Title: The Independent Groom

Author: Jedi Buttercup

Rating: T

Category: Firefly/Serenity

Disclaimer: "Malcolm Reynolds was raised on a small ranch on the planet Shadow. His favorite pastimes were riding his horse and tormenting one of the indentured boys that worked there. The boy's name was Jayne, but Mal never called him that."

Notes: Challenge fic. Slightly AU and pre-series, but with minor spoilers for all of canon. Plot borrowed heavily from "The Princess Bride". Prompt and Chinese translations at the end.


Malcolm Reynolds was raised on a small ranch on the planet Shadow. His favorite pastimes were riding his horse and tormenting one of the indentured boys that worked there. The boy's name was Jayne, but Mal never called him that.

Nothing gave Mal as much pleasure as ordering Jayne around.

"Boy, I want you to polish my horse's saddle. I want to see my face shinin' in it by mornin'," he'd say, chin in the air and the light of challenge in his eyes.

"If'n you say so," Jayne would drawl in reply; but by morning, the task would be completed just as Mal had directed.

The orders varied widely, but the answer was always the same. Mal's ma took him to task for it more than once, baiting a boy as couldn't rightly talk back to him on account of the Reynolds' owning his family's debt, but it never stopped him none. At least, not until the day he finally noticed that Jayne was a boy no longer.

"Boy! Fill these with water--" he began a command, dropping a pair of empty galvanized pails at Jayne's feet. But Jayne had already been chopping firewood; he had stripped to the waist as he worked, and sweat glistened all over his moderately muscled arms and chest. Mal swallowed as he took it all in, then looked up and met Jayne's eyes. Something in the way Jayne looked back at him made him add, for the first time ever, "--please."

"If'n you say so," Jayne said softly, studying Mal with a soft smile before bending to pick up the pails.

That day, Mal was amazed to discover that when Jayne was saying, "If'n you say so," what he really meant was, "I love you."

That thought was more than a mite discomfiting to Mal at first. He'd noticed men that way before, of course; God gave a man eyes so he could use 'em, but that didn't make Mal sly. He'd always had an eye for the womenfolk. Still, there was something about this coltish young man, the mix of defiance and respect in his attitude, the way his muscles flexed when he worked, the vulnerability in his eyes when he looked at Mal; he had no defense against it.

There weren't any one moment when Mal suddenly realized he loved Jayne back. Or if there were, he suppressed it very firmly. His ma might sigh over her romance novels, but he'd been part-raised by forty male ranch hands with very earthy ideas of what went on between consenting persons, and it didn't involve any damn sighing or swooning over flowers.

What it did involve, turned out to include such things as Mal asking Jayne to pass him objects already close to hand just for the pleasure of sharing personal space; hands and mouths in places that shorted out a man's entire nervous system; and extra apples mysteriously appearing in Mal's coat pockets for Jayne to pilfer.

"Deng yi miao!" A teenaged girl's voice interrupted the reading of the tale. "What kind of goushi is this?"

"River, language!" her brother replied, his forehead wrinkled in a frown. He was seated on the edge of her bed, the digital slate from which he'd been reading clutched in one hand; the other was on his sister's brow, where she reclined irritably against a pillow.

"You said it was an adventure story," she complained, pouting. "Simon, you promised! This is a kissing story!"

The young doctor-in-training shook his head, then smoothed her long, tangled dark hair away from her face. "I know you're not feeling well, and you're upset about not getting to go to the Academy, so I'll excuse your lack of faith in me this once. You know I wouldn't choose a story you wouldn't like."

The earnestness of his voice was belied somewhat by the mischeivous grin lurking around the corners of his mouth. River studied his expression for a moment, pouting, then rolled her eyes and glanced down at the digital slate her brother was holding. "You promise it gets better?"

"Fangxin," Simon said soothingly. "Just wait and see."

For months, the two young men ignored the differences in their stations and met as often as Mal could get out from under his ma's watchful eye. But their idyll couldn't last forever. There were years yet to go on Jayne's contract before he would be a free man, able to go where he would and wed whom he chose, and the drumbeat of war was steadily approaching.

The day came when a recruiter in a brown coat arrived on Shadow and visited the Reynolds' ranch. Mal listened to what the man had to say, and saw both justice and opportunity in the Independent cause. Not only could he strike a blow against the Alliance, whose taxes and rules impoverished the border planets a little more every year, but he would be paid to fight, and there would be chances for prizes and glory before the war was through. With a little luck he'd be able to buy Jayne's contract free, help his ma replenish the ranch's coffers, and still have some cashy money left over to start a household of his own.

Jayne saw the glint in Mal's eye the next morning, and knew then that he'd lost him.

"I ain't never gonna see you again, am I?" he asked, gruffly, running a callused thumb over the brown fabric of Mal's new coat.

"Of course you are." Mal smiled reassuringly at him. "Won't be but a year or two; I'll be back before you know it."

"And what if you get kilt out there?" Jayne frowned, unaccountably worried.

Mal just smirked in return. "Aw, c'mon Jayne. I'm just too pretty for God to let me die."

"I don't like it," Jayne insisted, stubbornly. "You're gonna get yourself captured, or shot, or find some woman with more looks than sense, and I'm gonna have to come for you."

"Jayne." Mal's expression softened a little, and he brushed the knuckles of one hand along the stubble on Jayne's jaw before leaning up for one last kiss. "Maybe I ain't made it clear to you yet, but ain't no one out there for me but you. I'll be careful."

And he was. He fought hard, but smart; over the course of the first year he gained a reputation for feng-le brilliance when it came to plans. He took some shrapnel in the back during his first tour, but that was the worst of it; he was quickly promoted to sergeant, and his corporal, Zoë Alleyne, was the best second he could have asked for.

When the chance came for a quick furlough home, he thought longingly of Jayne and of his ma's home cooking, but the trip would have cost most of what pay he'd managed to save. He wrote a letter instead, sent a few coins by courier, and spent the time with his men.

The letter was returned, unopened, two weeks later. The courier was apologetic; he'd arrived at the ranch only to find it a smoking ruin. Some said it had been pirates, some said it had been bogeymen-- what the shipfolk called Reavers. He'd found no survivors.

"Murdered by Reavers!" River gasped excitedly, staring wide-eyed up at her brother. "Poor Mal!"

Simon shook his head. "Shh," he told her. "It gets better."

Mal spent most of the next day stinking drunk, the letter tucked into the inner pocket of his brown coat. Zoë made excuses for him to Colonel Orbrin, then dragged him to the nearest well and dumped a bucket of water over his head.

"What the gui did you think you were doing?" she hissed, furious at him.

He just shook his head, staring past her at the setting sun. "Don't never love no one, Zoë," he told her, squaring his jaw mournfully. "It ain't worth the pain."

"I don't believe that," she said, her expression softening in the face of his grief. "And neither do you." He did not answer, but he finally turned his gaze to meet hers; and faced with those wet, blue eyes, the last of her anger drained away. "You know they wouldn't have wanted to see you like this," she said quietly.

The next day, they went back to war.

Mal's dreams of wealth and glory, of a triumphant return, had died when Jayne did; he held onto his notions of faith and justice a little longer, but the deaths of thousands of men under his command in Serenity Valley put paid to those as well. He took his savings and Zoë's and with them bought a ship; they found a pilot and a mechanic, each in their own way also escaping the past, and together they made the best of what life had left them. If that meant they smuggled and stole more often than they shipped legit cargo, then that was what they did.

And so it was that nine years after the day Mal had left Jayne on Shadow, one of the leading lights of Persephone society tapped a spoon against a crystal goblet and made a speech whose repercussions would echo for the rest of Mal's life.

"Ladies and gentlemen," Atherton Wing announced, his smooth, handsome young face beaming smugly above attire as rich as any that could be found in the Core. "A month from now, it will be exactly 500 years since the first colonists from Earth-That-Was founded the Anglo-Sino Alliance on Londinium."

He paused for the murmur of polite applause, then bowed and began again. "On that day, I shall marry a man who was once an Independent, in honor of the coming together of all humanity under one flag once more."

The murmurs at that speech were less cheery; half the men in the room were aware of where Wing's true politics lay, and suspected the marriage was aimed more toward stirring up former Independent support than any sort of peaceful symbolism. The other half spread rumors about the chosen fiancé's parentage; the man had no father of record, could it be that his time in the Independent Army was all a rebellion against some important Alliance offical of a father whose favor Wing wished to court?

All of them fell quiet when the fiancé himself entered the room. Gone were the brown coat and the gun the man habitually wore; Malcolm Reynolds was dressed in an expensively tailored suit, his posture correct and his hair trimmed close. He bowed stiffly to the assembled crowd, then crossed the room to Wing's side; something in his manner caught the interest of the guests, and many of them spontaneously bowed back, willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Several of the more political rumors died down, in favor of those concerning an attraction to the man's obvious rogue charms.

Mal accepted the hand Wing held out to him with a strained smile; he had not expected this latest piece of subterfuge to strike so close to home. As he exchanged polite words with his new peers, and later retired to guest quarters in Wing's home, his emptiness consumed him. Though his arrangement with Wing was scheduled to end before the date in question, still he could not help but see Jayne's face everywhere he went; he spent his days worrying over the fate of his crew, who were pursuing the most dangerous part of the mission without him, and found joy only in the daily ride Wing allowed him.

The lands within the estate were vast. Mal made it a point to explore a new corner of the grounds every time he went out. Until the twelfth day of his stay on Persephone, each ride was much the same; the peace and beauty of the scenery was unparalleled, but it could not touch the worry, grief, and guilt he held close in his heart.

On the twelfth day, everything changed.


Deng yi miao! -- Hold on a second!
goushi -- crap
Fangxin -- Don't worry
feng-le -- crazy
gui -- hell