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Mal's ear aches, itching where Zoe's done her best using that fancy equipment Inara brought back. Except she isn't all that used to it, and now Mal conjures his ear's wonky; it still hurts from time to time, especially when he gets hot or cold, and now Mal is in a fair foul mood. Naked and fuming, kicking up the sands of the desert as he watches Saffron fly away with his shuttle. Screaming words after her that he's sure would make her smile rather than take offence.

It doesn't take long for the anger to drain from him and the sand to get too hot to bear standing on. Mal finds himself a smoothish looking rock, and perches awkwardly until he finds a comfy spot and sighs. Should have seen this one coming, was a time he would have, too. Damn woman played him again. He just hopes Inara's kept up her end of the job, can at least get them the Lassiter.

*That went well.*

At least if they get the Lassiter it's all panned out well enough, though getting his clothes back would be nice, too. Not that Mal would mind the being naked so much if there was shade, but the sun's especially high and his rock's about the only protection around. The rock's warm but he'd rather not burn his feet or pigu on the sand and he can't do much but wait. Serenity will be coming for him, he knows it.

Times like this, alone with himself, he enjoys the quiet, finds it a welcome distraction from his own thoughts. Not that his thoughts seem at all distracted right now, crowding his mind, acting like the Lassiter-getting's a forgone conclusion as he runs through what to do with the take. Fancy take too, enough to keep Serenity flying, the crew's bellies full and some left over. Which he's got to be talking to the crew about. He knows they won't be complaining or disagreeing with him if he takes most of the rest to use in getting Simon back.

"No one works for free." He murmurs the words, though he's not including his own people in them. Can't see anyone complaining about using what they have, taking the time to get Simon, not even Jayne now. The doctor needs rescuing simple as, and they are the ones to do it. The man's on his crew and someone took him; Mal doesn't let his crew down, he always comes back for them, always gives them a fair time. Been long enough waiting to get Simon back, long enough to pool together the coin for it and scout around for contacts.

Getting Simon back is not looking to be so tricky; from what little they gleaned from Simon when he first came aboard, he hired folks that were able to walk right in and snatch River from the same men. Likelihood is security would be tight, but if they could pull off Ariel, pull off Tien knows how many other difficult jobs, and those people could get River out quick and easy–they could do it. Harder part would be *finding* Simon. Alliance has been clever enough to keep everyone looking for him, thinking he's still a fugitive. Meaning that the high up people with questions wouldn't be asking just yet or nosing around. Meant that Simon's location was still hidden.

But not for long. Mal's heard tell Mister Universe knows all and every in legal and illegal channels. Need something traced, he's got it in a second. Want to bury something, likewise. Man keeps to himself, no company save an interesting companion who Mal's not even rightly sure can be called that. Not even so sure where he is, not got enough trust to be told where. Not sure he wants to know either.

Serenity's there a while after his anger dies down, not so long he gets more than a touch of pink to his skin, though, and Inara's chiding is familiar, makes Mal smile, especially as he sees her eyes straying. Definitely went well for a change, few hiccups but nothing too major. Now Wash's eyes are straying too, Zoe's...he's not sure, she doesn't let on, but Wash is definitely ogling him, whereas Kaylee doesn't even seem to notice his nakedness.

"Good day. Good day." He can't stop smiling, stands looking out over the desert, imagining Saffron stuck in her bin and the smile widens further.

He doesn't pay mind to the rest of the crew around him, doesn't notice River moving up to them or the looks on Zoe and Inara's faces as they silently communicate delegation. Neither of them wants to be the one to tell Mal, but finally it falls upon Inara, who steps forward, her hand lightly resting on Mal's shoulder.

"Mal?" When he turns to her, query on his face, eyes skirting towards the small gathering in the cargo bay, she sees the oath that's springing to his lips and forestalls it. "Mal, we have a problem."

"Two problems, sir." Zoe steps forward as Kaylee lays her hands on River, lightly trying to steer her away, but River's not in a cooperative mood; after several tries, she leaves River with them and makes her way with Wash, to get Serenity back into the air.

"Too many voices untrue, spinning, all calling at once. Laugh as she slits our throat, spit on our corpses left for crows, no sorrow, no pain, just plans." River's moving past Mal, peering out of the cargo bay window and not elaborating, despite the strange look Mal throws her way.

"Have I descended into crazy now, seems that made a whole lot of sense. Guessin' it's Saffron she's meaning, but I'm fuzzy on the rest of it."

"It seems that way. Mal-" Inara's not been as unsure as this in a while, but Saffron's veiled threats and River's oddly-worded perceptions have thrown her off-balance. Seeing his perplexed look, feeling the slightest vibration as Serenity takes off; she seeks steadiness in the motion and looks straight at him. "I had to bring Saffron aboard."

"What in the name of tyen-sah cao you thinkin' on? We got enough issues with carryin' River aboard, bein' on the wrong side of the law ourselves most times an' fencin' these goods. Why'd you not leave her there?" The words spring out before Mal has time to think on them, though his rant winds down as he puts her words together with River's. "Can't be makin' motions to rescue Simon with her hanging on each corner, not to mention-Wo de ma, she mentioned them didn't she? Simon an' River? Talked on turning them in, right?"

"Was thinking this might be one you actually *do* throw out the airlock, sir." Zoe glances at Inara; it doesn't leave a great taste in her mouth to consider it, but the crew's been through enough with Simon's taking and Mal and Wash's torture; they could use a spell of good luck, not need to be
constantly looking over their shoulders. She can let what happened the first time go with a punch, but knowing the woman aimed to double cross them again, intended to play out taking Simon and River as her tall card and probably leaving them all for dead as River suggests, doesn't endear Saffron to her. Does completely the opposite.

Mal affixes her with a hard look, "No one's goin' out the airlock today, not when there's the chance she knows something. Musta seen somethin' an', much as I doubt she's gonna help with this, we gotta be sure she's not told anyone else." Besides, Jayne's a different matter and one Mal thought they'd settled; he knows full well Zoe's the one that let Jayne back in without question or warning, and the merc's turn coating is not something that needs rehashing.

"You can't kill her, especially not like that–it's barbaric." Even though Inara sees a type of irony and justice in it. That's exactly how Saffron intended to kill them all before, when Serenity was the goal she was after.

"Seems fair to me." Zoe doesn't add that she has no taste for the idea, lets them think what they will. Mal's known her long enough, it goes without saying.

"So what's the second problem?" Because Mal just knows this one's got to be the least interesting of the two.

"Not so much a problem, just badly misplaced-"

Inara's interrupted by Zoe, "River's taken to doping Jayne, seems to think he'll do hisself a damage if he wakes. He was starting to come around after Book scanned him and quick as you like she stuck him. He's going to be out a day or so."

River looks a lot less interested in the conversation now, though Mal catches her arm and her attention along with it. "Can't go dopin' my crew, little one, even if you've got your reasons. There's no place for them here, dong le ma?"

"Grinding, screaming, wouldn't be useful anymore, not for a long time." River rambles by way of reason, she felt the damage inside Jayne even if he only feels a headache. Needs Jayne much as she wants him scared and treading the line, needs him to get Simon back for them. Needs all of them.

"That's not so clear." Mal fixes her with a steady look, releasing her arm, though all River does is stare right back, tosses a look at him like he's being stupid before she wanders off, back towards the engine room, interested in what Kaylee's doing. "You keep outta mischief, you hear?" He turns to Zoe and Inara, "I swear no one listens to me, 'board my own boat as well."

"She'll turn on us." Zoe's back on point again, focusing on Saffron now; River's been acting strange the last few weeks, retreating into her mind more. It's only been a few days past since she's started coming out of her shell more often, and much as Zoe doesn't agree with knocking Jayne out, it's good to see the girl improving.

"First chance she gets." Mal's not disagreeing there. "That's why we keep her locked up, one of the storage rooms'll do. So long as she stays there, can keep her fed and watered–" Zoe raises an eyebrow at that, knowing their supplies won't last if they plan to keep her long, but Mal ignores it. "Ain't to be no one but you, Inara or Book goin' into that room."

"What about yourself?" Mal's state of undress has been forgotten up until now, but Inara's keeping her eyes firmly on Mal's face, resisting a second look. She's surprised he's not mentioned it himself, but not that he wants to keep Saffron's contact with the crew at a bare minimum. There were some who could be easily played by her, either by seduction or professions of a change of heart; she doubts Wash would be taken in, but there's always the possibility he could become sympathetic to a sob story, or Jayne could let his diao do the thinking for him.

"Can't say I'm ever wantin' to see that woman again. Anytime's too soon for my likin'." It doesn't sit well with Mal that she's aboard his ship; there's one who's likely to slit their throats while they sleep. "Best if it's just you three. Don't be lettin' Jayne or River, especially, near."

"Could be a good idea to dope her, for a time anyhow." Somehow Zoe suspects Saffron will be aboard awhile. They can't take the risk of her alerting anyone to River and Zoe knows the captain's got plans for rescuing Simon in the works. Wouldn't be good for anyone to get wind of those, either.

"That's inhumane, surely?" Inara doesn't want any chance of Saffron escaping either, and has to admit deep down that perhaps sedation would be a less discomforting step than the chains they have her currently bound in. But the idea of taking such a measure, it feels almost like a violation.

Mal's not about to argue Saffron's cause; good day waned by the news of her aboard, he's not a good person for Inara to look to for support. Besides, he's got his own musings to be dealing with, got to think on what to do once the Lassiter is sold. How best to be approaching Mister Universe, for one. Dratted woman's just a distraction he isn't wanting. He shrugs, meeting her eyes for a moment, "Conjure you two can come to some agreement, might be that some divine input could help your way."

"We should talk to the preacher." Zoe glances at Inara, waiting until the Companion slowly nods in agreement.

"Shiny." Mal grins, glad that burden's taken from him. He can't see much getting past either of them and combined, di yu, he wouldn't want to be under their scrutiny. "Just don't be kissin' her anytime soon."

 

end part 16