Disclaimer: The wonderful characters and the good ship Serenity all belong to Joss Whedon, or Mutant Enemy, or Fox, or whoever actually owns them, and that person or entity is definitely not me. Written for amusement purposes only. No copyright infringement intended or implied.

Rating: T, with rough language warning. May go up for later chapters.

Summary: Eight months after Miranda, the crew of Serenity still struggles to adapt to the "new normal." Constructing, and deconstructing, moments of her life, River attempts to assimilate her new and sometimes painful feelings for Jayne. - - Rayne, but will touch on other relationships. Post-BDM, of course.

Chapter 18: In and Outed

In

Cluster-fuck. River had never heard the term before, but she instantly understood its meaning: disorganized and random thrashing; difficult, unfulfilling, and more than a little hazardous. She catalogued it approvingly under the lengthy mental column entitled "Jayne's More Picturesque Vulgarities."

The group huddled by the side of the cargo bay shifted farther away from the increasingly interested Archer. River could hear him wondering what they were discussing so intensely, but all he knew about this particular operation was that Mr. Ungwele had told him to keep them waiting on their ships until they were called to the warehouses. Both Archer and Kang were alert for any sign of trouble from the FNS, but River felt no knowledge of Guynan from either of them. Still, Archer was experienced enough to be suspicious of their behavior…it wasn't what he'd been expecting, and that was enough to set off faint alarm bells in his brain.

"Can't disagree," the captain was grimly amused. "And that brings me to the first issue. I can't order any a you to follow through on this thing. I need to know, right now, in or out? Jayne, since you brung it up so delicately, how 'bout you start?"

Jayne's mouth compressed and his gaze wandered upward as if he were thinking it over.

"Out to where?" he said after a second, lifting one shoulder idly. "Desert don't look too hospitable right now."

"Either Monty or Tasha would take you on in a heartbeat, no questions asked." Mal blinked, realizing belatedly that his words could be construed as a compliment. "I mean, you could try your luck there," he amended with a casual shrug. It was one of the few times that River had ever heard the captain even hint at Jayne's considerable worth as crew.

River looked down, biting her lip. Please, stay with us… Surprisingly, the other crew members of Serenity were thinking not dissimilar thoughts, even Simon, who recognized Jayne's value in a fight.

"Payout ain't lookin' too good, either, from any angle, so might as well get some play a my own," Jayne gave a perverse smile. "In."

River's gratified gaze shot over her shoulder, and crashed into his hard blue stare. Despite the support he had shown earlier, he was still not entirely happy with her.

"In!" Kaylee said immediately, relieved, and there was general agreement.

Mal turned to Zoë.

"You should be safe here on the ship for now, but if the FNS shows up and things start lookin' hairy, you put that baby in a shuttle and run, you hear?" he declared forcefully.

Zoë chuckled without humor.

"I ain't leavin' Serenity, and until there ain't no other choice, Hob ain't leavin' me. If you need me on the job, that's where I'll be. 'Nara, we talked about this." Zoë looked to Inara.

Inara nodded somberly. "I have supplies in my shuttle already. I'll move his cradle and some clothes in as soon as possible." She looked at Mal. "As the ward of a registered member of a powerful guild, he will have substantially more protection from any kind of establishment forces, such as the Alliance. The Hong Se Feng is another issue altogether, but Zoë and I came up with this contingency plan not long after Hob was born and I think it may serve us well here."

River could feel Mal's irritation that they thought so little of his ability to keep the baby safe that they had to construct an emergency plan, tempered weakly by his inner admission that it had been a good thought, and would probably be necessary, if not tomorrow, then at some time in the future.

"Then that's settled," he said with only a hint of peevishness, trying to let it go for now. "Now we just have to set the record straight with them." He glanced over at Tasha, Monty and Alexander, heads together by the crates. The elder Waarfs were sitting silently, with Reg drinking steadily while Miles was growing more and more disturbed and upset. Beverly had polished off the cookies, wondering when they were going to leave.

"It would be mighty fine if you could tell me that Guynan is being held in some nearby, extremely accessible location, little witch," Mal began, resignation already present in his voice. "Like maybe them warehouses that Shu was headin' toward? Cause it'd be half the battle if Shu himself invites us over there to load up and we can figure on some way of gettin' in there and grabbin' the colonel."

River shook her head reluctantly. Shu had Guynan in his own private vault, constructed in the lower level of the elaborate edifice known as The Palace, modeled after the famous Taj Mahal on Earth-That-Was.

"He's being held in a secured room beneath The Palace," she informed him.

"Where the ruttin' hell is that?" whined Jayne in exasperation.

"The Palace is Shu's fancy private hotel building way over there," Kaylee piped up, gesturing vaguely toward the buildings in the distance. Jayne gave a grunt of unhappiness at that information.

"Now how do you know?" the captain demanded, bewildered.

"I got a look at the brochure…uploads automatically at the checkpoint." Kaylee gazed around artlessly at their staring faces. "Says right there on the map of the Hotel Orrica: the Palace. The reflectin' pool in front of it is right between the Ice Pavilion and the Lucky Diamond casino. S'where all the really rich n' famous people stay."

"The brochure," Mal repeated incredulously, an unbidden laugh stuttering from his throat.

"So you're sayin' this is some place we can just…walk into?" Zoë questioned, her tone just this side of hopeful.

"Highly improbable," River shook her head. "It's Shu's private residence, and those who are invited to stay there are his private guests. There will be tight security…it is the hub of Shu's empire."

"Natives're gettin' restless, Cap," Jayne interjected, looking out from his vantage point against the wall. Tasha was glowering over at them, and both Miles and Monty were now on their feet, moving around agitatedly.

"Inara?" Mal turned to her with a slight grin. "Wiles?"

Inara looked at him in puzzlement for a moment, and then her expression cleared and she laughed lightly.

"Of course." She took a deep breath and closed her eyes, and they watched in appreciation as within the space of that one cleansing breath the tension slid visibly from her neck, shoulders and hands, and her whole body seemed to lift lightly in the air. River heard Inara's inner voice chanting calming instruction: banish worry, banish fear, open your heart and mind and eyes to best serve their needs, this is but one moment in time, and you hold it within the palm of your hand. When Inara opened her eyes again she was tranquil, poised, and all Companion. Her consciously projected beauty was luminous.

"Never a dull moment, Captain Reynolds," she commented in her warm, lilting voice, no trace of the troubled woman of a few minutes ago remaining.

"Would you have it any other way?" Mal inquired wryly, his own voice deepening.

"You may anticipate a reply on that subject later in the evening, sir," she winked coquettishly, and dazzling them all with a brilliant smile, turned to move gracefully toward the group gathered around the crates. Within seconds they were seated, and hanging on her every word.

"You'd think we'd be used to it," Simon commented appreciatively, after a pause. Kaylee nodded, an awed look on her face.

"The woman's got a power," Mal agreed, his reaction mixed. Her Companion training was both disconcerting and highly alluring to him, a source of discomfort as well as pride. He recognized its usefulness as he watched her mere presence soothe the worried and restive group, but couldn't help but resent the reason for its existence.

"Over some more'n others," Jayne's eyes glinted as they slid in Mal's direction.

The captain looked back at him sourly and River knew he was considering making a crack about certain little witch girls just to see Jayne's reaction, but deferred since this was not the time to get into that discussion. River almost wished he would.

"You two think you can figure out a way to get us in there?" Mal scrutinized Kaylee and River.

River nodded. "I acquired Shu's access codes for the hotel systems. I should be able to retrieve visuals of interiors, security, and communications. Whether or not I will be able to manipulate the system will depend on its design, and any secondary encryptions."

"Wash collected a snake file of hard-coded backdoors for a lot a programs," offered Zoë quietly. "Can't hurt to take a look at 'em once you see what kind a system Shu's got."

Kaylee nodded, a little sadly. "I know how to access that."

"Then go be geniuses." Mal nodded toward the stairs. He thought for a moment and then suggested, "Jayne, that kid wants to play his banjo so bad, why don't you get your guitar and you two set up by the ramp, give our unwanted guests somethin' to keep their minds off a what I gotta tell those people over there. Since we ain't got bagpipes to make their ears bleed, the banjo will have to do," he spoke with cynical amusement.

"On it," Jayne nodded, and moved off. He went up to Bev and invited him to play some music with him, and the thrilled teen trotted off to get his banjo from where he'd left it leaning against the wall. Jayne disappeared briefly from view as he went to retrieve his guitar from the common area, under the suddenly attentive eye of Kang.

River's steps slowed as she watched Jayne and Bev, each holding their musical instruments in one hand, dragging crates toward the cargo bay doors. Bev's happiness was almost palpable, and River envied him his innocent ability to fully express his emotions. It brought back her intense feelings of disappointment from the incident with Jayne and Simon. Will there ever be a time when I can be that spontaneous and unguarded with Jayne? She wondered in frustration.

Mal straightened up decisively as the group started to break in different directions. "Shu expects a party, we'll give him a gorram hootenanny."

&&&&&&&&&

Zoë had joined Inara and was being peppered with questions from Tasha, fielding them with her usual imperturbable calm, waiting for the captain. Simon had seated himself nearby, looking vexed, his eyes repeatedly straying to the catwalk where the girls had gone. Don't fret, Doc, Mal ruminated silently. Got a feeling you're going to be busy soon enough.

"Where's that go?" Archer called over to Mal, indicating the upper level catwalk where Kaylee and River had vanished into the interior of the ship.

"Kitchen. Just fixin' up some food," Mal turned to him with a bland expression.

"I don't think I have to tell you that if this ship moves an inch without my say-so, Kang over there is going to get very unhappy." Archer stared at him for a long moment, and then made a decision. He grabbed a small, uncovered crate and tossed it on the floor near his feet, beckoning Kang over. "I want your weapons. Kang, scan 'em."

Kang activated a scope that flipped out of the top of his weapon and held it in the direction of the tense group.

"You first," Archer said to Mal, pointing at the pistol at his hip and then at the empty crate.

"This the way Shu always treats his business contacts?" Mal demanded indignantly.

"Yes," Archer said shortly, raising his weapon with a clear message.

"And I heard such nice things…" Mal mocked, unsnapping the holster and removing his gun. He stepped forward and put it in the container.

Kang jerked the scope toward Monty, who passed a long-barreled revolver forward with a disgruntled look, and Alexander, who surrendered a stiletto, and a sleek lasered pistol. Next Kang trained the sight on Jayne, who was lounging on his crate across from Bev, a challenging smirk on his face.

"This should take awhile," Mal muttered, as Jayne removed one weapon at a time, handing it over to Archer, and then waiting boldly for Kang to shake his head, indicating there was more to come. Bev was wide-eyed at Jayne's cool audacity.

Three knives, a snub-nosed revolver from a SOB holster, a pistol from an ankle holster, and one belt with buckle later, Kang finally gave Jayne an all-clear sign. Using his foot, Archer shoved the box to the far side of the ramp, taking up a surveillance station in front of it, temporarily appeased. The unpleasant moment gradually faded into the pervasive disquiet.

Jayne and Bev settled down on their crates within a few feet of the cargo bay doors, and spent a few minutes tuning up their instruments. Mal dawdled on his way toward the grouping of crates, waiting for them to start playing something real and set up that sound block he wanted.

They discussed a few options, and then Jayne suggested Bev play his favorite song to display his skill. Bev chose "Wicked Rose Stomp" and Jayne, his mood lightened with a huff of laughter at the ambitious choice, indicated his familiarity with the tune. They began, and it quickly became apparent that Bev was quite gifted. The entire group turned to marvel as Jayne and Bev played the lively song together. Bev's fingers flailed over his banjo confidently, his metallic picks flashing in the dim light, his eyes lifting frequently to Jayne for approval. Miles watched proudly, while Reg seemed faintly amused.

Bev finished with a flourish, beaming at Jayne.

The banjo, Mal groaned inwardly, shiny. The kid couldn't have played a nice pan flute. Or triangle.

"The boy can pick!" Monty clapped appreciatively, as there was a spontaneous round of applause. Even Archer and Kang had been watching the teen.

"Show-off," Jayne protested good-naturedly, his arm resting casually across the body of his guitar. He sent his easy grin in Bev's direction, causing the boy's flush to deepen. Bev laughed excitedly.

"You kept up, Jayne," he said in admiration. "What next?"

Mal snorted with a sense of irritated bemusement as they began to play their second song. Who would have thought all this adoration would spring from having mothers with a weak grasp of namin' traditions and a mutual ability to pluck a few strings in an organized manner?

A movement by Archer caught Mal's attention. Archer had activated the small flip-up scope on his own weapon and trained it on the stairs. Alarmed, he turned to see what Archer was aiming at. River was coming down with her usual fluid grace, carrying a tray with a teapot and another plate of cookies. Archer flipped the scope back down a second later, finished scanning her for concealed weapons, his expression almost bored. He clearly imagined he had the upper hand. We'll see about that, Mal thought.

He looked at the tray of food – had she merely heard him, or sensed him…? He never could figure on exactly how her little gift worked. He was a little surprised to see her, too, wondering if she had anything to report – she and little Kaylee hadn't been gone but a minute. It would be worthwhile to have her here for the discussion, see if she could read anything off any of the other captains, though. He looked at her with his eyebrows raised and she gave a slight nod of reassurance. They had something. Mal's mouth curled in a satisfied smile. It was good to have geniuses.

There was sudden, blessed silence as Bev finished his latest drop-thumbed bout of rustic cat-strangling.

"I am gettin' a powerful urge to fashion myself some cornhusk dolls, or maybe get along to the quiltin' bee," Mal called out, sending Jayne an annoyed look for being a little too distracting. They'd have to shout over that noise. Jayne gave a sarcastic grimace in response, and then nodded "yeah, yeah" in understanding of his orders. He looked to Bev.

"I think somethin' a little down tempo next, huh? You know 'John Henry'?" He plucked a few notes.

"'Course!" Bev answered immediately, insulted.

"I'll call you in," Jayne said quietly, and began to strum the guitar in a softer, slower melody. Bev watched him closely, and at Jayne's brief nod, joined in with the banjo's part.

Mal moved in the direction of the people waiting expectantly for him, and braced himself to serve up some more bad news.

&&&&&&&&&&

II - Outed

Jayne and Bev played the old folk song as a relaxed, deceptively simple tune, but River heard the deeper sound, heard the instruments conversing, sharing the classic tale of the big, hard-working man, fighting the future, fighting for human dignity.

She descended the stairs, depositing the tray with its hastily-filled teapot of cold water and the rest of the cookies that Inara had left in the kitchen onto a random crate, and then moving over to sit next to Simon. He was relieved to see her, and he looked at her with a silent question. Everything okay? She nodded. His eyes shifted toward the stairs. Kaylee? She smiled reassuringly and patted his hand. Kaylee was downloading the information they'd uncovered to a holomap, and then she would join them.

River tried to pay attention as Mal outlined the situation to the others, but her eyes kept straying to Jayne. She gazed at him as he played the guitar, fascinated as always, watching his fingertips move confidently over the frets as he alternately strummed and plucked the strings for the curling end notes. The guitar had the backbone of the tune, low, steady, uncomplicated, but with a lilting hook that echoed the more intricate, twanging tones of the banjo. The two instruments blended and complimented each other, creating a full, rich sound.

River recalled how she had been drifting, cold and lost, in the steely trap of Shu's mind, an unwilling confidant to his well-guarded secrets and calculated cruelties, witnessing with revulsion as he reveled in his faux bonhomie. River closed her eyes for a second, reliving the sensation when Jayne's hands had come down on her shoulders, steady and powerful, pulling her into his warmth, offering his strength to her…like the music, merging, combining, there was a synergy…and she had been able to move at will through the filters of Shu's mind, unafraid.

"So you're thinkin' Shu's usin' us as some kinda bait for the Feds? But how do you know? This all sounds like feng kuang de tan hua!" Tasha's strident voice startled her, and River's eyes blinked open as she jumped back to the conversation flowing around her. "C'mon, Sarge, what's really goin' down?"

Tasha was ill at ease, angry and afraid. She didn't want to hear any more bad news, her life had been too full of it lately.

"My word on this, Tash," the captain said firmly, keeping an eye on Archer and Kang, thankful that neither of them seemed to be interested in the discussion on the other side of the music. He was trying to parlay his status as "Sarge" into a willing acceptance of a truth that could not be proven. Mal was wondering how to convince them all without sacrificing too much information about the Tams.

"Sorry, Mal, but I don't see any reason to it. Monty, Al, Miles? What are you all thinkin'? Why is this gettin' so complicated? We come to do a job, we do a job. I only gotta answer to the man handin' me the cashy money." Tasha stared around at the others, trying to gauge their reactions.

Alexander shrugged. "He did have that message on the player, Tash, so there is something strange going on here. I don't know if I'm willing to risk my neck on this, though, Mal."

Monty stroked his beard uneasily. "Malcolm says a thing, it usually is," he muttered staunchly, but River could feel that he wasn't completely convinced, either. "And my first mate Quan tells me we got Shu's security on the Juno, too. That don't seem kosher."

"Why do we gotta get involved, anyway?" Reg demanded. "If this place is about to go batshit, why don't we all just get? No better excuse in the world."

Miles nodded his head in vehement agreement.

"I can't make any a you stay. I can't make you risk your lives and your ships. If you ain't willin' to help us spring Guynan, that's up to you. But I'm tellin' you true, get out now, if Shu will let you. Don't wait for no suppposed cargo, just run. 'Cause the Hong Se Feng is blowin' tonight, and the Feds will be here by tomorrow, and we are in the pinch." Mal's tone was hard and sincere.

"I still can't see how ya just suddenly know all this. This Colonel Guynan bein' kidnapped or whatever, the FNS comin'…I don't see no army out there." Tasha pointed out the cargo bay door to the quiet desert night surrounding the ship.

"Who is your source, Mal? Shu? One of his men?" Alexander asked with increasing cynicism. "Did someone pass you a note? I have no reason to believe this tale about Guynan, from what I've seen here."

River sat quietly, reaching out with her mind. This was not going well. She looked at Monty. Of all of them, he was the most inclined to believe Mal, and he was remembering how Mal had been right about Bridget. Even so, he was still leaning toward just waiting it out, getting the cargo, whatever it was, and hoping for the best as far as the payout was concerned. River shivered a little. She knew in her very bones that was the wrong path for Monty.

Mal looked harassed, trying to conjure exactly what he could say to persuade them, but before he could speak, River came to a decision and stood up.

She made sure her voice was very clear. "I told him."

There was a moment of startled surprise.

"No." Simon realized what she was doing and leaped to his feet, shaking his head, staring at her in shock. She could hear him beginning to rant inwardly at her, demanding to know why she was compromising her safety to these people, people she barely knew, smugglers, miscreants, or at the very least, scofflaws, each one with an eye to a quick score. Just because she no longer had a federal bounty over her head did not make her any less valuable as a commodity.

I'm sorry, Simon, she answered him silently, but these are the people that I have to trust, because I think we need them now. It was a simple equation of risk and reward.

"River, it ain't worth it -" Zoë spoke up urgently.

"That's enough!" Mal was glaring at River, enraged, wondering what in the gorram hell she thought she was doing. "Sit down, both a you."

River heard the guitar jangle to a halt and she turned her head slightly to look at Jayne. He was standing, frowning, his eyes going from her, to Simon, to the captain, trying to fathom what had happened. Bev faltered as well, confused, and Jayne turned to him quickly, moving his hand in a "keep playing" motion. Bev responded to Jayne's prompt immediately, glancing around anxiously. His upbeat tune added a strange, discordant backdrop to the tense atmosphere.

"And just how do you know, darlin'?" asked Monty, looking at her thoughtfully.

"River, do not –" Simon commanded her through gritted teeth.

"I read Shu's mind." River explained simply, disregarding him.

"River," Simon almost moaned in defeat, clenching his fists. Mal was rubbing the back of his neck, wondering furiously how the hell they were going to explain that statement away.

"Oh, mei mei, no," Inara whispered, afraid for her.

"Shiny!" Tasha threw her hands up in exasperation, letting them slap down on her substantial thighs as she got to her feet. "I was just waitin' for batty here to put on another show. Mal, what are you thinkin', lettin' this little girl and her yu chun notions yank ya around by the balls? Hells bells, man, find her some toys to play with and leave the real talk to the grown-ups."

"You better be sure you know what you're doin', little one." Mal's eyes were flinty as he stared at River. He disagreed with her decision, but figured it was out of his hands now.

River gave a brief nod to the captain, and then confronted the taller woman with a resigned expression. She didn't want to do this…but it was necessary. If this was the only way to convince them that what Mal had told them was true, so be it.

"Tasha, on your last run you were convinced that you were about to be boarded by an Alliance cruiser, and you scuttled your load. You were precipitate; all they wanted was to cite you for expired docking permits, but you'd already forfeited an expensive cache of liquor and tobacco. This wasn't the first incident where you'd panicked at the first sign of the Feds, but this time your supplier, Billy, demanded that you reimburse him for double the worth of the cargo. "For pain and sufferin'," is what he said." River mimicked the vaguely Irish brogue of the man in Tasha's memory with eerie accuracy. "Initially, you refused, but he threatened to blacklist you. You paid him, but he blacklisted you all the same. None of your usual contacts would hire you. You haven't had cargo or any kind of payment in months. You're hopeful that Shu will let you refuel here, because you barely have enough left to break atmo. That's why you were so thrilled to take this job, with its substantial recompense."

Tasha stared at her, her face going white, then red.

Simon sank back down on his crate, propping his head in his hands and staring sightlessly at the floor. Why, why, why, was the litany revolving through his mind.

"P- panicked? That's – that's scandal! I ain't never ditched a load in my life! I ain't afraid of the Feds," Tasha sputtered hoarsely, giving a hollow rendition of her usual hearty laugh.

That verbal bravado opened Tasha's memories to River, and she shuddered suddenly as she glimpsed the reasons why Tasha was very afraid of the Feds. The POW ship after the war…two of the guards, amused by Tasha's Amazonian proportions…amused…and aroused…

River said nothing, full of compassion and sickly remorseful that she'd had a part in bringing those traumatic memories to the surface, but her silence was just as intimidating to the bigger woman.

"You been talkin' to my crew!" She blustered defensively.

River shook her head slowly. "They weren't there for the conversation with Billy, and you didn't tell them."

Tasha looked at River with genuine fear and repugnance, backing up unconsciously, almost stumbling over the crate behind her, whispering "Lies! Dirty lies!"

River turned to her attention to Alexander. Tasha's reaction had unnerved him and he held himself very rigidly. His one eye narrowed apprehensively, and an edgy smile pulled at his thin cheeks.

"You wagered the Remarque at dice, and lost," River began quietly. "You took the ship and ran, hoping to garner enough cash to stake yourself in another game and win enough to buy back your chit. You thought to recoup your losses at the casinos here…but that would be an error. Shu's tables are all rigged." She informed him matter-of-factly.

Alexander twitched in discomfort. He was angry, but not at her. He was ashamed that his weakness had put him in this situation, ashamed that his old comrades were aware of his failures.

"Is that true?" Reg asked Alexander in a jittery voice. "Is what she's sayin' true?"

"Yes," Alexander acknowledged evenly, looking away.

"And you, Miles," the young man nearly leaped out of his skin when she looked at him, "you wanted a big cash payout because you want to sell your share of the ship to Reg, and return home to Edoras. Not only are you concerned for your mother, but Janet refused to marry you because she won't live on the ship." River shrugged a little.

"You asked Janet to marry you? Janet Lester?" Reg stared at his brother, momentarily distracted. "With her pa the way he is?"

"Sure I did! She's the one I want, even if her daddy is the meanest shepherd I ever knew," Miles replied defensively.

"You're some kinda witch!" Tasha burst out in a quavery voice, staring wide-eyed at River.

"She ain't a witch, she's a reader," Jayne had moved over from his place by Bev to find out what was going on. He was shaking his head a little, looking at River in disbelief. She could tell he was angry that she'd just up and told them.

"No matter, she just ain't right." Tasha insisted, still unnerved.

"Problem is, she's always right." Jayne corrected her, with a rueful twist to his mouth.

The banjo music stopped abruptly and heads turned to look at Bev. Archer was standing in front of the alarmed teen, having stopped the music efficiently by jerking the banjo out of Bev's grasp. Archer had his other hand to his earpiece, listening.

"Hotspur!" He called out suddenly. "They're ready for you." Still listening, he shoved the banjo back at Bev as he turned and walked down to the end of the ramp, his attention trained on the warehouses in the distance. Kang followed more slowly, his eyes still on the group congregated in the bay.

Tasha clenched her teeth, looking back and forth between Archer and her old friends. River could feel that Tasha was too afraid of losing her payout to believe them, too afraid of losing her ship, too afraid that they were right. She just wanted to refuel, get her money, and run. River concentrated desperately, trying to find the right words to dissuade her from leaving. River tried to project, struggled to force a feeling, a premonition…but frustratingly, nothing came. Were there too many variables…?

"I'm gonna do the job I came to do." Tasha stated finally. "You all can listen to this creepified bullshit and go look for this Guynan and leave me and my crew out. I don't believe any a it, anyway. And I ain't stickin' around – I am gettin' my fuel and my cargo and blastin' outta here as soon as I can." Her bright eyes were wide with aggression, darting around wildly like a caged bird's, until they met Zoë's firm gaze and it seemed to settle her some. The tone of her voice moderated with regret as she looked at Zoë, and then at Mal, Monty, and Alexander. "It was good to see all a you again, and I wish ya the best of luck. But I gotta do what I can for my ship and my crew, and that don't include rescuin' no xu gou colonel."

Mal was not happy. He rocked back on his heels, arms folded. "I can't keep you here, Tash. I wish you'd stick with us. But you do what you think is right."

Tasha's pained eyes moved from Mal to River. She nodded sharply, and without another word, stumped out of the cargo bay and down the ramp, soon swallowed in the darkness.

There was a heavy pall as they watched her leave. Jayne approached Mal heatedly.

"You just gonna let her go?" he fumed.

"What I am supposed to do? Can't hold her hostage." The captain flung out a frustrated hand.

"You don't think she knows a little too much? We gonna trust her not to run right to Shu? You don't think it'll cross her mind that Shu might pay lofty for his very own personal psychic?" Jayne said, jerking his head toward River.

River's felt a small echo of her earlier joy. He's worried…for me.

"Jayne…Tasha has no intention of informing Ungwele," she informed him gently.

He rounded on her, teeth clenched.

"Not right now, maybe, but who knows how she'll feel in an hour, or who she'll tell if she gets grabbed by the FNS, or the Feds! Why'd ya go and give that up, huh? Just like before, you saw the gap and just had to fling yourself through. But this ain't the same. You know that if we survive this thing, you just put a price back on your head!"

"Jayne, it was necessary – " River attempted to explain, trying to remain calm.

"Like hell it was," he said, low and fierce. "Didn't change Tasha's mind, did it?"

Simon surged to his feet. "Stop yelling at her! She must have had a good reason for this!" He put his arm around River protectively. "It's her own safety she's jeopardized, not yours." River found it ironic that despite his animated defense of her, Simon had been thinking very nearly the same thing that Jayne had verbalized.

"No one's talkin' at you." Jayne snapped impatiently and turned back to Mal. "The only thing that could a made this situation any worse, and crazy girl goes an' spills it at the first opportunity. And what about them? They on board?" He indicated the others aggressively.

"Step yourself back, Jayne, and maybe we can find that out," Mal said in a taut, very deliberate voice. Jayne shook his head, frustrated and furious, and moved away. "Well?" Mal asked sharply, swinging around to face Monty, Alexander, Reg and Miles.

"Pack up that banjo, Bev," Reg's roughened voice spoke up suddenly. He was more than halfway drunk and he was suddenly terribly frightened. "We are gettin' outta here, too."

"Wait a sec, Reg," Miles said hesitantly. "Maybe we should –"

"No, Miles. Whatever the hell is happenin' here ain't our business and is somethin' we don't want to be party to. If what Mal said is true, Ungwele don't even want us, anyway. Just 'cause Dad made the Daland famous for runnin' espionage at the beginnin' of the war don't make us Browncoats." Reg's lower jaw thrust out stubbornly.

"Wrong!" Mal bit out with a pessimistic laugh. "Shu probably wants you more, seein' as how you bein' here is proof to the Alliance that our… revolutionary zeal is gettin' passed down to the next generation," he finished with a tight, bitter smile.

"We need to get outta here, Miles," Reg looked at his brother.

"You were the one who wanted this job so bad –"

"Well, now I don't."

"Nothin' to it, you said –"

"Well, I was wrong, okay? We got plenty a fuel, and I say we get back to the ship and hightail it!" Reg pushed back his wispy fair hair with a trembling hand. River could see perspiration beading his pink forehead.

"That's my decision!" Miles replied.

"Then make it," Reg said adamantly. "This is all gettin' too strange. We gotta go. We gotta go." He repeated, getting up and starting to walk away. "Come on, Bev." He called to his younger brother.

"You probably got your own set of friends waitin' back at your ship, and I'm fairly certain they won't particularly care for you hightailin' it," Mal warned Miles.

"We'll handle it. Mal, I'm takin' your advice. We don't want to get involved in no war…it's just the three of us, and we're gonna take the chance to run. We got outta plenty a sticky situations before."

"I ain't sayin' you're not competent to handle a couple a men, Miles. I'm sayin' that if you settle for a bit, let us hash this thing out, we'll be able to back you up if there's any resistance."

"You got problems of your own, Mal." Miles indicated Kang and Archer dryly.

"Not an issue," Zoë stated with quiet assurance.

"What about them security towers? They got anti-aircraft cannon mounted on 'em. Shu might have a mind to shoot you right out a the sky." Mal pointed out grimly.

"I saw 'em, too. You know the Daland starts up fast. She's outrun guns before – and she was made to take a few hits," Miles shrugged.

"Miles, let's go! Now!" Reg called impatiently. He glanced around at them in a hostile manner, his eyes touching on River and then moving quickly away. His perception of her as pretty and graceful had vanished, and in his mind she was pale and strange and vaguely horrifying. He wanted to get as far away from her as possible.

Miles saw this, and not wanting River to feel insulted, smiled at her a little diffidently. "We won't tell no one about you, Miss River. I don't half-believe it myself, anyway." He tried to give an offhanded laugh, but it came out as a shaky chuckle.

"I know you won't," she said. "But I think you should stay with us."

Miles nodded slowly, taking her advisory seriously.

"We'll be as careful as we can. Mal?" He shook the captain's hand, and then Alexander's, and then Monty's.

"Good luck, son," Monty gripped his shoulder bracingly.

"Zoë, good to see you again, and nice to meet ya's." Miles took in everyone with his steady blue eyes.

"It was nice to meet all a ya. Thanks for the cookies, Miss Inara," Bev said shyly to the Companion, before turning to Jayne. "Hey, Jayne, we sounded good, huh? Another time, right?" he asked anxiously, looking for a positive sign from the mercenary.

"Yeah," Jayne nodded. "Another time." His face was closed and tight.

Bev grinned at him, walking backwards and waving until Reg jerked him around in irritation. They saw Archer give the three young men the go-ahead to start back to their ship, angling his chin to his wire transmitter, talking into it as they walked away.

"I should have stopped them," River said miserably, glancing up at Simon.

"There was nothing you could do, mei mei," he consoled her.

"They made their decision," Mal agreed in a tough voice.

"You sure they ain't gonna tell?" Jayne asked her gruffly, hands on his hips, still staring out the cargo bay doors.

River nodded slightly "They just want to leave."

"They all gonna be... all right?" he asked a second later.

River looked at him. Despite his attempts to conceal it, his concern for Bev was obvious. She wished she could answer affirmatively. She wished that she could reach out and touch him, show that she understood, offer him the same support that he had given her earlier. She shifted away from Simon's shielding embrace and moved to Jayne's side, standing as close as she dared.

"I don't know," she whispered. There was a swirling emptiness around the Waarf brothers that did not bode well.

There was a distant mechanical rumble of ignition outside, and they saw a flash as the Hotspur's engines roared to life. A few seconds later they heard the ship lift off and move in the direction of the warehouses. River felt a deep sense of failure at the sound and she looked up at Jayne with bleak eyes. Jayne studied her face, his own eyes troubled and still a little angry, but when he swung around to walk back to the crates, he slid one knuckle across her bare arm, almost as if he was commiserating with her. River's body followed that slight touch uncontrollably, pivoting with him as if to prolong the feather-light contact. Jayne…had that been deliberate? It had felt very deliberate. He went to stand next to Zoë, waiting impassively to see what would happen next.

The captain turned to Monty and Alexander with a speculative expression.

"And then there were two," he intoned.

Monty shook his head, thumbs thrust into his belt, sucking his teeth, not receptive to Mal's dark humor. River watched as Zoë's face began to tighten in disappointment.

"I got a serious problem with all this," Monty began, moving forward to stare at Mal, his face set. River could feel Mal's heart sink. "I come over here in good faith and ya force me to drink rotgut that knocks ya down and dares ya ta get up." He scratched his cheek slowly. "I'm subjected to all manner of distractions from lil' spooky over there to war stories and treacherous dealin's to the old time music, and then…and then, I don't even get my fair share a the parlor trick. I didn't get told no secrets about myself, and I am feelin' entirely gypped, Malcolm, passed over like yesterday's horsemeat. So, darlin'," Monty looked at River, unable to hide the twinkle in his eyes any longer, "why exactly did I take this huai yun qi job?"

River smiled mistily at him. Monty had thoroughly enjoyed himself with that. Monty was sticking with them.

"Because you're a greedy old sumbitch!" Mal burst out, relief evident in his voice.

"And Mal was going." River added.

Monty chuckled as Mal duffed him on the shoulder, hard.

"If Mal jumped off a cliff…" Inara murmured faintly.

Zoë grinned at the memory.

"Can't ya even tell me what I had for breakfast this morning?" moped Monty to River, disappointed. "Like to see some magic 'fore the shootin' starts."

"This can't be right." River's mobile features flexed dubiously. "Kimchee and…squirrel?"

Monty barked out a laugh. "Now that is amazin'! Quan makes it just like my ma."

"Al?" Zoë turned to the tall, quiet man. Alexander shrugged his shoulders.

"Only three people in the 'verse knew about the Remarque. Your girl convinced me. What's the plan?"

"We got a plan?" Mal looked optimistically at River.

Glancing up to see Kaylee coming down the stairs, holding a word pad and the holomap, River nodded. This was the easy part. "We do."

&&&&&&&&

Chinese:

Hong Se Feng – The "Red Wind," The Free Nationals of Sergey

feng kuang de tan hua – crazy talk

mei mei – little sister

yu chun – foolish

xu gou – imaginary

huai yun qi – bad luck

A/N: Sorry for the long delay! Updates should be more frequent now. And, leslina, if you liked it, the guitar session was for you! If not, well, I would have put it in, anyway. ::g:: If anyone is interested, the version of "John Henry" that Bev and Jayne play is the one by Bill McEuen (guitar) and Steve Martin (banjo). Hey, even if it wasn't the only banjo music I own, I'd still have chosen it – very soothing. Thanks for reading! Gem