Title: And the Seven Dwarves

A Sorta Fairytale Series: Part Five

Author: Syn

E-Mail: veruca_werewolf@hotmail.com

Disclaimer: Firefly doesn't belong to me, sadly enough.

Rating: PG-13

POV: Zoë, Simon, Inara, Kaylee, Wash, Book, Mal

Distribution: Ask and ye shall receive.

Summary: News travels fast...and everyone has an opinion.

Feedback: If you wanna, no pressure.

A/N: A looong in coming story, one that I neglected for awhile. I missed my show and was feeling sullen about it. But I got over it and decided to end the series out. There's not real closure, but I like it.

***

Mal's like a book. At least to me he is. Every nerve, every muscle tick in his face is like a word or a poem. Years of battle and fighting side by side have let me learn the shape of my Captain. My friend. I know him better than I know my own husband. There are no surprises here.

Maybe that's why I fell in love with Wash? I can never tell what he's thinking or feeling or about to do. He's a complete mystery to me in a way that the only other important man in my life isn't. It excites me, sets my blood boiling whenever I look at him. That doesn't happen with Mal. I look at him and its like he doesn't even need to speak. Not that I mind. Gets damned handy on the battlefield and its awful useful in day-to-day situations.

Like now. I can gauge his reactions perfectly and I can move in place before he even knows what he's doing. Like a well-oiled gun out of a holster, he shoots for the door, but I'm already there, blocking his progress. His eyes blaze, mouth set in a grim line that tells me he's got killin' on the mind and there ain't gonna be no stopping him. Not even me.

"Move, Zoë. Or I swear, I will move you." Mal growls through his teeth, eyes narrowing and his hands balling into fists.

"You might want to think before you act, Cap. Situation like this is real touchy. I don't want you going in there all half-cocked ready to spit nails."

"I am not half-cocked! I'm fully cocked and ready to kick some ass!" He sputters indignantly and reaches for me. I step backward, letting him gain ground toward the door to think he's winning. Which, he isn't.

"Have you even thought about what you're going to say to him?"

"Yes! It goes something like, 'Get off my ship. In pieces!' Has a nice ring to it, don't it?"

"Maybe you should wait and--"

"And what? Let him sit cozy in his bunk while that girl is lying in the infirmary thinking God knows what? I hate shipboard romances! I definitely hate...whatever it was they did!"

"But you don't know! Let River wake up first is all I'm saying. See what she says."

He stops in mid-retort and looks me up and down like I've grown fangs and yellow eyes. "What's going on here, Zoë?"

"Nothing, sir."

"Why ain't you ready, willing and able to beat him over the head with his own severed arm?" He steps forward again, towering over me like he can impress me. I stare up at him and arch an eyebrow.

"No particular reason. Just think this might not be any of your business. Sir."

"Is that right? Then why did you tell me?"

"I knew you'd hear about it sooner than later and thought I should prepare you. And stop you from doing something damned foolish." I tell him, not really sure if I believe it or not. Why did I tell him? Why aren't I willing to jettison Jayne into the black? When I think about whatever happened between the two of them, I gotta believe that it's none of our business. That feeling is damned familiar too.

"How's that working out for you?" Mal says, grabbing my shoulders in his hands and pushing me out of the doorway.

"Sir, just wait until River wakes up--"

"An order? On my own ship? I do believe you're out of line, Zoë." Mal calls over his shoulder as he disappears down the corridor, heading in the direction of Jayne's quarters.

"Gorramit." I mutter and hit the bulwark with my fist. Pain throbs through my fist, but an uneasy feeling settles in the pit of my stomach. Listening to Mal rant hit something in me. It was real close the reaction I got when I told him Wash and I were getting married. He went on for days about romance getting in the way and trying to get in our business.

Maybe I just feel for River a little. I'm not exactly sure what happened between her and Jayne and I don't want to. I know a little something about that girl though; nobody makes her do something she doesn't want to. Little girl lost is mostly an act and I can feel it. I've never cosseted her and I'm not going to start now. She gets enough of that from her brother and most of the time I can see her chaffing against his apron strings.

Which is why I wouldn't be surprised if she did this just to get back at him. Or, who knows? Maybe it was something more? A bitter smile crosses my lips. Like, love maybe? They're as different as night and day...but stranger things have happened on this ship.

I know that for a fact.

With a sigh, I turn around and head toward the cockpit, where my own stranger thing is waiting for me. I hope everything works out. If not, I might have to crack a few skulls. Could be a real good day.

***

My baby sister is so beautiful. Bright, intelligent. Maddening. A pain in my rear end. And no longer a little girl, as she told me in no uncertain terms a few minutes ago.

Watching her sleeping form, mouth parted slightly and her waxen pale face turned into the pillows, wild tumble of hair so like our mother's, I can't help but smile. I used to think I could hold onto her forever. I let her slip between my fingers once and when I finally got her back, I wanted to hold onto her so hard. To save her from her tower. To be her knight in shining armor. It used to be enough when we were children.

I sometimes think our parents weren't prepared for children. Yes, they loved us and yes they provided for us, but as soon as we were old enough, they shipped us off to boarding schools 'for our own good'. I wasn't happy there, all alone, knowing River was off doing God knew what. But she wasn't the kind of child that needed a mother to hold her and kiss her knee when she skinned it. She never climbed into our father's lap and had him read to her. She could read on her own from age three and made sure everyone knew it.

I wasn't like that. I craved acknowledgment and assurance. Every hurtful thing my father did was a nail in my heart. He wouldn't spend time with us, except to drill us about our education or anything else that didn't deal with emotion. Don't get me wrong, my father loved us and we knew it, but he never showed us, just kept us at a distance so he didn't get wrapped up in us. I think River sensed that from early on and took her own emotional happiness into her own hands. I, in a way, took over the role of father for her when I saw that my father wasn't going to. I didn't want her to feel like I did.

When they took her away, I was torn up inside. Worried that she was too headstrong for her own good and that she would get into trouble at that special academy. Then, the letters started and I knew, I just knew. And father wouldn't help. He didn't know her like I did. He couldn't read his own child because he didn't know her as that. She was his genius daughter, a bragging right and a status symbol and nothing more.

He had no idea how special she was. He never will if I can help it. The last time I saw my father, I realized I didn't know him. It hurts, thinking about all that I lost, but when I look at her sleeping on a simple cot in a rusty spaceship in the dead of space...it helps. I saved her from the Alliance, but...

I have to stop trying to save her all the time. It's not my job; it never was.

With a resigned sigh, I stand up and start toward the hallway, knowing I have to speak to the Captain about what happened. My leg aches as I move it and I feel the muscles pulling, half-healed, evidence of my stupid, unneeded heroism. When am I going to learn that she doesn't need my help?

I step out of the infirmary and slam straight into Captain Reynolds as he rounds the corner, his nostrils flared. I step back and blink stupidly in the dim lights.

"Sir? I was just coming to speak to you."

"Were you now? How's your sister?" He says, looking over my shoulder into the infirmary, where River is visible on the cot, sleeping soundly.

"Good. She had a negative reaction to the medication I gave her. It worked, but I have to change the dosage or she'll have another fainting spell." I explain as he nods his head, his jaw working, teeth grinding.

"And what did she say before she fell asleep?" He asks point-blank, glaring at me. I know exactly what he wants me to say. He wants me to give him a reason to beat the hell out of Jayne. As much as I'd like that...

"She told me it was none of my business, sir."

"Did she?"

"Yes."

"You're not telling me everything."

"Because, I don't feel I should. This isn't something you should involve yourself in, sir. I personally feel uncomfortable thinking about it and talking about it is only going to make the situation worse."

"Oh, I'm not looking to talk. Something violent and bloody is more my style."

"Sir...you really shouldn't..."

"You, of all people, doctor...shame on you." He says and then pushes past me. I swear, sometimes that man's head is so thick. With another resigned sigh, I call back to him.

"She seduced him. Jayne isn't to blame." I call as he stops dead on the steps, his shoulders rigid.

"He isn't?"

"No."

"See, that's where I think you're wrong. Ain't no man strong enough to resist little sister's charms, I suppose? She's so powerful that he just...tumbled into bed with her? Completely on accident?"

"Well, I...no..."

"There's an old saying, doctor. It takes two to tango. Now your sister, she don't even know the steps, but Jayne's worked his way through a whole dance hall. So you tell me who's to blame for this...thing?"

"Sir, I may not like her choice of partners, but I honestly don't think--"

"Ain't looking for you opinion, Doc. Serenity's my ship and I'll stick my nose into every move you make should I get the notion in my head. Jayne is my problem. Now why don't you go back into your med lab and make sure the princess wakes up all nice and refreshed?" He says as he goes up the stairs, past the engine room, where I see Kaylee inside. I don't stop though and just walk on, following Mal, knowing I'm about to get into an all-out war that shouldn't even be fought.

This is going to be a long day.

***

"'Nara? You busy?"

I look up from the book in my hands and smile at the sight of Kaylee standing in the doorway to my shuttle, her hands jammed into the pockets of her dirty overalls, her hair falling in messy curls around her streaked face, doe eyes wide and her mouth an unhappy, thin line.

"Of course, sweetie. What's the matter?"

"You haven't heard?"

"Heard what?" I ask, making room on the bed for her sit down, never minding the expensive silk possibly getting ruined by her overalls.

"Well...from what I can put together, Jayne and River, they...well..."

"Well what?"

"They, you know. Last night." She says, gesturing with her fingers.

"Made love?" I say, not as shocked as she might have thought me.

"Yeah." Kaylee says as she tucks her knees up and rests her chin on them. She looks like a child sitting there; completely naive to the ways of the world, when I know that's not true. I forget how much she's seen when I look at her. She's not a wilting flower, that's for sure, but its like she has certain blind spots from time to time. "You don't seem surprised."

"Because I'm not."

"Why's that?"

"Well, I'm not sure what happened or the details, but I know that River is a beautiful young woman who is certainly at the age where she would want to find herself a partner. And I also know that men are in short supply on Serenity. Jayne was really her only logical choice if you think about it."

"Yeah...but...the Captain..."

"You think she could have chosen Mal?" I say a bit sharply. Kaylee raises her head and lets a smile cross her face.

"That's not what I meant. I just...the Captain is mad. I heard him and Simon a minute ago arguing. He thinks Jayne's to blame."

"Blame? Sweetie, there is no blame in these things. People come together because they want to. They find something that they're lacking in themselves, or admire in others and they join together to reach that feeling. Or for more carnal reasons. I should know. I make a damned good living at it." I say, smiling slightly to ease the harshness of the words.

"But Jayne's...well you know how Jayne is. And River's just a baby yet...what if he..."

"River's not a baby. Think about yourself at that age. Would you call yourself a baby?"

"No. In fact, this one time I was out in the barn and...well it involves Orli Granger and a pitchfork. You don't wanna know."

"See? She's not a baby. She knows what she's doing, even if she is a bit...odd. And Jayne, well I'm not saying his judgment is off, but if she trusts him then I'm no one to judge her or him and neither should you. Would you like everyone to run around voicing their opinions of you and Simon?"

"But that's different!"

"How so? Two people, living in close quarters... feelings grow and you're suddenly at the mercy of your heart and your hormones, no matter how crazy and unconventional it is. You can't help it. It's only natural that someone is going to fall for someone. There are always complications, but it happens. Sometimes it even works out."

"Like Wash and Zoë?"

"Yes."

Kaylee gets quiet as she rests her chin on her knees again, rocking back and forth slightly, her eyes distant. I'm not sure what she was thinking of when she came in her, but I think I've given her some of the answers she wanted to hear. Intuition tells me she wasn't so much concerned with whatever happened between River and Jayne though. No, I think this has hit a bit closer to home than she wanted.

"Do you think...I mean, if Simon and I...if we...? Would Mal get mad and scream like he was doing earlier?"

"Mal's an idiot. His stupid no romance policy was meant to be broken and even he knows it. And if he does have a problem with it, I'll just have to take him in sword fight. He's horrible with weapons that don't go bang." I say, nudging her with a finger. She giggles and unfolds her legs. "So, have I given you enough food for thought?"

"Yeah. Thanks Inara."

"My pleasure." I say as she climbs to her feet and starts toward the door. "And Kaylee?"

"Hmm?"

"Don't rush things with Simon. Its always better when you take your time."

Kaylee smiles and ducks her head, then rushes out the door, boots clattering on the metal steps. I listen as the sound echoes through the cargo bay before attempting to go back to my book. The words swim on the page and I give up, tossing it aside and staring into space.

While I wasn't shocked about River and Jayne, I was a little surprised that Jayne would let River near him. He seemed so stand offish toward her, especially since she cut him down the middle. I just didn't see that one coming and I'm usually fairly abreast of these things. It doesn't make sense. But...maybe it doesn't have to.

Some things just don't make sense, no matter what how you try to rationalize it. Some things just are.

***

They're yelling. All three of 'em. Down the corridor, I can hear 'em plain as day. Not even Serenity's thick bulwarks can drown their voices out. My stomach twists into knots as I listen, ducking back into the engine room, the ghost of Inara's incense in my nostrils.

I wish they wouldn't fight over this. I wish Jayne wouldn't roar like that. I wish the Cap wasn't a big stupid head with some weird prejudice against anyone being happy. 'Course I don't know if either Jayne or River were happy or...really much of anything that happened. Like I heard Simon say earlier, it's none of anyone's business but their own.

But I can't help this knot in my tummy. The way everyone's acting. I saw the look in Zoe's eyes in the med bay earlier, the way she told Jayne to get to his bunk, like he was a monster. I didn't react too good either, movin' away from like he had some disease. I just didn't know what to think. Jayne's like an annoying older brother who torments you to death. You don't really like him, but you know him and you tolerate him until he does something stupid.

Thing is, I ain't sure he did something stupid. Finding someone, anyone, to relieve the loneliness of living out here in the black isn't a crime. To touch someone and really see them for who they are...well, I've never had that. Except with Simon. When he looks at me, it's like all the protective layers I got around me just melt away and he's staring straight into the core of me. Just...seeing. Looking like he's a hungry man on a desolate planet and I'm the only meal within a hundred miles.

I get all warm and cold and hot and gooey and shiver whenever his eyes meet mine. I don't know what that means. I ain't never been in love, but this is by far much, much deeper than any crush I've ever had. I can't imagine my life without him and I don't really want to try. All I know is that if I had the chance...I'd grab on and never let go, so long as I didn't have to ever feel that void in me that I know would be there if he left.

Yeah, I can't blame River or Jayne for trying to capture that same feeling. I don't know if that's what they did it for, but anything is better than that void of loneliness. Not even a man like Jayne would turn away from feeling something in a long, cold, black night. I'm not going to judge him unless I'm given a reason to.

I hope everyone can do the same, but from the sounds coming from down the hall, I know that ain't gonna be the case.

"Kaylee?"

I turn around at the rich voice coming from the doorway to the engine room. Dropping the converter in my hand, I turn and see Reverend Book standing there with a dark look on his face.

"Hey, Preacher."

"What's going on?"

"Long story short, River slept with Jayne. Or Jayne slept with River. I'm not sure on the exact what's what, but now River's sleeping off an overdose in the infirmary and the Cap's gonna kill Jayne for taking advantage of River. Simon's caught in the middle."

"What?" Book says, blinking and clutching his Bible to his chest. Doesn't he ever drop that thing? Like we're all such sinners that we need saving between breakfast and lunch everyday?

"River and Jayne--"

"I heard you...I'm just trying to take it all in. Why did River overdose?"

"One of Simon's experiments. He's got her all whacked out, but he thinks he's found the right drug this time. It worked for a while before it got to be too much for her system and she passed out."

"Oh. And...Captain Reynolds is, ahem, yelling at Jayne?"

"Yeah. He's mad. Thinks Jayne took advantage of River. Bet you think so too."

"Judge not, less ye be judged, Kaylee." Book says, nodding his head and pressing his lips together and staring down the corridor in the direction of Jayne's bunk. A dark shadow flits over his face as he hesitates at the doorway like he wants to get in the middle of it and like he wants to stay out of it. I bet he's already got a prayer ready.

"Book?"

"Yes, Kaylee?"

"What do you think about all this?"

"I'm not sure. I've always been one to look at both sides...seems unfair to judge Jayne without talking to River first."

"Maybe you should."

"I think that's wise, Kaylee. But...perhaps I shouldn't get involved. Romantic entanglements certainly aren't my area of expertise. But I would like to speak to River anyway. She's an odd girl, but I find her views on certain events to be very...enlightening."

"She likes to argue, you mean."

"Yes she does. Girl has a set of lungs on her and convictions as strong as the Lord's prayer."

I smile and duck my head, flinching as a particularly loud four-letter word filters through the bulwark and assaults our ears. I turn a really hideous shade of red beneath the streaks of oil on my face like a tattoo and look up at Book, who is still standing in the doorway, torn between retreating and engaging.

"Are you all right, Kaylee?"

"Me? I'm shiny." I say with false brightness, trying not to let my heavy thoughts weigh down the smile on my face. "I...have a lot of work to do though. Maybe you should go visit River now? She should be waking up any minute now."

Book looks me over and slowly nods his white head, then ducks back into the corridor, disappearing in the direction of the infirmary and thankfully, not Jayne's bunk. That's the last thing Mal needs to hear--Book preachin' over his rants.

Looking at the converter in my hand, my mind trawls over a lot of things. Like River and Jayne and what Inara told me about two people coming together. I don't know...maybe I was pushing Simon too hard to go to the next step in our relationship. Simon's old fashioned and proper. He's gotta move slow and romance me inch by inch. Look what rushing it did to River and Jayne.

Yeah, I can wait. And make it perfect when it does happen and maybe then Mal will be so used to us together that he won't go all...yell-y at Simon.

I can only hope.

***

So here I am, fiddling with buttons I probably shouldn't be fiddling with. Its fun to fiddle. Fiddling gets my attention off the Big Screaming Match going on in the corridor below me. I can hear them all from here, but I can't really tell what they're saying. Well, maybe a few colorful invectives here and there, but nothing to satisfy my eavesdropping tendencies.

I flip the autopilot off again and take over flying again. Not that there's anything to fly around. Just black, empty space. Mal made me plot out another no-sightseeing course yesterday when we got supplies and now we're dead in the heart of the black, where we'll be for about another week.

I don't know...sometimes I miss being planet side a whole lot more than I am these days. As much as I'm a big advocate of having your head in the clouds, I just can't help yearning for dirt and sand and sun and...fresh oxygen that you don't get from life support. Ever since the incident on Simon's birthday, I keep thinking that maybe this time we won't get so lucky. We won't survive this time. Or that I might lose Zoë.

A lump forms in my throat and I bite down on my lip, glancing at the instruments, the bright greens and yellows and reds a dazzle to my eyes. Losing my baby, my reason to stay on this crazy vessel with all these crazy people--me being the craziest of the bunch, little do they know--would kill me. I'm nothing without her and I know it.

I guess now is the time I compare my marriage to Zoë to River and Jayne in some way. I don't know. I'm not going to do that. I honestly don't think it's any of my business, just like my relationship with Zoë is no one else's business but our own. I don't make judgments. Judgements lead to harsh words, and harsh words usually leave to fighting and fighting, at least in my experience on Serenity, leads to gunplay and usually someone with a hole in him.

I've had my share of gun fighting and getting all nice and bloody because I stuck my nose where it didn't belong, thank you very much. I just hope Jayne didn't do something stupid. I kinda like River. She's weird and comes at you from left field. Non-linear folk always entertain me and I like having them around. Makes me seem not so strange.

"Baby?"

I twirl in the chair and see Zoë standing at the entrance to the cockpit. God she's beautiful. How the hell did I ever land a chick like that? I often wonder that, but I know if I voiced my question out loud I'd get smacked for calling her a 'chick' and then smacked again for questioning her taste in men. We have a complicated relationship, I tell you.

"Zo? What's going on?" I ask, trying to stay casual over the loud shouting. Zoë winces and walks forward, sinking down in the chair to my left. Beautiful brown curls fall across her face as she stares out at space rushing by us, her eyes shadowed.

"Just thinking."

"About Jayne and River and that whole sex thing, right? It's the topic of choice today, or so I'm gathering from the ear-splitting argument going on below us."

"Well, that and...us."

"Us? Oh God, you want a divorce! I promise I'll be good! You can even spank me if that'll make you feel better!" I say with a smile as she glares at me, and then softens her expression.

"I love you."

"Of course you do. I'm a manly man. In that comical way."

"Not just that...you surprise me. I can't get you most of the time. I don't know where a lot of the things that go through your mind come from. I love that. I love that you surprise me and that you're such a mystery to me." Zoë says as she takes my hand and wraps them in her soft, strong fingers. "I like discovering you everyday."

"Well, that was...touching. Why the touchy-feely?" I say, more touched than I'm willing to let on.

"Just...feeling the love of your manly man-ness, dear." She says as I draw her onto my lap. She settles on my legs as I reach over and flip the autopilot on again. This might take a while. I love the way she feels on me, warm and solid, every feminine curve exquisite in its craftsmanship. Again, I gotta ask how I got this lucky. It just doesn't seem possible.

"Well, if it helps...I love you too."

"Oh, well, that does take the sting off the yelling and screaming and all the testosterone flying around down there. I think I got hit with some on my way up here."

"Really? I hope you don't grow a mustache."

"I'll just have to risk it."

"I looked better in a 'stache anyway. I had this whole rugged thing going for me. Made you weak in the knees, if I recall."

"No, it actually bugged me. You were always stroking it..."

"Really? Hmm...that might could explain why you made me shave it after we got married. Good point. You can have the mustache. As long as I can stroke it. And other places."

"Ahh...and our conversation as fallen into the gutter!"

"Was there ever any doubt?"

"Not with you honey."

"So...this is the part where we kiss and generally enjoy our marital bliss. Shall we commence?"

"You have my permission."

With that, I weave my fingers through her thick hair and pull her mouth down on mine. Kissing her is like kissing heaven and I would gladly die to do it. And, as we fall into each other's embrace, its like the whole world melts away. The fighting fades out and the stars and dials just waiting to be fiddled with dim under the glow of her skin. She is my world.

I hope that everyone else gets this sorted out with minimal bloodshed. Maybe, if this whole situation isn't the worst-case scenario, things will change. Maybe River and Jayne...but no. Nothing's that fairytale...

Even though I have a woman in my arms that tells me different.

***

I can't understand how this fragile flower before me has created such chaos. As I watch, her eyelids flutter against her pale cheeks and I see the pupils beneath the paper-thin skin flick back and forth as she dreams.

I wonder what she dreams. What the Alliance did to her...I can't help but think its something dark and disturbing. A version of Hell that has no name and no way out save pain. It makes my heart sick to think of what they did to her there. They showed no respect for human life. I can't respect that anymore than I can respect someone taking advantage of this young girl before me, sleeping like a princess on her deathbed.

Putting my Bible down, I take one of her hands in my own, the clammy, limp fingers fitting neatly in my palm. My thumb circles her palm, as if I can offer my meager support, as if I can wake her. She obstinately stays asleep, ever fretful, ever maddening. With a sigh, I pull up a stool and sit down to wait for her to wake.

As I watch her, I think of what Kaylee told me and what I heard. I'm not sure what I think about this exactly. Like I told Kaylee, I don't have much expertise with romance, especially in such a tight-knit group, stranded together in the midst of space with nowhere to go to get away from wagging tongues. It's amazing they even had a tryst in such cramped quarters. I wish I knew the real story, but I have the slight feeling we never will.

This little girl has many secrets in her head. Not that I'm one to talk. I'm a man of secrets myself and I know how precious they are. But keeping them is the hardest part. I wonder, will they keep theirs?

I'd like to speak to Jayne about this though; I know him very well, I'm surprised to say. He and I get along fine, though I find him a bit crass at times. I had thought him to be a rather shallow man, though I do think my summation was a bit off now. Of course, I don't know what happened between him and this child--no, not child. Woman. We all have this blind spot with River. We see her, but not the woman she is and will be.

Thinking of it, I might see why River would be drawn to Jayne. He's never treated like a baby wrapped in swaddling clothing, ready to break at a moment's notice. He treats her like any other; perhaps a bit harshly at times, but definitely not like the rest of us. If she were to reach out to someone to really, truly look into her heart, Jayne would be the one to do it.

Pleased with myself, I smile and look down at the floor. I think I've figured something out. I just hope River wakes soon, to tell me the truth before Jayne gets thrown out the cargo bay doors.

"Preacher?"

I look up into River's dark brown eyes, sleepy yawn crossing her face, pillow-imprints on her cheek. "Hello, River."

"Where's Simon?"

"He's...ahh...handling the Captain. There seems to be a slight disagreement onboard about some things..." I say as delicately as possible as she nods her head solemnly, drug-heavy eyelids blinking sluggishly at me.

"About me."

"Yes. About you."

"You want to know why, don't you?"

"The thought had crossed my mind. Would you care to enlighten me?" I say, not shocked by her astuteness.

"Don't mind. The drugs...they made me all...itchy. Can't 'splain it. Just had to...wanted to...and Jayne. He tastes like apples. And he sees me. I wanted him to touch me. Feel me. So I made him. Gave him something he couldn't say no to. Couldn't run, couldn't pull a gun, couldn't lay back and dream it away. He wanted me. I wanted him. Simple as that." She says, letting a tired smile cross her lips.

"Is that the truth?"

"Yes. M'not a liar."

"I know that. But...you're not protecting Jayne?"

"No. There's nothing to protect, Preacher-Man. Just, bodies moving, words said...nothing to protect me from falling. I don't need it."

"I know that. I just want to make sure. Captain Reynolds is engaged in a rather heavy argument with your brother and Jayne at the moment and I'm afraid he's not as understanding as I."

She sits up immediately, shaking the last bits of sleep from her body as she takes to her feet. Her eyes are wide with fear and panic. I grab her shoulders to keep her from rushing off.

"Let go of me! I have to stop them! No fighting! Not his fault!"

"I know, River! I'll handle it! You just sit back down and--"

"No! I'm not a child! I can handle this. I started it, I can finish it." She says as she breaks away from my grip, surprising strength in her bird-like limbs. As she scrambles out of the infirmary, I sink back down onto the stool I had abandoned, my head lowered to the floor again.

I won't follow. I can't. She won't let me and I won't let myself. This is as far as I will go into the matter. I know that there is no blame, no shame. I'm a bit more pragmatic than some of my Order and I don't believe that sex is cardinal sin, though I do not practice it myself. It's a healthy activity and a beautiful thing. With so much ugliness in the world, I don't see the fuss over someone finding comfort in someone else. It won't save souls, but it will make this world less harsh and cruel for some.

And that's all anyone can ever really hope for. I'm content with letting them have that.

***

If I could just wring his damned neck...

My fingers itch as I glare across the tiny room at Jayne Cobb, the toughest son of a bitch I've ever met and certainly the only man that gives me pause of a day to check for the knife in my back. Something about mercenaries, they're in it for the money and that's it. But...I was starting to think that maybe, just maybe he'd changed a bit, given in to Serenity and learned that there are some things are even better than money, though money's good too.

But I'll be damned if that BASTARD didn't up and stick that knife in my back, just like I always knew he would. I've been down here for a few minutes, screaming and shouting like I'm staring at gorram brick wall. He just glares at me and retorts some insult or protest in a sullen voice, like a child getting a dress-down from their momma. I don't think the son of a bitch understands how close I am to pulling a gun on him and giving him a few more orifices. The yelling has calmed a bit and now we're all trying to talk reasonably. I ran out of curse words anyway.

Glancing at the good doctor to my right, trying to come between us, I'm completely shocked. Like a punch in the gut, I can't believe he's not with me on this. Not even Zoë! What the hell is wrong with these people? Am I the only one who sees the badness that is...this...thing?

"Jayne, you took advantage of a girl on my ship. Now, do you remember the talk we had when you signed onboard? Something about staying away from Kaylee and Zoë and any other girl working on my ship? You remember that?"

"Yes, sir, I do."

"Then why don't you EXPLAIN to me why you broke that rule? Huh? Go ahead! I'd LOVE to hear this!"

"River don't work on this ship. Sir."

"WHAT?"

"River don't get a percent of the cuts, she don't have a specific duty. She does not work on the ship."

I will strangle him. I swear. Lord give me some gorram patience...

"Oh, is that how you're rationalizing this thing, huh? She don't work here! You hear that Simon! Your sister is a jobless lay about!"

"Well...technically that's true, sir. She doesn't have a specific job onboard. And she doesn't get paid." Simon says, nodding his head, eyes wide as he glances at Jayne. As if there's some unspoken truce between them or something. Like they're united against ME.

What the HELL is wrong with this picture? Is it backward day? Am I in the special hell?

"I...you know, no one asked you Doc!" I exclaim and plow on before he can correct me. "The point is, she's on my ship, she's off-limits. No romances. Nothing!"

"Does the same apply for the doc? He's been romancing Kaylee for the past couple of months." Jayne says, giving me that stoic, non-plussed look that tells me he's really laughing inside. I'm a big cosmic joke all of a sudden.

"No! Yes...well, no! I don't...WHAT?"

"It is a double standard, sir. But, you didn't specifically imply that as a clause of our work agreement, so I hardly think it applies to me." Simon says, always with the proper respectful attitude, even though I can smell mutiny on the wind. The little bastards...

"No, I didn't say anything...but you're not Jayne!"

"What's wrong with Jayne?" A new voice joins the crowd and I turn, staring at the wraith that drops down into the cabin with the grace of a swan. She's wearing a long white nightgown, her hair a chestnut halo around her head. She looks fragile enough to break.

"River...you should be in bed..." Simon starts to say, reaching for his sister. She pulls away and shoots him a look that speaks volumes. She doesn't want or need a bed right now.

"I'm fine Simon. You fixed me again." She smiles and turns her attention on me, frowning. "Captain. I regret to inform you that this argument is now closed."

What? She's just looking at me like she's some kind of authority on everything. This slip of a girl, staring at me like she could break the world with just one smile.

"Is it now?"

"Yes. Its none of your business what Jayne and I did in his bunk, off-duty, with a passenger--not a crew member--of the ship." She says as she pulls herself upright, strength all over every curve and plane of her body.

"I think it is, little girl. He took advantage of you and I will not--"

"He didn't! He's been trying to tell you, Simon too, that it was consensual. And therefore, all the shouting is uncalled for. If I hadn't fallen asleep, you all wouldn't have known about it. It was our secret to keep, not yours to charge in and scream about. I don't mean to disrespect you on your own ship, sir, but you really don't understand your crew."

"What do you mean by that?"

"I think you know. Maybe you should go talk? Get things out in the open. It'll definitely end all these…unspoken words between you that keeps spilling out all over everyone else's shoes."

Damned uncomfortable now. The way she's looking at me, like she knows. She ruttin' well knows and it's downright eerie.

"So...you really feel this way?"

"I do. I respect you sir, but you need to back off."

Heaving a deep, long-suffering sigh, I regard the two of them, noticing the way Jayne is hunched on his bed, his head down and his jaw working. Simon looks torn between leaving and rushing to his sister's side. She looks fine though, fire in her bones. I swear, that girl is so odd. I know when I'm beaten though. I may not like it, but...well there's nothing I can do now.

"Fine. Whatever. Just to let you know I ain't happy with either of you. I don't know what's going on here, but I want it straightened out. And none of this ganging up on me part! I'm the Captain. I deserve a little respect from my crew and my passengers. Got it?"

"Yes sir." They all three echo as I hurry up the steps and head down the corridor. I feel sick to my stomach of a sudden, like I ate something nasty. As I make my way into the cargo bay, I think about what just happened.

When Zoë told me...well, I kinda lost it. He swore to me he wouldn't touch any of the girls and at the time, I'd meant Kaylee. Young girl like that could get real tempting for a man like Jayne. But he kept his promise, as far as I know. And then...I heard about River. River who is so fragile and...well, odd. Birdlike. Like a baby chick squawking for worms, head thrown back, ready, waiting for someone to come along and feed her. She made me feel all protective of her, even though I know she's more than capable of defeating a bounty hunter or handle someone shooting at her. She ain't what she seems.

I don't know...maybe I'm buttin' in where I don't belong. Maybe I'm being a rotten bastard. Maybe I should just let it drop and pretend nothing ever happened. Pretend I never heard what she said to me...what she knew. I don't know what she was talking about though; I don't have anything to get out in the open with anyone. And if I did, it wouldn't be any of her business...which is pretty much what she was trying to tell me. Dammit. I hate being proved wrong in an argument. Makes me cranky.

Even as I think that, I look up, staring at the catwalk running the top of the cargo bay. She's standing there, huge eyes wide, delicate hands wrapped around the railings, dark hair pulled into tight curls on her head. My gut aches. I smile at her and tilt my head as she manages a smile of her own.

Yeah...none of her business because I have nothing to hide. Nothing at all.

***

"Simon, could you...we need to..." She says, as Simon looks between her and Jayne, uncertain still. He's not sure what to do, but he knows now that there isn't anything he can do. He's not her knight and she is not a princess waiting to be rescued.

He nods his head and climbs up the ladder, closing the hatch behind him. River looks down at her bare feet, unsure of what to say, while Jayne stares at her feet too.

They don't say anything. There isn't much to say. He wants to yell at her, but he can't. She wants to make him see her again, but she doesn't. He doesn't know what he's feeling beyond his anger at her; she feels everything.

There's too much to go through. Neither of them is sure how this is going to end, or even if it will. But they both know it's not a fairytale, not a story with a princess waiting to be saved. Not everyone lives happily ever after and sometimes you shouldn't even try.

Still, when Jayne finally looks up and meets her gaze, she can't help but smile. He sees her.

(end series)

***