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 2: Ten Years Later
Mal answered the Cortex with a smile on his face. "Sheriff! Good to see you."
"Good to be seen," the man answered. "You gonna be in the neighborhood any time soon?"
"Matter of fact, we're here already," replied Mal. "We were just headed that direction to drop some beef. Should be there in a day or so – I was gonna call tonight to let you know."
"S'good to hear. Got some trouble brewin' lately, the kind I prefer your help with. I ain't s'young as I used to be – the knees are startin' to go bad. If it comes to chasin' someone down, I'd prefer a spry youngster like your pilot."
"That shouldn't be a problem," the captain said around a grin, "but don't let her hear too many'a your compliments. It's already a wonder her ego fits through the hatch."
"Heard that," came a sing-song voice from over Mal's shoulder. River glided across the bridge and set herself down feather soft on the arm of the pilot's chair. "Sitting in my seat again," she pouted at the captain. Then, smiling shyly toward the Cortex, "Hi, sheriff."
"Hey there, bit," the man replied with a grin. "You ready for a little bad guy huntin'?"
"Ending the slave trade is your obsession and your doom," River answered. "I can only do my best to prolong your struggle and push back your end."
"Been a long time since you could damage my calm that easy, bit." Despite his words, the sheriff shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "Asides, this's the first group'a slave traders we've had on Whitefall in nearly two years. I'd say it's been a pretty good run."
"If only every world could have one of you," Mal cut in. "Who knew you'd become the free rights champion of the Georgia system?"
"Apparently, you did," the man answered. "Anyhow, I'll be at the spaceport when you land. Got somethin' new for Kaylee." Mal closed the connection before River had quite finished making eyes at the sheriff, which got him kicked out of the pilot's chair rather abruptly. He didn't let it bother him, though. In the past decade, Whitefall had gone from a hostile little world run by a hostile little woman to a burgeoning frontier with allies in positions of power. Thanks to his contacts, he'd managed to start a very profitable import/export business, with Whitefall as his primary base of operations.
The ship landed a day later – River had pushed her hard after walking in on Mal's call with the sheriff. She always looked forward to their time dirtside, these past few years.
The sheriff was waiting, as promised, when the crew disembarked. Hugs, back thumps and handshakes were passed around, and then he presented a shiny parcel to Kaylee. "You been gawkin' at this thrust booster every time you landed for months," he said. "I just busted up a ransom ring what kidnapped the yard master's daughter the other week, and he was … very grateful."
Kaylee gushed and gave him another bear hug before darting back up the loading ramp to install her new toy. The sheriff held his ribs in mock pain for a moment while chuckling with the captain. "That oughta keep her outta my hair for days, at least," Mal smiled. "Thanks."
"Aw, hell," the sheriff replied, "it's the least I can do after all you've done fer me. I don't rightly think I'll ever repay my debt to you."
Mal colored a bit and stuttered dismissively. He'd never quite adapted to gratitude from this large, gruff man. "I damn near ruined your life. I can't take credit for the good you've done since – that's all you."
"I can't blame you for how you acted back then," the man replied. "I did you wrong and you stuck to your guns. It's more'n a lot of folk can say fer themselves. Droppin' me here, and not in the hands of that slaver, was the greatest kindness anyone ever showed me. I learned a lot from you, cap'n. You an' Wan Li. Even if I was too gorram stupid to realize it then."
Mal gave a lopsided grin. "You've always been a good man, Jayne Cobb. Even back then. You just needed someone to beat niufen outta you, let that good man rise up past the hundan you thought you were." Jayne and Mal started walking away from the ship, a quiet camaraderie between them that hadn't existed when they were shipmates. "Now, you said somethin' about trouble?" the captain asked.
"The worst kind," Jayne replied. "You showed me that, too. Let's go get those tiansha de emo before they ruin any more lives." Looking back over his shoulder, he spotted River and Zoë near the cargo ramp. "You two comin'?" The women caught up, and Sheriff Jayne Cobb strode toward the edge of town with a purpose. "Let's go be good guys."