Muddy Waters

Author owns nothing except the ideas, and writes only for his own amusement and entertainment.

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Inara emerged from her shuttle after a good night's sleep. The smoother had knocked her out but good, and she had slept through the night. Rising early, before any of the others, she decided to surprise them with breakfast.

Pulling a heavy robe around her to combat the cool air of Serenity's night cycle, she walked to the galley. Working quickly and quietly she prepared the morning meal. Just as she was putting the finishing touches on it, Jayne wandered into the galley, sniffing the air, looking for all the world like a great bear, following his nose to a bee hive.

"Good morning, Jayne," Inara said.

"Mornin', 'Nara," Jayne smiled back. "Boy, that smells great!" he exclaimed, looking at the table.

"Thank you," Inara smiled. "Take a seat. I'll call the others."

"Need me to do anything?" Jayne asked, moving to his seat, but waiting to take it.

"No, I actually have everything ready. Just sit, while we wait on the others." Inara hit the com, calling the others.

"Breakfast is ready! Come and get it before I give it all to Jayne!" Jayne chuckled at that, taking his seat.

"I 'preciate you straightenin' all that out yesterday, Inara," Jayne told her as they waited.

"No problem, Jayne," Inara assured him. "I thought I could help, but instead made it worse. Well," she amended, "I didn't make it worse, I suppose. River's a very. . .well, teenager," Inara shrugged her shoulders, her hands rising in a motion of surrender. "And now that she's more or less sane, I'm afraid we can expect more of the same, unless I'm much mistaken."

"I done had all I need, or can stand," Jayne grumbled. "Me and Mal ain't never got along too well to begin with, and her sayin' stuff like that just makes it worse."

"I don't think Mal will be quite so quick to judge you, from now on," Inara assured him. "He sees, now, that River is just. . .well, a teenage girl," Inara again shrugged. "They're always difficult, and she's a genius. That just makes her more of a. . . ."

"Pest? Problem? Aggravation?" Jayne tried to help, and Inara couldn't help but laugh. Jayne was struck by how musical that laughter was.

"I don't think it's that bad," Inara said through her laughter. "But I can see where you would think so. Perhaps she'll find a new target for her. . . ."

"RIVER!" Simon's scream could be heard all over the ship, without the need for the coms.

"Or perhaps she already has," Inara sighed.

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"I didn't know!" River snapped, though making no move to leave her place in the door to Simon's cabin. In which both Simon and Kaylee were struggling to cover their nakedness.

"I just wanted to make sure you were awake for morning sustenance," River continued.

"I am, so thank you, and close the door!" Simon snapped. River stepped inside, closing the door behind her.

"From the outside!" Simon screeched. River was unperturbed by Simon's screech.

"What were you doing?" she asked, noting the red faces of her friend, and her brother.

"That's none of your business!" Simon screeched yet again. "Now get out of here, and knock next time!"

"Never had to knock before," River stamped her foot sharply. Simon looked as if he were about to explode, though Kaylee was just smiling, as she clutched the sheet to her, covering herself.

"River," Simon made a visible effort to compose himself, difficult since all he was wearing was a pillow he clutched in front of him. "You know it's proper to knock before entering someone else's room. Now, please leave. Kaylee and I need to get dressed for breakfast. And we don't need an audience!"

"Fine," River huffed. She opened the door wide, stomping out. And leaving the door wide open.

"RIVER!"

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"What in the name of Buddha is all that yellin' about?" Mal asked, walking into the galley just in time to hear Simon's final scream.

"I think River has found someone new to aggravate," Inara smiled. "Giving Jayne a rest, at least for the moment."

"I take it it's Simon she's pickin' on at the moment?" Mal asked, almost grinning.

"Seems so," Inara replied. "Meanwhile, breakfast is getting cold, and I worked very hard to prepare it, so sit, and eat." Zoe trailed in about that time.

"Was my morning to make breakfast," she said.

"I was up, and had nothing else to do," Inara shrugged, and smiled. "You can repay the favor some time."

"Deal," Zoe smiled, and Inara was delighted to see that the smile reached the first mate's eyes. They had all settled in when River came bounding in.

"Good morning, Inara, Captain, Zoe, Ape-man," she smiled, sitting down at the table. Jayne glowered at her, but the look merely bounced off as she took her place.

"This looks very good!" she sounded delighted.

"Thank you, River," Inara smiled.

"'Tross, you been harassin' your brother?" Mal asked, filling his plate.

"Merely went to make sure ge ge was awake for morning nourishment," the little genius waved airily. "Not my fault he was caught in flagrante delicto." Inara stifled a laugh, managing to turn it into a small cough.

"In fla. . .what?" Mal looked confused.

"You don't want to know, sir," Zoe was grinning. "Trust me."

"Fine," Mal grumbled, returning to his plate. River suddenly looked at Jayne.

"You shouldn't be thinking about what Kaylee looks like naked!" she said sharply. Jayne started at that.

"What?" he demanded. "Kaylee was naked?" River stopped.

"River, I warned you about that," Mal growled from the head of the table.

"He was. . . ."

"River, he didn't know what it meant," Inara chided. "So he couldn't have know Kaylee was with your brother when you walked in unannounced."

"How do you know it was unannounced?" River asked politely.

"Because we could hear him yelling at you," Inara replied calmly. "And he wouldn't have yelled, had you not caught him. . .unprepared for visitors, shall we say."

"True," River allowed after a thoughtful pause. She turned to Jayne.

"But you have had those thoughts," she said firmly. Jayne's face reddened for a moment, and he suddenly stood.

"Be in my bunk, you need me," he said to Mal. Taking his plate, he headed that way. "Good meal, Inara," he added. "Thanks."

Mal made as if to say something, but Inara stilled him with a hand, turning her gaze to River.

"That was uncalled for, River," she said sharply. "It was mean spirited, and malicious. I'm surprised that a young woman of your obvious breeding would do something like that."

River sat quietly, looking at her plate.

"'Tross, this ain't. . .it can't continue," Mal said after a minute. He wasn't blustering as usual, nor was he growling. He said it flatly, and plainly. "I've had enough o' your tricks and such to last me a good while. I know Jayne ain't maybehaps treated you all that well, but as I recall, you did slash him across the chest with a knife for no reason. Seems to me, if he still owed you anything, he paid that bill and then some on Miranda, and during the battle."

"It stops, and it stops now. Dong ma?"

"I understand," River nodded, still looking at her plate. Mal decided to let it lie, for now, as Simon and Kaylee stumbled into the galley, Simon still looking red-faced and angry, while Kaylee was trying to hide her obvious mirth.

"River, if you ever. . . ." Simon began, then caught himself. After a deep breath, he was more composed when he spoke.

"We'll talk later," he warned quietly, taking his seat. Mal sighed. What had happened to the good old days, when all he had to worry about was finding work, avoiding the feds, keeping his crew fed and safe, making sure Jayne didn't turn on them. . . .

Okay, maybe they hadn't been so good, he admitted, taking another bite. But they had been predictable. Mal liked predictable.

And those days looked gone for good.

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Inara found Jayne later in the cargo bay, hefting his weights with an alarming anger. Inara wasn't a reader like River, but she was well versed in reading body language, and Jayne's was screaming rage at the moment. She ventured down the stairs, and sat on a crate near his weight bench.

"Jayne?" she said softly.

"What'cha need, Inara?" Jayne asked, never slowing.

"I just wanted to see if you were alright," Inara admitted. Jayne snorted, setting the weight bar into it's cradle. He rose, wiping his sweat off with a towel.

"Why wouldn't I be?" he asked, looking at her.

"After what River said at breakfast, I was afraid. . . ."

"I don't care what she says," Jayne sighed, closing his eyes as he worked his shoulders slowly to ease the strain of his workout. Inara couldn't help but admire how the muscles rippled.

"It seemed to have upset you, I thought," Inara responded. "And I know how you feel about Kaylee, so I was concerned." Jayne's eyes popped open.

"Kaylee?" he asked. "What's Kaylee got to do with it?"

"The one woman you can't resist?" she smiled. Jayne looked at her for a moment, then broke out laughing.

"You think. . .you thought I was talking about Kaylee?" he gasped between laughs, his eyes almost tearing up with laughter. Inara nodded dumbly, shocked by his reaction.

"Well, I wasn't," Jayne declared, his laughter ending. "I love Kaylee ta death, Inara, always will. She's like a sister to me. I admit, when I first came on board, I liked her. She's friendly, cute as all hell. What's not to like?" He grinned.

"But she ain't the one I'm talkin' about," he added, turning serious. "And it don't matter no way. I just don't like the Doc bein' with her 'counta what he did when he came on board. That's all."

"I. . .I see," Inara managed to cover her slip. Not Kaylee?

"But it's her choice," Jayne shrugged. "And I ain't got no right to butt in, and even if I did have the right, I like as not wouldn't do it. Kaylee oughta be happy, and Doc seems to make her happy. These days, that's about all a body can ask, I reckon."

"So it is," Inara agreed, not knowing what else to say. "But if you weren't talking about Kaylee, Jayne, then who. . . .?" She trailed off, looking at Jayne closely. If it wasn't River, and wasn't Kaylee, that left a rather limited field of options. Inara began to wonder if she'd stepped into something she'd regret.

Jayne looked at her for a long time, clearly weighing what he would say, or not say. Finally he sighed.

"You swear not to say anything?" he said at last. "I mean it, Inara. You got to swear you won't breathe a word o' this to no one."

"I won't violate your confidence, Jayne," Inara assured him. "And if you'd rather not tell me, then. . . ."

"I don't mind," Jayne smiled weakly. "It's. . .it's Zoe, Inara. She's the one I couldn't resist, was she to ask me for anything."

Inara nodded, not knowing if she should be relieved or disappointed that she wasn't the one. It was a disconcerting feeling.

"Zoe," she smiled. "I should have known that Jayne," she went on. "I made an assumption, that's all."

"You promised you wouldn't tell," Jayne reminded her, sounding like a kid in school suddenly, who had shared an earth shattering secret with someone, and was now re-thinking his decision.

"And I won't," Inara assured him. "I promise. It's enough for me to know that you're all right. Is this," she asked suddenly, "why River's constant ranting doesn't bother you as much as you let on?"

"Yeah," Jayne admitted, rubbing the back of his neck. "Long as everyone thinks it's Kaylee, then no one'll have a chance to guess the truth. And maybe I ain't as dumb as River thinks, neither. I do think on Kaylee when she's around. Clouds her mind, I guess," he added with a mischievous grin. Inara chuckled softly.

"I'd say it does at that. Very crafty, Jayne," she praised him. She rose.

"If you want to talk, sometime, about this," she told him softly, "I'll lend you my ear, Jayne Cobb." Jayne looked at her, blinking hard at that.

"Thanks, Inara," he said at last. "I really 'preciate that."

"Anytime, Jayne. Anytime."