Mal and Jayne made slow headway through the Fire Swamp, threading through the close-growing trees, ugly vines, and other underbrush, always keepin' an eye out for the flame-spurting holes underfoot. They didn't talk much as they walked, mostly just getting used to each others' presence again while they tried not to get themselves killed, but eventually Mal couldn't hold his curiosity in no more.

"So, the Revenge, hunh?" he asked.

"Yep," Jayne said, looking pleased with himself.

"How's that possible, anyhow?" Mal prodded, turning over dates in his mind. "Rumors of that ship been spread around for nigh on twenty years now, and I know you ain't been out there that long."

"Well, the Revenge don't normally take no prisoners," Jayne began. "They could tell I weren't no rich traveler, though, like the others, and asked me what I was doin' there. So I told 'em; my man went off to war and got himself kilt, and I meant to find his grave and return anything he'd left behind to his momma."

Mal nodded. Stories like that had to've been common during the War. "What'd they say?" he asked.

"Well, they told me they was in the middle of a crew turnover, and you were dead and wouldn't miss me, so whyn't I come along and make some money of my own?"

"What happened to your contract?" Mal had to ask. One of the reasons he'd left in the first place was to earn money to pay that off; Mal's ma's ranch was enough in the red as it was, she couldn't never have afforded to forgive Jayne's family's debt and give him wages besides.

Jayne grunted. "Kinda ignored that," he said. "I sent money to your ma to make up for it. Figure I've paid it off by now, and she ain't complained the few times she done wrote back."

Well, that was a relief. Mal smiled. "So how'd you go from bein' Roberts' hired man to takin' on his title?"

Jayne gestured Mal to a halt, then picked his way carefully over a rickety log bridging a small, poisoned-looking creek. "Around the time the War was endin', we'd made so much money pickin' off Alliance outposts and blamin' it on your side or the Reavers, Roberts took it into his head to retire. Thing was, he wasn't the original Roberts, neither. He told me his real name was Ryan, and that he'd had it off a crazy man name of Washburn that flew her before the War. The first Roberts, the real one, only had her for maybe six years; he bought himself a title and a place on Sihnon."

"Washburn?" Mal blurted, startled. "Not Hoban Washburn, calls himself Wash, talks to plastic dinosaurs?"

Jayne stopped in his tracks and turned to Mal, brow wrinkled in puzzlement. "Matter of fact, yeah. How d'you know him?"

Wo de ma, Mal thought. Zoë's husband, a pirate captain? Maybe he weren't all that worthless after all. Must have got tired of the career right quick though, the way he carried on about non-violence these days. Mal'd have to corner him for a good talk, later, get his truthful perspective on things. Might be worth listening to, if he actually knew what he was talking about.

"He's my pilot, actually," Mal told Jayne.

"Don't that beat all." Jayne chuckled. "Anyway, the name's what mattered. Wouldn't nobody be afraid of the Dread Pirate Jayne. So he took 'er to port, brought on a new crew, and played first mate for a couple jobs. Ship's been all mine for three years now."

"That's quite the story. Suppose you know most of mine," Mal said, ruefully.

"Yeah. Made somethin' of a name for yourself end of the War, got a smugglin' ship after. What's this goushi with Wing, though?"

Mal winced. "See, it's like this. Rich man died in the Core without any heirs, and the Companion we got on board had this fool-proof plan for us to swoop in and claim his money. Only, one of us had to pose as the lost son, and I was the only one what couldn't claim a father. So they went off to change the records, and Inara sent me to Ath to set it up so's they'd have to hurry the verification along. 'Thout me bein' in the public eye, and Ath pushin' it so's he could get married on time, they coulda drug their feet or swept me under the rug. This way, soon's the money came in I'd pay Ath and off we go. Wouldn't actually have gone through with it."

"Well, Niska sure buggered that plan up, didn't he," Jayne snorted.

"That's all right," Mal said. "At least it brought me you."

"Yeah." Jayne grinned. "Ain't like I don't got money to throw around. 'Bout time I passed on the title anyhow. Think that Higgins boy would take it?"

Mal grinned at the idea. "He might take some work. Don't much see him as a pirate. What're you sayin', though, you want to come be a merc on my ship?"

"Well, I ain't exactly opposed," Jayne grinned back.

Mal savored that idea for a moment, picturing him in amongst the motley family Mal had built, and unfortunately took his eyes off the ground.

"Mal!" he heard Jayne yell, and then the entire world went black around him.

It took him a moment to realize what had happened. He'd stepped in some kind of lightning sand; he could feel the grains in his ears and between his fingers, and the warm earth pressed in on him all 'round. He couldn't see, couldn't breathe, and couldn't move; it was the most terrifying experience he'd ever had.

He had no idea how long he was down there, before there was a disturbance above his head. He'd fallen in with one arm reaching upward, and just when it was starting to get really painful not to breathe, something brushed against those outstretched fingers. He grabbed hold as best he could, and nearly cried in relief when the hand on the other end began pulling at him. Jayne to the rescue again.

They surfaced, gasping. Mal flopped on the ground, laughing softly and coughing on loose sand that trickled into his mouth. "Goin' to be downright interestin' havin' you around again," he said.

"What's life without a little excitement?" Jayne leered at him. The effect was somewhat ruined by the sand caked in his goatee and eyebrows, but Mal appreciated it all the same.

"Let's get the hell out of here, then," Mal said, "and get to it."

They turned to climb up the hill. They'd kept near the edge of the Fire Swamp as they made there way through it, so there wasn't too far to go. Surely, Mal figured, they'd gone far enough to get away from the Alliance soldiers and maybe have a shot at the shuttle.

It wasn't to be, though. They emerged from the cover of the twisted trees to find a row of soldiers staring straight at them, aiming guns in their direction.

"Thought scanners didn't work in there," Mal whispered out of the corner of his mouth as he raised his hands.

"Thought they didn't!" Jayne hissed back, and raised his also.

"Gorramn it Jayne..." Mal muttered, then grinned suddenly as he saw something in the sky overhead behind the soldiers. "Aw, nevermind. Just get ready to duck."

"Shen me?" Jayne frowned in his direction.

"Duck!" Mal threw himself to the ground as the bulk of Serenity soared in overhead, dangling Zoë from a line underneath. She fired a few warning shots into the soldiers, and the rest of them scattered for cover as the ship lowered its ramp to within jumping distance of the sloped ground.

"Need some help, sir?" Zoë called out, grinning over in Mal's direction.

"Doin' just fine, Zoë!" he called back. He leaped to his feet and made a run for it, Jayne close on his heels, and soon's they were on board he felt the ship lurch upward again. Damn fine pilot, Wash was; Mal really would have to have a talk with the man sometime soon.

"Good to have you back, Cap'n!" Kaylee, his meimei of a mechanic, called cheerfully from where she was bringing Zoë up with the winch.

"Good to be back, li'l Kaylee," he said, and gave her a big hug. "Ambassador back on board yet?"

"Yeah. She's not too happy with you though, gettin' yourself kidnapped and ruinin' her fine scheme." Kaylee hugged him back, grinning.

"That's all right, though; I did me one better. This here's Jayne," he said, with a wide smile over Kaylee's head in Zoë's direction.

Zoë turned to stare at him. "That Jayne, sir?" she asked, incredulously.

"Yep, that Jayne. Think he'll be travelin' with us for a spell. Right, Jayne?" Mal turned to the man in question, exchanging a long, heated gaze.

"If'n you say so, Mal," Jayne replied, quietly.

Mal gulped. Yep, life was about to get downright interesting.

"Is that it?" River complained, sounding disappointed.

Simon tapped the slate, turning it off, and shook his head. "Well, there's more kissing, but I didn't think you wanted to hear that part."

River wrinkled up her nose. "But there'll be more story, later, right?"

Simon nodded. "That's all Inara's sent me, so far. At least, all that you'd want to hear. But who knows what her crew will get up to by the next time she writes us? I'm sure there'll be at least one story in the next batch you'll like."

River sighed. "I don't care what Mom and Dad say, I'm glad we have a cousin who's a Companion. She tells the best stories."

"Why don't you get some sleep now?" Simon said, soothingly. "I'll have the cook make your favorites for lunch, and wake you up when it's ready."

River sighed, then smiled sweetly in his direction. "If'n you say so," she said, then snuggled down under her covers.

Simon smiled back, then turned off the light and left the room.



goushi -- crap
Shen me? -- What?
meimei -- little sister


Shinyhearts Challenge: Pick a "classic" love story and write it with our Big Damn Heroes. It can be an AU, it can be a modern retelling, whatever you want, so long as it contains elements of the original story.

Specific Prompt: For vandonovan, Mal/Jayne, "just because it's a rarer pairing and seriously there needs to be more Mal/Jayne fic. Importantly, though, I want them to retain who they are and not get all out of character. Also, if the author manages a secondary Zoë/Wash pairing, all the more shiny, though not required."