"Someone in this crap-verse done hate me, but don't think that means I won't put a hole in yer belly if you go and stick a gorram knife in me again," Jayne complained as he stormed down the center of the crowded passageway; River followed, or didn't follow in his wake. Right now, he'd be just as happy if it were not.
"Mal," River offered cheerful behind him. Elbowing aside a scrawny ship rat who was trying to sidle close enough to grab a few coins, Jayne cocked his head toward his tiny shadow.
"Mal. Mal hates you, but not really… only in the part of him that hates everyone. Although he hates you a little more down there than he hates others," River babbled without concern for who might be listening, and Jayne gritted his teeth. Settling the mess with the Reevers had made the fruitcake a little easier to understand, but she still had an annoying habit of talking.
"Bih-jway," Jayne hissed as he heard his name used like a curse somewhere off toward the engine end of the merchant ship. Surprisingly, she actually did fall silent. The curving, metal hull of the ship echoed back the sounds of hundreds of voices, making the crowded hold seem even more oppressive and hiding the speaker.
Jayne scanned the hold: Dirty children worked the crowd, liberating a rare coin here or there as they threaded between the buyers. Most of the buyers had hard eyes and a fist on their pockets. They were the pirates and looters who didn't even dare risk conducting business on an outer planet. Some of the buyers still had the wide-eyed look of a tourist, maybe gorram thrill-seekers who wanted to tell stories about traveling the badlands or, like River, new to life on the frontier. They'd learn to shop safer places or they'd get tossed out some airlock.
No where did he see anyone paying any attention to him, but then again, he didn't trust his luck far as he could spit in the cold of space, so time to get the part and run for home. Jayne grabbed River's arm and started pushing his way through the buyers and thieves as he moved toward the stalls where engine parts and wires hung like gutted animals over low tables.
"Mens rea," River announced. "Guilty mind."
"I don't feel guilty 'bout nothing. And next time, Kaylee's doin' her own equipment run, even if I have to drag her sorry ass out of bed with that chou ma niao you done call a brother," he groused as he finally saw the part he wanted. Kalee'd only made him look at the broken one from Serenity about fifty million times.
"Mal told her she couldn't come. Too many grabby hands," River answered, stopping the minute Jayne let go of her arm and angling away toward a display of optic strands that glowed with a soft yellow light reflected from the overhead lighting.
"So, I guess that means he likes you 'bout as much as he likes me," Jayne smiled nastily, but River only wandered past him, trailing hand over his stomach, and he couldn't decide whether the touch made him hot or just freaked him out. He still wasn't forgetting that she'd stabbed him. Course, he'd bedded plenty of women who wanted to stab him, and even more that took up the notion of stabbing him once they'd finished.
"Nah, he just figures I'll keep you from taking off with the money," she shrugged.
"Chiang-bao hoe-tze duh Captain."
River gave him a small confused look before smiling conspiratorially. "I think that would hurt. At least it would hurt the monkey," she answered softly. God she was nuts.
"Tell you what, let's just get the gorram part and get back to Serenity." Jayne snapped as he grabbed her arm and dragged her to the closest merchant with the snake-lookin' thing Kaylee insisted they had to get for Serenity. However, the owner of the part was engaged in a serious-ass piece of negotiation with a man whose black fingernails and nervous squint marked him as prey, probably some mechanic, and Jayne was somewhat surprised the man had held on to his money long enough to get to the negotiations.
Settling with his back to a section of wall, he crossed his arms so that one hand dangled near the gun hidden in his coat. He hadn't lived this long by ignoring that little voice in his head that said someone wanted to paint the hull with his blood.
"Guilty little feet tracking guilt dirt all over your mind," River proclaimed as though giving him the combination to Niska's bank vault.
"Time for insane little girls to shut the… Ai ya, wo mun wan luh," Jayne interrupted himself with a soft curse as a familiar face appeared in the crowd, others drawing back so that the blond head and dark eyes became an island in the middle of the mob.
"We was just saying that Kaylee spends too much money on things she don't rightly need, me and captain was. I say I save Mal a few dollars and skip the buying in favor of running for our lives," Jayne said carefully, keeping his eyes on the man and his voice calm so as to not attract attention. Unfortunately, River never did have the survival instincts a person needed out here. As he pulled on her arm, she planted her feet and considered him with confusion.
"Guilty dirt tracks. Mens rea," she repeated seriously.
"Don't care how many men you want, we're leavin'," Jayne insisted as he gave up on subtle and tried to yank River off her feet. "Captain'll skin me alive if I leave you here, so move your gorram ass."
"Jayne Cobb." A deep voice soaked in contempt interrupted his attempts to drag River out of the market, and Jayne gave her a dirty look before turning to face his end. No way he could out-draw Yangers, but if he was lucky, his blood would ruin River's fancy-ass skirt seeing as how it was her fault he didn't run for the hills.
"Yangers," Jayne returned calmly. He didn't flinch as Yangers swept back his coat, revealing his weapons, and Jayne hoped that ended up in the story people would tell later. If anyone was paying enough attention to catch the details seeing as how everyone was scrambling for cover behind bulkheads and merchant stalls. At least there wouldn't be many witnesses if his last act ended up being him peeing his pants just because the most dangerous stone-cold killer in the verse had come gunning for him.
"Long time, no kill your sorry ass. Where have you been hiding, Cobb?" Yangers shifted a bit to the right. Jayne ignored an itching need to see what was behind him to make Yangers shift around.
"Ain't been hiding. If you'd looked, you would have found me."
Yangers shifted again, and Jayne nearly climbed out of his own skin when a warm hand curled around his arm.
"Jayne being bad?" River asked, tilting her head curiously as she looked over at Yangers.
"Stay out of—" Jayne didn't make it any farther before River had his elbow and neck in a hold, forcing him down to his knees as he gasped for air that refused to fill his lungs as long as the pain was in there pushing it all right back out. His vision greyed before she let go, and Jayne fell forward, his palms slapping the cold, metal floor as he wheezed through the agony.
"So, has Jayne been bad?" River asked again in the same tone of voice, as though asking some stranger for the weather or offering an opinion on the cost of grain.
"Might say so. He done a stupid thing that made my sister cry."
"He does that sometimes," River agreed, and Jayne felt fingers in his hair. Still shaking from the pain of the attack, Jayne reached up to swat her hand away. Instead of it working, her fingers tangled in his hair and yanked hard enough to force a curse from his lips.
"Ching-wah tsao duh liou mahng."
The fingers tightened until Jayne could feel involuntary tears threaten.
"You be good now, dong-ma?" River whispered in his ear, her words tickling the hair of his neck while her grip tightened.
"Yeah," Jayne answered River, narrowing his eyes against the pain until her fingers eased up some and rubbed the soreness out of the scalp she'd just abused.
"So, he's yours now?"
"Not really your business. Your sister… I bet she knows how to take care of herself, so if she fell for Jayne, that's her business and his," River paused, "and if she comes looking, I might give her a chance at his hide. You, though, don't have any business with him," River said softly, calmly. Jayne had heard that quiet confidence more than once in his life, and usually it came right before people started getting dead.
Yangers paused, looking down at Jayne who pinched his lips together to keep from saying something stupid. It looked like he might just get out of this alive, and if it took some crawling on the floor to manage it, he'd crawl. Hell, he'd done it before. He glared up without trying to get off his knees or push away River's hand which now petted him a mite bit too much like a dog.
"Well, if you're keeping him in hand now, I don't suppose he can cause more trouble," Yangers shrugged.
"No, no trouble. Well, unless we don't get the part we came for because then there'll be trouble."
Jayne flinched as the slightly less-rational part of River surfaced. Yangers looked equally confused for a moment. He opened his mouth, but then closed it without asking after River's sanity. "Sorry to have bothered you," Yangers tipped his hat to her. "Cobb," he snorted. Then Yangers moved away into the crowd.
"Mal said there'd be big trouble if we screwed up, so you get that part," River said as she stopped petting and held her hand down. Jayne ignored her offer of help as he pushed himself up onto his feet, rubbing his sore arm and glaring at the girl.
"You didn't need to do it so hard," he complained before forcing down the feelings of helplessness and fear that made him snap out. "But thanks for, you know," he offered before turning back to the merchant who had reappeared once the threat of gunfire disappeared.
Jayne haggled with only half his usual enthusiasm and then tucked his coins far enough into his pants to defend them against little thieving fingers.
"Home," he said as he passed River, leaving it to her to follow. Instead, she stepped to his side and curled a hand around his arm.
"Don't think I’m forgettin' that you stabbed me," Jayne pointed out when they were half way across the crowded hull and heading for the shuttle dock where they'd left one of Serenity's shuttles.
"I don't have dirty guilt tracks from that. Not my mens rea," she answered as she looked around with large eyes while keeping her hand wrapped around Jayne's arms.
"Nice to know you don't even feel guilty about stabbin' me. Makes me feel good and safe around you."
"Oh, I won't do it again. Back then, I could hear other people tracking feet through my brain, and sometimes I forgot they weren't my thoughts."
"Wait." They had reached the much less crowded corridor to the starboard shuttle docks, but Jayne stopped in the middle of the ramp, pulling River to a stop when she didn't let go of his arm. "You mean someone else wanted me stabbed?" he demanded.
"Mens rea. Someone has a guilty mind," River nodded and then she tugged Jayne's arm with a frightening amount of power for such a little body.
"Hell, I was safer back when I hung with murders. I got me a powerful bad deal when I signed on with Mal," Jayne complained as they reached the locked port that led to Serenity's shuttle. Jayne pulled out the key and thumbed in the combination before sliding it into the slot. The machinery whirred and twisted until the metal slid back and allowed them back onto the shuttle.
"Mens rea," River agreed without showing any concern. Well Jayne would just have to look out for himself, but then, when in this crap-verse hadn't he had to look after himself? He followed River into the shuttle and locked it behind him as she slid into the pilot's chair and started the launch sequence.
"Course I still don't rightly know what a man's ray has got to do with guilt," he groused softly as he dropped into the second chair. "My ray is more 'bout the lustin'," he pointed out as he grabbed his crotch and adjusted himself.
River smiled briefly at him and pulled the shuttle back so sharply that he grabbed for a handhold to keep from falling out of his chair as she turned them toward home.