Disclaimer: This is Joss Whedon's sandbox. I'm just playing!
Warning: this story includes scenes of graphic violence and contains slash. If you are offended by either of these, or if slash is illegal where you are, please don't read this.
Translations are at the end of the last chapter.
"Kào!" Mal stormed into the galley where the crew were just sitting down to dinner.
Simon looked up in alarm. "What is it? Not the Alliance?"
Mal ignored him and looked round the table, blue eyes storm-dark underneath a heavy scowl.
'"Which húndàn went in my bunk?" He stared at each of them in turn.
"Captain, I'm sure it weren't any of us. We wouldn't go in your bunk!" Kaylee protested. "Right?"
Jayne turned away to grab the large dish of protein waiting on the counter, drawing Mal's attention.
"What about you, Jayne? Anything you wanna share?"
Jayne set his jaw and shrugged. "Why, you missin' somethin'?"
Mal's scowl deepened.
"Why'nt'cha ask Moonbrain there? She's always into places she shouldn't be goin'." Jayne nodded towards River, who wore a little smile as she sat at the table, kicking her legs.
Mal glanced at her and raised an eyebrow.
"She accepts the responsibility," River said clearly. "There is a study to be completed. Top of the class. One cannot deny the opportunity for enlightenment."
Jayne grunted, looking at the table. "There y'are. Weren't no call to be throwin' accusations my way." He stuck a spoon into the dish of protein. "Get it while it's hot," he said, and sat down across the table from River.
Sighing, Mal sat down too. "Look, little bird, you can't just be goin' into my bunk and takin' things as don't belong to you. I'd be appreciatin' it if you could just put it back. After dinner."
River grinned at him. "By my estimation, such a study will entail approximately fifty-nine hours and eighteen minutes to complete."
Mal scrubbed a hand over his jaw. "This ain't a debate, little bird. You sayin' no?"
River nodded. "In a linear chronology such a task cannot be completed in the forty-eight minutes specified. Unless there is a breakdown of causality..." her voice trailed away as ideas spun through her head.
Simon put his hand on her arm. "River, we've had this talk. You can't take things without asking." He looked towards Mal, who was leaning back in his chair with an air of resignation. "What was it she took? I'll have a look in our rooms after dinner."
Mal shook his head. "Just a book, that's all. I'm guessin' it'll come back in a few days, if she says that's how long it'll take. But it'd better come back intact, you hear me?" He glared at River, who laughed.
"Intact! Whole. In one piece. But there are many pieces, scattered in the black. They will come back, even those which are forgotten outside of dreams." Leaning forward, she whispered, "A good conclusion draws together all the pieces." Then, ignoring the confusion around her, she helped herself to protein mash. "Sweet potato and butter! It is a favourite. Almost convincing!"
Jayne took a hunk of bread. "Yeah, well, if I'da known, I'da picked another flavour."
After dinner, Zoë got to grips with the washing up while Wash dried. River giggled in a corner with Kaylee, and Simon went off to search through the passenger dorms in the hope of finding Mal's book.
Jayne stood and stretched. "I need a spotter," he announced. "Gotta keep in shape."
Mal felt his mouth go dry. Looking round the room, he sighed. "Never thought I'd see the day I miss a shepherd," he muttered. "Jayne, you got half an hour. Then I gotta go do captainy things, dŏng ma?"
Jayne grinned. "Shiny!" He headed down to the cargo bay.
Zoë looked across as Mal pushed his chair back. She raised one eloquent eyebrow. Mal forced a smile which came out more like a grimace. "I don't come back in half an hour, check the airlock."
Zoë raised her other eyebrow before turning back to the washing up. "I see, sir." she said, scrubbing at a plate.
Mal could feel her disapproval following him out of the room and down the corridor. He could already tell it was going to be one of those long sleepless nights. "Dammit, River, why'd you have to go takin' my book?" he muttered as he dropped down the stairs into the cargo bay.
Jayne was already seated on the weights bench, facing away from the stairs. Mal paused as the merc pulled off his grubby t-shirt in one fluid movement.
Lăotiān, the man was shuài! Hastily, he started across the cargo bay as Jayne looked over his shoulder.
"Half an hour, huh?" the merc asked.
Mal nodded, not trusting himself to speak.
Jayne shrugged and lay back on the bench. "Better get started, then."
Mal concentrated on the bar. Up, down, up, down. Not the arms which lifted it, muscles contracting and relaxing, gleaming with a faint sheen of sweat. And certainly not the chest, kept clean-shaved... He swallowed hard and forced his eyes to go back to watching the weights. Gritting his teeth, he concentrated on all the times he'd been shot. And stabbed. And tortured. And double-crossed. It just about kept his libido under control.
Blinking, he looked down. Jayne was struggling to lift the weight back onto the bar.
"Oh! Sorry, Jayne," he said, quickly grabbing the bar and pulling it up.
"Yeah, well, if'n you're gonna spot me, I'd 'preciate it if you didn't try to kill me," Jayne grumbled, sitting up. "You can't concentrate on it, I'll just have to make do with these." He pulled out a set of small weights and started curling them up to his shoulder, first one arm and then the other.
Mal, a panicked look on his face, said, "Gotta go! Captainy things!" and fled.
Alone in the cargo bay, Jayne snickered.
On the bridge, Mal sat in the co-pilot's seat and stared out into the black. Quiet footsteps made their way towards him. He sighed.
She held out a mug. "Brought you some tea, sir. Thought you might use it."
"Not after dinner, sir."
He took the mug. "I daresay I'll be up late, anyhow. You want to take the evenin' off, see to that husband of yours?"
Zoë hesitated, then took the pilot's chair. "Sir..."
"What's on your mind, Zoë?"
Mal's shoulders tensed. He blew on the tea and took a sip before he dared to speak.
"Oh? What about Jayne?"
Zoë looked down the corridor, checking for lurkers. Keeping her voice low, she said. "Sir, I've been noticing how Jayne bothers you. Don't see it myself, but then I don't expect to."
Mal kept his expression neutral and his tone light. "So? Ain't botherin' anyone else. As long as word don't get round the crew, I don't see how it's an issue."
He looked round at his first mate.
"Word ain't gonna get round, is it?"
"I don't believe so, sir."
There was a long pause. Zoë stayed where she was. Finally, Mal turned to face her.
"You got more I should hear?" His expression was resigned.
Zoë nodded. "You should maybe talk it out. Would've helped me, when I got to thinkin' on Wash as more than an annoyance."
Mal raised his eyebrows, startled. "Really? You never said." He pursed his lips, then shook his head.
"I can't, Zo'. Not even with you. Ain't got no call to be so twisted up over this that I can't think straight, but I guess I am. And 'til I can get a hold of it - any of it - I haven't an idea of how I'd begin to talk this out." His shoulders slumped, and he leaned his head back against the head-rest.
"It's just all manner of wrong."
Zoë waited, but Mal didn't venture anything more. "Sir, what book was it? The one River took?"
Mal glanced at her. "War poems, that's all. Some of them go all the way back to Earth-That-Was." After a pause, he added casually, "My momma gave it me."
Zoë sucked in a breath sharply. Awkwardly, she said, "I'm sorry, sir. I'm sure she'll take good care of it."
"Goodnight, Zoë." Mal's tone was final. He stared out into the black and listened to her footsteps retreating back down the corridor towards the galley, leaving him alone.
"Just you'n'me, girl," he said softly, and stroked the console. "What're we gonna do, huh?" After a moment, he answered himself. "Keep flyin', I guess. Just keep on flyin'."
Jayne made his way back to his bunk, stepping quietly so as not to disturb anyone. It was late, but he could see a low light in the cockpit. Someone still on watch, no doubt. He opened the hatch, thankful of Kaylee's maintenance that kept it from squealing, and slid down into his bunk. Breathing a sigh of relief, he reached under his t-shirt. Tucked into his waistband were a notebook, the pages covered in barely-legible scrawl, and a slim hardback book of poetry.
Sitting down on his bunk, Jayne kicked off his boots and opened the book. Handling it with surprising care, he flicked through the pages until he got to the right one, then he began to read, muttering the words under his breath.
Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And tomorrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But today,
Today we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighboring gardens,
And today we have naming of parts.
"What in the ruttin' hell's japonica?" Jayne scribbled in his notebook. "Gotta look that up. Maybe 'Nara'd know, but she ain't here. Dammit! I need a cortex... Have to see if the Doc's got a dictionary." Cursing, he put the book down on his bunk and rubbed his eyes.
"I ever meet Madam Wu, I'm gonna tell her what-for. Gettin' me reading this gŏu cào de lèsè!"
Jayne looked round at his girls - both the posters and the guns which hung on the walls - and sighed. "Fifty-nine hours and eighteen minutes, huh? Well I guess I'd better make it fifty-nine hours even. Japonica!" He shook his head in disgust, picked up the book, and went back to reading.
The next morning, breakfast started off quiet. Mal opted for his usual coffee, black, with one painkiller, before sitting down and watching the rest of his crew. Zoë and Wash shared private smiles, having made the most of their evening off. Kaylee read through a printout of something technical as she spooned rehydrated oatmeal into her mouth. Simon tried to get River to eat something, but she was more interested in a picture she was drawing. Something flowery. Or maybe a touch shrub-like. He couldn't tell from where he was sitting. And Jayne...
Without looking up, River said, "Chaemoneles japonica is a flowering tree. The flowers are small and red and look stiff, like plastic. Or coral. It's all just a distraction."
Cautiously, Mal asked, "What, li'l bug? What's a distraction?"
She frowned, shading a branch in with pencil. "All that life. And the names. And the backwards and forwards. It's just a distraction because it's all about death." Her voice broke, and she whispered, "It's not coral, it's blood."
"River-" Simon tried taking the drawing, but River screwed it into a ball, throwing it at Jayne. She jumped to her feet.
"It's a distraction because the purpose isn't the living. It's the killing that one must accomplish, and that is something which may not be thought about."
Simon stood, and put a hand on his sister's shoulder. "It's all right, River. There's no killing here."
She stamped her foot and shrugged away from him. "I'm not the one needing a distraction!" She looked pointedly at Mal.
"Well if you're not needin' a distraction, I suggest you sit down, li'l bug, and eat your breakfast 'fore your brother here decides you do," Mal suggested mildly, putting down his mug. "Mayhap that poem ain't quite the best for you to be readin'. I'm sure the Doc has somethin' more suitable."
"That actually made some sense to you?" Wash asked, incredulous. He looked from the Captain to River and back again.
Mal nodded. "There's a poem in the book she took."
"You read poetry?" Wash sounded even more incredulous.
"Close your mouth, dear," Zoë said. "And eat your breakfast."
Wash did as he was told, and after a moment, River snatched her brother's bowl and danced backwards into the lounge area of the galley, where she curled up on the couch and ate his oatmeal. Simon sighed and fetched himself another bowl.
Mal cleared his throat. "Well, yeah. Sometimes. Man's gotta have somethin' to think on besides his next meal, don't he? It's a war poem, from a war on Earth-That-Was, goes by the title 'Naming of Parts'."
Simon glared at Mal. "And you didn't think to mention this yesterday? I don't think ancient war poetry is appropriate reading matter for my sister!"
"You didn't ask," Mal replied, shrugging. "At least she ain't takin' readin' matter from Jayne's bunk. I'd imagine that's a sight more disturbin' than a book o' poems."
Jayne leered. "I got me all kinds of educatin' down in my bunk, Doc. It's just a shame no-one's takin' me up on it."
Wash spluttered. Hastily Zoë elbowed him in the ribs. Kaylee giggled as Simon's jaw dropped. Mal carefully kept his eyes away from the merc, thankful he wasn't prone to red cheeks.
Simon dropped his spoon into his bowl in disgust. "I think I just lost my appetite," he said. "I'll be in the infirmary if anyone needs me for a nausea suppressant." He pushed back his chair, stood up and stalked out of the galley, head held high.
Jayne grinned. "I'll take that as a no, then," he said, and put down his bowl.
Abruptly Mal stood up. "Wash, I need to know what time we're likely to reach Three Hills. Kaylee, as I recall, it's your turn to clear these pots away. Zoë, get a list of what's needed. Jayne, get the cargo ready for off-loadin'. Time to work, people!" As the galley started to empty, he crossed over to River and hunkered down in front of her.
"Now, li'l albatross, you be careful what you're readin' from my book. Never mind me tormentin' your brother: he's right on this one. A lot of what's in there ain't fit for you to be readin', an' I surely don't want you runnin' through the ship howlin' if'n you give yourself bad dreams. You want to think again on that opportunity for enlightenment?"
River looked at him over the rim of the bowl. "Fifty-five hours and twelve minutes remain. She dreams of other wars, not these." She stared at him with large, dark eyes.
Feeling as though he should understand more of what she said, Mal sighed and stood up. "All right, you can hang onto the book a while longer. Mind what I said, though!" He headed off to the cockpit.
Jayne picked up the piece of paper and smoothed it out on the table, then folded it carefully and put it into his back pocket. Leaving Kaylee to finish clearing away the mess, he looked over to where River was watching him, and nodded. "Loud an' clear, Moony. Loud an' clear!" He strolled out of the galley whistling.
Kaylee turned and watched him go, bemused. "Sometimes I swear there ain't no-one left aboard that's right in the head!"
Smiling, Mal hit the button to close the ramp. He thumbed the comms. "Wash, take us up!"
"I didn't hear any gunfire, sir. Are you sure we've concluded our business here?" the pilot's reply crackled back.
"Funny. Now take us up, if you want your share. If not, I'm sure Kaylee needs some more engine parts!"
The deck vibrated as Serenity took off, heading back into the black.
Jayne finished shifting the last box into the hideyhole under the stairs. "Just don't feel right without endin' by bein' patched up by the Doc," he admitted. "Makes me twitchy, no fight."
Mal grinned. "I ain't complainin' on a job gone smooth," he said. "Next stop, Greenleaf!" He crossed to the stairs. "'Sides, I got no quarrel with not addin' to that fine collection of scars you got."
Jayne looked up in surprise. "You're payin' attention to my scars, now? What else o' mine you lookin' at?"
Expecting to see a leer, Mal glanced over, keeping his expression neutral. Jayne's open curiosity disarmed his barbed reply. "I, uh, it's my business when any of my crew get injured," he managed.
"Well, yeah. But you're keepin' an eye on my scars. On me." He finished slotting the wall panel back into place and stood up. He was just on the other side of the handrail from Mal. Lowering his voice, Jayne continued. "What is it you're after, Mal? You even know?"
Mal stared at Jayne. "I..."
The merc waited a long moment, then shook his head. "Didn't think so. Ya figure it out, ya know where I am. Want a fight, I got it in me. Wanna space me, I'd haveta argue. If'n ya want somethin' else, you'd best get yer head straightened out."
Mal cleared his throat. "I have to head on up," he said, face burning red. "I, ah..."
"Yeah, yeah," Jayne grinned. "Captainy stuff. I got it." He waited until Mal had almost reached the catwalk before adding, "'Sides, ya c'n always ask. I might say yes." He laughed as Mal stumbled, then followed the disconcerted Captain up into the ship.
Kaylee wandered into the galley. "Simon, you seen Jayne?"
Simon looked up from the textbook he was reading. "Not since breakfast. Why, are you after some 'reading material'?"
Kaylee coloured. "What? No, Simon! I need a hand fixin' that new coil the Cap'n picked up."
"I'm sorry, Kaylee. I didn't mean to be snide. I can help if you'd like. I don't have anything pressing to do since the Captain was kind enough not to fill my infirmary this time." Simon stood, contrite, and held out his hand to Kaylee.
She sniffed. "Weren't no call to be sayin' that, Simon Tam. That were plain rude."
"I know, and I'm sorry, truly. Let me help you."
"All right," she conceded reluctantly. "But you be civil!"
"I just don't see how someone that... I'm shutting up. How can I help you?" Simon followed Kaylee back to the engine room.
River peered round the corner into the galley and shook her head. "Such a boob!" she said, then ran feather-light towards the cockpit.
Ensconced in his bunk, Jayne scribbled in his notebook. He jumped as his hatch opened, and a familiar face hung upside down. He stopped trying to hide the book under his blanket, and growled.
"Whatcha doin' there, Crazy Bug? You ain't never heard o' knockin'? A body could be doin' a manner o' things."
She beamed at him. "Your persistance is admired! There will be rewards! Also, the poem three pages further in is better. You're neglecting Boo!"
Jayne shook his head as she disappeared and his hatch closed. "She ain't so crazy, some days," he admitted to himself. "Best see to my girls, I guess." He hid his notebook and the book of poems under his thin mattress, then gathered up the weaponry which had come out with him on the day's job, swiped a jar of gun oil and a rag, and made his way one-handed up the ladder.
Mal stuck his head round the cockpit door. "How long to Greenleaf?" he asked.
Wash, hands busy stomping dinosaurs towards each other, growled. "Two days." Holding up the Stegasaurus, he added in a higher pitch, "Should be there around four pm, ship-time."
"What's that in dinosaur time?"
T-Rex regarded him with beady plastic eyes. "Still around four pm."
Mal went and hid out in his bunk. Of course, he didn't call it that. No, he just had some paperwork to catch up on, which took him to dinner. And after dinner - after Jayne had removed his arsenal from the table and taken it back to his bunk - Mal figured he could leave his crew hanging out doing whatever it was they did on an evening. He grabbed a mug of coffee and took the evening watch on the bridge again.
From there, he could hear Kaylee laughing as Simon teased her. River was humming some tune or other. Zoë's low tones carried up the corridor, then a minute later, Mal heard footsteps in the corridor.
"Hey there, Mal. You takin' my shift too?" Wash asked, joining him in the cockpit. He proffered a hip flask. When Mal held up his mug, Wash poured in a generous measure of Kaylee's finest brew, then sat himself down.
"You keep on giving us the night off, I'll start thinking Zoë's roped you into her nefarious plan."
Mal looked round at the pilot, who sprawled awkwardly in the co-pilot's seat. "What nefarious plan?" he asked. "Only nefarious plans on this ship better be mine."
"The one where she thinks I'd be a good father."
The mouthful of doctored coffee Mal had just taken somehow found its way down his nose. Spluttering, he managed not to spray it over the controls.
Coughing, he launched himself off his seat and slammed the cockpit door closed.
Wash blinked up at Mal, who loomed over him. "I guess she musn't have mentioned it to you. Me, I think I'm far too young, be a terrible parent," he babbled.
Mal leaned back against the console. "You're tellin' me Zoë's wantin' babies, an' you're not?" he said, forcing a semblance of calm into his voice.
Wash pulled a sickly smile. "Not as such, no. I wouldn't be telling you that. Nope." He sipped a mouthful of Kaylee's hooch and winced.
Sighing, Mal picked up his mug. "You tried discussin' it?"
Wash shrugged. "A bit." Looking up at the Captain, he seemed just a little lost. "But she's so... She has her heart set on it, and I'd give her anything in the whole 'verse, you know that, Mal. And the thought of bringing a baby into all of this?" He waved a hand. "Scares the gŏushĭ right out of me."
"Wash... This ain't really for me to say. I ain't lookin' to bring children into the 'verse, and, far 's I ken, ain't never done so. But to my mind, if ya wait too long, you'll break Zoë's heart. And then I'll haveta kill ya." He grinned.
"I ain't lookin' to lose my first mate, an' I ain't lookin' to lose a pilot. But I ain't gonna be the cause of Zoë's unhappiness by puttin' my big captainy foot down an' sayin' no. So you'n' Zo' need to set yourselves down an' get it talked through."
He downed the rest of his coffee, ignoring the burn that spread from his throat to his belly. "I'll send her on up."
"Thanks, Mal. At least there's no plot. Unless this is a cunning double-bluff..."
"Wash..." Mal opened the door and stepped out, leaving the pilot to take his proper seat. He stuck his head back round the door for one last jibe. "'Sides, I hear a man can get quite fond of 'em. An' if they're too much trouble, we c'n always sell 'em."
"Mal!" Wash looked up in shock as the Captain's laughter floated down the corridor towards the galley. "Wŏ de mā!"
Mal strolled into the galley, chuckling.
Zoë looked round from brushing River's hair. "Glad to see the 'verse isn't ending, sir."
"You implyin' I'm ain't always this sunny? My feelings may never recover." He dumped his mug in the sink, then turned round and leaned back against the worktop, ignoring River's giggle. "You might wanna check on your husband, though."
"You've been terrorizing him again, sir?" Zoë asked. "I'm not entirely sure I hold with that. Unless he deserves it."
"Oh, I didn't terrorize him more'n he deserved." Mal's smile was a little forced, nothing most people would have noticed. Zoë raised an eyebrow, laid down the brush, and left.
River smiled up at him, then held out the brush.
"What? No, mèi mei. Can't Kaylee finish that off?"
"She's showing Simon how things work well when they are cared for," River said, still holding out the brush.
With a hunted expression, Mal came around the table and took the brush. "All right, just this once. But you best not be makin' a habit of it, dŏng ma?"
River nodded happily. She waited until the Captain had finished teasing all the tangles out of her hair, then said, "He has tangles too, but not in his hair."
Mal handed her the brush. "Is that so? You got any particular 'he' in mind?"
River danced away from the table, her eyes sparkling.
"I shall know him where he stands
With the power in his hands
I shall know him by his face,
By his godlike front and grace;
I shall hold him for a space
All my own!"
"Really," Mal said, skeptically. "You'd better not be holdin' anyone yet, li'l bird. You put that thought right out o' that pretty head o' yours, or I'll be warnin' your brother," he bluffed.
River laughed at him and darted away towards the passenger dorms, leaving Mal alone in the galley.
He contemplated the kettle for a minute, then shook his head and went back to hiding out in his bunk.
"This is more like it!" Jayne muttered, sprawled on his bunk. "'What the Bullet Sang'. Huh."
O joy of creation,
O rapture, to fly
And be free!
Be the battle lost or won,
Though its smoke shall hide the sun,
I shall find my love - the one
Born for me!
"Well, ain't that interestin'," he mused. "It's like it ain't that there's a bullet with yer name on it, more like there's a person born ta be with that bullet.
'Course," he scratched his groin absent-mindedly, "I got my bullet." He reached under his pillow and pulled out a long, pointed sniper round. Turning it so that it caught the light, Jayne found where his name was scratched into it.
"Still there!" He grinned and kissed it, then stuffed it back under his pillow. He propped the book again, resting his hand on his chest, and kept on reading. "Moonbrain was right. This poem's a heck of a lot better than that other piece of gŏushĭ."
Breakfast started out quietly again. Mal had his usual coffee with a painkiller. Wash and Zoë quietly sat close together, but a line of tension between them that Mal hadn't even been aware of on a conscious level had eased, and a soft smile played about the corners of Zoë's mouth. River had stolen her brother's bowl again, but happy that she was eating, Simon merely stole hers in return. As he ate, he kept glancing across at Kaylee, who was her shiny self. Maybe a hint of pink on those cheeks, though. Huh. Mal wondered how much longer it would take for her to get through all of the Doctor's defenses. Couldn't be much longer, surely...
Jayne came in late. He yawned and stretched, his t-shirt rising to reveal a set of tanned abs. He scratched his belly, wandering over to the worktop to sniff at the food.
Before Mal could think better of it, his mouth opened and ran on. "Jayne, there some good reason why you're shamblin' in here now lookin' like you ain't slept worth a damn? Hot night with Vera, maybe?"
Jayne scraped the last of the oatmeal out of the pan and poured himself a mug of coffee. He stuck a spoon in his bowl, turned and grinned. "Why Mal, I never figured ya for the jealous type. Vera's hot all right, but she ain't too fussy, long's ya treat her right. I c'n drop her off at yer bunk if'n ya like. She likes ta be stroked. An' don't ferget ta wipe her down." He leered.
For a moment, everyone was speechless. Then Kaylee and River burst into giggles. Even Simon snorted.
Wash turned to his wife. "Honey, why don't you ever invite weapons into our bed?"
Zoë ignored him and watched Mal instead, with an eyebrow raised and a smile threatening to burst out.
Mal's grip tightened on his mug. He forced himself to lean back casually. "Why Jayne, that's a real nice offer. But I prefer 'em a little less metal. I don't much fancy gettin' gun oil on my sheets, neither." He ignored the sniggering from around the table. "Now if you're sickenin' for somethin', I recommend seein' the Doc afore ya bring down the rest o' the crew. If it's just that ya were up late attendin' to yer girls, well, I ain't got no sympathy, an' ya might wanna look to your punctuality."
Zoë coughed. Keeping a straight face, she asked, "Are you sure you won't reconsider, sir? It ain't like Jayne to make such a generous offer. Might never happen again."
Mal glared at his first mate. "Quite sure, thank you, Zoë. Vera's all manner o' shiny, but she ain't to my tastes."
"And those would be what, again?" Wash chimed in.
"Don't any o' you got anythin' better to do?" Mal glared at his crew, who weren't even trying to hide their laughter. "If y'all are done with eatin', go! Fix things, and if there ain't nothin' broke, go polish somethin'! Shoo!"
His insubordinate crew scattered, leaving him alone in the galley with the breakfast dishes, and Jayne.
Mal glared at him. "You too! Go shine your knives!"
Jayne popped another spoonful of goo into his mouth. Talking around it, he said, "I ain't done eatin' yet."
Cursing under his breath, Mal gathered up bowls and mugs and dumped them in the sink, avoiding Jayne who was still leaning against the worktop. As he ran water into the sink, Jayne sighed and put down his bowl.
"What'd I do this time?" When the Captain didn't answer, the merc growled. "Gorrammit, Mal, you ain't had nothin' but scowls fer me since I don't know when! Either yell at me proper-like, or git over it! I ain't a Reader!" He stormed out of the galley, leaving Mal alone at the sink.
Mal stomped around his ship. He wasn't looking for someone to yell at. Nope. Not after picking a fight neither. But Inara, who'd always given him a good argument, was gone and her shuttle was empty of everything save a trace of incense.
Kaylee was waist-deep in the hydraulics system in the cargo bay, being watched by a bemused Simon. Mal watched them from the cargo bay for a few minutes before deciding not to go ask why it was the Doctor wasn't polishing up the infirmary. His pacing just happened to take him past there too, and he flicked the lights on. Surfaces were spotless, everything in its place when he pulled open a couple of drawers.
His bad mood deepening, he flicked the lights off again and paced round the passenger dorms. Everything ship-shape there, even in what he could see of River's room through the half-open door. Briefly he debated going in and searching for his book, but if Simon hadn't been able to find it, he was pretty sure the li'l albatross would have hidden it in some corner even he didn't know of.
Back up, through the galley, where River was barefoot, balancing on tiptoe on a chair which was resting on only one leg, and on to the cockpit. His pilot and first mate were deep in conversation, one he figured he really didn't want to get involved in. Which left him only his own bunk. Except retreating to his bunk yet again made him feel he was turning into an outsider on his own damn ship, and there was no way he was going to be that. It was all Jayne's fault. The big, stupid man-ape gone wrong! Doc was right about that. Mal scowled. He should go have it out with that húndàn, tell him he wasn't going to stand for being made an outsider on his own ship. Tell him...
There was a crash from the galley.
Mal raced in, only to find River surrounded by broken crockery. She looked stricken, much younger than she was.
"Āiyā! Tiān a!"
"They wanted to come together, but edges are imperfect and they would not cooperate with each other..."
Mal kept hold of his temper with an effort. "Hush now, River. Let me come get you out o' that mess," he said roughly, picking a path through the shards. "Don't want ya cuttin' yerself."
"No!" River shrieked, tiptoeing backwards.
"Okay, okay!" Frustrated, Mal stopped. "Simon!" he bellowed. "Get on up here! Now!"
Running footsteps sounded from both directions, and then from behind him came Jayne. He strode over the mess and scooped up River with one arm. Plonking her down on the counter, he growled.
"Quit wreckin' the joint!" When she wriggled, he added, "I ain't kiddin', Moony. Ya might be able ta kill me with yer brain, but just fer one lousy minute stay still!" He lifted her feet one after the other just as Simon burst into the galley.
"Oh god, River, are you okay?" Simon hurried over. "What happened?"
"She's fine," Jayne said curtly. "Could do with washin' her feet every once in a while, though."
From behind him, Mal heard Wash say, "Was that just Jayne criticizing someone's hygiene?"
Zoë's answering, "Not now, husband," and the sound of footsteps retreating did nothing to improve his temper.
"Simon! Take your sister where she can't cause any more damage. Jayne, since you're on top of all this, ya c'n clean up that mess. Mă shàng!" Not waiting to see the results of his orders, Mal stomped out of the galley.
Simon and Jayne stared at each other as they heard his bunk hatch open then slam shut.
"What crawled up his butt an' died?" Jayne asked.
Simon shrugged. "I find it best not to enquire. Come on, River. Let's get you out of here."
"Let me," Jayne said, and moved in front of River. "Ready?"
When River nodded, he scooped her up and carried her to the doorway. "There ya go. Don't go breakin' more stuff, ya hear?"
"Thank you, Jayne," Simon said, coming to stand beside his sister. "I'll keep her busy in the cargo bay. At least there's nothing breakable there."
Jayne grunted, and went to fetch the brush.
Mal stayed out of the way until dinner. There was no sign of the mess; he had to acknowledge Jayne had done a good job of tidying up. Faces turned as he entered and sat at the head of the table, but they turned back to their conversations.
"All I'm sayin' is the Gurtsler's never gonna beat what Serenity's got," Kaylee argued. "It don't have the same torque, an' if ya push it, it gets real twitchy. Sure, maintenance is a bit easier, but that's 'cos there's so many o' them scrapped everywhere!"
Wash shrugged. "All right, I'm not going to complain about the engines which have repeatedly saved our worthless pìgus. I'm just saying that other engines can have merit too."
"Simon, you got anything you need us to pick up tomorrow? Greenleaf has decent medical facilities. We should be able to find what you need." Zoë's calm tones lay across the engine banter, sticking to business.
"Ah, yes, I believe there are one or two items which we are running low on. I have a list down in the infirmary," Simon replied.
"Pass it to me after dinner, and I'll see what we can do."
The only ones not chattering were River and Jayne, but River was watching him, turning her attention from him to Mal, and her normally solemn face wore a secretive smile. Mal made an effort to cheer up.
"So, li'l bug, how long 'til I get my book back?" He took a piece of bread and mopped at what passed for gravy.
The chatter lulled, and over them River's clear voice spoke. "Forty-one hours and eleven minutes remain for study. Too many possible interruptions intersect and physiology must be accounted for."
"You wanna put that into somethin' a mite clearer?" Mal asked.
"A week, most probably," River clarified. "This may change," she warned.
"Ain't nothin' new there," Mal agreed.
The rest of the table, glad their captain was out of his black mood, resumed talking, and after dinner was finished and the galley cleaned up, Wash proposed a game of cards.
Jayne, usually happy for a chance to offload his chores, shook his head. "Nah, think I'll give it a miss." Catching Mal's expression of disbelief, he added, "Mercen'ry stuff ta do." Grinning, he headed for his bunk leaving the rest of the crew staring after him.
Simon shook his head. "I'm afraid to ask..."
"I thought 'mercenary stuff' usually involved shooting people. Or stabbing them. Occasionally blowing them up. Then lots of beer and women," Wash said. "But there's no-one on board to kill. Apart from us. And apart from Kaylee's finest, there's no beer, and I don't think he'd dare touch the women... Mal!" he turned to where the captain was putting the last of the plates into lockers.
"Jayne's not plotting mutiny, is he?" Wash asked anxiously.
"You tell me," Mal replied, deadpan. "He plottin' with you?"
"Anyone?" Mal looked round his crew. "No? Then he ain't plottin'. For there ta be a plot, he'd need someone ta plot with. He ain't plottin' with any o' you, there ain't no plot. But I must admit, I'm a mite curious to know what else 'mercenary stuff' covers these days."
"There's always weapon maintenance," Simon chipped in. "After all, he does have rather a lot of guns to clean and knives to sharpen. That alone must take hours each day."
"Oh, and knife throwin'!" Kaylee added, excitedly. "Down in the cargo bay. He's real good with them throwin' knives o' his. Can hit right in the centre o' that board every time."
"Shiny," Mal said. "I'm not seein' as how there's much space for that in his bunk, though." He fought hard to keep from imagining what there was space for in his merc's bunk. With a cough, he changed the subject. "Anyhow, I thought y'all were keen ta end up with double garbage duties?"
A chorus of denials met his question, and soon everyone bar Zoë and River were sat back around the table throwing chores slips into the pot in the middle.
Up on the bridge, Zoë regarded River with a steady gaze. River, curled in the co-pilot's chair, stared out into the black.
"River, honey, you know that book means a lot to Mal, don't you?" she said gently.
Without turning her head, River replied. "Handed down from his mother. It is a link to his heritage. It helps him with the screaming."
Carefully, Zoë asked, "What screaming?"
River picked up the brontosaurus. "In his head. The fighting, it doesn't end. The words tell him he isn't alone. Brothers-in-arms. A mother. They help."
"If you know that, River, why did you take it?"
River shook her head. "Not her. She knows, though. There is a possibility of another link. A future."
"I don't follow you, honey. You sayin' you didn't take the book?" Zoë asked.
River sighed and marched the plastic dinosaur up the window.
Finally she looked at Zoë. "The Captain may find a resolution. To many of his problems. There is nothing we can do. To interfere would destroy the chance, lead to disaster."
Shaking her head, Zoë said, "All right, River, if you say so." She sighed. "Gotta say, I wouldn't be upset if that man straightened a few things out. Some days, bein' on board's like livin' with a live grenade. Just waitin' for it all to blow up."
River nodded. "There's no way to put the pin back in."
"That there ain't."
On the approach to Greenleaf, Mal called the crew together. "Simon, I want you ta take yer sister an' keep out o' sight. There's entirely too much Alliance 'round here for my likin'. We got a good cargo, legit, an' we got proper clearance codes an' everythin', so I don't reckon as how we should have too many problems. Best to be careful, though. It ain't like nothin' ever went south before on a legit job, is it?" He grinned.
"Wash, put us down at the main docks. Zoë, you, me'n' Jayne'll take the shuttle over to Riverhead. It's about an hour off. Kaylee, Doc, anythin' you need we should have time to go pick up after the drop-off. I don't want to spend too long here, dŏng ma? I want us to be liftin' off no more'n four hours after we set down. No passengers on this run, okay? Keep the doors locked."
With nods all round, he grinned. "Shiny."
The drop-off went smoothly. Mal, Jayne and Zoë sat in silence most of the way back to Serenity, the cash in a bag in Mal's coat pocket. Shortly before they docked, Zoë spoke up. "I don't like it, sir."
Surprised, Mal glanced across at her. "What's not to like?"
She shifted uncomfortably. "Two smooth jobs in a row, sir. My experience, that just means we're headin' for trouble."
From the back of the shuttle, Jayne chimed in. "Yeah, an' it's hard ta justify shootin' folks when they don't even attempt ta double-cross us."
"Why can't it just be our luck turnin'?" Mal asked defensively. "It could happen!"
Jayne snorted. "Yeah, an' my Ma could be Governor. Don't make it any more likely."
Mal shook his head. "I can't believe you're both complainin' 'bout gettin' paid! You tellin' me yer missin' gettin' shot at an' havin' ta run fer our lives? You surely are fēngle, the pair o' ya." He toggled the radio. "This is shuttle one to Serenity. Dockin' in ten."
Wash's voice crackled into life. "Serenity here. Come on in."
As he steered the shuttle in to dock, Mal said hopefully, "'Sides, it could still all go wrong."
As the three exited the shuttle, they were met by Kaylee and Wash.
"We get paid, Cap'n?" Kaylee asked, her face shining with relief that there were no obvious injuries on the returnees.
"Surely did, mèi mei." Mal pulled the bag from his pocket and jangled it. "It's all there. Which means that...?"
Kaylee squealed. "We c'n go shoppin'! Shiny!"
Mal smiled. "Anyone else need anythin' they c'n get in an hour?"
Zoë nodded. "I have the Doctor's list." She patted her vest pocket and moved past Mal to stand by her husband.
"Speaking of which, no new and interesting wounds to challenge the good Doctor with?" Wash asked, keeping a smile on his face. "No running for our lives? No being chased by the Alliance? Or Reavers?"
Zoë shook her head. "It's all good, husband. Shall we go shop?"
"I thought you'd never ask," Wash said contentedly.
"Jayne, I want you to go with Kaylee, give her a hand gettin' parts," Mal said.
"Do I gotta?"
Kaylee's face fell. "Ya don't wanna come look fer parts with me? There's a really great little yard just a half-mile down the docks, an' I hear they've a stabilizer I've been after for a year now!"
"Yes, Jayne, you gotta," Mal ordered. "Because I say so. An' if'n there's a bit o' time at the end o' fetchin' Kaylee's parts, ya c'n go grab whatever it is you're hankerin' after. Unless it's whorin' or fightin'. We're liftin' off in ninety minutes, an' I ain't takin' the time to bail ya out." He strode off towards the cockpit, leaving Jayne standing in the corridor fuming.
"Hóuzi de pìgu!" With a thunderous scowl, Jayne turned and stalked into the galley.
"Jayne...?" Kaylee asked, nervously. "Ya comin'?"
"Gimme just a gorram minute, Kaylee! I need ta drop a couple o' girls off if I'm gonna be trawlin' through a heap o' gŏushĭ!"
Jayne opened his bunk and dropped down the ladder. Quickly he set a sawn-off shotgun and a couple of pistols down on his bunk. Then from under his mattress he pulled out a couple of letters and stuffed them underneath his t-shirt, and a small pouch of cash, which went deep into a pocket. Hastily he climbed back up the ladder, only to find Mal at the top of it.
"Dàxiàng bàozhàshì de lā dùzi!" Mal exploded. "Jayne, why tiān xiăodé are you still here? Wŏ zài qiănshì yīdìng rědào shénme rén le ba, because you are surely drivin' me to an early grave!"
Jayne opened his mouth to protest, but Mal furiously pointed down the corridor.
Mal stamped up into the cockpit and threw himself into the pilot's seat. Still fuming, he accessed the cortex to look for another job.
"Here." A mug appeared at his elbow.
Mal jumped. "Wŏ de mā! Simon, I thought I told you ta keep outta sight with your sister! Why is everyone determined to ignore my orders today?"
Simon held the mug out to him. "River is safely out of the way. I figured I could maybe come and get a drink since the Alliance aren't actually beating down the doors. And I heard shouting. I thought that perhaps you might appreciate a hot drink too." He paused. Mal scowled. "If I'm wrong, I apologise. I'll go back to my room and leave you to whatever it is that's so engrossing you didn't hear me come up here."
Mal took the mug. "Huh," he grunted, and took a sip.
Simon stayed where he was. "Captain, did something go wrong with the job?"
Mal shook his head. "All shiny, Doc."
"Then...?" Simon enquired. When Mal kept silent, he continued delicately. "Captain - Mal - I can't help noticing that you've been a little more tense than usual."
Mal shrugged. "What of it? Gotta find the crime, keep you in supplies for that infirmary."
"But I thought things were going relatively smoothly right now," Simon persisted. "And it isn't just myself who's noticed. Has Jayne done something?"
Mal choked, then carefully set down his mug. "Now why would ya go askin' a thing like that?"
"Because it appears that every time you see him lately, you shout at him. And if you don't shout at him, you're rude to everyone else."
With a dangerous edge in his voice, Mal said, "This don't concern you, Doc. Go see ta yer sister."
"I'm concerned about your health, Captain," Simon stood his ground. "At the very least, I need to check your blood pressure."
"That weren't a suggestion, Doctor!" Mal snapped.
"Fine!" Simon said, exasperated. "But after dinner I want to see you in the infirmary."
"Or what?" Mal set his jaw, stubbornly.
"Or I will have to come and check you over wherever you happen to be." On medical issues, Simon was even more stubborn than Mal.
"I'll take that as a yes, then," Simon said calmly, and left Mal to continue his search for more jobs.
Jayne made it back to Serenity with a minute to spare. He jogged along the docks, something large and metallic carried on one shoulder, and a small bag clutched in his hand.
Mal stood just inside the cargo bay, one hand on the button that would close the ramp. "Cuttin' it a mite fine, ain't ya?" he drawled.
"Yeah, well, I ain't late. An' I ain't done nuthin', if'n yer gonna start on me again," Jayne said, heading past the Captain. He didn't seem annoyed, though. In fact, Mal could have sworn his merc was actually cheerful.
Mal thumped the button, then hit the radio. "Wash! All aboard. Take us up." He watched the big man take the stairs with remarkable grace, still carrying that engine part on his shoulder. As Jayne headed towards the engine room, Mal heard him start to whistle. He wondered what was in the bag.
"Here y'are, Kaylee." Jayne lifted the hunk of metal off his shoulder as he entered the engine room. "Where d'ya want me ta put it fer ya?"
"Shiny!" Kaylee beamed. "Just over by my hammock'll do fer now. I ain't gonna try fixin' it 'til I've run a bunch o' tests on it. Wouldn't do my girl any good ta be fittin' her with a part that don't work right, would it?" She stroked the engine casing, keeping an eye on her girl as the ship made its way off-planet.
Jayne put the part down carefully by Kaylee's hammock.
"What didja get? Anythin' shiny?" Kaylee asked.
Jayne looked at the bag in his hand, and wrapped it tighter around its contents. "Uh... nothin' special..." he muttered, and turned to go.
The merc turned back. "Yeah, Kaylee?"
"Ain't ya gonna tell me?" Kaylee asked, wide-eyed.
"Nothin' ta tell!" Jayne protested. "Look, Kaylee, I don't pry inta yer shoppin' habits. Well, not less'n ya got somethin' tasty. Or any o' them catalogues. With the girls wearin' nothin' but them panties look like scraps o' nothin..." He leered.
"No, silly!" Kaylee sighed. "What about the Cap'n?"
Jayne grinned. "He was waitin' by the ramp, like ya said. Still bein' his cheery-ass self."
"He say anythin'?"
"Jus' tried ta make out he'd a left me if'n I'd been any later," Jayne said.
"I'm tellin' ya, he's sweet on ya," Kaylee insisted, then put her hand over her mouth. "He ain't out there, is he?"
Jayne cast a glance down the corridor. "Nah," he said. "I still think yer as bug-crazy as River on this. Mal ain't sweet on me. He ain't stopped raggin' on me since 'Nara left."
"Because he's too wu tou wu nao ta come out an' say anythin' to ya!" Kaylee said, exasperated. "Mal ever say anythin' to Inara 'bout the way he felt? No! He jus' picked fights with her 'til she left!"
"Huh." Jayne scratched his beard thoughtfully. "Guess we'll see."
Kaylee grinned. "Jayne Cobb! I know you ain't too particular 'bout the comp'ny ya keep, but 'r'ya sayin' ya'd bunk with the Cap'n?"
"Don't see any reason why not. Long's he stops raggin' on me. I ain't too keen on that." He shrugged. 'Sides, ain't like I'm gettin' sexed anyplace else. We ain't stayed still long enough ta do more'n pick up supplies in the past three months. I'm gettin' kinda itchy. Ma boys wanna play!"
"Jayne! I ain't talkin' 'bout yer boys! 'Specially not when I ain't gettin' sexed myself." Kaylee sighed. As Jayne leered again, she punched him lightly on the arm. "I ain't askin'! Shoo!"
"Aw!" Jayne rubbed his shoulder, laughed, and strolled out of the engine room.
Mal clattered along the walkway, through the galley, heading for the engine room just in time to see Jayne leer at Kaylee and get hit. As the big man turned and ducked into the corridor, laughing, Mal stepped forwards and punched Jayne in the face.
The merc staggered back. "Húndàn! What 'n the ruttin' hell's got into ya, Mal?"
Mal glowered. "I seem ta recall warnin' you ta keep yerself away from my mechanic! Are you wantin' me ta put you out o' the airlock? Because I'm mighty tempted to oblige!"
Kaylee hurried into the corridor. "No, Cap'n! It weren't like that!"
Mal looked from one to the other, scepticism writ large upon his face. "Really. Well why don't you tell me what it was like, then?" He folded his arms, seeming to take up the entire width of the corridor.
"Jayne was just sayin'-" Kaylee began, only to be interrupted by the man himself.
"I wuz sayin', Cap'n, that we ain't stopped any place long enough fer me ta get laid in near-on three months, now."
The Captain's scowled. "An' that's a fit topic ta be discussin' with Kaylee, is it?"
"I ain't a child, Cap'n!" Kaylee protested, stung by Mal's tone. "I ain't gettin' laid neither, an' my nethers'r' startin' to forget what it feels like!"
"I can't know that!" Mal said, shocked. When Kaylee opened her mouth to continue, he held up a hand. "No, really! I mean it! Jayne, keep your urges ta yourself. You too, Kaylee! This ain't up fer discussion!"
Turning, he stalked back up the corridor. As he entered the galley, he called over his shoulder, "We'll be dockin' at the SkyPlex Space Bazaar in a couple o' days. Should be there a day, maybe two. Till then, no urges! We clear?"
"Aye, Cap'n!" Kaylee called.
Jayne grunted, and rubbed his jaw. "Guess I'd better go not have urges someplace else."
It was Mal's turn to cook. Even with the fresh ingredients they'd managed to pick up, dinner still had trouble lifting above bland.
"Weren't there no spices?" Kaylee asked, plaintively.
Zoë shook her head. "Seems their last shipment got bought up by the Alliance, and the next one's delayed. Price was through the roof."
Mal nodded. "Which is why Serenity's stash of chilli powder paid for half our fuel. Much as I'm wary of the place, once I've concluded some business at the Bazaar, we're callin' to Harvest to pick up cargo, then we're headin' straight back to Greenleaf."
Wash looked thoughtful. "Isn't that where apple mint cloves grow?"
"Yes, but I thought their crops were bought up years in advance," Simon said, puzzled.
Mal grinned. "Yup. Which is why we're on commission for Horace Tuttle, pickin' up the crop he paid for ten years ago."
"Really, sir?" Zoë asked, laying down her fork.
"Got papers say we are, anyhow," Mal confirmed, and washed down his dinner with a swallow of coffee.
Whatever business the Captain had to take care of at the Bazaar, he wasn't saying.
Jayne, apart from insisting on having Mal as his spotter when he was lifting weights in the cargo bay, spent much of the intervening couple of days alone in his bunk, wrestling with the book of poetry. At intervals - usually right around the time he was ready to throw the book at the wall, climb out of his bunk and go punch somebody - River would stick her head into his bunk and throw him another not-so-cryptic comment.
"Dockin' in five!" Wash's voice rang out over the intercom, followed by Mal's.
"Y'all can get up here so's I c'n go through the order o' business."
Jayne grunted, and looked at the thin sheaf of papers he held. They were covered in his scrawl, which he'd made a real effort to keep readable, and they weren't even all that crumpled. There was a grease spot on page two, and a dirty thumb-print on page four, but apart from that they were pretty clean.
"These better do!" He folded them twice, then carefully slid them into an envelope, which he licked and sealed, making a face at the taste.
He took a look round his bunk. His girls all secure? Yup. Posters? Stuck up tight. Bed? Clean and made. Poetry book? With a curse, he stuffed it under his mattress. Book safely hidden.
All right, then.
Sliding the envelope into the waistband of his cargo pants, he tucked his t-shirt in over it, hiding it from sight. Then he grabbed his hat, climbed up the ladder and headed to the bridge.
"Good of you ta join us," Mal said, unsmiling.
"I was just finishin' up on that heat exchanger," Kaylee explained, flushing. She wiped at her cheek with a rag, but that only smeared the black oil further.
Mal looked round his crew, crowded onto the bridge.
"First up, we got mail ta collect. You c'n all come along on that. After, provided there ain't no surprises this time..." He paused as the crew exchanged glances, waiting until they gave him their attention once more. "After that, Zoë, you're with me. Shouldn't take more'n an hour. The rest of you, ya got till tomorrow night, say around ten. You ain't back here by then, you better be in jail or in the hospital. An' let me be clear on this, I ain't lookin' ta bail anyone out, nor go takin' flowers ta sickbeds, you hear?"
There was a chorus of agreements from his crew.
"Shiny. You got fifteen minutes, then I want you all ready to go." He turned and looked out at the approaching Bazaar as Wash followed instructions from the Sky Plex's flight control.
"Shiny!" Kaylee said, excitedly. "I gotta go get washed up! Simon, we never did get to go see them paintings you wanted to see..." Her voice faded away as she hurried down the corridor, closely followed by Simon and River.
Zoë cast a swift look at Jayne, then turned to the Captain. "Sir, care to tell me if there's anything in particular I should bring with me?"
Mal shook his head. "Shouldn't need anythin', 's far as I c'n make out."
Mal ignored her. With a sigh, Zoë bent and placed a swift kiss on her husband's cheek, then straightened up and left the cockpit.
Jayne leaned against the doorway, watching Serenity glide closer to the docking bays. Well, to be truthful, he was watching Mal watch their approach. He took in the tense set of his shoulders, which weren't anyhow as broad as his own, but not bad for all of that. He'd seen the muscles that lay under that worn red shirt, all across his back and down his arms, and for a man who didn't appear to lift too many weights, they were reasonable. Yeah, reasonable.
The man needed a haircut, though. His thick dark brown hair was just curling over his collar, hiding his neck. Travelling down, Jayne's gaze settled on the Captain's pìgu, which, actually, looked damn good in them tight trousers... Gorramit! Look what Kaylee and her damn fool ideas were leadin' to! Standin' oglin' the Captain like some fēngle schoolgirl! He shifted uncomfortably, sticking his hands in his pockets to hide the result of his ogling.
"There some reason you're hangin' around here, Jayne?" Mal asked, not looking round.
Jayne cleared his throat. "I, uh... Ain't nothin' ta do 'cept get off this boat."
"Well go take your nothin' elsewhere. You'll be off soon enough, an' I don't want you distractin' our good pilot, less'n he flies us into a wall instead of a dockin' bay."
"Right. Fine." Jayne stumbled out of the cockpit and fairly fled down the corridor.
Wash cast surreptitious glances at Mal, his hands guiding the ship safely across the last few tens of metres of space.
"What was all that about?" he asked.
"I don't rightly know what you mean," Mal said, and grinned, his black mood suddenly lifting. One thing about the black was it was mostly, well, black. And it turned a clear panel like, say, a windshield, into a handy mirror... He wasn't entirely sure what Jayne was up to neither, and the man had been hiding in his bunk the last two days, but still, he'd definitely been eyeing up Mal's behind. With interest.
Whistling, the Captain left the cockpit with a spring in his step.
Trying to get his crew through the Bazaar to the post office without having them dart off to check out stalls was, Mal reflected, wishful thinking. It had been a lot easier herding cattle. At least then he was allowed to use a cattle prod... When Kaylee stopped for the third time to admire a rainbow-coloured display of silk scarves, he snapped.
"Kaylee! You got two days to come and check out these stalls - right after we get the mail. So move it along! Come on, people!"
With a pout, Kaylee moved along. A few minutes later they reached the post office, where the Postmaster glowered at them.
"Got anything for Serenity?" Mal asked.
"Got any ID?" retorted the man, jowls wobbling. He leaned forward over the counter and hissed, "You know what happened last time? No? They threatened to burn this place, and me along with it! You're lucky I don't redirect your mail all the way to Lilac! Or Ariel! And as for excess postage charges? You'll be paying them off 'til you're too old to remember to swallow when you eat!"
"Hey, I'm sorry." Mal said, raising his hands in a gesture of placation. "I'm real sorry to have brought trouble down on you. I nearly got my ship blown up by mines, and my mechanic shot, that's any consolation to ya. I weren't lookin' fer that trouble my own self."
Not much mollified, the postmaster grunted. "Well don't expect any favours from me. You owe me, Reynolds."
Mal nodded. "I reckon I do. Tell you what, you got anythin' needin' to go to Harvest, we'll run it there."
The postmaster thought for a minute. "I'll check," he said, and pulled down the metal grille, then headed into the back.
A few minutes later, he came out with a fistful of letters and two small boxes. Reopening the grille, he slid them across the counter.
"Here's your mail," he said grumpily. "We got a couple' items need taking out that way. When're you leaving?"
"Tomorrow evening," Mal said. "Unless trouble comes lookin' again."
"With you, Captain, that's a certainty," the postmaster said drily. "Come by before six, I'll give you the items. I'll need you to sign for them, and they'll be in a tamper-proof bag. You try opening it, they'll be incinerated and so'll your hands."
"I'm guessin' I'll be leavin' it well alone," Mal agreed, taking the mail. "See you later."
He turned to his crew and handed out the letters. Kaylee had one from her family, and a catalogue of engine parts. Zoë and Wash had a couple of letters, and one of the boxes was for Wash. Jayne had a gun magazine, the other box, and a letter which didn't appear to have been written in crayon. And there was a pink, scented envelope with delicate, spidery handwriting, which, when Mal managed to decipher it, turned out to be for Inara.
"Only one bill! Things must be lookin' up," Mal quipped. "Kaylee, c'n you recall the postal address for Inara?"
"Sure, Cap'n," Kaylee looked up from her letter and nodded.
"You c'n put it on here, then," Mal said, handing over the letter.
Wash opened his box with a cry of glee. "Oh, that's wonderful, honey. How did you know?" He kissed his wife, then hurriedly pulled the Allosaurus out of the box.
"You might have mentioned it a time or two," Zoë admitted with a smile. "Or three..."
Jayne folded his magazine in half lengthways and stuffed it into the rear pocket of his cargo pants, then opened the box. On top lay a letter. He unfolded it and read aloud.
"'Dear Jayne, I hope you still got yer hat, 'cos I made these ta go with it. I hope you are keepin' well. Thanks fer the money. Mattie's well fer now, an' so'm I. Yer lovin' Ma.' Shiny!" He reached into the box and pulled out a pair of purple, green and mustard-yellow fingerless gloves. Underneath them was a scarf, made of the same colours, but with a few stripes of mauve thrown in for good measure. Grinning, Jayne picked bits of straw off them and put them on, then pulled his hat out of a pocket and tugged it on.
The crew stared in horrified fascination.
"Jayne..." Simon began. "In what world do those 'go' with your hat...?"
Jayne scowled at the young doctor. "They go together 'cause my Ma made 'em all. Fer me. Ta go together. Fer such a smart guy, yer real dumb sometimes."
"I think they look great," Wash chimed in. When Jayne turned his scowl in the pilot's direction, the little man hurriedly added, "Really! I do!" He ignored a sceptical look from his wife. "The colours are just so cheery!"
"Like your shirts, dear," Zoë chipped in.
Wash grinned. "Yeah..."
Mal stuffed the bill into his pocket. "Zoë, you're comin' with me. We'll be an hour. The rest of you, mind what I said. We leave at ten tomorrow night. You ain't on the boat, you'll just have ta hang around 'til we get back. Stay out of trouble!"
Zoë turned to Wash. "You know that bar on the upper level?"
"The one with the fish tank?" Wash nodded. "Yeah, I remember it."
"I'll meet you there in an hour." She leaned in closer and spoke quietly. "If anything comes up, I'll try to get word to you there." They kissed, then she strode off, following Mal. Wash watched her go.
"I wish I knew where they're going," he said.
"Why, you reckon they'll need rescuin'?" Jayne said, glancing after them.
"No. Probably not. It's just that trouble has a way of finding Mal, whether he's looking for it or not." Wash sighed.
Jayne grunted. "Want me ta follow 'em?"
Wash looked at Jayne in surprise. "You'd do that?"
Jayne shrugged. "Ain't got nuthin' pressin' ta do."
"Yes, then. I'd like that. But you might want to take off your knitwear first."
Jayne looked puzzled, until Kaylee added, "If anythin' happens, ya don't want to get blood on them fine things, do ya?"
"Good thinkin'," Jayne said, and grinned. He pulled off his gloves and hat, then unwound the scarf from round his neck. "Look after 'em for me, will ya?" He handed them to Kaylee, who nodded.
"Sure will! Ain't nothin' gonna happen to 'em, Jayne."
Jayne grunted, then slipped away into the crowds after Mal and Zoë. Somehow, he managed to make himself inconspicuous, and the others quickly lost sight of him.
"How does he do that?" Simon asked. "He's a great hulking man-ape with all the grace of an quadraplegic gorilla. Yet somehow he manages to do... that!" He gestured in the direction Jayne had gone.
Wash stared after Jayne. "Beats me how he does it. There was this one time on Boros when Mal and Zoë got caught by a posse of this landowner's men. Jayne followed them three miles back through woods, and by the time they got within spitting distance of the lockup, he'd picked off all bar three of them, one by one. Just grabbed 'em from behind, pulled them off the trail. Zoë swears even she didn't hear a thing." He shivered. "Still, as long as he doesn't decide to pick us off one by one, we'll be fine!" Finally looking back at the others, he forced a smile. "Anyone want a drink? I think I'm going to go sit in that bar upstairs."
"There are a few things I could do with picking up..." Simon began, then seeing Wash's expression, said hurriedly, "Of course, if we've got the best part of two days here, I suppose I could go for a drink with you first. River, Kaylee, would you care to accompany us?"
Gallantly he held out his elbow to Kaylee, who beamed and slipped her arm through his.
"Be delighted to! Ain't that how they say it, Simon?" she asked.
"It most certainly is," Simon smiled.
Wash held his elbow out to River, who raised an eyebrow and stared at him.
"What? I was just trying to be polite!" Wash protested.
"Brownian motion does not require assistance," she pointed out, and danced and darted around them as they made their way to the bar.
Jayne followed Mal and Zoë quite easily. They weren't making any effort to be stealthy, and they weren't bothering to check behind them.
Jayne shook his head in disgust. If anyone should know better'n that, it should be them two. The others hadn't no more sense than a pack o' puppies, but Zoë 'n' the Cap'n didn't let their guard down. It were lucky fer them he'd got their backs.
Mal made his way through the bazaar closely followed by Zoë, and, at a distance, Jayne. Close to one of the inner hub walls there was a dark, grubby coffeehouse. The narrow front had a battered bead curtain across the doorway and a small, grimy window. There was no name, but the couple of tiny tables out front gave away what it was.
Jayne swore. There weren't no way he was gonna get inside without being spotted. He settled for a doorfront further along the row of stores. It looked like it had once sold cheap-ass jewellery, but the metal grille was down over the inside of the window, and the shelves were empty. Still, the doorway was deep enough to give him some cover.
Half an hour later, Jayne was reduced to cleaning under his nails with a small knife. There was no sign of Zoë or Mal, no sign of a fight, or of any fuss at all. He sighed, and patted his waist. He could feel the crinkle of paper: his letter was still there.
"Should'a left 'em to it," he growled softly to himself. "Should'a just posted this off ta Madam Wu an' gone off ta find me a spot ta spend some coin."
He shook his head. What was he doing waitin' here, talkin' to himself? Weren't like Mal'd asked fer his help, set him on backup. Weren't like that pair couldn't handle 'emselves, neither. Mal didn't need him ta save his ass, mighty fine though it were. His mouth went dry thinking on Mal standing in the cockpit, tight pants an' that shirt makin' his shoulders look so broad - tiān a! He was damned if he were gonna stand around moonin' over Mal. He weren't no member of the Cap'n Tightpants fan club!
Disgusted with himself, Jayne stalked out into the street. At that moment, Mal and Zoë pushed their way through the beaded curtain. Zoë was smiling, and Mal looked smug, but his expression sharpened as he caught sight of the tall man bearing down on him.
"Jayne! Tiān xiăodé, what're you doin' here?"
"Ain't sure myself," Jayne snapped. "What're you doin' here?"
"Nothin' that concerns more'n Zoë an' myself. Which I thought I had made abundantly clear." Mal was back to scowling at Jayne.
"Sir, might wanna move this someplace else," Zoë said discreetly.
"Mayhap you're right there. Jayne, you c'n tell me why you took it on yourself to come followin' after us while we go find the others." Without checking to see if Jayne was following, he turned and strode off towards the bazaar.
Jayne caught up with him at the corner. "Wash was worried," he said without preamble. "Said I'd keep an eye out. Which is good, 'cause neither o' you were. Didn't spot me once on the way, did ya?" He stuck his jaw out belligerantly, the last of his good mood having evaporated.
A tiny frown crossed Zoë's face. "I believe I'll be having words with Wash, sir."
"I believe you will be, Zo'. Can't be havin' him sendin' Jayne after us every time we leave the ship. Not unless he's plannin' on hiring my merc out from under me. And knowin' what I pay him, he can't afford to keep him in ammo anyhow."
"Hey!" Jayne said, surprised at how much Mal's words stung. "Ain't like ya ta go off without tellin' anyone where, least of all with Zoë in tow. Anythin' could happen, an' it ain't like y'ain't got no enemies would be glad ta find ya on yer own. Don't need Wash ta hire me." He grabbed Mal's arm, and the man whirled round to face him, ready to bawl him out.
"I ain't never gonna be one o' yer soldiers, Mal, but I'm the man ya hired ta watch yer back. An' that's what I'm doin', even when ya make it damn near impossible!"
Furious, he dropped Mal's arm and strode off into the bazaar, pushing his way through the crowds.
Zoë looked at Mal.
Mal avoided looking at her, realised he was watching after Jayne instead, and looked down at the floor. He sighed.
"You got a way o' saying nothin' that's very loud, Zoë."
"Best find that husband o' yours." He gestured, and this time it was Zoë's turn to lead the way.
Jayne downed his first beer, knocking back the whisky chaser with a grimace. The second was already lined up.
Gorramn infuriatin' man! Couldn't even be civil, not ever. Not to Jayne. And gorramn Wash an' his wife-worry!
He drank his second beer a little more slowly.
Really, it were all down ta Kaylee an' her interferin'. If she hadn't'a said that about the Cap'n while they was off out at that junk yard... He'd'a kept on thinkin' he'd done somethin' ta annoy Mal. An' he wouldn't be sittin' here in a bar by himself, downin' beers like there weren't a tomorrow.
Hells, fer all he knew, there weren't no gorramn tomorrow, not fer him.
"Buy a girl a drink?" A sultry voice purred in his ear. At least, it probably had been sultry ten years ago.
Jayne looked round.
At his elbow, a tall, brown-haired woman leaned against the bar. She was broad in the shoulders, but otherwise scrawny to Jayne's mind. He looked down the length of her, taking in her short black skirt, then looked back up at her worn green dragon-print blouse. He didn't miss the bruises on her knees and neck, nor the marks on the inside of her arm.
He shook his head. "Temptin', but I ain't in a buyin' mood."
She pouted. "What would it take ta get ya in a buyin' mood?"
"Someone who ain't on bubble," Jayne said, nodding at her arm.
She rubbed at the marks, then folded her arms so he couldn't see them any more. Shrugging, she said, "Ain't on it now."
"Yeah, well, I ain't interested. An' yer puttin' me off my beer."
"Liú kŏushŭi de biăozi hé hóuzi de bèn érzi!" She flounced out, leaving the merc staring into his glass.
"Can't even enjoy a ruttin' beer in peace!" He pushed the beer away from him in disgust. "Nor a whore! Tā mā de! Gorram Mal ruttin' Reynolds!" He stood up and fished in his pocket, slapping coin down on the bar. A rustle reminded him of the envelope stuffed in his waistband, and striding out of the bar, he headed back to the post office.
Mal and Zoë pulled up chairs and sat down at either end of the table.
"Everything go all right?" Wash asked, innocently, smiling at his wife. He slid a bottle over to her.
Mal smiled. It wasn't pretty. "Sure, Wash!" he said jovially. "Our clandestine business went just peachy. Me'n'Zoë here had a great time bein' followed by Jayne!" His smile disappeared. "What were you thinkin', Wash? Sendin' Jayne after us?"
Wash's smile vanished. "I just happened to hope that you weren't leading my lovely wife into danger, and Jayne just volunteered to go," he babbled. "It wasn't as though I sent him, or anything!"
Kaylee chimed in. "Yeah, he left his stuff with me, Cap'n. See?" She produced the colourful knitwear.
"I don't care what he left!" Mal snapped. "Wash, you do anythin' like that again, an' you'n'me's gonna have that discussion on just who's in charge around here." He pushed back his chair and stood up. "Kaylee, gimme Jayne's stuff. Be back on Serenity by tomorrow night."
The crew watched as he wove his way between tables and out of the bar.
Zoë took a swig of beer.
"Zoë, honey..." Wash began, but she held up a hand and he fell silent.
"Don't go there, husband." She set down her bottle. "The Captain and I went to see Tracey's sister."
"Oh!" Kaylee gasped, round-eyed. "Laura's here?"
Zoë nodded. "She didn't feel up to meeting everyone again. The Cap'n passed along your regards."
"How is she?" Simon asked. "It's got to be tough."
"She's gettin' by. Got a husband, a job. She wanted to pass along a few of Tracey's things from the war. Cap'n gave her a little to help her along."
"And it had to be a big secret?" Wash asked.
"Not somethin' the Cap'n wanted you all watchin', him havin' a reputation to maintain an' all." The ghost of a smile tugged at the corners of her mouth.
"That's it?" Simon asked. "Mal doesn't like us knowing he can be compassionate occasionally? The man may be psychotic at times, but I think we'd already figured this one out."
"If the shell is cracked, who knows what may spill out?" River asked, her voice serious. "Things may never go back in."
"So we're good?" Wash asked quietly, putting a hand on Zoë's arm.
She eyed him. "We're good," she said. "Doesn't mean we aren't goin' to have a little talk about trust, though."
Wash groaned. "We can't enjoy our downtime first?"
"It depends on where you were planning on taking me for dinner," Zoë said, straight-faced.
"Really? Oh..." Wash grinned. "There's this little place just round the corner I hear does excellent dim sum."
"Where ya goin' fer dinner, Simon?" Kaylee asked, and sipped something that was unfeasibly pink.
"Wanna find somewhere does real vegetables and noodles?" Kaylee asked. "I bet there's a bunch o' places here."
She was practically bouncing in her seat at the thought of proper food, and Simon found himself laughing. "Of course! That sounds ideal. As long as you're happy with that, River?"
River nodded. "Beta Carotene, vitamins B complex, C, D, E, K, magnesium, zinc and iodine are all essential for proper biological functions. We should go." She smiled briefly, and sucked her blue slurpee through a straw.
Simon laughed again. "Vegetables it is!"
Mal called into the post office. "Hey," he said, nodding to the Postmaster, who waved.
"Got something to post?"
"What? No, I'm here to collect the bag for Harvest," Mal said, puzzled.
"Your man just left with it. All signed for." He slid over a clipboard, and Mal could clearly see Jayne's scrawl of a signature.
Recovering quickly, Mal slid the clipboard back. "Oh, yeah. Wasn't sure I'd make it back before you'd shut, so I asked him ta stop by when he finished shoppin'." He added casually, "He, uh... He post anythin'?"
"The usual couple o' letters," the Postmaster said. "I must say I'm impressed by his persistence."
"Madame Wu's Academy. Must be four years he's been sendin' through his essays. Surely he's about done, right?"
"Uh... yeah," Mal agreed. "Gotta go do... stuff." He hurried out of the post office.
"Madame Wu's Academy? What the hell...?"
Jayne dropped the postbag on the table in the galley along with the bottle of bourbon he'd picked up in the bazaar. He headed down to his bunk, took a leak, then reached under his mattress for Mal's book and a small wrapped package.
"Best put ya back in the Cap'n's bunk 'fore he gets back." He grinned, and headed up his ladder.
Mal's bunk was locked, but Jayne knew the code. He climbed down the ladder and put the package on Mal's bed. "Sure hope he likes it," he rumbled, carefully placing the book on top of it. "Be a sad waste o' coin otherwise." He looked round the bunk, breathing in the scent of oil and leather and soap, a smell which was uniquely Mal.
"Gorramit!" He cursed, feeling himself get half-hard. "Gotta get myself laid 'fore I get as fēngle as Moonbrain!" Quickly he clambered out of Mal's bunk and locked it again, and headed into the galley. And stopped.
Seated at the table, with a mug of his bourbon, was Mal.
"Āiyā, Mal! Didn't hear ya come back on board!" Warily, he stood in the doorway, carefully watching to see what kind of mood the Captain was in. He didn't have long to wait.
Mal leaned back and laced his fingers behind his head. "Hey there, Jayne. Find anythin' interestin' in my bunk?"
"I was just returnin' somethin'." Jayne shifted uncomfortably, wondering if he should grab a weapon.
"An' what would that be, Jayne?" The Captain smiled a tight little smile that didn't touch his eyes. "What possible thing could it be that you had ta return to my bunk? When there ain't a single soul on this boat?"
Jayne didn't answer, so Mal continued.
"Seems to me the only thing I'm missin' is somethin' River has. Or at least, I thought she had." He leaned forwards, hands no longer imitating ease but fisted on the table.
"What the hell's Madame Wu's Academy?"
"Tā mā de! What d'ya know about that?" Jayne gasped, air leaving his lungs as though he'd been sucker-punched.
"Only that you've been sendin' letters regular for nigh-on four years. An' y'ain't seen fit ta mention a single word ta me! Seems ta me we've had words about keepin' secrets before now. What's Madame Wu's Academy, Jayne?"
Jayne turned on his heel and stalked back to his bunk. He heard the scrape of a chair as Mal stood up to follow him, but he kicked open the hatch and dropped down. As Mal climbed down after him, he tore down poster after poster, naked women tumbling to the floor.
"There," he said, a ball of frustration and fury swelling in his stomach and in his throat, threatening to choke him. "That's Madame Wu's Academy! You gonna punch me now, Mal? Huh?" He turned his head, unable to look the other man in the eyes.
"What the...?" Mal stared at the walls. Where each of the posters had been was a certificate. He stepped forward to read them.
"Jayne Cobb, weapon maintenance with distinction. Jayne Cobb, ballistics in theory and practise, with distinction. Jayne Cobb, explosives, with distinction. History of weapons, tactical theory, metallurgy and edged weaponry..." The Captain's voice trailed away.
"You mean ta tell me all these're yours?"
Mutely, Jayne nodded, still unable to look at the Captain.
"You've been takin'... correspondence courses?" A tone of disbelief entered his voice.
Jayne cleared his throat. "Yeah, well... Ain't no fancy Core university or nuthin' like that, but I done pretty good." He risked looking up.
Mal was staring at him, open-mouthed. "Jayne, you got distinctions? In all o' these?"
Jayne shrugged, and sat down on his bunk. There was a long pause.
"Don't know 'bout you, but I need a drink," Mal said, his anger gone. "Comin'?"