Disclaimer: None of these characters are my creation. I can wish and dream, and play in Joss's 'Verse, but he owns the characters that own my heart.


Prologue: The Message

Don't do it.

Standing in the passageway just outside the bridge, Tracey whipped around to see who had spoken to him. Nobody was there. Hearing the conversation continue on the bridge, the crew discussing handing him over to Womack and his crew of corrupt Feds, Tracey returned his gaze to the guns lying just inside the door. All he had to do was grab one, stop the call, and he could escape from the Feds again. Maybe he could make it home to his ma and pa.

Don't do it. He can help you.

Tracey turned again, but the passage was, once again, empty. He heard Sarge give the strange pilot the final order to call Womack. This couldn't go on. If Sarge and Zoë had their way, he'd be bleeding out in the snow inside of an hour, while those dirty cops made off with his stolen innards. Turning back and placing a hand on one of the guns, Tracey felt a blinding agony in his head. He must have screamed, because when the pain receded and he could see again, everybody was looking at him. From above. Funny, he thought, I don't remember laying down.

"Tracey, you okay?" Mal asked, helping the former private up. "The way you were screamin', it's a wonder the Feds aren't here yet."

"What's it matter to you if I'm okay, Sarge?" Tracey asked. "You just told him," he pointed in Wash's direction, "to call the Feds anyway. Seems to me you plan to sell me out to save your own skins."

"That why you were reachin' for my hardware, little man?" Jayne asked threateningly.

"Stow it, Jayne," Mal said, silencing the merc. "Tracey, you really think I'd sell you out to the Alliance for a pat on the head? I ain't out to hurt my friends, and that includes those I ain't seen in years. You may have mailed yourself and your troubles to us, but that don't mean I aim to dump you at the first sign of trouble." Mal gave Tracey a sad, sorrowful smile. "You may have forgotten in the tough times, private, but we don't leave men behind. Not even those who got troubles greater than our own."

"So, you're not aimin' to turn me over to Womack?" Tracey asked, a bit mystified. "Then why are you tryin' to meet with them dirty Feds?"

"Son," the strange preacher said, "did you know these officers were corrupt?" Tracey nodded. "We intend to chase them off, using just that fact. I believe it will be a simple matter of threatening them with legitimate authorities. You interested?"

Tracey looked at the Captain questioningly. "Does this plan include me livin' and Womack goin' away?" Mal nodded. "The I'm in. What've I gotta do?"

XXXXX

"Hey Womack," Tracey slurred from the catwalk. "I think I broke your junk."

"Little problem during shipping," Mal said from beside the younger man. He leaned on the rail of the catwalk, his pistol aimed casually at the Feds.

After a heated exchange, in which Book pointed out that the officers were about eight sectors out of their jurisdiction and that nobody was likely to miss them if they 'disappeared,' Womack seemed to lose his nerve. He spit on the ground near the shepherd's feet. "Damaged goods, anyhow," he said disdainfully. "Let's go, boys."

As Book closed the airlock, Tracey took Mal's hand and stood, laughing. "That was a good plan, Mal. I'm awful grateful." Mal waved off his old friend's gratitude. Tracey looked up suddenly, a smile on his face. "Hey, Sarge, you wanna go see my folks? I reckon we could get a hot meal and some good drink."

"Food?" Jayne burst out. "And drink? Do ya reckon there'll be any womenfolk?" With a predatory smile, Jayne went to his bunk to get gussied up.

XXXXX

The crew spent the evening in a cozy settlement, meeting, eating and drinking with Tracey's kin. Seemed half the folk in the town were related to him in some way or other. At the end of the night, as the crew were preparing to return to the ship, Tracey's pa pulled Mal aside. "I appreciate what you done for my boy, Captain," the older man said. "Ain't many these days can be relied on to pull a man through a rough patch like you did for him. If'n there's ever anything we can do for you and yours, just say the word. We ain't got much," he continued, waving off Mal's response, "but what we got we're like to share, you got the need. Come back anytime you need a safe place to hunker down for a while."

"I'm grateful," the Captain replied earnestly. "But meanin' no offense, I don't relish the idea of spending too much time here."

With a laugh, Tracey's father laughed. "I understand your reluctance, Captain. I don't rightly enjoy the weather overmuch myself." Chuckling together, Mal and the elder Tracey made their way to the coat rack. As the entire crew bundled into their cold weather gear, the extended Tracey family bid them farewell. The former private approached the Captain after a few moments, a strange expression on his face.

Somethin' on your mind, son?" Mal asked, wrapping his coat around himself and tugging on his gloves.

"Yeah, Sarge," Tracey responded. "I was wonderin' if I could ask you another big favor." Mal looked consent at the young man, and he went on. "I know I wanted to get home, and you did more'n you needed to just to get me here." Tracey paused momentarily, almost hesitant to ask his favor.

"Out with it, boy," Jayne grumbled. "I ain't aimin' to stand here all night, when my nice warm bunk is'a callin'."

"Sarge, I'd like to ask you to hire me on as crew," Tracey blurted. "I ain't got a notion how else I could earn any money to help get my folks off this frozen rock, and I'm guessin' you could use an extra gun hand." Trying to gauge Mal's response and failing miserably, Tracey said uncertainly, "Would you, please?"

Mal stood stock still for a moment, mildly surprised by the young man's request. A quick look at Zoë got a positive nod, and the Captain looked again at Tracey. "You know we don't exactly live a safe life?" Tracey nodded. "You willin' to follow my orders and Zoë's, even if you don't like 'em?" The other man nodded again. "You realize you're likely to be on Jayne's bad side, seein' as how my hirin' you's like to cut into his profits?" After a quick, nervous glance at the muscular mercenary, Tracey nodded again. "You got your pa's approval?" Mal and Tracey both looked to the older man, who nodded proudly. "Welcome to Serenity, then." Mal said, slapping the boy on the back.