(Fifth and last in the Horseshoe Nails series)
Disclaimer: I do not own Firefly, its characters, its 'verse, or Joss Whedon. I make no profit from using them, and I strongly recommend that persons who enjoy fanfiction should purchase and play/read/watch/wear/consume the source material. (Doesn't someone you know need a copy of Firefly, and one of the newly released Serenity Special Edition? Let's keep those sales up!)
Chapter 1: Can You Go Home Again?
"Port control, this is the Wendy, second tug off AFC Barrie. We're bringing in a civilian vessel for extensive repair." Mao was the lieutenant in charge of the tug, and gave the impression that he was a fundamentally decent man who had been soaked in starch until he practically had corners. "Please supply coordinates for landing."
"How big's your civilian vessel?" The voice, though female, had a distinct resemblance to Jayne's in accent and intonation.
"She's a Firefly. Small to medium transport."
"Sending coordinates now. There a crew comes with her, or are you just dropping off?"
"Captain and crew will be dropped with the boat. Thank you, port control." Mao signed off. "You'll be on the ground inside of an hour, Captain Reynolds."
"Thanks." Mal would be glad to get off the tug. It was only mildly cramped, the tug having been designed with the necessity for evacuating small vessels before towing them away in mind. But they were under the eye of the Alliance, all the time, and Simon was fretting visibly over River and River and Jayne were still being ostentatiously glued together - and sharing a bunk, although given that it was walled off only by a curtain from the others, Mal didn't think they were doing much in it.
And Zoe was focused completely on Wash, which was understandable but left Mal without someone to discuss his vague worries with who wouldn't make him get specific about them. Wash was doing well, thankfully - Mal didn't understand above one word in three of what Simon said about the wound, but it seemed to add up to the Fed doctors having done something to speed up healing and so on, which was all to the good.
He whimpered some in the night, still, but everyone was pretending not to notice. Being attacked by Reavers... well, that'd give anyone nightmares.
Mal was trying to avoid talking to Inara. There were things he wanted to say that he wasn't going to when they were still in Alliance hands, however friendly-seeming.
"Ain't ever been to Beowulf," he said, leaning on the back of the co-pilot's chair, it being empty at the moment. "You know it?"
"I have visited some few times, sir, yes." Mao nodded stiffly. He did everything stiffly, poor man. Made Simon look downright relaxed. "It is, I believe, a fairly standard industrial planet."
"The folks down there like to be friendly?" Friendly to us probably means unfriendly to you, and vice-versa, so I'm interested as to how you're going to answer this one, boy.
For a wonder, Mao unbent very slightly. "The people of Beowulf are... well, I believe your man Cobb is not an untypical specimen. They are militantly politically indifferent, inclined to be of good nature if not angered, and somewhat... boisterous." There was a definite hint of distaste on the man's impassive face. "I would advise that you keep your crew away from the taverns, sir."
Mal thought that over. Jayne wasn't being typically Jayne at the moment, River having apparently coaxed him into a better mood than Mal had ever seen Jayne have, but Mao wasn't to know that. So... a planet full of better-natured Jaynes. "Definitely no drinking. Or fighting."
"I wouldn't advise it, sir." Mao nodded. "The majority of males over the age of sixteen - and a large number of women - work either in the mines or the factories. The last time one of my men got into a fight on Beowulf he was returned with eighteen broken bones. Counting the skull and the jaw as two. According to a number of witnesses, his assailant only punched him once."
Mal blinked. "Once?"
"Apparently he was knocked through a second-floor wall by the force of the blow."
Mal had been under the impression that only Jayne hit people that hard. "Ah. Gotcha. Thanks, Lieutenant."
"You're welcome, sir."
Mal left the cockpit, and went to check on his crew.
Zoe was talking to Wash, and Mal kept right on walking after he heard the word 'baby'. They'd been having that discussion for a while, and he wanted no part of it ever. On balance, he sided with Wash, on account of a baby was definitely going to crimp their dangerous lifestyle a bit, but he wasn't stupid enough to tell Zoe that.
Anyway, near-death had most likely changed Wash's mind on leaving Zoe something to remember him by wasn't a plastic dinosaur.
Kaylee was napping, and he decided to let her doze until they actually landed. That always woke her up anyway.
Simon and Inara were playing a game of chess. They'd done that a lot over the last few days... they hadn't retrieved but a few clothes from Serenity, and there wasn't much to do on the tug but talk, cruise the Cortex, or play with the plastic chess-set River had begged from Book before they left. Mal had tried his hand a few times - he wasn't bad, he thought, though not in Simon or Inara's league - and late at night he'd seen River teaching Jayne how to play.
He watched them for a minute, still a little surprised at not feeling that twinge of jealousy there'd been for a while. Simon and Inara had something that Mal thought was more like his bond to Zoe than anything else. They had a bond the others on Serenity didn't share, but it had nothing to do with sex and everything to do with understanding each other.
Jayne and River were in their cubicle, the curtains partly drawn. Mal glanced in, and looked away quickly. River on her knees before a seated Jayne wasn't a mental image he wanted... although another quick glance reassured him that it wasn't what he'd thought in his first moment of panic. Their hands were twined, and she was gazing up anxiously into his face.
"I will try to make a good impression," she said, sounding worried. "I will not be cryptic or say crazy things, and I won't talk about the Academy."
"It ain't that." Jayne tugged one hand out of the tangle to stroke her hair back from her face. The gesture startled Mal - he hadn't thought Jayne had any gentleness in him. "It ain't you. I just... it's been a long time. Think maybe it woulda been better if I'd stayed away."
"They want you to come home." River leaned into his touch. "Your mother's letters have longing caught in their corners."
"I know." Jayne sighed. "I just... I dunno. It's gonna be complicated, and I don't like complicated."
"And yet you like me." River lifted her hand to brush delicate fingertips over Jayne's jaw. "I am very complicated."
"That's different." Jayne smiled, ducking his head to kiss her fingers. "Girlfolk are always complicated. It's a rule or somethin'."
"It will be all right," River said, sounding more confident now that he was smiling. "Your family will be glad to see you, and I will do my best to appear normal so you are not embarrassed."
Jayne leaned down and kissed her, and Mal looked away again, guiltily aware that he was intruding on something quite private. "Don't you try'n appear like anyone but yourself," Jayne said firmly. "Ain't gonna start out by lyin' to my folks when I see 'em after all this time. They can take you a li'l crazy or not take either of us at all, dong ma?"
"Wu dong." River's arms slid around his neck and she returned the kiss with a rather more serious one of her own.
Mal sneaked away. He shouldn't have watched that, and he'd known he shouldn't, but damnit, he'd wanted to know how things stood between the two of them when they weren't doing their public display of solidarity.
A lot better than he'd thought, as it turned out. Simon's plan to wait until she lost interest might not be as effective as Mal had hoped.
Thinking of River, that was the thing.
He was still... not uncertain, exactly, but unsettled, when it came to her. They'd hardly been alone since the night after the Reaver fight, and definitely never alone enough to do more than kiss her some.
Which was all kinds of enjoyable, especially when she got all cuddlesome and kittenish. But Jayne would have felt better about the whole thing if they could just spend some time alone. Have some sex, get comfortable being quiet together again. One round in bed and a few snatched moments of private conversation just weren't enough to make a man feel secure in a new arrangement like this.
Jayne wasn't a man comfortable with the idea of love. Giving up that much of himself to another person... he'd never been willing to risk it before. It still - well, it didn't scare him, but it made him a little unsettled. He needed time to get used to the idea, and time he had no more of, because they were landing and...
Damn. Thinking about River, happy and nervous as it made him, had let him straight back to thinking about landing on Beowulf and seeking out his family, which mostly smothered the happy and made the nervous get real big.
A little hand slid into his, and he felt River there without having to look. Not the way she felt things, in the head, but in the brush of warmth against the bare skin of his arm, and the faint scent of her, and the sound of her breathing. Such tiny breaths she took, like a little kid, and he felt like a great puffing bellows lying beside her sometimes, wondering how she could sleep with all the ruckus.
"I like to hear you beside me," River said quietly, brushing her cheek against his arm. "Breathing steady like the tides, heart beating like a clock. Tock... tock... tock..."
Jayne nodded, squeezing her hand gently. He wasn't sure why, but she had a real thing for his heart. He'd woken up at least once a night every night so far to find her ear pressed to his chest and her breathing slowing down to match its pace. "Ain't tickin' so slow right now."
"No. Faster now." She laid her free hand against his chest. "It's been so long. You want to see them, but you're..." She smiled up at him. "Not afraid, because Jayne is too big and strong to be afraid. Just... unsettled."
He scowled. There were times when his pretty little moonbrain understood him entirely too well. "Damn right I ain't afraid."
"Nor are you hiding." River looked around the tiny kitchen. "Just hungry."
Jayne had never been less hungry in his life, so he didn't bother dignifying that with a response. "You quit that. I don't need you pickin' at me."
She slid her arms around his waist, snuggling up in a way that made him inclined to forgive her every damned thing. "Sorry. Trying to annoy you. Make your crest rise."
"Hah." It was half laugh, half rueful agreement. "Figure it'll work on me as well as Mal, huh?"
"Sometimes it does." She rubbed her nose gently against his chest. "You washed."
"Well, yeah. You ain't the only one wants to make a good impression." He stroked her satiny hair. "You look good." The compliment came out awkward, but he meant it. He liked the tight, sleeveless red tunic on her, the way it made her pearly skin shine and showed the lean muscle in her slender arms.
River cooed, standing on tiptoe to kiss his cheek. "It doesn't have to come out right for me. Hear in your thoughts what you mean to say." She stepped back, looking up at him with a little smile. "We will have time, and be comfortable again," she said, making a promise of it. "Don't fret, it makes you sound like Simon."
"Well, that's a mean thing to say! I ain't streaky, I'm just… unsettled!"
"What in hell'd you do to this poor ship?" The section supervisor or whatever she was, for the area of the port dedicated to repairs, had introduced herself as Nora Thyne. She was a big, tough-looking woman, blonde and grey-eyed, and was looking at Mal's ship as if she'd caught him carvin' up a kitten. "Fly it into a planet?"
"Pretty much." Mal shrugged. "Weren't for I got one of the best pilots in the 'verse, we'd be so much debris on that moon right now. She fixable, you think?"
"It'll take coin, and plenty of it," Thyne said, eyeing up the ship. "And time. How you going to pay for all this?"
Mal winced. "We got some ready, and some credit with the Alliance. And an engineer can handle most of the small stuff herself. Give us a day or two to find a place to settle, and I'll square up what we'll need."
"Sure thing." Thyne nodded, looking over Mal's battered crew, huddling in the lee of the battered Serenity. Zoe and Simon were hovering over Wash on his stretcher, and Kaylee was leaning on Inara's arm. Jayne and River were the only ones looked reasonably presentable, and they were definitely a mite twitchy. "You got a place to stay yet?"
Mal shook his head. "Simon… the doctor… wants to take Wash to the nearest hospital to get him looked at – the Alliance fellows squared that up. The rest of us'll need somewhere, though. Got any recommendations?"
"Able's boarding-house on Finch Street's clean and reasonably priced. Food ain't fancy, but it ain't just protein either." Thyne shrugged. "It's handy for Duck Street, too."
Mal blinked. "Why, what's on Duck Street?"
That got him a surprised look. "Guess I was mistaken. Took the big fella with the little bit hanging off his arm for a Cobb. Looks like one."
"He is." Mal frowned. "I'm missing something here, ain't I?"
Thyne shrugged. "Most of the Cobbs live on Duck, is all. Figured you'd want to be handy."
"Yeah, I guess." Jayne definitely had some talking to do, when they were settled someplace. "I'll look into it."
"You do that. See you in a day or two, Captain Reynolds." She walked away, towards a skiff with two men hard at work on a damaged fin.
Mal rejoined his crew in time to see an ambulance pulling up by Serenity's nose. A fellow in a blue uniform jumped out, giving Mal a little nostalgic twinge. Those uniforms were deceptively comfortable. "Got word from the Barrie there was an injured man here," he called, like he couldn't see Wash lying there all pale and horizontal.
"Over here. Recent amputation, and we've been on a tug for days. He's all right, I think, but I'd like some decent equipment and better painkillers," Simon said, pulling 'doctor' around him like a cloak even in his baggy brown sweater and stained pants. "I'm the attending physician, but as you can see…" he pointed to Serenity, "…my access to my medical facilities are nonexistent."
The medic nodded. "Got it, doctor. You riding with the patient?"
Simon looked over at Zoe. "There's generally only room for one passenger," he said quietly. "I can follow, if you'd like to…"
To Mal's jaw-dropping surprise, Zoe shook her head. "You're the doc. You'd best be the one to go."
Simon looked surprised too. "Are you sure?"
"I know you'll take good care of him." Zoe laid her hand on the boy's shoulder, smiling a bit. "Mind you get some rest and something to eat yourself."
"I will." Simon returned the smile shyly. "Contact me when you find a place for the rest of us to stay."
"We will." Zoe nodded, and knelt beside Wash's stretcher. "Baby? I'll be along in a bit, okay?"
"Sure. Me'n Simon'll be shiny," Wash said, smiling drowsily up at her. Simon had been keeping him on the pain-meds pretty steady. "You look after Mal."
"Someone's gotta." She kissed her husband and then stood back, letting Simon and the medics take the stretcher.
Mal moved up beside her. "Do my eyes deceive me, or did you just let the boy and them Alliance medics take your husband away without so much as a peep of protest?"
Zoe shrugged. "Simon's with him," she said quietly. "I trusted the boy to take my husband's leg off with a laser pistol, Mal, you think I don't trust him to take care of that husband in a nice, safe hospital?"
"Well, there's a point," Mal conceded. "According to the nice lady gave Serenity a berth, there's a clean boarding-house on Finch Street, wherever that may be. We should go, get settled, get a drink or three into Jayne 'fore he explodes."
"He is a mite twitchy." Zoe gave Jayne a thoughtful look. "He don't seem happy, for a fellow who's hit his home dirt for the first time in years."
Mal shrugged. "Home ain't always an easy place to be… and he's gonna have River to explain."
River bounced experimentally on the bed. It wasn't especially soft, but it wasn't too hard, and it was wide enough for her to sleep beside Jayne in comfort. "Your family are close. Will I meet them today?"
Jayne scowled. "Sent 'em a message. I gotta be there tonight – don't know about you." He'd been pacing the room since they'd acquired it, and he'd been displeased when Mal brought them to a place so near his old home. Streets and buildings twenty years unfamiliar and a lifetime known made him uncomfortable. "Maybe you should stay here with the others while I go see my folks. Just, you know, the first time."
River frowned. "I thought you didn't want me to be out of your sight."
"I don't. Just think it might be awkward is all." He paused in his pacing to run his broad hand gently over her head. "It's like to be tense and all, and I don't want you gettin' all upset by ancient history when you're doin' so well."
Jayne worried a lot about her head, which River found oddly comforting. He had only a hazy idea of what had been done to damage her, and still less of how her abilities worked or exactly how intense emotions affected her, but he knew of those things... and in his linear mind they translated to a deep and tender protectiveness of her head. River liked that. Simon wanted to repair her head, and the doctors at the Academy had wished to study it. Only Jayne sought to protect it.
She smiled, butting her crown into his palm gently. "I will be with my ju guei, and all will be well."
"Ain't a damn tortoise," he muttered, but she knew it pleased him. He liked the image of himself as large and armoured, cuddling a tiny River-bird in under his shell and protecting her. "There might be some yelling. I know you don't like that."
"Why would they yell?" River drew him down to sit on the bed beside her, twining her arms around his midsection. "Your mother wants you to come home. She has asked you often."
"Yeah, but..." He crinkled up inside with guilt and resentment.
"What is it? What did you do that makes you all violet?" River rested her head on his shoulder.
Jayne sighed, his shoulders slumping a little. "I left."
dong ma - you understand?
Wu dong - I understand
Ba ba - daddy
Ju guei - giant tortoise
xiao teng - little dragon