Shaking off his considerable unrest at seeing his Mercenary and his Medic chatting it up like they were friends, Mal purposefully entered the infirmary. Waving a print-out, the Captain explained what it was.

"Jayne, Wash got to checking on the five ships. We got their specifics and he plotted approximations on where they were going from their recent headings and energy signatures."

The injured man tried to sit up, so Simon lifted the head of the bed so he could see better.

"Looks like one of 'em's a high-class luxury liner. It's a brand new Scarab called 'Flotsum's Paradise'. Don't reckon that'd be the ship since it's swarming with a bunch of nekkid people," Mal told him with a smirk. "Nudist retreat," he added.

"Interesting..." Simon said with a face that definitely meant it was not.

"'Nother one is an enormously large, long-range Argas called 'The Aprilflower'. According to its manifest its got two times too many people on board already. Homesteaders, their families, crop seeds, supplements, cattle, and all their wordly five very wet-behind-the-ears, brand new Alliance Feds headed to that shiny new non-Patience run settlement on Whitefall."

"Nah, that don't seem like him, Mal," Jayne said as he shook his head. "Too many people, very hard to hide. I saw that ship docked. Somebody mentioned it didn't have room for a full-time mechanic and Jester had to send out a tug to bring it in. Took 'em a full week to get the engine overhauled."

"Good point. Well, we got 2 cargo ships. One was a Silkworm, ship smaller'n ours, called 'Obfuscation'--which is downright amusin' when I looked up the meaning, especially since it was the ship we got our cargo from," the Captain offered.

Again, Jayne shook his head.

"Th'other was a Moonmoth, bit bigger'n ours, but has a smaller range. I can see by its name, 'Crouching Tiger', that it has to be New-Beijing Triad run. Jester said it dropped off some newly indentured, and most likely under-age, whor--prostitutes for Madam Chu's. Did some extortin' and racketeerin', too..."

"Nuh uh. Least likely ship so far. Triad'd startin' offerin' secret bounties on Alliance Officers and government officials a-ways back. Kidnappin' and ransomin' must pay well...saw that ship too," Jayne advised.

"OK. We got a very small, maybe 3 person ship. We only know this due to it bein' a whole lot smaller than the berth they'd been given. But no one noted the class or the name--and since it was misidentified and entered as a...Phthyrus? class ship, which I ain't ever heard of, named...Pubys?--in the sky-plex registry. We got no info on it."

At the ship's classification and name, Simon tried very hard to supress a laugh, but snorted with the effort, and it escaped as a quick chortle.

"Somethin' amusin', Doc?" the Captain asked.

Simultaneously, Jayne turned slightly to say, "Wanna let us in on the joke?"

"Phthirus Pubis is a latin term classifying a type of parasite known to us as...Public Lice. Or Crabs," he explained, still smiling.

Both of the other men grabbed their crotches unconciously.

"Be that as it may, we still got no info on it," Mal said, not smiling.

"That last one seems most likely of them five. How 'bout checking on what ships left right after us, just in case. He mighta waited, especially if he knew she'd been on Serenity, to take off where we couldn't see. That's what I'd'a done," he added, looking down at one of the bandages on his chest.


Clicking his comm unit, Mal called his Pilot. "Wash, get back on the radio to Jester. Jayne wants to know what ships left after us."

"Will do, will do. How's he doin', by the way?"

"I'm sure he will be up and lumbering about in his usual gruff and intimidating manner within a few hours, despite medical advice," Simon offered.

He had meant it as a slight insult; despite his earlier comraderie with the man, Simon was still angry. However, Jayne grinned at the remark and nodded firmly once.

"Damn right. Intimidatin'," the Merc said proudly.

"Good to know. I'd hate to have to take up the slack for him as he recuperated," Wash added with a laugh.

The comm clicked off as the pilot switched to radio the sky-plex.

"We got any idea where he'd take her?" Mal asked his doctor and his tracker.

"Back to the Academy?" Simon offered, hesitantly.

Closing his eyes as he hoped that was not the case since River had told him that she'd rather die than go back there, Jayne told them it was a likely destination.

"Wish I knew what kinda ship that was, if it was him even, to gimme an idea of range. Let alone know if we're facin' any kind of fire power."

The comm crackled and the infirmary reverberated with Wash's hurried announcement, "Hey, Jayne. A Dragonfly left about 8 minutes before we did. Took us a while to get the info cause Jester had to beat it out of one of his dock hands. Evidently the guy took a bribe to keep the ship off the registry. He's working on a list of other recently departed ships."

Ai ya, Jayne thought to himself, uncertain and desperately afraid to be wrong. River, baby girl...

Mal interrupted his thoughts, "Didn't River mention that being the kind of ship Jubal had?"

"Yeah, but I ain't sure, Mal. That mighta been a diversion...he's a smart son of a--wish I had more info on what that gorram hun dan's been up to lately, what his connections were. Last I heard he'd been shuffled out to the border...kinda why I always expected us to run into him."

Suddenly, the Captain remembered Jester's comment about who Johansen was working for.

"Blue Sun," he told the Merc.

"What?" Jayne asked, confused.

"Jester said he was workin' for Blue Sun. Now why in the hell would a corporation that big need the reward from the capture of a little girl?"

"Hey funny man, you still listenin'? Any Blue Sun facilities out this area? Manufacturin', Supply--"

"Hang on...gettin' a wave now."

As they waited for the Pilot to return to their conversation, Mal stepped in close to the chair.

"When this is all done and settled--you and me gotta talk, Jayne."

The big man didn't even have to ask what about; he nodded solumnly and then grimaced. The smoothers were wearing off.

Noticing his discomfort, Simon asked if he needed any more pain medication.

"No. I'm alright. Little bit o'pain is good. Keeps me focused."

"Captain, our hacker-friend was able to answer Jayne's question. Seems there's a Blue Sun Research and Development Lab not more than a days full burn away."

Somehow, Jayne knew in that instant--that was the place.

Just to be sure, he asked, "Either of them ships headed that way?"

"One's going in the opposite direction completely. The other, the Dragonfly, appears to be headed that way, but I can't get a fix on it. Long-range ain't long enough to be sure and this ship's burning hard," Wash told him.

Turning to face the Captain, Jayne said, "Don't know why, Mal...but that's the one we need to follow."

Nodding, Mal told him, "Well, then, we're gonna trust your instinct and do so. Gotta be a reason, even if you don't know what it is, cause you're the best gorram tracker I ever had the displeasure of being hunted by."

"Wash, set a course for that Blue Sun Lab. Try to catch up with that ship before she gets there," the Captain ordered. He figured they'd have a better chance at getting River back if they had only one bad guy to face.

"Yes sir," he answered.

Unfortunately, neither remembered the added weight of the cargo and how it would slow them down considerably.

River's eyes suddenly snapped open and she realized that she was tightly trussed up. She couldn't feel her fingers, or her feet...and her chest hurt badly, as did her head.

And she was naked.

Then she felt it: the Dragon had come for her. Why had Jayne let him? He was supposed to be her dragon-slayer...he had promised. What had happened?

Closing her eyes again, River tried to recall the last moments before she woke up here.

"Ai ya, Baby Girl. You're gonna kill me," Jayne groaned as she took his now flaccid member into her mouth. They had recently finished, and there really was much to do other than trying to engage him in a fourth round of sex. Like sleep. But she was determined to arouse him again, and within a few moments, she was successful. She loved loving this man, and she climbed on to him, always wanting more.

She was so very much addicted.

Addicted to the blessed silence.

Jayne's presence always had a significantly quieting effect on the voices, allowing her to sleep a little more soundly, think a little more clearly, function a little more normally. But the voices always remained, buzzing in a corner of her mind.

However, when they made love...all she heard was him, and a slight hum. For the precious few moments during and just after she climaxed--there was absolutely nothing.

A blissful nothing.

That nothing was what kept her from knowing that the Dragon was there, though.

River threw her head back in abandon and opened her mouth in a wordless cry, fingers holding tightly to his chest hair. Gnashing his teeth to restrain his cry of pleasure and gripping her hips above him tightly, Jayne arched up into her as he, too, came.

Without warning, the hotel room door crashed open. Jayne's head shot up and River turned to face the intruder...and took the full force of a sonic rifle pulse--right in the middle of her chest.

She remembered flying off of Jayne, and the bed, toward the far end of the room. Then...nothing after her head struck the edge of the table there.

He didn't stop the Dragon from taking her.

But she knew he would have tried. Knew it as confidently as she knew the square root of 5232467857, and the classification of this ship---without any effort. If the Dragon had managed to succeed, that could only mean...

No, she thought firmly to herself. If her knight was dead, she'd feel it--the emptiness.

She didn't feel empty.

That meant he was severly injured, because he would have fought tooth and nail to keep her safe. He may not know it, may not be able to admit it to himself...but Jayne loved her and would die trying to protect her.

This man had hurt her dragon-slayer.

Instantly, the Academy training kicked in.

With a mechanical eye she surveyed her surroundings. She was on a Dragonfly, and she spotted a Blue Sun logo that adorned a well-worn leather portfolio. Everything, anything in and on this ship that could be used as a weapon was noted. Now, if only she could free herself of her bonds.

And there was the little problem of her still being naked.

When River realized that she was incapable of getting to the knots and that her hands were secured (too tightly) with cuffs, she knew what she had to do.

Taking a deep, fortifying breath and imagining a mortally wounded Jayne to give her strength, River wrench her right shoulder backwards and down, dislocating it--providing enough slack to drop the ropes to where her fingers could access the knots.

Her eyes tearing, biting her lip to keep from crying out with the pain, she worked on them--trying to loosen the ties while keeping a keen eye on the man who had abducted her. She didn't think he had heard the pop of her injury a moment ago, but she wasn't sure. So she manipulated the knots more quickly.

She was not going back to the Academy, even if it meant her death.

Finally free of the ropes, River brought her hands underneath and in front of her, then silently rose and stalked up behind the sinister looking man.

"I wouldn't try anything if I were you," he advised. "This ship responds only to my biometrics. Were my heart to stop, so would the engine--knocking out all power and life support."

River raised her left arm and fully extended it upwards, dragging the excruitatingly painful dislocated arm with it. With a powerful fist, she hit him viciously on the back of his skull, near the nape of his neck. As he was knocked unconscious, she replied to his comment.

"Good thing I had no intention of killing you. That particular pleasure I reserve for my love--the Scorpion. You'll probably regret that I did not dispatch you from the bonds of living, as you will undoubtedly die an unimaginably painful death at his hands."