Chapter 4

Mal waved Inara as they agreed. No point in her waitin' round the docks, as Serenity could be hours off schedule and docks tended to be rather unsavoury places. Soon as he set Serenity down he waved the Training House, his stomach attempting to jump out his mouth as he did. Only that woman was not Inara.

"Name?" She asked. Mal did a double take. He was sure he'd dialed Inara's private cortex hookup, not the main Training House, but putting it down to nerves he smiled his most genteel smile and identified himself.

"Captain Reynolds."

"Who were you trying to reach?" She sneered.

Mal felt his hackles rise at her condescending tone, but he did his best to keep his own tone level if not exactly polite. "Inara Serra." The woman looked at something beyond the wave screen, and then connected him to -- not Inara.

He knew something was wrong, something was off, and flailed for answers as he half listened to yet another condescending voice. His heart sinking to his boots.

"Whadya mean she ain't there?" He choked out as something the woman said penetrated the swirling thoughts in his mind.

The woman looked affronted at his angry and uncouth words, but replied with insufferable politeness anyway. "As I was saying Captain Reynolds, about five days ago Inara took passage on a liner back to Sihnon." She looked as if she were about to say something more, but Mal shut the wave off.

Back to Sihnon. He shoulda known. Course she'd go back. Her days of adventuring on the Rim were over, this left a nice clean break. No wheedling words from Kaylee or River begging her to stay. No pleas for the loss of her polite society from Simon. No angry cold shoulder from...

Well. No point dwelling on it. They had a job to do. Mal grabbed his pistol and his coat, yelled for Jayne and headed out to the meet.

Jayne did his best not to glare at the man standin' next to him. They had a job to do and Mal was makin' a mess of it. He woulda thought seein' as how they had a newly repaired ship stocked with all manner of tasty freshness and more work lined up that he'd be in a good mood. But Mal was always in a bad mood whenever Jayne expected him to be in a good mood. And in a good mood whenever Jayne expected him to be in a bad one come to think on it.

But this was almost dangerous. The way he was baitin' the man. Funny as hell, but seein' as how they had five guns to their two, well, he sure as hell weren't laughin'. If he kept carryin' on he was gonna get the pair of them killt.

He'd seen Mal like this a few times afore. There didn' never seem to be much of any reason behind it. Least as far as he could tell. Course he weren't one fer reason. Trackin' and shootin' a man he could do, but understandin' one, hell, that weren' never a part of his job.

Though the way Mal acted from time ta time maybe it should be. Unbalanced and half cocked could get a body killed. Specifically his body. Time like this Zoe'd usually take over, but she was with the ship, again, so iffin' he didn' wanna get shot, and he really didn', he'd have to shut the Captain up before they both got shot up.

Course doin' so was touchy at best.


Mal turned, and seeing Jayne's confused and hesitant expression looked taken aback. He seemed to be thinkin' that if Jayne weren't enjoyin' the intimidatin' then clearly he'd gone a bit too far. Well, that stung a bit, but at least Mal was back to bein' more like his business self.

The room relaxed, hands stopped clenchin' awful near guns and though the contact was hardly likely to do business with Mal again least there'd been no shootin'. Not that he didn' like shootin', jus' didn' like shootin' when the odds were stacked against him

To his surprise there was no dressin' down for his 'insubordination' as Mal liked to put it, course there was no thanks for doin' his job either.

Mal asked the contact to have the crates brought to Serenity within the hour. So that was it. 'Nara must not be gettin' back onboard. Soon as they were back to Serenity he was gonna high tail it to his bunk. No sense sittin' around becomin' a target for Mal's worsenin' mood.

The months after she'd left the last time were among the worst he remembered, least on Serenity. Mal was an expert at alienatin' crewfolk when he was in a foul mood. He'd never seen a man drive people away so quick, or so effective.

Mal was hardly payin' attention to anything, or anyone on the way back to the ship. He nearly bowled over a child, and stepped on a few women's skirts without so much as a backward glance.

"Albatross, I wana be lookin' at stars in about-"

Jayne turned to see what had stopped Mal -- must be somethin' formidable, like an armed Zoe, to stop him cold like that with the towerin' rage he was in. It was just Crazy. She was standin' at the top of the catwalk holdin' Inara's bow and dressed like a Companion. Mal looked confused, before he could regain his howlin' temper, she spoke.

"Bare branches. Dormant. Waiting for spring." Her voice trembled at first, but became stronger as she spoke. Mal looked thoughtful for a moment, then he shook his head, pushed past Jayne, and headed up toward River. She stubbornly glared at him all the while. The anger in her eye sent shivers down his spine but Mal walked right on past her, marchin' up to the bridge.

Then she shrieked. The same god awful sound she'd made when the Reavers'd landed on Lilac. It chilled his blood, but even before he asked her the question on his mind she turned to him and flatly said, "no." Then she ran after Mal.

She was the creepiest thing he'd ever come across. Only two things scared him in the 'verse. Reavers and River Tam.

River smiled. Only two things scared Jayne Cobb: Reavers and River Tam. Elegant for a musclebound merc. But the smile was a blip on the radar. The Captain was radiating intense rage, and since Zoe was absorbed with her baby, Simon and Kaylee with each other, and Jayne was Jayne it was up to her. If she could make him understand. She thought she'd been perfectly clear.

He was a wounded lion. If you wounded a lion everyone knew you had to go and kill it. Otherwise in its rage it would kill anyone that came near it, whether they were the cause of the wound or not.

The men were already loading crates aboard Serenity. Jayne had taken over the loading, and Zoe would be there momentarily. River stared at the closed, and likely locked, door to the bridge. Mal was biding his time before he could escape to the black. A locked door had never stopped her before, it was just a manner of shimmying through the ductwork. Yes. That would leave her ten minutes to explain.

She gritted her teeth, braced herself and crawled up toward the bridge. After several grimy minutes she emerged in the lower deck of the bridge. She estimated surprise would guarantee at least a moment of his attention so she sprang up the stairs.

"Ai ya! Where the hell did you come from?"

"Numbers aren't quantified."

Mal grumbled a rather colorful phrase of Chinese under his breath which would have made Simon blush. She had to try again.

"They all did lie. They all dead lie." He glared at her.

"Educatin' about homonyms now?" He said in an unkind voice.

"She's not here."

"That's right. She's on her way back to Sihnon."

"No." She said.

"What do you mean no?" He was losing patience with her, but he had to know, so she said it again. "No."

"I ain't in the mood for one of yer riddles." He moved toward her, River knew he was angry enough to try a forcible removal from the bridge, but she kept trying anyway.

"Not a riddle. She's not going back."

"What's that supposed to mean? I know she's not coming back..." his voice trailed off, finally, he was using his brain. Noticing her word choice, he looked up at her.

"No liner." She stated. He looked horrified.

"How do you know that?"

"Numbers aren't quantified." And she saw on his face clear as day he understood. Which was a relief. She knew she could have forced him to listen, or made Serenity unable to fly, but this was better. Better to use words. That's what Inara had been teaching her. She was special, but using words was always better than using subterfuge or force. It was a shame she hadn't taught the Captain the same lessons. There was still time. She smiled. Mal didn't smile back, but he was no longer a wounded lion. No he was a lion looking for prey. Much better. Lions hunting used cunning. Mal left the bridge, River following.

Not on a liner, and not at the Training House. Then where the hell was she? Time for some answers, like why the hell he was being lied to. He could hear a now cheerful River mumbling something about 'no painted ship on a painted verse, but breath and motion, day after day, day after day.' The girl had a bright grin on her face and seemed to be skipping behind him. Well that was reassuring.

The cargo bay was full of crates, and a busy Zoe. Soon as Jayne saw his face he made a beeline to deeper into the ship. Well, Zoe'd do then, he wasn't expecting any shooting. River tapped his shoulder, the look on her face expectant. Girl didn't get out much and she'd obviously dressed for the occasion. As he thought on it for a moment Zoe approached.

"Sir?" She her eyes flicking between the pair of them.

"Got somethin' we need to do." He lapsed back into silence, knowing Zoe'd give him a few minutes to collate data . On the one hand River could be extremely useful. On the other there was no knowing what they were like to come across, or how she'd react to what they found out. As he stood there mulling on it Simon and Kaylee came walking up, hand in hand. At the sight of Simon, he had an idea.

"You want me to what?" Simon spluttered. He seemed horrified by the idea, and truth be told the look on Kaylee's face when he'd suggested it had made him reconsider, but there was no better way of finding out if Inara was at the Training House or not, and if they were lucky maybe even more than that.

"I jus' want ya to wave, an' maybe make an appointment."

"I'll do it." Jayne supplied. Zoe nearly choked she was trying so hard not to laugh, and River made no bones about her amusement, giggling.

"What? I'm a fine specimen. Been told that plen'y a times." Jayne insisted.

Keeping his own laughter buried deep he replied, "No, I'm sure yer a, a mighty fine specimen, but what we're lookin' for is information."

Jayne looked grumpy at his assessment, yet amused at Simon's uncomfortableness.

"Wait, you ain't never..." Robbed of his own chance at the fancy whores he turned to needle Simon. Mal wanted to hit him. Simon looked even less likely to cooperate now, and to make matters worse Kaylee looked almost on the verge of tears. Just as he was about to toss Jayne out of the bridge, Simon answered Jayne's question, his voice firm and steady.

"No." He turned and pulled Kaylee in close. "Never. Nor was it ever something I wanted."

Mal hoped the boy wasnt' about to spout off some syrupy sweetness to Kaylee, when she spoke. "Ya should do it Simon. With one of yer suits and those manners of yers ya look an' sound like one of the fella's that'd wave Inara. Think ya'd have them fooled."

"You sure? I mean if you don't want me to." Simon asked, not wanting a repeat of their week long fight. Mal wanted to roll his eyes.

"I'm sure, 'Nara's my friend, an' if the Captain thinks she might be in trouble we gotta do what we can ta help her out."

"We all settled then?" He said exasperated now, and if he were honest, a touch panicky. Every minute they spent dithering was a minute that Inara could be in worse shape. Simon and Kaylee looked chagrined, and he left the bridge to get fitted up.

"I can rig it so's it won't look like it's comin' from here." As she started to explain exactly how he interrupted her, "don' need to know the how Kaylee, jus' get it done."

She nodded and ducked out, leaving him alone with River, Jayne and Zoe.

River had made it clear she'd like to go along, but it was going to be him and Zoe. There was no telling what they'd find, and even though she was in a mothery way he was certain there'd be no shootin'. Not in such a fine establishment. Decision made he turned to inform his crew, "Jayne, yer with the ship on this one." Jayne looked, not disappointed, if he weren't mistaken there was a bit of a prideful shine to his eye. "River, I'm gonna need you ready to fly this bird in a moment's notice." She too looked at him with that same honoured look as Jayne's. Well, this was going better than anticipated. Turning to Zoe he said, "looks like it's just you an' me on this one." She nodded, "got a plan sir?"

He shrugged, "we'll see after Simon's wave."

Simon made the wave, and Mal had to concede the boy had gotten much better at impersonation for nefarious reasons. He stuttered here and there, but the receptionist seemed taken with him and offered to connect him with any of the Companions registered with the house. Five faced popped up on the vid screen, one of which was the woman he'd spoken with, Inara's not among them. Mal gestured for him to select the woman he'd dealt with.

Once the pair of them had settled on an appointment for that afternoon Mal took a deep breath. This was going to be tricky. "Looks like yer gonna be taggin' along with us on this one Doc."

"Mr. Lee, welcome." The receptionist fawned on Simon. Zoe stared at her, and Simon, though nervous, fell into his old polite habits, nodding in her direction. His bearing, pretty fits, and handsome features worked their charm. She fussed around him for a moment, then asked that he follow her.

As Zoe fell into step behind him the receptionist turned to speak, but Simon interrupted her. "My bodyguard will of course search the room and be near at hand." He smiled indulgently at the receptionist, "one can't be too careful." Though the receptionist looked as though she would prefer for Zoe to remain behind she acquiesced.

After passing though several corridors designed to confuse a person, they arrived at Miss Unagi's chambers. Zoe went into the room and appeared to search it. The receptionist didn't know what she was looking at as she placed the small microphone. She nodded to Simon and then took up a forbidding stance near the door.

"She'll be with you momentarily." The receptionist twittered to Simon, he nodded, entered the room and closed the door. It was up to him to get the truth out of her. She settled in to wait, knowing Mal was listening back at the shuttle just as she was through an earwig. Hopefully a polite query would be enough to get them a trail, and if not... it might be easier to search every ship that had docked in the past week than attempt to steal a Companion and force the information out of her.

Zoe heard a gracious voice, as the Miss Unagi entered and welcomed Mr Lee. After a rather complicated tea ceremony full of obsequious politeness she started to probe Simon. He gave her stiff answers that warmed her voice, and Zoe was guessing, narrowed their proximity. They danced and parried for several minutes until Miss Unagi seemed to realize Simon wasn't who he was pretending to be. She finally asked him in a thinly veiled way who he was and what he wanted, and Simon's voice came over the earwig hard, but not threatening.

"I'm a friend of Miss Serra's." There was a pause, then he continued, "I've been trying to track her down for several weeks, I understand she was here in a training position a few months ago, but my attempts to reach her have been unsuccessful." He then sighed in a pitiful manner, "it's just, I needed her guidance and comfort. You see my sister, she's, she's taken a turn for the worse and I needed to see Inara."

"I'm very sorry, you just missed her. She left with Raymond Davies this morning." There was another pause, then she continued, "as his personal companion. I'm sure you understand."

"Yes, thank you for your time."

"You are most welcome. Though I am not Inara, I'm sure I could be a source of comfort and guidance to you just as she was."

Simon made a polite refusal and then there was more polite conversation until he extricated himself. As they wove their way back through the maze Zoe could hear Mal's frustration and envy. Zoe knew the idea of Inara leaving to become a personal companion was something that smarted. Mal had nearly committed suicide with his foolish duel the last time the subject had come up.

Mal leaned back in the seat. Raymond Davies. He felt dazed, as if he'd been sucker punched. Time to close the book. Move on. Forget. When Zoe and Simon returned he merely grunted at their arrival and flew the shuttle back, in stony silence. If she wanted to leave that was her business. Could she have done so in a more civilized manner? Yes, but he'd come to learn civilized manners meant one thing to him and another to her. Apparently being civilized meant lying, politely of course, likely to spare him embarrassment, or Kaylee's feelings, or some such.

When he radioed Serenity to let River know it was time to go, Jayne sounded worried, "glad to hear from ya, crazy's been on about how remedies ain't nuthin but poison. Kaylee's with her now, but she's in a right state."

Mal felt Zoe's look. Remedies sounded an awful lot like Raymond Davies. She didn't say anything, for which he was grateful. Remedies. Raymond Davies. River did say Inara wasn't going back. That they all did lie, or was it dead lie?

"Zoe, get on the cortex, an' find anything you can about Raymond Davies."

"Raymond Davies. Son of the great Alistair Davies, Member of Parliament for almost twenty years, sits on the Cabinet as Minister of Trade. Raymond has estate holdings on Bellerphon, Sihnon and Ariel. Sits on the board of Macnair Incorporated." Zoe rattled off from her seat in the co pilot's chair. Mal was standing near the lockers behind the pilot's chair which held a silent River.

"That it?"

"Looks like he's been questioned under suspicion a few times with local authorities on Persephone."

"Persephone?" Simon asked, thinking it was odd for a man like Raymond to be involved with the law on a rim planet like Persephone very far from home and the shiny boardrooms of his profession. It was a fair question

"Suspicion of what?" Jayne asked, talking over Simon as he did so. Another fair question, though the two of them seemed to think the others' question didn't have merit. Before the two of them could get into an argument Zoe interrupted with more information, "once for assault and battery of an acquaintance. And again for another acquaintance."

"Female acquaintances?" Mal asked. The bridge was quiet. Jayne's face hardened and Simon and Kaylee's eyes both widened.

"Doesn't say sir."

"How long ago were those?" He continued.

"About five years," She paused, "Sir. He used to have holdings on Persephone, but sold them and moved back to Sihnon after the second incident." She kept looking, everyone mulling over what they had dug up so far.

"Sir." Zoe sounded confused, "almost two years ago there was a large sum of money transferred from his father's accounts to the Guild on Sihnon."

She looked up at him, not knowing what it meant, but then neither did he.

"Too big for a regular contract." Simon piped up. They all turned to look at him, a look of betrayal on Kaylee's face.

"It was an open secret that most the men of my set visited Companions, and while in public the fees were never discussed, I have it on good authority that the figure we're looking at right now is about ten to twenty times the cost of a regular contract."

"What are you getting at?"

Simon swallowed hard, "The only reason to pay that much would be to cover something up."

"I'm not sure I understand," said Zoe, "I thought Companions were highly respected?"

"They are, but-"

Mal interrupted, "but things like a love child, or an assault, wouldn't be."

Simon nodded.

"Sir. There's something else. Raymond is in possession of a luxury yacht, a yacht which left Sihnon about a week ago-"

This time it was River who interrupted, "and landed this morning."

She pointed to her cortex screen. Silence would have been better than Kaylee's horrified gasp as she put the pieces together. She turned to Simon who embraced her.

"I don' git it." Jayne said.

Mal sighed, "ten to one Inara's on that yacht."

"But why?"

"I'm thinkin' it was somethin' between the two of them his daddy paid to cover up." Mal replied .

"Nara had a kid?" Jayne asked, incredulous.

Simon saved Mal the trouble of answering, "I think assault of some kind is more likely with the record from Persephone."

"Húndàn." He said, spitting on the floor. River stared at the tiny puddle with wide eyes, then she spoke. "Pad 92."

Mal nodded. "Zoe, see if you can get the plans for his yacht, we'll need to know the layout and approximately how many people we'll be dealing with." Zoe nodded and began searching, Kaylee moving to stand over her shoulder to help.

Mal turned to River, "I'm gonna need you to fly Serenity. If all goes well, we'll meet you in the air."

"And if it doesn't?" Zoe asked

"Then you'll have a head start gettin' the cargo where it needs to go."

Kaylee started to protest, but Zoe nodded, then turned Kaylee back to the work they had to do.

"Simon-" He started, but the young man quickly nodded and interrupted him, "Infirmary."

"Jayne. We'll need guns. And grenades." Jayne grinned and swung down into his bunk where his best weaponry was kept.

The uniform didn't quite fit over the body armor, but if they weren't lookin' too close it wouldn't matter. Jayne grinned at him, pleased with the outcome of his plan. Mal couldn't lie, it was a good notion. Without Jayne's moment of brilliance the two of them woulda walked in guns blazin', and while that might work on occasion, stealth was a better option. Especially as it would likely prevent shootin'.

Pausing to add a fifth grenade to the stolen bags Jayne turned to Mal. "Got a plan?"

Mal looked around, so far their little act of infiltration had gone unnoticed. The two crew members on a smoke break hadn't returned to help with the loading, but no one seemed to have noticed. He and Jayne had dispatched them with practiced ease, stripped them and tied them up in the utility shed nearby.

The crew was a hive of activity around pad 92, which held the sleekest and cleanest spaceship he'd ever seen. Should be easy to join in the activity unnoticed, the crew didn't seem chummy.

"Sneak in with the wait staff."

Jayne nodded, and Mal went back to observing. A little reconnoitering was in order before they snuck in. Zoe and Kaylee had assured him it could hold a maximum of thirty, and from the looks of things at least ten of those were wait staff. He counted five guards milling around taking their ease. Hopefully their ruse would hold until they found Inara, who Kaylee thought was likely being held in one of the estate rooms near the center of the ship.

She couldn't be sure though, but she did think the map they'd managed to find on the cortex was like to be accurate since the yacht was only a few months out of dry dock.

"Mal." Jayne brought him out of his thoughts, Mal turned to look at him and Jayne gestured toward the ship. The activity was slowing down, they were getting closer to take off. It was now or never. Mal nodded, grabbed his bag packed with guns and ammo and sauntered up to join the crew. Jayne off to one side, a grim look on his face. They knew if they were found out it would be at least ten to one against them, and if the yacht took off with them on board their chances of getting back off would be slim enough to not bother calculating.

Huh. Never would have thought he'd be boarding a yacht to save a whore with only Jayne as back up. But there you have it. 'Verse was a strange place, and while he would've preferred Zoe, Jayne was a crack shot who never hesitated.

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