CH 8

"Doc!"

"Wash, fire it up," Mal ordered as soon as the hover mule had come to a stop in the cargo bay.

"Kaylee, tell me we're free to fly."

"Free as a bird, Captain."

"Doc!"

Simon dashed in, stretcher ready. It took all of them to carry Jayne to the Infirmary. Mal backed off, letting Simon and Zoë fall into their natural rhythm, turning his attention to Mattie. She was pressed against the counter in the corner, leg bleeding, moon-eyes fixed on Jayne.

"Up," Mal ordered, motioning her onto the second bed so he could tend to her wound. He wanted so much to pound her, but that could wait. As Serenity lifted off, sending a wave of freedom through the walls, Mal felt the familiar calm of the Black.

"You and me are gonna have a chat now," he told Mattie, who still had her blue eyes fixed on Jayne. She turned those frightened-little-girl eyes on him, but Mal had been played too often to feel sympathy. Mattie tensed as the heart-monitor on Jayne flat-lined and Simon charged the defibrillators. Mal took her by the shoulders and led her out of the Infirmary. It was her fault Jayne was there. If she wanted to watch him die, he wasn't going to give her the satisfaction. If she regretted the choice, he was willing to spare her the front row seat. Mattie followed his lead numbly, not looking back. Mal glanced back only briefly at his unconscious crewman.

"You and me are gonna chat later," he promised Jayne under his breath. "You better live for it."


Two days later, they were nearly to Boros. Simon found Mal brooding in the galley, cleaning his guns. He had kept Mattie shackled and confined to her room since it had happened, making Zoë bring her meals, because he refused to give the girl more face time. Jayne had been asking to see Mattie since he woke up, but Mal refused to let the girl out for anything. Simon knew Mal meant to toss Mattie from the ship with a few unkind words as soon as they hit dirt… and a few unkind bullets if she didn't go quickly.

"Captain," Simon began.

"Ain't gonna happen."

Simon sighed. "I haven't even asked."

"She ain't getting near him," Mal declared, setting his gun firmly on the table. Simon was surprised to see the protectiveness in his eyes. He'd seen Mal protective of Kaylee and Inara and even Wash… but Jayne?

"He will get to her."

"I thought he couldn't walk."

Simon grimaced, acknowledging that Jayne was probably the worst patient ever when it came to following doctor's orders. "I can't keep giving him drugs to paralyze him just to keep him from her."

"You can and you will."

"Just let him see her."

Mal stood angrily. "You don't give the orders on this boat."

"I know, Captain," Simon said icily, placing disdainful emphasis on the title. "But I implore you, on Jayne's behalf."

"See to your work, Doctor. Patch up my man and don't go making yourself ambassador on his will."

"Captain –"

"Ain't gonna happen."


Mal found Inara standing on the catwalk, watching a friendly game of hoop-ball between the crew. Another half day, and she'd be gone. And Mattie would be gone, and Simon would stop harassing him about letting Jayne see her. Inara closed her eyes, leaning against the bulk head, listening to the sounds of the game below as if she could absorb happiness from the air. Her bruises were completely faded – Mal noticed how much thinner the layer of paint on her face was. Her lips were painted ruby red, her eyes shaded with soft earth tones.

She tipped forward, slightly off balance, as though she might faint, and Mal instinctively reached out a hand to catch her.

"Whoa, there," he smiled, catching her sheepish grin as she opened her eyes and looked at him.

"Sorry, I'm just… distracted."

"Kindly, don't distract yourself over the railing," Mal joked, leaning against the top bar, looking back at her.

"I just received word from Persephone. A man I knew was brutally assaulted."

"Oh," Mal asked interestedly. He'd arranged to have Inara's attacker quietly pummeled. He hadn't expected the news to reach her. "You seem mighty shook up by it. Were you two close?"

"Don't play with me, Mal," she criticized, her chin dropping. Were those tears in her eyes? Of all things, Mal hadn't wanted to bring her more pain.

"He ain't dead," Mal offered, lifting her chin. She pressed her lips together until the color nearly disappeared. She took hold of his hand, seeming like she wanted to hold onto it, then, trembling, pushed it away. It was the story of them. Touch, regret, pull away awkwardly.

Unable to resume her composure, Inara fled to her shuttle. Mal watched after her, hoping he'd done the right thing. He was sure that he had, but not sure she agreed. Maybe he hadn't done enough. Maybe he should follow her. But then, that would just complicate things.


Mal hadn't made it to his bunk that night. He paced the ship bow to bay, lingering occasionally at the door to Inara's shuttle, then circling again. He was only half-way down the stairs when he heard the clatter in the Infirmary and took off running. Through the window, he could see the center bed was empty and Jayne was lying on the floor face down.

"Jayne," Mal said softly, entering and kneeling beside the burly man. Jayne looked up at him, dazed and confused, like a drunkard who hadn't realized why the floor had smacked him in the face.

"Mal," Jayne's face screwed up in the most pained, desperate look Mal had ever seen on another man. "Let me see her."

"Jayne, she tried to kill you."

"She's my baby," Jayne answered simply, letting Mal help him to sit against the cabinets. "I'll trade you Greenleaf."

Mal flinched, remembering the promise he'd made to Jayne to take him to see his mother's grave. He'd never had a kid, but was struck by the fact that Jayne was willing to trade seeing his mother for the daughter that tried to kill him. He could feel his heart skipping beats left and right as he considered the powerful force binding Jayne to Mattie. If he said no, he would surely lose Jayne on Boros, whether the merc could walk or not.

"I'll get her," Mal choked, leaving Jayne on the floor.


Jayne wasn't sure if he was sleeping or not, but he'd found a pillow for his back. He raked at the fragments of his consciousness, but it was like trying to gather leaves on a blustery day. He nearly gasped when he saw her there, shackled like a prisoner, black hair stringy and hanging loosely around an ice-cold expression. Mal gripped her shoulder firmly, staying by the door as she walked in and knelt next to Jayne stiffly.

Mattie ducked her chin as Jayne reached out a hand to touch her.

"Hey, baby girl," he breathed, feeling warm life enter him at the sight of her.

"You asked for me."

"I did. We've been through something, you and me, and I wanted to talk."

"I'm sorry."

"No you ain't."

"I tried to kill you."

"I got no grudge."

Mattie screwed her face in a mixture of disbelief and disgust. "You're not going to be all fatherly now are you?"

Jayne laughed as much as he could, rubbing her cheek with his finger. "Wouldn't dream of it. But as one merc to another, thought I'd offer some advice."

Mattie balked at the suggestion, but said nothing, sitting cross-legged on the floor, just painfully out of reach. Jayne dropped his hands to his side, focusing on getting enough air to talk.

"First," Jayne began, holding up a finger, pulling out Shepherd Book's best lecture tone as he had never delivered a lecture on his own before. "It's best to take people where they're already at. If you're trying to redirect a ship, no sense doin' it subtle-like. Take out the crew and hard-wire your destination. Wash ain't an astronomer, but he knows when the stars are wrong. Second: never offer to cut someone in on a deal. It's a liability. Best shoot people that get in your way… though I am grateful you didn't this time."

Mattie blushed a little, amused at his tirade.

"Third," Jayne continued.

"How many of these are there?"

"Hush and we'll see," Jayne chastised, a glint in his eye. "Third: Don't trust anyone offering you money till you can see what's in it for them. If your take is more appealing than theirs, it's a good bet they're gonna kill you and take both shares… why are you smiling?"

"Remember when I was little and you'd tell me stories?"

Jayne's jaw dropped, at a loss for words for a moment. Finally he stammered, "You can't remember that. You were way too little when I did that."

"I remember I used to call you Dad," she said, scooting towards him.

"That you did."

"But not when you were telling stories." Her smiled deepened, her eyes warmly embracing the memory. "Then I'd call you dddddad-dad-dad-dad."

She rolled her tongue to make the sound, then sang the name like a trumpet fanfare. Jayne laughed heartily, reaching out and pulling her into a hug.

"I'd forgotten that." He kissed her head as she rested against his shoulder, glad to know that she had some happy memories of her childhood. That she remembered more than the monster.

"You were all clean-shaven then. Wore a suit to work. Didn't have as many muscles."

"Heh," Jayne grunted.

"Dad," Mattie began. Jayne reeled. In all the days they'd been traveling, it was the first time he'd called her that and it awakened both fear and joy.

"I don't think I'm cut out to be a mercenary."

"Don't reckon you are," Jayne agreed, never wanting to let go of her. "You're too much like your mother."

"Really?" She lifted her head, her hopeful eyes meeting his.

"Spittin' image. If she were alive, she'd die of shock seeing what's become of me. Then her ghost would kill me for what I done to you. And kill my ghost if I let you follow my footsteps."

The two were quiet, Jayne's lecture on proper mercenary skills forgotten. Mal had ducked out to the lounge, keeping a watchful eye, but giving them a little more privacy. Jayne stroked his daughter's hair, letting that magical calm fill the room, even as she fiddled with the shackles still on her wrists. Her voice surfaced hesitantly, fearful of breaking the calm.

"So what do I do now?"


Mal didn't show up when Inara left the next morning. The rest of the crew crowded into her shuttle offering tearful good-byes. It was agreed that Wash would fly her to the spaceport so she didn't need to hire a porter to move her things. Jayne and Mattie were to accompany them into town. Simon protested every bit of Jayne's movement, but the merc would die before being parted from Mattie… at least for the moment.

Inara waited and watched, but Mal did not emerge from his bunk. She considered going to find him, but to what purpose? It would just be another awkward moment between them. She wanted him to wrap her in his arms and tell her not to go. Even if he didn't wrap her in his arms, just saying something would be better than saying nothing. Tears filled her eyes as Kaylee hugged her one last time.

"You better leave before you miss your transport."

Inara nodded, reluctantly stepping onto the shuttle, ordering Wash to take off. Jayne was already laying flat on the floor saying he'd be up as soon as the world stopped turning so fast. Mattie held his hand and looked on soothingly.

"I can do that, Wash," Inara said quickly, reaching for the controls. He waved her away.

"Just sit back and enjoy the ride, Inara. Besides, Mal says you're not insured anymore."

Inara winced at the joke, wishing Mal had had the guts to come say good bye, and tell her himself. She sat cordially, wistfully soaking in the sound of the shuttle moving around her.

"Do you have a destination in mind?" Inara asked Mattie by way of small talk.

Mattie shrugged, helping Jayne to sit. "Some place I can find work. I'm not sure what I'd be good at."

"You seemed pretty keen on sabotaging the mechanics," Wash piped up.

"I'd die of boredom," Mattie shrugged.

"Cooking?" Jayne smiled.

"Perhaps you could be a Companion," Inara suggested, remembering Mattie's shrewd skills in manipulation.

"Jian ta de gua," Jayne said immediately, surprising Inara, but Mattie looked intrigued.

"Don't Companions start training at an early age?"

"Most do," Inara agreed. "Perhaps you could come to the Training House with me."

"No," Jayne insisted. "No way."

Wash balked, "Says the man who –"

"You best not finish that thought, Little Man," Jayne threatened.

"It's a perfectly respectable career," Inara defended.

Jayne growled, but Mattie placed a calming hand on his arm.

"I won't do it, Dad," she told him, then turned to Inara. "But maybe I could go with you. I'm sure there are many other jobs there in which I could be useful."

Inara considered her carefully, wondering if perhaps her assurances to Jayne were entirely false and said only to calm him. If so, the woman would make a very fine Companion indeed.


It was another sleepless night for Mal. He paced his bunk until the confined space drove him mad. Then he paced the bridge, empty since Wash had long since retired for the evening. Then through the galley, because it had been so long since dinner, his stomach was rumbling again. He didn't stop at the catwalk, but headed straight through the cargo bay. Jayne had returned to the Infirmary, and for the first time in days, had not tried to crawl out. The monitors beeped softly, humming a tune of recovery. River's room was open and empty, probably because she'd crawled into Simon's. She often did that if she'd been sick during the day.

He finally paced back through the cargo bay, looking up the stairs to the airlock to Inara's shuttle – Shuttle 1. Inara was gone. The shuttle wasn't hers. It was his. His. He could go in if he wanted. Didn't have to knock. Wouldn't be disturbing any one. Not even if he slept there on the floor, soaking in her scent. Not even.

Resolutely, he strode up the stairs, his boots falling heavily on the metal deck plate. This was his ship and he could do whatever the hell he wanted. With only the slightest hesitation, he slid open the door to the shuttle. A wave of incense and the scent of Inara rushed over him. For a moment, he just closed his eyes and breathed, imagining that her fine red tapestries were still hung and the soft couch was still there. 'Why did you go?' The question burned through his thoughts. If ever the moment came, he'd ask her.

He walked into the room, keeping his eyes closed so he could pretend all of Inara's things were still there. He knew the layout by heart. The small table with all the breakable statues was just three steps in on the left. Turn right, and there's the bed. How many men had slept in that bed? In truth, he was glad it was gone.

Slowly, he opened his eyes, letting the emptiness greet him. Simple. Uncomplicated. All his. Except…

In the shadow on the far side, he saw a trunk. Mid-sized, but probably missed in the shuffle. Inara had so many fineries, it'd be awhile before she even notice it missing. Perhaps he'd send her a wave in the morning and let her know she'd left it. Perhaps.

He turned his head, unable to look at anything that reminded him of her. Feelings swirled through his heart, unwelcome, but unrelenting. Firmly, he strode to the door, placing a hand on the frame to gather resolve from the cool hard walls. He made it half-way to his bunk, the image of the trunk burning a hole in his mind. Curiosity plagued him. What if she'd left it on purpose, just to tease him? He wouldn't succumb to her trick. Climbing down the ladder to his bunk, he shook his head, laughing at how she managed to use her wiles even at so great a distance. He liked that she wasn't afraid to fight dirty. Wait 'til she found the trinkets he'd hidden away in her luggage!

He laid in his bed for hours, thinking on Inara and that small part of her that called him from Shuttle 1. Finally, unable to take the temptation, he darted back to the shuttle, knelt next to the trunk, and as excitedly as a child at Christmas, he peeked inside.


EPILOGUE

Jayne clutched the rose in his hands, feeling the callous nubs where the thorns had been sheered off. Kaylee had dragged him to the florist that morning, insisting he get flowers for his mother's grave. She didn't truly have one. Because of money concerns, she'd been cremated and released into the wind long before Jayne had ever arrived. He could only hope to stand by her garden and catch her presence in the breeze.

He had passed a dozen fancy-named swirls of floral color before coming to the refrigerator with the roses inside. When Jayne was a boy, his father had always bought red roses for his mother, but somehow those didn't seem appropriate now. He was about to move on when he saw the rose he wanted in a cluster of hybrids.

Its peach and yellow petals looked like a raging fire, tipped with crimson. It reminded him of engine trails during a hard burn, pure passion, and his mother. His knees went weak on seeing the flower, as if he were looking at a customized slug-launcher or a gift basket with a year's supply of rounds. Forgetting Kaylee, he'd purchased the rose and made a bee-line for the garden to give it to his mother. Kneeling by a small head-stone he'd placed by the tomato plants, he placed the flower in a vase of water and planted it in the ground so it would stay upright.

He'd knelt in this garden when Mattie's mother died. He'd knelt in this garden just before he left world to protect Mattie. The night he'd handed Mattie over to his mother, he'd looked at himself, and saw a monster. He'd spent the last twenty years of his life running from that night. But had he escaped the monster or become it? After his wife was killed, Jayne didn't think he could die any more than he already had that day. He'd died to that middle-class, clean-shaven, monogamous life. He had died to honesty and feelings and love. There was no joy in him and no grief. Only numbness.

Jayne touched the rough edges where he'd carved his mother's name into the stone. He lifted his head to the wind, knowing that somewhere in the breeze were the ashes of his mother… and from years before, his wife. How could he have let Mattie face this alone?


The midday sun warmed the air and Mal came up behind Jayne. They'd been near two weeks on Greenleaf and the merc had slept on the front porch of his mother's old house every night. The new owners had been forgiving on account of the pistol strapped to Jayne's hip. The shadows disappeared underfoot and Mal found Jayne kneeling in the dirt, facing an unripe tomato plant, staring alternately at the engraved stone and the open air. The man had fallen into numb routine, no longer feeling grief, but just living it. The rose he'd bought when he arrived was beginning to wither and fade, trying to tell them that the season of grief had ended for now.

Standing a fair distance off, Mal caught Jayne's eye and it seemed as though a resigned, dutiful part of the merc awoke. Jayne stood slowly, adjusting his utility belt and holster – he seemed to carry so much more these days. Without looking back and without words, Jayne came to Mal's side and the two of them returned to Serenity. Just as Zoë had done for him all those years ago, today Mal was leading Jayne away from his grief and at the same time, bringing him home.