A/N: This story takes place sometime after the series, but I'm sorry to say I took a pretty major liberty: for the purposes of this story, the BDM never happened.
Chapter 1: The Day Things Got Interesting
Jayne collapsed to the deck, blood spraying from his nose and mouth. Mal stood over him with bloody knuckles, murder in his eyes.
"I don't give a good gorram what rights you think you have on my ship! This ain't a democracy, and it sure as hell ain't no gorram slaver!"
Before Mal could follow the punch with a rib-cracking kick, Jayne rolled to the side, angling for the mule and the hidden pistol he knew was stashed there. As his hand landed on empty leather, he caught a glimpse of River up on the catwalk, gingerly gripping the gun between her thumb and forefinger.
"No touching guns," she called down in her sing-song voice.
That feng le girl's aimin' to get me killed! Jayne thought as he rolled away from another kick. Aloud, he continued to entreat the captain. "I was only lookin' out fer the good'a the crew! You know my days'a lone wolfin're behind me!"
Mal followed the merc slowly but purposefully across the hangar, acquiring a large wrench from a shelf of tools along the way. "If you were such a team player, Jayne, you'd'a remembered that we don't haul human cargo 'less they're payin' their own way." Mal's voice had sunk from a shout to a dead calm, and the big man on the floor knew his chances of talking his way out of his predicament were slipping swiftly away.
"Cap'n," he tried again, plaintively, "we ain't barely ate in two months. We're runnin' on fumes everywhere we go. We're almost outta ammo. Hell, even my stockpile is low, and you know things ain't right if even I can't keep my babies fed!"
Jayne clambered to his knees as the captain pulled the massive wrench into a back swing, but had to dive to his belly again to avoid a swing that could have landed his left eye in his right socket. While Mal was recovering from the miss, Jayne scrambled for the door to the passage leading toward medical. Maybe the doc could talk some sense into their enraged leader. Knowing their rocky history, however, Jayne knew he was grasping at straws. Maybe Simon had a syringe of sedative handy in case his sister went batshit again. That was the merc's best chance of surviving the next few minutes.
Mal strode down the passage after the large, scared mercenary. If he had been thinking clearly, he would have realized Jayne had never run from him before. Of course, that lack of levelheadedness was precisely why the man was running. Mal had never truly looked at Jayne with murder in his eyes before. Anger, sure. The merc had pissed his captain off more times than he could remember. They'd had differences of opinion before – loud differences, at that. Even when Jayne had tried to turn in the Tams, though, Mal had seemed more disappointed than murderous. Even in the airlock, oxygen screaming from the open hatch, Jayne had never been so scared for his life.
That man means to end me, Jayne thought as he rounded the corner into medical. It was the last thought he had before the world went black.
Jayne came to slowly. The world swam slightly, and his first two realizations were that Mal hadn't killed him (yet), and then that there were cold, uncomfortable weights on his ankles, wrists and neck. He blinked himself awake and tried to sit up, but something tugged him back to the deck. He looked down at his hands and feet, and saw shackles. They looked strangely like the chains the slaves had been bound in when he'd taken them on board in their large, metal shipping crate. He reached up toward his neck, the slack in the link connecting his ankles to his wrists barely enough to make the gesture possible, and felt another clasp around his neck. It was tight on his trunk of a neck, and he could feel linkages connecting from the clasp to the deck he was laying on.
"Hello?" he called woozily. "Anybody there?"
Simon leaned around the corner of the open crate door and peered at the merc. "The tranquilizer was harmless, not that you deserved such humane treatment. I'm here to make sure you'll survive until we make planetfall," he said. "You'll be provided with basic rations until then – protein mash and water. It's better than those people you took on would have gotten, under normal circumstances." The doctor approached warily, making sure to stay just out of reach of the chained man. "There's a chamber pot in the corner. If you stretch enough, you may be able to reach it with your foot. If not, I'm sure the agent on Whitefall won't mind a bit of a stench."
"Wha-?" Jayne began, before seeing the captain standing behind Simon. "Mal, come on!" he exclaimed. "Yer gonna sell me off? I thought you said you weren't no slaver?"
"Oh, I did," the captain replied quietly. "Even as angry as I was earlier, I meant every word I said. I let all those people go – they're in the dining room, grabbing a bite and stretching their limbs. I plan to put them off on Haven afore we make Whitefall. The shepherd and his people should be able to handle twenty or so more refugees."
"The agent on Whitefall is expectin' twenty," Jayne said. "You think he's gonna let you go with a delivery'a one?" Jayne wasn't used to thinking fast in tight situations, battle excluded, but his mind was working furiously, searching for a way out of the situation. "Asides, he ain't gonna pay at all 'less he's got a full shipment."
Mal scowled down at the merc for a moment before answering. "I don't give a damn what the agent wants, and I ain't sellin' you," he finally answered. "He may, but I'm givin' you away free of charge. Call it my gracious nature." Jayne balked at the captain, at a total loss for words. Mal continued, "You were right before, about us bein' hard up for money. That don't make sellin' folk any more right. We've always gotten by just fine without haulin' bodies before, and we can still. Fact, it'll be even easier now that we're gonna save an extra ten percent of our profits." Jayne began to protest, but Mal stared him down until he quieted again. "I been tryin' for years to show you there's a right way and a wrong way to make a livin', even under the radar of the Alliance. We've had this discussion many times before, Jayne. I'm just sorry you never had the sense to listen. Way I figure, only way you'll learn the true horror'a slavin' is to experience it from the other side. I hope some day you'll earn your freedom, and be a wiser man for the lesson."
Mal turned away before Jayne could reply, strode out of the shipping container, and swung the doors shut. They clanged together with a finality Jayne could feel to his core. The big merc laid in the dark for what seemed like ages, numb and totally silent. Then, for the first time in his adult life, Jayne cried tears of sorrow and fear.
Since early childhood, he had always been the master of his own destiny, making his way fearlessly and assuredly through life. He'd always done whatever he felt necessary to survive, drifting from one job to the next, his only concern where next he would eat and possibly find a piece of tail. Beyond those simple requirements, Jayne had no ambitions to wealth or status in a crime outfit. Slave trading had, therefore, held very little appeal to him. The philosophical angle never bothered the merc, but hauling people seemed like so much more trouble than it was worth, when simple robbery or cargo moving was usually enough to satisfy his base desires.
This group was supposed to be a one-time deal, and Mal should never even have found out about it. Jayne had made the arrangements personally on Silverhold, explaining his "hush hush" situation to the agent there. The container was padded for soundproofing and labeled as feed for livestock. Everything was getting more expensive these days, so even animal feed could justify the heavy lock the agent had placed on the container. Jayne spent extra time in the cargo hold, using his workouts and gun cleaning to justify staying within sight of the cargo. Nobody even seemed to suspect, and he thought everything was going perfectly to plan.
Then, two days out from Whitefall – a mere 48 hours from their life saving payday, the destination agent had sent a Wave asking for the merc. Jayne had given the slavers specific instructions to ask for him, and it would have worked if Zoë hadn't dragged Wash down to their bunk before the end of his normal shift. Instead, Mal had taken over, intercepted the call, and easily wrangled enough information from the agent to deduce Jayne's deception.
The merc had no chance to explain himself before Mal started swinging. Jayne, already tired from several extra workouts, hadn't had much of a chance. He fended off blows as long as he could, trying to explain to the captain that he'd done it for the good of the crew, that he should have the right to save his own life and those of everybody else on board, that he hated to see his adopted family suffer so harshly under Mal's stringent moral code. The captain hadn't heard a word, and every protestation from Jayne had only fueled his rage. It had been a long time since Jayne had been taken down in anything close to a fair fight, but down he had gone.
Jayne didn't see light until just after planetfall. He had felt this ship pass through the atmosphere, and guessed correctly that they had set down on Haven. The captain swung open the doors of the container and stood silently until Jayne stopped squinting in pain.
"I want you to see the people you were to eager to sell," Mal said slowly. "I want you to apologize, truly and from the depths of your black heart, to each and every one of them." Jayne thought the captain might have changed his mind about sending the merc into slavery, and decided that if this was his penance, he would pay it gladly. The captain paraded eighteen people past the entrance to the shipping container, and Jayne apologized convincingly to each one in turn. Then, the lines of his face set as if in stone, Mal motioned for another person to step forward.
"This is Sun Yu," he said to Jayne as the woman stepped into his line of sight. "Because of you and those other worthless gou cao de slavers, her son died last night." At his words, the woman started crying. Mal let her lean on his shoulder while he continued. "They lived in a quiet neighborhood. He went to a good school. He played kick-a-ball in the street with the neighbor kids. He had a long, happy life ahead of him. Now, because of you, he won't have any of that. He was only eight."
Jayne could feel tears forming at the corners of his eyes. He didn't even fight to hold them back. Laying on his side, chained to the floor of a cargo box, Jayne began to weep for another human being for the first time in his life. As Mal turned with Sun Yu to leave, Jayne asked quietly, "What was his name?"
Surprise registering on his face, the captain turned back toward the broken man in chains. He was speechless. Sun Yu, still crying and holding on to Mal's arm for support, looked into the container for a moment. "My son's name was Wan Li, and he was my whole life. I may as well be a slave now – I have nothing else to live for." She detached herself from the captain and walked away as Zoë and Simon passed through his narrow field of vision carrying a makeshift stretcher. It was covered with a sheet, but Jayne could see the shape of a small form lying on its back, perfectly still.
"I'd like to bury him, cap'n," Jayne said between sobs. "I can't make it right, but I can at least do him an' his ma that bit'a penance." Mal, again looking surprised, only nodded. The merc was escorted to Haven's small cemetery at gunpoint, where he dug a perfect grave and laid the boy gently in it. While he filled in the hole, Shepherd Book said a service over the site and the boy's mother cried quietly. When the ship lifted from Haven the next day, Jayne was back in the shipping container, where he had returned without a fight.
None of the crew argued Mal's final verdict when they landed on Whitefall, and when the ship lifted, it was with only six souls on board. Simon and River each retreated to their bunks in guest quarters, Kaylee to the engine room, and Wash to the bridge. Mal and Zoë sat stoically together in the dining room, lost in their own thoughts but sharing the camaraderie that had gotten them through so many other difficult times. For a short while, there had been a third warrior sharing their trials and victories. Now, again, it was only the two of them to protect their "civilians".