Tight fit, but you could probably make it. Hell, if I fit..."
Mal nodded. "Any word from Kaylee or River?"
"Nah. I was outside when this all went down."
"Looks like Pond wants the Lassiter, plus the girl."
"The girl? What, he some kind of freak?"
Mal shrugged and dropped into the access corridor. "Can you think of any other reason a weapon collector would want a young girl like River?"
MacKenzie stepped into Pond's waiting room, punching in the access code for the security door to rise. He hated stopping every five steps just to enter a damn code, but if it got them the girl... The door slid open and he walked into his boss's office... and felt a gun pressed against his neck. "Mr. MacKenzie."
MacKenzie's eyes widened. "Book?!" He turned his head just enough to see the man standing next to him. "You son of a bitch. A shepherd?"
"Where is your boss?"
"How did you get through the security doors?"
"You forget, Mr. MacKenzie. I helped design them."
MacKenzie smirked. "I thought after your breakdown, you'd killed yourself. Probably would have been easier."
"I'm not so sure about that. Where is Dr. Pond?"
"I assumed he was here."
Book looked around and said, "You're holding us here. Why?"
"For the girl traveling with you. She is the weapon. Why do you think the Alliance wants her so badly?" He turned again. "Do your new friends know about your past?"
"No," Book said. "And they won't hear about it from you."
He fired into the base of MacKenzie's skull.
Kaylee felt the water inside her jumpsuit, making the legs bloat up like balloons. River had her head buried against Kaylee's shoulder, making weak, whimpering noises as the water lapped around her waist. "Kaylee, Kaylee, Kaylee, Kaylee," she whispered, her lips moving against Kaylee's neck.
Kaylee held tight, wishing she was stronger, wishing she could be more comfort to River. She was terrified; how was she supposed to calm someone else? Fortunately, the porthole was only large enough to allow the smaller fish into the room with them. Kaylee shuddered as, once or twice, a shark swam past the window.
If only Inara were here... calm, serene Inara. She'd make everything all right. She closed her eyes and tried to channel the companion. She pressed her lips to River's forehead and whispered, "It's okay, nyen ching-duh. Shh. It's all right. You're safe. We'll be fine..."
"Until the water hits those wires," River said, her voice calm and flat.
Kaylee looked with horror at the exposed wires in the wall behind them. She swam them both over, hands shaking as she got the panel back in place. She turned, resting against the wall and holding River against her body as she watched the water continue to course into the room.
She stroked River's hair and began to sing, her voice shaky and tuneless. "Yao yah yao, Yao yah yao... Bao bao huai jung shuay. Yao ni jang da, Yo liao sheewang. Bao bao kuai jang da, bao bao kuai jang da..." River closed her eyes and worked her hands into Kaylee's open jumpsuit, sliding her arms around the other girl's waist and digging her fingers into the dimples just above her ass. Kaylee closed her eyes and felt a tear drop into River's hair.
Book booted up Pond's computer and looked at the layout for the complex. Several doors were standing open, apparently against the systems design. But one section, 10-A, was flashing red. He tapped the screen over the section for a more detailed account. "Attempted sabotage detected. Countermeasure 7-3-3-4-D enacted."
He leaned back in his chair. "Dear God."
Mal and Jayne exited the access tunnel in a central room of the complex. Pond was seated at a long table, staring into a glass wall that revealed a panorama of the aquarium. Thousands of fish swam back and forth beyond the glass, circling and dipping and diving. "Howdy," Mal said.
Pond jerked away from the sound of his voice, directly into Jayne's arms. "No! Please!" Pond whimpered, covering his face with both hands.
"Oh, God," Jayne grunted. "He's a whiner. I hate whiners." He dropped Pond and wiped his hands on his pants. "Why don't anyone just fight?"
"Ahh, I didn't expect him to fight," Mal admitted. He picked up the portable computer Pond had been using and played with it. "People like him never do. See, he's been hiding on this moon, gathering up weapons, hiding. Just in case anyone bigger'n him ever decides to fight him."
"Hey, we're bigger than him," Jayne pointed out.
"That we are, Jayne." He pulled the Lassiter from his belt and dropped it onto Pond's chest. "Take your toy." He waved the portable computer. "I just transferred a bunch of funds from your account into ours. I think you said whatever price we wanted?"
Pond nodded, whimpering. "Please. Just take it and go."
"God, this is disappointing," Jayne muttered. "He goes to all the trouble to lock us in here, acts all tough, then goes and crawls around like a bitty worm the second - the second - we show up? Hell, hardly even worth bloodying his lip."
"I'm sorry about your people. I am. But you didn't have to kill MacKenzie! Please! I'm begging you to call it even!"
Mal dropped into a crouch and said, "You better answer me quick on this one. What about my people?"
Once the porthole was covered by water, the room stopped filling. Kaylee tread water as best she could weighed down with a jumpsuit and River both hanging off of her. She closed her eyes, starting to feel the strain of it all. She turned her head and saw River was staring at her. "It's all right, Kaylee," she said. She leaned in and kissed Kaylee's lips, the barest touch, and pushed Kaylee away.
"River!" Kaylee gasped.
As River sank into the water, Kaylee tried to go under as well. The ballooning of her clothes, however, kept her afloat. She tugged the zipper the rest of the way down and frantically squirmed out of the material. It no longer mattered that all she had underneath were a tank top and a pair of white boxer shorts; all that mattered was River, slowly being swallowed by the water.
She took a deep breath and dove under, swimming to where River had fallen. Her arms and legs floated above her, the simple blue dress waving around her body like an amoeba. Kaylee pulled her close and plugged her nose, covering River's mouth with her own. She exhaled and felt River's chest expand against her own.
Blood pounding in her ears, Kaylee kicked them both back up to the surface and gulped a lungful of air. "Don't," Kaylee said, pinning River to the wall with her body. She brushed the strands of hair out of River's face, brushing her lip where several stubborn strands hung. "Don't."
"I'm weighing you down."
"I can manage."
"Not here. There. You, Mal, Jayne... holding everyone back. Putting everyone at risk. I'm a danger. Just let me float. Let me go into outer space."
"No, mei-mei," Kaylee whispered. She kissed River's bottom lip and tilted her head, taking her mouth fully. River trembled and put her hands on the sides of Kaylee's head, keeping her eyes open as Kaylee flickered her tongue into River's mouth.
Suddenly, there was a heavy suction from below. Kaylee broke away from River and they both looked at the center of the room. A whirlpool was forming, the water being driven into a heretofore covered drain in the center of the floor. When their feet touched ground, Kaylee self-consciously stepped away from River and looked around for the reason for their rescue.
River made a bowl with the front of her dress, bending to scoop the fish into a makeshift bowl. When the room was empty, the glass returned to the window, both doors slid back into the ceiling. Mal and Jayne stepped into the room, both of them averting their gaze when they noticed Kaylee's state of undress. "Whoa, Kaylee... Modesty. Ever heard of it?"
She looked down and saw that her tank top and boxers had both been turned transparent by the water. She grabbed her jumpsuit, holding it in front of herself. "Nice timing, Cap'n."
"The fish can't breathe in outer space," River muttered.
"Mm-hmm," Mal said. "Let's talk about fish in outer space later, all right?" He escorted them out of the would-be dunk tank and said, "Anyone know where Simon and Book got to?"
They followed their recorded trajectory course out of the world, soon back in the familiar grip of space. They had downloaded the funds from one account into another and quickly had quite a nice nest egg waiting for them when they got to a commerce planet. Mal and Jayne were in the common room, discussing the best kind of mule to buy. Wash had told them about a new hover car variety that had them excited.
"Hell, this kind of money we can even overhaul the cargo bay. Make the ship a little more respectable like."
"We'll need it," Jayne said. "Now that 'Nara's gone."
Kaylee was in the engine room, renewing some of the grease her adventure had washed off. She looked up as River came into the room, eyes wide and watching her. "River," Kaylee said, brushing a hair out of her face. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing," River said. She knelt down next to the engine, looking up at it from below. "It's big."
"Yeah," Kaylee said, patting the purring machine like a baby. "She sure is."
"You're scared of me."
Kaylee withdrew her hand, feeling her smile fade slightly. "What?"
River put her face against the engine's cowling, closing her eyes and flattening her palms against the metal. "You like machines. Engines. The hum. Pieces that go together, make it one big piece. I'm not like that. I'm broken. Lots of little pieces that sometimes go together and sometimes don't." She opened her eyes and they were wet with tears. "I'm sorry, Kaylee."
"Don't be sorry," Kaylee said, moving forward and brushing River's hair out of her face. "Don't be sorry." She bit her lip and then, throwing all caution out, leaned in and kissed River. River put her hands in Kaylee's hair and held the kiss. When they pulled back, Kaylee said, "You make me uneasy. Cause I can't understand you."
"You and the majority," River said, ducking her head shyly.
Kaylee found a stray hair, rubbing it between her fingers. "I could try a little harder to understand, I guess."
"Really?" River said, eyes brightening.
Kaylee gently guided River to the floor of the engine room, stretching out on top of her.
By the time the night was over, Kaylee wasn't any closer to understanding why River was the way she was. But she was a lot more comfortable with her.
Author's Notes: Kaylee's song is a traditional Mandarin lullaby. The translation on the site where I found it is as follows: "Rock-a-bye. Rock-a-bye. Sleep, you¹re safe with me. Rock you til you¹re big, Rock you til you¹re strong, Baby grow up soon. Baby grow up soon."
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