Old War Horses













Chapter One

"Just a little farther," Blair whispered, and Jim tightened his hand around his partner's shoulder, struggling to ignore the sensory flood that threatened to swamp him. That last time was too close, and he was having too much trouble getting the senses back under control after he'd caught the tail-end of that shock wave blast. Cao. If it weren't for Blair, the Alliance would have taken him, but how long could he rely on a psychiatrist to save him from the gorram Alliance? He pushed that despair aside and focused on their immediate needs. Right now, his most important mission was putting one foot in front of the other. They had to keep moving because the government boys were just too damn close on their tails.

"Oh man, it's just adrenaline and reaction. You can control this," Blair muttered.

Jim glared and really wished that Blair could be intimidated. Unfortunately nothing Jim had ever seen, not Alliance scientists or their human experiments or half-dead men crying for help had ever intimidated Blair. They'd made the psychiatrist cry and his heart pound uncontrollably, but nothing ever intimidated him, not even James Joseph Womak in a bad mood.

"How about that one?" Blair asked, nodding toward the oldest piece of gou shi Jim had seen in a long time. The ship was Firefly class, and carrying more replacement parts than original from the look of her. Taking a deep breath, Jim anchored himself with a hand on Blair's shoulder and let his hearing slide out of his body, sending it to crawl across the ground like a snake until he could hear the footfalls of dock workers and the rough Chinese curses of men and the scrape and drag of cargo as it was shifted. The firefly's engines rumbled softly, and Jim could hear the even rhythm. She had a good engineer. Reaching farther, Jim listened to the structure, searching for rattles or groans that could lead to metal blowing out and ships losing atmosphere mid-flight. Nothing.

"She's solid," Jim said tightly. Using his hearing had left his head pounding and he clung to Blair's shoulder.

"Just a little farther. We'll get passage and hole up in a room. You can sleep this off," Blair promised. Blair was good like that, promising something if Jim could make it just a little farther. Get past the perimeter and Blair would be able to remove the pain controller from Jim's neck. Get past the Londinium docks and Alliance guards, and Jim would be free for the first time in years, for the first time since men had shown up requesting that he accompany them back to the core for an experiment. Blair never promised more than he could deliver. After all, he never promised Jim they'd be safe or they'd be able to sit on one planet for more than two days before the gorram Alliance scientists tracked them down

"You folks looking for passage? The Serenity is about the best around. Where you going?" a cheerful voice asked. Jim had let his head hang forward as he stared at the dust of the road, but now he looked up at a girl with a wide smile and thick brown hair. Only that smile was faltering, and she was backing up quick.

"Captain!" she cried out. Jim glanced at Blair who had a panicked expression on his face. Time for an exit. Jim shoved aside the pain and pulled Blair behind him as he turned and hurried down the street. "Captain!" she cried louder. Jim broke into a trot, his hand still clutched around Blair's wrist.

"Hold up right there." A huge man with an enormous gun stepped out from behind a loaded cart, and Jim's hand instinctively fell on the butt of his gun. "Try it and you're dead, dong ma?" he asked.

"Jim?" Blair whispered, his hand resting on Jim's back. Jim carefully let go of his pistol and held his hands out.

"I understand," Jim agreed with the armed thug. "We don't have any problem with you."

"Seems like Kaylee do," the big man insisted. "Let's go back and figure what that is."

Jim watched the man for a second, the way he held the gun, the way his eyes scanned the area without ever losing focus on him and Blair. Soldier or merc, that's for sure. Damn it, either one would turn Jim in faster than a Browncoat could turn tail. Jim started turning and got just far enough that he could make eye contact with his partner. He nodded, and Blair's mouth came open, probably to argue, but Jim didn't give him time.

Throwing himself backwards, he collided with the big guy, grabbing the barrel of the gun and forcing it to the side.

"Run!" he ordered Blair as a fist caught him just under the ribs. The punch made Jim grunt, but he jammed his knee up into an unprotected gut.

"Wang ba dan," the man cursed and then Jim caught a blow upside his head that sent him crashing into a cart before crumpling to the ground with his sense of hearing warbling out of control. Cao. Jim blinked, his hearing totally gone, but at least now he could function. The big guy had Blair by the back of his hair. Jim had told the kid to cut that tzao gao off before someone used it against him, but obviously he hadn't made his point clear enough because the big merc was dragging Blair by it.

Jim reached for his gun, but the merc swung his own gun around so fast that Jim was staring straight down the barrel before he could even get his clear of the holster. And the big bastard still held Blair, even when Blair kicked him in the shin. Jim could see the man's face twist into something ugly and he jerked on Blair's hair hard enough that the small man was almost pulled off his feet.

"Blair, enough," Jim said. Normally Jim could hear the slightest whisper, so the absolute silence made him cringe. Blair was saying something, and Jim squinted as he tried to read his lips, but he couldn't make it out. Another man appeared, a spacer, and he stepped next to the big guy, resting his hand on the big one's arm and saying something that made Blair roll his eyes. Jim still couldn't hear any of it. The barrel of the gun poking at him caught his attention.

The big one said something and from the unhappy expression, he'd said it more than once. Jim cursed his senses to guay as he struggled to figure it out. If he didn't, they were going to shoot him and he didn't even want to think what would happen to Blair. The 'verse wasn't nice to pretty, sly boys this far out on the rim. He'd get sold to some whorehouse, and Jim would have one more life on his conscience. The big guy jerked his gun, and Jim followed his line of sight. Of course. Holding his hands out in surrender, Jim carefully moved toward his belt, undoing it before pulling the leg-tie free and letting his entire gun belt side to the ground.

"Just let Blair go," Jim said. He wasn't in any position to negotiate with a gun in his face and hearing that was currently missing in action, but he had to try something. The big guy looked to the second fellow, and Jim slowly stood up, focusing on the second one. This new guy asked a question, and Jim frowned. Whatever else this one was, he wasn't a merc. Since Jim had been reduced to playing a guessing game, he would say this was either the captain or the second in command of the ship.

Captain jerked his thumb, and Jim started slowly toward the ship, keeping his hands out away from his body. He had a half-dozen weapons in different places, none as easy to get to as the one on his hip had been, but they were there. And the merc behind him would know that, even if the captain didn't. Captain seemed like he might be a little too clean-cut to take a man's head off with a slipwire, but Jim wasn't, and he was betting the merc wasn't either. He just didn't want to give the merc a reason to hurt Blair before he could do some negotiating.

The girl-next door sort with her wide hazel eyes watched as Jim walked up the ramp. Passing her, he could smell engine grease and lube, so this was their mechanic or assistant maybe. A captain didn't usually have the mechanic acting as barker in dock. Mechanic was usually off trying to scrounge ship parts for cheap.

Jim stopped in the middle of the hold and turned around, waiting to see what the two men behind him would do. The captain looked up toward the walk, and Jim looked up to see a dark woman with thick curled hair and a dangerous look come down the stairs. Jim glanced from her to the second man trying to figure out which was the captain and which was the second. The woman stopped in front of the man and they talked as she kept glancing back toward Jim.

When the man stepped forward, Jim pegged him as the captain. He was talking again, and Jim frowned. Suddenly Blair put his elbow into the merc's stomach and jerked away. Blair should have made for the hills, but instead he made for Jim's side, and the mercenary had the gun up and pointed at Blair's back. Stepping forward, Jim put himself in the path, his hands held up in surrender as the mercenary looked to the captain.

Meanwhile, Blair slipped in next to Jim, his arm going around Jim's waist the way he would when Jim's senses had been so thrown out of wack that he couldn't see when he was stumbling on feet that couldn't feel anything. If the kid had any sense, he'd cut Jim loose and find some nice quiet moon where the gorram Alliance wouldn't find him, but the man had no sense of self-preservation. Jim sighed as he slipped an arm around Blair's shoulders and stared at the captain.

Blair tugged on his shirt, and Jim looked down. Blair said something and tugged at his ear.

"Can't hear a gorram thing," Jim admitted. Blair talked on, his mouth silently working, and Jim watched him, catching quick glances at the confused crew as Blair gave him a hopeful look. Finally, Blair reached up and rested his palm on Jim's cheek.

"...on line. You know the drill, man. This is all mind over matter. The brain is just trying to protect you, but you have to take control of it." Blair's words boomed in his head for a second before they slowly settled back down to normal, or normal for Jim anyway.

"Hearing's back," Jim said tersely. This show had just given these people way too much information, but Jim didn't suppose that made much difference now. You took a prisoner, and the first thing you did was check the waves to see if anyone was looking for that prisoner. They went looking for someone with senses as screwed up as a Browncoat's sense of strategy, and they'd find the alert with his name on it... and the reward.

The Alliance had done this to him—they had activated some long dormant genes that turned him into something abnormal. They'd given him senses that could hear a cockroach walking across the floor, but it had also stripped him of the control he'd always had. He'd been an officer. He'd led battalions at the Battles for Du-Khang and New Kashmir. He'd been willing to give his life for the Alliance and the belief that everyone deserved the protection of the law. However, the Alliance hadn't taken his life. They'd found some genetic quirk in his genes and they had taken his freedom and his sanity instead.

"Right then, if you're done being crazy, let's have the rest of the weapons," the captain insisted, his gun still firmly pointed in their direction. The merc stood to the side with a clear shot, and the dark woman had a mighty fine pistol of her own on her hip, her hand resting on it. If it was just him, Jim would take his chances. Dead was better than being back in some Alliance lab, but he had Blair to think of. Blair had sacrificed his career and his life to get Jim out of that hell, and he wasn't putting the man back in there with him.

Jim started reaching for his jacket. "Not you," the captain interrupted. "Have the boy pull 'em out."

Jim glanced down at Blair who had a sour expression at being called a boy. He was older than he looked, and was a doctor to boot, but like Jim kept telling him, having that innocent camouflage was useful. These people were already seeing Jim as the threat and Blair as his boy, which meant Blair still had a chance of getting out of this.

"Jim?" Blair asked quietly. Jim raised his arms level with his shoulders.

"Go on," he told his partner. Blair looked at him for a second with a frown. "Take all of them, Chief," Jim said softly. There were only one or two weapons Blair didn't know about, so that would pretty much strip him, but right now they needed strategy, not brute strength. Jim might take that big merc on a good day, but today wasn't a good day.

He waited as Blair pulled weapon after weapon out of their secret places and handed them over. By the time Blair finished, Jim was left with only a long needle down the back of his boot and a slipwire in his belt.

"What brings you to these parts, Womak?" the captain asked. Jim frowned at the man. Clearly the captain knew him, but Jim couldn't remember ever meeting anyone who looked like him. The man wasn't starched enough for an Alliance officer--too much of the frontier about him--both his way of talking and his dusty, rumpled clothes. But the man looked too much like a straight shooter for him to be anyone Jim had been assigned to investigate before the war. He'd generally been sent after men and women who thought the border moons offered protection from law and justice, and this man didn't have the desperate look of a morally lost man. Now the merc... Jim could imagine himself tracking that one down.

"Do I know you?"

The merc snorted. "Meybe I hit him upside the head to hard. Scrambled some brains. If I hit him again, maybe I'll knock the piece back in."

"Hey," Blair jumped in, both hands held up, "let's not start with--"

Jim cut his partner off by the simple act of grabbing him by the back of the neck and yanking him back. These people needed to see Blair as worthless, as some sly trick Jim had picked up along the way to scratch an itch. Otherwise, Blair was going down with him.

"I don't know who you are," Jim said tightly. If they had his name, they'd find that wave and that reward twice as fast though. "But I'm willing to deal."

"Ain't like you have much to deal with this time, Womak."

"This time?" Jim asked with a sinking feeling. If you had someone with an old run down ship talking about dealing with a Womak, chances were it wasn't Jim they'd run across. So many times Jim wondered what stroke of luck had put him into the Institute's hands instead of his brother, and on his darker days, he suspected that Charles just might have had his hand in it. It would be like him to save his own skin and set Jim up for a fall at the same time. In his more charitable moments, he just figured the Alliance thought they had better control over him.

"You've run into Charlie," Jim said to the captain. He still didn't know what sort of relationship the ship had with Charlie... they could be paying him off or running from him. WIth Charlie, you never knew.

"Who's Charlie?" the merc asked. Funny, most of the time captains kept their mercs on short leashes, having them shoot but not talk. This one was downright talkative.

"Lieutenant Charles Richard Womak, dirty cop," Jim answered when the captain didn't seem to take offense at the merc jumping into the conversation. "I'm not him. And here's the deal," he hurried to say before he could get dragged into that conversation. He didn't want to know how these people knew Charlie. "The reward on me is alive only, so you let Blair walk out and away, and I won't fight you and force you to kill me."

The captain exchanged looks with his second.

"Re-ward?" the merc quickly pounced on that word. "Mal, if'n there's a reward, you're going to remember that I'm the one who brought him in, right?"

"I don't figure you ought to be talking to me about rewards, Jayne," the captain said with a sour expression, and all the avaricious delight in the merc's face just faded into something cold. "And how you figure we're going to collect?"

"Sir," the second in command said, and Mal immediately turned his attention to her. "If they're on a wanted list, maybe we should just dump them off and burn out of here."

"But they need passage," the mechanic now offered. "Maybe we could give 'em passage somewheres further out."

"Ain't like there's a whole lot further out than here," Mal said with a thoughtful expression. That ended when a girl's voice came over the intercom.

"Emergency lift procedures, secure all cargo because we're flying in eight minutes," it offered and the ship's engines started burning hotter.

"Zoe, find out what the guay that girl's doing," Mal demanded and his second went running. "Kaylee, get to the engine room." The girl nodded and hurried off as Jayne glanced back toward the crates sitting in the middle of the hold and Jim. "Get the crates," Mal ordered as he held his own gun a little higher. Jayne backed away several steps before putting his gun on a bench. Jim watched it. In a hard liftoff, things could go flying all sorts of directions, so he just had to keep an eye open.

The voice returned over the intercom. "Two by two, hands of blue," it announced.

Jim's eyes went wide, and he glanced down at Blair who was looking equally shocked. "Oh man," he mouthed. Jim anchored himself with a hand on Blair's shoulder and then reached out with hearing. He ignored Jayne's grunts as he manhandled crates to the side and lashed them with rope, he ignored Zoe up trying to reason with some girl who was just calmly giving the burn countdown, he ignored the soft, cultured curses of some man who was quickly closing drawers. He let his hearing slide outside the ship and search the docks. Two aisles over, he found it--the distinctive whine of those disrupters that could bring Jim to his knees so easily.

"Two aisles over, about half a mile out," Jim said quietly. "Got two government men heading this way, but they're moving slow and methodical, so they don't have our location yet." Mal looked at him real sharp.

"Well cao. That do explain who's looking for you. Jayne, you got that cargo?"

"Would iff'n I had help," he answered. Mal jerked his gun toward Jim. "We know that lot, and I ain't so much in need of money that I'd turn a cow over to them and their gorram experiments. You help Jayne get that cargo secured so we don't all end up crushed against the inside of the cargo hold during lift, and we'll figure the rest out from there."

Jim studied the man for a second, listening to the heartbeat before he decided Mal was telling the truth. "Stay here, Chief," Jim said as he moved to help the merc."

"I could--"

"Stay," Jim growled. He wasn't having the man do manual labor. That wasn't what he'd gone through eleven years of schooling to do.

"Gorram stubborn hwun dan" Blair muttered, but at least he stayed as Jim went and push his shoulder to a crate, helping push it to the side of the wall where Jayne secured it.

Off to the side, Mal was talking into an intercom, probably thinking he had privacy, but with Jim around, privacy was in short supply. Even the Project failed to understand just how little privacy they had with Jim around. He was talking to Zoe, and Jim could hear the woman's voice through the intercom and up in the pilot's seat.

"Got another reader, Zoe. I swear, it's downright creepifying the way they always end up on my boat."

"Must be karma, sir," Zoe answered. Jim just mused over what it meant that Mal thought he was a reader and how exactly they had a second one on board. If they had another sentinel on the run from the Project, Jim wanted information, and right now, playing along was the only way to get that information.

"Mind your knee," the merc offered, but he offered it at the same time he jammed a crate into Jim's knee. The pain lanced up through Jim's leg so that for a second he couldn't tell if he'd broken the kneecap or not.

Before Jim could curse the moron out, Blair was there, his hands on Jim's waist. "Dial it down, Jim. You're all off-balance, but you can control this." Jim leaned into his partner, letting Blair support him as he manhandled his pain, forcing his body to ignore the extra sensory input until he could, once again, feel his whole and unbroken leg and the throbbing lump where the merc had shoved the crate into it.

"Cao. We're all 'bout to get real dead if'n you don't get moving," the merc suggested.

"You are a real asshole," Blair answered, and before Jim could reel him back in, Blair put his hands on a crate in the middle of the bay and shoved it at the merc as hard as he could. It hit the merc on the hip, shoving him to the side.

"You piece of niou se" the merc cursed, and he started coming around the side of the crate, his hands balled up into fists.

Reaching out, Jim caught Blair's arm and pulled him back behind him before squared up against the merc, waiting for the man's first move. How a man swung on his first punch told a lot about who he was, and unless Jim missed his guess, Jayne was big and stupid and likely to come swinging fast and hard. In these close quarters that was going to make him a hard opponent to take down.

"Jayne!" the captain yelled out sharp.

Immediately, Jayne stopped, although his hands didn't come down from their aggressive position. "Mal, that little ji nv shoved the gorram crate into me."

"Get the cargo secured," the captain insisted. The girl's voice over the intercom announced ninety seconds, and with a growl of complaint that would have gotten him put on deck duty on an Alliance ship, Jayne shoved the crate closer to the wall.

"Ain't got time to finish. Should tell Moonbrain to hold on before she crushes us all to death." Jayne muttered the words so that only Jim could hear them, but Jim wasn't disagreeing. If the pilot had any sense, she wouldn't take off until all cargo was secure. He started eyeing secure corners where he could stash Blair if the crates turned into deadly projectiles.

Jim shoved a crate closer to the stairs, and Blair stepped up next to him, adding his own muscle.

"Blair," Jim said wearily.

"Don't say it." Blair's voice was a clear warning. It was pretty obvious that he had run out of patience. "You can be overbearing and overprotective after we get the gorram cargo secure." As much as Jim didn't like to see Blair acting like manual labor, he had to admit that he was being logical. As much as Jim would like to keep Blair, he couldn't. He couldn't protect Blair from the Alliance and he couldn't protect him from doing labor that was beneath his status.

Life was funny. At one point Jim would have called this labor beneath him. He'd been a captain of his own ship, and on the fast track for promotion up the ranks.

His mother's people had been the powerful Womaks, a name that inspired fear in the service. His grandfather had been an admiral and Jim had been chosen to captain the lead ship in the greatest battle between the Alliance and the Browncoat mutts that had challenged them. And Charlie... well, he had used the name to keep himself out of jail more than once.

His father was an Ellison, one of the families that controlled the financing and business in the Core. At one point, Jim would have said his father had the political power to do what even his grandfather couldn't get done with a gun. Of course, that had been before the Alliance had taken him. Either his father couldn't get him out or his father had decided that it wasn't worth the risk to his own financial position to challenge the Institute. God knows their fingers reached deep into a lot of different pockets of power.

But now, now Jim thought of himself more as a damaged test subject. He was an experiment gone wrong, and after being stripped and ordered around, strapped to tables and made to scream in pain--after all that, Jim didn't think of himself as a Womak or an Ellison. Some days he didn't even remember what it felt like to stand in his purple uniform, proud and sure of his place in the uniform as he commanded from the deck of his own ship. Some days he could only remember the Institute and the way he would pray for those days when Blair would come in with his glasses and pretend to record Jim's responses while he whispered reassurances and stroked a single finger over the back of Jim's hand. Those moments had been his one island of sanity, and now he repaid Blair by putting him in danger over and over.

Jim secured the last crate and scanned the room. Unfortunately, the merc with the girl name had already reclaimed the weapon he'd put down earlier, and he had it pointed at them.

"Just because the captain ain't throwin' you out an airlock, don't go thinking I won't gut shoot you and leave you to bleed to death," the merc offered with a grin that made it pretty clear he meant every word of what he said.

Blair sucked in a breath. God help them, Blair always expected the best of people, and he never stopped being surprised when people turned out to be back-stabbing, power-hungry, soul-sucking mercenaries all out for themselves. Jim took a step forward to put himself in the line of fire.

"We're just looking to avoid trouble."

Blair started to say something, and Jim reached over and caught Blair by the back of the neck just as the ship started thrusting against the cold moon. The whole ship shivered, and Jim involuntarily stretched out his hearing, listening as the metal groaned and the engines sang in a particular tone that meant suggested the parts were all well-oiled and well-tuned. For a second, Jim's consciousness seemed too large to fit into his body, as if he was the ship itself and every noise reverberated inside his head.

"Jim!" Blair called, tugging on Jim's arm. Jim blinked, and the hallucination slipped away, leaving him clinging to a staircase with a mercenary's gun pointed at his gut.

"Up the stairs and to the right," Jayne ordered. Jim didn't bother to argue; he'd learned the pointlessness of arguing against orders. Instead he moved his arm to allow Blair to go ahead of him up the stairs.

Chapter 2

"This is another fine mess we've gotten ourselves into," Blair said as he threw himself down on the narrow bunk. From the tone, he was quoting another of his precious tomes from Earth-that-was. The man had a love for history that equaled his love people--only history rarely let him down.

"We do get into them," Jim agreed. He walked to the bunk and pushed Blair's legs to the side so he could have some space. "And someone is going to end up on the floor." The bunks were clearly not designed for two people.

"No way. That floor is cold, and I hate the cold, and you have a very bad habit of just turning down your pain dial. So not safe."

Jim remembered the way his skin had turned black when the Institute had tried their cold experiments. "Not like I had a lot of choice," Jim pointed out.

"Screaming in pain would have been a choice," Blair said dryly.

Jim sighed. He didn't want to have this argument again. Yes, he could have screamed in pain, but unlike Blair, he didn't believe that would have made the researchers cut the experiments short. But he hated to tell Blair everything that had happened in those closed rooms—he didn't want Blair to know the way the same researchers who went out for drinks with him had treated Jim like an animal to be broken. So, if Blair wanted to believe that deep down, every human had some bit of the salt of the earth in them, Jim was going to just keep quiet and allow the man to believe what he wanted. He'd already ruined enough of the man's illusions.

For several minutes, they just sat in the small room where Jayne had locked them. Blair shifted one of his feet so that it was in Jim's lap, and Jim ran his hand up and down Blair's leg. Blair had already kicked off his boots, and Jim traced the edge of his toe. It was the only comfort he could offer in the small space. At least it was clean. The last ship they'd taken passage on had smelled so bad that Jim had spent most of the week either with his sense of smell spiking on the stink of human excrement from inadequate recyclers or he'd just zoned out of self-preservation. This ship was surprisingly clean for a non-Alliance vessel.

After a long silence, Blair asked, "Senses okay?"

"Hearing's still a little unpredictable," Jim confessed.

Blair didn't answer. But then, all his testing equipment was in his pack so he didn't have anything to test Jim's control or to try and help him readjust to normal. Jim just hoped that the captain didn't throw all their possessions out the airlock.

"Oh man." Blair sighed the words and he stared up at the ceiling. Jim stopped stroking Blair's leg and looked over.


"I just..." Blair waved his hands. "Naomi always said to reach out to people... to make a human connection with another soul... but I can't do anything locked in a little room."

"I just hope they dump us at the next stop."

"So, they aren't going to turn us in?" Blair pushed himself up onto his elbows and looked at Jim with hope and fear shining from his expression.

Jim tilted his head and listened to the conversations that he could hear echoing through the ship. The girl, Kaylee, was talking to someone about how cute Blair was. From the sounds, the man she was talking to was about as unamused by that as Jim. Luckily Kaylee was now busy explaining how Blair was also sly, so it meant that she could comment on his cuteness and it didn't mean anything. Clearly those two were sexually involved, and Jim had to wonder if the captain allowed that or if his crew were hiding their relationships. He concentrated, allowing his hearing to slide along the hull where the engine noise purred through the metal until he found new voices.

The pilot wasn't talking, but the captain seemed to be doing a whole lot of talking to her. When Jim had been a captain and someone had displeased him, Jim had talked a lot less and given a whole lot more punishment. From the sounds of it, Mal wasn't handing out any discipline at all. He was pretty much just talking on how much the pilot had displeased him, only he was using pretty colorful language. Actually, he wasn't even accusing the girl of displeasing him; he was just talking about how displeased he was in general while the girl made little affirmative noises that seemed designed to placate the captain more than anything else.

Jim allowed his hearing to slide away again, and for a second, it was like he lost control and he was the ship, hearing out into the black where the pops and faint whistles of space were like a music that was so faint, the notes spaced so far apart, that Jim could feel an almost instinctive need to stretch into it, to reach out into that almost silence. Individual notes struck the hull and left tiny ripples of sound in their wake as they flew through the black and the dust slid over the skin of the ship. The sound grew, like a distant storm heard through the stone walls of his grandfather's hunting house, but then a warm hand rested against his arm. Blair's familiar heartbeat with its low drumming and the rolling thrum of blood through his veins swallowed Jim whole until he lived inside that sound, oblivious to everything else. Blair's heart caught, a single beat slightly out of tempo, and Jim shook himself free of the trap.

"Sorry," he said giving Blair a sheepish look.

"No problem. Hey, it's normal for you. You're just doing your totally amazing thing."

Jim just snorted. Blair could call him amazing, but as far as Jim was concerned, the Alliance doctors had turned him into a freak, and the fact that it was some rare genetic inheritance that made it possible for them to torture him—that just made it worse. It was like he had some culpability in his own torture.

Pushing that thought aside, Jim carefully let his hearing slide out into the ship again, following the heavy struts that carried sound like a tuning fork. However, Jim couldn't hear the woman who was the captain's second or Jayne. He did hear the distinctive sound of gun parts clicking into place, and he tensed in fear, but then another click and a long slide of metal against metal made it pretty clear that someone was cleaning their weapons. That didn't necessarily mean anything, especially out here on the border where a misfiring gun could get you killed.

Pulling his concentration back to his partner, Jim shook his head. "This is the most undisciplined ship I've ever seen, but so far, they don't sound interested in getting rid of us or even talking about us."

Blair sighed. "I really hope that's good."

Jim went back to rubbing Blair's leg. He really didn't have any other way to comfort Blair. As much as he was relieved at the evidence that Blair wasn't the starry-eyed, naive son of a companion he once had been, he hated that Blair was losing some of that love of life. Even worse, Jim and the Alliance he'd once fought for had been the one to strip away Blair's illusions. Cao, Jim had enough illusions of his own stripped away to know how much that hurt.

Blair's hand rested on Jim's shoulder, and Jim stopped rubbing Blair's leg and looked at him. "Hey, we got away again. That's makes twelve."

Twelve close calls. That was about twelve too many. Maybe Blair recognized the look on his face because he aimed a soft punch at Jim's arm.

"Oh no. There will be no brooding. Pissing off the Institute bloodhounds is good. Oh man, they are back there walking those aisles over and over wondering if we're hiding in some damn olive oil barrel again, and here we are, together, in once piece. This is a win. A total win. So do not go looking for reasons to pull out all that tactical errors gou shi."

"Such language," Jim teased. Blair rolled his eyes.

"I know way better words than that. I was raised on the frontier, unlike some people who had to learn their dirty words off some porn wave."

"And my grandfather's diary," Jim offered. "He had creative uses for elephant dung in his expletives."

Blair laughed, and Jim watched as the energy that Blair seemed to always carry inside just unfurled like a sail in the wind. When Blair felt joy, it was like he spread it into the very air around him. "Oh man, I've heard you when you're pissed. That would explain a lot."

"Hey, I don't curse that much," Jim protested. The Alliance trained bad language out of officers with a whole lot of deck duty.

Blair answered with a snort and poked his finger toward Jim stomach in a mock attack. Jim easily caught Blair's wrist.

"Maybe I picked up a few bad habits doing undercover work before the war." Jim smiled. Blair counterattacked with his other hand, and Jim had to twist around to keep from getting attacked with a tickle finger. Blair's laugh filled the room, and he fell back onto the bunk, only because Jim was holding him, that pulled Jim down on top of him. Blair gave an umph as Jim's weight landed on him, but when Jim went to shift off, Blair reached up and caught Jim by the waist and gave a salacious grin.

"Should we?" he asked with a devilish smile.

Part of Jim answered yes immediately, and from the way Blair's smile turned even more salacious, he could feel Jim's cock already starting to press down toward that familiar heat. It took the rest of Jim a few seconds to make a decision about whether he really wanted to have sex locked in a closet-sized room on a bunk narrow enough that they risked back injury. At one point he might have worried about tactical advantages and privacy and psychological vulnerabilities, but those training classes and their Alliance teachers were his past, and in the present, he'd learned to take pleasure and love where he could.

"You are insatiable," Jim accused Blair as he pushed himself up.

"Well, yeah," Blair immediately agreed in a tone that made it pretty clear he thought Jim was silly for even having to say it. "Seriously. I have a lover with the hottest body in the 'verse, and you think I’m not going to take advantage of that? Naomi did not raise a fool."

"Naomi raised an incredibly brilliant, caring, and unashamedly messy man," Jim agreed, a smile tugging on the edges of his lips.

"Dick," Blair called him as he sat up. Jim reached down to pull his shirt off, but Blair reached out for him, settling his own hands on top of Jim's for a moment to stop him. Kneeling up on the bunk, Blair leaned in and kissed Jim. Forgetting the shirt, Jim caught Blair by the back of the neck and pulled him closer, those curls tickling over the back of his fingers and his hand.

Blair continued to kiss him, but his hand slipped down to run under Jim's shirt. The hot trail of fingers over his skin made Jim gasp, breaking the kiss. Taking advantage of Jim's distraction, Blair wiggled away and leaned down to breathe over Jim's skin just over the belly button. Jim could feel his skin contract, the hairs raise and then yield to Blair's breath. Before Jim could gather his thoughts and pull himself out of the sensory feast, Blair had pushed Jim's shirt up so that it gathered under his arms and then Blair ran a tongue across Jim's taut nipple.

Jim's skin cooled so fast that gooseflesh rose on his arms, and then Blair breathed across the skin, warming it with his breath.

"Cao," Jim swore, and Blair chuckled, each sound blowing a little puff of air across Jim's body. Arching his back, Jim grabbed for Blair's shoulders, allowing his partner to pull his shirt off. "I didn't used to be this much of a..." Jim stopped as Blair ran fingers down over his stomach, the heat of them sinking into Jim until he existed only for the sensation of feel. He couldn't hear anything and his vision went dim, but every nerve ending was alive, waiting for touch. Blair pulled on Jim's arm, and he moved when Blair moved him, his skin dancing with heat and the tingling anticipation of release as his cock thickened with need.

A palm pressed into his chest, each finger—each wrinkle on each finger—pressing into his flesh. Jim reached up, capturing Blair's hand. Running his hand up Blair's arm, he explored the curve of muscle and the way Blair's arm had slight tremors that betrayed his own desire. Breathing deep, he tasted the air. Blair's lust was heavy and warm.

"Dial back. Come on, don't lose yourself. Dial back." The words finally trickled in, and Jim reluctantly turned his attention to controlling his sense of touch. Blair had taught him that—to take the senses and limit them so they didn't overpower him. Blair's hand faded so that it was an island of warmth and weight, but the individual press of each cell faded into one general impression.

"I'm fine," Jim said with just a little crankiness. He had been enjoying himself.

Blair rolled his eyes. "I plan to make you a whole lot better than fine, and I really don't want to send you into a zone."

"I'm not going to zone." And since Jim had no better argument, he reached up and captured Blair's face between his hands and pulled him down for a long kiss. Now that Jim's senses were more balanced, he could hear Blair's heart pound out and smell the salt and musk of his body. It was good to know that Jim, for all his flaws and issues, could still inspire that level of lust in someone. He didn't let Blair go until Blair was gasping for air through his nose, his fingers digging into Jim's bare shoulders as he groaned in abject need. Only then did Jim let him go.

"Oh man, I'm going to come in my pants," Blair whispered. He lowered his forehead until it just touched Jim's own, and then he just held himself still, panting as he struggled to get himself under control. Jim tried hard to not smirk. Oh yeah. He might be an old war horse who'd seen one too many wars, but he could still keep up with the younger stallions.

Reaching up, Jim slipped his hand under Blair's shirt and slowly pulled it up and off. Blair's sides were heaving like they had just run a mile, and his eyes were dilated until the blue was a thin wire around a dark center. Then Blair's fingers were working at Jim's pants, pulling the buttons loose. As the fly opened, Jim groaned in pleasure. His cock was definitely feeling neglected.

"Wow. Okay, I am not the only one ready to go off," Blair said with a chuckle.

"Do we have any slick?" Jim asked. They could certainly do frottage, but that wasn't his first choice. Blair knelt on the bunk between Jim's legs and pulled out a small packet.

"No way would I run out of this stuff. Okay, I would because this is my last bit, so after this I'm out, but getting more is a definitely priority."

Obviously, Jim hadn't kissed Blair enough if he could still form complete sentences. However, before Jim could pull him close again, Blair had gotten back to work. Backing up, he pulled Jim's shoes off and then Jim's pants followed. Now he was definitely in a hurry. Jim lay back and let his dial for touch slowly inch up until he could trace the residual heat left every place where Blair had touched him: his thigh, his stomach, his nipple, his arm... they all tingled with warmth.

Finally, Jim's pants were gone, and Jim allowed his legs to fall open. Blair's breath hitched and his heart's rhythm tripped along faster than ever. Jim smiled smugly at the evidence of Blair's arousal. Blair, however, didn't even pause to give Jim shit about being smug. He reached out and ran a finger up the underside of Jim's heavy cock. Hissing with a need to come, Jim threw his hands wide and sent his fingers scrambling over the cold metal wall as he tried to find something to grab before he came all over himself. His whole body was hot, and his cock was the hottest part as it lay against his lower stomach. And now his balls felt heavy. Cao, it had been too long.

"Blair," Jim cried out, and even Blair had to hear the desperation in his tone. Clearly he did because Jim's heat was balanced by a cool finger at his entrance. Jim canted his hips and Blair's slick finger slipped inside without resistance. Jim's awareness narrowed down until he could only feel Blair's hands. One rested on his stomach, and the heat of that was so great that Jim squirmed in need. Blair's other hand was slowly working in and out, and the cool slick quickly warmed. A second and third finger opened Jim. His muscles stretched until he could feel the burn as cells strained.

Jim's cock was almost on fire now. Then a cool dampness stole the heat from him, and Jim gave a hoarse cry. The surprise nearly shocked the orgasm out of him. Opening his eyes, he looked down to find Blair just finishing a long, leisurely lick up the underside of Jim's cock. He looked up with a Cheshire grin on his face. Angling himself between Jim's legs, Blair took his own cock in hand. Jim bent his legs and pushed himself up into a better position before letting his eyes fall closed.

Blair's first press against the muscle stretched Jim just to the point of discomfort. He dialed up on feeling, though, eager for the feeling of Blair all the way inside. Moving slowly, Blair eased inside, his heat nearly too much for Jim. Their bodies merged, and now he could feel Blair's heartbeat within his own body, a strange syncopated rhythm against his own heartbeat. Blair's sweat and his own made their bodies slide together as Jim brought his knees in just enough to trap Blair between them.

When Blair finally pressed up close to Jim's body, Jim's cock throbbed with need. The pressure from inside set him on the knife point of orgasm, but he needed just one touch to finally come. And Blair denied him that touch. Instead Blair slowly slid out, his cock sliding out of Jim's body. Arching his back, Jim gasped and struggled to fight against his own need to just take his cock in hand and finish. He wanted to. And Blair wouldn't stop him, but if he did it, then his senses would reel out of control and he'd be left in a glut of sensations, unable to feel any more. So instead, he pressed his hands to the wall and focused on the cold, unyielding steel under his palms and the hot cock now pressing back into his body.

Blair started moving faster now. The room was a cloud of pheromones that Jim breathed in with every pained gasp. Their flesh slapped together as Blair thrust hard and fast, and now the heat of their bodies mingled until Jim could feel the warmth like the sun beating down. Jim's ass ached with the stretch and his cock was twitching as every thrust pressed up into the prostate. Blair was breathing in little harsh gasps, and then he cried out. The first of his orgasm spilled into Jim, and he could feel the warmth sink deep into him. Blair's cock thickened and then Blair tightened a fist around Jim's cock, and the world exploded.

Jim's orgasm tore through him. He could feel his skin tingle as every cell registered a sensation at once. He was hot and every individual bead of sweat demanded his attention as it slowly trickled down his body. His arm hairs stood at attention, bending one way and then the other as the movement of their bodies created a small weather pattern of gusts and flurries. His legs were burned by Blair's hot palms pressing into them, and his come splattering against his stomach registered with thousands of cells so that Jim could identify each drop, the way each slid between the hairs on his stomach, the shape of each oval as it landed.

Like a fish, Jim opened his mouth and struggled to find air where there was none. His whole body writhed as information crashed over him. Pleasure, love, heat, touch. Blair was a part of him, his body still pressed up so close that Jim could feel his heartbeat through their skin, and the salt-sweat and lust poured from Blair.

Blindly reaching out, Jim caught some part of Blair and pulled him close. The scent of love and lust distracted him from touch enough that Jim realized he had Blair's arm. Tucking his face in close to Blair's shoulder, Jim tasted and scents gathered there, sucking the lust-warm skin and enjoying the saltiness of the moisture that gathered. Running his hand over Blair's chest, Jim felt the heart that had been tripping so wildly out of control start to slow.

Then hearing returned, and the thrump of Blair's heart became an audible presence that matched the feel under Jim's palm. For long minutes, Jim lay still, Blair's warmth slowly fading to a normal temperature. Either Blair's fever-levels of body heat were fading or Jim's senses were. Then, finally, sight returned. Jim blinked as Blair's face came into view. A few sweaty curls were plastered to his forehead, but his expression was still one of bliss.

"Hey," Blair said softly.

"Hey," Jim answered. He stretched and felt his muscles respond lethargically.

"You back?" Blair reached up and ran a thumb over Jim's lip. When he pulled it back, there was a streak of red. Putting his tongue out, Jim realized he had bit his lip. "What's it like for you?" Blair asked curiously.

Jim reached up and wiped away any last blood before he pulled Blair closer for a kiss. "I can't explain it. I just know..." Jim shrugged. "I like it."

"I assumed," Blair said with a laugh. "Any chance you'd share the blanket?"

Jim frowned and then realized that the bunk didn't have a pillow. He'd been lying on the blanket which was folded up, and Blair was pressed with his back against the cold wall.

"Cao. Next time, say something." Jim reached under his head and pulled it out. It was awkward spreading it out with Blair still laying mostly on him, but neither of them seemed inclined to move. Eventually Jim and Blair worked together to get the blanket tucked between Blair and the wall with the rest almost reaching all the way around Jim. He didn't mind the cold though, not like Blair did. Naomi had raised him on one of the hottest parts of Whitefall, a planet that was plenty hot everywhere, and he never seemed to stop missing the heat of his homeworld.

"Too happy, sated, and lazy to say something," Blair finally answered wearily. Before the Serenity, they'd been running for eighteen hours straight trying to get from one port to another without leaving a trace, so Jim figured they both had a right to be downright exhausted. However, that didn't prevent him from lying under Blair, listening to the ship sing and Blair's breathing grow heavy. Jim stood guard as long as he could, and then slowly he slipped into sleep.


Chapter 3

Jim woke as boots stopped outside their small cell.

"Blair, we've got company," Jim said. For a half-second, Blair mumbled and sleepily squirmed against Jim's side, and then Jim's words finally got processed into Blair's awareness, and he snapped into motion with an efficiency he hadn't possessed until they'd been on the run a while.

"Cao, cao, cao, cao," Blair muttered as he scrambled to get his pants on and nearly took off a body part Jim particularly liked with a hasty zipper. Rather than panic, Jim gathered his clothes and carefully shook out his pants. They'd stowed away in the back of a freight hauler and then walked the last ten miles to get to a new port at Dyton, and Jim gave his pants another vigorous shake and dirt drifted into the air and then slowly settled. It was about as clean as he was going to be able to get them.

The hatch cracked open, and Jim noted the care their guard was using. This was a ship used to dealing with prisoners, and he wasn't seeing them making many mistakes.

"Captain wants to talk," Jayne said from the hatch that led out of the tiny room where they'd been imprisoned.

"Hey! We're naked here," Blair protested even though he only had to finish buttoning up his shirt. Jim stood up, still fully naked, and walked over to get toilet paper. The last thing he needed was Blair's come dripping into his pants to distract him at the wrong time. However, giving the merc reason to underestimate him... that had some tactical value. And men did have a mighty foolish habit of assuming that the bottom man in a sly partnership was less than manly. That was sheer idiocy in Jim's book, but he sure didn't mind taking advantage of another's idiocy.

Jayne was now crouched down in the hall above, looking through the hatch at them. Tactically, it was a horrible position for Jim, but the position wasn't all that better for Jayne who had to look down into the cell. The ladder that led up and out of the room was a good seven foot, and if Jim could pull Jayne down head first, that would make for a nasty fall. Then again, Jim would still be left with a ship full of enemy and no way to fly a ship he wasn't rated on. Firefly class were practically antiques. He could probably figure out the controls, but he couldn't guarantee that he'd get everything right before sending them crashing through an asteroid belt.

"Can't say I expected that. I thought the little one would be rollin' over an' playing girl," Jayne said as he watched Jim clean up. Jim could almost taste Blair's fury on the air, and in about two seconds, Blair was going to go off on some verbal tirade to protect Jim's honor.

"Blair, some merc and his mouth doesn't make a bit of difference here. Let it go." Jim dropped the toilet paper into the disposal and pulled his pants on. With his fingertips, he checked the placement of the slipwire in his belt while he pulled his pants up. Blair was muttering under his breath, but he managed to not say anything to antagonize Jayne, and Jim could see that it took him some effort.

For his part, Jim didn't hurry. Jayne wasn't a fool, but he wasn't a trained guard, either. The longer Jim made him wait, the more he was getting mighty uncomfortable, and uncomfortable men rushed and made mistakes.

"Aiya, hurry up," Jayne finally complained. Jim finished pulling his shirt on and gave Blair a little nod. Blair headed for the ladder, but before he even got near, Jayne had backed away from the opening. Clearly, the man wasn't an idiot. Well, actually, he did seem like a bit of an idiot, but he had enough common sense that he wasn't going to fall for the sort of cheap tricks Jim had used on a half dozen people who'd thought they could make easy prey out of him and Blair.

"Down there," Jayne gestured. He had a Callahan Fullbore autolock, which seemed a mite bit overkill for two prisoners. Two prisoners in full body armor, shields, and armed to the teeth might warrant that level of firepower, but Jim couldn't figure if Jayne was the sort to be extra careful or just the sort who liked to have his hands around the biggest gun he could find. Either way, a shell from that would go right through Jim, through Blair and might take out one or two minor interior hulls before stopping. Inside a ship, a sonic rifle would be much less likely to cause friendly fire or damage the ship, and Jim filed that bit of information away for later use. Jayne might be a weakness they could exploit.

For now, Jim just went where ordered, carefully keeping Blair ahead of him. Otherwise, Blair was likely to start saying things to Jayne that Jim just didn't really want said.

"Guess you don't much care who knows you're sly," the merc commented.

Jim sighed. While he could try to have some control over Blair, he clearly couldn't stop Jayne from saying something idiotic.

"Nothing wrong with being sly," Blair immediately shot back.

"For a man like you, most like there isn't," Jayne agreed, but it was Jim he was watching. It was a strange conversation, but then Jim had largely become immune to strange. His life had been nothing but strange ever since two officers had shown up with his transfer papers. Jim still remembered his own stupid pride, thinking that they wanted him to teach military strategy to their precious geniuses or have him work with top officials. Back then he'd had a lot of pride and very little patience for oddities or mercenaries with poor hygiene. Time had taught him differently.

"Can't see that it's anyone's business but mine," Jim commented.

"Except me. As the other half of the sly, it's my business," Blair butted in. "Oh man. You just assume I'm okay being sly because I don't go around metaphorically peeing on trees, but Jim—"

"Ain't nuthing wrong with peeing on trees," Jayne immediately defended himself. Jim almost smiled. For all of his complaints about stereotyping and testosterone poisoning, Blair probably hadn't ever expected a man to literally embrace peeing on his territory. Naomi had been a companion, and that meant something, even on the border planets. The men Blair had been raised around had tried to keep a certain civility around the Sandburgs, and only now was Blair learning just how crude the frontier could be. They were crass and cruel people who would enslave someone or steal a widow's land. Jim had spent his life fighting against that sort of evil, and now he was hiding amongst it.

"You... but... oh man, you actually pee on trees?"

"What else would you pee on?"

"A toilet," Blair suggested.

Jayne snorted. "You and the doc should get along real good. Core-bred dandies." His tone made it pretty clear what he thought of the Alliance. Jim's guts clenched. If these people were die-hard Browncoats, Jim knew just how badly this was going to turn out. Sooner or later one of them was going to remember his name, and he cursed himself as a fool for not giving them some story that didn't include being a Womak. However, he was not going to let their hatred for him spill over onto Blair.

"Blair was actually a Browncoat," Jim pointed out, hiding his desperate hope that Jayne would believe him. Rough men rarely respected desperation.

"I wasn't a Browncoat," Blair disagreed. "I was more a Browncoat sympathizer. Naomi and I patched soldiers up, but we didn't go out and shoot anybody over some stupid war over a big piece of dirt... or several big pieces of dirt."

Jim cringed. It would really help his plan if Blair would just try to gain their captors' sympathy, but calling the war stupid was not going to help on a ship full of Browncoats.

"Gorram right," Jayne said, which was mighty surprising since Jim had him pegged as a Browncoat rebel. "Ain't nothing on a rock worth dying for."

Blair gave Jim a triumphant look, but seeing as how they were still being marched down a corridor with a mercenary's gun at their backs, Jim didn't see they had much to celebrate.

"Now if'n it were a big pile of money, now that would be worthy fightin' for, although I'd still be all for avoiding the dying."

Blair stopped as Jayne made his big announcement, and Jim had to push him to get him to move again. "Not here," Jim whispered hoarsely. The last thing Jim needed was for Blair to start a fight when he didn't have anything bigger than a slipwire to back his partner up.

"Man, your enlightenment is very limited," Blair settled for complaining.

"That sounds like one of Inara's fancy words, and I ain't much on words. I'm more for letting my gun talk for me."

"Inara?" The gears in Blair's head almost clicked as they started turning. Blair was great at weaving a story to distract or even outright lie, but when something caught his curiosity, he couldn't keep his emotion off his face. "Is she one of the crew?"

"Naw. She was a whore who traveled with us some a while back."

"Oh no. No way are you calling a companion a whore. No gorram way." This time Blair did stop, and Jim could not push him into motion again before getting a gun barrel poked in his back. For a half second, Jim calculated his chances with a spin attack, but he still had a ship full of Browncoats, and Jayne had a pistol that he could probably get to before Jim could grab the autolock and get it turned around. It was a gorram big gun.

Blair was oblivious to Jim's dilemma because he was busy tearing into Jayne. "A companion is a spiritual and emotional guide. He or she helps people reach their potential."

Jayne gave Blair a look of disbelief. "They get paid for having sex. That makes 'em whores."

"They accept gifts in return for opening a person to the possibilities." Blair's hands few into the air in exasperation. "Many times that includes sex because sex is part of the basic, fundamental nature of humanity. However, that does not make them whores. They are therapists and spiritual advisers and religious sages and..." Blair waved his arms in dismay as his vocabulary failed him, but Jayne wasn't looking much impressed.

"His mom was a companion," Jim explained.

"Ah." Jayne nodded like that explained everything, and he actually looked a mite big more sympathetic. So, the man had no trouble shooting an unarmed man in the gut, but he had a soft spot for mothers. This ship was just all kinds of confusing.

"Ain't smart to keep the captain waiting." Jayne poked the gun in their direction, and Blair realized that he was not going to convert Jayne, so with a sigh he turned back toward the corridor.

"They aren't whores," he said softly, like a child complaining, but Jim knew that Blair was about as likely to let it drop as a Browncoat was to develop any sense of strategy. A leopard just couldn't change its spots. Oh, Blair would keep his own counsel until he saw an opening, but sure as summer rains, he'd keep gnawing at this until he got Jayne to agree that companions were enlightened bringers of truth and joy.

"In there," Jayne said as they approached an open door. It didn't take much figuring to know that's where they were headed because he could hear the voices so loud that even Blair should be able to hear them even if he couldn't hear what they were saying the way Jim could.

The engineer was in there--Kaylee--with all her stumbling sweetness. She'd almost tripped over her tongue as she tried to reassure her beau that Blair being sly made it okay for her to think him cute. Jim hadn't caught her boyfriend's name, but he was core-trained and educated; Jim could hear that in the tone and cadence of his voice. The captain, Mal, and his second, Zoe were talking quietly in the corner, but Jim could easily hear them discussing their next potential stop. The cargo they were carrying couldn't be delivered until the proper time, and they'd planned to sit planetside until they'd found someone to pay them for a short-haul or passage. Now they were flying with no destination. Jim marveled at the folly of that. Agreeing to haul someone's freight around like a flying storage shed was about as wasteful of ship resources as anything Jim had ever heard. And the pilot was here--a girl with a rabbit-fast heartbeat. Lots of people seemed to talk at her, but she did precious little talking herself. River. The name brought to mind the giant rivers of Osiris that cut across the open plains and cut deep valleys into the land. However, the girl seemed like more of a meandering stream than a river, and from what little she had said, her mind meandered more than most streams.

Blair stopped in front of him so suddenly that Jim walked into him and got a gun barrel in his back again as Jayne didn't stop fast enough. He was getting mighty sick of that.

"River?" Blair asked, shock turning his voice into a whisper.

Jim looked at a girl with long hair and bare feet tucked up under her in a chair. She tilted her head and smiled at him. "The man who thinks too fast."

"Dr. Sandburg?" This time Jim spotted a young man who looked far too core bred for these parts. That would be Kaylee's man.

"Dr. Tam?" Blair sounded shocked, but Jayne was putting the barrel of his gun into Jim's back, and so he pushed his partner into the room.

"Zoe, you feelin' as weirdly left out as I am at this point?" Mal asked. He moved forward toward a table that dominated the center of the room, his second standing just to his side.

"Yes, sir, I think I am," she agreed.

Dr. Tam stepped forward, his eyes still wide with shock. Clearly he had a history with Blair, but then Jim had learned that about half the universe seemed to have history with either Blair or Naomi. The Sandburgs had lived on more planets than Jim had visited in six years of service. "Captain, this is Dr. Blair Sandburg from Londinium Institute of Medicine. He's the one who helped me get River out."

Jim looked at the girl a second time. So, she'd been another of the tortured souls in that place. Most of the Institute's victims were younger than Jim. When his hearing had gone out of control, he'd listen to them crying for parents and screaming in pain. He wondered if he'd ever heard her cries.

"Thought so fast that his brain overloaded and all his moral circuits got rewired," River said with a smile for Blair. Then she looked at Jim, her head tilting to the side in confusion.

"Ignore the crazy," Jayne suggested as he came into the room, his gun still pointed in their general direction.

"I wouldn't call that crazy," Blair said. "My new wiring is a lot more efficient than the old job," he told River.

She turned her gaze back toward him. "New wiring looks like your original wiring with all the illogical whorls all burned up."

"Naomi would probably agree," Blair agreed softly.

"Chief?" Jim asked. Blair looked up at him, and the honest pain he saw reflected in Blair's eyes made him immediately hate this River. River looked at him with her head cocked and slowly smiled.

"I helped Dr. Tam with his sister, but only after I spent three years working on cases for the Institute. I thought I was serving some higher good, but eventually, when I got in so far that they owned my life, I figured out that they weren't about making the world better or helping people. They were taking beautiful young women like River and cutting them up to create something..." Blair stopped and looked at River.

"Abominations," she said softly. Her eyes moved over to Jim.

"No, mei mei, you aren't an abomination," Dr. Tam said as he moved to her side, his hands on her shoulders.

"Course you ain't," Kaylee quickly added. "You're just a girl who ain't had but bad luck her whole life."

"I was the abomination," Blair said softly, "and I've been doing my best to change that, to undo some of the harm I did working for the Institute."

"Two by two, hands of blue," River muttered.

"The stewards," Jim said softly. River nodded.

"I ain't but following about every third word of this, and as the captain, confusing me is not in your best interest right now," Mal interrupted. "Simon, you seem to have some history here, so why don't you start."

Simon nodded. "When I went searching for River, I tried to get into the Academy. I ended up going into a blackout zone where I got introduced to Dr. Sandburg going under the code name Indian Chief. He was treating some of the homeless people in the zone, but more importantly, he was a psychologist attached to the Institute. He provided the information I used to break River out."

"I gave him as much as I could. I should have done more, but by then they were getting suspicious and I couldn't help River." Blair chewed on his lip, and Jim reached out and pulled his partner to his side.

"Not your fault, Chief. You did everything you could."

"Wait," Jayne said. "That little ji nv is a doctor? He ain't even as old as the doc, and I ain't real comfortable when he goes pokin' and proddin' at me."

"I'm equally uncomfortable when forced to poke and prod at you," Simon said dryly, "but Dr. Sandburg is a medical doctor and psychiatrist."

"Who thinks so fast his brain sometimes gets all tangled on itself and trips on iron-heavy feet," River added.

Jim studied the woman. Clearly she was the one they had experimented on, but she wasn't acting like a sentinel. She noticed his gaze and stared up at him. "Another abomination with genes that burn bright," she said.

"Oh?" Mal leaned forward and gave Jim a thoughtful look. "I reckon she's saying there's something about you we should know, like how you knew them hands of blue fellows were at the docks."

"I could hear them," Jim said carefully. He couldn't afford to give them too much; he sure wasn't telling them how vulnerable he was to spikes and zones.

Jayne snorted. The captain just leaned back in his chair and frowned at Jim. "Can't imagine why a man would lie about something like that. Easy enough to check on whether he were telling the truth."

Jim watched this man who had the authority to space him or give him one more head start against the Alliance hunters chasing him. He made his decision. "When you called Zoe on the intercom, you said it was freaky how the readers always found your boat. She suggested it was karma."

Trading shocked expressions, Mal and Zoe both then stared at him.

Under his hands, Blair stiffened and he tried to step forward aggressively, only to have Jim hold him back. "Hey, he's no more a freak than River is. They both just got totally screwed over by the Institute."

Mal shook his head, clearly not happy with any of this. "I'm looking for simple answers because I'm a simple man... a simple man and an annoyed one and getting more annoyed by the second."

Jim stepped forward. "I was assigned to the ninth unit during the war. Shortly after the rebels surrendered, two men requested that I be reassigned to Londinium for follow up testing after a routine scan. I was signed into the Institute three years ago at which time they began a series of experiments designed to reactivate dormant genes that give me an ability to see and hear with far more accuracy than a normal human."

"Weren't hearing too good out there. If they were trying to make you better'n the rest of us, seems like they done fucked up a bit," Jayne pointed out derisively. Jim turned to glare at the merc for a second, but the man obviously wasn't impressed. He just stared back. When Jim turned to focus on Mal again, the captain was pale, his hands braced on the table as he stood and stared at Jim.

"The ninth? James?" he asked darkly. "Don't suppose you're the Jimmy who served at New Kashmir?" Jim stiffened. The second they had his name, this was inevitable.

"Jim?" Blair asked as he looked up. Jim subtly pushed Blair away an inch or two. Whatever was about to happen Blair wasn't a part of it. This was his past come back to haunt him.

"Yes, I am," Jim said clearly. Zoe had been looking confused, but now her eyes went cold, and her hand fell to her gun. Mal outright pulled his gun.

"Blair, go stand with your doctor friend," Jim said as he pushed his partner away another inch.

"Jim, what's going on?" Blair demanded as he got his hands around Jim's arm and held on.

"Aiya. Go stand with the other doctor," Jim said angrily.

"No." Blair didn't beg or plead or offer those long explanations that mostly just wore Jim down so he didn't care anymore and went along with whatever Blair wanted, but this time, the answer was a plain old 'no.'

"Ain't got an issue with you, doc," Mal said, and Jim felt the cold in his spine. "Might be best, though, if you didn't go getting between me and Captain Jimmy here."

"Captain Jimmy?" Simon asked as he stood back up and stared at Jim. For his part, Jim wasn't sure which he resented more, the look of worship on the doc's face or the pure hatred on Mal's. Of course, it was the hatred that was about to get him dead.

"Jim?" Blair was clinging harder now, refusing to let go of Jim's arm.

"This has got nothing to do with Blair. He was out patching up rebels while I was sending them to hell as fast as I could," Jim said. If he was going to die for what he did in the war, he wasn't going to do it begging for his life from a damn Browncoat. Mal's face went just about white, and Jim braced himself for the shot. It was almost a relief after all this time. At least it was going to be some gorram rebel who took him out and not a needle while he was strapped naked to some table. He supposed that was the best end that he could hope for.


Chapter 4

"Mal!" Simon said as he moved to get between them.

"Doc, move yourself to the side. I'd be a mite bit put out if I had to go shooting through you, but that don't mean I wouldn't do it."

Jayne stepped forward and grabbed Simon, pulling him away without even paying attention to the man's struggles. It seemed that the doctor didn't claim much respect, but then Jim didn't expect these sort of crude people to show respect for a man based on his learning. "What about the reward?" Jayne asked. "Seems a waste to go and shoot him. If ya don't like him, I say we get a payday out of it."

Jim tightened his jaw. He'd rather be dead than go back there, but if that's what it took to buy Blair a safe berth, he'd do it.

"Dr. Tam, look after Blair," Jim said as he kept his eyes on the captain. He didn't have a weapon on him that would save him from the captain's six shooter, and he still had the merc to deal with, not to mention the captain's second who had a cold look in her eye, so he had to be realistic about his chances.

"Sir, maybe we all need to calm down," Zoe suggested. She still looked at Jim with hateful eyes, but at least it wasn't a killing hate he saw in her. River stood, and Jim saw the motion out of the corner of his eye. However, he was more focused on the gun in Mal's hand.

"Calm down? Shun-sheng duh gao-wahn. They sing songs about him, and I think we all know that not everyone who goes and gets a song writ about him is exactly hero material. Fact is, from where I stand, seems like the Captain Jimmy who went and gutted our air force is more war criminal than war hero."

"Can't say as I disagree," Zoe said, and Jim could feel Blair's hands tighten, and the man struggled to get closer. Jim held him to the side as best he could. "I just ain't one for shooting an unarmed man."

Mal's jaw tightened. For a second, the entire room was still, and Jim could hear each heartbeat in a complex, twining rhythm. Finally Mal spoke. "Jayne, give him a gun."

"Sir," Zoe objected as Jayne stepped forward.

"What? I'm agreeing with you. Won't shoot an unarmed man," Mal said without the gun wavering.

Jim glanced over, and Jayne was offering him a gun. "Jim, no," Blair hissed, but Jim reached out and took the barrel of the gun in his left hand seeing as how his right was still trying to keep his partner in the clear. He continued to hold the gun by the barrel as he let his arm drop to his side. This wasn't about giving him a chance, and Jim wasn't about to let this chun zi Browncoat lie to himself and pretend that he'd killed a man in a fair fight. There wasn't anything fair in this room.

"I'm armed now," Jim said calmly as he faced the captain. He could hear the blood rushing through his own heart with a sickening wet slurp on each beat, and he wondered briefly if he'd hear the bullet going through his own body.

The girl, River, spinning into the space between them startled Jim so bad he flinched back and ended up with Jayne's gun barrel in his back again. "He sees what you don't," she said.

"He can," Blair blurted, his voice high and strained. Jim hated hearing the fear, but there was precious little he could do to help his partner except die without pulling him into the shit with him. But words kept tumbling out of Blair as if that would make some difference. "He can see riders miles away or see a weak spot in a deck plank with the naked eye. Oh man, do you have any idea how useful that could be? And if you think he did something wrong, he has paid. They experimented on him, so whatever you think he's done, he's paid for it. Oh man, he has no karma at all left after what they've done. You can't just shoot him," Blair pleaded.

"Watch me," Mal said as he came around the table, but River moved into his path again.

"He sees what you all see but you never look at," River said firmly as she reached up and put a hand on Mal's chest.

"I swear, you're almost sane until you go trying to talk about them hands of blue folk," Mal sighed.

"He heard them. He knows their secret names and passageways under the castle walls," River said.

"You mean the Institute?" Blair asked. "Hey, if you have a problem with the Institute, we both know all sorts of information, but if you kill Jim, I will personally--"

"Shut up, Chief," Jim cut that thought off as sharply as he could. The last thing he needed was for Mal to start seeing Blair as any kind of threat. Blair was one of the most courageous men Jim had ever known, and during their escape, he'd watched Blair put a bullet through a guard and he'd watched Blair later light candles and pray for the man's soul; however, his safety depended on these people seeing him as nothing more than a sly trick.

"Captain, if they have information on the people who did this to River, surely we can put aside what might have happened during the war," Simon argued.

"Put aside... you want I should put aside the fact that he done killed thousands of men and women who were trying to protect their way of life?" Mal demanded.

"I fought soldiers, and if they were inadequately trained and prepared for the realities of battle, that is not something I bear responsibility for," Jim said tightly.

He didn't mention guilt because he did carry that. He'd carried guilt from the moment that he had sprung his trap only to find that the ships he intended to engage in battle went down in a disorganized rabble, many not even getting off a shot before they were blown apart. Others hit their own fleet in the panic and fleeing. He'd felt guilt from the first body to slide past the window of his ship, a boy no older than his baby brother. The vacuum of space had bloated his face, but even so, Jim could see that the kid was so young that he should have been home with his mother, not out fighting for a bunch of criminals who were trying to keep the law out of the outer territories.

"Jim, man, you aren't helping," Blair hissed. "Totally not helping. Maybe you can do your self-flagellation later, like when there aren't guns pointed at us."

Jim ignored Blair and focused on the captain. "But Blair was one of yours, so you do what you're going to do and you call it justice or revenge or whatever you want, but you kill Blair, and that's just murder," Jim said firmly.

Mal narrowed his eyes. "That so?"

"Oh man, it's murder no matter who you shoot in this room. I have never met such a stubbornly unenlightened group in... okay, in about two months since that's when we got out of the Institute, and those people? Totally not enlightened." Blair jerked away from Jim, but instead of retreating, he moved toward the captain. "But hey, we all did what we thought was right. Yeah, you and I happen to think Jim's version of right was completely and entirely not right. That does not make him evil. In fact, that doesn't even make us right. The universe is a big place, and for all we know, the Alliance might be the best solution in the long run."

Jim watched the captain's eyes narrow dangerously, and Jim cursed Blair's mouth. The man could fit both feet in it at once and still have enough room to talk around them. And if he kept talking, he was going to get spaced along with Jim.

"At least the Alliance does something to fight the space trash and slavers." Jim spat the words and glared at the captain.

Blair turned around and gave Jim a glare just about as nasty as the one Mal was aiming his way.

"You see?" Blair looked over his shoulder at Mal. "The big chun zi is trying to protect me by getting you pissed at him. That is so not the action of an evil man. An idiot, yes. But not evil."

"Blair," Jim warned darkly. Blair rolled his eyes.

"Not evil? He gorram ambushed the fleet. He sent thousands of men and women to their deaths without ever givin' 'em a chance to even get off a shot," Mal's face twisted in a personal sort of grief. And for a second, Blair's expression mirrored it. The guilt clawed at Jim, but he pushed it aside. There wasn't anything he could do now.

"We all lost someone at New Kashmir." Blair's voice had a rough edge to it before he took a deep breath. "All of us. Good people died, but that was war."

"What he done... that weren't war," Mal said very firmly as he raised his gun. Jim clenched his jaw and struggled to bring his hearing down so that he wouldn't have to hear the bullet coming at him. Hell, in some ways this was a gorram relief. He was ready for this to just be over—the running, the fear, the slow realization that there was no end game. They would always be running and the Institute would always be flushing them out of one cover or another. Death was inevitable, and only the exact details were in question. Now Jim just needed for Mal to pull the trigger before Blair could go and say something unforgivable.

"That was war." Blair whispered the words, but he was also moving fearlessly closer to Mal. The captain's second moved forward, clearly ready to provide backup if Blair proved dangerous. Unfortunately, Blair just wasn't that kind of dangerous, and there wasn't going to be a last-minute save like on the waves he'd watched as a kid.

Mal looked at Jim and then at Blair.

"Before the war," Blair offered, "Jim worked undercover. He specialized in shutting down slavers, and we both know what an ugly world that is. You can't blame him for thinking that any price was worth it to save those poor souls."

Mal snorted. "Alliance ain't done much to stop slaving."

Blair shrugged, and Jim could just imagine the wry look on his face. They'd had this discussion more than once. "Well, yeah. You and I know that. But people from the Core? Oh man, they only see what the official waves say. They think we're all involved in slaving and drugs. And let me tell you, Jim sometimes says some mighty stupid things that prove he grew up listening to those waves."

Mal looked at Blair like he was a piece of cow dung that had gotten stuck on his shoe. "And you think that makes up for him being Captain Jimmy? You like rolling over for a mass murderer?"

Jim tightened his fingers around the barrel of his borrowed gun. Mass murder... it wasn't the epitaph he'd planned when he'd been trying so hard to move up the ranks in the service.

"Ain't the little one what's rolling over," Jayne offered with a smug tone, but Mal pretty much ignored him.

"Now Mal," the starched doctor, Simon, stepped forward, "as much as I respect your point of view..."

"No you don't," the captain interrupted. That seemed to stop Simon for a second.

"Perhaps I don't always agree with you."

Mal gave the doctor an incredulous look.

The doctor's back went even straighter and Kaylee moved closed enough to slip her hand into his. Clearly they were not hiding their relationship. The doctor edited himself. "Perhaps it's fair to say that I rarely agree with you, but given your habit of making very poor choices..."

"Always come out alive at the end." Mal visibly flinched at the end of that sentence, and Jim could see the captain's second emotionally shut down. Her pupils dilated in distress and she took a half-step back, and the engineer, Kaylee, looked to be about two seconds away from crying. "Anyway," Mal kept going, plowing right through the awkward silence that had fallen in the room. "This ain't your business. This is my ship, and I ain't about to let Captain Jimmy hitch a ride."

Blair snorted. "He didn't ask for one. We were trying to leave when you put a gun in our faces." Blair turned toward Simon. "Jim has suffered just as much as River, and whether you think he was a hero or the epitome of evil, there's no way a human being deserves to be hurt like that. And now the captain wants to kill Jim? The karma in this room is so heavy it's about to start generating its own gravity."

The doctor turned toward Mal. "Blair is a friend. I am not about to allow you to shoot him."

Jim frowned, not sure what game Blair was playing. Normally, Blair was a master of manipulation—the Institute had brought him in on the basis of his psychology degree and his ability to talk people into pretty much anything, but this time, Jim had no clue what the man had in mind. If Jim wanted to work on turning one of the crew to their side, the doctor would not be his first choice only because the man didn't seem to have much power to start with. A powerless ally could be more of a hindrance than a help.

"Ain't asking your permission," Mal said with an exaggerated cheerfulness. "'Sides, I'm not planning on shooting your friend, just the murdering son-of-an-Alliance-bitch."

"Sir," the second interrupted. "Maybe we should think this through."

"Oh... tee wuh duh pee-goo. Zoe, he's Captain Jimmy! If you tell me that you ain't thinking on shooting him..."

"I'm thinking it, sir," she agreed, and Jim could feel his headache tighten around his skull. There were entirely too many people who wanted to kill him in too small of a space, and he was just too tired to keep fighting any of them. "I just don't think we should do it," she finished.

"Then Jayne can," Mal said. Jim could hear the snick as Jayne took the safety off his autolock. Clearly Jayne was not planning on having any moral dilemma or debate over the killing.

"No one is shooting them. It's lunchtime." River made that announcement and then twirled in a circle before heading for the kitchen area. The girl was clearly not engaging all her engines.

"Um... Simon, is she okay in there?" Blair asked. Simon looked over where River was happily pulling out cans and carefully peeling off each label before opening it. When he didn't answer, Blair clarified, "I mean with the knives. River and knives were not always such a good combination if you know what I mean."

"She gorram stuck me with a knife," Jayne protested loudly.

"Didn't you use the safeword?" Blair demanded of Simon, horror pretty clear in his voice.

"Thought words like cobwebs, but the knife moved too fast for the utterance of sound." River gave Blair a smile before pulling out a bowl and dumping what looked like peaches in.

"You know about them safewords?" Mal asked, and now he seemed to be totally focused on Blair. Whatever else was going on, River was important to the captain, but Jim couldn't quite figure if it was a good or a bad thing that Blair was tying himself to the girl's history. Jim knew how the Institute had coerced Blair by threatening to take even more drastic action against the subjects, but that didn't mean Captain Mal would understand. He seemed like the sort of man to make up his mind first and ignore all the evidence to the contrary later. Browncoats were like that—rushing in where even angels feared to tread and then wondering why they got their gorram asses kicked every time.

Blair shrugged again. "I designed the failsafe."

"You... you did?" The captain didn't seem to have words for that. River came in and slipped an arm around Blair's waist, resting her cheek on his shoulder.

"The sunlight burns dark."

Blair looked at her. "Why?"

"Mei mei, this is not the time." Simon interrupted their conversation and reached out to physically pull River away. Jim had seen what some of the Institute's projects could do, and he'd try to grab a live bomb and pull it around by the wiring before he try to engage one of them in a physical confrontation. The Institute had turned those young people into stone-cold killers with inhuman strength and accuracy, but River just ignored her brother. "Sometimes she still loses track of reality," Simon offered apologetically.

"No way," Blair contradicted him. "The experiments destroyed her ability to relate to reality and emotionally engage, but it did not cause any sort of hallucinations or delusional episodes. If she says the sunlight is burning dark, then it is. We just need to figure out what that means. Personally, I'm hoping she's not talking about our engines." Blair looked over to Jim, his expression worried.

"Can't hear anything out of the ordinary, Chief," Jim answered.

"Okay, so not the engines," Blair mused.

"Wait." Kaylee looked at Jim searchingly. "You can hear the engines from here?"

"The spinning makes a sort of..." Jim paused, not sure how to explain the warbling note that always make a ship's hull reverberate. In some ships, the note sounded sour and it made the hairs on his arms stand up. On this ship, it was a background hum that was always just at the edge of his awareness.

"A music. She sings," Kaylee finished.

Jim thought about that. "It is a kind of music, a repetitive chord that is playing in the background."

Kaylee's smile lit the room. "I'll be. I thought I was the only one who heard that, or more like that I was just imagining the engine singing at me seein' as how I love 'em so much. But I can always tell when a ship is feeling sickly because her song goes all unpretty."

"Really?" Now Blair's face lit up, and Jim could see the same sort of unmitigated joy there, like nothing the universe threw at him could sully his soul. "Oh man, you must have hypersensitive hearing. On Earth-that-was, sometimes the senses would become naturally hypersensitive, but the Institute always had to genetically trigger the awareness, and Jim was the only one they could ever get to trigger for all five senses. Wow. Does anyone in your family have sensitive hearing or maybe they're extra touchy-feely or have really good vision." From Blair's tone, he was just about to launch into his speech on the amazing adaptability of the human brain.

"Wait one gorram second," the captain stopped him. "We were talking on how we were going to shoot your partner."

"Oh man, we already moved on," Blair said dismissively. "River, what does the sunlight burn?"

She seemed to think about that for a second. "Nuclear fusion in the peaches, all the 'verse is dying of radiation sickness."

"Mei mei?" Simon asked softly.

"We ain't done," Mal warned, his weapon pointing at Jim. "Aiya, get the gun away from him, Jayne," Mal said in a mighty cranky voice.

"Weren't my idea to give it to him at all," Jayne complained so quietly that only Jim could hear, but he took the gun out of Jim's hand without so much as asking, and Jim allowed himself to be disarmed. When Jayne grabbed his wrists, Jim let the man pin his arms behind his back and wrap a length of what felt like leather around his wrists. Seemed like he was less likely to get shot if he was restrained, so protesting would be counter-productive. However, Jim couldn't resist the urge to pull at the bindings to test the strength.

"You ain't pulling out of that," Jayne said smugly. "Well not 'less you got some crazy powers going like Moonbrain over there," he added after a second, and he sounded a whole lot less smug about that part. So clearly, these people did have some clue about what River could do. However, the captain and the doctor were hovering near her like she was a kitten who'd showed up at their doorstep starving and mewing. She might be a kitten, but she was a half-grown saber-tooth kitten who could eat them both if she got it in her mind to do it. And Jim didn't have any illusions about his ability to protect Blair. He hated the bad luck that had put them on his ship.

"Is this about us going to Miranda?" Zoe, the captain's second, asked.

Jim looked at her with horror crawling up through his guts. They'd taken this ship to Miranda... the planet on the far side of Reaver space? They'd faced drug-maddened cannibals that would eat you alive and do it as slow as they could? They'd visited Miranda? Jim always did think of Browncoats as being suicidal and downright stupid when it came to military tactics, but clearly he needed new verbage to describe just how stupid and how suicidal these people were.

River smiled over like Zoe had said something particularly amusing. The girl was mad. She was mad, the crew was suicidal, and Jim was tied up like a hog the day before a Christmas ham dinner.

"I should go check the autopilot. Serenity sometimes just likes to have her settings checked or she picks new headings," River said, and she sounded oddly coherent.

"Okay. But if you can think of new words for this sun that burns dark, you come and tell me, okay?" Blair asked seriously.

She nodded. "You should fix dinner. I'm not hungry." She turned and headed out of the crew area with a downright sane look on her face.

Mal watched her go with worry etched on his face. "Is anyone else startin' to worry about just how permanent River's new gasp on sanity might be?"

"I can review her medication history," Simon suggested. Kaylee was clinging to his arm in clear distress, but Jim couldn't figure if she was afraid of River or afraid for her. If she had any common sense, it'd be the first.

"Whoa, you put her on meds?" Blair demanded.

"Standard anti-psychotics."

"I told you to get her off the medicines."

"She wasn't lucid."

"And if you're drugging her up, she's never going to be lucid. What they did..." Blair swallowed. "It affected her ability to interact with the world. Language centers were damaged and logic completely rerouted, but she is perfectly sane and rational within her own frame of reference."

Mal took a step back and sprawled in one of the dining room chairs. It was a deceptive posture. His arms were thrown wide, one resting on the table and one on the back of the chair, but every muscle was tense and ready for action. Zoe retreated to a spot behind him. "Now see, I have a problem with how much you know and just how involved you were. I don't suppose you had anything to do with the experiments they did on River, now did you?" Mal asked, his voice honeyed, but Jim could see the trap laid out as neatly as could be. And he had no doubt Blair did too.

"I was one of the psychologists on the Project. My job was to make sure that the subjects retained enough sanity for the brainwashing to work," Blair said without apology. "I also designed the safeword so that the people could be immediately disabled."

Simon was turning a shade of green. Clearly he didn't know just how involved Blair was, but that meant he was an idiot. Anyone who knew enough to help him get his sister through all that security had to be gorram high up in the organization.

"Does that mean you can make her less crazified?" Jayne asked.

Blair sighed. "I wish I could. I was brought into the project fairly late... after several test subjects committed suicide and one went into a fugue state. I did my graduate work on the subconscious on Sihnon after the war, and they thought I could stabilize those who were becoming unbalanced. By the time I figured out why all these people were suffering...." Blair shrugged, but he did nothing to hide the dismay and pain on his face. For a second, Jim had truly worried that Blair might be joining him on Mal's hit-list, but now Mal seemed to relax as he rubbed a hand over his face.

"Seems like these folk are good at manipulatin'."

"You have no idea," Blair agreed. "So, Zoe said you had been to Miranda. Does that mean you're the one who released the wave that's pretty much destroyed entire political careers?"

Mal nodded wearily. "Seemed like someone should know what the Alliance is up to." Mal gave Jim a dark look. "Drugging people and hiding the horrible side effects, now there's a government to make a man proud."

"Lost us crew on that," Jayne said softly. It was odd, because Jayne did not strike Jim as a sentimental man, yet he looked almost upset about that.

"Lost too many," Kaylee echoed. "And all them folks dead because the Alliance wanted to find a way to make everybody be all shiny and nice to each other...." She wrinkled her nose.

"It's creepifying," Mal finished. "But the Alliance ain't like to listen to reason. They want their nice clean little universe, and if they have to wipe out entire planets to get what they want, I don't reckon they lose much sleep over it."

The day was that Jim would have argued that. Now... now he wasn't so sure that Mal was wrong.

"Not everyone in the Alliance is like that. A lot of them think they're doing the right thing and protecting people," Blair said softly. Mal's frown made it pretty clear that he didn't want to go back to this conversation, but Jim could testify to just how tenacious Blair could be when he thought someone needed a little re-education. Mal's gaze flicked over to Jim, but then he focused on Blair.

"So, you were part of the team that turned River into who she is. You got any ideas about how to help her?"

Blair slowly shook his head. "I don't know if anyone can change what's been done. Her brain was altered when she was young enough for the synapses to reroute. But now... gametogenesis and its related increase in gonadal steroid hormone secretion is over."

Mal gave Blair the sort of look Jim found himself using a lot when Blair got to talking science. Maybe that's why Blair recognized the confusion.

"She's not an adolescent anymore, so her brain can't heal itself if we try to rewire it again," he translated.

"We could administer a series of hormonal replacements." Simon looked desperate for Blair to agree, but Blair was already shaking his head.

"No way. The Institute tried to use older subjects chemically regressed to adolescence, and it just doesn't work. River is the way she's going to be."

"Crazy," Jayne helpfully offered. He earned a vicious glare from Blair.

"No. She just has her own way of seeing things. It's like someone raised a child and every time they meant 'up' they said 'blue' instead. That person would sound crazy. 'You need to go blue. Go blue. I want it farther blue.'" Blair mimicked someone giving orders. "Totally incomprehensible, unless you have the key. So, if you're asking her about anything she thought about while she was in the institute, you have to figure out the key."

Zoe spoke up. "So if she says the sunlight is giving all of us radiation poisoning?"

"Oh man." Blair made an elaborate grimace. "Something is so about to kill us all, I just have no fucking idea what."

Mal slappped his hand down on the table."Cao," he swore.

Jim couldn't agree more with the captain. Cao.


Chapter 5

"You want I should check things out, look for radiation leaks?" Kaylee asked with a strange sort of enthusiasm that Jim didn't normally associate with major mechanical failings. He also doubted that Kaylee was going to find anything. This Firefly class ship was humming with a music so perfectly tuned that Jim could well believe that she was about the only crew up to Alliance quality. Well, her and the doc. From the looks of it, he was core trained, and those core universities didn't allow someone to call themselves a doctor until they knew their business inside and out. It wasn't like the border planets where someone who knew how to pull a splinter and lance a boil could call themselves a hedge doctor and start charging settlers money for snake oil.

"You'd best," Mal agreed. "Check anything that might get a sudden urge to blow us all to pieces or start leaking radiation."

"You got it, captain," she agreed, and with a quick kiss on the cheek for the doctor, she fairly scampered out of the room. Had Jim been assigned to inspect the crew during a patrol, he would have wondered at her age because she didn't hardly seem old enough to sign a contract to serve on a ship... or she didn't act it anyway.

"You know, we should check the medications you've used on River. Some of those antipsychotics..." Blair whistled to show just how powerful they could be.

"I was acting in her best interest," the doctor said peevishly.

"Totally. I get that," Blair nodded. "You didn't have her full medical history, and her symptoms would have mirrored psychotic episodes."

"I had no medical history at all." From the tone of voice, the doctor clearly assigned some blame for that to Blair. Jim had to swallow a whole lot of angry words about how Blair had put his life and his freedom on the line to get River out at all, medical records be damned.

Blair, however, just gave a little laugh that conveyed more disgust than humor. "No offense, but first, I would have gotten caught if I even looked at her full records much less printed the scans. And second, you would have thrown a fit right there if you'd seen half of what they did, and that was not in anyone's best interest. He who fights and runs like hell before the Alliance troops catch up to him, lives to not get thrown into a itty, bitty little cell," Blair said, mangling the old saying and holding his hands out to show the tiny little cell size they were all going to end up in if they got caught. Jim wasn't going to let that happen. Not to Blair. Not after everything the man had done.

The doctor still didn't look happy, but he also looked like he couldn't argue with that logic. "Besides, I really want to see what has been going on with her blood work now that she isn't getting pumped full of the poisons they were using. Do you have any scans, anything that would show internal brain structure or blood flow through the neural pathways?" Blair's eyes lit up with the joy of science.

That seemed to break the tension that was growing between the two men. "We actually sneaked into an Alliance facility and got a full set of scans." The doctor looked very proud of that, and he should be. Either this crew was a whole lot better than Jim was giving them credit for or Alliance security was getting lax, and the Alliance was not one for letting security go lax.

"Very cool," Blair said enthusiastically. "Come on, Jim."

"Captain Jimmy and I are going to talk," Mal interrupted. Blair had been focused totally on the doctor, or at least he had given every impression of it. Jim figured he had been just as focused on getting Jim out of Mal's immediate vicinity. The man wasn't dumb, and he had to know that Mal wasn't going to let something this big drop. Blair could distract him temporarily, but even Blair's power of manipulation had a limit.

"No way," Blair said stubbornly.

"Blair, go do your thing with the doctor."

"No." Blair glanced at Jim, but his eyes went immediately back to Mal.

"Chief, I am not kidding on this one. My area of expertise, my call. Go." Jim kept his voice steady.

"But Jim..." Blair turned and looked at him with wide eyes. He wanted to stay and fight, but Jim figured most of the danger was past now, and if Mal was still angry enough to kill him, well that just meant the man was never going to calm down and Jim didn't have any shot of getting off this boat alive. If that was the case, he would rather have Blair safely out of the room.

"Go try and help River. She deserves your help just as much as I do. So go do your doctoring thing," Jim said just as firmly.

Blair caught his lower lip between his teeth as he looked from Jim to Mal and back.

"Cao. I ain't planning on gut-shooting him the minute you have your back turned," Mal complained.

"I never said you would!" Blair snapped back. He angled himself so that he squared off against Mal and crossed his arms. "Can I get your word that you don't plan to shoot him anywhere at all?"

Mal narrowed his eyes and really studied Blair. The very fact that he was hesitating meant his word was worth something. It also meant that Mal didn't want to make that promise. "Are you always this annoying?"

"Yes," Jim said at the exact moment Blair gave an indignant, "No!" Blair gave Jim a quick glare. "Hey, I am not the one who kidnaps some poor schmucks who were just trying to outrun Alliance hunters. That was you. That was all you. And killing the poor schmucks you kidnapped would be totally bad karma. Enormously bad karma," Blair said, but he started out of the room, and the core doctor stuck close to him. "And Jim, if you get yourself killed, I am so finding you in your next incarnation and kicking your ass for ordering me out of here." With than, Blair left the room, his back still stiff and his hands clenched tightly.

"And here I thought he was some sly trick." Mal sounded rather disgusted with himself for that misjudgment.

"He is a sly trick. He's just a smart one," Jim pointed out. "Then again, I'm just as sly as he is." Jim raised his chin and just dared Mal to make something out of that.

Mal actually seemed to relax. Maybe it made him feel good to know that the monster of Browncoat nightmares was taking it up the ass. He seemed like the kind of man who might take comfort in that. "So," Mal said slowly, "the great Captain Jimmy is standing in front of me. I never thought this day would come. Did you, Zoe?" Mal leaned back to look at his second who was still standing just behind him.

"No, sir, can't say I ever did."

"Are you looking for an apology?" Jim asked.

"Might make me feel better about not shootin' you."

"Not going to happen." At Jim's words, Mal's whole body tightened.

"Sir," Zoe warned, her tone of voice sounding so much like a chiding mother's that Jim really did have to wonder at the command structure on this ship. For a captain, Mal didn't seem to have much say in what went on.

"Ain't like I was going to shoot him, at least not without having Jayne cut him loose," Mal said with more than a little petulance in his voice. "Shooting a man without giving him any chance to defend himself, that's more Alliance-like than I'm generally comfortable with." Mal glared at Jim.

"I've never shot an unarmed man in my life. And I never shot at ships that weren't under a flag of war looking to shoot at me," Jim pointed out. His jaw was starting to ache from clenching it, but if he truly went off on these people, his life span was going to be unmercifully short, and then Blair... Jim sighed. Blair never did let things lie. As much as Jim didn't want to admit it, Blair would back the gorram captain into a corner until Mal had to shoot him, just out of pure self-defense.

Mal rubbed one hand against his pants. "You ain't sayin' much to make me like you more."

"I don't need you to like me. I figure I just need you to not shoot me until you can drop us off on any planet of your choice."

"Captain Jimmy." Mal shook his head like it was amusing. "The great hero who crippled the rebellion without losing a single man. And look what they've done to their shiny hero. Real nice bunch you work for, Captain Jimmy. Cain't even imagine why someone might go thinking the Alliance are a bunch of yellow-bellied cowards and scum without an ounce of honor."

"I've heard some variation on that from Blair more than once," Jim pointed out dryly. Of course, Blair said it much more diplomatically by talking about propaganda and social pressures, but it came down to the same thing if you read between the lines.

Mal looked at him and leaned back far enough to prop his boot on the chair next to him. "And you're still holding that the Alliance were the right side?"

Jim thought about that. Blair generally talked to him without demanding that Jim admit any fault or make public declarations, but it looked like Mal wanted his pound of metaphorical flesh. Jim gritted his teeth and wished that getting tied up and shoved around by a merc with the intelligence of a common sheepdog was the worst humiliation Mal demanded. However, having to admit that he'd killed for the wrong gorram side... that burned his throat like stomach acid.

"Letting farmers get raided by slavers and abused by landowners who treat them like slaves isn't right either," Jim pointed out.

"Gao yang jong duh goo yang! The rebellion weren't standing up for slavers."

"But you protected them. Slavers paid for your ships."

"The ships you blasted to scrap metal without giving them a chance to fire a single shot." Mal leaped up from his chair, his hand on his gun.

"Sir! Remember, you said you wouldn't shoot a man who had no chance to defend himself."

Mal gave Zoe a nasty look. "I reckon I'm giving him about as much of a chance as he gave our fleet."

If Jim was going to die, he sure as hell wasn't going to die with the bitter taste of confession in his mouth. If Mal was determined to do some killing, Jim was determined to say a few truths. "I'm not the one who sent out crews who didn't know their thrusters from their firing pins." Jim spat the words. "One of the best men I ever served with was in that fleet. Captain Joel Taggart would have fought like hell and taken three or four ships before his one went down, and I knew it. I knew I was going to have a long hard fight against a man I respected, even if I gorram hated the side he took in this war. But he never fired a single shot. Aiya! He was killed by his own. Idiot Browncoat rebels trying to run every direction at the first sign of a fight. Crashing into each other, taking out friendlies instead of focusing on the job at hand. I didn't put green kids and idiots on those ships--the rebellion did."

Mal had turned a special shade of white, and even Zoe had gone ashen-gray, her lips pressed tightly together.

"We came out of that comet cloud blind. One rebel ship ramming us and creating a log jam would have crippled the Alliance fleet. I took a chance hoping to surprise the rebel fleet and minimize the losses. It was a gorram gamble. If Joel had been on the near side of the rebel fleet, I would have lost. He would have rammed the first Alliance cruiser and our formation would have been fractured as every ship was left fighting for itself. That's the briefing I gave the other captains. But Joel was killed by some moron trying to run for cover that didn't exist. So don't make out that I'm the monster that took your precious dream away. Your precious dream was nothing more than smoke defended by untrained chun zi with heads full of glory instead of common sense."

"Seems like you have a whole lot of opinions," Mal said, his voice thick with contained anger.

"Yeah, I do," Jim agreed. "I'm not saying the Alliance is any better, and I figure I've had a good long time to think about that, but don't go claiming some moral high ground."

"I never claimed to be a good man—"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa." Blair hurried right back into the room, his hands help up. "Okay, we all know that Jim has a different point of view. No need to go shooting the big idiot." Blair glared at Jim, but Jim just kept his eyes straight ahead. "Okay, clearly we can't go leaving you two without a minder. Geez. Chill."

"See? Won't stop pulling their carts," River announced as she trailed in after him.

"Blair? What is it?" The doctor trailed after River, like some sort of bizarre train.

"Horses. Whenever she talked about the war, she would use the metaphor of the soldiers as horses," Blair explained to the doctor happily enough, but Jim noticed that the man landed right in Mal's line of fire, and that was not a coincidence. Blair smiled at River. "So when she came hurrying up to us in the hall saying that the horses kept pulling their carts on the same track, I figured Mal and Jim were about ready to start up a new battle between the Alliance and the Browncoats, which is a little amusing because Jim doesn't support the Alliance anymore. He's just too gorram stubborn to admit he was wrong, and he's too gorram right about there being all kinds of shady folk mixed up with the Browncoats.

"There was this one guy... he actually sent two goons to try and grab Naomi. I mean, yeah, she walked away from the Companion Institute and rejected their regimented approach to spirituality, but this guy tried to force her into one of his whore houses. So not cool. So incredibly not cool. Man, she choose who she wanted to be enlightened with, and he was not on that list, but no one would stand up to him because he was some high-muckity-muck. He'd given ships and arms to the cause, and that was supposed to excuse the fact that he was scum. So, we all have not happy memories of the war, and we all need to stop dragging the same carts along the same tracks because, man, that war is done and over."

"All the tracks worn smooth just rut up again in the rain." River said this sadly.

"Totally," Blair agreed. "People suck. They seriously suck. So no more raining out of either of you," Blair pointed first at Mal and then Jim. "Wait. Why are you tied up?" Blair hurried toward Jim. Jim watched Mal, waiting for him to stop Blair, but he didn't comment as Blair reached around and started working the leather. "Aiya. Who did this? This is way too tight for circulation."

"Was more worried about him wiggling free," Jayne pointed out. Blair glared over at him.

"Jim can turn off pain receptors, so you can't trust him to know when something is physically damaging him."

Jim's arms feel to his sides, and Jim cringed when he saw his purpling flesh and the fingers swollen so big they looked like overripe grapes ready to split open.

"Jayne!" the doctor gasped. Mal was looking a little green around the gills, too, but it was the doctor who rushed forward, his mouth still running. "Of all the ignorant, careless things I've seen you do, and I've seen plenty, this is just about the worst. We need to elevate the hands. I'll need to get him back to medical to check for vascular damage and administer painkillers."

"Jim," Blair asked. "Do you need painkillers?"

Jim shrugged. "Tingles a mite. I've had a lot worse."

"Screams echoing down the hallway." River brought her hands up and wrung them. "Scream and scream, and they only record how loud your screams are. 101.2 decibels. 99.7 decibels."

"Yeah, but you can get your revenge by not screaming," Jim told her. River looked at him, her head tilted to the side. "It always pissed them off." Jim could feel a bitter smile tugging the edges of his lips. When you were in hell, you found amusements in the smallest revenge.

She slowly smiled. "Increase pain stimulus over and over, but no scream. Feet black from cold. Dead flesh, but no screaming. Corrupt the datum. Annoy them like fish caught in a hall of mirrors."

"Exactly," Jim agreed. "If you can't fight back, you always try to annoy the torturers." Jim got some satisfaction from Mal's stricken expression. The man might not like Alliance, but he clearly had even bigger issues with torturers. "If you're going down, at least annoy those that are about to take you down," he said with his eyes pinned firmly on the captain. From the way Mal's whole body stiffened, he got Jim's point.

"Jayne," Mal said darkly. "That were stupid. That were more stupid than usual. You want to explain just what you were thinking?"

"He weren't complaining," Jayne defended himself loudly.

"Aiya. It's like a convention of the obdurate and unenlightened." Blair used a hand on Jim's arm to guide him out of the room. "Medical for you. And man, if you can't keep control of the pain dial, you tell me. Do not try and play stoic."

"I'm not actually playing at anything. I don't feel much," Jim defended himself. "You can stop playing mother hen, Sandburg."


"I've been injured far worse."


Blair just kept agreeing with whatever Jim said, but that didn't keep him from guiding Jim with his hands on Jim's elbow or from dropping a thousand soft touches onto Jim's arm. It was mighty hard to argue with a man who just agreed with you and kept right on doing what you were asking him not to do, so Jim finally just gave up and let Blair usher him to a treatment bed. Behind him, Jim could hear Mal and Jayne start in on each other, so maybe one disaster had been averted.

"You really don't feel this?" the doctor asked. He stared at Jim's hands with a familiar fascination that made Jim's stomach tighten into a knot. "Fascinating."

"His pain receptors scream into the dark, but no one is listening," River shouted after them. She was either staying in the mess hall or going back up to pilot the ship, and Jim didn't even want to think about the craziness of allowing one of the Institutes little projects to pilot. At one point, Jim had been a damn fine pilot himself, but he sure would never let himself get behind the controls now... not with his own body so out of control.

Jim looked down. He realized that Dr. Tam was supporting his right arm and Blair was holding his left.

"I can hold my own arms up," Jim said peevishly.

"There's muscular damage. Holding the limbs up will only increase the potential for long-term harm. How can you ignore this?" Dr. Tam bent down to study Jim's purpling flesh.

"Oh man, Jim can do amazing things. This... this is more one of his anti-amazing things, because ignoring pain signals is so not cool. But he can hear a single bolt letting steam escape through the threads when it's down in the middle of a working engine. The Institute was amazed at what he could do. I mean, I can't explain the anatomy of it because my thing was always the psychology, but it's incredible."

"It's not as incredible as it is annoying," Jim disagreed.

Dr. Tam abandoned his attempt to walk and examine the damage at the same time. "Like with River. What she can do is incredible, but I'd rather have her back the way she was," Dr. Tam said quietly, and Jim really couldn't disagree. The Institute thought they were justified. He'd heard them talking in their little gathering rooms with their worthless sound insulated walls that they thought protected them. They thought the test results meant that all the pain was worth it, and they'd grown so used to seeing people as "test subject 57-B-4" that they'd lost track of what they were doing.

"That happens when people get too curious... too fascinated with science," Jim said. He only realized how Blair would hear that when he looked at his lover's guilty expression. Cao. He hadn't meant to dredge up that old guilt; he'd only wanted to make sure that this new doctor didn't show too much interest in Jim's abilities. "Chief," Jim whispered. As far as he was concerned, Blair had nothing to apologize for, but he'd still accepted Blair's apologies over and over until Jim was sure the man couldn't have any guilt left. And still, Blair always found more.

The guilt vanished as Blair gave him a bright smile that might have fooled someone who didn't know him and couldn't see the pain running just under his skin. "No problem. I know what you mean. Oh man, that is going to hurt like a hwun dan when you actually start feeling things again."

"I'll be fine," Jim promised. Blair's snort was not exactly reassuring, but then Blair had been through this with him before. They'd stowed away once, and Jim had been crushed by shifting cargo. Once they'd hit planet side, Jim's pain dial had completely spun out of control. This time would be different though. No way would it hurt as much. The injuries weren't internal, and they certainly weren't as bad as the frostbite that had turned his skin black or the acid burn test that left his skin peeling off in great sheets while the flesh weeped.

"I don't really see how you can say that," Dr. Tam said, leading them into a small examination room. Jim had to grit his teeth and force his fear back just to get himself to lie down on the examination table. Carefully settling Jim's arm at his side, Blair moved closer to his head and rested a hand on his shoulder.

"Hey. How are you doing? Do you think the captain would care if I eviscerated the big, stupid one?" Blair teased.

"Jayne?" Dr. Tam asked as he gathered silver equipment that shone under the medical lights. Jim closed his eyes and tried to strangle the irrational fears that rose. "Some days I wish someone would strangle him. While I believe in charity for my fellow man, Jayne can truly test a man's patience. He would do anything for money. Believe it or not, he tried to turn River and me over to the Alliance, and then he accepted our gratitude for helping us fight our way back out of the detention center where his duplicitous actions had landed us."

"Whoa. Okay, not cool," Blair said. Jim ignored the words and held on to the tone, to the sound of Blair's voice and his heart pounding steadily. "I would think Captain Mal was not exactly the sort to have a sense of humor about that."

"I still don't know what happened between those two, but Jayne is still here."

"But not regular crew? I mean, if he's a regular mercenary, he didn't go with you on a suicide run on Miranda, did he?" Jim could hear Blair's confusion, and he had to admit that Jayne was a hard one to peg. Clearly he was uneducated, bordering on just flat-out stupid, but he was the one the captain trusted to watch prisoners. He got clearly emotional when the subject of the dead came up, but the doctor seemed to think that Jayne valued only the money. Then again, maybe the others couldn't see his emotions. Jim found that sometimes his Sentinel abilities meant that he could read people so well that he didn’t realize he was seeing beyond what others could. He mentally reviewed his observations of Jayne while the doctor did something that made his hands tingle more.

When the subject of their dead came up, Jayne's eyes had dilated and his lips had thinned. He'd been unhappy, and he'd made his profile slightly smaller, pulling his shoulders in. That wasn't exactly the signature of a man who valued money. Of course, any man who wanted money would be wise to steer clear of this ship because this crew was not coming off as any sort of financial masterminds.

"I guess I just don't understand all the crew," Blair said weakly. Jim knew that admission had to hurt because Blair could usually lay out a whole person's life within five minutes of meeting them. His psychological skills were the best or else the Institute would never have hired him.

"They aren't easy people to get to know," Dr. Tam agreed. "Captain Jim, are you doing okay?"

"It's just Jim." Jim opened his eyes. "I stopped being a captain in the Alliance a long time ago." His hands were actually looking better. Some of the excess blood had been drained so the flesh had an almost normal color and the size had come down. The edges of his nails was flaking, which mean the doctor had been a little too enthusiastic about using the healer. The dried cuticles were going to annoy him for a while.

"Jim," Dr. Tam said almost reverently, and Jim gritted his teeth in the face of that idiotic adoration. "I'm almost done. The surface is going to be tender for a while, but I think I have most of the arterial damage under control."

The pain dial slipped out of Jim's control, and suddenly the slight tingling turned into a living fire that ate its way up his arms. Jim screamed as his nerve endings came to life.

"Whoa." Blair grabbed his shoulder. "Visualize that pain dial. You can see it. Look at the LED indicators on the panel, what do they say?"

"Ten," Jim hissed out.

"Is he okay?" Dr. Tam stood, the healer in his hand and a horrified look on his face. Blair shook his head, but when the doctor pulled back, the air eddies brushed over the skin, and every nerve registered the movement. A single hair moving in its pore felt like an ice pick being pried against his skin and Jim cried out roughly.

"Dial it down to a nine. You can control this. Move it from a ten to a nine. I know it's stuck, but man, you have never backed down to anything, and you will not let a little dial beat you, dong ma?" Blair demanded. Jim struggled. In his imagination, his hands were so badly damaged that he had trouble visualizing himself turning that knob. It stuck. His fingers were so thick with pain that he couldn't bend them around it.

"Come on. Tell me when you get to nine. Blair's voice was a soft curtain that draped over Jim's pain, dulling it like a sheer diffuses the light.

"I can give him a shot of—"

"No. Jim, I know it's bad, but maybe you need to just slide away. Let the pain go. Do you see the switch for touch? Find the power button and just let it go. I'll be here. I'll watch out for you." Jim lost himself to the voice and the struggle to control his senses. "Power it down, Jim. Let us handle this." Jim let his body slide away into a place where he would feel no more pain.


Chapter 6

"You alive?"

Jim opened his eyes to see Mal in the doorway. "I figure it'll take a whole lot more than that to end me." Jim looked around. "Where's Blair?"

Mal's expression twisted, and Jim could feel fear rip through him. He forced himself to sit up even though his whole body was still weak. Clearly the doctor had given him something. "He's fine. He threatened all kinds of bodily harm if I so much as upset you. He's a mouthy little shit," Mal said with a pained expression, so Jim figured that Blair had really gotten his mouth running but good.

"He really is a good man," Jim said.

With a frown, Mal leaned against the wall and studied Jim in a way that made him mighty uncomfortable. "He spends a whole lot of time saying the same about you. He spends enough time saying it that about all I want right now is a little peace where someone isn't chasing after me listing all your positive attributes." That made Jim smile. Blair pretty much won arguments by wearing people down with talk instead of throwing a punch the way most men did. Mal shrugged, which did seem to suggest he was as helpless against Blair's unconventional attacks as most men. "How about we call a truce and just don't go talking on certain subjects?"

"Like the war?" Jim guessed.

Mal looked around at all the doctor's equipment. "Might be we should leave the subject alone."

Jim nodded. "It's not a subject I really want to discuss, so that seems fair. At least as long as not talking about it means you don't plan to throw both of us out an airlock." A little part of Jim wanted him to just drop the subject, but until he had this man's word that they were safe, Jim wasn't feeling safe.

"I reckon I can live with that so long as you aren't walking around here talking about your glory days."

A dark laugh slipped out of Jim. "Trust me, I remember those days as anything but glorious. I generally spend reunification day getting so drunk I can't stand up. At least I did until the Institute left me like this." Jim held up his bandaged hands. They itched. "So, as just one more passenger you're hauling around, I'm wondering if you've figured out the radiation leak."

"I ain't so sure we have one," Mal shook his head. "I know River's a reader, and a gorram good one, but Kaylee knows this ship, and she's been all over it three times and claims there ain't a thing wrong with her."

"The cargo?" Jim guessed. The captain would have to be an idiot to have not checked, but with this crew, Jim couldn't take that risk.

"Nope. What I got is a whole lot of worthless data disks with three year old racing stats sitting on top of a whole heaping pile of Darga root."

Jim cringed. Aiya. He wasn't sure what was worse, the fact that he was traveling with a drug smuggler or the fact that Mal was a drug smuggler by accident. This ship sure wasn't run the way he was used to a ship running. Jim sighed. Then again, the way he was used to things running, no one had any say or any right to speak up. That kind of blind obedience hadn't exactly worked out real well for him either.

"No smart comments?" Mal asked, clearly surprised.

With a shrug, Jim shifted around. His hands were still giant, useless cotton balls, and the annoyance of that was far greater than his annoyance with Mal. "Don't suppose it's any of my business what cargo you run. Not anymore. There was a day that I worked enforcement out here, and I will say that your story would not have been real convincing."

Mal scratched his cheek for a second. "Don't exactly look good for us, but now that we know what we're carrying, we can secure it. Honestly, I wouldn't believe that story myself if someone else were the one telling it." He scratched again. "Of course, if'n the Alliance boards, the cargo ain't going to be their first priority."

"True." Jim closed his eyes.

"Your little friend seems to think we're all at the end of a gun here, that whatever River has bouncing around in her head, it's as deadly as she seems to think."

Jim opened his eyes and looked at Mal. The man was studying the wall most carefully.

"I never knew one of the Institute's projects to be wrong about something like that," Jim said slowly. "The scientists didn't really know my range, so my cell's soundproofing was inadequate, and I can tell you that at least three of them starting making a fuss the night before one of them went missing. I guess that was River. The scientists never did figure out how they knew, but they did. They always knew when something big was coming, even if the scientists couldn't decipher their warnings until after it happened. That's how Blair got me out. He started planning the escape, and when the readers started in with their crazy metaphors and the place went into lockdown, he grabbed me during a transfer. If River says there's danger, I'm willing to put my money on it. More than that, I'm willing to put my freedom on the line for it."

Mal wandered over to the counter and picked up a cylinder of something. "Last time she started her crazy talk, the Alliance sent the Operative after us and we ended up having to run for Miranda just to get the ammunition to get them to back off. She ain't been near as much with the crazy since. In fact, she's been downright sane ever since. So that leaves me to ask whether the danger isn't something you're bringing on my ship."

"Might be." Jim could hardly deny that the Alliance wanted him back pretty badly. If Mal wanted to drop them on the nearest planet, Jim couldn't complain. "When you say they sent the Operative, are you using that word to mean agent, or did this man actually call himself the Operative?"

"Seems like you might know something about him." The thing in Mal's hand clattered as he tossed it back onto the counter.

"I heard a lot in there. The scientists stopped thinking about me as a prisoner and I was one more piece of furniture." Jim grimaced. That had been one of the worst parts, but Jim had fought to keep quiet and foster that disrespect. Oh, he could have tried to get them to identify with him and develop sympathy, but he had chosen to gather information and endure the process of dehumanization. Only Blair had cut through his façade to see how much he was hurting.

"Man makes mistakes when he underestimates his enemy." From the tone, Mal was making it pretty clear that he still considered Jim an enemy, even if he was willing to call a truce.

"He does," Jim agreed. "River and the other students were version 2.0 of their project. The Operative was the original. He doesn't have the physical abilities and he has limited access to the sort of mind-power they have, but he can read people and make almost impossible predictions. Blair always wondered why they weren't sending him after us, and I guess now we know. Is he dead?" Jim prayed to the universe that they would give him just one gift.

"Still up and kicking last I knew. Whoever holds his leash pulled him back after we got the message out. I guess we aren't that important anymore. We already told about their dirty little secret."

"And I still have all my secrets." Jim let his head fall back against the examination table. That had been their only advantage. They didn't know why the Operative wasn't on their trail, but he wasn't, and that had allowed them to slip through the noose over and over. Jim didn't have a lot of illusions about their chances if the man was now available to track them. Cao. It would explain why they'd been run so hard to ground in the last week. The man was hunting them and just keeping in the shadows so they didn't know the game had changed. "He's going to know we've taken up with you," Jim confessed. He didn't have a right to pull these people into his mess—not after they'd just crawled out of their own.

"How you figure that?" Mal was sounding surprisingly reasonable for a man who had just learned he was in the crosshairs again.

"The Operative is a reader. Readers create a sort of dead zone around them. River can't see him directly, and he can't see her. If we've dropped off his radar, he's going to know that could only mean one of two things—I'm back in the Institute and the other readers are shielding me or I'm with River."

At first, Mal didn't react. Jim tipped his head up in time to see Mal close his eyes and mutter something physically impossible about elephant diarrhea in Chinese. It was amazing how much more obscene anything became when muttered in Chinese.

"If I can get Blair to agree to it..." Jim sighed at the difficulty of that task... "will you take him on as crew if I move on? The Operative is sure to come after me." Jim figured he could run long enough and hard enough to give the Institute hunters a challenge, and then he could end it hard and fast. If he could take a couple of them with him, well that would be all the better.

Mal crossed his arms and just frowned at Jim in a way that made it pretty clear Jim wasn't going to like whatever he was about to say. Jim nodded. He'd try and find some other haven for Blair, then.

"Seems like you're mighty set on getting yourself killed there, Jimmy."

Jim narrowed his eyes at the captain, but then considered he was nearly unarmed and physically injured, Jim didn't figure his glare would go far. "Let's just say I'm realistic."

"And you're realistically talking yourself into an early grave. You mind explaining that to me because I never thought you'd be a coward. I expected an Alliance-loving back-stabbing, honorless son of a whoring turtle, sure, but not a coward."

"Son of a turtle works a lot better in Chinese. In English, it just sounds like you ran out of insults and reached a little too far to make one up," Jim pointed out.

"And if I tell that little sly friend of yourn that you're slightly on the suicidal side, he'll make your life so close to a living hell you really will welcome death," Mal counterattacked, and Jim had to admit that the captain had him there. If Blair heard any of this, Jim was going to get lecture on enlightenment until the rest of his hair fell out.

"You want the cards on the table?" Jim asked. It wasn't like he had anything left to lose. "Fine. The long and short of it is that we're out of money, out of planets, and out of time. I had a dozen false identities and bolt holes when I worked undercover, and my boss didn't know about most of them. Banks is a good man, but systems get hacked and waves get intercepted, so I took care of myself. But every bolthole that I ran for, the Institute flushed us out of. We're out of money, stowing away on ships and eating stolen food, and still on every planet they get closer. This last time... they were two rows over. If your pilot hadn't taken off as fast as she did, they would have gotten close enough to disable me, and then I would have been back in that cell and Blair would have been in the cell next to me. My time's up. I've come to accept that the same way you just sometimes know when you're losing the battle. It doesn't mean you stop fighting, but it means you change your expectations about how it's going to end up. And if I die, that's still a better future than I was looking at a year ago. Blair gave me back my freedom and a chance to die on my feet. I just refuse to pull Blair down with me."

Mal's eyes had gotten all big. "So you really were trying to get me to help you with a bit of suicide? Cao. I thought he were making that up."


"Your Blair. He were the one who asked me to come in and poke about to see if you were losing your mind or just really set on getting yourself dead."

"He... but. Cao." Jim let his head thunk back against the exam table. "I'm never hearing the end of this."

"Oh man, never is a long time, but you aren't hearing the end of this for at least three lifetimes," a familiar voice told him. Jim could hear as Blair's feet scuffed against the floor as he hurried past Mal.

"I should have heard you out there," Jim said peevishly, but he already had a pretty good idea what happened.

"You needed to turn the senses off for a while. How long has it been since you really slept? You just doze. Doze and let your senses constantly check the surroundings. Man, the brain needs rest." Jim glared at his partner. "And when it comes to understanding the senses and how far you can't push the human brain without sleep, I'm actually the expert. I have three degrees to prove it." Blair softened his words by coming close and trailing his fingers down Jim's arm. His eyes were dangerously bright, and as much as Blair hated crying in public, he looked pretty close to doing just that.

"I'll forgive you for slipping me the gorram drugs if you forgive me for pulling you into all this," Jim said softly.

Blair shook his head. "No way. Wait. That sounds like I'm not forgiving you. No, I mean that I got myself into this because I was so gorram curious and so gorram caught up in the possibilities that I didn't stop and do a morality check until way too late. Way too late. So I got myself into this. You and River just gave me a chance to do something good after putting myself into a big steaming pile of bad."

"You two are almost annoying in your mutual supportiveness," Mal commented. "I ain't sure whether you've gone and drunk some sort of happy water or if you're both a little touched in the head."

"He's touched in the head," Jim quickly answered, bringing a bandaged hand up to brush over Blair's cheek. "However, when it comes to strategy, I'm running the show, right?" Jim demanded. He knew the logical way out of this, but Blair was going to kick and scream the whole way. Even now he was fighting against answering, biting his lip and just looking at Jim.

"Show me a flaw in my logic, Chief. Show me one card we haven't played, and I'll change my mind. But I'm not taking any of this lightly, and I just don't see any way out unless you stay here where River can shield you."

"They want me, too," Blair said, and that was his stubborn expression.

"Yes," Jim said slowly, "they want you if they can get you, but they've already discredited your work and thrown up so much mud that you'll never convince anyone to listen to your stories about some grand conspiracy. I'm the one they need dead. I'm the one that keeps them up at night worrying, both about the contacts I might use and the information I might have overheard."

"We could go to Naomi," Blair blurted out. This was another old argument, and Jim didn't even bother answering; he just looked at his partner.

"If anyone could talk an evil government conspiracy out of being evil just through the sheer power of guilt, it would be Naomi." Blair gave a little laugh, but Jim noticed he wasn't making any attempt to actually argue the point. Jim's guts tightened. A little part of him had hoped that Blair would have a good counter-argument, that he could pull just one more rabbit out of his hat. Jim had already given up on living once, and Blair had given him back his life, but Blair didn't have anything left to give.

"How about I give the ship a good searching and see if I can't find this danger River is talking about," Jim suggested. A job would be better than sitting around waiting for planetfall so he could start his final run. Even though he should be making plans and gathering information on which planet they were heading for, Jim didn't ask. He didn't want to know whether he had days or just hours left with Blair.

"You think you can find what Kaylee couldn't?" Mal asked. He had spent the entire conversation studying them, but Jim was too tired to hide his feelings, and he didn't think it mattered much anymore.

"Yep," Jim said. He started swinging his legs around. The world warbled in and out of focus, straight lines warping into curves.

"Oh man, you can do that after the last of the drugs wears off."

"God, Sandburg, how much did you use?" Jim blinked to try and clear his vision.

"About a fourth of what I usually use." Blair did not sound amused. "You were about ready to pass out on your own. I just helped a little. Actually, that should not have put you down at all, so there is no way you can afford to focus your senses for a full search of the ship. No way. Priority one is to get a little lunch in you, and then we can check the hands, and then you need more sleep."

"We have time for that?" Jim asked, looking over toward Mal.

"Ain't like I'm in a hurry to get anywhere in particular," Mal shrugged and then headed for the door. "River opened every can of peaches we got, so we're having a peach-themed lunch before they can go bad. I swear, I miss her saner days already." With that, Mal was gone.

Jim sighed. He'd wanted time to plan his conversation with Blair—time to gather his arguments and put up sandbags around his failing emotional walls. He never meant for Blair to hear him talk about their failures to someone else, but it didn't change the fact that they had failed. No matter how hard they ran and no matter how many tricks Jim used, they couldn't break free of the Institute and the leash was still around their necks. Blair stood beside Jim's bed, and his silence did tend to suggest that he had pretty much reached the same conclusions. "How about we check the hands now, Chief? I don't really want you feeding me in front of the crew." Jim lifted his mummified hands. He was guessing Blair was responsible for the bandage overkill.

Blair rolled his eyes. "Manhood does not require you to ignore injuries."

"No, but male ego does. Besides, if the doc knows his stuff, they'll be healed enough for light use," Jim said. "I need to get the muscles loosened up, and I don't have a lot of time to spare."

That was the wrong thing to say. Blair's breath caught in his chest and then Jim could smell the salt of Blair's tears. Wiping angrily at his eyes with the back of his hand, Blair reached out and started unwinding the gauze.

"Chief," Jim whispered.

"No. Don't go there. Man, I am not prepared to talk about this right now. Later, okay?" Blair looked up, his eyes so red that Jim could trace the veins as they lazily wandered through the white. "Later," Blair whispered, brushing his eyes again. Jim nodded. Blair deserved a little time to get himself together. Jim just hoped Mal wasn't planning on setting down too soon; this wasn't how Jim wanted to leave it with Blair.

Once Blair got Jim's hand unwrapped, Jim could see the skin red and dried from the healer. Blair sandwiched Jim's hand between his two palms, the warmth making Jim's skin itch even more, but he wasn't about to say that, not when every moment of contact had become so important.

"I love you," Jim said softly. He wanted to add more, but anything he might say would just hurt Blair more. Blair wanted to force the universe to be fair. If Blair was right about them having other lives after this one, Jim could only hope that they found peace in some distant future because he didn't expect to ever have it in this lifetime. In this lifetime he was simply grateful beyond belief that he was going to die fighting; he was going to die knowing he had found a safe haven for Blair. It was enough.

Taking a deep breath, Blair let Jim's hand go like it was the most difficult thing in the world. Jim brought his hand up and cupped Blair's cheek, resting his thumb against his lower lip. "I will always love you." Jim stopped, not trusting his own voice to stay steady.

Time shuddered and stopped, and Jim just stared at Blair, memorizing every inch. Then something beeped, and time caught up with itself, and Blair reached for the bandages still wrapped around his second hand.

"Man, do not count us out yet. The universe has a way of surprising us. There are more things in heaven and hell than are dreamt of in your pessimistic philosophy, James Joseph Womak," he said firmly. Jim smiled. Maybe. He allowed himself to feel just a little spec of irrational hope as Blair undid the bandages on his second hand. Maybe, but probably not.

Chapter 7

Jim was still flexing his hands, trying to get feeling back into the stiff muscles as they walked the corridors. "No guard?" Jim asked suspiciously. His mind went to the possibility of sealing off a section and flushing it to space.

It was an easy way to get rid of someone. Jim had done it himself when he'd been second in command on Captain Taggard's ship before transferring over to Captain Banks. Pirates had gotten on board, which had been part of the plan when they'd flown a decoy into pirate-held space. The part that hadn't gone according to plan was where the pirates had used an electrical disruptor cannon. Two guards died when their control panels exploded in their faces. Three more were flat-out electrocuted and most of the crew, including Captain Taggard, had been knocked out cold. Jim had been the first one to wake up, and with no ability to control the situation or arrest the pirates who had taken the bait, he had locked down crew quarters and flushed the corridors to space. Men died silently and quickly once you took their air away.

"Man, turn off your natural pessimism." Blair slipped his arm around Jim's waist.

"Says the man who's running from an entire government," Jim pointed out. Both of them had some cause for pessimism.

"Yep, but think about this... the universe landed us in the one place where the Operative can't actually see us."

"Which is how he's going to know exactly where we are," Jim countered.

"Okay, I'm trying to give the universe some room to work here. You might try a little positive thinking." Blair gave Jim a disgusted look before darting ahead and practically running down the stairs toward the hall that led to the galley.

"Anything fall off?" Jayne stepped out of the shadows where the deck walls met at an odd angle that created dead space. Firefly class ships were like that... funny little corners and odd angles.

"Nope," Jim answered. Jayne didn't have his big gun, but he was still carrying enough weaponry to set Jim's arm hairs on end. Jim expected some sort of smug reaction or maybe outright sadism, but instead, Jayne looked almost relieved. Could be the captain had given him grief because Mal did not seem like the sort to torture a man. He was more the sort to just shoot them.

Jayne fell in beside Jim, and Blair looked over his shoulder with a Cheshire grin that made Jim even more suspicious.

"You want something?" Jim just came right out and asked. He didn't know what Jayne was playing at, but he was not in the mood, and the last of the drugs was still pulling at him, preventing him from using his senses as easily as he had come to expect.

"Nope." Jayne walked a little faster so that he hit the door to the galley before Jim. For a second, Jim got a crawling feeling of dread as the large man came between him and Blair, and Jim stomped down on that dark instinct. He was planning on leaving Blair with these people, so he couldn't exactly go setting rules about them not getting too physically close to him.

Inside, Mal was already seated at the table with a bowl and Kaylee was hovering in the kitchen. "We got us peach cobbler... or something that comes close anyway and soup and biscuits.

Jayne walked over and nearly stuck his head in the soup pot. "Smells ripe."

Kaylee got an almost hurt look on her face. "It's just chicken and some peaches." From the look Jayne was giving her, that did not reassure him.

"Really?" Blair hurried over and sort of jostled Jayne to the side. Jim tensed up as Jayne's hands clenched, ready to follow up by throwing some fists, but Blair was totally engrossed in the pot. "My mother used to make this baked chicken and peach dish with a little clove and a little ginger. Wow. That brings back memories of home." Kaylee's smile lit up the room.

"We ain't got no clove or ginger, but I used cinnamon and something called allspice. I figured if it was called 'all' that must mean it's good for most anything."

"Good choices."

"Long as it don't poison us all, I reckon it's better than some would do," Mal said with a significant look in Jayne's direction. Jayne's body tensed up, but he didn't comment on Mal's criticism. He just grabbed a biscuit, walked over to the table and dropped down. Jim walked cautiously over toward Kaylee, not sure what the rules were now. Mal looked easy enough about having Jim walking around, but that look was deceptive. Even without using all his senses, Jim could see the tension in the captain.

"Looks good," Jim offered the engineer. Engineer. If she was a real engineer, she wouldn't be cooking or acting as the barker planetside. This whole ship ran like it was short crew, and Jim wondered how many they had lost during their little adventure at Miranda. Kaylee turned her smile toward him.

"Thank you kindly." She poured the thick soup into a bowl and handed it to him with a plate of cobbler and biscuit and something that might be a peach cookie or just a really flat piece of bread. It didn't matter to Jim as long as it was edible and had a lot of calories. They'd missed more than a few meals and even Blair was starting to look a little gaunt.

"Here you go," she said, offering the same to Blair.

"This smells really good. Doesn't it?" Blair asked. At first, Jim thought Blair was talking to him, but then Blair put the plate and bowl in front of Jayne before heading back for another plate for himself.

"Um... yeah. Ain't too bad," Jayne said, clearly confused. Jim sat across from Jayne and just enjoyed watching Blair turn that oversized brain to manipulating someone else for a change. Jim still wasn't sure if it was Naomi's training from the time Blair was a child or his psychology degrees, but the man could talk a settler out of his last horse and then make the settler thank him for the right to be swindled.

"So, it looks like Dr. Sandburg might be joining us for a more long-term stay," Mal commented just as Dr. Tam came in. The doctor's eyes went big.

"Truly?" he asked, and Jim wondered how the man managed to hold on to so many core mannerisms out here on the edge of nowhere. He sounded just like a cadet straight out of Alliance training. When Blair didn't answer, Jim looked over to see him just on the verge of sitting, his face stony and frozen.

"Yes, he is," Jim answered for him. That not only got Blair moving, but it earned him another glare from Blair as he sat.

Mal stopped eating for a second. "I suppose that means that we'll need to figure out what he's going to do."

"He's a doctor," Simon said as if that explained everything.

"Ain't seeing a need to have more than one of those on board," Mal said. If Jim were Simon Tam, he would have taken that as a warning. Simon, however, looked ready to argue.

Blair stopped that by holding up a hand. "Hey! I am not a medical doctor. I mean, I can take out a splinter and figure out which antibiotic to give, but my specialty is psychology. I haven't done actual medical practicing in a good long time because I focused my work on persistent, reoccurring psychotic episodes. My hypothesis is that psychotic episodes are actually periods of other-awareness rather than dysfunctions in and of themselves."

"You studied at Sihnon," Simon said with the sort of dry disgust Jim used to use to describe cadets coming out of Persephone's military academy. The place was little more than a warehouse of adolescents with attitudes.

"And you," Blair poked his spoon in Simon's direction, "studied at either Bellerophon or Osiris to get an attitude like that going. Did you know that on Earth-that-was, there were entire cultures that revered schizophrenics because of their ability to see the world through a different lens? Entire cultures. Our assumptions are just that... assumptions. We think they're processing information incorrectly only because they're doing it differently that we would."

"And they're unable to care for themselves or form coherent memories during the events."

"Define coherent." Blair's hands were dancing in the air now, and both Mal and Jayne were looking on like they weren't sure what was going on. Kaylee just started eating and Jim followed suit. "You're defining that term based on your own perceptions, just like you interpret River's behavior based on what you think a young woman should do. Norm-referenced behaviors are not, by default, correct."

"So, how would you handle it? Should we leave schizophrenics to..."

Mal whistled loudly, cutting the conversation short, and Blair looked over with the sort of happy curiosity he always showed. One day the man might figure out that most men didn't like getting interrupted in the middle of a fight, but today was not going to be the day.

"I ain't following any of this, because I'm still back on pondering what Blair is going to do with us if he takes a job as crew."

Blair dropped his gaze down to his plate, and his whole body just stilled. Jim could tell he was trying to come up with some argument for staying with Jim, but the time for that was past. If the Operative was coming after them, their time was up.

"You'd be a good barker, Chief," Jim commented. "That would free up Kaylee to scrounge for engine parts because it can't be easy to keep a ship this old flying the black."

"Amen," Kaylee said softly. "What are you going to sign on as?" Kaylee asked Jim with this guileless expression that stopped the words in Jim's throat. He looked over toward Mal, but the man's face was blank.

"I'm not," Jim said quietly. "And Blair is good with food. In the war, he learned to make most things palatable, even when he was cooking with tumbleweeds. However, if he tries to get you to eat his pickled tumbleweed recipe, I would suggest that you pass."

"It made the supplies last. The soldiers didn't complain," Blair said softly.

"Wait. You ain't happy about staying behind, but you are anyway?" Jayne asked, staring at Blair in a way that made all Jim's protective instincts come roaring to the forefront. Jayne might not be the simple mercenary he'd assumed when he'd first seen the man, but that didn't mean he had a right to go questioning Blair.

"Blair is in charge of anything touching on psychology, which is why I'm not yelling about him using drugs on me when I really didn't want them used," Jim said firmly. "However, I'm the one trained in strategy, and if I tell him that the only feasible strategy is for us to split up, then I would expect my partner to listen."

Jayne looked at Jim, and now he looked even more confused. Jim looked from Jayne to Blair, hoping that Blair could somehow explain whatever weirdness the mercenary had going on in his head, but Blair looked just as confused as Jim.

"I thought you were the manish one," Jayne finally told Blair. Jim might have taken offense at that, but Jayne was pretty clearly confused rather than just trying to be offensive.

"What?" Now Blair had turned all his attention to Jayne, which was good because it meant he wasn't thinking about the future that was rushing toward them faster than Jim liked.

"Him letting you do the fucking..." Jayne poked a thumb in Jim's direction. "I thought that made you the one who were a man."

"Oh good lord," Simon said quietly, his face getting quite pink.

"I am a man," Blair said. "I even have testicles to prove it, although I would really rather not provide visual evidence of that right now."

"Huh?" Jayne tilted his head, and Jim took a bite of peach soup just to keep from laughing. Yeah, insulting Blair's manhood was not healthy for anyone, and more than one person had learned that the hard way. Blair could be downright hard on a person's ego.

"I have balls; therefore, I am a man."

"But yer crying."

Jim's head came up, and he was surprised to see Blair wipe at the corner of his eye. Kaylee's overspiced soup and the drugs were clearly still interfering, but Blair wasn't apologizing for his tears at all. "I'm a man with balls who was crying," he said harshly.

"Oh, Blair," Kaylee breathed. That was one who Jim could trust to look after his partner.

"Okay, do you have a point here or did the universe just put you here to test my patience or perform penance?" Blair demanded of Jayne. Now Jayne was looking around the table like he expected one of them to back him up. Mal was looking very interested in the corner of the table, Simon was slowly reddening and Kaylee had her face scrunched up with sympathy for Blair.

"Cao. Ain't like I'm the one breaking all the rules here," Jayne said defensively. Maybe he realized that no one was on his side in this odd conversation.

Mal sighed. "You'd be best to ignore Jayne. He can say some mighty stupid things sometimes."

"Ain't like you aren't thinking the same thing." Jayne set both his elbows on the table.

"I really doubt I'm thinking anything nears to what you're thinking," Mal's tone of voice made it very clear that he expected there was a huge gulf between the thoughts of the two men.

Despite the frustration and danger clear in Mal's tone, Jayne kept right on trying to talk his way out of the mess he'd gotten himself into. Jim had a feeling it wasn't going to work, but he gave Jayne credit for being a gorram stubborn man who didn't give up easily. "I'm thinking that if'n the big one is the woman in the relationship, then the little one shouldn't be so girly."

"Yep, that is just about the most horrifying thing you could say, so naturally you go saying it."

Jim raised his spoon. "And can I add that I have testicles just as large as Blair's."

"Bigger even," Blair added. He speared two peaches out of his cobbler with his fork and then shoved both in his mouth at once so that Jim was reminded of growing up on Osiris and watching the chipmunks.

"And you're admitting that?" Jayne asked Blair. Now Jayne was confused and horrified.

Blair swallowed. "Did you know that in the animal kingdom, the species with the males who are least likely to get cheated on have the smallest testicles? The testicles of gorillas are like totally tiny." Blair held up two fingers to demonstrate just how small they were. "But rats. Whoa. Man, they have huge testicles. If our testicles were proportionally just as large as a rat's, then we'd have basketballs between our legs. But the rat gets cheated on way more than a gorilla, so it has to make up for that cheating in volume. It's all about the volume."

Mal was looking at Blair in dismay. "Surprised as I am to say this, I finally found someone whose conversating is even less appropriate than Jayne's. Rat testicles?"

"I think it's real interesting," Kaylee blurted out. Mal just looked at her with the same dismay he'd been using on Blair just a second ago.

"Exactly," Blair said smugly. "So you would think men would brag about having small balls. You know, more of a 'I don't need any more than this because my partner is faithful' kind of thing."

Jayne reached down and made a show out of grabbing his crotch. "I got two that are plenty big right here."

"And Jayne has reclaimed the title of most creepifying," Mal said wearily. "As the captain, I ain't interested in hearing any more on any part of anyone's sex life... or anything's sex life," he modified himself, pointing a finger at Blair.

Jim stirred his soup, and a lot of the little fears that had been squeezing his heart like tendrils started to loosen up. If Mal liked Blair enough to include him in the group teasing, then there was a good chance Blair had a place here long term. Given a choice, Jim wouldn't pick a captain crazy enough to make a run into Reaver space, but he had survived it. The fact that any of his crew made it out alive did suggest that the man might have some sort of brain.

"You know," Blair said, stirring the soup and wrinkling his nose so that he got wrinkles just at the bridge of it where his glasses rested. "We keep looking for radiation."

Mal looked downright relieved at the change of topics. "Seeing as how that's what River said were going to kill us, seemed reasonable."

Stirring his soup, Blair got that distant, dreamy tone to his voice that usually meant he was thinking about something too hard. "But what she said was that there was nuclear fusion in the peaches, and that's where the radiation was coming from."

"Ain't no radiation in those. I checked 'em before I started cooking," Kaylee offered.

"Yes, but we were assuming the peaches were the metaphor and the radiation was the part that was real. Let's turn that around. Assume that what she wanted us to look at was the peaches and radiation was a metaphor for..."

"For...?" Mal asked.

Blair shrugged. "I don't know, but that doesn't mean it's not a real danger. River's brain was rewired, particularly the language centers, but the information and memory is still intact."

"Ain't even going to go thinking too hard about how you know all this," Mal muttered, but then if he was muttering it, that meant he didn't plan to confront Blair about his bad choices in getting involved with the Institute.

"Where is River right now?" Blair stood up, his face lit with excitement, but before he could even turn around, River was there in the doorway, her bare feet and loose hair making her look much younger than she was.

"Listening to a brain that goes so fast it forgets where it's gone," River offered.

"Totally," Blair agreed amiably as he hurried to her side. "Talk to me about peaches, River."

River's eyes glazed. "It's always there, but no one sees it. Watching. Watching. No one watches the watcher."

"There she goes all crazy again," Jayne said in a voice that made it pretty clear he was feeling put upon. When Mal gave him a cold look, he grabbed a biscuit and shoved it in his mouth.

"The peaches are watching?" Blair asked.

River moved closer, and Jim stood up. He still had the slipwire in his belt if he needed it. That might be enough if she was distracted enough, but instead of attacking, she moved in and put her head down on Blair's shoulder. "In the corner. Look. No one looks. Not the peaches."

"Not the peaches?" Blair echoed, putting his arms around her. "It's the peaches, but it's not the peaches. And the thing watching us is in the corner."

Jayne snorted, but a look from Mal quieted him.

"Jim, any ideas?" Blair asked. Jim shrugged and looked into the kitchen. His vision zoomed in on a blue half-circle. The blue word "Blue" sat on top of the white word "Sun" inset into the half circle. Below it, the Chinese characters for blue and sun sat side by side.

"Um, Chief, could she be talking about the Blue Sun logo?" Jim asked. He was answered by a wild scream as River clung to Blair and caterwauled like an animal about to be taken for slaughter.

Chapter 8

"That was unexpected," Zoe said as she stood in the hallway where Blair had exiled all of them. He'd ordered a very surprised Jayne to keep everyone out and then slammed the door. Jayne looked almost surprised to be following Blair's orders, but he was. He'd put himself in the middle of the door and kept Simon from following.

"I'm her brother," Simon said for about the thousandth time, but Mal didn't look impressed, and he didn't tell Jayne to let the man past. So Jayne kept guarding the door.

"Can you hear anything?" Mal demanded, stopping his pacing long enough to stop in front of Jim.

Jim cocked his head. River was saying a whole lot of things that didn't make any sense at all, and Blair was offering quiet reassurances while, at the same time, clicking away on something. If Jim had to guess, he'd say Blair was taking notes on River's ravings. "Yep," Jim admitted. He stopped there, and Mal's face slowly twisted with frustration.

"You plan to share?"

"Nope." Jim reached over and used one hand to rub the sore fingers of the other.

"You want I should shoot him in the kneecap?" Jayne asked in the sort of voice that made it clear he'd consider it a pleasure. Funny, Jim had just come to the conclusion that Jayne wasn't a sadist, and now he was going out of his way to prove Jim wrong.

Mal didn't answer right away, and Jim just watched him. These people had to know that Jim allegiance would always be with Blair. "No," Mal finally said. "Gorram trouble just always finds my ship," he muttered after a second.

"Does seem like it, sir," Zoe agreed. Jim studied her. She was calm, but the second Jim paid her some attention, she focused on him, her sharp gaze just daring him to make a move. She would have made a good officer. "Sir, how much do we trust River's word that Blue Sun is dangerous?" Zoe asked the captain without taking her eyes off Jim.

Jim was surprised when Mal turned and looked at him. "I reckon you know more about the Core than any of us." He crossed his arms and just looked at Jim like he was half expecting Jim to refuse to give them any information. The fact was that Jim didn't feel much loyalty to the Alliance or the Core, not anymore.

He shrugged. "My father is an Ellison. He always said that any company was fair game except Blue Sun. He said that business was so big that they could take a loss on any one division until they managed to drive the competition out of business, and they had more than once. When Blue Sun got into the business of distributing alcohol, that's when my father shifted his business over to ship fuel. He didn't even try to hold on to his old contracts. Food distribution, medical technology, alcohol and even canned and dried foods—my father considered them all bad business because you don't compete with Blue Sun."

"Ain't much there we don't already know," Mal pointed out.

"It's not like I'm involved with the business world." Jim crossed his own arms and dared Mal to make an issue out of it.

"Wait. So Crazy's all worked up because of some gorram fruit seller?" Jayne asked.

"I reckon they're a mite bit more than fruit sellers," Mal said. "Leastwise, I assume based on the fact that River thinks they're going to be the death of us."

Jayne's snort was the only answer he gave.

"Sir, we could ask our contacts on Whitefall..." Zoe started.

"No," Mal cut her off before she could finish. "We ain't pulling anyone into this. We got a job, so we're staying in the black until it's time to deliver."

Zoe nodded, and Jim thought there was probably a story there. God knows he'd arrested men who hadn't done anything other than make the wrong friends, and then held them until he could find his fugitive, so he suspected their friends had been harassed more than once in some attempt to get at them.

At the time, Jim had called his actions justified. He was a lone lawman in a very wild territory, and he'd been doing what he had to in order to get the job done. Now he wondered if that hadn't been how his brother had started... just bend a little law here and a little law there. Cao. Jim couldn't even find it in him to hate Charlie for being a dirty cop. On lots of worlds, a dirty cop still ranked above a fugitive, and that's was Jim was. The great hero of the Alliance was a deserter and a fugitive.

Jim wondered if the Alliance would go pick up Charlie now and pick up where they'd left off in their sentinel research. Jim's twin was the only other man in the whole gorram verse guaranteed to have the gene for these cursed senses.

The door opened, and River was standing there, her hair hanging limp and her fingers scrambling at the edge of the door. Jayne fell back as fast as he could, but Jim couldn't tell if the merc realized just how dangerous she was or if he didn't want a crying woman picking his shoulder to cry on. Tears slipped over her cheeks as her eyes found Jim.

Slowly, she walked toward him, and Jim kept himself carefully still. If her attention was on him, he would never be able to move fast enough to disarm or disable her. Instead, he made eye contact with Blair who was now in the open door, and he prayed that Blair could use the safe word fast enough if it came down to it. The doc opened his mouth, maybe even to say the safe word, but Mal reached over and pulled the man closer, whispering a warning for him to keep his mouth shut.

"Lime green, Kelly green, jade, viridian," she murmured, "all whispering back. Whispering."

Jim frowned at Blair. Blair could only shrug helplessly. River frowned and tried again. "viridian, emerald, chartreuse. Anger. Moss and emerald. Fear, teal and viridian and streaks of forest."

"Whoa." Blair stepped forward. "Those are multi-functional brain scan colors. She's describing the frontal cortex colors of a scan."

"Why?" The doctor asked.

"Good question." Blair shrugged. "I have no clue."

"They listen. Always. Little teeth." Reaching up, she tangled her fingers in her hair.

"Ain't like this makes much sense," Mal pointed out.

"It makes perfect sense if you're River," Blair argued. "Only I can't quite figure out what frame of reference she's using."

"Torture. Pleasure. Whispering always. Won't stop whispering."

Jim cringed at the pain in her voice. He knew what it was like to find yourself unable to shut out the whispers that slipped into your head. When the Institute played their games with people's lives, they never even considered that men and women would have to live within these drastically damaged and altered bodies. For the Institute, they were all just tools. Tools didn't give up because they were too goram tired of trying to relearn how to interact with the world.

River inched closer to Jim. Reaching out, her fingers searched for him as she moved like a blind woman feeling for the wall. She touched him, her fingers warm on his neck, and then, with a low cry, River took off down the hallway, her bare feet slapping against the floor and her tears still drying on her face.

"I'll—" Blair started to say.

"Chief, let me try," Jim asked. He figured he could understand her frustration. When his senses had first come online, the scientists were always asking him to describe things that he didn't have the words for. He could see a thousand shades of red in a fire, but he only had about a half-dozen words. They had rarely been patient with his attempts to cooperate—and eventually he had just stopped even trying.

Blair looked at him with concern. "I can be patient when I want to be," Jim said dryly.

"If'n he's the womanly one, shouldn't he be the one doing the comforting, anyway?" Jayne asked, poking his thumb toward Jim. Clearly the man had issues, and Jim was starting to think that a fist would be the fastest solution for it.

"I would appreciate it," Jim said slowly, "if you would quit trying to call me womanly. Not that I have anything against women," Jim said with a tight smile in Zoe's direction. "But as a man, my cock is starting to take offense."

Jayne opened his mouth, probably to say something even more disturbing, but Mal spoke up. "Could be that you should just try not talking for a bit," he suggested.

Surprisingly, Jayne shut his mouth. Leaning over, Jim touched Blair's arm. "I'll be right back. If you hear screaming, come and use that safeword of yours."

Blair grimaced. "If she decides to go after you, I doubt I'd hear a scream."

That was probably true, but Jim understood River, and he understood why she'd rushed away from Blair. Blair made a person want more and try harder and when they still failed, well that was a mighty bitter pill to swallow. Jim didn't think Blair ever understood that even though Jim had tried to explain. Jim gave Blair another pat on the arm and then turned around to follow River up to the bridge.

"Captain Jimmy," Mal called. Jim cringed at the name, but he turned around to look at the other man. Raising an eyebrow, he waited for whatever Mal had to say. "She's crew, Womak." Mal didn't have to say any more; Jim understood the threat. Nodding, Jim turned and followed River.

The ship's song shifted as she chose new coordinates, the smaller correction engines puffing their breath into the black. River was turning the ship. Jim shook his head at the lack of discipline on this ship. Of course, considering that she was one of the Institute's projects, it was probably good that no one tried to keep her on a leash. She'd cut their hand off.

Stepping through the last bulkhead, Jim looked around at the bridge controls. The Firefly class ships had a dizzying number of gauges and dials and buttons, and River sat in the pilot's chair with her fingers dancing between them all.

Walking over to the co-pilot's chair, Jim sat down. She looked at him sharply. "You think too loud."

"I'll work on that." Jim stared out at the planets and moons, each a slightly different shade. To any other human, they would all look like stars lying on a curtain of black, but Jim could see each planet and each star, some colors muted and others brilliant white. When he'd been a pilot, he'd never truly appreciated the black. Now that he could see the beauty in the dust that floated between worlds, he couldn't trust himself to pilot a ship.

"I don't get lost in it," River said.

Jim glanced over. "I do," he admitted softly.

"I get lost in myself. Can't think. Can think, can't explain."

Jim nodded. "Is this danger going to come after us?"

"Yes." River turned to look at him, and he could see in her face that she didn't have one second of doubt on that front.

"If I take off, leave and lead the hunters away from the ship, will Blair be safe here?" Jim supposed he should be asking about all of them, but he'd had his illusions of nobility stripped away a long time ago. He didn't care about the others; he cared about Blair.

River tilted her head. "Teal and viridian and streaks of forest." She grimaced. Jim wondered what it must be like to know that you're sane and to know that you sound so very insane. There were days when Jim had feared he was losing his mind, and there had been days he'd been trapped inside the pain or inside the beauty of a single flashing light through a prism, but he'd never been trapped the way she was.

"If I leave, there are brain scans?" he asked.

"Teal and viridian and streaks of forest."

"Fear." Jim said the word quickly. "You said those were the colors on a brain scan that indicated fear. Who would be afraid?"

"Sitting in a torture chair, teal and viridian..."

"And streaks of forest," Jim finished for her. "Would Blair be in that chair?"

She shook her head.

"Me?" Jim's heart pounded against his ribs.

She looked at him, her dark eyes shining with tears. She nodded. "Punish the misbehavior. Redirect with operant conditioning."

Leaning back, Jim closed his eyes and tried to control the fear that slammed into him. Redirection. That sounded like one of the Institute's nicely sanitized words for torture. "If I stay here, will the hunters find us?" She didn't answer, and Jim opened her eyes to find her studying him closely. After a second, she nodded.

Cao. So he was lost to the hunters either way. "If I leave, will the ship be safe?" Jim asked again. River caught her lower lip in her teeth like she was thinking on that real hard, and then she shook her head no.

"Gan ni niang," Jim cursed viciously. River looked over at him in amusement, and Jim could feel his face heat. He'd been out on the rim too long if he was cursing in front of girls barely old enough to be legal.

"Blue Sun is funding the hunters, aren't they?" Jim asked. It didn't make any sense. Blue Sun was a corporation with thousands if not millions of stock holders and a board of trustees and bank records and payrolls, and absolutely no reason for getting involved in the Institute and their sick research, but it was the only thing that made sense. River nodded.

"What does it feel like?" she suddenly blurted.

He looked at her. "What does what feel like?"

She wrapped her arms around herself. "To remember what it's like to be normal?"

Jim blew out a breath. Hellfire and Browncoat rebels. He'd never expected that question. Swallowing, he looked out at the beauty laid out in front of him in the black. Beaumonde was a slowly growing green glow, like a pinprick hole that let light leak in from some great distance. Jim knew he shouldn't be able to see it from here, but he could. It was so bright, even when it was just a pinpoint, that Jim could see the halo of light around it. Jim could hear each speck of dust as it slid over the ship's hull, each one a faint note that shuddered and failed when it touched glass which had no sound or echoed when it was caught in the giant chamber of their silent main thrusters. The ship was singing, a chorus of tiny notes all accompanying the gently thrumming engines that ran life support and gravity.

"It feels horrible," Jim confessed, his voice a whisper. "It's like remembering who you should be and knowing you'll never be that person again."

"I can't remember."

"Be glad," Jim said. He was probably being a real hwun dan because he had no right to suggest that he had a bigger burden than she did—that his suffering was somehow worse because he could still remember standing on the bridge of his ship or remember the feel of the engine controls under his hands. But there were days he wanted to rip out that part of himself that remembered. "I'm sitting outside, starving, looking into a window," Jim said, struggling to explain. "I used to be able to walk in and eat any time, and even now, there are people eating and happy and ignoring me. But I can't get in."

He looked over, and she had her head tilted. "Blair doesn't ignore you," she said softly.

Jim had to smile. "No, not Blair. He was a big enough idiot to come out and starve on the streets with me. But if you can't remember what life was like before all this, that's probably just as well."

"I remember Simon. He bought me an ugly shirt for my third birthday." She made a face like she was picturing the shirt right now. Jim laughed.

"That bad?"

"Yes." She smiled back. "But I can't remember it without still feeling like I can't find words, like I'm already broken even then. Everything's scrambled."

Jim turned his attention back out into the black. "You're doing okay now."

"Forming new neural connections, walking uncharted territories where I can put out word markers that we share," she said seriously, and suddenly she wasn't sounding quite as sane. Oh, Jim had followed most of it, but that definitely was sounding a little on the odd side. She sighed. "When it rains, all the old ruts come up."

Jim shifted around to look at her. "You said that before. You said that Mal and I were in the same ruts that had come up after a rain."

"Once a rut is there, it's hard to get the wheel out without whipping the horse."

That was true enough if you were on a border planet and traveling by wagon. The metal rimmed wagon wheels would cut into the ground and create deep tracks along the most common roads. As long as you wanted your wagon to follow the others, those ruts were handy. They kept your wagon out of any hidden dangers. But if you wanted to go off in a new direction, those same ruts became a trap that locked you into a path.

"Can you whip the horse that hard?" Jim asked.

"Don't know. I don't think so, and whipped horses scream in pain," she said. She turned back to the dials and let her fingers touch each one like some sort of rosary. Jim nodded. So she might be able to change the direction of her thoughts or her words, but not without a lot of pain. And if she tried and failed, then she would know for a fact that she was trapped instead of just suspecting it.

"The ship changed directions." Jim changed the topic. Just because he understood where River was coming from didn't mean that he wanted to contemplate any of this. He hated that the Institute had done this to him, but he was a soldier. A person could argue that he had signed his life over to serve his government, and his government had chosen a particularly offensive service, but it was a type of service. However, the idea that they had taken a child and warped her until she was afraid of trying to recover made Jim ill. He'd fought the gorram Browncoats to stop the abuse of those without the power to defend themselves, and then he'd found his side just as guilty as the other. He could taste the bile in his mouth.

"Beaumonde." She said only the name of the planet. It was an industrial world on the edge of the border.

"Can you tell me why we're going there?" Jim asked.

"No." River looked over to him. "Deep ruts in these thoughts. Screams of horses would drown all the words."

Jim nodded and stood up. "Then let the horses run where they will," he told her. For a second, he stood next to her, two broken souls escaped from hell. Reaching out, he let his hand rest on her shoulder. She didn't look at him, but a last tear slipped over her face before Jim headed out to tell the rest that River had picked a destination for them.

Chapter 9

Ignoring the couch, Jim chose one of the chairs in the Firefly's lounge area. It wasn't much of a lounge, not even compared to the military ships Jim was used to, and the chair was too small for Blair to comfortable drape himself over the arm. For a second, hurt flashed across Blair's expression, and Jim pounded down the guilt that rose in response to it. If River found some moment in time when Jim could safely run and take the danger with him, he would. And that meant Blair had to be ready for the separation.

"So, no idea why she'd be interested in Beaumonde?" Mal asked. He was looking thoughtful instead of furious, so Jim wasn't quite sure what to think of him as a captain. It seemed like he should be more concerned with getting control of his ship back. Blair walked over and sat on the edge of a couch as near to Jim as he could get. Jayne followed Mal and spent a second looking from Jim to Blair and back before he claimed the chair opposite Jim.

Jim shrugged. "No idea. She said that the thoughts in that part of her brain were in such deep ruts that trying to change the way she thought or talked about it would cause pain."

"Oh man." Jim could hear the guilt in Blair's soft-spoken words.

"Not your fault, Chief. You were brought in to help the patients, and you did your best to do just that."

"I helped them to not go so totally insane that the Institute couldn't torture them more. So not the same thing," Blair blurted. Jim was glad that the doctor had wandered up to see his sister and the women folk had absented themselves. Jim had found that sometimes women weren't as forgiving when it came to torture. Zoe might see the necessity for it from time to time and even forgive Blair for his unwitting participation, but Kaylee struck Jim as the sort to get real melodramatic about something like that.

"You did your best. What they did wasn't your fault."

"I ain't so much interested in what happened in the past," Mal interrupted. "What's more interesting for me is how we can keep on not being dead. I reckon if River has us turned for Beaumonde, she's got something in her head."

Jayne's snort made his opinion gorram clear. "That ain't a place that's likely to welcome us," Jayne pointed out, ignoring any reference to River or her motives.

"Are there many places that do?" Mal countered.

Jayne shut up, a sour look on his face.

"It's a little too close to the core for comfort," Jim offered, but no one answered. He didn't figure his comfort added up to much with either of the Serenity crew.

Blair frowned. "Is there anything special on Beaumonde?"

Mal answered first. "Factories, ranches." Walking over, he sat on the couch next to Blair. "Rovu'uhl has a fair bit of underhanded business dealings. That's where we normally do our trading. Got two bars where you can buy and sell stolen gos-se easy and without getting a knife in the back for your trouble."

"The Green Knight?" Jim asked. He'd staked out that place a half-dozen times, but he'd only caught rumors of big deals going through there.

Mal nodded. "And the Maidenhead. The Blue Anchor is harder to get into, but you get some of your best prices there. Leastwise if you ain't been unceremoniously escorted out and told to never come back." Mal's expression turned sour.

"I've been to all three when I was still working for the law, and I took down a pretty big trafficker right in the middle of the Maidenhead. Not safe places for me to show my face," Jim said.

"Shi." Jayne sat up. "Were you the gan ni niang who went and busted up the whole bar going after some hwun dan who'd been whoring out kids?"

"What about it?" Jim asked, his body stiff. He hated this. He hated living on the knife edge of always offending someone because he didn't know who these people called friends and because they sure as hell would rather see him dead than alive. At least Mal would. Jim could see that every time the man looked at him. Jim wasn't sure that Jayne actually cared one way or the other as long as Jim didn't inconvenience him personally.

"Arnaud." Mal said quietly, and Jim looked to him. If trouble was coming, Jayne might be the one dishing it, but Mal was going to be the one to turn the merc loose. Jayne didn't seem to do much without permission.

"Arnaud Thomas," Jim agreed.

Mal's face twisted into a sneer, and Jim could smell Blair's sudden distress. Blair was going to get an ulcer at this rate. "Gao yang jong duh goo yang," Mal cursed, but Jim wasn't exactly sure who Mal was calling a motherless goat. "That ching-wah tsao duh liou mahng should have been castrated and left out for the ants to eat. That inbred hwun dan got too good getting locked up for life."

Jim nodded, his tight muscles relaxing a fraction of an inch. "The Alliance doesn't believe in killing their criminals—only their own citizens."

Mal's gaze came up and settled on Jim for a long time. Jim just looked back at the captain. It wasn't like there was much else he could do.

"If'n you're the man who brought in Arnaud, they'll remember you," Mal said unhappily. "I hope River don't plan on putting us down in Rovu'uhl. Seems like between the fuss you made back before the war and the fuss we made last time we were passing through, people would likely remember us."

"We could ask River," Blair pointed out. Jim wasn't the only one who looked at Blair like he had just misplaced a few critical brain cells. "You three? Totally unenlightened," Blair announced grandly. "Yeah, River has her own vocabulary, but it's not like she's trying to keep information from us. So, we ask her why she's taking us there."

"Chief," Jim said slowly. He needed Blair to really hear him, and sometimes Blair got excited and darted off without thinking an idea through—like when he'd signed on with the Institute. "Whatever River thinking, this is an old rut for her, something she thought about a lot when her brain was...."

"Ripped up for reconstruction?" Blair supplied. "I get that. I'm not saying we interrogate her or ask her to change her language. I'm saying we should ask her and just have her describe the rut until one of us catches some clue. You know, you war horses may be used to beating people or intimidating them to get information out of them..."

"I never—" Mal snapped, but Blair just raised his voice and kept going.

"But when you're not quite as big and scary looking, you learn that you can totally learn more just by talking to people. Keep them talking, and they'll let one detail and then another slip. Pretty soon, you have the security codes for the interior locks to the Institute. Man, sometimes it takes some finesse, and if we just talk to River enough, she'll let details slip. She'll describe things until something makes sense."

Jim looked up as almost invisible footsteps padded down the hall just outside the lounge. He was still staring at the empty doorway when River slowly edged her way around and into the room.

Mal sighed. "Does anyone else find it a mite bit eerie how she goes appearin' any time we get to talking about her?"

River edged farther in. "You think loudly," she defended herself. "Zoe is pilot now."

Listening for the sound of the ship-song, Jim realized that Zoe was piloting, but she hadn't changed course. They were still heading for whatever destination River had chosen. He didn't quite understand this crew and their willingness to follow the lead of a girl who couldn't even explain where she was leading them. River cocked her head and looked at Jim for a second before turning her attention to Mal.

"A girl wanders through a ship. If she vanished, did she really exist, she wondered?"

Jim looked over to Blair, but he could only shrug. After giving a shrug, he pulled out his data recorder and started tapping in information. If River talked enough, Blair might find the key to her code, but Jim wasn't sure that would happen before all of them found themselves staring down an Alliance gun.

River frowned like she was trying to find new words. "If no one believed in her, was she actually here at all?"

Jayne answered that one. "I believe what I can gorram see," he blurted out. He then leaned back in the chair and propped his boots on the table.

Jim was shocked when River gave him a brilliant smile. Moving closer, River sat on the table right in front of Jayne. "The girl wanders, but who sees her?"

"Cao, go be crazy somewheres else," Jayne said pushing her with his boot on her hip. Jim held his breath, half expecting River to gut Jayne right there and then. Instead she let him push her away.

"Jayne, don't go kicking River," Mal said sharply. Jayne opened his mouth to protest, but closed it and just glowered at the whole room.

"We need to see someone?" Blair guessed.

Jim could immediately see in the tight line of River's mouth that Blair was wrong. He couldn't even imagine the frustration she was dealing with, but she moved closer to Blair, sitting on the table so that she was facing him and Mal. "See the ghosts whispering, always whispering."

"Whoa... I have 'whispering' in here already," Blair said, his voice tight with excitement as he clicked his data recorder. "Here. When she was talking about the brain scan colors, she said they were 'all whispering back'."

"Which means?" Mal prompted.

"No fucking clue," Blair said just as happy as ever. He'd found a corner of the puzzle, and Jim knew that his overactive brain was going to keep working this until he figured it out or until an Alliance soldier put a bullet through him. "Hey, I have another reference. 'Torture. Pleasure. Whispering always. Won't stop whispering.' So a ghost is whispering, and it has something to do with torture and pleasure. Man, the torture part would totally fit the Institute."


She looked over at Jim.

"Can you find a way to keep the ship safe? Is there a world we could go to, somewhere that I could distract the hunters or strike at the heart of the Institute?" Jim asked. Her head tilted to the side and she frowned. Jim tried again. "You said if I stay here or if I leave, the ship is still in danger."

"Two by two, hands of blue," she muttered in a voice full of horror.

"Cao." Jayne put his feet on the deck and let his hand fall to his gun. The man might call himself a merc, and everyone on this ship might think of him that way, but he wasn't acting like any merc Jim knew. He was acting like a man who was pissed and ready to kill because something was after him and his.

"Is there a way for you to slip past them? It doesn't matter if I die, River. Is there a mission I can take to stop them, to give the ship a way out?" Jim willed her to give an answer he could understand. Instead she looked at him and slowly shook her head.

Blair's breath exploded in a huge sigh. "Thank god." Blair breathed the words like a prayer.

"Ain't liking the idea of anyone going on a suicide mission, anyway. If you're going to get killed, it only seems fair that I'm the one doing the killing," Mal said, but his tone of voice didn't match his words. Jim struggled to understand the emotions that he could hear in the subtle tones and see in the minute twitches of Mal's expression, but the captain was up and walking out of the room.

"Ghosts whisper in shades of green," River said gravely, and then she turned to follow the captain.

"Blair, I really hope you can figure something out," Jim said. Not only did they need the intel to survive whatever mission she'd chosen, but he could feel the frustration swirling around River every time she tried to explain this to them.

"Oh man, me too."

Jim looked over toward the other end of the room. Jayne's scent had inexplicably shifted. The man was leaning forward, his elbows braced on his knees as he studied Jim.

"Were you really willing to go on a suicide run, or were you just playing a sly trick and trying to impress your man?" Jayne poked a thumb in Blair's direction.

Jim crossed his arms.

"Back off," Blair jumped in. "He does not need to explain himself to you."

"Ain't talking to you little man. Not 'less you're saying you do all his talking for him?" This time Jayne looked at Blair and poked a thumb in Jim's direction. Blair opened his mouth, but Jim leaned over and put a hand on Blair's knee.

"You have something to say, you say it to me," Jim said firmly. Blair was brilliant and most times Jim didn't mind letting him take the lead. Blair talked them into and out of more trouble in a day than most men found in a lifetime, but Jim knew one thing for sure—the Alliance would have caught him within a week if it weren't for Blair's persuasive tongue. But Jayne was different. Jayne was a rough man, one likely to take things wrong and get physical and Blair wasn't the fighter.

"Ain't saying nothing," Jayne said, walking over to a compartment and rooting around for a bit before he came out with an apple. Fresh fruit was a special treat out here in the black, but Jayne made no move to offer either of them part of it. He sat down again and pulled out the biggest knife Jim had seen since his days of military training. He started slicing off a small bit. "I'm asking if you were serious."

"I was," Jim answered, not sure where this was going. For a second, Jayne just used his knife to carve out bits of apple that he ate from the edge of the blade. The crisp smell floated through the air, distracting Jim and making him hungry.

"Man, I would have waited until our next lifetime and kicked your ass," Blair said softly.

Jim smiled. "You would have calmed down by then." Jim wasn't sure he believed in reincarnation, and he knew he didn't share Blair's deep-set belief in it, but it was nice to think they'd have another shot at having a better life together.

"Don't bet on it."

"You gonna let him talk to you like that?" Jayne demanded of Jim, pointing his knife in Blair's general direction. Blair's eyes went big, and Jim shifted forward in his chair so he was in a better position to intercept Jayne if he started something. "If'n a man went talking to me like that..." Jayne started to say.

"Seems like Mal does," Blair cut him off. Jayne froze. With his knife stuck in the flesh of his apple, he just froze solid. Jim shifted a centimeter closer to the edge of the chair, watching Jayne for the first muscle twitch that preceded the attack. Jim would have one chance at disarming or killing Jayne, and he couldn't afford to lose, not with Blair in the middle.

"Ain't the same with Mal. I wouldn't never let a man mount me like I was some sort of ji nv," Jayne said with a look of disgust in Jim's direction. Jim probably should have taken offense at getting called a whore, but he'd been called a whole lot worse in his life.

"Man, you so totally have issues." Blair almost sounded amused.

"Watch your mouth, little man," Jayne warned. He pointed at Blair with the point of the knife.

Jim stood up. "Maybe you'd better watch your mouth." Jayne was on his feet in a flash.

"God save me from hun dan warrior-types," Blair sighed. "If you two want to piss on each other, I'm really not into that kind of thing."

"Seems like you're into all kinds of things." Jayne smirked down at him.

"Hey, raised by a companion here. Trust me, I'm totally into all kinds of things. Man, I know things to get into that most people haven't even heard of," Blair agreed. He gave Jim a smile, and Jim was slowly turning a subtle shade of red. Clearly Blair was not planning on following the traditional path of verbal escalation to the point of physical confrontation. "It's expensive, but if you have real ginger, you can do some really creative things. Shave the outer skin off, and then slip a finger of it up into the hole right before you give someone a blow job, and man, you would be amazed at the reaction you'll get." Blair whistled. "Oh man. Wow. Total wow."

Jayne looked at Blair almost alarmed, and then he looked over at Jim, equally alarmed. Obviously he had something rattling around in his brain, and just as obviously, Blair had decided to do a little poking around in that psyche.

"And you would be amazed what someone can do with rope. Did you know that on Earth-that-was, Samurais of ancient Japan would consider it a mark of pride when they could tie a prisoner up quickly? And hundreds of years before the first generation ships left Earth-that-was, hobaku-jutsu taught techniques for using rope for everything from disarming a swordsman to tying a partner up into aesthetically pleasing shapes."

Jayne's mouth came open. Eventually, he turned to look at Jim with horror. "You go lettin' him tie you up?"

"Can't say he's asked to," Jim said with a shrug. He didn't mention that Blair didn't actually need to. When Jim let himself truly sink into his senses and lose himself in his own sexual needs, he was fairly well helpless.

Jayne looked from one of them to the other, confusion and horror tangled in his expression.

"What a person does in the bedroom doesn't have anything to do with how they handle themselves outside the bedroom," Blair said softly. It was a tone of voice he normally used when Jim had zoned on something, and Jim could feel a little frisson of jealousy. "Jim is stronger than me. He knows more about the military and I will follow him when it comes to most things. If he follows me in the bedroom, it's because he chooses to and trusts me. It doesn't make him womanly or weak, and can I just say that your habit of associating womanly with weak is so going to get your ass kicked one day?" Blair asked, and the serious moment slipped away with that quick joke.

"Ain't a woman who can kick my ass," Jayne said defensively.

"Zoe might," Jim pointed out. "I sure wouldn't go up against her."

Jayne frowned for a second. "Ain't like I couldn't beat her if'n I put my mind to it."

"River could definitely kick your ass," Jim said, and this time he knew he was right. Jayne frowned for a second and then reached up and scratched the back of his head. Without answering, he turned around and walked out of the lounge.

"Chief, don't think it," Jim said, pointing a finger at his partner. The man had that look on his face—the one that suggested he felt a need to go meddling in someone's life for their own good.

"Man, he is tied up in emotional knots."

"Good for him."

"It would take one little push."

"Don't think it."

"One, and he would see things a little clearer."

Jim frowned down at Blair. Blair smiled up, his face so cherubic, far too cherubic for someone who had grand plans to upend someone's life.

"I think I'm going to go find Mal," Blair said, his smile widening. He stood up, and Jim caught him by the arm.

"Blair, don't do this," Jim almost begged. Almost.

"Man, when it comes to fighting, you can tell me what to do all you want. But this stuff?" Blair took a step back and slipped out of Jim's grip. Oh, Jim could hold him, but that's not how their relationship worked. "Man, I grew up watching Naomi forcibly remove heads from asses. I could probably pass the companion testing myself by now. No way am I walking away from this gorram mess." Blair's smile turned devilish, and he hurried out of the room.

Sinking back into the chair, Jim could only shake his head and hope Blair didn't get them tossed out an airlock. Jim's gut said that Mal was going to do exactly that, but Jim's gut was incredibly unreliable when it came to two things: Browncoats and love. He could only sigh and trust that Blair was going to avoid any particularly spectacular stupidity.

Chapter 10

"Hey!" The call echoed down Serenity's corridors.

Mal sighed and stopped, crossing his arms to glare as Blair came running up to him. "Something I can do for you?" If the kid said one thing about respecting war criminals and killers, Mal was going to stuff him in an airlock because he had put up with just about enough of the kid's gou shi. He doubted that he'd actually flush him because Mal could appreciate loyalty, even when it was given foolishly, but he wouldn't feel bad at all about leaving Blair in an airlock for the night.

Blair shrugged and smiled warmly. "Just thought we might talk."

"If you're about to go singing Womak's praises, save it." Mal turned his back and started walking.

"Whoa, hey, we clearly got off to the wrong start here."

A hand caught at his arm, and Mal stopped and turned, his eyes lasering in on the spot where Blair had grabbed him. Clearly Blair wasn't all that bright because he didn't remove his hand from Mal's arm. "The first thing you might want to learn on this ship is to not go grabbing at people," Mal warned.

Blair still didn't pull his hand back. "And the second?" He asked the question as casually as someone else might ask about the weather.

"Know when the ship's captain don't want to talk." Mal pulled his arm away, but Blair just kept smiling like an idiot... or a man who knew something that Mal didn't, and this conversation were putting him in a worse and worse mood all the time.

"I hear you. I just thought that if I was going to work the ship, we might talk about what you needed done. I know you need a barker planet-side, but I am getting the feeling we aren't actually going to be on a planet all that much." Blair leaned against the wall, his hands tucked behind his back and his body vulnerable. It was a pose that made Mal uncomfortable.

"I tend to prefer the black. Seems like the docks just bring trouble."

Blair gave him a conspiratorial grin. "Like an ex-Alliance officer?"

"Are you damaged in the head?" Mal looked at Blair, trying to figure out what game the kid was playing. He talked Womak up—insisted the man was the greatest thing since grav-lock boots, but then he kept trying to put Womak in Mal's sights, and that were seeming a little unfriendly-like.

"That is so open for debate," Blair said, and his grin turned mocking. It took Mal a half-second to figure out he was mocking himself. "And Jim's a good man. Jim's the best of men. I didn't see it when I first got to the Institute because sometimes we all get too caught up in appearance, you know. I mean, Jim was all closed down and angry. They'd strap him down to a table, and other than the muscle in his jaw bulging and his chest moving with every breath, you'd think he was a cadaver. He wouldn't even talk to me, and being a psychologist, there wasn't much I could do until he talked. Of course, then he did talk, and I started figuring out that I was slightly, entirely damned for helping those sadistic sons-of-bitches, but that's another story."

"Which I don’t have time for the telling of." Mal started walking away, but Blair darted ahead of him, blocking the path. For a half second, Mal considered pushing past, but there was something that just didn't feel right about pushing a man a foot shorter, especially since you knew he wasn't likely to push back. That same sense of fair play had kept Mal from taking a punch at Simon for years, and it kept him from physically moving Blair out of his way.

"Okay, you are not much for subtle." Blair snorted. "You just don't want to feel anything for Captain James Womak. I mean, having sympathy for James Womak would be a total disruption of your entire self-image. You can't feel any honest human compassion because that would humanize the enemy, and I get the feeling you are still very much in this war."

Mal glared at him.

"I can respect that. Totally. So, if you can't feel anything for James Womak, how about the fugitive Jim Ellison?

"Ellison?" Mal frowned.

Blair verbally charged right ahead. "That was his father's name. So, Jim Ellison was raised with all this money, and his brother was an asshole pretty much from the word go, and since he and Jim were twins, Jim spent lots of time getting blamed for all this gou shi that his brother did. You see, his father only saw appearances. It appeared that Jim was the one stealing shuttles and burning through greenhouse covers while sneaking a smoke, so he blamed Jim. Appearance and reality. It's all appearance and perception that creates reality. If you perceive differently, then reality is different."

"Cain't say I care." Mal steeled himself against this newest attack on his righteous anger at Womak.

"But Jim Ellison turned his back on money, and he decided that if life was unjust for him, he was going to dedicate himself to bringing justice to everyone else. You could feel something for Jim Ellison, right?"

Rubbing a hand over his face, Mal sighed. Clearly he was not getting any rest until Blair had whatever he'd come for. "Are you looking for a signed contract that I ain't going to go killing Womak in his sleep?" Mal demanded.



Blair's smile widened. "Ellison. His name is Ellison just as much as Womak. You can't forgive Womak, and I respect that. Man, if Womak were here, all righteous indignation and Alliance uniform, I'd probably shoot him myself. I mean, if he were Captain Jimmy Womak, then that would mean the war was still going on, and we were definitely on opposite sides of the war, so I would have felt really shitty, but I would have killed Womak to save the fleet."

"You would?" Mal didn't even bother hiding the disbelief in his voice. He couldn't see the kid shooting Womak. Oh, the kid might talk him to death. When Jayne had first commented on how Blair were topping Womak, Mal thought he'd been tricked or just lost his mind. Now... now Mal was pretty sure Blair could talk his way out of or into anything, including his partner's ass. Mal smiled at that private bit of crudity. He might not say the things Jayne did with such horrifying regularity, but he did enjoy rolling them over in the privacy of his own mind. Womak rolled over for this odd, little man. "You'd kill Womak?"

The smile slipped and for a second, Blair really glared at him. "Hey, I am not as innocent as you seem to think. Yes, I would have. But I don't know Womak. I know Jim Ellison, a man who tried his damnest to do the right thing, fucked up, and now life is trying to fuck him over. People change. Are you the same man you were twenty years ago?"


This time he got a sigh and an eyeroll from Blair. "Okay," he said slowly, "so maybe you're the exception that proves the rule. I could see where that's possible because you sure as hell aren't good at letting go of things."

"Sandburg, is there a point to this conversatin' or is this just your way of torturing me and assuming that I won't strike back?"

The look of innocence on Blair's face surprised Mal. Either the kid was stupid or he was one hell of an actor. Mal was betting on the last one. "This is two crew talking to each other," Blair said, his voice carrying just a hint of hurt.

"Feel free to talk to someone who ain't me." Mal finally did push Blair to the side as carefully as he could. Blair didn't try and stop him, but as soon as Mal started walking, Blair was right there at his heels.

"The funny thing is that you're a whole lot like Jim with the not wanting to talk about things. Jim was the same way. Of course, in that analogy I guess I'd be Jayne, so maybe that doesn't fit."

"What?" Mal stopped and looked at Blair, who was suddenly not making any sense.

He shrugged. "If you and Jim were that much alike, you'd choose partners that were alike, but Jayne and I..." He made a face and gestured to make it pretty clear that he considered himself and Jayne about as different as night and day. Mal could agree with that much at least.

"Gorram right Womak and me aren't alike, no more than you and Jayne are," Mal said indignantly. He turned to continue down the hall when the second part of that hit him. "Wait. Are you saying that you think me and Jayne—"

"Totally," Blair nodded and got a disturbingly salacious look on his face. "I mean, the way he looks at you? Whoa. Seriously hot. There are lovers content with longing. I'm not one of them. If I tried to not touch Jim the way Jayne is always trying to not touch you, I'm pretty sure my brain would explode from all the repressed lust. I just hope you make up for all that frustration when you get some privacy." Blair nodded knowingly.

"Jayne?" Mal could hear his own voice, and it was on the verge of breaking like a teenaged boy.

"Well... yeah." Now Blair looked confused.

"Jayne?" Mal repeated it louder.

"Shiong mao niao," Blair cursed softly. "Oh man, I'm sorry. I just thought—"

"Thought? Thought what?" Mal took an aggressive step forward, and Blair held up his hands in surrender.

"I thought you and Jayne were a couple."

"Jayne Cobb?" Mal looked at Blair, wondering how a man who seemed so learned could suddenly turn up so stupid.

"Well, yeah. Totally." Blair gave Mal a look that made it perfectly clear that Blair thought he was being logical and the rest of the world had just slipped a gear.

Mal shook his head, not even sure where Blair would have come up with that tzao gao. "I ain't even going to go trying to follow that logic seeing as there's nothing logical in that."

"Are you kidding? I mean, you all talk about Jayne like he's a merc."

"Because he is," Mal said dryly.

"Man, you must pay him a shitload of money. I mean, he's going up against Reavers and the Alliance and the Operative. I so do not even want to think what that must cost." The grimace Blair made was almost comical.

"I..." Mal stopped, not sure what he was supposed to say. This conversation weren't what he'd been expecting.

"Sorry about the confusion." Blair reached over and slapped Mal's arms like they were old buddies. "It was just the way he looks at you—the way he listens to what you say, it's not what I normally expect from a merc, you know? Anyway, I guess we can talk about my ship duties later. You're looking a little pale. You should eat more." Blair patted his arm once more and then turned to head back the way he came.

Mal watched Blair walk away, an odd bounce in his step that weren't natural for a man being hunted by the Alliance. Then again, there weren't much normal about Dr. Blair Sandburg. He sure as hell didn't know much about men if he thought Jayne Cobb had his cap set for another man. Jayne were the very definition of heterosexual, even if he more than likely didn't know that particular word. If Wash were alive, Mal would go and have a good laugh with him at the idea. But Wash wasn't, and the preacher wasn't, and now they had more trouble coming down on their heads.

Feeling bone-deep weary, Mal headed up to the bridge looking for Zoe. She was about the only one he trusted to keep a calm head. Kaylee always looked for the best in people, Simon couldn't see past his core upbringing and his distaste for anyone who looked scruffy, and River... well she wasn't exactly much help in this kind of situation. But Zoe had always come through for him. Always. If he was feeling off-balance, it was Zoe's company he craved.

He walked in as quiet as he could, but the second he cleared the door, she greeted him.

"Sir," she offered.

"Zoe. We still on course?"

"Yep. Don't really know what course we're on, but she's flying straight."

"Good." Mal sat co-pilot and stared into the black. For long minutes, the room was silent. Zoe sent him several curious looks, but they'd been together for so long, working side by side in ditches and trenches and ships, that she knew that sometimes he just needed time to get a reasonable thought together.

"Is Jayne lusting after me?" Mal eventually blurted. He didn't care how much time he took, that thought weren't never going to sound reasonable.

"Is... Jayne?" Zoe turned all the way around to look at him.

"No, nevermind. I'm losing my mind for ever listening to that gou shi." Mal interrupted as he started getting up.

"Yes, sir. He is," Zoe added before Mal could stand all the way up. That knocked him back down into his seat.

"Cao. Really?"

Zoe sighed and looked at him. "I wasn't sure at first. I knew he respected you after Canton and all that talk of hero-worship." She made a face, and Mal's expression matched hers. The idea of people worshipping Jayne as a folk hero had been mighty disturbing.

"But lusting?"

"I didn't start suspecting that until he wanted to go back in for you after Niska took you. It wasn't a very Jayne thing for him to do. But then when we were helping that whorehouse and Jayne tried to take every woman in the place twice, I figured he was trying hard to forget something else. It seemed likely that he was ignoring feelings for you."


"Yes sir. If Jayne were to take a liking to me, I'm afraid I'd have to castrate him. On the good side, the chances are that he won't ever get out of line. He hasn't yet. Clearly, he's ready to just let that dog lie quietly ignored in the corner." With that, Zoe seemed to dismiss the matter. Swinging the pilot chair around, she turned back to the instruments. Mal opened his mouth, but honestly, there weren't much to say in the face of that sort of information. He was feeling a whole lot like he'd just stepped on a grizwald, and it was about to explode and rip him to shreds. Cao and cao again.

"I'm heading to my bunk."

"Yes, sir." Zoe didn't make any other comment, but she shot him another look, one that Mal couldn't quite understand, even if they had been together for the best part of twenty years. He didn't have the energy to worry about what she was thinking, though. He was suddenly too worried about what kind of gou shi Jayne were thinking up. In the name of all the gorram gods in the gorram universe, Mal could not figure why Jayne would go lusting after him. Jayne were not exactly the sort Mal would think of as sly. Not even close.

Then again, unless Jayne were lying, Captain Jimmy was the sly one in his relationship with Blair, and Mal didn't expect that. No, he figured someone like Captain Jimmy would want to be in control.

"Cap," a voice interrupted him. Mal looked up to see Jayne standing in the corridor outside crew quarters, watching him, his arms crossed as he leaned against the bulkhead.

"Ain't you supposed to be watching Womak?"

"Watch him do what?" Jayne straightened up, but the look on his face was pure and simple confusion.

Mal could feel the hot flash of anger. He didn't want things to change, and here Jayne was changing things. "If I knew, I would have told you," he snapped. "I don't want Womak running around my ship to do whatever he wants."

"So, you want I should follow him around?" Jayne was still looking confused.

"Yes. You're security, go secure something," Mal snapped. He stormed past Jayne waiting for the explosion. He was being unreasonable. One man couldn't watch two—not even Jayne who was rather talented at intimidating prisoners. One man sure as hell couldn't guard both Captain Womak who had a reputation as a down and dirty fighter and Dr. Sandburg who could clearly twist a man's mind near to inside out. And one man could never do all that without some rest, and Jayne hadn't seen his bunk since those two had come out of confinement almost a full day's cycle earlier. Cao. They all needed some sleep. Yeah, Jayne had good cause to explode.

The explosion never came. Mal got to the hatch to his quarters and unlocked it, turning to climb down the ladder. This was Jayne's last chance to say that Mal was being a bastard, that he was being totally unreasonable and asking crew to take on a job impossible enough to be downright dangerous if the prisoners decided to fight back. This was Jayne's last chance to prove that he was still looking out for himself and that he wasn't moon-eyed and following Mal's orders, even if they were totally wrong.

"Night, Mal," Jayne said stiffly as he walked down the corridor toward the quarters where Womak and Blair were billeted.


Mal slammed the hatch and dropped down into his own room. Of all the gorram messes, he'd landed in, this were about the worst. He wasn't sly, and he didn't want some man mounting him, but he couldn't afford to lose crew. He couldn't afford to lose Jayne who was, without doubt, the sharpest shooter on Serenity.

Him and Jayne. That were just laughable. Mal yanked at his boots, throwing one when it didn't come off fast enough to please him. He'd been real up front about not being sly. He'd said that when they were visiting that whore house and seen those pretty sly boys. Part of him even felt betrayed because Jayne had done everything short of declaring that he wasn't sly. He'd slept with every woman he could get his big hands around.

Mal thought of those big hands touching him, and that was not desire creeping up on him. Not at all. He sure as hell didn't want to lay down for Jayne Cobb. He pictured Jayne's large and work-worn hands resting against his own bare hips, and he fed the tiny seed of fear and horror that appeared. He wasn't sly. He didn't want a man to touch him with rough and demanding hands. That were just about his worst nightmare, and as much as he respected them that were sly, he wasn't changing his opinion. Closing his eyes, he sat on the edge of his bunk and tried to imagine Jayne here.

No, that was not good. Jayne's hands resting on Mal's hips, strong thumbs pressing into the edge of Mal's hipbone. A new image flashed through Mal's mind. He remembered the desperate look as Jayne stared at him through the tiny window in the airlock. Jayne had been begging him, and his dark eyes had followed Mal's every move. Jayne had never complained about Mal hitting him or about the fact that Mal had been mighty close to killing him. No, Jayne had accepted Mal's judgment as final, and he had just begged for some small comfort.

Now the large hands Mal had imagined were joined by that dark, begging gaze—Jayne looking up at him. Jayne kneeling between his legs and watching him, silently begging for permission. Jayne accepting whatever decision Mal made, welcoming any order. Jayne's mouth slightly open, his tongue coming out to just touch his lower lip as he stared at Mal's cock with longing.

Mal gasped. Well damn. Maybe he were just a little bit sly.

Chapter 11

Jim shifted, Blair’s weight hot against his back. It took him a few seconds to realize why his senses had pulled at him until he woke up. “Blair?” he asked, shaking Blair by the arm. Blair made a muffled grunt and tried to roll over, and only Jim’s quick grab kept him from ending up on the floor.

“Wha?” Blair blinked and threw his arm out, nearly hitting Jim. The bunk definitely wasn’t large enough. “What’s wrong?” he asked, much of the sleep vanishing. Jim could hear his heart start to pound faster.

“Why is Jayne sleeping in the corridor?” Jim asked. Considering how regular and deep Jayne's breathing was, he'd had time to fall asleep for fair, so he must have spent at least a fair amount of the night out there.

Blair blinked. “He’s what?”

At one point, Jim might have believed Blair, but he knew that his partner could be more devious than a Browncoat spy, and Blair had been poking at Jayne just last night, so he suspected Blair had said some sort of gou shi that had made the merc choose to sleep in a hall. “What did you say to him?”

“Me?” Blair asked with exaggerated innocence that just made Jim even more sure that Blair had been up to his mother’s tricks. Jim hadn’t ever met Naomi, the companion who had chosen to leave the guild and meddle in the lives of men and women in Browncoat territory. However, from the stories Blair had told, the woman could manipulate better than Blair. So, if Jayne had slept on the floor, Jim would put money on the fact that Blair had something to do with it. Blair, though, pushed himself upright and shook his head. “Man, I didn’t say anything that would make him sleep on the floor.”

“What did you say?”

“To him? Nothing.”

“And to Mal?” Jim asked.

Blair didn’t answer, but he did get up and go for the ladder that led up out of their quarters and into the corridors of the ship. Even though Jim expected the door to be locked, Blair pushed it open easily. “Nothing that would lead to Jayne sleeping the hall,” Blair whispered in a tone of voice that implied he thought Jayne should be sleeping somewhere else. Jim closed his eyes and counted to five. Great. Blair had tried to get Jayne into Mal’s bed, with the only problem being that Mal wasn’t sly. Considering that Blair claimed his mother had been some great goddess of matchmaking, her son could get things spectacularly wrong sometimes. Cao. Jim wasn’t even sure Jayne realized he had himself a good case of lust going for Mal. He didn’t seem the most self-enlightened sort.

“Jayne?” Blair asked, and Jim got out of bed and followed his idiot partner. A thump and cry made Jim rush the ladder and practically throw himself up into the ship proper. Blair was on the ground looking dazed and Jayne sat with his back braced against the bulkhead, his head swiveling around like he couldn’t figure out what he was seeing?

“Blair?” Jim asked, ready to hit Jayne just as soon as he had some evidence that Jayne had touched his partner. Jayne must have taken offense at the tone because he frowned and pushed himself up, one hand coming to rest on his gun.

“Whoa, hey, no problem,” Blair rushed to offer, his hand held out toward them in a placating gesture, “You would think after living with Jim I’d figure out that you soldier-types don’t always wake up nice and easy.”

“I ain’t no soldier,” Jayne snapped as he rubbed his left hand over his face, his right still resting on his gun. Jim’s palms itched to get his hand on a good gun of his own. None of these folks were particularly mentally stable, and being unarmed around them was giving him a rash.

“No way, you’re more of a samurai sort than a soldier,” Blair said as he climbed back up to his feet, rubbing his arm. Jim scowled at Jayne as he moved closer to his partner.

“If’n that’s an insult, it ain’t a good one. It’s not like I even know that those hwun dan are.”

“Who? Samurai?” Blair’s face broke into a delighted grin. “They’re awesome. They were incredible fighters. Okay, they’re a little scary in the fact that they were this entire warrior class dedicated to serving their feudal lords and their feudal lords sometimes were on the unethical, homicidal side,” Blair made a face. “But the samurais themselves stand for everything scary and strong and seriously dedicated to being the best.”

Jayne grunted. Rather than let Blair keep going with his impromptu history lesson, Jim interrupted with the bit that actually did matter. “Why are you sleeping out here?” Jim asked.

The question made Jayne shift nervously, and Jim could feel his own stress rise with Jayne’s. Something had the merc off-balance, and the idea of a well-armed and nervous Jayne was enough to make any man a bit uncomfortable. “Captain said to keep an eye on you,” Jayne finally said.

Jim exchanged a confused look with Blair. It didn’t make any kind of sense for a captain to put someone on guard alone, especially when that guard was already running without sleep. Blair seemed to understand that, too, because he looked as confused as Jim.

“What exactly are you watching for?” Jim asked curiously. He’d been pretty sure that Mal had given up any hope of killing him, and the captain had been downright friendly with Blair. Then again, that was before Blair had cornered him for a conversation. Blair might be able to talk a settler out of a horse, but that didn’t mean the settler would necessarily like Blair after. Oh, by the time Blair stopped talking, the settler would insist on giving that horse away and maintain that there wasn’t any other choice—Blair could convince a man to the point that no talking could unconvinced him. However, there were plenty of men who did take a disliking to anyone so capable of making them change their minds on a regular basis.

“Ain’t exactly sure on that point,” Jayne admitted. He also looked a bit on the chagrined side, so Jim figured he wasn’t feeling proud about falling asleep on the job. As far as Jim was concerned, that was Mal’s fault for putting Jayne on guard duty in the first place.

“You see?” Blair demanded. “That is why I say you are a modern samurai. They were famous for following orders, even when they didn’t understand them. They followed their lords anywhere, even if they led through Reaver space—not that Earth-that-was had Reavers,” Blair added quickly. “History says they would even kill themselves if ordered—or if they disappointed their lord.”

“I ain’t about to go ending myself. Not for Mal, not for anyone,” Jayne growled, and from his reaction, he was downright offended at the suggestion. However Blair ignored the emotion and kept right on smiling and nodding as if Jayne were agreeing with him. Some days Jim suspected that his partner was a little touched in the head.

“I hear you. I am right there with you… totally. Only I sided against the Operative, and you sided against the Operative and the entire Reaver fleet,” Blair made this strange face like he’d just seen something so shocking he couldn’t help but look horrified at the sight. “So man, I do not think either one of us has any room to get offended if someone calls us suicidal.”

Jim’s guts tangled into one giant knot. Blair’s words were true enough, but he didn’t like hearing it put that bluntly.

“But man, I think you win on the loyalty front,” Blair said with a sort of feigned sorrow that Jim could see right through. Jayne seemed confused enough for three men, though. “I mean, Jim tells me to do something, and there’s this little part of me that can’t keep but try to figure out a better way or argue or just go behind his back and ruin his plan because I don’t like it. I’ve done that.”

Jim snorted. Blair had done that more than once. Most of the time, he did it when Jim tried diverting some government attention to himself, away from Blair. Looking over, Blair gave him a fond look before turning back to Jayne.

“But you’re loyal enough for about ten men, so you totally win the title of samurai,” Blair said. “We should get dressed.” Blair turned his back on a very shocked looking Jayne and headed for the entrance back to their small room. Blair’s shoes and shirt were still down there along with Jim’s. Jim watched as Blair headed down, waiting until Blair cleared the ladder before following. Jim wasn’t even two rungs down when Jayne spoke up.

“He ain’t exactly the brightest, is he?” Jayne asked with a disgusted tone that made it clear what he thought of Blair’s opinion.

Jim’s first reaction was to verbally strike out at the man for disrespecting Blair, but the longer he was around Jayne, the more he figured the man offended out of ignorance more than any honest malice. Jim considered his answer a mite bit more carefully. “He’s the smartest man I’ve ever met, and I’ve known some good men. Captain Taggart was a Browncoat, but he was brilliant, and Captain Banks knew more strategy than the Alliance has ever managed to write down in a book. Blair makes both of them look like unschooled half-wits.” Jim wasn’t normally that blunt, but subtly didn’t really work with Jayne. Even now, Jayne looked confused.

“But he called me loyal.”

Jim took a deep breath as he realized why Jayne was so disturbed. Blair’s worst habit was making a man reevaluate himself. It could be downright painful at times, and Jayne was suffering. However, Jim had to agree with Blair’s assessment. Jayne was loyal.

“I suppose that any man that would follow a captain through Reaver space, cover his back when the pay was bad and the danger was worse—that’s a man I’d call loyal,” Jim said. Then, before Jayne could get his mouth closed and gather the wits to say something stupid, Jim climbed down the ladder, closing the hatch to the quarters. At the bottom of the stairs, Blair looked up at him with a wide smile.

“Step one—success,” he said with a little bounce.

“One of these days, Chief, someone is going to shoot you for going meddling in their business.”

“Hey, people love me.”

“Keep telling yourself that,” Jim said as he climbed the rest of the way down. Blair’s smile got wider.

“They adore me.”


“They worship at my feet.”

Jim gave Blair a look, and Blair’s smile got wide enough to stretch from cheek to cheek. “This could backfire spectacularly,” Jim warned.

“Totally,” Blair agreed, “but if it goes well, man, that will be two heads removed from two asses. Sometimes you have to give the universe a little help, you know?”

Jim sighed. He’d disagree, but the fact was that Blair’s meddling had gotten Jim out of the Alliance labs. Given that history, maybe meddling wasn’t all bad. Jim glanced up at the top of the ladder as he pulled on his shoes. He just couldn’t help but feel a little bad for Mal and Jayne because having Blair decide that your life needed up-ending… it wasn’t easy. When Blair took a step toward him, Jim reached out and caught his partner’s arm and pulled him close enough to wrap him in a tight hug. “I hope it does work out, and if it doesn’t and they decide to throw you out an airlock, I’ll be right there with you, partner,” Jim promised. His love and his own loyalty were all Jim had to offer anymore. Blair turned and wrapped his own arms around Jim’s waist, and for a time, they stood there, leaning against each other as they stole a few minutes to find strength in each other’s love.

“Okay, enough of the mush. We have River’s big mystery to figure out and the Operative to stop and all this gou shi with Blue Sun. Man, we have work to do.” Blair pushed away, and Jim let him.

“Mush?” Jim asked in his best offended tone. Blair gave him a quick grin, so he hadn’t been fooled. “I think Jayne is rubbing off on you. One comment about my womanly ways, and you will pay,” Jim warned. “I will show you womanly and mushy.”

“Is that a promise?” Blair asked with a quick hip wiggle to make it clear that he wouldn’t mind that lesson at all.

“Just get moving, fengzi.”

“Fengzi? Me? We’re on this ship, and you’re calling me crazy?” Blair demanded.

“I think you fit in with all the other fengzi around here,” Jim said. It was true, and it hurt his heart to even think it, but Blair did fit here. He was with people he understood, who had been on the same side in the war, who he enjoyed manipulating. He had the same bed every night, and they’d gone two days without having to run from the Alliance. Jim’s gut told him that Blair belonged here, and if his heart was breaking… well, Jim was soldier enough to know that sometimes war required sacrifice.

Jim finished putting on his shirt and headed for the ladder again. “Coming?” he asked. He looked over, and all the joy had drained out of Blair. Blair stood looking at him with wide, tragic eyes that made the guilt claw at Jim’s soul. Blair quickly lowered his gaze as he nodded.

Jim wanted to say something comforting; he wanted to lie and say they’d be together forever. Instead he headed up the ladder so they could try and figure out the problems they had some chance of solving.

Chapter 12

Blair followed Jim up to the crew mess hall, watching Jayne the whole way. The man was confused as hell, but he didn’t look alarmed and he wasn’t having a heterosexual panic, so clearly Mal hadn’t talked to him yet. That man was stubborn as hell if he couldn’t see the truth two inches in front of his own nose.

“We at Beaumonde yet?” Jim asked, always focusing on the practical.

“How the hell would I know? I was sleeping in the gorram corridor.” Jayne walked a little faster so he got ahead of them. From the look Jim was giving Blair, he definitely didn’t approve of Blair’s meddling, but then if Jim had his own way, everyone in the whole universe would live in their own little bubble and not bother anyone else. Of course, given his history of torture at the hands of the Institute, that wasn’t exactly surprising. So Blair acknowledged Jim’s reluctance to get involved in other people’s issues and then ignored it. With a smile, Blair walked a little faster, intending to get ahead of Jim; however, Jim’s long legs allowed him to keep stride without even trying.

Mal and Zoe were already in the mess hall, sitting at one end of the table with their heads close together, but Blair didn’t miss the way Mal’s eyes followed Jayne. Blair’s words hadn’t fallen on fallow ground, then. He just had to be patient and let that flower bloom. Jayne, however, was watching Mal with a sort of wary confusion that wasn’t healthy at all.

Ignoring all the shared looks, Jim sat on the far end of the table from Mal. “We at Beaumonde?” he asked.


“We know what we’re doing here?”

“Not a clue,” Mal admitted with a sour expression.

“We could try to offload the series seven-C circuits from the Waters job, sir,” Zoe offered.

“Whoa… you have series seven-C circuits? Those are like… ancient,” Blair said dramatically as he dropped down in a seat halfway between the two ends of the table. He was loyal to Jim always, but he didn’t need to encourage the stand-offish competition Jim and Mal had going by sitting with Jim and creating a balanced two against two dynamic.

“Told you I should space ‘em,” Jayne said from the galley, and he had his head in the cupboards, so he missed the nasty look Mal shot his way. There was a story behind that, but Blair needed Mal to use a little kindness for a bit, so Blair jumped in before Mal could go insulting Jayne.

“But we could turn that into an advantage,” Blair said. “I mean, how many different computers use that chip? If you don’t have replacement parts, then you have to upgrade, and you know that not everyone can afford that. I need to do some research, but if you found me a real smart trader, someone patient with a little creativity, I could probably get them sold for a reasonable price,” Blair offered. “Where would I find the really top traders?”

“Blue Anchor,” Jayne offered even though Mal was still frowning like he didn’t understand the conversation.

“We’re not going there,” Jim said firmly.

“You aren’t, no way. You were a cop around here. They take one look at you, and they’re going to assume I’m trying to sell them stolen equipment.” Blair paused. “Actually, I probably am, but man, I am not trying to bust anyone. So you can wait here, and I’ll take the shuttle over there.”

“You’re not going alone.” Jim almost growled the words, but Blair could hear the fear behind them.

“I’ll be fine. I paid my way through school with shady backroom trades and poker games,” Blair pointed out.

“Not alone,” Jim insisted again.

“As much as it pains me to agree with Womak, I agree. You’re not going out there alone.”

“Ellison,” Blair said.

Mal got a confused look on his face.

“Ellison. James Ellison, remember?” Blair said, reminding him of their conversation from last night. “And you two are too much. I am not a child, and I am very well aware that there are people after us. I also know how to take care of myself,” Blair pointed out. Unless one of them had a specific threat they could point out, this was being too paranoid. They weren’t anywhere near where the Operative had picked them up before, and with River picking the destination, no one could profile them well enough to predict they’d come to Beaumonde.

“It ain’t about your self-preservation,” Mal insisted. “Jayne’s about the most self-preserved man I ever have known, and I wouldn’t want him going out there alone, either.”

“I hear you,” Blair promised, and he could see Jim roll his eyes. Then again, Jim knew what that phrase actually meant. “I mean, if Jayne or I go out there, you’re obligating yourselves to come after us, no matter how bad things get. Or at least Jim is obligated to come after me, and you’d go after Jayne no matter how much trouble he got himself in,” Blair said with a nod toward Jayne. Jayne had a spoonful of something half way to his mouth, and he froze, his eyes going to Mal as though expecting an objection. Mal didn’t offer any, and Blair could see Jayne’s shock as if he hadn’t known that on his own. The people on this ship were just all kinds of messed up. “But I promise that I know how to run. Man, when you’re as short as I am, and you basically grow up in the middle of a warzone, you learn to run gorram fast,” Blair finished.

Mal was still shaking his head.

“Blair,” Jim said, his voice carefully measured, “it’s a good plan, and on another planet at another time, you can impress Mal by selling his gou shi, but not now and not this planet.”


“No.” Mal said. “And I ain’t debating on that. You keep arguing, and I’ll tell Jayne to sit on you until we’re in the black again.”

Blair sighed and leaned back as he studied the captain. The man had stubborn down to an art. “I still think you’re wrong,” Blair pointed out.

“Which is his way of agreeing to follow orders,” Jim said. Getting up, he came over to Blair’s side and rested a hand on Blair’s shoulder. “I know you’ll sell those chips, but tactically, we can’t afford to split up right now. It will slow us down too much if we have to move,” Jim explained.

“Man, I already agreed. I get it. I get it.” Blair was a poor loser, and he knew it, but he also knew when he was beat. Jim sat in the chair next to him, studying Blair’s face, and Blair tried very hard to control his urge to smile. He’d won one battle getting Jim to choose to sit closer to Mal. It was a start. Jim’s eyebrows lowered in confusion, and Blair turned to minimize how much of his face Jim could see. The downside of loving a Sentinel was that they were damn near mind readers once they knew a person well enough to interpret all the microexpressions that crossed the human face in any given second.

“Has River said anything else?” Blair asked Mal. Zoe was silent, but she watched with the sort of sharp curiosity that Blair normally associated with companions and psychologists.

“Not a word,” Mal said. He leaned back. “I ain’t even sure if this is her final destination or a refueling stop. We’re at the Alemain Docks, which are about in the middle of nowhere.”

“Less chance of being seen out here, sir,” Zoe pointed out. “Mostly this is commercial trade and no chance for passengers or private transactions, so it’s not a place anyone will look for us.”

“How conspicuous are we?” Jim asked, his back going straight.

“Plenty,” Mal said wearily. “I have Kaylee putting out calls for whatever mechanical bits and bobs that might make it look like we landed hard and picked this place because we couldn’t get the ship to the main docs.”

Jim’s jaw was tight, but he gave a nod. So, he didn’t like their position, but he respected Mal’s attempt to give them a good story for being here. Despite their problems, Blair figured these two old war horses had a lot in common. Like right now, both men had similar expressions of dismay at not knowing what they were supposed to be doing.

“Mal!” Kaylee yelled as he she came running into the room. Mal and Zoe were both on their feet, their hands on their weapons in a heartbeat. Jayne had taken it one step farther by drawing his gun and taking shelter behind a kitchen cupboard. Jim grabbed Blair and drove for the far wall, his back to the door. Kaylee stopped and looked around with wide eyes, clearly shocked at the reactions. “It ain’t nothing bad,” she said slowly as she took in everyone’s position. Slowly Jim stood up and Blair leaned against the wall, his heart racing as everyone put weapons away.

“Kaylee, it might be that nerves are wound a little tight,” Mal explained. “Shouting should be saved for life-endangering sorts of situations for right now, okay?”

Kaylee nodded. “Sorry,” she offered quietly, “but I was excited. Guess who's here on Beaumonde.”

Mal settled back into his chair. “I can't say I'm in a mood for guessing.”

With a little smile, Kaylee said, “The captain’s being no fun today.” Her teasing managed to ease the frown on Mal’s face.

“Yep. I reckon that's me. Captain No Fun,” Mal agreed. “So why don’t you tell me who it is that has you all a twitter?”

“Inara!” Kaylee sang out the name. For a second, Blair couldn’t place it, but then he remembered Jayne’s very unenlightened description of the companion who travelled with them.

“Is she whoring around here?” Jayne asked as he shoved his gun back into its holster and went back to eating.

“I ain’t having this conversation with you again, Jayne,” Mal warned. Jim’s hand found Blair’s waist, giving him a nudge toward the table, so Blair headed back to his chair, pleased when Jim followed him rather than stake out his position at the opposite end from Mal.

“It ain't like you don't call her a whore,” Jayne said in his own defense. Blair looked at Mal. If Jayne was saying it, it was only because Jayne couldn’t see the value of companion training. Mal didn’t have that ignorance going for him.

Mal gave Jayne a real cold look. “But when I go sayin’ it, I know it ain't true.”

“Man, I think that actually makes it worse,” Blair muttered, but he did so loud enough for everyone to hear. Zoe hid her mouth behind her hand, and Blair was almost sure she was smiling.

“You have something to add?” Mal asked in a tone that warned Blair that he’d better not have anything to add. Jim’s fingers reached for Blair’s knee, tightening in warning.

“I only meant that if Jayne believes that she's a whore, he's not meaning to insult her by calling her one. If you’re saying it when you know it’s not true, that’s a good site worse,” Blair pointed out with a sweet smile. Now the corners of Zoe’s eyes had those little wrinkles that meant she was definitely smiling.

“Given your mother's background, I expect to be the last one to have any sympathy for Jayne.”

“Hey, my mother was a companion, and she did some whoring when I was about five, but mostly she wasn’t either when I was growing up. However, if you ask her, she won’t be one bit ashamed of either career choice. However, calling a companion a whore is pretty gorram low when you know there’s a difference.”

Mal and Blair glared at each other, but it was Jayne who spoke up. “I still ain't heard any explanation for how a companion is different from a whore. They both get paid for having sex.”

“Hey!” Kaylee shouted loud enough to make everyone look at her. She had both her hands on her hips as she glared at all of them. “Inara's, here now, and I don't want any of you insulting her. We're family and if you go drivin’ her off with all this talk, I ain't going to be responsible for what I do you.” She pinned each of them with a glare. Jayne gave a rather dismissive snort, but Blair noticed that the rest of them looked suitably threatening. As engineer, Kaylee could muck with everything from the lights in a person’s quarters to whether the hot water worked when you went for showers. She wasn’t someone he wanted to rile… not that he was doing any of the insulting. That was Mal and Jayne. However, Blair figured that if Inara was a companion, she’d give Jayne some leeway just because he was ignorant. Companion training included enough psychology that she should recognize honest stupidity.

“Let me guess,” a new voice said, “Jayne and Mal are discussing my career choices again.” A woman stood in the door, her dark hair curled so that not a single strand was out of place and her clothing didn’t have a spot of dirt or a stitch out of place. She wore a dress with red and gold layers and her jewelry had to be worth at least as much as most farmers earned in a decade. This was not just a companion, but someone high in the hierarchy.

“Inara!” Kaylee threw herself forward and hugged the woman with abandon. Inara smiled and hugged her back, the affection unmistakable. Blair was actually a little surprised. One of the main reasons why Naomi had chosen to leave the guild was because they had a strict policy of companions maintaining emotional distance from all others. They believed that only the detached observer could see clearly enough to help others overcome their spiritual conflicts. Naomi had decided that the opposite was true—that only the person who loved and was loved unconditionally could find the key that allowed them to open others’ hearts. So she had gone from living by the mantra that one had to detach to living by the mantra that one had to love, even if circumstances forced one to detach. This Inara clearly hadn’t detached from the crew, not successfully.

“I've missed you,” Inara said warmly. “Kaylee have you been keeping our boys in line?”

“I've been doing my best, but you know them.” Kaylee kept one arm around Inara’s waist while she turned to smile at Mal and the others.

“I do know them. And I know that if they're here they're up to some trouble.”

“Don't know why you'd be saying that,” Mel said in an offended tone of voice.

“Oh I can't imagine,” Inara said with sarcasm that she didn't even attempt to hide. “Is this something that's going to leave me looking for a new home base?”

“It's not like what we do affects you anymore,” Mel snapped, and in that moment Blair saw the resentment and the longing and the need. Well shit, the two of them had been in love. Or maybe they’d had a case of unrequited lust, but there were layers of hurt going here.

Blair studied Inara wondering whether she knew that Mal was still hurting for her. Companions had a lot of psychology training. One of the reasons he'd gotten through his psych degrees so quickly was because Naomi had taught him from the time that he was big enough to understand the words. So he had trouble believing that anyone who’d completed companion training could miss the signs of unrequited love. But on the other hand, some mighty smart people had trouble seeing what was right before their faces, especially when it involved themselves. Blair watched them, Jim’s fingers tightening against his knee again. Reaching under the table, Blair patted Jim’s arm, silently reassuring him that Blair didn’t intend to do anything. Before Blair thought he’d had a simple job of making Jayne and Mal see each other, but it might be that Jim was right about this backfiring.

“For once again our fault trouble found us,” Kaylee said brightly, defending the captain.

Inara's eyes went immediately to Jim and Blair. When he came to fighting, Jim was in charge. Blair had no trouble with that, but dealing with a companion with his business. Blair stood up and stepped around the table to greet Inara. Jim followed, but he stayed one step behind Blair.

“Blair Sandburg,” he said offering his real name and his hand as he held out his hand as if to shake. She gave him a small smile of greeting that didn’t reach her eyes and went to take his offered hand, but at the last minute Blair took her hand and raised it to his lips, kissing it in his best gentlemanly manners. Off to the side Mel snorted.

“Mr. Sandburg, very nice to meet you.” The cultured tones of good training took over.

“Ms. Inara, may present James Ellison,” Blair said with a small gesture toward Jim. With a stiff but formal bow, Jim greeted her and then stepped forward to take her hand and kiss it. Blair didn’t miss the look of hate from Mal.

“Mr. Ellison,” she said in the same cultured tones. “Would you happen to be related to William Ellison?” Blair wondered if she could read Jim’s flinch was well as Blair could. Of course she would know all of the big political players and businessman.

“I am,” Jim said without offering his exact relationship. Inara took the hint and simply smiled as she dropped the matter. “Mal, the quality of your passengers seems to improved somewhat.”

“I wouldn't be saying that,” Mal said with more than a little disgust. Inara chose to ignore the insult. Blair was almost certain that she was intentionally choosing to not address the matter, which was odd if she’d traveled with the ship. Surely she hadn’t allowed him to insult the clients who had come onboard.

“Hopefully you two gentlemen are not the source of whatever trouble brings Mal and Serenity to these parts.”

River walked into the room, and she stood to the side watching with her head tilted as though confused by the interactions. Then again, Blair figured anyone who didn't have companion training or an advanced psychology degree would be confused by this crew. Jayne finished his food and put the dish in the cycler without even twitching at the Mal-Inara interactions, despite the fact that Blair was certain that he had a very strong interest in Mal. However, Blair didn’t have enough information about the interpersonal relationships to push that button—not now.

“I suppose a manner, we are,” Blair said. “We certainly seemed to have found some trouble. The crew has been kind nice enough to offer some help getting out of it.” Jim’s eyebrow went up, signaling to both Blair and Inara that he didn’t believe that line of gou shi.

Mal came right out and said, “I can't remember I ever offered.” Making a mental note to make sure that none of these people were anywhere around when he tried to use a few obfuscations, Blair smiled at Inara and willed her to ignore the odd undercurrents of emotion in the room.

“I did,” River offered from her position against the wall.

Inara looked over and smiled River. “How nice to see you again, River. Frankly, I trust your judgment in such matters far more than Mal’s. If you think they need helping, what can I do to help?” The dig at Mal and the quick offer to help when she didn’t know how Blair’s goals aligned with the requirements of the companion guild shocked Blair to his core.

Mal looked furious. Glancing over at Jayne, Blair tried to decide how he was taking this whole subtle conflict. Not only was Jayne not watching, but he didn't seem to have any particular emotion involved. Either he wasn't as in love with Mal Blair had thought, or the man didn't recognize that the tangle of emotions in front of him. Blair guessed it was the second, and considering how bad he had it for Mal, it was probably good that he couldn’t see the truth here. Love triangles were nasty. Blair never wanted to be in the middle of that.

“So what exactly are you targeting?” Inara turned to Mal.

“Don’t look at me. It ain’t like I'm the captain or nothing. From the way people around here don’t tell me what’s going on, you’d think I just hired on as crew.” Mal gave River a nasty glare, but for some reason Inara ignored the clear signal that River was in control.

Maybe she was used to ignoring River the way the rest of the crew was. Blair noticed River look his way and smile as she caught that thought. She knew they didn’t see her, but at least she was amused rather than annoyed by it. For one second, Blair wondered what it would be like to see inside the heads of these folks. Then he looked around the room. Mal looked constipated with fury, Zoe had on a patient look, like a mother trying to get through a difficult play date, Kaylee looked as though she didn’t even notice the conflicts, as did Jayne, although in Jayne’s case, he also looked cranky. Blair didn’t want to be able to see the insides of these folks. The outsides were confused enough for him.

“Well then, perhaps Mr. Ellison knows.” She turned to Jim and gave him a brilliant smile that made Mal bridle with frustration. Clearly, Jim recognized what was going on because he took a step closer to Blair, and draped his arm around Blair shoulders. For a moment, Inara’s eyes went wide, like she was surprised at people being sly. Sometimes men on the frontier took a slanted look at sly, but core bred companions sure shouldn’t bat an eye. After that blink of shock, she inclined her head and gave a small nod of acknowledgment. Jim was sly and taken, and she wouldn't interfere with that.

“As far as I know, River picked this destination on her own,” Jim offered only after Inara had signaled her understanding that he would not react to her.

“Oh?” Innara turned to look at River

“The eyes are yellow and teal and vermillion,” River said seriously, “ghosts floating through walls to touch the sky.”

Blair considered that for a moment. “Do the eyes see the colors or do they create it?” Blair asked. He didn’t miss the surprise on Inara’s face. She didn’t have the same expectations as crew so either she’d been off for a long time or she’d never truly integrated to the point that she accepted and expected the same things from River.

River walked to him and slid her arm around Blair's waist. On Blair's other side, Jim stiffened. The warrior in Jim was never comfortable around those strong enough to physically beat him, and River could. However, all she did was lay her head on Blair’s shoulder. “Ruts rise up in rain, the eyes watch but they watch rain, colors rising up through the dust. Ghost. Everywhere ghosts,” she warned. Blair frowned as he thought back to everything she said. If Blue Sun was the watching eye, River was suggesting that they were also doing things or at least present for things that caused fear.

“Could someone explain what’s going on?” Inara asked as she studied River.

“Well, we’re a mite bit short on explanations.” Kaylee made a face like she was ashamed of that fact. “Truth is, we don’t rightly know what we’re even doing on Beaumonde.”

“Invading the eyes and poking the ghosts,” River said.

“Well, that’s better than poking someone in the eye and invading a ghost,” Blair joked. River turned her head to smile at him.

Zoe stood up and held out her hand toward River like a parent offering to lead a child. “Maybe we could get a map of Beaumonde. It seems like River does better when she can point.”

River held Blair’s waist even tighter, shaking her head. “Have to invade 29°58'30.92North 31° 8'15.12East,” she said with as much confidence as Blair had ever heard her use.

“We’re invading something?” Jayne asked, and from the tone of voice, that cheered him up mightily. “What are we invading.”

“What is at those coordinates?” Mal asked.

“On this planet? Not a clue, sir, but I can find out.” Without another word, Zoe headed out of the room.

“Well, it sounds like this mission is off to the same sort of start all your missions use,” Inara said with a vicious smile in Mal’s direction.

“Ain’t like a whore would come up with no better,” Jayne snapped, and Blair leaned back into Jim’s body and watched the interactions. Was Jayne intentionally battling with Inara for Mal’s attention or subconsciously reacting to a threat? And the fact that Mal looked so grouchy, was that because of his relationship with Inara or with Jayne or was he just truly a disagreeable sort. Blair had always prided himself on being able to read people better than most, but suddenly, he wasn’t so sure. One thing he did know, though—no son of Naomi was going to leave this crew with their heads this far up their collective asses.


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