The Long Night – Chapter One

Author owns no rights to Firefly or it's characters. He receives no money for his work, and rights solely for entertainment.

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Jayne walked through the ship silently, moving like the predator he was. In the six months since Miranda he had slept no more than six hours a day. Work, slow at first, had finally picked up some, and they were working steady.

Jayne cared little for that, anymore, save that they needed work to keep the ship flying, and keep everyone fed. He checked on the airlock in the cargo bay, his mind rolling over the things that had happened since the battle.

With their warrants gone, the Tams had departed. Kaylee had cried for days after Simon left, and Jayne had wanted nothing so much as to kill the prissy doctor for making her cry like that. But she wouldn't want that, and Mal, though angry himself, held Jayne at bay.

River had begged Simon to stay, but he wouldn't hear of it. With his slate clear, courtesy of the Operative of all people, he had seen the chance to return to the life he missed. And he took it, never looking back. Hadn't even asked Kaylee to go with him.

True, Jayne mused, she'd not likely have gone, but still. After all that fancy talk during and after the battle, he owed her the consideration.

Inara had stayed for a while, but Mal just couldn't seem to get his head out, and she had finally departed in sorrow. She was back on Shinon, teaching young Companions once again.

Jayne made his way through to the infirmary, and then down to the passenger dorms. They lay quiet and empty these days. Book had already left, and now with Simon and River gone, there was no one living there anymore.

Seemed wrong, somehow, Jayne thought. He'd grown so used to the others being there that now the ship didn't seem right. Didn't seem whole, anymore.

The biggest hole, though, was on the bridge. Wash's territory. Jayne felt a sadness creep upon him at the thought. He'd never admitted it when the man was alive, but Jayne had liked Wash. Sort of.

Sure, he'd been a pain in the pi gu most of the time, but it was a funny pain. He had made them all laugh, even when things seemed their darkest. And he was the best pilot Jayne had ever even heard of, let alone seen in action.

And without him around, Zoe was just lost.

Jayne had never pondered much on their relationship, Zoe and Wash. Never had he seen a marriage between two people who were so unlike each other. Zoe, the strong, silent, even grim, warrior woman, tall and beautiful and deadly. Wash, the small, friendly, talkative, and funny pilot. Always ready to crack a joke or make a sarcastic remark when needed.

Yet, he admitted, there had never been any doubt that the two had loved each other. Wash had sometimes felt left out at the relationship between Mal and Zoe, but he had never let it interfere with his love for her. He was so dedicated to her that Jayne had often thought he could see a tiny flicker of envy in the eyes of the other women on the ship, even little River, crazy though she was.

Jayne admired Wash for that, just as he did for his piloting skills. There had to have been more to the little man than met the eye if he had captured, and held, Zoe's heart like he had.

"Hell of a man," Jayne murmured, making his way up the stairs to the galley.

He checked the areas around the upper lounge, and then started up the passageway to the bridge. The last place on his list. Since Miranda he had walked the ship like this at least every four hours when they were in the black. They had lost too much already. He had promised himself they would lose no more, if he could prevent it.

Times like this he really missed Crazy. She was a ruttin' early warning system that no mechanical device could equal. Shame she'd had to leave with that prissy brother of hers. She'd been turning into a fine pilot, too. Not as good as Wash, of course. No one would ever likely be that good again. But she'd had talent, no question.

He took the steps up to the bridge slowly. He really didn't know what the knobs and buttons were all for, anyway, but he could check the cortex for waves, and the sensor array. Other than that, the ship would fly herself during the night cycle.

As he walked onto the bridge, he froze. There was someone in Wash's chair! Then he relaxed, realizing who it was. He eased forward, checking.

"I'm awake, Jayne," Zoe said quietly. "Don't even think about it."

"That ain't right, Zoe," Jayne replied, his voice hurt. "I was just checkin' on ya is all." Zoe turned to look at him.

"Like you been checkin' on the ship?" she asked.

"Yeah," he nodded, and took the co-pilot's seat. "Nothin' wrong with that," he added, almost defensive.

"Never said there was," she nodded, returning her gaze to the stars outside the window. "I'm just surprised that you do it, that's all."

"Why?" Jayne asked, and wondering why it hurt that she doubted him, even now.

"Just ain't like you, is all," Zoe shrugged. "Or it wasn't."

"Maybe," Jayne allowed. "But times change. People gotta change with'em." Zoe looked at him again, eyebrows raising.

"Oh?"

"Things ain't like they used ta be, Zoe," Jayne said evenly. "Gotta get with the new program or get left behind. We got more people huntin' us now than ever before, seems like. And them Blue Hands, they still like to be comin' after us, even though Crazy and that little rat hearted doc ain't around no more."

"I guess they could, at that," Zoe agreed. She hadn't thought about that. But Jayne had, it seemed.

"We're all that's left," Jayne went on, looking out the window now himself. "You, me, Cap'n, and Kaylee. Got to be careful's all I'm sayin'."

"Thought about this a good bit, have you?" Zoe asked seriously, giving Jayne her undivided attention. He nodded slowy.

"I have. We been hit in the black before," he pointed out. "I don't aim to let it happen again, if'n I can stop it." Zoe considered that. Jayne Cobb, protector of Serenity. Wasn't as far fetched as it sounded, she admitted. And if anyone was capable of it, it was Jayne.

She studied him closely. In her grief over Wash's loss, she hadn't noticed the changes Jayne had gone through until now. But he was different, in many ways. For one, he no longer went about days at the time without showering, and was usually clean shaven, and wearing clean clothes.

For another, he didn't seem to run off to 'visit the ladies' like he once had. And she couldn't remember the last time she'd seen him take a drink, let alone be drunk.

She wondered what the cause of all that was. With the Doc gone, it might have been an attempt to impress Kaylee, but Jayne hadn't so much as made a lewd suggestion to the little mechanic in months. And she suspected that Jayne felt more brotherly toward Kaylee than anything else.

Maybe he was changing, she allowed. What they had been through would change a man, or woman, there was no question. And, maybe, he'd had it in him all along, and just never had seen a reason to let it out. . .

The cortex beeping broke her train off thought. She raised up, looking over at the screen.

"Incoming message," Jayne frowned.

"Go ahead and answer it," Zoe ordered. Jayne reached over and flipped the accept switch. He blinked when he saw who it was.

"Hello, Jayne," River Tam smiled at him on the screen. "How are you?"

"Uh, Hi, girlie," Jayne stammered. "I'm good. You?"

"Fine, thank you," she smiled again. "Is the Captain around?"

"He's bunked down, River," Zoe said, coming over to the screen herself. "I can wake him if it's. . ."

"No, that's fine," River shook her head. "I was wondering if I could come back, Zoe. Do you think I could?"

"Something wrong, mei mei?" Zoe asked, concern in her voice.

"No, not at all," the girl beamed back. "But I am now eighteen. Have been for several months, actually. And I want to come home." She said it so naturally that it took both older people by surprise.

"Where are you, River?" Zoe asked, smiling.

"I am currently on Persephone," River informed her.

"Stay there," Zoe told her. "We'll be on Persephone in thirty-six hours, give or take. We'll wave you when we're close."

"Wonderful!" River gushed, happy all at once. "I'll be waiting!" The WAVE went dead, and Jayne turned to Zoe with a grin.

"Well, might be more of us left'n I thought."

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River's return to the ship was an event.

"Welcome home, Albatross," Mal smiled. He hadn't done that much lately.

"Thank you, Captain," River beamed, hugging him tightly.

"I knew you'd come back!" Kaylee squealed, hugging River tightly.

"Can't stay away," River smiled again, glad to hear the happiness in Kaylee's voice. Zoe stepped up.

"Welcome back, mei mei," the older woman smiled. River looked at Zoe closely, searching for any signs that Zoe blamed her for Wash's death. River had cried till she was sure she couldn't cry anymore over the many deaths that had resulted in the Operative's attempt to capture and kill her.

"Hello, Zoe," she said softly. "I'm glad to see you." The two embraced quickly.

"Hiya Moony," Jayne grinned, and River grinned back. The old Jayne was gone, and she liked the new one much better.

"Hi Jayne," she hugged him enthusiastically. He hugged her back, surprising himself and everyone else.

"Good to have ya back, girlie," he patted her back softly.

"And I'm glad to be back, as well," she assured him.

"Well, now that we've all shed a tear or two, let's get about our work. Albatross, think you can remember which buttons to push and whatnot?"

"I'm sure it will come back to me," River eyed him narrowly. "Once I've crashed once or twice."

"No jokin' 'bout crashin' my boat," Mal warned, but there was a grin on his lips, and a light in his eye. It had been a while since they'd really had anything to celebrate.

"Who says I'm joking?" River smirked, and everyone laughed, including Mal.

"Just see if you can remember where the bridge is," Mal ordered. "You can put your foo foo's away once we're in the black. Zoe, Jayne, ready?"

"Ready, sir," Zoe replied. Jayne nodded.

"Let's go get paid then."

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"Wish we'd brung Moony with us," Jayne murmured, eyeing the place for the drop. His unease was palpable.

"Why? Used to be you didn't want her near you," Mal pointed out.

"Stabbed me," Jayne retorted without turning. "Takes a while to get over. She ain't so bad, when she ain't crazy."

"Jayne, if you even look at her wrong. . ." Mal started. This time Jayne did turn, and his face was a mask of rage.

"You finish that, I'll kill you," Jayne said flatly, and Zoe was shocked to see he meant it. She fingered her carbine slightly. Mal just looked stunned.

"I wasn't implyin'. . ." Mal tried, but Jayne wasn't having it.

"Hell you wasn't," Jayne growled, low in his chest. "You got no call, Mal, to even think it, let alone say it. Don't do it again. Dong Ma?" Jayne's voice was deadly calm, and Zoe recalled the few times in their history she'd heard him like that. They were all violent.

"Okay, Jayne," Mal nodded, rather subdued by the vehemence in Jayne's voice. "Just don't want no trouble, is all," he added, trying to regain control.

"Won't be," Jayne nodded, satisfied that the problem was behind them. "And I wish she was here, on account o' I got a itchy feelin' long my neck. Moony's good at sniffin' that stuff out."

"True," Mal nodded, looking around as casually as possible. "Now you got me wishin' she was here."

"Contact's late, sir," Zoe observed, still wondering at the exchange between Mal and Jayne. Jayne rarely called Mal on anything, but there was no doubt he'd meant it.

"Five minutes more, and we're gone," Mal nodded. The mule was loaded with stolen goods taken from a museum on Ariel. The job had gone smooth, for once, and he was anxious to get paid. It was a good haul, and promised a good pay-off.

If they could get it. And not get killed in the process.

"Incomin'," Jayne announced seconds later, nodding to a plume of dust over the hill before them.

"Okay, let's be calm, here," Mal nodded. "Jayne, get some distance, where you can cover us. Mule's your's Zoe," he added, hitching his gun into place.

As the source of the dust came into view, Mal knew they were in trouble. Three vehicles, each with four men. Bad odds for a simple drop-off.

"Job's going south," he called out to his crew. "Be ready." He heard Zoe rack her shotgun, and Jayne hefted Vera slightly. The vehicles came to a stop, leaving a gap of about fifteen feet between them and Serenity's mule.

"Captain Reynolds!" Mal eyed the speaker with a jaundiced eye. Pol Merkin was a new contact to him, and Mal didn't know near enough about him to suit.

"Mister Merkin," Mal nodded. "See you brought your own hands to do the haulin'," he said casually. "My back appreciates that. Arts and what-not are kinda heavier'n I thought."

"Yes, some are very heavy at times," Merkin agreed. Mal noted that Merkin's men were spreading out as they exited their vehicles. Not good.

"'Spect we can skip to the part where we get paid, and leave you to'em then," Mal replied, still trying for nonchalance.

"About that, Captain," Merkin smiled, but it was no longer very friendly. "I'm afraid I've decided to re-negotiate our terms, so to speak."

"Ain't no renegotiatin' takin' place," Mal said firmly. "And if a one o' your men moves, Jayne will cut you down like a tree. Dong ma?" Vera's safety made an audible click as Jayne hefted the rifle in one smooth motion, bringing it to bear on Merkin.

"What ever happens after that," Mal continued, "won't be any concern o' your's once that happens." Merkin's face was a study between anger and apprehension. He'd intended to simply take the merchandise, and had expected no trouble doing so. A miscalculation, he could now see.

"Is the money worth your life, Captain? And those of your crew?" Merkin tried to brazen it out.

"Is it worth yours, Merkin?" Mal shot back. "That's the question, ain't it? Are you willin' to die, to keep from payin' us our due? We do a job, we get paid. Period. Now are we gonna do business? Or start shootin'?"

Merkin looked again to where Jayne stood, calmly covering him with that very large rifle. The woman behind Reynolds held a shotgun on him as well. No matter how well his men did, Merkin himself was likely to die. He licked his suddenly dry lips.

"It seems, perhaps, I was a bit hasty in my plans," Merkin finally ground out. "Very well, Captain. Let us do business."

"First off, you send your folks on away, say over there 'bout, oh, quarter mile. Where we can still see'em, happens they get edgy. Then we'll talk business." Merkin trembled in anger, but gave the order. His men left, grumbling after catching sight of Zoe. Jayne frowned at that, but said nothing.

"Now then," Mal said, after Merkin's crew had gone. "I'm gonna have to add ten percent to the fee, seein' as how we've been inconsiderated, here. I don't expect that to be a problem. Do you?" Merkle's temper threatened to snap, but he nodded, knowing he had no real choice.

"A reasonable recompense," he nodded.

Jayne quickly unloaded the mule, while Mal and Zoe kept lookout. As soon as he was finished, Mal nodded for them to load up. Jayne hesitated, then looked at Merkin.

"Happen your men was grumblin' 'bout what they seemed to be," he spoke quietly, "best you know something. Anything befalls that woman, I'll hunt you down and kill you. Slowly. Make it hurt for days. You hear me?"

"I hear you," Merkin's face went white. "I assure you. . ."

"Save it," Jayne snapped, his face disgusted. "But you remember. Anything at all. If she trips, I'ma hafta assume you had somethin' ta do with that, and then you pay. Dong ma? Might want to make sure your crew gets that message, you want to live."

With that Jayne took three quick steps and vaulted into the mule. As soon as his feet hit the floorboard, Zoe hit the throttle.

"What was that about?" Mal demanded, looking to Jayne, who was watching their back trail.

"Just explainin' the way o' things, is all," Jayne replied vaguely.

"About?" Mal pressed.

"About him and his crew threatenin' my people," Jayne told him plainly. "You got any objection to that?" Mal looked stunned.

"Uh, no," was all he could manage. Zoe smiled slowly. She had caught the looks that Merkin's men had sent her way, and suspected that Merkin had let them think that she'd be part of their pay. She also figured that Jayne had caught it, and had threatened Merkin about it.

It rankled, a little, that Jayne had done it, but it also made her feel. . .Well she didn't know how it made her feel. But it wasn't all bad. She'd have to think on that. Later.