Third Interlude: Fifth Man

"Hey, Doc. What do you know about dogs?"

Simon didn't know the name of the moon they were on. It was just a backwater they were stopping at for a layover while they did some quiet work in the Kaladesa system, as far from the Core as possible. He did know that the sky here on this moon was a pretty shade of vibrant blue, and that like everywhere else on the rim, there were springy, young forests only a couple centuries old at most.

The air was clear and fresh and new, tinged with that background scent every world got as its atmosphere was processed and recreated. The air itself was filled with all the myriad insect life of a rim planet, along with the pollens of this moon's spring cycle, and the falling spring flower petals that were whipped about by the wind and cast through the air from the trees and fields. There were even the little white seeds of some species of dandelion, wafting through the breeze on white tufts of softness.

Also, there were bullets. There were quite a few bullets in the air on this pretty spring/summer day.

"Tyen-sah duh ching-wah tsao duh shee-niou huh choo-shung tza-jiao duh tzang-huo!"

The air was also filled with curse words. They didn't make a whole lot of sense, or maybe the people the Captain was yelling at were supposed to be open-minded by enjoying fornication with both livestock and amphibians.

Or maybe Mal was just so angry he was getting shot at over a box of puppies that he stopped caring about his curses being comprehensible.

The mule screamed along through the trees, Shepherd Book at the helm, while bullets zipped and whipped overhead. The hovercraft, as brand-new as such things got on the Rim, maneuvered among the trees as they shot through the valley forest, heading for the town where Serenity was berthed. In the rear two seats, Mal and Zoë were trading bullets with their pursuers. Simon, meanwhile, was cradling the box of puppies in the seat beside Book, the little dogs whining and barking quietly at the violent ride.

"They're gaining," Zoë reported her voice as calm and iron-hard as ever, while she ducked behind the rear seat and reloaded her shotgun.

"They're always gaining," Mal muttered as he fired a couple more rounds from his pistol.

"How are they gaining?" Simon asked. "We're in a hovercraft, they're-"

A tree about a hundred meters behind them made a sound suspiciously like a human body being chucked into an engine, and a massive four-wheeled transport barreled right over it. The wheels were huge, at least three meters tall, and were mounted around an engine that could have been equipped on most atmospheric fighters. The cab, by comparison, seemed more like an afterthought, a small thing perched atop the engine that held a bed full of angry and armed thugs with a tall, swarthy-looking man with long black hair and beard commanding them. The gigantic vehicle seemed to be nothing but wheels and engine and fury and hunger, and it closed in on the mule like it was sitting still.

"Theirs is bigger," Mal muttered, his tone managing to be both dark and annoyed.

Jayne grumbled, looking up at the sky through his sunglasses. The scents and sounds of the nearby town were all around him: the laughter of kids, the murmur of voices and the ringing of brass bells from livestock, mixed in with what smelled exactly like fresh bread. Somewhere, he could hear the strains of an old guitar plinking along, and he felt a powerful urge to go find his own and start it up.

Instead, he lingered outside the big general store and watched the town. It was a decent-sized place, about five hundred folks, with that funny mix one got of wooden homes next to houses what looked like someone had set up a big frozen dinner pack, and then one got the pre-fabricated domes made of shiny, smooth plastic. That was likely where the law, the rich folks, and the other bits of Alliance presence were to be found.

Jayne was uncomfortable for precisely that reason, because he was standing outside one such building. It wasn't the sheriff's office - that one was built out of wood like all the rest, which meant the law was likely on the level out here, and unlikely to bother them. Jayne was uncomfortable here because this place was the home of the local clinic. And because the Alliance had tight control over medical supplies on this moon, which meant that out here, one had to go to the clinic to buy them.

That was a complication that meant Doc couldn't rightly go inside. It wasn't much of a risk, but it was too high by Mal's estimate, so instead, the Captain had asked Inara to get what they needed. That would have been fine, except Mal had to skip off with Zoë and the Doc - and Book had volunteered to help - to go get something or other. So Mal had appointed Jayne to be Inara's escort around town, rightly not trusting these parts.

That was when the fun began, because then Kaylee and River had decided to go shopping.

Now Jayne was stuck watching the three girlfolk go shopping around town, making sure River didn't do anything loopy and keeping all the young menfolk from harassing them. And then it turned out that all three women were talking about something out of earshot, and then Kaylee and Inara had gone into the clinic together, leaving Jayne standing outside with River. He was leaning on the wooden railing of the nearby saloon, wishing he could go inside for a drink, and she was sitting on the railing, booted feet waving idly in the air as she soaked up some good, relaxing dirtside time.

She hadn't said anything. He hadn't either. It was a pleasant little silence between the two of them. No gunfire, no craziness, no blood and guts and screaming.

"Jayne," River suddenly said.

Gorram girl.

"Yah?" he asked, feeling too laconic to say it proper.

"Where did you get Boo?"

He frowned, and glanced down at the LeMat on his waist, holstered snug and secure. That one had a long story, but mostly in terms of where he'd used it.

"Got it from a gun dealer on Boros," he said. "'Bout twelve years back. Legit."

She nodded, and started humming, and the silence settled back down while Kaylee and Inara took their sweet time getting the stuff.

"Where did you get Binky?" River asked a few moments later. He grunted, biting back his annoyance. The knife was on his other hip, opposite Boo.

"My Pappy gave it to me when I was thirteen," he said. "Real man's knife, he called it." He didn't say anything more, even though he knew the girl wanted a more satisfying story for him to tell. More silence passed, but this time, he was ready for her to break it.

"Where did you get Vera?"

Okay. He'd thought he'd been ready for her to speak up. He hadn't been ready for that question.

"Long story," he said quickly.

"Six men came to kill me one time," she murmured, and he glanced at her. She spoke in a downright unsettling approximation of his voice. "Best of 'em carried this."

"You stop that. It's disturbing."

She giggled, and then went silent, and this time, she stayed that way. Good. He didn't want to talk about how he'd gotten Vera. Story he'd told Mal was as close as he'd ever gotten to telling anyone about that.

Gorram girl.

A bullet spanged off the rear of the mule, making Mal jerk backward with a curse. He snapped up his pistol and fired another shot, hitting the hood of the truck and doing only slightly more to slow it down than a fly splattering itself on the windshield.

Return fire nearly took his head off, and he ducked back behind cover. The puppies continued barking and whining while Book sent the mule slaloming between trees that had taken a century of terraforming to grow and a single second under monstrous wheels to crush.

"Sir." Zoë said, firing a shot blindly over the rear of the mule. It wouldn't do much good, but their weapons weren't hurting their pursuers much in the first place. "We're about three kilometers from the landing zone."

"Yeah, I figured," Mal said. He glanced to the precious cargo, which Simon kept cradled next to the short-barreled shotgun he'd brought along. The doctor wasn't much of one for weapons, but he'd proven himself plenty already. Still, if Simon needed to use his weapon, they were in serious trouble.

Well, more serious than now.

"We shouldn't take much longer to get back to Serenity," Mal said, considering the situation, and especially the fact that he hadn't brought his radio along with him. He brought guns enough for all four of them, but noooo, this was going to be an easy job, no need for radios in case he needed to bring Serenity in for a hard and fast pickup.

"Terrain clears and evens out down in the valley," Zoë pointed out. "They'll gain on us faster if we take the straight route to the ship."

"Ah . . . crap," Mal growled, unable to think of a good curse in Chinese. He looked around the forest, and tried to remember what the terrain had looked like when they'd been flying over the valley. The terrain was bumpy and meaner south, past the town, with some slopes and ridges that they might be able to maneuver the monster behind them into slipping over. The bad part of that plan was that it would take them away from the ship for a while, and worse still they'd have to cut through the town to get there. Someone could get hurt.

So, decision time. The folks in that town, or three of his crew?

The decision was always the same.

"Shepard, take us into town, fast as you can," Mal ordered. "Try not to kill anyone!"

To his credit, he swerved immediately, shifting toward the town below. Belatedly, Mal remembered that some of the others were in town, and hoped that they'd hear the trouble coming and stay out of the way.

"I try to do a little pro bono work," he muttered as they screamed toward the town. "Get some puppies, help some kids, do a nice thing." He paused, scowling, and stood up, pistol rising.

"And! I still! Get! Gorram! Shot at!"

Each exclamation point was aided by a shot from his pistol.

It did well to hide the anger he was feeling at himself, nearly as much as he was feeling at their pursuers.

"This town is noisy," River murmured, legs still waving in the air, and Jayne grunted, noting a heavy engine somewhere in the distance. Probably some kind of heavy hauler.

"Eh, not as bad as some places," he replied.

"Not here," she muttered. "Noise is coming closer."

Jayne frowned, and cocked his head to the side, listening intently. Though no one had really bothered him on it, he'd never personally lived it down that time he'd misheard the fight between Doc and Early. He made sure to sort through the noise of the town all around them to see if he could pick out the distinctive noise of trouble.

"You are not a radar dish," she muttered, watching him.

"And you're crazy, so we're square," he muttered back. "Quiet now."

A second later, the door to the clinic opened, and Kaylee and Inara emerged with a couple bags of medical supplies, chatting away, the mechanic clad in coveralls with her blue jacket on, and Inara wearing one of her less flashy dresses. River immediately slid down off the railing and bounced toward them. The rumble of the distant engine grew louder.

Jayne watched them, feeling a bit better now that he had all the girlfolk under his eye again. He didn't like being saddled with being a big mean guard, but he took the job seriously, especially with those three involved.

River began asking a few quiet questions, and the voices hushed into quiet, sneaky tones, which made Jayne scowl in annoyance. Not that he wanted to know much about whatever it was the girls were talking about, but he was still curious. He edged closer, and the tones got even quieter, almost conspiratorial.

River stopped, looked up, and blinked back up at him.

"That is too many syllables for you," she said, and then went back to being quiet.

"Hey!" he growled. "Just 'cause I don't know some fancy words don't mean I don't know others!"

Inara and Kaylee looked up at Jayne, surprised by his sudden outburst, but a mumble from River relaxed them, barely audible over the rumbling in the background.

Then her arms shot up and grabbed both of the women, while Jayne snapped out his revolver at almost the exact same moment. He'd heard it, she'd felt it.

A peal of gunfire resounded in the air as the rumble of approaching engines rose up. He listened intently, and now that he was focusing on the noise, he put it at less than a hundred meters off, with at least three different kinds of weapons being fired.

How the hell had he missed that? Too intent on the gorram girl to . . . .

"Ya'll get down!" he yelled, ducking behind the corner of the shop. He glanced back to check on the girlfolk, to see they'd done the same. Kaylee and Inara had been through too many gunfights to not go for cover at first chance.

And for good reason: five seconds later, a hovercraft whipped around a corner down the street – a familiar-looking hovercraft, with a familiar-looking moron with a familiar-looking brown coat waving out behind him as he shot at something chasing them.

A second later, a gigantic four-wheeled monster of a vehicle came around the corner, looking for all the world like a building made out of tires. The few people still outside dove for cover, some screaming, while the mule shot down the road, the glacier-on-wheels chasing them.

"GET OUT OF THE WAAAAAAY!" Mal was screaming at the people in the road as they flew past, firing his pistol at the mountain of wheels. Jayne wasn't sure if he or anyone else on the mule – Doc, Zoë, and Book, from what he saw – had seen him.

The enormous vehicular mammoth roared past, and Jayne looked up at the men in the cab and bed of the monster.

He froze.

"Ta ma de," he breathed. He only saw the face for a heartbeat, but that was all he needed.

He snapped up his revolver and unloaded. In the roar of the passing monster's engines, he couldn't even hear the bark of his weapon, and it didn't look like he did any damage. In fact, it wasn't likely the men in the back of the huge vehicle even knew he was there.

Then they were past, and Jayne was fumbling for a speedloader for the revolver, grunting and cursing as he did so.

He knew that face. He knew it all too well. And if that hun dan was after Mal and the others . . . .

"We gotta get after them!" Jayne yelled, head swiveling as he hunted around the street for a vehicle. Gorram hick town like this only had horses, at best, maybe a couple all-terrain trucks. Behind him, he heard River say something quickly to Kaylee and Inara, and then she ran past him, slapping him on the shoulder. He turned to follow her, and she ran around a corner. Grumbling, he chased after her, keeping his eyes on the escaping monster chasing his crew.

As he came around the corner, he saw what River had picked out: a local sitting on an ATV, wearing a hideous, floppy brown hat that would have earned him a right hook if he'd inflicted it on a bar Jayne had been drinking in. The man had apparently been just as surprised as everyone else at what had just screamed past, and was watching in the direction Mal had fled.

"Hello!" River yelled, waving at the man in the ugly hat. He looked up as she ran toward him, Jayne right behind her.

"Yes, little lady?" the man asked, pulling his eyes away from what he'd just seen and fixing on her.

"We require your vehicle," she said as she reached him. He frowned, shaking his head.

"What?" the man said. "No, sorry girl, I can't just give-"

"Please?" River said, putting on her best pouty puppy-dog face. The man hesitated for a few moments.

"No, sorry, little miss," he said, and started to rev the vehicle up. "I can't-"


-and then an arm as wide around as her head came down onto the man's face, and he was sent toppling to the dirt, hat flying away. Jayne stepped around the girl and onto the ATV.

"Jayne," she hissed, reprovingly, as he clambered onto the bike.

"He was crowdin' me," Jayne offered, words completely lacking in apology, and he started the vehicle up. "Wasn't gonna have time for your pretty girl routine, anyhow." She snorted, an oddly Jayne-like noise, and started to climb onto the bike. He warded her away with one immense arm.

"No room," he said. "Watch Kaylee and 'Nara."

"You'll need help," River protested. He frowned, and shook his head.

"I ain't needin' no help," Jayne growled. "Ain't room anyhow, and Mal needs backup. Get 'em back to the ship safe and tell Wash. Need him airborne."

She hesitated for a moment, and he saw the machinery working behind her eyes, but then something clicked inside that addled head of hers, and she nodded.

He knew that look. It was a look that said she understood.

"Please do not die," she asked, and he shrugged, revving up the engine.

"All gotta die sometime," he said, and before he could contemplate the morbidity of that sentence – or how pretentious that last line of thought was – he shot off, giving the girl just enough warning to back up away from the dust cloud.

He shot around the corner of the street, past Inara and Kaylee, who River was running toward, and he started dragging Boo out of its holster. She knew more about why he was doing this than he was letting on.

Gorram girl.

They screamed through town without killing anybody, which was a blessing, as far as Mal could tell, but now they were hitting open terrain with a bigger and much faster vehicle chasing after them. Gunfire continued to chase them, directed by the angry Mongol-looking fellow in the back of the truck.

Mal kept firing, though he knew he was running dangerously low on ammunition, and the bullets weren't doing much. Zoë's gunfire was even more limited and sporadic; unlike Mal, her lever-action rifle didn't fit many shells and they were heavy, so she didn't carry as much.

He glanced back toward Simon and Book to check on them. Book was still driving with that unnerving calm he had in complicated situations, while Simon was hunched down low in his seat. Sure, the Doctor had survived a lot of hairy situations, but he still wasn't a trained fighter like the others in the mule. Another reason mal saw to work on that cross-training problem.

A round cut past his head, grazing his scalp, and Mal jerked back behind cover.

Focus. Deal with the angry men trying to kill them first. Then worry about the job and the crew's long-term well-being.

"Beagles," Mal muttered as they careened along. Boulders flew past as they started to hit the bumpy part of this route, and the mule began to swerve around the obstacles, Book weaving the hovercraft with admirable skill.

Behind them, the wheeled mountain continued straight on, course unchanging, and it rolled clean over one of the boulders, shocks and wheels bouncing a bit as it passed over the offending rock but otherwise unperturbed.

"Sir, that may have been a bad idea," Zoë murmured, and a curse from Mal told her that he agreed.

They fired another few blasts at their pursuers, who were now gaining on them, but return fire was intensifying. Mal tried to pick out a shot on the leader of the gaggle of puppy-craving banditry, and almost got a bead on him when the mule juked sideways around a particularly painful-looking boulder, tossing Mal down into the backseat.

"Hey!" he protested, clambering back up onto his feet. A round spanged off the railing next to his hand, and he jerked it away with a yelp, and then emptied the rest of his pistol's cartridge. He frantically reloaded, but as he brought the pistol up to bear, he spotted something else.

A burly man, upon an ATV, bouncing along behind the massive truck.

"Zoë, are my eyes fibbing to me?" he asked.

"Unless you're seeing something other than Jayne back there," she muttered.

"What the hell is he doing?" Mal whispered, more to himself than to the others, for behind the mobile cliff face that was their pursuer, was a bouncing ATV with Jayne Cobb perched upon it.

Mal ducked back behind cover, and looked ahead. The path ahead split about five hundred meters ahead, with a high ridge rising over a lower, smoother path running down the side of the valley.

"Preacher, take the low road!" Mal yelled, and prayed to the dear and fluffy Lord that Jayne would capitalize on the situation.

Jayne was glad he'd worn his sunglasses today, as he closed in behind the truck. The monster of a vehicle was throwing up a monster of a dust cloud, mixed with bits of debris, and the only thing that kept his vision clear was the pair of sunglasses on his head.

From behind the truck, he counted at least four thug-ish sorts in the rear bed of the truck, along with the Mongol-looking fellow that Jayne was very certain he recognized. So, five bad guys minimum, not counting anyone in the cab of the giant wheeled avalanche. He counted two rifles, a shotgun, and a few pistols, which meant he was badly overmatched in terms of raw firepower. On the other hand, he had surprise, and he was a hell of a lot better. He was Jayne Cobb, after all.

One hand held onto the handlebars of the ATV, keeping the accelerator held down, while the other fumbled for Boo. He drew the LeMat, raising it up toward the target ahead of him, and he cursed as the bouncing, uneven terrain threw his aim this way and that. Why the hell was Mal driving through this damn terrain?

He fired two quick shots through the dust and debris raining down from the monster's wheels, but neither round got anywhere near where he was aiming. It didn't even look like they'd noticed him. Jayne snarled, lowering the revolver, and knew he would need to get a better angle. From here, with the rocky terrain and the low angle, he couldn't get a good shot at the enemy.

He saw the solution up ahead as Mal's vehicle swerved along a split in the route, heading down a path that ran below a high ridge. The monster rolled right down after them, not taking the high road to their left, which would give anyone using it a good shot down at the pursuers.

Jayne swerved out of the dust cloud behind the mobile mountain, and shot up the path that led to the ridge. Doing so cost him precious seconds, he knew, as he jumped and bucked his way up to the top of the ridge and continued chasing the bandits trying to kill his crew.

Long seconds passed as he shot over the top of the ridge, which was strewn with more boulders and uneven, rocky protrusions left by the millions of years the planet had not spent terraformed. He juked around the obstacles, keeping close to the cliff's edge and an eye on the monster truck below.

Finally, Jayne had a clear line of fire on the men in the monster's bed, the vehicle about twenty meters ahead and a few below to his right. He drew Boo again and leveled the revolver at the men in the back, trying to set his sights on the Mongol bossing them around.

He squeezed the trigger, and Boo leapt up in his free hand. He emptied the revolver, putting four rounds into the truck's bed, and he saw one of the men in the back jerk and fall aside. The roar of the truck's engine drowned out any noises he might have made, but the whizzing and displaced air of a passing bullet was unmistakable, as was the sound of rounds impacting against the metal bed and skipping about as they ricocheted.

The men in the truck ducked for cover, with their leader spinning toward the cliff face, the only logical place where the shots could have come from. He looked up, eyes hunting, and he spotted Jayne as the mercenary swerved around another boulder, shaking the casings out of Boo's cylinders. Just as Jayne dug a speedloader out of his coat and started to load the revolver, he glanced up and caught the Mongol's eyes.

Recognition flashed there.

He started yelling and jabbing his free arm at Jayne, while shouldering his rifle with the other. A couple seconds later every gun in the truck was swinging up his way. Jayne swerved away, putting the cliff face between himself and the truck, while a torrent of gunfire ripped toward him.

Okay, that plan didn't work out so well. They were still chasing Mal and the others, only now they were aware that he was there – and very specifically, they were aware that he, Jayne Cobb, was there.

He didn't have much time before that big truck managed to run down the mule, and then Mal and the others would be dead right quick, if they were lucky. Time to get either smart, or extra dumb.

Jayne backed off until he was completely out sight. There was a steep but navigable path down the side of the ridge up ahead, and Jayne let the truck get a bit further on ahead before he started down the side of the rock face, once he was sure they couldn't see him.

As soon as he got back down the side of the cliff and was back in the dust cloud behind the truck, Jayne laid on the gas and shot up behind the monster, hoping they were keeping their eyes on the cliff face and not behind them.

Because he was about to do something either real heroic, or really stupid.

For Hoban Washburne, the day had been nice and quiet, with Serenity's engines powered down to planet-safe levels. In the still, peaceful warmth of an uneventful afternoon, he'd settled into his pilot's chair for a nice, long, gummy-mouth-generating nap.

That ended when someone smacked him in the nose.

"Owgafawhat!" he exclaimed, jerked and grabbing his nose. Beside him, River was scrambling into the copilot's chair, and he could hear Inara and Kaylee talking behind him.

"What was that for?" he asked, mind whirling, while River's hands played over the controls.

"The others are in trouble," she explained. "We must be airborne."

"Uh, wha?" he asked, mind still shifting gears from happy-sleepiness to oh-my-god-we're-all-going-to-die mode. River glanced to him, even as his hands began automatically working the controls on his side, working of their own accord.

"Fly, you fool!" she hissed, throwing a plastic palm tree at him, which he deflected with a forearm. He grunted, giving her his best annoyed glare as he started the ship up.

"Don't go quoting Tolkien at me," he warned. "I have an entire library of bad fantasy movie quotes I can throw right back at you."

"Please," Inara interjected, in a tone that added the word "children" without having to speak it, "Can we hurry and save them?"

"We'll be up in the sky in just a moment," Wash said, flicking the switches by his head, and glanced to River. "Just hoping we get there in time."

"We will," River said, determined, and added to herself where no one could hear, "He promised me he wouldn't get himself killed."

Aw hell, I'm about to get myself kilt, Jayne realized halfway between the point where he jumped off a moving vehicle and grabbed another with his bare hands.

Jayne had seen more than one action-vid where the hero jumped from a moving car onto another one, and he'd always sneered at how impossible that sort of thing was. He'd tried it once when he was fifteen, and was laid up for two months in traction as a result. Getting from a moving vehicle to another when they were both the same size and traveling at the same speed and on flat terrain was hard enough.

Jayne was on an ATV, trying to board a massive moving truck, on rough terrain that was making him bounce about so hard he was getting worried about his potential to sire heirs. Worse still, the ATV demanded he have a hand on the handlebars to keep it going straight, since the designers were inconsiderate of the needs of vehicle–leaping mercenaries. Even worse still, the only spot he could really get a good grip on the truck was high enough up that Jayne had to stand up in the seat of the ATV to actually grab it.

Thus, he was standing up on a vehicle designed to be driven while seated, bouncing around wildly, one arm flailing as it tried to get a grip on an equally bouncing vehicle that was swerving back and forth in front of him, while his other hand held onto the handlebars lest the ATV go flying out underneath him and turn him into a Jayne-flavored smear across the landscape.

"Gorram this is stupid gorram this is stupid gorram this is stupid," he kept repeating, and lunged upward, getting a hand on the rear bumper of the wheeled battleship, and he released the handlebars while kicking off the ATV. It instantly spun out of control, the rear bouncing up and hitting his legs, knocking them sideways.

His boots skipped off the dirt once, and he was snapped about like a pennant in the wind, with only his massive strength keeping him from being torn loose. Jayne snarled, cursed enough to make his momma proud, and flex his arms, hauling himself upward. He coiled his legs to keep them from smashing into any rocks or hitting the dirt again, and began to climb hand over hand up the rear of the monster.

Jayne hauled himself up on the back of the bed, planted his boots against the backside of the truck, and drew Boo with his right hand. He checked the revolver to make sure it was loaded, and peeked over the back of the bed. Four goons, one bearded pile of ugly commanding them, and a dead body sprawled in the back of the truck.

Time for some thrilling heroics.

The next few seconds were all a slow-motion blur as his adrenaline peaked. He went over the top, pistol leading, and shot the first man in the back, middle of his spine. The round sent him flopping, paralyzing him from the midsection down and probably killing him with splinters of his own vertebrae. The remaining men began to turn, and he put a round through the second goon's neck, tearing away his throat. The third raised a shotgun and leveled it at Jayne, but the mercenary's next shot took him in the shoulder, throwing off his aim and sending the blast lancing over his shoulder. The fourth round took the fourth man in the thigh, dropping him to one knee.

Then the third thug dropped his shotgun and shoulder-tackled Jayne, throwing him back against the bed of the truck, and grabbed the mercenary's gun hand with his own good arm. Jayne's left arm flew up, hand balling into a fist, and smashed into the thug's wounded shoulder, and the man jerked in agony from the impact, right before Jayne twisted and hooked his left hand under the man's armpit. He spun and used his foe's momentum to hurl him over the back of the truck.

Something hard, heavy, and likely metal smashed into the middle of Jayne's back, and he fell forward against the bed of the truck. He spun, trying to jab out with Boo and at least force his foe off him, but an arm wrapped around his extending gun hand and pinned it against the side of his attacker's body.

It was the Mongol-looking bastard whose name Jayne had never gotten. The man grinned at him, exposing yellowed teeth, and smashed his forehead into Jayne's nose. The impact sent him stumbling backward, and Jayne dropped Boo into the bed of the truck.

"Jayne Cobb," yelled the ugly bastard over the engine as he towered over the mercenary, pointing a rifle down at his head. "I never thought I'd see you again. How's Andy's old rifle treating you?"

"Hell," Jayne muttered, not able to form anything more articulate with his head swimming like that. More importantly, though, the words the man spoke were bringing a different clarity to Jayne's mind.


"You know Konstantin's still alive," the Mongol grunted. "Still looking to settle that score he had with you. Maybe I should bring you over to him, for old-time's sakes. Sure he'd-"

Jayne Cobb kicked the Mongol in the danglies.

"Talk too gorram much," Jayne muttered as the bearded, ugly sonovabitch stumbled backward, grunting in surprise. He scooped up Boo and pointed it at the man's head.

The thug who got shot in the leg rose, leveling a pistol at Jayne, and the mercenary shifted aim, putting the fifth round into the man's chest. The Mongol leapt up at Jayne, snarling and swinging his weapon like a club, and they smashed back against the bed of the truck. Apparently, getting kicked in the eggshells didn't do much more than piss him off. The Mongol smashed the rifle down over Jayne's head, which he barely managed to roll with to keep it from staving in his forehead.

Boo came crashing down in a pistol-whip at the Mongol's head, but he ducked backward, shoving the pistol aside with his free arm. Jayne managed to grab the man's rifle with his own free hand and angle it sideways and away from his vitals. The Mongol kept spitting and cursing as he wrenched his arm around, trying to get the weapon up to shoot Jayne, and the mercenary sidestepped, turning to his left.

Then Jayne grinned suddenly, which made the Mongol pause for a heartbeat.

Boo, which was held in Jayne's right hand, was pointing toward the cab of the truck. Or more specifically, toward the driver.

The sixth round plated itself in the middle of the driver's head, and he slumped forward over the wheel. Jayne snapped his head forward into the Mongol's face, returning the favor and breaking his opponent's nose for good measure. As the man toppled backward, Jayne spun and clambered over the back of the truck's bed, just as the vehicle began to turn and swerve out of control.

He dropped off the back of the truck and hit the-

Then he was bouncing a second later, and the ground rushed up to-

He bounced again, and then rolled across the dirt, pain arcing across his body, and Jayne wished for a moment he had blacked out like he had with the last two impacts. He found himself lying facedown in the dirt, still clutching Boo in a death grip. He heard the sound of metal screeching on stone, and managed to wrench his head around to see the truck smash into the cliff face and then bounce off, and go in the opposite direction, toward the steep drop heading down into the valley.

He pushed himself up, ignoring the fact that his whole body was screaming that he needed to stay horizontal, and trudged over to the cliff's edge so he could see. The truck toppled over the side, and started rolling end over end down the slope, sending bits and pieces and men flying every which way.

Jayne stared down the slope, wincing in pain and watching. He kept his eyes locked on the truck until he made out the limp shape of the Mongol-looking man being hurled clear. For a beat he was worried he would need to go down there and finish him off, but the flying body impacted a boulder on the slope headfirst, and the man's head went in a direction that wasn't terribly healthsome.

Well. That was that.

He heard the whine of the mule's engine as it came closer, and turned to face it. The hovercraft pulled up alongside him, the crew looking down at him with expressions that ranged from grateful on Mal's to amazement on Simon's.

A few seconds' silence passed, and he got annoyed.

"Well, ya'll got room for me or not?" he asked. "Sure as shit ain't walkin' back."

"After that trick," Mal said, nodding and speaking in clear appreciation. "I'd walk back for you."

Mal moved aside, and Jayne reached up, hauling himself inside. He heard a yapping sound coming from the box the Doc was holding, and a beagle puppy stuck its head out of the box. The little mutt barked once and then growled at him, and Jayne growled back as he clambered up onto the mule.

"Do you need me to take a look at that?" Simon said, and Jayne grunted.

"I'll live until we get back to the ship," he muttered. Doc was right to be worried, because Jayne was hurting like hell after that fall, but damned if he was going to show it. Just because he appreciated Doc's skills didn't mean he'd let him know he did. Had an image to maintain, after all.

"Who was that?" Book asked as the mule began to fire up, and Jayne grunted. He glanced back down the slope.

"Dead fella, now," Jayne grumbled, closing his eyes, pain making itself evident across his body. In the distance, he could hear Serenity approaching.

Good. He needed a nap and a damned drink. The mule started moving, and one of the puppies whined. That made him open an eye.

"The hell are ya'll doing with them yappers, anyhow?"

It was late. Or later, he couldn't tell, now that they were back in space, the box of yappers handed over to the folks who wanted them and the not-terribly-good ship Serenity heading out into the Black.

The others were asleep, and but Jayne was awake. He slouched in the dining room – the concept of proper posture never really applied to him – one leg up on the bench with wrappings around it. Doc had done a good job, complete with a shot for the pain that didn't send him face-first to the floor. They'd worked on that trust issue some the last few months, and now it was showing.

He was busy at the moment, cleaning and reassembling his favorite rifles, and he showed extra care and attention to Vera. She'd saved his ass more than a few times, so he treated her like he treated any girl he cared about: he took his time, worked his way inside every corner and groove, checked every inch with steady and methodical care and, when necessary, put some spit and tongue to work. Contrary to what some folks thought of him, he could be very soft and gentle when he felt the need to, and a good woman and good weapon were much the same in that regard.

As he finished reattaching Vera's barrel to the rifle's receiver, he started humming to himself, making a point to completely ignore the presence behind him. A few moments passed, and he could feel the girl getting impatient and annoyed, as clearly as if she were speaking out loud.

"I was being quiet," River finally muttered, tired of being ignored.

Not quiet enough, he thought, and then focused again on a pair of his pistols. What he didn't think on – because he didn't want her picking up on it – was that he'd just barely sensed her, and that was more due to heat proximity warning him someone had been standing behind him for a few minutes, and her very shallow breathing, which he'd only just picked out from the ship's air cyclers.

Girl needed to be deflated a bit, he thought. Not as much of a ninja as she thought she was.

"It is later," she said, and slid past him. She took a seat at the head of the table, where Mal liked to be, and leaned forward. "We have time for unpleasant stories."

Jayne scowled up at her. She had her arms crossed together and was leaning forward on them, hair draping over the table, and looked for all the worlds like an eager little kid – not an adult. He intensified his scowl and went back to cleaning his weapons. She knew – and he knew she knew that he knew she knew – that he wasn't going to start talking about Vera in detail. Hell, Mal knew more than most folks, and that was when he'd had a heart-to-heart with the Captain. Or at least, as heart-to-heart as Jayne and the Captain got back in those days.

"I will start drinking whiskey with you if it will make you talk," she offered, and that made him scowl some more.

"You can't handle it," he muttered. "Makes you start kissin' girlfolk." He then grinned. "Second thought, let's get you some next time we hit planetside."

She glowered at him, but it was more out of amusement than anger. He went back to work, and she sat at the table, watching him as he cared for the rest of his girls, one by one. Her fingers tapped idly, and finally, her hands slithered forward toward Vera.

Jayne dropped his tools and the weapon parts in a flash and grabbed her wrists.

"Off," he snarled, and pushed her arms back. Vera had extreme sentimental value, and he made sure she understood that in his glare. He'd tolerate someone else handling Vera if it was something serious, but he wasn't going to let the xiao gui play around with the rifle.

She understood, from what he saw, and settled back in her seat.

"Are you going to tell me?" she asked.

"No." Blunt and direct was best here. No need to pretty it up.

Besides . . . she'd probably figured it out anyhow.

"Yes," she said, after a few seconds, as if he'd spoken it out loud. "Which one was it?"

"That guy with the ugly mustache," Jayne grumbled, not wanting to talk any more on the issue. He reached down and picked up Vera, cradling the rifle in his hands, and remembering a thousand memories associated with the weapon, including the most potent one.

"Six men came to kill me one time," he murmured. "And after today, only one's still alive."

"Was it revenge?" she asked, and he heard the leading tone in her voice. He glanced back up at her, and saw something working inside those eyes. There was more to that question than what she was saying.

"Not entirely," Jayne muttered. "I knew the man. Knew what he'd do if he caught 'em." He paused, shifting Vera in his hands, and remembered it all very clearly.

River froze, and then shivered, leaning back quickly.

"Does the 'verse a justice to get rid of him," Jayne grumbled, and started gathering his weapons. River closed her eyes and shambled to her feet, and stepped around the table.

He finally managed to be surprised when she wrapped her arms around his neck and squeezed tight. Jayne blinked as that unwashed, tangled hair covered his face, and then grunted most unpleasant-like. He put a forearm against her stomach and pushed the crazy girl off him.

"The hell was that for?" he asked as she withdrew from the sudden hug. She ran a hand over her brow, brushing hair out of her face.

"For saving them," she said, and smiled uncertainly. "Thank you. For not dying."

For a single heartbeat, Jayne mulled over what to say, and then settled on the standard-issue gruffness.

"Yeah," he said. "Just doin' what Captain pays me to do, is all."

He could tell she saw right through that by the way her smile shifted to an honest, amused grin, but she didn't press the issue. Instead, River did an odd little curtsey and murmured a goodnight to him, and then drifted out of the room.

Jayne watched her leave, mumbled a few choice words about the insane psychic ninja girl, and gathered up his other girls into his arms. He glanced down at Vera, and remembered that Mongol hun dan and his dirty, yellowed teeth.

Five dead. One left.

He tucked Vera under his arm and headed back for the still quiet of his bunk.

Author's Notes: This interlude was mostly intended to get us back to our crew, especially as the last interlude was about characters elsewhere - most of the originals and not our big damn heroes. This interlude was actually originally intended to be the prologue for the next story arc, but it grew into its own entity all by itself and I knew it had to become a seperate, self-contained story. The core concept for this arc was working on some backstory regarding Jayne, and I decided to build off one of Jayne's iconic moments. Sure, Jayne said six men came to kill him one time, but he never said why, where, when, or how many were still alive, and I'm a sucker for expanding on plot threads like that. I actually have a bit of a plot laid out regarding that particular incident, and how it relates to Jayne himself. Of course, since this interlude was Jayne-centric, most of the other characters were relegated to the background, but I plan to have other character-centric interludes later.

There were more than a few references scattered throughout this chapter. I was originally intending to have a complicated Iniana Jones style fight scene on the truck, with Jayne actually getting thrown off and dangling off the side and climbing along the truck's underside, but that was just pushing how far I could go with this particular action scene while not overstretching the plausibility.

Until next chapter . . . .