Jayne Cobb was a man of simple pleasures: food and drink, coin to spend, a willing woman worth tupping, or a good fight, to name a few. To name a very few; he might be a man of simple pleasures, but he enjoyed life.
Jayne was also a man of simple tastes. He turned his nose up at fancy Core World cooking: a handful of victuals arranged like a flower bouquet, with a drizzle of sauce added more for color than flavor. That was nothing fit for a man to eat. He held that the best cooking he'd ever had came from his ma's hand, and a good meal was hearty fare that filled the plate. And a good woman didn't need to be a graduate of Companion school, with hands like birds and a body that moved like a sheet of silk in a breeze and a way of knowing what a man wanted when he didn't know hisself; presentable, clean and willing would do right nice, thank you, so long as she had no problems with goodbyes. And his notion of a good fight was one that gave him a good workout without offering him any doubt of victory. He was particular about his weapons, but he looked on that as a workmanlike attitude, since they were the tools of his trade. As for drink, he'd try anything that didn't make him blind. If it made somebody else blind, he might risk it.
Jayne Cobb was a man of simple pleasures and simple tastes, but he wasn't a simple man. And he wasn't simple-minded. So as he stirred awake in his bunk towards the end of his usual sleep shift, and he felt a weight greater than his coverlet would account for, and he opened his eyes and saw a sprawl of dark hair across his chest that could only be River Tam's, he knew he was in rutting trouble.
He froze, and his eyes flicked to his arsenal, hung carefully on the wall beside his bed. Nothing was missing, but that just meant he wasn't about to be killed with his own hardware. She might have brought all manner of hurtful implements with her, from one of her brother's scalpels to that mare's leg Zoë favored. Then he wondered if she'd need to bring anything with her at all.
I can kill you with my brain, she'd said.
He breathed shallowly, trying to get a better look at her without waking her. The way she was lying on him, one arm trailing off the side of the bunk, reminded him of the creepifying way she'd draped herself sleepily over a shipping coffin once. He offered a vague prayer of thanks to see they were both dressed.
The dark head stirred. He lay his head back down softly and closed his eyes.
A fingertip tapped his chest softly. "I know you're awake."
He opened his eyes, and found himself staring into hers, just a double hand width away. He found his voice and said, as evenly as he could, "What are you doin here?" He just stopped short of finishing that question with "Moonbrain"; it didn't seem smart to insult her right now.
The corners of River's mouth turned up. "Moonbrain." The trailing hand came up, and he tensed. But she just folded her arms on his chest and rested her chin on them. "Waiting for you to wake up. My brother's latest drug cocktail is working very well, and I wanted some time alone with you when you'd know all my gears were meshing."
He worked to keep his voice steady. "What d'ya want then?"
Her smile broadened just as the door at the top of the ladder well creaked and opened with a thump. "Jayne?" Mal's voice called down. "Wakey wake. I need a hand movin cargo. Our client clears us to land, I want to be ready."
River slipped off him like smoke and glided to the bottom of the ladder, and he sat up quickly and reached for his boots. "Can it wait a little?" She called up. "We're not through yet."
For five heartbeats, it was so quiet you could hear space sliding over the hull. "River?" Another pause. "Where's Jayne?"
"Right here, Mal," he called out as he squeezed past her to the ladder with his boots still unlaced. "Duty calls," he said in passing. He climbed two rungs and looked down. "Stay down here long's you like. Just don't take nothin you didn't bring, or leave nothin you did." He took the rungs three at a time. At the top, he swung off to step on the deck and nearly ran Mal over, leaning over the ladder well trying to peer down.
Mal locked eyes. "I'm expectin an explanation."
"Wish to God I had one."
Mal looked down the well briefly, then back to him. "Just happened, one of those things, like?" The captain turned and headed towards the cargo bay. "Shipboard life is all kinds of interestin. Wonder what the rest of the day's gonna bring."
They talked it out as they moved cargo boxes from Serenity's fifty-leven little storage holds to the cargo deck. "Huh," Mal said. "And you're sure you didn't?"
"Slept in my clothes last night. They were still on when I woke up. Hers too." He looked at the captain closely. "Or are you askin me if I want to change my story?" He drew a thumb diagonally across his chest where River had slashed him. "Worst hurt I ever took off somebody I didn't kill after. Think I'd ever fall asleep in a room with her?"
Mal shrugged. "So what do you plan to do about it?" His eye gleamed. "Spose I could marry you, bein a ship's captain and all."
"Very funny." He shoved the last crate into its hold and secured it.
"Didn't mean to be, exactly. I can think of a hundred kinds of trouble likely to come from this, specially if you wake up with her again tomorrow."
"Mal, I'd rather suit up and spend the night on the hull. Leastways I'd feel sure of wakin up tomorrow."
"Little early in the relationship to be spending the night on the couch, don't ya think?"
"Gorram it, we're not… like that! And we're not gonna be like that."
Mal headed for the stairs to the catwalks. "She seems to think otherwise. I'm thinking you wanna do something about that."
Jayne sat down on his weight bench, elbows on knees and face in his hands, and tried to think. Try as he might, he didn't have any answers; his thoughts just kept circling round to the smile on her face when he'd asked her what she wanted from him.
Advice wasn't something he looked for often, but when he did, he often looked to Shepherd Book. Jayne had no use for most men of the cloth, but Book was different. Unlike most preachers of Jayne's acquaintance, Book didn't seem in love with the sound of his own voice. And, to Jayne's eye, the Shepherd had the manner of a man who'd made hard choices in the past.
He nodded to himself, and headed for passenger quarters. The Shepherd would have an answer.
"A special Hell," said Shepherd Book. "Very. Special."
"Aw, Shepherd!" He gripped the edge of the preacher's bedside table until his fingers creaked. "Ya gotta know me better'n that."
"It wouldn't be the first time I've misjudged a man." Book's tone was mild, but his eyes told another story. "She's a child, man. Bad enough, surely, but one who can't remember how to lace her boots half the time? What were you thinking?"
"G'rammit, preacher, I'm tryin to keep her out of my bed, not pull her into it."
Book looked at him with cool eyes, gunslinger eyes. "Have you considered locking your door?"
"For about two seconds." He met the preacher's stare. "Isn't a lock on this ship that'll stop her. You know that. And besides, she probly knows two other ways into my room by now."
Book relented. "Any idea what triggered this?"
"She said the Doc was tryin out some new drugs on her."
"Well, then. Perhaps you should talk to him about it."
"What are you sayin? I'm gonna just mention casual-like that I spent the night with his little sister? I'd never be able to go in the sickbay again. Hell, I couldn't let him get within reach. Every time I seen him with a scalpel or a syringe in his hand, I'd have to put my hand to my knife and my back to the wall."
Book leaned forward. "He's bound to find out. Better he hears it from you first, don't you think?" The gnarled black hand patted his shoulder. "Go in there with an open mind. He may take it better than you think."
"I should have warned you, I suppose," Simon Tam said. "I expected this, but not so soon, as the saying goes. Sorry."
"So it's the drugs?" Jayne leaned against the upraised back of the exam table. He'd found the doctor, a regular early riser, in sickbay. Remembering the doc's promise that Jayne would always be safe on his examining table, he'd hopped onto it before he'd started talking. He hadn't been sure the promise would cover this situation, but a little insurance couldn't hurt, he thought. "She said you were trying something new."
"Everything I try is something new. No one's ever attempted to cure clinically-induced schizophrenia before. Her good periods are getting longer and more comprehensive, but she's never come back fully, and I'm running out of proven treatments. I'm sailing off into the dark." His voice got quiet and sort of still. "There's a family of medications that show startling results, but only in a small percentage of cases. I gave her the first of them a week ago, but with no effect."
"So, this could be a side effect, maybe?"
Simon shook his head. "Doubtful. But, aside from her mental and emotional impairments, she's a healthy and vigorous teenage girl. It's only normal that she'd be looking for some… romantic attachment. And you're the only male aboard who's not married, celibate, related, or romantically attached to someone else." Simon looked him over critically. "You're even good-looking, in a roguish sort of way, when you're not talking. Or eating. Or looting corpses."
"Well, what are we gonna do about it? Can you give her somethin?"
"I don't think they've developed a drug to cure a girl of a crush." Simon's sketch of a smile disappeared. He turned his back to Jayne and busied himself at the counter. "You remember what I said on Ariel, about her amygdala? I think fear and aggression weren't the only emotions they made her incapable of suppressing."
Jayne winced inwardly. That little reminder of his betrayal stung, but he pressed on. "Simon," he said, deliberately using the boy's first name, "I think she's gonna sneak back into my room tonight, to finish what she started."
"I suppose you're right." Simon turned back to him with a look on his face Jayne had never seen on the little pipsqueak before, a look that made Jayne tense up and glance down at the boy's hands. "But I'm very sure a man with your experience handling women will be able to avoid breaking her heart, or stealing her virginity."
The dining area was quiet. The crew normally gathered only for dinner; all other meals were catch-as-cat-can as duties allowed or inclination moved. Mal and Wash and the Shepherd were at the table talking in low voices over their hot brews, a conversation that stopped when he entered the room. He grabbed a quick bite standing up and left.
After leaving the sickbay, he'd thought about cornering Wash for advice; a man who could win the heart of a filly as fine – and skittish - as Zoë had to know something about handling women. And, contrary to Simon's view, Jayne knew next to nothing on the subject. Women you paid for offered a man no such challenges.
But he'd decided against. Wash was a man who joked about serious matters, and took matters of no consequence to heart. And Jayne wasn't up to sifting wheat from the chaff on this subject.
Simon's only advice, aside from that thin-cloaked warning, was to offer Jayne something that would make him useless to a woman for a spell. That was no option, in Jayne's opinion, especially when the doc had been so vague when pressed about his definition of "temporary."
He was out of men to talk to.
"It was-" He searched for a word. "Gracious. Gracious of ya to talk this over with me, Inara."
The Companion gave him a smile that could have meant anything. "In all honesty, there was more than a little self-interest involved. Our tiny ship is a closed environment, and this situation has an explosive potential, wouldn't you say?"
They sat side by side on a couch in her shuttle, only the second time he'd been inside it. The furnishings made him feel like a blundering ox, everything too small or too delicate or too soft, and it smelled like nothing else on the ship except Inara's skin. "Dunno bout any explosions, but a lot a people could get hurt. Startin with me."
"Are you quite sure you've never pursued her, or given her any encouragement?"
His quick answer froze on his lips at the look she gave him. Aboard ship, Inara Serra was a normal enough female, if a bit formal and patrician; aboard her shuttle alone with a man, even one she wasn't servicing, she was a Companion, one of those cool creatures trained from childhood to know a man inside and out. Something about her made him sure he couldn't lie to her on this subject, even if he was lying to himself. He thought an extra moment, then shook his head. "Never."
"And you're quite sure of her intentions?"
He was taken back. "I woke up with her in my bed. When I asked her what she wanted from me, she just smiled. Then Mal showed up."
"Did she kiss you? Touch you intimately?"
"Well, no. She didn't have a chance."
"You're assuming she arrived just before you woke, then."
He squirmed. "I dunno. No. She coulda been there all night. Now I think of it, she said she was waitin for me."
Inara sipped her tea. She'd offered him some, but he'd refused, sure the tiny eggshell-thin cup would break in his hands. "I'd be careful making assumptions about her motives. She doesn't think the way we do. Her mind moves at great speed down very twisted paths."
"Yeah, and there's a lot of bridges out on them roads."
She nodded. "Have you spoken to Kaylee? Perhaps she'd have some insight. They're friends, and Kaylee reaches her on a level the rest of us can't." She looked down into her cup. "Unless you're embarrassed to discuss it with her. I know you're closer than you let on in public."
He felt his ears heating up for the second time in a day. "Inara. We're not like that."
"Perhaps not. But there's a connection of some sort that you're careful to keep out of view."
"Well, this conversation ain't takin me anywhere I wanted to go. How long have you known?"
"Almost since I first saw you together. But Companions don't gossip, Jayne."
"Thank the Powers for that." He stood. "I got another reason to thank you now. But I'm leavin with more questions than I came in with."
She smiled up at him. "You know, you're almost endearing when you're thoughtful and uncertain. I wonder if River simply thinks you're cute."
"Jayne." Zoë stood over him as he lay on his bench in the cargo bay, trying for another rep. "Have you seen River?"
He set the bar in its rest and wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. "Not since early this morning." He was very sure that Wash's wife and Mal's second-in-command knew all about that. "She gone missin?"
"You were the last one to see her." The woman's tone was carefully neutral. He noted she had her gun belt on, something she didn't normally wear shipboard, unless they were about to make landfall.
"Well, I ain't seen her either. If I do, I'll give a holler, you can bet that." To change the subject, he said, "Any word yet when we're puttin down?"
"Client hasn't given us the signal yet, and it's too risky to land without. Bandits thereabouts would love to get their hands on this cargo."
What 'this cargo' was, His Lordship the Captain hadn't bothered to tell his 'public relations' man. But Jayne could guess, right enough, by the place they'd picked it up, and the sort of people who'd left it on Serenity's ramp. Malcolm Reynolds and company were smuggling high-end automatic weapons to New Beginnings, a world squirming under the heel of the Alliance. A risky enough venture for any tramp freighter operating without the protection of a big shipping line; a ship whose captain still wore a brown duster on shore leave, and the mate a bootlace necklace, and had the name of the Independents' fiercest battle stenciled on the hull would likely be impounded if caught. And its crew might be facing a lengthy stay in some Alliance lockup, putting up with hard questions they had no answers for. It was a sign how lean things had got lately, that Mal would take the risk.
"We need to worry about some ragtag band a scruffy thieves?" He sat up, wondering if it was really bandits they were trying to avoid, or Alliance patrols.
Zoë tossed her head, her thick black hair bouncing on her shoulders. "We do when they travel at platoon strength. When the landing site's clear enough we can offload, get paid, and boost without them getting close, we'll drop on it like a stone. So be ready."
That was disappointing news. He'd hoped they might make landfall somewhere civilized enough for him to buy a night with a woman. He didn't allow the idea that he was avoiding the little crazy girl any space in his head.
River didn't appear at the dinner table. The meal was unusually quiet, at least until their client waved them in the middle of it to say the landing site would be clear at local dusk, in about three hours. Then, with the safe topic of ship's business to discuss, things livened up some. Kaylee and Wash left first, to prepare the ship for a quick insertion and takeoff. Jayne talked over security arrangements for the cargo and the exchange of goods and payment with Zoë and Mal. When the three of them left together, Jayne cast a quick look back at Simon and Book and Inara, the last three at table, and caught them staring after him.
Looking for Kaylee, he fell into a bit of luck finally. He found her alone in the engine room, tinkering with something that was probably already running as well as she'd ever get it using parts older than she was. Her head was under some big chunk of machinery, and he could hear the tink of her tools and her voice, cooing and coaxing as if the dang thing was her baby.
He cleared his throat to let her know he was there, and she stilled. "Cap'n?"
Kaylee wriggled out from under and glanced at him, then looked around the room to make sure they were alone. "You ain't called me that goin on a year, Bear. What's eating you?"
He shook his head. "I got girl trouble."
She snorted, then the good humor ran from her face. "Not River."
"Kaylee, I woke up with her in my bed this mornin. I don't think anything happened, and Mal interrupted before anything could. But I'm sure she's lookin at me as unfinished business."
She wiped her hands on a towel, not looking at him. "Talk to anybody about it?"
"I talked to everybody about it. Inara thinks it might be some kinda phase she's goin through. Her brother wants to put a chastity girdle on me."
Kaylee smiled, and the dingy engine room looked a little brighter for it.
"Shepherd offered me a sermon," he went on. "Mal wants to ruttin marry us."
Her hands flew up to cover her mouth. "Oh, I'm sorry. I can see you're scared. But-"
He smiled. "I know. Make quite a couple, wouldn't we?" He let his face settle. "Kay-Kay, what am I gonna do? How can I talk her out of it?"
She wouldn't meet his eyes. "Sure you want to?"
He turned partly away. "Only one girl on this tub I really want, and I threw away my chance at her a long time ago."
"Jayne, I'm sorry."
"All my fault and none of yours, and that's not just a thing to say, it's truth. Sides, she's just a kid, and she's in no shape to know what she wants anyway. Yeah, I want to talk her out of it."
"Don't know what help I can be. I love her like a sister, but I got no idea what she's thinking most of the time, and I don't suppose it'd be any different if she wasn't addled. Truth is, most of our Core World folks are too good at hidin their thoughts and bottlin their feelins for my comfort. Must come from livin elbow to elbow with other folks."
"Core Worlds ain't that crowded, Kaylee. Folks there just have a hard time finding privacy, is all." The last Core world he'd been on had had cameras in the public restrooms, and meters on the rutting toilets.
"Anyways," Kaylee went on, "I ain't even seen much of her lately. She's been keepin to herself, slippin around the ship like a ghost. If I bump into her somewheres, she hardly has a word for me, and it bothers me. You think it's worrisome listenin to her spout nonsense – see what kinda thoughts go through your head when she squeezes by you in the passage and won't meet your eyes."
They chatted a bit more about unrelated things, until being alone with her got too uncomfortable. Just before he turned to leave, he said, "I shouldn't of said what I did at dinner, that first night he came aboard. I was jealous."
"I know. Everbody else thought you were just bein rude and stupid, but I knew better." She kissed two fingers and touched them to his forehead. "You be careful with her. Whatever happens, you treat her gentle, like an egg."
"Or a bomb," he agreed.
He stepped out of the engine room and nearly knocked over the ship's pilot. "Well," Wash said, straightening his flowery shirt. "I was just coming to ask Kaylee if she'd seen you."
"You crack just one joke, and we're gonna have to orbit this hick planet till the swelling goes down enough for ya to see."
"Captain wouldn't like that. We're a little low on air." He covered his nose with both hands. "Did that count as a joke?" The pilot didn't seem the least bit worried about Jayne's threat. Gathering a fistful of his shirt would change that, but Jayne knew Wash wouldn't back down, even though he'd get a drubbing for his stubbornness. But then the techie's manner changed abruptly, and he looked at Jayne like a man on a serious errand. "Come with me, will you?"
Wash led Jayne along the upper corridor to the bridge, and motioned him into the copilot's seat. Serenity was pointed towards the surface of New Beginnings as it circled, and the planet's face filled the windows: mottled tan, measled with blue-green lakes, and damn little green. "Controls are locked, but don't touch anything, just in case," the pilot said, as he slid the door shut behind them. He tapped on the heavy door. "This is the only way in or out for anything bigger than a cat. It locks from the inside, a simple heavy latch that can't be forced or picked. A holdover from the days when they worried more about hijackers than fire, I suppose."
Jayne carefully relaxed his grip on the seat arms. There was something wary-making about the way that Wash was looking at him: not threatening, but, like Simon earlier, the pilot seemed to be showing Jayne something new and unexpected. "And you're tellin me this why?"
"In case you need someplace safe to pass the night."
"Ah…" It was the first time today someone had shown a speck of concern for the risk River posed to him. "Obliged, Wash."
Wash sat in the pilot's seat, turning to face him. "It's not a solution, big man. You can't hide from her forever."
The words rang too true, and echoed Jayne's thoughts too closely, for him to take offense. "Hope that's not the end of your advice. I'm in a tight place with that girl." He looked sharply at the pilot, but Wash gave no sign of thinking Jayne's choice of words humorous.
Wash leaned forward. "What does she want from you? A lover? A quick thrust? Or maybe just a teddy bear?"
"Bear? What kinda bear?"
Wash stared at him for a second. "A kind of stuffed toy, shaped more or less like a bear cub. Little kids take them to bed for comfort, helps them get to sleep. You never had something like that?"
Jayne looked at the other man, surrounded by fantastical toy monsters from a world twice vanished – dinosaurs, Wash called them. "Never had a bit of trouble sleepin at night. When I was little, my folks just let me run till I dropped, then put me to bed. Later on… well, nobody has trouble droppin off at night after a day workin a farm." He thought about it. "No. She said she was waitin for me to wake up, g'rammit."
"That her drugs were workin good. And she wanted to see me when I'd know she wasn't crazy."
"That's an odd thing for a crazy person to say, isn't it?"
Jayne looked carefully at the man's face. Wash was still serious. "Why's that?"
"Because crazy people don't know they're crazy, do they? I mean, usually, when she even gets close to realizing there's something wrong with her, she gets all agitated and scared, doesn't she?"
"She does." He felt a sense of discovery, remembering her look and her smile. There hadn't been a thing wrong with either of them, excepting they were on River. "Dang it. It was the least crazy I ever seen her. Exceptin she snuck into my bunk."
"Yeah." Wash nodded soberly. "A girl'd have to be out of her mind to do that." Before Jayne could properly register offense, the pilot leaned back and clasped his hands behind his head. "You know, I came aboard this ship without the slightest intention of signing up with her. I already had an offer from Osiris Lines, chief pilot on a big luxury liner. All Core World runs, princely pay and perks, fancy uniform to wow the ladies, a cabin big enough to throw parties in. I just had an afternoon to kill, and I thought Osiris might sweeten the deal even more if I could show them I was still looking around. So I agreed to meet the captain aboard and look things over.
"The ship was a joke. It was still sitting in the salvage yard with birds' nests in the engine intakes. I doubted the owner had enough cash to hire a mechanic good enough to get it off the ground. I don't know why I even bothered to climb up to the bridge. Care to guess who was waiting up there?"
"Made the bridge a lot more interesting, you might say. I made a show of looking it over, and I said it was all very doable. Only I was looking at her when I said it, and she was looking back, knowing exactly what I was after and having none of it." Wash grinned. "God, I love a challenge.
"I figured I'd spend a couple-three weeks puttering around on this derelict, try my charm on the dark goddess with the long legs, and be on my way when the Star of Londinium's shuttle docked with my contract. She tried to talk Mal out of letting me back on the ship, but he wanted me bad and she wasn't very persuasive. Guess she couldn't give him the real reason I made her nervous.
"So I chased her. She tried to avoid me when I was aboard, but I always had a reason to call her to the bridge, or go hunting her when she tried to make herself scarce. And I really can be charming; the first time I made her smile, I knew it was just a matter of time." He smiled at the memory for a second, then his face smoothed out again. "But somewhere in the process of talking her up, I started talking to her, looking at her as something more than a memorable experience in the making, and by the time she opened up to me, I wasn't after what I was before. The Star arrived and left without me."
Jayne gripped the seat arms. "Where are you goin with this?"
Wash shook his head. "I really don't know. Only, the look on your face when you talk about your little problem with the big eyes reminds me of that look on Zoë's, standing not a meter from where you're sitting, when I decided I had to have her."
"This ain't the start of some romance, flyboy. I don't even like her."
"Almost exactly what she told Mal."
A fist thumped on the other side of the door, and Zoë's face appeared in the small round window. Wash stood and opened the door. She looked around the bridge without stepping in. "We male bonding up here or some such?"
"Or something," Wash agreed as he slipped an arm around her and drew her in. "You're here for a reason, or just couldn't stay away any longer?"
She smiled, but slid out of his arm. "That'd count as a reason. But no. Captain'll be up here in a minute. It's about time."
"Seven minutes to deorbit burn, I know. I'm the pilot, remember?"
"Best in the 'verse." She gave Jayne another careful look. "We won't be in the air long. Best get ready."
Jayne left the bridge, but paused halfway down the short flight of metal stairs that led to the crew quarters. He heard Zoë say, "Tell me you're not trying to train him as a backup."
"Why not? The more people who can fly the better, I'd think."
"I wouldn't want him thinking he can fly Serenity if something happens to you, or if he's the only one aboard and decides he wants to be somewhere else. He challenges the captain too often for my peace of mind."
Softly, Wash said, "He's really not a bad guy, baby."
"He's never held a gun on you. And you'll remember he got his spot on this ship by turning on his last crew. I'll hang on to my opinion, till something happens to change it for me. And if River hasn't shown up by the time we're back into the black, I plan on mounting a search. And when I do, I'll be stickin close to Jayne with my hand on my gun till we find her."
In that moment, Jayne was sure she knew about Ariel. He'd been certain Mal wouldn't tell, but maybe River or the doc had dropped a hint. It wouldn't take much; Zoë had brains to go with her looks.
Jayne heard footsteps rising up the companionway from the lower deck. Mal stepped onto the deck, turned towards the bridge, and saw him on the stairs. They met at the bottom of the steps.
Mal spoke first. "You heard?"
"I heard a lot of things. You mean about landing?"
The captain nodded. "I want whoever meets us dirtside to see those boxes are bein closely watched by a very dangerous man. That's you. Load yourself down with fearsome ordnance and head for the cargo deck."
The ship quivered as it dropped into the blue, and the engines roared as they braked Serenity down from orbital velocity to zero. The artificial gravity held just fine, though; you'd have to look out a window for Wash's maneuvering to truly scare you. As Mal headed up the stairs to the bridge, Jayne took a few steps to the hatch opening into his room and kicked it open; hinged along the top edge, it swung back at the bottom to form the top six feet of his ladder. As he went down the ladder, he thought about what he'd take with him: a rifle and sidearm, maybe a utility vest with some grenades. Any more, he thought, would just make him look silly.
When his boot was two rungs above the floor, he heard River say, "I was starting to wonder if I'd have to go looking for you."
He froze. She was sitting cross-legged on his bunk, between him and his weapons. "Where you been all day?"
"Right here." The little crazy girl offered him a tiny smile. "You said I could stay down here as long as I liked."
"I didn't expect you to skip three meals down here."
"I didn't. You've got plenty of food stashed away."
Jayne dropped to the deck and approached her cautiously. "I only came for some stuff off my rack. I can't stay."
She nodded. "I know. Duty calls." She unfolded and stood aside.
He quickly picked out Vera, a web belt already loaded with grenades, and a semi-auto pistol with a clasp that attached to the belt. Then he turned for the ladder.
Behind him, she asked, "Will you come back afterwards?"
"Yeah, sure thing," and put a hand on the rung. He started when she placed hers over it.
She held his eyes and said, "Promise."
Bitterness rose up and tightened his throat. "Promise? What's any promise I make worth to you?"
She smiled again. "We'll see. Promise."
He exhaled heavily and nodded. "I promise." He climbed the ladder quickly without a downward glance.
He just couldn't figure folks sometimes.
Jayne stood on Serenity's lowered ramp, looking out at a crowd of plain-dressed farmers and farm wives and about a hundred kids. The landing site for their quiet smuggling operation looked like a carnival. All the hicks had brought their families to watch a real spaceship land and distribute its cargo. They'd actually cheered when the ramp had dropped. The racket from the milling crowd was drowning out the pings and creaks from the cooling hull and the whir of the pumps drawing air into the storage tanks. Jayne was sourly certain these people would come to regret not keeping better secrets.
But the crowd's leader had assured Mal that no Alliance patrols lay within a day's travel, and the spysat in polar orbit wouldn't be looking at this patch of ground for another twelve hours. So the rubes had made a party of the occasion. They'd brought picnic baskets, and the offloaded crates were being put into service as tables as soon as they were emptied. Jugs were being passed around among the men and some of the women.
Jayne curled his lip at the sight. It was a wonder this bunch hadn't been caught months ago.
"What's the matter, Jayne? Havin trouble gettin in the spirit of the occasion?" Mal sidled up in a disgustingly good mood. He'd been chumming up to the settlers for an hour, showing them how to use and care for their fancy weapons.
Jayne shook his head. "Look at em. You'd think it was the last days of the Alliance, like they're gonna march on the garrison and throw off the yoke of oppression. Like as not, most a these rifles gonna get rounded up by the authorities before they're ever fired in anger. And them as hid em will lose their farms or go to jail."
Jayne looked out over the bleak landscape. "You can tell from orbit this rock's a Class Three. These hicks are yelpin about self-government, and they don't even know if the terraforming's gonna hold yet. Their grandkids might be beggin the Alliance for a ride off New Beginnings while there's still air to breathe." He shook his head again. "Places like this don't rate garrisons unless they're damn troublesome. If the locals weren't so gorram noisy, they wouldn't know the Alliance existed. Who gives a care what color uniform the cops wear, or what flag's flyin over the courthouse?"
Mal stood silent through the whole speech, one of Jayne's longest. Then he looked out over the folks mingling around the ship. "The War's already in the history books. I got a look at one not too long ago. The Alliance is teachin every kid in school that it was a war of liberation, that the Independent Worlds were run by despots who'd see their people poor and sick and starving before they'd loose their grip and let the benefits of civilization come their way. Guess that would include my da. He was a Colony Councilman, a part-time job he squeezed in the time for while he tended our ranch. Most of his exercise of power was settling arguments over water and grazing rights, and tryin to get us all better deals with offworld vendors."
The Captain looked up at the sky. "Alliance has been runnin things all its own way for seven years now, and there's still plenty folks starvin and dyin of sickness outside the Core. But ore boats and grain barges lift from rocks like this every day, loaded with their bitty treasure, headed for the Central Worlds. Now, there's bound to be mistakes made in the runnin of a world. My way of thinking, those mistakes are best made by people livin close to the consequences, so maybe they'll learn from them."
Jayne pulled a cigar from his vest pocket and stuck it in his mouth unlit. "You know a couple crates of guns ain't gonna get the Alliance's boot off these people's necks."
Mal nodded. "I know it. They'll store em against a day of uprising that'll likely never come. But maybe havin one under the floorboards will let em feel like they've got a choice, at least, and make their days a little easier."
"Oughtta know better'n argue politics with a Browncoat. If you can get em to talk at all, they got an answer for everything. I hope you're not thinkin of makin this a regular run, Mal. Those guns are a trouble magnet. Money's not worth it."
"Speakin of that. The cargo's delivered and the pay's in my pocket. You don't need to stand sentry any more. Folks here are right sociable, and some of the girls are pretty. And you got a kind of adventuresome aura round you right now that draws em in. Doubt you'd have to cast an eye over your shoulder for irate fathers tonight."
Jayne had been looking over the selection. Clearly, toil and regular pregnancy aged women fast around here. But for a hand of years between puberty and childbirth, the girls did look presentable enough, and more than a few had been looking his way, trading giggles and secrets behind their hands. Their attitude, expressed so close to their parents, spoke of relaxed mores; females were expected to grow up fast on frontier worlds, and some even encouraged a girl to seek out men from outside the immediate gene pool. Not like the Central Worlds, where a girl River's age would be considered too young to marry or bear a child.
That thought brought him up short. With a shock, he realized the girl he'd been looking hardest at, and who was looking hardest at him, resembled Simon's sister. She was being egged on by her girlfriends to do something. One of them pressed a bowl of finger food into her hands, and another pushed her towards the ramp. The girl was digging her heels in, but for sure she wouldn't long. No rutting way. Not about to play that kind of game. "Not sure I'm ready to be mistook for a hero of the Resistance."
Mal gave him an odd look. "I suppose bein the Hero of Canton is accolades enough for any man."
This seemed to be a day for people to be reminding him of his lack of honor. He'd never hated any man as much as he'd hated himself that moment he'd pushed over that damn statue, and Mal knew it. Jayne never thought the man would throw it in his face, but he guessed he'd touched a nerve, talking about subjects the captain didn't usually discuss, and making small of folk who felt Mal's way about the Alliance enough to do something. "You're sure you're done with me?" The words came out rougher than he'd intended.
Mal nodded towards the group of prairie chicks, now ten steps from the bottom of the ramp. "Go on."
Jayne put the cigar back in his vest and turned up the ramp. "Headed for my bunk."
He met Zoë coming down the catwalk stairs, apparently headed outside. "Zoë. Seen Doc?"
She looked at him, blank-faced. "In sickbay last I saw, but he's not alone. You need him for something?"
He kept his poker face on, as well. "Just wanted to tell him I found River, and she's fine. He seems less worried about it than some, but he's her brother and got the most right to know, I'm thinkin."
"In my room, just before we touched down. She never left." Just to get a rise out of the mate, he said, "I think she's nestin in there."
"What are you gonna do?"
"I'm gonna tell her brother. Then I'm goin to bed. She doesn't snore or bother me, I'll let her hang around. Simon wants me to humor her, and I'm feelin mellow right now." He stepped past and into the passage leading to sickbay.
As soon as he poked his head into the ship's infirmary, he pulled it back out. "Sorry."
Kaylee said, "Come on in. There's nothing goin on." The regret in her voice was plain.
Jayne stepped in. Kaylee was sitting on the edge of the exam table, gently swinging her dangling feet. Simon sat on a stool nearby. The boy stood as Jayne entered. "Something wrong? Do you need something?"
"No. Just thought you might want to know. Your sister's been holed up in my room all day. I think she's waitin for me."
"There, you see?" Kaylee smiled at the doc. "All shiny. There's not a safer place for her on the ship."
Simon's expression made it plain he disagreed. "What are you going to do?"
"Guess I'll find out what she wants. But I'm not gonna let her run me out of my own room." He turned for the door. "May be the last mistake of my life, but I don't think she means any harm. And I'm rememberin your last words, Kaylee Frye."
"Why are you allus sittin on my bed?" He said in mock irritation as he descended the ladder.
"Where else would I sit, the floor? This is my best dress, and you're not that fussy a bachelor." River unfolded her legs and placed her bare feet together on the floor, next to her boots. He'd never noticed how slender and perfect her toes were before. "There. Does that make me seem more maidenly, more demure?"
Jayne hesitated with his foot poised a hand above the floor. The little moonbrain's speech was different from anything he'd heard from her before, and he wasn't sure how to take it. "Why would I want you to be… 'dee-mure'?"
"Seems you're goin to a pile of trouble for a chance to talk to me in riddles." He planted his feet on the deck.
She nodded. "It's not easy to start. Some ways, I know you better than a wife would. But in another sense, we've never met." She stood and offered him a hand, palm-down in the Central World way. "Hello. I'm River Tam."
Mal and Zoë stood side by side at the bottom of Serenity's loading ramp, watching the festive crowd. Mal remarked, "Been a day to remember, and that's a fact. I started it thinking I'd be findin bits of Jayne scattered all over his room."
"And I thought I might end it by shooting him, after I'd found River's body stuffed in a utility passage. What do you suppose is happening in there right now?"
"My mind kinda shies away when I try to think on it. But so long as it doesn't result in any alarms goin off, I'd say it's their business."
"Except for your weapons, this is the best-kept object in your room." Jayne watched River's fingertips trace over the body of the guitar hanging on his wall. She plucked each of the strings experimentally. "But it's out of tune. And you never play it, not even in memory." She laid her hand flat on the spot where the sound box and neck joined. "It's your brother's. Older brother. You adored him. He volunteered, put on a brown coat. Boarded a ship for a world you'd never heard of, and you saw him no more. That's why you quarrel with Mal when you think his ideals are running ahead of his sense."
He tensed. "Get out of my head, girl."
She shook her head. "I don't get in your head. You broadcast, a mind-wave that reaches anyone near. I'm just the only one picking up the transmission." She turned to him. "It isn't like your mind is a library I can browse through, and pick out a volume that catches my interest. It has to be something that's already on your mind, something you're thinking or feeling or remembering. But I can talk about what I'm picking up, and it leads your thoughts in that direction." She smiled. "Like I just did. And I'm flattered that you think I'm pretty."
He felt heat rising in his face. "I wasn't thinkin that!"
She looked down, still smiling. "Not just now, no."
Shepherd Book shook his head. "Why does the notion of a romance between Jayne and River vex me so? She'd be legal age on many worlds. And I'm sure Jayne's smart enough to avoid mistreating her. I tell myself that it's because she's not competent, but I feel as if that's not the whole story." He looked at Inara, his expression stern. "I dislike having my own motives a mystery to me."
Inara smiled with her eyes. "You're a Shepherd. She's a lost lamb. He's a wolf. What could be more obvious?"
River stared at Jayne's shirt. "Button-front. You only own two, and you leave them buttoned and pull them over your head, like all the others." She took a step towards him, as if something was pulling her. "You put these clothes on yesterday morning. You haven't bathed anything but your hands and face since. You're dusty and sweaty." She cocked her head, still staring at his chest. "And yes, getting within arm's length of you would offend my Core-bred sensibilities, if the Academy had left me any." She touched a fingertip to the topmost button he had fastened, just below his collarbone.
With a deft gesture, she undid it. He snatched her wrist as she reached for the next one down. "This ain't a good idea."
She looked up into his eyes. "I want to see the scar." She reached for the next button with her other hand. He let go of her wrist and sighed. Using two hands, River swiftly undid the front of his shirt, pulling it out of his pants to reach the last button, and opened it wide.
Despite the size of the wound, the scar wasn't all that obvious. Jayne was in charge of the kitchen cutlery, so the knife had been razor sharp, and the Doc was skilled. The evidence of River's mayhem was a thread-thin line that ran diagonally from his right pectoral to a hand below his left nipple, nearly hidden in his chest hair.
She touched a forefinger to it, much as she had his shirt button. "Does it hurt?"
"No. Pulls a little when I'm workin out sometimes, is all."
In a thoughtful voice, she said, "My rationale for doing it was a schizoid delusion, but that wasn't my motivation, not really. Have you ever been around a dog that constantly growled at you, until you wanted to kick it? Sometimes I could feel it coming from you even when your back was turned. I just wanted you to look at me differently." The corner of her mouth twitched. "Crazy, I know." With her two middle fingers, she delicately traced the line down his chest, making him shiver; he almost reached for her wrist again. "Worst hurt you ever took off someone you didn't kill." She stepped to within a hand's width of him, and tipped her head up. "Whatever you feel I owe you, take it now."
Simon shook his head slightly. "Sometimes I wonder if I'll ever find a cure, if there's even a cure to be found. That's when I wonder if I'm doing the right thing by her, with all my treatments and testing. Whether I'm doing it for her, or just having a flight of ego." He looked around the tiny infirmary, with its worn furnishings and dated equipment. "At MedAcad, a hundred people a day used to look to me for help or instruction. Famous physicians would clap my shoulder and offer me a place in their firms. Am I obsessing over her treatment for her sake, or to prove I'm still a good doctor? Because this doesn't seem like a place for a good doctor?"
"Well, it is," Kaylee said firmly. "Good doctors go where they're needed, at least where I come from. And anybody with eyes can see how much you love her. You'd never put yourself ahead of her."
He raised his eyes in the general direction of crew quarters. "I feel like I should be doing something."
"And I feel there's such a thing as doin too much. I'll say it again, there's no safer place for her than with him."
"How can you be so positive?" His mouth turned up in a smile. "Never mind, you're always positive."
She dimpled at the compliment. "And maybe I just know him better than you do." As his face blanked and he opened his mouth to speak, she grabbed his hand. "Come outta here."
"Where are we going?"
She tugged him toward the passage leading to the cargo bay. "I hear a fiddle out there. I'm gonna help you dance your troubles away. Don't worry so. They'll be fine."
Jayne seized River's upper arms. "You don't owe me a Gor-ram thing. Are you crazy?" She smiled briefly at his choice of words before he shook her, hard enough to make her head wobble on her shoulders. "After what I done?" He let her go and stepped back until his calves bumped his bunk. "You misread me a minute ago, girl. I was wonderin how you could stand to be within arm's length of me, right enough, but I wasn't thinkin about how I smell. Don't you get it? I sold you to em!"
"I was there, remember?" She glided towards him. "I know what you did, better than you do, I think. Believe me when I say that Ariel is the reason I'm here now."
She closed to touching distance. He leaned back, too far. His feet slid forward, he lost his balance, and he toppled backwards into his bunk. He landed on his elbows, looking up at her.
River looked down on him with a smile playing around her mouth. "You see, you haven't growled at me since Ariel."
"I sold you to em," he said again, softer. "I got stupid…"
"The money was too good. Yes, I know that's what you told Mal. But it wasn't the truth, it was just a lie he could accept. The exact same reward wasn't good enough when the lawman offered it, my first week aboard. You didn't do it for the money. You were removing a threat. You were protecting your friends, when they were too blind and sentimental to do the only smart thing."
She leaned over and placed her palm on his bare chest. "In the imaging room, when Simon showed you what they'd done to me, you started having second thoughts about giving me up to them. I think you would have changed your mind then, if you could. But the wheels were in motion. The Alliance knew we were in the hospital, and you were sure they didn't trust you enough not to guard all the exits. The only thing left was to go through with it. You tried to smother your guilt by concentrating on the big payday, but your heart wasn't in it. You overpowered the guard and rescued us first chance you got."
"You are crazy. I was saving myself, that's all."
"Then why take us with you? Your chances of escape were better without us. Simon and I would never have got away without you, especially in shackles. All you had to do was leave us cuffed and take the key with you. And if you'd come back to Serenity alone, you'd have had your pick of excuses. Instead, you brought us along, and Simon's account of events raised Mal's suspicions." She smiled down at him. "He wasn't going to space you, by the way, or he wouldn't have bothered to talk first. He was already sure of your guilt, though, else he wouldn't have clobbered you with that wrench. He just wanted you to admit the truth, and wanted to be sure you'd never do it again." She shook her head. "If I'd been coherent, I could have told him you'd never do it again. On Ariel, you finally picked sides."
She knelt beside the bed, and laid her head on his chest. "Simon is a wonderful brother. But he's given up so much, it's like he's not a whole person anymore. Taking care of his crazy little sister is too big a job. He needs someone to share the load with him." She patted his chest. "Someone like you."
"You don't look like you need anybody takin care of you anymore. And that's something I don't get. You're cured, right? Why ain't your brother shoutin it from the catwalk?"
"He doesn't know. No one does. It's our secret."
"That's going to take some explaining." She slid onto the bed and spread across him, taking up the chin-on-forearms position from this morning. "Right now, I can sort all the images that come in from other people, or tune them out entirely. The drug is helping me do that. Without it, I can't turn it off, and I can't make sense of what I experience. One time, I stepped into the galley and saw you stab a stranger with a knife as big as a gladius. I still don't know if it really happened, or if it was a memory, or you just imagined doing it. I don't even know if it was your thought or someone else's. For all I know, I simply dreamed it.
"Since the Academy, almost every moment of my life, awake or asleep, is like that. Without the drug's effect, I have no control over the power, and no sense of reality. That's what produces the schizophrenia. That's what the surgeries were for, to give them a means of directing my ability without my cooperation. But they also robbed me of any ability to direct it myself. They didn't care if I was crazy with confusion and fear whenever they weren't using me. That made me a better tool.
"When the drug took hold, I was still awash in memories of all these insane images. I had to mull them over, explore the ship and its occupants and make comparisons, so I could make some sense of it all. I'm sure I didn't seem any saner at first; I didn't feel any saner. Once I was me again, and sure of my surroundings, I decided not to tell. That's why I've been hiding, so no one will notice."
"I'll say it again. Why?"
"Because there's no guarantee it will work. My brother told you that."
"Guarantee? It's workin on you, for certain."
She shook her head gently. "He didn't tell you the whole story. He said the drugs produce amazing results, but only on a small minority. He should have said that they produce amazing results on most subjects… but it's only permanent on a tiny fraction of them."
The temperature of the room seemed to drop. "You don't know if you're gonna slip back? When?"
She shrugged. "It varies. Perhaps six weeks, perhaps an hour from now. Regardless, Simon has to wait six weeks between doses to purge the previous drug from my system before he tries the next. I just hope I get some warning." She added, "It was kind of scary, waiting for you, not knowing if you'd get back in time."
"Why keep it a secret? Especially from your brother?"
A look of pain crossed her face. "I don't know how much more he can take. If he sees me the way he remembers me, and loses me again..."
"You gotta tell him. How'll he know whether the drug is workin?"
She buried her face in his chest. "I'm not ready for that. I couldn't stand to feel his eyes on me, waiting every moment for… the chaos to break over me like a wave and carry away my sanity. I'm frightened enough as it is."
He felt his chest wet with warm tears, and he suddenly realized he was holding her. He stroked her hair. "Hush, little one. It'll be all right. We'll do it together."
"No. You're right. I need to tell him. I'm just not ready yet."
"You're one brave little girl, you know that?"
She shook her head softly. "It's easy to be brave when you've got no choice." She shifted. "Easy to be brave when there's still plenty of hope. There are fourteen of these meds. I'm on the first. We'll see how brave I am a year and a half from now when I'm down to my last one, after I've gone through this thirteen times. After he's gone through this thirteen times. He's dancing with Kaylee, at the party outside." Her voice got distant, like she'd taken a step back from herself. "She's plying him with the settlers' homemade wine. If she gets him insensible enough, she'll gather her courage and steal a kiss." She smiled. "The thought gives her so much innocent pleasure, it's hard to believe she once had sex with five different men on the same day."
"Coulda gone a lifetime not knowin that."
"Sorry. Zoë and Mal are together outside; she won't willingly leave him alone among strangers, even when they're as friendly as these. They both carry scars given them by people they trusted, you see. Wash is on the bridge, high above, the hawk on its perch, watching above and below. He's uneasy with the ship grounded and the Alliance somewhere overhead, too distracted even to play with his little sister's old toys. Ship on the ground reminds him of the crash. Shepherd and Inara are dancing too, dancing with words, entertaining each other, drawing strength from each other. Every one of them thinks we're having sex."
His grip on her tightened. "I know."
She looked up at him, smiling that smile again. "The girl. Did you reject her because she looked like me, or because she wasn't really me?"
"It's not happenin."
"Perhaps not. But even I don't know what the future holds. And I don't have to be a psychic to know you'd like to. But you're a man of honor, and it wouldn't be right." Her voice got distant again. "He's strongest because he's so close, and he's alone with his thoughts. He did you a kindness today. He's so sentimental, and he thinks you might fall in love with me."
"What a moonbrain idea." Jayne snugged her a little tighter against him, tucking the top of her head under his jaw. The smell of her hair was better than flowers. "A girl who tried to carve me up like a side a beef."
She tipped her head up, brushing his chin with her lips. "He's attracted to dangerous women, or haven't you noticed?" She settled her ear against his bare chest again. "He was Alliance military, a pilot, did you know? Orbital and atmospheric assault craft."
"Heard somethin. Got shot down early in the War and took prisoner."
"His first sortie of the War. Not shot down. He was too good for that – top marks in training and simulations and live exercises. It was a crash, a mechanical malfunction. He was badly hurt. The Independents who took him prisoner didn't have much in the way of surgical aid, and he didn't heal well. When the Alliance took the moon he was held on a year and a half later, he was so crippled he couldn't board the hospital shuttle without help. It was a long convalescence. By the time he was fit for duty, the war theater was shrinking, and the Alliance already had all the pilots it needed. His old unit went to Hera without him."
Somehow, his fingers had got wound up in her hair. He drew them across the back of her head, and felt the tiny ridge of a scar. Then another. He stilled his hand, for fear of finding more.
If she noticed, she gave no sign. "He was an instructor at a flight school with no students until the War ended, then he took his discharge and freelanced until he met Mal. Only Zoë knows the whole story. And not a week goes by that he doesn't wake at least once during the night and feel her beside him, and thank God he wasn't with his unit when it carpet-bombed Serenity Valley."
He tensed. "You want to keep that kinda stuff close. Hard enough on folks, knowin you can read their minds, when they think you're too scatterbrained to understand em."
"I know. But I can tell you anything."
He shook his head. "And how did you pick me to trust?"
"Because you're the only person I can confide in who'll act as an ally and keep it close. Who won't share the information or try to use it, or treat me like I'm dangerous because I know things I shouldn't. Even Inara, Princess of Secrets. Or Derrial Book, a man…" She smiled. "Maybe this would be a good time to start practicing discretion."
"Don't try to explain how it works," Mal said. "What's it supposed to do?"
Simon looked uncomfortable, the captain thought. Mal, Simon, Zoë, and Kaylee were outside, sitting on crates at a slight remove from the rowdiest of the festivities. Maybe it was the hard seat, or the uncivilized dust and commotion all around; maybe it was the prospect of having to dummy down an explanation of his work into terms a tramp freighter captain could understand. Or maybe, Mal thought, it was the tipsy little red-haired mechanic hanging off his shoulder. "Well, it's a one-dose cure, like the treatment for diabetes. It takes about six weeks to metabolize, and while it's in the patient's system, it's supposed to enable the brain to establish new connections to replace those lost by disease or trauma. There's a whole family of these medications, tailored for damage to specific functions. None of them matches up with River's condition, precisely, so I'm administering them one after the other – hopefully until I find one that works."
Zoë seemed skeptical. "Why not give them to her all at once? Overdose?"
Simon shook his head. "Incompatible. Some of them work against each other when taken together. They have to be administered one at a time, and an unsuccessful drug has to be completely metabolized before I can introduce the next one."
"So could this sudden interest in Jayne be a side effect?"
Simon shrugged. "Sometimes an unsuccessful drug will produce erratic behavior, but it's rare. The commonest effect is an apparent cure."
Mal felt his brow wrinkle. "Come again?"
The boy's face sagged, and he looked bleak. "In about seventy percent of the cases where there's any reaction, the drug returns the patient to normal function. But the effect lasts only between seven and forty days."
Kaylee gave a little gasp. "So you could have her back for weeks, and think she's all better, and then… that's awful."
"I don't imagine it would be pleasant for her, either." Simon's lids drooped. "We were spared that, anyway, at least the first time."
"You and my brother are opposite sides of a coin, you know." Her fingertips traced the scar again. "You're hard and rough on the outside, and deep inside, there's a streak of sentiment and nobility and honor. For years, you've been hiding it, living among men who'd take it as a sign of weakness, until you forgot you had it.
"My brother impresses everyone with his gentility and kindness, and people who see him dote on me think he's incapable of anything base. But it takes more than good grades and dedication to your craft to excel at a snakepit like MedAcad. He broke plenty of rivals on his way to the top three percent. And he had to be ruthless to be taken seriously by the Resistance, the people who got me out of the Academy. Money wasn't enough to win their support." She shivered. "He's done things he'll never talk about. But, if he feels he has to, he's ready to do them again."
Mal hunched forward. "This stuff doesn't sound like something you pick up at a frontier trading post. Where'd you get it?"
Simon dropped his chin, but Mal caught the look he tried to hide anyway. The captain had never seen the boy smirk before; it was downright strange how natural the look sat on his face. "On our stopover on Persephone last week. I got it from Badger."
At the mention of the little gangster's name, Mal let out a curse involving parentage and sexual practices that could only be properly delivered in Chinese. "How did he get his hands on it? And what did he want for it?"
The smirk was still firmly on Simon's face. "Nothing. As for how it came into his hands and then to mine, well, that's a little story."
Kaylee smiled. "Oh, I gotta hear this."
"I was shopping for supplies to restock the infirmary, and for once, they weren't hard to find. After word of our big score from St. Lucy's got around, there was a rash of similar heists on Central World hospitals until security was tightened. Most of the other thieves didn't have expert guidance, though; they mostly stole whatever was closest to hand. A case containing the whole series was included in a consignment of stolen pharmaceuticals Badger was selling on commission. I nearly dropped my shopping list when I saw it."
Zoë smiled. "He didn't know what he had."
"Not a clue. He asked me what it was, and if it was worth anything. If he'd known what it was worth to me, I'd have been paying him in installments until the end of time. I told him it was an inoculation series for Crook's Disease."
"'Crook's Disease'." Zoë lifted a sculpted eyebrow.
"Made it up," Kaylee said sleepily. "Didn't you?"
Simon nodded. "I thought it sounded pretty good. A neurological disorder found only on Core Worlds where broadcast power transmission is widespread. Nonexistent out on the Rim. I told him there was a bare chance of selling it insystem, but the stuff wasn't that expensive on the legitimate market." He gave a little head shrug. "I can't imagine where he got the idea that I'm incapable of lying with a straight face. I dropped the subject and started haggling with him over the stuff I'd come to buy. Like I said, it's a buyer's market right now. He offered to throw in the 'noc case to sweeten the deal."
Mal felt his cheeks stretching. "So, how much are they really worth?"
"If you could find a buyer?" He shrugged. "You could probably buy another ship with the money." He regarded the captain carefully.
Mal shook his head. "Your deal and your profit, doc. Just hearin how you played the little weasel's cut enough for me. If there's any left over after your sister's cured, maybe we'll revisit that. But are you sure he's the one got played? Sure he didn't sell you a case full of colored water?"
Another new look appeared on the boy's face, one that made him seem older and harder. "Captain, I know you think I'm naïve and inexperienced. And I am, in many respects. But no backwater hooligan is going to gull me about medicine."
But Mal wasn't so sure. Badger was crude but clever, and it would tickle him to put one over on Mal's stick-up-the-arse Core-bred medic. It seemed awfully convenient that Badger just happened to have exactly what Simon needed, just when he needed it.
"Mal." Wash's voice over the outside speaker, rising with urgency, made the hairs on Mal's neck prickle. So did the whine of the starboard drive pod, almost directly behind them, as it wound up, and he nearly jumped out of his skin when the takeoff klaxon sounded. "We gotta go."
Wash conducted a hasty preflight as he made sure everyone was aboard. No one answered com in the Shepherd's room, but he found him and Inara both with a call to her shuttle. Next, he called Jayne. "Big man."
"We're bugging out. Is River with you?"
"Right here," came River's voice. "We're both here."
"Both of you hold on to something."
"We're doing that," she said.
He missed a switch he'd been reaching for and had to go back for it. "Uh, something that won't shift on you, mei-mei."
A giggle. "Well, of course. You really expect the grav to go?"
"It'd be the most inopportune time imaginable. So yes. Washburn's Law." He switched off and buckled in while he waited for the shore party to check in from the cargo bay. It occurred to him that River had sounded awfully well-wrapped. And neither of them had asked what was going on.
"Honey?" His darling's voice. "We're all in. Doors are shut. What-"
The engines roared as he applied power, pivoted Serenity a hundred twenty degrees on its center of mass, and took off like a rabbit, ten meters above the ground.
Half a minute later, Mal and Zoë pushed onto the bridge. Mal said, "I hope you didn't toast any customers."
He shook his head, eyes glued to the bouncing view in the window and the terrain features on the look-down scanners. "Got past before I kicked it. A few of the ladies in dresses might have had their modesty assailed, though."
"You know, I don't recall ordering a departure. Or a course."
"You hired me for my expertise, Mal. If you want-"
"Just making an observation. What are we doing?"
"When we dropped out of orbit, I left a can behind," he said, referring to the coffee-can-sized devices he and Kaylee tinkered together for various mischief-making. "Just a little eavesdropper. Someone's sending instructions to the spysat that sound like orbital changes. Care to speculate where they're sending it?"
He twisted the yoke to guide the ship between two low hills that seemed close enough to touch as they flashed by. "Five minutes, maybe. We're moving perpendicular to its line of flight, and staying low to use the terrain features for cover and get under the horizon quick as we can." He tapped the rear view screen, which showed a rooster tail of dirt behind them, and trees exploding in showers of leaves. "Could have gone the opposite way, but we'd have had to overfly a couple towns."
"Doesn't appear you're flying very 'over' anything. Our engines are making a hell of a mess back there."
"That's not the engines," he said. "It's shockwave. Sonic boom. We'll slow down in a minute, to hide our trail. But we'll still be flying between the trees."
"Huh. How much longer we have to cheat death before we lose the sat?"
"Five minutes. We'll just be out of sight at closest approach."
He felt a pat on his shoulder. "Good work. Earned your pay today."
"That reminds me. When did I last get paid?"
But Mal was gone.
His wife's arms wound carefully around his neck, and her full, pillowy lips brushed the back of his head. "My man."
His warm fuzzy feeling was interrupted by a heavy thump from the bottom of the stairs. "What was that?"
The warmth left her voice. "That'll be the captain thinking about the settlers we left behind. They'll never find cover or get away in time. Alliance'll have half of them in the bag by dawn, and the rest by nightfall." She straightened. "Hope Simon's in the infirmary to fix his knuckles."
River put her arms around his neck and laid her ear against his chest. "Safe now. We're lifting, clearing atmo with the planet between us and the satellite. The others are a stew of thoughts and emotions, makes me dizzy. Hard to shut it all out." She was quiet for a time. Her breathing grew heavier, and he thought she was falling asleep until she said, "It wasn't your fault. It was self-defense, and you didn't mean to kill her. She went after you with a knife too. But when you backhanded her, the corner of a table was waiting for her temple, greedy and cruel." She jerked her head up to stare at him wide-eyed. "No. You really thought I'd be safer with them?"
"I was stupid. Ignorant. I thought your brother was makin it all up, what they did to you, or exaggeratin. I figured you were crazy to begin with, an he just couldn't admit it. Talked myself right into it. Then he showed me." One of his hands was at the small of her back, the other twined in her hair. He touched the back of her head, and started counting scars. He found seven without half trying.
"Stop," she said. "Don't. Or don't stop." She sighed and shifted on top of him, and his breathing roughened. "Zoë is on the bridge with Wash and she's touching him. He just switched on the autopilot while she latched the door. They're going to make love in there again. I'm catching a sidelobe, resonating to their frequency. I can, I can feel your hands all over me."
He twisted under her, as if to throw her off. "You better leave now. Go find your brother. Mebbe he's got a test or something can tell whether you're cured."
"The only test is time." But she stood. "I do need to go, though. You were right. I need to talk to him, hard as it's going to be for us. He needs to see me, and know the drug's effect." She bent to kiss his forehead; when she brushed his hair back, he felt her hand trembling. "Thank you for being here for me." When she put a foot on the bottom rung of the ladder, she said, "Goodbye, Jayne Cobb."
He could feel the blood leave his limbs. "Why you talkin like that?"
"You know." She ascended carefully. "I feel my control slipping. I'm starting to see things. I think I have time to find my brother, but I won't be talking to you again." She rose out of sight as she talked, and he heard the door creak and thump open. "Remember me, and I'll try to remember you."
Jayne sat alone in the ship's lounge – a highfalutin word, he thought, for a couple of tatty couches and a low table tucked into the dead space near the sickbay – pulling on a liter jug of slash, a gift from Kaylee. She'd offered it to him with solemn eyes when he'd come drifting into the engine room an hour before, after most of a very quiet day with River nowhere in sight. "I know better'n to tell you to cut it, or stop 'fore it's gone. But a jugful of this could kill ya. Best find someone to share it." When he'd asked her to partake with him, she'd shaken her head. "This is nothin you share with a woman, Bear." He knew she wasn't talking about the 'shine. Some ways, plain-hearted Kay-Kay could see into a man's soul better than Inara.
But, really, what man on board could he share this trouble with? How could he make anybody understand, when he couldn't get his own head around it?
"I need to talk to you." Simon stood on the other side of the table, looking down at him. Only way you've ever looked at me, even when we're face-to-face, and me two hands taller. No, that's not true. You looked at me with different eyes for a little while after Ariel, before you found out.
"Zat so?" He took another pull.
"River asked me to."
He blinked. "Was she crazy when she said it?"
A pause. "No. It was just before she… slipped away."
Another pull. "Where's she at now?"
"I don't know. Wandering the ship, staring at things no one else can see."
"Which ain't the same as sayin she's seein things ain't really there." He set the jug on the table. "Come to talk, huh? Waste a time."
That means everything to you, does it? "I mean, waste a time talkin to a drunk. They never make any sense." He pushed the jug across the table. "Less you're drinkin too."
Simon looked at the jug suspiciously. Jayne laced his fingers behind his head. "Fraid a germs? Or jus' too good to share a bottle with a Rim rat like me?"
"I'll be right back." Simon disappeared into the sickbay, and Jayne smiled slyly at his shoes until the boy returned.
The younger man reached for the jug and took a cautious sip. He coughed, set it down hastily, and pinched his nose, eyes watering. "Sure isn't sake. Don't think we have to worry about germs. You could power a rocket with this. Why would anyone want to drink it?"
Jayne smiled. "Great stuff. Holy water. Gives you the strength of ten men an the wisdom of the ages. But you gotta be worthy. Gotta pass the test."
He nodded. "Gotta survive the first swallow." He watched the doctor reach for the jug again. Mal's right. Whatever else he is, he ain't weak. "So, what are we s'posed to talk about? She say?"
"No. She just asked me to talk to you alone for an hour." The boy wet his lips with the slash and shivered. "God, this stuff tastes awful."
"You're not supposed to taste it. You're doin it all wrong. Toss it to the back a your throat while you hold your breath. Inhale after you swallow."
Simon tipped back his head and followed Jayne's instructions. When he lowered the jug, he said, "I can feel it all the way down."
Jayne nodded. "Now you're doin it right. One more time."
The boy duplicated his feat. "Not so bad after all." He blinked. "Is my voice lower, or did something happen to my ears?"
Jayne pretended to study them. "Nope. Still there."
Inara looked up from her devotions to see River drift through the door of her shuttle. "He only wants one kiss, his real price, not that he ever expects it. It should be right. All I know comes secondhand. Defies calculation or analysis. Need a teacher when I'm me." She paused at the shelf holding the tiny lacquered box that held her syringe and placed her fingertips on its lid. "He loved you, you know. They kept him from you. Persephone's the deadline, the destination, the delivery. Just a kiss." She drifted back towards the door.
"A kiss for whom? Jayne?"
River answered in a thick Titan accent. "For the cock-a-walk in the derby hat."
"Did you and Kaylee ever…"
"Wouldn' be gen'manly to say." He took a long pull. "Would it make a difference?"
Simon took the jug from his hand and stared down into it. "Only if knowing helps me understand her." He took a quick swig, coughed, and handed it back.
"Ah, hell. I ain' no gen'lman anyway. Almost happened once. But it was too dangerous."
Jayne nodded. "Hardly ever been with a woman who wasn't ready to turn her back on me with a smile, soon's the money ran out, an' us both knowin it at the start. Longest I ever been with one was six weeks, when I was doin strongarm stuff on a skyplex, setup kinda like Niska's." His hand idly rested on his side, and rubbed the spot where the point of Wenda's kitchen knife had come out. "Didn't end well. Kaylee mighta been willin, but I didn' wanna risk bein locked up in a steel can for weeks on end with an ex-lover." He took another pull. "Anyways, that chance ended when you boarded, Three Percent." He started to pass over the half-empty jug, but paused. "What's your problem with her? Why you allus so stiff around her?" And if you give me the smallest hint you think she's not good enough for you, he thought, I'll clock you with this here bottle, River's brother or no.
Simon stared down into his lap. "I'm afraid to move. I don't know… the dimensions of the pedestal she's put me on. I could make the smallest step in the wrong direction and fall off."
Jayne snorted and passed the jug over, then reached over to tip the bottom up just as Simon was taking a swallow, grinning as he watched the boy cough and choke. "Hell, sooner the better, y'ask me. Ain' no room for both a ya up there, now izzere?"
Simon passed the jug back. "My God. You're making sense. I mus' be drunk." The smile disappeared from his face, and his eyes opened wide. "I am drunk! How…"
Jayne smiled into the neck of the bottle. "Ever notice, those li'l blue cold pills in the med'cine cabinet look juss like them drunk pills in sickbay?"
"You switched - you're stealing meds from sickbay?" Suddenly the doc sounded a lot more sober.
"Ah, hell, doc, I'm the only one you ever give em to. That pract'ly makes em mine." He closed his eyes and leaned back. "Made some real money with em too. Lotta hick worlds on the Rim never heard of anti-intox'cant."
"You sold them, then?"
"Ah, hell no. Them kinda places, you wouldn' believe how much money changes hands over drinkin contests. Always some local champ who's a heavy favorite." He smiled, eyes still closed. "The rubes get plenty entertained. I'm quite a showman, actin ready to fall over when their boy is barely wobblin, somehow holdin on like grim death while the bets double and triple. Heh." He took a swig and offered it to Simon.
But the boy didn't reach for it. "What did you do with the money?"
He held the bottle outstretched. "You never noticed we been eatin better since Ariel? Even after we give up our take on the hospital job to Niska?"
Simon closed his hand around the neck of the bottle. "Atonement? Apology?"
"Money's more honest than words, doc."
Mal crept cautiously down the catwalk stairs behind his mate. Her crouching posture and careful tread reminded him of a time or two they'd played urban commando during the War. He said in a low voice, "Don't you think it's time you told me-"
Zoë turned and waved her hand rapidly, urging silence; then she gave him another hand signal, an old one advising a stealthy approach. They descended to the cargo bay floor, and she indicated the open hatch leading to sickbay. They reached it on cat's feet, and she placed a finger to her lips just as the sound of laughter drifted out. Mal cautiously stuck his head through.
Simon and Jayne sat side by side on the couch in the lounge, passing a two-thirds empty jug back and forth. The doc said something indistinct, and they both grinned. Then Jayne muttered something as he lifted the jug to his lips, and the doc fisted him in the shoulder. Jayne snorted and punched Simon's, and the boy slid bonelessly off the couch onto the floor, whereupon the two of them laughed until they were breathless and tears streamed.
Mal withdrew his head and looked at his second-in-command. With his lips almost touching her ear, he whispered, "Ever think you'd see the day?"
"Not sure I've seen it yet. If Simon falls down a flight of stairs or something tonight, I'm gonna be mighty suspicious."
Still sitting on the floor, Simon rested the jug in his lap instead of passing it back and stared at it. "Why do you always act like such a moron?" He took another swallow. Before Jayne could answer, he went on, "You know what I mean. You've got no higher ed'cation, but you're clever. And sometimes you use a vocab'lary that doesn't come from a prairie school. Why?"
"Well, hell, doc, take a look at me. What kinda first impression do I make?"
Simon gave him a lopsided grin. "Scary."
"Uh huh. That's handy for 'voidin trouble sometimes, but a small man with a gun's more dangerous than a big one, cause they feel threatened easier. Now, which seems more threat'nin? A big mean clever man, or a big mean dumb one?" He reached for the jug and took a pull. "Sometimes in my line a work it pays to be unnerestimated, too." He raised the jug to his lips again, paused, and set it down untasted. "Thing is, it gets to be a habit, an you do it when there's no need."
"Is that why you pretend you can hardly read when you get a letter from home?"
"Huh. You never seen my ma's han'writin." It was his turn to set the jug in his lap and stare at it. "Love her, I think."
Simon's eyes, half closed, opened slightly. "What?"
"Wha'd you just say?"
"Don' remember." Only three fingers of clear liquid remained in the jug. He stood carefully, reached down, grabbed the back of Simon's shirt, and pulled him to his feet. "C'mon, doc, we gotta pay a visit."
They found Kaylee in the engine room. Her eyes widened prettily as they stumbled in, brushing the sides of the doorway. Simon tripped over the sill and would have sprawled if Jayne hadn't had an arm around his shoulders. Jayne grinned at her. "He followed me home. Can I keep im?"
"Oh, for a capture right now. You boys gonna remember this in the morning?"
"One c'n hope," Simon said blurrily. "Kaylee, did I ever tell you how 'dorable you are, with a li'l smidge of grease on your cheek?"
"Ack!" She reached for a rag and wiped at her face and hands. "What are you doing here?"
Jayne held out the jug. "Me an Three Percent got juss a lil more sharin to do."
She took it cautiously. "What sort of 'sharing' you got in mind?"
He snorted. "Juss a lil drink an conversation with a girl we're both crazy bout. Drink up, Kaylee Frye. We had enough for now. Join the party."
After an hour or so of lighthearted and sometimes insensical conversation in the sunshine of Kaylee's presence, and watching a girl who could get smashed on half a bottle of wine grow blurry on 190-proof, Jayne excused himself and shuffled down the corridor towards his room to relieve himself. Getting down the ladder was a life-threatening experience, but it wasn't his first, and he did it. He'd half expected River to be waiting for him, but the room was empty, and somehow barer than he remembered. He did his business, and then eyed the bed and considered falling into it.
River's boots still sat on the floor at the corner of his bunk.
He climbed up carefully and made his way back towards the engine room.
There were no sounds coming through the open hatch. He stuck his head inside and looked around, and spotted them in a little nook towards the back where Kaylee had a hammock strung against the wall. They were sleeping in it, arms around each other, snug as puppies in a box. The empty jug rested on the deck underneath them. He studied the scene for a time, then shook his head. "This won't do."
He disentangled the two sleepers and lifted Simon's limp form out of the hammock, being careful not to dump Kaylee out, and set him gently on the floor. Then he went to work on the little redhead, getting her out of her clothes and scattering them all over the engine room. He blamed the drink in his system for allowing his hands some liberties as they revisited a few favorite places, places they hadn't touched since Kaylee had whispered three little words that had sent him out of her room half-dressed in his panic.
He put that thought aside and turned his attention to Simon, pulling his shoes and shirt and pants off him and flinging them likewise all over the room. He pulled off the boy's shorts and stared for a moment, dumbfounded. "Huh. Well, that oughtta keep her happy." He lifted him into the hammock and tangled the pairs' naked limbs. He tensed as Kaylee stirred, but she only settled into the boy's arms and snored softly.
He thought about covering them with Kaylee's light blanket and decided against, winding it around their feet instead; there should be no opportunity for modesty or quiet escape. He smiled as he surveyed the scene. "Try keepin her at arm's length after this, Three Percent."
He stepped out of the engine room just as Zoë appeared at the head of the companionway. She looked him over, assessing his condition - looking for signs of a struggle, he supposed. "Where did you leave Simon?"
He nodded back towards the engine room. "Back there."
She started towards him. "Let's get him to his room. You can't leave him there. What if Kaylee finds him?"
"Already did." He put an arm across the passage, barring her way. "Wouldn't, if I were you."
She looked at him with flat eyes. He didn't need to look to know her hand was on the butt of her gun. "Drop your arm and step aside."
He complied. "Warned ya." He watched her take four steps into the room and go still as a pole. Then she backed out without turning until her heel touched the sill. When she turned, she was redder than he'd thought a black woman could be. She glared as she passed by on her way to the bridge.
He let her get a few steps past. "Zoë."
She turned to him, face clouded and still ruddy.
He looked into her eyes. "Most of my grown life, I've lived like a jackal. The crew I was with when I met you wasn't the worst I've known, but if I'd turned you down and you'd offered ten percent to the next in line, he'd a shot me sure as the turnin of worlds, an not in the leg either. You didn't know it, I guess, but you gave me no choice but join you or die. I haven't spent time with anyone I could turn my back on since I was sixteen. That fella on Canton might have been different, but I had no trust in me by then, and no fit partner for a man who did. I'm not used to bein with people I can count on, and count on me. It's like strong drink, it makes you feel good and do stupid things besides. It takes getting used to, and I know I'm not there yet. You're right to keep an eye on me. Just make sure you're right before you pull a gun on me, that's all I'm sayin."
"I never pull a gun unless I'm certain."
He wasn't sure what she meant by that, but he nodded anyway. "This ain't the most luc… lucr'… money-makin gig I ever had, not by a long shot. But it's the best. You might think it's the slash talkin, but it's not. Simon Tam's a better friend than I ever had before I come here, and that's a fact. I won't forget that in the morning, Zoë Washburn."
"We'll see." She turned and went to join her husband.
"Juss one more thing."
She turned back. "You sure? Stars are dying out there while you finish up."
"Where I come from, respectable women don't spend much time out of the house."
"Glad you weren't born on a world like that. This ship an crew are better cause you're here."
"Actually, I did come from a world like that." She turned away. "Had to shoot my way out."
He snorted and choked, and looked up just in time to see her smile over her shoulder as she walked away.
You get her to smile, and it's just a matter of time.
He made his way to his bunk, weary again. He carefully slid the little boots under his bunk, stripped down to skivvies and stretched out with his hands under his head. Softly, he said, "Moonbrain?"
"You out there somewhere, crazy girl?" He imagined his voice traveling through ducts and pipes and access crawlways, growing fainter with distance, until it found her in some secret space only she knew. "Wherever you're at, don't you forget about us. Wherever you go, you remember there's folks care about what happens to you, an miss you when you're gone. You come back to us."
Then it occurred that she didn't need the sound of his voice to know his mind.
"G'nite, River Tam. See ya soon." He drifted off, and dreamed of her.