It's kind of cute, the way Arthur looks over to make sure River is engrossed in what she's doing—unravelling and recreating all of Eames' best sleight of hand maneuvers from one demonstration apiece, with Kaylee and Ariadne cheering and stepping in where needed as rubes—before he unlocks the hard silver case containing the PASIV device. As if that was going to make one bit of difference—but then, Arthur doesn't know her like Mal does.
Mal watches without comment as Arthur begins to unpack the device, explaining each component to Simon in precise, technical terms with occasional illuminating commentary from the new chemist, Yusuf. Some small metal element flashes under the lights recessed in the galley ceiling and reminds Mal of lightning, of being back in a tent on some numbered moon during the rainy season—'Monsoon Moon', the Independents had wasted no time in nicknaming it—listening to the staccato rhythm of water on canvas and worrying even more than usual when Mal readied herself to plug in. He remembers her fingernails scratching light as whiskers on the back of his neck, her breath warm on his ear as she whispered, “you could always come in with me, you know. To protect me.”
Mal had rolled his eyes and asked her how exactly that was supposed to help if there was a power surge or a flash flood while they were under, and pretended not to notice her biting her tongue against asking him, for the hundred-and-first time, why he so vehemently resisted every invitation to share dreams, with her or anyone, or what he was so afraid of finding there.
She met Cobb two days after they left that moon, and told Mal she was no longer happy with their romantic relationship two weeks after that. Mal never doubted that those two events were related, but he never really begrudged either one of them for it, either. Much. No, the fight that spiked the well between Mal and them came much, much later.
Mal feels someone's eyes on him and blinks back to the present to catch Shepherd Book staring at him until he looks back. The Shepherd nods, then gathers his things and heads for the door that leads to the passengers' quarters. Mal scowls and scrambles up out of his seat in the corner of the mess, dodging Eames' and Kaylee's pantomime act, and follows Book out into the hallway.
“They ain't heroes, you know,” he says, and Book pauses, then turns. He looks at Mal patiently. “Don't think just 'cause they go stealin' secrets out of people's heads instead of robbin' trains and houses that they're not really thieves, or they don't get their hands dirty. They do, and they are. Elbows-deep in thick, hot blood, just like the rest of us.”
“I know,” Book answers. “Mr. Cobb was most forthcoming about the violent costs of their campaign against the Alliance, and his regret at the necessity.” He smiles, softly, almost pityingly, and Mal's lip curls.
“I never surrendered, either,” he calls, once Book has already rounded the corner out of sight.
Mal returns to the mess to find Eames and River waltzing around a cleared patch of floor, while Simon beckons Arthur and Yusuf conspiratorially close.
“The captain said that you specialize in extraction,” Simon whispers with a glance at Mal, who takes a seat at the table and glowers at the re-sealed PASIV box.
Arthur nods equivocally. “It's hard to call it a specialty, when extraction makes up most of the dreamsharing black market.”
“But you can take things out of people's minds.”
“In a sense,” Arthur says, at the same time that Yusuf clarifies, “It's more like copying a computer file than stealing a material object. Nothing is actually removed from the target's subconscious.”
“Right, I understand,” Simon says, and his eyes are on his sister, laughing and twirling faster and faster while Kaylee and the others stomp and clap, “but has anyone ever managed to put something in?”