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Posse Commitatus

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River fixed her gaze unblinkingly on the black.

"No arboreal construct," she murmured. "The mythology's faulty."

"What's that, little one?" Mal muttered, most of his attention still on the the nav computer he was rewiring.

River shot him a look, her fingers fast on the console, a minute correction of their course, Serenity humming and pushing out into the stars.

"Story's old, not quite bedtime appropriate. It's the circumstance that makes it new. Shuffle the roles—the copyright's already expired. White hats are the fashion, anyway."

"I'm not much for hats, darling," Mal answered, not even bothering with the confused look hiding behind his smile. After Miranda, River had started making a mountain more sense on most days, but still picked up fragments of others' conversations and bits without context. Like crossed wires, Mal thought; the idea was a little too apt, still, for all of Simon's continued optimism.

"It's a metaphor; can't be fixed," River said, with a hitch to her voice that made Mal's hands stop so he could look at her. She had bent her head, the long tangle of dark hair hiding her gaze.

"Some things don't need to be," he said gently.

River's shoulders relaxed and she looked up to smile at him.

"Raise the curtain," she offered. When Mal didn't respond, she made a face and pointed at the console. "Don't miss your cue. Skews the narrative."

Mal opened his mouth to finally ask what kind of fèihuà was coming out of her mouth, when a light snapped on and began to blink rapidly. Incoming wave. River grinned.

"Show's about to start," she giggled.

***

"Cap'n?" Kaylee looked down the table, to where Mal sat staring at his chopsticks. "You okay?"

A long moment passed, then Mal twitched and completed the movement of hand to food to mouth.

" 'M fine, meimei. Just thinking, is all."

"Is somethin' wrong?" Only Kaylee could say this, and then only to Mal. For anyone else he'd simply stare them down, and even though Zoe stared off into space (or at the empty chair in the kitchen or silent half of her cabin) no one brought it up. Mal wondered how many of them had tried, like he had, only to find the words got stuck on the way out.

He chewed carefully and swallowed, then slowly took a bite of food. Then another. Inara set down her cup and glared at him.

"Mal, stop stalling, dinner isn't that delicious. Something is wrong, isn't it?"

Mal quirked a smile at her.

"Maybe I just like…" he stared at his plate, then glanced up again. "Alright, who made this, and what is it?"

"You don't want to know," Jayne mumbled around a mouthful.

Kaylee opened her mouth to ask Mal again, but River spoke from the other end of the table.

"Company's coming."

"What's she mean?" Jayne asked, finally looking up from his plate.

"We got ourselves a job offer," Mal said.

"…a job?" asked Simon, when no else said much of anything. Mal kept his eye on his plate. Kaylee, on the other hand, damn near exploded with words.

"Well, that's shiny! Left port thruster's practically begging to be re-patched, there's barely enough stripping left for another trip through atmo, the tubing on the auxiliary fuel line's ready to crack right to pieces and," she drew a breath that lasted exactly long enough for it's only been a month since Serenity was torn apart and bloodied up and violated like a āiyā jiànhuò to rattle around in Mal's head and her smile grew brittle. "Jayne, ain't that shiny?" The words were too sharp to rightly be called cheerful.

"Shiny if there's coin in it. What's the take, Mal?"

"Is it somewhere civilized, dare I hope?" Inara raised an eyebrow.

"What exactly are we being hired to do?" How the doctor could still sound like a stuckup kid from the Core with a wrinkled shirt, smear of engine grease on one cheek and a slight limp still from the gunshot to his gut sure was a hell of a mystery.

"Gorram it, Mal, who's hired us?"

"Nĭmen dōu bìzuĭ! Can't you all let a man think? If I ain't told you about the offer, it's because I'm still thinking whether we're taking it or not, dong ma? Hope that's all right, seeing as I'm still the captain of this fēngle crew!"

Everyone sat silent and Mal breathed in, out, then stood and carried his plate to the kitchen and continued out on to the stairs, to his bunk, to quiet.

"I don't get it," Jayne said, after a moment. "We got a job or ain't we?"

***

It was late. Mal stood in the door to the bridge, blinking at the emptiness of stars and space and the vacant pilot chair. He blinked again, wishing that if he blinked hard Wash would be sitting there, a plastic dinosaur and a smile.

"Nice up here," said a voice behind him.

"Quiet," Mal offered in return, hating how loud his voice sounded, how off.

"Sometimes quiet is nice," Zoe said, moving past him through the door and into the room.

Sometimes, Mal almost responded and then bit the word behind his lip, wishing he could come up with something that wasn't just foolishness. He used to be okay with the quiet, with wordless conversation.

He wondered when it was he'd started hating the things the silence told him more than the words people used.

"Is something wrong, sir?" Zoe had a small smile on her face, when Mal turned to look at her, that said she caught as least some of the irony of the situation.

Mal felt his fingers curl into fists, but he wasn't angry; at least, not at Zoe. Angry at the empty seats at dinner, more, and the dwindling food supply in the kitchen, at the not-so-secret secret warrants still out for Simon and River (while he knew that on one hand the secrets were out, on the other Mal knew that Alliance weren't ones to let go of a grudge or give up a chance to grind someone into the dirt) and that, at the end of the day, they were still only one tiny ship barely out of reach of the arm of the law. He could still remember exactly how long that arm was.

"Job don't feel right," he said, which was close enough to the truth and far enough away from it to loosen his fist.

"When was the last time it did feel right, sir?" Not enough amusement in Zoe's voice, not by half.

Mal grunted a little, which he knew wasn't an answer.

"We hurtin' for it?" Zoe's voice didn't have enough emotion in it for him to tell what she really meant.

"You heard Kaylee; sounds like we'll damn near fall out of the sky without it."

"She'll get us where we need to go, either way."

"She ain't a stranger to hardship, no mistake," Mal said quietly, and for a moment weight of all the women who he'd led to hurt clutched at his shoulders, made his breath go tight.

"Things ever not been hard around here?" Zoe sounded like she was honestly asking.

"I seem to remember a shipment of fresh apples a while back"," and then Mal stopped, because that had been right before Niska, before Zoe had almost been forced to choose, captain or husband. But, a quick glance up, Zoe was still smiling.

"Bet Kaylee wouldn't say no to having some strawberries around again," was her only response.

"Never have seen her smile like that otherwise," Mal replied.

"Bet Simon has," and damn if Zoe's smile wasn't mischievous.

Mal shook his head, eyes shut, trying to keep from smiling in return, in something he didn't quite want to call relief.

"Zoe! These are things I do not need in my head, if you don't mind. What the doctor and Kaylee do is their own business." His shudder wasn't all that faked. I'm happier than anything for Simon and Kaylee but… I have no need to know that.

"Sorry, sir," said Zoe, sounding anything but.

Mal sighed.

"Guess I'll go tell everybody about our next daring deed."

"Don't forget to mention the strawberries," Zoe said, but the energy had gone out of her voice and her eyes were resting on the plastic dinosaurs forever frozen in their march across the computer screens.

Will do, stuck in Mal's throat and after waiting a minute, he stepped back into the corridor, leaving his second-in-command (lieutenant, part of him still thought of her that way, especially when her back straightened and her eyes shut down) standing in the bridge, silhouetted by the stars. Mind still on the conversation—all told, he was still proud he'd made Zoe smile, it had to count for something—he clattered down the stairs… and straight into Inara.

"How is she?"

"You know Zoe, she ain't exactly wordy when it comes to her own feelings."

"I try to talk to her," Inara said in a tone that, coming from someone else, would sound like an apology. "But she and I have never been exactly… close."

No one was, Mal thought. Excepting Wash.

"Wash was really the one who was," Inara said, making Mal wonder if they had another gorram reader on his ship.

"You comin' to see if the job's in a place civilized enough for you?" Mal asked, then wondered why Inara ever wanted to stay on Serenity if he always picked a fight whenever she opened her mouth. He could see the anger in her eyes, but her voice was civil. It sounded like she was gritting her teeth a bit, though.

"I came to ask to be alerted when you decided on a destination. When you make your captainly decision, that is."

Mal shook his head.

"I will forever marvel that you can make captain sound like a bad word, 'Nara."

Inara's cheeks darkened a little, and Mal wanted to tell her how much the color fit her dress, gave her eyes a sparkle, made her… well…

"I didn't mean," she began, but Mal pushed past her down the corridor.

"I was thinking of laying out the plan tomorrow at breakfast, if you'd care to join us."

Inara looked like she wanted to say something else, but sighed.

"Xiexie. Have a good night, Mal."

He let her get almost to the door of her shuttle.

"'Nless you've changed your mind and want off."

Inara froze, a stillness so solid and final that Mal felt the muscles in his chest stop, the air catch in his teeth. She turned, and even with the distance he could see the small—small and bright and real and mĕilì—smile on her face.

"No," she said. "Not yet."

***

Breakfast was the protein-based equivalent of oatmeal, and Mal waited for everyone to have gummed down as much as they could stand before speaking up.

"The job's pretty simple as it stands: pick-up and transport of some goods from Beylix to a buyer on Santo."

He raised half a shoulder Inara's way in unspoken apology. Beylix wasn't much more than a smuggler's rock. Santo, on the other hand…

"I will see what comes up," Inara said. Mal thought of making the requisite joke, but held back. With effort, mind you. He could swear Inara's smile grew a bit when he was silent, but he could have been imagining things.

"What is the cargo?" asked Simon, sitting next to Kaylee and studiously ignoring the mostly untouched remains of his breakfast. Judging from the looks Kayle was shooting him and the faint smiles on both their faces, Mal felt sure they were holding hands under the table.

"Guns and ammo, mostly. And Jayne, before you ask, no, you cannot try them, not even to "get a feel for it"."

Jayne scowled and River stuck out her tongue at him playfully, although when he looked over, she was back to digging a crater in her mound of protein.

"Needs fortifying, she murmured, tilting her head to the side. "Not much of a defense system."

"That's because it's food, crazy," said Jayne, then yelled "OW!" when Kaylee thwapped him with her spoon. "Mal!"

"Deserved it," River said serenely.

"We have a contact set up?" asked Zoe, apparently ignoring the scene a few seats away. Smart woman, thought Mal, and nodded.

"Guy's a friend of Badger's. Not exactly the most charming-looking," he winced at the memory of the crooked toothed, squinty-eyed face on the screen. "But he'll do."

Kaylee laughed.

"Friend of Badger's, bet his name's something crazy like Weasel or Ferret."

Mal… didn't say anything.

"…Sir? What is his name?"

"They call him Máoyòu," he mumbled into the hand now covering his face.

The moment of not-quite-stunned silence lasted long enough for Mal to pick out the sound of Serenity's engine down the corridor from the hum all around. Astonishingly, Zoe broke the quiet.

She snorted.

"Cap'n," said Kaylee, a giggle breaking at the edge of her voice, "Máoyòu is Chinese for—"

"Mongoose," finished Zoe, and tiānna, it had been too long since Zoe had smiled, really smiled like that.

"Well, I sure as hell didn't name him, and word is he takes himself plenty serious; so if any of you feel the need to chuckle about this, I suggest you do it now."

He tried to keep his voice captainly, honest, but Kaylee and River were already giggling (Kaylee into her hand, River with her face tilted behind her hair), Inara's eyes were full of bright laughter and Jayne looked about ready to cough up his breakfast.

"Mongeese are known for their ferocity when attacked," tried Simon, but he lost his composure halfway through, Zoe snorted again… and they all lost it.

Maybe, thought Mal, as laughter filled Serenity for the first time in too long, maybe this job was a good one after all.

***

A couple days short of a week puts them hitting atmo at Beylix; not quite a hard burn's speed but River had pushed Serenity, Kaylee helping.

Kaylee had also been gleefully making a list of parts and pieces and things they gotta find to get them through, so she was allowed to tag along with Mal and Zoe to hit the scrap yard after meeting Mongoose. She had promised not to so much as crack a smile in the man's presence, in case her giggles came back.

Mal was torn between taking Jayne instead, leaving Zoe behind; but Jayne could use the taste of fake authority, and besides, Inara was staying on board (he'd already given her the "You can shoot him if you have to, give the doc something to do" speech). As an added precaution, Simon had another syringe, or two or three, of painkillers on hand sure to knock Jayne flatter than the floor if need be.

Any other errands that needed doing could wait until they returned. Simon and River were under orders to stay hid, too, at least until they knew the way things fell, so to speak. Monty'd run into Fed trouble here once; didn't hurt to be too cautious.

The first thing Mal noticed as they walked off Serenity was how green everything was: large runs of springy grass, the richly thick smell of healthy growing vine and bush and tree all over.

Second was the heat, a feeling less like the dusty dry blast on most worlds and more like being in the path of a warm, damp wave.

"It's like a jungle," breathed Kaylee, looking all of ten years old with how wide her eyes were, looking above, below, around, everywhere she could.

"Atmosphere got tweaked a little funny when Beylix terraformed," Zoe said. "High amount of rain and a longer amount of sun, with too much O2 to begin with… gets you this." She waved an arm at the lush green. It almost dripped moisture.

"Shiny," said Kaylee.

"Shinier'd be knowing where Mongoose was keeping himself," muttered Mal, as a quick look through the crowd at the dock seemed devoid of ugly, loitering smugglers.

A moment or two more and Mal came to a decision and thumbed the switch on the 'com device on his belt.

"Jayne?"

A crackle of static, even so close to the ship, but finally, "…yeah, Mal?"

"Mongoose ain't here. We'll head to town and ask around, so if we're not back in an hour, you come pay a visit. Clear?"

"Can I bring the grenades?" He sounded hopeful.

"Jayne, we're making a deal, not launching an invasion. Be discreet."

"Aww."

"And mind Inara," and Mal clicked off before Jayne could express an opinion about that.

"Where we goin'?" Kaylee asked.

"Gonna try and hunt up old Mongoose," said Mal, as they made their way to the doors of a building, whose peeling sign still spelled BAR, even if the characters were crooked. He quirked a smile at Kaylee as he walked in ahead of her. "You know how us bad guys like our liquor."

The main room was almost empty, it being barely noon, and Mal tipped his head towards a table for Kaylee and Zoe to take a out of the way seat, while he leaned against the bar.

"Mornin'," he said cheerfully in the direction of the bartender swiping a rag across some glasses.

The man, who had teeth so bad he might have been Mongoose's twin, nodded and mumbled something like a greeting in return. It also might have been some kind of chest cold rumble, or a swear in the planet's dialect. Mal decided to go with a blankly cheerful smile.

"I'll take three beers," he tossed some coin onto the wood. The man scooped it into a hand before it'd settled, and slid three chipped cups towards Mal, each filled with liquid most likely worse than Kaylee's engine hooch. "An' if you see Máoyòu, tell him Captain Reynolds is lookin' for him."

The 'tender stared, unmoving, until Mal dropped some more money on the bar. It disappeared even faster than previous and he said something (or coughed again) and walked to the opposite end of the room to refill drinks for two rather dirty-lookin' fellows deep in conversation. As he carried the cups over to Kaylee and Zoe, Mal saw one of the men glance in his direction. Bingo.

"Think he'll show up here, sir?" asked Zoe, not even losing her composure on downing the beer at one go. Mal followed suit, hoping it would the taste would pass him by, and holding back a shudder when it didn't. Kaylee was still staring at her drink and wrinkling her nose a bit.

"'S it supposed to look like that?" she whispered to Mal.

"Drink up, little Kaylee," he grinned at her.

"Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger," Zoe added dryly.

"You Captain Reynolds?"

"Sure am," Mal grinned and turned towards the voice, to find himself facing the business end of a nasty looking gun that would rearrange his insides adequately, for all its grime. "Who wants to know?" He added faintly.

The man ignored Mal for a moment, gesturing with the gun in an arc that took in all three of them.

"You'll be wanting to keep your hands where I can see them, or there'll be more holes in you than previous."

Out of the corner of his eye, Mal saw Zoe's hands freeze in their motion towards her holster and slowly travel to rest on top of the table. He did likewise, wishing he'd told Jayne to give him only twenty minutes. Or ten.

"We're not looking for trouble," Mal began, but stopped right quick when the gun got back in his face.

"No, you're looking for Máoyòu," the man sneered, jabbing his gun at Mal in some violent kind of punctuation. "Which, right now, amounts to the same thing."

"My mistake," Mal said, trying like all hell to keep his voice calm and even, (keep out of his words any hint of the other voice in his head that was yelling I should take that gun away from you and stuff it down your throat, you qīngwā cào de liúmáng). He'd been in worse situations, but the way the other man at the bar were staring their way meant there were more guns, and he had Kaylee to worry about as well, Kaylee who had damn near gone white. Zoe looked like she'd already been shot, that's how blank her face was, but seeing as she hadn't looked that good at any point recently, that didn't indicate much.

"Yeah, your ruttin' mistake," the man growled, and another one stepped up, pulling out an equally grimy but functional weapon. "Get up. All of you."

Mal got up from the table, darting an eye between the two men, the guns, the door, Zoe and Kaylee. Not enough room to move. Not enough guns on their side, neither. Mal made a mental note to get Kaylee comfortable with a weapon soon in the future. Any weapon; he'd be mighty pleased if she could wield that gorram beer glass right about now, anything to get them away from this bar and and the certainty rising in his gut that this job was bad, no matter the coin involved.

Judging from the fact that a mention of his contact's name caused guns to appear, Mal was willing to bet that the "little job" old Mongoose needed done hadn't been exactly that simple. Too late now.

Trying to communicate some of that to Zoe with his eyes, knowing full well that she caught more than he could give her credit for, Mal allowed the two men to walk them out on to the street.

Mal fought off drawing in a big breath, then grinned again.

"Guess we'll be getting' out of your hair, then."

"Ya'll friends of Mongoose?"

Oh, hell. Another one.

Mal looked in the direction of this new voice to see another dirt-covered miscreant stumble-stepping his way over, followed by—oh, shiny—three of his friends.

"Odds keep getting better and better, don't they," he muttered out of the side of his mouth, mostly to get Kaylee to smile. To the man, "wouldn't go so far as to call us friends." Tried smiling the smile that'd won his ma over when he'd broken stuff or tracked mud in.

The first man, the one who'd pulled them from the bar at gunpoint, gestured with his chin at Mal.

"They're from the ship that's taking the guns to Beylix."

"Now, that ain't polite, you knowing all my business, and us not even properly introduced," Mal said, pleasant as all hell but with a hint of steel in his voice.

The man—the leader, the talker—only laughed gruffly.

"Names ain't important, captain. What we want is answers, especially about the coin Mongoose paid you in advance."

Mal shot a quick look at Zoe.

"Our deal didn't cover no advance payment, " he said slowly. "We get coin on pickup and more on delivery in Santo. Now, if you want to discuss particulars, we can let my people head back to the ship," he gestured with his right hand, his brown duster sliding open a touch, "and you and I can hunt up ol' Mongoose and settle this with a few glasses of Ng Ka Pe, dŏng ma? No need for all this excitement."

The leader opened his mouth to answer, but was interrupted by one of the newcomers.

"You want Mongoose, best bring a shovel," he chuckled and spat into the dirt. "He's—"

But attention was off them, and even if it was only a second, Mal could stretch that plenty long.

"Go!" He barked at Zoe and hooked an arm round Kaylee and pushed towards the closest cover: an old porch lean-to. His hand darted to his holster and two of the húndàns were slumped and bleeding before he'd gone three steps.

The one who started all this mess was faster than Mal would've given him credit for, ducking and sending off shots of his own. Mal hunched his shoulders and shoved Kaylee to move faster, hoping for the best. Behind him, he heard the familiar report of Zoe's weapon return fire.

Back shoved to the peeling wood wall, Mal swallowed the thick smell of jungle weeds (now laced with the burning sting of gunpowder). They'd made a good showing and had some shelter, but it was two guns against too many, and Mal didn't want to die in a place so gorram green, but—

The attack never came.

"Cap'n" said Zoe.

Mal craned his neck around the corner.

"We scared up some lawmen with all those bullets," he said with a grin, watching a handful of men spill from a nearby building and the shooters, predictably, melt into the dripping shadows. "Should probably get ourselves away from here and back to Serenity," he murmured. "Easy job, gŏu pì."

"Mal." And that was more energy in Zoe's voice than in weeks, and Mal turned to look at her, seeing the strain in her face and the way she was gripping Kaylee's upper arm, because Kaylee was slumped against the boards, her face all grey, clutching her stomach, the cotton of her jumpsuit already stained red and blood pooling around her fingers.

Mal would have lost some precious seconds just gaping at it, at the scene that was too familiar, too much like the hurt they'd all seen and carried since Miranda, when a voice from the street said, "freeze!"

Mal whirled, gun aimed at a pale deputy not much older than River, who gulped and flinched at the speed, the deadly look in Mal's eyes.

"I… what… freeze!" The boy stuttered, the authority draining from his voice.

"You got a doctor here?" Mal snapped at him.

The boy paled further, throwing a look over his shoulder.

"No, we… why?" He finally saw Kaylee, saw the blood. "Oh, Christ… Sheriff!" It would have sounded strong, but the wobble in his words ruined it.

"So you're the folk that riled up Cobra and his crew, huh?" The sheriff was a good twenty years older than Mal but carried it well, strong looking despite a nasty looking scar that trailed down the left side of his face. His dark eyes took in Mal's whitened grip on his gun, Kaylee's collapse, the way the blood was starting to pool. "Got yourself a mite bit of trouble, I see," he said mildly.

"Boy says there's no doctor in this town."

The sheriff nodded agreement.

"Not for least an hour's hard ride and…" he looked at Kaylee, "doubt she'd last that long. What's your business here?"

Mal waved the question away.

"You got any Alliance 'round here?"

The sheriff blinked at the question, then shook his head.

"They never cared much for us, truth be told. Have to say that I never cared much for them in return."

"Glad this won't end in arrests, then." Mal pulled at the 'com, feeling more than hearing his own shout. "JAYNE! JAYNE, PICK UP!"

"Mal, what's with all the shoutin', I can hear you fine. Did you meet up—"

"Jayne, no time. Get Simon out here, on the double. You too."

Jayne could hear it, what Mal was saying underneath the words, and shut right up. Not the most sensitive, but not dumb, not by a long shot.

"Five minutes," he said.

"Make it four," Mal replied. "And bring extra rounds, just in case."

"Yessir," and only Jayne could sound gleeful, murderous and anxious all at once.

"We'll be in the sheriff station." Mal clicked off, then looked at the sheriff. "Assuming that's acceptable to you." He still hadn't holstered his gun.

The sheriff stared at him, expression unreadable, then he nodded.

"I don't know you, boy, and something tells me you have more to do with all that shooting that just bad luck." His voice softened. "But I got a daughter not much older 'n her, so come on, this way. I'll hear stories later."

Mal nodded, trying not to let the gratefulness and relief into his eyes, knowing it showed, and turned to pull Kaylee into his arms, following the lawmen towards the building, and wondering if he told them it was Kaylee, Simon would run faster.

***

It'd only been four minutes on the dot since Mal's call, probably two since the shots stopped, but Kaylee was out and still bleeding more than Mal liked, breathing funny and moaning a little when Zoe pressed the cloth to her abdomen. Jayne burst in first, Simon hard on his heels, and to the Doc's credit he only widened his eyes and stuttered a step before he was all business, asking for hot water, strong soap, bright light, somewhere clean to work on Kaylee.

In laying her out flat, Kaylee's eyes snapped open for a moment, and she winced and squirmed. Mal rested a hand on her shoulder.

"Lie still, Kaylee, Doc'll fix you up good as new."

"We've got to stop meeting like this," Simon told her with a acceptable fake of a smile, and Kaylee had enough time to grin a little and touch his hand before the morphine and sedative kicked in, and then Mal moved to join Zoe and Jayne near the doorway, already itching at the sight of so much bloody gauze. His fault, all of it. Always.

"Mal," Zoe nodded at him, then looked over his shoulder. "They alright over there?"

"It'll be fine," Mal said heartily, hoping it didn't ring as hollow in their ears as in his. "Should have let you come with grenades," was his greeting to Jayne, who gave him an look of "you're gorram right, you shoulda".

"So you're the captain of this bunch?" asked the sheriff.

"Malcolm Reynolds, captain of Serenity," Mal said.

"Jordan Croder, sheriff of North Arlen," he returned and offered Mal a hand. A little bemused by the civility, Mal shook it.

"Your first mate has been filling me in on the situation; seems you had a legit enough thing going with Máoyòu and it really was bad luck."

"Honest men just can't get ahead in this world," Mal said with a quick raise of his lips.

"I said legit enough," Croder snapped back. "I ain't stupid, Captain, and I know that Mongoose dealt in enough guns and ammo to blow this rearrange this rock's orbit. But I'm willing to overlook that for the moment."

"Mighty kind of you," Mal said, letting enough of his incredulity into his words that Croder cracked a smile.

"You'll do," he said. Mal opened his mouth to ask what in the hell he meant, but Zoe started talking.

"You told us Mongoose dealt in guns, past tense," Zoe said. "I take that to mean…"

"Yup," said Croder, with a complete lack of emotion. "Mongoose, also known as Montgomery Lewis, died three-four days ago."

Jayne opened his mouth—probably to bellow or swear, Mal could see he had that look—so he headed him off.

"What?"

Croder smiled again.

"Now that's a bit of a story."

Mal looked at the sheriff, saw he wasn't going to let loose with anything for nothing, sighed, then looked to Jayne.

"When you've collected yourself, Jayne, get on the horn and get the rest of the crew down here." He looked over at Zoe. "I think we've stumbled into a bit of a mess."

Zoe didn't quite smile, but her words sounded like she was trying to.

"You always did have a way with words, sir."

Ordering Jayne to "get the rest of the crew" sounded all grand and everything, but seeing as they were only missing River and Inara, the room wasn't exactly bursting by the time everyone'd gotten settled and Croder started speaking again. Simon wasn't quite done stitching up Kaylee yet, but the doc didn't look worried, and the bullet hadn't hit anything more important than muscle and a heck of a lot of blood vessels.

Croder leaned back in his chair, the only one in the room that didn't look nervous or excited or really anything. Mal was sure that man could play damn fine cards with a closed-up face like his.

"Máoyòu's been running things in this town longer than I've been in charge, so for the most part I just tried to stay out of his way, same as the sheriff before me. They don't pay me enough to start bringing down gangs, and between the two of them, they'd rounded up enough thieves and shăguā that I stuck to keeping my head down. Not proud of it, and no doubt things like today wouldn't have happened," he looked over towards Kaylee, shame twisting his lips. "But times are hard."

"You have a hard job and did the best you could," Inara murmured, and Mal was impressed at how sincere she sounded, not an ounce of irony or sarcasm in a word. Must be her Companion-training. 'Cause to Mal it sounded like a piss poor excuse.

The sheriff smiled at her, but the look in his eyes said he didn't quite believe her.

"Anyways, Alliance leaves us well enough alone, and 'though I've heard of Feds picking up smugglers on Beylix, they musta seen Mongoose as small pickings. But trust me, he and Cobra got up to jobs you wouldn't—"

Mal raised an eyebrow.

"Cobra?"

"Yeah, he's the leader now. Unfortunate looking fella. Gave me this couple years back to remember him by." He tapped the scar on his face lightly.

"He's the one that shot Kaylee," Mal said, and the shame, the shame was there with the anger, that he should have looked out for her, protected her. The captain 'sposed to take care of his crew. Yet all I seem to be able to do is lose 'em, one right after another.

"He also killed Mongoose," added Croder. "Seems the two got in quite a fight over who was in charge and Cobra—though 'course anyone who lives here still remember him as little Francis Xiang, always tagging after his friend Montgomery—Cobra decided that it was time he got a promotion."

"Biology failed," River said, with enough incredulous horror that they all turned to look at her.

"Mongeese are known for killing snakes," Simon translated, wiping his hands with a cloth as he joined them.

"Guess no one told Francis," said Jayne.

Seeing Mal's gaze on him, Simon added, "she's sleeping, but there shouldn't be any lasting damage besides the blood she lost."

"Can we move her?"

"I'd want to wait an hour or two, if we could. But after that…"

"We leavin', sir?" Zoe said.

Mal shrugged.

"Soon as we can. Cobra's awful antsy to shoot someone, and I'd prefer it not be me or mine. No offense, Sheriff."

"None taken, Captain. But you're just going to skin out, pockets empty? I'm sure Mongoose's job had plenty of coin."

Mal stared at him hard.

"Where you going with this?" he asked finally.

Croder raised his hands placatingly, trying to look like he hadn't a care in the world.
"I'm just saying that you came out the loser on this, and I was wondering if you and I might come up with some… compensation?"

"Only compensation I see is out of Cobra's hide," Mal said flatly.

"That could be arranged," said Croder, and there was a glimmer of emotion in his eyes, finally, something that Mal wanted to call excitement. "See, there's a law on the books here that says I can deputize any able man I want to help with keeping the peace in North Arlen."

"What's that mean?" asked Jayne.

"Sheriff means to make us all lawmen," Mal said. "Charge us with ridding the town of those gorram criminals." He paused. "Am I close?"

Croder smiled.

"On the nose."

"Wait, you plan to… legalize these men so that they will go kill other men, who you would like to kill anyway?" asked Inara in rising tones of disbelief.

"I knew they taught you something while at the Guild besides whoring," snapped Mal.

"Mal…"

"Best thing to catch a skunk is another skunk, my ma always said," the sheriff was almost grinning now.

"I don't smell," muttered Jayne.

"Well, actually…" Simon murmured, then managed to look innocent as Jayne glared.

"There'd be payment," Croder said.

The crew was silent for a moment.

"Do we get to wear badges?" asked Jayne finally.

Mal sighed.

"Well, he's in." He looked over at Zoe. He didn't even ask, just looked.

"Yes, sir," she said.

Finally, Mal looked at River.

"What do you think, lil' albatross?"

River titled her head, like she was thinking, but her eyes were determined.

"Eye for an eye. Biblical. Time to kill the snake in the grass, drain its poison. Too much a metaphor, can't see the real for the literary form. Yes," she said, a mite belatedly.

"Shiny." Mal looked at Croder, not really liking how familiar the hard smile felt on his face. "So, how's about we get this deputizing over with?"

***

Somewhere in all the greenery, River had found a small stone that now sat balanced on the back of her hand. She'd been studying it for the past ten minutes or so, gazing at how the muscles moved under it. Or how the blood flowed, or something equally creepifying, Mal thought. He was also pretty sure that, with hardly a blink, she could backhand that stone at any one of them with enough force to put an eye out, at the least. At the most… well, he'd seen the Reavers. Or what was left of them.

Jayne and Zoe were looking like more traditional-type deputies, crouched down behind a convenient downed tree to wait out Cobra and his boys, who were at present inside the house a hundred feet in front. Although, Mal reasoned, it made sense for River not to quite fit in (disregarding even the normal reasons) because while Croder had seemed a little unsure about deputizing Zoe, he had been dead set against doing it for River.

"I got scars older than her," the sheriff said, gazing at the no-doubt innocent appearing form of River sitting cross-legged on the floor, hair in her face, murmuring something about flight trajectories to herself. Looking, all told, a tad whimsical in the brainpan.

Croder had offered to deputize Simon as well, but Mal explained that the doc would stay with Kaylee. Which was fortunate, because otherwise Jayne would have damn near hemorrhaged himself laughing at the idea of Simon with a gun, and then who would have fixed him? He'd sent Inara back to Serenity, and she'd gone, more's the miracle. After all the mess of finding some badges and getting sworn in (Croder even dug out a Bible to make it official), River had lain low, and Mal hadn't been surprised when she'd popped back up outside Cobra's, one of Jayne's spare guns held loose in her hand.

Fortunately, Jayne hadn't cottoned to that on yet. He was still admiring the shine of his badge.

"Wait 'til I write ma," he said.

"You don't stop flashing that around, I'll be writin her how her chŭn biăozi got himself shot in the head," Zoe snapped.

Zoe'd been quarrelsome ever since they started waiting, an edge to her that didn't come from nerves or fear of the bullets to be fired; Mal'd known her long enough to know that wasn't it. It was some other emotion, something deeper and more secret.

"Can't wait to get my hands on Cobra," Jayne said, checking for perhaps the eighth time that his safety was off. "How long do you think we have to wait here, Mal? My legs's gettin' itchy."

"Sheriff seemed confident that it wouldn't be too long; Cobra n' his gang get bored easy, sittin' in one place," Mal answered, his words to Jayne but his mind full with what he'd just said.

Revenge. That was the real reason they were here, all money aside. That húndàn had shot one of his and he meant to make it even, in blood. He wasn't a vengeful man, but he took it plenty serious when his crew got messed with. His crew… Mal felt his breath stop as he realized that the look in Zoe's eyes was guilt, not guilt that she hadn't stopped Kaylee from getting hit but because she hadn't ever gotten her own back for what happened to Wash, to rip it out of the flesh that took her man. For one dizzying moment, Mal felt his mouth open to apologize, of all the crazy things, to ask Zoe for her forgiveness, that he'd left a man behind, something he'd sworn he'd never do. Wash had been one of his, and ultimately his cuò wù.

"Time," River said.

The other three looked at her.

"What?" Mal said finally. His mouth felt dry. She gazed at him, eyes a little too wide, too knowing.

"Time. It heals."

"Yes," said Zoe, and now she was looking at Mal, like she knew, because with a history like theirs she probably did. "Yes, it does."

"Not gonna heal Cobra," muttered Jayne, and Mal had to chuckle, pulling his attention back to the silent house.

Truth be told, he could understand how Jayne felt, and as the minutes passed, Mal felt antsy, with a growing need to shoot something, preferably with the name of Cobra. Even River had dropped the stone from the back of her hand and come to curl up at their feet.

"It's structural, falling action to resolve things," she murmured. "First comes smiles, then lies. Last comes gunfire." She absently thumbed the safety off of Jayne's spare gun.

"Damaging my calm, Mal," whispered Jayne, but whatever reply sat in Mal's mouth was hastily swallowed as the front door Cobra's place slowly opened.

In the wet hush punctuated by slight drips from the trees around them, Mal stared at the man framed by the open door.

"It ain't him," he said, for Jayne's benefit, but also to make sure he kept his finger off the trigger. Breathe, Mal, just wait him out…. "Let him get to the yard, if he's leavin', and then… Jayne, make a noise. Like a bird or somethin'."

"Why'd I got to make a noise like a crazy person?" hissed Jayne, as Cobra's man hitched at his pants a little and stepped onto the porch.

"Cause I say so, dammit, so make it good."

The hundred feet closed to seventy as the man took a little walk around the yard. He lurched to the left, and Mal could see the bandage looping his side from here. He wondered, idly, if the bullet in his gut was his or Zoe's. At least they'd get the chance to add to it.

He was in the yard, coming closer, a few more steps and he'd be too close and why didn't Jayne do something?

Mal heard the hiss of breath as Jayne opened his mouth, but then an eerie whistling moan, like no other sound Mal'd ever heard, slid out into the clearing. Cobra's henchman twisted his head around, towards back where he'd come. Out of the corner of his eye, Mal could see River, using some fēng kuáng de talent of hers to make it sound like the animal (who, Mal was sure, River could name by kind and origin, like out of Simon's textbooks) was coming from farther off. Skin-crawling, but it took the attention off their hiding spot and was even drawing another liúmáng outside.

"Now," he said, and he felt more than heard Zoe and Jayne stand up next to him, and then the wet silence was broken by bullets smacking into wood, into dirt, and, most often, into flesh.

Croder was right: they were as brainless as a chicken lost its head. Even with the sounds of their buddies dying outside, a couple more of Cobra's men stuck their heads outdoors. Most of them remained there, slumped on the dirt, courtesy of Zoe or Jayne.

But still no sign of Cobra.

"Cobra!" shouted Mal, feeling the slide of sweat down the back of his neck as he quickly reloaded his gun. "You too yellow to come out here and face me? We can settle this quick and easy, just you and me."

Still silence from the house. Then the door eased open further, and Cobra's face was there, not so far as to be a target, but to get a sense of the landscape.

"Nice to see he's at least got a lick of sense," said Jayne, and Mal had to agree.

"I'm just supposed to head on out there so that you can separate my head from the rest of me?" Cobra finally shouted.

"I got papers for your arrest right here," replied Mal. "But mostly I'm here 'cause I figure you might want to make a deal on some of Mongoose's goods."

"Well, I never could say no to a good deal," Cobra edged closer out the door. "What say you folks put down your weapons and we see if we can arrange something?"

Mal felt his throat tighten, the landscape blur. Hold it together. "Well, that sounds mighty fine to me," he managed. He slowly lowered his gun.

Even as he did so, he caught sight of the glimmer through broken window glass on a rifle stock, and time slowed, became tight and crystal clear; he could hear the snick! of the safety and know that the gun was pointing at him.

BANG. The heat of the shot leaving Zoe's gun felt like it passed his head, though of course he couldn't have really felt it. Anymore than he felt the weight of the bullets that he hit Cobra with, two quick ones to the chest that threw him to the ground even as he started to smile, thinking he'd gotten the drop on Mal.

Moisture from the air hit the ground with a seemingly satisfied plop.

"Nice shot, Zoe," said Mal, feeling the relief almost cut the words short; relief even though he'd known she had his back, could feel it even as he felt that Cobra would try it, would try to settle it his way, forgetting how quick a double cross could flip.

Zoe marched over to Cobra's body, kicking it with her boot.

"Yes, sir," she said. "Pity we couldn't get them to go quiet."

River walked into the clearing, quiet footsteps even in boots. She glanced at Cobra and made a face.

"Cobra, family elapidae," she said. "Inhabits tropical regions. Bites slower than others snakes, and, statistically, many strikes are not poisonous. Faulty systems." River glared at the ground. "Killed with the bang stick, throw it on the trash heap." Then she smiled. "Biological order restored."

Mal grinned.

"Guess that means we can head back, folks. We'll settle up with Croder back at his office."

"Does this mean we have to give the badges back?"

"You can ask him, Jayne."

***

Mal sat on the catwalk in the loading dock, letting his legs dangle over. It'd been too long since he'd held that much coin, hell, any coin, and it meant the next civilized place they landed, the crew'd be eating plenty healthy for a least a few months. He should probably head up to check the flight plan with River. Bracing his hands against the railing, Mal stood and turned towards the bridge. Mind already sketching trajectories and angles, he kept walking, even as his shoulder slammed into Inara's.

"Oof," she murmured, and how she could even make that noise sound graceful and refined beat the hell out of Mal.

"Duìbùqĭ, Inara."

"No, it's my fault, I was preoccupied," she replied, and Mal had to work hard to keep his jaw from dropping.

"S'alright," came out with a cough. "Feel like I should be apologizin' just the same, seeing as how once again, my plan went to holy hell." Mal cracked a grin but didn't let himself look Inara in the eye. "Guess I'm not much of a criminal, huh?"

"No, Mal, you're not." There was agreement in Inara's voice, but also an affection that snapped Mal's head up, let him catch the energy in her eyes. Seeing him finally looking, Inara flushed. "I'm… how's Kaylee?"

Mal resisted the urge to scrape a foot on the ground, like a gorram schoolboy. "She's on her way to mending. Doc does good work."

"Yes, he does. I'm glad. Did…" she trailed off, Mal could see her throat muscles shift as she swallowed and started again. "Zoe tells me you shot him."

Now it was Mal's turn to swallow.

"Sure did. Twice." He made himself laugh. "Then Zoe kicked him."

Inara didn't laugh back, and Mal could see that the light in her eyes was hard, satisfied.

"I'm glad you shot him. I hope it hurt."

Guess we'll make you into a bad guy yet, Mal didn't say, but Inara smiled as if he had.

They stood in silence. Mal noted that, again, her dress was a perfect complement to the rising color in her cheeks.

"So…" he flexed a hand. "What with my failure at criminal activity, guess we don't have any need to be heading towards Santo." He stopped. "Unless you've got some… appointments lined up?" He was almost proud at how level his voice was.

"No! Nothing at all, nothing lined up, I mean… I have no need to go there, either." Inara bit her lip after the stammering. She stared at Mal like she was willing him to look away, make a joke, but he just kept meeting her eyes.

"Shiny," he said quietly. Then, before he could do anything else foolish or too much like himself, he slipped past to the foot of the stairs. The fading waft of lavender told him that Inara had slowly (hopefully thoughtfully and maybe a tad impressed, if Mal was lucky) continued in the opposite direction.

Mal started to climb to the bridge, then paused. He could picture River up there—and it always would be River, never Wash, always cryptic half-smiles, never parading dinosaurs that would still stay on those consoles until they all crumbled to dust—see her glancing through a wave of tangled curls at him. But she didn't need him up there; Serenity would keep. They don't need me tonight, he thought and walked back towards the kitchen, just in time to see it happen again.

"Jayne, what did I tell you? Sherrif Croder's wife gave us those berries for Kaylee, soon as the doc says she can have 'm. I catch you sneaking any and I'll throw you in an airlock again!"

"Aww, Mal, she won't miss one…"

"Yes, she will."

"You stay out of this, Zoe. I deserve more respect around here. I mean," Jayne paused for emphasis, "I am a man of the law now."

"Oh, I knew we should have left him on Beylix…"

"There's still time, sir."

"Don't tempt me, Zoe. Don't tempt me.

Their laugher ran on muffled steps down the hallways of Serenity, as the engine turned, pushing them past the stars, into the black.