The Alliance had just near covered the calendar with holidays to celebrate their great selves and Mal had no shame in using each and every one to start a brawl. He sat in a quiet corner of a bar on Persephone, having a drink with Jayne and Zoë, surveying the crowd for opportunities while losing miserably at a game of Mahjong. At the moment, the bar seemed disappointingly tame and under-enthusiastic about the holiday. He'd give it another twenty minutes and hop over to the next one. They needed to be off world within the hour and Mal wanted to get a decent fist fight in beforehand.

"Another round?" he asked, gathering the circle of empty mugs and heading for the bar. Zoë merely nodded and Jayne reclined, gnawing on an unlit cigar, complaining about the new policy against lighting up inside public establishments. A belly-dancer shimmied past Mal as he stood and wove his way through the sea of people. The bar was crowded, but not so much that the bartender didn't recognize a paying customer when he saw one. He refilled Mal's three empty mugs immediately, appreciating the cash upfront. Mal had learned long ago never to open a tab if one intends to leave quickly. He nearly dropped the third mug as a sweet, weary voice beckoned the barkeep.

"Excuse me. I'm looking for a Mr. Jayne Cobb. I was told he might be drinking in here."

Mal's head whirled around in time to see the bartender shrug and the girl turn around to face the crowd. She couldn't have been much older than Simon or much taller than Inara. Her dark hair fell in coarse waves down to her shoulders and her olive-drab coat hung loosely on her frame. She was a mixture of exotic features and well-kept clothing, but with the drooping demeanor of someone who's been on a long journey. Her face was plain and her eyes clear as the sea, scanning the room for her quarry.

Quickly, Mal ducked toward the back table to warn the others, wishing they'd chosen a spot closer to the exit. Unfortunately, the girl had noticed him and was half a step behind him when he slid into the booth.

"Mr. Cobb?"

It could never be said that Jayne was fair-skinned, having earned his leathery tan from hours of back-breaking labor on a dozen dusty worlds. But as Jayne's stricken gaze fell on the girl, Mal saw the blood drain so completely from the merc's face that he looked albino.

"No, miss. Malcolm Reynolds," Mal cut in quickly, reaching out a hand to shake hers. He was about to turn her away, but something about those piercing blue eyes seemed so startlingly familiar that he leaned to the left instead, revealing the crouching, ashen Jayne. "That's him right there."

In the space of a breath, Jayne drowned his drink and squared his shoulders.

"Mr. Cobb?"

"Girl, you don't have to call me that."

"Yes, sir."

Mal started. This girl had called Jayne 'sir'!

"Why are you here?"

"Serenity always comes through Persephone this time of year. I only had to wait three weeks, and here you are."

"Well, you shouldn't be travelin' these parts alone. It's dangerous for womenfolk, doin' that."

Zoë shot a stern glare across the table, but Mal was sure neither of the pair had caught it. The two seemed enraptured in their own alternate reality in which Jayne was called 'sir' and Mal felt so much the intruder he had half a mind to crawl under the table.

"I needed to find you. You wouldn't answer my waves."

"Why wouldn't you answer her waves, Jayne?" Mal goaded, wanting to shift back into the real world, garnering confidence from his drink.

"Just didn't get around to it is all. So speak your peace, girl. What is it you've been waitin' three weeks here to tell me? Ain't you got some place better to be?"

The girl sighed, sparing a glance for Mal and Zoë, clearly wishing to have this conversation alone. "Not anymore."

Her voice shook only a little, but Jayne's breath became downright ragged. His face went from lily white to practically translucent. Mal had seen ghosts with more color and he knew that if Jayne hadn't already been sitting, he'd have collapsed. Though Jayne had stood through violent assaults, clubbings, gunshot wounds, stab wounds, and almost every other kind of physical attack, this single bit of news brought the hefty man to his knees and still sinking from there.

Jayne's eyes fixated on his empty mug a moment, then he reached across the table for Zoë's and downed the entire beer. The move did little for his color aside from add an asphyxiated flush to his cheeks. Mal wrapped his hands protectively around his mug in case Jayne reached that way, but the merc had two hands on the table and was fighting for breath. When he'd steadied himself, he pushed back his chair, squeezed around Mal, and took the girl by the arm.

"'Scuse me while I handle this."

Mal craned his neck watching them go, noticing Jayne stop by the bar for a very stiff shot of something. When he turned back to the table, Zoë had slid his glass in front of herself and was nursing the drink calmly.

"Relative you think?" Mal wondered.

"Or old friend."

"Jayne don't seem the type to leave old friends lying around."

"Simon don't seem the type to break into an Alliance facility."

"Point taken," Mal agreed, stealing the drink from Zoë and sipping it.

Jayne returned with the girl a few moments later, looking even more stressed and if possible, more pale. His face was beaded with sweat, but his voice was calmed by liquor.

"Can the girl come with us?"

As a rule, Mal didn't take on passengers anymore, and that was a policy that (up until now) Jayne whole-heartedly supported.

"Are you payin' her fare?" Mal countered, earning swift kick from Zoë under the table.

"I can pay my own fare," the girl interrupted, then turned to Jayne. "Twenty minutes at the docks?"

He nodded distantly and she took her leave. Jayne towered next to the table, looking ready to tip over like a piece of lumber. Unconsciously, he swiped the last beer from Mal's hand and finished it in a single gulp.

"Have another," Mal invited, sarcastically.

The color was returning to Jayne's face and the burly mercenary unexpectedly broke out in a loud roar, turned, and hit the first man that crossed his path. The victim went flying across the room, crashing into a table, immediately inviting three other men into the dispute. Jayne hardly noticed as two men jumped him from the side, brushing them off like dust from his boots and throwing himself onto three others. Mal stood quickly, getting out of the corner and headed for the open room to fight. This wasn't exactly the brawl he'd been looking for and given the glazed killer-look in Jayne's eyes, it wasn't likely to go the way he planned.

"Jayne," Mal hollered, unsure if he should be fighting the other patrons or wrestling Jayne out of the bar. The man had clearly been possessed by a Herculean spirit, engaging ten men and letting none hit him. Mal wasn't sure he wanted to be one of those men. With his attention diverted, Mal became an easy target and his head reeled as someone boxed his ears. Turning quickly to retaliate, Mal began a series of swift kicks and punches, and soon realized that he himself was fighting ten men. When he noticed Jayne fly through the window and Zoë duck out the door, he quickly followed them to the street. He was nearly plowed over by Jayne trying to get back in and finish the fight, but between himself and Zoë, they were able to restrain the crazed mercenary.

Zoë kicked Jayne's knees from behind, forcing him into Mal, and Mal tumbled backward, taking them into a roll that got them out of the door way. The fight had not followed them out as yet, but by Jayne's look, the demons had. Mal let out a yelp, ducking a punch and rolling free. He stood up quickly, but surprisingly, Jayne stayed down.

"Jayne?" Zoë asked softly, tiptoeing over and nudging the man with her boot. His glassy eyes stared vacantly sideways, his body drenched with sweat and blood. Every breath seemed to take extraordinary effort from his hair to his boots. They stood in tense silence for nearly a minute, just watching Jayne breathe the dusty air and bleed on the road. Finally, the man rolled onto his knees and spit the blood from his mouth, acclimatizing himself to the upright position.


"Yeah, Mal?"

"Lets get back to the ship."

Jayne nodded, standing gingerly, his eyes never leaving the ground. Mal kept a wary eye on the man as they journeyed back, hoping for that spark of good humor that usually fell out of Jayne post-ass-kicking, but it never came.

Inara had delayed her return to Serenity for as long as possible, but half a day did little to heal her wounds. If anything, the swelling around her eye had gotten worse. Her cheek was throbbing, begging her to replace the icepack she'd had on it earlier. Her hands still quaked. She'd thought about going to a local clinic, but on this world world, a companion couldn't enter such a place without stirring a buzz. The cut on her head wasn't deep enough to require stitches anyway.

With trembling hands, she drank ice water, trying to replenish her lost tears. The cool drink invaded her body, sharply etching its path through her esophagus, making her shiver. The cup clattered against the saucer as she set it down again and debated what to do next. Her shuttle was a sty, the curtains torn and tossed, the tables swept clean, the altar and incense tipped onto the carpet. It had been a miracle she'd found a cup that wasn't broken.

The room looked as violated as she felt. She'd spent the last two hours weeping, trying to get his touch off her body, his scent out of her mind. Soft-hands of the well-moneyed. Expensive cologne. Fists like iron. Sticky drool, salty sweat, hot semen. Her body shuddered involuntarily.

A soft beep from the cockpit indicated Serenity was calling. She couldn't hide here any longer. She needed to return. On shaky legs, she stumbled to the cockpit, one hand on the wall for support. She ached from neck to knees. Deep breaths. Deep, calming breaths.

"Serenity, this is Shuttle One, I'm on my way."

"Inara," Wash answered jovially. "We were starting to worry."

Could he hear her voice shaking? No. She was being paranoid.

The shuttle rumbled as she lifted off from her hiding spot in the crater, heading for the Eavesdown docks. Inara swallowed the bile arising from sudden motion sickness and pressed on. Not long now. But Serenity would not be the safe, comforting harbor she wanted. Not today. The unthinkable had occurred. A monster had slipped through her carefully honed client screening. In all her years, only a handful had succeeded – creeps and perverts, some capable of violence. But she'd always managed to escape before things got out of hand. She was clever, strong, and stealthy. He had incapacitated her quickly and took pleasure in bringing such a self-assured woman to her knees.

She only contacted Serenity once more when docking, and stayed in her shuttle with the door locked while the ship broke atmo. The crew was accustomed to letting her be, but in a few days (less if she was unlucky), they'd begin to wonder. For now, it didn't matter. Her bed slashed at odd angles, Inara settled on the floor, pulled one of the fallen curtains over body, and cried herself to sleep.

Mal wasn't surprised when Inara didn't show up for dinner. A client that could convince Inara to stay an extra half-day could probably also wear her out. Still it irked him. He abhorred her profession, and the fact that it kept her from sharing a meal with them was like salt in an open wound. Mal looked from her empty chair to Jayne's.

Jayne, on the other hand, was not exactly known for missing meals unless Mal sent him away from the table. Even the one time he had the stomach flu, he'd shown up, setting a bucket by his chair 'just in case.' But something about the new passenger had rocked him to silence. When they had returned to the ship, Jayne walked straight to his bunk, climbed in, and locked the door, leaving Mal and Zoë alone to stow their fresh supplies. It had been Jayne's turn to cook, but Zoë had taken the slack when he failed to emerge from his bunk. Kaylee had knocked a few times to tell him supper was ready, but there was no response. Mal figured that Jayne may have drunk himself into a coma and decided that if he didn't hear the tell-tale signs of a midnight snacker later that evening, he'd make sure the Doc looked in on Jayne in the morning.

As for the new passenger – she'd introduced herself as Ms. Smith – she was hiding out in the room Zoë had set up for her in the passenger dormitories. She'd come in and made a plate for herself before the rest had gathered, and had since remained elusive. Kaylee was dying from the mystery, smiling, and putting forth the most unreasonable of hypotheses.

"Aren't you the least bit curious about her?" Kaylee prodded Mal.

"So long she's paying fare and not bringing undue trouble, I don't care who she is," Mal answered crisply.

"That last qualifier is new isn't it?" Simon jested.

"There's a balance between trouble and usefulness," Wash quipped philosophically.

"Right," Simon agreed, holding up two hands as a scale. "Harboring Alliance fugitives… having a doctor."

"I think you're on to something," Wash laughed, and the others joined in.

Mal was only half listening, half sucking down the ginger noodle concoction in front of him. He flinched when he felt River's hand on his elbow.

"Hurt. Wings broken," River whispered quietly, as if directly addressing his thoughts. "You have to watch for her. She'll fly away."

Mal pulled his arm away from the creepy girl and resumed eating, deliberately ignoring the senseless words. River watched him a moment, then rejoined the conversation, laughing and carrying on like a normal girl. What had she said? Was something wrong with the ship?

Mal had Kaylee check the engine and she assured him that everything was as it should be. Either River's words meant something else or meant nothing at all… and he was hoping for the latter. As the night wore on and the halls fell silent, Mal lingered in the bridge, letting Wash off early for the night, listening for the sound of Jayne emerging from his bunk for a midnight snack. Once he heard that, he'd know the man was okay, and he would get some sleep.

He passed the time working his way through Serenity's books – not the real ones, but the fake ones they kept around for Alliance inspections. It was important to hover just close enough to the poverty line so that the special groups didn't hound you and the government didn't require taxes, and it was a difficult position to fake. The task had become significantly easier since he'd explained it to River one day, and she often penciled helpful notes in the margins of the ledger. Mal's eyelids were taking on the familiar weight of exhaustion and he yawned loudly, closing the book with a thump.

Then he heard another thump.

Then a loud clamoring and the sound of metal being ripped from metal.

Mal pounded down the stairs toward the crew quarters and the loud crashing sounds emerging from Jayne's bunk. The man was alive, but clearly not seeking a midnight snack.