The voice was a lifeline, cutting through the confusion of colours and smells that filled her brain. River managed to remember how to open her eyes, and the sight of Jayne's slightly dirty face anchored her further. "I know four ways to kill a man with soup-spoon. Six if it's sharp."
"Well, that'll be handy if we ever get attacked at dinner. What're you doing up there?"
River looked around. She was wedged into the angle of wall and ceiling over the lounge area outside the infirmary. "I was hiding from the lights," she explained, pointing at the infirmary windows. "The light gets everywhere. It sees me. But it can't find me here."
Jayne looked at the infirmary, then back at her. "Okay. You comin' down any time soon?"
"The lights will see me."
Simon would have tried to convince her to come down anyway. The captain would have ordered her to come down. Jayne went over and turned off the lights. "There. Lights all gone."
River smiled, feeling that odd yearning sensation near her heart again. Jayne understood. He didn't laugh or try to tell her that her fears weren't real. "Thank you."
"No problem." He stood under her again, and held up his hands. "Drop."
She dropped, and he caught her, swinging her easily onto her feet. Her heart was pounding, but not from fear any longer. "Is there a new job?"
"Yup. Cap'n says you can't come on this one, though." Jayne agreed with Mal on this, River could see it in his strata. "See, we're goin' after treasure on a ship that's likely full of dead folk. Died in the war. Figures you might be scarred or somethin' if you see all them bodies lyin' around."
"Loud," River whispered, shaking her head. She didn't like people who had died fighting. They were too noisy.
"Yeah, very loud. Mess up that crazy head of yours." Jayne smiled, resting his hand lightly on the top of her head just for a moment. "So you can't help this time. Maybe next time."
"Next time." She nodded. "I'm not here today."
"Yeah, noticed that." Jayne shook his head. "You gotta get better at remembering how to find here and now."
"There are so many nows. I forget which is which."
He looked around, embarrassment dripping through his lines. "Yeah, well, the real now is the one where River has candy, all right?" He dug a small bag out of his pocket and offered it to her.
She accepted the bag, sniffing it. Even through the plastic she could smell sugar and lemons. "Another gift?"
"Yeah, and you didn't get this one from me either." He frowned, but his face softened when she smiled at him. "Just figured it'd keep you quiet after the nightmare, is all. You always get fussy when you ain't slept."
She saw through him, of course. He was embarrassed by being kind, but he'd been worried about her. Book had accused him of wanting to protect her, and Jayne had been shamed by the truth of it. "A secret." She added it to the secrets Jayne had already given her, the one Wash had entrusted to her and the one she shared with the other women on board. They were good secrets. They didn't hurt her the way the other secrets did, the ones that weren't hers.
"Yeah, a secret." Jayne smelled relieved. "And don't spoil your dinner."
Wash heard Kaylee's indrawn breath behind him and knew just why it came. The sight through the forward windows had struck him the same way.
"Cap'n?" Kaylee said quietly. "What're we looking at?"
Mal's voice was quiet. "The Battle of Sturges."
They weren't looking at the same battle, though. Wash knew Mal, knew that he was looking at the blasted ships that filled their sky and thinking of the dead men and women aboard them, lost in a blink or to slow asphyxiation and hypothermia.
Kaylee thought of them too, because she always did, but Wash knew that the grief in her eyes was for the bodies she could see. The blasted hulks and broken bodies of ships that had once flown sweet and true, abandoned like so much scrap. Unloved and unwanted. He knew Kaylee's heart broke for each and every one, hanging there in the black with wings broken and lights gone dim. He felt the same way. Those ships had been murdered as surely as their crews had... but unlike their crews, most of them could have lived again if anyone had cared enough to save them.
Maybe they wouldn't have wanted to be saved, though. Maybe they wanted to stay here with their crews, awaiting whatever would come when the universe met its end.
"Right. That's the one we want." Mal pointed, his voice tight and unhappy. "Jayne, Zoe, go suit up. Wash, ease us on over there slowly. Let me know when we're close enough."
"Will do, sir. It'll take a little while, there's a lot of scrap out there."
"Show some respect, Wash," Mal said quietly, as the others filed out. "You're among the dead."
"I know." Wash looked again at the broken ships drifting before them. "I see them."
Jayne had ducked down into his bunk to pick up a few extra weapons - sure, there wasn't supposed to be anyone alive to fight, but it never hurt to be careful - and midway through checking the LeMat's extra ammo it had occurred to him that the usual gun-oil-and-sweat smell of his bunk was threaded through with something sweeter and softer. Girl smell.
There was only one place to hide in his bunk, and she was there, pushed far back under his bunk, lying there as silent and pale as a little dead thing. "Told you not to ever come down here," he said, reaching down to drag her out. He flinched when he touched her bare arm. Her skin was cold and clammy, and she was limp and trembling when he pulled her out.
"You said I could if they came," River whimpered, her voice weak and thready. Her breathing was unsteady, too, and the pulse in her thin wrist was flickering quick as a bird's.
"Reavers?" This was the kinda place they could easily hide, waiting for someone to come. Not that Reavers usually hid anyplace, but if they did, it'd be here...
"No..." River shook her head, tears leaking out of her eyes and running down her face. "Hands of blue, two by two..."
"Fuck." He picked her up, then looked at the ladder. The ladder for which he needed hands. "MAL!" he bellowed through the open door.
"What? We don't have all day, Jayne!" Mal sounded semi-close... cockpit, probably.
"What do you mean, trap?" Good. Voice was getting closer.
"I mean trap." Jayne got himself in behind the ladder in time to look up and see Mal looking back down. "Here, take her."
"What the hell is River doing in your bunk?" Mal asked, looking more than a little pissed but taking the little cold body Jayne passed up to him. He stepped back, and Jayne grabbed the LeMat before climbing up.
"She was hidin'." Jayne looked a little anxiously at River, who was shivering silently in Mal's arms, tears still pouring down her face. "They're here, Mal, or they're gonna be soon. Those blue handed yao guai she's so scared of, killed all those Feds on Ariel."
"Trap. Ta ma de." Mal shook his head. "Go round everyone up real quiet, just in case they're close enough to hear an announcement on the speaker. Get them up to the cockpit and that nice sound-proof door."
Jayne had gone two paces when River screamed, a high, thin scream like a dying rabbit. "Jayne!"
He spun on his heel, conscious thought not even a factor as he snatched the girl from Mal's arms, holding her protectively. Her cold arms slid around his neck and she burrowed her face into his shoulder. "It's okay," he murmured, feeling her shaking like a leaf against his chest. "River, listen to me. Remember what I said I'd do when you told me about these freaks?"
She whimpered and nodded. "Shoot them in the face," she whispered.
"That's right. That's what I'm gonna do. So they won't get you, okay?"
"Okay." She held on tighter.
"That's... Jayne, we're gonna talk about this. Later." Mal shook his head. "Get her up to the cockpit and stay there. Try to calm her down enough to get her to talk more."
"No," River whispered.
"They're on her belly. No more time. No time to run." She squirmed in Jayne's grip, trying to burrow her head into his shoulder. "Please don't let them take me, please..."
"They won't. I promise." Jayne would put a bullet in her first, knowing what they'd do. He felt her relax as he thought that, and nodded. They understood each other. Better a clean bullet than that. "They're on Serenity's belly?"
"Wuo du ma!" Mal was off and running, yelling for Kaylee and yanking his gun out of its holster.
"You should wait with Wash," Jayne said, wincing as River tried to push her head under his collarbone. "We'll take care of it."
"No!" Her scream was shrill, and her nails sank into his shoulders as she grabbed onto him. "Don't leave me!"
"What's going on?" How long had Wash been standing there?
"Got boarders. Tell Zoe to stay in your bunk in case they get past us." Jayne followed Mal, a hair slower in case he bumped River's head against a narrow doorway. "River, get a grip... ow... not on me! You got your knife?"
"Yes." She scrabbled at her leg, her skirt hitching up to show the short dagger strapped to her thigh. Her hands were shaking so much she couldn't get it out of the sheath.
He maneuvered a hand around to pull it out for her, closing his hand over hers when she managed to grip the handle. "You keep a good grip on this. If I can't stop them, the big vein's right here." He brushed the side of her neck with his thumb, feeling her pulse flickering much too fast under cool skin. "Cut as deep as you can and then pull the knife out. It's quick an' it don't hurt so much."
"Yes." Her trembling slowed. "I will."
"Not, you know, before you have to. No point if you're gonna survive." They were in the hold now, with Kaylee kneeling on a hatch that had never before opened to anywhere outside.
"I'm not gonna be able to keep rewiring this forever, Cap'n!"
"Just keep going as long as you can." Mal turned as Jayne set River down, letting her lean against his side as he pulled Vera off his back. "River, you know anything about them? What they're like to do? How many?"
"Two by two. Two by two, hands of blue." River's thin arm was looped around Jayne's waist, holding on tightly.
"So there's just two of 'em down there?"
"Right." Jayne peeled River off, pushing her behind a crate. "You stay there where they can't see you if they come through."
She nodded, the knife glittering in her hand as she trembled. "Don't let them take me."
"I won't." Jayne walked over to the hatch and got himself set. "Kaylee? Open it."
"But Jayne -"
"There's only two of 'em."
"And you criticize my plans." Mal moved up beside Jayne, gun at the ready. "Try not to hit my boat."
"Wasn't planning on it." Jayne felt weirdly good, as Kaylee pressed a couple of buttons and skittered back. There was too many complications in his life lately, so it felt as if he was spending all his life in a haze of confusion. But he could handle this. Two men - or maybe not, maybe they were something less, like Reavers. No normal man with a functioning soul could do what'd been done to River. But there were two heads and he had his favourite gun in his hands and he was two sticky red messes of bone and tissue away from resolving this. He could do that.
The hatch opened. A head popped through and Jayne blew it off. One down.
He and Mal moved forward in perfect unison, aiming down into the hole even as the body slumped back onto its former partner, who was bug-eyed with surprise even as he reached into a pocket. Jayne took the time to blow that shoulder open as Mal shot the man twice in the chest. He crumpled, still breathing and Jayne knocked Mal's gun away as he aimed for the head. Still in that peaceful place where conscious thought took a back seat to action, he swung around to reach behind the crate. He dragged River out, pulling the knife from her hand and pulling the SuXiao. Without a pause he had her back at the rim of the hole, pushing the gun into her hand and aiming it for her at the blue-hands' head.
River's eyes went flat and she pulled the trigger three times in quick succession, splashing the inside of the bulkhead with blood and brain-globs.
"Jayne, what the hell..." Mal said weakly, as the echoes of the shots died.
"Best to kill your own monsters if you can." River was shaking harder than ever, now, but the hysterical terror was gone from her face. Her knees buckled and Jayne held her up, looping an arm around her ribs without giving much thought to it. "You okay?"
"Will be." She rubbed her cheek against his chest, drying her teary face on his t-shirt. "Thank you."
"That's my girl." He steadied her, letting her stand on her own when he was sure her knees would hold. "Now you know you can do it. Next time someone tries to take you, just do the same again."
She nodded, lifting her little chin. "I will."
"Well, now that we've had our disturbing little interlude..." Mal laid a hand on River's thin shoulder. "You go, ni zi. We'll take care of this."
She nodded, then bit her lip and turned to Kaylee, who was cowering half-hidden behind a crate. "I'm sorry," she whispered, lip quivering. "I scared you again."
"No, you didn't." Kaylee got shakily to her feet, her lip trembling. "It's... I woulda shot Early like that, if I could. And he didn't even do anything to me, he just said he would..."
"He what?" Mal's head whipped around. "Kaylee, what'd he say to you?"
"That he would rape her. Make her hurt. Make her cry." River had that sad, distant look she got when the pain she felt wasn't her own. "Sometimes when she's dreaming he comes back."
"That bastard son of a..." Jayne had only ever heard that kind of fury in Mal's voice once before, and he'd been sure then that Mal would leave him in that airlock to die. Mal went over, wrapping Kaylee up in his arms and hugging her tight. "Shhh..." he murmured, as she started to cry. "Shh, mei mei... he's gone. He can't hurt you any more."
"We should go," River whispered, and drew Jayne towards the stairs.
"River, what's going on?" They ran into the doc just as they reached the doorway leading down to the infirmary and passenger dorms. "I heard shooting, and... is that blood?"
"And brains." River looked down at her bare feet, currently leaving sticky red prints. She looked up, smiling brightly at her brother. "The blue hands are broken. I walked in their pieces."
"You... River, that's..." The doc looked deeply disturbed. "Jayne, what just happened?"
"She told you. Them blue hands hun dan showed up, got their heads blown off, everything'll be shiny as soon as the mess gets cleared up." Jayne scowled. "And I ain't doin' it again. Every time someone gets shot in here I wind up cleaning it up."
"It was a trap." They'd gathered around the table so Mal could share the bad news. "I imagine you all remember the Fed who shot Kaylee trying to take River and the doc?"
"Dobson." Simon frowned, more than a little confused by the apparent non sequitur. "Didn't you shoot him in the head back on Whitefall?"
"Apparently I didn't shoot him enough. He was the one lured us here, maybe workin' with the blue hands, maybe not. They coulda just taken advantage of the scheme." Mal scowled. "There was, needless to say, no money. We are going to be having words with Badger as to whether he knew this was a trap and, if so, which of his body parts he'd like left identifiable."
"Teeth. I could leave his teeth in." Jayne looked even grimmer than usual. Simon wasn't sure how he felt about that... Jayne getting all protective over River was simultaneously reassuring and unnerving.
"Teeth are a fine choice. Leaving one of his hands possessed of identifiable prints is also an offer I'm willing to consider." Mal slouched, scowling. "River, for some reason you didn't sense this coming like you did with Ott and his gang. That some special trick the blue hands had? Some device or some such that keeps you from hearing them coming?"
"No." River shook her head. She looked pale and exhausted, but calmer than she had been in a long time. "They knew I would hear them, so they hid among the dead. The screaming was so loud that it drowned them out until they were close."
"Just like on that ship the Reavers hit, with the one live guy." Jayne nodded. "Get enough dead folk together, an' River won't hear a few live ones mixed in."
"Well, at least it ain't a situation we're like to run into often." Mal nodded, relaxing a bit. "So. We go back to Persephone, and I suggest any business any of you may have be settled while we're there, because we ain't like to go back for a while. Even if Badger didn't set us up, he's gettin' too unreliable."
"Where'll we go, sir?"
"Beaumonde. Fanty and Mingo aren't quite as low-profile as Badger, but they do find the jobs and right now we need them. That bank heist won't hold us forever, and work's been getting scarce."
There were nods around the table. Then Book raised a hand. "I've been giving this some thought, Captain," he said quietly. "I think it's about time I moved on."
"Preacher, you're gonna leave us?" Kaylee sounded miserable, and Simon reached out to take her hand under the table. She squeezed it, giving him a grateful smile.
"I think it's time I did, Kaylee. I'll hope to see all of you again, wherever it is I settle, but I find myself growing uncertain of my path." For some reason, Book glanced down the table at River... or maybe it was Jayne, sitting beside her. "I am a man of peace... and not a young one. I find myself forgetting both, when I see you all in need."
"Chargin' into a well-guarded fortress with the aim of shooting folk in the knees, for example." Zoe nodded. "We'll miss you, preacher, but I see your point."
"Can't argue." Mal nodded, as Inara murmured something quiet to Book and got a smile and a nod in response. "Any particular place you'd like to set down?"
"None that have called to me, as yet. I'm not planning to rush off at our next port." Book smiled reassuringly at Kaylee. "Just making my intentions known, for now. When we find someplace that needs a preacher, I'll take my leave for a time."
"Fair enough." Mal smiled just a little. "On the understanding that you'll wave us if you need a ride. It'd hurt our feelings if you were to take ship with someone else, should you change your mind about the settlin'."
Book smiled. "Agreed."
After the meeting broke up, Simon found himself following Kaylee into the engine room. "Kaylee? Are you all right?"
She sniffled. "I'm fine. I'm just gonna miss the Shepherd."
"So are we all, I think. But this is... well, he's right about not being a young man anymore. He's in great shape for his age, but his heart isn't as strong as it could be."
"You mean he might have an attack or somethin'?" Kaylee's eyes went wide. "Oh, no!"
"Not for years yet, I hope, but the constant strain of this life isn't good for him." Simon touched her arm tentatively. "I'll miss him too, but for his own sake, I think he's probably made the right decision."
"You're right. Of course you're right." She gave him a wobbly little smile. "I just hate sayin' goodbye is all."
"I know." She hadn't pulled away, and he left his hand on her arm. "Uh... River said, earlier, that you were upset. Because of Early."
"Oh, that? It's nothin', I just... I just got a little flustered on account of the shootin' and all." Kaylee's voice was too bright, and she wouldn't meet his eyes.
"River told me that he... said things to you." Simon looked down at his hand on her arm. "That he frightened you."
"It was nothin'." Kaylee's lip quivered. "I just... Oh, Simon, I'm sorry. I told him where River's room was. I was so scared, he said he was gonna..." She trailed off, eyes filling with tears.
"I know. He told me." Simon took a deep breath. "River wasn't there, when he got to the dorms, but I was. He told me to help him look for her. I refused." He swallowed hard. "He said that if I didn't, he would shoot me and then go up and... hurt you. I couldn't... I went with him. If you'd been hurt because of us..."
"Oh. Oh, Simon..." Kaylee took his hand, curling hers slowly around it. "I didn't know..."
"I know. I didn't want you to be upset." Simon smiled tentatively at her. "I was afraid you'd blame yourself, and you shouldn't. It wasn't your fault, none of it was your fault. I just... couldn't let him hurt you."
"That's..." Kaylee shook her head, smiling a little. "That's just the sweetest thing you've ever said to me, Simon Tam."
"I meant it." Simon squeezed her hand then forced himself to let go. "I... need to check on River. Seeing the blue hands finally die... very messily... it's affected her quite intensely." Kaylee's face fell, and he drew another breath in. "She's getting better, though. I'm... I actually have a little free time, now and then. Soon, I hope, I'll have time for... I can't really do justice to any other commitment now, but soon..."
For a moment he'd thought he'd screwed things up again, then Kaylee gave him a smile so sweet that his heart skipped a beat. "I understand. I do. You go make sure she's okay."
Simon went, but he didn't feel the hard deck under his feet. Kaylee had smiled. She'd said she understood. She wasn't angry with him for putting River first just until his sister was more stable, she knew that he wanted... well, he hoped she knew that he wanted. And River really was getting better...
Hours later, River slept. The destruction of the blue hands had lifted a weight off her, drawing away some of the confused fear that clouded her thoughts. She wandered away from the Academy, not wanting to dream that tonight.
Knowing she was dreaming, she found herself in the hold again. Dead leaves carpeted the floor, drifting to cover the headless bodies at her feet. She looked up at the chains looped across the starry sky, and felt broad hands grip her shoulders. She turned, looking up at Jayne, who picked her up and cradled her securely against his chest. "Are you okay?"
"I will be." In dreams she could speak clearly, could make him understand her, and she touched his cheek gently. "Will you always let me save myself?"
"If you can. If you can't, I'll take care of it." He smiled at her, and let her rest her forehead against his. "Ready to stand on your own two feet?"
"Not yet." She kissed his cheek, and his arms tightened around her. "I like it where I am."
"So do I." His lips brushed her cheek and she shivered, sliding her fingers around the back of his neck. "Stay as long as you want."
River turned her head, wanting to kiss him properly, and found her eyes opening to see her faintly lit ceiling. "No!" she whimpered, closing her eyes and trying to bring the dream back. She felt shaky and tingly, aching to be touched and to touch him in return.
Clearly there was no point in trying to fixate her attention on the captain. River surrendered to the inevitable, sliding her hand under the blankets as she closed her eyes to remember what little there had been of her dream.
Jayne stared at his ceiling, wondering what had woken him up. He'd been dreaming, but he couldn't really remember it now. There had been golden leaves, and stars, and an armful of warm girl snuggling up to him as her lips wandered his cheek. Didn't seem like much, and yet his imaginary girl had to have been quite something, because he was aching as if he hadn't gotten off in months.
Well, that was easily fixed... he closed his eyes, trying to remember his imaginary girl in more detail.
lao ren jia - (respectful) old person, elderly woman
xiao gui - (affectionate) little demon
dong ma - you understand?
wu dong - I understand
sheng ben dan - holy idiot
yao guai - monster, devil (I have no idea how to do plurals, sorry)
ni zi - little girl
mei mei - little sister
hun dan - bastard