Big Damn Dog
Rated ADULT for Dom/sub

Chapter One

"Jayne seeks to find the direction that he has never internalized," River announced a second before dropping into the seat next to Inara. Some days, Inara wondered why she even pretended that she had any privacy in her shuttle. She sighed and watched as River ran a finger over the gold threads embedded into one of Inara's silk pillows.

"When one speaks of others outside their presence, it is called gossip, and it is not acceptable behavior," Inara corrected the girl. She certainly didn't want to get into a discussion of Jayne. Of all the people on Serenity, Jayne was the only one for whom she felt a deep-set antipathy. The man was crude.

River tilted her head and frowned as though unhappy with Inara's response. "You and Jayne are equidistant to your goal, but your claims are mutually exclusive. You should consider the likelihood that Mal is a poophead that will never figure this out without someone telling him. You should tell him." With that, she stood up, twirled around once and was gone.

Inara smiled sadly at the child's antics. "While I agree that Mal is quite the poophead, I have no idea what I should be telling him." She reconsidered that. "Actually, even if I were to suddenly develop the ability to understand you, Mal is an adult who can figure things out on his own." In reality, Mal couldn't figure things out on his own, but Inara was not being paid to help him sort out his issues.

When she had first met the man, he had struck her as crude, uncivilized, self-centered and arrogant. She had reconsidered the part about him being self-centered. In fact, he was one of the most giving men she knew, but he was less self-aware than anyone she had ever met. Inara had practically thrown herself at him more than once and, in return, she'd gotten little more than a confused look or some wild tangent where Mal assumed she was trying to drop hints about needing the biofilters scrubbed. The man was, as River had put it so well, a poophead.


Two days later...

"I ain't one to complain," Mal was saying, which generally preceded a complaint.

Inara stepped into the doctor's infirmary to avoid the man. She had no intention of giving him a chance to interrogate her about her latest assignation. Some days, she thought that perhaps he had some interest in her. He certainly seemed to be jealous, but when pushed, he had the most annoying habit of either playing dumb or actually becoming dumb. Inara wasn't sure which. Either way, she had no interest in taking that problem up today. She wanted to find River and retrieve her favorite hair pins, which River had taken with unmitigated glee. Unfortunately, Mal was coming closer.

"Yer complaining all the time," Jayne disagreed with Mal.

"Considering just how aggravated I've been with you lately, mayhaps you best not annoy me, Jayne," Mal warned. Inara frowned at that warning. Jayne had helped save the Tams during that ill advised raid on the Ariel hospital, and considering just how protective Mal was of the Tams, Inara would have expected more gratitude from the man. It wasn't like Mal to be intentionally ungracious; generally he was simply oblivious.

"Ain't tryin' to annoy you. I’m just speaking the gorram truth," Jayne defended himself, and from the sounds of it, the two had stopped just outside the infirmary.

"You can speak a nicer gorram truth, seeing as how, in the end, I didn't push you out that air lock."

Inara's hand rose to her mouth in shock at the thought of Mal even threatening something like that. Mal was many things—handsome, intrepid, clueless, but he never turned on his crew.

"Ain't like to forget," Jayne quickly answered, and he managed in an almost polite tone of voice. "I'm just saying that you ain't been real easy to please lately, and I have been trying."

Inara wasn't sure whether she was more surprised by the implication that Mal had nearly put Jayne out an airlock or by the fact that Jayne could almost be polite when he tried.

"If'n you want to please me, try doing your gorram work right. I asked you to get the galley cleaned, and there's gou shi from one end to the other. Aiya. Just get your gorram work done." Mal's footsteps were fast and clipped as he walked down the passage toward crew quarters. He was clearly feeling very aggravated and for a half second, Inara wondered if she shouldn't come out and offer to talk with him. She had been in the galley, and while it was not as clean as she would prefer, it was actually cleaner than usual. It had been evident that someone had at least attempted to scrape off the worst of the grime.

"Tee wuh duh pee-goo," Jayne cursed softly. And truly, Inara had to agree. Mal did appear to be kicking Jayne, even when Jayne was being uncharacteristically agreeable. Jayne's heavier footsteps vanished in the direction of the galley, and Inara's eyebrows rose at the concept of Jayne doing menial labor without even a token complaint.

Inara waited a few minutes, her mind sorting through new information the way she might take the body language of a client and sort through possible interpretations until she could find an explanation that matched. This time, she could not imagine what had happened between the two men to change the dynamics so drastically, and she could not imagine how all this had happened in the short time she had been gone.

Since she really had no hope of getting information out of Mal if he didn't want to share, Inara decided to follow Jayne for a little reconnaissance. Jayne might be crude and disagreeable, but if Inara couldn't get him to openly talk, she was turning in her companion license and finding a nice job digging dirt.

Inara composed her most airy expression and walked to the galley. Standing at the entrance, she could see Jayne with a bucket and a scrubber in hand, but he was just staring around at the galley looking very much like a lost child.

"Have you see Dr. Tam?" Inara asked in a tone so sweet that on Ariel, young doctors tripped over themselves to please her after she'd used it on them. Jayne looked over with a frown that seemed far deeper than she expected.

"I ain't the Tams' keeper," Jayne snapped.

For a second, Inara blinked at him, not sure what had caused that overreaction. "I never expected that you were. I was hoping he had been through here. Are you doing something with that washwater?" Inara finally asked the last question because Jayne had gone back to staring at the galley in confusion and obvious dismay. He looked like a virgin hiring his first companion and then discovering he had no idea what to do with her. It was an expression Inara saw often, but the context was rather bewildering.

"Goin' to clean."

"Clean what?"

Jayne frowned again. "Ain't sure. Don't it look clean in here already?" he asked, turning to her with an honest bewilderment that made him look young for a half a second. Then he frowned and that great hulking, dirty mercenary returned. "If he wants his gorram galley cleaned he can damn well show up and tell me what I'm supposed to be doing. Da shabi." Jayne dropped the bucket so fast that water slopped out the sides.

"Mice feet through flour!"

Inara was distracted by River dancing into the room, wearing Inara's hair pins. Inara smiled at the girl, but she ignored Inara and danced over to Jayne, grabbing him by the arm. A week ago, Inara would have placed a large wager that Jayne would not have suffered that sort of familiar touch. She expected Jayne to send River flying, she expected ugly names to be hurled through the air. Hell, after River cut Jayne's stomach, she expected bloodshed. Instead, Jayne stood there and let River cling to him.

"I can kill with my brain," River announced to the room.

"Ain't likely to need to if I can't figure out what's making the captain so gorram twitchy," Jayne said. But it was the tone and not the words that caught Inara's attention. He was confused and distressed. In the years that Inara had been on the Serenity, she had seen Jayne arrogant and defiant, furious and amused, homicidal and drunk. She had never seen Jayne lost, and right now he appeared lost.

"Not equidistant, but the fulcrum of the balance has an effort arm and a resistance arm that have numbers that do not match. Tell Mal he's a poophead." River was clinging to Jayne's arm, but she was talking to Inara.

Jayne snorted. "This makin' any sort of sense to you, 'cause I'm just hearing the crazy."

"She's been less articulate than usual," Inara agreed. She considered the room for a second. River was looking at her with an expectant expression that suggested the girl was running out of patience and Jayne looked... Jayne looked defeated. Pirates, the Alliance, Reavers, a tranq gun, alcohol—none of that had ever made him look so defeated.

"The undersides of the spill panels are dirty," she told him, pointing to the galley area. "If this were an Alliance ship, someone would be assigned to pull up each panel and clean that area so that the floor water ran clear. Then you'd have to take a disinfectant to the floor and the panels on the cupboards."

Jayne looked at her like she was crazy. "What's the point of cleaning a floor?" he asked, but he didn't sound as defensive as she had anticipated. "Ain't gonna eat off the floor, and as long as the counter's clean enough, what difference does the floor make until it's slippery or crawling with some sort of pestilence. Now maggots, them I understand havin' to clean up off the floor."

For a second, Inara just shook her head at this new evidence that Jayne was clearly far too crude for any sort of respectable company.

"That's just how it's done when one cleans a galley," Inara settled for saying. Explaining the value of cleanliness to Jayne was likely a lost cause.

"I'll get a screwdriver," River offered and she finally released his arm and went dashing out of the room. Instead of arguing, Jayne just looked down at all the spill panels. He looked disgusted, but at least he didn't look distressed anymore, which was one more piece of evidence in what was starting to become a rather alarming picture.

"I'll leave you to your work then," Inara said softly, but Jayne just continued to stare at the galley floor like he could find some answers in the metal grid.


Two hours later...

Inara walked down the stairs into the main cargo area. Right now, they had very little cargo. The medical supplies they'd stolen from Ariel took up very little space, and they were safely hidden. For the most part, the bay was an empty area, and right now, Mal was using it for target practice. Luckily, he was using a small ball and a wire hoop because the look on his face suggested that he would be dangerous were he in possession of a firearm.

"Mal," Inara offered. Mal didn't even look at her. He threw the ball, missed the wire loop entirely, and then had to jump to the side to recover the ball as it rebounded off the interior wall of the bay.

"Ain't you got some whoring to get ready for?" Mal asked.

Inara frowned at the unnecessary vulgarity, but she was not about to be distracted from her goal. No, if Mal wanted to put her off her game, he would have to try harder than that. "I understand that Jayne is in no small amount of trouble with you," she said mildly. Arranging her skirts, she sat on the lowest step of the stairs and fanned the blue and silver fabric around her feet.

Mal positively glowered at her. "And where might you have heard that?"

"I deduced it."

"Well deduce something else," he snapped before he went back to throwing his ball.

"I take it that he has committed a sin so great that even he understands that he has truly made a mess of things." Inara kept her head tilted as though considering her ring, but Mal was within her peripheral vision, and she could see him pause, his hand raised to throw the ball. For a second, he was a statue. Then he threw the ball and danced to the side to catch the rebound.


"From his willingness to pull up the spill panels and scrub them, I would say he feels actually guilty."

"He should, and it's about time he did the job right," Mal offered without even a blink. Ah, so he was being his usual oblivious self rather than torturing Jayne with any sort of foresight. Sometimes Inara wondered how a man as noble and self-sacrificing as Mal could be so utterly clueless when the matter involved any sort of relationship.

"He would have done the job right far faster had you explained what you wanted."

"I told him to clean the galley."

Inara sighed at Mal's obdurate behavior. "Would you have truly put him out the airlock?" she asked. As she expected, that made him spin around to face her. The ball bounced past him and rolled toward the far end of the cargo bay, but Mal was ignoring it.

"He told you about that?"

Inara didn't answer the question. "Mal, when a child is two or three, the universe revolves around them."

"Shun-sheng duh gao-wahn. Are you going to go off into some gorram companion crap?"

"I'm trying to," Inara said with a tight smile. Sometimes she thought life would be far easier if she could simply gag every man on the ship and force them all to listen to reason.

"I don't need to hear it." Mal started to walk away.

"Then you're destroying Jayne," Inara said firmly.

Mal stopped and frowned at her. "I ain't doin' nothing to Jayne. Seeing as how Jayne tried to sell out the Tams, I thought you'd be voting to put him out that airlock."

Inara felt a wave of vertigo go through her as she heard Jayne's crime. If the Alliance had found River and Simon on Ariel, it wouldn't have been enough for them to take the Tams. They would have destroyed Serenity and paraded her burning remains on the newsfeed to show what happened to those who stood up against the government. Wash and Zoe and Mal and Kaylee... they all would have died because Jayne was a crude and imbecilic man. However, she was too well-trained to allow emotion did to rule her. Inara traced the swirl embroidery on her skirt and looked at Mal calmly.

"In the war, you were a sergeant, and yet you ended up leading men in the final battle."

"Is there a point here somewheres?" Mal asked.

"If you would let me make it, I have been trying to make the same point for several minutes."

"Then get it out so I can go back to ignoring you and Jayne and this whole gorram mess."

Inara nodded and struggled to condense years of study and psychology and experience into a short enough lesson for Mal to understand his crime. "You were a sergeant, yet you ended up leading men while other sergeants did not. Why?"

"You want to talk about the war?" Mal reached down and grabbed the ball. Standing there turning the ball over and over in his hands, Mal wasn't exactly exuding confidence, but Inara persevered in her attempt to get him to understand his own forceful personality.

"I want to talk about what kind of man you generally are," she explained. "Why did you lead?"

"Because there wasn't anyone else to do it. The front... it was chou ba guai. Those who could lead, did."

"And you could lead."

Mal didn't answer, but Inara took that as an affirmative.

"Imagine that Jayne was there and that he had achieved the same rank. Would he have led others into battle?"

Mal snorted in disgust. "He would have run the other way."

"But he hasn't. We've gone up against Alliance and Reavers, and Jayne continues to follow your leadership."

"Because he wants to take the captaincy from me." Mal snapped those words out, and for a second, Inara could not imagine what twist of reality one would need to imagine to even consider that a possibility.

"So, Zoe would follow Jayne if you were to get yourself inexplicably shot?"

"Hell no. She'd put him out an airlock first." Mal smiled as though amused by that thought.

"So Wash and Kaylee would follow him, then." Inara raised an eyebrow and waited for Mal to put the pieces of this rather simple puzzle together.

A frown turned down the edges of Mal's mouth. "No, they wouldn't. But just because he has worse odds than findin' a virgin in a whorehouse, that don't mean that Jayne understands that. He's trying for my job without ever understanding that he won't ever get it." Mal gave her a smug look at that piece of logic, and Inara had to admit that might be possible in Jayne's case. The only person on the ship who understood relationships worse than Mal was Jayne. That made this a poetic sort of solution that she was working on.

"But right now, he's scrubbing a floor when he doesn't understand why the floor needs scrubbing. He's not challenging you; he's following you."

"I'm the captain." Mal walked back to his starting place and started bouncing his ball again.

"A week ago, he was convinced that he understood the danger better than you, and he tried to betray the Tams. Today, he doesn't understand the logic of scrubbing a floor, and yet he's in there doing it."

"Proves that sometimes you can teach an old dog new tricks." Mal hit the center of the wire ring and the ball bounced back toward him.

"Are you truly this stupid or do you fully intend to torture Jayne until he is so lost or confused that he has no choice but to leave the ship?" Inara finally demanded.

"What?" Mal looked genuinely shocked.

Inara took a deep breath and attempted to exhale the frustration she felt for both men right now. "You've shown Jayne that he lacks the skills to lead. You have forced him to see his own failure, and now that he knows he cannot depend on himself, you are going out of your way to try and prove he cannot depend on you either."

"I'm not the undependable one..."

"Today, you were. He truly did not understand how to please you, and you pushed him away. Have you no awareness of what it means for two people to exchange power? Are you truly so uneducated in the most basic forms of relationships?" Inara stood up and stepped forward, right into Mal's personal space. He was glaring at her.

"It ain't like Jayne and me have a relationship." Mal held up his palms out as though he could push her away—her and her truths.

"Yes, yes you do. Now, if you care to develop that relationship into the sexual expression of your shared power, that is another conversation. However, you have already put yourself into a position of authority. You are not Jayne's employer—not now. Now, you are the man to whom he has decided he must look for guidance on how he should act. Turn from him, and he is left with nothing. He knows he cannot trust his own judgment, and yet you deny him the information and support he needs to trust yours. If you deny him, what does he have left?"

"And you got all of this, how? Did you read Jayne's tea leaves?" Mal retreated into his normal mode when he found himself trying to defend the indefensible—sarcasm. Inara, however, was not going to be put off.

"Companions are trained to see those who have been stripped of their power, through choice or force. The exchange of power can be a powerful and stable foundation for a relationship. Many people simply choose to allow another's judgment to take precedence over their own, and a companion is trained to help make that transition easier or to help a person find their way back from a position of vulnerability."

"If you can see all this so clearly, take him on as a client," Mal suggested.

"I would rather cut out my own genitals." That came out slightly harsher than Inara intended, but the sentiment behind it was still true.

Mal blinked at her for a second. Slowly, he closed his eyes and seemed to be struggling to find some word that escaped him for long minutes. "I don't know what you expect me to do."

And that was the crux of the matter. Inara considered the options. Obviously, Mal needed clear and concise rules as much as Jayne did. "Either apologize and use your apology to give him back his power," Inara started. Mal started puffing up like an indignant peacock. "Or," she continued before he could explode, "take control of this situation before things turn ugly. At best, Jayne could start to trust his own judgment again and we could have a repeat of this situation. At worst, he could self-destruct in ways that would do far more damage than you could imagine." Inara remembered a young woman who had fallen apart after the abandonment of her husband, a man to whom she had turned for everything. Her family had never been able to recover from the emotional trauma caused when the woman had murdered her own child, a child she had shared with the unfaithful husband. And the woman had committed suicide not long after. Inara had helped the woman's brother, but she sometimes wondered if her week with the family had been enough to sooth any of those wounds. To open yourself, as Jayne had, and to then be wounded through that vulnerability... it was more than the human psyche could bear.

"Mal," Inara said in a softer tone. "If you want him to turn to your judgment, then you have to be willing to let him lean on you. Set him tasks, but don't leave him so lost and confused that he doesn't know how to please you. He was distressed in the galley. That alone shows how much he is willing to let you lead if you will just give him the guidance he requires."

Mal didn't answer, and the silence was interrupted only by the slow rumble of Serenity's engine. Time drew out into an awkward space that filled the whole room. Eventually Mal rubbed his hand over his face in fatigue. "You can't ask me to take responsibility for someone else. I can't take care of myself most days." Now it was Mal who looked confused and desperate.

"You already did take responsibility for him. I have no idea what you said, but you have convinced him to give up on himself. He isn't defending himself against you, Mal. You could hurt him badly. Fatally."

Mal's face twisted at that word.

"Give him a task, but make sure he understands it. Praise him when he does it well, explain what is wrong when he does it badly. Expect a lot of him, and let him feel good about accomplishing truly difficult tasks, but you cannot strike out at him. Not now. Right now, he has no defenses against you."

Inara turned to leave. She had said what she could, but it was up to Mal to take this situation in hand.

"He was willing to die." Mal said the words so softly that Inara thought for a second that he had imagined them. She turned around and looked at Mal. "I hit him. I locked him in the airlock." Mal's eyes darted off to the side, refusing to meet Inara's gaze. "I was going to let him get sucked out into space because I was tired of not being able to trust him. I want to feel safe with my own crew, and he betrayed us because he's either gorram stupid or gorram greedy. I don't even know which one it was."

"But you didn't kill him." Inara reached out and rested her hand against Mal's arm. He'd carried this burden and this confusion, and yet he had never once come to her, the only person on the ship who was trained in psychology. It wasn't a good feeling, but Inara put that hurt aside as she focused on Mal and his needs, at least for now.

"I was going to. He didn't care about us at all." From the flinch, Mal didn't even believe that. Inara certainly didn't. Jayne was crude and ignorant, but he would die before letting anyone touch Kaylee and he had a lot of respect for Mal and Zoe. "But then he thought he was going to die, and all he cared about was the rest of you. His last request was that I not tell you guys what he'd done. He wanted everyone to think there'd been some sort of accident."

Inara imagined the scene. Jayne had accepted his own death. He'd realized that his actions were so unforgivable as to justify dying. She thought back over the difficult times Jayne had in the past month. Jayne had been confused after Canton, Inara had seen that as clearly as she could see the stars in the black. For the first time in his life, he'd seen what kind of hero he could have been, and he had to have noticed the stark contrast between the way those miners saw him and the way he truly was. Coming so soon after that ordeal, Mal's threats had clearly changed the dynamics.

"He cares about us," Inara said softly, even though she wasn't sure she should include herself in that group.

"It'd be a good site easier if he didn't," Mal agreed. "I don't rightly know what to do with him."

Short of sending Mal for companion schooling, Inara wasn't sure what advice to give in such a difficult situation. Clearly, Mal had gotten in over his head. She hated simplifying such a psychologically complex situation, but she could think of only one metaphor that might work to get these two great fools though this mess. "Think of him as a very large, very trainable dog—one that looks to you for instructions."

Mal gave her a dubious express. "A dog?"

Inara shrugged. "It's a valid comparison. Perhaps if you think of it that way, you will remember that if you kick him too often, you will either have a dog that cringes and can no longer function or..." Inara looked at Mal expectantly.

"Or he'll turn on me and rip my throat out."

"I was going to say he would bite your hand, but this is Jayne we're talking about," she agreed.

Mal didn't look happy. In fact, he looked almost terrified, but he gave her the same sort of nod he would sometimes offer Zoe before engaging on some idiotic mission. Throwing the ball at the corner, he turned and headed toward the galley with long strides.

A figure moved in the shadows. "He's a poophead with this stuff," River suggested. She pulled the hairpins out of her hair and offered them, holding them in the palm of her hand and reaching out for Inara.

Inara took them. "Thank you."

"Thank you," River answered solemnly. And then, with an impish smile, she raced up the stairs, her bare feet slapping the metal. Some days, Inara wondered if the girl didn't have more sanity than the rest of them. After all, Inara had just sent the man she liked to court another man. She truly wondered at her own sanity at times, and as a companion, she was trained well enough to say, with some expertise, that they were all poopheads on Serenity.

Inara closed her fist around her hairpins and headed for her shuttle.





Chapter Two


Mal leaned back, flinching when his chest burned from the torture Niska had inflicted. It hadn't been a shiny day, that's for sure, but everyone had gotten out alive, and these days, that counted for something.

"So, you came along for the big rescue," Mal commented casually, watching as Jayne shoveled soup into his mouth. Jayne's hand paused half way to his mouth.

"Well, yeah. You got something to say about it?" Jayne was defensive, and Mal remembered what Inara had told him, warning him that Jayne was trying to rely on him for guidance, and that Jayne would turn on him like a rabid dog if he confused Jayne bad enough. 'Course, she didn't say it quite like that, but with Inara, you had to figure out the meaning behind all the pretty words.

"Just surprised, is all."

Jayne snorted and started scooping up more soup. Never say that Jayne Cobb let a little bullet wound keep him from his food. Jayne's ravenous appetite was far less surprising than the fact he'd gone and gotten himself shot trying to save Mal.

"I mean, you aren't exactly known for your heroics," Mal said. He was surprised at the flash of emotion on Jayne's face. But then Jayne just shrugged. In the past, Mal wouldn't have thought twice—he'd be likely to dismiss the expression as a passing case of gas. But now Mal felt a little like he'd kicked a dog. He wasn't normally the sort who did that. No, he was more the sort to kick sleeping bears. And the fact were that he was still a mite bit concerned that Jayne was more bearlike than Inara gave him credit for.

He could still feel hot anger over that stunt Jayne had pulled—trying to turn in the Tams. But he also couldn't get the image out of his mind, of Jayne begging. Not begging for his life or for the mercy of a bullet. Nope, he'd begged for Mal to not tell the others that he'd betrayed them. And even now, when Jayne was buyin' the crew apples and giving up his cut to ransom back Wash and putting his own life on the line for Mal... even now Mal couldn't figure out how he was supposed to deal with Jayne. Who was the real Jayne Cobb--the man who did right by the crew or the man who'd betrayed them?

"I can be heroic," Jayne answered after long silent minutes interrupted only by the clink of the spoon against the bowl.

"I ain't sure that's the right word to describe going after Niska on his own station," Mal pointed out pretty damn honestly. He couldn't say for sure he would have pulled a stunt like that, but he was mighty proud to have a crew stupid enough to try it and good enough to pull it off.

"More like suicidal," Jayne agreed.

"Then why'd you go?" Mal asked.

Jayne frowned at him, giving him a narrow-eyed glare like he might stare down another gunhand waiting for some silent signal to draw weapons and fire.

"Don't rightly appreciate the way you're looking at me," Mal warned him. Jayne's gaze immediately darted off in another direction. And that felt wrong too. It was like Jayne was going out of his way to be vulnerable, either that or he thought Mal wasn't important enough to keep an eye on. Jayne's hands slowly fisted before he pulled them off the table and hid them in his lap. But Jayne stayed real quiet. Too quiet. Mal could read the others easy enough... well, all except for Inara, and who knows what companion-trained thoughts she had bouncing around up there. But Jayne had been a closed book lately. It made Mal real uneasy.

"I asked why you went," Mal repeated. Jayne glanced over before looking down at his lap.

"Weren't like there was a whole lot of choice. Wash was takin' the boat in whether I agreed or not," Jayne pointed out.

Mal wasn't entirely sure he agreed with that logic. Wash might have been ready to fly into this fight, but after he'd been tortured, his thoughts were a mite bit scrambled. It wouldn't have been too hard to convince Zoe that the odds were against them and that she had a duty to keep Inara and Kaylee and the others safe. Hell, Mal hadn't expected the others to come back at all. He figured his slow and painful death would be the price he paid to buy the rest their freedom from Niska's vengeance.

"You still ain't answering. Why did you pick up a gun and come after me?" Mal asked.

This time Jayne looked up at him, but the suspicion and fear still lurked there. It had been lurking ever since Mal had locked Jayne in that airlock and threatened to put him out into the black. The funny thing was that Jayne could probably take him given proper warning. Jayne weren't no slouch in the fighting department. And if'n he wasn't up for a fight, he could just get off at any one of a dozen worlds and people would leave him alone. He was just one more gunhand jumping ship, and that wouldn't raise any flags, not even with the Alliance.

"If I'm going to go and get dead, I'll do it with a gun in my hand," Jayne answered.

Mal studied the man, studied him closer than he generally allowed himself because most menfolk didn't take to being studied. For a second, Jayne stiffened, but then he looked away and let Mal do all the studying he wanted. There wasn't even any more soup left in the bowl, so neither one of them could pretend it was anything other than Mal's interest that kept Jayne in his seat.

"If you'd stayed in your bunk, like Inara, Niska would have felt honor-bound to leave you alone." Mal watched Jayne carefully. Jayne weren't showing no sign of surprise, so Mal figured he already knew that.

A little hand dropped onto Mal's shoulder and he yelled, leaped to his feet, and then yelled again when the movement made his wounds burn like he were getting stabbed all over again. "Dammit, don't do that," Mal snapped. River looked at him, her head tipped to one side and a sad look on her face.

"Following higgledy-piggledy, thoughts out of order," she announced with great seriousness. Mal rolled his eyes at the evidence she wasn't having one of her good days.

"Go away, Moonbrain," Jayne snapped. He was up and out of his seat.

"Leave her be," Mal ordered. Surprisingly, Jayne obeyed. He looked at Mal with that same confused look again, but he settled back down into his chair like he expected it was electrified or something. River promptly went over and dropped down onto Jayne's lap like it were something she'd done a hundred times before.

"I ain't touchin' her," Jayne shouted, throwing his hands wide to either side to prove just how much he wasn't touching her. But River had her hands around the back of Jayne's neck and she was looking into his face.

"Higgledy piggledy follow the rain. One Jayne two Jayne three Jayne more."

Jayne looked over toward Mal with clear panic in his eyes now. Mal could only shrug because he sure didn't know what to do with the girl most of the time. "I'll get the doc," Mal said.

"Don't leave me with her!" Jayne called out, but Mal was already up and heading for the door. Jayne had dealt with bigger problems in his life than one crazy girl, so he'd survive until Mal could get the doc. Besides, Mal was quickly starting to think that he'd started a conversation with Jayne that he wasn't in any position to finish. What did he expect to hear from the man? Part of Mal just wanted some evidence that this new Jayne, the one who followed orders so gorram well, would stick around, but he didn't know what evidence he wanted. The fact were that anything Jayne said would be highly suspect. But then Jayne did something like go on a suicide mission against Niska, and Mal couldn't help but think that maybe Jayne was giving him some pretty reliable evidence after all.

Pushing all those thoughts to one side, Mal went to find the doc before River could do anything to permanently scar Jayne's emotional well-being. Mal snorted at that thought.

By the time Mal got to head back to his room hours later, he was not only aching, but tired and frustrated. The ship was beat up, Niska had gotten most of their ill-gotten gains, and Mal was more than a little frustrated by the fact that the man had gotten away. It would have been a right pleasure to snap that old neck.

Mal was halfway down the ladder to his room when he realized his room wasn't as empty as he tended to prefer. He swung around, shocked to see Jayne sitting on Mal's only chair polishing a gun.

"Jayne?" Mal asked. Whatever Jayne wanted, Mal really wasn't up for it, not tonight.

For a second, Jayne kept cleaning his gun, and Mal got a real cold shiver down his back. Shifting around to get the ladder at his back, Mal leaned against the wall, keeping his own gunhand clear.

"Crazy wouldn't leave me alone anywhere else," Jayne answered, putting the cleaning cloth down. He looked at Mal and then frowned. "Kept sayin' that you had some gou shi in your head, so I figured it was easier to just come here."

"And break into my quarters?" Mal asked. That was the sort of logic Jayne was likely to use, but that didn't mean he liked it. "Actually, how did you break into my quarters?" Mal demanded. While he didn't have any illusions about Jayne's ethics, he figured Jayne breaking into a place generally required more blowing up of doors.

"Crazy opened it," Jayne answered, but he was sounding all distracted, and that made Mal wonder exactly what he had to be distracted about. "Aiya," Jayne swore, and then he tossed his gun on Mal's bed. Mal's hand was halfway to his own gun before he realized that Jayne wasn't bringing it up aggressive-like. After that, Mal could only stare in surprise as Jayne tossed a second gun, three knives, a set of brass knuckles and a grenade after that first gun so that Mal's bed looked like a well-stocked blacksmith's counter. Crossing his arms, Jayne leaned back against the wall on the far side of the room from any of his weapons.

"You done twitchin' now?" Jayne demanded. Mal took a step forward, and honestly, it did feel good to get between Jayne and his heavy artillery. Mal half-expected Jayne to make a dive for one of guns, but he just stood there looking a little twitchy himself. "Gao yang jong duh goo yang. What are you expectin' of me? Ain't like I'll give up my guns for just anyone, but you're still lookin' at me like you're expectin' a knife in the back." Jayne took a step forward, his fists clenched, and Mal shifted his weight.

"Maybe because I am," Mal shot back. He hadn't been planning on having this discussion, but he'd had a the kind of day that made even a sane man a touch on the unbalanced side, and Mal didn't have a lot of illusions about his own sanity.

"If I'm going to stab you in the back, I'll do it to your front."

"You didn't last time."

"I didn't know I was gorram stabbing you in the back."

"You should have."

"I know!" Jayne shouted his answer, and then the two of them stood there staring at each other.

If Mal had been given a choice, he would have happily ignored this particular elephant in the room, but now he felt backed into a corner where he had to speak his piece. A little voice whispered that it would have been a whole lot easier to just throw Jayne out the gorram airlock, but then guilt settled into his guts at even thinking that. Just because it would have been easier didn't mean that it would be right. Jayne sank back down into the chair, and Mal was reminded again of Inara and her description of Jayne as a dog. He was looking like a dog that'd been kicked too much, and Mal didn't like to think he'd been the one kicking him.

"I ain't the brightest. Never claimed to be," Jayne said softly. "So, if there ain't no way to make this right, just tell me so I know to move on."

Mal opened his mouth, ready to let fly with a sharp comment, but looking at Jayne, he just couldn't poke at the man or his obvious lack of intellect, not when he was poking at himself. Inara should be here. She was always saying how she knew better than him, so she should prove it now, but Mal knew he wasn't going to get her. He figured Jayne had less patience for her philosophizing than he did.

Sliding a half step to the side, and Mal sat on the edge of his bed, picking up the grenade Jayne had tossed onto it.

"Why are you carrying a grenade?"

"Man never knows when he might have to blow something up," Jayne answered, his voice softer than Mal was accustomed to.

"I'd appreciate it if'n you didn't bring heavy ordinance into my bunk." Mal turned the grenade in his hand, running a finger over the cool, curved surface. He waited for Jayne to demand his weapons back, but Jayne just sat quiet. It wasn't really in Jayne's nature to be quiet, and this was one of those things that was weighing on Mal's mind. It seemed like he just didn't know Jayne—hadn't known Jayne since that day when he'd threatened to toss him out the airlock.

"You want me to leave?" Jayne finally asked when the silence had gone on so long that it had become an oppressive weight that settled onto both of them.

"Why did you come after me?" Mal asked instead of answering the question.

Jayne frowned, but it was one of those confused looks of his rather than any unhappiness. "Thought it was what you'd have me do." From how slow Jayne was saying that, he still wasn't real sure on his answer.

Mal put the grenade down with the rest of Jayne's arsenal. "Can't say I would have recommended it, but I'm glad you did," Mal said. "I appreciate you risking yourself like that."

Jayne positively perked up at that comment. "Weren't like I didn't have cause to be angry. Niska took our bribe and then kept you anyway. That's as good as welching on a deal."

Mal raised an eyebrow because Jayne never had seen anything wrong with double dealing in the past. "So, you were so offended, you decided to commit suicide by going up against Niska on his own station?"

That made Jayne frown a bit. "Sorta."

"It's the part where you can't explain yourself that has me twitchy, Jayne."

"I never—"

Mal didn't give Jayne a change to finish his thought because he kept right on going. "If'n I don't understand the doc and any of his idiocy, I ain't too worried because he's on my ship only as long as he has my good will. One foot out of line, and I toss him and his sister off."

From the look Jayne gave him, it was pretty clear Jayne didn't think that was likely. Mal had to admit that it would take more than a foot out of line to make him give some slip of a girl the boot, especially when she couldn't defend herself from the alliance, and her brother was next to worthless. But that was a discussion for another day.

"But you're a different story. I ain't forgetting that you shot your last captain. Course, you did it for me, and I do rightly appreciate that, as well as appreciating the fact that he paid you so poor that I could bribe you away. But you're not like the doc. You're dangerous. Right now, I reckon I could take you pretty easy seeing as how I have all the weapons, but when I went to put you out that airlock, I had to take you from behind. Fact is, I don't give myself real good odds if we're going at it face to face, so I'm wondering whether I'm going to have to find out."

Jayne sat up straight. "You think I'm aiming to take you in a fight?" From the shocked tone of voice, Mal could pretty well guess that he'd been aiming wrong.

"No." Mal said defensively, and now Jayne just looked more confused. Mal sighed and rubbed a hand across his chest where the skin still burned from Niska's torture. He'd already been dead once today, and even that didn't buy him any rest with the crew. No, Jayne just had to demand that he figure out his mind on this matter. Taking a few minutes, Mal tried to gather all his thoughts and his worries into one place so he could speak his mind. "I don't think you're aiming for a fight, I just reckon you get yourself in some bad spots by not thinking. I don't want me or my crew around when you decide to put yourself in another bad spot."

Whatever Mal said, it'd been the wrong thing. He could see it in the way Jayne's confusion hardened into a cold mask of indifference. When Jayne got to looking indifferent on a subject, people started getting dead. And even with all the weapons, Mal still figured Jayne had at least a slim shot of taking him in close quarters, especially seeing as how Mal was still trying to get over the bit where he'd been dead.

"That ain't a look that makes me feel any more softly toward you," Mal warned.

"If I ain't crew, I guess it don't matter. I'll be asking Wash what our next stop is," Jayne said. He stood stiffly, like an old man, and then he moved to the ladder without even looking at his abandoned weapons. Watching Jayne's back, Mal knew he had fucked something up. And truly—he hated that he felt like he was the one in the wrong when it were Jayne with the bad habit of going and getting stupid.

"Didn't give you permission to leave," Mal snapped. He wasn't sure Inara had been right about Jayne giving him the power here, but this was as good a time to find out as any. Jayne stiffened, his back still to Mal for long minutes. Then, ever so slowly, he turned around. With his arms crossed and his face still that dangerous sort of indifferent, Mal felt a bit like a man who'd grabbed the wrong end of a rabid dog and couldn't quite figure out how to let go.

"I ain't looking for you to leave."

"Not like you trust me."

"No, it's really not," Mal immediately agreed. Something dark flashed across Jayne's face. "It's true," Mal defended himself from his own guilt, which was starting to become annoying. "I still don't know why you called the Alliance on the Tams, but it was about as dumb a move as I've ever seen a man make. If I ain't understanding your thinking, I don't know how to trust you."

Jayne stared at him for long minutes before finally looking away. "Reward had some influence on my thinking."

"I figured that," Mal pointed out. That got him a dirty look from Jayne.

"Seems like the minute you took on the Tams, you've been doing things that put us all in the line of fire. You done pissed off Niska, and there ain't another man in the 'verse dumb enough to do that, not even me. River stabbed me, or did you forget that? I may be used to getting stabbed, but what if she'd stabbed Kaylee or Wash?" Jayne paused. "Well, Kaylee anyway 'cause I'm not going to pretend to care about Wash. It just seemed that you had a blind spot with those two."

"So you were going to take care of them for me?" Mal asked.

"Well, yeah." Jayne sounded so unapologetic that it took Mal a second to recover from a new wave of anger.

"So, you think I'm too gorram dumb to know how to captain my ship?"

"I ain't never said that." Jayne stepped forward, and the indifference in his face had twisted into distress and anger, two emotions that actually scared Mal less than Jayne's indifference.

"Yes, you did. You thought you knew more than I did, and your gorram stupidity just about got us all killed. I need to know you're never going to go trusting your own judgment again, because that was just about the end of us all. Ni dongdé ma?"

"Yeah, I understand." Jayne started studying the floor, and seeing a big man like Jayne so quick to agree just... okay, it felt a little good knowing he could bring Jayne to heel, but it were a little unsettling, too.

"Should probably get off next stop," Jayne said, his eyes following the line of the ship plates as they met on the floor of Mal's quarters.

"Gun hoe-tze bee dio-se."

Jayne looked up at Mal's string of curse words. "I ain't asking you to leave. If I wanted you off my ship, I would have put you off myself. Had a real good shot at it back when you were in that airlock, and as the captain, I made a choice to keep you on. Don't seem like such a bad choice considering you and Zoe were the only two real gun hands in the assault, and you two still took out Niska's men. Now that's downright embarrassing—getting your ass kicked by two armed soldiers and a bunch of crew who can't find the right end of a gun to fire. Niska should fire any of them that didn't end up dead."

Mal smiled at that thought. A whole carrier of Browncoats would've had trouble taking Niska's station, and Zoe and Jayne had pretty much done it on their own. If someone was going to make comparisons between Jayne and a dog, they'd better make it a damn big dog—one of them junkyard mutts that rips your guts out if you go stepping onto its property without leave.

"Were a pretty nice bit of business," Jayne answered, and Mal had never been so pleased to see Jayne smile.

Mal's smile grew wider. "Considering the shepherd wouldn't shoot higher than the kneecaps and the doc didn't manage to hit anyone at all, it was downright unbelievable."

Jayne frowned for a second.

"Gos se. What?" Mal demanded.

"Probably nuthing."

"We ain't having this conversation again, Jayne. What is it that I'm expecting from you?" Mal's voice didn't leave any room for debate.

"I ain't going to go figuring on my own." Mal would have cut out his own liver and offered it up before saying that to another man, but Jayne seemed downright relieved.

"Right then, that means you don't leave the ship without my say-so, you don't go selling crew to Alliance, and you tell me what you know without making me ask after it."

Jayne crossed the small quarters and sat down on Mal's chair. "You got anything to drink?" he asked. Mal looked at him for a second. He supposed Jayne had done enough to earn a reward or two. "Behind the blue book." Mal pointed to his shelf.

Jayne pulled out the whiskey and put the book back while Mal made a pile of Jayne's armaments at the end of the bed, closer to Jayne. Even if Jayne didn't feel a need to ask for them back, Mal figured it was downright rude of him to make Jayne go unarmed.

"The doc said that there were only the two soldiers inside the hanger when he and the preacher took off to help us—the one burned, and the one who the preacher had kneecapped and knocked out cold. Only when we was running back, there were more'n that. And Kaylee's been acting real strange." Jayne took a deep drink before handing the whiskey over.

The truth was, Mal didn't like the thought of Kaylee having to kill, but he liked the thought of being dead even less, so he couldn't say he was sorry at how things had worked out. "Likely she didn't like having to kill," Mal guessed.

Jayne shrugged. "Maybe, only she wasn't doing much guilting for someone who just made their first kill. Guay, I worried at it more the first time I done shot someone. So seems like there's something more, only I can't figure what."

That did seem worrisome. "I'll go asking after it, just as soon as I get some sleep," Mal promised. He put the cap back on the whiskey and put it out of Jayne's reach. Maybe Jayne was learning a thing or two because he recognized the dismissal. He stood up without a word and started tucking his weapons away into a dozen hiding places in his clothes. Mal hadn't ever guessed just how armed the man was. It seemed like it'd weary a man to carry all that metal, but Jayne just gave Mal a nod and headed for the ladder.

"Night, captain," he offered.

"Night, Jayne." Mal watched Jayne close the hatch behind him with the definite feeling that something had just shifted in their relationship. Mal just wasn't exactly sure what. Well, time would tell.




Chapter Three


Jayne watched Mal, real uncomfortable about how this had all gone down. About two seconds after Saffron had shown up, Mal was all talking on bobbly-headed dolls and how he would find them a better job. The dolls had scored them good money, but one look at a woman’s big eyes, and he was making decisions about as bad as Jayne’s own.

Women-folk weren’t to be trusted. Jayne had said that more than once.

Now Mal sat at the table, a half-eaten sandwich in front of him. Jayne figured they’d both had a real bad day. Well, excepting the part where they’d gotten that ancient gun. Seemed crazy that people would pay a million credits for some gun that didn’t even work anymore, but it wasn’t like Jayne understood rich folk. They were all moonbrains about as bad as River. And there was another topic Jayne didn’t want to go thinking on real hard.

“You plannin’ on staring at me all day?” Mal demanded.

Jayne jerked, startled. “No,” he said, not certain of his answer. Sometimes trying to stay on Mal’s good side was harder than Jayne would have thought.

Mal turned around and gave Jayne a real weary look. “You got something to say, then you say it. But I ain’t fond of having you giving me that look.”

“Seems like you ain’t fond of most of my looks,” Jayne complained. It did seem like Mal always had a gorram bone to pick because Jayne had the wrong expression. Jayne hadn’t thought so much about trying to keep a pleasant expression on his face since he left home.

“Seems like I don’t,” Mal agreed. He shifted in his chair. “But if you have something to say to me, you say it. You don’t go thinking on things that are going to leave me twitchy.”

Jayne dropped down into one of the other chairs and rubbed his arm where the doctor had given him a shot of something… who knows what. For all Jayne knew, he was dying right now of some exotic disease the doc had thought up. All this because Jayne had wanted the Tams off the ship. Sure, he wanted the reward, too. But more than anything, he wanted them gone before the only place he’d called home in twenty years got blasted to pieces.

“So, is this going to be some standing rule, that I can’t have a thought without sharing it?” Jayne asked. He wasn’t sure how he felt about that, but if he had a rule, he could at least understand what Mal expected of him.

“Yep,” Mal agreed.

Jayne scratched his chest and thought about it. “You ain’t going like most of the gou shi that goes through my head most times.”

“I don’t like most the gou shi that comes out your mouth,” Mal pointed out. Then he sighed and continued, “And despite that, you’re still the best damn gunhand on the ship and someone who I want on my side in a fight.”

It wasn’t quite a declaration of trust, but it was a glimmer of hope that maybe Jayne could fix this mess he’d made. He never had meant to turn on Mal. The man might get them into all kinds of trouble, but Jayne had come to trust that Mal would get them out without using any of the crew as bait. It was a feeling of security he didn’t rightly value until he’d lost it… until he’d fucked up so bad that Mal threatened to dump him out into space.

“I know I ain’t good on figuring things. I done my share of fucking up,” Jayne started slowly, not sure how to ease himself into the next bit without destroying any chance that he could make this right. He hadn’t wanted so much to please anyone in all his life, excepting maybe his ma and pa. That wasn’t the same though. They had to love him, even when he was downright dumb. Mal, though, he could just as soon turn on Jayne.

“I’m hearing a ‘but’ coming,” Mal prodded him.

“But would you have taken this job if it weren’t a woman dangling it in front of you?”

Mal stiffened up, and Jayne knew he’d made another wrong-footed step. He did that a lot with Mal these days. Honestly, he always had, but these days he was actually trying to get along, it rubbed him wrong that he couldn’t.

“Are you saying I made a bad call? I’ll remind you that we got the gorram gun.”

“Yep. And if’n Saffron had decided to go shooting you instead of just leaving you in the desert starkers, I wouldn’t have been there to cover your back,” Jayne pointed out. That was the part that really bothered him. The captain could have been left with a bullet in his back instead of only being naked.

“She didn’t though.”

“And if she had?” Jayne crossed his arms.

“I didn’t know you worried over me,” Mal said, his sarcastic voice making it fairly clear that he still didn’t believe that.

“I do,” Jayne answered simply. The fact was that Mal might take care of his people, but he didn’t really give much thought to taking care of himself.

Mal blinked a few time, watching Jayne like he expected snakes to fall out his nose or something. It got so bad that Jayne actually reached up and wiped his face, fearing that some booger had gone south when he wasn’t paying attention. “What?”

“I’m wondering what brought about this new-found worry about me and my hide,” Mal said.

“I followed you into Niska’s lair when you went getting yourself killed. But the way this plan rolled out, the most I could have done was track Saffron down and shoot her in the head if’n she’d killed you. I’d feel a lot better if your plans didn’t include trusting no women.” Jayne tried very hard to not shift nervously. He hadn’t spoken this direct to the captain since Mal had ordered him to start following orders and stop thinking on things himself. Jayne could admit that when he went making his own plans, they were less than well thought out. But it seemed as if Mal’s plans were only slightly better.

“She wouldn’t have killed me. Now double-crossing me, that was always in the cards, which is why I asked Inara to keep her shuttle ready to intercept. I thought through that plan. I had backups. That’s how you make a plan, Jayne.” Mal got a real self-satisfied look.

“And what backup did you have if she’d decided to shoot you.”

Mal’s smiled faded, and he didn’t have an answer for that. Jayne grunted. That’s what he thought. The captain’s plan was a good bit better than anything Jayne came up with, but it still fell short of being good.

“She didn’t though,” Mal insisted. The man was a mule. He was a gorram mule. Maybe he could see Jayne’s rising frustration because he pushed himself away from the table and headed into the galley. “If she had shot me, it would have been my life on the line, not the crew.”

“Is that supposed to make it better?” Jayne asked. Seemed like he would throw either of the Tams to the wolves or the Alliance before he’d go putting Mal in the same danger.

“Yes.” Mal pointed a finger at Jayne, and Jayne could feel the twin pulls—the need to snap back and the need to back down. Reminding himself that Mal’s patience was about at an end, Jayne swallowed the need to counterattack and found an interesting spot on the clean floor and stared at it, his nerves jangling. He trusted Mal to make better choices for the ship, but Jayne weren’t so sure he was the only one with questionable planning skills. “Cao.” Mal sounded weary, and Jayne looked back up at him, not sure where this conversation was going anymore. He’d be better off if he just learned to take orders and close his mouth. He used to have that skill. He also used to jump ship any time he thought he could find a better berth. Jayne didn’t want that anymore.

Leaning on the counter, Mal looked at him. “If I go putting myself in danger, I’ve only got myself to blame. That ain’t the same as when people put others in danger without even having the courtesy to tell ‘em.”

“And if you’d died?” Jayne studied Mal, struggling to understand the logic here. He knew he wasn’t bright. He knew it. That was fine. But he hadn’t been this confused since he’d given up on schooling.

“Then I would have.” Mal’s chest heaved with a dramatic sigh. “And I’m hoping you would have tracked Saffron down and pointed out the error of her ways. But it was my risk to take.”

“I don’t like that you took it alone,” Jayne said. Maybe he was out of line, but he needed to say this.

Mal considered him for some time. “The fact that you are worrying after me thinks that maybe I can trust you. But I ain’t changing my plans to make you feel better.”

Jayne frowned. Truth was, he never did expect the captain to change plans. Jayne was the gunhand, not the planner. “You ain’t upset that I told you that I hated your plan?”

“Nope,” Mal answered, and that was not the answer Jayne had expected. He’d thought he would be in trouble. “I won’t ever hold nothing you say against you, Jayne Cobb,” Mal said in a voice that sounded a lot like a promise. “Now, if you go doing things without permission, then you and I are going to have a problem,” he warned, his voice sharp.

“I already told you I wouldn’t.” Jayne hated that he had to defend himself against this same charge over and over, but after he tried to sell out the Tams, he couldn’t quite go blaming Mal for assuming the worst. “I didn’t snap that woman’s neck like a twig, and I did go thinking on that more than once,” he pointed out. “But if’n you said we were taking her job, I took her job.”

Mal drew himself up a little straighter and nodded. “Gorram right we took the job.” The captain looked a little shinier, a little happier, than he had in a good while. It seemed like the jobs were getting scarcer and the captain more tense with every passing day. Other than Ariel and now this, they hadn’t had a real haul in… close to a year. About the time the Tams came on board, the work just dried up. “Hopefully we can get at least a half-million credits out of the fence. We can get some serious repairs to the ship and then pay out a healthy share for crew.” Mal’s voice trailed off, and he studied Jayne.

“What?” Jayne asked.

“I’ve been wondering,” Mal said real slow, “Kaylee stays because she loves the ship and Zoe’s always stayed with me, but you and the shepherd… the fact is that you don’t have as much to make you stay. When we get this payout, are you thinking on taking the money and making a life elsewhere?”

Jayne frowned. “Why would I do that?” Being a hired gun was the only job Jayne had ever done well, and Mal was the only captain he trusted to have his back. If the day came that Jayne fucked up bad enough for the captain to turn on him, Mal would kill him outright, and there was a certain stability in knowing that the captain might shoot you, but he wouldn’t leave you to rot on some planet.

“I don’t know. It seems like you’re starting to understand that you ain’t never going to make the decisions around here. This ship isn’t a democracy, and while I might listen, I won’t make plans around what makes you happy. That ain’t changing.”

Truth was, there was some comfort in that, too, because Jayne knew how his plans worked out. “That don’t bother me none.”

“So, if you get some money, you aren’t going to up and disappear?”

Jayne shifted uncomfortably. Maybe this was one of those times when Mal was trying to tell him something without saying it. The man could be as confusing as Inara when he put his mind to it. “Do you want me to disappear?” he asked, bracing himself for the answer.

“What? No.” Mal jerked back like Jayne had just tried to bite him. Jayne figured that he would never figure out Mal’s logic because every time he thought Mal was hinting at something, he acted all surprised when Jayne went and made his guess as to what he was hinting at. “I want you to stay around.”

“And you think I won’t if I have two credits to rub together?”

“The thought had crossed my mind,” Mal admitted.

“You should have asked, then. Cao. I ain’t one for running my own ship, and there aren’t so many captains out there I trust. Unless you go shooting me or putting me off, I’m here to stay.”

The way Mal’s body language relaxed made Jayne oddly proud. There weren’t many people in the ‘verse who were relieved at the thought of Jayne being a permanent fixture, and it was a real homey feeling to know that Mal wanted him on-board. Mal hadn’t expressed that same sentiment when it came to the Tams, that’s for sure. Jayne sat up as he remembered what he’d been planning on telling Mal. Mal had made it real clear that Jayne was to share his thoughts on crew, and Jayne had a gorram odd day with the Tams.

“Seems like the Tams might know about Ariel.”

Mal made a face. “Why do you say that?”

“Because Simon said he knew about Ariel,” Jayne answered. For some reason, Mal’s unhappy face got worse. “I was knocked out, and when I was still helpless on his table, he told me that he didn’t know what I’d been offered, but that we were crew and we had to trust each other seeing as how we had the same enemies. I was helpless, so I didn’t point out that we have a fair number of enemies only because of him and his crazy sister.”

“So, he knows and he didn’t try and kill you?”

Jayne scratched his stomach as he stood up and headed into the galley to grab some ration bars. “I don’t figure it, either. Maybe he knows you’d be put out.” Jayne pulled out a bar and started pulling the foil off. “Maybe he knows we need all the guns we can get seeing as how the Alliance is always getting closer, but he as good as told me that he won’t kill me if I don’t try and sell him again.”

“Did he know any details?”

Jayne threw the wrapper in the recycler and bit off a corner of the bar. “That’s the odd thing. He didn’t know any details at all. He talked in generalities, like he was some character in some book with all the fancy language.”

“He usually talks like that,” Mal said with a moue of disgust. Jayne agreed with that sentiment.

“Yeah, but talked about knowing without actually telling me one thing he knew.”

“So, he only has suspicions. You confirm anything, admit to anything?” Mal asked.

Jayne shook his head. “Nope. But his sister came in and announced that she could kill me with her brain.”

“Does she know about Ariel?”

Jayne snorted, and then used his sleeve to wipe the bit of counter where he’d spit some bit of ration bar.

“There’s something not right about that girl,” Mal said. “When I pinned her down, Kaylee admitted that it was River who took out the guards in the landing bay.”

“River? How?”

Mal leaned back against the opposite counter and crossed his arms. “Here’s the crazy part. Kaylee said she closed her eyes and then picked off every soldier in the area with a pistol without even a peek.”

Jayne frowned. “That ain’t possible.” When he’d brought his story to Mal about something being wrong with Kaylee’s version of events, he hadn’t expected her to make up gou shi. He thought she’s come clean to the captain.

“Possible or not, she swears that’s what happened. And now River’s threatening to kill you with her brain.”

“I ain’t worried about something that’s not possible,” Jayne said. He refused to worry about leprechauns, Earth that was, or girls killing him with their brains. He’d stick to reality.

“Jayne, remember how we said you needed to do more listening and following than making judgments on your own?” Mal asked.


Mal hadn’t shifted a single inch, but Jayne could see how the man was all tensed up somehow. Something Jayne said had bothered the captain more than it seemed like it should. “Jayne, from this point on, I want you to think of River as a valuable guest who’s carrying a big box of explosives.”

“You want I should shoot her?” Jayne frowned. Normally he didn’t have a problem shooting people, but as much as she annoyed him, she was little more than a half-grown girl. He’d rather shoot Simon if he had to kill one of the Tams.

“NO!” Mal shot forward, his eyes big and startled. “Wuh de tyen, ah. No!”

Jayne frowned, staring at Mal’s conniption and trying to figure out what, exactly, the captain wanted.

Mal rubbed a hand over his face. “I want you shouldn’t shoot her at all. I want you should watch her, see if you can figure out what she’s doing, and if she does anything odd, you come right to me.”

“Oh.” Jayne nodded. “I can do that.”

“And don’t shoot her,” Mal warned again.

“I never wanted to in the first place. You’re the one who suggested that.”

“Ching-wah tsao duh liou mahng,” Mal muttered under his breath as he walked away. Then again, Mal always was cranky, even after getting their loot and getting away without worse than Mal getting a sunburn. But if the captain wanted him to keep an eye on River, Jayne could do that. He wouldn’t like it much seeing as how River always did make him uncomfortable. She wasn’t exactly a woman or a girl or a passenger or crew. She just didn’t fit anywhere, and that tended to make Jayne itch.

But if Mal wanted him to keep an eye on her, he would. Fact was, Jayne was finding that he liked it when he found exactly the right thing to do or say in order to make Mal happy. It was like finding the center of a target with his bullet… something that made him feel like he’d done right. Jayne didn’t get that feeling often, so if keeping an eye on River’s comings and goings made Mal happy, Jayne could do that.




Chapter Four

“Like a tithe of devotion,” River said. Jayne’s brain was dancing across the air. He’d plodded with iron heavy feet, but now he danced. River held out her hands, offering to dance with him, and his shadow body retreated. However, his brain still twirled, and River twirled with it.

“Stop that,” Jayne snapped. The shadow frowned, and River tried hard to hold onto the shadow and not the dancing streaks that tempted her. Brother always gave her more drugs when she ignored the shadows, and she didn’t like how the drugs made all the colors blur and turned to slick mud that slid through her brain leaving cold trails of slime behind. So she stilled and looked at Jayne.

“Shadow paths all winding,” she whispered as she watched new realities leak in through the growing cracks of the old. Water pushed at the walls, and one more push would send the river raging in a new direction—hopefully one without the piles of Reaver bodies lying at her feet, their brains tearing at her. Throwing her hands up around her head, River screamed and ran backwards until her back hit a wall and she collapsed to the floor shivering as those future Reaver minds ripped at her, their blackness smudging all the colors.

“What did you do?” Brother. No. She couldn’t let Reavers near Brother. River pushed herself up.

“I didn’t do nothing.”

“And why do I have trouble believing that?”

Jayne and Brother, colors clashing until they were crayons melting into each other, their shadows vanishing under the light. This was familiar. “I can kill you with my brain,” River said softly, the words an anchor to a moment. She stood outside the infirmary and Jayne was hurt. Scared. Before he’d feared them knowing. Then he’d feared for his life as Brother walked around his helpless shadow form. Now… now he didn’t fear.

“What in the gorram hell are you three doing?”

River turned her head to see the captain. Stained glass with a hundred realities and possibilities all winking at her. Colors flashed too fast for her to see, and she moved around Brother to Jayne. Jayne’s colors were slower. It didn’t hurt her head as much and his brain was still dancing.

“I don’t know what Jayne did, but he did something.”

“I walked in, and right off, she was dancing around me like I was a Maypole.”

“A Maypole—a structure erected in a community to encourage celebration and dancing.” River’s brain tripped through the cracks of reality and visited the Maypoles that had existed within her limited awareness. She hated that the cracks in realities and time only allowed her to see so far, but a little voice whispered that she could see too far already. She spun away from a crack that oozed the blackness of Reaver minds and found one with young people cavorting around a Maypole. “Cavort,” she said happily. Closing her eyes, she stayed there. The shadows were all around her, but they never danced for her the way the colors in the cracks did. They never danced the way Jayne’s brain was. Things shifted, and she liked the colors more than the shadows where Brother lived… where Brother wanted her to live.

“Seems like your sister is having a bad day.” Mal words, heavy in the air. He wasn’t dancing with Jayne yet. Colors shifted, but not enough.

“Mal should bed Jayne,” River proclaimed. She could see the crack and all its pretty colors. She should hide Brother medicine more often because the world in all its complex colors shifting realities was clearer when she could ignore the shadows that ruled his perceptions.

“Mal should what--”

“What in the gorram—”

“Mei, mei, you should come with me now.”

Shadow voices blending, but River danced away from the first brush of warm touch against her arm. Blindly, she groped for Jayne’s dancing, finding his shadow arm and holding on tight so Brother couldn’t take it.

“Jayne would be beautiful stripped by pleasure,” River said firmly, her brain finding another crack to explore.

“Get off me, Moonbrain!” Jayne’s shadow hands pushed at her, and River let herself dance with him, her shadow feet shifting as only her real self twirled through the universe. Shadows darkened and slowly took form and River could see Mal and Brother staring at her with open mouths. Brother’s reality was always clearer with Jayne because he danced with the now. Other people’s brains were forever lost in the “then” and the” yet,” but Jayne’s danced always in the now with only tendrils wandering off into time.

“Doc,” Mal said slowly. “It might be that you should consider giving her more medicine.”

Brother was frowning. “I think I need to check to see if she spit out her medicine somewhere in her room.”

“I did,” River confirmed. Brother’s face went all unhappy and his brain leaked into the past, dragging back images of River as a laughing little girl. River sighed. She hated those intruders. They should stay in the past, but Brother’s brain always leaked. Leaked and leaked.

“Mei, mei, let’s head back to the infirmary. I’ll get you more medicine,” Brother said, he held out shadow hands full of little dancing Rivers—six years old in a blue dress and ten years old in shorts with dirty knees and twelve years old with a book in hand, and all the Rivers didn’t like getting pulled out of time. They frowned at her loudly, so River abandoned Jayne and evaded Brother to reach Mal.

Clinging to his arm, she dug her fingers into the pewter and steel of his mind. Mal was stain-glass, a thousand Mals all standing around him. Soldier Mal, thief Mal, angry Mal, lover Mal. A hundred thousand realities a spun like a prism and River should have been blinded, but every single stain-glass window had the same metal framework so that no matter which glass spun in front of her, she could hold on.

“No medicine,” River said as firmly as she could. She could get control of the shadows and the light if Brother just stayed away from her. His colors danced like Jayne, no structure to hold them in place. But unlike Jayne, his colors bled into all the cracks dragging past and distant present and possible future all into one dizzying image with no stain-glass frame for River to cling to.

Mal looked down at her. “I think you need some medicine,” Mal said, but all his stained glass figures turned to look at her. That never happened before. River tilted her head at him and noticed that Jayne’s colors stained the edges of Mal’s glass. New cracks opened and realities shifted.

“I can’t see the bad coming with the medicine.”

Mal exchanged a look with Jayne before he looked down at her. “What bad, mei-mei?”

River tilted her head and closed her eyes as a thousand million hundred Reaver minds with their inky black souls threatened to soak into the colors of all the world.

“She’s doing some witching gou shi. I’m betting she told her brother about Ariel,” Jayne said, and River looked over. That wasn’t supposed to happen. Jayne was supposed to hide Ariel. Instead his dance paused and Ariel flowed up into time. Jayne’s face twisted with regret as he saw the scans. He wanted to call the betrayal off, but he’d kissed Christ. Too late.

“Do you really want to discuss Ariel?” Brother demanded, but now Mal was focusing on him, letting River cling to him without trying to dislodge her. She closed her eyes and wished Jayne would stop dancing with the past-crack. She counted on Jayne to wash away all the colors, sweeping them aside as irrelevant.

“What do you know about Ariel?” Mal asked.

Brother looked shocked. “I know I forgave Jayne.”

“For what?” Mal tried to cross his arms, frowning when he couldn’t because River wouldn’t relinquish her grip.

“For betraying us.”

“How?” Mal poked, and at least half the Mals now glared at Brother with the other half eyeing River, and one or two studying Jayne. Mals gave her a headache, but as long as Jayne kept spinning into the past, Mal was her best choice if she wanted to stay stuck in time without the medicine.

“River told me he felt guilty, okay?” Brother hated that. He hated admitting ignorance. He wanted to be the hero with the answers, but he couldn’t see Jayne’s betrayal or his guilt even though both had slipped free of time to stand in the room with them.

Mal looked down at her. “So, what bad do you see coming, River?” Mal asked gently. Jayne’s brain returned to the present, closing all the other doors, and River moved away from Mal and reached out for Jayne. He backed away, but she followed until she could rest her hand against his arm.

“Doc, you want to do something here?” Jayne said, all his colors dancing around her, just her. The cracks faded and the Reaver minds retreated, grumbling their displeasure at being denied a meal.

“Bad. Whispering in the dark. Staining the black with more black.” River wanted to say more, but word spiders skittered away and she was afraid. If she said the word “Reavers,” Jayne’s dance would stumble and the world would crack. River was too tired. But they needed to know. In all the cracks she had never been able to tell them until after the first death that made all others inevitable. She snuck a peek past Jayne into one long crack that led back and back to a young man with dark skin and curled hair standing on a sunny planet.

“Shepherd Books is standing there in his uniform,” River whispered. “All the bad gathering.”

Brother corrected her. Always wanting her to only admit to seeing one world, only sometimes River was so tired she couldn’t figure out which world to describe, and Brother always told her and told her and told her what to see. “You mean his collar, River. Shepherds don’t really have uniforms,” he said now. But that isn’t what she meant.

River shook her head. “Black uniform with red buttons, white trim at the collar.” At least half of the Mals pulled guns at that description, but the shadow Mal in Brother’s reality just stared at her.

“Mal, is she describing a Special Services uniform?” Jayne asked.

“Seems like she is,” Mal agreed.

Jayne cursed, “Tee wuh duh pee-goo. We don’t need that kind of bad, Mal.”

“I ain’t disagreeing.”

River looked at the new colors in Mal. Then she looked at a newly forming stable center in Jayne, the colors at the very center just starting to harden into the first leg of newly minted frame, still cooling from the forge. She studied both men. “Mal should sleep with Jayne. I like Jayne’s hardness, but I’m too tired to dance.”

The room erupted at the world “hardness,” each man dragging a dozen images into the room until River had to blink away all the leaking figures. Mal’s male lover from the war. Brother’s college roommate. Jayne’s… River tilted her head, amazed at the number of men who crowded into the room. One with blond hair and dark eyes winked at her before giving Jayne a salacious look.

Brother wanted her normal, normal, normal, but none of them knew normal from a hole in the wall. Leaving the three of them to shout at each other about corruptions and hardness, various lovers crowding into the space, River wandered off to find Kaylee. When Kaylee worked on engines, her mind was all cool and slick and easy to slide around in. After dealing with the men, River wanted some easy.




Chapter Five

Nandi fingered the edge of her teacup. These days she was more likely to indulge in whiskey, but it felt right to fall back on the old ceremonies with Inara here. “Is it just me or is Mr. Cobb’s pursuit of every woman in this house feeling rather desperate?” Nandi asked.

“If he’s taking advantage, you only have to tell Mal,” Inara offered with a studied carelessness that she had clearly practiced. Interesting. “He’ll control Jayne,” she finished.


Inara put down her teacup and pursed her lips as she considered Nandi. “Do not get that expression,” she warned. At one time, Inara’s warnings would have carried a lot of weight with Nandi, but she’d learned to be a little more direct and a lot more self-sufficient running her own house. She was no longer the timid companion carefully trained to avoid ever offending anyone.

“What expression?” Nandi asked, but she knew that Inara could read her every expression. They’d lived together, trained together, served clients together, and slept together. There were no secrets, and Inara could read her as easily as she could read Inara.

“The one that says you are making plans. Those two have problems enough without having you interfering in an already problematic relationship.” Inara leaned back and projected a sort of determination that Nandi remembered well. She always had a core of steel that Nandi had admired.

“And here I thought you were still a companion, sworn to help those with problematic relationships.”

“They are not clients.” A touch of disgust leeched through the words, surprising Nandi. Inara wasn’t generally one for judgments, but then Mal clearly desired her, so perhaps there was more to the relationship than Nandi had yet seen.

“That never stopped you before. In fact, as I remember, the one dark spot on your perfect record was your habit of helping anyone in spiritual or sexual need, even if they couldn’t or wouldn’t pay.”

“Perhaps I’ve decided the rules are more important than my personal preference,” Inara lied.

“And that is why I left the companions,” Nandi said, changing the topic to one that was slightly less personal. “The hypocrisy is really too much for me. The rules say that clients don’t pay for sex. However, when we suggest that sex is the last thing that some client needs, we have a bureaucrat questioning our commitment to our craft and telling us to have sex. We are to help those who are emotionally troubled, but if they ain’t got money, we don’t help.” Nandi grinned at Inara’s slight cringe at her poor grammar. “The guild wants to own companions as sure as Rance Burgess wants to own Petaline.”

“They want to keep standards high.”

“They want to keep companions in line.”

Inara sighed. “Perhaps they want both.”

Nandi didn’t answer. It was enough that they both understood the truth; Nandi didn’t need to make Inara admit it. “Tell me about Jayne Cobb.”

“He is crude, disgusting, unwashed, and utterly disreputable.”

“And in love with his captain,” Nandi added since that did seem the most significant part given that Jayne was sleeping his way through every girl in the house. Mind, there had been a lack of complaints and more than a couple of complimentary remarks; however, a man trying to sublimate that much lust would burn out eventually.

Inara didn’t answer. Leaning back against the red pillows in her embroidered and jeweled outfit, Nandi could almost believe they were back in some companion house having a philosophical discussion. Of course, that false sense of security would end when Burgess showed up to burn them out of the Heart of Gold and give the whorehouse to some man who would get the girls strung out on drugs and abuse them. That would happen over her dead body, but Nandi had to admit that her death was a very real possibility. Perhaps that is why she was willing to risk her longest friendship over the matter of a confused sexual dynamic.

“Will you leave them suffering then?” Nandi asked curiously.

“They are not my business.”

“But you are torn. I can see how, as a companion, you would want to help two such idiots find some peace. I have to wonder if your sudden adherence to the rules has some other motivation. Could it be that you are attracted to Captain Malcolm Reynolds?”

Inara opened her mouth, the denial obvious in her expression, but then she seemed to sag, emotionally and physically. “I am trying to recover from it,” she said with the same tone one might use to describe the plague. Clearly Mal had some flaw that Nandi hadn’t yet seen to inspire that sort of despair. On the other hand, if Inara had fallen for him, he must have considerable charm as well.

Nandi reached out and rested her hand against Inara’s knee. “How long has it been since you allowed someone to care for you.”

Inara gave her an amused look. “I don’t need a companion’s services.”

“Are you so sure?”

“You’re assuming I haven’t visited a fellow guild member lately.”

“I’m assuming that with members of that gorram guild you would have to play the part of the dutiful companion, never getting your own needs truly met,” Nandi countered.

Inara smiled at her, but the sadness in that expression made it clear that Inara didn’t plan to take Nandi up on her offer.

“I will take your offer into consideration, but I think I need to deal with my out of control feelings on my own.”

Nandi pursed her lips. No one liked to see a friend so emotionally contorted, but there was very little Nandi could do for Inara. That still left one question. Nandi firmly believed that sexual frustration in one’s environment could corrupt one’s own feelings, and Jayne and Mal were confused enough to corrupt the entire universe. “And where does that leave Mal and Jayne?”

Inara gave a breathy laugh. “Believe it or not, I’ve attempted to counsel Mal so that he would recognize Jayne’s desire to submit.”

“So you see it too.”

“I would have to be blind to miss it.” Shaking her head, Inara leaned forward and picked up her teacup. “However, if they are so puritanical that they refuse to seek sexual satisfaction in a homosexual relationship, I can’t do anything with them.” She wrinkled her nose. “Or I could, but trust me, I do not want to be that involved in their sex life.”

Nandi ran a finger along the edge of her cup. “I’m not so sure. Jayne certainly seemed to check out my boys before settling on the girls.”

“Did he?”

“He did. Perhaps you were distracted by Mal.”

“Perhaps I was.” Inara sighed.

“Would you take offense if I attempted to do a little counseling?”

“Would you be offended if I suggested that it would take an entire team of companions to do anything with those two morons?”

Nandi laughed. “Not at all. I am perfectly willing to admit they might be too much for me.”

“Oh, they really are.” Inara rolled her eyes. “So, if you are interested in sorting them out, I suggest that you start laying the groundwork now, while they are focused on the threat Burgess poses. Not that they recognize the sort of subtle attacks which we are capable of employing.”

“And that must drive you crazy,” Nandi guessed.

Inara looked at her with an honestly confused expression. “Inara, you are one of the most powerful women I know. It sounds like they don’t recognize that.”

“They think power is an ability to shoot a gun and spit at the same time.”

Nandi cringed as the dynamic finally became clear. Inara wanted Mal, and he wanted her too, but he wanted her for her beauty and sexuality. He didn’t respect her power. Inara had never been the sort of woman who accepted that sort of marginalization. When the house had tried to rein her in, she’d chosen to work outside the house. Her power was not easily contained. However, Nandi imagined that Mal would have to be a true fool to choose Jayne over Inara. If he was that much of a fool, he deserved to lose her.

“When this is over, I’ll still be here for you,” Nandi offered softly.

Inara smiled at her. “I have missed you.”

“I know,” Nandi teased. She would love to try and change Inara’s mind about spending some time together, but she knew that pushing would only make the situation worse. So, taking Inara’s advice, she offered her friend a nod and put her cup down so she could go in search of either Mal or Jayne. This would require some finesse.


Heading out into the house, Nandi started her search on the first floor. While her first thought to try and save Mal from his infatuation with Inara, now things appeared far more complicated. Actually, it was a conundrum worthy of a companion test question. She turned the corner with these thoughts on her mind, stopping when she spotted one-third of the problem. Jayne was leaning close to the small woman that had come with these mercenaries. River.

Jayne was inches from the girl, leaning far into her personal space, but River just gazed up at him. “If Burgess goes attacking, there’s lots of folk who are like to end up dead,” Jayne said, his low voice carrying even though he was clearly trying to be quiet. “Fact is that I like some of ‘em.”

The girl tipped her head to the side. It wasn’t often that Nandi failed to understand human beings, but this River broke every rule she’d ever learned. Her body language was inhuman.

“You listening, girl?” Jayne asked, his voice rough with emotion. That one had a hard shell, but Nandi could see something below the surface. He certainly made the girls happy, and most times rough men didn’t care about the girls near as much as their own cocks. By all reports, though, Jayne took time to please the girls and even more oddly, he took time to explain weaponry to the girls rather than leave them helpless. Nandi had found men who were truly evil liked their women helpless. Mal was still a fool for ruining a chance at Inara, but she could see why someone might take a shine to Jayne.

River turned her head to look right at Nandi and Nandi faded back into the shadows of the hall.

“If you’re fixing to do something crazy, like shoot a whole heap of people, now would be a good time to start,” Jayne said.

Nandi frowned, not sure what game Jayne was playing. River was clearly mentally damaged. The idea of her handling a weapon was laughable.

“Thoughts and thoughts, colors bleeding into each other. I want to watch the new person stuck inside the woman,” River objected.

Nandi peeked around the corner, and Jayne had River by one arm, pulling her out toward the front. They stopped near the front door. “Then you get away from whatever thoughts are bleeding into you and yours. Burgess is going to get us all dead if he can, and the captain is so busy chasing skirts he doesn’t have two good thoughts in his head.”

“Skirts and pants.” River said that in a sing-song that made Nandi question her sanity even more.

“Ain’t much caring what they’re wearing. You and I both know the captain goes and gets real stupid with women. If’n I’m not supposed to go making plans and keeping my own judgments on folk, he shouldn’t be allowed near no women. Now Kaylee fessed up about you and your trick. So, if you’re planning on having another deadly moment, now would be the time.”

Nandi watched while Jayne pressed a gorram big gun into River’s hands. It looked about as long as River was tall. The girl stared blankly down at it.

“Dark thoughts crawling through, and without Jayne light to chase all the cracks, cracks and cracks and all the world divides into realities without substance,” River pronounced as seriously as another might offer a eulogy.

“I ain’t understanding even half of that.”

River sighed, and now Nandi could read the frustration. “Need Jayne to think reality into being, temporal lobe compensating for the lack of neural integrity.”

Jayne pulled back, a confused look on his face. While Nandi understood the general meaning of the words, she could admit to feeling equally bewildered by the statement.

River screwed up her face and reached out to grab Jayne’s arm. “See what you want.”

“I want dead men littering that yard,” Jayne said with brutal honesty. Nandi figured he wasn’t exactly the most complicated sort.

River gave a determined little nod and pulled the gun close to her chest before looking down at it. “Movement is optimized with alternative weaponry.”


Nandi eased out from behind the wall. This was as good a time as any to begin building some trust. “She thinks she could move better with another weapon. Perhaps a smaller one?” Nandi offered.

Jayne frowned as he looked at that monster weapon. “That there is the most accurate gun I got.”

Once again, Nandi found herself surprised. This gunhand who appeared as crude and uncaring as they came offered a girl his best weapon, denying himself the ability to use it.

“It is also a very large weapon for someone with very small hands,” Nandi pointed out. “Do you really think she could be of help in this fight?” Nandi’s first thought was to snatch the weapon out of the hands of such a child, but if Jayne believed in River’s ability to find, Nandi had to wonder what she was not understanding.

Jayne ran the back of his hand over his nose to wipe it. “Don’t know. I do know that Kaylee finally confessed to the captain that River shot a peck of guards on another job, not even pausing to take aim as she killed them with one shot each. If’n she can do that again, I reckon our odds go up.”

“So, she’s a marksman?” Nandi looked uncertainly at the girl. She certainly didn’t look like a marksman.

“You saying I’d lie?” Jayne demanded, and she could almost see the defenses lock into place. Nandi focused on Jayne for a second, dismissing the problem of River for the time.

“I think you’d lie quite easily to protect your crew, to protect your captain. I suspect you are the sort of man who would do a lot to get a job done, and I am very grateful you’re on my side because I don’t doubt that if you were to join forces with Burgess, my chances of winning would go down right dramatically,” Nandi let a little of the rough frontier accent seep into her voice, and she could almost see Jayne relax under the praise. Interesting.

“Gorram right,” Jayne said, looking like a very satisfied cat who had just finished a bowl of milk. His kinks were rather front and center, even if his relationships with the crew would challenge the most experienced of companions. “So if the girl can keep herself focused and do some killing, I’d be grateful.”

“If I ain’t mistaken,” Nandi started, thickening her accent more, “the girl is saying that she has something wrong with her brain.”

Jayne snorted. “That ain’t the half of it.”

“And she needs you to focus on what you want so she can…” Nandi frowned, not wanting to say the next bit out loud. While she had come to a logical conclusion if she assumed River had any logic to her strange words, this wasn’t the sort of conclusion she cared to share. She hated looking a fool.

Jayne watched her, his head tilted to the side with body language that begged for clear direction. The man’s psyche was an open book that Nandi could read as easily as a menu.

“She needs you to focus so she can read your mind and see what she’s supposed to do.” Nandi braced for the derision, prepared to defend herself by pointing out that she was only translating the words of a clearly confused young woman.

“Oh. Okay,” Jayne said as he reached out and plucked the large gun out of River’s hands. Instead, he untied his gunbelt’s leg brace. After he unbuckled it, he thrust it at River, sidearm, ammo and all.

“Bequest of clarity,” River said as she took it, her body language suddenly turning deadly as she took the gunbelt and slung it around her slender hips. It looked odd, to say the least. “Lots of dead littering that yard.” She echoed Jayne’s earlier words. “But not until morning. Two men to the Serenity, stop the skies from turning enemy. One Chari making whispers with Burgess, and sixteen men with runs riding across the dusty ground.” After saying that, she turned her back and headed out the front door. Nandi stared at her back. How dare the girl accuse Chari of betrayal. She had no idea what all these girls had sacrificed and risked to make the Heart of Gold a safe house for all of them.

However, Jayne’s body language made it all too clear that he believed every word. He grabbed for his radio. “Mal, we got trouble,” Jayne said loudly. “Chari’s turned traitor and that hwun dan has put two gunhands on the Serenity.” Ignoring Nandi altogether, Jayne turned toward the stairs, breaking into a trot even as Nandi could hear Mal’s vivid swearing over the radio. Mad. They were all mad.





Chapter Six

Mal looked around Nandi’s room. The woman lay on her bed, the white bandage wound around her lower leg where a bit of lead had caught her, but overall, they’d done a good sight better than Mal had expected. Of course, it helped some that River had taken out most of Burgess’ crew. Watching her fight was downright creepifying, but Mal would take any help he could get when they were outnumbered five to one.

“That’s quite some crew you have.”

“That it is,” Mal said proudly. Nandi’s room was less fussy than Inara, that’s for sure. She moaned as she swung her legs off the side of the bed and sat up, and Mal moved toward her to offer his hand. Walking around with a bullet hole in your leg wasn’t the easiest, but Nandi wasn’t the sort to order back into bed. She took his hand and laid some considering weight on it as she pulled herself up.

“I should offer my appreciation formally,” she said with a smile.

Mal could feel the familiar heat gather in his stomach even though it’d been an embarrassingly long time since he’d allowed himself that particular pleasure. And seeing how tender Nandi walked, it was going to be a long time yet. Mal wasn’t into bedding an injured woman. “Might be this is a bad time for offering, although I do appreciate the thought.”

“I had something a little more complicated… and a little more enjoyable… in mind,” Nandi said in that tone that always made Mal start to feel distrustful of women. It seemed like the minute they tried making you happy, they went and did something to make a man powerfully unhappy.

“Not to turn down a lady,” he started, “but I hate complications.”

Nandi smiled. “You do seem like the sort of man who would say that.”

“Any particular reason for that particular expression as you’re saying that?” Mal asked. He hadn’t really seen much in the way of manipulation out of Nandi yet, but he figured any companion had more than her fair share in her. Inara did. Mal never could figure out how to keep clear of that woman’s wiles.

Mal might have expected some fancy talk, but Nandi looked right at him. “I did train as a companion you know. I read people pretty well.” She said it the way another might announce the day of the week.

“Good for you,” Mal offered, feeling like he was walking a minefield.

“She’s a hell of a woman.”

“Who?” Mal had an uncomfortable feeling he knew who Nandi was talking about.


Well, cao. That was the one subject Mal would rather avoid. “She’s a cherry blossom. But I reckon you know more about her than I do.”

“Perhaps,” Nandi admitted far too easily. “I think you know Jayne must better.”

“Jayne?” Mal was feeling a little emotionally whiplashed at this point. Nandi changed subject faster than River on a bad day.

“Mr. Cobb,” Nandi added as though Mal didn’t know Jayne’s full name. “The man who is proving so very popular with my girls. Popular and unusually virile.”

“That ain’t something I’ve really thought on.”

“I doubt that.”

Mal reared back. “Excuse me?”

Nandi gave an unladylike snort. “There ain’t a one of my girls you’ve looked at as long or as loving as either of those two—Inara and Jayne. Of course, you seem to spend just as much time looking at your guns, but I’m assuming you’d rather bed the humans.” She grinned at Mal, and Mal figured he didn’t even have words to express just how disturbing that was. “It’s an unusual man who can have such wide-reaching interests. For a man who avoids complications, you do seem rather complicated. Then again, sometimes complications just crop up.”

“That they do. I reckon you need your rest, so I’ll be going,” Mal said, and for the first time, he figured that Nandi’s wiles were about as dangerous as Inara’s. He needed out of this room.

“You keep this up, and you’ll lose both of them.” Nandi warned before Mal could do more than turn his back. Mal might have ignored her, but her tone of voice made it clear that she wasn’t playing, and Mal could feel the fear that settled into his stomach. He could already feel the shifting, the way Inara inched away from him, the strain every time Jayne looked to him and Mal didn’t know what to say. It was hell, being captain and watching the crew you assembled slow start to crumble.

Nandi’s expression turned soft. “Well, I don’t think either of us ever managed to really have Inara, no matter how much both of us have tried, and I get the feeling that we both have tried in our own ways. However, you have Jayne. That man is desperate to please you. He’s a big, old hunting dog looking to bring back some prey and drop at your feet, but if you don’t let him do his job, he’s going to take off.”

A jolt of surprise hit Mal. “What is it with everyone calling Jayne a dog?”

“If the shoe fits…” Nandi limped over and grabbed a bottle and two glasses off a shelf before hobbling over and dropping down onto the couch. “Ancient cultures believed that people had spirit animals. Maybe there’s something to that because some people do seem very animal-like, and your Jayne is a junkyard dog. He’s all teeth, and he bite is worse than his bark, which is saying something because Jayne does have quite the ability to curse out people he don’t like. However, he’s still got the heart of a loyal dog under all that.”

Mal narrowed his eyes. “Inara told you to go saying that.”

“No. If she had, I would have been offended and I would have demanded to know if she thought so little of me that she thought I couldn’t see the truth for myself.” She leaned back and really looked Mal up and down. “Hell, if I were a companion, I’d try to find a subtle way of approaching the truth. Fact is, I ain’t so interested in the soft approach anymore, so let me put this out there. I can see how much you lust after both of them, but as one spurned would-be lover to another, your chances with Inara ain’t so good. Now Jayne, that one would roll over for you in a second.” Nandi held up a glass of whiskey, inviting Mal to come sit with her.

“Does it bother you that I’m thinking on what it would be like if you two womenfolk were in bed?” Mal asked as he tried real hard to not start thinking on Jayne. Jayne was too big and too goram scary to go thinking on in that way. Considering the number of times everyone else kept comparing him to an attack dog, Mal thought that was fairly obvious. So, if he wanted a woman off track, insulting usually worked.

Instead of getting offended, Nandi just laughed. “Fantasy is a healthy part of any good sex life.” She surrendered the glass to Mal and then took the second glass, filled it, and tossed back a goodly amount of straight whiskey. “So, I figure you call Jayne down here, and we’ll get this sorted now.”

Mal had been just settling in on the couch, but he froze. The way Nandi said that, she made it sound like they’d come to some sort of agreement, but Mal sure didn’t remember agreeing to anything.

“And what sort of sorting do you have in mind?” Mal eased the glass back down to the table without drinking. He needed his wits around all these womenfolk.

“You and Jayne. I figure a good dose of Jayne will settle you down, and Jayne certainly needs you to get a good hold on that leash before he can get lost again… that or wear out all my girls.”

Mal narrowed his eyes. If she had issues with how Jayne was taking out trade, she should be up front with it, not play this game. “Me and my crew aren’t your business,” he pointed out, his tone warning enough.

Instead of taking that warning, Nandi reached for one of their radios and pressed the button. “Jayne, you there?” Nandi asked.

For a second, the radio was silent, and then it clicked on, and Mal could hear the rustling and a distant giggle before Jayne’s voice answered. “Trouble?” he asked. Mal respected that about Jayne… he was a plain-talking man who got to the point. He wasn’t the brightest and his judgment was crap, but he didn’t deserve to have Nandi play games with him.

“Enough,” Mal said firmly.

She ignored him. “How many male lovers have you had?” Nandi came right out and asked.

Mal’s mouth about dropped open. He’d never ask a man that. Never. He’d really never ask Jayne that, not unless he was looking to have his teeth knocked out. Most places out here, men who were sly ran into plenty of idiots who would treat them womanly. Now Mal had no problems with them who were sly, but he sure didn’t want anyone treating him or his crew womanly. Not unless you were talking about Zoe’s sort of womanly, which were somewhat hard to distinguish from manly.

Instead of getting offended, Jayne answered pretty plain, “A bit north of a dozen, I reckon.”

“You have a preference about top or bottom?” Nandi sounded so calm, which was strange because Mal’s body was hitting most every panic button. He could feel his heart drumming in his chest and his head sort of wobble as the shock robbed him of control and the ability to have any coherent thoughts of his own.

“Not so much,” Jayne answered. “Ain’t a one of your sly boys does nothing for me, though. Why are you asking?” Jayne finally thought to demand.

“I need you to come on down here.”

“Why?” Jayne was sounding angry now.

“Mal’s down here with me,” Nandi said. There was a moment no more than two heartbeat’s time of perfect silence before Jayne answered.

“I’m on my way.” The radio clicked into silence. Giving Mal a satisfied grin, she put the radio down and reached for the whiskey bottle.

“You’re beguiling us,” Mal said when he finally found his voice.

“No, I ain’t. I’m saying straight up that if you have two bits worth of sense, you’ll fuck that man until he’s curled up and happy at your feet,” Nandi disagreed. “If you had any doubt about what Jayne wanted, I think he just resolved those for you.”

Mal opened his mouth to disagree, but he couldn’t. She’d asked Jayne on his attitude toward sexing men, and then suggested he had to get down here to Mal, and Jayne hadn’t even twitched. He hadn’t protested. He hadn’t demanded to know what in the name of all that was unholy they were playing at. If Nandi’d tried having that conversation with the doc or Wash, it would have ended different. But Jayne… Jayne who had sexed more than a dozen men, and Mal couldn’t even figure out how he was feeling on that… Jayne was coming. Jayne was going to show up here in a few minutes.

Reaching for the whiskey, Mal downed it almost automatically. Nandi had the bottle and she tipped a generous amount into his glass the second he emptied the first bit.

“When exactly did I lose control?” Mal asked weakly. The universe was turning too damn fast for him.

“About the time you were born,” Nandi answered. “People don’t have near as much control as they think… not a one of them. I figured that out the day I quit the companion guild and came out here. But the good news is that it’s plenty fun learning to get the control back.”

Mal snorted and downed his second glass of whiskey. It burned all the way down and settled onto his sour stomach uncomfortably.

“For me,” Nandi went on all casually, like they were discussing the weather or some gou shi that didn’t matter. It was disturbing. Then again, Mal was starting to think all women were disturbing. “Well, I found that learning to curse and use the word ‘ain’t’ made for a real sense of control. That and destroying a fine dulcimer by beating it to death. That was downright therapeutic. But everyone has to find their own control. I just figured I would help you along.”

“Help.” The word came out strangled and sounding a bit like a bleating sheep.

“You helped me and mine, so I figure I owe it to you to help you and yours.”

There was a flaw in that logic. Mal knew it. He just couldn’t figure out where. And he didn’t have much time for figuring because there was a loud knock on the door that suggested Jayne had just gone out of his way to make good time up here. Mal hadn’t ever been quite so annoyed by punctuality in his crew.

“Come in,” Nandi called about the time Mal started considering jumping out windows. Unfortunately, he ran out of time because a rather confused looking Jayne stuck his head in the door.

“You wanted something?” he asked uncertainly as he came in.

“I certainly do.” Nandi poured herself another glass of whiskey. “I want to pay off a debt I owe. So, Mr. Cobb, I was wondering if you could assist me in removing Mal’s head from his rather nicely shaped ass.”





Chapter Seven

“I ain’t sure what you have in mind…” Mal said, his voice trailing off to nothing. Jayne looked from Mal to Nandi and back, his face telegraphing his sudden discomfort. His hand fell on the butt of his weapon. That one might be a submissive as the day as long, but he wasn’t one who submitted easy. Mal would have his hands full, which was, no doubt, a large part of the problem. Jayne would provide a significant challenge for herself or even Inara should they choose to take him in hand, but Mal… Nandi sighed. The man wasn’t the most enlightened, and that was putting it charitably.

Nandi crossed her legs, offering both men a flash of hidden flesh. Mal had stood up and now he hovered awkwardly near the door, clearly ready to flee. He might have fled only Jayne blocked the exit.

If Mal preferred honestly, she would turn honesty into a scalpel that could cut through this bullshit he clung to. “I think you should take Jayne in hand, captain.” She tilted her head. Jayne certainly wasn’t objecting, but his gaze kept darting around the room fast enough that she was half-surprised he wasn’t dizzy.

“I ain’t—“

Interrupting Mal, Nandi continued, “It’s not hard to see that you’re close to Jayne, you want him at your back and you trust his gun more than just about anyone else on the crew.” Nandi had mentally edited out Zoe, but Jayne needed a little confidence, and even now, he was preening under her words. He would be a beautiful submissive, all junk yard dog and growls for the rest of the world and all puppy dog for his owner. She played with the hem of her dress as she fought with a mercenary jealousy that whispered that she should steal the man for herself. With the right handling, he’d be magnificent. With a sigh, she turned back to the task of getting two headstrong men to see the truth in front of their noses. “But you don’t treat him right, not even a little. You treat him like you don’t trust him.”

“I never said I didn’t trust him,” Mal snapped. “Not lately.”

Jayne flinched back, and Nandi had a near-overwhelming urge to confiscate Jayne. Instead, she studied the body language. Jayne kept his hand near his gun, but he was watching her through narrowed eyes now, clearly pissed that she’d criticized Mal. So he was guarding his dominant. That was as it should be. The flinching… that wasn’t so healthy. Mal, however, seemed to spend more time flicking little glances over toward Jayne than he did tending to her. She suspected she could shoot him before he’d notice that she was a larger threat than Jayne.

“I imagine it is hard to let down one’s guard when Jayne is clearly a very formidable man,” she said, watching Jayne, but he didn’t react to the compliment this time. Mal, however, gave a snort that told her what she needed to know.

“Jayne,” she said, folding her hands in her lap, clearly not an immediate threat. “I think Mal is so willing to strike out because he expects you’ll always be strong enough to bear such insults. He sees you as strong.”

“I am,” Jayne said with a frown.

“Yes, you are. But I imagine that having to constantly remind Mal that you aren’t a threat to him must wear on you.”

Jayne didn’t answer, but his gaze did flicker over to Mal. Oh yes, a first year companion could see the strains on this relationship.

“There is a solution,” Nandi said slowly, forcing the men to wait on her words. “But so many men fear it.”

“I ain’t scared of much except Reavers,” Jayne announced indignantly.

“That makes you much stronger than most men who live in constant fear.” Nandi tried hard to avoid looking at Mal. After all, he did have some right to feel fear when taking a man like Jayne in hand. It was neither an easy nor a simple task he was attempting. And if he did a poor job of it, Jayne, like a junkyard dog, truly might turn to bite the hand that fed him. While Inara had always gravitated toward gentle submissives, those timid souls who needed to be carefully urged into their true sexuality. Nandi had preferred the rough-edged submissive who could bring both his strength and his power to the dynamic. Nandi wondered which Mal truly preferred. She wasn’t sure he knew his own sexual identity well enough to recognize where his own interests lay.

“If you got something to say, say it,” Mal snapped.

Nandi slowly looked over at him. “You are afraid of Jayne.” She let the words settle in. Jayne was clenching his jaw, and Mal was starting to get that stubborn look on his face. He was a powerfully annoying man. Actually, they both were.

Jayne spoke first. “I ain’t never done anything against Mal.” For a big man, Jayne did know how to look put upon. This was an old wound between them.

“No, but you sure have done some gou shi against others, haven’t you?” Mal struck out with his words, and Nandi was on her feet before Mal finished saying the last word. She took a step forward, Jayne’s pain pulling at her, but Mal couldn’t see it. He was looking at Jayne’s exterior and missing his vulnerability.

“Never said I was perfect. Unlike some folk, I don’t do much lying to myself on that front,” Jayne snapped back.

“Jayne!” Nandi called out, hoping to cut this fight short before it got started. “If you want to fix this, both of you need to listen to me right now,” she said fiercely. Mal blinked at her, and she could feel the power shifting, but oddly, it was Jayne who resisted yielding to her. She did not hold his trust, and Mal did, despite their problems.

“Fix how?” Jayne demanded, his voice thick with suspicion.

“To start with, you could show Mal that you are not challenging him.”

“I said it often enough,” Jayne said, that same mulish streak front and center.

“And how much stock do you put in words?” Nandi demanded. She could almost see the gears in Jayne’s head as he realized that words didn’t care much weight—not with him and not with Mal. The look Jayne gave Mal was so full of hopeless pain that Nandi had to believe that Mal could see it. If he couldn’t, he was a complete moron. “But we can show him, we can show him in a way that he’ll believe. It just takes you being willing to prove how you feel.” Nandi softened her voice. Jayne was still resistant—aggressive even, but she could feel how much he wanted to believe.

“You’re a big, powerful man, but on your knees, you would be considerably small, considerably less threatening,” Nandi suggested.

“Jayne ain’t going to kneel for you,” Mal said, but before he’d even finished, Jayne had folded rather inelegantly, dropping to his knees.

“And Mal,” Nandi said, putting her back to Jayne. He might be willing to offer Mal his power, but he clearly wouldn’t offer it to anyone else, and Nandi honored that by putting her back to him so he would hold the power. Jayne could attack more easily than she could defend herself. “Mal,” Nandi repeated when Mal’s eyes seemed to glaze over at the sight of Jayne on his knees. “Mal!”

Mal’s gaze finally snapped to her. Nandi was starting to understand Inara’s frustration. “You and Jayne both know that words mean nothing. If you want to know that he is yours, you need action. I suspect Jayne is more than willing to yield to you, so it is up to you to pull your head out of your ass and recognize that you need to order Jayne to that bed and settle this issue between you. He offers you his power. Respect that by accepting his offering and realizing that you two will never settle this unless you take action because neither of you is a man of words. Now, I assume you don’t need help deciding where to put the body parts.”

Nandi didn’t wait for Mal to regain his senses. While Mal’s mouth still hung open, she swept out of the room, trying to hide the limp where Burgess’ bullet had torn through her flesh. She had done what she could, and now it was up to those two because Jayne clearly wouldn’t yield with her in the room. Sadly, Nandi wasn’t sure that Mal could take charge without her assistance. What a mess.

“Well, that is an interesting expression on your face, Nandi.”

Nandi stopped as Inara came out from behind a door. “Interesting? Is that the word for it?” Nandi asked, amused. Seeing as how Inara had chosen not to take those two in hand, Nandi truly should have known it wouldn’t be easy. Foolishly, she’d just assumed that with her more straightforward style, she could breeze in and find success where Inara hadn’t.

“Yes, it is. You look like you’ve been….” Inara hesitated.

“Poleaxed?” Nandi guessed. “Although I suspect I look less poleaxed than Mal.”

Inara visibly cringed. “Mo lei tau gau,” she muttered.

“It does makes sense, but getting that man to see it… that is more questionable,” Nandi said in defense of her choices. Someone had to step up and push those men in a logical direction. However, Inara cringed again.

“Tell me you didn’t outright suggest he bed Jayne.”

Nandi shrugged. “I came closer to ordering him to bed Jayne, but that was the general direction of the conversation.”

Inara drew her eyebrows down in a deep frown. “And if Mal does some irreparable harm?”

When Nandi had first seen Inara and Mal in the same room, she had thought Mal’s unrequited lust had interfered with Inara’s better judgment. Now she had to consider that Mal truly was clueless enough to pose a serious threat to a submissive in his care—even one as tough as Jayne. “I shall tell Jayne that I need a man around to scare off the sort of men who will rise up to take Burgess’ place, and I will offer to let him bed anyone in this place, man or woman, in return for security. Add in a private room and a small salary, and I suspect I could tempt him away from your ship… assuming Mal had made enough poor choices to drive Jayne away.”

“Oh, give Mal five minutes. He can make poor choices at a record pace.”

Nandi gave Inara a sympathetic look. As a companion, being trapped sharing space with someone that unenlightened must have been a source of great annoyance. “Well, I can only hope he makes better choices now that he has Jayne on his knees willing to submit.”

“Jayne is on his knees?” Inara visibly recoiled, her face shocked.

Nandi gave a very unglamorous snort. “Getting Jayne to kneel is the easy part. Extracting Mal’s head from his posterior… that may take more time. However, I have put their feet on the path, and now I have to trust that the universe can teach them the rest.”

“You have more faith in the universe than I do,” Inara teased gently as she moved to Nandi’s side and slipped her arm around Nandi’s waist. Nandi allowed Inara to support her weight. He leg truly did hurt. “Right now, how about you let me take care of you?”

“I wanted to be the one to take care of you,” Nandi said.

Inara gave her a brilliant smile. “I always have enjoyed doing the tending more than having a lover tend to me. Besides, you’re wounded. Allow me to ease that pain.” Inara twitched her body, and Nandi felt the old heat between them. Gods, she had missed Inara. Leaning even more of her weight into Inara, she allowed Inara to guide her toward the guest room. If she couldn’t ease Inara’s pain, allowing Inara to ease hers was the next best alternative.





Chapter Eight

Mal swallowed as he watched Jayne. The man shifted back so that he rested his posterior on his heels, but he didn’t show any sign of getting up off the floor. Mal swallowed again, his mouth unnaturally dry. However, someone had to say something. “You plan on getting up off that floor?” Mal asked, and even as the words came out, he wondered when he’d started sounding girlish.

Jayne cocked his head. “If I do, you plan on going back to assuming I’m trying to stab you in the back when you ain’t looking?”

Mal opened his mouth to point out that stabbing in the back generally did happen when someone wasn’t looking, only it was mighty hard to make fun of someone’s logical failings when they were on their knees. It felt too much kicking a man when he was down. “I never said you planned to stab me in the back,” Mal said instead.

“You thought it often enough,” Jayne shot back. Mal narrowed his eyes, not liking the tone.

Rolling his eyes, Jayne started shedding weapons, setting knives and guns and a gorram hand grenade off to the side, and Mal flashed to the memory of Jayne doing the same thing in Mal’s quarters, disarming himself to make Mal more comfortable. Fact was, whatever oddness was going on between them, Inara’s friend had only poked the wound—she hadn’t caused it. Problem was, now that the wound had been poked, Mal wasn’t sure what to do. He watched, silent as Jayne disarmed himself and then shifted away from his own weapons, never rising from his knees.

“What now?” Jayne asked. He looked up at Mal, and Mal had to admit that Jayne was a good deal less threatening when he was unarmed and on his knees. Oh, the man could probably still take Mal in an honest fight, even now, but it wasn’t like Mal fought honest.

“Ain’t sure,” Mal admitted.

Jayne snorted.

Sinking down on the couch, Mal eyed Jayne and thought about what both Inara and Nandi had said about Jayne being some sort of loyal dog. Some days that’s not how it felt from Mal’s point of view, but Jayne had to have some sort of loyalty and trust to kneel like that. He didn’t even look unhappy at being on his knees.

“Don’t you feel uncomfortable down there?” Mal asked.

For a second, Jayne seemed to think on that, and then he shrugged. “I might if I thought you were likely to put a bullet in me, but I’ve provoked you about as much as any man can provoke another and you haven’t turned your back on me yet.”

“I almost did.” The words slipped out of Mal before he could edit himself, but they were truthful. After Jayne turned on the Tams, Mal had come mighty close to shoving Jayne out into the black. He would have if it hadn’t been for Jayne’s face at that small port window begging Mal to not tell the others what he did. He was more willing to die than to have crew know he’d betrayed them.

Jayne looked down at the floor.

Once again, Mal had the uncomfortably feeling like he’d just kicked a man who was down. Mal never minded landing a blow on someone who’d earned it, but hitting a man who wouldn’t defend himself… that wasn’t his style. With a sigh, Mal leaned back on the couch. “I do trust you,” he said, and he almost totally meant it. If he had some small niggling doubt, he didn’t need to share that with Jayne, not when Jayne was on his knees like that. Mal studied his form, the angle of his shoulders as his fists rested against his thighs, his wide chest and the downward angle of his head and neck. Shifting uncomfortably, Mal cleared his throat.

“I wouldn’t have turned on you. I thought you weren’t seeing things straight seeing as how River is a girl, and you sometimes ain’t the clearest of thinkers around girls,” Jayne defended himself.

Never one to take an insult easily, Mal opened his mouth for a quick counterattack, but then Jayne tilted his head, and Mal forgot what he’d been about to say. For one second, for one blink, he could only see Jayne’s vulnerability, and that wasn’t a work he associated with Jayne Cobb often. Actually, the only other time he would have called Jayne vulnerable was when he’d been peering through that window.

Mal snorted without answering.

“I said I wouldn’t do anything like that again, and I meant it.” Jayne looked up at him. “I told you what I knew about Kaylee keeping River’s secret, and I came to you just as soon as River said two words that made a lick of sense.” Jayne looked almost confused, but Mal didn’t have easy answers here. He was starting to wonder if maybe he oughta have listened when Nandi and Inara were always talking at him about how to handle this. Right now, any advice would be better than this big knot of confusion that had taken up residence in his guts.

“I appreciate that,” Mal said slowly.

Jayne studied him, and Mal tried to not fidget under his gaze. Instead, Mal looked over to the small pile of armaments Jayne had set off to the side. The man did enjoy his weapons.

“It ain’t enough, is it?” Jayne asked.


“What Nandi said about words not being enough—she’s right, ain’t she?”

Mal rubbed his hand across his face and found himself, for the first time ever, wishing for a Reaver attack. It’d be a welcome distraction.

“If’n you need actions to prove something to yourself, that’s fine.”

With a rough laugh, Mal dropped his hands and stared incredulously at Jayne. “I know you aren’t volunteered for me to bed you.”

Jayne squinted up his face in confusion. “Why ain’t I?”

“You aren’t sly.”

“If I get sexed, I’m mighty unconcerned about whether I’m with a man or a woman,” Jayne said with an unvarnished honesty that left Mal’s mouth hanging open.

It took Mal long minutes to gather his thoughts back up. “Are you trying to tell me you’re sly?”

“I’m pretty sure I just said I don’t much care.”

“So, you’ll let a man put his cock up in you?” Mal demanded. In the war, Mal had one or two encounters with men who were sly, and no one who took the womanly end of sly sex looked like Jayne Cobb.

It seemed like Jayne hadn’t gotten that message thought. “I have before,” Jayne offered as casually as he might comment on the color of the sky. “It’s a real good feeling—the fullness, the sense of getting a good stretch that scratches that itch. But if you ain’t sly, it ain’t like I’m going to…”

“I ain’t interested in ever having a close encounter with another man’s cock,” Mal cut him off.


“The thought of stretching that part that much… that does not sound particular fun.” Mal ignored Jayne and kept right on talking.


“I ain’t even sure I could stretch that much without breaking something.”

“Mal!” Jayne practically shouted.


Jayne settled back on his heels. “I lost track of the point you’re trying to prove here, either that or you’re trying to prove something that don’t need any proving, I really don’t know at this point,” Jayne said. He did look mighty confused, and Mal realized he’d been suffering a case of diarrhea of the mouth.

“Well, shi,” he muttered softly. If there was a better way of mucking this up, Mal wasn’t sure how.


For a time, Mal studied Jayne. He did look mighty confused, and Mal couldn’t deny that his pants had gotten a good deal tighter since Jayne had gone to his knees. That was a whole lot of power sitting there waiting for his word. Seeing Jayne like that wasn’t unlike piloting the Serenity and knowing all that sheer power was right under your hands. The newer ships were more economical, but the Serenity has sung to him, calling him to buy her from that junkyard with her promise of raw power. Mal’s palms itched at the thought of feeling Jayne’s power laid out all quiet under his hands. “It’s not like I’m not interested,” Mal admitted softly.

“In me?”

“Isn’t that what we’re talking about?”

“I don’t know. I lost track of the conversating some time back,” Jayne said bluntly.

“Oh for….” Mal swallowed a dozen insults and sighed. “Yes, we’re talking about us… about sex. It’s not that I’m not interested, but I’m not sly.”

“Meaning you don’t want my prick…”

“Yes, exactly.”

“And you think if’n I’m sly, I’ll want to put my….”

“I’d prefer not thinking on that at all,” Mal cut him off. “I mean, I very much want to order you up onto that bed and ride you raw, but I sure ain’t interested in letting you have your turn.” That was a little more crass an a lot more honest than Mal had intended, but once the words were out there, he didn’t try and deny them.

Jayne narrowed his eyes and shifted around on his knees as he stared up at Mal. “Wait, so you’re avoiding the sexing because you think we have to take turns?”

Mal rolled his eyes. “Seems the civilized way. It ain’t fair to expect you to always do the womanly part.”

“Don’t really seem all that womanly to enjoy having a cock hitting the prostate making your prick strain all nice,” Jayne said slowly, and it was a measure of just how bad Mal’s week had gone that Jayne was actually making a logical point with that. “I do know that you’re about as stupid when you try sexing men as when you try sexing women, though,” Jayne added. “Could be I have to rethink exactly what it is that makes you start thinking sideways.

“Excuse me?!” Mal demanded.

“I thought it was women what made you stupid, but you’re not real logical about any kind of sex. You don’t have to return any favors. If you want to fuck me, I’m not disagreeing as long as I get sexed, but I don’t need anything else in return. We aren’t trading horses here.”

“Wait, you wouldn’t be offended if I asked you to take my cock every time?”

“So, you never want to try it the other way ‘round?” Jayne asked slowly.

“No.” Mal put every bit of conviction he had behind that word.

With a shrug, Jayne offered, “I’d think you were missing out because getting filled up with a good-sized cock is just as pleasurable as sticking your cock in some nice, tight hole. But I ain’t complaining if it means I get more.”

“Wait… really? You wouldn’t mind?” Mal leaned forward, studying Jayne for some sign that the man was lying just to make Mal happy. However, mostly Jayne looked horny. His cock was a thick bulge between his legs, and Jayne started rubbing it.

“I ain’t known for being shy at making my needs known. Now, the question is whether you’re still all twitchy about whether I’m really ready to follow you. Now that I’ve had some time to think on it, it’s actually a bit of a compliment that you’re so all-fired unreasonable and twitchy.”

“Oh?” Mal watched Jayne’s large hand rub up and down, up and down. His fingers spread out, pale against the dark fabric of his pants, and Mal licked his lips. It took him a second to realize that Jayne was talking.

“I mean, people don’t feel afraid of someone else unless they have a good deal of respect for that person’s ability to get them dead. So, if you’re irrational around me, it means you see me as strong.”

Mal frowned. “You are strong.”

“Exactly. Feels good to have someone notice. Wash is annoying sometimes, the way he insults me like I couldn’t break him in half with one hand. He wouldn’t even be hard to snap like a twig.”

Blinking himself out of his reverie, Mal mentally rewound the conversation and tried to figure out how they got to talking about breaking Wash like a twig. “Talk like that does not make me feel better.”

Jayne looked confused again. “It ain’t like I would break him. It’d just be nice if he treated me like he remembered that I could.”

“I’m sure he remembers it,” Mal pointed out. “I actually think that’s why he does make fun of you.”


“A man doesn’t like being reminded that someone else is so much stronger, so I think Wash reminds himself how much smarter he is so he doesn’t have to keep feeling the insecurity about being so much weaker.” The truth was that Mal had picked up that tidbit when he’d overheard Inara talking to Zoe one day. Zoe had been at her wits’ end, frustrated with how Wash was poking at Jayne and half-scared Jayne might decide to strike back using fists instead of words. However, the insight made sense, even if Mal hadn’t been the one to notice it.

“Huh.” Jayne cocked his head to the side. “So, him being disrespectful is on account of him respecting me?”

“I think being afraid of you might come closer to the truth of it,” Mal corrected him.

Jayne nodded slowly. “So, it’s like you being twitchy, only you ain’t one to try and hit back.” Jayne rubbed the back of his head, “Well, not unless you’re to a breaking point and ready to space me,” he added softly.

“I ain’t really thought on it like that,” Mal said slowly. When he rolled that idea around in his head, he could see how it made a certain sort of sense, though. It was hard to not twitch when you had someone as strong as Jayne ready to bite your hand.

“You want to tie me to the bed then?” Jayne asked, the words so blunt that Mal nearly choked on his own tongue as shock robbed him of the ability to swallow right.

“Do I… what?”

“Well, you’re a good bit nicer to me when you ain’t twitchy, and if giving up my guns and kneeling makes you relax, I figured that tying me down would make you relax more. It ain’t nothing to go choking to death over.” Jayne frowned, and Mal could feel the atmosphere shift, the tension snake back into the room. It made Mal think on Inara’s warning that if you treated a dog poorly, it’d bite.

“It don’t seem right, tying a man. Not unless he’s an enemy,” Mal said slowly.

“Or unless you’re all twitchy and he’d rather be tied because you’re mean as a billy goat when you get twitchy,” Jayne countered. “Next to your ability to get muddled in the brain when it comes to sex, it’s about your worst trait.”

Mal snapped his mouth shut. If Jayne weren’t on his knees, Mal would have something to say to that bit of uncharitable description. The problem was, that kind of proved Jayne’s point. And when Jayne was the clear-thinking one, Mal had to reconsider one or two of his own positions.

“You have a problem, you say it, but right now, strip off your shirt and get on the bed, and we’ll see if I’m less twitchy when we see how far this submissive streak of yours goes.” Mal headed for the tall cabinet in Nandi’s room. She’d left it open when Mal first came, giving him a nice view of all sorts of restraints and whips and right now, Mal suspected that wasn’t coincidence.

“You do know the women manipulated us into this,” Mal pointed out as he pulled the heaviest chains out of the cupboard.

“Yep. We do tend to meet up with some powerfully opinionated women,” Jayne agreed without any rancor in his voice.

Mal turned around and stopped dead, chains hanging from his hands. Jayne had stripped off his shirt and boots and he lay stomach down on the bed, the wide expanse of his back exposed to Mal, muscles twitching under the skin. Taking a deep breath, Mal ignored the way his pants grew painfully tight as he slowly walked over to the bed. “And you’re sure you’d rather be tied?” The words came out much higher than Mal had intended.

“Yep,” Jayne agreed, putting his hands up near the headboard. Mal threaded the chains through the metal bars and closed the manacles around Jayne’s wrists. “Now it’s up to you. If you go fucking this up, you can’t exactly blame me,” Jayne pointed out as he gave the chains a good hard pull that made the headboard rattle.

“Thank you for that vote of confidence,” Mal said sarcastically.

“I’ll apologize if’n you can figure out how to fuck me hard enough to make it count,” Jayne offered.

Mal blew out a slow breath. “Oh, you’re going to pay for that one Jayne Cobb.”

“Hope so,” Jayne pointed out.

It was strange, looking down at an unarmed and chained Jayne. Mal found he didn’t mind Jayne’s stupid comments nearly as much as he usually did. Giving in to temptation, Mal ran his hand over Jayne’s flank. The warm skin was as soft as any woman’s, but the muscles that strained underneath reminded Mal of just how much power Jayne had in his body. Power that Mal had chained up. Moving slowly, Mal crawl up onto the bed, smiling when Jayne shifted to the side to make room. Oh, Mal was going to enjoy this.




Chapter Nine

Jayne’s back was damp with sweat already, his arms straining against the chains, but he wasn’t complaining none as Mal ran his hands up and down Jayne’s over-warmed flesh. He smelled of salt and sweat, two scents Mal associated with hard work and harder sex. Even now his cock was taking an interest.

“You planning on starting back there?” Jayne asked, sounding a good deal more grumpy that Mal really liked.

“If you keep complaining, I’ll find a gag for you.”

“I’d rather have something else in my mouth.”

Jayne’s answer, delivered in such a plain matter-of-fact tone about shook Mal to the core of his being. It also made his cock get so hard so fast that he got a bit of a head rush. “Cao. It’s hard to concentrate when you’re saying shi like that.”

“Why?” Jayne asked, his voice honestly curious as he tried to twist around, but the chains were short enough that he couldn’t manage it.

“Never you mind.” Mal ran his hands over Jayne’s sweat-slicked skin. Having this kind of permission to touch, it was new. Mal had one or two sly relationships during the war, quick handjobs under a blanket that neither of them had admitted in the morning and one young soldier who had begged before rolling over for Mal. But this slow exploration of a man’s strong body—it was new. The short hairs at the back of Jayne’s neck were dark with sweat, and Mal ran his hands over the skin of his shoulders. When Mal’s hands neared Jayne’s neck, Jayne tensed for a moment, his muscles turning to iron under Mal’s hands, but then he relaxed again.


“Ain’t never known you to kill a man who ain’t fighting you.”

Mal frowned. That wasn’t the answer he’d been looking for. “I wouldn’t kill you, anyway. Cao, you tried turning us in to the Alliance, and I didn’t kill you over that.”

“Why didn’t you?”

Mal’s cock got real uninterested real fast. He knelt up on the bed between Jayne’s open legs, and he wondered how they’d gotten into the conversation.

“Didn’t seem right.”

“It had a few minutes earlier.”

Mal sighed. “This ain’t doing much for your chance of getting sexed,” he warned.

“I figure that ain’t something I have control over.” Jayne was more tense now, but then this was a subject both of them had done a good deal of avoiding.

“You ain’t an easy man, Jayne Cobb.”

“Not like you’re the easiest to cozy up to.”

Mal snorted. That was true enough. “Okay. I opened the door because you stopped fighting me… stopped trying to give excuses, and it didn’t feel right killing a man who was honestly sorry, even if he had made a gorram mess out of things.”

“So, if I go fucking up, you won’t kill me if I don’t fight you?”

Mal sighed and climbed off the bed. He needed to look Jayne in the eye for this. He grabbed a chair and set it next to the bed and straddled it. Jayne watched him with a wariness in his eyes that made Mal wish the man wasn’t chained. But unlocking him didn’t feel right either.

“I don’t like you fucking up,” Mal said slowly.

Jayne snorted. “Ain’t no one in the ‘verse likes it when their crew fucks up.”

“True. But when you go making mistakes, it scares me a little more. When you decide to go and do something wrong, you do a mighty good job of it.”

“So, you ain’t trusting me unless I’m chained? Hard to do my job if’n you keep me in chains, Mal.”

Mal leaned back, shock making his thoughts scatter. Jayne wasn’t even protesting that Mal couldn’t keep him in chains, which was something Mal never had considered. He didn’t truck with slavery. Up until this point, he’d kind of assumed Jayne had the same thoughts on the issue.

“Hadn’t even considered that, Jayne.”

Jayne didn’t answer.

“I guess I’m surprised you’d even think such a think long enough to say that.”

Jayne shrugged awkwardly, the chains cutting the gesture short. “I feel a whole lot safer from your temper like this than I do most times.”

Mal pounced on that. “You don’t feel safe?”

Jayne graced Mal with a look like Mal had just gone and said something particularly stupid, but as far as Mal was concerned, this was new and unexpected information. “Well, cao. Why’d you stick around if you’re so all-fired worried that I’ll space you?”

Jayne didn’t answer. Worse, his face hardened.

Mal leaned forward, resting his arms on the back of the chair. “I ain’t saying I won’t get angry with you if you do something I particularly dislike, but I give you my word that I’ll never hurt you as long as you ain’t fighting.” Mal put every bit of conviction he felt into that promise, and Jayne studied him. “You’re as safe as any of us are, and that ain’t saying much considering the trouble we get ourselves into, but I don’t leave my people behind.”

Jayne didn’t look entirely convinced, but his expression did soften.

“So, why’d you stick around if you were so worried over me?”

Jayne shrugged again. “Ain’t got so many places left that want me.”

It didn’t take a companion to see the fears just under Jayne’s skin. “Well we want you. Without you and River, this fight would have had a whole different sort of ending, and at least when I give an order, I can trust you to carry it out. I ain’t sure what River has in her head most days, but I’m fairly sure I don’t want to know.”

“I know I don’t. Moonbrain may be scary as all hell with a gun, but she’s still crazy.”

“Oh yeah. Crazy and a straight-shooter, and a woman. I don’t reckon any of us should sleep at night.” Mal watched as Jayne’s expression softened.

“So, are you still planning on some sexing happening, or are you just leaving me tied up like this?” Jayne asked.

“Considering that I’m supposed to be the captain, you do spend a significant amount of time trying to tell me what to do.”

“I wouldn’t if’n you’d start doing something.”

“You bitch like a woman, Jayne.”

“You ain’t fucking me like one, though. Jesus, Mal, are you waiting for one of them engraved invitations?”

Mal stood up and pushed the chair out of his way. “Turn over,” Mal ordered, getting his hands under Jayne’s hip and lifting to help Jayne turn. The chains didn’t give Jayne a whole lot of working room, and Mal didn’t plan on loosening them up any. Fact was, he liked the feeling of Jayne Cobb helpless under him. It took some shoving, but Mal got Jayne turned onto his back and then unbuttoned his pants. Jayne watched, his eyes half shut.

By the time Mal got Jayne’s pants open, Jayne’s cock was starting to get hard, and Mal’s was a good deal harder than that. Actually, it was a bit of an insult that Jayne wasn’t more interested, but as Mal pulled Jayne’s pants and underwear off, he made a plan to fix that. Mal crawled up onto Jayne. Even though Jayne was larger than him, it was hard to not feel bigger than a man he’d put in chains.

Jayne’s eyes opened a little wider. “You planning on getting naked?”

“Nope,” Mal answered as he lowered his weight onto Jayne’s cock and considered the bare chest laid out in front of him. Jayne was muscled, hair scattered across his chest with small hard nipples. Mal pressed down into Jayne’s cock, and Jayne hissed and pressed his head back into the pillow. Mal smiled. That was a sight he could learn to enjoy.

Mal leaned in closer, feeling the short chest hairs tickle his face as he took the pebbled nipple in his mouth and sucked. Jayne bucked under him, and Mal only sucked harder, enjoying the feel of Jayne getting truly hard now. That was more like it. If he was going to bed someone, he was going to make sure his partner was wild with lust first. There weren’t nothing worse than a bored lover. Jayne bucked harder, and Mal lost contact with the nipple. Leaning down, he nipped at the skin, and Jayne let out a soft string of curses, his cock harder than ever.

“Fuck Mal, I ain’t some girl you gotta tease into letting you sex her up.”

“And you’re going to get gagged if you don’t shut up and let me enjoy this.”

Jayne grunted but he didn’t make any more complaints as Mal turned his attention to the other nipple. Jayne started cursing for fair at that, digging his heels into the bed and squirming around so much Mal had to put some real muscle into holding him in place. When he was finished torturing Jayne’s nipples, Mal pushed himself up onto his arms and studied Jayne’s face. He was red, sweat staining his hair and his arms straining against the restraints, and that was more like it.

Mal knelt up and unzipped his pants, taking it in hand and rubbing it slowly.

Jayne watched him with an expression that came real close to hunger, his own neglected cock hard against his stomach. Mal took a second to reach out for Jayne’s cock—to trace the heavy vein with a finger before stroking the tip of Jayne’s cock where precum had started to leak. The whole bed creaked dangerously as Jayne fought the chains, his hips rising up in the air as he shoved himself and Mal right up into the air, but all Mal had to do was move his hand away, and Jayne was helpless. He could only thrust up into empty air.

“Ching-wah tsao duh liou mahng,” Jayne complained loudly.

“Watch your mouth or I might not finish up here,” Mal warned. The look Jayne gave him might have killed a lesser man. Mal just grinned. When Jayne’s glare turned even meaner, Mal laughed. True, he also reached for the lube from the bedside table since he didn’t intend to torture Jayne more than strictly necessary. However, Mal was enjoying this a whole lot more than he would have anticipated.

Jayne widened his legs in invitation, planting his feet on the bed so that his hips angled just right to give Mal access.

“You done this before?”

“I already said I had. I ain’t no virgin, Mal.”

“Well then, I suggest you not tell me about it,” Mal suggested.

Jayne got a real confused look on his face.

“I’m a mite bit possessive and jealous and downright unreasonable when it comes to lovers. I would suggest that you not take another lover, mention another lover or even go thinking on one too much,” Mal added. The second the words were out, Mal regretted them. It wasn’t that he hadn’t spoken the truth, because he had, but most people didn’t take kindly to that kind of ultimatum. Jayne, however, just smiled.

“As long as I’m getting sexed, I ain’t got cause to go looking for anything more.”

“Is that a demand?” Mal asked in mock outrage, but as Jayne opened his mouth, Mal slipped two slicked fingers into Jayne’s asshole, pushing to get past the tight opening.

“Shun-sheng duh gao-wahn.” Jayne threw back his head as he gasped out the curse. Mal wasn’t convinced that either of them had holy testicles, but it was nice to know he could reduce Jayne to such random profanity. Jayne pushed his hips up, opening himself further, and Mal slid his fingers in and out, his other hand stroking over the hard muscles of Jayne’s leg.

“Have mercy and fuck me, Mal.”

“Maybe I just enjoy hearing you beg some.”

“I’ll beg as much as you want if you get your gorram prick up inside me before I fucking explode.”

It wasn’t exactly the same as a normal person’s begging, but Mal figured that was as close to begging as Jayne came. Mal pushed his fingers all the way in and felt for the small prostate as he took the head of Jayne’s cock in his mouth. Mal never had figured on ever doing this for any man, but watching Jayne suffer was too much fun. Even the hard throbbing in his own cock couldn’t convince him to cut this short.

“Mal, fuck me already. I ain’t kidding.”

Mal pulled off Jayne’s cock and enjoyed the sight in front of him. Jayne shimmered with sweat, his hard muscles bunched under the skin as he strained against the cuffs, his heels pushing his hips up into the air. Jayne had closed his eyes, but as Mal took his mouth off that very impressive cock, they popped open.

“Fuck Mal, please,” he begged. “If’n there’s something you’re wanting from me, just tell me, but fuck me already. My prick’s going to fall off.”

“I want you, Jayne Cobb.”

“You got me. You got me chained to a fucking bed in a whore house. There ain’t no way to get me any more than that.”

“And as much as I am enjoying watching you squirm, I’m starting to think that I might want to chain you to my bunk on the Serenity and keep you there.”

“If’n I got fucked, I wouldn’t complain. Mal, don’t make me beg anymore.”

Mal closed his eyes as he finally understood just how much power Jayne had given him. Jayne would beg. Jayne would become whatever Mal wanted. But all Mal wanted was Jayne Cobb, and Jayne was not the sort of man you made beg. Grabbing a pillow, Mal shoved it under Jayne’s ass before he took his erection in hand and slicked himself. He hadn’t gotten more than two fingers in, but Jayne weren’t no delicate flower. Mal wasn’t about to go treating him like one. If Jayne wanted a good fucking, Mal was going to give it to him.

He pushed in carefully at first, wincing a little at the tightness as the head of his cock slipped back the hard ring of muscle. Jayne’s words vanished under a string of little grunts, his legs coming around Mal and trying to pull him closer. The heat of Jayne’s body was a furnace as Mal started pushing in, his body remembering this dance, even if it had been years since he’d been with a man. He might not be sly, but he sure was glad Jayne was because Mal had missed how tight a man could be, and the way that he didn’t have to go being careful the way he did with a woman’s body.

Mal pulled back a little and then slammed into Jayne hard enough that skin slapped against skin.

“Fuck yes. Yes.” Jayne’s words were punctuated with more of those grunts of his.

Mal started thrusting harder, his fingers pressing into Jayne’s thighs as he sought more traction. Jayne’s words gave out, and Mal found himself moaning with every thrust into that hot, tight hole. Jayne tried to squirm, but between Mal’s cock spearing him and the chains, he couldn’t really do much moving. All he could do was arch and curve his back as his body stiffened.

Letting go of one of Jayne’s legs, Mal caught Jayne’s cock in a slicked hand, fisting it tightly for only a second before Jayne bellowed, his whole body spasming as he started to come. His legs stiffened and his whole body tensed up so much that Mal pulled out, his own erection still rock hard. With a long sigh, Jayne seemed to finish, his come making his stomach wet, and Mal thrust back into that hole again. He buried himself up to the root in Jayne, his thrusts wild and uncoordinated as his own orgasm drew near. Then Jayne tightened his ass, and Mal was coming, trying to press himself deeper and deeper into that trapped body below him. Eventually his orgasm passed, the intensity of it almost painful as Mal’s cock slipped free of Jayne’s body. Mal dropped to all fours onto the bed so that he hovered over Jayne’s body.

“Good fuck,” Jayne grunted.

Right. This was Jayne, not some woman who would expect petting and soft words. Mal let his weight fall onto Jayne. Jayne oophed as he landed, but he didn’t complain as Mal lay there soaking up Jayne’s heat and struggling to get his breath back. “Great fuck,” Mal agreed blearily. He was tired enough to sleep for a month. He hadn’t realized how wearing this whole Jayne situation was… not until he’d found a way to fix it.

“If’n you fuck that good all the time, I wouldn’t even mind being chained to your bunk.”

“Give me time, I can do better,” Mal promised. He didn’t know if he could deliver, but he promised anyway. And then he started fading off into sleep. Jayne made an uncomfortable mattress, so he slid to one side, his leg and arm still sprawled over Jayne as he let himself fall into a blissful sleep.





Chapter Ten

Zoe was cleaning her weapons when Mal came downstairs looking mighty well fucked. Wash looked over with a devilish expression, and she gave a minute shake of her head. She might love that husband of hers, but if he went commenting on the captain’s sex life, she was going to skin him alive.

“Captain,” she offered in a noncommittal tone of voice while still giving Wash a sharp look. Mal glanced over toward Wash with a bewildered expression, but then he went to the bar without commenting.

“Morning,” he offered only after one of the girls shoved a cup of coffee at him. He nodded to her and wrapped his hands around the cup.

“New pathways dancing in the moonlight and starshine,” River announced as she pranced into the room. “A new person appears out of poof. Nowhere.” She went over and threw herself down on the seat next to Mal and settled her chin on her hands as she stared at him.

The doctor followed. “I think the new person came out of Petaline in the rather mundane process of birth,” he said wearily. If it were all that mundane, the doc shouldn’t look worn clear through, but one good puff of wind could take him down. It seemed like they were getting less and less rest between jobs and the jobs were getting harder. Zoe looked around the room and wondered how much longer they could keep pressing this hard without losing someone. Worse, she didn’t see things changing any time in the foreseeable future. The Alliance was getting too big and pressing out into the border colonies more and more. It left less of the black for people like them. It seemed like lately she couldn’t keep her thoughts off the idea of slipping back into civilized society and having a regular run at paying taxes and playing good little citizen. It rubbed her the wrong way, but that sort of life would allow her to have a child and sleep three nights running in one place without worrying about some enemy catching up.

However, until she could convince Mal to do the same, she figured that was just a dream. Mal had saved her more than once during the war and after it. He never failed to put his own neck on the line for crew, and she wouldn’t repay that by walking out on him.

“Well, I think we should all be grateful that we didn’t have more loss of life last night,” Shepard Book stood up from the old couch where he’d been reading his Bible silently. “I have to admit, I was expecting a harder fight.” Book’s eyes found River. The girl had killed more than her share, and the way she’d done it, dancing through the battle field with a gun in each hand, was more than enough to make Zoe’s own gun hand itch. However, if River’s performance last night was any gauge, Jayne was the only one of them who had even a chance of winning a gunfight with the girl.

“Nope, he wouldn’t,” River announced loudly.

“Who wouldn’t what?” Mal asked suspiciously.

River cocked her head at him and smiled. “New and shiny,” she said, her voice sounding oddly Kaylee-like. Even more disturbing, Kaylee walked in just as she said that. She was wearing a robe, and one of the boy whores was following her with stars in his eyes.

Zoe glanced over to see how the doctor was taking that. The man wanted Kaylee—that was a clear as the nose on a man’s face. He was also about as clueless as Mal when it came to courting, and Zoe hadn’t ever thought she would meet a man that helpless when it came to love.

“What’s all shiny?” Kaylee asked. Then she spotted the captain. “Captain! You look…” there was a moment’s hesitation, “all happy and shiny this morning!” she finished.

“New and shiny,” River agreed as she danced away to circle Kaylee for a second.

“I do wish that girl would say three words in a row that made any sense at all,” Mal complained softly.

River’s dance immediately stopped. She held up three fingers. “Reaver voices scream,” she said grandly, holding up one finger for each word. For a second, the whole room froze. Then one of the whores gave a strangled cry and the room exploded. Kaylee dashed for the stairs, and Mal started bellowing.

“Jayne. Reavers! Jayne, you hearin' me? We got Reavers!!”

“I’ll get the ship.” Wash was out the door, and Zoe went to chase him, to watch his six because the man was not particularly good at doing that for himself. River’s hand caught her, and Zoe tried to shake it off with a snarl, but River held on.

It took a second for the battle-focus to fade so that Zoe registered what River was saying. “Reaver voices. Reavers wander far away, their voices sailing out over the black.” Jayne appeared at the top of the steps with the biggest gorram gun he owned, and he was storming down the stairs looking ready to shoot anything that moved.

“Captain!” Zoe said. The man was pulling weapons out from behind the bar. “Captain!” she said louder, and Mal stopped to look at her. “River’s saying it’s only the voices, not the Reavers.”

One of the older whores offered, “We ain’t never seen Reavers this far in.”

“What the hell is going on?” Jayne asked, looking bewildered, and well-fucked. Zoe did not understand how one man could bed an entire whorehouse full of women, but Jayne seemed determined to prove it could be done. If Mal didn’t figure out Jayne was lusting after him, Jayne would wear his man parts outs trying to scratch that itch.

“I ain’t got any clue. First River says Reavers are coming and then she says it’s only Reaver voices.” Mal gathered up the weapons he had laid claim to and came around the bar. “We got Reavers inbound or not?”

“Not,” River answered. “Voice drifting across the black. Dice tumbling. The first death blinks closer, swimming downstream.”

Mal blinked and looked to Zoe as if she was supposed to have any idea what it meant. She shrugged helplessly. It wasn’t her week to understand psychotic ramblings.

“Mei-mei. You should rest,” the doctor crooned just as Kaylee came flying back down the stairs, dressed this time.

She stopped halfway and looked around. “Captain?” she asked softly.

“Seems like it was a false alarm.” Mal went over and sat on one of the chairs. “Something about Reaver voices and someone being dead.”

“Someone died? I mean, someone other than Burgess died? Because I’m real okay with him being dead,” Kaylee finished as she came down the rest of the stairs at a much more sedate pace.

River tilted her head. “Rivers and oceans flowing over old land.”

“There ain’t none of that around here,” Jayne said with a dismissive snort.

“Jayne,” Mal warned in a dark tone. Zoe expected Jayne to get all puffed up or withdraw into that quiet sullenness that worried her so much. Instead, Jayne shocked her to her core by walking over and sitting on the floor at Mal’s feet, leaning his back into the chair. For a second time, the whole room froze.

Kaylee was the first to come out of it. She cleared her throat. “Maybe the rivers ain’t rivers as much as something in her head that’s moving around.”

“Like a psychotic incident triggered by an abundance of stress,” the doctor muttered, but Zoe noticed that River ignored her brother, smiling at Kaylee instead.

“Rivers separate and flow until they become oceans of unchangeable past.”

Zoe frowned. “If the past is the ocean, could it be she’s talking about how she knows things in the future?” Zoe asked. She’d watched River turn to shoot a man two second before the man had reared up from behind his fallen horse. Zoe or any other marksman couldn’t have known to expect a gunman from that position, but River had picked him off with a bullet between the eyes just as his head cleared the top of his dead horse’s belly.

River smiled at her. “The big river with Reaver voices reaching out. Black with red buttons, white trim at the collar.”

Mal made a mighty unhappy noise that made Zoe look back at the captain, and now Mal’s hand rested against Jayne’s shoulder, his fingers so tight the knuckles were turning white. Zoe really was running at her limit for shocks for today, that’s for sure. She had to carefully school her features. “Mal, is that Special Services uniform she’s describing?”

“Like the one she described Shepherd Book wearing,” Jayne said. “And I want it known that no matter what her idiot brother said, I never showed River my prick.”

And the shocks kept coming. Zoe blinked as she tried to even understand where that came from.

“I never said you had,” the doc protested. “I just asked exactly why River said she liked your hardness.”

“Ask her. I ain’t never gone and bedded someone who ain’t right in the head.”

Two days ago, Zoe would have believed that comment, but watching Mal’s hand on Jayne’s shoulder as Jayne sat at Mal’s feet—well, she wasn’t so sure Jayne could go saying that anymore because Mal sure wasn't right in the head most days`.

“What in tarnation is going on down here?” Nandi’s voice cut through the awkward silence. “I swear, you lot are a heap of trouble, even though I owe you for standing with us against Burgess.”

“I’m just making a point,” Jayne defended himself, and Zoe watched as Nandi’s eyes studied Mal and Jayne for a moment before she gave a small smile. Ah, so that explained part of this. The boys never would have figured out their mutual attraction without a little assistance, and it seemed like Nandi had provided it. It was about time. Zoe would have stepped in only she had a hard and fast rule that she never interfered with Mal’s love life. It was a little like tinkering with an unstable nuclear reactor.

“You’re making a point rather loudly. The girls said you’re going on about Reavers. What is going on? Reavers have never come in this far."

"Don't mean they ain't going to start now," Jayne said. He kept his death grip on his weapon, but he also kept right on sitting at Mal's feet. And now Mal seemed to be squeezing his shoulder. When those boys decided to do something, they did jump in with both feet. Zoe was grateful that Wash was out getting the ship because she was going to have to pin him down and make sure he didn't say something stupid enough to get Jayne all riled.

"I truly do not expect they will ever reach this far in," Shepherd book said. From the look of wariness on Mal's face, the captain knew something Zoe didn't. It wasn't common for him to keep things from her, and she felt the rub of annoyance against her already strained nerves.

"And how might you know that?" Mal asked. The question was too direct, too pointed to be anything other than a direct reference to something Zoe wasn't privy to. However, Shepherd Book only gave Mal a mild glance.

"I put my trust in the Lord."

"And that Special Service uniform you used to wear?" Mal asked the question in such a mild tone that Zoe had to mentally replay it to believe the words. And even then, she wanted to laugh. However, Shepherd Book was giving Mal a serious stare, the sort that two men used when they were sizing each other up for a gunfight.

Jayne had gotten one leg under him, his hand still tight on his weapon, but Mal kept ahold of his shoulder. Zoe had to admit that she felt a bit of an itch to pull her own sidearm. She trusted Shepherd Book, but if he was Special Services, that was a nightmare that could make a person start thinking about leaving him on some planet and never coming back.

"I think maybe the girls and I should leave you nice folks to do your talking," Nandi said, gesturing for the last few whores to head up the stairs and out of their way.

"No need," Book said. "That is old news. I gave up that uniform and that allegiance about the time that I decided that if I wanted to save souls, the Alliance wasn't the best way to do that."

"Did you ever really think it was?" Mal stood up, and Jayne stood with him, standing just behind the captain. It offended Zoe's sense of fairness to have to fighters squaring off against one little shepherd, but it offended her sense of loyalty to take sides against Mal, so she kept to the side and watched, still confused. And from the look on Kaylee's face, Zoe wasn't the only one getting a whole lot of new information this morning.

"We are all young and foolish once, Mal," Book offered gently. "And only growing older is mandatory."

"Meaning what exactly?" Jayne demanded. "And who is dying? She keeps nattering on about the first death, and if she's saying I'm about to go get dead, I want to know how to stop it."

River walked slowly up to Jayne, stopping when Mal put out a hand as though to block her way. Watching Mal defending Jayne was a new sight, that's for sure. However, River stopped and slowly her head angled toward Shepherd Book. "Voice drifting out. Screaming. Remembering. Always, always, always."

Shepherd Book turned an alarming shade of white, especially considering he was a black man.

"Two by two hands of blue, quieting, quieting, quieting. Shhhhhhh," River said, holding her hands out like someone trying to shush children. "Coming, coming. Hear the voices."

"Is it just me," Jayne asked, "or is none of this making any sense."

"No, it ain't you. It seems like River is a little less coherent that usual."

"She's overworked and overstressed," Simon snapped at the captain. "And I don't know whose idea it was to arm her and expect her to fight like a common ruffian, but I do not appreciate you abusing her trust that way."

Mal didn't bother answering or even pointing out that there was a good chance at least some of them would be dead without River's help.

"I assure you child, no one is coming," Shepherd Book soothed her. River tilted her head and starting moving slowly toward him.

"Flowing downstream. Quiet the man, quiet the girl, quiet the man, quiet the girl. Free radicals running free, threatening the health of the body."

The nonsense didn't mean anything to Zoe, but Shepherd Book drew himself up and backed up until he could grab the back of a chair.

"No, not after all this time."

"Shepherd, the way you're saying that is making me awfully nervous," Mal observed.

"Free radicals. Impossible to predict the permutations and complications as gene sequences are disrupted, threatening the body."

Simon moved in quickly, his hand finding his sister's forehead as he checked her for a temperature. "Are you sick? Do you feel weak or dizzy?"

River shook her head, her eyes still on Shepherd Book.

"I believe she's trying to tell us that the Alliance has decided that we're a disease and that we're all in danger of being eliminated," Shepherd Book said quietly.

"Because you were one of them?" Jayne asked. It was a valid question. Zoe didn't know of any organization that appreciated one of their own turning traitor.

"No," Book said as he slowly sank into a seat. "Their psychological profiles make it clear that I'm no threat. I made my choices, and I will live with them. Unless I am very much mistaken, River is saying that the Alliance is going to kill her and me because we have teamed up with a free radical, someone who very well might want to damage the Alliance." Shepherd Book looked up at Mal.

"Me? I may want to bring them to their knees, but it ain't like I got a gun big enough."

The pieces fell in place so fast that Zoe nearly got a head rush. Mal had the will, but Shepherd Book with his Special Services secrets and River with her damn-near magical ability to make people dead were the guns large enough to bring the Alliance to their knees. Zoe didn't know how, but that's what River meant, she knew it the same as she knew that Mal was going to do something stupid the first time Jayne looked at some girl. Some rules of the universe were too self-evident to require more explanation than that.

River turned and gave her a small, sad smile. "The river likes rules, too. Rules and rules, but breaking them makes new riverbeds in the desert." River turned to look at Mal and Jayne.

Kaylee edged toward the stairs. "I should go and get Inara. It seems like we might be leaving."

"Inara is staying. Dark and dark and not enough light through to make the sparkles shine. The diamond dulls," River said. "Nandi polished good."

"Is she saying that Nandi was sexing on Inara?" Jayne asked. Again, Jayne seemed to have some valid questions this morning, but Zoe had run out of patience.

"I'm going to go... meet Wash," she said, although everyone in the room would know that meant just sitting outside until he put the Serenity down. Still, that seemed wiser than staying in this room and getting more surprises. No one challenged her, and Zoe walked outside, the dry air and hot sun centering her when she felt like the rest of the world had started spinning around her. Well, cao. Just when the captain finally got himself settled down with Jayne, the rest of the universe had to go and lose its mind. No wonder Wash got so twitchy when she started bringing up the subject of children. Well, one way or another, it'd work itself out. It always did. Usually did. Well, it sometimes did. She sighed. Yeah, they were all in the gorram weeds this time.




Chapter Eleven

Shepherd Book sighed, not enjoying the suspicion with which his shipmates considered him. He had suffered the slings and arrows of distrust in his past; he had no interest in repeating the experience, and yet... Yet here he was, getting glared at by Malcolm Reynolds, a man with his own moral failings to account for. It was the Lord's way of making sure that he didn't forget the sins which had plagued his own youth. The Lord might forgive, but He never forgot, and He had a truly viscous sense of humor.

"Wait. So you were some sort of super spy, ninja, government type?" Wash's disbelief was like a balm to Derrial's soul. Shepherd Derrial Book was not the sort of man to kill in the name of government, but then he had not always been Derrial Book.

"Ain't like he don't know which end of a gun to hold," Jayne pointed out. Derrial couldn't decide if that was an insult or a compliment. From Jayne, one could hardly tell.

"My past is an issue best left to the past," he said, not denying anything. He would not bear false witness, even if it would be safer for all of them if he could disabuse them of this belief he had been Special Service.

"That'd be good, only it seems like your past is looking to smack us all upside the head," Mal pointed out. "River keeps coming up with all sorts of reasons for thinking you're in the middle of whatever mess we're flying at. I don't think I have to point out how much I hate flying blind."

Derrial suspected Mal was more short tempered than usual because Inara had chosen to stay with her friend. Jayne might be putting out every sign of loyalty, but Derrial couldn't imagine Mal giving up his interest in Inara so easily. Men like Mal... like him... had trouble changing loyalty. Derrial had taken three years in a monastery before he'd found the strength to relinquish his obligation to the government and embrace his role as a shepherd of the Lord.

But now… maybe his stubbornness was blinding him to a reality River Tam could see more clearly. The Lord’s plan had allowed some frightful atrocities to be visited upon her, but the Lord always had His reasons. That didn’t mean Derrial knew them.

"If I thought you were in danger, I would leave,” he said slowly. “If you believe that my past is casting any sort of shadow on our voyage, perhaps it would be best if I did. There is a wonderful little colony that has asked me to join them. They hope to start a society built on the best of humanity, and I have given serious consideration to joining them." The fact was that he liked the idea of giving up wandering in favor of tending to a settlement—watching children being born into the world and being there to see them grow. He’d been thinking on that more and more lately, so maybe this was the Lord’s way of encouraging him to move on.

"Red, red, rivers flowing like rotten flowers," River said as she in the corner, her arms wrapped around her knees so that she looked like a little girl, lost and seeking shelter from some storm.

"Seems like River doesn't like that idea," Mal pointed out.

"So it seems." Derrial gave the girl a weary look. He had left the government long before the scientists had created her, but he had heard whispers of rumors, faint traces by men too scared to even tell tales, and he could guess what they had done. He never assumed that her visions were true madness. River's eyes found him, and Derrial turned his mind back to that colony he'd been considering joining.

"Blood and blood. Red on red," River muttered.

"Ain't like you're adding anything helpfullike," Jayne complained.

Mal gave the man an unhappy glare, but he failed to verbally castigate the man the way he might have once upon a time. Derrial just hoped that these shifting relationships didn't end up leaving Jayne even more isolated because the man was far more dangerous than Mal seemed to give him credit. Special Service was full of men like Jayne--men who followed without ever questioning where their leaders sent them. Men like Jayne had finally convinced Derrial that he had to break from the group. Mal... his sort might set atrocities in motion with this blind devotion to a cause, but they were capable of recognizing their own faults, too. Jayne's sort went out and destroyed the world to carry out their orders blindly. It wasn’t that they intentionally committed evil—they simply didn’t see it.

"I don't doubt that River has many an unhappy thought in her head if she's digging through my less than stellar past," Derrial said slowly, feeling his way through the words. "However, my past is unlikely to ever haunt us. If I thought that I would bring hostile attention to the group, I would have never stayed so long." When he had left the service and begun life as Derrial Book, he had given the Service a full psychological profile, and he knew what that profile said. As David Evault, he had committed enough sins of his own that he could hardly throw stones at others. More than that, the schemes of which he was privy were all old and past, and bringing them to light would likely hurt more people with no real benefit. Miranda had been the last mission he'd gone on--and he'd walked away from the Service before that had gone spectacularly wrong, proving once again that the Lord would not tolerate the arrogance of man.

Before anyone could comment on Derrial's suggestion, River began screaming, her voice splintering the air and echoing against the metal skin of the Serenity.

"Gorram Moonbrain! Either point out something I can shoot or shut up," Jayne bellowed, his voice rising above the din where Wash's and Zoe's were lost under River's shrill screams.

River fell silent so fast that the others continued to shout for a moment before they too fell silent, confused looks traveling between them.

"Mei, mei," Simon said as he moved closer to his sister with the care a man used to approach a wild animal, "we should go back to our rooms."

"3335-P9 changing, changing. New variables, intel no longer reliable given the configuration of new associations."

Derrial felt his blood turn cold. Up to that point, he would have called that hyperbole a pretty turn of phrase, but hearing that number, the code for a threat assessment on a person of interest, he felt the cold seep into his flesh. He had sat before he even realized his knees were giving out.

"Seems like that means something to the shepherd," Jayne commented.

Derrial could feel warm hands on his arm. "Shepherd, you okay?" Kaylee asked, but he couldn't form the words to give her an answer.

"3335-P9 changing. New tactics recommended. Activating the Operative." River whispered the words, and he might have never heard them except that the room had fallen oppressively silent.

Derrial lost track of time somewhere because all of a sudden Kaylee was there, bending over him with a concerned look, her hands warm against his cold arm. "Shepherd Book, are you okay? You're looking mighty green."

Derrial tried to smile--tried to reassure her, but the fact was that they were all in trouble if the Alliance had decided to come after then with the Operative. The man was a soldier who had volunteered for enhancement. At the time, Derrial had been uncomfortable, but he had brushed aside his fears and ethical qualms as groundless. It was only after he'd seen the horror of Miranda that he'd seen that humanity had no business tampering in the affairs of the Lord.

"You're making me downright discomforted, preacher," Mal observed, not that Derrial had any words of comfort, not this time.

“Why would the 3335-P9 change now? I haven’t—” Derrial stopped. He hadn’t contacted any government agents, but one government agent had contacted him. He looked over to where River was still hugging her knees. One very dangerous government agent had contacted him. This truly was turning into a fine mess.

“Is someone going to start explaining some of this to me?” Mal demanded. He stepped forward into Derrial’s space, and Kaylee skittered away, her eyes wide. Derrial truly couldn’t blame Mal, not one little bit.

“It’d be better if I didn’t.” If Derrial wanted to fix this, he needed Mal to stay out of it. As much as he understood Mal—even respected him—the man wasn’t the one to try and finesse the government. Now if Derrial wanted to start a nuclear war, he might turn to Mal for that. He was unsubtle in a way that few people would every aspire to.

“I don’t much care what you think, Shepherd. This is my ship.”

Derrial stood up and faced Mal with as much calm as he could muster. “This is a matter I need to take care of.”

“Voices… voices… screaming in the dark,” River muttered. Derrial glanced over, and she was rocking back and forth. At one point, Derrial had told the crew that Reavers were men who had stared too long into the dark. The fact was, they were the victims of those who had stared into the dark and who had started believing that their inability to see God meant that He wasn’t there. As much as it seemed unlikely, Reavers were the first victims, and all the other deaths that came after were just a natural consequence of man’s foolishness… of science’s foolishness. The great scientists who had moved to Miranda had tested their theory that they could make people compliant—peaceful. They’d medicated a planet, and the results proved that humanity was not as wise as it liked to pretend. It was the Alliance’s greatest secret.

If telling the ‘verse about that horror would serve any purpose, Derrial would have told his tale. Actually, David Evault, the Special Services’ officer, would have told his tale and Derrial Book never would have come into existence. However, the Alliance was unlikely to ever repeat that mistake, and there was no way to undo the damage they had done. People who knew their families had emigrated to Miranda deserved a chance to live in peace without wondering if one of their loved ones had turned Reaver after being dosed with some Alliance drug.

“Shepherd Book, I would mightily appreciate it if you could just stop being such a closed-mouth hwun dan for one second and tell me what the guay is going on.” Mal crossed his arms and gave every impression of being the immoveable object, and now Jayne moved to a spot at Mal’s shoulder.

“If the government thinks you’re going to spill the beans, so to speak, they are likely to take drastic action,” Derrial pointed out. “I just need to find someone to talk some sense into them before they decide to do anything too drastic.”

“Scorched earth!” River sang from her spot on the floor.

“Cao ni zu zong shi ba dai,” Zoe snarled. Normally she wasn’t the one to use profanity, but if River was right about the government using a scorched earth policy, she had good cause.

“What?” Simon asked, seeming so young and bewildered as he looked around at the others. Apparently he was the only one on the Serenity who didn’t know the term.

“Scorched earth,” Zoe said when it seemed like Mal wasn’t going to answer. “It’s a military strategy of burning every resource and ally to drive your prey onto open ground. If the government is planning on using it against us, every trader who’s ever touched our goods is a target. Kaylee, start getting folks on the wave. Tell ‘em we’re hearing rumors that we have big trouble on our tails, and the trouble is likely to go for allies first.”

“I’ll start looking for new bolt-holes,” Wash offered, all humor gone now that they had a mission.

A mission. Derrial wanted to laugh at the ridiculousness of it. The whole ship was in danger. Everyone Malcolm Reynolds ever knew was in danger. All because the government was afraid of a man who had kept his mouth shut for twenty years and a girl who couldn’t get five words in order long enough to get anyone to believe her. And worse, there was no way to strike back. The government was the ultimate hydra—a monster that simply grew new heads for each that you cut off.

“If they’re coming, that’s not a solution,” he pointed out.

“It’s better than doing nothing.” Mal’s temper was fraying badly, and Derrial could see Jayne getting more edgy with him. Jayne might not be the best thinker, but it did seem as if he was more than ready to shoot whatever was making Mal so mighty unhappy. “Shi. Inara,” Mal cursed as he shouted after her. She’s headed up toward the bridge with the others. “Zoe, get on the line to Nandi’s place and warn ‘em. If trouble is coming for us, that’s a good place to start.”

“We going back?” Jayne asked. He almost looked excited at the thought of getting to shoot it out, but if the government had sent or was planning to send the Operative, Jayne wouldn’t survive long enough to enjoy the fight. Derrial looked over at River and wondered if she could take the other man. Maybe. Then again, it depended on how long she could grasp reality, and sometimes that was a very short window.

“Are we, preacher?” Mal asked. Derrial met Mal’s gaze—warrior to warrior. It did seem as if David Evault was not as dead as Derrial had thought. Tactics and strategies were already forming… plans that had no business in a shepherd’s mind.

“I need to make contact with a couple of operatives, convince them that this is a rash decision likely to backfire badly.”

Mal snorted. “Ain’t like the government is known for making reasonable decisions. So, you go and talk to them, and what? They decide to just leave us be?”

Derrial sighed. He wished it would be that easy. “It might be I could help change their minds about how to interpret certain data or offer alternative threat mitigation plans.”

“Huh?” Jayne frowned.

“He thinks he can go making them feel safe from us so they don’t feel a need to go killing us,” Mal translated.

“Why do they need to kill us?” Simon looked truly confused.

“Because they feel threatened,” Derrial offered. Hopefully Kaylee and Zoe would issue warnings before the killing started, but that wouldn’t be enough. Derrial understood that. Then again, Derrial was the only one who did have all the information.

“Whispers, whispers.” River laid her cheek on her knee.

Derrial went over to kneel down next to her. “I wish I knew how to stop those whispers,” he confessed.

She lifted her head and stared at him, her gaze steady. Slowly, she reached out to him. “Reality split. What they assume doesn’t match reality and the cognitive dissonance like little cracks that allow all the screams into my mind.”

Derrial sighed. He could make assumptions or guesses about what any of that meant, but he couldn’t know for sure.

“Mei, mei, we can get you some medicine. It will make your head feel better,” Simon offered, his voice soft and soothing.

“Screams still scream. Pills only make the sound echo from far away. Reality buried under word-dirt.” River sounded so weary, so soul-worn that the shepherd in Derrial wanted to sit with her and promise the Lord’s protection to such a lost little girl. But right now, these people didn’t need Shepherd Derrial Book nearly as much as they needed Special Services Officer David Evault.

He stood and turned to face Mal. “I need transportation to Verbena,” Derrial said.

Mal physically jerked—that’s how much Derrial had surprised him. “Verbena? That ain’t exactly safe territory, preacher.”

Derrial smiled. “Yes, I know. It’s a former Independence stronghold that the Alliance used for military resupplying. Terrorism has plagued the world for years, and strangers often end up either dead or in an Alliance prison. I am well acquainted with the world.” He didn’t point out that he was assigned to Verbena for a short time after he’d filed a formal protest about the Miranda situation. They’d sent him there to determine whether Verbena would support the rebellion. He knew more about crime and smuggling and politics on that planet than anyone else alive. He still kept up with old contacts. Spies never did totally disconnect to their carefully built networks, and part of Derrial had always felt like Verbena was a sort of home. Hell, some days Derrial thought of Verbena as his gravesite—the place where David Evault died and the man of God Derrial Book was born in a monastery outside Central City.

Pushing those thoughts aside, Derrial said, “I need to find a man and convince him to help me change the government’s mind, assuming that River is right about them sending the Operative after us.”

“I am,” River offered. Her brother hushed her. The boy was a naïve fool who seemed intent on ignoring the fact that his sister’s ramblings were more insightful than true madness.

“Mal?” Jayne asked.

Mal frowned as he took his own sweet time answering. “I’m thinking on it.”

“Have Wash set a course while you’re thinking because I suspect we don’t have much time,” Derrial suggested. If the service had reconsidered their threat assessments and determined that Derrial would give Mal information or that River was sane enough to tell him what had happened on Miranda, they would stop at nothing to destroy the Serenity. Derrial knew that. He wasn’t quite as sure how to stop this, but he’d learned to trust the Lord and keep a good knife handy—those two rules had gotten him through a lot of years so far, and he could only trust them to get him through this mess. Or to get the others safe before he died. Going to Verbena, he had to admit there was a good chance he was going to die. And this time, he doubted that he’d be reborn in a monastery.




Chapter Twelve

Jayne leaned against the wall of Mal's room and watched as the captain sat on his bunk and used a viewer to thumb through images that Jayne couldn't really see. From what he could tell, it was some sort of settlement. Mal hadn't really said much, but Jayne noticed that a number of his own things had somehow landed in Mal's quarters. His shirts were on the top of the dresser like they were waiting for someone to put them in a drawer, and Jayne’s favorite knife sat on the table. "I ain't one for subtle, Mal. Are you telling me you're moving me in here?" Jayne just came right out and asked.

Mal looked around the room, his gaze stopping at each of Jayne’s possessions. Jayne really didn’t understand what went on in Mal’s head, but Mal finally gave Jayne a wary look. "You objecting?" Immediately there was a defensiveness on his face.

Jayne shrugged his disinterest either way. He’d sleep where he was told. What he couldn’t figure is why Mal didn’t just tell him to move his stuff. Mal really was about the most obstinate man Jayne had ever met. Ever. And Jayne had met some mighty obstinate men. Hell, Jayne was an obstinate man, and he weren't even close to matching Mal. Instead of answering, Jayne threw himself down on the floor at Mal's feet. When all else failed, sitting at Mal's feet did tend to shut the man up.

Mal sighed. "If you ain't comfortable staying here, it ain't like I'm going to make you. I just thought..."

"I'd rather be here," Jayne answered with another shrug. "Seems like there's less chance of fucking up if neither one of us has too much time to do any thinking."

Mal laughed. "There is that."

Jayne leaned against Mal's leg and tried to get a better look at the viewer. Instead of getting uppity about Jayne pushing in, Mal tilted it so Jayne could see the screen. The data stream on the bottom labeled it as surveillance of Verbena. It was a middling planet, but Jayne had heard more than one story about the shady deals that went on in the alleys of Verbena. It was one of those places that had a darker underbelly than most people might think when they looked at the neat storefronts.

"I ain't feeling good about Shepherd Book wandering around this place alone."

Jayne thought about that for a second. The comment didn't make much sense to him since the preacher seemed better than most when it came to taking care of himself. "Do you think he'll take off, leave us holding the bag?"

That made Mal frown. "Why would you say that?"

"I can't think of any other reason for worrying about him."

Mal tossed the viewer down on the bed. "Does it occur to you that the preacher won't shoot people?"

"He's shot plenty of folks,” Jayne disagreed. “He's a real good shot, especially for a preacher.” Book never had aimed higher than the kneecaps, but he were a right good shot. He hit what he were aiming at more often than a preacher should. Fact was, Jayne figured Book’s aim was better than Mal’s when it came right down to it. However, Mal was still looking discomforted.

"He shoots knees, Jayne. A man who's shot in the knee can still shoot back."

Jayne scratched his cheek, not sure what to say on that. Mal was right, of course. Could be that the preacher wasn't safe going out on his own, but Jayne wasn't sure what he was supposed to be saying.

"I have to say, it's odd to see you at my feet, Jayne,” Mal said in a sudden change of topic.


It seemed like Mal had to really think about that for a second. "I guess it just seems like you should be fighting this more."

Jayne shook his head. "I ain't been fighting you for a long time, Mal. If sitting at your feet makes you remember that, I ain't got no problem doing it." Jayne watched as Mal's fingers twitched and moved an inch closer. "It ain't like I'm any less of a hwun dan sitting at your feet. If'n someone came at me, I could kill him just as easy from here as if I were standing up."

"I ain't ever questioned your destructive abilities." Reaching out, Mal rested a hand on Jayne's shoulder. "I'm just having to readjust to the idea that you ain't a free agent no more."

Jayne shifted a little. He could admit that there was a little part of him that wanted to shrug off Mal's hand. It felt odd letting a man touch him like that. While a lot of men had touched him--Jayne Cobb had never turned down sexing from any source--very few touched him without that being a prologue to the sexing. Mal, however, didn't seem in any mood for getting off. He simply left his hand resting on Jayne's shoulder as he seemed to focus on thinking.

"Feels like we should send someone to watch Book's back."


Mal sighed. "Most likely it's a dangerous job."

"You want I should go?" Jayne asked. Most times, he did take the dangerous jobs seeing as he was the best at making other people dead.

Instead of answering, Mal sighed again. The silence dragged on for long seconds, and Mal's thumb started tracing circles against Jayne's neck. It was odd having a man just touching for no good reason, but it felt good. With very little encouragement, Jayne's cock could get mighty interested.

"I should send you or Zoe. I get the feeling that Shepherd Book thinks I'd make things worse if I go myself."

"You are one to speak your mind," Jayne agreed.

"And you aren't?"

"Nope," Jayne agreed easily. "I'm one for shooting, but I generally don't talk a man's ear off." He shifted, and Mal's hand paused in its petting. Jayne had never put much stock in companions--he figured they were just fancy-pants whores, not that there was anything wrong with a good whore. But seeing how much more relaxed Mal was now that Nandi had explained how Jayne needed to act, Jayne was willing to admit that Nandi had been right on this one. Mal really did settle right down once Jayne set himself on the floor. As much as that didn't really make much sense to Jayne, he was happy enough to follow the rule without really understanding it.

"I don't like the thought of sending you."

Now that was confusing. "Why?"

Again, Mal fell silent. This was getting more and more awkward, and Jayne didn't understand any of it. "This ain't going to be a safe run. If Shepherd Book is right, these government folk are likely to be unfriendly." Mal almost sounded unsure about that.

"Most people are unfriendly. Guay. I'm an unfriendly sort, Mal," Jayne pointed out.

"No, you ain't. Not really. Not anymore." Mal exploded up off the bed, and Jayne was left sitting on the floor feeling completely confused. However, as long as Mal was worked up, he was staying on the floor. Nandi's rule was turning out to be a real handy one to know. And sure enough, Mal went to the wall and took out his temper punching the metal hull rather than lashing out at Jayne.

"What's wrong with you?" Jayne finally demanded.

"I don't want to go ordering you to do something that's likely to get you dead!"

"You've been ordering me to do stupid shit for years."

"But we weren't lovers then!" Mal wheeled around, his face etched with fury, and Jayne leaned back against the bunk and spent some time just thinking on that. Mal didn't want him hurt. More than that, Mal didn't want to order him into a dangerous situation. That might be real complimentary only Jayne was a gunhand. He couldn't exactly do his job if Mal got some bug up his ass about Jayne being in danger.

"I ain't a different person now," Jayne said slowly, wishing Nandi were around because Jayne wasn't real good at explaining things so that other people could understand.

"I'm feeling a whole lot different." Mal sounded weary. "How can I order you to do something dangerous and stupid when I know you ain't going to object? It's not like you're crew, Jayne. You're my lover--a lover that sits at my gorram feet."

Jayne scratched his chest. "I may be that, but I'm a killer, Mal. You knew that when you hired me. I ain't less of one because I'm rolling over for you."

Leaning back against the wall, Mal rubbed a hand over his face. "I ain't good at letting go, Jayne. I never have been."

Jayne's guts stirred at that declaration. There was something comforting in knowing that Mal wanted to hold on tight. Most times, Jayne's lovers were happier to get rid of him come the next day. "I ain't planning to leave, Mal."

"And if you go getting yourself killed by this government mess?"

"I won't." Jayne shrugged.

"You do see the world in sort of a simple way Jayne Cobb." Mal sounded a mite bit frustrated, but he came back to the bunk, sitting so that his leg was pressed against Jayne's shoulder.

"I always have," Jayne agreed. "So, you think the preacher needs some babysitting?"

"I think he knows these government types better than he's willing to admit, but I also think he's going to be too slow to defend himself if someone pulls a gun on him."

"Then I'll go with him and make sure I'm there to pull the trigger." The solution seemed real simple to Jayne. As simple as the solution seemed, Mal didn’t jump at it. He reached out and rested his hand on Jayne's shoulder. Waiting for some sort of explanation, Jayne sat and looked around the room. When had Mal found the time to move his things over? It wasn’t important enough to go asking after, but now that Jayne thought on it, that was a bit of a mystery.

"You ain't got permission to get killed, Cobb. You hear that?" Mal finally demanded.

Jayne smiled. "Got it. No getting killed on duty. That's an easy rule."

"I really wished I could believe that." Mal's voice was soft. "It seems like it might be harder than usual."

"Would it be better to pull up stakes and run for safety?"

Mal sighed. "If I could figure out a place we could run without the government finding us, sure. But the frontier is getting smaller, and this 'verse ain't really big enough for men like us, Jayne."

Jayne nodded. That made sense.

"So we hope that the preacher can get them off our tail."

"And I'll make sure he don't get dead before getting his chance to talk to them government folk." That was a nice clear mission, and Jayne did well with clear orders. Mal's thumb started making those little circles against Jayne's neck again, and Jayne just sat in the quiet and let Mal do his touching. It seemed like the man needed it to calm down. Jayne never would have guessed that Mal was a toucher... but then until recently, Jayne never would have guessed that Jayne himself would have enjoyed it quite so much.





Chapter Thirteen

Jayne followed Shepherd Book down the street, his hand on his weapon as he checked all the potential sources of ambush. The shepherd had put up a real good fight about not needing a body guard, but when Mal set his mind on things, he wasn't one to back down. Some days Jayne thought Mal would go up against Reavers if he got it in his head he needed to. The man wasn't logical.

"My contact should be in here. Try to avoid shooting him," Book suggested as he nodded toward a tavern.

"Then hope he don't go shooting at you. Anyone who shoots at you is going to get real dead."

Book sighed and mumbled something about patience under his breath as he headed across the street. Jayne didn't bother answering since Book's conversations seemed to focus overly much on God and the Bible, two topics Jayne had avoided since leaving home. Besides, Jayne had work to focus on. He itched to pull Vera off his back and walk in this place with her in his hands, but as much as he loved his girl, she was an unwieldy gun. So he settled for having his hand on his sidearm, the safety already off.

Book walked in fast, too fast for anyone inside to get a proper bead on him. It did seem as if the preacher had some habits that weren't very preacherish, but then he stopped six feet inside and looked around the room, making a right target out of himself. Jayne moved to his back, providing a little friendly push to get him moving toward cover.

"Jayne," Book said in an aggravated tone.

"You're making a fine target, and I ain't going to stand here and let you get dead," Jayne answered without pausing. He got Book over to a defensible wall and took up a position scanning the room. They’d attracted a good deal of attention, more than a couple of strangers should. Jayne watched an older man head for an exit, his stiff knees making it hard for him to get out as quick or as quiet as he was trying for.

“Perhaps you could stop glaring at everyone.”

“No.” Jayne ignored the sigh that answered him. He found it was best to make it clear up front that he was a short-tempered and well-armed man. It saved on the misunderstandings. Book chose a table and sat down, putting his small bag on the table and pulling out his Bible.

“So, I take it you and Mal have decided to move to the next level of your relationship.”

“We’re fucking,” Jayne agreed, his gaze still on the room. There were a number of men shifting in ways that made Jayne’s trigger finger itch. This place might look quiet, but there were too many people who moved like killers.

“Well, that’s an interesting way to describe it.”

Jayne risked glancing over at Book to get an idea of his mood. The man looked… well, he looked the same as ever so Jayne was guessing he wasn’t going to go off on some lecture about the evils of fornicating.

“It’s an honest way of describing it.”

“I suspect that you are sharing much more than some carnal pleasure.”

Jayne had no idea what that meant, so he just ignored the preacher and focused on the room. There was a subtle shifting, but so far, most people were shifting away. At least two of the people in the bar had found some reason to leave.

“Making a relationship work is difficult. Two people have to learn to make compromises—”

Jayne cut him off. “Mal gives orders, I take ‘em. That’s about as much compromise as we need.”

For a second, Jayne got to enjoy the silence. Unfortunately, it was only a second.

“I do hope you’re not suggesting that you would ignore your own needs to serve the needs of a relationship.”

“Huh?” Jayne frowned. Why did he spend so much time with people who talked without every saying anything. “Are you about to go off on fortification and sodomization or shi like that?” he came right out and demanded.

“What?” Book drew back, and from the shocked expression, Jayne had to guess that he’d gotten that wrong. “No. I am not bothered that you and Mal are both male or unmarried. However, I am concerned about the fact that neither of you has the sense to come in out of the rain.”

Jayne turned so he could really glare at Shepherd Book. Book raised his hand. “Now I didn’t mean that the way it came out. You are both very good at staying alive. However, neither of you is particularly skilled at having a relationship.”

Jayne turned back toward the bar. “Nandi said that Mal gets twitchy because I’m big and he has trouble remembering that I ain’t looking to stab him in the back.”

“I suppose that’s true. You are a little intimidating,” Book said.

Jayne was a little surprised because Book generally didn’t spend a whole lot of time complimenting him. But it was nice to have someone notice his positive attributes for a chance. “I supposed you had your own history of killing and intimidating, seeing as how you’re such a good shot,” Jayne answered. Oddly, Book didn’t seem all that complimented.

“Yes, well if you ever want to talk about this relationship of yours….”


“I’m starting to think the two of you deserve each other,” Shepherd Book muttered. Jayne happened to agree with that, but from the tone, Book wasn’t trying to be complimentary. People were so much more confusing than guns. Jayne almost wished that someone would start shooting at them so he could do something other than stand around having a conversation he didn’t understand.

“I think we got something happening, Shepherd.”

“Oh?” Book didn’t even get up from the table, but Jayne curled his fingers around the butt of his gun. The new man who’d just walked in didn’t have the look of someone just trying to find a drink. His eyes scanned the entire bar before he settled on looking right past Jayne to where Shepherd Book sat. Jayne was real happy he’d pushed Book toward a defensible position because this one moved like a killer even if he dressed like a pansy.

The man came uncomfortably close to the table, and Jayne stepped forward to force him to stop. Taking a step back, the stranger considered Jayne carefully, and Jayne spent an equal amount of time noting the way the stranger’s pants were cut wide at the bottom, most likely for ankle weaponry. His thick belt would hide a number of nastier weapons and his holster had a shine to the leather that suggested it was well used and well cared for. It wasn’t decoration.

“David, you seem to have picked up a guard dog.”

Jayne narrowed his eyes and focused on the stranger even as he heard Shepherd Book’s chair scrape across the floor. “Peter. I go by Derrial Book now.”

“Oh yes. Book. You turned into a man of the book and cloth, didn’t you?” Peter was in his forties or fifties, so Jayne was guessing that he’d known Shepherd Book back before the man had become a minister. He filed away the name ‘David’ to tell Mal later on.

“I did,” Book agreed.

“And yet you have a guard here who looks absolutely anxious to put several bullets through me.”

Jayne clenched his teeth when Book stepped out from behind him, making a target of himself again. “Shepherd,” he warned.

“Relax, Jayne,” Book said, resting a hand against Jayne’s gun arm. “Peter isn’t going to shoot us.”

“I’m not sure I can say the same about your Jayne there. Where did you find him?” Peter gave Jayne a slow smile, the sort that made Jayne want to shoot him just for the hell of it.

“Apparently Captain Reynolds thought I needed an escort.”

Jayne could see this Peter start at Mal’s name.

“Malcolm Reynolds?”

“That’s the one.”

Peter took another step closer, and Jayne sidestepped to keep himself between Peter and Shepherd Book. “I ain’t the real forgiving sort, and I got clear orders that anyone who tries to hurt Shepherd Book needs to get spectacularly dead. We clear?” Jayne demanded.

Peter took a step back and looked Jayne over again. “Crystal clear. David, you do find the most interesting company, but then you always did.”

Jayne crossed his arms and moved to the side to let Peter take a seat at the table. Peter gave him a long look before putting his back to the door and Jayne. Likely there was a message there, but Jayne’s only interest was in following orders.

“Mr. Reynolds has interesting crew, more interesting than I was led to expect.”

“You don’t know the half of it,” Book agreed.

“Oh,” Peter said in a conspiratorial tone, “I do know the half of it. And here I thought you were going to keep a low profile.”

“I am keeping a low profile. However, it does seem like some people are trying to stir up a dangerous mess that’s likely to splash everyone if they aren’t careful.”

Peter leaned back in his chair, and Jayne watched as Shepherd Book’s body language slowly shifted until it almost mirrored the man. Unless Jayne was guessing wrong, they’d served together. Either that or Book was deliberately copying Peter’s mannerisms just to go annoying him, and Book generally didn’t try to annoy people. Most of his annoying was more accidentalish.

“How much of this stirring is Mr. Reynolds doing?”

Book leaned forward. “None. Captain Reynolds doesn’t know what’s going on, and that’s a good thing. The man is less than logical.”

Jayne couldn’t help it; he snorted.

“Is that amusing?” Peter asked, looking over at Jayne, but Jayne wasn’t about to tell this pansy nothing. He just looked back at him with a blank expression.

“I think Jayne is trying to tell you that anyone who pokes at Captain Reynolds is trying to catch a rabid rattlesnake by the tail. It’s a fool’s errand, and the Alliance I know is not so much a fool that they’d try it.”

Peter looked back at Book. “He’s one man, preacher. The government isn’t afraid of one man.”

“They should be.” For some time, the two men stared at each other silently. Eventually Peter threaded his fingers together on the table, his shoulders relaxing.

“Convince me,” he said. “Convince me this is even worth talking about.”

Book’s smile was slow and smug—as if he’d won some point that Jayne didn’t understand. “A government can defend itself from a group. That’s what they’re designed to do—identify the head of the dragon and then slay it.”

“And Malcolm Reynolds would appear to be the head of the dragon,” Peter quickly added.

“Oh no. You have your metaphors wrong.” Book’s voice fell into that tone that generally sent Jayne running out of the room because it meant preaching was coming. “Reynolds is more like a virus. You first contact him, and you know he’s going to be the death of you, but you just can’t seem to get away before getting infected. He believes so strongly that he turns the people around him into believers. Now, when I first took passage, I’ll admit that I only wanted to make it out to the frontier where I could preach. Then the Tams came onboard and I thought to stay in order to keep the crew out of trouble, to steer Mal around to my way of thinking.”

“Your way?”

Book pursed his lips. “Not every windmill should be charged at. We should all be willing to save our fellow humans, but trying to punish people… that’s God’s work.”

“I suspect you failed.”

“Why do you say that? What makes you think that Malcolm is any sort of threat?”

“On his own, he isn’t. However, Womak and Jubal Early both failed to bring River back. Reynolds is defending her.”

“Defending her is not the same as challenging the government.”

“Why else would he risk his life for her unless he wants what she can do?” The words were coming fast now, and Jayne didn’t understand any of it.

Book pulled his Bible into his lap and considered it for a long time, his fingers tracing the letters on the front cover before he turned to Jayne. “Jayne, you attempted to get the Tams off the ship at one point, correct?”

Jayne had to grit his teeth to avoid flinching away from that memory. Mal had nearly killed him over his stunt at Ariel, and he really didn’t like thinking on how he tried to turn the Tams over to the government for the reward money. “Yeah,” he said tersely.

Peter turned his chair so he could see Jayne more easily.

“What did Mal tell you about that?” Book asked. Jayne had to assume the preacher had some point other than torturing him.

“He said we don’t turn on our own, ever.”

Peter looked from Jayne to Shepherd Book. “And your point is?”

Still fingering the lettering on his Bible, Book seemed to think about that for a while. “That’s Mal. You’re treating him like a dragon to behead, but the fact is that he’s more like mold.”

“Meaning he grows on you after a while?” Peter asked.

Shepherd Book laughed. “Am I that predictable?”

“We were partners for a long time, David. I know you’re trying to make a point here, but so far, you’re not convincing me that I should take this up with my superiors.”

“Target Mal, and you will find yourself dying of some infectious disease before you know what happened.”


“I thought I could change Mal. Instead it seems like I was infected somewhere along the line. Niska thought he could kidnap Mal, and I was right in there with the other fools charging into Niska’s station—five of us against an army in their own stronghold.”

Peter laughed. It was the sort of laugh people used when they were disbelieving of how stupid others could be. “So, we should fear him because his crew is suicidal?”

“You should fear him because his crew won that fight,” Book countered. “His crew wins fights they shouldn’t. Mal does that to people. You see Jayne there. Mal ordered him on this mission, and after we landed planetside, he asks if this is a suicide mission. He asked after we landed, Peter. He couldn’t have gone back no matter what I said at that point.”

“What did you tell him?”

“That I assumed you were smart enough to see the truth. My hands aren’t clean in this mess you’re trying to protect, and I don’t like how many people are going to suffer if this comes out. However, if you’re targeting Serenity, that is not going to end well for anyone. Mal took Jayne, a mercenary through and through, and turned him into a man who would walk into a suicide mission. That kind of passion isn’t something the government can fight.”

If someone had asked, Jayne would have pointed out that Mal wasn’t likely to covert many the way he’d converted Jayne. The fact was, Jayne wasn’t exactly sure when Mal had started being the center of his life, but he thought it might have been somewhere around Canton or Ariel.

After trying to turn the Tams over to the government, Mal had been real effective at showing Jayne just how displeased he was. Jayne thought for sure he was going to die, and he didn’t really understand why Mal had saved him at the last second after beating him. But thinking back, Jayne figured he’d started changing back when he met those mudders who’d made a hero out of him. Jayne had seen himself through their eyes, and his reality didn’t rightly match up with who he wanted to be. Mal did. Mal didn’t put himself out there as a hero, but he did everything that those mudders on Canton thought Jayne had done. Mal put others first, even when he bellyached about it. And Jayne had seen Mal give up more than one bit of profit to help them that were less well-off.

Jayne had watched those people on Canton literally singing his praises, and he realized that he wanted to be that man they sang about. He wanted to be someone his ma could be proud of. He wanted to be more like Mal. Of course, his first shot at trying to take the high road included selling the Tams to get them off Serenity, but that was why Mal told him to stop trying to make plans on his own. Mal’s plans might be downright stupid, but they weren’t half as bad as Jayne’s own.

“You have a suggestion,” Peter said with a good deal of confidence. Jayne cleared his throat and focused on the job at hand. Mal told him to not get dead, and woolgathering in the middle of a mission weren’t the best way to do that.

“You don’t attack a virus with a gun.”


Shepherd Book took a deep breath. “You inoculate against it. If they’re afraid that Mal is getting too close to certain secrets, then they take that weapon away by releasing the information in some neutered form.”

Peter made a noise that sounded a whole lot like a hiss. “You seem certain that you know which secret they’re afraid of.”

“I know what the girl’s been muttering about. No one else has come close to putting the pieces together, but they will eventually.”

“Unless we kill her and Reynolds.”

“Better men than you have tried.” Shepherd Book put his Bible on the table. “That man is annoyingly difficult to kill.”

“We have certain weapons you may not know about.”

“The Operative? Yes, I know about him. I met him a long time ago, and I suspect that he’s no match for River. I also suspect that Mal has an almost unholy way of winning fights he shouldn’t. Don’t count on him. Actually…” Shepherd Book looked over at Jayne again. Jayne really disliked how often he was getting brought into this conversation, especially seeing as how he didn’t understand one whit of it. “Jayne, who is a better shot, you or Mal?”

“Me,” Jayne answered. “Ain’t even really close.”

“And who’s stronger?”

Jayne snorted. “Mal would drop dead of exhaustion if he tried doing half the chores he assigns me on board.”

“And when you first met Mal, I believe you were on the other side, holding a gun on him.”

Jayne shrugged. It made him feel funny now, thinking back to how close he came to shooting Mal.

“And yet now your following him.”

Jayne shrugged again. “His plans seem to work out better than most. He’s a good captain.”

“Really? Did you expect to survive the attack on Niska? Did you expect to survive going up against Rance Burgess and his entire army of gunhands? What odds do you give yourself of surviving this mission?”

“Mal ordered me to come back alive, and that’s one order I plan to follow, preacher. If’n you got something to say, you say it.” Jayne could feel his anger sparking, but Book just turned back to Peter.

“There’s your answer. You can’t fight that because you don’t understand it. I don’t understand it, and I’m caught up in the middle of it. But the fact is that I always could figure out how to bend information around to do the least amount of damage. I had hoped to avoid this, hoped that the dead could rest in peace and those who weren’t dead could be allowed to die in time. However, if the secret is causing more trouble, then it’s time to tell the ‘verse the truth.”

“You can’t mean that.” Peter looked honestly horrified, and Jayne was starting to really wonder what sort of big-ass secret these folks were keeping.

“I do mean it. Back then, I didn’t fight hard enough or yell loud enough to stop the trouble I saw coming. I think it’s time to fix that mistake. I’m going to fight until I stop the trouble I see coming if the Operative goes after Mal. We need to make this work, so we need take control of this.”

“They won’t like it.”

“Most of the people who gave the orders are dead. They don’t have a vote in this.”

Peter took a deep breath. “I’ll pass the message on.”

“That’s all I ask.” Shepherd Book tilted his head in Peter’s direction, but the man just got up and walked away without a word. He left Book sitting alone at the table looking more than a little gray.

“You okay, preacher?”

“Yes, thank you, Jayne.” Shepherd Book’s voice was soft and it trembled a bit. The man was a crap liar.

Jayne cleared his throat, not really knowing whether he should ask the next question or not, but he was dying of curiosity. “What secret are you two talking about?”

Book sighed. “A long time ago the government did something very foolish.”

“And you never told anyone?” Jayne asked. That seemed unusual for the preacher.

“I would have told the entire universe if it would have done any good. Unfortunately, this is one of those secrets that can only hurt people. Certainly the government has already learned their lesson, and a lot of people are going to discover things they really would have preferred not knowing.”

“Then why not just not tell them?”

The silence filled their small corner of the bar as Book seemed to think about that one. “Because River is trying very hard to share this secret with Mal, and Mal is….” Book’s voice trailed off.

“A bit useless when it comes to keeping a secret?” Jayne finished for him.

Book nodded. “I’m afraid so.”

Jayne agreed with that. The captain might bluff at poker, but he was too honest to ever really keep a secret, and he seemed to think that the ‘verse was full of people like him—people who wanted the truth. Jayne figured most people just wanted to live their lives without filling up their heads with information that didn’t mean nothing to them and that they couldn’t do nothing about. But then, Mal wasn’t like most people, and he didn’t seem to rightly understand that.

“So, what are the chances that these people will listen?”

“About as good as the chance that they’ll order us both shot on sight,” Shepherd Book offered with a disgusted expression.

Jayne figured those weren’t the best odds. They weren’t the worst he’d faced since crewing with Mal, but they weren’t exactly good. At this point, though, he could only follow Mal’s orders—don’t get dead and kill anyone who tried killing the preacher. Jayne was trusting Book to fix the rest of it.





Chapter Fourteen

Jayne pressed the button to call Wash down for a pick up. He wasn't looking forward to telling Mal that the preacher had ordered him to go back, but from Shepherd Book's expression, the man hadn't been real interested in compromising. Hopefully he'd be safe with his friend. If not, Jayne figured he weren't never hearing the end from Mal. Well, if nothing else, Jayne would sit at the man's feet. That did tend to short-circuit most of Mal's anger issues. And it seemed like Jayne didn't worry near as much when he sat on the floor. He didn't have to worry none about fucking up, and Jayne could admit that he did fuck up more than most men. Well, maybe not as much as Simon Tam. Kaylee was going to space Simon if he couldn't figure out how to pull his head out of his ass. For an educated man, he was plain stupid.

Jayne pulled his hat low and stayed under the shelter of a tree as the shuttle came in low, the wind whipping up dust. Wash settled the shuttle down, waving through the front window like some sort of loon. Jayne might think fondly on the crew, but they were all crazy as rabid dogs.

Waiting until the engines finished their cool down and the shuttle door opened, Jayne looked around at the dry landscape. It did feel wrong leaving Book behind, but he made it so very clear that Jayne wasn't welcome to stay. Besides, once the talking started, Jayne wasn't the best help. Now if the government had decided to send someone to shoot them, Jayne might have been helpful.

The shuttle doors came open. "Hey, Jayne. Where's Shepherd Book?" Wash asked with the sort of puppish enthusiasm that made him seem more like a child than a grown man. Jayne never could figure out why a woman as stunning as Zoe had chosen him, but then, Jayne didn't understand most people when it came to who they chose. He really didn't get why Kaylee had chosen to go all moon-eyed over Simon Tam, but as long as Jayne had Mal, he didn't much care who the other crew got wet in the pants over.

"Are you planning on answering me?" Wash demanded as Jayne passed.

"Nope," Jayne answered. He didn't owe nothing to Wash.

Wash muttered Chinese curses under his breath--nasty ones that called into question the nature of Jayne's parentage, but Jayne settled himself in the co-pilot's chair and waited for Wash to do his job and fly them back to Serenity. The whole flight, Jayne tried figuring out how he was going to admit to Mal that he'd gone against the captain's orders. It was a mighty unsettling feeling, knowing that he'd crossed Mal. Fact was, before Mal it'd been a real long time since he actually cared what other people though of him. Mostly he just wanted to be left alone, but somewhere along the line, Jayne had decided that he really didn't want to be alone any more. And he really weren't happy to be bringing bad news to Mal.

The shuttle jolted when they joined up with Serenity and Jayne headed for the door while Wash was still powering everything down. The door opened, and Jayne headed into the ship, his boots pounding against the metal scaffolding of the walk. Mal stood waiting down below, Zoe at his side while Simon and Kaylee stood near the door.

"Now Mal, don't go getting all twisted up," Jayne started. Maybe that were the wrong thing to say because Mal immediately stiffened.

"What am I not getting twisted up about, exactly?" he demanded.

"I tried telling the preacher you'd told me to make sure his skin stayed in one piece, but he ordered me to come back here."

Mal frowned, and Jayne had a sort of sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.

"Shepherd Book stayed back?" Zoe asked.

"It weren't my fault," Jayne snapped. It was bad enough that he'd fucked up. He didn't need Zoe adding her two cents.

"I didn't hear Zoe say it was," Mal said, sounding more than a little cranky.

Jayne bit his tongue. If Mal wanted to take him to task, Jayne figured he didn't have much room to defend himself, not when he was in the wrong. Mal frowned at him, a real confused look on his face.

"Is there any particular reason why you'd be feeling so guilty about leaving him? I mean, you didn't shove him in some hole or something, did you?"

"No." Jayne was downright offended. "There ain't no reason to think I'd go stabbing you in the back like that."

"I never said you did. Guay. What's got into you Jayne Cobb?"

"Just don't want you thinking I ain't listening to you."

"I know that. I never even though you had."

Jayne stood on the last step before stepping down into the main room, feeling downright off-balance. He could hear Wash's footsteps behind him.

"So, has he told y'all why Shepherd Book stayed back? I swear, I've never met a man who--" Wash stopped. "Oh, we're back to everyone scowling at each other. I must have missed that memo."

"Sweetie," Zoe warned, a bit of steel in her voice. Jayne noticed that Wash did, in fact, fall silent.

"Um, Jayne," Kaylee said. "I ain't saying you did nothing wrong, but is there a reason why Shepherd Book ain't with you?"

Jayne grunted. "We met up with some old friend of his, some dandy called Peter who kept calling the preacher 'David.' They talked some, and the next morning, Peter came back and told Book that he'd gotten them an appointment with someone."

"They talked some, huh?" Mal sounded interested in that. "I don't suppose you got any idea what they were saying?"

"I don’t rightly know. The shepherd kept using me as some sort of example, pointing out how I’d been a mercenary and now I’d follow you through fights we didn’t have no business winning," Jayne said. He'd gotten that much, even if he hadn't understood a whole lot of what they'd said.

"So, he used you as an example of someone who regularly did stupid things... imagine that." Wash went to pass Jayne on the stairs, and Jayne shoved at him a bit with a shoulder. About that time, Wash made a squawk and darted for that wife of his. The look Zoe gave Jayne made it perfectly clear that she wasn't amused none. Mal, however, ignored the whole exchange, and Jayne took that as permission enough.

"That sounds like an odd sort of conversating," Mal commented.

"And he kept calling you a virus," Jayne said.

"A what?" Mal stood up a little straighter.

"Now sir, I’m sure that was metaphorical," Zoe soothed him. Jayne wondered if it were his job now to do the soothing, only Jayne didn't know how to other than sitting at Mal's feet or offering sex, and it did feel like this might be the wrong time for either of them.

"I don’t much care if it were metaphorical or not. He called me a virus? Really?"

"Yep," Jayne agreed, "excepting when he called you a mold. Said you grew on people."

Zoe gave a rather inelegant snort.

“He does kinda have a point, Captain.” Kaylee actually sounded apologetic about it even while grinning like an idiot. Mal gave her a real unhappy look, and the smile fell right off.

"I should probably go... Um... Well, I'm sure I can find something that's broke." With that, Kaylee sort of took off, and Simon was left looking from Jayne to the door where Kaylee had disappeared, back to Jayne. It was pretty clear he wanted to go running after her, and Jayne weren't even sure why he wouldn't. Oh, he knew he didn't want Simon panting after Kaylee--he weren't near good enough for her. Kaylee deserved a real strong man, someone who could take care of her out in the black, and Simon weren't that sort of man. However, he didn't get why Simon would hesitate. Kaylee was a real pretty woman.

Wash cleared his throat. "Is there any chance we could get to the important stuff, like whether anyone is likely to start shooting at us."

"Well?" Mal asked, looking right at Jayne.

"How am I supposed to know what they were gorram saying?" Jayne demanded. It weren't fair to ask him these things. He was the gunhand, not someone who kept track of all the gou shi words that flew around this place.

"Maybe you could just tell us what you did hear," Zoe said in a tone far too soothing for Jayne's preference. He didn't need no soothing. He glared at her to make her point, but she was too busy glaring at Mal to pay him much attention.

Sighing, Jayne realized he was going to have to tell them something. Next time he was taking a gorram recorder. "They were talking about some secret that River's got in her head, and the fact she's trying to tell it to Mal."

"She's trying to tell me a secret? Really?" Mal turned to Zoe for an answer.

She shrugged. "Could be, sir. But knowing River, it's hard to tell the difference between her trying to talk and flatulence."

Simon took a step forward, his fists clenched and Jayne stepped down to intercept if he needed to. He didn't think Simon was any real sort of threat, but Mal shouldn't have to deal with his temper. "Why does everyone assume that River is the cause of all this?"

"Maybe because she can shoot a whole parcel of men without even looking at them," Mal pointed out. "And seeing as how the government types are worried about her, that does tend to lend credence to the idea that she might be more dangerous than she's letting on. I ain't a big fan of the government, but they ain't stupid. If they're worried, then there's cause to worry."

"Seemed like Shepherd Book thought the same," Jayne said. "He offered to help them take care of the secret so it weren't a secret any more."

Mal frowned. "But if it's a secret, wouldn't making it not a secret be less than helpful?"

Jayne shrugged. "I didn't make no sense to me, but the preacher seemed at ease. If'n someone had pointed a gun at him, I would've made them all kinds of dead, and I never would have left him behind. You ordered me to guard him, and there weren't nothing except the preacher man's own orders that could have got me to come back," Jayne said. He needed Mal to know that this weren't his fault. "I even tried arguing with him, pointing out that you'd ordered me to watch his back and that I weren't going anywhere. If he was going up on some Alliance cruiser than I gorram was too, and there weren't no arguing with that. Only then Book started using that as some sort of proof that the folk on Serenity weren't right in the head or something like that, and this Peter started looking real amused, and before I'd really figured out one end from another, somehow Book had talked me into coming back here." Fact was, Jayne still wasn't quite sure how that had happened. Sometimes people just talked too fast for him to really keep up with the logic of things, not that Book was generally all that logical. He spent most of his time talking God and lots of other things that didn't have no relevance to Jayne's life.

"Stop acting like I'm going to throw you off the ship," Mal snapped. Jayne clenched his teeth and wished real hard that Mal would sit down so Jayne could sit at his feet. Mal were always nicer then.

"Some orders, you just can't follow them to the end," Zoe offered, and having her try to offer comforting words was more annoying than Mal's attitude. Jayne tried to glare at her hard enough to make that clear.

"Well, there's not much we can do now, not unless River can figure out how to tell us what she's got rolling around in that head of hers." Mal sounded real weary about that. "I guess we start looking for the next job and hoping nothing blows up in our faces."

"So, we're back to normal?" Wash summarized. The man shouldn't grin like that when he was clearly aggravatin' the captain, but then Wash didn't have the sense God gave a real stupid goat.

Mal snorted and walked off.





Chapter Fifteen

Jayne followed Mal to the main hall, waiting until Mal settled at the table and started disassembling his weapon. Jayne went to the cupboard and got out the cleaning equipment.

"Thanks," Mal said as Jayne put it on the table. Jayne then sat down on the floor and leaned against Mal's leg. "What... Jayne, you know you don't have to do that, right?" Mal asked with a sigh.

"Seems like we both like it when I do," Jayne answered.

For a second, Mal was quiet. "Seems like we do," Mal said. Instead of cleaning his gun, he rested a hand on Jayne's neck. There weren't many people Jayne would let touch him somewhere that personal. Truth be told, he were much more likely to let a man stick a cock up his ass than let one rest a hand against his neck. However, Mal's touch made Jayne relax instead of setting him on edge. "I ain't fond of sitting still and letting Shepherd Book fight this battle for us,” Mal confessed.

"Is it our battle to fight?" Jayne asked.

Mal sighed again, his fingers tightening slightly around Jayne's neck before he switched to stroking the back on Jayne's neck, sending little shivers through Jayne's whole body. "I suppose it ain't. But if someone's going to go assuming I'm trouble, I do hate disappointing."

Jayne snorted.

"What? You disagree?"

"You ain't got to worry none about people forgetting you're trouble. You do get us in more than our share of messes."

"Are you questioning my captaining?"

"Nope. Just stating facts."

"And here just a few minutes ago, you were acting like a dog someone had kicked too often, looking at me like you expected me to put you off the ship."

"I figured if you were mad, you wouldn't let me sit here," Jayne said. He didn't point out that Mal seemed to calm down pretty fast when Jayne sat at his feet, because that came uncomfortably close to admitting that he were manipulating Mal.

"I suppose I wouldn't. But that doesn't mean I like you getting all twitchy around me. I ain't the sort to kick a dog or a man who did his best to follow orders."

"So, if'n I fuck up, you ain't going to get mad?" Jayne wasn’t sure he could believe that because Mal had a good-sized temper when he thought someone had crossed him.

Mal's fingers paused in their quest across Jayne's warm skin. "If I think you fucked up for some stupid reason, I reckon I'll be mad. If you honestly can't follow orders, though, I won't ever get mad, and even if I am mad, I'll never turn you out Jayne. In case you ain't noticed, I'm not real good at letting go of things."

Jayne looked around at their worn out ship held together with sealant and luck. "I noticed."

"Yeah, well I hadn't planned to be any less possessive with you."

"I ain't got a problem with that," Jayne agreed. Fact was that sort of liked the sound of that.

"What if I decide that I've had a gorram bad night worrying about the fact that I might have sent you out to die without anyone to back you up and I feel like being a little more possessive than usual?"

Jayne snorted. "It'd take more than a couple of government types to end me."

"Really? Because it sounds like you volunteered to go on an Alliance cruiser, and I do hear they have more than a couple of government types on those ships." Mal’s fingers tightened around the back of Jayne’s neck.

"So, you ain't mad?"

"Nope. I wouldn't have sent you if I thought the shepherd would take you into a mess like that. You ain't got no place being on a cruiser without proper backup. I wouldn't ever risk you like that."

Jayne leaned against Mal's leg. It made a man a special kind of warm to know that his captain wouldn't risk him--to know his lover wouldn't ever risk him.

"I'm heading to my bunk," Mal said and he stood so suddenly that Jayne had to put out a hand to keep from getting knocked to the ground. "Coming?"

Jayne about tripped over his own feet getting up fast enough, and even with that, he had to trot to catch up with Mal who was heading for his bunk at a good clip. Zoe was working on one of their hidden compartments, realigning the catch to make it harder to spot if any inspectors when snooping around, and Mal rushed by her without a word. Jayne offered her a curt nod. She just gave a gentle laugh and shook her head like something was particularly amusing.

Instead of heading for his own quarters, Mal headed for one of the smaller cargo rooms, a converted crew space where they stored smaller cargos like medicines. However, when Jayne crossed into the room, he realized that Mal had changed the sleeping arrangements. He'd pushed a large bed up against one of the walls, and suspiciously, he hadn't removed the cargo tie-down rails first. Jayne's weapons were here, bolted to the wall in a good weapons case that stood between two dressers, and there was still room for a small table. It was the biggest room of anyone on board, bigger than the one Zoe and Wash shared, which was the ship captain's quarters. Mal had handed that over when the two decided to share space.

"I moved your stuff.”

"Yep, I see that." Jayne went over and slung Vera off his back, locking her in place on the weapons rack before adding his side arm, a long knife, two grenades and a sniper's sight.

"You are a mighty well-armed man, Jayne Cobb."

"I appreciate you sayin' so." Jayne found the bottom drawer of his dresser empty, just like it had been in his old quarters, and he pulled off his boots and his belt, laying them carefully inside since both had weapons in them. The boots had a nasty cutting edge that came out from the toe, and the belt had a deadly slip wire. That done, Jayne simply shrugged the rest of his clothes off, flinging them at the corner until he was stark naked. He turned around, expecting to see Mal had done the same, but he sat on the edge of the oversized bunk watching.

"Ain't you getting undressed?" Jayne's half-hard cock started softening. Maybe he’d misread something.

"Not right now. I want to focus on you. On the bed on your stomach, hands gripping the rail."

Jayne's cock perked right up at the order, and he headed over to the bed, lying down and then squirming a bit to get his cock in a comfortable spot before he put his hands up over his head. The clinking of chains wasn’t much of a surprised. Mal had shown a real interest in tying Jayne down, and Jayne knew that he was strong enough to break most rope. Chains were the most practical way to avoid broken equipment. As Mal attached the cold irons around Jayne's wrists, Jayne's cock got about as hard as if he had a whore sucking on it. There was something mighty freeing about being tied down and knowing you couldn't make no mistakes because all the choices were out of your hands. Mal climbed up onto the bed, pushing against Jayne's thighs to get him to open his legs. Opening them as far as he could, Jayne closed his eyes and just waited for whatever Mal might do.

"You comfortable?"

"Yep," Jayne agreed.

"I was thinking on not letting you up for a while. After you left, I spent a lot of time worrying about whether it was the right choice--asking you to go with Shepherd Book."

Jayne just grunted. He wasn't in any position to complain about any decisions Mal made. The fact was, Mal’s plans might sound all kinds of stupid, but odd enough, they always worked. Almost always, anyway.

"If I gave you a truly unwell-thought-out plan, would you even object?" Mal's hands stroked up Jayne's back, fingers pressing into the muscles hard enough that it skirted the edge of pain. Jayne kept his body relaxed and his muscles pliant under Mal's touch as he considered his answer.

"If I were chained to your bed, I reckon I wouldn't have a choice but to give you an honest answer, would I?" Jayne gave a good hard tug and the chain links rattled, but nothing moved. The rail was designed to bolt down cargo, so Jayne had no illusions about being able to pull free. This had definitely been one of Mal’s better plans, putting a bed up against cargo tiedowns.

"So, you're more like to be honest chained to the bed?" Mal sounded surprised. "Why? It ain't like I'm going to make you tell me something."

"No, but you're a whole lot more careful around folks that can't take care of themselves," Jayne pointed out. "I mean, you get downright stupid in what you'll do to avoid hurting a woman, and if there's young 'uns involved in some trouble, you'll always go sailing in. As long as I'm chained to the bed, I got to rely on you to take care of me. You ain't never going to do something to hurt me when I'm here, not even if I go saying something really, truly stupid, and we both know that sooner I'll say something stupid."

"Will you?" Mal's hands reached Jayne's shoulders, rubbing them before Mal slowly ran his hands back down Jayne’s sides.

“Yep. At some point I’ll probably go saying something that sounds like I’m challenging you when I’m not. I figure I’ll piss you off eventually, but if’n I’m here, you ain’t going to do nothing to hurt me.” Jayne felt pretty damn confident about that. Mal had his faults—a lack of real careful planning among them—but he’d never taken after someone who couldn’t fight back. And given that Mal had him chained to a wall, Jayne couldn’t fight back, even if he’d wanted to.

“I’m not sure it says much about me that you can’t trust me unless you’re helpless.”

“It ain’t like I haven’t gone and done stupid shit. I turned on my last captain,” Jayne pointed out. After saying that, it occurred to him that he probably shouldn’t go saying that when he was tied to the bed.

“I appreciate you reminding me of that,” Mal said, sounding amused. His hands came up and pressed against Jayne’s shoulders, pinning him to the bed with Mal’s full weight. Jayne wrapped his fist around the short chains, feeling the cold steel links pressing into his palms. “I definitely think I need to keep an eye on you.” Mal started slowly humping Jayne’s body.

“Ain’t disagreeing,” Jayne said, squirming to get his knees under him so he could thrust back.

“I thought you were letting me handle things,” Mal chided.

“I am. I’m chained to the bed, ain’t I?”

“Yep. And you’re still squirming around.” Mal shifted off the bed, and Jayne arched his back so he could see over his own shoulder.

“Mal, what ya up to?”

“Making sure you stay put.”

Jayne opened his mouth to point out that he wasn’t arguing, but then he closed it again. If Mal wanted to do something, it didn’t bother Jayne none. He was guaranteed to get sexed by someone who liked him and wanted to keep him around, and there wasn’t much more a man could ask for. Well, except maybe a big pile of money. He wouldn’t say no to that.

Cold metal touched his ankle, and Jayne started.

“You okay?” Mal asked.

“You just startled me, is all,” he assured Mal. It took a second, but the metal returned, this time locking around Jayne’s ankle. Mal pulled Jayne’s leg to the corner of the bed and then locked it to something. He then did the same with Jayne’s left leg, and Jayne was neatly spread and open and about as helpless as he’d been since he’d given up wearing short pants.

“It seems like you have a real talent with chains,” Jayne pointed out. Either Mal had more than a little experience he hadn’t admitted to Nandi or he was a gorram fast learner.

“Seems like I do.” Mal climbed back up onto the bed, and now Jayne could feel the soft slide of skin against skin. Mal was finally naked, and Jayne’s cock got harder at the thought. He wished he could do something—touch Mal or take Mal’s cock in his mouth. But chained like he was, he couldn’t do anything as Mal placed a line of kisses up Jayne’s spine. It was an oddly womanish gesture, one that Jayne wouldn’t have expected to enjoy, but his skin contracted at each touch of Mal’s lips, gooseflesh rising. Mal grabbed Jayne’s hips, fingers digging in, and the strength of that and the gentleness of the kisses and the heat of Mal’s body pressed against him as Mal worked his way up to Jayne’s neck all merged together until Jayne felt like one overheated nerve. He fought the chains, bucking with the need to come, but nothing gave, and Mal continued to work his way slowly up Jayne’s back.

By the time Mal kissed the nape of Jayne’s neck, Jayne was panting, his muscles standing out as he strained against the chains. His cock was hard enough to hurt now, but Mal didn’t seem to be in no hurry as he ran dull teeth over Jayne’s shoulder.

“Just fuck me, Mal.”

“Oh, I will.”

“Today, Mal.” For a moment, Jayne lost his voice as Mal shoved a finger up his ass. However, Mal seemed to be moving at about half-speed, sliding slowly in and out so that it teased more than it satisfied. “Fuck yes, I ain’t no virgin that needs prepping. Just fuck me.”

Mal sighed and pulled his finger out altogether.

“Mal?” Jayne felt the cold fear of having done something wrong. Maybe he shouldn’t be telling Mal how to do this. His body tensed so bad that he could feel the strain in his back.

“You’re fine, Jayne. I just reckon there’s one more small issue that I need to deal with,” Mal said as he opened and closed drawers.

“I didn’t fuck up?”

“Nope. Seeing as how you’re chained to my bed hand and foot, you aren’t responsible for any of this.”

Jayne tried to settle down, but he could feel muscles twitching, and chained down, he couldn’t shake them out.

“Here it is,” Mal said, sounding pleased with himself, but Jayne didn’t bother trying to see what he was up to. “Now, I figure you say stupid shi about as often as I do, only as captain, I get to just ignore it. But this would keep you from having to worry none.” Mal came close and lay a long and narrow scarf against Jayne’s arm. It was a slick-looking thing made of red and gold, and Jayne would put money on it coming from Inara. It looked like the crap from her shuttle.

“Why would that keep me from worrying?”

“Because I was going to gag you with it.”

“Oh.” Jayne thought on that for a second. It was one way to avoid saying the stupid shit. He waited, but Mal just looked down on him. “Are you planning on being as slow with that as you are when you’re fucking?”

For a moment it seemed like he’d managed to truly annoy Mal, but then Mal seemed happy enough as he wrapped the scarf around Jayne’s head twice before tightening it so the cloth slipped between Jayne’s teeth. “That’s better. I should have tried this years ago.” Once again, Mal sounded downright pleased with himself as he gave the gag one more tug before knotting it. Jayne pressed against the fabric with his tongue, but it didn’t move none. It tasted a bit of that smoky shit Inara burnt in her shuttle, but it was worth it to hear Mal happily humming to himself as he climbed back onto the bed. Mal still moved just as slow, his lone finger slipping back inside Jayne while his other hand caressed Jayne’s balls.

As much as Jayne preferred a hard, fast fuck, he was starting to appreciate the special sort of torture and pleasure that came from going slow. Mal let his fingers tickle across Jayne’s skin while he pressed his one finger deeper inside, and Jayne’s cock got harder with every second. It kept getting harder, and Jayne squirmed and strained, but he couldn’t do nothing except sweat and suffer as Mal slowly did whatever he was doing. Seemed to Jayne that the man had to be searching for one particular hair or something the way he kept going over Jayne’s skin with those sensitive fingers.

Jayne was moaning into his gag, his whole body on fire and his cock hard enough to really hurt before Mal shifted behind him. It was a real testament to how out of his mind with lust Jayne was that he didn’t even realize that Mal was lining up with his hole until Mal pushed his cock inside. Jayne gave a strangled scream and tried to buck up off the bed, only to send chains rattling as he helplessly writhed.

“I do like to see you tied down like this. Feels good having all this power under me,” Mal said, the words interrupted with little grunts as he thrust deeper in. He hadn’t prepped Jayne beyond one finger, so it was a mighty tight fit. Even without a gag, Jayne wouldn’t have had enough brain cells to form words. Mal braced himself on Jayne’s shoulders and then he was all the way in. Jayne wanted to thrust back, to push up onto his knees and to start the wild rush toward the end—toward release. Instead he could only lie there as Mal slowly thrust in and out, each motion punctuated with a moan or a small grunt or a slap of skin against skin where their bodies met.

Mal kept going so long that he had a right to be real proud of his staying abilities, but Jayne was about to die as his own cock felt downright tortured with the slowly building intensity that threated to make the gorram thing fall off. He bit his gag so hard that a thin line of drool slipped out, leaving a cooling line down his cheek. Jayne pulled against the chains so hard that he thought he might pull the bolts right out of the ship, but he couldn’t do nothing except lie there as Mal used him… deliberately and leisurely.

Finally, the grunts came faster as Mal started to pump in and out, and then the pace finally became the fast fucking that Jayne had expected from the first. Mal started coming close, his motions becoming jerky, and then Jayne fell right over that edge, and the pain in his cock sharpened to a bright flare before the pleasure crashed into him and he came with a shout, his whole body twisting and fighting the chains. Mal was thrusting harder into Jayne tight hole, and then Jayne could feel Mal come.

Mal collapsed over his back, the warm of their sweat-slicked body chasing away the cold that Jayne could feel creeping into his limbs. Panting softly, Mal let his hands slide over Jayne’s shoulders and up his arms; however, Mal didn’t make a move to release Jayne, which was fine. Jayne was pretty sure he couldn’t move even if Mal had unchained him. Besides, as long as Mal was calling the shots, Jayne felt a whole lot better about this lasting.

“I’m so tired I could go to sleep right here,” Mal muttered. Jayne felt Mal’s softening cock slip free, but it still pressed against Jayne’s hole. The fact was, Jayne wouldn’t mind that at all. This felt good. Letting his eyes fall closed, Jayne just lay there and soaked up his lover’s heat and the delicious pleasure of being both helpless and safe. Life rarely got this good for a mercenary, and Jayne planned to enjoy every second he got.




"Mal! Mal, you in here?" Wash stuck his head in the door. Wash took one look at Mal and Jayne naked, Jayne chained to the bed and he turned a vivid shade of red. "Oh, hey, um, yeah, I'll just be right out here." Wash disappeared. Mal sighed. He was comfortable, and more than that, he didn't want Jayne getting made fun of. They'd finally reached a point where they could enjoy each other, and he didn't need Wash ruining that. Given the man's tendency to make fun of things that shouldn't oughta be made fun of, it might be wise to keep Wash and Jayne on separate sides of the ship for a while. At least until Jayne got to be comfortable with all this.

"You okay?" Mal asked, studying Jayne. Even if Jayne was well-acquainted with bedding men, he must have one or two qualms about waking up chained to a bed. Mal enjoyed the hell out of having Jayne chained, and he still had a qualm or two.

"Got an itch on my ass," Jayne answered. "I think it's your come making me so almighty itchy."

That wasn't the response Mal had expected. "You ain't bothered by Wash seeing you like this?" Mal wasn't sure why he was poking this particular wasps' nest. If Jayne wasn't feeling put out, Mal would be smart to not put any bad feelings in his head. But then, Mal wasn't the brightest, not when it came to making relationships work. Hell, Inara had to tell him that Jayne was even fancying him. Mal had thought at some point that he'd set his cap for Inara--save her from those clients of hers. But given that she'd run off with a woman who ran a whorehouse, Mal was starting to get the feeling Inara hadn't wanted rescue.

Jayne turned his head and considered Mal. "Are you planning on letting him run his mouth when he decides to go saying gou shi about me?"

"What? No. He won't be making fun of this, not unless he wants to be cleaning out septic systems until his nose hairs curl," Mal said. Actually, he'd thought that Wash already had been pretty offensive, but then he was starting to figure out that offending Jayne was harder than he'd assumed.

Jayne relaxed, settling back down on to the bed. "Then I don't much care. It ain't like I'm lying down for just anyone." With that, he seemed to dismiss all concerns. The fact was that Mal didn't much understand Jayne. Oh, he liked him fine, but he didn't understand him. Maybe he should just do what Inara had told him to so long ago--think of Jayne as a junkyard dog. If he felt like he had a home and food and an owner that loved him, he was fine. Mal frowned. That actually described Jayne uncomfortably well. Hell, for a mercenary, he spent a whole lot of time not getting paid at all, and yet he was still here, chained to Mal's bed.

"Mal, you coming out soon?" Wash yelled from the corridor.

"He's mighty annoying," Jayne muttered. He shifted slightly, the chains rattling against the metal rails designed to hold down cargo. Mal was rather proud of his plan to move them into larger quarters. Zoe had even managed to avoid making any comments as she helped him move the furniture, even if she had looked at the rails with a smirk on her face.

"Yep, he is, but if he's being this peristant, it probably means he's got something important to say."

Jayne snorted.

"Come on, we'd best see what has him riled," Mal said as he rolled off the bed. Jayne gave a huge sigh. But as much as he didn't seem to care what Wash might have to say, he didn't object when Mal unchained him and tossed his shirt at him. Sitting on the edge of the bed, Jayne pulled his shirt on and then proceeded to enthusiastically scratch his ass.

"Throw me some pants."

Mal pulled up his own pants before he grabbed Jayne's off the floor and threw them over. Weirdly, it was like things were just normal, with the two of them getting dressed, only Mal's eyes kept wandering to where the chains hung from the rail. That definitely wasn't any kind of normal. Jayne buttoned his shirt and then reached down inside his pants to spend some more time scratching his ass with a passion few men could approach. Clearly Jayne didn't need to think on this whole relationship thing near as much as Mal did.

"Um, are you two coming out soon?" Wash shouted.

"Gorram annoying little twit," Jayne muttered as he buttoned his pants and headed for the door. Mal pulled his shirt off a hook and started buttoning it up while Jayne opened the door to a very discomforted-looking Wash.

"What?" Jayne demanded.

"Someone woke up on the wrong side of the captain," Wash quipped.

Jayne crossed his arms.

"Okay, clearly your sense of humor hasn't improved any." Wash leaned to the side so he could look around Jayne. "Captain, there's a public wave coming in that you need to see. Maybe I'm being paranoid, but it does seem like the government picked a mighty convenient time to confess to some mighty disturbing things."

"Disturbing?" Mal hurried toward the door and Jayne moved to the side to let him pass. For a second, Mal paused, still not used to Jayne yielding so easily. Mal shook off that surprise and focused on Wash. "What sort of disturbing?"

"Oh, all sorts of disturbing. Our disturbing has a side of more disturbing and a side of 'ew'. They're talking on Reavers, Mal."

"On Reavers? What about them?" It did seem mighty cooincidental that River was all worked up about Reavers and now the government was making announcements about them.

"I can't even begin to make this sound believable, so I'll let you listen to the wave."

Mal frowned, not liking the sound of that. As much unlikely shi they'd all seen over the years, it would have to really take something big for Wash to respond like that. Even Jayne looked worried. Mal hurried up toward the bridge. Kaylee stood in the doorway to the bridge looking pale and a little unsteady on her feet, the doc holding her arm as though afraid she might topple over. Mal spared them one look before going in to find Zoe sitting in the pilot chair looking furious, her jaw locked and her eyes narrowed. The last time Mal'd seen her look that angry, someone died about two seconds later. River was pressed up against the navigation control wall, her eyes closed and her arms wrapped around herself.

"Someone feel like sharing?"

Zoe reached out and hit the control to play the pre-recorded wave. "This came in on a public channel. Everyone seems to be replaying parts. It's like the whole 'verse is listening to this."

"They are," Kaylee whispered.

Mal stepped up behind Zoe and watched the announcer's face coalesce on the screen.

"The government announced today that they launched a rescue mission toward Miranda, a planet colonized before the appearance of the Reavers cut it off from populated space. According to officials, there was some hope that survivors could have taken shelter in government buildings on the planet. However, the rescue mission revealed that scientific personnel on Miranda were using the planet for unsanctioned experimentation." The picture changed, and now bodies lay like fallen dolls, each posed as though interrupted in the middle of the day for a nap. One skeleton was curled up on his side, a humorous bone tucked under a skull right in the middle of the sidewalk. "No one knows what the experiment was intended to prove, but official are now questioning the suspicious timing of the Reavers so closely on the heels of the failed Miranda colonization. Some are speculating that the Reavers may represent some sort of off-shoot or side-effect; however, without knowing what researchers hoped to gain, officials are refusing to speculate. In the Senate today, they debated sending a second mission with scientific personnel to try and reconstruct what might have happened." The camera panned around at a dead planet, and Mal could feel his stomach churn. The wave ended with a little pop of static.

"Is this what you've been trying to tell us?" Mal asked River.

She looked up at him. "Voices calling from the black--want to be remembered. Reality and fiction all twisted until my brain can't hold all the threads."

"I'll take that as a 'yes,'" Mal said wearily. Some days, trying to understand River was like trying to herd bumblebees. With enough time and effort, you could probably do it, but why would anyone want to?

"Has anyone considered what it might mean that Shepherd Book knew something about this?" Wash asked. Up until that point, Mal really hadn't considered that, probably because that wasn't a real comfortable thought to be having.

"You think he something to do with all this?" Kaylee asked in a tiny, horrified voice.

Zoe turned around to face the rest of them. "It does seem like the preacher understood what River was saying, and he knew who to talk to."

"But Book told me that Reavers came from men staring out at the black too long," Jayne objected.

"It does seem like he might have lied about that," Mal pointed out.

Jayne's expression turned thunderous. "I offered to go on a gorram Alliance cruiser for him, and he gorram lied to me?" Jayne did sound mightily aggrieved.

"Wait, the rest of us are talking about the fact that the shepherd might be implicated in the deaths of millions of people and the creation of Reavers, and you're upset that he lied to you?" Wash asked.


"Just checking." Wash turned to Mal. "He hasn't changed much."

"Don't you go trying to turn Mal against me," Jayne warned, poking his finger toward Wash threateningly.

"I wasn't!" Wash defended himself, but he also moved closer to Zoe. That seemed to mollify Jayne some. Mal just sighed.

"What are we going to do?" Kaylee asked in a horrified whisper, her gaze still locked on to where the wave had been.

Mal thought about that. A lot depended on whether the government still wanted River dead. If they came after her or him, he was going to make them pay. And then there was the issue of Shepherd Book. Mal hadn't been kidding when he told Jayne that he didn't let go of things easily. He thought of the shepherd as crew. The man had come for him when Niska had taken him prisoner. That meant something in Mal's way of thinking. However, if he knew about this mess in Miranda, Mal would be willing to bet that it was because he had been involved somehow. The only question was how.

"I suppose we do what we always do," Mal said thoughtfully.

"Flail and hope no one shoots us?" Wash guessed with a grin. There were days Mal truly tired of that man's sense of humor.

"We do our work and try and stay out of trouble," Mal corrected him. They didn't flail. Much. And when they did flail, generally they had good cause.

"Still have lots of trouble, but no trouble that leaves a big hole in Wash's chest," River announced happily. "New threads."

"Moonbeam, if you ain't go something helpful, feel free to just not talk," Jayne suggested. Oddly, River beamed at him before dancing over and going up onto her toes so she could put her arms around his neck. Jayne looked to Mal with panic in his eyes, but it wasn't like Mal was any good at dealing with River.

"Doc, you want to peel your sister off Jayne there?"

"River," Simon said wearily, "leave the big man-ape alone now."

She smiled over without letting go of Jayne. "Shiny new threads. The future like a tapestry weaving itself, and now I don't have the shrieks of Miranda's dead howling in my ear, distracting me from all the pretty."

"Mei, mei," Simon said as he physically pulled her hands away from Jayne.

"You can stop being crazy any time now," Jayne suggested as he tried to help the extrication process by pushing River away.

"Not crazy... just seeing the world different girl. That's me. And now that the reality and fiction of Miranda don't go warping my thoughts with unrealities, I can see the world clearer." With that, she finally let go of Jayne and walked over to the co-pilot seat, dropping down into it and pulling her feet up under her. "Teach me to fly," she ordered.

"Oh no. No, you are not flying my baby," Wash said as he looked around the room for some sort of backup. When Wash's eyes met him, Mal backed out of the room. He was not getting in the middle of crew. They could figure it out for themselves. Mal turned and hightailed it right off the bridge.

"So, what are we going to do, Mal?" Jayne asked.

Mal stopped and turned. Jayne was looking at him, not looking for a weakness in a plan or a chance to take over. No, Jayne was looking at him with the sort of trust that few men ever had the chance to enjoy. Whatever Mal said, Jayne would follow... and so would Zoe and Kaylee. And Wash and Simon would follow because Zoe and Kaylee did. Mind you, Mal wasn't sure Simon had figured out he was whipped yet. For the first time, Mal felt like a captain not because he was the one to buy a ship but because he had crew that would follow him through hell.

"We find a job," Mal said. "We find a job, we hope that the government will back off now that their big secret isn't so secret any more, and we try to not get arrested for failing to pay the gorram taxes."

Jayne nodded. "Sounds good to me," he agreed.

Mal smiled as he strode down toward the galley. He had worked up a powerful appetite, and if he was real lucky, he'd have a chance to do it all again soon and often. Life was mighty good. Walking down Serenity's corridors, Mal could hear Jayne's footsteps echoing his own. "Yeah, yeah, it sounds good to me too. Sounds real good. So, what do you think about making a run to Whitehall?"

"One moon's as good as another."

Mal wasn't sure about that. Whitehall was five days in the black to make orbit. Five days. Mal could figure out one or two things to do with five days of quiet.

"Mal, why you got that smile?" Jayne asked as they reached the galley.

"What smile?"

"The smile that says you have some plan that's likely to turn out badly."

Mal's smile widened. "Oh, you'll like this plan," Mal promised. Five days and a bed with cargo rails... oh he had all sorts of plans. Jayne chuckled and went for the food cupboards. Hell, maybe he and Jayne were finally on the same page.



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