"Ruttin' pilot," he muttered to himself as he pulled clothing on and stepped into the hall. "Want somethin' done right, gotta do it yourself. Ain't my job, but that don't matter, does it?" He vaulted himself up the stairs and turned toward the corridor outside the bridge. He stopped short at the sight of the passenger, who was standing in the middle of the hall staring up the stairs.
"What in the hell are you doing, being in off-limits areas? It's the middle of the night. Get back to your bunk, or I'll put you back there myself," Jayne threatened, though somewhat sleepily. Cooke didn't move, or even acknowledge that Jayne was there. "Hey, you listenin' to me? Git," Jayne instructed, stepping forward a bit more and snapping his fingers in front of Cooke's face. Still no movement. Jayne frowned and followed Cooke's line of sight; finally he saw River on the opposite end of the hallway. She was staring back at Cooke with equal fascination. Jayne raised an eyebrow and glanced from one person to the other. Neither moved; River seemed to glare while Cooke simply stared patiently.
Jayne grumbled and started up the stairs to the engine room. River shot out an arm and gently pushed him back down. "What are you doing?" she asked patiently. She didn't break eye contact with Cooke.
Jayne narrowed his eyes and watched River carefully as he answered. "Goin' up to stabilize the damn buffer panel. Ship's been rockin' about every which way, can't even get me a decent bit of shut-eye."
"I'll deal with it," she said with the air of someone commenting on how fluffy the clouds looked today. "You can go back to your bunk now."
Jayne snorted and stepped directly in front of the much shorter girl. She politely leaned to the right. Jayne leaned to block her line of sight again. She politely leaned the other way.
Jayne finally got frustrated and held on to River's face. "What is goin' on, girl?"
Finally, River looked Jayne in the eye. "It's hard to explain," she said with the same light demeanor. She then turned around and went back into the bridge.
Jayne turned to see that the passenger had gone. He stared after River with a mystified expression on his face.
"I'm telling you Mal, somethin' ain't right," Jayne found himself saying to the captain the next morning as they walked through the ship together. "She was just starin' at that feller like he was a particularly interestin' wave on the Cortex. Neither of them was sayin' anything, they just... stared."
"It sounds to me like you're hitting the bottom of the barrel in search of reasons to get the Tams off this boat," Mal commented.
"It ain't the Tams I want off this boat." Mal raised his eyebrows disbelievingly at Jayne. "Well, not right this second, anyhow. She was seein' somethin' in the passenger's head that he didn't want her to see."
"Since when do you take stock in the behavioural patterns of a psychic who still ain't entirely there?"
"Aw, c'mon Mal, you said yourself that she sees into the truth of things."
"And you said your own self that she still ain't at full-scale stability. The fact still remains that the Alliance played Operation on her brain. She don't respond to things the way you and I do. She's able to pick the bad out of some minds while totally ignoring the pure. If this man is who he claims to be, then he's got a fair few foul things in his mind in the first place. I trust the girl enough to know that she'll say somethin' if she thinks we're in danger. Besides, I promised the good doctor I wouldn't push her to say what she knows."
"Are you the gorram captain of this boat or not?" Mal glared at Jayne, who made no move to switch gears in his speech. "She's your ruttin' pilot. We got a psychic on this boat who ain't got a likin' towards someone, we got a right to know why. Forget the doctor's orders."
Mal sighed. "She don't wanna say, ain't our right to go diggin' into her personal business."
"She digs into ours on a daily basis without our permission," Jayne grumbled. "And between what the doc's been sayin' about the passenger and his freaky-ass attitude last night, I'd say there's ample reason to trust that he ain't who he says he is.""This ain't a discussion, Jayne. We land on Trelann tomorrow. We'll need weapons in case the drop turns ugly, as they so often do," Mal added in an attempt to get Jayne off the subject. He leapt up the stairs in the cargo hold and left Jayne standing below, who was no doubt formulating a plan to talk to River. Mal turned toward the engine room and stopped short as he heard Kaylee talking to the passenger.
"It's the best life a girl could ask for," Kaylee chirped. "I get to work on engines all day, I got a doctor for a boyfriend... besides, bein' out in the black is peaceful."
"Don't sound like it tends to be terribly peaceful on this boat," Cooke countered amicably.
"It ain't boring, that's for sure. I love it, though... wasn't ever no action on my home planet. I used to stare at the stars for hours, daydreamin' about some handsome rebel crash landin' beside my daddy's farm and needin' me to fix the engine for him. Then he'd sweep me away and we'd live happily in space together for as long as he'd have me."
"A rebel? The doc don't look your type," Cooke commented.
"Kaylee, you got that buffer panel span set?" Mal asked loudly as he entered the room.
"Just about, capt'n," Kaylee said. She was beneath the engine, tending to something underneath the floor panelling.
"How much longer?"
"'Bout two minutes. Won't be long."
Mal smiled and took the passenger by the arm, leading him out the door. "Watch your head when you back out of there," Mal advised Kaylee.
"Always do," she said cheerily, and kept talking to the no-longer-present Cooke.
"Why the hell you tryin' to get intel on my crew?" Mal asked Cooke after they were sufficiently out of earshot.
"Settin' Kaylee up so she'll talk easy, askin' about the good doctor, cornering his sister late last night... I let you on this boat in good faith. Gave you passage for almost nothin' just because you were a browncoat. Now I've got a pilot who refuses to be in the same room as you and a doctor who tells me there ain't no way you were on Yanash for eight years. You better be quick to explain yourself, boy, or the rest of your passage won't be a fraction as pleasant as this leg has been."
"Listen, I don't mean no harm..."
"You lied to me and my crew, puttin' us in a situation we ain't even fully aware of. You already done some harm."
Cooke swallowed nervously but never broke eye contact with Mal. "Look, I wasn't on that rock for the whole eight years, but I really did serve there during the war."
"As a browncoat?"
Cooke's expression turned to indignant shock. "Yeah, as a browncoat. If I was Alliance, I'd have posed as just a civilian. The Alliance wouldn't have defaced itself by posing as a browncoat. We're the uncivilized, remember? Closest things to reavers as they've seen."
Mal's expression softened. "Why are you here?"
"Can't say yet."
"Not sayin' ain't an option."
"Can't say yet," Cooke repeated, looking determined."What's stoppin' you from sayin'?"
"Don't know if I can trust everyone on this boat."
"You're worried about trustin' people on this boat?""I came to Serenity for a reason."
"What reason would that be?"
"Its captain and second-in-command are the only browncoats that survived the Battle of Serenity Valley."
Mal was growing very tired of this conversation. "What does that have to do with anything?"
Cooke was searching Mal's eyes very carefully. "I wish I could say," he said slowly.
Mal stared at Cooke for a second before dragging him by the arm back toward the cargo hold. "Jayne," Mal shouted at top volume.
Jayne looked up from the weights and half-grinned, half-snarled at the captain. "Finally got around to getting half a brain inside that head, I see."
"Put him in a room somewhere and make sure he doesn't leave. No pain, no blood. Just a nice captive cell until we get to Trelann. Understand?"
"Yes I do," Jayne said, escorting the passenger down the hall somewhat roughly.
"Was that necessary?" came Zoe's voice from behind Mal.
"He's got some hidden itinerary he ain't willin' to share, but everything he says sounds like something that would come out of my mouth."
"Probably why you don't get along," Zoe speculated, leaning against the railing beside Mal.
"If it was just me, I'd sit back and wait until he was willin' to say. But because my crew's at stake, I can't let him be." Mal sighed. "I hate it when Jayne has a point."
"You're going to talk to River?"
"Don't see no other option."
"You're not going to let him off at Trelann, are you?"
Mal sighed again. "If I don't I'll be playing right into his hands and keeping my crew at risk. If I do..."
"Leave no man behind?"
Mal shrugged. "Maybe some things are best left alone."
"Some things can't ever be left alone." Zoe and Mal stood in silence for a minute. "Can you take Jayne for the drop tomorrow?" Zoe asked eventually.
Mal looked over suspiciously at his second-in-command. "Everything all right?"
Zoe nodded, but didn't look directly at Mal. "Just feeling a bit under the weather. I don't want to be a liability if things go south."
Mal continued to stare at Zoe with concern. "You haven't ever missed a drop. Not even when Wash..."
Zoe looked at Mal with an expression he hadn't seen since the war. "I just need a day."
He nodded slowly. "Yeah. Sure."
Zoe nodded back and walked down the stairs. Mal stared after her. She hadn't been the same since Wash had died; it was like her sense of humour had died with him. Mal realized as he watched her disappear in the direction of the infirmary that, in a way, that's exactly what had happened.