BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - ADVENTURE

CHRISK

Passing through the storm - Part Four (Repost)
Monday, December 10, 2007

Jayne and Zoe start to chase an outlaw, and Mal finds out that Inara might pay the price for his choices.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 833    RATING: 0    SERIES: FIREFLY

Simon started at the clanging sound, before he realized that it was just a shuttle leaving - shuttle one, with Inara and Mal aboard. A few moments later, arms wrapped around him from behind, and he could feel Kaylee's breath against his back. "Nervous much?" she asked quietly.

"Yeah, I guess so," he admitted. "Never expected to run into Garcia like this - and when Jayne and Zoe leave, it'll be just the three of us with him." There was an awkward silence. "Did - I never told you how I met up with Garcia, did I?"

"No, I hadn't even heard that he existed before last night," Kaylee reminded him. "Not him specifically, just 'people' who helped you save River. And no, you hadn't said how you met any of the people."

Simon turned around, draping his hand over Kaylee's shoulders, and they leaned together against the side of the cargo bay. "He met me, I guess I should say - faked some ID and made an appointment at the hospital on a bogus complaint. I still don't know his real name, just the aliac he used that time - Guillermo 'Bill' Garcia. He dropped a few..."

Just then, the story was cut off by a soft chime that was triggered by the signal button outside the airlock door. Side by side the two of them headed over, and so did River, skipping out from the direction of the infirmary and the passenger dorms. "Don't look so twitchy, Simon," she said when she spotted her brother. "I'll protect you, and I'm better at it than the evil threesome all put together." Simon just shook his head, wondering what Zoe had done to get labelled as 'evil' particularly.

His heart sank further when he realized that Garcia wasn't alone outside the door, having a younger man around River's age with him. Then again, Simon wasn't the only one who was entitled to be nervous he supposed - Garcia didn't really know that much about any of them, and might be worried for his own safety going into a strange ship. And River could deal with Garcia *and* his friend equally well - unless by some extreme chance the boy was nearly as special as River herself was - and that was just...

Kaylee had opened the door while he'd been thinking. "Hello Garcia - who's your friend?"

"Jeret," Garcia said in a terse introduction. "Nice little ship you've got here." Whether he'd meant it to or not, that compliment would definitely get him points with Kaylee.

"Hi there," River said graciously. "Have you had breakfast? We can go up into the lounge to talk."

"Yeah, that sounds nice, though you don't need to feed us," Garcia said. "Wouldn't mind a cup of something a bit stiumlating though. It's been a busy night."

So the two visitors were led up to the dining room, meeting Zoe along the way, who was just about to leave with Jayne, and everybody got settled for conversation. "Now - did you ever think much on what we'd be doing once you got River safely away from the Academy, Doctor Tam?" Garcia asked.

"Umm... not in too much detail I guess - I figured that you'd keep working against the Academy somehow - trying to sneak other people out, or maybe to get it shut down entirely if you could manage that. I was able to give you plenty of information from my trip inside that you said would be useful."

"Indeed it was," Garcia agreed. "We're all muchly obliged, and we did indeed try to get others out. You met some of my friends who had family inside too." Simon nodded. "We knew that we couldn't keep slipping people out one at a time, because security precautions would be increased after every breach, so the plan was made to get a number at once."

"Makes some sense," Kaylee said, sipping at her sweet broth.

"Yeah," Simon agreed, though he was starting to wonder what this had to do why Garcia was on Boros. There wasn't another academy here, was there?

"We managed to fake a communique, directing the Academy staff to send eight of their 'students' off to a sister facility on Londinium. The plan was that instead of meeting real Alliance couriers at the spaceport, the eight would be handed over to us, under false credentials. But - well, something happened that we hadn't counted on. The Academy representatives didn't meet us - because the children had taken what looked like a golden opportunity, hijacked the transport vehicle, and escaped."

"Oh, no," Kaylee breathed, seeing it. "They didn't know that you were..."

"And you've been looking for them ever since," River muttered.

"Um, yes, sort of," Garcia agreed uncomfortably. "There was a small freighter that got hijacked that day at the spaceport - and for a long time I was sure it was our kids who had done it. From what little you told us, Simon, it seemed possible that eight Academy subjects could pull it off. But I finally tracked down the Thoth's eye dissidents who ACTUALLY took that freighter, and it's pretty sure that the eight weren't even stowaways on board."

Simon was starting to grow interested in this now, and he could tell that River found the idea even more compelling. "So, there are eight people who had been guests of the same Academy where River was, on the loose, and nobody knows where they are??"

"The Alliance might," River admitted. "They have more resources to bring to the search than you do, Garcia."

"Yes, but I think I'm not fooling myself when I say that there are a few hints that at least one or two of them are still free," Garcia admitted. "Won't go into all the details, except - well, not long after the Miranda wave had come through, just as the confusion was getting to a peak, Stanislau got a personal message over the Cortex." He produced a glossy color printout. "The originating code is his wife's ID, and the salutation is the name of Martina's son's imaginary friend from when he was three."

"The Academy people might would have known the ID code, and might have been able to find out about Bartimaeus," Kaylee said, reading from the glossy in Simon's hands.

"But why would they?" Garcia's young friend suddenly burst out. "If they know about any of Garcia's group, why not just arrest them or ignore them? Why send them something like that??"

"I... I don't know why anybody would send something like this," Simon admitted, scanning the message. It was an oddly haunting kind of nonsense, with words making nearly-correct grammatical patterns, but forming no sense at all that he could fathom.

"It has to be a secret message of some sort," Garcia insisted. "None of us can fathom it, but if our eight stuck together, not knowing who else to trust, they might be so used to each other that they wouldn't remember that we aren't on their level. And they'd want to make sure that the message, whatever it is, wouldn't fall into the wrong hands if the message went astray."

"But 'Boros' appears here, just the once," Simon noticed. "So that was enough to get you to come?"

"Pretty much," he admitted. "It's the only thing there that seemed to refer to a possible rendezvous location."

"Can - can I see it?" River asked, stretching out a hand. A sudden thrill of excitement seemed to run through everybody else around the table, but nobody replied or moved to break the tableau for a long moment.

Simon, who was still holding the sheet of gibberish so that Kaylee could see it, shot a look at Garcia. "Umm, sure, go ahead - maybe only somebody else who's been there in the Academy can decode the message." So Simon put the glossy down on the table and easily pushed it over to River, who looked at if for a long time, while the others waited with bated breath. After a little while Simon snuck a look at the chrono out of sheer curiosity.

It was four minutes and eleven seconds after that when River handed the sheet carefully back to Garcia. "I... I feel like I can almost get it, but the crucial clue is escaping me. Some sort of very elegant and obscure secret message, I'm sure of that - breaking down each word and building them up into something that they're not. I'm afraid that 'Boros' is just a coincidence - it would be way to obvious to put it straight out there in the text."

"Yeah, I was afraid of that," Garcia admitted in a slow drawl. "But - well, at least it's brought me to you, and you're the closest thing that I have to a lead. Is - is there anything we could do that might get you closer to..."

"Maybe if I can meet the friends and relations of the eight," River said in a small voice. "Stanislaw and Martina..."

"Ooof, that'll take an awful lot of doing, but maybe." Garcia sighed. "Well, I'll let you know. You can reach me at this number, and I know where to find you. Leave it at that for now, I guess." He handed over the little slip with his contact on it to Simon.

"Aww, you're going to be leaving already?" Kaylee said. "I don't even know what your connection is to all this, Jeret."

"Safer that way," Garcia muttered as he got up.

"Sheesh, you really are getting paranoid, Garceeeah," Jeret shot back, exaggerating the older man's alias, (which maybe was a new one to him.) "I was gofer for a similar sort of anti-Alliance underground here on Boros, so volunteered for helping to show Garcia about while he was here, poking around looking for his runaways." And he grinned charmingly. "Too bad I didn't have an opportunity to get to know you better, Miss Frye." Kaylee reached out her hand for him to shake, and the young rebel brought her fingers to his mouth and kissed them dramatically.

Simon wasn't sure how to react to this. Whatever signals Garcia had picked up on so easily last night, either they weren't sending them out, or Jeret didn't notice them - or he was choosing not to let them stop him. As far as that went, Simon wasn't used to other attractive and eligible men paying attention to Kaylee even before they had finally gotten together. Maybe that was part of what had taken him so long to make his move - no little prods of jealousy to push him into taking the plunge. Of course, there had been - oh, what was his name - the old army buddy of Mal and Zoe's who'd gotten in trouble with the smugglers and... why couldn't Simon recall his...

"Hey?" Kaylee nudged him, once again rousing Simon from introspective thoughts. Looking into her eyes, Simon realized that he didn't have anything to worry about, and that he'd probably have to get used to dealing with this kind of situation, since he wanted to be with her for a long time. She was beautiful, other guys would express an interest from time to time, and he needed to make sure he wouldn't react wrong and drive her away.

Garcia and Jeret left Serenity. River turned to look at them, and Simon could see the mystery of that message still swirling in her eyes. "I... I'm going to go back to my room, but can I have some credits, in case I want to go out book shopping or something??"

"Err... okay, but do be careful when you're out in the big city by yourself," Kaylee warned, as she counted out some bills from the day before - most of them. "And don't hurt anybody unless you really do have to."

"Yeah," Simon said. "And maybe take a few hits yourself - if you plead self defense to some magistrate and don't have a scratch on you..."

"It'll be fine, you don't need to worry so much," River insisted. "Have fun collecting and selling off your stuff."

Simon rolled his eyes a little, and headed down the ramp next to Kaylee. "Okay, so after we've finished with that, what next?" he asked. "Do we do the spare part shopping today?"

"Umm... not right away," Kaylee decided after a moment. "After all that, maybe we should pick something that'd be fun for both of us." Simon opened his mouth to reply. "Yeah, I know that you'd enjoy watching me picking out power routing cable on some level, but that's not *your* fun, do you see what I mean?"

"Yeah, I guess," he admitted. "Any ideas?"

"Not yet, but we can keep both of our eyes open." They were already starting to leave the administrative center of the city, which wasn't that big, and the tiny spaceport was near the edge of it. At this time of Boros' day, the streets weren't too crowded, but other pedestrians were scattered all about, and Simon idly wondered what any of them would think of the two of them. Simon himself was dressed fairly casually, because it was an outfit Kaylee had told him that she liked - soft blue pants and a silver-gray shirt with three buttons at the tim and a simple t-shirt neck.

Kaylee, for her own part, was back into the 'engine room chic' that he was so used to seeing her in - a pair of rough gold-brown denim overalls, with a rainbow-colored shirt underneath and her hair in a simple ponytail.

"Oooh - passion pools," Kaylee said, pointing at a sign. "Not quite sure what that means, but it sounds like an interesting combination to try out."

"Hmm, yeah," Simon admitted. "Private jacuzzi rentals for couples, maybe?"

"Jacuzzi?" Kaylee repeated, sounding more than a little unfamiliar with the term.

"Umm, like a very small swimming pool, just big enough for a few people, and maybe two and a half feet deep. With heating units for the water, and pipes to blow in air bubbles..."

"Oh, hot tubs," Kaylee said with recognization, and Simon made a face, realizing that he'd possibly sounded more than a bit condescending, assuming that Kaylee had never run into the actual item just because she hadn't known the fancier term. "Don't be like that. I love it when you tell me what I already know, Simon."

"You're incredible," he whispered, suspecting that she might already know that too, with how often he was expressing the sentiment lately.

"So, back for the hot tubs once we've got your swag?"

"Nah, that sounds like more of an evening thing. We should do the part shopping while the stores will be open, really."

"Okay," Kaylee said, giving in to that logic.

"And this way I get to anticipate what you'll look like in a little swimsuit, all day."

"Ohh, I don't have a suit or nothing." Kaylee pouted. "And if it's just the two of us, wouldn't we just slip in nekkid?"

"Oh, but part of the fun is taking the suits off - slowly, once you're already in the tub," he teased her.

"Hmm... maybe they'll have suits that we can get there," Kaylee muttered, her eyes starting to dance at the possibilities. "Or if not there, one of the other stores I guess." She sighed and put that away. "So, just what is it that we're picking up, anyway? I've been trying to figure it out - what's valuable, non-perishable, not too heavy to ship, and easy to sell off quick."

"Hmm." Simon smiled. "Have you come up with anything?"

"A few notions. Pure osmium, beetle stones, or maybe something medical-related, like Laurentium serum or whatever it's called."

"All fairly good notions," Simon said. "In the end, I went for spools of good quality carbon nanofiber, which I hope won't be too hard to sell off."

"Oooh," Kaylee said, impressed by the possibilities. "Yeah, that'll be good."

------------

"Alright, Jayne," Zoe said once they'd been in the air for a little while. "Any notion how we're going to figure out where this guy flew to in the mountains? If we're the first bounty hunters to actually get headed out, we won't be the only ones looking for long."

"I've got our first stop worked out," Jayne said gruffly. "He had a summer home up here, that'd have been his first stop too."

"I guess," Zoe said. "Do you really expect that he'd leave clues there or something?"

"He'd leave his sense there."

"What??" Zoe shook herself slightly in confusion. "Did you say 'leave his scent', like you were gonna bloodhound his ass through the air..."

"No, I didn't say 'scent', I said 'sense'," Jayne shot back. "And that's what I'm going to track him with - sense, my own sense, and trying to follow his sense to him."

"Okay, that doesn't make much... I don't understand what you mean by it," Zoe said.

"You don't need to understand. Just watch, follow along, and help me in case actually *catching* him once I found him is the hard part," Jayne muttered.

"It certainly sounds like the simpler part," Zoe said in a low tone. But then, there was no denying that Jayne was, in his way, an eeriely good tracker - he'd never said much about his methods or lack of them, but maybe she should have expected that the methodology would be a bit unusual too. When he'd tracked Serenity for the first time, there hadn't been a ground trail, or visible contrail in the air, to follow after all.

"Okay, so where's the summer house?"

"Marked right here," Jayne said, producing a small map of the mountain area. Zoe took a quick look at it and adjusted course to head in the appropriate direction.

"What about your blood kin, Jayne?" Zoe asked after a moment. "I don't have much family left, a few cousins on Hera, and they seem like they'll be okay unless the Alliance sends warships out from the Core again."

"You mean, what with how we turned the 'verse upside down?" Zoe nodded, and Jayne shrugged. "Mama and the family live way out on the edge of nowhere, on Whittier, so I don't figure that even this'll reach 'em too quick. Not many around home even have vidscreens and audio receivers and what-not."

"Just the post?" Zoe asked. "I... I still remember your hat. You don't seem to wear it much anymore."

"The charm wore out of it quickly," Jayne admitted. "And the postal station is ten miles down the road in the village." Zoe nodded, impressed by the rusticness of it.

"Okay, well, you know that I'm not one to pry, but how does a kid growing up in the back of beyond like that grow up to be a daring and notorious interplanetary criminal mastermind?"

"Um, guess I couldn't tell... oh, you mean me?" Jayne blinked in surprise. "Well, maybe I'll let you stew on that and whether I'm going to let slip any details." He looked at the radar screen and frowned. "Whatever that is, do you think that maybe it's following us?"

"Hmm, I dunno - maybe heading out to the mountains too, at least," Zoe admitted. "Competition?"

"Wouldn't surprise."

-----------

"Okay, my turn I guess," Inara muttered, after she'd finished setting the course, and gotten them out of the most crowded part of Boros orbit.

"Yeah," Mal agreed, smiling. "Inara Serra's childhood on Sihnon, and how she joined the guild."

"Hmm, lemme think on how to start." That took about half of a minute, apparently. "I.. I don't even remember when I was raised by my parents. Have the file on them - lower-middle class married couple from the University district, both working on the service level, no other children permitted by the pop Board. A guild scout spotted me playing in the park with my mother when I was just a bit over four years old, and negotiated for the rights to enter me in intensive Guild training."

"They took you that young?" Mal breathed.

"You make it sound like the Guild were... were marauding Reavers or something, Mal," she said with an impatient sigh. "I was very well cared for in the Temple school, and if I had wanted to I could have left and gone back home..."

"To parents who were willing to sell you off," Mal added. "Yeah, I can see how that might not be too appealing..." Inara ignored that remark.

"My first few years with the guild, I was so happy, even if it was mostly just school and learning nearly all the time," she admitted. "All sorts of stuff, especially poetry and literature, manners and music..."

"Did Nandi ever tell you the story about the dulcimer?" Mal asked

"Don't keep interrupting me with distractions!" Inara snapped, shaking her head. "But, well, I'll answer that question though. She did - and I was actually there for the very end of it - not when she smashed, but - but I was in the next room working on a flute medley and heard the crash, rushed in. The instructor was just staring at her, and she got up and walked over to me and whispered, 'Dear sister, I think that it's time that I left this world.'" Inara sighed. "But that's long after. Let's see. I was in the temple's pre-novice school until I was twelve, which was when the full implications of the Guild are explained, and given my choice to join into preliminary orders. After that, I moved up into the true Guild school and began to learn other subjects."

"Like the sex part?" Mal asked.

"No, not for nearly three years after that," Inara said. "Like mental discipline. Guild regulations, and how the laws of various worlds in the Alliance affected our trade. And self-defense." She paused for a moment. "After the... the art of love training had started, I began to see clients - first 'drop-ins' or those who hadn't made a specific appointment, and then the novice's house mother started taking appointments for return visitors, after checking to make sure that it was alright with me."

"Appointments," Mal repeated slowly. "So that's how it starts?"

"They started us off with 'soft' engagements - people who just wanted company or flattery or whatever," she admitted. "Then meetings where some of the simpler forms of physical satisfaction were called for. Umm... when I was sixteen, I gave up my maidenhood to a customer who had specifically paid for the privilege." Mal blinked several times in succession like that. "Not terribly common, despite the high prices that are routinely offered - most girls would rather have their first time be under different circumstances, and the guiding principle of the Guild is that no member is ever forced or pressured into making a commitment that she's uncomfortable with keeping."

"After that night, the Temple was no longer quite the same. I'd been an initiate, under the care and instruction of the others - even though I was still a novice in preliminary orders, somehow completing the act of love with a client had thrust me into the demesnes of the temple politics - the subtle manipulation and favor bargaining that went on behind the scenes, hidden from all clients and outsiders. I didn't think much of that side of the Guild, but I learned to play the game some, in self-defense."

"About several years of that, after I'd confirmed my vows and become a full-fledged member, I was tapped for Isolate duty - working at one of the sea-bottom stations in Sihnon's Cathanian ocean. There's a lot of important work that is done deep down there - mining for valuables on the ocean floor, refining other important substances out of the water, and ichthy-zoological research. However, living with the high-pressure environment is wearying, and frequent shore leave is impractical, considering the several days of depressurization that are required."

"Ahh, I see," Mal said. "So the government and the corporations running things - they put aside a slush fund, to provide their workers with the best of Companionship."

"I suppose that's it," Inara admitted. "A guild detatchment is one of the most powerful inducements to attract trained personnel to inclement assignments like that. It pays well for the Companions on duty, but... well, the change was startling. Instead of working with some of the most powerful and fascinating people in the biggest city in the 'Verse, I was practically compelled to attend to the needs of simple-minded tradespeople and absent-minded scientists." Mal got a frowning expression on his face. "But all of my expectations were shattered once I started to know and understand the people who were working so hard down there. Loneliness was hard on me too, but the discipline I had learned at school was put to good use in bearing up under that."

"The station was where I first met Nandi, actually, and the reason that we got to know each other so well. The standing order was for a detachment of two Guild members, and she was the senior girl there, some years older than I. She taught me a lot, and asked me to tell her of anything new from the City, and we became fast friends."

"I only went up for shore leave once myself while I was at the station. My assignment had been for a period of three years, but about three months and two years in I was recalled to my home temple, because another lucrative offer had come in - one of my regulars from before I'd gone undersea was willing to spend a substantial amount of credit to have me join his household as a regular escort. I settled back into temple life for several weeks while considering the request, and eventually accepted a two-year renewable contract."

"What was the man's name?" Mal asked. Inara hesitated. "I'm not fishing for the drop of a famous moniker that I'd recognize - just wondered. In a way, this was your first regular man, and I'd like to have heard his name. You know about my girl, after all."

"True, that's fair enough," Inara said "His name was Justin Cerra, only a few years older than me, and the heir to the Blue Sun fortune." She sighed wistfully. "I... I grew to care for him a great deal, and living in his house also was a very happy time for me."

"But you didn't stay there for too long," Mal guessed. Inara shot a look at him. "Well, I mean - you're not still there, obviously - though I'm glad of that. Just..."

"No," Inara admitted. "After the first two years, I could tell that domestic life with Justin wasn't what I wanted, and I declined the renewal." She let out a very deep breath. "I know I may not have told as much as you did, but I still feel like this is enough for now."

"Okay," Mal muttered. "My turn again?"

"Umm... no, I don't really want to hear more about the war."

"Well, I didn't actually get up quite that far -- I mean, I did, but only by skipping ahead."

"Still - how about getting something to eat first?" Inara sighed. "Then more stories in the afternoon, and hopefully we'll be landing at Kazia's estate right around suppertime."

Mal shrugged. "Yeah, that works for me." And he got up to the supplies that he'd stowed, since the food dispenser in the shuttle wasn't working too well of late.

----------

In the early afternoon, River decided that she had had enough of sitting in the ship, puzzling over what she'd seen of the coded message, and trying not to let unpleasant memories of the Academy engulf her. She'd idly read through everything that Simon's pocket encyclopedia had to say that touched on the subject of cryptography, and at her reading speed that had taken up a good twenty-five minutes, (she'd turned off the vocalizer routine in frustration because the damn voice went so slowly,) but it hadn't given her any good ideas. Looking for books on the subject here in Boros didn't seem a much more promising lead, but at least it would keep her busy.

Then there was Serenity herself to think about. Simon and Kaylee wouldn't be back until late - River was sure of that, and even though she didn't expect to be gone for too long herself, and they were parked in essentially a guarded government lot, there had been too many unpleasant surprises for River to be comfortable with just locking the doors and leaving her like that. She didn't want somebody unfriendly lurking through Serenity's chambers - or lying in wait for any of them when they returned. However, a little simple ingenuity solved that problem to her satisfaction, and she headed off of the lot looking for book and/or computer stores.

It was about half an hour later, in the middle of a bazaar tent full of scrolls, browsing through one discussing the use of subliminal secrecy missives in the Londinium war of 2443, that River sensed something unexpected. It was... it was a presence, a single mind among the many that thronged through the city, initially attracting her attention for only one reason.

This mind, or its owner, alone among all of them, was hunting for her.

She wasn't sure how she could know so much about somebody who was still, apparently, very distant - far enough away that she wasn't entirely sure in what direction he or she - probably he - was, or anything else about who he was or how he was looking for her. Maybe it was something equivalent to catching a flash of metal in the distance that just happens to reflect the sun directly into your eye for a moment. Except that the 'flash' of this mind's preoccupation with her, with finding River Tam, was not momentary, but constant.

River did NOT want to be found, was not confident enough to let herself be discovered in an attempt to fathom and destroy this new danger, though it did occur to her. For one thing, she wasn't sure how formidable 'he' was, and suspected that by the time she could find that out, it would be nearly too late to run - too late to escape with any certainty, at least. But she didn't panic either, choosing instead to focus on that tiny distant tendril of thought and see how much she could find out about it by observation, without calling attention to herself.

Yes, it was a man, a fairly disciplined and focused man. And he was looking for her, not finding her - which suggested that he didn't have a stronger sense of her mind than she had of his, if he had any awareness of her at all amidst the many minds in the city. He would concentrate only on her, do whatever he felt he had to, to find her and restrain her - take her offplanet.

What could River do? Where could she run? Back to Serenity - no, if the man knew anything at all about her, that would be the first place he would look, and often. He might have already been there, just after she left. And remaining in the city crowds, lost among other minds, didn't seem like a good strategy - he might run into her by chance.

For a moment, River felt very hunted, not sure who to trust - and just in that instant, most of the hidden message seemed to snap into much sharper focus, though not quite clearly enough that she could see and understand any one part of it. Maybe meeting Garcia again and seeing the printout would be enough now. But she didn't have time to think about that.

Leaving the city, if she could, seemed like her best chance. River didn't think that the man would be able to tell in what direction she'd gone, even if she was leaving other people behind, and probably he would leave the city by nightfall, moving on to other possible leads, if she weren't around. Simon and Kaylee were okay - this guy wouldn't hurt or threaten them to get to her, as Early had, and as the Operative might if he'd gotten a chance to.

Of course, she had no vehicle or transport to use to leave with, but that was a shortcoming she found easy enough to remedy. Stepping out of the tent, River had only to glance once around the small square before finding a young man around her own age, looking gentle, affluent, and a little bit bored. In other words, he was exactly what she needed. "Hey," she called out, jogging up to him. "Do you wanna get out of the city for a while??"

"Umm... sure, maybe, I guess," he muttered. "Do I know you?"

"Not a bit - I just got here yesterday." River let out a theatrical sigh, feeling an odd sensation rush through her simply from the experience of interacting with a boy her own age, a stranger. "Not used to the cities anymore, I guess, and I feel like I can't breathe enough."

"Well, if your breathing is affected, then that's a medical emergency, and of course I have to help out, right?" the boy replied, starting to blush and grin inanely at this much attention from a pretty stranger. The 'medical' line threw River off of her flirt a bit, reminding her of her brother, but she managed to ignore that. "Umm - my place is about fifteen minute's walk from here, though - can you make it that long? Then we can use my wheels, and should be out into the countryside in, erm, in five more after that."

River considered. "Sure, I think that'll be okay." She started in the way that he had nodded his head when saying 'my place.' "By the way, umm, what's your name?"

"Derek Rolan - and you?"

River thought quickly. Did she want to give this boy her real name? Well, she liked her name, and didn't really want to deceive him any more than necessary. Maybe just a small alteration. "River Frye. Nice to meet you."

-----------

In the cockpit of Serenity, the mid-range communicator crackled to life - the sound coming from its simple transducers unheard by anyone, since the ship was deserted at this point. "Zoe in shuttle two calling Serenity. Come in Serenity." After a short pause, the communicator triggered a signal chime that could be heard all over the ship. Still, of course, there was no reply.

"Okay, well, I guess nobody's around, so I'll go over the basics for the playback system," Zoe said after several minutes. "We're doing okay here - just ready to leave Snowton's mountain place, and got a bit of a notion where to go from here - mostly Jayne's spooky hunch, but we'll see how that plays out, and it backs up another clue and a half. Just wanted to call in, to make sure that you know as much as possible about what's going on in case. There are a few other vehicles in the area, probably other would-be marshals, but they don't seem like much to worry about, and none of them have come near the house. Guess that we've got a rep and nobody wants to risk disturbing the brave and fierce scofflaws of Serenity, it seems."

"Zoe, come on," another voice broke in - Mal's voice. "One of those 'marshals' that you're not worrying about might be tapping into the line. I know that we're scrambled, but these are old units and still..."

"Oh, I realize that that's possible sir," Zoe agreed quickly. "Didn't realize that they still had enough juice to reach you, though - aren't you nearly to Ares by now?"

"Should be landing within the quarter-hour," Mal agreed, "and we're reading you loud and clear."

"Okay. Don't worry - I haven't been saying anything that I'd mind the competition hearing." There was a faint chuckle that might have been anybody's. "Have a good time at the mansion."

"And good hunting. Don't worry about the kids, they're probably having a lot of fun in the big city."

"Loud and clear. Over and out."

And then, for several hours, silence.

------------

"Okay," Inara said once Mal turned the communicator's sound receiver off. "I think that it's your turn again - life after the war ended."

"Hmm... okay I suppose, though I'm not sure how much I have to say about it," Mal admitted. "Everything that I'd believed in had come crashing down around me in Serenity valley - even though I was glad to be out of that place, relieved in some sense that I didn't have any reason to fight anymore, it took a while before there was anything that seemed worth living for."

"Stayed close to Zoe particularly, out of everybody I knew in the Browncoats - she'd been my right hand for about four years of the war, and I don't think I could have survived the peace without her, my own self. She had some family right there on Hera, and they invited me to stay with them for a while, which was quite a kindness. Everybody in the Independents seemed to be looking to reconnect with kin in the wake of defeat - them as could, anyway, and after the bombing of Shadow, I didn't have any relatives left alive in the 'Verse."

"Except for your cousin Lees," Inara pointed out slowly. "Who you hadn't seen in thirty years or so, and didn't know how to find."

"Yeah. Don't suppose I even thought of her at the time," Mal admitted. "I... I don't remember much of the year after the Verbena accords. Tried to help out some on Hera, repay Zoe's people for their hospitality in a trying time, made some effort to find decent work, but none of it seemed to matter..."

"Until the day you found a rusted-out old Firefly class in a used spaceships lot," Inara guessed.

"Actually, yeah, that would be it," Mal admitted. "I'd been mulling over the idea of trying to get a job on a freighter, and Zoe said that I had enough command experience from the war to captain one - it was an offhand remark, I later learned, not far from being a joke, but I headed up to Santo, to the cheapest rust heap in the whole 'verse, and this guy was trying to sell me a..." A flicker of movement somewhere below distracted him. "What's that?"

"Umm, just another shuttle taking off from Ares." Inara muttered, and Mal realized that they were very close now, the grayish-blue-green of the moon's surface spreading out ahead and 'beneath' them. "Hmm, it's coming a little bit close, actually." She reached out for the communicator mouthpiece. "Hey, I didn't catch your designation, but you're..."

And then she gasped, dropped the mouthpiece, and tried to adjust course. Mal tried to figure out what had shocked her so, and when the huge, ear-splitting KLANG rang out through their shuttle, at first he thought that there had been a mid-space collision. But no, their hull seemed to be intact, and a lot of the systems were functioning well. The things that Inara was doing to the flight controls didn't seem to match up with what was happening to the view outside the window, though - they were approaching the surface much too fast.

Suddenly, Mal realized what had happened - the other ship had used a magnetic grapple on them - its underside was stuck fast to their 'ceiling.' And it was trying to force them down, to drag them into the surface of Ares. The communicator crackled to life again. "Do you catch my designation NOW, Reynolds??"

"Jesse Sanchez?" Mal breathed, and Inara looked up at him. He reached out for the mouthpiece, blurting out the first thing to occur to him. "But - but how did you get here so fast??"

"That doesn't matter any more, *Mal*," Sanchez told him. "I'm here, and I'm going to make you pay for what you did to my brother, to my business - and to a bunch of my friends, as well."

"I didn't do anything!" Mal insisted. "It's not on me that the Alliance chose to stamp down on anyone they thought we might hide with..."

"Oh, and so you didn't do ANYTHING to provoke them?" Sanchez snarled across the comm. Mal didn't answer. He had made his decision to protect River, he had taunted that operative and disappeared from under his nose. He could have guessed that there would be an Alliance response, and that it wouldn't necessarily strike on target.

"Okay, okay, it's all my fault, fine," Mal suddenly blurted out. "But - but there's someone else here on this shuttle, and it's NOT her fault. If you do this to me, and she dies as well, then you're no better than those Alliance bastards, who killed your brother because they thought it might help catch me, and because they didn't care about him."

There was a silence on the line. "Jesse - Jesse, man, do you hear me?" Mal called frantically. Still no reply. And Mal realized with an unpleasant lump coming into his throat, that he wouldn't be able to talk Jesse Sanchez out of this. If he was going to save Inara's life, or his own - he'd have to figure out some other way to do it.

And the ground was still coming up towards them mighty fast.

TO BE CONTINUED...

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