Sign Up | Log In
BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL
Episode seven of my second season of Firefly: The crew finally finds a buyer for the Lassiter--the original handheld laser pistol--and, like always, complications arise, however, is Mal prepared for what those complications might bring?
CATEGORY: FICTION TIMES READ: 1905 RATING: 9 SERIES: FIREFLY
Firefly: "Early Retirement"
Disclaimer: If I weren't just a poor college student and could finance the series myself, I would, but I can't. So all I can do is just play around in Joss Whedon's 'verse. Also, I don't know a lick of Chinese so I haven't bothered to put the translations because they're probably horribly wrong. If it were Japanese or Latin, well, that'd be another story...
Episode seven of my second season of Firefly: The crew finally finds a buyer for the Lassiter--the original handheld laser pistol--and, like always, complications arise, however, is Mal prepared for what those complications might bring?
Jayne Cobb sat at the far edge of his bunk with his most favored gun cradled in his muscular arms; Vera, the Callahan full-bore auto-lock, that he took off the last of the group of six men who tried to kill him one time. She hadn't seen much use in recent weeks, and Jayne felt a tinge of regret for neglecting her. Ideally, the long table in the mess hall would be the place to do maintenance on any weapon, but even in the dead of night it wasn't private enough for this sort of thing--not with the girl, River, running around to Kyo's bunk; or Zoe occassionally having a late night sitting session with Kyo, Hex, or Inara; or even the newlyweds, Simon and Kaylee, when they got that adventurous idea going. The desk in his cramped, messy bunk was no good on account of it being so small and he being so big. That just left his bed and his lap, which was all right by him.
He'd just finished checking the load mechanism, complete with the spring and chamber catch, and was about to move on to the barrel when Kyo's voice came over the intercom. "Jayne? You up? Got a wave for you. Patchin' it down, now."
At first, Jayne was perturbed. For one thing, Kyo was a Reader just like that girl, so he should've known if Jayne were up or not. Of course, Jayne didn't pause to think that Kyo could actually control his abilities, and would most certainly not wish to go strolling through Jayne's mind for almost any reason. The other thing was the wave itself. He'd been out in the black as a mercenary a long time, and he could count--yes, he could count--on one hand the number of waves he'd received.
Deciding to find out who'd actually care enough to send him a wave--not that his mother didn't care, she just preferred to send things through care packages and letters--Jayne got up with an irritated grunt and turned on the flat screen opposite his bunk. Jayne's irritation melted away into one of complete surprise when he caught sight of the face staring back at him.
"Well, hey there you chou-e yuan-ren, still breathing I see," remarked the smirking woman in front of him. Jayne'd known that challenging look, and boy-cut hair anywhere. The bounty hunter they'd picked up on Persephone when they'd hired Kyo; the girl who'd done nothing but get on his case the whole time until they dropped her off on Whitefall--Whisper.
"Whisper?" Jayne had to ask with some disbelief. "The hell're you callin' me for?"
"Now that ain't no way to speak to a lady, you long hundan!" Whisper snapped back, leaning closer to the screen in the process.
"Whoever called you a lady?" sneered Jayne as he sat back down onto his bed. "Ain't no rou-he hua-ban of a lady!"
"That don't matter none, a lady's a lady!" retorted Whisper angrily.
"Yeah, well I ain't seen no proof that you're a lady," replied Jayne, who'd already bent back over Vera. "What with your haircut and your dressin' like a man, how'm I to know you ain't got man parts under them clothes of yours?"
"Well, you're just gonna have to take my word on it 'cause you ain't seein' me otherwise!" said Whisper, crossing her arms across her chest. "Now, you gonna let me say my piece or am I gonna have to reach through that screen and smack you one?"
"Fine, fine, get on," grumbled Jayne under his breath as he fine tuned the barrel calibration.
"I've been moving around recently," said Whisper in a much more subdued voice. "Lost my secondary pistol--a Dunhan G-7--been calling up everyone I can lately to see if they've found it. Serenity'd be the last place I remember having it, 'cause I know I still had it with me after our little siege on Atherton Wing's place."
"Why call me?" asked Jayne, peering through the detatched barrel of Vera. "Whyn't you called the Cap'n?"
"Because, Jayne, we both know that if the Captain'd seen it he'd have told me about it," returned Whisper shrewdly with an arch of her brow. "Captain Reynolds ain't a gun hoarder like yourself, Jayne. I heard 'bout that collection you're keeping behind that blanket of yours. I'm heading off for a job, a big one, and I could use my secondary. If you find it, send it on over to Station Fifty-Two. I should be passing through there on my way to my job."
"Well, I ain't makin' no promises, but I'll keep an eye out," said Jayne as he clicked Vera back together.
"Thanks, Jayne. Song-bie!" said a smiling Whisper. "It really was nice to see you again," she added as an afterthought before clicking off the wave.
"Yeah," Jayne said softly into the silence that followed. He stood up and slid the reassembled Vera into his weapons locker right next to the Scorpion rifle, and then turned off the screen. Doing his best to wipe the grease off his hands, he made his way back to the bunk. He sat down on the sheets, ready to go to bed, but before he laid his head down, Jayne reached under his pillow. Out from under it, he removed a pistol so small that his index finger could barely fit safely through the trigger guard. He turned it over to read the raised Dunhan label against the dark green casing.
"Yeah," sighed Jayne again as he slipped the gun back under his pillow.
"All's I'm askin' is for a job," said Captain Malcolm Reynolds into the camera on the flight deck of Serenity. Kyo Nagiama, the pilot, sat in the chair that Mal was currently leaning against as he glowered into the dirtied lens. Kyo gave a slight shake of his head and a quiet sigh while he steered Serenity through the black with just one hand. "One bitty job, Brisco. That ain't askin' so much, is it?"
"It is if you're me, Mal," said Brisco with an apologetic chuckle through the monochrome screen right below the camera. Brisco was a trader--legitimate and reliable, but never paid nearly as well as Badger or Fanty and Mingo on even his best days. "I ain't got no stock for you to move. We're nearin' our winter here on Boros, Mal. Gotta lock things down tight against the cold."
"Ain't got nothin' you need moved 'fore then?" Mal asked tightly.
"Not a lick," smirked Brisco, holding his hands up helplessly. "Dunno who you think I am, but I plan these sorts of things out ahead of time, Mal. You don't prepare for winter, you'll find yourself at a loss for profits."
That was something Mal knew well from his days back on Shadow. Of course, there was no day or night in the black; no seasons. Planet hopping each day, week, or month did wonders for messing around the body's internal clocks. Buying supplies every port instead of taking the time to grow things with a watchful eye, his momma would've called him spoiled for that. Thing was, Mal started to believe it himself.
"There's gotta be somethin', Brisco, we need the cash to keep flyin'," said Mal, leaning closer to the camera. "Greenleaf's already in the dead of their own winter, so we ain't had no luck there. I'll take anythin' you can spare, Brisco. We need the money for fuel, and that's all."
"Well," drawled Brisco reluctantly as he turned to stare at something off camera. "I might have somethin' for you. Been stockpilin' me some goods that need deliverin'. Strictly private cargo, you know? Stuff that ain't legit? See, my friend's got himself a newfound fascination for Earth-that-was artifacts. Been pinchin' some here and there from things that float on through, and I've finally got me enough to warrant a drop off. Can't use any respectable folk for this job, and it could've waited 'til after winter, but since you're so insistent..."
"Earth-that-was artifacts, huh?" commented Mal with a thoughtful look. "Well, Brisco, what if you sent word to your buddy that he could be the proud owner of the Lassiter--the first handheld laser pistol. Think he might be interested in that?"
"The Lassiter?" exclaimed Brisco, who immediately sat upright in his chair. "So, you're them boys what stole that from Haymer, huh? Heard tell he was pretty mad about that. Fact, the reason his prized piece was stolen out from under him's the reason so many got into the game. They've been hopin' to find it ever since. I'll have to talk to my man, Mal, but I don't see any reason he'd say no--certainly'll have the coin to pay for it, I assure you. C'mon in to Transit, I should have the details worked out by then."
"We'll see you in a few," promised Mal before he flicked off the transmission. He stared at the screen in contemplation for a moment, and then turned to address Kyo. "Take us down to Boros, but keep clear of Niska's skyplex. That's one sight I don't plan on takin' in."
"Didn't you hear?" asked Kyo as he began to lay in a flight path for Boros. "Niska abandoned the skyplex not long after you all hit it. No one knows where he's gone off to, but he's up and left the Georgia system. Skyplex's currently operatin' as a fuelin' depot and way station and not much else."
"Good to hear," Mal had to admit. Adelai Niska and his little torturing fetish was something Mal did not want to encounter again under any circumstances. "All right, pull us in to Transit as quick as you can. We fence the Lassiter, we can afford to relax for a few months at best."
"Mei-wen-ti," said Kyo.
"Not yet, anyway," said Mal in an undertone while marching out of the flight deck.
Gunshots impacted off the corner of the adobe building he was using for cover, sending shards of clay and soil into the air like a cloud. The man standing behind it looked completely unconcerned as he reached into his white duster for a cigarette and a silver-plated lighter. At the pause in the gunfire, he lit the cigarette and took a slow drag. He clicked the lighter shut and tapped it against his broad, sturdy chin before peering down onto its reflective surface. His cold blue eyes honed in on the five point star set in a circle; a retirement gift.
When the gunfire resumed, he tucked the lighter away and picked up the bolt-action carbine he left propped against the wall. The wood of the grip had been worn to a smooth, shiny sheen from years of repeated use. He checked the magazine--full of ten rounds, each .303 in length.
"Now, we can do this easy or hard, but it don't matter none to me," he called out over the din of gunfire in a crawling, grinding whisper that spat hell and ghosts and cobwebs into the ear of whoever heard. For a moment, the gunfire stopped and it seemed like they'd listen to reason, but then it started up again. Seeing they'd come to their decision, he simply adjusted the white, ten-gallon hat that sat on his head, and checked the tattered, stained, blood-red scarf around his neck.
"Don't tell the Devil I ain't warned ya," he said before emerging from cover, heedless to the warzone flying around him.
Each step he took was measured and calm, like he was doing no more than taking a stroll. To him, the bullets that wizzed by were just a harmless breeze, and them bandits were just bugs. His eyes pinned each of them down in his mind; they were dead and they didn't even know it. It was all just a matter of going through the motions from now on. He came to a stop in the midst of the dusty street and braced the stock of his carbine against his shoulder.
Bang. Click-clack. Clack-click. Bang.
It was the steady beat of his heart personified in wood and metal and fire. Six times that cycle was repeated. Didn't matter that he needed to take the time to eject each cartridge by manipulating the bolt, or that a new round needed to be armed in the same way; it was all over in a matter of seconds. No moans could be heard over the soft displacement of dust, because there was no man left to breathe except himself. Dead, every one of them. He warned them.
He reached to tip up the wide brim of his hat, but winced as he became aware of a certain tightness in his left shoulder. A glance over revealed a minor graze through the thick fabric of the duster. It wasn't more than a bug bite--a friction burn with barely any blood. Time was that never would've happened to him. Time was he had a wife; a daughter. Time was, but it's not is.
With a somewhat irritated grunt, he flexed his shoulder one last time before starting the long walk towards the sunset. He couldn't roll over and die just yet, or maybe he had and his body just hadn't cottoned on. It didn't matter much to him, because there was still work that needed doing. Men that needed killing. She'd tried to show him otherwise, but that's all he was at heart; a killer. He'd spilled too much blood over his long life to be any different.
Though he couldn't see it through the thick, overcast sky, he was sure there was a bloody sunrise coming up on the horizon.
"Stay on board," Mal ordered as he tugged on his work gloves. He'd already buttoned up his worn, brown duster; something he rarely did on most visits, but then again, he did try to avoid winter as much as possible. The chill was biting through the open door of the cargo bay. "The supplies we got a few days ago're still good. All we're lookin' for are fuel and money, and that'll be comin' to us once we meet Brisco. Don't need any undue attention from the Feds after that scare on Angel."
Mal turned instinctively to look up the stairs of the cargo hold, and spotted River Tam standing there; her eyes magnified by the fish-lens goggles she'd taken to wear. Despite everything he'd learned about her and her plight, there was still a certain quality to her, which was defined by the fact that she was innocently trying to grab at the visible air she exhaled with each breath. Mal couldn't help but smile at her antics.
"Here, honey," said Zoe as he jogged down the stairs that led to the forward corridor. River turned around to take the olive drab jacket that Zoe proferred, while she wore her black jacket. They both descended the stairs together, though River lagged behind slightly to slip the jacket around her slender shoulders. Mal made a mental note that on the next stop, they'd make a point to get a better disguise outfit for her. At least she was armed with twin short swords crossed at the small of her back, and a spare Peacemaker she'd picked up strapped to her right hip.
"We ain't stoppin'?" frowned Kaylee Frye--no, Tam, Mal was forced to remind himself. She emerged from the passenger level door with her new husband right behind. The young engineer paused while she wiped the engine grease off of her hands, and then gave Simon a quick look over her shoulder. "Simon and I could still use a honeymoon, Cap'n," she added jokingly.
"Every ruttin' night's a honeymoon with you two, ain't it?" said Jayne tetchily. The mercenary had his head bowed, examining the sub-machine gun strapped around his shoulder, and was dressed in his mother's handmade wool cap and sweater; the former being a sun-bright orange and yellow, and the later being a lurid green and yellow.
Simon scowled somewhat, which didn't amount to anything when added with the blush, but Kaylee just kept on smiling like she was ignoring Jayne.
"Easy, now, Jayne," came the deep voice of Jonah Hex over Kaylee and Simon's shoulders. "There's nothing wrong with a couple in love. Sorta hard to come by in a 'verse like this."
Hex gave a kind smile that was anything but when one took the long, jagged scar--which cut a path from his hairline down to his upper lip, and right through his eye-patched left eye--into consideration. Still, all one needed to do was look into Hex's red right eye, which twinkled with kindness.
"All's I'm sayin' is how many honeymoons they need?" asked Jayne, brushing past Zoe and River until he was standing on Serenity's ramp. His black, sub-machine gun clattered against the large pistol strapped to his right thigh when he let it drop. It was then that Mal noted another pistol strapped to Jayne's other hip, and a large knife sheathed at his back. The man only had the three arms.
"We do good on this job, little Kaylee, and I promise you'll get your honeymoon wherever you like," promised Mal, shooting a slight grin over to his engineer.
"Honestly, Cap'n?" said a clearly surprised Kaylee.
"Well, no, not really," admitted Mal, which dimmed some of the expectant mirth that had just blossomed in her eyes. "I mean to say not wherever, but, y'know, somewhere reasonable. If this goes well, we'll be able to sit a spell, so I see no reason why the pair of you can't have your fun."
"I love my Cap'n!" declared Kaylee, stepping forward to him a sisterly peck on the cheek.
"That's a mighty big 'if,'" remarked Jayne in what was clearly meant to be an undertone, however everyone chose precisely that moment to become quiet, and his surly voice carried clearly through Serenity. As if somehow sensing everyone's eyes on him, Jayne looked up from checking his pistols, and catching the expression on the crew's face, asked, "Did I just say that out loud? 'Cause I didn't mean it."
"Jayne, just what is your damage this mornin'?" asked a seriously miffed Mal with arms akimbo. "We gonna have a problem today, or am I gonna have to send you to your room, young man?"
"He has a package he needs to send," River told Mal, but stared at Jayne like she'd just directed an order to him.
"Is that so?" said Mal, folding his arms across his chest.
"Uh--yeah, Mal, reckon so," coughed Jayne uncomfortably under all the scrutiny. "We got time?"
"Don't see why not," said Mal, who kept looking back and forth between Jayne and River. He couldn't help but think that something was going on that he wasn't aware of, but he didn't mind it so long as it didn't interfere with work. "All right, we got a job to get. It won't get itself, people!"
River smiled kindly at Jayne on the way out, and gave him an affectionate pat on the arm. He gave her a sneer, much to Zoe's amusement, before they all followed Mal out of Serenity.
Gray clouds filled the sky of Transit, the second largest city on Boros. What might be considered a harsh winter on any world would be amplified by the desertlike conditions of Boros. Even now, though snow was weeks off from the local forecast, the streets were deserted. No one was shopping or socializing or seemingly working near lunch. If it weren't for the people moving visibly behind the windows, Mal would've thought Transit to be a ghost town, which brought too many eerie similarties with Miranda to the surface.
Ten blocks from the docks, they turned right at the roundabout and went four more blocks until Brisk Company came into view. It was a simple brick building, but Brisco himself owned practically the whole block. Most of that was dedicated to warehouse space for Brisco's trading post. Mal felt a bit of apprehension before he stepped through the rotating door, which Jayne eyed suspiciously. Brisco'd been a steady source of legitimate work for the crew. To up and get work under the table from the man didn't seem right.
"Mal, good to see you," called out Brisco the moment they stepped through. Last time Mal was here, Brisco had two bodyguards and one secretary, but today it looked like Brisco'd given everyone the day off.
"Brisco," returned Mal with a curt nod.
"So, good news!" exclaimed a beaming Brisco as he clapped his hands excitedly. He got up from his high-backed chair and tossed a flat pad across his desk. "Got in touch with my man about the Lassiter. That's how much he's offerin' for it."
Mal strode up to the desk and made to pick up the pad, but his hand stalled mere inches from it. He squinted at the screen, trying to discern if he were reading it rightside up. He even went so far as to tilt his head as he tried to make heads or tails out of the number.
"Huang-jin zhuan de pi-hua! Is that in English?" asked Jayne; his eyes practically glassing over as he stared at the number. "Gorramit, you could buy a system with that money!"
"Retirement wouldn't be much of a dream if that amount's right, sir," Zoe weighed in, though she looked almost frightful at the prospect of that much cash. Truth to tell, retirement was a dream for everyone on Serenity, but Mal could never imagine it beyond a ten-letter word.
"Now don't be gettin' ahead of yourselves," chuckled Brisco as he snatched the pad back. "That there's for the whole deal, dong-ma? Yours is gonna be significantly smaller once I get myself my sixty-five."
"Sixty-five? What? Platnium? 'Cause I sure as hell know y'ain't talkin' 'bout no percentage," growled Jayne menacingly; his right hand curling around the grip of the machine gun.
"Man's got a point, Brisco," said Mal tightly; that bad feeling only intensifying as this deal unfolded. "Standard fence cut for a piece such as this is fifty-five, not no sixty-five."
A slow smirk crawled across Brisco's jaw before he settled himself back down into the chair's overstuffed leather cushions. "That might be true any other day of any other year, Mal, but today's different. Wanna know why today's different? It's 'cause you're different."
"Wanna explain that while you're still in possession of your teeth and tongue?" demanded Mal, now openly clenching his jaw and flexing his fingers over the grip of his pistol.
"Haymer got that Lassiter stole nearly a year ago," Brisco pointed out, propping his boot heels onto his tidy desk. "Now either you took it yourself, or you stole from the man who took it, but either way, it's been a long time since that got took. Had a hard time findin' a fence for it? You're gonna find yourself an even harder time if you pass this up. Ain't too many people with the desire, nor the cashy money to buy that offa your hands.
"What your people says is true; that's enough money for a man to retire on, and I aim to retire. Maybe a private estate on Bellerophon, just to rub it inna Haymer's face. I admit it, Mal, I got greedy, but it's only the ten-percent I'm shavin'. Coulda been more, and we all know it. Let's remember I always been good to you in the past."
"Yeah, and that fact's currently savin' you from a bullet," remarked Mal. "Aw, hell, who'm I kiddin'? You deserve it for this anyway!"
Quick as a flash, Mal drew his pistol and aimed it squarely at Brisco's face. The other man reacted immediately, as most men would, in outright fear as he held his hands up in defense. Brisco jumped to his feet in that ungraceful, panicky way, though a few inches of distance wouldn't mean much.
"Mal, Mal, Mal, Mal, Mal!" Brisco sputtered off quickly; his eyes crossing at the tip of the barrel. "Kill me now and you won't know who the buyer is!"
Surreptitiously, Mal looked over his shoulder towards River, who was looking around the store in a completely bored manner. "I ain't so sure 'bout that, Brisco. I got me my ways. 'Sides, never said it had to be a lethal shot. I got no problem with maimin'." To emphasize his point, Mal thumbed the hammer back of his pistol.
"All right, all right!" exclaimed Brisco, whose mouth seemed to be working extra hard to produce saliva. "S-say you did get the name somehow, that don't mean he'll deal with just anyone!"
Another quick look to River, and this time the girl met his stare with a very brief nod. Sighing at the situation, and laughing at his rotten luck of being cheated out of ten-percent, Mal uncocked his pistol and lowered it.
"That's better," a sweat soaked Brisco stated with a slight quiver to his voice. "Now you get on back to your ship, Mal. It'll take me a day to get that crate of other relics to port."
"A day?" asked Mal, wanting to raise his pistol again. "You got your whole warehouse sittin' right back behind that wall!"
"Mal, that ain't but just for the legitimate stuff," chuckled a much more composed Brisco. "Got me a site some miles outta Transit where I keep the more...interestin' variety safe from the police. It'll take a day to get here."
"Why're we wastin' time with that crap?" wondered Jayne aloud. "The Lassiter's the piece that's most important. We oughta just ship that."
"Because you chao-guo pai-ji bai-chi, I spent a lotta time gettin' what's in those crates, so I figure I might as well make my money off 'em too!" snapped Brisco. "So what say you, Mal? A deal?"
Mal took in a deep, controlling breath as he holstered his pistol. The sour look on Zoe's face told him all he needed to know about her opinion on the matter, but still, they'd been lugging that Lassiter around for nearly a year. An amount like that couldn't be passed up so lightly, especially not with their funds so low. However he felt about Brisco now was irrelevant in the face of all that.
"Looks like we got ourselves a deal," Mal told Brisco with a voice full of false cheer.
"Good!" beamed Brisco, who look like he'd been told Christmas came every year. Quick as a lightning flash, Brisco's face changed into one of the coldest winter. "You ship them goods, Mal, and you get paid, but here's the important part: You'd better deliver me my share of the cut in a timely manner, or you'll wish you put a bullet in my head in the here and now. Dong-ma?"
"Yeah," nodded Mal, shooting one last look at Brisco before walking out of the store. Just once he'd like things to run smoothly. Just once. That wasn't too much to ask, was it?
Kyo leaned against the open cargo hold door of Serenity. His brown, heavily patched duster was buttoned up and the collar flipped against the back of his neck. Keen gray eyes raked out over the horizon for any sign of trouble, but his ears couldn't focus on a damn sound over the blaring of that music. Kyo ground his molars together and turned his eyes towards the loud, rusted speaker. It made no sense to him why any fool would pump that sort of crap over a dock's loudspeakers, and he had half a mind to shoot the control man.
The jangle of spurs told Kyo that Hex was coming up behind him. Turning his head ever so slightly, he called out to the cook, "I'm itchin' to blow that loudspeaker off its wires."
"Not a fan of Megara Lee I take it?" chuckled Hex as he leaned against the other side of the door with his leather jacket zipped up.
"Soulless, synthesized, Core crap," growled Kyo in a low voice, and he unbuttoned his duster at the waist to reveal his Peacemaker reverse-holstered at his left hip.
"With a blessed voice," smirked Hex.
"You a fan, Hex?" asked a bemused Kyo. "Hell, never would've pegged you for a Megara Lee fan."
"Saw her live once," nodded Hex with a fond smile. "She came on down to Ambrosia for a spell and did a live show. I'll tell you, she's a sweet little angel is what she is. Hers ain't the voice of the Outer Rim--pain and trampled on and carrying on; blues and bluegrass. Hers is the voice of hope for all of them looking for a better life. Hers is the voice of promise."
"Uh huh," said a thoroughly unconvinced Kyo.
"Do we have to leave the cargo bay door open?" asked Simon as he emerged from the lower deck in his thick coat. He looked distastefully at the open door, and then against the mist forming in front of his face with every breath. Kyo had to smirk at the difference between Simon and River.
"Y'know, if I were Jayne, I'm sure I'd say somethin' 'bout you usin' Kaylee for warmth," chuckled Kyo.
"Yes, and I'm grateful that you're not," said Simon tersely, stepping up to the middle of the cargo bay. Kyo could feel Simon's eyes at the back of his head and the disapproval rolling off of his person. It was tempered by what he learned on Angel, and the choices he'd made long ago to stand on Serenity, but he couldn't stamp it out yet; not completely.
"You and me both, Doc," said Kyo, which brought a chuckle from Hex and a slight smile from Simon.
"Wouldn't hurt none to check on the missus, Simon," Hex advised the doctor. "Last I saw, she went up into Inara's shuttle for some girl time. I reckon they were planning y'alls' honeymoon. Think it wouldn't hurt none for you to learn yourself where you're going."
"Oh," frowned a slightly consternated Simon up towards Inara's shuttle. "Yes, that would be nice to know."
"River's out there," said Kyo in a seemingly non sequitur. He turned to look over his shoulder at Simon. "That's why I'm keepin' the door open. Jobs don't always go right, and if they could use a quick escape then it should be there. I worry, basically."
"Wouldn't you know over your--ah--connection?" asked Simon.
"I would," nodded Kyo slowly. "But it's never good to rely on just one trick, Doc. Sometimes it's good to see with your eyes and hear with your ears."
"Is that the reason you wear a coat?" wondered Simon with the blunt curiousity only given to those genius types. "I mean, do you really need to wear it? I mean, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to--"
"I'll burn like any man," said Kyo, so used to those types from all those years back in the labs that it barely nettled him. It was easy to pigeonhole Simon as one of them, though it was uniformly unfair. "I'll freeze too, for that matter. Problem is, extreme temperatures don't nearly bother me as they do you. I can handle them 'cause my nerves won't let me feel 'em to a point. River can, though, and she reminded me that I should wear it. She worries too."
"Ah," said Simon, not completely sure how he should take this conversation, but he was learning.
"It's snowing," Hex pointed out, and when Kyo and Simon turned their attention out the cargo doors they could see soft flakes beginning to drift down. Kyo had to frown. That was way ahead of the projected forecast on the Cortex. "They best hurry on back to get this job done. We don't want to get caught up in the storm."
Mal sat at the mess hall bent over his own collection of sidearms. He gave a sigh as he picked up a newer model revolver than the Sidewinder he'd found in the war. Truthfully, Mal didn't know why he held onto all these guns. All he needed was but the one, and maybe a back up, but then again it provided him with something to do; it kept his hands busy and allowed his mind to focus.
As he peered through the dismantled barrel, he heard a rustle of a beaded shawl behind him. Instinctively, he turned around still peering through the barrel like a telescope. Just like he suspected, he spotted Inara through the octagonal barrel with her brow raised in amusement and silent inquiry.
"'Nara!" exclaimed Mal before he quickly set down the barrel. "W-wha--why're you up?"
"I couldn't sleep so I thought I'd have some of Hex's special tea," replied Inara, who couldn't keep the smile off of her face as she glided towards the counter. While she rummaged through the cupboard, she wondered aloud, "Just what did you expect to do with a barrel, Mal, had I been an intruder?"
"You--ah--underestimate, y'know, the lethality of a barrel," stated Mal as he fished around for it. "See, this here barrel is pretty hefty, and I--uh--could throw it. Right--right between your eyes. It'd hurt some--a lot!"
"Mmhmm," was all Inara said, glad she had her back to Mal so that he couldn't see her face-splitting grin. "I'm sure that'd be very effective."
"Yeah," agreed Mal forcefully with an uncomfortable cough. "You wouldn't believe how often that saved my life."
"Did the meet go well?" asked Inara while she set the tea in the percolator that brewed tea instead of coffee when one happened to be in a rush.
"Shiny," said Mal sarcastically once he returned to cleaning the revolver. "That'd be why I'm sittin' here makin' sure all my hurt bringers are in workin' order."
"Are you expecting a double-cross?" said Inara concernedly, though her brow furrowed at the sarcasm.
Mal gave a dark chuckle in the midst of cleaning out the cylinder. "Well, ain't I always? It's a bad, bad 'verse out there, 'Nara, and ain't everyone a cuddly bear like me."
"Of course," Inara returned the sarcasm. The percolator beeped softly with its green light flashing, and Inara deftly plucked the pot from it in one hand, while her other kept the sleeve of her nightgown away from it. After a pause, Inara felt compelled to add, "You don't have to take this job, Mal. Not if you don't feel comfortable with it."
"I ain't you, Inara," Mal told her, snapping the cylinder onto the base pin of his pistol. "I can't choose whom I wanna deal with all the time, 'cause I ain't got me no all-powerful Guild at my back to protect me. I got this"--here he held up his half-assembled gun--"and these"--he used the half-assembled revolver to gesture at the others laid out--"and my crew. Sometimes I gotta do what goes against my better judgement to keep us goin', and hope that things'll turn 'round 'fore the next time."
"And this is one of them?"
"Y'ain't seen the number Brisco's gettin'," chuckled Mal, still tickled at the number himself. "That there's 'nough for even the most Christly of men to turn on his brother. Our cut, that seems like a paltry thirty-five, really ain't so. It's enough to keep us flyin' for a good quarter with a great deal of ease. It's just what we need, 'Nara, and as captain, I gotta provide it."
"You don't, Mal," countered Inara, leaving the tea forgotten for the moment. "Not like this; not like that. I've an excess of funds and I could--I could give you a loan for fuel. You could leave Boros and find some other job; one that wouldn't be so risky."
"No!" said Mal quickly, and shut his eyes as he saw the ire begin to raise in Inara's shoulders. He gave a great sigh and raised his free hand to stem her arguement. "Not that--not that I ain't grateful for the offer."
"You aren't, Mal," Inara pointed out quickly.
"Which is besides the point," he hurried on. "This here needs to be done. It's time we let that Lassiter go, and honestly, this ain't a job to be passed up on account of a little thing like paranoia."
"But it's not paranoia, Mal, because I can see you truly believe something bad will happen!" said Inara, now stepping around the counter to glare shrewdly down at him with her arms folded.
"Safe choice ain't always the right choice, 'Nara!" retorted Mal, finally snapping his revolver together again. "Goin' on two years you been on this ship. Thought you mighta figured that out by now."
"I stayed," was all Inara said as she held Mal's gaze for a moment. When she broke it off, she kept her back towards Mal as she readied her tea quickly. He watched her with a tenseness in his jaw when she took her leave through the forward corridor. It was on the tip of his tongue to let out a stream of curses and roll his eyes, but the spurs on the opposite end preventing him from doing so.
"Guessing you could use a drink and an ear," remarked an amused Hex from the aft corridor.
The man pulled back the bolt of his rifle as he stepped through the smoldering wrecks of two A.T.V.s. An empty casing popped out and spiraled to the blood-splattered, snow-covered desert floor. His methodical footfalls were steady and slow, not to draw out the suspense for the last survivor, but on accout of practicality. His right thigh was aching thanks to the bullet that took a fair bite out of it. Despite the gnawing ache that pulsed with each jostle of his thigh, he kept his old face like a slab of granite.
As he approached the moaning, wounded bandit crawling through the snow towards the sand cat, he slid the bolt back into place to load the final bullet in the magazine. The click of the mechanism locking, and the crunch of his heels on the freshly fallen snow, forced the shaking bandit to stop. With a great deal of effort, mostly on account of the gaping wound in his belly, he managed to turn on his back and show the man in white a tear-streaked face.
"P-p-please!" begged the bandit, holding out a hand for clemency as his other clutched at the wound. "P-please! Mercy!"
"Only mercy you'll be gettin', son, is a quick one 'tween the eyes," said the man in his deathly whisper. To emphasize his point, he raised his rifle and took aim right in the center of the bandit's brow. "See them bindings y'all used to fasten that crate to the sand cat? That there makes for some excellent tourniquets. So, that means I can send ya to hell in pieces, and you'll be alive all the way down."
"Oh, God!" moaned the bandit, and gave one last push with his legs towards the operating, six-wheeled vehicle. "Please!"
"All y'gotta do to earn the quick 'n' painless trip is tell me where that crate's goin'."
"Tr-T-Transit's d-docks," sputtered the man fearfully, turning his head upwards towards the falling snow. "S-sl-slip ten. Oh, God it's so c-cold! Some F-Firefly ship... Please..."
He only answered with a cool squeeze of the trigger. What would've normally passed between the bandit's eyes, because of how he tilted his head, ended up passing through the bottom of his jaw and out the top of his head.
"Firefly, eh?" said the man with a passing curiousity. He shouldered his rifle so that he could eject the empty magazine tucked just in front of the trigger guard, and exhaled a lung full of carcinogens. His cold blue eyes focused on the silver crate strapped down on the back of the sand cat. Inside was his goal. That thing that'd spurned him on this God-forsaken journey was right there.
That weren't all of it, though. It was just a memory, really; a reminder of what was. What kept that cold blood pumping through his veins lay in Transit; probably expecting that crate this very minute. His blood wouldn't rest 'til that man had stared down the end of his rifle what said TM-Viper down the side, and munched on one of its bullets.
"Bes' keep waitin', son," he called out towards the blanketed buildings of Transit in the distance, while he slapped in a new magazine. "I'm comin' for ya, ya bastard, and hell's ridin' with me!"
"She liked dandelions," declared River in her mysterious, eerie fashion just as Mal trotted past her down the stairs. "That's when they caught her, you know? Picking dandelions out in the field."
"'S'that so, little one?" asked Mal, not paying attention to her ramblings in the slightest.
"It is," nodded River cheerfully, who showed no signs of irritation at Mal's distracted temperment. "She was strong and quick like her daddy, and said prayers just like her mommy. Didn't help in the end. They killed her to loosen the mother's tongue, and then killed the mother when she fell mute."
"Really?" mused Mal as he peered out through the diamond portholes on Serenity's cargo bay doors. The snow was laying on thick, and a good portion of the extended ramp was already covered up. Mal wondered which would come first; the inevitable double-cross, or Serenity's engines freezing solid. "What happened next?"
"Daddy came home," said River flatly with a distant look through the portholes. "Couldn't find their life and he couldn't find time. They stole all of them, but only took the less precious of the three."
"Mmhmm," was Mal's only indication he'd been hearing River, and even that came about because she'd stopped talking. If he'd been forced to sit down and take a quiz, he'd maybe only get his name right. "Zoe?" he called through the ship's intercom. "Any sign of Brisco on the scope?"
"Negative, sir," came Zoe's slightly distorted voice over the static. "No word on the Cortex either."
"It's still pretty early on in the day, Mal," pointed out Kyo over the com.
"So it is," agreed Mal, "but with the scratch Brisco stands to make offa this, I'd imagine he'd be in a hurry to collect."
"Lost his life too; his hope," continued River like the surrounding discussion hadn't even occurred. "Turned himself into a monster to hunt down the monsters, but the monster wasn't really a monster. They were just shallow and selfish and too invested in the future to see the present. They were too busy looking up to see the people they were trampling underfoot. Won't take but a bite to send a man off a cliff; especially when he's not looking."
"Reckon so," grunted Mal as he slipped the tiny clip from the side of his pistol and checked to make sure all six shots were present. Satisfied, he slapped it back in before holstering the sidearm. "Jayne?"
"Yeah, Mal?" came the mercenary's voice from the starboard catwalk.
Mal looked over to see Jayne fully armed and ready for any potential show of bad faith from Brisco. "Just seein' if you're prepared is all."
"What, this?" replied Jayne, looking down at his body which was weighed down with weaponry. "Hell, Mal, I done take this sorta thing out on a campin' trip. Y'oughta see me when I really wanna cause some damage."
"It wouldn't involve copious amounts of alcohol, would it?" remarked Simon dryly as he emerged from the lower deck.
"Don't hurt none," shrugged Jayne.
"They're comin', sir," Zoe informed Mal over the intercom.
"Right, y'all know what to do," said Mal loudly, both over the com and the people gathered around the cargo bay. "Doc, get your family on inna 'Nara's shuttle. Things go too south, y'all be needin' a real quick escape and Serenity just ain't got the fuel. Hex, you too."
"I can help, Captain," protested Hex mildly with his shotgun braced up on his shoulder.
"And River can help a lot more'n you," pointed out Mal with a kind smile.
"Tactics," clarified River for all of them.
"That's right, little one, tactics," Mal grinned down at her, and gave her an affectionate pat on the head. River turned her eyes upwards to Mal's hand and pulled a face. He chuckled as she rolled her eyes and skipped away; glad to see her in those flowy dresses instead of a disguise. "He on the level with us?"
"Not sure," she shrugged, just outside of Inara's door. "He keeps weighing over and over. Conflicted. Not a monster. He just can't see through his hands."
"Right," nodded Mal as if he'd understood every word. He watched Simon, Kaylee and Hex all retreat into Inara's shuttle, and the door click shut behind them. Jayne had already taken his spot on the starboard catwalk, so Mal only needed to wait until Zoe stood on the portside catwalk, and Kyo came to rest behind the Mule hung up on the ceiling, before he opened the cargo bay doors.
A blast of cold air bit at Mal's face and even seeped through his duster. The gradual snow fall had turned into an outright blizzard overnight. Mal knew they really had to leave soon, or else they'd be out chipping at Serenity's engines for weeks. There weren't any time to tip-toe around the subject; things would need to happen quickly.
"Brisco," said Mal in terse greeting. The man was bundled up in a ridiculous looking parka that made him look like a turtle, but there was a nervous, feral grin plastered on his face.
"We-he-ell," chuckled Brisco easily as he dusted some snow off his auburn hair. "God's sure layin' it on thick, ain't he?"
"That ain't the here and now," returned Mal seriously with his thumbs hooked into his gunbelt. "I need but three things at the moment; a name, a location, and some fuel. You best be handin' over all three or else we ain't goin' no where."
"Well, now, Mal, there's the trick," drawled Brisco while faking reluctance. He took a look over his shoulder and Mal saw an A.T.V. sitting out on the docks. It was hitched to a trailer laden with fuel cells, leaving Mal to imagine the buyer had to be some distance away. There were five armed men sitting out by the fuel, and Mal thought that five was a little too much for just a simple delivery of fuel. "See, I got you a name, a location, and your fuel. What I ain't got is the crate fulla the other trinkets. Gotta wait on that."
There was something in the flicker of irritation that flashed across Brisco's now pink face that put Mal on edge. Ever so slowly, he worked his right hand along his gunbelt until it was closer to his pistol. He could imagine it; a posse full of armed punks coming up to steal his ship. He didn't like it, but he could imagine it.
"Do we really?" Mal asked in a bit of a melodramatic whine.
"Oh, we do, Mal," smirked Brisco, obviously sensing the reason for Mal's impatience. "Job's for the Lassiter and the crate. I mean, really, what the hell'm I gonna do with a crate of go-se?"
"That really ain't my concern, Brisco," Mal told him squarely.
"No, I s'pose not," replied Brisco as the whine of a sand cat's engine rose over the roar of the blizzard. "I'm guessin' that in a moment, y'ain't gonna have much of a concern at all."
Now, that was a threat if Mal'd ever heard one. Before he could draw his pistol, though, Brisco's fist came around in a sucker punch that knocked Mal to the ground. He used the momentum of the swing to start running down the ramp while his thugs unloaded from their rifles. Kyo stood his ground at the back of Serenity and kept cover fire going until Mal could crawl behind the wall for cover. The Peacemaker ripped a chunk right out of Brisco's shoulder and forced him to his knees, before clearing out two other thugs.
It wasn't so much who was faster on the draw, or who had the better aim in a gunfight; what mattered the most was who could keep a level head. Things could get awfully crazy with the noise and muzzle flashes, and the smell and the screams. The man who could take his time and focus would inevitably come out on top--this, of course, was not taking into account such factors like luck.
Kyo didn't flinch as bullets ricocheted around him, because he could judge just how fearful his opponents were. He could fire off one shot to put them off balance, then follow up with a secondary shot to put them down completely. Of course, with seven shots, that meant he ran out of bullets by the time he'd put down the third thug. But by the time that happened, Jayne, Zoe, and Mal had set themselves up in good vantage points to fire out the cargo bay, which gave Kyo the cover he needed to reload.
"Just where d'you think you're goin', huh, Brisco?" growled Mal as he broke cover for a second to reach out and grab at the kneeling, wounded double-crosser. "Me and you got some things we oughta work out!"
Mal highly doubted Brisco had heard him over the screams he kept bellowing thanks to his wounded shoulder. Like a madman in a straitjacket, he twisted around on his knees, fighting desperately to extricate himself from Mal's grip on the collar of his coat. He could've held onto him for a bit longer--weren't much different than breaking in a stallion on Shadow--but the emergence of a skidding sand cat through shin deep snow gave him little choice.
There was but one man standing upright in the driver's seat, but with his white duster and hat he looked more like a ghost. The man had already taken aim with an antique rifle, and squeezed off a shot. It would've sunk deep into Brisco's heart if one of his last two thugs hadn't stood to make a charge. As it was, the bullet tore through the thug's arm and spun him around in pain.
As the man kicked the throttle and gear shift of the sand cat with the side of his boot, Mal didn't know what to think. Obviously he weren't no friend to Brisco since the thugs were unloading hell on him, but did that make him a friend to Mal? Whatever was the case, at the very least, Mal had to say the man had some big stones. Weren't just anyone who could charge head on into a gunfight with a bolt-action rifle and not flinch.
After the man'd gunned down the two thugs, he jumped from the sand cat and crouched into the snow. Mal threw himself to the side quickly when it became apparent the sand cat would charge up Serenity's ramp. Brisco was a little slower on the uptake, mostly on account of the physical shock in his system, but the sand cat rolling over his leg certainly shot some clarity into his mind. Meanwhile, Kyo found himself leaping onto the back of the suspended Mule, because the sand cat caught some major air off the ramp and crashed right into the catwalk where he'd been standing.
Muffled gunfire could be heard through the closed door of Inara's shuttle. Hex stood by the door with his shotgun ready--its power at close range would be more than enough for any poor soul stupid enough to try and enter. River sat on the cushion in front of Inara's screen, with her as yet unmodified Peacemaker in her lap. She'd be their second line of defense if it should come to that. Meanwhile, Kaylee found herself sandwiched between Inara and Simon on the bright, red couch of the Companion's.
"I'm sure they'll be fine," said Simon in a consoling manner to Kaylee, though it was for himself as well as the others. His pistol was held tightly in his right hand, while his left was intwined with Kaylee's. He hadn't yet the opportunity to test out his sharpshooting on a live subject, and he truly hoped today wouldn't be that day. There was no tremble in his hand though. He held that gun as steady as he would a scapel in a serious operation. If it was a choice between injuring a man or Kaylee and River's lives, it wasn't much of a choice at all.
"They are," stated River factually, much like a professor. Simon marveled at how she could just assume an air of authority with very little effort. Of course, her genius intellect helped, along with her psychic abilities, but still... There was more to it than all of that. It was an indefinable quality of trust and conviction that went well beyond simple knowing. As Mal might say, Simon occassionally found it creepifying.
A loud crash made everyone but River wince at the impact. The force shook Inara's shuttle--and all of Serenity for that matter--and suddenly River found herself the center of everyone's attention.
"Shiny," she told them and flashed a bright grin that would've rivaled Kaylee's. Simon shared a sidelong glance with Inara, and both had equal looks of incredulity in their eyes. After a beat, River amended her previous statement by suggesting, "It wouldn't hurt to begin the pre-launch sequence."
"Of course," agreed Inara with a genial smile, who instantly moved towards the cockpit of the shuttle.
"Yup," said Simon into the following silence. "Just another job."
"The ruttin' hell's goin' on, Cap?" demanded Jayne from his cover near shuttle two.
"Express delivery?" quipped Kyo, who was crouched behind the back row of seats on the Mule, after taking a painful face plant into them.
"In that case, what d'you say we return to sender and forget about the tip, huh?" remarked Zoe from the corner of the catwalk near shuttle one.
"Well, I'm a mite more partial to gettin' me some reparations myself," said an out of breath Mal.
"What in the di-yu de heng nan-kan biao-zi did I do to deserve this?" spat Brisco in excruciating pain. He was writhing about on the floor of Serenity's ramp, gradually getting covered with a thin layer of snow. His left hand didn't know whether it should grasp at the wounded shoulder, or at the unnaturally bent leg. In the end, it just settled for hovering like a claw over his abdomen.
"You really want me to answer that?" asked Mal shortly as he reloaded his pistol.
"I got me the answer," said the gunman, and the deadly whisper of it made Mal freeze to his spot on the floor of Serenity. In all his years, in all his battles, Mal ain't never heard a voice so devoid of warmth. There was nothing in that soft, firm rattle of air but the frigidness of hate; amplified by the roar of the storm.
Mal risked a peak around the corner and saw the man up close. The man's hard, old face was twisted into an alarmingly vivid snarl. There wasn't a trace of humanity left in those glacierlike blue eyes, and Mal found himself understanding just how the man could stand upright and strong despite being shot four times. Only a soulless monster could manage that.
"Ya killed 'em," he told Brisco while working the bolt of his rifle. "My youngin' and my wife. Y'murdered 'em all for just a gorram watch."
"I--I didn't do anything!" screamed Brisco through gritted teeth, and Mal wasn't quite sure he could even see the gunman through his twisted eyes. "I ain't met your ruttin' wife or kid! I ain't--I ain't--"
The man tossed a gold watch onto Brisco's chest, and he coughed in pain at the impact. "Damn near 700 years-old. Machine gears with no battery of any sort. Solid gold with an American eagle etched onna the back. For that ya killed a woman anna girl!"
"I didn't kill no one!" shouted Brisco before he coughed up blood.
"Y'ain't the one who pulled the trigger, but it was your greed that did it!" snapped the man angrily, and he finally leveled his rifle down at Brisco. "I done killed my way through scores of your men 'til I found me ya! I'm here but for one thing, and that's to give ya a one-way trip to your fiery reward. But don't worry none, I'll be along shortly to keep ya company for all eternity."
"I just--I just wanted to--to retire," moaned Brisco pitifully.
"Y'ain't the only one, son," said the man with something passing for compassion before he pulled the trigger. In an instant, Brisco's writhing body became still, and for a moment so did the storm.
Mal got to his feet slowly, never taking his eyes off the mysterious gunman. He wasn't quite sure what he was going to do with that mountain of a man if he swung that rifle around at him. Well, it wasn't much of a question really; Mal'd gun the man down before he could pull back the bolt. From the aft of the cargo hold, Mal could hear Kyo, Jayne and Zoe make their way down to inspect the man as well.
"We're much obliged for the help, stranger," said Mal slowly, but never lowering his gun. "But--uh--y'mind tellin' us who you might be and why you did it?"
The only answer Mal got was the man collapsing into a heap on Serenity's loading ramp like a puppeteer had cut his strings. With there being a calm in the storm, the only thing everyone could hear was the soothing sound of Megara Lee's perfectly pitched voice accompanied by its electronic percussion.
After the fuel cells had be loaded up into Serenity, and after Kyo had taken her out into the black, the crew assembled in the mess hall for an impromptu meeting. Mal didn't bother to sit down at the head of the table. There was so much that needed to be thought through and reconsidered that he found himself pacing back and forth. Everyone else was at their usual seats, though; Simon and Kaylee near the back of the table; Jayne opposite them and nursing a bottle; Zoe next to Jayne; Hex across from Inara; Kyo and River back in the corner lounge, and finally Inara at his right-hand side. Everyone had varying degrees of uncertainty and relief written plainly on their faces, and none were eager to ask the question on everyone's mind.
Because of that, Jayne chose to ask one of the less important questions, "Any ideas on who the lawman was?" And they only assumed it was a lawman based on the badge etched into the man's lighter.
"Wrath," said River softly. Everyone but Kyo and Mal looked at her uncomfortably for a moment; Kyo because he knew who the lawman was since River knew, and Mal because he'd seen the lawman in action.
"Lighter indicates retirement," Hex told everyone. "Seen it on a half-dozen moons and planets, but the badge ain't familiar."
"Not all mysteries need solvin'," said Mal once he'd come to a stop with his arms folded across his chest. "Man did what he did, and now he's dead. We ain't known him, so there's no need to be placin' a name to a face. And iff'n he was retired, we don't gotta worry 'bout any other law troubles--well, no more'n usual."
"Yeah, but we also don't got a deal no more, do we?" sneered Jayne tetchily around his bottle of booze.
"That ain't true," said Kyo. "River pegged the name when y'all went to the first meet. I already set course."
"Sir Anderson. New Melbourne, Lilac," stated River mechanically.
Mal raised his brow and couldn't help but feel a swell of strange optimism in his gut. "You wouldn't happen to've--"
"The deal went through," River answered Mal's unfinished question. "He's expecting the drop soon."
For a moment silence permeated the mess hall. Mal found it hard to believe that the meet was set and they had the cargo. All Mal could see was that long, long number of the offer flashing through his mind's eye. There'd be no percentage this time; not with Brisco lying dead on Boros. So that'd mean...
"Y'mean to tell me that all that gorram money is ours?" asked a slightly out of breath Jayne, staring pointedly at Kyo, River and then to Mal. The silence was Jayne's answer, and Mal was worried the mercenary might swoon at any moment. Even Mal himself was a little faint at the thought. That much money, that whole sum, each and every one of them could retire. They didn't need to work another day in their life. It was too good to be true.
"Well," said a still stunned Mal, "I guess that's it. How--how long 'til we reach Lilac?"
"Three days," replied Kyo, who seemed just as stunned as Mal in his eyes.
"All right then," said Mal, effectively ending the meeting. For a long moment no one moved, but when Mal made to sit down at the table everyone began to get up. He was lost in his own world, however, and barely noticed as people slid from the room, chatting about what they'd plan to do with their cut. Retirement. What did he want to retire from? What would he do? Just what in the gorram hell was going on in his world?
That night, Mal didn't sleep. He waited until everyone had retired to their own bunks--or in River's case, Kyo's--before he started to walk around Serenity. Despite its auspicious start, this job might be the most lucrative one in Mal's career. That money could buy at least two moons, or maybe half a planet out on the Rim. It was a chance for a new start for all of them; even the fugitive Tams. A new chance for everyone but himself.
He laid a hand on the outside of Zoe's new bunk, which had been Kaylee's old one. For Zoe, that money could be a chance to live somewhere other than Serenity. Hell, she could escape her hurt on a ship of her own for the rest of her natural life. Or she could settle down for a life of quiet on some world of her choosing. In any event, she didn't have to live on a ship that'd cost her the life of her husband. He'd miss her something fierce, but he could understand her need. Inara leaving way back when had changed him some, and it wasn't at all for the better. But Inara didn't die; far from it, she came back to stay on after Miranda. Wash wasn't ever coming back.
Jayne, well, it weren't too secret to anyone that Jayne just wanted his big pay off. Mal knew about the money Jayne sent off to his family. That much scratch, the Cobb clan could square themselves away in a begorram mansion. Jayne could have all the booze, women and guns he could handle, and who knew? Maybe if Jayne stayed in one place long enough, he might find someone worth settling down with. Then again, hell might freeze over and the Alliance might just lay down arms.
Before leaving the forward corridor, Mal took a parting look at Kyo's bunk, which had been Zoe and Wash's. Now the two resident psychics shared it, and each had suffered their world of hurt at the hands of Blue Sun and the Alliance. He had a hard time seeing either of them leaving Serenity, if Mal had to be honest; River more than Kyo. Kyo might adjust to any environment, and he could at least control his abilities. Mal didn't think River would fair too well in a congested city, and even a town might pose some hardships. Serenity would be a good place for them, but then Mal'd feel somewhat like a third wheel. Maybe a ship of their own would be better, and now Mal was feeling guilty for letting Kyo tear apart his old Wolfhound; it would've been perfect for just the two of them.
Mal sighed heavily and ran an agitated hand through his hair as he strolled through the mess hall. Something in the pit of his belly ached at the thought of eating alone on that big table. There'd be no funny stories passed around over their horrible food--well, downright gourmet after Hex'd joined. It'd never been so lonely to him before, not even when he first bought her. Back then he'd been filled with the hope of filling up Serenity; making her whole and lively. He'd done that, and now it was all going to empty again, leaving Mal to pick up what was left.
He couldn't image starting over again, not after he'd worked so hard to make Serenity his new home. Once was enough. Coming back to find how much Shadow'd changed had the been final nail in the old Mal's coffin. It prompted him to go searching for a ship; a home that wouldn't change because he'd be in control of it; not no Magistrate, nor the Alliance. But he'd failed. Things were changing, just as he'd locked it all down. Who in the good gorram would live on a boat like Serenity when they got that much money to spend?
Definetely not Simon and Kaylee, Mal thought when he passed their shared bunk. It was hard to miss on account of the sign and all, and that'd just be something else he'd lose; more than just a genius mechanic, Kaylee'd been the sparkling glue that made everyone family, especially during those times when Mal'd wanted nothing more than to kick Jayne or Simon off Serenity. Mal knew Kaylee wouldn't easily give up her place on Serenity--she loved her as much as River or himself--but she was a newlywed with Simon. She didn't have to live here when they could easily have a place of their own to raise a whole passel of children. Hell, Kaylee could have her own repair shop like her daddy. And Simon? Simon could go back being that pretty boy he'd been before he stepped onto Serenity. He could certainly do more help being a village doctor or something.
Hex was something of an enigma to Mal. The man seemed content to drift along with Serenity more on account of her crew than anything else. Probably if the crew left to retire, Hex would too. Shame really. Man weren't no Shepherd Book, but he listened fairly and gave his own good advice. Mal would miss the ear and the food. Maybe Hex'd set himself up a bar and grill for himself, and if that were the case, maybe Mal might just settle down as a neighbor to be in easy reach of it.
Mal climbed through the lower hatch that led into Serenity's cargo hold. The door itself was warped, along with the catwalk, thanks to the sand cat's collision from earlier in the day. Of course, the money could fix that up in no time. If Mal thought about it, his share would be enough to build a whole fleet of Firefly-class ships. He started up the stairs towards the upper level of the cargo hold, but paused on the second landing; his whole attention was focused on Inara's shuttle.
That was something he didn't want to be thinking about. With that much money, well, Inara wouldn't have to work a day in her life ever again. That'd meant she wouldn't never... Mal put a quick clamp on those thoughts. They tugged him around all violentlike; pulled him in directions he didn't want to go, nor ever planned on going towards. She twisted his head around until he didn't know the fore from the aft, and made him feel so utterly lost within his own mind. He hated her job, yeah, everyone knew that. He was quite sure more than half the crew--Inara included--suspected it wasn't because of any moral objections, but because he wanted her all to himself. If it were anyone but Inara, he'd probably be fast friends with a Companion--hell, he thought Cassandra on Ambrosia was likeable enough. Mal'd be the first to say it took a great deal of strength and brains to be one.
But then that was the problem. Mal was captain of a smuggler's ship and Inara was a reputable, registered Companion. There was no sharing the lives. His reputation would harm hers if their relationship was anything but business, and she couldn't move in with him because she'd need to use her shuttle for work. There'd be no compromise; one of them would have to give up their careers for the other. And Mal couldn't give up Serenity for all the rules the Guild would impose onto their relationship. For God's sake, rules were the reason he'd bucked hard against the Alliance and bought Serenity in the first place! But then Mal couldn't be so selfish as to ask Inara to give up all she'd worked for, when her life was obviously more lucrative and stable than his own.
Well, he could, and it'd be easy, but he didn't want to. He didn't want to beg, even if that's what he did want to do. And things were going so well with them...
Despondently, Mal sank onto the landing beside the crumpled portion of the catwalk with his head bowed and hands folded. Time like this, he would've sought council from the good Lord, but he didn't think the Lord to be all that goodly these days; especially when things were twisting left and he wanted to go straight. All he had, it seemed, was himself and Serenity. Some how that speech he'd gave Inara just last night seemed less.
Mal leaned over the back of Kyo's chair on Serenity's flight deck. The trip had been extra hard on Mal; mostly on account of everyone's cheerfulness at the inevitable success of the job. It was obvious from everyone's excited faces that they had plans for the huge wealth they'd soon be acquiring. That hopefulness and happiness made Mal avoid everyone for the last three days. Most assumed that it was because of him worrying about the job, but they didn't know the half of it.
It wasn't his fault, really. He didn't want to hear Kaylee gushing with Simon over travel brochures that Inara had given them. He didn't want to hear Hex and Inara speak about more expensive ingredients he could be using next, or the suggestions for fancy meals he could afford to cook. He certainly didn't want to listen to Jayne go on about the whores he wanted to visit, and the plans he had for a whole room dedicated to his weapons. And the very last thing he wanted to do was catch the strange looks that Inara was sending him. He didn't even want to begin to speculate about that.
A small beep interrupted Mal's thoughts as both he and Kyo looked up to the overhead screens.
"What is it?" asked Mal.
"Trouble," said River from the co-pilot's seat, staring vacantly out at the approaching world.
"Trouble?" asked an exasperated Mal, looking at the girl. "Y'know, I've a mind to ban that word on this ship."
"Nan-chu?" tried River, peeling her attention from the world to look at him with a sly grin.
"Gettin' a newswave from Lilac," Kyo told them and punched it up on the screen. His brow knitted together in consternation and confusion as he read over the text. "New Melbourne's been attacked."
"Reavers?" said a worried Mal.
"No, Rebels," said a somewhat bemused Kyo. "Some sort of terrorist siege on New Melbourne. Went on for two days and decimated half the city."
"Any Alliance presence?" asked Mal, leaning over to peer intently at the purple screen.
"There were, but this is still the Rim," remarked Kyo with a hollow snort of laughter. "Once the Rebels cleared out, so did the Alliance."
"Leavin' the rebuildin' to the survivors," concluded Mal; a story he'd heard and seen much too many times in his travels. "Wouldn't be surprised if the supplies arrived a week behind schedule neither. Lucky for us."
"Casualty rates are high," said Kyo solemnly, after he'd brought that information up.
"Our contact?" asked Mal apprehensively. At that moment an overwhelmingly selfish, irrational thought burst against the front of Mal's skull. If their contact died, then their job would be over, and then no one would be leaving; things would stay the same. It was, perhaps, the first time Mal had ever wished one of their jobs to go bad, and that realization immediately shamed him.
Those thoughts earned a sympathetic look from River.
"Negative," said Kyo. "Sir Anderson's alive and well. I'll send word and set Serenity down."
"Let's not do that," said Mal instead, earning a questioning look from Kyo. Tearing his eyes from the planet looming out their window, Mal locked eyes with Kyo. "I think we oughta keep Serenity in orbit, just in case our Alliance friends come knockin'. Call Jayne, tell him to load up shuttle two with the Lassiter and the crate, and have Zoe meet me. Little one, you're stayin' with Serenity. This ain't but a delivery, and it seems there ain't much fight left in New Melbourne anyhow."
"Have faith, Captain," was all River told him.
"Darlin', I'm a long ways past that stage," Mal remarked before he strode hurriedly down the neck of Serenity.
"Didn't mean in God, did you?" asked Kyo as he reached up to grab the microphone.
"Always jumps to conclusions," River sighed and drew her feet up onto the edge of her chair. "You'd think he'd learn."
The bombed out ruins and impact craters was a landscape Mal never wanted to see as long as he lived. Judging from the tightness in Zoe's face, she thought along the same lines as he. This was far too reminscent of a war long done. Didn't matter to Mal if the Rebels might be in the right; that didn't make it all right for them to drag whole cities into their little conflict. With the Alliance slow as they were to help the Outer Rim, that just meant a lot of undue suffering for a whole bunch of innocent people.
Sir Anderson was waiting for them the moment they touched down with what looked to be some of the local police behind him. He was thinner than Harrow, but still wore a red sash to denote his title. Didn't seem to be much older than Harrow either, leaving Mal to wonder if there was an age restriction about knighthood. Mal might've been put on edge at the presence of the local police, except for the fact they seemed awfully skittish themselves.
"I was expecting a Firefly-class transport, Captain Reynolds," said Sir Anderson in a clipped tone. His head craned up and around to take in the shuttle Mal'd landed in, and a new frown line creased on his old brow.
"Well, word came that y'all had yourselves a measure of excitement here," answered Mal as diplomatically as he could. "Thought it might be best to keep Serenity out in orbit 'case them Alliance came back, you understand?"
"Indeed," said Sir Anderson sourly and adjusted his ridiculous monocle over his right eye. "I'm not sure what you heard over the Cortex, Captain Reynolds, but the trouble wasn't what it appeared."
"Ain't no concern of ours," Mal told Anderson with his hands raised defensively. "We don't want nothin' to do with the Rebels or the Alliance."
"Oh, it concerns you and I, Captain," sighed Anderson. The frown on Mal's face was the prompting Anderson needed to continue. "You see, the siege wasn't the Rebels, but the Alliance. The Rebels just came here for a bank robbery; no doubt to support their terrorist ways. It was the Alliance that sieged New Melbourne in their search, and the running battle tallied up the damage you see before you. All for nothing as the Rebels got away."
"And that's our problem how?" frowned Jayne menacingly--in fact, the most menacingly Mal'd seen in a while.
"My money was stored in the bank, Captain," said Anderson, and to his credit he showed no fear in the face of Jayne. He merely spared the mercenary the briefest of glances filled with the utmost of disdain. At that revelation, Mal's previous, selfish optimism swelled briefly to the surface. "Not all of it, but a sizeable sum. It's insured, of course, but we all know how the Alliance chooses to operate out on the Rim. It might be months--maybe years--before I get my compensation. I could transfer the credits, of course, but I know how your kind prefers not to handle currency that is intangible."
"This mean the deal's off?" Mal had to ask, and resisted the urge to rock back on his heels. His happiness made him sick to his gut, which was the only thing preventing a goofy grin from splitting his face.
"Well," temporized Anderson, who gave the men behind him a quick look. As they fumbled around, he resumed addressing Mal. "Brisco and I entered into an agreement--a profitable agreement--and I wouldn't want to disappoint the man. I've more than enough to pay for the crate he's procured, but not for the Lassiter you procured. I wouldn't want to anger the man by shortchanging him in the slightest. You know those middlemen."
"Consider this here your lucky day, then, Sir Anderson," remarked a smirking Mal. "Brisco's dead on account of his apparent unsavoriness of character. Won't worry none 'bout him missin' his share. Question I got for you is; how much scratch you do happen to have on hand?"
Anderson's narrow brow raised, but he remained silent as he gestured for the men to drag forward a crate. It looked to be the same dimensions as the crate Tracey's coffin had been, and when they opened it Mal's heart practically stopped. Colorful bills and shiny coins filled the crate to the brim, and Mal didn't see no label under two digits in there neither. From the looks of it, that might've been the full forty-five percent that Brisco'd wanted to cheat Mal out've.
This time a smile did break wide across Mal's face. That sum wasn't nearly enough for everyone on Serenity to retire--maybe one person if they didn't split it. It was, however, just enough for Serenity to keep flying comfortably for a quarter of a year without being too picky about things.
"I know it's not even half of what we agreed on," said Anderson apologetically, "but it's all that I can spare. I understand if you wouldn't want to sell the Lassiter for such a measly sum, either. After all you had to suffer through to remove it from Haymer's hands, and after all it's worth..."
"It was a hardship," agreed Mal, affixing a solmen look on his face when he nodded, "and I know it's priceless and all like the Mona Lisa. I'm sure Brisco wouldn't have taken it, but as we can all see, I ain't him. Got yourself a deal, Sir Anderson. Jayne, give the man his artifacts. Zoe, help me load up our money."
"I thank you for your generousity, Captain," said a truly touched Sir Anderson as Jayne emerged with the relic he desired most. "I know many in your position wouldn't have bothered. Some might've even tried to kill me and keep the money and the Lassiter."
From the sheepish look Jayne tried to hide, it became obvious which category he fell into. Catching Mal's look, all the mercenary could do was manage an apologetic twitch of his neck.
"It's a pleasure to see you're an honest man, Captain," continued Sir Anderson in a hallowed whisper as he cradled the Lassiter like a babe. "I hope that--I hope that I might contact you for a job some day."
"Maybe, Sir Anderson," said Mal, starting to take a liking to these knighted types, "but after this payday, I'm thinkin' you might wanna hold off on that offer for a while."
"Of course," said a very distracted Anderson. Mal thought Jayne could've streaked by naked and the man wouldn't have taken noticed, which probably would've been a fortunate thing. Sharing an amused look with Zoe, Mal just helped load the crate full of money back onto the shuttle. Jayne was bouncing on his heels on the inside of the shuttle like a kid at Christmas, not bothering to hide his anxious excitement at the load of money being brought in. Apparently the merc had overcome any disappointments the moment he spied how much money was lurking within that crate.
"How much y'figure we got?" said Jayne reverently as he knelt over the crate. Mal thought he'd be the spitting image of Sir Anderson like that. Well, there was a certain, leering, creepy notion to Jayne caressing that crate.
"We'll count it and split it when we get back," Mal informed him as he strapped into the pilot's chair and Zoe took over the co-pilot's chair.
"Nice to have things go smoothly, isn't it, sir?" remarked Zoe.
"That it is, Zoe," agreed Mal as he steered the shuttle up to rendezvous with Serenity. "That it is."
Hex prepared a feast to end all feasts once the money had been counted up and divided properly among all nine of Serenity's crew. Mal didn't think he'd seen so much levity, laughter and cheer spread through the mess hall like it did. However, that only made him upset and shamed that he'd ever wished bad to come on the job--even if it was for just a moment. The other thing that made him feel awful was the doubt he'd harbored over everyone abandoning him just because of money.
After the feast, River had dragged everyone over into the cargo hold for a impromptu dance and party. Jayne brought out his guitar for some parts, but mostly they piped the music over the ship's intercom. Watching Zoe share a laugh with Kyo and Hex, or Kaylee trying to drag Simon and Inara to do some of the crazier dances, made Mal realize they weren't going anywhere; not anymore. For the seven that'd been there the longest, Miranda had practically solidified that, but even Kyo and Hex had made their place in the short run.
There was a balance, he knew, between just enough and too much, and he was too grateful for words that his crew--yes, even Jayne--seemed to know the difference.
"They're a good crew," remarked River, who'd sidled up in the midst of his thoughts.
"That they are, little one," smiled Mal from his spot against the lower deck's door.
"Have faith," River reminded him, and then her earlier warning clicked. That hadn't been the first time he'd made that mistake. The previous had been with Book just before his end. "They're not those you knew on Shadow. They can see with their eyes; know that money's only paper--even Jayne."
Mal swallowed hard, not particularly enjoying any reminder about Shadow--or his last days on Shadow, anyway. But that betrayal--that hurt--had been the reason for his own doubts.
"Just because happiness is gone doesn't mean it's forgotten," said River pointedly. "Turn around and find something different, but it's still there in your mind. He forgot that, but then, he'd never known it. Happy only for a few years, which wasn't long enough to change him."
"'Fraid you lost me there," said Mal with a furrowed brow.
"Didn't listen to my story," tutted River, but smiling fondly at him because she knew he hadn't. "It's all right, Captain; not all mysteries need to be solved, after all."
As was the case with most everyone on Serenity, their minds ran about three laps behind River's, and it was only when River slowed down to smell the flowers did they ever get close enough to understand it.
"But I'm guessin' you have with you bein' a genius and all," commented Mal as he folded his arms across his chest.
"Doesn't matter," said River with a bright smile. "You're not him. Could've been, but you've seen and heard for yourself. He's no longer your shadow."
"Uh huh," said Mal, finding it hard to believe he could've ever been the soulless monster that man'd been. He'd stared smack into those cold, hopeless eyes so full of emptiness and hatred. He wasn't anything like that. Course, there was that nagging voice in the back of his mind telling him yes he was. It told him that he'd been well on his way to becoming it after Inara and Book left, and then when he began to push away Simon and River. He would've kept on going down that road if he hadn't taken them back.
"Something I'll be eternally grateful for, Captain," River broke in quite seriously. After a moment her solemn face was gone and replaced with the bright smile of the girl she was. "You'd better dance, Captain."
"Aw, no, darlin'," chuckled Mal nervously. "Best you recruit Kyo to do that with you."
"Not with me," sighed River and rolled her eyes in emphasis. "Her." Mal followed the direction of River's outstretched fingers until he spotted Inara, doing her best to sit demurely on a crate. She was laughing with Kaylee as the mechanic tried to get Jayne to dance the proper steps, instead of the improvised wiggle he'd come up with.
"She's not leaving," River told him pointedly, just as Kyo jogged up, a little out of breath from his dancing with Zoe. Just as he arrived, looking to spend some quiet time beside River, she began to move back towards the improvised dance floor, dragging him along with her. Kyo threw Mal a pained expression as he allowed River to drag him by the crook of his elbow, but the moment he turned around to dance with her, a big grin wrapped its way around his face.
Wanting to have that smile on his own face, Mal tucked his thumbs into his suspenders, just as he would if his gunbelt had hung been around his waist. He cut a path around the dance floor, and passed an out of breath Zoe who was chatting with Hex. Her eyes followed towards Inara and a smile creased her own face. She arched her brow knowingly at him, and Mal could only shrug in return.
"'Nara," he called out in greeting with an ease to his walk that made her look him over again, as if she were seeing him for the first time.
"Mal," she replied, gifting him with an honest smile that made him feel like a shy boy back on Shadow, crossing the town hall to speak with the prettiest girl at the Fall Harvest.
"Well, I was--that is to say, I wanted--I mean, if you wanted to--" sputtered Mal sheepishly, glad that most everyone was engaged with their own things; except for Jayne, who'd been relieved of his dancing duties by Simon. Inara could only smile wider--partly in triumph at getting Mal to be so wrong-footed, and partly because Mal looked so endearing the way he stood now.
"I'd love to," said Inara, showing mercy on his awkwardness, and with his help she slipped down from the crate. As Mal led her towards the center of the cargo bay, he found himself staring only at her eyes and her profile, and noted that she was doing the exact same. Neither noticed that the dance floor had cleared to let them hog the spotlight for at least one song, or the pleased grins on more than half of the crew's faces.
With the song piping through the intercom--fast, steady bass drum and heavy on the fiddle--and the woman of his dreams cradled close against his chest and in his arms, Mal knew that this was home; that they were family. He'd hang onto those memories, just like River said, until the end of the 'verse.
Author's Notes, Justifications, and...well...Excuses:
In many ways, this is a coda to "Out of Gas," returning to the theme about Mal and Serenity. Obviously, it ties in with his feelings about Shadow, and whether that'll be explored in the next episode or an episode on down the line, is something I haven't quite figured out as I write this. While it might sound ridiculous that everyone would up and leave, I did my best to carry across the amount of money that'd virtually fallen into their laps. The reason why I never mentioned a specific amount is because it works out better for the reader to name the price. What would be the payoff so big that it'd make Mal doubt whether anyone would bother to stick around with him when it was done? Or that he himself would be forced to contemplated the prospects of a retirement long before he was ready? I did the same with the Megara Lee song because I couldn't think of appropriate lyrics. I'm not accomplished like Joss is at writing lyrics.
Of course, this episode really has a lot of misdirection going on. Somewhere I think, the whole point was to play with expectations and assumptions.
There was going to have more dialogue and such in the part where Mal takes his stroll through Serenity, but I really wanted to push at the insecurities within Mal. I didn't want there to be any assumptions through conversations. Instead I just wanted to know what he thought about everyone after all that's happened, and what he thinks would be best for them/what they'd do.
The line about "Not all mysteries need to be solved" originally went in an earlier draft of my episode four, "The Queen Esmeraldas." In that it was a line Mal said to Jayne when they stumbled upon the ship. It's a concept I like, especially with shows. Not all mysteries need revealing. Like Book. Book was just Book, mystery and all. Or Boba Fett in Star Wars before Lucas really mucked that up.
The Man With No Name actually has a name, but in lieu of the previous paragraph, I decided not to mention it. All that was relevant was all that was revealed. The "name" and the white duster and hat comes from Clint Eastwood's character in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The character itself, however, comes from the comic book series Preacher by Garth Ennis. He's loosely based on the Saint of Killers, specifically his origin story in the TPB "Ancient History." Also, the rifle itself I should say comes from Preacher and is a Lee-Enfield used by the British for a long time, and, in the TPB "Proud Americans" by a dickless mobster--I'm not kidding. I'm a fan of bolt-action rifles or single-action revolvers, just because it says something about a character when they can take the time to cock their weapon after every shot.
Brisco was not originally intended to be a bastard. Earliest concept had Brisco actually being a stand-up middleman. Of course, it also had the Man With No Name as the villain and a former mentor of Jayne's, but I nixed that idea pretty quickly. After "Fathers and Sons," I wanted to take a breather from exploring that type of relationship for a bit. So when that changed, everything had to change--majorly.
In the changes, I lost a scene where Brisco had the Earth-that-was bric-a-brac in his office, and River was examining a Magic 8 Ball, and everything she said from that point on were lines out of that Magic 8 Ball. Maybe one day I'll find someway to fit it in.
Sand cat comes from Pitch Black. Obviously, though, this one's not solar powered and can apparently run through snow...
A not-so-teensy note about the name I gave to Mal's famous gun. I know from the comic book (though I haven't read it) that Mal picked the gun up in the war, but its model and make hadn't been named, I don't think. I thought (just from its design) that it'd be interesting if the gun was loaded through the side, hence the name Sidewinder. Of course, watching Serenity for the umpteenth time while I was writing, I caught that Mal actually loads the gun through a small clip. So...yeah...I'm still sticking with the name, though.
And though the opening with Jayne seems a little out of place here, it'll set up a later episode. Yes, Whisper will be making a return, and she won't be the only one, haha. Oh that's an evil sort of comment, isn't it? Leaving a really vague hint in a note? Ah, well.
Wednesday, March 15, 2006 7:03 PM
Wednesday, March 15, 2006 7:38 PM
Wednesday, March 15, 2006 7:59 PM
Thursday, March 16, 2006 7:10 AM
Thursday, March 16, 2006 4:19 PM
Friday, March 17, 2006 12:05 AM
Saturday, April 15, 2006 1:49 PM
You must log in to post comments.
OTHER FANFICS BY AUTHOR
All FIREFLY graphics and photos on this page are copyright 2002-2012 Mutant Enemy, Inc., Universal Pictures, and 20th Century Fox.
All other graphics and texts are copyright of the contributors to this website.
This website IS NOT affiliated with the Official Firefly Site, Mutant Enemy, Inc., or 20th Century Fox.