On Serenity, as Simon reviews the data he collected on River in "Ariel", Shepherd Book looks over his shoulder, musing about a "warrior-poet" named Xiang Yu. Book cites a Xiang Yu quote that suggests that the way to truly learn about someone is to torture them, and wonders if this was the purpose behind the brain surgery done on River. Simon disagrees, believing there was a specific goal the unknown surgeons were hoping to achieve. Elsewhere, crime lord Adelei Niska is having another betrayer tortured, also alluding to Xiang Yu. His new lieutenant, Victor, interrupts him to announce a nearby Firefly-class ship that might belong to Malcolm Reynolds, the man who abrogated a business arrangement with Niska. Niska orders his man to fetch the culprit.
Back on Serenity, Kaylee playfully chases River around the cargo bay, after the girl "took [her] apple", despite Jayne having contributed a crate's worth to the ship's stores. Amid the noise, Inara urges Mal to respect the privacy of her imminently arriving client, a local councilor of some political importance. Mal reassures her that he won't cause a scene like the earlier one ("Shindig") that nearly got him killed. Inara is also concerned about the other crew "ogling" her client.
Later, Zoe and Wash puzzle over Jayne's generosity as they munch on the apples. Kaylee asks why Zoe and Mal always cut up their apples, and Zoe (and Mal, who joins them) tell a war story about "griswalds", tiny pressure-sensitive explosive grenades that were embedded in apples by Alliance troops. Wash sardonically embellishes the story, annoyed at the frequent references to his wife's long history with the captain. Mal vetoes Wash's idea to improve their profit from the medicine sales by bypassing the local middlemen. Wash is surprised by this, because Zoe had told him that she hadn't run it by the captain. Later, Zoe admits to Wash that she had mentioned it, Mal disagreed, she accepted his judgment and then lied to Wash to spare his feelings. This makes Wash all the more upset because of her casual deference to Mal and dishonesty with him.
In the Tams' quarters, River reminisces about her fun with Kaylee, but her chaotic thoughts intrude on her, despite Simon's treatments. Elsewhere, Book chides Kaylee and Jayne for trying to steal a peek at Inara's arriving client, who turns out to be a woman, against the crew's expectations. (Jayne's lecherous response, "I'll be in my bunk," becomes a running gag throughout the episode.)
Preparing the shuttle for their business rendezvous, Zoe and Mal discover that it has been sabotaged by Wash, who demands that he go with Mal to the meeting. He explains that he wants to take Zoe's place at Mal's side, so they don't bring back yet another tale of adventure-laden bonding. An annoyed Zoe leaves them to their mission, and Mal reluctantly agrees, more concerned about getting underway than participating in a domestic dispute.
In her quarters, Inara massages the councilor, while remarking that when she chooses her rare female clients, she does so because they are extraordinary in some way, and hints that the councilor's gift is allowing Inara herself to relax and serve her own needs as well as the councilor's.
Meanwhile, Wash defends his assumption of Zoe's role to Mal, and winds up hauling the merchandise to the meeting. As the deal goes down, the middlemen are killed by snipers who suddenly arise from the sand and capture Mal and Wash.
Later, as Inara bids goodbye to her client, Zoe becomes concerned about what happened to their missing crew mates. Book volunteers to accompany them, and at the deserted meeting site determines the weaponry used to take their people. Zoe notices the abandoned supplies and a burn trail left on the ground by a short-range craft "not commonly part of a spaceship," but of a space station. The evidence implicates Niska in the kidnapping.
On Niska's skyplex, the kidnappees bicker, with Wash becoming increasingly incensed about both the danger that Mal regularly exposes Zoe to, and that she obeys Mal. Wash questions Mal's assertion that his first mate doesn't blindly obey him, but Mal backs it up by claiming he told her not to marry Wash. Niska appears and begins his Xiang Yu-inspired torture, but Wash and Mal spend the entire time continuing their bickering, all the while refusing to acknowledge the torture. Mal notices that Wash's anger keeps him from collapsing, so he hints about a sexual history with Zoe. Wash, however, is sure this never happened, and claims that Mal should sleep with her, just so his wife could get past what Wash feels is a fixation on her captain. Mal accepts to keep Wash from breaking.
Meanwhile, Zoe collects all the funds remaining from the Ariel job in order to pay off Niska to release her shipmates, counting on his perverse code to treat this as a business transaction. She turns out to be correct, but Niska declares that she has only enough money to secure one man's release. Expecting to be entertained at Zoe's dilemma, Niska is disappointed when she chooses her husband before he even finishes his taunt. Niska, claiming she paid a little bit extra, severs Mal's ear and gives it to Zoe as a "refund".
By the time Zoe gets Wash back to the shuttle, she immediately prepares a rescue mission. The rest of the crew, including an initially reluctant Jayne and a very calm Book, choose to assist Wash and Zoe, while Inara tries to gain assistance from the councilor. Wash takes Serenity in powered down for a precision stealth breach, allowing the crew to board the station before the defenders can respond.
After Mal has endured further torture without breaking down, Niska has a device affixed to Mal's chest which forces thin tendrils underneath his skin, causing extreme pain. The treatment kills Mal, but his tormentors revive him, leaving the weakened captain lying unrestrained on a table as they slice him with wire cutters.
As Zoe leads Jayne and Wash toward the torture room, Book, Simon, and Kaylee stay behind to prevent the station personnel from taking the ship. While Book and Simon hold their own, Kaylee is emotionally unable to attack, and retreats when pressed by enemy gunfire. River, who has stayed out of the gunfight until this point, appears and takes Kaylee's pistol. After a quick glimpse at the three attackers, River emerges, closes her eyes, and kills the enemy troops with three rapid, precise shots.
Deep inside the skyplex, the intrusion alarm distracts Niska. Mal uses the distraction to take out the torturer with the same tendril-producing device used on him earlier. As Mal starts to beat the retreating Niska, the torturer recovers, giving his boss a chance to escape. The rescuers arrive to find Mal being throttled by the torturer. Though Zoe initially suggests Mal must face his torturer alone, he exclaims in the opposite, and the crew guns the torturer down.
Later, Mal joins the crew in Serenity's cargo hold, where he fiddles with his ear, reattached courtesy of equipment supplied by the councilor. Simon expresses discomfort at shooting people, but Book reassures him that it's unlikely he actually shot anyone in the gunfight. In the dining room, in a display of marital devotion, Zoe serves her recuperating husband some soup. Mal enters to remind Wash of the agreement they made during the torture. To Wash's objections, he explains to Zoe about their mutual "burning sexual tension". Zoe plays along, and just as the war veterans awkwardly move as if to embrace each other, Jayne walks in and comments that something about that was "downright unsettling". An irate Wash finally gets up, dragging his wife off. Jayne immediately descends upon the abandoned soup.