Author owns no rights what-so-ever to Firefly, nor the universe in which it lives. He writes solely for his own amusement. It's okay not to sue him.

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"So, Doctor, any idea what mystery ailment has befallen our loveable mercenary?" Mal asked, walking into the infirmary. Jayne was laid out on the table, sleeping fitfully, his breathing ragged. To Mal it almost sounded as if he was breathing through a wet towel.

"It isn't a mystery," Simon sighed. "It's pneumonia." Mal looked startled.

"What?"

"His wound from the last job nicked his lung," Simon told him. "So small, I didn't even see it. Weakened his lung. Just enough that an infection he normally would have shrugged off has turned into something worse."

"How worse?" Mal asked, with a concern he might not had admitted to, just a year and a half ago.

"Well, it's not good. But I've already treated him. He'll be okay in a few days. But he'll be weak for some time, probably a couple weeks."

"Well," Mal grimaced. "We can make it without him on this little job, anyway. Let's make sure he gets better, though."

"He'll be fine, Captain," Simon assured him.

"Thanks, Doc." Mal turned and left, heading back up the stairs the way he'd come. They would be on Racine in three days, give or take. Small job, small moon, no worries. Of course it never went that way, did it?

He walked to the bridge, where he found Inara at the helm. She had stayed with them, after Miranda. He hadn't expected it, but it was a wonderful surprise. The two of them had finally reached out to one another. Still rocky roads between them on occasion, but Mal figured that was true of anyone.

"How's it lookin'?" he asked as he stepped up onto the bridge.

"We're fine," Inara smiled at him, and again Mal was reminded of her true beauty.

"What I like to hear," he smiled back, leaning down and kissing her lightly on the cheek. "Jayne's down for a while," he added, taking a seat in the co-pilot's chair.

"What's wrong?" Inara asked. It was no secret that Jayne had been very sick the last few days.

"Pneumonia, Doc says," Mal replied. "Oughta be up and around in a week or so," he added.

"How will that affect the job?" she asked.

"Shouldn't," Mal shrugged. "It's a simple little job."

"No such thing for us," Inara gave a delicate snort. Mal chuckled at that himself.

"True enough, darlin'," he agreed. "But this one really is. And maybehaps we'll pick up a little something goin' back. That would turn this job into a tidy profit."

"Hope springs eternal," Inara agreed. "In the meantime. . . ."

"Yep."

FFFFFFFFFFF

Wonder of wonder, the job went smoothly. Their contact had even told them where he might pick up a job going back. There were no promises, of course, but a lead was a lead. And the small town had a fairly good general store as well.

Inara set the ship down about two miles from Hanks. A typical frontier town, on a rim moon. Most of the people here worked at something outside of town, so there wasn't much life to be seen from the air.

"Anything of a suspicious nature lookin' back at us, Albatross?" Mal asked.

"Sleepy town," River smiled. "Nothing unusual."

"Sounds like a good place for us to shop around, then," Mal nodded. "I like sleepy. Sleepy and boring is even better."

"Let's all go," Inara suggested. "It would be nice to get off ship, even for a few hours." Mal pondered that, and looked at Zoe.

"Sounds good to me, sir," she nodded. "Doesn't look like much from up here. Like as not won't be any work for us, but it's a chance to get some real food, and we might get lucky."

"Us?" Mal grinned. "Lucky?"

"Miracles do happen, sir," Zoe grinned back. "Somewhere at least. Or so I've heard said."

"Well, why not," Mal shrugged. "Might be fun after all."

As the party prepared to depart, Simon decided to stay on board.

"Jayne's doing better," he told Mal, "but he shouldn't be here alone, really. I'll stay and keep an eye on him. And the ship," he added. Mal nodded.

"Sounds agreeable. Okay then, let's the rest of us get goin'."

With that the party started toward town. With the mule down for repairs, they had landed close enough that they could walk the distance easily enough.

Simon watched them go, then took a chair and set it up near the ramp. It was nice to see sunlight. Feel the wind. He missed those things, living aboard ship. Not that he didn't like it. He wouldn't leave Serenity. Not now. But he still enjoyed being planetside once in a while.

"Hey, Doc?" he heard Jayne call. Turning, he was shocked to see the mercenary walking toward him. He jumped up.

"Jayne, you shouldn't be out of bed!"

"Aw, I'm fine," the merc waved him off, then started coughing. Once he stopped, he looked at Simon.

"Were is ever'body?" he asked.

"Gone into town," Simon pointed at the small town in the distance. Jayne grunted, then looked around for another chair.

"Mind if I sit with ya, then?" he asked. "Sunlight looks mighty invitin'."

"Well, as long as you don't get over tired," Simon allowed after thought. He took another chair, and Jayne pointed to a spot in the sun. Simon put the chair up for him, then moved his own out into the sun, as well.

The two of them sat in companionable silence, soon falling asleep in the sun.

FFFFFFFFFFFF

Simon woke to a tugging on his pant leg. Looking down, he froze in shock for a second, and then leapt to his feet.

Mal was lying there on the ground, bleeding badly.

"Jayne!" Simon yelled, and the bigger man jerked to wakefulness in an instant.

"Huh, whasit?" he grunted, then looked down.

"Holy. . .Mal, what the hell?" he jumped up and knelt by Mal's side. "What happened?"

"Slavers," Mal almost whispered, then passed out.

"Help me get him inside!" Simon ordered, and Jayne moved to assist. He grabbed Mal, and even in his weakened state managed to get Mal up. He carried the Captain to the infirmary, with Simon running ahead to set things up. Jayne settled Mal on the bed, then moved to the doorway.

"Be back in a sec." Simon ignored him, already checking Mal over.

There was a gunshot high in his chest, it looked like. Mal hadn't been wearing any armor, and the wound was ugly. And bleeding profusely. Simon worked to staunch the flow of blood, and then began treating the wound. He didn't notice Jayne's return until the big man spoke.

"He say anything else?" Simon looked up to see Jayne geared up and armed.

"Where are you. . .did he say slavers?" Simon cut himself off. He hadn't thought about the one word Mal had said until now, being so consumed by the need to treat his injuries.

"Yeah, he did," Jayne nodded grimly. "He awake?"

"Awake? We're lucky he's alive!" Simon almost yelled. "We. . .we have to do something! Kaylee. . .River. . ."

"Doc, calm down," Jayne said slowly. When that didn't work, Jayne grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him.

"Hey! Simon! Calm the hell down!"

"I can't. . .I have to. . . ."

"Have to what?" Jayne asked, not scornfully but with a touch of sarcasm. "Go after them? Doc, they took Mal, Zoe and your sister. Really think you're gonna do any good against them?" Simon continued to struggle for a minute, but finally began to calm down.

"But I. . .Jayne I can't leave them. . . ."

"Ain't nobody gettin' left," Jayne said firmly. "I'm goin' after'em."

"You can't," Simon objected, returning to work on Mal's wound. "You're sick!" Jayne snorted, then looked thoughtful.

"What I am is tired," he admitted. "This. . .this is takin' more outta me than I care ta admit. I. . .I need somethin' that'll help me stay. . .I need somethin' to boost me, Doc. Somethin' that won't take my brain outta play."

Simon stared at him. Two years ago he wouldn't have credited Jayne with having a brain. Simon shook his head.

"All I have are stims," he said. "And you can't take those in your condition. Not to mention. . . ."

"I ain't gotta choice," Jayne told him. "Gimme'em."

"No," Simon shook his head again. "It could kill you."

"Won't kill me," Jayne replied. "And I need'em to help me do this. Gimme'em. Now."

"Jayne. . . ." Mal's weak voice broke into their conversation.

"Mal," Jayne moved to the bed. "Mal, where were you when this happened? How many were there?"

"Store," Mal replied, shaky. "Ten, maybe twelve. Hit as soon as they rode in."

"They on horses?" Jayne asked, hoping they weren't on vehicles.

"Yeah, and wagons," Mal nodded. "T. . .take Simon and go. . .go get'em back."

"Need Simon here, Mal," Jayne shook his head. "You're hit hard."

"'M still C. . .Captain," Mal told him. "Need Simon to help. . . ."

"He won't be no help," Jayne said flatly. "I need him here, keepin' you alive."

"'M orderin' ya. . . ." Jayne looked at Simon and nodded. Simon already had a needle ready, and pushed it into Mal's IV.

"Fix'im," Jayne ordered. "Need him up and able to fly."

"Jayne I can't just. . . ." Jayne turned on him.

"Now you listen, and you listen good," Jayne's face was right down in Simon's. "He crawled, crawled, two gorram miles, to get help for the others. You. Keep. Him. Alive. And make sure he can get awake enough to fly this ship to wherever I catch up to Zoe 'n the others. Now, take this," he ordered, and slapped a pistol in Simon's hand.

"Shotgun right there," Jayne pointed to the doorway. "Loaded, one in the tube, safety's off. Please don't shoot me," he added with a grin. "Now, I need them pills." Simon numbly went to his cabinet and handed Jayne a small bottle of pills.

"No more than one every six hours," he ordered. "Any more than that could kill you." Jayne nodded grimly, taking one pill right there, and pocketing the bottle.

"They're in wagons, on horse back," Jayne told him, headed for the ramp. "They'll be movin' slow. Like as not pickin' off anything they find as they move. Might have a ship somewhere. I can't let them get on that ship with the girls. Won't never see'em no more."

"You make sure Mal's patched up, and that he can fly. At least long enough to get this ship to where we might be. Leave your com on so I can call you. Mine won't be on. Can't risk the noise. Close the ship up, and don't open up for nobody. Someone tries to get in, let them come to you. Got it?"

"I 'got it'," Simon agreed. "Jayne. . . ."

"Ain't gonna let'em take any of'em," he promised Simon grimly. "You do your job, I'll do mine."

"Be careful with the stims," Simon warned again. Jayne smiled.

"Sure, Doc." And then he was gone, jogging toward town.

Simon closed the ramp, locked it, and hurried back to the infirmary. He had his job to do.

FFFFFFFFFFFFF

Jayne easily found the trail. That many men, with wagons and horses, not to mention prisoners, couldn't really hide signs of their passing. And weren't trying to. Why should they? Ten, maybe twelve armed men, on a rock like this where everyone worked far afield? No need.

Jayne frowned. That was big odds. Then he shrugged.

"Hafta worry on that when I catch'em," he muttered. He started jogging along the trail, following.

FFFFFFFFFF

Dark had fallen. The women were forced onto the ground. All were bound, wrists behind their backs. Zoe shifted slightly, her head aching.

The slavers had hit just as the group from Serenity had gotten to the store. Mal was one of the few men in sight, and the slavers had shot him right off. The sight of Mal falling like that had stunned her for just a second. Just long enough for one of the slavers to butt stroke her with a rifle.

When she woke up, she was in the back of a wagon, hands bound and head about to split. She wasn't sure, but thought she might have a mild concussion.

"Will be fine," River said suddenly. "Stay awake a while longer. No lasting damage." Zoe looked at her sharply.

Apparently the 'crazy government assassin girl' hadn't been at home when the slavers had hit. As far as Zoe knew, River hadn't made a move of any kind.

"Odds wrong," River shrugged. "Negative outcome." Zoe nodded at that. River had been working jobs with them for over a year now. She's always come out on top, no matter how bad the scrape might be. And, Zoe knew, she could calculate odds faster than any computer. If she said the odds were wrong, then that was that.

Which still left them, Inara and Kaylee in the hands of a bunch of slavers.

"Won't be for long," River murmured. "Lion is already stalking. Eagle resting for flight that follows."

"What?" Inara, sitting on River's other side asked. "What are you talking about, mei mei?" Inara had been distracted. Seeing Mal go down so hard, so fast, had scared her. Even now he might be dead. Her fear for Mal had kept her from being afraid for herself, or even thinking about their situation until now.

"Will not abandon us," River smiled. "Already looking. Be here soon."

"Mei mei," Zoe said softly. "Mal may be. . .Mal's hurt bad," she amended, after seeing Inara jerk slightly at her words. "Jayne's sick. And Simon won't even know we're gone until we don't come back. And let's face it. . . ."

"The Lion stalks the stalkers. The Eagle, with help from the Snakes, will be ready to fly us home. Be patient." Her voice held absolute confidence.

"Keep the noise down!" one of the slavers ordered. "No talkin'."

"So who's comin' ta get us?" Kaylee risked whispering. She'd sat silently next to Zoe, so scared her mouth was dry.

"Wait and see," was all River would add. "Shh," she added as a slaver walked nearby. That was enough to scare Kaylee back into silence.

Zoe tried to make herself comfortable, and fell into silence. River usually made more sense these days, but she guessed being taken by slavers could cause anyone to have an off day.

Meantime, Zoe wasn't gonna just sit and wait on River's 'Lion' either. She'd been in tough spots before. She looked around, starting to try and figure a way out of this mess.

FFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFF

Jayne looked at the sky, and frowned. He figured he'd made more than six miles, but he was losing the light. And he was tired. His breathing was more labored than it had been. He reached into his pocket and took out the bottle Simon had given him. He took one of the pills, swallowed it, then looked again at the sky. He had maybe two more hours, tops. Sighing, he shook out another stim, and swallowed it before he could change his mind.

He had to keep moving.

He picked his jog back up, a distance eating gait that let him make good time without wearing him down. At least normally. Simon had been right about one thing. His lungs were in bad shape. His breath was getting shorter as time went by. All the stims could do was give him false energy, and that only for a little while.

But if he was lucky, it would be enough.

Simon looked at Mal and felt something near despair. He'd finished with Mal, finally. The wound wasn't serious enough, alone, to have killed him. But after the Captain had crawled two miles in the dirt, it had been filthy.

Simon had taken extra care to clean and disinfect the wound. Debriding the wound had taken some time, but Simon couldn't afford to leave anything inside. He'd already missed one injury lately, with Jayne's lung. He swore to himself then he wouldn't miss another one.

While he'd been working so feverishly on Mal's wound, Simon really hadn't had time to dwell on River, or Kaylee, being in the hands of slavers. Or Zoe and Inara for that matter. He paced back and forth around the lounge, trying to burn off excess worry and energy. He wanted so badly to do something, anything, that would help.

You do your job, leave me to mine, Jayne had said. Simon wanted to believe that Jayne could get them back. He really did. He'd come to almost trust the larger man of late. His selling them out on Ariel had always been between them, but Jayne had helped them with Miranda, and the Reavers.

He'd even been nice to River since she'd killed all the Reavers on Universe's Moon. He almost smiled at that. To Jayne, she was a weapon, and Jayne loved his weapons. The two had been working together for over a year now, covering Mal and Zoe's backs on jobs.

And Jayne loved Kaylee, Simon knew. Not like he, Simon did, but it was love just the same, even if Jayne would die before admitting it. Kaylee was like a sister to the merc, it seemed. Someone he could trust. And he would die before he let anything happen to her.

And he just might, Simon thought. He had warned Jayne about the stims, but he knew as soon as he'd said anything that Jayne was ignoring him. Not like he used to, when Jayne had seen the doctor as useless and dangerous baggage, but like he did when someone told him that whatever he was thinking about was dangerous.

Simon hoped, however, that Jayne would listen, just this once. If he didn't. . . .

He almost jumped out of his skin when the com unit crackled to life.

FFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFF

Jayne was almost crawling when he topped the hill. His breathing was ragged and he knew he wasn't getting enough oxygen. His head wanted to spin, but he'd found that if he took several deep breaths, that would stop. But it left him tired. He shook the bottle of stims out, and swallowed another one with a swig of water from his canteen. As he was replacing the bottle, he heard talking.

Jayne peered up over the hill top. Below, in a small clearing, he could see several fires, and more torches. Together they served to hold off the approaching darkness, and let him see. He took out his binoculars and scanned the area below.

He could see several women, all sitting on the ground. From the look of things, they were all bound. He could see two, maybe three tending cook fires. He couldn't tell if they were captives or not, but he couldn't assume on way or another.

He couldn't find Zoe or the others, but his gut told him they were in there, somewhere.

He watched the camp for an hour, counting heads. Mal had been right on. He counted twelve men. The three women had been bound and thrown back with the others during the hour, which eliminated one worry.

Now all he had to do was kill those twelve men, and free the women.

Piece o' cake.

He took out the bottle again, and took two more of the stims. He figured they wouldn't hurt. And before they wore off, he'd been passed the point of needing them, anyway.

With that done, his guns and knives all checked, he finally picked up the com.

FFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFF

Down in the valley, River's head came up sharply. She looked around her carefully, then up to the hillside to their north. Her eyes got that 'far away' look, and Zoe caught it.

"What is it, little one?" she asked. Before River could answer, Zoe felt a boot in the middle of her back.

"Quiet, bitch," the slaver growled. Zoe tried to sit back up, and slaver raised his rifle, intending to use the stock on her again.

"I wouldn't," River said softly. She wasn't looking at the man, but instead was still focusing on the hillside. "If you hit her again, he'll kill you."

Startled, the man looked up, and then toward the hillside. Seeing nothing, he turned back, sneering.

"Dream on, sweetums," he growled. Then he walked on.

"Who you talkin' 'bout?" Kaylee whispered when he was gone. "Zoe, you okay?"

"Fine, mei mei," Zoe lied. That had hurt. "Been done worse by." She looked at River.

"Lion is coming," River told them. "Be still, like mice. You'll know when he comes." They all moved a little lower to the ground at that. No one among them knew who this 'Lion' was she kept going on about, but she was determined. And River had been right much more often than not.

FFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFF

"Simon, you there?"

Simon didn't screech, but it was a close thing. He ran to the com unit, and answered it.

"I'm here, Jayne. Have you found them?"

"Think so," Jayne replied. "Found slavers anyway. Can't see them, right out, but everything about this group fits what Mal said. He up yet?" Simon was about to reply when. . . .

"That Jayne?" Simon turned to see Mal leaning in the doorway. He ran to him.

"You shouldn't be up!"

"Is th. ..that Jayne?" Mal repeated. He held his hand out.

"Yes," Simon nodded, handing the com unit over. Mal held it to his face, shakily.

"Jayne, were are you?" he asked. Simon noted that Mal's voice seemed a little stronger

"I'm 'bout nine miles south o' the town, Mal," Jayne's voice came back. "Found'em, near as I can tell. I ain't seen the girls, but there's a fair passle o' women down there, bein' held by twelve men. I followed the sign from town, so it's got to be them."

"I'm on the way," Mal told him.

"Not yet, Mal," Jayne replied, and Simon frowned at the fatigue in the big man's voice. And the rattle of his breathing.

"I need about half-an-hour. I don't thin the herd, it'll be rough. Might get some of'em killed. Give me the half hour, and then head this way. By then I might be needin' a distraction."

Mal stood still for a moment, then keyed the com.

"Thirty minutes." He handed the com to Simon.

"Get me to the bridge."

FFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFF

Jayne worked his way down the hill side, going faster than he would have liked. Noise was death in something like this. But he didn't know how much time he had. The slaver's might have others coming, their ship could touch down any time, or he could keel over.

It was now or never.

He had made his way to the edge of the camp. The guards made a round right by his spot, one at the time. There were always four men on duty. Jayne would kill those four first. But he'd have to be quiet.

He watched as the guard walked right passed him. Like a snake, Jayne's arm snaked out, wrapping around the guard's head. His other arm used Binky to slice the man's throat clear through. He hurriedly drug the body back into the dark, and took up his spot again.

"One down."

FFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFF

"One down," River said tonelessly. Zoe looked up sharply.

"What?" she hissed, but River didn't answer, just kept looking into the dark.

"Three to go."

FFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFF

"Three to go," Jayne growled to himself.

The next two were just as easy, but by then Jayne was struggling. His breathing was more labored by the second, and his head was hurting like he'd been stomped on. He shook his head slightly, trying to clear it, but that just made it worse. Suddenly he heard the last guard coming.

He struggled to get ready. He had to see this through. There was too much depending on him.

FFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFF

"Concentrate," River said softly, her eyes now closed. "Breathe slowly, and deeply. Don't cough!"

FFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFfFFFFFFF

Jayne almost choked trying not to cough. He couldn't breathe, he couldn't not breathe. Damn it! He didn't have but one choice left, now.

He unlimbered Vera, took his knife in his hand, and stood.

FFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFF

"Odds are wrong," River whispered. "Not yet!" Then to the others.

"Get ready, the Lion strikes!"

Gunfire boomed across the clearing before anyone could respond.

FFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFF

Jayne threw the knife at the last guard, and nodded as it sank into his chest, just below the neck. The man fell, already drowning in his own blood. Jayne didn't spare him another glance, but turned his attention to the camp. Two men were at the fire, and jumped up at once seeing the stranger in their midst. Jayne fired three times, and the two were dead on the ground.

Another man was at the cook pot, and turned at the sound of the gunfire. He grabbed for the gun on his hip but Vera cut him down.

Five left. Jayne turned toward the tents. The rest were there unless one had moved after the shooting started. Sure enough, two men came out of the tents, suspenders around their hips and rifles in hand. Jayne got the first one.

The second one got him.

He felt the impact on his armor, and worse as the rifle round bored on through, hitting him along the ribs. Normally Jayne might have shrugged that off, but this wasn't a normal day.

He staggered, unable to return fire as the other man got another shot off. Fortunately the stagger took Jayne out of the line of fire. He hit the ground hard, trying to roll. He managed to bring Vera back to bear, and got a shot off at the man who had hit him.

The bullet flew true, and the man pitched back, the large slug taking him in the chest.

Three left. Jayne struggled to get upright, and look for the rest.

River flowed to her feet as the last man at the tents fell. She knew Jayne was down, though not out. With her hands still bound, she caught the next man out, kicking him square in the nose with enough force to crack the cartilage in his face, and drive it into his brain. As the already dead man fell, River landed on her feet, looking for the next one.

The 'next one' was right behind her, and grabbed her around the neck. Before he could say anything, he was greeted with the toe of her boot as it rose over her shoulder, hitting him in the eye. The man lost his grip and staggered back, falling when he tripped over the firewood. River leapt over the wood, landing with one foot to each side of the man's head. With a sharp twist of her hips, she broke his neck.

She turned to face the next threat only to find herself staring down a gun barrel.

The shot was loud, too loud for the pistol in the man's hand. With a look of shock on his face, the man fell slowly over, a large hole where his ear had been. She looked to see Jayne, back to his knees, holding his rifle. Even as she watched, he fell face first to the ground. As she ran to him, she could hear Serenity coming.

Then she felt someone else coming.

FFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFF

"Sit over there, Simon," Mal ordered, as he tried to land the ship.

"Mal, I don't know how to. . . ."

"Do what I say and we're shiny, now SIT!" Mal managed to shout out. Simon sat.

"Help me with the helm," Mal ordered. "Take the helm, and do what I do. Don't fight the action, just feel what I'm doin' and make sure that you can hold it if I slip."

Mal was sweating heavily. Simon looked at him, and was shocked to see blood seeping through the bandages on Mal's chest. If they didn't get on the ground soon. . . .

"We're almost down," Mal gritted. "Get to the hold, and open the ramp as soon as we're down," he ordered. Simon hesitated to leave him alone, but Mal wasn't playing.

'Git!" he shouted, coughing at the effort. He didn't spit the blood from his mouth until Simon was gone. The ship shuddered slightly as he fought to keep things steady. Finally, at long last, Mal felt the skids hit the ground.

And then he hit the floor.

FFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFF

River had used Jayne's knife to cut her bonds, removing it from the dead man's body. She ran to Zoe and cut her loose, then to Inara. When Inara was free, River handed her the knife, and turned to Zoe.

"We have to hurry," she said at once. "Mal and Jayne are both down. Hard. We have to get them free, and get out. There are others coming." Zoe nodded, and went to get her guns.

"Get mine as well," River called, then hurried to get Jayne. Simon was running to him as well.

"Simon!" River called. He stopped short, seeing her.

"River! Are you okay? Is Kaylee. . . ."

"She's fine! Jayne is down!"

"I'll see to him, you help the others," Simon nodded.

"We have to hurry," River warned. "We don't have long." Simon nodded, and hurried on. River turned to the others.

"Get on board!" she yelled. "Hurry! Don't wait for your bonds to be cut, just get on the ship! We have to hurry!" She hurried to where Kaylee was helping a woman and little girl, he daughter probably.

"Get them on the ship," River ordered. "Don't worry with the ropes right now, just get them on board. We have to hurry!"

"River I can't just leave'em. . . ."

"We aren't leaving them," River wanted to scream. "Get them on the ship, we can free them there, more are coming!" Kaylee paled at that, and then started shooing women onto the ship, Inara helping her. Zoe returned.

"How long?" she demanded.

"Five minutes," River said flatly. "No more." Zoe nodded.

"Get on board!" she yelled in her First Mate voice. "Don't worry about the ropes, just get on board! We'll cut everyone free on the ship, now move!"

They moved.

Zoe ran to help Simon with Jayne, while River ran for the bridge. Inara would not be able to fly when she saw Mal on the floor. River knew he was still alive, but that he was also badly injured. When she reached the bridge, River stepped calmly over the fallen Captain, and took the pilot's chair.

"Zoe, three minutes!" she announced on the loudspeaker, as she frantically worked to bring the ship up to take off. Mal had flown here on thrusters, unable to worry with the main engine without Kaylee on board.

"I need Kaylee in the engine room, right now!" she called again.

"'M here River!" Kaylee answered over the com. "We got power. She's ready to go!" River nodded to herself without bothering to reply.

"Ship's loaded mei mei, ramp's closed. We can. . . ." River didn't wait for Zoe to finish, but instead applied power and lifted off.

Two minutes later, the slaver ship landed, finding nothing but their own men, dead.

River landed in Hanks long enough to get the other captives off the ship.

"We got you this far," Zoe told them. "Best we can do. Hide until they're gone, and then make your way home." Several wanted to protest, but Zoe's firm expression stopped them. It wasn't that she didn't care, but right now Mal and Jayne were her main concerns. That and keeping them safe. Simon was working on Mal again, with a teary eyed Inara helping.

Jayne was still unconscious, and Simon's expression when he'd examined the merc wasn't one to inspire hope. Zoe's own head was still shaky, but Simon had quickly examined her and confirmed River's 'diagnosis'. She'd hurt for a while, but be fine, otherwise.

As soon as the ship was empty, Zoe hit the ramp controls, and then the com.

"We're clear, River. Get us the hell off this rock." The ship lifted at once, heading for the black as quickly as possible.

Zoe sighed tiredly, and sat down on a crate.

"Helluva day," she murmured.

FFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFF

"Mal will be okay," Simon told the rest of the assembled crew, three hours later. They were gathered around the galley table.

"He'll be a while recovering, because his wound broke open while he was flying the ship, but he'll still be fine. Loss of blood was actually harder on him than the original wound, although that was bad enough. He'll be down for three or four days, at least, and it will take two weeks before he'll be able to really work."

"What 'bout Jayne?" Kaylee asked. Jayne still hadn't regained consciousness. Simon's face fell at that, slightly.

"Jayne. . .I don't know," he admitted, crestfallen. "Jayne took stims to keep him alert and able to move while he was following you. I took the bottle from his pockets, and when I had time, I counted them. He should have taken no more than three in the time he was gone. He took seven." The others looked startled. Simon explained.

"Jayne was weakened, and tired," he told them softly. "He needed the stims to enable him to come get you. I warned him. . . ." he trailed off, guilt shadowing him. If he hadn't missed that nick, Jayne wouldn't have been sick to start with. Ultimately, Simon felt he was to blame for all of this.

"Simon, this ain't your fault," Zoe said quietly. "Things just happen. Will Jayne recover?" Simon looked sticken.

"I just don't know." The others accepted this with stoicism.

None of them missed the fact that Jayne, and Mal, had suffered and risked so much to save them. Now, they were helpless to help them back. It. . .hurt.

Two days passed, with neither man regaining consciousness. Only River seemed the slightest bit upbeat. Zoe finally cornered her.

"I assume that Mal and Jayne are your Lion and Eagle?" River nodded.

"Lion is the stalker, Eagle is the rescue. I couldn't just come out and say it. Someone might have heard." Zoe nodded. She had finally figured that part out on her own.

"And the Snakes?" Zoe asked.

"Simon, and his symbols," River explained, referring to Simon's medical insignia. Zoe grinned, just a little.

"I thought for a while that you were. . . ."

"Crazy?" River grinned back. "That's okay. I wanted to reassure you, all of you. But if they had over heard, it might have kept Jayne from moving up on them, and they would have been waiting for Mal to show up." She shrugged.

"You did pretty well yourself, when things got goin'," Zoe smiled.

"Odds were better," River shrugged again, but this time there was no smile.

"Well, you did good," Zoe nodded. "Now if those two slackers will just wake up, and get better, we'll have a happy ending." River looked at the floor.

"What is it, River?" Zoe asked softly.

"Captain Daddy will awaken, probably today," the girl told her quietly. "Man-called-Jayne will not." Zoe felt a lead weight settle in her stomach.

"Won't wake today, or at all," she asked, dreading the answer.

"Unsure," River shrugged. "But will not awaken today. That much she is sure of."

Zoe just nodded. There wasn't much else to say about that.

Mal did indeed awaken later that day. Inara was sitting with him when his eyes fluttered, and he groaned softly. As she sat bolt upright, Mal opened his eyes, looking around. When he settled on Inara, he smiled.

"Well, that's a right pretty picture to wake up to," he croaked. Inara got a glass of water, and Mal drank it down in a few gulps.

"Guess I was powerful dry," he gasped, lying back a bit.

"Well, you've been sleeping for two days or so," Inara smiled. "I thought you might be thirsty."

"Two days?" Mal frowned. "Everything okay?" Inara nodded.

"Thanks to you, and Jayne, we're all fine. We've been in the black for those two days. We're safe." Mal nodded.

"Guess I'll have to be nice to Jayne for a while," he chuckled. "Might give him a raise," he added, chuckling again. When Inara didn't respond, Mal looked at her.

"What?" he demaned.

"Jayne. . .Jayne isn't in good shape," she admitted. "He. . .he took a lot of stims while he was tracking us. Simon says he took at least twice as many as he should have. In his already weakened condition, well. . . ." She pointed to where Jayne lay, not far away.

"Ai ya," Mal muttered, looking the big man over. "He gonna be okay?" Mal asked.

"Simon doesn't know," Inara said, blinking away tears. "Mal, when you. . .I thought. . . ." She wasn't able to finish, but instead buried her head into his chest. Mal winced as she hit his bandaged chest, but wouldn't have said anything for the world. He held her tight, as she cried.

"I'm sorry," he said softly. He looked over to where Jayne was laid out on the other bed. Simon had monitors hooked to the merc, and a steady stream of fluids and medicine ran into the lines feeding into his arms.

He looked pale, Mal thought. Pale and withered. Like he had shrunk, somehow.

Mal reflected on how far Jayne had come with them. He had reluctantly began trusting the merc again after Miranda, figuring that Ariel was behind them.

He wondered if Jayne had taken Simon with him, would he still be in such bad shape.

"Without you, no rescue," River said from the doorway. Inara sat up suddenly, hearing River's voice. As she turned, wiping at her tears, Mal looked at River.

"How's that?"

"Ape man left ge ge to doctor you," River told him, not offering to enter the room. "Had he not, then you would have died, and then no one rides to rescue with Serenity. Change anything, even one thing, and mission fails. We die, or spend much time in captivity." She shrugged again.

"Ape Man knew this. Knew what he risked."

"And did it anyway," Mal replied. River nodded.

"As did you," she pointed out. "Jayne knew he would be able to count on you to bring Serenity when he needed it."

"He did, did he?" Mal twitched a little.

"'Crawled two gorram miles to get help'," River mimicked the merc perfectly. "He knew you would do what had to be done."

Mal laid back at that, shaking his head. When he looked again, River was gone.

He took Inara's hand, and smiled at her.

"Guess I really will have to be nice to the big hundan, won't I?" he asked, grinning, and was rewarded by a smile from Inara in return.

But inside, he wondered if Jayne would wake up.

FFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFF

Zoe was watching Jayne for the moment. After five days, everyone was wondering if there was a point, but no one wanted to give up on him. Or even suggest it.

Every woman on the ship felt indebted to him for what he had done. It was out of character, even now, for Jayne to be self sacrificing, but no one was really surprised. She couldn't explain it herself.

She was as grateful as any of them, and made no bones about it. But she was also curious. River had told the slaver who kicked Zoe, and then was about to butt stroke her again, that 'he' would kill the man if he did it. She hadn't been looking at the slaver, Zoe remembered, but into the dark.

The same direction Jayne had come from. She wondered if. . . .

Jayne moaned a little, and moved. Zoe jumped from her seat, and went to the bed.

"Jayne. Jayne can ya hear me?" she asked, taking the merc's hand without even realizing it.

"Mhphps?" Jayne tried to say something. Zoe grabbed a glass of water, and held it to his lips. Jayne drank greedily, his eyes still closed. When he was done, she sat the empty glass on the table, and turned back to see Jayne had forced his eyes open.

"Damn," he winced, holding an arm full of tubes and sensors up before his eyes. "Didn't think Hell would be this bright," he murmured. Then he saw Zoe.

"Or this pretty," he added, frowning. He looked around him, realizing he was. . . .

"You aren't in hell," Zoe grinned at him. "Not yet, anyway."

"You sure?" he asked, snorting. "Been hell on me ever since I stepped foot on this tub," he tried to laugh, but his lungs. . .he started coughing. Zoe stepped the com.

"Simon, we need you in the infirmary! Jayne's awake." She could hear feet slamming all over the ship before she shut the com off. Kaylee was the first one there.

"Jayne!" she squealed, running to where Jayne lay abed, hugging his prone form.

"Hey, mei mei," Jayne smiled.

"We was awful worried 'bout you Jayne," Kaylee was near tears, but they were happy tears. "Didn't know was you gonna wake up!"

"Well, I'll always wake up for a pretty woman," Jayne tried to leer, but couldn't manage it.

"Well, I can see you're getting back to normal," Simon snorted as he walked in, overhearing what Jayne had said. Jayne smiled a little at the sight of the young doctor.

"Looks like you did good, Doc," the merc told him. "I knew you'd get the job done."

"Huh? What job?" Simon looked perplexed.

"Got Mal's lazy pi gu off the bed and into the cockpit to come rescue us," Jaynelaughed lightly, which sent him into another coughing fit.

"I heard that!" Mal shot back playfully from the door. "I'll make you think, lazy, Jayne. You'll be on septic vat duty for a month for that crack," he mock threatened.

"Well, since I feel like shi, that's prob'ly 'propriate," Jayne replied. Mal laughed, and placed a hand on Jayne's leg.

"You did good, Jayne," Mal praised. "I can't thank ya enough, neither."

"Just did what ya pay me for," Jayne shrugged, or tried to. He was already tired.

"Okay, I know everyone wants to hail the hero, but he still needs rest. He's weak, and his lungs are still making fluid." Simon shooed everyone out, and closed the door.

"I should be angry with you," he said once everyone was gone.

"Fer what?"

"I told you not to take so many stims," Simon sighed. "You almost died."

"I didn't, and everything worked out, so what's the problem?"

"The problem is that you almost died," Simon repeated, as if trying to explain to a small child. "If you had, what would have happened to them?" he waved at the door.

"If I hadn't taken'em, Simon, I couldna lasted as long as I did," Jayne shrugged. "They still wouldna got freed." Simon pondered that for a moment.

"You deliberately risked killing yourself to save them," he said at last. "Is that what you're telling me?" Jayne looked uncomfortable at that.

"Look, Doc," he started, but Simon cut him off.

"No, Jayne, I think I've earned the answer."

Jayne looked at him for a moment, almost as if seeing the Doctor for the first time. Then nodded.

"Fair enough," he mumbled. "I didn't think they'd kill me," he shrugged. "If I had, I pro'ly wouldna did it."

"You're a liar," Simon said flatly, with a hint of a grin playing at his lips. "A lousy liar at that. I think you knew when I gave you the stims that you'd take as many of them as you needed to get the job done. Why not admit it?" Jayne looked more uncomfortable.

"Thought you ran them off so's I could rest," he muttered.

"Oh, you'll get plenty of rest over the next week or so," Simon nodded firmly. "You've still got pneumonia, you know."

"Yeah, I know," Jayne coughed even as he said it.

"Thanks, Jayne," Simon said. "I. . .well, thanks. I couldn't have done anything but. . . ."

"Simon we all did our part, here," Jayne said seriously. "I'm a tracker. A hunter, and a killer. I ain't always proud ta admit that last part, but it's true, and I'm honest enough, barely, to say it. Mal did his part, comin' here fer help, then flyin' in ta rescue us all. You did yours. 'Thout you, neither one o' us coulda did nothin'. Ever body did their thing. Hell, even your cra. . .even River was a part, once the ball was rollin'. Now, how 'bout that rest you promised?"

"Fair enough, you big baby," Simon snarked, heading for the door.

"Hey!"

FFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFF

"I think you're well enough to be released from my tender care," Simon announced two days later. "You're still on limited duty. The wound along your ribs will be sore for a while, but it didn't break anything."

"You still aren't over the pneumonia, but your lungs sound much better," he went on. "And, I am relieved to say, there aren't any apparent damages from the stims."

"See?" Jayne grinned. "Ever'thing worked out fine."

"Just by dumb luck," Simon warned. "You still could have died." Jayne turned somber at that for a moment.

"I know," he admitted finally. "I. . .I didn't see any other choice, Simon. I couldn't. . .I had to get h. . .them back." Simon looked at Jayne intently, and the bigger man had an idea that the Doctor could see something Jayne didn't want him to see.

"You should tell her," Simon said simply. Jayne just shook his head.

"Ain't no point," he told the younger man. "It don't matter, Simon. It won't never, either." Jayne slid off the table, wincing as his feet hit the floor. He was still weak.

"There's always a point," Simon replied.

"No, not always," Jayne shook his head again. "Main thing is, they're all back, safe and sound. Let that be the last word on it. Okay?"

"It isn't for me to say, anyway," Simon finally shrugged.

"Thanks, Doc."

"You're welcome, Jayne." He watched the larger man walk weakly toward his own bunk, and shook his head.

"He's stubborn," River's voice floated to him.

"You're all lucky he is," Simon surprised himself by defending the merc. "If he wasn't. . . ."

"Yes," River nodded, walking into view. "He will not tell her."

"No, he won't," Simon agreed. "And neither will we."

"Made no such promise," River reminded him.

"I did," Simon told her flatly. "And you were eavesdropping. That means you're bound by my own promise."

"Faulty logic," River pouted.

"Science doesn't rule everything, River," Simon sighed. Three years ago he'd never have admitted that. Or even thought it.

"True," River mused. "Very well, she will keep Man with Girl's Name's secret."

"I think that's a wise decision," Simon smiled at her. "Well, for the first time in what seems like forever, I have nothing to do."

"Chess," River said, pointing to where she had set the board in the lounge. "Sound beating on the strategy table will prevent random ideas from becoming intrusive actions." Simon chuckled.

"Am I that obvious?"

"To me," River replied, smiling. "We will help each other avoid temptation to meddle."

"Yes," Simon sighed. "It's a shame, really. But no meddling. Chess it is."

The two went to the board, and were soon lost in the game.