Old War Horses













Chapter 13

Blair looked at the map Zoe and Mal had pulled up on the computer display.

“This is the target?” Jayne sounded disappointed. Then again, Blair figured he’d rather have something a little bigger. Even Jim was looking a little uncertain about attacking a six hundred square foot accounting office, even if it was a Blue Sun office.

“There has to be something more than just an office,” Jim said as he leaned closer. Mal made a mighty unhappy face, but then Blair figured he’d been about to say the same thing, and manly stupidity meant that Mal couldn’t go agreeing.

“Ghosts hidden in the walls,” River said.

Mal sighed. “I’d feel better about this if you went back to talking sane-like. I thought once we got through those Reavers you’d gotten better.”

“New ruts and old ruts,” River said solemnly. She pointed to the office on the map. “Old ruts, old ghosts with little teeth, eating the elephant from inside, whispers of lime green and jade and viridian.”

Blair pulled out his notebook and started taking notes. She’d said little teeth before, but now she associated them with ghosts, and elephants was altogether new. When Blair looked up, River gave him a small smile. Blair could almost feel those little teeth of guilt gnawing on him. River and Jim suffered because of people who found science more interesting that morality, and Blair had followed the Institute down that path for far too long. Now that he was trying to fix his mistakes, he always felt like he was doing too little and he couldn’t figure out things fast enough. Blair was on the verge of sinking under a big wave of remorse when Jim’s arm came around his shoulders and Jim pulled him close. Sagging into Jim’s strength, Blair noticed Jayne’s eyes on them.

“Ain’t so interested in elephants, not unless you think they’re going to have some crazy gou shi like attack elephants,” Mal said as he hit the controls and made the map of the office rotate ninety degrees before appearing in three dimensions.

“Nope,” River offered.

“You know it ain’t going to be as easy as it looks,” Jayne warned.

“I don’t need you to do my figuring for me,” Mal said. Even Zoe gave him an odd look at his sharp tone of voice, but Jayne didn’t look even a little surprised, which didn’t say good things about their relationship. “We need to either get in there quiet-like or we need to figure out the traps so we can set them off before stepping right in the middle of them.”

“It does seem like it, sir,” Zoe said. She moved the controls and made a new angle appear on the screen. From any angle Blair could see, it looked like a boring little office.

Inara gave an exaggerated sigh. “I can’t believe I’m saying this because it’s a violation of my companion oath, but I do know someone who works in that office.”

“Know?” Mal was sounding particularly cranky today.

“He’s a client,” Inara said, her voice tight. The glare was enough to confirm for Blair that there were emotions running far too deep here. This whole ship needed therapy, and that included Inara. That little fact surprised Blair. Most companions had to work through their psychological issues before completing training, but Inara had clearly picked up one or two issues since then.

“What do you know about this client of yours?” Jim asked, his voice all business. Unless Blair missed his guess, Jim was trying to get everyone focused on the job. Heavy emotions, like the ones swirling around this room, tended to put him on edge. Sentinel senses meant he experience emotions far more viscerally, smelling the aggression and distress.

“He’s a manager, a very nice man. He likes to say the night, so when he’s with me, he never stirs out of the house. I’ve seen his keys on the dresser, so I imagine that if you grabbed them, he wouldn’t be in a position to notice until morning.” Inara had retreated to a stiff formality.

“So, we should count on him being too distracted to sound the alarm?” Jim asked.

“If’n she were whoring with me, that would make me all kinds of stupid and distracted,” Jayne offered. Blair watched a dozen microexpressions cross Inara’s face. It certainly was an odd sort of compliment. Mal snorted.

“I can call him. However, if you do anything to comprise my position, I will never answer one of your summons again,” Inara warned, her gaze locked on Mal. For a man who was getting threatened, he looked rather nonplused. He frowned, but then he focused on the map rather than give any answer at all.

Inara sighed before she turned and headed out of the room, her shawl gathered around her like armor as she headed to the shuttle she’d docked with Serenity. Blair had always seen companions as emotional fortresses—and he knew that was a bias formed by his mother and the companion guild’s carefully tended public relations. Companions were people, and people had big old emotional soft spots. Blair had just never seen a companion with such an open wound out where everyone could see. And no one on the ship was even reacting. Blair was almost sure that wasn’t through any sort of callousness as much as ignorance.

“Blair should see Inara’s sparkles,” River said softly.

Jayne snorted. “If she’s done up her new shuttle the way she mucked up ours, sparkles ain’t the word I’d use. The whole shuttle stunk of that gou shi incense she likes and she stuck fabric about every place it’d stay up. Took me a month to clean that gorram shuttle.” Jayne looked like he was honestly put upon, but the others didn’t look too sympathetic

“I wouldn’t mind seeing if she would share some supplies,” Blair said, looking up at Jim. He wouldn’t normally ask for permission to do his psychology, but Jim’s arm still held him tightly.

Looking down at him, Jim sighed loudly. He knew Blair was up to something; however, he loosened his arm. “Don’t cause too much fuss,” he pleaded.

“Who, me?” Blair danced away and gave Jim a bright smile.

“If it were me, that look of his would make me worry,” Mal muttered.

“It does,” Jim agreed, but then Blair was off, hurrying toward the shuttle dock where Inara had brought her shuttle in. He didn’t know if she was planning on leaving or visiting with Kaylee, but he couldn’t afford to miss her. After all, he was the one who put Jayne in Mal’s path, and if he was mucking with Inara’s love life, then he needed to warn her… and tell her that she was tangled up enough to need a companion herself.

He caught her as she climbed the last ladder up to her shuttle. “Inara!” he called. There was a flash of something, but when she looked down to see him, her expression turned into a carefully neutral mask.

“May I help you?” she asked, coming down the two steps she’d climbed. Blair got the feeling he wasn’t getting invited into her new shuttle; the emotional guards were all up.

“I just wanted to say that… um… well…” Blair realized he hadn’t planned out how to say this part. He felt like he was trying to give his mother advice on her love life. Inara wasn’t as old as Naomi, but she was a companion, and even knowing that he was being unreasonably biased, Blair still couldn’t help but think he was overstepping. Trying to open Mal and Jayne’s eyes was more of a public service since they were both growling at the world more than they ought, all out of a frustration that seemed downright silly in Blair’s mind.

Inara gave him a small smile and stepped forward to lightly touch his arm. It was a classic companion move, and Blair could even cite the studies that described the ephemeral alliance-bond created by a simple touch. “If you need to talk to me, you should know that our conversation will remain private, even from Mal,” she vowed.

“Especially from Mal,” Blair blurted out with a snort. Inara pulled her hand back and looked at him with confusion. “I mean… oh man, I am so mangling this.” Blair ran his hand over his face. “My mom… she was a companion.”

“Really?” Inara sounded surprised.

“Yeah, shocking, I know. The guild is a little anti-pregnancy.”

“A little,” Inara agreed. “Your mother must have loved you a lot to disregard her training.”

Blair leaned back against the railing. “She disregarded a lot of her training,” he agreed. “She was sort of a free-thinking sort, a real child of the ‘verse.”

Inara tilted her head in a clear invitation for him to continue.

“I mean, she taught me a whole lot of companion tricks, and I know the guild would give birth to kittens over that.”

Inara laughed. “There are many male companions. True, they work within the core planets more often than out here, but the guild has no policy against male members.”

“Totally. I know that.” Blair nodded. “I was thinking they’d be more upset about her sharing the training. We aren’t just talking first level companion tricks.” Blair thought about that. Having Naomi teach him those sexual techniques would have been more than a little disturbing. He preferred to learn about sex the old-fashioned way—reading dirty stories. Of course, in his case, it had been Naomi’s companion training guides, but that was way better than having Naomi teach him the stuff.

“Blair?” Inara asked. This one had advanced training… Blair guessed she’d been a house trainer, maybe a mistress like Naomi had been.

“She taught me house mistress tricks,” Blair said, and Inara couldn’t hide a flash of shock and possibly even horror. “She was into reading souls and helping them onto their rightful path. That’s the training she gave me.” Blair thought about his work with the Institute. “Not that the training kept me from making some totally disastrous choices, because man, I did that. I didn’t just fall off the path, I jumped off. I found the deepest, murkiest water in the ‘verse and I did a gorram swan dive off the path.” Blair stopped, and Inara’s expression softened.

“Blair, we all make questionable choices; that’s part of being human,” she said in her most soothing voice, and Blair could feel the urge to just tell her the whole story and let her take some of the weight from him, but he’d come out her to help her, not dump his issues onto her lap.

“Like falling in love with Mal?” Blair asked in an equally sympathetic voice. Inara sucked in a fast breath and took a step back, her hand coming up to grab the ladder up to the shuttle. For a time, they looked at each other—two damaged souls who could see the damage within each other. Blair felt that way around Jim, too, like his wounds were exposed. However, Inara didn’t have the advantage of the senses. She had training and experience and a companion’s need to help a soul. At one point Blair thought he’d had that, but he’d sold his soul to the Institute. Earning it back was harder than it looked.

“You are a surprise,” Inara said quietly. “I hadn’t thought I was that obvious.”

“You are,” Blair said. “You and Jayne both.”

Inara laughed, her gaze going up the ceiling. “Yes, there is that. A more ridiculous love triangle, I can’t imagine, which is why I chose to absent myself.”

“So…” Blair studied her. “You don’t mind if Mal is looking to Jayne?”

She laughed again. “Looking to Jayne? Mal? That man wouldn’t notice Jayne following behind if—” She suddenly stopped and stared at Blair, she smile fading. “You told him?”

“I sort of led the horse to water,” Blair admitted. “I didn’t know there was another leg on the triangle.”

“You must have led him to water and then shoved his head under the surface until he near drowned,” Inara muttered, but then that wasn’t far from the truth.

“Have I screwed up?” Blair asked. “I mean, I don’t think Mal has talked to Jayne, and I’m pretty sure Jayne doesn’t know he loves Mal. We could still…” Blair stopped because he wasn’t sure what they could do. Once someone had an epiphany, trying to get them to forget the truth was a mite bit hard. Oh, it could be done, but it took more manipulation than Blair was comfortable with… and the fact was that he was comfortable with a lot of manipulating.

Shaking her head, Inara settled herself on the step. “No, don’t interfere again. In case you haven’t noticed, Mal does not react well to being managed.”

“Oh man, now that is an understatement. I thought he was going to punch me for making him realize that Jayne loved him.”

“I’m honestly surprised he didn’t,” Inara said. “The man is brilliantly un-self-aware.”

“Which is why he’s never noticed that you love him,” Blair guessed.

Inara took some time to rearrange her skirts. “I imagine I could have brought him around to the knowledge in time; however, it’s best that I don’t.” Even though her tone was perfectly controlled, Blair could still feel the pain behind the words.

“Why?” Silence descended on them.

“Mal is fond of his stereotypes.” Inara eventually said with a sigh. “To him, a companion will always be a whore, and no amount of convincing will make him part with that belief. I had to choose between Mal and the career I love.”

Blair thought about his mother and her willingness to walk away from the Companion Guild, and part of him wondered why Inara thought her love for Mal wasn’t worth it. Then again, he didn’t know their pasts. He certainly couldn’t imagine Mal being very respectful of Inara, even if she left the guild. “No way is a companion a whore,” Blair said firmly since it was the only reassurance he had to offer.

His mother certainly had conflicts with the guild, including moral objections to the way money changed hands. Before leaving the guild, she reached the point where she would refuse to accept payment because love and the sort of soul-healing a companion offered should never be negotiated on the basis of pay. However, the man who tried calling her a whore before or after leaving the guild would have found himself castrated in about two seconds. Naomi wasn’t one to stand for that sort of insult, and Inara struck him as a woman cut from much the same cloth.

“No, but I had grown far too willing to allow others to say that in my presence,” Inara said sadly. “I hope you are successful getting Jayne and Mal to recognize their mutual attraction.” She stood up and smoothed out her skirt, picking at a piece of imaginary dirt. “And if they figure out that you are intentionally manipulating their feelings, I will pray for your soul after they both space you,” she finished. “Truly, tread carefully. They are both damaged and short-tempered men.”

“Then the world is safer if they’re with each other, saving the rest of the verse from the chance of having one of them fall for an innocent.”

Reaching out, Inara ran the back of her finger across Blair’s cheek in an intimate gesture. “That is more true than you can know. In love, they are both menaces.”

Blair smiled at her. “Then they’re better off menacing each other. I’m simply glad I haven’t complicated things for you.”

“Not at all. Perhaps if Mal moves on, I can find it easier to convince my own heart to do the same. However, know this: His disrespect for my career, his unwillingness to bend, and his flagrant disregard of anyone else’s opinions means that I retired from the field long ago, even if my heart still struggles to accept that truth. I am not Zoe, and I cannot accept Mal as a commander. So, if he will not allow me to be his equal, I cannot allow myself to love.”

“I’m sorry,” Blair offered.

“You don’t need to be, and Mal will never understand me well enough to understand why I feel an apology is necessary. So, I wish you luck with Mal and Jayne. When I have a time for my client’s visit, I’ll send a message so you can retrieve the keys.” Without a farewell word, Inara turned and headed up the ladder and vanished into her shuttle.

Watching the door lock behind her, Blair felt a flash of homesickness. For him, home had never been a place, it had been Naomi. Later, home became Jim. No matter how many times Blair tried to explain that, he never could get Jim to understand that running with him didn’t bother him. As long as he had Jim, he was happy.

However, right now, he felt a dull ache of longing for Naomi. He wondered if she’d been as sad when she’d been forced to choose between the guild and her beliefs. When he’d left Naomi shortly after the war, he was still young enough that their conversations had a certain shallow quality that kept him from truly understanding her. And unless something changed, he would never get to know her as an adult. Maybe Inara’s melancholy was infectious because Blair suddenly felt unaccountably sad.

Chapter 14

Mal paced his quarters. Three days. Inara was making him wait on purpose. To what end, he couldn’t even hope to guess because that woman’s mind twisted as often as a corkscrew. Every time Mal thought she’d go left, she darted gorram right. At one time, he’d actually given thought to courting the woman, but every time he’d try to go hinting at it, she’d talk up whoring like it was the greatest career in the ‘verse, so he supposed that was her answer. One man wasn’t enough for her.

She wasn’t anything like people like him and Zoe and Jayne. Soldiers thought something and they came right to the matter and said it. Aiya, even Captain Jimmy was easier to go understanding than Inara. And that was saying a good deal because thinking on Captain Jimmy was starting to give Mal a headache. He sure wasn’t the hard-nosed Alliance hero out there singing the praises of the government, that’s for sure. And he wasn’t even holding to the law much anymore. He hadn’t said two words against the idea of breaking into the Blue Sun office.

And he was sly.

That last—that had thrown Mal. Sure, men turned sly, but most of the time, it was because there weren’t women around. In war, that happened a lot. People fell into bed with each other because they were clinging to some slender thread of sanity. He and Zoe had fallen into bed once or twice, but as soon as other partners were available, neither of them had wanted more. Seeing as how she married Wash, Mal figured he wasn’t her type. She wanted a man who’d make her laugh, and that wasn’t one of Mal’s skills. Leastwise, the people who laughed at him generally weren’t doing it because Mal had made a joke.

Then again, he’d always assumed he wasn’t Jayne’s type either, and ever since that hairy little wang da bang had gone saying that gou shi about them being together, Mal couldn’t help but think back on a whole lot of things that hadn’t made one bit of sense at the time. Like Jayne being all forgiving about Mal damn near spacing him. The version of Jayne that Mal had once hired away from another captain, that man would have taken a swing, and then he would have quit. Hell, that man had turned on his last captain over a chance to get his own quarters, yet he’d followed Mal through Reaver space. He’d laid his life on the line to protect crew. It wasn’t making any kind of sense… or it did, but it was the sort of sense that Mal ever expected. And he didn’t like change.

Mal reached over and hit the internal communications. “Jayne?”

“Captain?” Jayne sounded about half-asleep.

“Get your ass to my quarters,” Mal ordered, and then he hit the disconnect before Jayne could go and do something like ask ‘why’. Mal didn’t have a why. He just knew he hated change, and he hated not understanding even more. And lately, there was too much of both on his ship. This was his ship, and he wasn’t standing for it. Or sitting for it.

With a sigh, Mal sat on the edge of his bunk, and the same fantasy that had chased him for the last two nights pressed close. Jayne… on his knees… that big mouth full of something that Mal was pretty sure Jayne would chew off before sucking enthusiastically. This was all Sandburg’s fault. Mal was even having a few odd thoughts of sympathy for Captain Jimmy, being stuck with a little sha gua like that one.

Mal shoved the thought of Jayne and his fantasy to one side so well that when the knock came at the hatch to his quarters, Mal about jumped out of his skin. “Captain?” Jayne yelled when Mal wasn’t quick enough to open the door.

“You don’t have to go yelling,” Mal snapped as he stepped up a couple of rungs on the ladder and threw the lock.

Jayne gave Mal a real suspicious before he followed Mal down into his quarters. For his part, Mal retreated to the far wall as he sorted through more thoughts than he was used to having… at least, he wasn’t used to having this many thoughts about Jayne. It was downright disconcerting to look at a man’s mouth and wonder how much of your cock would fit in it. It was even worse when you couldn’t figure out how he’d react if you tried to put it there.

After the silence had dragged on some time, Jayne started looking around. “What? Is the place bugged or something?”

“Why would my quarters be bugged?” Some days, Mal really couldn’t figure Jayne out. More and more here recently.

“Why would you call me here and then not talk to me?” Jayne countered. That was all Mal could take. No way was he having crew challenge him in his own quarters, making him feel this out of sorts.

“Wuh de tyen, ah,” he cursed, “what in the name of every motherless goat in creation would make you go mooning over me?”

Jayne reared back. “I never said I was.”

“So, are you denying it?”

Jayne’s mouth fell open and for a time, they just stood and stared at each other. It seemed to take him some time to gather a few thoughts together. “I ain’t saying nothing, one way or the other,” he finally insisted.

Sinking down into a chair, Mal tried to figure out when he’d started losing all control. It seemed like he couldn’t even remember back to when he’d had this crew following orders and acting like a crew. “Aiya. When did you turn sly, Jayne Cobb?”

With a really pained expression on his face, Jayne started studying the floor. “I don’t know. It ain’t like I thought on it much.”

“You ain’t thought on it much? Seems like that’s something a man should go thinking about once it crosses his mind.” God knows, it was about all Mal could think about. They were about to go into battle with Blue Sun, and Mal was practically obsessed with Jayne’s mouth.

“I’m more about trying to avoid the gou shi. Ain’t you?”

“Since that little wang ba dan went and told me you were sly for me, I seem to be obsessing on it a bit.” Mal stopped, realizing about five seconds too late that he’d just called himself sly. In all the years he’d wandered the ‘verse, he’d never seen himself as sly, but now, the word slipped right out of his mouth easy. And the way Jayne’s mouth hung open in shock was giving Mal even more sly thoughts. “I can’t really think on much else, and seeing as how we have people trying to kill us, again, that might be a touch dangerous. I can’t think with you looking at me with those eyes of yours,” Mal complained, trying hard to avoid pointing out that it was Jayne’s mouth that was most distracting.

Jayne’s mouth closed so fast his teeth clicked. “You want I shouldn’t look at you?”

Clearly being sly hadn’t improved the IQ. “That wasn’t exactly my point,” Mal said.

“I ain’t catching what your point is, then.”

“Are you thinking on bedding me?”

Jayne took a second to scratch his crotch, and Mal’s gaze slipped down to where Jayne’s cock made a bulge. Was his cock always that large? Maybe Mal was imagining things. Jayne’s scratch turned into a quick readjustment of the junk. “Not exactly,” Jayne said in a hesitant tone.

The idea that Jayne was getting hard gave Mal a pause. His fantasies had a whole lot more to do with Jayne’s mouth than any other part. And the idea of Jayne’s cock anywhere near his ass was unequivocally terrifying. “I can’t say I like the thought of rolling over for a man. You try to roll me over, and you’re going to be lucky if you make it off the ship without having parts detached, and I’ll start with the parts you’re most fond of,” Mal warned.

From the shocked expression on Jayne’s face, that hadn’t been expected. Mal had no idea why he felt so guilty about setting Jayne straight, but he could feel the guilt clinging to him. “Why?” Jayne asked, clearly confused as hell. Of course, it didn’t take much to confuse Jayne. Mal felt another stab of guilt as he thought that. Jayne crossed his arms and glared like he could hear Mal’s less than charitable thoughts. “Womak rolls over, and he’s plenty man enough,” he said in his most mulish tone.

Mal felt a stab of something that wasn’t guilt. “He’s… are you pining over Womak? Because I’ve got to say you’ve done some morally questionable things in your life, but if you even consider laying down for Captain Jimmy, that’s going down as about the singularly most disturbing thing you’ve ever done.”

“I never said I’d be sly for him. He ain’t my type. He’s… he just ain’t,” Jayne finished weakly. “I’m just saying that you’re talking on being sly like it’s something a man shouldn’t be, but Womak’s sly and you’re still hating him just as much, so you ain’t treating him like woman.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Means you get stupid around womenfolk. But Womak being the sly one doesn’t make you start thinking with your pecker like when you’re around a woman.” Jayne added an emphatic nod with that last bit.

“You’re the one who keeps getting that part confused. Just because a man’s sly doesn’t mean he can’t be a powerful annoyance or downright bastard. Womak’s just lucky enough to be both.”

With a smug expression, Jayne nodded. “Exactly. Seems like most people think that being sly makes a man less of a bastard.”

Mal stood up and struggled to find something to look at other than Jayne’s mouth or his crotch or pretty much anything on him. “Actually, only you think that.”


“Yes, really. There were plenty of sly soldiers in the war. They killed as well as those who were off chasing women.”

“Oh.” Jayne sounded confused again. “It’s just where I come from most men don’t really think much of those who are sly.”

Mal sighed. This was an unprecedented mess, and given how many messes they ended up in on Serenity, he did think they’d run out of new disasters. Even the gou shi with Blue Sun was just a new version of Miranda. But Jayne… he was all kinds of unprecedented.

“Where I come from, men don’t care much as long as the ones who are sly don’t go trying to put their cocks somewhere they shouldn’t.”

Silence fell on them again, and Jayne shifted from foot to foot as Mal tried to figure out exactly where they were going. He was feeling more tangled up than he had at any time since Inara had left the ship.

“Captain,” Jayne asked, his voice softer than usual.


“Is this leading up to me getting put off the ship?”

Mal looked up, shocked. “What? No! Ai-yah. Tyen-ah, what would even make you think that?”

“With you being about as confusing as River, it ain’t like you’re giving me a whole lot to work with. I’m only understanding about every third thing you’re even saying,” Jayne complained. “If you got something to say about me or me being sly, just gorram say it.”

Shock robbed Mal of his words for a moment. Usually he was the one not following much at this point in a relationship. Only he wasn’t really in a relationship, not as yet, anyway. Moving to the bed, Mal sat on the edge and thought on how he always hated when women didn’t just explain things outright. Some days, his favorite fantasy was a woman who could just come out and tell him what she was thinking on.

“I got lots to say,” Mal started slowly. This might be the stupidest plan he’d ever come up with, and he was man enough to admit he did come up with some God-almighty stupid plans. Leastwise, he could admit that in the privacy of his own thoughts.

“Then say it,” Jayne said. He frowned and crossed his arms, but he was still standing in Mal’s room, making it clear he was waiting on Mal’s word. Of course, if Mal was wrong, the doc was going to be picking broken teeth out of Mal’s spleen.

“I like the thought of you on your knees, sucking on my cock. I can’t say the thoughts have gotten much past that point, but I reckon if we get that far, my imagination might be able to come up with one or two more suggestions.” Mal tensed, waiting to see if Jayne would take offense. God knows that Mal wouldn’t be much interested in returning the favor, despite the fact that seemed mighty unequal.

Jayne seemed to freeze. His mouth was open again, which was giving Mal’s imagination some room to work, but he wasn’t actually reacting much.

“Of course, if that’s not the kind of sly you are, I won’t take no offense,” Mal added when the silence got too awkward. That seemed to make Jayne shake free of whatever shock had hold of him.

“You wouldn’t mind?” Jayne narrowed his eyes like he was searching for a trap.

“I wouldn’t mind what?”

“Me trying out being sly on you.”

Mal’s cock gave an almighty twitch, and Kaylee’s comment that his pants were too tight never had seemed so true. “Jayne, when is the last time you gave up a chance to get sexed?” Mal didn’t wait for an answer because they both knew that Jayne never had. “I ain’t about to turn down a chance for some sexing.”

Jayne’s slow smile was about the most surprising and most oddly attractive thing Mal ever had seen in his life. “That I understand,” Jayne said as he started to unbuckle his gun belt.

Chapter 15

While Jayne put a disturbing number of weapons on Mal’s table, Mal unzipped his pants. He had to admit this was possibly the most awkward sexual moment he’d had since he was 17 and a girl first showed him how to use his various bits.

“Fair warning, I ain’t exactly sure what I’m doing,” Jayne warned as he turned around, and then without warning, he stepped close and went to his knees right between Mal’s legs.

Mal arched his back and sucked in a breath as his cock got real hard, real fast. Well shit, he was more sly than he’d thought.

“You got one. You know what feels good.”

Jayne frowned at Mal’s unzipped pants and his cock tenting Mal’s blue boxers. “True, but I ain’t usually looking at mine from this angle,” Jayne said without even a bit of hesitation. If Mal were on the floor, he’d be doing a whole lot of hesitating, but Jayne’s left hand came up and rested on Mal’s thigh while Jayne reached in for Mal’s cock without any sort of guile or that blinking thing women did that they thought made them so gorram attractive.

When Jayne pulled Mal out, he made a little grunt that Mal wasn’t sure how to interpret, and then he just leaned forward and sucked just the tip into his mouth. Jayne Cobb on his knees with Mal’s cock in his mouth was about more than Mal could take. He thrust up and gorram near came. He also inadvertently shoved most of his cock in Jayne’s mouth, and Jayne leaned all the way back on his heels.

“Shi. You ain’t got to go choking me. I was getting around to it,” Jayne said with an almost annoyed expression on his face.

“It wasn’t exactly intentional.” Mal could feel himself get warm, either from the sight of Jayne on his knees or from good old-fashioned embarrassment. It’d been a long time since he’d lost control of his cock like that.

“It weren’t?” Jayne frowned.

“It felt good, and it’s been a while. I just… slipped.” Mal hated admitting that, and the smug smile on Jayne’s face made it worse.

“Gorram right it felt good. I’ve never left a lover wanting,” Jayne said, and before Mal could take offense at the implication that he wasn’t as good in bed, Jayne had rocked forward and taken a good bit of Mal’s’s cock in his mouth. Mal’s words disappeared in a moan as Jayne sucked, his fingers reaching down to caress Mal’s balls.

Aiya, but Jayne could suck. Mal squirmed as his breath came in heavy gasps. Pulling back, Jayne spend some time running his tongue along the crown of the penis, his large fingers circling the base of Mal’s cock and squeezing just enough to make Mal see stars.

Mal struggled to open his legs more, but his pants trapped his legs no matter how much he struggled. Jayne sank down on Mal’s cock again, doing something with the back of his throat so that it tightened around the tip of Mal’s cock, and Mal jackhammered his hips forward, all control stripped from him as need flooded through him.

He was falling, and he threw his hands out to the side, hitting a wall before he realized that Jayne had simply lifted his legs and swung him around so that Mal was flat on his bunk. The strength gave Mal a tingle of anxiety. However, he looked down and Jayne had settled at the end of the bed, Mal’s cock deep in his mouth as he sucked enthusiastically, his cheeks hollowing out, and his large, dark eyes watching Mal. That was enough to overcome any lingering cobweb fears and Mal arched his back as his lust finally overwhelmed him.

Forgetting anything but the pleasure, Mal thrust up, digging his heels into the bed. Large hands pinned his hips, but Mal didn’t care because he was consumed by waves of spine-shivering delight. He opened his mouth to warn Jayne that he was coming, but he only managed an inarticulate cry before he came hard. His whole body was fever hot as his body tightened and he involuntarily thrust up again and again. Then the pleasure finally started to ebb, and Mal sagged back onto the bed.

Gasping as though he’d just finishing running for his life, Mal stared up at the ceiling and let his brain finish rewiring. He was gorram sly. He was so sly that other sly folk looked positively heterosexual next to him. Why in the name of everything that was holy in the ‘verse had he never noticed this before?

When the mattress dipped, Mal looked over to see Jayne moving up the bed. Some of the pleasure faded as fear pressed in again, but Mal wasn’t so uncharitable as to kick a man out of bed after flute playing like that. He scooted to the side, and Jayne moved up until he was almost on level with Mal.

“Jayne,” Mal said, not sure how to explain why he really didn’t want to return the favor. Some of the sly was fading.

“So, it were good?” Jayne asked with a plain honesty.

“The best I’ve had,” Mal admitted. “Which is why I’m feeling like a hwun dan for not returning the favor.”

“Ain’t like I gave you time to,” Jayne said with a shrug.

Pushing himself up on one elbow, Mal looked down and sure enough, Jayne had a small wet stain on his pants. At least Mal got his pants off first. Another day, Mal might have said as much, but it seemed uncharitable to say something that cold to the man laying up in your bed. “You are all kinds of a surprise, Jayne Cobb,” Mal said instead.

“Ain’t even going to argue that. I’m wondering why I didn’t try that a while back. Men parts are a lot easier to get at than women parts, and once you start talking straight, you’re easier to follow than most women. That’s why I like whores; they don’t go confusing me.”

Mal thought about Inara and all her mixed up messages. “We can agree on that,” Mal said. He felt awkward, but he reached out and rested his hand on Jayne’s shoulder. Did men cuddle? Looking over, he checked to see how Jayne would take that. Jayne’s eyes were closed, and his right arm was tucked under his head. From the slow rise and fall of his chest, he was either asleep or heading there fast. “Good night, Jayne,” Mal said.

“Night, Mal,” Jayne mumbled. Well, this answered the question about whether men cuddled and saved Mal from having to find meaningful talk. After sex always had seemed like a mighty inconvenient time for conversating. Rolling onto his right side, Mal faced the wall and let his weary body drift toward sleep. When Jayne’s arm came to rest on his waist, sleep had so great of a hold on Mal that he couldn’t rouse himself enough to get concerned about it. Besides, it felt good to share his bunk with a warm and willing partner. It’d been too gorram long.

Chapter 16

“Blair, I really hope you know what you’re doing,” Jim warned as he turned over in the bunk. Blair raised his head, blinking in the darkness.

“Man, I never know what I’m doing. Not exactly. I only nudge the universe. I gave up trying to control where things went about the same time I gave up selling my soul to the Institute.”

Jim sighed. He’d always thought he had cornered the market on guilt, but Blair was about the most stubborn man in the whole gorram ‘verse when it came to carrying guilt.

“Why? What did I do this time?” he asked when Jim settled back down onto the narrow bunk. Either Jayne was a lot more flexible than he looked, or Mal had a bigger bunk than they did.

“You pointed Mal at Jayne.”

“Oh shi. Really? Already?” Blair sounded awe-stricken.

“You’re surprised?”

“Well, yeah. I thought it would take way longer. My guess is that Inara did too because she didn’t arrange for that client of hers for three more days. And honestly? I thought she was being optimistic. No way did I expect them to get their heads out of their asses by then. The lesson here is to not doubt the companion. Wow. Already.” With a shake of his head, Blair settled back down on the bunk.

They lay there for no more than thirty seconds before Blair pushed himself up on one elbow. “Whoa. You are all tense.”

“I know this, Sandburg,” Jim snapped. He immediately felt guilty, and he wouldn’t have blamed Blair one bit if the man had stormed off, but that wasn’t Sandburg. Jim had discovered in the Institute that the more he snapped, the more Blair tried to help. It was a codependent sort of affection that sometimes made Jim worry. It also forced him to curb the worst of his temper because he wouldn’t take it out on a man who refused to fight back.

“Whoa. Okay, you’re really tense.” Blair’s hand stroked over Jim’s chest, sending little tendrils of warmth soaking in through his skin. Jim could even feel the ghost of Blair’s warm breath against his shoulder, and all his arm airs stood on end. When Blair’s hand finally slid south far enough to find Jim’s cock hard and throbbing, it stilled.

“Really tense,” Blair repeated, this time in a more sympathetic tone. “Not that I’m questioning my own sex appeal, but what has you this worked up?”

“Drop it, Mr. Universe.”

“Yeah, yeah. I’m nosy. Man, you are not telling me anything I don’t know, but if this is some Sentinel thing….”

“This is a human thing,” Jim said, willing his body to come back under control, but the sound of Mal’s evenly timed gasps made that almost impossible.

“Human thing?” Blair didn’t sound convinced.

Jim sighed and realized he had two choices: tell Blair or get badgered until he gave up and told Blair. “I can hear them.”

“Oh.” Blair made a face. “That’s awkward.”

“Yeah, a little,” Jim agreed. Mal loathed him, so listening as the man’s breathing grew more ragged and deep groans joined the chorus was more than simply awkward.

“But this never affected you before. I mean, Kaylee strikes me as the sort of girl who really likes to have sex, and you haven’t reacted to her and Simon.”

Closing his eyes, Jim wondered if he could will himself to get some spontaneous rash that would distract Blair from this particular conversation. Unfortunately, that wasn’t one of his talents. “Kaylee and Simon don’t sound like…” Jim hesitated.

“Like what?” Blair prompted when Jim took too long.

This was definitely heading into territory Jim didn’t want to explore, but with Blair as a partner, he didn’t have much chance of winning this particular battle. And as a commander, he knew that a quick surrender and retreat was sometimes better than a prolonged defeat.

“I’ve only had sex with you since the senses came online. Kaylee doesn’t sound like you, and Simon makes the sort of noises that make me think he’s practiced making polite sex noises.” The man sounded polished and polite, even during sex.” Jim actually found that a little disconcerting, but then Simon did have some odd notions. “Mal and Jayne sound more like us.”


“Yeah, ‘oh’,” Jim said, and he struggled hard to rein in his frustration.

“Hey, you don’t have to get frustrated. Or you don’t have to stay frustrated, anyway,” Blair said in a low voice, his fingers moving down to stroke Jim’s balls exactly the way he loved. They tightened and his cock hardened even more, but Jim reached down and caught Blair by the wrist.

“Not now.”

“Not now? Man, you are ready to blow. Come on.”

“I’m not going to have sex just because I can hear those two.”

“But….” Blair stopped. “Okay, you have got to explain this one to me, Ellison. How does this make any sense at all?”

“I’m like this because of them,” Jim snapped.

“And? Who cares how you got this way?”

“I do. These damn senses are turning me into a voyeur.”

“There’s nothing wrong with—”

“A man has a right to a little privacy, and I’m eavesdropping on his intimate moments.” Jim pushed himself up in bed, and groaned as his cock protested the loss of contact with Blair’s hand.

“Look, Ellison,” Blair said, using Jim’s father’s name again. Blair had gotten into a habit of calling him Ellison, and Jim had no idea where that gou shi had come from. He didn’t have a great relationship with any of the Ellisons, not that the Womaks felt any affection for a traitor and fugitive. “Spanking, bondage and voyeurism is the holy triumvirate of human sexuality. There is nothing wrong with enjoying the sight or sound of people enjoying sexual pleasure.”

Jim tried to cut Blair off because this was definitely one area where Blair’s companion mother had raised him with a completely different set of values than Jim had been raised with. “I don’t want—”

“Tough shit. Your body knows what feels good, and there’s nothing wrong with that. What are they doing, anyway?” Blair asked, his voice dropping into a more intimate tone.

“You want me to tell you….” Jim let his voice trail off. Some days Blair could still shock him down to his core.

“Hell yes. I mean, I can imagine, but imagination is no substitute for knowing.” Blair lowered his voice again, and he found the tone that always sent shivers through Jim. “Come on… what do you hear?” What are they doing?”

“From the sounds, Mal near to choked Jayne by shoving his cock down Jayne’s throat,” Jim said, going for the crudest possible description hoping to get Blair off the subject.

Blair laughed. “Oh man, I so saw that coming. That man is like… whoa… wound tight,” he finished. “But I bet that didn’t slow Jayne down.”

Conceding defeat, Jim sighed. “It didn’t. He complained that he would have gotten around to sucking the whole cock eventually, and then he went back to work.”

“Oh man. Okay, that is totally Jayne. One of these days, he’d going to figure out he has a few more kinks than just being sly,” Blair said quietly, and Jim had a flash of fear at Blair trying to have that discussion with Jayne.

“Blair, you can’t—”

“Relax, Jim. As much as Mal is caught up in knots, it’s going to be years before they’re ready to go there.” Blair’s words only partially reassured Jim since it wasn’t exactly a promise to stay out of their business. “So, what are they doing right now?” Blair asked, and his heart started to pound a little faster. The smell of musk, both his own and Blair’s, started leaking into the air, competing with the tang of metal that always filled ship air.

“Mal is making rough little grunts, and I keep hearing flesh against metal.”

“What?” Blair asked.

Jim reached out and slapped the metal side of the ship. “I think Mal’s going to have a sore hand tomorrow,” Jim said. He was guessing Mal didn’t know how hard he was hitting because tiny echoes of the hit whispered from all over the ship. “Jayne isn’t making much noise, but I can hear him gasping for air through his nose, and when he pulls all the way off Mal, I can hear the sucking sound.” Jim settled back down on the bunk, and Blair laid on one side, a leg hooked over one of Jim’s legs. Blair’s hand returned to gentle stroke up Jim’s cock, and Jim knew it wouldn’t be long before he lost himself in his senses.

Before that could happen, Jim threaded his fingers through Blair’s long curls. For a second, he stroked Blair’s hair, feeling Blair’s body temperature slowly rise. “Mal screamed,” Jim said softly before he curled his fingers behind Blair’s neck and pulled the man close for a kiss.

Blair’s lips were soft under his, yielding when Jim ran his tongue over Blair’s lower lip. Moving into Blair’s mouth, Jim grew more aggressive. The sound of Mal’s climax pushed him into a raw, visceral need. Shifting, he used his weight to partially pin Blair and then kiss the life of out him. Blair groaned and thrust up against Jim’s hip. For a long time, Jim lost himself in the feel and taste of Blair, but then he pulled back and kissed Blair’s jaw before moving down to kiss his neck. “Oh man. Shit. Yeah. Voyeurism good. Voyeurism fucking great,” Blair muttered as Jim nibbled at the juncture between Blair’s neck and shoulder.

“Jayne wants to know if he was any good,” Jim whispered before he sucked on Blair’s earlobe.

“Please tell me that Mal was a gentleman about it.”

Jim ran his teeth over Blair’s earlobe, feeling the delicious shiver that went through Blair’s entire body. “Told him Jayne’s the best he ever had,” Jim answered.

Blair snorted. “Either Mal’s had some mighty bad blow jobs or Jayne is one hell of a quick learner.”

Reaching down, Jim wrapped his hand around Blair’s cock, and he could feel the individual skin cells contract under his touch. “Mal’s not returning the favor.”

“Is Jayne upset?”

“Sleepy. I think he finished on his own,” Jim said. He could feel the floating sensation as all senses started to spread like a sail in the wind. He imagined that he could almost see Jayne and Mal falling asleep together, Mal’s pants still caught around his ankles.

“At least he’s not going to frustrate himself waiting for Mal to catch up. Say what you want about Jayne, the man does know how to throw himself into something,” Blair said. Jim could feel hands press him back to the bed. Touch expanded until Jim could feel every hair on his body, feel each cell where Blair’s warmth pressed up against him. Blindly reaching out, Jim caught Blair’s hair and let each silken thread run through his fingers.

He could feel the air move out of Blair’s way as he leaned closer, bringing his heat with him. He breathed over Jim’s skin, and the warm musk skimmed over Jim’s skin, bringing his senses to life. “Watch the dial, Jim,” Blair muttered before he placed a series of kisses down the center of Jim’s chest. Jim arched his back as he felt the warmth almost burn him. When Blair sucked one of Jim’s nipples into his mouth, Jim gasped, his whole body reduced to that point until he could feel each cell, feel the flow of blood and the firing of each individual nerve cell as Blair sucked. The feeling almost swallowed Jim alive, and then Blair was gone, and his nipple pebbled as cold air shocked the nerves.

Gasping again, Jim pulled his awareness back from the edge of a zone. Residual heat trails crossed his body, each place where Blair touched him leaving warm fingerprints. When Jim had been near-zoned on his own nipple, Blair had run a hand down over Jim’s side to his thigh, and now Jim could trace every moment of that in the warmth left behind.

“Don’t get too hungry for touch. Balance it, Jim,” Blair advised, and Jim forced his hearing higher. Sight was still offline, but in the dark, that gave them a sort of equality.

“God, I want you,” Jim confessed, reaching for Blair.

“You always have me,” Blair said, yielding when Jim pulled him close, but then Jim lost track of more time as he scented the salt of precum and the musk of their desire. Blair’s heart pounded so loud that Jim could almost each the echoes off the metal walls. When Blair’s finger ran down over Jim’s cock, Jim could feel the blood vessels contract. His back arched, and Blair made little noises, little grunts that meant he wasn’t far from the edge, either. Jim could smell the need, he could smell as the musk took on a deeper note.

Jim breathed pheromones with every gasp now, and he could feel his sense unfurl more. Dust against the hull sang in an irregular series of high notes as Blair worked a finger into Jim.

“More,” Jim begged softly. Blair’s breath caught in his throat, and his heart gave a quickened half step, but Blair complied by slipping a second finger in quicker than usual. Jim pulled his legs up and caught the back of his own knees. “Blair, hurry,” he begged. His senses fully unfurled so that every place where Blair touched him, a hand on Jim’s leg, a thigh pressed against Jim’s ass, Jim could feel their bodies merge, the blood singing just under the skin. He wanted Blair in him for this moment.

Blair said something, but Jim’s hearing wasn’t tuned to human voice, and the words vanished into a series of tones that spoke of lust and want and love. Words lied, but the tones were as old as humanity and pure in their honesty. Jim could feel his tissue and muscle stretch as Blair slid inside, and this was always the perfect moment. Jim slipped away while Blair held him, strong hands anchoring him while Jim vanished into the pure reality of the senses.

His skin sweated from their combined heat where Blair’s hands held his legs and the slap of Blair’s thighs against his ass awoke each cell, and Jim’s body twitched and strained in time with Blair’s ragged breathing. Jim could feel Blair’s heatbeat reverberate through him, his own flesh yielding as it answered Blair’s rhythms. Jim’s whole body sang with pleasure as he imagined he became Blair. At the same time, he could feel himself stretching so he could become the Serenity, feel each piece of dust slide across his skin, feel the heat of the sun against his face as she circled the moon, hear every human life inside.

Blair came with a shout, and the spell broke. Suddenly, Jim was back inside himself, coming with an almost painful pleasure. He could feel Blair’s come inside his body, feel the short thrusts as Blair finished coming, his body radiating heat and his scent heavy with pleasure. Blair collapsed forward, pressing Jim’s legs farther up into his chest.

“Sorry,” he immediately apologized. He squirmed back, his cock slipping free of Jim as he allowed Jim to lower his legs. “Oh man. I think I’m broken.” He dropped down next to Jim, and Jim gathered Blair into his arms, staining until he could get the blanket up and over both of them.

“Just worn out. I can do that to a lover,” Jim teased. He could still feel Blair’s come in him, and he could feel echoes of his senses giving him the illusion of ship song.

“Yeah, man, you can. You totally can,” Blair agreed, but his voice blurred with fatigue. Jim pulled him closer and lay down. In Mal’s bunk, Mal and Jayne were sleeping, their breathing deep and even. A small, uncharitable part of Jim’s mind couldn’t avoid a little comparison, and he figured he and Blair could certainly win one particular competition.

Chapter 17

Mal stirred. He was warm. Not just warm, but sated with the feeling of another body in his bunk with him, the soft sounds of another’s breath lulling him as he drifted through half-sleep. Beaumonde. The details of their latest madness floated up into his awareness, followed by the memory of exactly who was sleeping in his bunk with him. Two seconds later, it occurred to him that there was something poking him in the butt. “Jayne, that best not be you poking at me,” Mal warned darkly. He got a grunt and some shifting from the body behind him. “Jayne!” he snapped.

The restless shifting immediately froze. “What?”

“That best not be you poking me,” Mal warned again now that Jayne was awake.

“What?” Jayne asked, his voice awake enough, but sounding confused. Jayne rolled onto his back, and that left Mal enough room on his bunk to get turned around so he was facing Jayne. It made him more comfortable when he could keep an eye on Jayne, particularly when the man’s cock was hard. Mal was in bed with a naked Jayne Cobb, his tough, muscled body and impressive cock laid out for Mal to see. A line of white scar crossed just under Jayne’s left nipple, and a fainter one across his stomach. Three different pock-marked holes from bullets decorated his body, two of them from Jayne’s time serving Mal. His body was a hard map of trouble.

“I’m just piss proud. It ain’t like you aren’t the same,” Jayne pointed out as he rubbed a hand over his face. Mal shifted nervously because his cock was half-hard with a need to take a piss, but it wasn’t his cock that he was disturbing at finding in his bunk. Even by the low lights, Jayne was a powerful large man. Last night, his cock hadn’t made an appearance, but now Mal could see it, thick and heavy with low hung balls that rolled when Jayne shifted. When they’d visited Inara’s whore friend, the girls at the house had spoken right complimentary about Jayne’s abilities at sexing, and now that Mal saw the man’s tools, he could see that Jayne had quite a bit to work with. Mal actually felt a little uncomfortable at the comparison. Jayne sat up and rubbed his face for a second before he padded over to the urinal port naked. Leaning against the wall with one hand, he sighed as he held his cock and peed.

Mal went to sit up and realized his pants were still caught around his ankles. Actually, when he’d gone to bed, Jayne was still dressed, but now he was naked as the day he was born, his clothes draped over Mal’s chair. Kicking one foot loose from the pants, Mal sat up and started straightening out his pants so he could put them on. He really needed there to be one less naked man in this room.

“You’ve been up,” Mal accused him. Jayne didn’t even turn around.

“Yep. You sleep like the dead, and I couldn’t truly settle until I knew the hatch was locked.”

It was such a reasonable response… such a classic Jayne response… that Mal was having trouble adjusting to the fact that this security-obsessed version of Jayne had gone to his knees and sucked Mal’s cock. The memory of Jayne’s unhesitating willingness made it hard for Mal to shove his cock in his pants, but he did it anyway, cringing a bit at the pain. He might not be comfortable with being sly in the morning, but his cock still was mighty fond of the idea of being sly at night. His cock was even more in favor of it if it led to more of Jayne on his knees. That had been a sight worth a whole ship load of credits.

Jayne finished and turned around, his cock soft again, which still didn’t hide the fact that he was a well-hung man. “What’s eating at you this morning?” Jayne asked, crossing his arms over his chest. Again, it was a classic Jayne gesture, and seeing it on a naked Jayne was doing something odd to Mal’s brain.

“Nothing,” Mal said before he headed for the urinal, shoving Jayne to the side.

“If’n that’s the case, then you must be one of those people who wake up mean.”

“I ain’t—” Mal stopped and unzipped the pants he’d just zipped up. He couldn’t say that wasn’t being mean, because threatening his lover before the man was even awake was mean.

Normally when he stuck his foot his far into his mouth, whatever woman he was with stormed out. Jayne just kept looking at him. For a time, Mal concentrated on pissing. It was more comfortable than a conversation he didn’t know how to finish. Besides, he needed time to try and gather the scattered thoughts that kept slipping away from him. This was all Sandburg’s fault. At one point, Mal figured he’d space Captain Jimmy and give Sandburg the boot next planet they reached. The longer those two were around those two, the more he reckoned he’d give Captain Jimmy the boot at the next planet with his hide still intact and space Sandburg. About the only reason he hadn’t done it yet was the sheer pleasure of knowing Jimmy had to put up with the hairy little hwun dan.

By the time he turned around, Jayne was pulling on his pants, and Mal found himself staring at the dried spot on Jayne’s pants. Jayne’s come had dried hard and now that Jayne was pulling the pants on, the cloth flexed and the crusty stain cracked, creating a thin white line through the barely visible dark spot. He’d come in his pants. There weren’t another person in the ‘verse Mal ever had come that easy. Usually he had to put real effort in to get a woman that pleasured-up.

“If you decided you ain’t sly, we don’t got to do this again,” Jayne said as he sat on the edge of the bed and grabbed his boots. True, there was a little part of Mal that wanted to take that easy out even if he was more sly than he’d ever anticipated, but that’d mean giving up the sight of Jayne on his knees. That wasn’t his first choice, or even his second. Even now, Mal found himself watching Jayne’s mouth.

“I never said I wasn’t sly,” Mal snapped.

Jayne pulled his shirt off the chair and just looked at Mal, confusion written all over his face.

“I’m starting to think you’re the woman in this relationship,” Jayne complained.

That came so close to Mal’s discomfort that he stepped forward, his fear and anger raging forward. “Excuse me? It wasn’t me on my knees taking orders.” Mal took some pleasure at getting in that shot. However, Jayne didn’t look much like he’d taken any damage at all—no twinge of guilt or flinch or even a darkening blush at his willingness to suck cock. If anything, Jayne looked more confused and twice as riled.

“And it ain’t me talking in circles like some skirt,” Jayne shot back. “I’ve always taken your orders, so I don’t know why you think I wouldn’t take ‘em here, leastwise until you prove you’re such a hwan dan that you aren’t worth following no more.”

The thought of Jayne walking away from this nearly took Mal’s breath. “Are you threatening me?”

Jayne’s mouth near to fell open. “Aiya. You’re a right bastard in the morning, Mal.” Standing up, Jayne pulled his shirt on and headed for the ladder.

“Jayne,” Mal warned. Jayne turned around, one hand on the ladder. His face reflected a sort of weary suspicion, but he was waiting. On Mal’s word, he stood waiting, but Mal didn’t know what to say. This wasn’t going the way he’d thought. Having Jayne on his knees was nice enough, but having Jayne with all his cantankerous parts standing in his quarters was a little more problematic.

“You got something to say?” Jayne asked. Clearly there was a limit to how much gou shi Jayne would put up with.

“If I ordered you to your knees?” Mal asked. He hadn’t meant to ask that, but the words slipped out like slippery fish wiggling through his fingers. Jayne looked even more confused than ever.

“Are you?” he asked, and Mal had the feeling that if he said he was, Jayne would go down right now. Mal’s cock started getting hard, and he was tempted. Jayne’s talent at sucking cock wasn’t in question.

“Didn’t say that.”

“What are you saying, then?” Jayne crossed his arms and gave Mal a long look. Mal could admit to feeling guilt here. He never was one for keeping a relationship going. Normally, making a woman happy in bed was his strength, and all the talking after just got him turned around until he said something offensive. This time, he hadn’t gotten around to making Jayne happy before the awkward conversating the next morning. Mal hadn’t done anything that came even close to reciprocating the pleasure Jayne had given him.

Jayne sighed. “Call when you’ve decided what you want, Mal,” Jayne said as he started climbing the ladder. Knowing he had the power to call Jayne back made it twice as hard to avoid doing exactly that. However, he watched Jayne climb the ladder and vanish. Mal turned away, about as mad at himself as he was at Jayne. He stopped when he saw his table. Jayne’s gunbelt and about half dozen weapons scattered across the table. Jayne had left his weapons. No way would Jayne ever leave his weapons some place unless he intended to come back.

Mal just couldn’t figure out why he should. It wasn’t like Mal had given him many reasons to come back.

Chapter 18

“Morning!” Blair practically sang as they walked into the galley.

“Mornin’ Blair!” Kaylee answered with equal enthusiasm. Jim offered a polite nod to the assembled group, but he didn’t plan to push things with any of these people. Simon Tam was still giving him a worshipful look that made Jim about as uncomfortable as Mal’s hate. Only Jim noted that Mal was more interested in poking at eggs than glaring this morning.

“Whoa, eggs. Who do I have to kill to earn some of those?” Despite the suggestion that he’d have to earn breakfast, Blair walked over to the kitchen and grabbed a plate to serve himself, and no one objected. Kaylee went back to loudly telling a story about some trader the crew knew with a forced attempt at humor, Simon kept watching Jim, River watched Blair, and Mal sat at the table with an expression like someone had shot his dog. Only Zoe looked unaffected by whatever foul mood had settled over the crew today. Jim felt like he was in one of those fictional vids where it turned out some virus was slowly turning everyone into a Reaver, emotions were just that unbalanced. Even the smell had a jagged edge to it that made Jim uncomfortable.

“Here you go,” Blair said, handing Jim a plate loaded with food. Even though Jim accepted it, he kept his eyes on Mal, watching to see if the captain would object to the sheer volume of food Blair had brought him. Jim knew that if he were still an Alliance captain with a core-deep belief in the cause and he’d been forced to take on a Browncoat passenger, Jim would have set a few rules. He sure wouldn’t have wanted the Browncoat eating all the fresh protein. However, when Mal looked up, his glare focused on Blair. While Blair blithely sauntered back to the kitchen for more food, Mal followed him with a sullen glare.

“Captain,” Jim greeted him, feeling a need to distract Mal from whatever unhappiness was making him take such a sudden dislike to Blair. “Any word from Beaumonde?”

Kaylee fell silent and everyone waited for Mal to answer, but he didn’t. Zoe picked up the slack. “No word yet, but as long as no one is shooting at us, that’s generally a good sign.”

Jim frowned. “Where’s Jayne?” It made him nervous, not knowing where Jayne was. These people might be uneasy allies against the Institute, but they were still enemy. Jim couldn’t shake that feeling. And the fact was, he always wanted to have his enemy where he could see them. However, the second Jayne’s name left his mouth, Jim had a good idea what bug had crawled up Mal’s ass. Despite the fact that last night had gone well enough, something had soured.

“Working. At least one person on this gorram crew knows how to get his work done.” Mal slammed his fork down on the table, and everyone except Zoe sort of froze in place. Zoe kept on eating her breakfast, and Jim tried to take his cues from her. She’d clearly been with the captain long enough to read him, so despite the sour fear that settled in his stomach, Jim started eating. He didn’t lie to himself about this attack in two or three days. Mal would put him in the most vulnerable, most dangerous position, and Jim needed to make sure he was strong enough to hold his own. He couldn’t afford to pass up fresh, unprocessed protein.

Eventually the others started moving. Kaylee stayed silent, her story abandoned.

“Seriously cranky vibes,” Blair whispered as he sat next to Jim on side away from Mal. Jim’s stomach unknotted a little having Blair close enough to grab up if the situation turned more inhospitable than normal. From the mingled scents of frustration and anger and confusion, it might turn ugly any second.

River shifted in her chair, stood and then put her knees in it before settling down like an overgrown five-year-old. “Medial orbitofrontal cortex failure hurts,” she offered with a sympathetic look in Mal’s direction. Jim took a slow deep breath through his nose, sorting through various smells to see if she was describing some illness, but Mal smelled fine. He smelled aggravated, with stress hormones leeching out his skin, but that wasn’t a surprise.

Blair made a sympathetic face, so clearly River’s comment meant something to him. “Oh man. Yeah, it would,” Blair agreed. “But letting the medial orbitofrontal cortex rule your life is not cool. And you are sounding better, far more coherent.”

“Head clearer,” she agreed with a not-subtle shit-look for her brother.

“I bet. Those were some heavy-duty meds you were on.” Blair nodded. “Seriously heavy.”

Simon stiffened under their implication that he’d overmedicated his sister. “They helped her with the panic attacks.”

“Well, yeah,” Blair agreed. “She was drugged to the gills. I’d have a hard time panicking too if I were that drugged up, but I wouldn’t recommend it. I mean, if I’m facing real danger, I prefer to do it with real fear on my side.”

“You can’t—” The doctor looked ready to make this an all-out medical war, but Mal cut him off.

“I ain’t interested in having you two ruin my breakfast,” he snapped. “Wuh de tyen, ah. God save me from core-bred gao yang jong duh goo yang. Not a one of you has the sense god gave a motherless whoring turtle.” Snatching his fork off the table, Mal started shoveling the food in like someone might try and take it away from him.

Jim might have worried some because he could smell the aggression and the need to fight rising from Mal’s skin like a fog, only Zoe kept right on eating breakfast with only a raised eyebrow to comment on Mal’s vivid use of profanity.

River made a face. “Hippocampus and anterior insula vie with amygdala for blood flow.”

“Okay,” Blair said, and he sounded a little distressed about that. Jim frowned. Normally he didn’t mind not understanding Blair’s conversations, but everyone at the table seemed to be getting more uncomfortable than was really safe considering he and Blair weren’t armed.

“Would either of you like to start clarifying what you’re talking about?” Mal demanded.

Blair didn’t answer, but River gave him a bright smile. “No,” she said, almost singing the word. “Captain needs more oxytocin.”

“Oxytocin?” Simon almost choked on a laugh. “The captain isn’t that bad.”

The captain turned a deadly cold look in Simon’s direction. “He might be if’n he gets aggravated enough,” Mal warned, and Jim could hear the dangerous edge of frustration in that voice.

“Blair, knock it off,” Jim warned softly.

“Old war horses,” River offered with a soft sigh.

“They are who they are,” Blair agreed with a shrug.

Mal leaned forward. “And I’m getting aggravated enough that you both ought to be a mite bit worried.”

It was Simon who stepped in. “Oxytocin is a hormone associated with socialization. Sometimes people with anti-social disorders are prescribed doses to improve their ability to interact with others.”

That made Mal’s face turn an unhealthy shade of gray. Whatever had gone wrong between Mal and Jayne, it had done so spectacularly, and Jim could just kill Blair for starting this whole mess.

“Are you calling me crazy?” Mal’s voice was dangerously calm.

“No way. That description is a total oversimplification,” Blair said with a dismissive snort. From the way Simon stiffened, he wasn’t used to having his doctoring questioned. “I will avoid doing surgery if you’ll avoid psychiatric diagnoses, because those are not in our mutually exclusive areas of expertise. Alpha-hypophamine oxytocin polypeptide is a neuromodulator. We all have it in our bodies. Yes, it affects a person’s feelings for his fellow humans, but it also prepares fetal neurons for delivery by changing the function of gamma-aminobutyric acids and causes spinal cord movement and is even involved in addiction.”

Blair slung the words out there, his hands gesturing in the air with enough vehemence that Jim could recognize the obfuscation from a mile away. If Simon’s explanation about anti-social disorder caused this much verbal flailing on Blair’s part, Jim was guessing it was pretty near the mark. He glanced over, and Mal just looked confused. Aggravated and confused.

“I’d like to check over… something not in this room.” Jim stood up, his food in one hand while he pulled at Blair’s arm with the other. “Come on, Mr.Know-it-all.”

“That’s Dr. Know-it-al,” Blair complained, but he scrambled to grab his fork and get up. Even he knew the room was turning dangerous for those who didn’t have the protection of being trusted crew. “And as a doctor, I’m supposed to know everything about my very narrow field of study. Totally narrow. And oxytocin is within my very narrow field.”

“Uh-huh.” Jim said as he herded Blair toward the exit.

Behind them, Kaylee was trying to soothe the others. “Really? They have something what can make unsociable types social? We should carry some of that, do y’all remember…” She launched into another story of some trader they knew who’d shot Mal. They were out in the hallway and halfway to the sleeping quarters when Blair stopped, his plate still clutched in hand.

“You have to find Jayne.” Blair looked up with wide, panicked eyes.

“Why?” Jim asked suspiciously.

“Because Mal totally fucked something up. Cao, if River’s even half-right, I do not want to think what shape Jayne’s in.”

“Hurt?” Jim’s gut soured at the idea of Mal doing damage to his lover, but Jim had been a cop long enough to know that people did that—they hurt those they were closest to. Before Blair, Jim had one short-lived marriage and three lovers who hadn’t even approached the stage in a relationship where you go leaving things in each other’s quarters. So he didn’t have a long list of lovers, but he couldn’t imagine hurting any of them. Even Caroline, who’d left him after one long screaming match about honor and duty and his choice to accept a promotion to front-line duty in the war, never inspired the sort of violence some men regularly took out on their lovers. Jim hadn’t pegged Mal as the sort to do that, either.

“No way.” Blair gave Jim a punch in the arm. “Stop assuming the worst about people.”

“I was a cop, Sandburg. It comes with the territory.”

Blair snorted. “I know plenty of cops who aren’t so… Wait… Actually, every cop I know is actually some variation on a dick.” Blair grinned at him. Jim gave his partner the sort of glare that had, once upon a time, made suspects confess and cry.

“River says that Mal’s emotions are all over the map, particularly his emotions concerning sexuality.”

“That’s what that brain talk was all about?”

“Yep.” Blair nodded. “River’s no more insane that you or me.”

“Sanity is a little questionable when it comes to all three of us,” Jim pointed out.

“Okay, that’s true. Everyone on this ship could use a little therapy. Or a lot of therapy.” Blair cringed. “Or huge shitloads of therapy with a side of psychotropic and antidepressant medication thrown in on the side, and I am not normally the one to go for prescribing medicine. But anyway, the medial orbitofrontal cortex functions to put heavy emotions in lockdown.”

“And with Mal, it just failed,” Jim finished, remembering River’s words.

“Exactly. So Mal can’t deal with all these emotions that are hitting him. Fear and lust and all these messy feelings are getting his brain… whoa.” Blair stopped, just out of words, but Jim remembered what it had been like. When he’d first seen Blair in a white lab coat and blue gloves, he’d nursed the same hate he felt for all the Institute doctors. Learning to see Blair the man had taken some uncomfortable mental shifting.

“And if he’s emotionally suffering and striking out….”

“Jayne would have been ground zero, this morning,” Blair said with a grimace. “Use your hearing to find him, Jim. No way can we just let him suffer while everyone sits in there with Mal like he’s in the right.”

Jim sighed. “We should go to our quarters and stay out of this,” he said, knowing before he started that he was going to lose this battle.

“No way. Look, maybe I shouldn’t have jumped in so fast, but I’m the one who pushed Mal in Jayne’s direction, so if he just emotionally or spiritually shredded Jayne, that is on me. I am not leaving him to suffer alone while everyone on this ship acts like he’s some soulless mercenary. I mean, they talk like he’s here for the money, but have you seen how he looks at this crew? Man, they’re his family, and they don’t respect him at all. No way am I turning my back on that.”

Yeah, Jim lost the battle the minute Blair brought in the idea of a man struggling with a family that didn’t respect him. Sometimes Jim wondered if Blair was intentionally manipulative or if his mother’s training had sunk in so deep that he simply instinctively coerced the whole ‘verse into doing what he wanted. Some days, Jim just didn’t know. However, he sent his hearing out, tracing the corridors and long runs of metals struts until he heard the clinking of heavy weights in the steady pattern of a man doing repetitions.

“This way,” Jim offered, gesturing down a corridor. Blair gave him a brilliant smile and a quick eyebrow wiggle before he turned and practically bounced down the way. "But not until we've both finished breakfast," Jim said. "Tactically, you do not compromise yourself by missing a meal in enemy territory," Jim said firmly.

"Oh man, enough with the enemy stuff," Blair complained, but he did come back and retrieve the plate he'd casually shoved onto one of the steps leading up a level. If he'd left it there, someone would have slipped and been hurt, no doubt. Of course, the way Blair found trouble, he'd find a much better way to anger Mal. After shoving a mouthful of food in, Blair waved his fork in the air. "Watch, I can fix this."

With a sigh, Jim started in on his own breakfast despite his now-sour stomach. They were so going to end up getting spaced.

Chapter 19

Jim held back while Blair closed in on Jayne. If this were about fighting, Jim would be taking the lead, but if Blair had it in mind to talk to a man about his sexual relationships, Jim planned to stay as far out of it as he could while still having his partner’s back. It seemed like a man should be able to have a relationship implode without having some near-stranger get in the middle, but that wasn’t the way Blair saw things.

Jim wondered whether Blair would have been so pushy if he’d been around when Jim and Carolyn had been in the middle of their disastrous break-up. Probably. Hell, as persuasive as the little shit could be, he probably would have talked them into staying together, which would have been wrong because Jim couldn’t image his life with anyone but Blair.

“Hey,” Blair said as he walked up to Jayne, starting out pretty neutral. Jayne’s body tensed when Blair got close enough to be in striking range, but he pretended to be unaffected. Jim leaned against the railing on the stairs that led up to a balcony that overlooked this empty cargo bay and watched. Jayne really wasn’t like any mercenary he’d ever known. He was dumb and in love with his gorram guns, and that was pretty typical of the breed, but he wasn’t particularly short-tempered and he tolerated Blair well enough.

As a cop, Jim had seen plenty of mercenaries turn on a man because he wasn’t manly enough. Sly boys were in real danger around them, and considering that some of the bastards sought out whore houses that offered sly, it sometimes turned very dark. Jim had been assigned to more than one of those investigations. He hated them. The other whores would always hide the customer rather than risk losing business, and Jim did hate to leave a crime unsolved. Oh, he did often enough. You didn’t work the fringes of society without losing more cases than you solved, but Jim never got used to the casual acceptance of violence. Yet Jayne never smelled of aggression around Blair, and he seemed more confused than offended by the idea of a man like Jim being sly.

Jayne kept lifting, grunting as he pushed the bar with the heavy plates all the way up before slowly lowering it. It was an impressive amount of weight he was pushing, especially since he didn’t have anyone to spot him. Either he was confident in his ability to lift that much or he was a fool. Maybe a little of both.

After two more repetitions, Jayne settled the bar into place and sat up. Rather than answer Blair, he gave him an odd look while wiping a towel over his sweaty face.

“So….” Blair said, letting his voice trail off. Jim cringed. Blair might be able to talk a farmer out of his last acre, but after all this time, he still didn’t know how to talk to a soldier. Or a mercenary.

Jayne narrowed his eyes and gave Blair a dangerously cold look. “You got something to say?”

“Me? No. I’m here to see if you need to say something or ask something or you know, talk.” Blair gave Jayne his most sympathetic expression. At least he hadn’t chosen manipulation. Jim hadn’t seen that ending well.

Jayne cocked his head. “About what?”

There was a heartbeat’s moment when Blair looked just plain shocked. He probably was. Jayne certainly didn’t act like someone whose lover had turned into a hwun dan with a Browncoat’s sense of honor. Jim sighed as he realized he probably needed to come up with another insult. Mal was a Browncoat, and his honor wasn’t actually in question—only his intelligence.

“Mal seems unreasonably cranky this morning,” Blair said, his voice slower. Now he figured out that this might not be the best plan, either that or his brain was busy spinning with new plans that were going to get him and Jim spaced.

“And?” Jayne asked.

“And I was wondering if you were okay.”

Jayne looked bone-deep confused now. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

That one stumped Blair, and he looked over toward Jim.

Holding up both hands, Jim shook his head. “Leave me out of this one.” The minute the words left his mouth, Jim knew he’d made a tactical error.

“Leave you outta what?” Jayne demanded, throwing the towel down and standing up to advance on Jim. Least he wasn’t getting aggressive with Blair, but it still wasn’t a comfort to have Jayne stalking him, especially when Jim still hadn’t gotten his hands on a gorram gun.

“Whoa, hey, no need to get aggressive,” Blair said as he darted forward, but Jim could see Jayne’s body tense for attack, his pupils slightly dilate as he searched for a vulnerability to hit, and Jayne wasn’t going to need more than one hit to take out Blair. Darting forward, Jim grabbed Blair by the back of his shirt and yanked him so hard that Blair’s arms flew out and the shirt tore, but it got him out of Jayne’s path. Confusion froze Jayne for the half second it took Jim to put himself in front of his partner.

“Blair thinks that Mal might have treated you a little poorly considering that he’s treating the rest of the crew like they’re lepers trying to kiss his daughter,” Jim hurried to explain. Jayne hadn’t reacted well to the idea of being left out of something, and Jim planned on making sure they went out of their way to not hit that particular button again. “I said that I thought a man should be able to handle his personal life without having Blair stick his nose in the middle. So there’s nothing much to be left out of except your personal life, which I think we’ll both be excusing ourselves from,” Jim finished. Backing away, he watched Jayne for any sign of attack. Luckily, Jayne looked more bewildered than confrontational.

“You were worried about how Mal were treating me?” he asked, and his hands dropped back down to his sides. Jim stopped when Blair put both hands on his back physically forced him to. When they got back to quarters, Jim was going to…. Cao… he was going to have all sorts of thoughts about ripping into Blair and then Blair was going to go dismissing him as usual. Some days Jim wondered when he’d lost all control over his relationship.

“Well, yeah. I mean we were worried about you,” Blair said as he leaned to the side so he could make eye contact with Jayne. Jim’s jaw was tight enough that he was risking a broken tooth.

Jayne’s eyes narrowed.

“He was worried about you spiritually,” Jim corrected Blair. “Personally, I think a hwun dan like you can take care of yourself and if you need spiritual help, you’ll figure out for yourself where to find it.”

Jayne snorted, but that seemed to settle him down some. Jim glanced over his shoulder, doing his best to give Blair a glare sharp enough to convince him that they should be leaving. Unfortunately, Jayne spoke up again before Jim could convince Blair to go into a full retreat.

“Ain’t one good reason for you to care whether Mal were acting like a shen jing bing.”

“Except that you’re a good man, and that is so not fair of him to do to you,” Blair immediately answered Jayne.

Both Jayne’s eyebrows went up and he took a fast step back as though Blair had hit him. “Guay. I would have shot your man there, you know,” Jayne said, poking a finger toward Jim. Jim crossed his arms and fought down a rising feeling of helplessness. Jayne truly would have, and the fact that Jim couldn’t do a gorram thing about that was bitter on his tongue.

“Only if Mal told you it was the right thing to do,” Blair said. “I mean, he totally must have proved himself at some point or you wouldn’t be so loyal, but now with Jim on board, he’s acting more like a da shabi.”

Jim choked at Blair’s particularly crude piece of profanity. “Chief,” he warned. If Jayne was all that loyal, calling Mal that particular name wasn’t going to win them points.

However, Jayne laughed. “He can be a bastard, alright.”

“And this morning?”

Jayne scratched his cheek. “I ain’t even sure what riled him. I woke up and he was already acting like someone had been poking him with a stick.”

“Oh man. I hear that,” Blair said with entirely too much sympathy. Jim angled his body slightly so he could pin Blair with a warning glare. Blair reached up and patted him on the arm. “No offense, but you can totally get unreasonable sometimes,” Blair told Jim in an apologetic voice. “I mean, you get some gou shi in your head and you do not let it go. I have never met a more stubborn man in the whole ‘verse… well, exceptin’ Mal. River’s right. You two are old war horses that just keep walking the same length of trail over and over and gorram over.” Blair rolled his eyes.

Jim crossed his arms and was on the verge of ripping Blair apart, but Jayne started speaking before Jim could gather up all his offended thoughts. “They’re downright annoyin’,” Jayne agreed. “I thought being sly meant that I’d have someone who could speak his plain mind, but Mal’s acting about as bad as the girls back home—always saying things that don’t have anything to do with what they mean.”

“I hear you. Man, so annoying.” Blair nodded enthusiastically.

“Are you about done insulting me?” Jim asked. Jayne frowned at him, and Jim realized the gorram merc was taking offense for Blair. Jim figured he would never figure out how Blair managed to talk his way around so many curves, but he really wasn’t in the mood to have Jayne taking Blair’s side in this fight.

“Hey, you know I still love you. You’re perfect for me, Jim, but no way does that mean you’re perfect.” Blair leaned close and wrapped his arm around Jim’s waist, and Jim wasn’t sure what he was supposed to be feeling at this point. Annoyed and confused, maybe.

“Ain’t no way he’s as bad as Mal,” Jayne said as he turned his back and headed back to the weight bench where he’d left his shirt. He snatched it off the bench.

“I don’t’ know about that. He’s always getting in these funks where he thinks he has to die to save me.”

“Well Mal’s nearly gettin’ us all killed on a fairly regular basis,” Jayne said. Jim slung his arm over his shoulder and listened as Mal crept in closer. Hopefully Mal was hearing what he needed to hear because Jim really didn’t want to get in the middle of these two again, and he really didn’t want to get thrown out an airlock.

“But that means you’re with him. This idiot is always trying to leave me behind,” Blair said with a roll of his eyes toward Jim. "I would rather face death with Jim than put up with his idiotic habit of tryin’ to put me somewhere safe before he goes off acting like a sha gua.”

“I wouldn’t put up with that.” Jayne said with another nasty look in Jim’s direction. Fact was that Jim wasn’t real comfortable with Jayne getting so unhappy. It’d be one thing if Jim had a gun on his hip. Armed, he’d take on Jayne no problem. However, unarmed and trapped on a ship of Browncoats that were already more than a little hostile, Jim really didn’t need to give anyone else a reason for hating him.

“Yeah, well I’m not a fighter like you, so it’s hard to convince the idiot to let me come along.”

“You shouldn’t be in danger,” Jim said in his own defense. Clearly, that didn’t impress Jayne much.

“I’d give Mal a piece of my mind if’n he even tried that shi on me.”

“Oh trust me. Jim hears about it. I can’t seem to convince the sha gua that I can take care of myself, but I do tell him what I think of his opinions on a regular basis.”

“I wish Mal would do that same. I ain’t even sure what I did wrong this time.”

“Whoa, you’re assuming that you’re the one who screwed up.” Blair squirmed out of Jim’s embrace to stand in front of him, and Jim let him. Hell, at this point, Jim wasn’t even sure what battle they were trying to win, so it was best to just let Blair do his thing and try and minimize any damage that happened after. If Mal got offended, Jim just wasn’t sure that he was the best person to be doing that minimizing.

Jayne snorted. “Trust me. I did the fucking up. I generally do. Only, if Mal ain’t explaining what I done wrong, I can’t fix it.” Jayne pulled his shirt on and sat on the weight bench, looking about as beaten as a man as big as Jayne could look.

“I’m guessing he’s a chou wang ba dan, and that’s the problem.”

“He can be,” Jayne said, and Jim was surprised to hear Jayne agree. “He ain’t never been to me, though, not even when I gave him cause. Hell, I done plenty bad, even when I weren’t trying, and Mal ain’t sent me packing yet. So if someone went and did the sly thing wrong, I’m guessing it was me.” Jayne paused, and Jim watched the subtle shift of dozens of muscles as his mood changed. Jim wrapped his arm around Blair’s shoulders and prepared to move fast if need be. The senses warned him when someone was thinking something, and right now Jayne was thinking plenty. Jim just didn’t know him well enough to understand what he was thinking on.

“You think you two could help me practice the sly stuff?” Jayne asked. It was the tone, the perfectly innocent tone, that kept Jim’s brain from rightly understanding just what Jayne had just said. Instead, he stared at Jayne, his brain trying to sort through that combination of words and come to any meaning that made sense.

“Cobb!” Mal’s voice bellowed, and Jim’s guts about turned to water. Cao. There was a reason he was always telling Blair to stay out of people’s personal lives.

Chapter 20

Mal’s stomach churned. Despite that, he really had been planning on staying quiet and letting Jayne have his say. It wasn’t like Mal owned him. Besides, Sandburg seemed to be getting through Jayne’s thick skull, which was a feat Mal never had been able to master. However, when Jayne went so far as to invite himself into a purple-belly bed… Captain Jimmy’s bed… the murderer of…. Mal locked down his thoughts because if he kept thinking on that too much, he was tossing Womak out the gorram airlock, and that’d leave him dealing with Sandburg. Mal already had enough trouble on his ship without inheriting Dr. Sandburg.

“Mal.” Jayne stood up, a frown on his face, but it seemed like Captain Jimmy was more distressed about Mal’s mood than anyone else. He was backing up toward the ladder, practically dragging his sly little trick with him. Doctor. Mal wondered why he never did get any useful doctors on the ship, just meddling, core-bred, annoying ones.

“We’re leaving,” Jim said firmly, and Mal pinned him with a hard enough glare to make Jim drop his gaze first.

“But,” Blair started saying.

“Not now, Naomi,” Jim said in a sharp tone.

“Hey, there is nothing wrong with being my mother,” Blair protested. If it were Mal, he’d be more protesting getting called a woman, but there really wasn’t a good way of explaining Sandburg-logic.

“Another time and another place, and I might agree. Here and now, we’re leaving,” Jim said firmly.

“Good,” Mal snapped as Jim got Blair onto the stairs and starting physically shoving him up. “And keep him outta my sight,” Mal yelled after, not even sure if he was telling Sandburg to keep Captain Jimmy away or the other way around. As long as he didn’t have to look at either one of them, he would be a happy man.

After watching them disappear up the stairs, Mal turned to find Jayne watching, his mouth nearly hanging open. “What you do that for?” Jayne demanded.

For a second, Mal stared at him. “What? You want I should bring them back so you can go bedding Captain Jimmy?”

“I wasn’t interested in him as much the little one. He seems to have taught Jim how to do things right.” Jayne crossed his arms, and Mal just did not have the words to answer that. He turned and started walking back toward the bridge.

“Does that mean I should go and see him?” Jayne called after him.

Mal whirled around. “If that’s what you really want, see away.”

“What I really want is to figure out how I done you so wrong that you’re cranky as a gut-shot bear this morning.”

“Wrong?” All Mal’s anger slid into guilt. Jayne had done plenty of wrong in his life, but last night… the only wrong had been Mal. All the starch seemed to go right out of his spine, and he leaned against a crate someone had shoved up against the wall.

Maybe Jayne was more observant than Mal thought because he took a step forward. “Mal, you okay?” he asked with more sympathy that Mal ever expected.

Turning around, Mal punched the wall next to the stairs up to the next level. “Cao,” he swore, cradling the injured fist in his good hand.

“Damn, Mal. If’n you’re looking to take a swing at me, I figure I have a right to know why.” That sounded more like Jayne—angry and confused.

Still holding his bruised knuckles Mal whirled around. “I ain’t looking to take a swing at you!”

“So, the wall managed to piss you off?”

Mal had to take some time to rein in his temper before he said something truly unforgivable.

“Cao. Just say whatever you got to say.” Jayne stepped so close that Mal could feel the heat of him, smell the salt and see the beads of sweat gathering at his hairline. Jayne crossed his arms over his chest, and the muscles bulged.

“I ain’t doing this. I really ain’t doing this,” Mal said, and he might have gone through with that, only Jayne turned around to leave, and Mal’s imagination gave him a flash of what it might mean if Jayne went to Blair. He could imagine Jayne on his knees in front of Sandburg, Jim watching from the side, that tight expression of his never changing as Jayne followed Blair’s orders. “It wasn’t you that didn’t know how to do sly last night,” he admitted, turning so he could stare down Serenity’s long corridor. He sure as hell couldn’t say this to Jayne’s face. “I wasn’t the most charitable of lovers, and it’s been a lot of years since I left a bed partner that….” Mal stopped and sighed. The fact was he’d been a lousy partner, and the fact that he still wanted to lie up with Jayne without wanting to ameliorate those flaws was making him question himself. Mal never was at his best when he went questioning himself, and he knew it.

“I ain’t following even half of that,” Jayne said, he put out a hand to catch Mal by the arm, and Mal whirled around. Jayne always had been the obdurate one, not accepting anything without having it shoved in his face first.

“I’d cut out my tongue before I’d suck your cock, and I’d cut your cock off before I let it inside my hole. Is that plain enough for you?”

Jayne pulled his hand back like he’d been burned, but instead of getting angry, he stared at Mal with that expression he sometimes got when people went using words he couldn’t keep up with. The problem was that Mal was fairly certain Jayne knew every word he’d just used.

“That’s what’s eating you?” Jayne finally asked with an expression like he’d just smelled something particularly noxious.

“It was one of the things,” Mal said, suddenly unwilling to admit that was pretty much the whole shape of the matter. It seemed like a man should get plenty upset about that, but Jayne didn’t look upset as much as mightily annoyed.

“If’n I wanted someone to go sucking on my cock, I’d hire a whore for it,” he said with a shrug.

“Don’t think to compare me with one of your whores,” Mal warned.

“I ain’t.” Jayne threw his hands up. “If you ain’t interested in giving me orders in the bedroom, I ain’t going to go saying anything about it, but you’re about the most aggravating man I ever have met. I hope all sly men aren’t aggravating the way you are. Hell, you weren’t even aggravating until you went and tried being sly. I mean, you’re a real wang ba dan sometimes, but you ain’t never been this hard to understand.”

Mal’s mouth nearly fell open as shock grabbed him and gave him a good hard shock. Jayne should be mad as hell about Mal’s behavior in the bedroom. He sure as hell shouldn’t be offering to still take orders in the bedroom. That wasn’t the way it worked. If Mal had tried that with anyone he wasn’t paying in good coin, they’d come after him with a knife looking to gut him.

“You should be offended at my lack of interest in your cock,” Mal pointed out, feeling somewhat foolish for even having to explain the matter. It was like trying to explain why people called “the black” black. It was so obvious that it wasn’t something to go talking about.

Jayne shrugged. “It ain’t like I don’t have experience with taking care of my own dick. I don’t need someone else to go messing with it to get myself off.”

Mal felt reality slipping around him. This wasn’t Jayne Cobb. The Jayne Cobb he knew was more likely to…. Mal’s brain brought up the image of those whores they’d fought for at Petaline’s place, the way they all giggled around Jayne, following him like puppies. And Jayne hadn’t given them coin. They just wanted Jayne, and Mal always had wondered why those women were all so willing to not only provide free services but do it so enthusiastically. None of Mal’s whores were ever that devoted to the job at hand. And Jayne had followed them out onto Higgins’ Moon when it was pretty clear he would rather cut off his own arm. Then he’d followed them out into Reaver space. What had Sandburg been saying… that Jayne were more loyal than most. The thought had pricked him at the time, but now Mal felt like the prick had gotten infected. He grabbed a nearby handrail and just about fell on his ass, but at least he managed to do it so that he ended up sitting on the step which was a lot less embarrassing that falling down when you weren’t even drunk. Come to think of it, getting drunk wasn’t a bad idea.

“Mal, you fixing on retching on the decking?” Jayne asked. Mal didn’t know whether Jayne was concerned about him or the chances that Jayne would end up cleaning the deck, but he couldn’t ignore the fact that Jayne was concerned.

“Wasn’t really thinking on it, no,” Mal assured him even as he struggled to get his mind around a reality that just kept shifting under his feet.

“New ruts under the grass,” a voice announced from above. Mal looked up to see River standing on the catwalk and looking down at him, her head tilted to the side.

“Don’t go messing in matters that aren’t your business,” Jayne snapped. Most times, Mal was quick enough to bring Jayne to heel around River. He didn’t want those two starting something that Jayne couldn’t finish, and he sure as all guay couldn’t control River. But looking back, he’d been bringing Jayne to heel for all that time, and Jayne hadn’t even bothered snapping at the hand controlled him. Oh, Jayne was quick to tell him when he thought one of Mal’s plans was addlepated, but he was there in the middle of the insanity with the rest of them.

“New ruts hurts,” River announced grandly before she padded off, her bare feet slapping at the metal flooring.

“Gorram moonbrain. If the hairy little doc is one of those that rewired her, I’d suggest keeping him away from any wiring. It don’t make sense to make someone that crazy.”

“She’s not crazy,” Mal said, his voice faint even to his own ears. The fact was, getting new ruts set down in the brain did hurt a bit. “So, if I told you that I wanted you on your knees right now, you wouldn’t take no offense to that?” Mal asked, studying Jayne and hoping he could get clear if the man took offense enough to throw a fist.

“Not as long as you didn’t go getting all riled if one of the women saw us,” Jayne answered, he uncrossed his arms and promptly crossed them again as he eyed Mal up and down like he was a snake ready to bite. Mal figured he’d done enough to put any man on edge, and Jayne wasn’t exactly the calm or forgiving sort. It did make a man wonder why he stayed around.

“And if I said that I wouldn’t ever be returning the favor?”

Jayne frowned. “I ain’t no urchin looking for leavings to avoid starving to death. If you’re planning on being sly only behind a door and then chasing your skirts and getting stupider than usual, I ain’t interested,” Jayne said firmly.

Mal breathed out, relieved that the man was willing to put up some rules here. It seemed like this relationship was starting off one-sided, and if Jayne had conditions, that was doing something to even that out some.

“I’ll agree to that. No hiding that you’re in my bed, and no chasing skirts, but that means you’re willing to….” Mal cleared his throat. He wasn’t some colt-legged boy, but telling a grown man like Jayne to suck his cock was making him feel right uncomfortable.

“I’ll follow orders same as always, I’ll just extend that into the bedroom,” Jayne agreed. “When you aren’t over-thinking, you’re easier to please than a woman. I ain’t never thought on it much, but with a cock, you don’t have to go worrying that someone’s faking the lust just to get you moved out and bring another customer in. I ain’t fond of it when women go doing that.” Jayne scratched his crotch, and Mal noticed that he was a good-sized bulge in his pants. Jayne wiped the sweat off his face, his hand lingering around his mouth, and Mal watched. Jayne’s mouth was a wonderful thing. Now that Mal didn’t have to feel guilty about his own inability to reciprocate, it might be a downright glorious thing.

Mal groaned as his cock hardened.

Stopping, Jayne looked over with that calculating expression that usually meant he was coming up with angles for shooting someone dead. “You want to go back to your bunk?” Jayne asked. Mal had spent decades trying to come up with ways to sweet talk a woman into his bunk, and now his cock seemed more interested in Jayne Cobb, who didn’t need any sweet talking at all.

“You interested in sucking my cock?” Mal asked, just to make sure he was understanding Jayne.

“Yep,” Jayne said without any self-consciousness at all, and then he turned and started heading back up toward the crew quarters. Yeah, Mal had rightly wasted a whole lot of time trying to learn to learn sweet-talking, not that it mattered now. Now, he wanted to see Jayne on his knees, that beautiful mouth around Mal’s cock. Mal groaned and nearly grabbed his crotch as his desire got a little ahead of the rest of him. He was not going to come in his pants like a gorram teenager. Pushing himself up to his feet, Mal realized that if he wanted to avoid doing exactly that, he needed to get to his bunk before he could do too much thinking about how Jayne looked on his knees.

Chapter 21

Mal stirred, and Jayne’s hand tightened around his waist, Jayne’s breath on the back of his neck. Even though Mal felt that immediate flash of dread that had made him turn so mean only yesterday, one talk and two and a half more times of Jayne sucking Mal’s cock had calmed his nerves a mite. That and he still felt a little guilty about falling asleep that third time. Fact was, Jayne wasn’t looking for anything but a warm body and someone to please who wouldn’t go denying him or playing games. Mal wouldn’t do the first, and he was trying hard to avoid the second. It was harder than he’d thought.

Growing up, sly boys had been the ones in danger, the ones who, like girls, you had to look out for. His father always told him that if you punched a man, make sure he saw it coming, if you punched a boy, make sure he was taller than you, and to not ever punch a girl or one who was sly. It wasn’t fitting. Mal had always seen himself as one who did punching or who got punched. Fact was he did more of the getting hit than he really liked. However, he’d never even looked to being sly. He really never would have looked for men like Jayne or Jim to be sly.

Jayne and Jim were the sort of men you punched or looked to get punched by. If you were lucky, they were the kind who would punch someone else for you. They weren’t the sort to go protecting with the womenfolk.

Mal cringed. That had been Jayne’s lunacy—talking about Jim like he was a woman and should be more womanly. Fact was, he and Jayne were both the children of backwards moons. Mal just took more care to avoid advertising that fact. Zoe gave her heart to the Browncoats, but like Wash, she’d grown up near the border moons. She’d been near enough to the core to get regular schooling. Kaylee was the only other one from the real wild outlands, and she had a personality that just shook off all her old learnings as soon as she found something new.

Mal could admit that he had a little more trouble shaking off his beliefs. Oh, he believed in being polite to those who were sly—giving them the respect that Jayne had so casually dismissed with his constant comments on Jim being womanly. However, he’d been raised to think of them as the sort that weren’t manly enough for fisticuffs and random violence.

Hell, he might have spaced Jim, only the thought of Captain Jimmy and the idea of him being sly clashed in his brain so much that he hesitated long enough that he started seeing the man behind the labels.

Jayne shifted, and Mal rolled over onto his back, pushing at Jayne’s arm until he got himself enough room to breathe. Jayne snorted and made a sort of growling grunt before he went still. It was odd, knowing that Jayne woke up quiet-like. He sure didn’t sleep quiet, but then Mal had spent so many years sleeping with a dozen other soldiers in a small space that one man’s snoring couldn’t rightly disturb him much.

Slowly, Jayne’s eyes came open, and he took a long look at Mal. His body tensed, and Mal felt another kick of guilt. If his father wasn’t already in his grave, the old man would take Mal to task for how he’d behaved… right after he’d taken Mal to task for bedding a man.

“You feeling mean this morning?” Jayne came right out and asked. The good thing about Jayne was that you didn’t really have to wonder what he was thinking. If it crossed his mind, it came out his mouth without editing.

“Not so much. I think you made me too mellow to care much about any cantankerous feelings I might still harbor,” Mal offered with a smile. He hated that Jayne’s expression stayed suspicious. However, with a nod, Jayne rolled off the bed and headed over to pee.

“You wore your pants to bed.” Mal tried to make it sound like a simple observation, but Jayne shot him a concerned look.

“I ain’t looking for a repeat of yesterday. If’n I’d known the sight of a cock got you riled, I would have worn pants then too.” A zipper opened and Jayne looked down, watching himself pee most likely.

“You’ll smell worse than usual, sleeping in them.”

Jayne frowned as he took another glance over his shoulder. Maybe he was looking to see what sort of mood Mal was in, but the fact was, Mal didn’t know what kind of mood he was in. He only knew he had made a mess of things yesterday, and this morning, he was regretting about every minute of it.

“You taking offense to my smell now?” Jayne asked.

“Well, I would appreciate it if you could manage one shower a week,” Mal said, smiling to lighten the tone. From the way Jayne moved his shoulders, he was tucking himself back in. Bracing himself, Mal blurted out, “Don’t zip up.” For a second, he thought Jayne would disobey that. It wasn’t a rational order, even. Mal waited for the sound of the zipper going up; however, after a second of perfect stillness, Jayne turned around, his hands hiding his cock and his pants unzipped.

“We playing at something here, Mal?” he asked, his voice low and dangerous. For a sly man, Jayne truly didn’t need protecting if punches flew.

“I’m wondering what you’re getting outta this, Jayne. I know what I stand to gain seeing as how you have so much talent that you should be getting paid for it.” Mal watched as Jayne shifted uncomfortably. Right then, that wasn’t the tact to take.

“You want to talk with my pants unzipped?” The suspicion was right there on the surface for Mal to see.

“I’m giving the orders,” Mal tried saying in his captain-tone. Oddly, that settled Jayne right down. He still looked concerned, but all that shifting stopped. “Come over here,” Mal ordered, pointing next to the bed. Mal had fallen asleep in his birthday suit. Actually, he’d fallen asleep with Jayne’s mouth on his half-hard cock, but considering that he’d come twice in as many hours, Mal had impressed himself getting even half-hard. He wasn’t a teenager anymore. Moving slow, Jayne covered the three feet to stand where Mal directed him.

Mal swallowed. This had seemed like a good idea two minutes ago, but up close and personal with Jayne’s body, he suddenly wondered if he even wanted to get over this discomfort he had around another man’s cock.

“You want I should stand here forever?” Jayne asked, and that edge of unhappy was back in his voice.

“Hands behind your back,” Mal said more to get them out of the way than anything else. This was his plan, and he was going to see it through. He might not be the best with planning, but he sure as hell knew how to gorram follow through with a plan, good or bad. So, he watched as Jayne moved his hand and his pants gaped open, revealing the cock within.

It was a cock. Mal had seen hundreds in his life. Jayne’s was bigger than most but not as big as some. Reaching out, Mal pushed the pants open farther to reveal the entire cock. It was thick and dark, and even now it was starting to grow harder.

“Mal?” Jayne asked, and now he had the edgy sound to his voice, like they were about to get ambushed. Gritting his teeth, Mal reached up and took the cock in his hand. It felt like his. The angle was wrong since he never reached up to grab his own cock, but there wasn’t anything here to go verbally eviscerating Jayne over.

“What makes you want to suck one of these?” Mal asked curiously. He rubbed his hand over the end, watching the foreskin slide and move. He couldn’t really see the appeal, himself. Oh, he was getting over his dread of the thing, but he wasn’t looking to put it in his mouth, either.

Jayne sucked in a breath, his whole body going tense. Mal thought he made a mistake, hurt Jayne maybe. However, when he looked up into Jayne’s face, he could see the same expression Jayne had on his face when a particularly beautiful woman walked by. Mal had been on the verge of getting unhappy about Jayne’s refusal to answer, but his breath caught in his throat, and he swallowed the angry words, knowing they didn’t have a place between him and Jayne, not anymore.

“I asked you a question,” Mal said when Jayne took too long. He ran his finger over the side of the cock, watching it twitch to life.

“I just like touching. Always have,” Jayne answered defensively.

“Touching? Not sexing?”

For a second, Jayne didn’t answer. Of course, he was sucking air through his teeth as his cock hardened, so Mal decided to give him some time.

“Sexing is easy enough. I have a hand for that,” Jayne said, “but it ain’t the same without someone to touch.”

“That’s what you were doing with Petaline’s girls?” Mal asked, and he surprised himself with the flash of jealousy that stabbed him in the chest.

“Mostly. Always ended with a good rutting since that’s good too, but when I hire a whore, I always make sure I get one that don’t mind some time just touching.”

“And sucking on?”

“Like to suck on breasts,” Jayne admitted. “Cocks are better, though. They react. You can feel them grow and know how the other person’s feeling. I was sucking on a whore once, and I looked up, and she had one of them data things she was using to check messages. It put me right off.”

Mal snorted. “Trust me, I won’t be checking any messages. Hell, when you get going, the ship could be on fire, and I reckon I wouldn’t care much. You don’t do anything by halves, Jayne Cobb.” Mal watched in amazement as Jayne’s cock filled out. Mal had been judging the weight of it, so his fingers were under as it filled and darkened.

And that was about where Mal’s new slyness started fading. He didn’t want to be holding Jayne’s cock when it came. Mal carefully eased his fingers away, realizing that they had a slight moistness to them that came from Jayne. It seemed disrespectful to wipe off a hand after touching a lover, so Mal rested it on his own knee. And now Jayne was looking down at him, and Mal realized he’d gotten into this plan without having an exit strategy. Oh, he could tell Jayne to suck him, and his own cock was showing a good deal of interest in that, but Mal was starting to feel like he was showing a lack of creativity in this relationship.

Clearing his throat, Mal eyed Jayne, and Jayne eyed him right back. “I want to see you make yourself come,” Mal said. That wasn’t strictly the truth seeing as he had some trepidation over that very thought, but he hoped Jayne couldn’t see that.

For a second, Jayne stared down at him. “You want I should jerk off?” His voice was slow and uncertain, but then Mal had been giving a few mixed messages lately.

“That’s an order,” Mal said as firmly as he could given the way his own stomach had little flutters of discomfort or interest… Mal couldn’t decide which.

“Huh.” For a second, Jayne considered Mal the way he sometimes considered River, like maybe one too many brain cells had been knocked loose. Then with a shrug he seemed to dismiss all that before he wrapped his hand around his cock and started pulling at it unmercifully.

“Aiya, slower,” Mal said. The rate Jayne was pulling at it, it looked like he was trying to milk a cow rather than pleasure himself.

“I been pleasuring myself most my life Mal, I know how to get myself off.”

“Well I said for you to do it slower,” Mal insisted. True, he probably shouldn’t have said that, but once he had, he wasn’t going to go backing down.

Jayne gave a mighty sigh, but he started stroking himself slower this time, his hand moving up and down, the foreskin sliding and the pink tip of the cock appearing and vanishing into it like a winking eye. Mal scooted back on the bed both to be out of the line of fire and to get a better view. Jayne’s jaw was set and he had a look of utter concentration, like this was some task he needed to get done.

“When you’re done, I’ll let you suck me, and I’m going to try my best to not come for as long as possible,” Mal commented. Honestly, he wasn’t sure how long that’d be. Jayne was mighty talented with his mouth, but Mal’s cock was about half worn out already, and the day was only starting. However, the promise made Jayne’s lips part as his breathing grew heavier. He started pulling on himself faster again, and Mal repeated his order. “Slower.”

“I need—”

“Slower,” Mal said firmly. His own cock stirred at the sight of Jayne in need, his back arching now as the slow strokes kept him from finishing the deed. It occurred to Mal that Jayne did sex the way he did his shooting—hard, fast, accurate, and utterly businesslike. As far as Mal was concerned, any time you approached sex and guns using the same theory of life, you were doing something wrong.

“Stop for a second,” Mal said. Jayne’s eyes popped open, and he gave Mal an almost hateful look, but he stopped. His cock was hard, jutting out and demanding attention, but he stopped.

“You ever play with your balls when you’re like this?” Mal asked.

“Ain’t got no need—”

“Try,” Mal cut him off. It wasn’t about need, but if Jayne hadn’t seen the need, he wouldn’t have tried it.

That inspired a much-put-upon sigh, but Jayne reached down for his balls. Mal opened his mouth to give warning, but before he could, Jayne had caught up his balls in a grip that was far too hard. “Ching-wah tsao duh liou mahng,” he snarled. Mal cringed in sympathy, but surprisingly, Jayne’s cock didn’t soften at all. Mal’s cock would have surrendered unconditionally and retreated from the field after having his balls handled like that.

“Might want to go easy there,” Mal recommended. That inspired another unhappy look from Jayne, but he fondled his balls, this time gentling his fingers. Mal watched as Jayne’s body started showing signs of that need to come again. He stretched, his back arching and his mouth coming open again. Precum stained the tip of his cock, and Jayne kept fondling his balls until he weaved gently. He had to reach out with his left hand and grab at the wall to keep from falling down.

Mal’s own cock was hard now, the pleasurable ache settling in. “Now try stroking yourself, slower now,” Mal said.

Jayne sucked air in through his teeth as he started stroking himself painfully slow. Mal felt sympathy for him seeing as he was definitely ready to come, but the sight of the man lost in his own lust, his body curved in unfamiliar ways… it had some appeal. Jayne’s head tilted back, making the front of his neck arch out, the Adam’s apple sliding up and down. Mal let his own hand slide over to his cock and he started gently teasing himself.

“Mal, please,” Jayne begged, the words rough, and Mal figured that was probably about the first time Jayne Cobb had ever begged for anything.

“Finish it off and get over here,” Mal said. Jayne made a noise that wasn’t exactly a word as he started pulling at himself. He hadn’t even finished one stroke before he started coming. He caught his come in his hand and slumped over, his left hand still braced against the wall.

“Fuck, Mal,” Jayne said softly, and the wonder and shock and plain happiness in the voice made Mal think that maybe he wasn’t such a poor lover after all.

“You’d best get over here unless you plan to watch me finish without you,” Mal commented, giving Jayne the choice. Jayne looked up with dark eyes and promptly wiped his hand on his pants, making a streaked stain down the leg that didn’t seem to bother him at all. When he took a step forward, his pants started slipping down, and Jayne pulled them up and shoved his cock in before zipping up. “You don’t have to hide your cock, Jayne,” Mal commented. But Jayne didn’t answer. He reached for Mal, grabbing his hips and pulling him forward with an ease that reminded Mal just how strong Jayne really was. And then Jayne went to his knees next to the bed and started sucking on Mal’s cock. Mal might have said he was going to try to keep from coming, but the fact was, Jayne’s mouth was entirely too talented for him to keep that promise.

Chapter 22

“Anything?” Mal asked. They crouched inside an empty store across from the Blue Sun office. It was night, but even so, a light shone in the window. And if they wanted to get the key back before Inara’s customer noticed it was gone, they had to move tonight.

Jim was a mite bit surprised that Mal was willing to trust him and his senses to search the place, but Jayne did seem to be mellowing him out. Either that or Jayne was distracting him to the point that he forgot he hated Jim, either was possible. Jim had to admit that he had never known two men to have quite so much sex in so short a time. The smell of it all made Jim’s nose itch.

“Focus on the building,” Blair whispered, his hand resting on Jim’s shoulder like he knew that Jim was distracted from the task at hand. He probably did, but Jim really doubted that he understood what was distracting him.

Rubbing his nose, Jim concentrated on the office, sending his hearing out to creep along the ground, listening to the wind push bits of dust so that it scraped across the ground. Blair’s words became background noise as he finally reached the building and pushed past wood walls.

“A person typing,” Jim said, and he pointed at the north end. “Slow. Not sure of what to say. Click… click click click click… click click…. Space.” Jim stopped. He doubted anyone wanted the number of keystrokes and despite a somewhat irrational urge to leave his hearing there and count them, he moved on. “Machine running, humming. Moving air. Papers rustling, their edges fluttering.”

“Fan, Jim, it’s just a fan,” Blair muttered close to his ear. “What else?”

“A whistling noise. Barely audible.” Jim followed the sound, his hearing tunneling forward until Blair’s voice and the sound of his heartbeat faded. He knew he was risking a zone, but this wasn’t a normal whistle. “Air rushing past a tiny crack, deep, so deep it makes a whistle as it passes.” Jim pushed farther, his hearing becoming a dull roar as he sought the smallest sound in the ground. Burrowing animals and the creaking of the moon itself filled his awareness as he pushed past any safe boundaries. Blair’s fingers were hot islands pressing into his arm, but Jim allowed his senses to unfurl. If there was danger, he had to know before Blair walked in there. Nothing else mattered.

Jim head pounded with the force of the blood flowing into his brain, but he allowed his hearing to quest out into that dull silence and the scrabbling of bugs under the ground. When he finally broke through into sound, he fell forward into the sound of voices, of computers, of footsteps echoing off metal walls and then he couldn’t hear anything.


“Jim, follow me back. Come on, man. You are totally freaking me out here. Totally. You know how much you hate it when I freak out, so you have to get back here. Come on. You can do it.”

Jim groaned as his head throbbed painfully. “Don’t yell.”

“Oh thank God,” Blair breathed, and from the tone, Jim could tell he was whispering, even though the words echoed in Jim’s head. When Jim reached up to explore the weight holding him down, he realized Blair was laying on him, his head on Jim’s chest.

“So, can we start with the shooting now?” Jayne’s voice ripped through Jim’s head, and he cried out.

“Hey, dial down. Come on, control the hearing. Just as soon as you have it back under control, you can shoot Jayne for being a big old hwun dan,” Blair promised. Jim cracked and eye open and Blair was glaring at Jayne. Mal was too, which was a little more surprising.

“I didn’t do anything,” Jayne complained. Either he said it a good deal softer or Jim’s hearing was coming back under control. Blair settled for giving him an even colder glare. Blair did have a mighty unfriendly glare on him when he wanted to. Jim reached up to pat Blair’s arm.

“I’m okay.”

Blair’s snort made it clear that he didn’t believe that.

Jim frowned. “How long?” he asked as various cramps and aches started making themselves known.

“About two hours,” Mal answered bluntly. Blair was always a lot more circumspect when it came to his zones, but Jim figured if he’d wasted two hours, Mal had a right to be blunt. Cao. Two hours. Jim rolled to his side and got an arm under himself. Mal left the window to come over and crouch down, leaving Jim clenching his fists as his gut twisted up over having a Browncoat over him when he was so helpless. “We were about to leave you here, Ellison. Sandburg, though, seems to think you wouldn’t have checked out unless you heard something you didn’t expect.”

“Like an underground computer room with at least six employees?” Jim asked.

“Like what?” Mal asked.

“Whoa. Oh man, score one for River,” Blair added, smiling widely. “Oh yeah, there’s some big secret in there, and they are about to lose it.”

“Hold your horses, Sandburg,” Mal snapped. “Exactly what are you talking about, Ellison, and keep in mind that two hours of watching you sleep hasn’t exactly improved my mood.”

Jim pushed himself up so he was at least sitting. His head pounded from the movement, but he found it easier to ignore the pain than his unease at being helpless on his back. “I heard a whistle,” he started, rubbing a hand over his face to chase away the last threads of numbness that followed whenever he allowed another sense to overshadow touch.

“Yeah, got that part before you checked out.”

“Hey,” Blair objected.

“Passed out, checked out, make a complete target of himself and slowed the mission down,” Mal snapped. Jim couldn’t disagree with any of that, so he put out a hand to stop Blair from mounting a defense where it really wasn’t warranted. Jim knew they had a tight timeline, and he hadn’t controlled his senses well enough to prevent him from endangering the mission.

“It’s true enough,” Jim said softly, giving Blair a firm look. From the mulish expression he got in return, he was guessing Blair had a whole lecture planned for later, but at least he pressed his lips together and didn’t comment. “The whistle came from the fan’s air blowing over a crack where a door isn’t completely closed. I’m guessing it’s a hidden door because what’s below is about two thousand square feet, three or four rooms, one large and the others office-sized. There were at least five people in the main room, and I could hear one person in an office, talking, but I couldn’t catch the words. The five in the main room were typing mostly, and someone had on the news. Whatever the office on top is, that’s the cover for the real work in the basement.” Jim finished his report and watched Mal, perfectly prepared to have the man call him a liar or insane.

“Wow. Okay, we are so testing your hearing again,” Blair muttered quietly, but Mal simply looked down at him in shock.

“Well, cao. I don’t suppose your hearing can tell us how many weapons we’re walking in on.”

Jim shook his head.

“If’n any of that’s accurate, it’s just creepifying,” Jayne complained. Jim tightened his jaw. He knew how wrong his senses were, but he didn’t need a man with the intelligence of a sheepdog pointing it out.

“No more than your habit of hitting every mark between the eyes,” Mal cut him off with a sharp tone. Jayne grunted, but he didn’t seem willing to disagree with Mal. Even if they’d started having sex more than any two men should once they’d passed seventeen, they didn’t seem too interested in being nicer to each other, that’s for sure.

“So, we go in hot and assume we have six armed guards at the bottom.”

“Guards ain’t likely to be doing any typing, Mal,” Jayne pointed out. It was actually a rather reasonable observation.

“And we ain’t likely to get ourselves dead from underestimating the enemy if we assume they’re all armed and capable of putting a shot where they want it. The minute we take out the guy in the office, the others are going to be gunning for us,” Mal countered. That was an even more reasonable point. Jim figured these two might have some strategic sense.

Jayne grunted and started checking his weapons.

“I can go in,” Blair said.

“No,” Jim snapped, tightening his hand around Blair’s arm.

“Hey, I am perfectly capable of taking care of myself,” Blair objected.

Jayne’s snort made it clear he wasn’t agreeing with that, but Mal was giving Blair a look that was worrying Jim. Jim glared at him. “He’s not going in,” Jim said firmly. Jim would let that happen over his dead body.

“I can get in there and distract the guy so he doesn’t raise the alarm. Come on. I’m not some fucking damsel in distress, here.” Blair crossed his arms and glared at Jim.

Struggling to his feet, Jim shook his head. “I’m not putting you in the middle of a fight when you don’t even carry a gun.”

“You don’t carry a gun?” Jayne blurted out, and from the tone, he considered that the craziest thing a man could ever do.

“There are a lot of kinds of weaponry, and a gun is only one kind.”

“It’s the best kind,” Jayne disagreed.

“It’s the kind you need to if you’re going up against an unknown enemy,” Jim said firmly, glad that Mal had finally given him back some of his weapons, even if he figured the man would confiscate them again before letting Jim back on the Serenity.

“Oh man, all three of you are dying of testosterone poisoning!”

“I ain’t said nothing on the issue,” Mal complained, his hands going up in surrender.

Jim gave Mal a cold look. “Sending an unarmed man into an unknown situation is about as stupid as any strategy I’ve ever heard.”

“It ain’t half as stupid as some of the things I’ve done in the past,” Mal answered entirely too easily.

“Exactly! Wait…” Blair went from looking around in triumph to pinning Mal with a confused look. “You think it’s a stupid idea? And exactly how stupid are these plans you’re talking about in the past?”

“Plenty stupid,” Jayne offered, and he didn’t back down from that one inch when Mal glared in his direction. “But what will sending the little one in there accomplish?”

Blair sighed. “If you keep calling me little, I’m going to flash you and damage your manly ego,” Blair threatened. He really was a well-built man, Jim had to admit that, but right now, he was more concerned about the size of his common sense.

“You aren’t going,” Jim said.

Blair snorted. “That would work better if you were in charge of the mission,” Blair pointed out. Jim narrowed his eyes, silently warning Blair to not make any rash choices. “Mal, I can talk him out of there. Man, I can talk anyone out of anything.”

“And then get shot two seconds later,” Jim finished for him. More than once, Blair’s mouth had talked them into some place that Jim’s gun got them out of. True, more times Blair talked his way free of the trouble, but the fact remained that Blair’s ability to talk around someone didn’t prevent them from taking a dislike to him.

“Well, if someone tries shooting him, Jayne can kill them, can’t you?” Mal asked with an excess of cheerfulness as he turned to Jayne.

“Gorram right,” Jayne agreed with a smile as he grabbed his sniper rifle and headed over to a corner of the window where a small circle of glass had been cut out to prevent it from altering the trajectory of a bullet. “I ain’t never missed someone I was aiming at.”

“And that’s true, even when he’s falling down drunk. It’s downright unnatural,” Mal said.

Jim stepped forward, physically crowding Blair closer to the wall. “You’re not sending him in there,” Jim snarled, ignoring the annoyed huff from Blair. Jim expected an outburst, maybe even a gun jammed in his guts, and with his sense of touch still reeling from the zone, Jim wasn’t safe to pull his own weapon to defend them. However, Mal sighed and looked around for a second while he seemed to collect his thoughts.

When Mal did turn back, Jim could see a firm resolve on his face. “A mission can only have one commander, Ellison. You ain’t it. Now I’m willing to cut you some slack seeing as how you’ve been on your own for a while, but you yourself offered to leave Blair to me while you took off on some chase, so I figure at the very least, Blair’s crew, even if you’re too stubborn to take an order from a Browncoat. My crew, my command. If he can get in there and talk his way around the guard, fine. If he can’t, he’ll come straight back out, no harm no foul.” Mal leaned to the side and gave Blair a sharp look.

“Hey, no problem. I am not looking to get shot,” Blair quickly agreed.

“So, Blair’s going in. Stand down, Jim,” Mal warned, and the tone made it clear that he didn’t plan on repeating himself. Jayne shifted, settling his rifle down so his hands were free, and Jim figured that he was about to see the business end of Jayne’s fists if he tried pushing this too far. Depending on how far Jayne went, that could be downright dangerous in the middle of a mission, and Jim wasn’t willing to get taken out of the game, not when he was the only one who would put Blair’s safety first.

“If he gets hurt…” Jim warned as he eased off so that Blair had room to get by him. “Worse yet, if he gets…” Jim stopped, refusing to even jinx them by saying the words.

“If he gets killed, I’ll make sure to kill you before you have a chance to kill me,” Mal offered with a smile. “Sandburg, unless you want that Ellison and I should go trying to kill each other, try to not end up dead.”

“Yes, sir, Captain Mal,” Blair said as he darted by them both and headed out the front door. Mal sighed.

“He’s downright annoying, but I protect crew, Ellison. Jayne, shoot anything that looks cross-eyed in Sandburg’s direction. Ellison, you might want to start listening in so we know if things start going pear-shaped.”

Jim still wasn’t happy, but he didn’t have a lot of illusions about his ability to influence Mal’s decisions. Bending and flexing his fingers to regain control over touch, Jim moved to the window and watched the storefront.

“He’s saying that he’s glad someone’s still working because his horse came up lame,” Jim started narrating as he listened to Blair weave his obfuscations around the Blue Sun guard.

Chapter 23

“Oh man, you should see this woman. I mean… whoa… seriously,” Blair said, his arm thrown around the guard’s shoulders as he guided him out into the night. The man looked around nervously, but after that bare hesitation, he let Blair steer him right out into the trap. “No way is she local. Total companion. I’d bet you a week’s salary she’s a companion.”

Mal was looking at Jim like he couldn’t quite believe the pure bullshit Blair was spinning and getting away with, but Jim could only shrug. He’d grown used to Blair’s obfuscations, manipulations, and outright lies.

“Where?” the man asked. He might have asked more only Jayne fist caught the guy on the cheek and he went down like a sack of potatoes.

“Oh geez. You did not have to do that,” Blair objected loudly.

Mal gave Blair an incredulous look. “That was the plan. Now keep your voice down.”

Blair’s voice got softer, but he ran after Mal as the man helped Jayne drag the Blue Sun employee into an alley. “Do you have any idea how much damage is done to a human brain when you hit someone that hard?”

“Nope,” Mal answered.

“If you hit someone hard enough to knock them out then you’ve already done serious damage. You can kill someone like that. Kill them.”

Mal took a second to glare at Jim, but if he wanted to be captain, then Jim was letting him deal with the captain-type complaints. He leaned against the corner of the building and pulled the brim of his hat down to cover his smirk as he watched the street.

“I killed three or four like that,” Jayne agreed. “I ain’t exactly sure on number four because he was already bleeding good from a bullet in the gut so I ain’t exactly positive it was my fist that ended him.”

Jim almost choked to death at that announcement. He could imagine the horrified look on Blair’s face.

“Neanderthals,” Blair finally announced in a low, hissed tone that suggested he was feeling more offended than usual. “Man, you two are total and complete Neanderthals.”

“Yep,” Mal agreed. “And now we’re going to go shoot some folk. Try to stay out of the way.”

Jim pressed his lips together and tried to figure out how to do the next bit without sounding like he was telling Mal how to run the mission. There wasn’t a captain out there who wanted crew telling him how to wipe his own ass, and Jim figured that was true of Browncoat as much as it was Alliance. “Might be Blair shouldn’t come along for the assault,” Jim said carefully.

From the cold and calculating look Mal gave him, the man wasn’t fooled.

“Hey, I’ve shot a gun,” Blair protested before Mal could go taking offense, although Jim doubted the man intended to save Jim with that bit of intervention. He looked downright pissed off.

Pursing his lips, Jim considered Blair for a second. “Yes, you shoot often enough, but I’ve never seen one of your bullets actually hit a person.”

Blair glared.

“No offense, but I ain’t looking to have someone who shoots that bad at my back,” Jayne said with an apologetic look in Blair’s direction.

“Man, I would not shoot *you*,” Blair said, his own nasty glare focusing on Jim. Jim hated that he had to ask a Browncoat’s permission to protect Blair, but he’d decided a long time ago that the universe cared very little about his pride.

“Mal?” Jim asked.

The sigh did suggest that Mal knew he was being played. For a second, Jim wondered if he would turn down Jim’s request just out of principle. “Sandburg, you need to get this key back to Inara’s.” Mal finally said as he pulled the key out of his pocket and thrust it at Blair.


“I ain’t going to leave Inara in a spot, and we’re about to make a whole lot of noise, and if someone calls him, that’s going to leave her client wondered how his key went and got missing. You’ve got exactly ten minutes before we open fire and you’d better hope they don’t come looking for their missing guard any quicker than that. Now move,” Mal said. When it came down to it, Blair always did follow any order that made sense, and Jim could see he would follow this one. Oh, he hesitated and shifted his weight from foot to foot and even glanced over at Jim like he had any say in the matter, but in the end, he huffed and turned around.

“Just remember,” he almost hissed the words, “whatever you do in this lifetime, you have to live with the karma of that in your next one.”

“Seems like you and your partner are the ones who should be worrying about that,” Mal pointed out. Jim flinched, and Blair did too, but on Blair it looked more like a puppy getting kicked the way his shoulders drooped. Jim glared at Mal.

“Fine.” Blair turned and trotted up the street. As Blair hurried away, a rough silence fell on the rest of them. It took some time for Jim to gather his temper well enough to talk without calling Mal every name in the book. If two men wanted to have at each other with words or fists, Jim wouldn’t interfere, but some people weren’t cut out to fight. Kaylee was one. Jim wouldn’t ask her to kill any more than he’d ask River to preach a sermon. Blair was another who didn’t fight, and Mal had gone and antagonized him about as hard as he could.

“I’d appreciate it if you didn’t go bringing up his past,” Jim warned Mal. Oh, it was a carefully worded and calmly stated warning, but it was a warning. “If you want to take a shot at me, you’ve got a right. You and I were on opposite sides, and two men who can believe things deep enough to shoot at each other ought to be able to say it to each other’s faces. But Blair never wanted to hurt anyone.”

Mal looked him up and down, but Jim refused to back away from the captain’s hard stare. “I thought you didn’t believe in the Alliance?”

“I don’t now. I did then, and I still think your Browncoats were corrupt through to the core. So you save your comments about karma for me.”

Mal got an injured look on his face. “I wasn’t the one who even brought it up. Seems like Blair can defend himself well enough without you jumping in to fight his gorram battles, Ellison. Cao. If he’s this mouthy all the time, I’m starting to regret taking him on as crew.”

Jim’s guts knotted at the thought of Blair’s safe-haven vanishing.

Jayne gave a loud snort. “You’ve been threatening to put Moonbrain’s brother off so long it ain’t like no one listens to that threat anymore, Mal.”

“Do not start with me, Jayne Cobb.”

“I’m stating a truth.”

“I can put you off,” Mal pointed out, his eyes narrowed.

“You could, but you ain’t going to find no one who sucks your cock, takes or orders or shoots your enemies half as good, so you ain’t going to,” Jayne answered with a little more cockiness than Jim was used to seeing in the man. Mal stood there, his mouth literally open, but Jim noticed that he didn’t actually contradict Jayne.

“Go tie up the guard,” Mal finally ordered Jayne.

Angling his body away from the other two, Jim checked his watch. It felt like ten minutes were up, but they’d managed to get themselves uncomfortably tangled in the world’s most awkward conversation inside of two. Luckily, everyone seemed to have run out of words, so for the next eight minutes they all stood outside the Blue Sun office, the light from one spluttering lamp casting shadows that danced across the rough wooden door. Jim could feel the temptation to watch the dust motes swirl and spin, but he forced his senses back, casting out only a net of hearing and scent. Of course, the second he caught a whiff of the breeze carrying Mal and Jayne’s musk, he turned that control down and relied on his hearing to warn him if anything was about to go particularly wrong.

“Alright, time’s up,” Mal announced either minutes later. “Ellison, you’ve got point.”

Jim nodded, he’d expected that, which is why he’d wanted Blair out of the way. The man insisted on following Jim into battle, no matter how dangerous the situation, and Jim didn’t trust Mal and Jayne enough to want Blair in the middle.

“Mal?” Jayne asked, his voice almost offended.

“If he can smell out trouble, you can shoot it,” Mal promised quietly as they approached the door, and Jayne shifted his grip on his weapon. Clearly he had no problem with that order.

Jim pushed the door open and scented carefully, drawing air in through his mouth so his taste could help identify any scents. There was machinery here, a lot more than Jim could see in this simple, dusty little office. File cabinets stood off to the side, and a single tablet-style computer lay on the desk, left behind by the man Blair had ushered out. Jim could smell his scent at the desk.

Stepping carefully into the room, Jim felt the air stir against his arm, the fan weaving back and forth as it created little air streams that flowed through his hairs.

“You planning on moving soon?” Jayne hissed. Jim glared over his shoulder before turning his attention back to the office. The floor felt wrong. Jim knelt down and rested his hand on the sanded boards. Tiny vibrations rolled up through his arm.

“They’ve got a generator,” Jim said.

“Makes sense they might. It’s easier to hide than solar.” Mal edged to the side, his gun up as he watched the room. Jayne took the other side of the door where he could watch for anyone coming in.

Jim nodded and tilted his head, searching the walls for the hidden door. He could still hear the wind whistling over the crack, and he turned toward the wall the fan was aiming at. Vision tunneled in until he could lose himself in the grain of the wood, lines and whorls became as large as canyons, and Jim had to work to convince his gaze to move against the grain of those mountains and valleys until finally his sight fall off into a valley so deep that the zone pressed against Jim, nearly taking him as he fell forward to his knees.

“Ellison?” Mal was there, a hand on Jim’s shoulder, and Jim shivered for a minute, nearly shoving the man away. No one touched him when he was near a zone, no one except Blair—not since the Institute and the doctors who saw Jim as some tool to be used and tuned and adapted to fit their needs. The memory of other hands pulled at him, and Jim battled back the nausea that took him for a second. Then Mal pulled his hand back and Jim cleared his throat.

“Found the crack,” Jim said, his voice tight. Standing up, he walked over to the wall and rested his hand on the place where the wood covered the metal.

“I don’t see nothing,” Jayne said. Jim ignored him and ran his hand up to the top of the crack, feeling for a second before moving right to trace the edge of the door.

Mal leaned in so close that Jim could feel the heat of him. “This isn’t any thrown together business. I could have searched this place for a month and not found it.”

“You see it?” Jayne asked from the door.

“Nope. I still don’t.” Mal leaned closer to the wood.

“Look four centimeters to your left,” Jim suggested. Mal shifted. “See it now?” Jim found the second corner of the door and started tracing the edge back down. There’d be a trigger somewhere in the door. A remote trigger in the desk would make it too easy for someone to track the signal. Hell, as a cop, Jim had done that often enough. He’d sit in some seedy bar with a handheld scanner and wait to pick up trigger signals, tracking them back to the source. Generally, when people felt a need to hide a door, they had something fairly interesting behind that door.

“I still don’t see anything, Ellison, so either you’re really good or you’re leading us all on a wild goose chase.”

Jim kept feeling along the edge of the doorframe. If he wanted to convince Mal and find whatever River had sent them to find, he had to focus on the job. His fingers ghosted over the wood, but he paused at one spot. Slowly, he smiled as he felt the wood worn down so smooth that even Jim couldn’t feel the grain anymore. Someone had touched this one spot a lot. Standing up, Jim gave Mal a smile before pressing hard.

A groan warned them before a doorway started sinking into the wall.

For a second, Mal looked flabbergasted, but then his weapon came up. “Jayne, point. Ellison, make sure nothing shoots us in the back.” For a second Mal stared at Jim, and Jim figured the man was trying to figure out if Jim would shoot him in the back. The fact was, Jim had stopped believing all Browncoats were wrong about the same time he’d figured out that not all Alliance were right. He wasn’t going to share that with Mal, though. The man’s ability to assume his side was always the right was could get annoying.

Jayne stepped between them, taking point down the stairs, and Mal quickly followed, leaving Jim to cover the exit. Strategically it made sense. If Jayne was as good at shooting as everyone seemed to think, then he was a good site better than Jim. However, it still rankled to get left behind when the unit went into battle. Gunshots rang out, and Jim clenched his teeth and dialed back hearing before the ricocheting sound could deafen him.

“Mal!” Jayne called out, and Jim was half-way down the stairs, gun aimed in a second.

Jayne fired a shot, taking out a man coming through an office door, pistol in hand. Mal had his back to the office as he struggled with a heavy-set woman who still had a headset hanging from her neck. A number of people were dead, sprawled out in the middle of red sprays of blood that made it clear Jayne’s oversized weapon had taken them. He had managed to take out a good number, more than Jim would have. A few more groaned on the floor, and three people huddled in the corner, unarmed, but watching with fearful eyes. Jayne ignored them.

After glancing over to see if Jim was covering the room, Jayne walked over, cocked back an arm and punched the woman grappling with Mal. Her head snapped back and she sank to the ground unconscious.

“Mal, you ain’t got one lick of sense the minute some skirt bats her eyes,” Jayne said with a snort.

“She was stronger than she looked,” Mal defended himself.

“If you’re fighting someone, it helps to hit them,” Jayne said. For a second, the two men glared at each other. Their relationship certainly wasn’t one Jim would want any part of. He and Blair might have differences, but they didn’t call each other out on their faults, not like these two. However, Mal shook off the criticism and turned to the three remaining employees.

“So, who’s going to offer to show us around the place?” he asked. Two of the survivors were men, one an older gentleman with thinning hair, and Mal focused on him, striding over and grabbing the man’s arm before pulling him up.

“We don’t have any money,” the man quickly protested.

“Do I look like a common thief?” Mal paused. “Don’t answer that.”

The woman pushed herself up. “You have to help them,” she said, looking toward the injured. One had a leg injury that looked more painful than dangerous, but one had a wound to his side and the other a gut shot. A fourth lay near the stairs, his body making so many squelching sounds that Jim’s stomach roiled before he could focus his hearing elsewhere. Someone had taken time to kick their weapons to the side, but no one had offered any first aid.

“You got them?” Jim asked Jayne. Jayne gave him a confused look, but Jim went over to the one shot in the gut and knelt down to assess the wounds. When he focused on the internal organs, he could hear the heart beating strong, the blood pushing through vessels and the intestine leaking into the abdomen.

“Oh shit,” Blair’s voice sounded from the top of the stairs. “Oh shit, shit, shit.” He took two steps down into the basement, and Jim looked around and saw the room through his friend’s eyes. It was a bloodbath. Jim could see that each fallen body had a matching weapon just out of reach, but he doubted Blair was doing that sort of threat assessment. He saw the dead and wounded, not the weapons and the threat that Jayne and Mal had managed to survive without a scratch.

“This one has a perforated colon, no other organ damage,” Jim said, anxious to move Blair past the horror of the scene and onto helping someone. Blair could handle about any gou shi the universe threw at him as long as he could do some good. That was part of who he was.

“You say that like a perforated colon isn’t enough,” Blair said, his voice tight with emotion as he hurried over. “Man, this is… this is….” Blair stopped without coming up with a way to end that.

“The man with the shot to the leg has a muscle injury, no bone or artery damage. The woman took one to the side, her lungs sound clear, and I don’t hear any internal bleeding. She’s not in immediate danger.” Jim gave Blair a quick rundown, trying to distract him. Blair might be a psychiatrist, but he’d gone through medical school. Jim wasn’t even surprised when Blair took his bag off his shoulder and pulled out medical supplies.

“I should—” Blair looked over toward a man lying on his stomach near the stairs. Jim caught his arm, stopping him.

“Don’t,” Jim said firmly.

“But…” Blair frowned. The man’s low moans made it clear he was still alive.

Jim shook his head. “There’s too much damage, Blair. Focus on the ones you can help.”

Blair crouched next to the man with the perforated colon, his face reflecting so much pain that Jim hated himself for being unable to find an excuse to leave Blair back on the ship. He shouldn’t be in the middle of this. But then Blair took a deep breath and the emotion vanished from his face. “What can you hear?” Blair asked as he took out a vial and needle. Jim knew this version of Blair—this doctor focused on the job. It wasn’t a memory he cared to relive, so he gave Blair the fastest rundown on the condition of the three who could be saved before he got up to head over to Mal and Jayne. They’d talked one of the three techs into giving them access to the system, and Mal was downloading files.

“What have we got?” Jim asked. He cast his hearing out, but it didn’t sound like anyone had noticed their raid yet.

“Lots of numbers that don’t mean much to me,” Jayne said.

“Mal?” Jim looked over.

“Keep an eye up top,” Mal ordered him. Jayne wasn’t sure whether Mal didn’t want to discuss it with the Blue Sun employees listening or if he just didn’t understand the data any better than Jayne. Either way, Jim had gone into this mission agreeing to follow orders. He looked over toward Blair who was setting up an IV over the gut-shot man and whispering reassurances to the injured woman.

“Keep an eye on Blair, okay?” Jim asked. Mal looked up from the computer station where he was downloading data and over at Blair. Already, Blair’s hands and arms were smeared with blood and his face had a serious intensity that wasn’t normal for him.

Mal frowned for a second before he nodded. “I’ll keep an eye out for him. You just give us warning if we need to clear out fast. I want to get as much of this as I can.”

Jim nodded and headed for the stairs. As much as it made his gut ache to leave Blair down there, Blair wouldn’t leave his patients, and Jim wasn’t in charge of the mission. Worse, if this plan of River’s didn’t work, he was still going to have to pull the hunters off their tail by leaving Blair behind. Then he would have to trust Mal to always have Blair’s back. It wasn’t a comforting thought. Oh, Jim was starting to think Mal was less of an idiot than Jim had first assumed, but he didn’t want anyone else taking responsibility for protecting Blair. That was his job. At the top of the stairs, Jim crouched down low and rested his fingers against the floor as he sent his hearing out to creep along the ground like a fog, searching for the sound of running feet or shouting men. Instead, the town was silent, and Jim waited for the others to finish as he stood guard at their back. It was all he could do.

Chapter 24

“So, what’d we get?” Mal asked as River brought up streams of data onto the screen.

Everyone stood around watching, but Jim was focused more on his partner. Blair had been quiet ever since they’d returned. The second they got back on the ship, he’d showered off the blood and changed his clothes, but his eyes were still haunted. Jim reached out and rested a hand on Blair’s shoulder, and Blair summoned up a weak smile. Then he leaned in closer, his weight resting against Jim’s side. Jim wrapped his arm around Blair and held him tightly. “You saved them,” Jim whispered while the others fussed over figures. River brought up a split screen with two sets of data, and Simon Tam was the first to spot that they were two versions of financial records.

“I didn’t save all of them,” Blair whispered back. The air smelled of salt, and Blair turned his face toward Jim’s chest. Kaylee turned a worried face their way, and Jim nodded at her. He appreciated that she cared, but he didn’t want someone else coming in and comforting his partner. If they couldn’t figure out River’s plan and Jim still had to make a suicide run, he wanted to store up every memory of Blair he could get. So he tightened his arms around Blair and rested his cheek on the top of Blair’s head.

“They’re financing the president. Blue Sun isn’t just donating money, they’re actually financing the president and at least half the elected congress. Look at that,” Simon said, pointing at the screen. “They own the government.”

Blair tried to squirm around, but Jim held on tighter. There was a little sob from him, and Jim could feel the tremors. Blair needed to feel this, he needed to let the pain out or he’d swallow it. That’s what he’d done after their big escape. For almost a month, they’d hidden at a little prospector’s place Jim had kept as a bolt hole in case of trouble, and Blair had insisted that he was fine, that he knew he wasn’t at fault for the people inside the Institute. He’d claimed that for almost two weeks, brushing off Jim’s sympathy until he’d finally broken down.

Now that Jim knew his partner had a habit of burying his own guilt, swallowing it whole until it gnawed at his guts, Jim was quicker to force the emotion out. Slowly Blair’s arms came up around Jim, holding on for dear life. It was funny—Blair understood everyone else so well, and yet he still needed Jim to do this for him, to hold him and prick the emotion until it came out. Ideally Jim’d rather do it in private, but Blair had insisted that he wanted to see the information that had come at such a high price.

“Oh my God.” Simon breathed out the words, leaning close to the screen. “This… this could bring down governments. I can’t believe they’re doing this. I can’t believe they’re keeping records about having done this. Oh my God.”

“Brother thinks in grey and grey, all the color leeched from the sky,” River announced as she slowly scrolled through more figures. They didn’t mean all that much to Jim, but if River and Simon thought they were important, Jim would believe them.

“What, so this is like Miranda with some big-ass secret?” Jayne asked. “The last secret looked more important than this. This is just figures.” Jayne clearly wasn’t impressed.

Simon looked at Jayne with his mouth literally open for several seconds. “The last secret could be dismissed as an ill-thought out plan by a small group of overenthusiastic scientists. This is proof that our whole democracy is essentially a farce, a fiction, a nice little fairy tale that Blue Sun has plastered over their own dictatorial control of the universe. My god. They will do anything to control the markets and the profits, all for the benefit of fifteen men who think they own the whole ‘verse. Oh my god.” Simon backed away from the screen, tried to sit on the edge of table and instead ended up on the floor. Stranger still, he didn’t seem to notice he was on the floor.

“So, this is important?” Jayne asked as he looked at the screen with some degree of skepticism. Blair squirmed again, this time adding an elbow in the side, and Jim loosened up enough for Blair to turn and study the screen. Jim might not like the idea of Blair postponing the coming emotional storm, but he couldn’t force Blair to focus on himself instead of their newly stolen data.

“It don’t look half as interesting,” Mal agreed. “I suppose we should find someone to broadcast this. It seems like last time, that was the hardest part.” Mal got quiet, and Jim could taste the grief around them. The crew had lost people on that mission, and Jim’s guts tightened at the thought that they might lose more, and none of them had any idea what the endgame looked like since they were following River’s plan.

“Nope,” River said firmly. “Plough horses in the dressage ring.”

“The what?” Jayne asked. Jim figured he wasn’t the only one ignorant as to the finer points of show horses, but he was the only one willing to admit it.

“Dressage,” Simon said wearily, as if Jayne’s ignorance was a personal affront. Jim wasn’t sure how the man had managed to avoid being punched. “It’s a French term. A dressage horse is the ultimate in training, an animal who can respond with the simplest touch of his rider and perform gracefully.”

“And I’m guessing she’s calling us the plough horses,” Mal said.

“It does seem like it, sir,” Zoe agreed. “On the bright side, a good plough horse is a valuable animal.”

Mal looked over at her, his face incredulous, but the corners of Zoe’s mouth were twitching with a smile, and he just rolled his eyes at her.

“However, if we are going to try and find a broadcast platform, I recommend we don’t split the crew again, sir. We don’t have the personnel for that sort of assault.” She gave him a nasty look, but then after finding out that their quick little raid on a dusty office had turned into a full-out assault of a secret base with armed guards, she hadn’t been amused at being left out. On an Alliance ship, these people would all have rank, and Jim would understand their relative positions, but now Zoe, who he had originally thought of as Mal’s second, had been left behind in favor of Jayne, and Jim wasn’t sure how that all worked. It seemed like without rank there were likely to be some hurt feelings somewhere along the way.

“No!” River pushed herself up out of the chair. “Plough horses in the dressage ring ruin everything. Plough horses in the field sow the seeds of wheat the feed the family.” She closed her eyes and clenched her fists in a way that made Jim want to back out of the room slowly and carefully.

However Blair shoved at Jim’s arms to get free. “So River, we can do something with this, but if we do the wrong thing, we’re going to stick out like a plough horse in a show ring and likely make fools of ourselves at the same time?” He asked.

“Already plowed through the quarter line… G to I to X to L.”

“Gixl?” Jayne said. Funny enough, it seemed like when everyone was confused, Jayne was about the only one willing to admit it.

“They’re positions on the dressage ring, she’s describing the line as you move your horse down the field.” The way Simon said that he made it sound like everyone should know that already, but Jim had been raised on Osiris—he’d seen horses and riders performing in the ring—and he still didn’t have a gorram clue about Gs or Xs.

River’s fists slowly unclenched as she nodded. “Horses aren’t all horses,” she muttered softly. “Some eat the elephant from the inside.”

Mal scratched his head. “If we aren’t supposed to tell anyone and we aren’t supposed to take our plough horse selves into the fancy dressage ring, what exactly are we supposed to do with this? I don’t mind saying that I’d be fond of figuring out how to not end up dead, and after leaving witnesses behind, I ain’t so sure on our long-term survival, at least not me and Jayne.”

Jim wondered if they would have left live witnesses if he and Blair hadn’t come along. He didn’t think Mal was the sort to execute people, but Jim knew better than most that desperate people did despicable things. Most days Jim figured he’d even done one or two despicable things himself.

Surprisingly, River turned to Jim. “Ruts under leaves and litter still lead home.”

Mal sighed. “Is anyone else getting mightily annoyed with this talk?”

“Nope,” Blair said, earning a nasty look from Mal. Blair looked up at Jim. “Man, she wants you to use some skill you learned a long time ago, some thought that’s so old it’s covered over by leaves.” From River’s smile, Blair had guessed right.

“Maybe she wants you to start massacring people,” Mal suggested with an overly sweet smile.

Jim drew himself up and just stared right back at the captain. He’d never hidden from his past. After a second, Mal sighed. “Seeing as how River could just as well go massacring herself if she took a mind too, maybe not. This is probably something that only you could do.”

Jim looked around at the crew all looking to him, but he didn’t have an answers. “Any clearances I had are long since cancelled, any allies turned against me.” Jim hated that Captain Banks probably thought of him as a traitor, but he most likely did, and he’d turn Jim over to the alliance in a second. “And you just saw the sum total of what my senses can do in the field.”

“Gorram unnatural how he found the hidden door,” Jayne agreed.

“Well that ain’t really much of a help,” Mal pointed out.

Simon pushed himself up and stepped to Kaylee’s side. “What other skills do you have?”

“Killing Browncoats and tracking down slavers and pedophiles,” Jim answered. “I was a good cop, but with the reward out for me, I don’t think I can go back to my old contacts without ending up with a gun in my back as one of them try to sell me.”

“Ruts covered in leaves, leaves rotting back to dirt,” River said, her voice tinged with desperation.

“So a really old memory,” Blair said. “Could it be a skill you learned in college?”

Jim tried to think back, but he’d been unremarkable in his college days. That had been before he found himself, and most days he walked around expecting people to accuse him of something. Growing up with Charlie, Jim had learned to expect a knife in the back. Charlie’d do something downright unforgivable, anything from wrecking a shuttle to laming a horse so bad it had to be put down, and the wang ba dan found a way to blame Jim. Jim became the evil twin in the family, and by the time Jim left home, their younger brother Stephen was starting to pull the same gou shi. By the time he got to college, all Jim wanted was to be left alone. He didn’t trust many people, and he sure didn’t learn anything pertinent to this sort of mess. He shook his head, unable to find anything in his memory “I studied military history and criminal profiling. I honestly didn’t do anything particular special.”

“So, she wants you should profile someone?” Mal’s suggestion made River fist her hands up again. River’s frustration was starting to worry Jim because when the Institute’s readers started getting frustrated, people had a habit of ending up dead.

“Ruts crisscrossing with stupid brother,” River said, her hand snapped out to point straight at Simon Tam. And that made no sense at all. Jim looked over to Simon, but the stupid brother in question looked just as confused as Jim.

“Oh man.” Blair looked back and forth between them. River seemed to back away as she watched Blair’s hands start to fly. “Okay, you two have something in common. Let’s start at the beginning and figure this out. There’s a logical solution here.” Blair got his academic voice out, the one where he got excited about numbers and testing. “Okay, we should approach this logically, so one of you can start listing off all the places you’ve been and people you know, and we’ll cross-reference with the other. We should start with places. I mean, no way does everyone remember all the people they’ve met, but if we can’t find a place in common, we can start—”

“She’s changed course and we’re headed for Osiris,” Zoe interrupted. Jim felt the ship shiver as she corrected herself mid-flight, moving onto a new trajectory.

“Or we can wait until River just shows us,” Blair finished, much of his enthusiasm gone as if she’d pricked his balloon…. Or taken away his bright and shiny new puzzle. Jim almost felt sorry for Blair, except he knew that Blair wanted the puzzle so he wouldn’t have to think about the pain of what he’s seen in that basement.

“Osiris? That’s where we grew up,” Simon said.

“Old ruts covered in leaves,” River agreed from the pilot’s seat.

“Jim, isn’t that where you grew up?” Blair asked.

Staring at the new heading, Jim could feel a sinking in the pit of his stomach. “Yeah, and it’s where my father still lives.” This was not good.

“If your father lives there, why do you look like someone just tried to kill your dog?” Mal asked.

Jim looked over. “Maybe I should mention that my father killed my dog to punish me for not following the rules up to his standards.”

Jayne made a face. “He killed your dog?” Clearly that violated Jayne’s moral standards, and Jim figured when you managed to morally offend Jayne, you were out on some pretty thin ice morally speaking.

“Is anyone else getting a bad feeling?” Zoe asked softly.

Jim didn’t answer, but he figured from the way he was getting sympathetic looks and Blair’s arms tightening around his waist, they all knew he agreed.

“Too much gray. Color and colors and horses and elephants all gray,” River announced in the heavy silence that had fallen over the bridge.

Well cao. They were headed for Osiris.

Chapter 25

Jim escorted Blair back to their quarters.

“Oh man. Okay, I know you do not have warm and fuzzy feelings for your father. Do you really think River wants you to go to your father?”

“I don’t know,” Jim said, opening their quarters and standing to the side while Blair went down into the room.

“That is going to be one wild meeting. Wild.”

“Yep,” Jim agreed as he followed Blair into the room.

“So, is he safe… I mean, will he turn you over to the Alliance? I may complain about Naomi not naming my father, but man, that is way better than having a father who would turn you over to the Alliance. And seriously, do not even get me started on the dog thing. I mean… who kills a kid’s dog? That is so not cool.”

Jim watched as Blair paced the small room. He had too much energy for the small space, but Jim let him pace off as much energy as he could. “Are you planning on contributing to this conversation?” Blair finally demanded.

“No, not really.”

That made Blair stop in his tracks. He stood near the tiny table and stared at Jim like he couldn’t recognize him. “You are so in denial,” Blair said, poking a finger in Jim’s direction.

“No, squirt, I’m not. I know my father is an asshole and that his emotional abuse sent me running to the Alliance because I wanted to find a better authority figure.”

Blair frowned, but he didn’t have an immediate answer for that. Either that, or he didn’t want to admit that Jim was the self-aware one in this relationship. Oh, he had plenty of other issues including an ongoing self-worth issue and a fatalism born in the bowels of the Institution. However, he was far more self-aware than Blair who could see everyone’s faults but his own. Considering that he was a psychiatrist, Blair had this huge blind spot when it came to himself.

Blair crossed his arms. “Why do you have that look on your face?”

“What look?” Jim asked with as much innocence as he could muster. Blair’s eyes narrowed more.

“Oh no. You are getting ready to say something I do not want to here, and let me make this one hundred percent clear James Joseph Womak Ellison. I am going to Osiris with you. I am your partner. Partner. You hear that? Partner, as in the person who goes with you, not the person who gets left behind every time you think it’s more convenient.”

Jim gave a snort. “Considering that we’re both on a Browncoat ship old enough to have belonged to my great-grandfather as a young man, I clearly don’t leave you behind all that often.” Jim didn’t mention that he’d like to leave Blair behind more. He’d been an officer long enough to know that some battles were unwinnable.

“So… you aren’t going to tell me to stay behind when you visit your dad?”

“I don’t know that either of us are going to see William. Unless River comes right out and tells me to go see him, I don’t plan to go near the man,” Jim said firmly. The comm system came on with an electronic pop that suggested Kaylee needed to fix something in the unit. River’s voice filled the room.

“Coming right out and telling,” she sang and then the comm system popped again and went silent. Jim sighed. He didn’t know what annoyed him more: having a reader constantly monitoring his thoughts or having to visit his father.

“Oh man. That is….” Blair’s voice trailed off.

“Irritating?” Jim guessed.

“No way. I mean, River is trying to help, and I am not that easily irritated, unlike some people,” Blair gave him a look. “But is River monitoring everyone all the time or is she just monitoring us because she’s trying to communicate? The readers at the Institute were emotionally shut down. River… man, she has done an incredible job of recovering. I wonder how well she would perform on a Cummings-Nguyen personality inventory?” Blair stopped, his expression slowly turning suspicious. “What?” he demanded.

With a sigh, Jim sat on the edge of his bunk and considered possible attack strategies. With Blair, direct usually worked, but when he decided to develop a blind spot, he could really wallow in his own cluelessness. “Nothing, Blair. I just thought you’d be tired.”

“No way. I stayed up longer as a student. I’m fine.”

“Are you?” Jim asked, all lightness gone from his voice. He’d seen Blair’s pain during the op, and he wondered how much of that Blair was hiding. He’d seen young men do that in the war—swallow the pain down until it threatened to eat them alive. He didn’t want that for Blair.

“Yes,” Blair snapped, looking even more confused. “You’re the one who has to face your father.”

Making a face, Jim shrugged. “In the name of war, I’ve done worse,” he pointed out. The memory of young Browncoat bodies floating in space came to mind. Mal and his kind were idiots fighting to protect criminals and their right to exploit the weak, but Jim and his Alliance troops were idiots fighting to protect a criminal government and their right to exploit everyone. Some days he wished he’d died back before realizing how wrong he’d been… how wrong they’d all been.

Sitting next to Jim, Blair let his hand rest on Jim’s knee. “Bad memories?” he guessed.

“Yeah,” Jim agreed with a huff. “Fighting in war leaves you some rough and bloody memories. I can remember every fallen soldiers—every man I shot and every soldier I tried to save.” Jim looked down at his hands. He hated letting his control over his emotions slip because sometimes they raged out of his control. He’d feel this hot loss, this burning hatred and raw grief, and he’d slip into a dark place that he had trouble returning from. It was easier to lock it all down, but it was also hypocritical of him to keep his own emotions locked down when he needed Blair to admit to a little pain of his own.

Jim looked over, and Blair was swallowing, his fingers twitching as though he was still doing chest compressions to try and save one of the Blue Sun workers.

“Even when you know you’re right… even when you know you’re serving the greater good… it’s hard,” Jim said gently.

Now Blair recognized the trap Jim had set, and he flew off the bed, stopping only once he’d reached the far side of the room, his arms wrapped around his waist. “Oh man, do not turn this back on me,” he said, his words angry, but his tone barely hiding the pain.

“Blair, you know you have to talk about this.”

“No. No I don’t. I’m the psychiatrist here, so I should know.”

“I’m the combat-experienced officer,” Jim countered. “Do you think I don’t understand? I’ve held my hands over bleeding arteries while men I knew bled to death in my arms.”

“And that’s not what I did,” Blair shouted. “I didn’t know these people. I didn’t have emotional bonds to severe and I don’t have to live with the guilt of pulling the trigger because I didn’t!”

“I know,” Jim agreed.

“I mean, Jayne and Mal were the ones who did that mayhem. If anyone should feel guilty, they should,” Blair went on, ignoring Jim. Jim didn’t even bother to point out that neither Mal nor Jayne were the type to feel guilty. Well, not for enemies, anyway. Jim had seen Mal flinch when someone would mention missing crew, so he figured Mal carried his own guilt, even if he denied it. Jayne, however, was the least emotionally complex, most direct, and least guilt-prone person Jim had ever met.

Blair started paced. “They pulled the trigger. I mean, I can come up with a dozen different scenarios that would have resulted in fewer deaths. Did you know there are knockout gases that can take down an adult in under five seconds?” Blair’s pacing grew more frantic, which left him almost spinning in circles in the small room. Jim watched, reassured by the fact that the emotions were coming out now. “Or food,” Blair blurted out, “we could have put sedative in the food. I mean, everyone has to eat, right? When they sent out for food, we could have put sedative in it.”

The plan had enough holes in it that Jim didn’t bother answering. Inara’s customer would have discovered the missing key, and anyone who didn’t eat would have had time to put the office into lockdown, not to mention that they didn’t have that much sedative, they didn’t have a way to intercept any food order, and anyone who ate too much of the sedated food would have died anyway. Jim kept all that to himself as Blair’s emotions spun out, his brain working through all the “what-ifs.”

“Man, I could have brought up a dozen different plans, and I didn’t. I stood there and let Mal and Jayne shoot a whole bunch of people. What does that say about me?” Blair froze, turning a tortured expression toward Jim.

“That you feel empathy, even when you’re dealing with the enemy, and not many men are good enough to do that,” Jim answered quietly.

Blair shook his head. “I didn’t, though. If I had empathy, I would have found another plan. I would have realized that Mal and Jayne’s plan would lead to massive gunfire. I don’t think those two know any other solution.”

“Probably not,” Jim agreed. His opinion on Browncoat morality might have changed, but he still considered their strategy vastly inferior.

“What’s wrong with me that I didn’t argue with them? Why did I just go along with it. Man, cleaning up after the fact is not the same from stopping the mess in the first place.” Blair’s eyes shone with tears, and now Jim could see them reach the real emotion that had been souring Blair’s scent since they came back to the ship. Inching closer, Blair looked at Jim like he was expecting an answer. “What is wrong with me that I can’t do the right thing up front?”

“You do, Blair,” Jim promised, but Blair shook his head.

“No, I admit I’m at fault and try and clean up the mess, but that is not the same thing. Not even close. Not even in the same ‘verse. Man, I suck.”

“Blair,” Jim interrupted, reaching out to catch Blair’s arm and pull him into a hug. “You’re a good man. Any mistakes you’ve made dwarf in comparison to mine. If you forgive me, you have to forgive yourself.” Jim knew his words hit home when Blair gave a strangled sob, his fingers clutching Jim’s shirt.

Jim remembered Joel Taggart, his friend who had fought for the Browncoats—his friend he had killed. After a hard case, Joel would always want to sit around and remember other cases, other detectives, other friends. Simon Banks would challenge Jim to a game of darts and then throw those darts hard enough to work out his anger. On hard cases, he traded the darts for a shooting competition at the local range. Henri Brown would offer to drink him under the table or take him to a horse race or a bare-knuckle prize fight. Rafe would offer some upscale club where the Womak name would open doors and they could politely drink themselves to oblivion before some well-dressed maître d’ poured them into a cab and paid to ensure their safe delivery back him. Every man had his own way of decompressing after a hard mission. For Jim, he used to stare out at the black for long hours, his pain raging as he sat silent in the dark. But for Blair, only tears could ease this pain.

Blair hadn’t done anything wrong. He’d tried to save every one of those injured prisoners. Tomorrow he’d realize that. Tonight Jim backed up to the bunk, pulling Blair with him. Settling back, he tugged Blair onto the bed, and Blair allowed himself to be maneuvered into place between Jim’s legs. And then Jim let Blair cry. Hitting the switch to plunge them into darkness, Jim lay stroking his fingers through Blair’s hair and listening to the ragged breathing as Blair excised his demons. Tomorrow would be better; Jim had to believe that. Otherwise they were in serious trouble because when they reached Osiris, Jim knew he didn’t have the strength to deal with his father alone. Blair wasn’t the only one carrying demons.

Chapter 26

“Let’s do this,” Jim just about snarled as he headed for the open hatch. The green of Osiris drifted in with the breeze, smell of open water and cut grass and wildflowers bringing up childhood memories that left Jim on edge.

“Are you okay?” Blair asked quietly.

Jim loved Blair, but some days, the man could annoy a saint. “Sandburg, if you ask me that again, I’m going to shoot you and have Jayne hide the body.”

Jayne snorted as he passed them, his eyes on the horizon. This was a rural area in the middle of the massive Ellison estate, but they all new that private guards would come out to find out why the shuttle had landed in the middle of the pasture.

“Right. And you aren’t repressing, not at all,” Blair muttered softly enough that only a Sentinel would hear him.

“You sure they’re going believe that you’re Charlie?” Jayne asked. If Blair was obsessing over Jim’s mental health, Jayne was obsessing over security.

“You did,” Jim pointed out as he straightened his Alliance uniform. It felt odd. At one point in his life, he’d been so proud to wear a uniform—to prove he was something other than the screw up his father always accused him of being. Standing in front of a mirror with his first uniform on, he’d finally felt like a man instead of a child scrambling to get his father to love him. And now the uniform rubbed him sore—literally and metaphorically, and he was back on Osiris trying to figure out exactly what River wanted him to tell his father. This wasn’t going to end well. Jim fingered his sidearm, wondering if he was going to have to end himself to avoid getting dragged back to the labs. He was a soldier; he’d do what he had to.

“Got company,” Mal said from his spot next to the open hatch of the shuttle. Two men in the blue uniforms of Ellison private employees were crossing the grass, their hands on their weapons. They would be the advance guard, but the real threat would be the sharpshooters and the pilots already readying attack craft.

Jim straightened up and started across the wide meadow toward the house with its white columns and large verandas. Blair fell in next to him, and Jim clenched his fists. He didn’t like Blair going into the lion’s den, but he’d lost that battle. Jayne taking his other side was more a surprise.


“Like Mal always says, we stick by our own.” Jayne shifted his big-ass gun to his other hip and scratched his stomach. “I ain’t exactly sure when you started being ours, though,” he admitted with a shrug. Jim blinked at him for a second, not sure what shocked him more, Jayne’s willingness to stand with him or the fact that Mal had sent Jayne along. Jim looked back and Mal still stood next to the shuttle door, his arms crossed and his body language about as tense as a man could get when he was trying so hard to look casual.

With a brisk nod, Mal took a step back into the shuttle and hit the controls to close the door. Up until this point, Jim figured that he and Blair were on their own, but he knew one thing—Mal wouldn’t ever leave Jayne. Since those two had started consummating on every surface on the Serenity, Mal’s eyes had followed Jayne’s every twitch in a way that Jim recognized entirely too easily. He looked at Blair the same way.

Mal was making it clear that they were getting through this as crew or they were going down the same way. It was the sort of loyalty that Jim hadn’t felt since before the war when he, Banks, Taggard, Brown, Conner, and Rafe had formed a Major Crime team to deal with the worst of the human traffickers and murderers out on the rim. That team would have walked through hell for each other. Having Jayne and Blair walking next to him, Jim could almost believe that the three of them could pull off the impossible the way the Major Crime team had for so many years.

Jim could see the very instant when the guard recognized him—or when they thought they recognized him, anyway. The muscles around their necks and shoulders loosened, and the older one contracted his mouth slightly in disgust. Charlie had that effect on people once they really knew him.

“Where’s my father?” Jim demanded loudly, putting on his worst manners.

“Lieutenant Womak,” the older guard offered, and Jim brushed by the man, ignoring his own discomfort at treating another man so rudely. After all, he was playing Charlie, and Charlie didn’t give a shit about anyone but himself.

Jim walked faster, listening as Blair had to trot to keep up, his heart pounding faster, although Jim didn’t know if that was the running or the fear. Jayne’s heart pounded steadily, and he didn’t seem to mind leaving the two guards at their backs. Then again, given the way the man shot, Jim was fairly sure Jayne could take both of them before either had a chance to twitch. Odd as it was, Jim wasn’t even the most unusual person on the Serenity.

“Is your father expecting you?” the guard called as he followed behind, and Jim kept right on moving. Charlie wouldn’t answer questions from a flunky.

“Danburg, call ahead and find out where Mr. Ellison is,” the guard ordered his younger partner, and then he was running to get ahead of Jim. “Lieutenant, your father has asked that you not come back here.”

Jim looked over, surprised at that. His father had always favored Charlie; however, Jim couldn’t afford break character. So he sneered. “I don’t take messages from flunkies.”

Blair made a strangled sound that came close to a laugh, and Jim glared at him before setting off for the house again. He’d grown up here on Osiris, surrounded by cars and horses and wide open spaces, but after living on the fringes of society, the wealth on this estate was enough to make him feel slightly nauseous. He’d seen so much starvation and privation that the sheer decadence made him hate that earlier version of himself that had taken it all for granted.

Jim stepped up onto the porch, and he took a second to look around at the verdant fields stretching out to the horizon. Serenity’s shuttle squatted like an ugly little bug, but other than that, the illusion of tranquility surrounded the house. However, Jim had grown up in this illusion, and he knew how much turmoil and hatred roiled just under the surface. “The security had better be turned off or my friend there is going to shoot you in the gut,” Jim warned coldly, jerking his head toward Jayne.

Jayne shifted his huge weapon and eyed the guard so coldly that Jim almost broke cover long enough to remind Jayne that they were trying to avoid bloodshed. As much as he appreciated Jayne offering backup, Jim wished he had someone who was less likely to actually gut-shoot someone doing the job.

The security guard tapped a small control on his wrist. “Security cleared, sir,” he said stiffly, his anger carefully bottled, but not well hidden.

Turning his back on the guard, Jim grabbed the handle of the French door, half-expecting to get electrocuted, but the security was off. For the first time in over a decade, Jim entered his childhood home. It smelled the same—wood cleaner and jasmine. Sprays of artfully designed flowers sat on well-tended antiques and hand-carved furniture. Jim strode past it on his way to his father’s study. Despite the fact that his father owned the entire mansion, the man practically lived in that one room. From that room, he’d take vid calls from teachers and send out servants to summon his sons to stand in front of him and accept punishment. Jim took lead, Blair slightly behind him with the guard and Jayne coming up the rear, neither one willing to leave the other at his back, no doubt.

A maid caught sight of him and pulled back into one of the sitting rooms, pulling the door mostly closed as Jim passed. The marble floor and columns in the enormous hall made their footsteps echo, and for a half-second, Jim paused as his hearing struggled to identify the echoing sounds of so many feet. Jayne’s boots were so soft that they barely even echoed at all. For a big man, he was used to walking soft. Blair’s slapped against the marble, and the guard who had taken up position at Jayne’s side had a staccato heel-first rhythm.

Shaking off the feel of being surrounded by strings of sound, Jim reached his father’s study and pulled the doors open, standing in the exact place he’d sworn he’d never return. He held onto both doorknobs, waiting as his father finished something on the computer before slowly turning to look at each other. They considered each other, two grown men not sure what to expect from each other—at least that’s what Jim thought it felt like.

“Son,” William said in measured tones.

“Dad,” Jim returned, equally cautious. He’d half-hoped that River would send a transmission down explaining what they needed since Jim didn’t actually know why they were here, but from his father’s expression of confusion, she hadn’t.

William sighed and stood up from his desk. “You’re dismissed, Udall.”

Jim turned around to see the guard eyeing Jayne suspiciously. “Mr. Ellison…”

“Dismissed,” William barked in a tone that made it clear his next word would be to fire the guard.

“Yes, sir,” the guard gave a brisk nod and then headed back down the marble hall, his staccato steps fading into the distance.

With another of those sighs that made it clear that Jim was taking up valuable time, William sat back down behind his desk. “Well, this is a surprise.”

“Because you banned me from the house?” Jim asked as he stepped into the room. Blair was immediately at his side, and Jayne took a position next to the door where he could cover the room and the hallway.

“I banned your brother, James, not you.”

Jim sucked in a breath, and Jayne brought his weapon up, lined up with William’s head.

“Hey, whoa, let’s all calm down,” Blair rushed to say, moving to get into Jayne’s line of fire, but Jim reached out and caught Blair’s shoulder, pulling him close. As much as he didn’t want to see his father dead, he really didn’t want his father to feel some false sense of security and reach for a gun himself. If Jayne’s big-ass weapon was pointed at his gorram head, he’d think twice before trying to double cross them.

Sure enough, William held his hands up. “James, I’ve tried to find you for over a year now. I got suspicious when I couldn’t get any word on your posting, but after some rather suspicious people picked up Charles, I figured something had happened.”

“The Institute got Charlie?” Jim’s gut churned with dread. He hated his brother, but he didn’t deserve that.

“A group of doctors ordered Charles in for testing about five months ago. After two weeks, they released him, but Charlie had the feeling that something more was up.”

“Oh man.” Blair leaned into Jim, his body trembling. “Oh shit.” Jim understood the feeling.

“He came here, not looking for answers, but wanting revenge. Apparently he didn’t like his treatment while he was their guest, and he wanted some assistance making them pay.”

“And you weren’t ready to endanger your position to do that?” Jim guessed. The discomfort of his sons had never been one of William Ellison’s great concerns.

“Over Charles’ offended dignity? No,” William said simply. “However, it made me search harder for you.”

Jim gave a rough laugh and shook his head in disbelief. “Why the hell would you bother looking for me Dad? Cao, even when I lived in this house, you never much cared as long as I didn’t interfere with your life.”

“James, language,” William said, sitting up.

“Yeah, Dad. I’ll worry about a little swearing.”

Blair pushed his way out of Jim’s arms, and stepped forward. “Hey, all this rehashing of the past—so not healthy. I mean, it sounds like you were worried for your son,” Blair told William. Jim opened his mouth to protest that, and Blair turned on him, poking a finger toward his face. “And it sounds like you haven’t known your father for a very long time and people change. So how about we all just calm down and try using a few civilized manners.”

Jim snorted, but when Blair not-so-subtly pushed him toward a chair, Jim went, trusting Jayne to cover their back. “Dad, can I introduce Dr. Blair Jacob Sandburg. He’s a psychiatrist.”

“A rather direct one,” William commented. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Dr. Sandburg. I would offer to shake hands, but I suspect that my son would find some ulterior motive in that, especially given that you two appear involved, so I shall simply express my pleasure in meeting you verbally.”

“Appear involved,” Jayne said softly with a snort, clearly amused by Jim’s father’s attempt to not comment on Jim’s new slyness.

“Dad, this is Jayne Cobb. He’s a better shot than I am.”

“Then you are truly exceptionally,” William said with a nod in Jayne’s direction.

“Gorram right,” Jayne agreed. Jim might have called it arrogance, only Jayne could back up his words with some mighty uncanny shooting.

William’s lips thinned, but he didn’t comment on Jayne’s colorful language. Instead, he turned back toward Jim, his hands carefully placed on top of his desk, palms down and fingers splayed in a display of surrender. “James, I have done everything I could to find you, but despite my considerable resources, you vanished. After Charles described the intrusive medical testing to which he had been subjected, I feared the worst.”

“You should have,” Jim said bluntly. His father swallowed.

“Okay, Jim, I know you have some anger about your childhood, and normally I am not one for repressing emotions, but maybe we can table that discussion for later,” Blair said softly.

“Jim has a right to some anger,” William commented, and there wasn’t a phrase that could have shocked Jim more.

“He… really? I mean, you aren’t denying the fact that you were like a total hwun dan?”

William flinched. “I thought psychiatrists were supposed to be more subtle.”

“Man, it is all about the truth. The truth is you were…” Blair whistled. Considering that Blair had just told Jim to shelve his aggression, the man wasn’t following his own advice.

“I thought I could raise sons strong enough to survive in the world. Instead, Charles is utterly dishonorable, Steven lives on my money, and the one son who took my lessons to become strong enough to force the world to bend to his will not only hates me, but apparently he’s a wanted fugitive. I think I can see the truth well enough to know that my… parenting choices… did more harm than good.” William turned his focus from Blair to Jim. “Despite my failings, I do love you, and I have tried to find you… to offer you help if I could.”

“Right, Dad,” Jim said without pretending to believe his father.

“You’re my son,” William said softly.

“You have two more to fall back on. I can’t believe that you’d risk your position to help me.”

William leaned back in his chair, his hands steepled in front of him. “Then why are you here?”

That was a good question. Jim looked to Blair since he couldn’t talk to his father without the anger seeping into every word… not that Blair was much better. Blair took a deep breath. “The group that took Jim wanted to activate a genetic abnormality he possesses. It allows him to see more, to hear more than normal humans. He’s not the only test subject they kidnapped. They took a number of brilliant young men and women to try and develop telepathic and telekinetic powers, and they had one project to try and create people who could see the future.”

William closed his eyes and bowed his head, and Blair fell silent. Jim reached out and pulled Blair closer, urging him to sit on the arm of the chair. Settling himself down on the arm, Blair rested his hand on Jim’s shoulder. Jim needed that touch right now. He felt like he was fifteen years old and he desperately needed his father, and he was afraid that, like back then, his father was about to turn on him.

William slowly shook his head. “I knew there was interest in developing the human genome, in seeking to fulfill human potential. During the war, there was talk of having genetic researchers focus on the untapped potential. But after the war, the talk died down. I thought they’d given up on the madness.”

“You knew?” Jim demanded.

William’s head jerked up. “No. No, I didn’t. I knew that ten years ago a group of scientists was looking for donations and pushing a story about helping humans reach the potential of the human genome. I thought they were talking about cellular level testing, not experimenting on human beings.”

“Well, guess what Dad, they decided to go with human testing. Tell me, did you give them money,” Jim demanded. The way his father’s face whitened told him everything he needed to know. Jim went to stand up, but Blair’s hand pressed him back into the seat.

“No one could have known what they were going to do,” Blair said firmly. “Hey, I worked for the soulless shen jing bing bastards because I didn’t know what they were doing until it was too late for me to get out.”

Jim gritted his teeth. He wanted to argue that it hadn’t been the same thing, but he knew if he did, Blair would use Jim’s words as an excuse to trot out all the reasons why Blair’s action were evil.

“You worked for them?” William looked from Jim to Blair and back. “You helped James get out. You know what they did.”

“Yeah,” Blair agreed, “and trust me, you do not want to know what they did.”

William closed his eyes tightly for a second, and Jim could taste the bitter scent of grief. He shook his head, almost convinced that his senses were playing tricks on him. Then William opened his eyes again and looked right at Blair. “What can I do to help? Any resources you have, they’re yours.”

Blair’s fingers tightened around Jim’s shoulder, although Jim didn’t understand the message. This wasn’t the father from Jim’s memory. He didn’t know this William Ellison, and he didn’t know how to talk to the man. After a second, Blair spoke up. “We actually aren’t sure what we need. We have access to another escaped subject from the Institute, a reader who has limited ability to see the future and some telepathy. She suggested that we needed to come to you, that you had some skill—something you’d tried to teach Jim a long time ago that could help us now.”

“Something I tried to teach James?” William frowned. “Certainly I tried to teach my boys self-sufficiency and success in business, but I know nothing about genetics.”

Jim leaned forward. “This isn’t about genetics, Dad. She sent us on a mission against Blue Sun. What we need help with is a lot bigger than what happened to me.”

“Blue Sun?” William’s voice faded to a whisper.

“Will you help?” Blair asked. Jim held his breath, honestly not sure what he expected. The father from his memories would have turned them out. He might have even called the authorities. This father who sat in front of him with his steepled fingers and gray hair smelled of grief, of fatigue. Jim didn’t know what he’d do.

Slowly, William nodded. “I don’t know how much help I can be, but I’ll do anything you need me to,” he said, his voice taking on a little more of that steel that Jim remembered.

“Awesome,” Blair said with a smile. Jim wasn’t sure if it was awesome since they still didn’t know what they were doing, but it certainly was one more piece of evidence that River had some sort of rational logic bouncing around in that brain of hers. Hell. She was right. His father would help.

Chapter 27

Mal stood back and watched the others. Jayne was wound tight enough to snap at any time, and considering that he had Vera on his hip, that weren’t a pleasant thought. Jim looked about as tense, but Blair was clinging to his arm like a limpet, so Mal figured that would keep him under control. William Ellison was the real unknown. After Jim’s description, Mal had expected a hard man, someone who had the hard look of a gambler or a slaver or some other sort who knew how to shred human dreams. Instead, he looked like a sad old man.

About every time Jim went looking off at something else, Mal could see William watching him with this lost expression Mal simply didn’t associate with the sort of hard man that would turn his sons against each other.

“Well, that’s it,” Blair concluded, leaning back away from the computer screen where William was watching the evidence they’d stolen scroll across the screen.

William looked around the room, and Mal returned his even gaze. The man would bleed as easy as anyone else, so Mal wasn’t much impressed.

He was also wondering exactly when his life had turned so strange that he’d be standing in the middle of a mansion on a gorram core planet with Captain Jimmy, Jimmy’s sly lover and a sly Jayne Cobb. It was enough to make a man wonder if he hadn’t gotten hit in the head once too often and started hallucinating.

“So Blue Sun is running the government.” William leaned back and ran his fingers through his hair.

“You don’t sound surprised,” Jim said.

“I can’t say I am. I always suspected that they had a lot of power given their ability to fund elections, but this level of unadulterated control is unexpected.” The way William said that made it almost sound like he was admiring the bastards. Mal scratched his stomach and wondered just how crazy River might be for sending them here. He also wondered if Jim was bothering to use any of his senses to keep an eye on his father. It didn’t exactly take a genius to see the man was not handling this reunion well. Zoe had warned him that people were unreasonable when it came to family.

“So,” Jayne spoke up, “do we go broadcasting that gou shi the way we did with the Miranda video?”

William’s eyes went large. “You were responsible for broadcasting the Miranda video?”

“Yep,” Mal answered for him. He might trust Jayne with their lives, but when the man talked too much, he inevitably said something real stupid. “We took down the hwun dan who ran that mess,” Mal said proudly.

“What an utter waste,” William said, disgust in his voice. “A total, unmitigated, foolish waste.” Mal could feel his spine stiffen in offense. They’d paid in blood to make sure the government never tried that again, and this man had no right to go casting aspersions, not unless he wanted to eat those aspersion along with a fist.

“Dad,” Jim said with aggravated tone.

“Power that is squandered loses its effect. I taught you that James,” William said, and rather than looking apologetic, he crossed his arms and glared at his son.

“Some of us aren’t manipulative bastards,” Jim took a step forward, and then Blair was out of his seat, pressing himself to Jim’s chest. For a little sly trick, he was good at keeping Jim in hand.

“If you can’t manipulate circumstances well enough to protect yourself, you are a victim, James. A victim.”

“Then maybe I’m a victim, Dad, but at least I’m not pulling this shit,” Jim said, waving a hand toward the computer. Mal could see Blair pushing to keep Jim back from his father, and Jayne shifted nervously. Mal caught Jayne’s eye and gave a jerk of his head to order Jayne to stand down before he shot someone.

William stepped back, his hands up. “I never wanted you to be the sort of man who would do this.”

“Really?” Jim demanded. “It seems like that’s exactly what you wanted. Hell, look at Charlie. You got a manipulative son-of-bitch with that one, and that’s who you always held up as the perfect example of a Womak-Ellison.”

“I did—” William stopped, pressing his lips together as he cut himself off.

“Okay, we all have strong feelings here,” Blair soothed them both, sounding a whole lot like Inara. “We all need to step back and seriously think about not pissing each other off to the point that we feel the need to kill each other.”

William frowned, but he didn’t disagree with that assessment. With a sigh, he retreated to the far side of the room and sat on a leather couch bigger than Mal’s whole quarters. “I recognize that I encouraged a certain level of deceit in Charles that is not healthy.”

Jim and Jayne both snorted. Mal figured anyone Lieutenant Charlie ran across knew the man had a certain level of deceit.

“Be that as it may, I never favored deceit in and of itself, only the ability to employ it when necessary.”

“Like when it benefits you?” Jim asked sarcastically.

Blair was muttering now, his mouth moving even though Mal couldn’t catch any of the words.

“Like when it prevents one from being hunted like an animal,” William said. “Machiavelli put it best. Humanity is by nature deceitful, and the honest man will be taken advantage of by the dishonest. To protect oneself, one must live in the reality rather than the imagined world, James. You were entirely too willing to live in an imagined world, and I worried that you wouldn’t be able to take care of yourself.”

“Well then, this must be a real affirmation of your whole belief system,” Jim snapped and then the two men glared at each other. Mal reckoned he’d never been quite so uncomfortable all his life as he was getting caught between these two. Well, maybe when he woke up and found out he’d accidentally married Saffron before figuring out she was just using him. That had been mighty uncomfortable. Considering the number of times women had made him feel like that, it was surprising he hadn’t decided to take up with being sly even earlier.

“No, this isn’t,” William whispered. He closed his eyes and for a moment, he seemed to sag. However, the moment passed and he visibly pulled himself back together. “You clearly have the skills to take care of yourself, but this is… Blue Sun is an enemy grown far too large for anyone to confront alone.” William looked over at Mal. “And if I offended your sense of strategy, I apologize. However,” he said, turning back to Jim, “as Machiavelli says, a man will sooner forgive the murder of his father than the seizure of his property. Humanity lives in fear of loss, and only through manipulating that fear can a ruler lead without fear of being overturned.”

“Huh?” Jayne asked.

William looked over and sighed. “If I threaten to shoot you, you have something to fear. If I actually do it, I’ve done the worst thing I could and you have nothing more to fear.”

Mal cringed at that particularly unfortunate metaphor, and Jayne brought Vera up to train it right at William’s head. Williams’ eyes went comically large.

“Don’t, Jayne,” Mal ordered before this could get out of hand.

“He threatened to shoot me,” Jayne said in a much put-upon sort of voice.

“It was an example. He ain’t going to shoot anyone,” Mal said firmly. Hopefully he was even telling the truth. Mal noted that Jim’s hand twitched toward his sidearm. The man might not like his father much, but he’d kill in defense of him. Luckily, Jayne was already lowering Vera so she pointed toward the floor.

“I ain’t liking his kind of metaphor,” he complained.

“Man, the testosterone in this room could choke an elephant,” Blair muttered loud enough to make sure everyone could hear. “Jayne, he means that if you guys had threatened to reveal the Miranda plot, the government would have done anything you asked. However, because you did reveal it, they didn’t have anything else to fear.”

“People went to prison over that,” Mal pointed out. He felt pretty damn proud of that.

“Probably not the right people,” William said. “The right people will have studied Machiavelli and Nietzsche and Nash, and they will have ensured that someone insulated them from any public disclosure. They are, no doubt, safe. However, if you had only threatened to expose them, they would have worried about a potential weakness in their defenses, they would have acted as if they were vulnerable, a state which would have given you more room to operate.”

“Or more like they would have tracked us down and gutted us,” Mal said. This whole conversation was souring his stomach something fierce. He remembered the pain and the desperation as he’d fought to get that message out. He remembered the bone deep terror that there wouldn’t be any of his crew—his family—left after he got done. Having this man dismiss all that as tactical error was making him feel about as homicidal as Jayne on a bad day, and there wasn’t a soul in the ‘verse who wanted to deal with Jayne on a bad day.

“If they believed they could neutralize you, yes. They would have. However, if they feared you….” William let his voice trail off.

“Oh man, that’s it,” Blair said, his voice full of wonder. “River wanted us to find the thing that Jim had learned so long ago that he’d let it rot and had forgotten it. Jim learned to manipulate others, but he rejected that way of life. True, he rejected it because it’s immoral and totally bad for the karma in a soul-sucking sort of way, no offense Mr. Ellison,” Blair offered with a smile that didn’t match his words. William failed to look placated. “But the lesson is manipulation. River sent us down here precisely because she didn’t want us to do the same thing with this data as you guys did with the Miranda footage.”

“You think River wants my father to handle this?”

“Me?” William asked.

“Him?” Mal and Jayne demanded at the same time. All of them looked around at each other in shock, all of them except Blair who rolled his eyes.

“Man, what do you think she meant when she talked about ruts covered over in leaves? She called us plough horses in the dressage ring, and if we’re the plough horses, William Ellison is definitely the dressage horse. So, if we want to win a dressage competition, we have to put a dressage horse on the line.”

William frowned. “I’m sorry, but is any of that supposed to make sense?”

“Sadly, it does,” Jim said with a sigh. “I don’t like it, but it makes sense. However,” he said, holding up a finger when Blair looked like he might start bouncing, “we need River to confirm it. Right, Captain?” Jim looked over, and despite Mal’s sour stomach, he had to agree that it sounded like the sort of logic River would use.

“I can take Blair up to talk with her seeing as how he’s about the only one of us that can make heads or tails out of her rambling,” Mal offered.

“Oh yeah, I need to check to see if Mr. Ellison is the horse that can eat the elephant in the room. Totally.”

Mal watched as William looked increasingly concerned. Standing up, he moved closer to Mal, surprisingly enough, but then Blair was plastered to Jim’s side, and William seemed to have a few concerns when it came to Blair.

When William came close enough, he whispered to Mal. “Is that young man quite sane?”

“Dad!” Jim said loudly.

“It was a simple question, James.”

“Don’t ask it again.” Jim crossed his arms and clenched his jaw.

“He’s totally questioning my sanity, isn’t he?” Blair asked, and oddly, he had a huge smile on his face. “No problem. Hey, I get that all the time.”

Jayne shifted. “Only ‘cause you act like a fengzi who can’t quite figure out how to hide it from the regular folk,” he offered, and sadly, that sounded like his sincere tone, like he was honestly trying to help.

“Might be you shouldn’t give others advice,” Mal suggested. “Try to keep them from killing each other until we get back,” Mal said, pointing from Jim to William. “Sandburg, let’s go. The sooner you have that talk, the sooner we can get off his gorram planet.”

“Oh, um, aren’t you coming?” Blair looked at Jim in clear concern.

“Go on, Chief. I’ll be here when you get back.” Jim looked over at his father, and Mal didn’t need any fancy degree in psychiatry to see that Jim was threatening to take his father apart if the man tried anything. William simply headed back to the couch he’d earlier left.

“Get the lead out, Sandburg,” Mal said as he started for the door. This whole place was giving him a sour stomach. He should make Zoe bring Sandburg back down. She was better at not shooting people who annoyed her. Mal always did have trouble with that.

“Play nice,” Blair ordered over his shoulder as he followed. “They are totally going to emotionally slaughter each other,” he said softly as he trotted at Mal’s side.

“Ain’t that what families are supposed to do?” Mal asked.

“You need therapy. I mean… seriously… huge, fucking amounts of therapy. You might want to look into that,” Blair offered sweetly.

Mal snorted and just walked a little faster, enjoying the fact that Blair and his short legs had to scramble to keep up.

Chapter 28

Jim considered his father, not sure what to say to the man now that Blair was gone. Of all the people in the universe to entrust with the power to blackmail the whole gorram ‘verse, his father would have been on the bottom of Jim’s list. He couldn’t believe River wanted this. However, questioning his father meant questioning River and Blair, two people Jim did put his faith in.

“Perhaps we could talk,” William said with a look toward Jayne.

Jim glanced over and considered the possibility this was a trap. If his father wanted to get the drop on him, getting Jayne out of the way would be a good step one. But if this was going to go south, Jim would rather have it happen when Blair was safely off planet. “Jayne, you interested in some food?” Jim asked.

“Ain’t looking to eat any of that little fussy gos-se Inara’s trying to pass off as food all the time,” he said, holding his fingers out to show something small. Unless Jim missed his guess, Inara had tried to introduce Jayne to the amuse-bouche.

“Dad always has good old fashioned cakes and cookies around. Sally runs the kitchen. I’ll introduce you,” Jim said.

“James,” his father interrupted him. Jim looked over, prepared for the verbal battle to start, but his father looked too tired to even start a fight. “Sally will recognize that you’re not Charles in a split second. I’ll show him the kitchens. You… make yourself at home,” he finished.

At home. In the study. In his entire life, Jim had never been allowed to touch one book, one box, or one corner of anything in the study. When he had been called in as a child, his job was to stand with his hands behind his back and offer a respectful “Yes, sir” to everything his father said. There wasn’t a place in the ‘verse he felt less at home. However, his father gave Jayne a tight smile and headed out with a quick “Follow me.”

That left Jim alone. He ran a finger along the desk, feeling the grain of the wood roll under his finger. This wasn’t plastic, but a real living tree that had been chopped down to create a desk. The obvious show of wealth was something Jim couldn’t understand anymore. Wandering over to the shelf behind the desk, Jim could see the books with covers worn from fingers rubbing over the corners. These were the ones his father valued most, even though they didn’t have the gold edging that Jim could see on other bookshelves. Sitting in his father’s chair, he pulled one out. It was old, and Jim carefully opened it to find a family lineage. Turning the brittle pages, Jim read back into time, back to the generational ships that had brought people to this corner of the ‘verse. Closing it carefully, Jim slid it back into place on the shelf.

As he ran his finger over the spines of these well-loved volumes, Jim let his fingers linger over the ones his father handled most. They were slicked with the oils from hands. When he found a particularly slick back, Jim pulled it out. Machiavelli. Appropriate. Jim pushed that back into place without another glance. Again, he let his fingers explore the shelf, this time the lowest level, until he found a book slick with use. Pulling it out, Jim opened it, his breath catching in his chest as he saw himself staring up from the page. It was a report on his arrests of several smugglers working out of Whitefall. He turned the page and found a letter of congratulations on his son’s promotion, only this time it was Charlie’s promotion to captain. Obviously he’d been busted back a rank or two along the way. The next page showed Jim escorting a well-dressed man in handcuffs through the doors of the Ariel main jail. He’d trafficked in underage girls, and Jim remembered how Simon had bought him drinks after that bust.

Another turned page and Jim was into the war… pictures of Jim with his unit, all of them in purple uniforms, all of them so foolishly sure they were doing the right thing. Jim quickly closed the book.

“I was quite proud of all your achievements.”

Jim looked up at his father. “If you think this changes anything….” Jim stood up and stared down at the book. Why the hell would his father keep these kinds of clippings.

“I don’t. I know I made my mistakes, Jim. I thought I was teaching you to take care of yourself.”

Jim snorted and moved to the window. It was too early for Mal and Blair to be back, but he could stand here and watch for them until they did return.

“Are you and Dr. Sandburg in a committed relationship?” his father asked.

Jim looked over. “Are you ashamed of having a sly son?” he demanded.

His father drew himself up. “No. I am less than thrilled with your choice, but then I suppose given your hatred for me, it’s reasonable that you would choose such a plain-spoken man. Unartful even.”

Jim could feel anger wrapping around his guts. “He’s a good man.”

His father moved farther into the room. “I don’t doubt that. You’re a good man, so I can’t imagine you choosing anyone who wasn’t.”

“Right,” Jim said sarcastically, “because you have so much respect for me.”

“I suppose I deserve some scorn.” His father had such a martyred tone, that Jim had to grit his teeth to keep from exploding. His father did deserve scorn, so to say it in that tone of voice was insult on injury. “What did I do that was so very bad, though. I mean, other than misunderstanding the conflict between you and your brother and pushing you too hard, what did I….”

Jim whirled around. “You turned us against each other, Dad,” Jim snapped. “No matter what I did, it was never as good as Charlie. Guess what, Dad? Charlie cheated.”

Drawing himself up a little straighter, his father said, “I do know that now.”

“Now. Great.” Jim threw his hands up in the air. This shouldn’t matter to him. It absolutely shouldn’t matter. So why did he want to punch something hard enough to break it… preferable his father’s face.

“Yes, now. I know that I’m a good thirty years too late to make up for my basic inability to understand Charles. He is a petty man who will throw away human decency and long-term advantage in order to get himself what he wants in the short term. He’s a bad seed. I see that now.”

“Great, Dad.” Jim leaned against the window sill, suddenly too tired to be angry anymore.

“So,” his father continued, “other than allowing Charles to manipulate me, how am I such a horrible father? I wanted the best for you. I pushed you because I knew you had it in you to be great.”

A rough laugh slipped out. This was the most surreal conversation Jim even had, and he’d had some strange ones. He lived with Blair, for the love of God. That led to odd conversations. “You shot my dog, Dad. The only thing in this whole house that was truly mine, and you shot it.”

He’d been an old stray Jim had picked up at school, and Jim had been terrified that his father would make him get rid of it, but somehow he’d caught his father in a rare good mood and he’d been given permission to keep the scruffy little thing. Jim always suspected Sally had been involved in making his father let him keep Scraps. And then, once Jim had really grown to love it, his father had simply shot him. Jim had seen men die in battle. He’d lost friends. It was utterly ridiculous that even now he could feel this all-consuming grief as he remembered the gray fur streaked with dull red blood.

“Oh for… He was sick.” His father snapped the words out, and Jim didn’t bother turning around to see the look of utter frustration on his father’s face. He’d seen it every time he’d tried to bring the subject up. “You don’t leave an animal to suffer, James. I’ve had that conversation with you entirely too many times.”

“Do you remember Eric Sliverman?” Jim asked softly. His father didn’t answer, but the old man remembered everything, so he probably did. “His parents had just bought him a scanner, and when Charlie told him my dog was dead, he came over. There weren’t any tumors.”

The silence was its own sort of answer, but after painful, long minutes, his father finally asked, “How can you be sure?”

“I’m sure,” Jim said firmly as he turned around to see how his father would explain this. He was surprised at the look of weariness of his father’s face. His father ran his fingers through his white hair and sighed.

“I never wanted you to find out about that dog.”

Leaving the window, Jim crossed over to the desk, leaning over it and pinning his father with a harsh glare, the sort that had once intimidated criminals into confessing. “What?”

His father sighed again. “Your brother got frustrated because the dog chewed through one of his games. He hit the dog hard enough that the animal was suffering.”

Jim reared back. “Charlie?” That was the sort of thing Charlie would have bragged about in a , ‘hey, I killed your dog and got away with it’ sort of way.

“No, Stevie,” his father said, his voice whisper-soft.

Well, cao. His father would do or say anything to avoid responsibility. Jim didn’t know why River wanted his father involved, but the man clearly couldn’t be trusted. “He couldn’t have been more than nine or ten. Nice try, Dad, but that’s not a believable story.”

William sighed. “I suspect Charlie either encouraged him or helped, but as much as I wanted you three to learn healthy competition and develop independence, I didn’t want you to hate Stevie the way you hated Charles.”

“Healthy competition? That’s what you called it?”

“I called it survival. The world isn’t kind, and I taught you to survive. You learned that from me.” His father leaned forward, poking himself in the chest with his thumb.

“So I should thank you for turning my family against me?”

That earned another aggravated look from his father. “You’re being melodramatic. You’ve always been melodramatic.”

“Yeah, that’s me, Dad. I’m a fugitive from the Alliance that I dedicated my life to, I’ve been tortured, had limbs frozen, electrocuted, beaten, operated on, imprisoned. I’ve been to war to defend a government that I now find out is a lie, a government that I killed friends to protect. I led men into battle and watched them die in my arms. I’ve seen raped children huddled in cages and then had to stand by while the traffickers brought their way out of a legal system that didn’t care about them, and through all that, I’ve tried to not lose myself to an anger that makes me want to burn the entire gorram ‘verse to the ground and piss on its ashes. But that’s probably more of my melodrama,” Jim snarled. His father had slowly lost most of his color throughout Jim’s rant, but Jim didn’t have time for his father’s precious sensibilities. “Fuck you, Dad. Fuck you.”

Turning around, Jim marched out of the room and toward the kitchen. If his father was going to call the authorities, Jim couldn’t even care right now. He was too angry to care about anything other than getting a little space before he murdered the man in cold blood.

By the time Jim slammed through the kitchen doors, Jim was starting to feel the first tendrils of shame at having lost his temper. Jayne sat at the counter eating what looked like an entire turkey. When Jim came in, he dropped his food, his weapon coming up. “Trouble?” he asked.

“Only my father,” Jim snapped.

With a grunt, Jayne lowered his weapon and picked up his turkey drumstick again. “He ain’t nothing. You should see my hwun dan of a stepfather. If the man didn’t make my Ma and Maddie so happy, I’d gut him and leave the entrails out for the coyotes. Cao, if I had to be around him even this long, I probably would gut him despite it.”

Jim wasn’t sure he believed that, but he moved so the pantry was to his back and he had a good view of all exits before he grabbed a chunk of turkey breast. It meant he was standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Jayne who had chosen the same bit of counter for the same reason.

“Every once in a while, Blair waxes poetic about fathers and wishes his mother would give him a name so he could have some father-son moment with the man.”

Jayne grunted. “Don’t know what that’s got to do with poetry, but I figure most men quit their fathers about the same time they stop trying to be them.”

For a stupid man, sometimes Jayne did make sense. With nothing more to add to that conversation, Jim focused on eating food even though his stomach still churned with emotion.

Chapter 29

Jim stood right behind his father as Mal and Blair crossed the pasture. Blair had on a big smile, and he waved enthusiastically.

“He is a rather energetic sort,” his father offered in the most mild tone ever.

“Gorram hyper,” Jayne agreed after a few awkward seconds of Jim not responding. “But he ain’t half bad to look at.”

Jim leaned around his father to glare at Jayne.

“What? Being that I’m sly now, I get to notice other men, and he’s real pretty.” Jayne bristled, and then he frowned, his expression turning less certain.

“If Mal catches you saying that, you and Blair are both going to be dead,” Jim warned.

Jayne gave one of his big horse snorts. “Don’t need anyone to tell me that. Mal’s a possessive bastard.” And yet, despite the words, Jayne had a very satisfied expression on his face. Jim’s father just looked more confused than ever.

Blair started trotting, and Jim stepped forward to meet him. The second Blair got close, he slipped into his place at Jim’s side, slipping an arm around his waist. “Oh man, River is so relieved that we finally managed to get our shit together and figure out the whole plan. She was twirling. She tried to get on the shuttle only Captain Crankypants over there wouldn’t let her on.”

“Captain Crankypants?” Jim asked, looking up at Mal.

“Kaylee was calling him Captain Tightpants, but there is not a force in the ‘verse that can make me comment on his tight pants.” Blair gave Mal an overly sweet smile before he turned to William. “So, River seems to think that you know how to handle this, so just tell us what we can do to help.”

It took Jim’s father several seconds and a couple of coughs to get his voice engaged. “I need to make copies, secure them, make contact with a number of allies before dropping a few hints that lets them know that I’m a player in the game.” He cleared his throat. “Quite frankly, while they will clearly recognize me as an enemy, it could be quite advantageous to confuse the matter somewhat—to imply that I had this information despite you rather than working in concert with you.”

“The enemy of my enemy….” Jim muttered.

“Is probably still my enemy, but I’ll work with him as long as it works out to my benefit,” his father finished for him with a small smile. As a child, Jim had grown so tired of hearing that, but here he was risking his life and freedom—Blair’s life and freedom—on the theory.

“Karma. That’s all I’m saying,” Blair offered. “Karma.”

“Some of us don’t believe in reincarnation,” William pointed out.

“Which so don’t make it less true,” Blair countered.

“I don’t care,” Mal interrupted. “Unless someone’s shooting me dead in the next five minutes, reincarnation ain’t a topic I need to do much thinking on. However, I got a crew I have to look out for, so you need to lay out how this works so that if I don’t like your plan I can shoot you and make my own.” Mal rested his hand on the butt of his gun and looked at William. Jim felt a flare of anxiety as the two men faced off. They were both gorram stubborn, and if one of them decided to dig his feet in, this could still get ugly.

“I plan to imply that my son hired you, which would imply that you and your crew are insignificant players, little more than hired help,” William offered. Mal narrowed his eyes, but he didn’t seem to notice the captain’s aggravation. “Meanwhile, I will suggest that Jim and Blair are guests here until such time as I decide they are safe to send on their way.”

Jim tightened his hand on Blair’s shoulder. This might be a prettier prison than he’d been in before, but he certainly didn’t want to be trapped in it.

“Okay,” Blair said slowly. “Am I the only one who thinks it might be a bad idea for you and Jim to be on the same planet?”

Jayne snorted.

“Blair,” William said slowly, as though feeling his way through the words, “if they believe you acted with Captain Reynolds, then everyone on that crew will be at risk as these people attempt to determine if any of them have the power to release this information. If the Serenity leaves and I am the only one negotiating—”

“Then Blair and I are the only ones in danger because we’re the only other ones who’ve seen the information,” Jim finished. He hated the plan, but it was solid logic. It minimized their exposure and allowed Mal to get the civilians to safety. Jim looked down at Blair, desperate to hold onto his lover and equally desperate to have Mal take him to safety.

“Forget it,” Blair said before Jim could comment. “They already know I tanked my entire career and put my medical license on the firing line for you, so they’re going to know that I’m in this with you. I’m not hired help.” For emphasis, Blair planted an elbow in Jim’s stomach.

“I didn’t say anything,” Jim defended himself.

“You were thinking it so loud even I could hear it and I ain’t exactly one for picking up on subtle,” Jayne pointed out. Jim glared at him.

“Jayne, secure the shuttle,” Mal ordered, and Jayne headed across the field, that Callahan fullbore autolock held at the ready. “Ellison, can we talk?” Mal asked, jerking his head back toward the shuttle. Jim nodded. If he took Blair, they could both get on the shuttle and run for it, leaving his father to clean up the mess, but that would put everyone on the Serenity at risk—Kaylee and Simon Tam and River. They didn’t deserve that.

“Chief, wait here,” Jim said, letting his partner go and giving his father one hard look that he hoped the old man understood. If anything happened to Blair, if his father so much as upset him or ruffled his hair, Jim was going to prove that he could be just as much of a hwun dan as Charlie ever had been. Threat delivered, Jim followed Mal to a tree a good fifty yards out. It was close enough that Jim could still hear his father and Blair, but far enough that they wouldn’t be able to overhear his conversation with Mal. Jim looked over and Blair was shifting nervously from foot to foot.

“This plan work for you?” Mal asked straight up.

Jim thought about that. “I’m not fond of staying here with my father.”

“Ain’t surprised to hear that. You want I should take Blair? Jayne can be mighty persuasive when people need getting dragged out of some place kicking and screaming.” Mal frowned. “Except the one time I ordered him to do that with River. That didn’t end so pretty.”

“You sent Jayne after River? And he went?” Jim knew that Jayne was about as loyal as an old dog, but he never thought the man would go on a suicide mission. “And he lived?”

Mal rolled his eyes. “River wasn’t actually trying to kill him. She just wasn’t fond of being restrained and removed. However, Blair wouldn’t stand a chance against him, and you know it.”

Jim looked at his partner. “I don’t know. He’s a mean little shit when you rile him.”

“That don’t surprise me.”

Jim sighed. “But he’s right. They know we’re together, so if I send him off with you, they’re going to assume I trust you enough to protect my lover.”

“Can’t have that,” Mal commented.

“Not if we want to keep Kaylee and her man clear of this,” Jim said. “You and I are soldiers. Sooner or later we’ll probably die on the end of some gun, but the civilians don’t deserve to be in the middle.”

Mal’s eyes scanned the house and the field where Jayne stood in the open door of the shuttle. “They don’t deserve it, but it seems like they end up there anyway.” Mal said, his voice mild, but his gaze settled on Blair and William.

“Yeah, they do,” Jim agreed. He didn’t consider his father a civilian because the man knew how to fight, even if it wasn’t with a gun, and Blair would argue that he put himself in the fight by taking the job at the Institute. It was too late to keep either of them out of this fight. “They really do,” he agreed sadly.

Mal nodded, and then he turned toward the shuttle. “Be seeing you around, Ellison,” he called over his shoulder. Jayne watched, and Jim turned back toward the house. His father might say they were making a pretense at being unwilling guests, but as far as Jim was concerned, it wasn’t pretense. He would give about anything to be on that shuttle with Mal. He just wouldn’t give up the chance that he could buy their way out of this mess.

Feeling a little like a man walking to the gallows, Jim headed back up to the house.

“They’re leaving?” Blair asked.

Jim nodded. “Hopefully these people will ignore them.”

“If this works, they will,” his father promised, but Jim had learned that his father’s promises meant very little. He just looked at the man.

Blair moved back to Jim’s side. “You two were fighting, weren’t you?”

“It doesn’t take a degree in psychiatry to see that, Einstein.”

“James,” his father said in an exasperated tone as though Jim had the audacity to use the wrong fork during a formal dinner.

“Whoa, hey,” Blair jumped in. “No offense here because River says we can trust you and I have shitloads of respect for River’s opinion, but you do not get to set the rules for the relationship I share with Jim. Sarcasm is a normal part of our communication, and as long as we understand that the frustration is for the world and not each other, that is not an unhealthy thing. True, it’s not exactly recommended by most forms of couples therapy, but hey, we’re fine.” Blair tightened his arm around Jim, leaning in him, and Jim could feel some of his tension ease. “Now you and Jim is another story.” Blair said with an exaggerated eye roll as he pointed from Jim to his father.

“Don’t start,” Jim warned. If they were going to be stuck here, Jim did not want the entire visit to be one long fight, and once Blair got his claws into something, he was the most persistent little shit in history. He’d never drop if.

“What?” Blair blinked up with innocent blue eyes—yeah, like that worked. Jim just glared. “Hey, maybe I just want William to admit that he was so totally off-base that you have a right to be angry.” Blair pointed out.

Surprisingly, it was William who answered. “Do you think I don’t know that?” he asked.

“I suspect you totally know it. I also suspect you spend way more time making excuses than just letting Jim be mad.”

Jim could see his father pull himself up straight. His eyes dilated with emotion. “Anger doesn’t solve anything,” he informed Blair stiffly. If Jim liked his father better, he would have warned him that no one won these kinds of fights with Blair.

“Oh man, you are so totally wrong there,” Blair said with a chuckle. “If we don’t feel our emotions, we can’t get through them. Trust me, as a professional, I am saying that Jim has every right to be angry with you. I may understand that you acted out of ignorance, but as the adult in this house, you should have figured out that Charles was borderline Schizoid Personality Disorder without his twin brother having to explain it, especially since children and adolescents do not have that kind of cognitive distance from their immediate family.”

“He… what?” William actually looked confused.

“Come on. Charlie has never had a link to anyone romantically, he has totally detached from his family unless he wants something, he has poor interpersonal relationships at best and has been demoted several times, and he does not have the sort of affective response you expect from someone during times of stress. Total Schizoid Personality Disorder. He is not even functional in the traditional sense of the word.”

“Do you know him?” Jim demanded. It seemed that Blair should have mentioned that before now.

Blair snorted. “No way. However, when the Institute discussed the value of having a twin as a control group, a chance to torture two people with the same genetic code and see how having the Sentinel gene activated or non-activated affected the response to stimuli, his file came across my desk. I told them that he clearly had mental health issues that precluded using him as a control group for anything. His file looks like a case study in unhealthy. Seriously.” Blair shuddered before poking a finger toward William. “As his father, you should have seen that, so Jim gets to be angry with you. No excuses.”

William blinked several times. “I’m not trying to offer up an excuse.”

“So you’re willing to straight up say that you screwed this up?”

“Didn’t I just say that?” William looked at Jim for some sort of confirmation, but Jim didn’t comment. He was on Blair’s side in this.

“I don’t know,” Blair said with a casual shrug. “I wasn’t listening to you. Try saying it again.”

“Fine. I badly misjudged the entire situation. I was a horrible father, but—”

“Ah! No but,” Blair said loudly. Jim had to work to avoid smirking at the sight of his lover reading his father the riot act. This might even be worth it. “Leave it right there. You’re admitting that you’re a horrible father, right?”

With a sigh, William admitted, “Yes.”

“Good. See, Jim, people can change.” Blair patted Jim on the arm. “Now you need to admit that you have this totally unrealistic expectation. I mean, he thought being a good father meant making money, which is clearly the stupidest plan in the ‘verse; however, it was an attempt to do the right thing. He has no psychological training, he was totally caught up in his work, and face it, he was blind when it came to Charlie’s bullshit. So admit that he’s an idiot and not evil.”

Jim’s mouth dropped open as his lover turned on him. It took Blair poking him in the stomach to make him answer. “I never said he was evil.”

“Really? Man, are you sure of that?”

“Yes,” Jim said, his voice dark with unspoken threats.

“So you’re willing to admit right now that your father isn’t evil, he didn’t try to ruin your life or drive you out of the home? You’re willing to admit that he is a man who loves you and is simply an idiot who screwed up and was a horrible father?”

“I—” Jim stopped he didn’t want to admit that. He realized he was actually fond of hating his father.

Blair’s expression grew soft, and his father looked away. “Jim,” Blair pleaded, “come on. I know you hold a grudge, but enough is more than enough.”

Realizing that he either gave in now or gave in after days of nagging, Jim sighed. “Fine, I know that he fucked up without having any of it come from malice.”

Blair smiled at him, and that almost made up for the little ball of resentment in Jim’s stomach. “Good. So we’re good?” Blair asked, looking from Jim to William.

“You think we’re good now?” William asked.

Blair snorted. “Not even. I could have therapy with you two for a year and not scratch the surface, but if you can admit that much, you’ll get through the rest on your own eventually. Just try to do it before one of you dies, okay? Karma’s a real bitch when you refuse to emotionally engage. She just makes you live the same shitty life over and over and over until you finally get your head out of your ass, and I do not plan on having this same conversation with you two five hundred years from now. Got it?” Blair pinned each of them with a sharp look, and then he smiled and wandered off into the house.

William looked over at Jim. “Well, he’s quite interesting.”

“You don’t know the half of it, Dad,” Jim said. If nothing else, Blair would give his father incentive to get this plan of his underway so they could leave. Very few people had the constitution to handle long term exposure to Dr. Blair Sandburg.

Chapter 30

William laughed. “Oh my heavens. And how did Naomi react to that?” he asked as he poured more lemonade into Blair’s glass.

“She was all fluttering hands and kept telling everyone that she meant to do it,” Blair laughed. Jim sipped at his own drink, still not quite sure how to handle Blair and his father’s ability to bond. It certainly made it harder to hate his father, and he suspected that was the point. He couldn’t even hold it against these two that they were manipulating him because he did know they were both acting out of love. Hopefully with Blair around to share his bluntness with frightening regularity, they could even avoid repeating the mistakes of their past.

“Mr. Ellison, your visitors have arrived,” a security staff member announced as he stood in the door to the sunroom.

“Show them in,” William said cheerfully, but Jim stood up.

“Dad, we should meet them out there.”

His father frowned and looked from Jim to Blair and back again, clearly not wanting to go along with that plan.

Blair settled the matter by standing up. “As much as I have loved getting to see naked baby pictures of Jim, it really is time for us to go.”

The flash of grief on his father’s face didn’t surprise Jim as much as it would have three weeks earlier. The cold father Jim remembered didn’t exist anymore, and Jim couldn’t help but feel that the sad man his father had become didn’t deserve hatred. Besides, his father had managed to manipulate an entire government into dropping all charges against Jim and Blair and paying Jim’s back pay. The fact that he’d gotten Jim’s Alliance rank was less welcome, but Jim could understand that their enemies needed some proof that his father had him under control. The money and the orders that came with Jim’s job as a peace officer would make it easier to believe that William was pulling the strings.

“We’ll be back, Dad,” Jim promised. His guts didn’t even knot up at the thought of keeping that promise.

His father slowly turned his lemonade glass. “Yes, you have to be now, don’t you? Otherwise you’ll make it very difficult to convince them that you aren’t a threat.”

“Well then, there’s more than one reason to come back,” Jim said. His father looked up at him quickly. “Within a month we’ll be back for a visit. That’s not so long.”

“No. I suppose it’s not. I could—”

“Stay,” Jim said. His father was still a part of his life that didn’t quite match with the man he was as a fugitive or as a cop. He preferred to keep the two parts of his life separate. “We don’t need escorting out as though we’re guests.”

For a second, Jim thought his father would ignore him, but then he nodded. “Fair enough. I’ll see you soon, though.” While his father clearly hadn’t meant it as an order, Jim could still here the steel in the words. That was fair. His father was on the firing line, and if Jim didn’t follow his lead, they could still all end up dead.

“Soon, Dad,” Jim promised, and then he turned to head out to where the Serenity’s shuttle had been given clearance to land. “You’re dismissed,” Jim snapped at the guard who tried to follow them, and the man quickly turned and headed the other way.

“Man, some of your dad’s manipulation is rubbing off on you,” Blair muttered. “We don’t need escorting out as though we’re guests.” Blair gave a huff of laughter. “You just don’t want him around Mal and Zoe. Face it, you are a snob about not being a snob, and you don’t want any more reminders of the fact that you were raised with a platinum and diamond spoon in your mouth, especially where other people might see them.”

“Keep it up, Chief,” Jim warned. He really didn’t feel that way. He didn’t. Jim frowned as he realized that Blair had pretty much nailed exactly how he felt. Shit. “You’re a pain in the ass, Sandburg.”

“Hell yes, I am,” Blair quickly agreed. They turned the corner, and there was the shuttle squatting in the middle of the field. Mal and Jayne were standing near the nose while Kaylee stood with Simon’s arms around her, hands over her mouth as she looked around with undisguised awe. Jim should have met them at the shipyards. Maybe Blair could read minds because he chuckled again.

“Hi, guys!” he yelled, waving at them. Zoe appeared at the top of the shuttle’s ramp, and she raised her hand in greeting. Kaylee waved wildly, and others turned to watch them walk up.

“Someone call for a ride?” Kaylee asked in a sing-song tone as soon as they were close enough.

“Oh hell yes!” Blair agreed. “Man, I love the food in this place, but I feel like I can’t scratch without having to apologize.”

Jayne frowned. “Ain’t no one who can make me feel bad about scratching.” As proof, Jayne reached down and scratched his crotch.

“Oh good lord,” Simon muttered as he looked off the other direction, and Jim realized that this felt more familiar than his childhood home, despite the fact that they hadn’t spent all that much time on the Serenity.

“Well for one, I’m glad to see you two didn’t get yourselves killed,” Zoe said brightly. “Especially if you’re paying. We could use some steady work.” She gave Mal a look, but the captain was busy not looking back at her.

“Pay?” Blair laughed. “No way. Man, I am broke on broke. Even if I have my medical license back, I will not be practicing. People on the frontier don’t care much for therapy and people in the core are a little prejudiced against my brand of truth. They prefer truths that match their biased, stuck-up, aggravating world views.”

“I think she means me, Chief,” Jim pointed out. His father hadn’t wanted Jim to go back to wandering the frontier alone the way he had before the war. Jim figured now that he had Blair along, they needed someplace steady to hang their hat and someplace mobile enough to land him in the center of trouble where people needed an honest cop. The Serenity fit that bill.

Blair blinked up at him. “You’re paying?”

Mal answered before Jim could. “He’s sure not going to be crew. I can use a barker who knows how to cook, but I don’t need another gunhand, certainly not one that carries a badge. But he offered a good fare for regular passage and use of a shuttle. I’ve never been one to turn down regular work.”

“You do it all the time,” Jayne said. Mal gave him a dirty look, but Jayne pretty much just stared back. After a second, Mal sighed.

“And since I am carrying a badge again, I guess you’ll have to be more careful about what cargo you take on,” Jim pointed out.

“I don’t know about that. I hear that you’re supposed to be some major crime cop, someone who doesn’t get involved in a little smuggling. From the way I hear it, you might even take passage on a smuggling ship to buy your way into some of the seedier corners in the ‘verse.”

“You’re assuming you could get me into those corners. You have more people who hate you than I do, and that’s saying something.”

“He’s got a point there, Mal,” Jayne pointed out.

Mal whirled on Jayne. “Exactly whose side are you one here, Cobb?”

Jim bit his own tongue to avoid pointing out that from the smell, Jayne and Mal had been on the same side of a bed several times in the last few hours. Whatever else may have changed in the last three weeks, Jayne and Mal hadn’t stopped rutting like rams.

“Didn’t think you had to ask that, Mal,” Jayne pointed out.

“Seems like it’s hard to tell some days.”

From the look Jayne gave Mal, he didn’t exactly agree. “I’ll have to show you later.”

“Awwww,” Kaylee said loudly. “You two are so cute.” That earned her matching glares from Mal and Jayne.

Clearing his throat, Mal turned to Jim. “We had a visitor track us down at the docks.”


“The Operative.”

Jim could feel his guts knot, but the crew seemed relaxed about it. River stuck her head out from behind
Zoe and waved at him. Zoe tried to move out of her way only to have River move with her so the two of them did an odd dance at the top of the shuttle’s ramp. Three weeks in his father’s house, and Jim had already forgotten how strange they all were. Blair waved back.

“The Operative?” Jim asked slowly.

Zoe stopped her dance and looked down at them. “It seems from his expression that Jim’s about as fond of that man was we are.”

“Is he still after us?” Jim braced himself for the answer. If he was, it meant that his father’s plans weren’t working as well they’d thought, and they all probably needed to run for the darkest corner of the universe they could find.

“Nope,” Mal commented. “The government told him you were dangerous, so he took on the job even though he doesn’t actually work for them anymore. You were right that when you went off his radar, he figured out that you’d joined us, which is why he came to talk to us. He figured if he came here, you’d try to kill him before he could explain why he’d taken the job to track you down.”

Blair made a face. “Oh man, when you go back to the soul-sucking government after escaping? That is not saying good things for your karma.”

Jim wondered if getting his badge back qualified for a case of karma-damage, but Mal was already shaking his head.

“He insists that he wanted to talk to you before deciding whether you were the threat the Institute claimed.”

Frowning, Jim tried to figure out if Mal had really been stupid enough to buy that excuse. “And if we weren’t, he would just pat us on the head and let us go?”

“Yep,” River announced brightly. “One old war horse running new fields.” She twirled down the ramp and caught Jim by his shoulders, kissing him on the cheek before Jim had a chance to react. Then she pulled away to stand next to Blair, her arms around him. Jim breathed out slowly as he ordered his soldier’s instincts to stand down. Even though River was clearly on their side, Jim’s instincts still reacted to having such a dangerous woman so near his lover. River flashed him a bright smile and rested her chin on Blair’s shoulder. “Other war horses still cling to old ruts,” she said.

Blair chuckled. “Oh, I don’t know. I happen to think we have a couple of old war horses who’ve done a pretty damn good job of getting out of their ruts.”

River tilted her head and considered Mal and then Jim. Jim crossed his arms and glared.

“Nope, still like ruts.” She leaned close to Blair’s ear like she was going to whisper, but then she used a loud stage whisper to announce, “They like rutting.”

Jayne snorted loudly and Kaylee hid a smile behind her hand.

“Don’t you have something else you ought to be doing?” Mal demanded.

“Nope,” River said, her smile brighter than ever.

“Oh yeah, this is going to be all kinds of interesting,” Blair said as he headed up into the ship. “You know what they say: kong xue lái feng wei bì wu yin, and I totally believe there’s a reason for the strange wind that brought us together.” Jim followed his lover into the shuttle. He wasn’t so sure the universe had planned this, but he was starting to think it might turn out well. Instead of getting an assignment from Banks and heading out into the frontier with no backup, no home, and no family, he had a badge, a lover, a home, and a ship full of insane folk who were starting to feel like family.

“Maybe the universe has a strange sense of humor,” Zoe offered as she followed them.

“More like it doesn’t like me,” Mal complained.

“Aww. The captain is feeling all picked on,” Kaylee teased.

Jayne gave another of his indelicate snorts as he followed them into the shuttle. Jim heard someone trigger the ramp, closing it so they could head back to the shipyard where the Serenity was waiting. It was time to go home.

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If you enjoy old war dogs who are a little on the crusty side, you might want to consider checking out Turbulence

Corporal Jacqs Glebov is a simple soldier who wants a bunk, decent food and the company of other battle-hardened men and women who understand the realities of fighting. Instead he's stuck patrolling a remote corner of the border with cadets straight out of boot camp. They don't understand him, and he sure doesn't have an ounce of respect for them.

After a field promotion, Earth sends Commander Zeke Waters to the Candiru for some practical experience in a leadership role. Instead, Zeke falls in lust with the adamantly heterosexual Jacqs. The way Jacqs fights and the way he sees the world draws Zeke closer, even if common sense tells him to walk away.

Even if they can find a way to find to reconcile their sexual differences, they are both still soldiers. The war will eventually take them away from each other unless they can find a way to escape the rules that have defined their lives.


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