Thoughts Colored Ugly
Rated ADULT for femdom, slavery, and S&M

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"Can hear you thinkin' from all the way up in the pilot's seat," River said as she leaned on the ladder that led into Jayne quarters… Jayne's private quarters. He put up with a lot of gorram rules to get himself private quarters, and he wasn't havin' no crazy-girl comin' in whenever she wanted.

"Get out," he growled.

She cocked her head in that funny way she had when things weren't all right in her head.

"Mean it. These are my quarters, so get your pretty little ass out of them." Jayne crossed his arms and considered her with an expression that he'd been told made men's blood run cold. She just cocked her head to the other side. If it weren't for Mal takin' a liking to the crazy shen jing bing, he'd show her just how much he hated that expression.

"You think so loud," she announced as she stepped into his room, her hand coming up to trace the edge of Vera's barrel, and that was the last straw. No one touched his gun. Reaching out, Jayne grabbed her wrist and yanked her away from his gorram gun. Her back collided with his chest, and then she bounced off, but rather than just being the natural reaction of getting herself shoved around, she used the motion to pull Jayne with her. His arm ended up in her hands, and he was flying toward the far wall before his brain really caught up with the rest of him. Of course, the cold bulkhead stopped him face-first before he had a chance to get too far.

"Bun tyen-shung duh ee-dway-ro," Jayne spat as River captured his arm and held it at the small of his back. His other hand was flat against the wall of his quarters, and he pushed as hard as he could, only to get five inches from the wall and no more. And as soon as his trembling arm muscles failed him, River slammed him face first into the cold wall again.

"Get off," Jayne warned darkly just as soon as he figured out that he wasn't fighting his way out of this. Damned embarrassing not being able to fight off a slip of a girl, but then she was more than she appeared.

"Think so loud, all the time," she repeated.

"Great, you're not havin' what you might call a real rational moment here, are you?" Jayne snorted. "Always knew you'd slip off that sane ship you'd caught awhile back. So, you going to slide another knife in my guts, is that where this is going?"

"Fear like little mice loose in the engine."

Jayne clenched his fists. Out of her gorram mind, and too strong for anyone to really stop her. "Maybe you should call Simon," he tried as he watched her over his shoulder. She cocked her head the other way.

"He's busy. Kaylee screams like the wind through the mountain passes of Omlikai in winter, all white and covered with ice that melts in the sun," she solemnly announced.

"Gorram wonderful. Then call the captain."

"Why?" she asked curiously.

"If you're going to gut me, I figure we could use an audience. Had one last time," he pointed out. Saving himself through talk wasn't his strong suit, but survivin' was, and if he had to talk to save his hide, he would. One of River's hands slid around to his side and pulled his shirt up so that small, warm fingers could trace the skin underneath. Jayne could only grunt and order his chun zi of a cock to not react to a woman's hand on his body. Unfortunately, his cock had been settlin' for Jayne's own hand a little too often, so it was taking the opportunity to harden.

"Won't gut you. You were thinking too loud that day. Couldn't hear my own thoughts," she remarked conversationally as she released his arm. Jayne continued to stand facing the wall. Now that he'd gotten a promise out of her, he didn't want to go settin' the crazy ji nv off again.

Her hand came up and stroked his cheek, and he could feel soft fingers scratching over his stubble. "Do you think I'm a whore?" she asked seriously.

"Never said that!" Jayne immediately protested. Okay, so he'd been thinking it, but he sure wasn't sayin' it. Her second hand landed on his shoulder, fingers digging into the flesh until he flinched from the pain and hunched up some.

"You thought it. You thought about me being a ji nv."

Jayne had told himself to just stand real still and let her get tired of her little game, but that made him turn so fast that she took a step back, an amused expression on her face.

"Cao ni zu zong shi ba dai," he cursed, the worst phrase he knew, and certainly a whole lot worse than thinking of the crazy bat as a ji nv. "How do you know what I been thinkin'?" he demanded. River returned her attention to Vera, turning to the gun and stroking the handle. Jayne had to order himself to not reach out and backhand her for touching what was his.

Instead, she swirled, her arms a graceful arch until the back of one collided with Jayne's head and sent him reeling to the side until he literally collapsed on his bed. Squirming like a cat, he landed on his back and went to stand, but she was there at the side of his bunk, and standing meant having to push her back, and whatever weirdness had crawled in her head and set up shop, she wasn't in a mood to be pushed around.

"Not yours, though. You took her. You're so proud of her because he called you a worm. He disrespected you and you took the one thing he really loved."

Jayne's eyes involuntarily darted toward Vera. River couldn't know.

"You think so loud," she repeated again, and Jayne was getting mighty tired of hearin' that about himself.

"Ever think maybe you shouldn't be listening to other people's minds?" he asked carefully as he scooted back on his bunk. She bent over so that her hand rested on his thigh, holding him in place.

"I don't listen to the others," she said, and that was almost a sane expression on her face.

"Try not listening to me, then," he said as calmly as he could, which wasn't easy considering his cock was putting bein' in his bunk together with the hot hand braced against his thigh and comin' up with all kinds of stupid ideas. He never could trust his cock.

"Hard to not listen. You shout into the darkness, and I hear you," River said softly. She reached down with her free hand and slowly pulled Jayne's shirt out of his pants. He just watched as she tugged until she could see his stomach. He'd never been one to turn down gettin' sexed, even if it was from someone on the wrong side of nuts, and he wasn't about to start now. However, those slim fingers of hers didn't touch his belt. They stroked the skin just above his belly button before sliding over to explore the puckered skin of the scar where she'd stuck him. Jayne held his breath hopin' she remembered that promise she'd given him earlier.

"I hurt you," she said softly, and again, the almost-sane voice was back, which scared Jayne even more because if she was having one of her fits of sanity and still obsessed with gutting him, there really wasn't going to be much he could do. Gorram captain, giving her free rein over the ship and makin' her pilot. Gorram crew wouldn't even check on him until they needed some killin' done, so if River went and stabbed him, he'd gorram bleed to death without no one knowing no different. Jayne held very still.

"You wanted to be hurt so badly," she whispered, and now she slowly dug her fingernails into his skin until he hissed.

"Cao! Ease off there," he complained as he grabbed her wrist. For one second he thought he'd made a serious mistake as cold eyes stared at him, lookin' nothing like the half-wit girl he knew and lookin' all too much like the killer who'd taken out the Reavers. "Look, I'm just not lookin' to end up dead, so why don't you tell me what kind of game we're playing here," he tried again. The cold expression faded, and she tilted her head at him again, studying him with something that at least made it seem like he was less likely to end up twisting on her knife point.

She glanced toward Vera. "Before him, there was another man. He always knew when you did something wrong, and he'd make it hurt, but then he always gave you a way to make it up, to be a good little boy," she whispered confidentially. Jayne's guts knotted, but she just babbled on. "Pain and forgiveness."

"Shen jing bing!" Jayne brought his boot up and used every bit of strength to kick River. He aimed for her face, but ended up getting her stomach. She stumbled back and hit the far wall of his tiny quarters, and Jayne was up, reaching for his gun. River flew at him, and Jayne knew he was in trouble even before the first fist caught him in the stomach. He doubled over, trying not to vomit, and a punch to his kidneys brought him up fast as he tried to defend himself.

He got two hits in before she somehow spun him around and sent him face first into his own bunk, again. This time she sat on his back, one of his arms wrenched high up between his shoulder blades. The worst part, though, was that his chun zi cock was harder than ever. If he survived this, he needed to find him a good whore who could sex the stupid out of it or a doctor who could just cut the thing right off.

"Always made you feel safe, knowing that he'd catch you, that he'd still love you after you did something bad," she whispered in his ear.

"I done lots of bad in my day, and I ain't never cared about what people thought of it." Jayne kept his voice to a low, rumbled whisper before closing his eyes and ordering himself to just wait out this spell of hers.

"When your mother married again, it was different, though," she sounded confused now, but Jayne refused to give her any more to work with than she already had. He remembered how she'd played head games with that wang ba dan who'd come for the bounty on her. Jayne wasn't even going to try and play that game. He knew he wasn't a smart man; he knew he wasn't a particularly good man, but he knew how to survive, and right now his instincts told him to just stay real quiet and let her finish whatever she wanted to say. He forced his muscles to relax, and she rewarded him by letting up on his arm just enough that he didn't feel like it was about to come popping off his gorram shoulder.

"Your father, he made you feel forgiven, but there isn't anyone to forgive you now."

Jayne focused on just breathing. Even his idiot cock had finally gotten the message, but then pinning him on a bed and talking to him about his dead father wasn't exactly foreplay, not even for him, and Jayne could take most anything as foreplay.

"I hear you," she said as she leaned down, her weight deceptively light on Jayne's back. He could lift her up and throw her, but considering he'd just been handed his ass twice, he didn't have a lot of illusions about how that would end up. She ran a finger down his cheek, and Jayne opened his eyes and watched her suspiciously.

"I hear you," she repeated, the words whispered across his skin.

"Can you hear me tell you to get off?" he tried. She cocked her head at him.

"I could give you pain," she offered, and the fingers that had stroked his cheek vanished as one fingernail now ran over his unshaven whiskers. He shivered as the pain was just enough to waken his traitorous cock. "I could give you forgiveness." River squeezed her thighs together so hard that Jayne knew he'd have bruises on his waist tomorrow. He'd also be jerking off in his bunk for a month remembering how they felt. But he wasn't stupid enough to do anything with crazy girl. Hell, captain would cut his balls off for him if he touched her.

"Don't need you," he said carefully, and just as carefully avoided thinking anything that might lead to him getting dead.

"Hurts so much, not having forgiveness, not having anyone to tell you which rules you broke when you don't understand," she looked at him with pity, and Jayne just couldn't take it.

"Leastwise I'm not fucking nuts," he snapped back. Jayne braced for pain, but she just started stroking his cheek again.

"Captain hears you too, but not so much I think. He doesn't know if he's right about what he's hearing."

"Good to know. Are we done?"

River looked down at him and her hand wandered down to his waist, fingers tucking themselves inside his waistband.

"Can't think clear when you're thinking so loud in my head," she said as she tightened her fingers around his wrist. Jayne winced.

"Never thought someone'd complain about me thinkin' too much. Not really known for my thinking."

"Do you want me to forgive you?" she asked as she pressed her fingers deeper into his pants, her fingertips brushing over the crevice of his ass. He thought about trying to sell her back to the government, about the times when he'd called her all sorts of names and had fantasies 'bout throwing her and her arrogant brother right out the airlock.

"You offering forgiveness?" he asked warily. Fact was, he didn't want or need it, but if it got her out of his quarters, he'd be an idiot to not ask anyway.

"If you take the pain. Take the pain and show me how strong you are. Listen to all the reasons why you need forgiveness and then crawl, and I'll forgive you," River whispered in his ear, and Jayne's world turned hazy as every bit of blood rushed to his idiot cock.

Well, go tsao de, she had been crawling in his head. He didn't even tell his whores about that fantasy; that was for those long nights in the middle of some run when he didn't have anything better than his hand and the shiniest fantasy he could weave for himself. Course, Jayne couldn't really afford the type of whores who specialized in that kind of fantasy, that was more the sort of thing a companion did, and Jayne couldn't hire one of those even if he woke up and found all the money in the gorram universe sittin' under his bed. Wasn't sure Inara had even looked at him twice yet.

"Do you want that?" River asked.

The word 'no' teetered on the edge of Jayne's lips, but he couldn't say it, not knowing that River had crawled around in his mind. "Won't take it from you," he finally answered truthfully.

River sat up and released his arm while still having her fingers in his pants. Laying under her, Jayne realized he had to find some other ship, someplace where some crazy girl couldn't go sliding into his thoughts, and he needed to do it before the doc or the captain found out about what she'd learned. Wasn't his fault that she'd gone and found his kinks—wasn't like he'd left dirty magazines out in the common room, leastwise not after Kaylee found his first one and spaced it. But it wouldn't matter, not once they found out. Given a choice between blaming Crazy or him, they were going to blame him.

She didn't get up, and as the minutes passed, Jayne started wondering exactly what they were doing now. "You planning on getting up?" he asked.

"You'd bleed pretty," River commented calmly, and Jayne's muscles tensed even though he remained still. Course, if she marked him up bad enough, the others couldn't blame him. Only, they still would. River ran a hand up his back, pushing his shirt up, and Jayne didn't stop her. He didn't help her, but he didn’t stop her. "So strong," she whispered, and Jayne bit back an angry answer. "I hear you, but I want you to offer me your pain, I don't want to take it," she finally said as she stood up.

Jayne rolled to his side and watched her walk toward the ladder. "Wait, you're just leaving?" Confusion made him ask, that's the only thing he could figure because getting her out had been the goal from the start.

"Are you offering me your pain?" she asked with a look of sweet innocence that made Jayne truly question the captain's decision to let her stay. Gorram unpredictable.

"No," he answered firmly.

"Will you offer the captain your pain?" she asked in that same tone.

"What? No. Not offering anyone a chance to cause me pain," Jayne snorted as he sat up and started tucking his shirt back into his pants. River walked closer and laid a hand on his cheek.

"You think so loud that it must hurt," she said, and the serious tone of voice just did not fit the crazy-ass words. Jayne just stared at her until she turned and headed up the ladder and out of his quarters. For a long time, Jayne just sat on his bunk in shock. Her words brought back a flood of memories of his father and the step-father he'd stolen Vera from and a hundred fantasies he'd played in his mind. Pushing away all the thoughts of a past he couldn't change, Jayne got up and locked his door before he headed back to his bunk for a nice long session with his hand.

"We stopping somewheres soon?" Jayne asked the next morning as he casually leaned against the railing. 'Course if River'd said too much, Mal was likely to toss him right over and to the deck below, but he'd deal with that then.

"Tanish 5," Mal said as he shifted feet.

Cao. Hick world with not much chance to catch another ship, but it was still better than stayin' here until Mal and the doc figured out he'd corrupted their little half-wit. Mal'd beat the shit out of him and toss him off. Jayne'd left plenty of ships that way, so that didn't really bother him, 'cepting that he didn't really want Mal to be the one doing the tossing. But the doc was a mite bit more unpredictable. Crazy as hell seemed to run in that family.

"Thought we might settle up on my wages," Jayne said all nonchalant. Mal leaned on one arm and turned enough to give Jayne one of those all-knowin' looks that made Jayne mighty uncomfortable. Come to think of it, there were lots of people on this ship who made him uncomfortable.

"Not leaving a share with Kaylee for tradin'?" Mal asked. Jayne didn't answer right away. Yeah, if he pulled his share out from the money they pooled so Kaylee could try and find them some good grub, they'd know he was leaving for sure, but he wasn't walking away from money he earned. Yeah, he wasn't a bright man, but he wasn't gorram stupid.

"Figure not," Jayne shrugged. Mal gave him an even sharper look.

"Something you plan to tell me?"

"No." And Jayne really didn't plan to tell the captain. He just asked too many questions, and there were things a man didn't rightly want to share.

"Tell me anyway."

Jayne stood up and considered just how much he was willing to tell Mal. River's words from last night haunted him. Mal heard him. Well, he'd had enough of people hearing him. Turning his back on Mal, he started down the stairs into the empty hold. Maybe if he could find a ship where they actually had jobs on every run. Half the time, Serenity ran empty from one planet to another, and now that he was thinkin' about that, it annoyed him. It was like throwing money out the gorram airlock.

"Jayne!" Mal called as he followed, and Jayne stopped for a second at the bottom of the stairs as he considered his options. Not really much room for running on a ship.

"Problem, sir?" Zoe asked as she abandoned the control panel she was working on.

"Seems like Jayne's thinking of pulling up stakes," Mal said. Jayne shot the captain a nasty look before he pushed past Zoe and went into the galley.

"Oh." Zoe didn't say anything else, but Jayne didn't expect her to. He wasn't the sort of man people got upset over losing. Wash had been someone people cared about. Even Jayne had felt those moments over dinner where he'd expect one of the little man's stupid jokes, but Jayne wouldn't leave a hole like that. Well, they might notice him when no one pointed out that Kaylee was get wet between her legs every time the doc walked by. He'd thought she stop doin' that once she was getting sexed, but she was just as bad as always. For Jayne, a good sexin' was always enough to cure the desire, but Kaylee didn't seem that sort.

"Do you plan on explaining why you're leaving?" Mal asked as he leaned against the counter as Jayne rummaged for some food that didn't look disgusting.


Jayne grabbed a box of crackers and then froze as River drifted into the room, that damn head to the side expression that just didn't mean anything good for him.

"Gao yang jong duh goo yang," Mal snapped. "Think I've earned the right to ask why you're walking."

"Just am," Jayne shrugged again as he tried hard to ignore River. Girl didn't make it easy with eyes that stared at him. He distracted himself by watching Zoe. Now that was one fine woman. If he was going just by looks, he'd pick her every time. She looked like she could crush a man between her thighs. He'd bought himself a whore that looked like that once, only she'd been a bit thicker 'round the middle. Stupid ji nv hadn't even known how to suck cock right, but he'd jerked off to thoughts of her solid body for weeks. 'Course he'd never have his little bunk fantasies about Zoe because she'd break him into little pieces. Jayne stopped himself as he found his palms rubbing the bruises on his waist where River had held him the night before.

"I'm not particular fond of how you're looking at me," Zoe warned with a frown, and Jayne felt that familiar stirring in his cock.

"Figure since I'm goin', you might want to give me a going away party, just you and me," he suggested with a leer; he never did see why she went for someone soft like Wash. She just raised an eyebrow and glanced over toward Mal.

"How 'bout we focus on the question at hand?" Mal asked. Jayne ate a cracker and tried to not look at any of them. "Don't like being ignored," Mal warned.

"Exactly, too many rules. Gorram rules for everything around here," Jayne complained.

"Not enough rules," River sighed softly as she wandered into the room and dropped into a chair.

"Aren't you flying or something?" Jayne demanded as she settled her chin in her hand and watched him. "Too many gorram rules, and you let the crazy-girl fly the gorram ship," Jayne snapped as he turned on Mal. The man took a step back out of just sheer surprise, and Jayne felt a bit of satisfaction in that.

"I'll have who I want fly my ship," Mal rebounded almost immediately, and he got right into Jayne's face. Jayne was bigger, but Mal fought dirty. Too dirty for Jayne to take the chance. He could just see Mal layin' him up in the infirmary and then he wouldn't be able to jump ship, leastwise not until after him and the doctor figured out that he'd gone and tainted their pet nutcase.

"Fine, I ain't saying anything against it."

"Seems like you were," Mal pointed out, and Jayne could feel the danger in those words.

"Maybe we should all just calm down," Zoe suggested in a calm voice.

"I'm going to my bunk." Jayne made his announcement and headed for the door.

"We aren't done here," Mal said as he intercepted him before Jayne took more than one step.

"Or not," Zoe said with resignation as she backed up and leaned against the wall. Jayne never had expected backup from her, not against the captain. Mal narrowed his eyes as he considered Jayne, and the tension in the room built as they stared at each other.

"You planning to move?" Jayne finally asked, and for a long minute, Mal didn't even give any sign he'd heard.

"Tell me why you're leaving," Mal finally said, his voice all low and quiet, and that voice made Jayne stop and consider his words.

"Time to move on. Ain't so much about you as about seeing what else is out there," he shrugged.

"Wait," Zoe said from her spot against the wall, her voice full of disbelief. "You stick with us through Reaver attacks and being on the government's most wanted list, and *now* you're just bored?"

"Ain't like there's anything interesting going on, and we run empty about as often as we have any work around here," Jayne complained.

"There's not enough work for you?" Mal demanded, and that was a tone of voice that said Mal wasn't even going to bother pretending to believe him. "That sound reasonable to you, Zoe?"

"No, sir, it doesn't," she agreed.

"Don't owe you an explanation," Jayne finally snarled as he tried to push past Mal. He shouldn't have gotten into this discussion in the first place. Shoulda just forgotten about the money he was owed and jumped ship because he couldn't talk fast enough to keep ahead of them.

"We ain't done," Mal said as he reached out and grabbed Jayne's arm.

Jayne shook him off and gave the captain a good shove as he headed for the door. He wasn't all that surprised when Mal retaliated with a right hook that sent Jayne stumbling back as his fingers came up to his jaw.

"Don't remember signing on as slave crew," Jayne said darkly as he ran his tongue along the inside of his lip. Mal immediately stood up, abandoning his attack posture as quickly as he'd fallen into it.

"Tyen shiao duh." Mal rubbed his hand over his face, and Jayne took the opportunity to slide closer to the doorway.

"Unless you're thinking of trying to put me in chains, I figure I got the right to leave any time we dock. If you don't want to give me my pay, not much I can do about that," Jayne admitted reluctantly. River stood up, her head tilted to one side as she moved closer, and Jayne backed away from her. Mal didn't seem to notice, though.

"It's not about pay. I'll give you your gorram pay, but I ain't heard yet why you're leaving."

"My business," Jayne snapped as he turned and headed out the door. He'd almost made it when he all but collided with Kaylee. Her smile quickly faded as she looked from one person to another.

"Awful lot of unhappy looks in this room," she said softly.

"Well now there's one less," Jayne snapped as he went to go by her. He might have given her a bit of a shove, but that weren't nothing compared to the force of the body that hit him from behind, slamming him into the wall right next to the door.

"Cao!" Jayne snarled as his arm was twisted up behind his back hard enough to force him onto his toes.

"River! That ain't a nice thing to be doing!" Kaylee almost yelped, which was funny seeing as how Jayne was the one face-first into a wall again so it seemed like he should get first complaints about what wasn't nice.

"Apologize," River ordered loud enough for everyone to hear.

"Ain't nothing to apologize for," Jayne insisted. "Captain, you want to do something about the crazy-ass girl who's pulling my arm out?"

"River, let him go," Mal insisted. River tilted her head, and for one shiny second, Jayne thought he was going to get turned loose. Instead, she tightened her grip, and Jayne groaned as he was pushed into the wall even harder. And his chun zi cock was doing things that were going to make it downright embarrassing to walk back to his bunk.

"River!" Mal snapped.

"You didn't have a right to put your hands on Kaylee. You need to apologize," River said, sounding almost sane, but then she wasn't letting him go, so she couldn't be that sane.

"Fine, I'm sorry," Jayne hurried to say. Embarrassing having his ass handed to him three times, and if he didn't end this quick, captain would find out for sure that River had taken to putting him into walls, and from there it was a mighty short throw to finding out where she'd gotten that idea from.

"Just words. Little mice words, but not good enough. You have to apologize," River said with the patience of a mother explaining the whys of the sky being blue to a five-year-old. Jayne might have been offended, only he was more worried about this whole thing getting out of hand.

"River, don't go hurting Jayne," Mal ordered softly. She tilted her head.

"He hasn't offered me his pain," she said, and Mal just blinked like an idiot as he traded looks with Zoe. Well, Jayne wasn't going to be explaining it to them.

"Might be I should get Simon," Kaylee breathed. Mal gave her a sharp nod, and she went scurrying off.

"You wanna get her off me?" Jayne snarled as he struggled a bit. Just like last night, he managed to get himself about five inches from the wall before River slammed him back into it. Only this time, she put a leg between his thighs, forcing him to open his stance. "Mal!" he complained.

"River, maybe we should go see your brother," Zoe tried in a pretty good soothe-the-crazy voice.

River shook her head. "He shouldn't fight with people who can't fight back."

"Can't say I disagree," Mal offered slowly.

"Mal," Jayne snarled.

"But it ain't your place to teach Jayne manners, River," he quickly finished with an apologetic look toward Jayne.

Slowly stroking Jayne's shoulder with her free hand, she ignored Mal, and Jayne could feel a blush start. Hadn't blushed since he was a kid, and he wasn't about to just let her humiliate him in front of the crew. "Get off," he snapped as he started struggling for real this time. He kicked out with a heavy boot and almost caught her knee. She danced back, and it got him enough space to spin free. Following up on his advantage, he punched out, but River just danced away again, spinning and catching Jayne in the small of his back which sent him crashing to the table. Before he could get up, Mal was there between him and River, and then Mal wasn't. River backhanded him out of the way and had her hand around Jayne's neck, flattening him to the table before he could get free. He grabbed her arm, but that supernatural strength wasn't going to be loosed that easy.

"Captain!" Zoe called in alarm, and out of the corner of his eye, Jayne could see her help Mal to his feet.

"I'm gorram fine," he snapped as he stood up. "Reckon she didn't plan to actually hurt me since she just caught me on the arm. More of a shove than anything."

Now River bent over, and Jayne was more than a little aware of his erection, and all she had to do was move two inches to the left, and Mal would have a pretty damn good idea why she'd taken to beating up the menfolk. "Remember what it feels like? To have someone so much stronger shove you?" She stared into his eyes, and Jayne froze as any number of dark memories drifted too close to the surface, closer than he normally let them. She cocked her head, and his cock softened as he realized she would see those memories. Maybe she already had. Gorram mind-reader.

"Please," Jayne forced the clipped word past his lips, "let me up."

"Not everyone fights. Not everyone should. Kaylee doesn't fight, and she won't ever push you back. So you have to be extra careful to never push her," River said slowly, her eyes locked on Jayne's. "Not everyone fights."

Her words brought up the memory of that chou wang ba dan who he'd stolen Vera from. He could almost hear the laughed words: Everyone fights, he'll learn. His mother had stood clutching some britches she'd been stitchin, but even then Jayne knew she wouldn't help. . . she couldn't.

"Not everyone fights," River said firmly.

"What's going on here? River? Come on, let's go back to your quarters and sit down for a bit," the doctor's voice went from confused to concerned in no time flat.

"Apologize," River insisted as she continued to lock gazes with Jayne. Slowly she stepped back and let him struggle up to his feet. He looked around the room. Kaylee stood behind her doctor, clutching her hands. Captain and Zoe just stood looking on in surprise. River still had that head cocked to the side in a way that told Jayne he wasn't getting out of this without apologizing and meaning it.

"I waren't trying to hurt you none," he said to Kaylee.

"I know," she said softly, and now the doctor was looking from Jayne to Kaylee suspiciously.

"What did he do?" he asked Kaylee.

"Weren't nothing. He just gave me a push is all," Kaylee shrugged. "I was in his way."

"Apologize," River warned.

"I'm real sorry about that," Jayne said, and seeing Kaylee trying to stick up for him, he was. Much as he didn't want to admit it, she was the one person on the ship he felt most family-like about. Wouldn't let just anyone get in those play punches she landed on his arm whenever he poked at her like he did.

"Apology accepted," Kaylee said seriously.

"Captain, what's going on?" the doctor asked with more than a little frustration in his voice.

"Seems like Jayne's decided it's time to move on, and River has taken to teaching him manners by beating on him. I can't help but wonder if the two are related seeing as how Jayne wasn't all that surprised." Jayne flinched as he realized that Mal had figured out at least the first half of things. He needed to get out before the other pieces fell in place.

"River's what?" the doctor sounded amused now. Jayne narrowed his eyes and River's hand landed on his arm, her fingers digging into his muscle hard enough to remind him that she wasn't some slip of a girl, no matter what she looked like. "River?" Simon asked as he looked at the hand she'd put on Jayne.

"Would appreciate it if you could get your sister to let me go," Jayne said, trying his best to not explode because he really didn't want to end up against another wall.

"Let Jayne go, now," Simon said, the laughter barely disguised in his voice. Jayne gritted his teeth, and it didn't help when River's hand just tightened on his arm.

"Simon, leave off," Mal ordered. "Wouldn't rightly want your sister after me, either."

Jayne kept his eyes straight ahead, hating that other people were having to stick up for him, but with River having one of her spells, him trying to stick up himself wasn't going to end well.

"Simon," Kaylee softly called, her arm going around his.

"Thinks so loud, all the time," River said, and now she sounded confused. The panic circled around Jayne's guts as he thought of all the gorram things she might say, things that could get him dead because that brother of hers was more than capable of doing some nasty things with all that fancy training about how the human body worked, Jayne had no doubt about that. And he wasn't likely to care that it was his crazy sister who started this. No, him and the captain would both find some way to blame Jayne for having those fantasies of his.

"And as soon as we hit planetside, won't need to hear me no more," Jayne promised. River didn't look particular happy about that, but at least she took her hand back. Slowly, Jayne slid to the side until he could get far enough away to turn toward the door. "I'll just be in my bunk until we dock," he said, not even caring if it was his turn to scrub the static plates. If the captain wanted them scrubbed, he could scrub them himself.

Jayne walked stiffly away from the crew and headed for his quarters, locking the door behind him and hoping that would keep River away if she had another of those spells of hers. Didn't like what her words made him think about, and he really didn't like the idea that she could hear him do his thinking. Made him feel naked. He avoided even looking at Vera because he didn't want to shiny up those thoughts knowing that River was listening in.

Slowly, he sat on the edge of his bunk, his knees gone all soft as he tried his best to not think about that man with his thick curls turning gray and his gorram huge fists. All Jayne could do was clench his hands and wish the ship would move faster toward Tanish 5.

Then again, with River bein' pilot, who the hell knew what she'd take it in her mind to do. Jayne focused his eyes on the ladder and tried counting his own heartbeats as he struggled to push away thoughts and fears that he just wasn't rightly fond of dealing with. Gorram crazy bitch. Jayne glanced up toward his door in near-panic, waiting for her to come through and make him apologize for having that thought. But she didn't. The sound of the engine thrump though the metal girders kept him company as he stared off at nothing and tried to figure out what he was going to do next.

Jayne followed through with his threat and wouldn't even come out for dinner until Serenity slid into dock. Kaylee had taken to bringing him his meals, but now, standing in the dust of one more world and considering walking away, Jayne could feel something that felt entirely too close to fear.

"Sure we can't convince you to stay on?" Mal asked again as they stood on the gangplank. Jayne had his bag at his feet and his pay in his pocket so there wasn't much reason for him to stay, but he stood anyway, watching the crowds wander past. Dust rolled up from under cart wheels, and in the distance, a train whistle announced its arrival at the port. "We could do something about River, put an alarm on your door, maybe," the captain suggested.

Jayne gave him a dirty look. "Don't need no help to take care of myself," he almost growled.

"Not sayin' you do. Mind you, with River, I don't think any of us would stand a chance in guay if she decided to turn her attention to us, me included," he snorted as he scratched a spot on the back of his head. That made Jayne feel a little better, but he still wished Mal hadn't said it. Be easier to leave if he didn't feel like he had any reason to stay.

"Amen," Zoe softly agreed from the bottom of the ramp. She'd already been to the port office, signing the paperwork and posting Serenity's ship board, and the dust from the street clung to her pants. Jayne gave her an appraising look.

"Sure you don't want to give me a private goodbye party?" he asked.

She raised her eyebrow and looked at him. "Jan-doh duh ee-kwai-ro," she sighed. "Why do all menfolk have to think with that thing between their legs, and if you make one more pass at me Jayne Cobb, you won't have anything between your legs." Jayne took it as a sign of affection that she only threatened to castrate him.

"Sir, are we available for a run to Hera?" Zoe asked as tilted her hat farther down to shade her eyes from the rising sun. Serenity sat at the edge of the docks and the barren fields didn't provide any shade.

Mal flinched. "No!"

It occurred to Jayne that he understood why, seeing as how Hera was home to Serenity Valley where Mal and Zoe had lost their war against the Alliance. Funny, he'd never known any of his other captains that well. Zoe just nodded like she'd expected the answer.

"Best be goin'," Jayne said as he picked up the bag that held as many of his things as he could carry, Vera tucked in at the top making a funny lump that poked out from the side of the leather case. Leaving was harder than he'd been planning. A little part of Jayne's brain kept wondering what exactly Mal would do if he offered the man his pain.

Standing in the hot morning sun with his palms sweating, he hesitated. If River'd said a year ago what she done said a week ago, Jayne mighta considered. Course, a year ago, he wouldn't have bothered even listening, and she sure as guay wasn't sane enough to put two sentences together. But the problem was that now he liked Mal. He didn't want to go making the fool of himself, and if he trusted River enough to believe that Mal might be willing to take up his pain, he might as well. . ." Jayne just shut down his mind without finishing that thought. Maybe in a few months he'd be far enough away to polish up that fantasy all shiny and think about that in his bunk. Maybe then he'd think about what might've been if he'd slid to his knees at River's feet, but right now it was just too raw.

Neither Mal nor Zoe said anything as he walked down the plank, his boots thunking heavily against the metal.

"Wait! Hold on!" a voice called. Jayne stopped in the dust at the bottom of the ramp and watched as Kaylee came running all out of breath, grease from her engine streaked across her shirt sleeve. "I'd be real upset if you left without even saying your goodbyes," she said as she slid to a stop in front of him and punched him in the arm.

"Ow," he complained without really meaning it. "Not good at saying them," he admitted as he looked down at her. Holding out her hand, she grabbed his and pressed something to his palm.

"Don't rightly know if it works, but the woman I bought it from said it brings luck."

Jayne opened his palm and found a brightly colored stone strung on a rawhide string. He remembered his brother Matty giving him something similar, a stupid piece of ribbon from an old dress of their ma's. Never did figure out where he'd lost it.

"Are you going to put it on?" Kaylee asked with such a bright-eyed expression that Jayne couldn't rightly say no. Putting his bag in the dirt, he took the bauble and tied it round his neck where the blue stone could show just above the neck of his shirt.

"Thanks," Jayne said awkwardly. She just patted him on the arm. They stared at each other until Jayne shifted uncomfortably. He'd gotten up extra early to slip out without all the big fuss, but now everyone 'cepting River and Simon where out here making things mighty uncomfortable.

"Captain, since River brought us to Shanpei, I was wondering if I could mosey down to Lilac and pick up some parts," Kaylee eventually asked as she turned her eyes to Mal.

Jayne picked up his bag again. Another day he might've offered to go with her and play bodyguard, or more likely, he woulda complained when Mal ordered him to go with her. For a second, Mal's eyes flickered to him, and Jayne turned his back as he studied the port. Shanpei had a lot more options than Tanish 5 would've, so now he just needed to pick the right one. Problem being, he wasn't the best at making good choices.

"I could go with her," Zoe offered.

"No, with Kaylee gone, you're the best for rounding up passengers. I always say the gorram wrong thing," Mal said in a tone of disgust for his own failings.

Zoe just snorted her agreement.

"That's just not true, captain," Kaylee hurried to reassure him. Jayne started walking as fast as he could away from the familiar banter. It'd be too easy to fit into that argument… he knew just what he'd say. With Kaylee trying to stick up for the captain, he'd balance that out by telling all the stories of times when Mal had gone and made all kinds of trouble with his mouth. And eventually Mal would get tired and go storming off, and Kaylee would hit him in the arm and tell him he weren't being nice.

Jayne shook his head to clear the thoughts. He didn't fit in that picture no more. The last week had changed things, and Jayne couldn't just ignore that. If Mal and the doc found out just how much had changed, he'd be looking for his body parts in the storage decks.

He tilted his hat to block out the rising sun as he walked the dusty road and studied the ships. Most were short-hoppers that wouldn't need a shiphand like him, so he headed farther into the port proper.

Walking gave him time to think, and Jayne wondered if River had been right. Lord knows that he wanted to give over his pain. Only done that once, with a girl unsure enough about her own needs that Jayne was fairly sure he could keep things from going ugly. Even then, he'd felt the fear of giving over the control. Weren't many times he'd given up control, and most of them, he'd ended up in the shit. But the girl… that was a real shiny memory. She'd been careless with the whip and left two long scars on his back, just under his right shoulder blade, but Jayne never did regret those scars. He wondered what it'd be like to give over that power to Mal. The man sure as hell wouldn't be making no mistakes and lay him open; he wouldn't bleed unless Mal meant for him to.

Jayne leaned against a ship board and read it with very little real interest as he remembered being trapped in the airlock, Mal's hand on the control that would either kill him or let him live. Jayne'd been happy enough to leave the decision up to Mal, and that had scared him worse than anything ever had, including Reavers. After he left home, he'd sworn he'd never give another man control over his life, but he'd done that with Mal. Hell, even that last fight, he hadn't even really tried to take Mal down. No other man would ever get a free punch at Jayne Cobb, but when Mal had caught him with a nasty right, Jayne had just accepted it.

But Mal hadn't ever taken liberties beyond a captain taking care of the discipline of those on his ship. River had made it a mite bit more personal. Jayne scratched the scar from where her knife had slid into his guts. Knowing she'd done that… part of him had wanted to get as far away as possible.

Another part did wish it'd been River and not Kaylee chasing after him. His cock warmed at the memory of her holding him down and running that fingernail across his face. He could imagine a whip in her hand easy enough, at least if it weren't for Mal and Simon. The gorram doctor would get that amused look on his face, and after Jayne backhanded some manners into the doc, River would probably gut him again. His head definitely wasn't screwed on tight enough, especially since he still couldn't figure what he would have done if River had pulled him back on board. And knowing that she was capable of really hurting him… his chun zi cock gave a good twitch.

"You looking for passage?" a small Asian woman asked. Jayne looked up at her and turned away without answering. He wasn't paying for a ride off this rock. Maybe he would've gotten that desperate on Tanish 5, but at a port this size, someone would see the value of having crew like Jayne on board. And if he couldn't find anything today, he had credits enough to find a place for the night. He thought about buying himself a whore. Normally, he would be lusting the minute he hit planet with credits to burn, but right now, his chun zi cock couldn't care less about some cow-faced chou san ba who would sink to her knees on his orders.

Heading north, he walked the line of ships and studied each board where the captains had posted what they had for sale and what they were lookin' for. With any luck, he could find a ship looking for muscle. He just needed to find some work that would give him something to think about.

Two hours later, Jayne was about ready to go back and see if Serenity was still in dock. Alliance was spreading its fingers farther and farther, and now, with the Reavers on the decline, wasn't much call for a hired gun. Leastwise, there wasn't much call for Jayne's sort of hired gun. Two different ship boards had advertised for people good at investigating planet-side situations, which was a nice way of saying someone who could go in and take care of a nice little assassination or case a place all quiet-like, but Jayne didn't even bother talking to the captains. He was lots of things, but quiet wasn't one.

Dropping his bag next to one more ship board, he cringed at the first column with the ship's offerings. He didn't think much of those that worked on slaver ships, but right now, he was getting desperate. And the ship's ports of call included Jiangyin and Whitefall, which were definitely places where his talent might be appreciated a mite bit more. Course, on Jiangyin he might end up doing farm work, but it wasn't like Jayne didn't know which end of a shovel to use.

Staring at the board, he tried hard not to think about what Kaylee would say if she saw him considering the Henrietta. Jayne stood trying to decide if his reluctance to ask for the captain was his common sense or just some left over bits of Kaylee that had rubbed off.

"Ya looking for work?" A tall, stovepipe-shaped man walked up and leaned against the ship board. He tilted his hat back as he considered Jayne. His arms were wiry with muscle, and the casual way he leaned against the board told Jayne that this was a man with more strength than showed on the surface. The gray eyes were calculating and cautious, just the sort of man Jayne understood.

"Might be," he acknowledged.

"Ever worked a slaver?"


"Got a problem with a slaver ship?" the man crooked an eyebrow.

The direct question startled Jayne, and his first reaction was to say that he did, but then it wasn't like he had a lot of room to judge, not when he remembered how his own ex-partner had ended up in a little cage for years after Jayne dumped him on his ass mid-job. Life had been simpler then. He hadn't felt those nagging doubts when he'd been that man. The man who double-crossed Stitch Hessian didn't let things like other people's ethics slow him down. Decision made. "As long as I get a fair wage, my theory is every man for himself," Jayne shrugged.

"Pay's good."

"How good?"

"A hundred and twenty credits per run, five percent profits for new-signs."

"Last ship I got more," Jayne commented casually. He ignored a little stab in his guts that hit him hard enough to make him absent-mindedly scratch his stomach.

"Survive your first run without doing something stupid, and we can renegotiate," stovepipeman said seriously. Jayne considered him without answering, still scratching his stomach.


"Two to a room."

"Want a private," Jayne immediately answered. The man narrowed his eyes and considered Jayne.

"Private room, fifty credits flat plus five percent."

"Private room, a hundred credits, and my percentage," Jayne countered. For the first time since River had crept into his room, he felt in control—balanced. Hell, maybe for the first time since Mal had caught him trying to sell out the Tams. Standing in that airlock waiting for Mal to kill him, Jayne had somehow lost his balance, and he hadn't never gotten it back, but this was familiar. Stovepipe man pulled out a cigarette and lighted it as he considered Jayne.

"Ya worth it?" he finally asked. Jayne gave a slow smile.

"Every credit. You got a dirty job what needs doing, and I'm the one who'll get it done," Jayne agreed. Stovepipe man pushed his hat back far enough to show the wispy hair around the edges of a spreading bald spot and took a deep drag at his cigarette.

"Jin Bennett," the man said as he stuck out his hand, cigarette hanging from his lips.

"Jayne Cobb," he offered as he shook the man's hand.

"Come on then. I'll give ya a proper introduction to the crew."

Jayne followed his new captain up the ramp into the hull of the Henrietta. Permanent cages set into the sides of the main cargo area still had a few slaves leaning against the bars. Most were men, one was a woman who looked like she could take Zoe in a straight fight, leastwise if she rushed Zoe fast and didn't let the soldier get her fancy moves going. The slave sat on the floor, her hand wrapped around the bars on one side of her cage, and her bare feet braced on the bars on the other side.

Jayne felt a crawling sensation in his guts which he promptly put down to not eatin' anything before leaving the Serenity.

"Crew quarters through here. You can have number 11," Bennett offered as he waved toward a passage.

"Key?" Jayne asked. The captain turned and considered him.

"Ya'll don't need one much around here," he said slowly.

"If one of them slaves gets loose, I don't plan on having my shit touched," Jayne crossed his arms and just waited for a key.

"Yer a suspicious son of a bitch, aren't ya?"

"Reckon I am," Jayne agreed with a shrug.

"I'll have the first mate run ya up a key. But a work-slave's worth more than three years of your wages, so if one of them gets loose, yer job is to catch 'em easy without anyone's shit getting touched and without the slave turning up damaged."

"Fair enough," Jayne agreed. As long as he had his key and his private space, he didn't much care what the other rules were on the ship.

"And the work slaves are off limits. If ya want to get a woman, you get one planetside. I catch you screwing the work slaves, even if they invite you into their cage for a spell, and I'll castrate ya myself. Did it to a randy son of a bitch a few deckhands past."

"If I need getting sexed, I can find me a whore easy enough," Jayne agreed. The captain didn't need to know that Jayne had no interest. Hell, a night in his bunk and his hand was about all he felt up to right now. Gorram River had left him raw, and a whore was the last thing on his mind.

"Ya just might fit in fine," Jin said as he pushed open the door to the main galley. "Found us a replacement for Natie," he said to the crew gathered in the small space.

Four men were playing cards, the deck flashing with holograms of naked women that Jayne could see even from across the room. A woman with a scarred face was tending to her gun and a boy who didn't look old enough to be away from his mother's skirt was on a computer terminal.

"Jayne Cobb, meet the crew of the Henrietta. Crew, this is Jayne Cobb." Jayne nodded as he looked around the room. This is where he belonged, with men who were as rough as he was and wouldn't care none if he was speaking the truth or giving someone a shove. Forget the Serenity and gorram River Tam with her lessons on manners. Jayne Cobb was officially a slaver.


Jayne groaned himself to life, his head throbbing from the booze from the night before. "Gou shi," he complained softly as he rolled onto his stomach. His mouth felt like it was stuffed full of cotton… cotton soaked into sheep shit. The next time Lexos asked him to go drinking, he was telling the man where to shove his head. Might even help him put it there.

Definitely hadn't landed on his bed, that's for gorram sure. Hopefully he landed on the floor of his own quarters at least. And hopefully this time he hadn't thrown up on them. Jayne never thought he'd find a crew he couldn't out drink, but the Henrietta had a real scary-ass crew.

Slowly blinking, Jayne couldn't figure out why the light was all weirdlike. By the time he could blink well enough to recognize bars, Jayne was starting to recover a few memories from the night before. A bar. Possibly a tattoo. Jayne reached up and scratched his shoulder. Okay, his shoulder didn't hurt, so either he dreamed that part or someone else went and got tattooed. Probably Rodge. Groaning, Jayne pushed himself up, curling fingers around the slave-cage bars to help himself sit straight.

"Gorram Lexos," he muttered, rubbing his hand over his face. The slave cage was a nice touch. Jayne was going to have to find a special way to repay him next time they were out drinking, at least after he slipped Lexos a knock-out pill because he was starting to think he had a cat's chance in guay to out-drink the man. Might even be starting to think he should stop trying.

"Ah, so you live. I had wondered," an overly cheerful voice declared. Jayne had long ago decided that anyone who was that gorram cheerful in the mornin' wasn't to be trusted. He glared at a middle aged man with a hanging belly and dark skin. The stranger smiled, showing his white teeth before he bent down and offered a bottle through the bars. Jayne took it with a suspicious look.

"No profit in poisoning you," he pointed out when Jayne didn't drink right away.

"No profit at all. Not a gorram slave," Jayne grumbled as he took the bottle and drank. Vitamin water. Least it would knock down the hangover. He finished it off. Holding the bars of the cage, Jayne pulled himself up and looked around. He was still planetside, but in a slaver's barn. A small slaver's barn. A small, dirty slaver's barn. Niou-se.

"I'm guessing you don't remember much," the annoyingly cheerful man said with a grimace. "I'm not good at this part."

"What part?" Jayne asked suspiciously. He was quickly starting to get a bad feeling about this. And memories floating to the top of his memory. . . memories of a big game, a huge pot, well, they weren't exactly reassuring him.

"You shouldn't gamble on a world that registers slaves," the man said as he took a step back from the bars as though expecting Jayne to reach through and throttle him. Not a bad idea.

"Da-shiang bao-tza shr duh lah doo-tze!" Jayne slammed the flat of his hand against the locked cage door. "I'll find that gorram gan ni niang and feed him his own cock," he snarled.

"Okay, maybe you need a little time to calm down, although I do give you points on creative cursing. My Chinese isn't actually that good, don't really go to the docks much, but if that means what I think that means, that elephant would make a pretty disgusting mess. Do they actually get diarrhea? I never really thought about it before, but I guess it's possible. Gross, but possible." Fat man reached up and scratched his neck as he watched with wide eyes.

Jayne gave the man his most withering look. He got at least some satisfaction when the zhu tou took another nervous step back. "The game was legal. You signed on," the fat man insisted.

"I were drunk past knowing my own name," Jayne growled as vague memories of a contract floated into his mind.

"Jayne Cobb, right?" the guy asked.


"Then you knew your name because you signed Jayne Cobb. You want to see a copy?"

Jayne closed his eyes and leaned back against the bars of the cage. Well, cao. This were a special kind of all fucked up. "I suppose you offering to let me see it means it actually is legal," he sighed. "Weren't fair, but I reckon fair and legal don't always amount to the same thing."

"Can have the magistrate out for you to get it checked if you want, but I bought you off the gambling house after you lost, and the gambling houses are real careful about not making mistakes."


"Got a good price. Some of the slavers thought you might be a little hard to handle, and after the number of weapons they took from you, most people just quit bidding right there."

Jayne's fingers involuntarily went to his belt, his sleeve, the small of his back. He didn't even bother checking his gorram boot. Little fat man just kept right on talking.

"… but I figure if you worked on a slave ship, you probably understand… well… you know."

"I reckon I know what kind of niou-se my life just started resembling," Jayne offered.

"I wouldn't really say that. I was just going to point out that as a registered slave you can't exactly get off the planet. Or travel by yourself or buy food or get much more than two miles without setting off an alarm."

"Know that already," Jayne sighed. He was never one for planning, but this situation might take a little patience. The central slaving worlds had security that made the Alliance look like they just sat around scratching their asses all day. He wouldn't make it two miles before he got put in chains, and Jayne knew all too well what happened to slaves that had reputations for running. But if played good little boy and got sold to one of the border worlds as a worker, well, a farmer wouldn't really have a chance at holding him. The part that really pissed him off, though, was that he'd lost Vera. Had that gun a long gorram time, and losing her over something this stupid just really rubbed wrong.

Jayne slid down the bars and sat on the floor of the cage.

"Maybe I should let you recover some," the man said softly.

"Need to piss," Jayne said. He looked up and could see the uncertainty on his owner's face. "Ain't going to do nuthing stupid in the middle of a slaver world. I'm assuming I'm already chipped."

"At the gambling house."

"Shiong mao niao."

"So running really wouldn't improve things much. They'd actually make things a lot worse, and I figure you're thinking they're already pretty bad, but it's not as bad as you thing. I know—"

"Need to piss or I'll piss on your shoes," Jayne interrupted the man's pep talk as he got up again. The world tilted a bit for a second.

"Oh, um, okay." The man turned his back and pulled something off the far wall. When he came back with chains, Jayne didn't even bother arguing. He'd chained plenty of slaves when he took them out of the cages on the Henrietta. He just put his hands through the gap in the front and waited. The fat man hesitated.

"I'm not kidding about pissing on you," Jayne warned, and the man snapped the chains around Jayne's wrists.

"Just don't go thinking you can hit me," he said as he held the chain and unlocked the cage door.

Jayne pushed it open and stepped out into the barn. "I know I can hit you, little man. Could probably snap your neck like a twig." Jayne paused just long enough to see the fear in his owner's eyes. "It probably weren't worth it, not unless you annoy me real bad, anyway," Jayne shrugged.

"I. . . you—"

"Need to pee, and that need's getting plenty insistent," Jayne said as he stood next to his cage.

"You say something like that and then expect me to just. . . maybe you should get back in the cage. I'd feel better with your hands behind your back."

"Look little man, I know it ain't going to do me no good to hurt you, and I have to pee. I'd appreciate it and would consider it a mighty big favor if you could just point me at the outhouse before I pee on you." Jayne considered the man for several seconds before he gave a nervous nod that made his neck fat jiggle a bit.

"Right," he said weakly and then led Jayne out into the sun. Jayne flinched back from the light that just made his head split near down the middle.

"Cao," he snapped as he tried to shield his eyes with his chained hands. If Mal were around, the captain would have a good laugh at his gorram mess. "Can't just keep calling you little man. You got a name?" Jayne asked as he stepped farther out into the sunlight. It was a farm. . . and it was kept about as well as the slave shed.

"Killer Mann."

Jayne gave the man a disbelieving look, but he didn't seem to be funnin'. Killer glanced over and caught Jayne's expression.

"Parents were new to the territory. Thought a real tough name would help me not get walked on."

"It work?"

"Not really," Killer admitted. "Most folks call me Mann."

Jayne just snorted and went into the outhouse when Mann held the door open. The fact that the door stayed open didn't bother him, but the gorram chains made it hard for him to work his pants. He finished, wiped his hands on his pant legs and went back out to face his owner, not bothering to get cranky when Mann again grabbed the chain that dangled down between his wrists.

"Right then, what now?" Jayne asked. "I'm on the transporting end of the deal, not the processing." Jayne tried not to look worried, but not knowing was making him a little crazy.

Instead of focusing on Mann, he looked around the place. The house was passable, needed some paint. A few chickens wandered the yard, and the fence leaned drunkenly, several of the rails already on the ground. All in all, it looked like the Cobb farm the first day his step father had come. His mother had put one of those gorram ads out, widow with a farm looking for a husband. Even when the wang ba dan was trying to be charming and all friendly-like, he'd looked around their farm with disgust.

"Uh, training, but I figured you want to sleep off the hangover. There's no hurry," Mann said as he looked up. He fiddled with the chain, and Jayne could read Mann's mind about as easy as River read his. Didn't mean he were offering to kneel just because his owner was feeling mighty uncomfortable looking up at him.

"Training? I'm not a gorram dog," Jayne said darkly. That didn't get an answer, and he sighed. "What exactly do you plan on training me to do?"

"That depends on what your skills are. What did you do before?"

"Killed people," Jayne said shortly. Mann's dark skin lost a lot of its color.

"Really?" he finally asked in a shaky voice.

"Gos-se. I'm not likely to kill you seeing as how that'd put me in real trouble, but I've done my share. Usually I just get hired as muscle, sometimes I intimidate people to make 'em remember what it were important for them to remember."

"Oh, I, uh, bet you were good at your job."

"Real good," Jayne agreed.

"I don't think… I mean, there's not really much call for slaves to kill people. Not really the point. I don't suppose you have any other skills. Fixing things? Cooking?"

"My cooking generally leads right back to people being dead," Jayne admitted. "Worked a farm when I was a boy."

"Farm work. We could train you up and sell you for farm labor." Mann sounded so damn cheerful about it that Jayne thought for one second he just might be annoyed enough to break the man's neck.

"Not that… I'm sure… Shit." Mann stared off into the distance. "Are you planning on glaring at me like that the whole three weeks you're here?"

"Three weeks?" Jayne asked. He really wasn't sure that Mann would survive three weeks, chains or no chains. The little man was more annoying than Wash had ever dreamed of being. Immediately, Jayne flinched away from that memory.

"Every new slave has to train for three weeks, to make sure he knows what to do."

"I know how to do farm work, and I'm not going to gorram snap your neck, so I reckon I got the basics down."

"Let's talk in the barn."

Jayne set his feet. "I figure we can talk here," Jayne argued. Mann dropped the chain to Jayne's hands and backed away, his hand going to his pocket.

"Whoa there, little man. I ain't doing nuthin but talking." Jayne held his hands up and backed away a step himself. He could think of any number of things that might be in that there pocket, and there weren't none that he wanted to see the business end of.

"I'm really not good with slaving, truth be told, but I told you to go to the barn, and as much as I don't want to, I'll hurt you if you don't go." Mann backed off another step, and looked more ready to have a heart attack than do anyone any harm, but Jayne'd been around enough to know that scared people did stupid things. Real stupid things. It occurred to Jayne he mighta done one or two stupid things himself when scared, and he wasn't looking to back Mann into any corners.

"No problem, little man. If you want to talk in the barn, we talk in the barn." Jayne started sliding toward the barn, keeping his eyes on Mann. Felt wrong, backing down to a fat little man like this. This wasn't like backing down to Mal because the captain had proved often enough that he knew how to get their asses out of trouble better than Jayne. Wasn't even like having to back down to River. After trying to sell her to the Alliance, he figured she had a right to get in a few hits, and she was strong enough that backing down to her just felt natural-like. But this fat man?

Jayne gritted his teeth knowing he didn't have much of a choice. It'd feel more wrong if Mann called for some backup or if he had a weapon in there. Course, in other circumstances, Jayne could snap him and free himself easy enough, but on a slave world, with a slave chip, he wouldn't get far. So, since surviving was his best skill, he'd survive. Jayne only turned his back on his new owner when he went into the barn and headed for the slave cage without protest.

Staring at the far wall with his back to the cage door, Jayne waited until he heard the click of metal before he turned back around. Mann was sweating, and really looked like he might have a heart attack any second. Didn't leave Jayne feeling too good about what would happen to him if his owner went and died on him, leaving him all locked up.

"No trouble, see?" Jayne said soothingly, or at least he tried for soothing. Mann still jumped like Jayne had cursed him out in two languages. Then he started laughing weakly.

"Wife told me I had no business buying a big slave like you. Have heart problems, which is why I need the money from a good sale."

Jayne really didn't have anything good to say about that so he just leaned back against the bars of the cage and focused on ignoring his headache. Gorram mess.

"You're going to intimidate most buyers if you glare at them like that. So, part of your training has to be for you to stop looking like a hired killer."

Jayne looked at Mann blankly.

"And I'm thinking that may not be easy. You really do look dangerous, so let's start somewhere easy. You're so big that you're going to need to kneel when you're talking to your owner."

Jayne narrowed his eyes, but when Mann's hand went to his pocket, Jayne slowly sank to his knees. He'd known it was coming, so it shouldn't have felt like such a kick to the guts, but it did. Life really did hate Jayne Cobb.

Nearly three weeks later, Jayne brushed the sweat off his forehead before slipping his hat back on. Whole gorram fence was ready to fall apart. Something just felt right about pulling it up and putting the new one in. Leastwise, it was a whole lot better than sitting in the barn twiddling his thumbs doing a whole lot of nothing. He remembered being a boy and replacing a fence on their farm with his father. The old man had pulled the rotting wood from the ground and held it out for Jayne, showing him the tiny white bugs in the crumbling splinters.

Funny how working under the sun brought back memories he didn't rightly even know he still had. His father had shown him where to dig new holes to avoid the bugs, explained how a good fence could last a generation. His own father had put in the fence they were taking down. Jayne didn't have much memory of his grandfather, seemed like the Cobb men were destined to die young. Jayne felt a flash of anger.

Gorram fence hadn't lasted long after all. The part him and his father put in got tore down with what was left standing of the rotten one from his grandfather's time first settling the ranch. In fact, the gorram thing only lasted about six months longer than his gorram father who'd gone and died on them. Jayne put his shovel deep into the ground and tossed the dirt to one side as he tried to unbury the base. Whoever put this in hadn't packed the bottom with rock, made it too easy for the bugs to come in and eat the wood. Jayne had already fixed that on the first half of the fence line, and hopefully this fence would last longer than that one from his memory. Weren't nothing left of that fence after a year, not even firewood.

His step father had come with money… not enough money to buy the kind of land he wanted, but then he'd found a widow for that part. One of the first things he'd done was hire a rig to come in and rip out the wood fence and replace it with an electrical one. The neighbors had been mighty put out since it was their cows that kept showing up with electrical burns, but Jayne's step-father never had been one for caring what other people thought. The man certainly didn't think much of a cryin' child throwing a tantrum, that's for sure.

Jayne had watched that machine destroy in one day everything he'd spent weeks working at building with his father. His ma had tried to sit and explain, Jayne remembered that, but it had just seemed so gorram unfair. Cows getting into the garden didn't seem near as important as erasing something that his father had built, something Jayne's own hands had helped build. He'd held the post as his father had shoveled the rock, and now some chou ba guai machine was rippin' it out.

His step father had slapped him across the face and called him a baby, and not even that had stopped him. Jayne hadn't stopped throwing his fit until he'd seen his ma start crying. He never did stop being angry, even when he told his ma he had. Never lied to his ma before that.

Sinking the shovel into the hard ground, Jayne pried on it again, muscles straining as he tried to get the old post out. The rotted wood gave with a sharp crack and Jayne stumbled back a bit. Felt good, making something give way to him. The wood would make passable firewood once he'd corded it. He might have time for that tomorrow. He figured he'd proved himself enough to be trusted with an ax. If not, he'd leave it for Mann up by the house. The way the man wheezed when he did anything more than walk a dozen steps, the wood would rot to dust before he got around to chopping firewood, but maybe the missus could finish the job after she dropped that pup of hers.

A noise behind him meant that Mann was ready to be noticed. Jayne had given up trying to pay attention whenever the man appeared because apparently other people found it real unnatural how he knew when someone was behind him. Jayne couldn't exactly turn off that sense of danger when people were at his back, but he was getting better at ignoring it. At this point, if it got him dead, Jayne could only count that as a blessing.

He leaned the shovel against the bit of fence that was still standing and sank wearily to his knees. It were getting too easy to do that, and having to kneel for Mann had ruined most of his good bunk fantasies, but Jayne was getting used to that, too.

"I can't believe how much of the fence you have done; it's looking great. I'll go into town and get more posts." Mann held out a glass of lemonade, and Jayne reached for it, ignoring the flare of something warm at the compliment.

"Not smart, letting the wood rot. Once it gets bugs, the things will take out the good wood with the bad," Jayne said. If he couldn’t come right out and call Mann fat and little, he'd settle for getting more subtle digs in. Problem bein' that either Jayne was remarkable bad at being subtle—which very well might be the case—or Mann was unusual thick.

He just nodded with a hint of embarrassment in his smile. "Can't do the work myself, and most of the slaves I get aren't the best. I can't really afford high-quality slaves."

Jayne focused on his lemonade and not the thoughts rattling around in his brain. Fact was, this place weren't bad. The missus cooked good, and the work was satisfying. Okay, not as satisfying as seeing some wang ba dan look at him with fear in his eyes, but seeing the new fence finished along the west side gave Jayne some satisfaction.

"Are you going to be finished in three days? If you can dig out the old posts and set new ones, I should be able to handle the cross pieces, but I don't want the fence down, and with the baby coming, I can't afford a hired hand."

Jayne tipped his hat back before he finished the lemonade. "Could keep me around the place. If you had someone who weren't so sickly, you could put in some cows. That west field would take corn good," Jayne suggested slowly. A little piece of his brain kicked him… hard. He'd never slip free of the leash here on Estias, but if he went and got sold, there weren't no guarantee that he'd be sold to a border-world. Better the owner you know. And Mann was looking thoughtful.

"I really wish I could." Mann took his own hat off and nervously scratched at his turkey neck, something that always meant the man was about to say something that Jayne wasn't going to like none. "I'll never be able to afford anyone as good as you, and I'm really afraid you aren't going to bring full value at market. You have a habit of looking scary when you aren't being careful, so it seems like a good business move, keeping you around the place."

Mann sighed heavily, and Jayne could hear the 'but' in that silence. "The wife really doesn't want a slave around when the baby comes. I mean, she knows you aren't dangerous, and she really appreciates the work you've put in here at the farm. Let me tell you, she doesn't just make her strawberry-rhubarb pie in the middle of the week for no reason. But she's not really okay with slavery. She puts up with me bringing someone home for three weeks every now and then because we need the money." More neck scratching. "I even tried to talk to her about keeping… you know." Mann just sort of ran out of words, which was unusual. Most times, the man could talk until Jayne's ears was hurting.

"So, she's okay with me bein' sold to someone I don't know, but she weren't willing to even consider keeping me around?" Jayne summarized that whole awkward speech. Mann didn't answer, which was answer enough.

"I tried," Mann said unhappily as he held out his hand. Jayne handed over the lemonade glass.

"Ain't your fault," Jayne sighed. Likely it wasn't. Mann had all the spine of a jellyfish, and for all the missus' good cooking, she wouldn't never even meet Jayne. He didn't know her past a glimpse of a female face at a window. And maybe she were right, Jayne wasn't the sort you wanted around if you were going to have little 'uns running around the place.

"I need to go into town," Mann blurted.

Jayne nodded and started to stand, but Mann's hand landed on his shoulder, keeping him in place. Jayne still had to fight a gut-level need to shake off that controlling hand.

"I thought maybe I could let you work the fence while I took the cart in."

Jayne looked up in surprise. When Mann was gone, Jayne spent his time in the slave cage. He'd discovered over the last two and a half weeks that there weren't nothing in this world he hated more than having to sit still with his own thoughts, but it wasn't like anyone had asked for his opinion on the matter.

"Could work on getting the last three posts down before sunset," Jayne agreed casually.

Mann shifted nervously from one foot to the other.

"I ain't going to go and get stupid," Jayne said with a sign. There was stupid and then there was trying to run on a slave world. Jayne's stupidity ran to getting drunk and gambling with his own freedom, not getting himself tortured and broken.

"I'm just counting on the price you'll bring what with the doctor's bills, and if you run, that's the sort of thing that would go in your sale file," Mann admitted slowly, and the discussion of Jayne's price was enough to sour any warm and fuzzy feeling he'd had earlier.

"I'm a mite bit more worried about what they'd do to me when they caught up with me," Jayne pointed out, his anger barely in check. Having Mann talk about his sale like he were a cow did hit that aggravation button pretty hard.

"See, that's the expression that's not likely to inspire trust in any buyers. I know you're just cranky, but they might think you were looking 'bout ready to snap my neck like a twig." Mann gave a weak laugh that ended abruptly.

Jayne didn't answer since whatever he said was likely to get him locked in his cage again. Instead he just tried to push aside the frustration of his coming sale and focus on the nice straight fence section he'd finished as it cast a long shadow in the afternoon light. For heavy minutes, Jayne knelt and endured Mann's hand on his shoulder.

"Right then, I should go," Mann said, uncharacteristically quiet. Jayne still didn't answer. "Jayne," he said softly, "I'm real sorry. I appreciate how much you've done because no way under the sun would I ever have worked you this hard, and you been giving your everything here. Means a lot, what you've done. I know I'm not a good provider for my family, and sometimes I don't rightly know how we're going to make it through another winter, but what you've done here matters. I really am sorry."

Jayne took a deep breath. "Got your own family to worry about. I'll take care of myself, always have," Jayne said shortly. Wasn't much else to say. Mann's hand disappeared, but Jayne kept his eyes focused on this distant fence rather than Mann's awkward heavy-footed walk as he headed for the barn.

Resting on his knees, Jayne watched as Mann drove the cart up the road. Kaylee should look at that engine what with the rattling noise. Jayne shoved that thought as far back as he could. He'd turned his back on them just as sure as he'd turned his back on his ma and Matty. Weren't Matty's fault he was the offspring of that wang ba dan his ma had married, but Jayne still didn't even write him. Yeah, he was good at walking away, about as good as people were at letting him walk away.

Jayne felt an uncontrollable anger rise up that Mal had just let him leave. His anger didn't make no sense because Mal hadn't ever taken responsibility for anyone on the Serenity. If someone wanted to walk away, he just got that constipated expression of his and crossed his arms. And River hadn't even come out to see him off.

River's words drifted through his mind: he thought too loud. Never thought the crazy girl would be right about anything, but she was right about that. Gorram thoughts just kept bouncing around his head like freight no one had secured before Wash sent the ship into a roll.

Wash, River, Mal. Reaching up, Jayne fingered the blue stone around his neck. Kaylee. It was like they still colored his memories, more than his ma and that long-dead father he still hated for leavin' him, more than a decade of reveling in doing bad. He wondered if those years on Serenity would still feel shiny after a few decades of digging in the dirt because if he got sold on one of the three slave worlds, he were going to die a slave. Least, he'd be a slave until he was too old to work, and then he'd be turned out "free" to starve to death. Feeling old enough to be ready for pasture already, Jayne pushed himself up and picked up the shovel. The next post wouldn't dig itself out of the ground.

He tried to find that place where all that mattered was the shovel digging into the earth, a place where seeing his work was enough to let his mind slide away from that all-powerful fear of his yangwei future. Instead, each shovelful weighted on him, his muscles straining against the dirt and the old wood as his thoughts kept creeping back in. Gorram thoughts just weren't leaving him be.

River had said they shouted in the darkness. Jayne closed his eyes and struggled with some unnamed emotion for a moment. If it weren't for her, he'd still be back on Serenity. He wouldn't be looking at a life of being worked on some farm by some gan ni niang who could do what he pleased. Jayne wouldn't be stuck in no life where he didn't have no recourse, where he couldn’t go complaining to the captain or jumping ship when things got too hard. 'Course, if he could just get sold to some dirt farmer on some border world or some ship that hauled him out for sale on a border world, he could slip the leash, and stay gorram free as long as he avoided slaver worlds and bounty hunters. That was better than turning his life over to whatever asshole bought him at auction.

Jayne sank the shovel as deep as he could, his arm muscles straining. Had enough of bein' under someone else's power. His ma had given him over to his step-father for disciplining and look how well that worked out. Jayne could almost feel the hot strikes of the belt across his naked butt. Cao. Didn't want to think about that. Should just focus on work.

Time after time, Jayne raised the shovel and brought it down hard against the hard-packed earth. Clods flew as he attacked the ground with all the frustration he felt rising up in his chest. Hadn't felt this gorram helpless since he'd been that kid bent over a chair with his step-father's hand holding him down. Didn't want to feel that helpless now. Just couldn't stop feeling it.

Jayne only dimly noticed the base of the post leaning, the ground yielding to his furious blows. Stomping to the next post, he attacked the ground around the new post, working until his shoulders burned and his elbows ached with the force of the blows against the unyielding earth. The edge of his shovel hit the wood and split it, and Jayne cursed as he struggled to pull the thing free of the divided post. The metal screeched against the wood as he yanked it free. Struggling to catch his breath, Jayne dropped the shovel and sat heavily on the ground, resting his head against his forearms. Cao. Yeah, if Mal could see him now, the cap would have a real good laugh at how much Jayne had fucked his own life.

Closing his eyes tightly, Jayne struggled to just breathe, breathe and focus on the here and now. He couldn't control his gorram future, so he just needed to focus on the fence. Nothin' mattered but the fence. If he could just put that up nice and straight, he didn't need to think about anything else.

Jayne glanced at the distant hills on the far side of the house. A part of him wanted to run real bad. Real bad. He didn't reckon he'd get far, but it'd give him a reason to be playin' such a fucking cooperative little slave. Building Mann his fence, tryin' so hard to do it just the way his father'd shown him. He was fucking weak. Never should've knelt to a fat zhu tou like Killer Mann. If he ran, they'd send soldiers after him. Might even kill him. He could go down fighting someone who weren't fat and stupid and weak.

Jayne stood up and looked at them hills. Really looked. The curtains fluttered at the window, and Jayne could see just one eye. From here, he couldn't even see what color it were. The missus. He wondered what she saw when she looked out her window at him. Obviously wasn't anything too good. Jayne glanced back at the section he was working. One good shove and this post would give, leaving him just one last post standing.

Jayne glanced towards the hills again. He might've done it, but he was just so gorram tired. Picking up the shovel, he headed for the last post. He could get it out and stack them up by the house before dark if he hurried.



The slave market was about as embarrassing as Jayne had expected it to be. He ended up sitting on a platform raised up about two feet from the dust of the market square. If he stood next to the post where Mann had chained his leg, he'd be above the crowd and too gorram conspicuous for his own liking, so like the other slaves all on their own little platforms, he sat down and bent his legs in front of him.

Just like on the Henrietta, most of the slaves were men. Didn't need to buy whores since they sold themselves in the houses, so most of the slaves were needed for working. Every once in a while, the crowd would thin, and Jayne would catch sight of a black-haired woman almost to the other side of the square, but for the most part, the slaves were all young men who were stupid enough or desperate enough or maybe just drunk enough to make the same gorram bad decision Jayne had.

Rather than watch the buyers who wandered the square, Jayne kept his eyes closed and wrapped his arms around his bent knees. It made it easier to avoid growling at the people who walked by and poked at him. About his only chance now was looking meek enough for work on one of the border planets. Mann had already shown him the advert he'd written, and it did put Jayne in a goodly light. Funny, Jayne usually avoided work, but that advert made him sound like a regular work horse. 'Course working was better than sitting in a gorram slave cage.

Jayne snorted at his ability to lie to himself. Harder to keep up those lies when a man had too much time alone for thinking thoughts that didn't fit into the little fantasy he'd built. Weren't no drinking or whoring or turning his anger on anyone else when he was in a slave cage in the middle of the night and couldn't sleep.

Jayne had always seen himself as strong, but these last three weeks had made Jayne start rethinking that. The longer he'd lived with his step-father, the more the man's words had come true. Man had called him a worm, and Jayne had tried his best to prove he had backbone, more than anyone on the whole damn planet. Had gotten himself in a world of trouble that way, and he knew he'd started losing whatever goodness his ma and pa ever tried to fill his head with. It was like trying to prove that he weren't a worm made him into one because Jayne knew his pa would have tanned him good for some of the stunts he pulled. 'Course his step-father tanned him, but what came after… the contempt… it just made him want to go out and do worse. His step-father would have a right laugh over Jayne being on a slave post.

But it weren't just that that made him weak. Put him on the Black Darling with Rick Smith, and he'd done started down a path that would have made his ma cry… if she'd ever known just how much of a wang ba dan he'd become. Put him on the Serenity, and pretty soon he was trying to figure out how to be a better man, how to be someone worth writing a gorram song about. Put him on the Henrietta and watch him drink himself stupid and sell himself into slavery. Put him on Mann's farm, and he'd been all about fixing up some farm that weren't even his.

He was gorram weak. Right now, Jayne figured he was about the weakest yanse lang in the whole gorram 'verse. Someone stopped to read the advert on the slave next to him, and Jayne leaned his head back against the post. The guy on the next stand jerked, his ankle chain rattling, but Jayne didn't bother looking. He wondered who he'd be in ten years. If he didn't get bought by one of the ships that ran out to the border planets, he figured he'd become one of them cow-eyed slaves that don't even bother looking at the hills anymore.

Wasn't a pleasant thing to discover about himself.

"Jayne," hissed a familiar voice, and Jayne had to take stock and make sure he hadn't lost his mind before he tilted his head up and cracked open an eye.

Then he had to blink to make sure he wasn't seeing things. "This is right embarrassing," Jayne muttered as Mal stepped close. River was behind him, that head tilted to the side, and even with her being bat-shit crazy, he was still happier to see them than he'd ever been to see anyone before in his life.

"You sold yourself?" Mal asked. "You done some mighty stupid things since I knowed you, Jayne Cobb, but you sold yourself?"

"Was drunk."

"Must've been gorram good whiskey," Mal swore as he read the advert nailed to the front of Jayne's post. "And you must've buffaloed whoever wrote this something good," he added as he gave the post with the advert nailed to it a good thump. "Motivated to work." Mal gave a good snort to let it known what he thought of that.

"You here for rescuing or humiliatin' me?" Jayne asked, more than a little annoyed with what Mann had written now that Mal was reading it.

"Here to buy a slave," River announced as she watched the crowds with interest. Mal graced her with a look that suggested she hadn't been having one of her better days.

"You had to bring her?" Jayne asked. River turned and briefly smiled sweetly at him, making his blood run cold, before she went back to watching the buyers.

"Can't rightly say I brought her," Mal said dryly, and there was definitely a story in there. "You're due up for sale in two hours, so we'll get you back to the Serenity after that."

"I can still hear you thinking all loud," River said as she glanced Jayne's way.

"Captain, I'd feel better if you did the bidding and not her," Jayne said carefully. Mal glanced over.

"Don't reckon I can blame you for that. She's been a mite bit peevish since you've been gone."

"I haven't," River objected to that. "You just need to get laid."

Jayne almost snorted up a lung at that outburst. Mal gave him a nasty look.

River really looked at Jayne then, looked so close that Jayne could feel himself squirm. "The Henrietta sent your bag back to us. You listed Mal as next of kin when you signed up," she offered, and Jayne had to remind himself that asking how they'd found him was a real reasonable question, so it weren't like she was reading his mind. Hopefully. He glared at her, and that just made her smile wider. It wasn't a real comforting expression.

"Maybe we can talk 'bout this once we get back home. Don't rightly feel like having this conversation when you're chained to a post in the middle of a market," Mal pointed out, and now Jayne noticed the frown and the way Mal looked around uncomfortably. "Idiot," he felt the need to add, but Jayne wasn't disagreeing.

"Fair enough," Jayne agreed. "And captain," he said when Mal had started turning away. Mal looked back at him. "Thanks."

"You're working off every gorram credit I'm paying for you," Mal warned. "And you'd better be about as good-natured about working as that there advert says you are."

Working it off… on the Serenity. Jayne couldn't even pretend to be unhappy 'bout that. Mal gave him a sharp nod and then tugged the brim of his hat down as he hurried through the market crowd. Unfortunately, River didn't follow. She wandered closer to the short platform where he was sitting and plopped down on the edge. For a second, Jayne had a little fantasy of kicking her right off into the dust of the road, but he could just imagine how well that'd go over.

"Slave platforms are for the slaves," he said instead. She pulled one foot up under her.

"I didn't mean for you to go away."

Jayne snorted his answer to that bit of stupidity and leaned back against his post. Now that he knew Mal was here to claim him, he looked around the crowd. Wasn't sure, but it looked like a couple of Henrietta's crew were walking the rows. Jayne indulged in a nice little fantasy about Lexos wandering close enough for Jayne to break his neck. He may not remember all of that night when he'd lost his freedom, but he sure as guai remembered Lexos showing him the jackpot and explaining how a man could make a lifetime's wages in one hand of poker. Jayne'd been too gorram drunk to be foolin' with poker, but then that were just more proof of Jayne's weaknesses. Captain was right, he was an idiot.

"Ugly thoughts. Not as confusing as before, though," River said as she reached out and fingered the edge of his sleeve. Jayne pulled his arm back.

"Don't need you doing your crazy talk 'round here. Got enough problems without having to deal with you."

"I should have known that you'd run. I should've gone out there and told the captain that he couldn't let you leave." River didn't touch him again, but her fingers rubbed on the grain of the wood that made the platform. She stared at it like she could find all the answers in the universe there, and maybe in her own mind, she could. Jayne didn't even pretend to understand what went on in her head.

"You think the captain could've stopped me?" Jayne gave a laugh.

"Yes." The simple word almost whispered ended Jayne's laugh pretty quick.

"Weren't his right to be telling me what to do. I left. My decision," Jayne insisted, and right now he'd do about anything to get out of this conversation, but chained to the post, there weren't much he could do except sit there.

"He's all confused. He could stop you, but I don't think he wants to know that," River nodded slowly.

"I ain't tryin' to start a fight I'll lose, but you do know you're gorram nuts, right?" Jayne asked. "The captain ain't the one who's confused."

River looked at him, and for a half second, Jayne had visions of getting backhanded right off the platform. He wondered if anyone would try to stop her from banging up the merchandise before the sale, but that would be Mann's job, protecting him, and that would be the shortest fight in the history of the whole damn 'verse.

Instead of hitting him, she chewed her lip and looked all thoughtful for a second before she answered. "Most of the time I can hear my own thoughts clear, but sometimes other thoughts just spill over, and I can't sort 'em fast enough," River said, sounding more sane that usual. "I shouldn't have offered to take your pain until I had it all sorted out in my head what I should do, but I made that mistake. Got to fix it now." Jayne looked at her and wondered if she was sane enough to not break his arm if he kicked her off his platform. She laid her cheek down on her bent knee and looked at him.

"Cao," he swore. "Can't go hitting you when you look like some kid doing that," he complained.

"Not a kid."

"Reckon I know that. Guai, even the Reavers know that."

"Not crazy," River said in that same tone of voice. A passing customer gave her a real strange look.

"Ain't so sure on that count."

"Only as crazy as you," she said as she looked at him with another of her creepifying smiles.

"I'm about as sane as they come."

"Except the part where you sold yourself," River said in an annoyingly sane voice.

"Were drunk. And I gambled my freedom, I didn't gorram sell myself like some ji nv. Besides, I weren't the one who gutted you."

And the closest customer hurried away with her floral dress all swirling around her ankles as she nearly ran.

"Didn't gut you."

"Used a butcher knife on me."

"Just sliced a bit, is all," she argued, and for that one second, she sounded more like Kaylee than those nicely educated words of her brother. Jayne glared at her, and she slowly smiled. "I hurt you, but you can't say you weren't looking to get hurt," she shrugged. "Even then I could hear you, but there were too many voices. I didn't hear right."

"Damn well didn't hear right. Never asked for someone to gut me with a knife."

River reached out, and Jayne froze as her fingers reached under his shirt and traced the edges of the scar she'd left on him.

"I'm not bought and paid for. Should keep your hands to yourself," he said, and his guts were sending up so many emotions that Jayne couldn't even feel one before another came flashing through like a lightning storm. Fear was in there, desire and embarrassment and a flat out certainty that Mal was going to hand him his balls for letting River do this… it was all chasing through his brain.

"Yet," she said, her fingers tracing the hard line of the scar up on his stomach up and then down. "Not bought and paid for yet."

"Well, I don't think the captain will be giving you privileges," Jayne said as he finally gathered the courage to push her hand away. He wasn't intimidated by much, but knowing just what River could do, it made a man think twice about what he might be willing to just endure.

"Is that scar bigger than the one on your back?"

Jayne froze.

River's eyes drifted shut. "You think of her so often, of how she left fire on your skin and let all the loud thoughts scream themselves silent."

"Get out of my gorram thoughts," Jayne snarled, and now he were angry. River just watched him with those wide eyes of hers that reminded him of a cow, just blinking and watching.

"I shouldn't have let you leave."

"Can't tell a man what to do," Jayne said firmly. And yeah, it was a stupid thing to be saying. River reached down and trailed fingers over the cold steel locked around Jayne's leg just above his boot. "Weren't a slave then," he growled.

"Shouldn't have let you leave. Should have tied you up and kept you in my cabin until the mood passed," River said dreamily. "Got all confused, worse than the captain even." And there went Jayne's idiot cock startin' to get wrong ideas as her hand stroked his leg.

Jayne reached out to shove her off his platform once and for all, and inhumanly strong hands grabbed him, held him. One around his arm, and the other around his leg just above that shackle, and the part of Jayne that knew how to survive froze. Glancing around, he could see how people kept their backs to him, how the folks were avoiding his platform, so there weren't no help coming from anyone else, and Mal wasn't anywhere to be seen. Cao.

"Thought you promised you wouldn't be taking anything that I weren't giving," he said slowly, the prey to the predator, and it weren't a position Jayne was real good at… being the prey. River looked up at him and blinked several times. The sanity of earlier was slipping away.

"I won't take your pain," she said. "Never your pain, but I won't go letting you hurt yourself again."

"I'm not your gorram responsibility," Jayne snarled. River just smiled sweetly and put her head on his shoulder. Jayne rolled his eyes but didn't do anything else as she scooted closer. "Feel free to leave any time," he suggested.

"Not leaving you."

"Don't need a gorram babysitter. Not like I'm going anywhere," he pointed out as he jerked on the chain around his ankle.

"Shouldn't be up here by yourself."

"The whole point of the gorram platform is so that I am up here alone," he pointed out all logical-like. She ignored him.

"So strong, but all alone in the dark." She closed her eyes. "I could always hear you so much easier than the others, maybe because you were in the dark with me."

Jayne narrowed his eyes as the crazy talk really got going good. "Not in the gorram dark," he growled. She didn't answer right away.

"Even when the Reavers danced in my head, I could find you. Your pain sparkled when theirs drank in all the light. Sometimes they would pluck the light from the world so fast that it would leave streaks through my mind, and when I could feel them pulling at me, I'd see you. But then sometimes, I'd shut that door altogether and dance in my memories where the Reavers couldn't find me, and then I'd lose you, too." She shifted around so she was mostly facing him, draping one leg over Jayne's and he jerked just enough to make his chain rattle. Her eyes didn't even come open as she shifted her small body around so she was wound around Jayne and just about in his lap, her head resting against his shoulder and her eyes still closed.

That was all crazy talk, crazier than since before Book had died and she'd reclaimed some piece of her mind. Jayne looked at her, not really sure what to say to that because all the talk of Reavers was makin' his skin crawl. Fortunately, the Reaver talk made his cock think twice before going and doing something stupid and embarrassing about having a female draped over him.

River had commandeered his right arm, so Jayne had to use his left to adjust his hat to keep the rising sun off his face. Either the crazy had gone to sleep or she were faking it real good, so Jayne decided he could ignore her about as well as she was ignoring him. He just wished she hadn't decided to pick him as her bunk for a morning nap. But if she were in all out crazy-mode, he wasn't planning on arguing with anything she did.

Once River settled down and stopped saying crazy things, the crowd eventually wandered close again. The curious stares he got just made Jayne roll his eyes. When River shifted, Jayne let his hand rest on her back, and she settled down again. Girl was still loonier than bat shit, but if Mal was going to hand him his balls on a plate anyway for getting all personal with her, he might as well not make it worse by letting her go sliding off into the dirt when she was deep enough asleep to not notice.

Leaning back against his post, Jayne watched the shadows and tried figuring out the time until that two hours Mal had promised him were up.


The barker stood on the slave platform behind Jayne and gestured toward him. There was a goodly crowd, and Jayne tried his best to ignore all those eyes on him as the barker worked the crowd. "Next up is Jayne Cobb. He's a new one, only three weeks with Killer Mann, so you know he's coming with just as much spunk as he had when he signed that contract in Shiner's Gambling House." A soft laugh ran through the crowd, and Jayne crossed his arms and tried hard to not react to having so many people talking about him. The two guards that stood on either side helped a mite bit with that part.

"He worked as a ship hand on the Henrietta and a half dozen ships before that. Grew up on a farm, and Manny says he replaced the whole fence 'round the front of his property. Seeing as how Manny couldn't motivate a rabbit to reproduce, I think it's safe to say this one isn't adverse to hard work." This time the laughter was louder, and Jayne glanced over toward Manny who just laughed along with the rest of them. If that were Jayne, he'd be breaking the slave barker into little pieces for sayin' shi like that. Could be that was why most people wouldn't say something like that about Jayne.

"He looks tough, and if he replaced that whole fence on Manny's property, I'm guessing that it's fair to say he is tough, but Manny left him working the farm with Ursula there on her own, so either Jayne's not nearly as mean as he looks or Manny's a whole lot stupider than we all thought he was." That got an even bigger laugh. "Of course, ya'll saw what happened when one of the customers decided to go and take a nap on him. He may look mean as a rabid badger, but this one seems to be more bark than bite."

Jayne glared up at the barker, and would have been plenty happy to show the man just how much bite he had. Unfortunately, the guards stepped closer and the barker just laughed and gave Jayne's shoulder a friendly slap.

"Let's start with the standard 400 credits. I got anyone interested?" Several hands went up.

The barker rubbed his hands in undisguised glee, and Jayne really hated that this man would be getting a percentage of Mal's money. "Seems like we have a bit of a horserace for this one. Anyone interested at 500?"

A couple of men up front, a woman in yellow, Mal, and River all raised their hands. Even though Mal and River were standing near the back, Jayne could see the captain give River a mighty unhappy look. Might have something to do with the fact that her cuddling had convinced a number of people that Jayne weren't a dangerous sort. Drove his price right up, and if Jayne weren't anxious to get out of town, he'd be happy to disabuse the town of that belief.

"600?" the barker asked. Mal, River and a man up front still raised their hands.

"650?" This time it was only Mal and River with their hands up. Even though Jayne knew Mal would buy him, seeing the other fellow drop out of the bidding still made a wave of relief wash through. Would have sat down right in the dust of the road if there weren't so many people still staring at him.

"650!" Mal called out.

"We have 650, but come on, people. Big slave like this could do a lot of work. Manny said he even volunteered to run the Mann place, put in some cows and a cornfield. I know some of you widows could use a big strapping man who don't need supervising around the place," the barker cajoled the crowd.

"670," a woman in a blue dress called. She had a face like a horse and a half-dozen kids attached to her skirts.

"680," Mal immediately countered. The crowd fell silent as the barker scanned their faces. Whatever he saw, he decided to push a little harder.

"We can do better. Look at his muscle. And did ya'll see how quick he was to get away from that girl who went and cuddled up with him? He sure hadn't invited her to sit down, but he didn't say nothing about her falling asleep in his lap. That's a slave you don't have to worry about around your children."

"700," the woman in the blue dress called out. Another woman called out "710." Jayne was about ready to kill someone just to recover his reputation. They were making him out to be some sort of teddy bear, and even his best glare weren't slowing them down. "720," the blue dress yelled. "730," the other countered.

This were hell. Jayne had up and died and no one had bothered telling him. If story of this got out, Jayne weren't never living it down. Zoe would make those quiet-like comments that didn't sound like insults until he'd thought about it a spell and the doc would just come right out with the meanness. And with the captain and River watching, no way in guai that the rest of the crew wasn't going to hear all about it. Hell, any man here would let River do whatever she gorram wanted if they'd seen her go ripping through the Reavers, but all these folk saw it as proof that Jayne were something warm and fuzzy. And Mann…. Jayne was fighting real hard to not go over and punch that wide toothy smile of his.

"750," Mal shouted from the back. There was another pause as the crowd waited.

"Ladies?" the barker asked. First one and then the other shook her head. "Any other bidders? The stranger is getting a deal at 750. 500 gets you most standard work slaves, and Jayne here is far from standard. No supervising needed. Looks tough enough to keep most folks from messing with him, so you don't have to go rescuing your property from every teen playing a prank. My guess is that any teen playing a prank would find himself on the right end of a switch if he messed with Jayne here, but he's got a good temperament. You ain't going to find one like this again, so are you good folks really going to let a stranger walk away with the deal of the auction?" He looked around the crowd, and Jayne thought he just might have a blush going. He hadn't blushed since he was 15 and figured out just how getting sexed worked, but he could feel the heat in his face. Gorram embarrassing.

"We'll give 780," an old woman called. She was standing near another woman who looked positively ancient.

"800," Mal immediately shouted, but he weren't sounding happy about it.

"Now that's a little more fair, but he's still a bargain. Surely someone can pay the price Jayne here deserves. You know what they say, a good-natured slave is worth twice the slave price. This one is good-natured and huge. You won't find another like Jayne in a year of auctions." The barker looked around, but this time no one was meeting Mal's bid. "Last warning!"

"850!" It took Jayne a second to realize that was River's hand up in the air. Mal looked at her blankly for a second before leaning down and saying something in her ear.

"Ah, the young lady who had her nap on him earlier. I bet she felt safe sleeping around such a strapping man." Jayne couldn't contain a snort at that comment. River weren't one to ever feel unsafe. Hell, as much as he hated to admit it, if there were a fight, Jayne'd be one step behind River, close enough to cover her back and far enough way to keep clear of those blades she favored. The barker, however, was clearly ignoring Jayne's amusement. "Don't normally point this out, but for the ladies in the crowd, let me just say that Jayne was security on the Henrietta, did some gun work, so if you're feeling a need for some protection, he'd be the one to provide it. Even without a gun, he's big enough to make an imposing obstacle to anyone trying to take your property or press a courtship you aren't wanting."

That caused a few whispers in the crowd, and Mal was still whispering in River's ear. Jayne smiled. At least he didn't have to be ashamed of someone buying him for protection. Wasn't humiliating the way it was for a woman to buy him because he was warm and cuddly.

"860." Mal hadn't even finished before River was calling out her own bid. "870!" Mal had a look on his face like he might give birth to a litter of cats right there on the street as he bent down and whispered in River's ear again. Her head tilted to the side.

"Seems we still have a horserace here. Manny, I don't think you've ever done so well, have you?" the barker turned to Jayne's current owner as Mal and River did their conversating. Of course, it seemed that Mal was doing most of the actual talking.

"Nope," Mann agreed with a huge smile. "Had one who went for 600 once, but I never had one who worked as hard as Jayne or who was just so nice," Mann agreed. Jayne glared at the man. People had called him lots of things in his life, but no one ever called Jayne Cobb nice. "He has a nasty glare to him, but I just got used to that because he's the best I ever owned. Would've kept him if Ursula had let me," Mann finished happily.

"The bid is with the sleepy lady right now at 870, does anyone want to make another bid?" the barker called as he looked right at Mal and River.

"880," Mal offered.

"900," River all but shouted.

"Ching-wah tsao duh liou mahng," Mal cursed, and a huge laugh rolled through the crowd, at least those who weren't too busy being shocked.

"I think the stranger might have just been outbid by the girl. With a poker face like that, I wouldn't recommend that you visit our gambling houses unless the girl there can afford to buy you, too," the barker joked, and the crowd laughed, either because of the joke or because of the bright color Mal had turned. He was busy apologizing to the ladies standing close to him while River started weaving her way through the crowd.

"We're at 900, is anyone else going to jump in and give the sleepy girl a run for her money?" he called. Jayne gave Mal his best death glare, but the captain was too busy apologizing to some harpy to even notice that River was about to get the bid. No one answered, and this time the barker ended it quick. "Well, then, last warning. . . and sold to the young lady who had her very public nap this morning. Congratulations."

The barker gave Jayne one last pat on the shoulder as he jumped off Jayne's slave platform and walked to the next one. The guards were just pulling the young man to the ground in front of his platform, hands firmly on his arms, more because he looked ready to pass out than because he looked like he was planning to fight. The barker stopped and said a few words to him before stepping up onto the slave platform behind the boy and starting his next auction.

"Jayne, I hope you'll be okay. I really do wish I could keep you, but 900. 900, Jayne. 900." Mann looked ready to start either dancing or hyperventilating as the accountant with the record book and his own guards came walking up to them. River appeared out of the crowd which had shifted to see the new show, and immediately she rested her hand on his arm.

"He's a good man. I know no one wants to be told how to handle their slaves, but he doesn't need the whip," Mann hurried to tell her. River smiled, but it was an expression that looked almost normal, not the smile that made Jayne's balls crawl back up inside for protection.

"He's a very good man," River agreed.

Jayne opened his mouth to disagree, but her fingers dug into the soft part of his arm, so she obviously weren't feeling sane enough to leave off intimidating him.

"Now, I don't want anyone to get upset," Mal said as he finally caught up to the rest of them. It wasn't a good way to start a conversation with armed men because both guards instantly stiffened. One put his hand on the butt of his gun. "River ain't got 900 credits. Now, I'm willing to cover my last bid, and there weren't nobody else bidding against me, so I figure 880's a reasonable price."

River didn't answer, but she did pull a mighty impressive pile of credits out of her belt.

"Ai-ya," Mal breathed. "River, exactly where did you amass a pile of credits that size?" Mal asked cautiously. Jayne felt a stab of sympathy for the man because when you were dealing with River, you never did know quite what you were going to end up getting.

She calmly counted out 900, which was less than a third of the sizable stack before tucking the rest away. The accountant took 90 credits, recorded the sale and ran a scanner over the back of Jayne's arm where the chip had been injected.

"Sold the shuttle," River answered calmly.

"You…" Mal choked so bad he just stopped talking for a second. "You sold… You… Shun-sheng duh gao-wahn… You sold the shuttle you done stole from ME?" he demanded. Even Jayne backed up a step, but River just smiled sweetly up at him and there was something powerful disturbing about a girl who didn't even bat an eye at Mal's anger.

"Do we need the magistrate?" the accountant asked from behind his two guards, both had stepped up to shield their boss from any coming evisceration. Mann was behind the accountant looking ready to have that heart attack.

"NO!" Mal shouted so loud that one guard had his gun half out the holster before he realized that Mal was still directing his anger at River. Both guards looked confused at just how little River seemed to care. "Might need an undertaker here in a little while, though," Mal said, his jaw clenched. River just shrugged and turned to the slave master who stood with a key in hand to unlock Jayne's cuff. He'd kind of frozen when it looked like Mal was going to go mental.

"Are you going to unlock him? We need to get back to our ship." River smiled at the man as she put her hand back on Jayne's arm. Mal made a sound that came real close to a horse trying to belch, which weren't a healthful thing.

The slave master glanced toward Mal and then quickly unlocked the shackle from around Jayne's leg before hurrying away. The accountant and Mann were backing up just as quick the other direction.

"You sold my gorram shuttle? You sold my shuttle?" Mal demanded as his face turned red. "Bad enough you go thievin' from me, but you went and sold it?"

"Jayne's worth it," River said calmly as she started walking toward the west end of town. Jayne had to hide a smile at the look of fury on Mal's face. Girl had gotten him that angry more than once, and the captain always gave him the speech about making allowances. Seems like he wasn't in a mood to be making allowances now. The three of them reached the edge of the market, and River slipped her arm into Jayne's so they looked like a regular couple strollin' down the street.

Course, that didn't change the fact that most of the people who passed them had seen Jayne chained to the slave post and River sleeping in his lap. Jayne could only hope that no photographic evidence of that moment would ever appear, and if it did, that he had a chance to kill the owner of the evidence before it could get out.

"Jayne's worth it? That's all you gorram have to say? You went and stole my shuttle, without even a by your leave, and then you sold it, and I can't get a respectable explanation out of you?" Mal demanded just one step behind them. Jayne really was going to strain something trying not to laugh.

"Do you not think Jayne's worth a shuttle?" River asked suddenly as she stopped so sudden that she jerked Jayne's arm. She tilted her head as she looked back at Mal.

"I didn't say Jayne weren't worth it," Mal quickly answered with a concerned look toward Jayne, but for his part, he was enjoying the show too much to get offended. "I would've sold the shuttle myself if'n I thought we needed to. But I had the credit for buyin' Jayne, and you went and stole that shuttle from me."

"I didn't want you to buy him." River stopped in the middle of the street at the edge of the market.

"I reckon that since my shuttle paid his slave price, I bought him," Mal snorted. "900 gorram credits, and those are comin' out of your shares, Jayne. I figure if you give one-quarter back to the Serenity every run, you should break even about the time you turn a hundred."

River let go of Jayne's arm and planted herself in front of Mal, her head tilted to the side and her hands in fists, which wasn't never something you wanted to see on River. Even Mal backed up a step.

"I bought him. I owe you a shuttle, and I'll repay you. You didn't pay one credit for Jayne," she said fiercely. Mal looked up, trading confused looks with Jayne.

"Supposin' we ask Jayne here who'd he'd like to owe 900 credits for his bone-headed stupidity," Mal suggested. Jayne opened his mouth to agree with that, but River twirled back around and caught his arm as she started down the walk again.

"Ain't askin' Jayne. I bought him, and if you want to have me arrested for stealing the shuttle, you can captain, but that won't change the fact that I bought Jayne fair and square."

"Mei-mei, ain't right, buying a man like that," Mal tried as he followed them down the street. Jayne narrowed his eyes and watched River carefully. She was sounding all sane, but she obviously weren't giving up easy on the idea of owning him.

"Didn't buy a man, bought Jayne," River said with perfect River logic.

"I am a gorram man," Jayne snapped. River glanced up without slowing her walk a bit.

"You're a man, but not a generic man. You're Jayne. Wouldn't want to just buy a man, wanted to buy you. I shouldn't have let you walk away, but now I'm fixing that. Where do they sell chains?" River's words danced from one topic to the next so quickly that Jayne hadn't even processed the last question before River was pulling him toward a storefront on the far side of the street, "Land's Hope Smithing and Chains" painted on the front window.

"Cao," Mal swore from his spot trailing them, and Jayne agreed. Unfortunately, between River being his legal owner and River being River, he wasn't quite sure what he should do about it. Jayne glanced back toward Mal for help, and the captain could only shrug helplessly.

"This were wrong on so many levels," Mal complained softly as he leaned against the wall and stared at the ceiling. That way he could avoid the displays that Jayne was currently considering with more than a little horror. Right now, Jayne was seriously considering running only River being so gorram enthusiastic about owning Jayne, she'd probably put the law on him.

"We made mistakes, captain, so now I'm making them all right again," River said cheerfully. "How about those?" she asked the young man behind the counter. "Jayne, put up your sleeves so I can see them against your skin.

"Captain," Jayne appealed to the man. His pride had taken a beating lately, and he hated askin' the captain for help, but at this point it seemed necessary.

"River," Mal appealed to her, but River was already rolling Jayne's sleeves up for him.

"Cao," Jayne breathed softly as firm hands held his arm on the counter so the clerk who had a face like one of them little cherubs in a church could hold chains up against Jayne's skin for River to admire.

"River, this ain't right. Now, you stop torturing Jayne right now." Mal put on his best captain's voice, but River didn't seem impressed.

"Nope," River said cheerfully, and Mal got that constipated expression of his. "Captain can't stop me because he made a big old mess out of it."

"Me?!" Mal almost yelped. "I weren't the one who went and got myself put on the slaver's block or the one who went and stole a shuttle. And if we don't hire passage before all the berths are taken, not sure how we plan to get off the planet," Mal sighed.

Jayne frowned at that. "Ain't the Serenity—"

"Couldn't get permission for docking, seems we don't have a real good reputation in these parts," Mal crossed his arms and considered River all thoughtful-like. "Which led to someone stealing the shuttle and coming down before we could work out any proper plan." Mal's eyes darted toward the young blond man who was holding lengths of chain against Jayne's forearms for River to inspect, but he didn't seem to care one whit that Mal's first instinct had probably been to steal Jayne.

"Came, found, bought. Simple," River said as she leaned against Jayne's back and stood on her toes so she could peek over his shoulder. It meant that she was pressing her warmth to his back, and being that Jayne hadn't been sexed in nearly two months, he was having a real hard time reminding himself that it was River and not a woman back there. River pointed to the darker metal with larger links.

"Sixteen links with a center ring should fit nice," the boy behind the counter said as he rolled up the samples. "You want the leg shackles?"

"Nope," River said, just as cheerful as if she was picking out new fabric with Kaylee.

"Gao yang jong duh goo yang," Jayne muttered, but River and the salesman both ignored him. His life really were part of some crap-verse he'd fallen into, something along the lines of those comics he'd read as a boy where the hero got pulled into an alternate reality. It was the only explanation, and right now Jayne figured it served him right for ever signing up with Mal in the first place.

"Got some nice collars," the salesman offered.

River didn't answer that right away, and Jayne turned to Mal with near panic in his guts. He weren't walking around on a leash, not unless River planned to take out half the town with her blades just to prove that he wasn't some sort of gorram da shabi for walking on the end her leash.

"Now, River," Mal started, but River cut him off.

"No, no collar," River announced, and Jayne found he could breathe again.

"Weren't bad enough that Jayne had to go and get himself sold, no had to have River go off thieving and using the money to buy. . ." Mal waved a hand in the general direction of the counter.

"I'll go and get those done up. Shouldn't take me more than a half hour," the boy said as he gathered up the chains and shackles she'd chosen and headed for the back room. River turned and walked the far end of the room where the leather good hung on rings. One column for horse fittings, and another for slave fittings. Jayne groaned. If she bought leather, the last of his bunk fantasies was going to be officially ruined.

"Captain, you gonna do something about her?" Jayne demanded.

"Seems like I've been trying for the last twenty minutes, not that it's doing me much good. It was my shuttle she up and stole."

"I'll buy another shuttle," River said as her long fingers stopped on a thick leather band that was either a small belt or a collar for a seriously fat man.

"With what money?" Mal asked with a snort.

River looked up at him, her expression almost confused. "Money's easy. It flies through the air in little chirps and bits of information. It appears and vanishes with a storm that destroys a crop on one planet or makes for a big harvest on another. One line different on one circuit board, and computers sing in a new key and people will pay."

"Niou-se," Mal breathed. "Mei-mei, do you mean you could. . . "

"I would have made the money myself only I had to get to Jayne and you were too busy with your planning, and this was your fault so I wasn't willing to wait for you to fix it."

"My fault? Exactly which part of this whole gorram mess were my fault?" Mal demanded. Jayne leaned back against the counter and watched, not even bothering to hide his smile. If he had to put up with crazy girl putting chains on him just because the law said she could, then he should get something out of it. Watching Mal squirm seemed like a proper down payment.

"You didn't stop him. He left, and you never stopped him."

"He's a grown man. He's an obstreperous, grown man, and me telling him to stay wouldn't have done a whit of good."

"Then you should have hit him." River pulled a leather tie down from a hook and tilted her head as she held the leather in the sunlight coming in through the window. "Hard," she finished as she looked right at Mal.

"I don't go hitting people to make 'em stay on Serenity. If he wanted to walk, then that's his choice."

River was already shaking her head. "No, I went and said things I shouldn't have said, and you were supposed to fix it."

"Best you not go blaming other people for this here mess," Mal warned as he poked a finger her direction, and then that turned into him poking a thumb toward Jayne. "This were all Jayne's making for walking off the Serenity and going and getting himself put on the auction block."

That made Jayne stand up straight. He knew they'd all go blaming him eventually, but he didn't think they'd get around to it this quick. "Never asked you to come and save me," he growled, and Mal gave him a look that said the captain would be mighty willing to hit him now. Well, it wasn't like Jayne had a whole lot left to lose. He glared right back and took a step away from the counter.

"No!" River said as she stepped between them. The hand she put on Jayne's chest to hold him back still had that leather tie in it, and he got the smell of it in his nose. "Jayne knew if he didn't leave I was going to do something that would make the rest of you all… unhappy. He was trying to not let things get bad between us," River struggled with her speech, pausing as she fought to found the right word to put in the right place.

"Jayne, worrying about making us unhappy?" Mal snorted at that, and even Jayne glared down as River.

"I ain't no fluffy puppy like that barker went saying. I just didn't want to get my balls handed to me on a plate," Jayne pointed out. And that made Mal smile a bit. Yep, the captain knew him well enough to know that Jayne Cobb would take care of his own first and foremost.

"My fault. What I whispered in your ear made thoughts come sliding back into your mind," River said softly as she looked at Jayne and even managed to appear apologetic.

"If you went and said something to Jayne, that's between you and him, but that ain't got nothing to do with me and how I handle my crew," Mal said, breaking the moment, and Jayne could have kissed the captain for that because whatever moment was going on with him and River, that wasn't no place he needed to be going.

River shook her head. "His thoughts were all twisted."

"I suppose twisted would be one word for them," Mal agreed dryly, and River swung around to face him.

"You aren't listening," she complained, her voice near a shout as she looked ready to either cry or break something. That was an expression showing some mighty powerful frustration, and even Mal stopped, holding up his hands to placate her.

"Mei-mei," he soothed her, and that just seemed to make her angrier.

"Never listening!" she blurted.

"Mal's better at talking than listening," Jayne interjected before she could start breaking things… or crying; crying would be a good sight worse. "And I’m not wearing a leash," he said as he looked at the leather in her hand. Of course, if push came to shove, he couldn't actually stop her, but he planned to voice his objection anyway.

"Stay out of this, Jayne," Mal ordered.

"See, see?!" River demanded as she stepped forward. "Tell him, don't tell him, tell him, don't. Back and forth and it gets all twisty around."

"River," Mal sighed as he stepped closer to her, but she backed away stepping close to Jayne's side, and Jayne really had no idea what he was supposed to do about that. Mal looked at him, and Jayne could only shrug. It wasn't his week to be in charge of the crazy girl. Mal gave another sigh, louder this time. "We all just need to calm down. I need to go get us passage off-world. Jayne, you reckon you can handle her until I get back?"

Jayne snorted. Weren't no handling River when she wasn't in a mood to be handled. "I figure I can handle her about as well as you can," he settled on. Mal looked at him with a frown before nodding.

"I've got to go and book us passage." Mal didn't move as he looked from River to Jayne and back. Jayne just waited.

"If there were something I could have done to make you stay, you only had to say it," Mal said, and Jayne figured that was as close as one man ever got to offering another an apology.

"Appreciate that," Jayne offered back. "And I appreciate you showing up during this whole gorram mess. Wasn't looking forward to a life of shoveling manure. Could've stayed on the folks' farm if that were my life's goal."

Mal gave a nod and then headed out the door. The bell over it tinkled merrily before a heavy silence filled the room. Out in the street, the crowds thinned as the auction came to an end. The horse-faced woman who'd bid on Jayne walked by the window holding a chain leash to an younger man's wrist. He carried a two year old and held a boy by the hand. The rest of the kids orbited their mother, laughing and darting around in a complicated game of tag. Jayne would've murdered them all inside a week.

"Get all caught inside my own mind sometimes," River finally offered quietly.

"Think we all noticed. You were the one who damn near gutted me because you thought I'd look good in red," Jayne pointed out.

She was shaking her head. "Got mixed up that time." She put up her hand and rested it on Jayne's arm, which she seemed to be a doing a whole lot of lately. "Could hear you thinking so loud, and you'd look so good stretched out, your whole back red from the whip." River let her hand trail over Jayne's shoulder until it rested against his back. "Red and hot from the whip and you'd take every hit because I wanted you to. Train tracks as the leather licked up your skin and brought all that blood right to the surface so I could stroke your hot back and feel you shiver under me. And you'd confess every sin as your back sang with pain. Look beautiful in red."

And no way could Jayne convince his chun zi of a cock to ignore that. He got hard so fast it ached. River's eyes drifted closed and she leaned into him.

"You'll get us gorram arrested for doing something downright indecent if you don't stop," Jayne growled as he grabbed the counter to keep upright.

"Should find someplace else then," she whispered.

"No, we shouldn't," Jayne said as panic set in. She blinked and looked up at him. Ai-ya, she looked so young and confused, and what he was thinking would put him in that special level of hell Book used to talk about.

"Can hear you. When you need so much you hurt, your thoughts are all laid out pretty," she said as her hand started wandering around to his front. Jayne caught her wrist before she could touch him somewhere that would make him embarrass himself like some teenage boy fooling around with the neighbor girl behind the barn.

"Ain't got pretty thoughts. And the thoughts I'm having, Mal would cut off my balls if your brother didn't get there first," Jayne pointed out.

"They think I'm a child," she said slowly.

"Might be," Jayne agreed. He'd seen her curled up in her brother's arms, so it wasn't a hard assumption to make.

She sighed and pushed away from him, wandering back to the leather fixings. "Had Reaver thoughts playing through my brain. Thought things so ugly you'd never believe them. Thought things that make the worst thing you've ever done look like nothing," she said softly. She reached up and unhooked a collar with metal studs. "Never told them because they don't see me as anything but that girl who was so lost that she kept pretending to be five years old so she could believe the Reavers were just monsters under the bed, that the men with blue hands who brought pain were shadows in the closet that Simon could chase away with a light."

Jayne narrowed his eyes and looked at her. He wasn't a smart man, wasn't good with words, so he didn't have any that really fit this occasion. All he had was a mighty powerful urge to tell some ripe joke that made everyone forget the horrifying words.

She laughed, and he was fairly sure that wasn't a good sign. "You want to tell a joke."

Jayne sighed. "That's getting downright annoying, you reading my gorram mind."

"Can only see the patterns all pretty when you're feeling the needs," she said as she glanced down toward his crotch. His chun zi cock still hadn't gotten the message that it wasn't getting sexed in the middle of a chain shop in clear view of the public. Jayne wasn't sure what the punishment would be for someone who was already enslaved, but he was sure in guai not in a hurry to find out.

"Go looking in Mal's thoughts… Or Simon and Kaylee's, they're rubbing parts often enough that you should be able to look right in at them. Mind, something mighty bothersome about you looking into your own brother's mind when he's thinking on Kaylee, but at least then there won't be no one to cut my balls off." Jayne crossed his arms and tried to look firm.

Already River was shaking her head. "Mal and Simon, they see me like a kid. When I get lost and find myself through them, I don't feel right. I'm not what they want to see me as. The mirror is all warped--planar surface curved so the angle of incidence doesn't match angle of reflection. Wrong."

Jayne just looked at her for a second before focusing on the only part of that whole lot that made any gorram sense. "Ever consider just not getting lost in that mind of yours?" Jayne asked the obvious question. "Seems like you were doing passable okay back at the ship."

"Not too many people pressing in on me. And their emotions aren't about me, so I can let them slide right past, leaving only shadows that don't burn. Some days I don't get lost at all," she said quietly.

"Seems like this is something to talk to that brother of yours about," Jayne said carefully. Being that River was almost acting normal, he didn't want to set her off again.

She laughed. "He sees me…" her words trailed off as she frowned.

"He's a gorram annoying little runt, but he loves you," Jayne pointed out. River nodded.

"Loves me, doesn't see me. Thinks of me as the little girl he left behind. Captain sees me that way too, only I don't want to be that anymore. Want someone who sees me for who I am and doesn't always look at the broken parts."

That made Jayne laugh but good. "Cao," he swore. "I reckon I'm always going to see you as the ji nv who gutted me, so if your lookin' for someone who'll forget the past, you ain't looking to the right person. Kaylee'd be the one you want."

Shaking her head until her long hair dancing in front of her face, River wandered to him, black collar in hand and put her hand on his arm again. "Kaylee's thoughts go bouncing against me, all clanking and rough. Her thoughts don't fit in with all those pieces I still remember, with what I've done. I touch her mind and I feel like… I feel like walking into the dark and not coming back again," River said sadly.

"So, you need someone who ain't so good? Someone who's thoughts don't go contrasting so sharply against the Reavers? Don't rightly think that's a compliment," Jayne snorted, but River tightened her hand around his arm.

"Kaylee, the darkness doesn't touch her, even when it does. Contradictions…"

"Yeah, that's Kaylee alright," Jayne agreed when River went and lost her words again.

"Darkness touches you, but you aren't anything like a Reaver mind. They're all…" she grimaced, and Jayne wasn't sure if that was her struggling to figure out a way to say it or just remembering what a Reaver mind felt like. If he'd had those gan ni niang in his brain, he'd take a bullet to it.

"Don't think I rightly want to know," Jayne cut her off as she took a breath to try and explain.

"But you feel things slower," she said with obvious relief when he didn't want details on the Reavers.

"So, you're sayin' you want me around because I'm dumb?" Jayne felt the kick in the guts, which didn't make much sense seein' as how pretty much everyone thought Jayne was a little thick, including Jayne himself.

"No," River said quickly. "You feel things slow. You get angry and carry that anger all slow and building until it seeps out your skin."

That made Jayne blink in surprise. "Fair description," he admitted.

"Feel loyalty just as slow, all building up in little bits and dribbles, and nothing to overwhelm me." River's hand rested on Jayne's arm and her thumb started making little circles.

Reaching down, Jayne put his hand on her wrist and pulled it off him. He weren't a good enough man to resist temptation like that for long. "Don't matter either way because you said you didn't want to use Mal and Simon to find yourself because they'd see you like a little girl. Can't use me to find yourself or every time you do, you'll see in yourself what I see in you, ain't that right?" Jayne asked. River looked at him amused, and Jayne had the feeling he'd missed something along the way, had gotten it wrong somewheres.

"Don't mind finding myself through you," River finally answered as she brought her other hand up to rest on his chest.

"Even if I think you're a gorram lunatic who's 'bout as dangerous as the Reavers themselves?" Jayne prodded hard. If she didn't want him anymore, he had a much better chance of working free from Mal.

Instead of getting offended, River just shrugged, her fingers trailing across Jayne's chest. "The way you see me is closer to the real me than who Simon sees. Simon says be a good girl. Simon says you need protecting. Simon says one day you'll be all better and normal." River looked up at Jayne, and for the first time, Jayne saw eyes that were flat-out old. "Simon's wrong," she said softly. "Simon's wrong and I need to figure out how to be me when I'm not going to ever get better. I'll always lose myself in the dark some days. People get angry with me, get to feeling those dark thoughts, and I'll go spinning off into them. Didn't like it when you weren't there to hold onto when I tried to come back."

Jayne didn't answer at first, he just stared down at this woman who seemed to have grown up in the space of three sentences. This weren't a child he was talking to. For the first time, Jayne really studied her and wondered how many ugly memories were coloring her thoughts.

"So, I come back to Serenity and give you someone to hold onto when you go having these fits, and you won't go parading me around in a leash?" Jayne asked. River studied him as though she really had to consider the suggestion. Slowly she nodded.

"No more talk of things that would get me gelded?"

She looked at him even longer this time, a frown on her face. "I still want you to give me your pain. It won't be more than I've seen," she said, but her voice was inviting instead of demanding now. Somehow that made it even harder.

Jayne could feel his chest tighten until he couldn't hardly breathe. "Don't think that'd be a good idea," he said slowly, forcing out words that didn't seem to want to come out. She nodded sadly.

"So, can we leave now?" Jayne asked.

"Haven't gotten the chains yet," River said as if that were the most natural thing in the world to announce.

"I thought. . . You said we had a deal. Ain't like you need chains to get me back on Serenity." Jayne frowned down at her, and for a second he really resented that the woman didn't have the decency to look as gorram scary as she were; it'd make it less of a hardship on his ego when his guts clenched every time he argued with her.

"Won't take your pain, won't offer to finish your need," River fell silent as she let her hand stroke his arm for a second, and Jayne growled as his cock hardened enough to make him reconsider his gorram decision right then and there. Fuck Mal and Simon, it weren't fair that he had a woman so interested in him and he couldn't even bed her without getting his balls cut off.

"Won't take that," she whispered in a voice that damn near made him come like some oversexed teenager. "But I won't let you walk away. I bought and paid for you, and I'll be keeping you."

"Ain't trying to leave," Jayne pointed out with exasperation.

River just shook her head. "Messed up real bad once already, won't do it again. I'm getting you nice strong chains, chains that even you can't break."

"Captain isn't going to like you playing slaver," Jayne pointed out.

"Not playing," River said with a wide smile and a shrug. "You are my slave."

"Cao," Jayne cursed, but as long as River had the law and her gorram fighting skills on her side, he wasn't going to be able to do much about it. Chains. Jayne wasn't sure if Mal was going to be horrified or just laugh his gorram ass off.

Hours later, Jayne dropped the boxes on the table next to the door of the hotel room River had let him to and eyed the room. "Ain't but one bed," he pointed out.

"Yep," River agreed without explanation, and Jayne had to roll his eyes. Girl seemed almost normal, shopping for four hours and making him carry the packages which were the sort of thing Kaylee might do, but she still wasn't explaining much.

"Ain't playing a game here. Don't like you telling me what to do without giving me no answers," Jayne growled.

River turned and looked at him for a second before she went to the bed and started unpacking a day's worth of shopping. As far as Jayne could tell, River didn't intend on leaving any of the money from the shuttle for Mal. She'd given him the roll after the first store, a knife place where she'd bought a gorram huge blade etched with Chinese characters for luck and success. And since then, Jayne'd been payin' half the shopkeeps in town enough to set them up for life as River had bought trinket after trifle. The roll was half what it had been when she'd first given it to him.

"Captain will be coming soon," she said as she pulled out a long yellow dress with white lace. "Kaylee will look so pretty in this. She should have come."

"Captain's got a real firm policy on core worlds and slave worlds," Jayne pointed out. River had been holding Kaylee's dress up to her front and she stopped and looked at him.

"Like Ariel," she said, cocking her head to the side.

"Like any core world," Jayne growled. "And he don't want Kaylee anywheres near a slave world neither. Bad enough you been gettin' ideas," he said as he kicked the largest box, the one with his chains. The minute he did it, he wished he could kick himself. The last thing he needed to do was remind her of those gorram chains. River looked at him curiously for several seconds.

"Don't go gettin' any ideas," he said as he sat on the wooden chair next to the tall dresser. River'd got a good room; stealing shuttles paid well.

"Already got lots of ideas," she said as she carefully draped Kaylee's dress over the quilt rack by the window. "Lots," she said with a smile that was again making Jayne's balls consider applying for jobs as internal organs.

"Thought we had a deal. I'm here to remind you that you're a gorram lunatic when you start losing yourself, and you don't go playin' games with my head."

River had just unpacked the colognes she'd bought for Simon, but she dropped them on the bed and came over to Jayne immediately, straddling his lap and sitting on it as she rested her hands on his shoulders.

"I never said I wouldn't play games. I plan to manipulate and beguile," she announced just as easily as she might offer some stranger a casual hello. Jayne just stared at her. "I won't take what you don't offer, but I'll take everything you offer and never give it back," she whispered in his ear as she leaned forward. Jayne put his hands on her waist, only to shove her off, but her hands tightened on him until he had to hunch his shoulders against the pain. Made him think better of trying to toss her off.

"Never offered you this," Jayne pointed out.

"Offered it to anyone who would take it. Put yourself up there and waited to see who would come and claim you," she whispered, and Jayne clenched his jaw in anger.

"Went and got stupid after drinking too much gorram whiskey. Didn't put myself up anywhere. Sure as guai didn't mean to end up a slave." Jayne just about trembled with a need to hit someone, but hitting River sure wasn't a good idea.

She leaned back, holding his shoulders and studying his face. "Big and strong. Not just anyone can hold your leash."

"Not wearing a gorram leash, had this conversation once already," Jayne pointed out, and now fear started in there with the anger. River reached up and ran soft fingers down his cheek.

"See, you'd run now if you could. You can't."

"Ain't lookin' to run," Jayne immediately lied. She tilted her head at him, and just sat there, watching. Jayne could feel the fear start overcoming the anger. Right about the time he was ready to lie about something else to distract from that first lie, River tilted her head the other way.

"Captain's here. Not so happy," she said as she stood up and went back to her packages.

"Right then, should probably let him know where we are," Jayne said as he stood up as fast as he could. He edged toward the door, waiting to see how she'd take it. She was exploring the shape of Simon's cologne bottle with her fingers.

"Hurry back. Otherwise I'd have to put my chains on you," she said calmly. Gritting his teeth, Jayne just about bolted out of the room and into the hotel hallway. This was a fancy place, carpet on the floors, and a couple of people frowned at him. Yeah, he weren't looking his best after three weeks of being in a slave cage, but he had enough money in his pocket to prove he belonged as much as they did. He just sneered at the two in fancy duds as he hurried down the stairs to the lobby.

"Jayne!" Mal called out when he was halfway down the second set of stairs. "River with you?"

"Upstairs inspecting her buyings," Jayne said as he came down the last few steps. The man behind the counter muttered something and then turned to two other customers, a genteel looking couple.

"Is she…" Mal glanced up toward where Jayne had just come from.

"Seems sane enough, which is somewhat disturbing," Jayne admitted. "If this were a spell she were having, I'd be confident that it'd pass. Seeing as how she's spent four hours not doing anything gorram strange enough to get anyone's attention, and she's still ordering me around, I'm starting to get that real bad feeling."

Mal sighed and rubbed his face with his hand. "This were the stupidest thing you've ever done."

"Ain't claiming it wasn't. Didn't know River had thoughts on being a slave owner though, did I?"

"Don't think any of us could've guessed that. Did she really…" Mal didn't finish his sentence, but Jayne weren't so stupid that he couldn't figure out what had put that sour expression on the captain's face.

"Bought more chains than any one person has the right to own. And promised to put me in 'em if I didn't bring you back up quick."

"Maybe Simon will have more luck getting her pried free from this idea," Mal said as he started up the stairs.

"So, you got us passage off-world?" Jayne asked hopefully. Simon might stick him with the world's biggest gorram needle for touching River the way he'd been touching her lately, but if he could get her to give up this idea of slaving, it'd be worth it.

"Can't get us off for three days."

"Cao. Offer more money," Jayne demanded as he considered three days of River playing slave owner.

"Tried," Mal said, his voice tight and clipped in that way that suggested he was close to losing his temper. "Could get myself off, but it seems that we need papers for takin' a slave off-world."

"Then get Simon down here," Jayne said, nearly desperate now.

"Ain't that easy," Mal snapped. "Can't leave the ship with no one up there. Already have the pilot and the captain down here, ain't that enough?"

Jayne stared at Mal, gritting his teeth to keep from saying all sorts of things that ran across his thoughts. Mal sighed.

"Jayne, we're all doin' the best we know how."

"River's doing the best she knows to play slave owner. You condoning that?"

"Ain't condoning anything. Tzao gao, I'm not seeing a way out of this. Law says she has rights over you, and if I press things, I ain't so sure what she's going to do."

Jayne stopped outside of the room River had rented. Leaning against the balcony, he looked down two stories to the lobby of the hotel and struggled against the feeling of restraints sliding around him, and he wasn't talking about the chains. If Mal couldn't get him cut loose, he really might be in a gorram mess. "Ain't good at following orders, and she ain't good at giving 'em," Jayne said softly.

"She ordering you to do things you aren't comfortable with?" Mal asked, his eyes darting to the closed door before he focused on Jayne. "If she's getting too aggressive, I might talk to her again." Mal didn't even bother trying to look confident that talking would do any good.

In the lobby, the genteel looking couple was walking toward a first floor room, the man carrying a small case and a hotel employee trailing behind with two big cases. He was probably a slave. No profit in hiring help on a world that sold people's lives. "She's playin' games," Jayne finally admitted. He hated even saying that much, but he weren't getting out of this without help. "Cap, I know you can't do anything here. Slave planet ain't the place to try and slip the leash, but once we're up there, you've got to gorram help me." Jayne whispered the words so soft that even Mal, standing right next to him, had to lean in to hear them.

"Just hang in there," Mal said, not promising anything one way or the other and Jayne focused on the lobby below. "Give me a second to talk to her."

Jayne didn't move as Mal headed in to talk to River. Talk. Words weren't going to make River change her mind none, and Jayne could feel her scratching at places that he didn't rightly think she had any place scratching. Closing his eyes, he remembered the quiet in his mind when Mal had been walking away, leaving him locked in a hatch about ready to get sucked into space. He remembered that peace, and it scared the gorram hell out of him. And then she'd come along and wrapped those legs around him, and he could feel that quiet like dark waters just below, and if he lost his balance just a little bit, if even one wave rocked the boat, he'd slide into that quiet and be lost.

Gorram right he wanted to run. Could feel his guts knotting as he tried to keep his balance above those dark waters. Gorram weakness, that's what it were. Three weeks in a slave cage and he was about as ready for the bughouse as River. He weren't made to be no slave.

Jayne jerked when a warm hand rested on his back. The slight body leaning into his back told him exactly who had interrupted his private moment of panic.

"All thinking. Too much thinking," she muttered.

"Ain't never been accused of that. I know I ain't bright, but I can't figure out this game you're playing with me," Jayne said softly, the words out before his brain could rightly point out that giving her information was just playing right into her hand. She already held too much of him.

"No game. I just want you," River answered quietly as she stroked his arm, her weight still resting against his back.

"I ain't no fluffy puppy. Done things that would make you plenty sorry you ever wasted a credit on me," he said as he tried hard to keep his thoughts away from Ariel. Didn't need her gutting him for real. After she got her mind back, Mal and him had both gone poking, and it seemed like parts just weren't there, including the bit about him selling them out and trying to turn them over to the feds, and what with her owning paper on him now, he weren't much interested in getting into that.

"No puppy," she admitted. "Big junkyard dog. Guard dog. All teeth and growls."

"Bite just as hard as I bark," Jayne warned as he remembered the description of him at the auction. That were the kind of stuff that left a man mentally scarred for life.

"Yep," River agreed. "You broke his neck. He nearly bit through your thumb, and you didn't even make a noise, and you broke his neck. More bite than bark."

It took Jayne a second to place the reference, probably because he was trying so hard to not think of Ariel. The guard he'd killed getting them out of Alliance custody… right after he'd sold them out. Jayne flinched away from that thought as fast as he could. That were what almost drove the captain to kill him.

"Come see what I bought everyone," River asked as she pulled on his arm.

"Saw everything as you were buyin' it. Seems like you had me do the paying so you could focus on looking at damn near every trinket in town." Jayne didn't let her pull him away right away, and her grip didn't get too insistent.

"Come see it anyway," she asked.

"That an order?" Jayne looked over his shoulder at her.

She bit her lip looking uncertain as she studied him. "Just asking," she finally said. "Don't really know what I'm doing you know. Just know that I want you and I don't know how to do this. You think one thing and then you get all twisty and think another and I can't always follow."

Jayne turned, putting his back to the railing as he looked at her. "You can't figure me?" he laughed. "I'm a real simple man. As long as I get sexed regular, paid well, and have the right to say no one owns my life, I'm real happy."

River backed up a step and looked at him for a long second. Jayne could see Mal leaning against the open door behind her. "Liar," River said as she turned and headed back into the room.

"Jayne, come on in," Mal said when Jayne hesitated. River was there, poking Mal in the stomach immediately.

"Tell, don't tell, tell, don't. You always mess up. You don't tell him no more," River said fiercely, every word a poke at Mal's stomach with her finger.

"Back up there, little sister. You sure don't have cause to go poking at me, and I am the captain, if you remember. I pay your salary, and don't set the law on you when you go thievin' my gorram shuttle." Mal held up a hand, and River stopped, looking at him for long seconds.

"Come see what I bought," her mood right back to friendly in a moment. Mal gave Jayne a confused look, but Jayne didn't have any answers for him. However, standing in the hallway was giving her too much of a change to be unpredictable in public, so Jayne headed into the room and sat on the same wood chair from earlier. Mal closed the door so the three of them at least had a little privacy for whatever weirdness was coming on.

"I got Kaylee a dress and a ring. Haven't unpacked the ring yet," River said as she held up the dress for Mal's inspection.

"Real nice," Mal agreed unhappily. River looked at him for a second.

"Haven't got your present yet. Going to buy you the best shuttle," River said confidently.

"So, everyone else gets a present, and I get a replacement for what you stoled from me?" Mal asked with a little amusement.

"And Jayne back. You left him behind. You weren't supposed to leave him behind and now you have him back even if he isn't yours anymore," River said, and that were the weirdness Jayne'd been waiting for. Mal gave him another confused look, but Jayne couldn't figure even half of what the girl said.

"And this is for Simon. He hasn't had any for so long. Gave it up for me," she said as she held out the bottles that had cost more than Jayne normally made in a year.

"He'll be the best smelling fellow around when we dock," Mal agreed.

"My favorite though," River said as she held up the Chinese knife. It was a work of art, the blade gleaming, the Chinese characters etched into the first layer of metal that had been heated, stretched, folded, and stretched again. Near as Jayne could figure, the man who'd made that knife had spent months working it. River had paid enough for it to buy two more slaves.

This time Mal whistled appreciatively. "Jing tsai." He held out his hand and River handed him the knife and the tooled sheath. He walked to the window and tilted the blade in the sun.

"Could've paid less if you woulda stopped going on about how perfect it were," Jayne complained. "You ain't got no head for negotiating." Truth was, she'd done fine at the other stores, walking away so that one shopkeep even chased after her to sell her a ring, but that first store and that knife, she'd been a damn fool talking up how she had to have it.

"You got him to take less," River said as she came over and plopped down in Jayne's lap. Mal gave an extra blink, and Jayne held his hands wide to show he wasn't taking advantage of the situation to do anything that might warrant castration, especially seeing as how Mal were holding a knife sharp enough to do it.

"Jayne wouldn't let me pay full price for it," River said as she draped an arm across Jayne's shoulder like sitting on him were the most natural thing in the world.

"How much you end up paying?" Mal asked.

"Eight hundred." She shrugged as if the money meant nothing to her, but then it wasn't actually her money.

Mal choked. "Credits? Eight hundred credits? For a knife?"

"Man wanted almost twice that," Jayne instantly defended his negotiating. "Could've gotten it for less if she weren't stroking it and looking at it like it were a kitten she'd lost."

"It's beautiful," River said as she got up and headed over to Mal. He slipped the blade back into its sheath and handed it over.

"It is beautiful," even Mal had to admit.

"It's for Jayne," she announced as she headed back to sit in his lap. She held out the knife and Jayne took it before his brain had even processed that. He'd lost his own knife when he lost that hand of poker, but he hadn't even considered that she might be buyin' this for him.

"Might be best to give it to Mal since it were his shuttle you stole," Jayne said slowly as he looked at Mal's face. Man still hadn't closed his mouth, and he was in danger of getting flies in there.

"Nope. I'll pay the captain back, but the knife is for you." She draped her arm around his shoulder and looked at Mal.

"Got Zoe that book she was talking about. Not many books for sale most places we stop, so I didn't think I'd get a chance to buy it anywhere else. And perfume. Zoe should have perfume," River went on. Jayne just sat with the knife in one hand and River's back in the other.

"Wasn't sure what to get you. Finally decided that I could just get you another shuttle, but one of those new ones. I thought about getting you something else besides, but I was still angry with you about messing up."

This time Mal didn't even bother with arguing the point. No matter what he said, she was going to come right back to him messing up, that was obvious. Instead he closed his mouth and looked at the largest box, the one on the floor.

"Is that…"

"I figured that was my present, not that I really wanted them," Jayne admitted as he glanced over at the box of chains and then at the carefully tooled sheath in his hand. That knife were worth more than anything he'd ever owned. River laughed.

"The chains aren't presents for you. The chains are presents for me," she said as she used his shoulder to push herself up to her feet. "You should always get people what they really want for presents," she announced. "Did you find out that Jayne doesn't have the right paperwork for travelling?" River asked Mal without even a trace of shame.

"You knew?" Mal demanded.

"It's the law. I got you the room next to ours." River went over to the high dresser and opened the top drawer, pulling out another key.

"Next to yours?" Mal asked as he looked from Jayne to River.

"Ain't no one asking me for my opinion on sleeping quarters," Jayne defended himself.

River smiled. "He's my slave. We'll sleep here and you sleep there." She extended her whole arm and pointed very regally at the south wall.

"Might be that Jayne would be more comfortable sleeping in my room," Mal said, obviously choosing every word carefully. Jayne agreed that River looked real close to going off on a spell.

"Maybe, but you messed up, captain. You messed up and then I messed up and then you messed up again, and I have to fix it," River announced as if that made any sense.

"Then give me a chance to not mess up," Mal asked. "Ain't never messed up with one of my crew on purpose, so if I messed up, I got a right to fix it."

River froze. Her hand was half way to one of the shopping bags and she just gorram froze. Slowly, her head first and then the rest of her swiveled to look at Mal. Jayne stood up, feeling the danger in that pose. Mal backed up a step and found himself against the wall. She walked quickly to Mal, putting her hand on his chest.

"Mei-mei," Mal warned in a right fatherly voice.

"Want to, but can't," she finally announced. "Jayne's mine. He sleeps with me," she declared before she turned and went back to the bed and the sorting of presents. She pulled out the old book and fingered the pages. Jayne traded a desperate look with Mal at that wording, but as long as they were on a slave world, and Jayne was a slave registered to River, there weren't much either of them could do.

"You wouldn't really cut his balls off, would you captain?" River asked as he turned to Mal.

"Lao tyen yeh," Jayne swore as he closed his eyes. "I ain't done nothing to her, captain."

"Don't figure you will if you get a choice on it," Mal agreed. "I ain't blaming you for this, least I ain't blaming you past the part where you went and got yourself sold. River, you don't go and do some things to a man… or a woman. It ain't right."

"I won't do anything that isn't right. But I won't not do things that aren't right. You messed up enough for both of us," River said, right back on her favorite topic. "You two should use the bath house. You smell like horses." She turned her back and pulled out new clothes that were Jayne's size.

"Ain't had a bath in a week. Don't figure you'd smell too good working in the sun without bathin," Jayne said with a growl as he caught the clothes. He didn't need any more reminding of his recent humiliations.

"Captain," River sat on the edge of the bed. "He's all twisty turny in his thoughts. Wants to run. Wants to run as far as he can. If he does, things will be a lot worse."

"You planning on enforcing your ownership?" Mal asked, his eyes narrowed. River looked at him calmly.

"You should have. You didn't, and he got all lost. He's mine, and I won't let him get lost, so if he runs, I won't ever let him out of the chains," she said calmly. Jayne could feel the cold run though his body. It was like the boat he were balancing on had started rocking and it was all he could do to not slide off into that quiet. Gorram right he was thinking of running.

"Jayne and me will be at the bathhouse and then come right back," Mal promised. He walked over and put a hand on Jayne's shoulder, holding it tightly enough to tell Jayne that the captain wouldn't let him go and make no more dumb mistakes, not when River was being so gorram unpredictable.

"Have fun," she said and then she was back to sorting her day's purchases without another look at them.

Jayne recognized an order when he saw one. She couldn't make him have fun, but he wasn't about to find out what happened if he didn't bathe and change clothes so he reached for the door.

"You do smell a mite," Mal said as they headed for the door.

"Shut up," Jayne answered. Behind them, River laughed.


An hour later, after the quickest bath in the history of the 'verse, Jayne stood outside the door to River's room, freshly washed with his new knife on his new belt holding up his new britches. Mal waited near the door to his own room.

"Ain't in need of a babysitter," Jayne growled at the man. He hadn't managed more than a dozen words to the captain since leaving the room, and half of them weren't polite. Part of him knew that Mal was struggling to say something supportive, but he was having trouble caring about that part.

"If you need something…" Mal let his words just sort of die when Jayne gave him a glare. Taking a deep breath, Jayne pushed open the door and looked around the room. River was sitting on the window seat, Zoe's book in her lap as she read. She looked up and smiled.

"You d on't smell like a horse no more," she announced as he closed the door firmly behind him. Whatever humiliating thing were going to happen, he didn't need Mal watching. Were only so much a man's ego could take.

She tilted her head at him.

"What now?" Jayne asked as he glanced toward the bed. He couldn't see any chains, but the ring set into the wall above the bed wasn't all that subtle of a reminder that this was a slave world. He wondered whether all the rooms had that or if River had asked for it special.

"Time to sleep," she said, looking confused.

Jayne just stood and looked at her. Whatever was going to happen, he just wanted it to happen so he could quit worrying.

River frowned. "I'm not going to take what you don't give," she said softly as she put the book down next to her.

"Seems you been taking a lot more than I've been giving. Asking Mal if he'll cut off my balls and sayin' I'll sleep with you. I know I ain't got no legal right to complain, and I know I ain't smart enough to talk you outta saying or doing whatever you gorram want, so—" Jayne stopped. There wasn't a 'so' to follow that up. The first two were just truths, they didn't need to lead nowhere.

"Thoughts colored ugly," River said as she stood, and Jayne figured that was a pretty good description of it right now.

"Thought that's what you were wishing for, someone whose thoughts were colored about as ugly as the ones you already have floating around in that gorram crazy mind of yours. Well, you know what they say, if wishes were horses, beggars would eat mighty good on horse flesh."

"Your thoughts aren't ugly. Your thoughts are shiny only now they're all ugly. Chou ba guai." River started swaying, her eyes closed as she fell into whatever spell she was fixing on having. Jayne sighed and sat on the edge of the bed, watching her as he pulled his boots off.

"Ain't looking to send you spinning off into your dark place," he sighed. "But I'm not into this gorram game you're playing, so whatever you're going to do, just be done with it so I can catch some sleep. Unless I'm not allowed on the bed," Jayne said, and suddenly he almost hoped that would be the worst of it. After three weeks of a thin straw mattress in a cage, sleeping on the carpeted floor didn't seem like no hardship.

River stopped, her whole body just ceased like a wind-up doll that was out of spring. Jayne watched her suspiciously as he pulled off his second boot. Slowly her eyes came up to meet his. "Little mice feet," she whispered.

"Gorram crazy. I don't translate crazy," Jayne said as he pulled off his belt and curled it around his new knife and put it on the side table. His fingers seemed thick as he unbuttoned his shirt, but maybe these were just small buttons. He got the last ones free and pulled his shirt off. Undershirt and pants was about as undressed as he was getting unless she was going to order him to strip. Mann's farm hadn't ever looked as good as it did in his memory right now.

"So, I been good enough for you today or are you going to chain me up like a dog?" Jayne demanded as he held his wrists out. River was still watching him.

"All closed," she moaned.

"Ain't my problem," Jayne said as he slipped under the sheets and slid to the far side of the bed. Felt wrong, keeping his back to someone, especially someone as dangerous as River, but right now Jayne felt about as raw as he ever had. Captain thought he were some sort of victim over here being ravaged. Captain and doc were both going to have his balls when they figured out where River got her notions from, no matter what the captain said now. Even Kaylee would look at him with them tragic eyes of hers and stammer and try and tell him that everything would still be okay just because that's what she did. He just couldn't figure if Kaylee would be more upset about him corrupting River or River raping him. She might just explode from trying to calculate who deserved more pity.

Jayne took a deep breath and tried to not curse out the whole gorram 'verse.

"Colored so ugly," River muttered again, and Jayne felt the bed dip. He didn't answer. A hand rested on his shoulder, and Jayne tried to hold himself as stiff and still as he could. "I wouldn't ever hurt you," River said gently, her hand just resting on his arm.

"Ain't so fragile as that. I hurt plenty of people in my day, and if you want to do some of the hurting, I'm not in a position legally or morally to tell you not to, but this game stops," Jayne said to the wall. River didn't move behind him.

"Because of what I said to Mal," River said slowly, like she was putting piece of a puzzle together. Then Jayne turned to look at her.

"For someone who's so smart, sometimes you're about as dumb as I am," Jayne said as he looked at her confused face. "He's in there thinking I'm needing rescue like some gorram damsel in distress."

River cocked her head toward Mal's room.

"At the bathhouse, he were telling me how women couldn't blame themselves for getting raped, but he were looking at me. He were looking at me like I was one of them women in Kaylee's books who always need rescuing." Jayne pushed himself up so he was sitting in the bed.

"You want to take that whip to me?" he demanded. "You want to use those chains and whip me until I'm bleeding just because you think I look good in red? I won't make no complaint, but don't gorram make me out to be weak. Ain't weak," Jayne said, his jaw almost hurting from how long he'd clenched his teeth.

River blinked at him and slid backwards off the bed. Jayne watched her, but she just stood in the middle of the room.

"You going for the chains and whip?" he asked, keeping his voice as carefully neutral as he could. She shook her head.

"Then I'm going to sleep." He turned back over and lay down, but he knew he wouldn't get to sleep any time soon. The door opening and then closing softly didn't do anything to make him less furious. If she were over there comparing notes with Mal, he was going to strangle her in her sleep. Mind, she'd probably wake up and break his gorram neck, but at least then he could die with a little more dignity than Mal thinking he were some poor little waif who needed rescuing.

Time moved slow, the distant sounds of the town changing as the night brought out a different sort of folk. The Henrietta liked doing layovers here, the docks had plenty of rough play for deckhands looking to let off stream. Jayne played with the idea of going down there. He'd feel better if he got to knock a few heads together in a good old-fashioned fight.

About the only thing that kept him in the bed was the thought of River putting him in chains for wandering off. And the law would be on her side. Not even the captain could stop her from parading him around in a collar, his hands chained behind his back. Course right now, he'd rather be paraded around like that then give Mal one word asking for help.

Jayne fisted the sheets as he tried to keep himself from doing something gorram stupid. He hadn't been this angry since the night he'd left home. Still had a line of hard scar from where the switch had broken skin that night. The bastard never would have been able to do it if his gorram friends hadn't helped. That's why Jayne had listed Mal as next of kin. If he died, he still didn't want his gan ni niang stepfather getting Vera back. There were consequences for actions. He done humiliated Jayne in front of half the town. Discipline. Jayne snorted and then shifted over to his back, tucking his hands under his head.

"Losing it, Cobb," he whispered to himself. These thoughts weren't helping him any. The whine of a hover went past, and Jayne closed his eyes. He missed the sounds of Serenity, the noise of the engines that always rumbled under all the other sounds. Hull full of cattle or running empty the way Mal did half the time… didn't make no nevermind because Serenity always had that rumble to her. He'd gotten used to it.

A knock sounded at the door, and Jayne ignored it. If it were River, she didn't gorram need to knock, and if it were anyone else, Jayne had a right to gorram ignore 'em. Knock came and went again before Jayne heard voices out in the hall.

The third time, the pounding on the door didn't leave much room for ignoring it, and Jayne got out of bed and yanked the door open. Mal stood there in socks and trousers, a hotel employee standing beside him.

"Got trouble. Get your shoes," Mal ordered before he turned and headed for his room. The hotel employee started for the stairs, but Jayne reached out and grabbed his arm, pulling him into the room.

"What's going on?" he demanded as he pulled his boots on.

"The pit sent a runner. There's a girl who left this as her address before she went into the fights."

"Why the pit send someone here?" Jayne asked pulling his shirt on as fast as he could. He'd been there once or twice and beating the shit out of some nameless opponent in some dirty bare knuckle fighting.

"She won't leave the ring. They're afraid she's going to kill someone. They sent to the magistrate, but he said they couldn't use no guns, but if she kills someone…" the man shrugged. "Were they really talking about that girl who's registered in here?" the man asked all disbelievingly. Jayne slipped on his belt and knife.

"Seen that girl go up against Reavers," Jayne said, and the man lost all color. "She ain't nothing to be fooling with." Jayne didn't finish the thought, but he certainly knew she were a good sight more dangerous right now. He'd gone and pushed her over. She'd gorram told him that dark thoughts sent right at her sent her off into her dark place, and he'd struck out with everything he had.

Ai-yah. Tyen-ah. He'd done a lot of things to be sorry for in his life, including trying to turn River and Simon in to the Alliance back on Ariel, but this ranked right up there. Were one thing to hit an opponent in a fair fight. Him trying to trick the Tams into Alliance custody felt almost fair what with both of them being so much smarter than him. Sending River off into her own mind when he knew she didn't have no control over it felt like stabbing a man in the back. And Jayne Cobb did his stabbing in a man's front.

When he hit the hall, the employee still looking shell-shocked and pale behind him, Mal was waiting at the top of the stairs.

"You think it's River?" Mal asked. Jayne gave the man a cold glare before he headed down the stairs.

"You know where you going or are we just flying off half-cocked?" Mal called.

"The pit. Bare-knuckle fighting for prize money," Jayne said as he hurried out into the night.

"Gos se. She'll kill 'em," Mal breathed.

"Yeah, and then the real trouble'll start," Jayne said as he broke into a trot. Mal ran at his side, and they ducked around drunken ship crew and townspeople out for some fun that would be illegal on any core planet. "Round there," Jayne pointed to a squat building near the docks. Men were wandering toward it, and Jayne had to dodge around a drunk who wasn't walking in a straight line.

He and Mal got to the front door at the same time, shoving others out of their way. "Spectating or fighting?" the bouncer asked, his finger on the trigger that would unlock the main door.

"Neither. You sent for us, because of the girl," Mal explained.

"Fighting. Jayne Cobb staying at the Garden Hotel," Jayne said as he slapped the money down. The bouncer checked him in, took his money and pressed the little button. He could hear Mal still arguing with the man as the door clicked shut again.

Inside, the air was dim with smoke, and the roar of the crowd louder than Jayne had ever heard. Damn near knocked him off his feet as he pushed his way through the line to the man who stood by the entrance to the pit itself.

The stands were packed, men standing shoulder to shoulder. On a normal night, men would sit and drink and bet on which of the competitor was about to end up bleeding in the dirt without all that much heat, but tonight's crowd felt more like a dog fight. Men screamed, looking for blood. And Jayne didn't have to look to know that all that was directed right down at River.

"I'm fighting her next," Jayne said. The pit might have sent for someone to get River under control, but they sure in guai weren't stopping the entertainment.

"Hey, we're set up next," complained a young man Jayne vaguely recognized. He was closely flanked by four others, all wearing the same crew insignia.

"You sending groups against her?" Jayne demanded.

"She wanted…" the man who ran the pit started to explain, but the young hothead cut him off.

"She took out three of our crew, but we're going to teach her a thing or two," he boasted. Jayne reached out and grabbed the kid by the shirt.

"You go in there, and your captain ain't going to have a crew tomorrow, so you just gave your spot in line to me," he said darkly. This close, he could smell the whiskey.

"No way. She's ours," he growled. Jayne cocked back his fist and hit the kid so hard that his eyes rolled back and he slumped to the ground.

"He gave his spot in line to me," Jayne snapped at the man with the list of fighters.

"To us," a voice came from behind Jayne. "Jayne Cobb and Malcolm Reynolds. We're on that list of yours," Mal said, pointing his finger at the datapad the man was holding. The pit man glanced down at the unconscious kid and then leaned up to look over into the ring. The crowd had grown quiet.

"You're up gentlemen," he said with a wave toward the door leading down into the pit. "You may want to rethink this. Two versus her isn't exactly a fair fight, and I don't mean for the little girl down there."

"And how many's she fought already?" Jayne demanded as he pulled open the door. Before he could head down, a small group of bloodied men half walked, half carried each other up through to the main level. Jayne traded a worried look with Mal before he headed down the stairs to the sand floor of the pit. "Were my fault," he said angrily.

"What were?" Mal asked, one step behind. The crowd roared to life as Jayne stopped at the bottom and looked at River. She was crouched in the middle of the ring, one leg straight and to the side, all her weight on the other. One hand rested in the sand as she breathed deep and steady. It was a sight that made Jayne question the sanity of coming down here at all.

"What were your fault?" Mal asked again, shouting over the excited shouts of drunken men.

"This were. Got angry at her."

"I figure you got a right to get as angry as you wanted. How's that make this your fault?" Mal asked as they separated and started edging closer to River.

"I knowed how to send her off, and instead of trying to keep her from sliding off into bug-crazy, I gave her a good shove," Jayne confessed to Mal. Then he turned his attention to River.

"River, I know you're mighty unhappy with me right now. I figure I ain't got the right to go telling you the things I done told you tonight," Jayne tried to keep his voice soothing even if he did have to yell over the watching crowds, and she followed him with her eyes. This close, Jayne could see the purpling bruises and the way she gasped for air.

"She look about done in to you?" Mal asked.

"Looks about ready to fall over," Jayne agreed. "River, just come back to the hotel. Time to sleep, remember?" Jayne asked. Mal dived for her. Without looking away from Jayne, she caught him, spun him around and then managed to get up, perform a spinning kick to his back and then drop down into a crouch before Mal could retreat. He flew forward and plowed into the bloodied sand face first.

Jayne reached out and pulled on the man's arm. "You okay?" he yelled. He couldn't hear Mal's answer because the crowd's screams had doubled. Jayne could see River's eyes drifting closed and that weren't a good expression.

"That gorram hurt," Mal shouted again when the crowd started settling a little.

"Yeah, well she's pissed with you," Jayne admitted.

"You couldn't have told me that before?" Mal slowly stood and rubbed his back.

"You didn't ask."

"Next time, feel free to volunteer information of the sort that would keep me from an ass kicking," Mal suggested.

"Next time, don't assume I'm more likely to get an ass kicking from her than you are," Jayne growled back, and Mal just looked at him all confused. Turning his back, Jayne focused on River.

"Time to stop beating up on all the menfolk. Ain't going to be no one to run the ships tomorrow if you keep this up," Jayne said as he crept closer. He gorram hated doing this in front of all these people because no way was he winning this fight. He wondered if River'd let him stay and kick a few asses just to prove he could after she kicked his.

She looked at him, confused.

"You said you wouldn't never hurt me, remember?" Jayne pointed out as he inched closer, watching for that moment when something triggered her, but she just watched.

"That's right. You're ready for bed, now, aren't you?" he asked as he slowly reached up for her. His fingertips brushed her arm, and it was like watching an overloaded spring snap. She flew forward, grabbing his arm as she passed, and Jayne found himself yanked, her grip snapping him back so hard it felt like his shoulder was getting ripped out. The wall of the pit was nice enough to stop him. Course it stopped him so hard that all the air went out his lungs, but being trapped up against a wall with River holding him was getting to be familiar territory. His cock even gave an experimental stir.

"Not playing now, time for this to stop," Jayne growled over the roar of the crowd. She leaned in.

"Not playing. I want you. I want to make you happy, but every time I think I've find the right door, it's wrong. Too much wrong."

"Got a lot of gorram wrong in my brain, that ain't your doing," Jayne said, and then River was gone. He turned around to find Mal holding her around her waist with both arms. Her head was tilted to the side and the audience was screaming for blood. Whatever Mal was saying in her ear, it wasn't working. Jayne got three steps toward them before River had arched back, throwing Mal off balance so that he fell backwards into the sand. She rolled, coming around for the kick when Jayne got there. He put everything he had into his own kick that connected with her stomach.

She was light enough that she slid back and away from Mal before she could leap to her feet again.

"Might be I should sit this one out," Mal said. "I ain't helping you much, and another hit and you might be looking for a new captain."

Jayne gave the captain a push toward the stairs as he headed for River again. "Ain't foolin. Time to come home," Jayne told her. "You know how to find your way out of that darkness, so if you ain't coming, that's your choice."

She tilted her head, and Jayne braced for an attack two seconds before she tackled him, sending them both to the sand floor. Her fingers found his throat, and Jayne didn't even bother trying to pry them off. He used the last of his air and energy to buck up, throwing her over his head and to the sand. He was scrambling to get to his feet when she landed on his back, driving him to the sand again, this time face down. He could feel the sand getting into his nose and mouth.

"Darkness is so simple. Fight. Win. The darkness is easy to be in," she said, her thighs tightening around him when he struggled up to his hands and knees.

"Ain't where you want to be, thought," he pointed out. Surging to his feet, he flung himself backward toward the wall. Instead of crushing her like he'd planned, she somehow leapt out of the way so that Jayne just about knocked himself unconscious on the wall of the pit. He dropped to his knees, and she was there, her hands on his shoulders holding him down. He grabbed her wrists, but he didn't have the leverage to get her to let go.

"Sometimes I do," she said as she let her head tilt back, her eyes drift closed. She was letting all that anger and bloodlust from the crowd fill her.

"You gonna kill me then?" Jayne demanded harshly. "It's what they want. It's what the darkness wants."

River staggered back away from him as though hit, and the crowd screamed even louder. "The only thing they want more than seeing me dead is seeing you dead," Jayne yelled.

River shook her head, her hair whipping back and forth.

"Ain't you, the darkness ain't you," Jayne told her.

"Feels like it is. I make what I touch ugly and dark. Simon, you."

"Simon were ugly before you ever touched him," Jayne said as he inched closer again. River looked up sharply, and for the first time since coming into the pit, Jayne could see she was really looking at him. "And I were ugly long before you were born."

"You aren't. You aren't ugly," she said as she came close. She reached up to touch him, and he grabbed her arm, yanking her close. She pressed against him for a second and then spun away. "Not ugly," she repeated. Jayne laughed as they circled in the center of the pit.

"Were ugly since before you were even a gleam in your pappy's eye. Ain't the worst thing in the world. Rather be ugly than weak," Jayne said. "Rather be either of those than crazy," he added after a second. It might be cruel, but it was true. River stopped circling and stood there looking at him. "Time to come back," Jayne told her as he stood to face her.

"I did something bad," she said as she stepped close. The crowd quieted down some, confused. "I didn't even know I was doing something so bad. Can't go back."

"I ain't one to give out lectures on not doing bad. Got enough bad in my own past to account for."

"But when you're bad, there's supposed to be punishment and then it all goes away."

Jayne looked at River, and she blinked up at him with such a look of innocence that Jayne knew he'd got that wrong. "I ain't good at riddles," he said slowly.

"I shouldn't have said that in front of Mal. I was angry. He could have had you first and I was jealous and I wanted him to feel bad because he messed up."

"He… what?" Jayne asked.

"On Ariel, you laid down your strength for him. Wanted that. Wanted your strength. Wanted to know you wanted me, only you don't, so I wanted to hurt Mal." River looked almost pained.

"Guay, that what it was about?" Jayne asked. She nodded miserably as the crowd started to boo. "Should go," Jayne said. River shook her head. "Not the time for another of your crazy spells," Jayne said as the atmosphere in the pit started turning nasty. They wanted blood.

"Hurts more when there isn't punishment."

Jayne looked at River's sincere expression and glanced over to where Mal leaned against the wall watching. "I ain't doing this. I really ain't doing this here," Jayne said.

River slapped him. It wasn't even a conscious thought. Jayne pulled back his fist and punched River without even thinking twice. Her small body stumbled back and she fell on her ass in the sand. The crowd exploded, some cheering and others booing at the top of their lungs. After a second, Jayne walked over and held out a hand to her. She was touching her jaw. She smiled at him and took his hand so he could pull her up.

"We done?" Mal asked as he came over. He peered at River's jaw, pushing her hand away so he could see the swelling. The look he gave Jayne weren't exactly pleased.

"We're done," River agreed as they headed for the stairs.

Mal winced on every step before giving River a dark look. "Don't never hit me that hard again."

"You probably shouldn't fight me when I'm in a bad mood," she said, sounding downright sane.

"I'll keep that in mind. In fact, I'll make a memo. Next time you're in a bad mood, you're all Jayne's problem."

"I ain't signing on for babysitting the crazy girl," Jayne complained as they reached the pit master. The man had a pile of notes in hand.

Jayne couldn't remember anyone ever winnin' that much and he wondered just how many people River'd put a hurt on. Fact was it were her money because she'd thrown the fight more than he'd won it, but he wasn't getting into that discussion now. Throwin' a fight was just about a hanging offense in these parts and he couldn't never explain to any of them what exactly they'd been doing in the pit.

"Just need you to sign here," he said as he held out a contract toward Jayne. "Records say you're a slave. Your owner know you're down here?"

"Ask her," Jayne said as he poked a thumb in River's direction.

"Yep," she answered as she poked her sore jaw.




Jayne was still tender as he walked down the stairs the next morning. River weren't even flinching as she bounded down the steps, but at least she was showing her marks on her face. The jaw Jayne had hit was purple and swollen, but Jayne refused to feel one whit guilty, especially considering that every bone in his body ached. 'Course the ache was better than the one he had been living with. The feel of a body sore from fighting was familiar, not like the way he'd been sore from swinging a shovel and sleeping on a slave mat for three weeks.

River darted ahead and looked into the dining room and then came back to his side, slipping her arm through his as they headed into the dining room. She held a mite bit too tight for how sore he was, but it weren't worth complaining about, especially not when the smell of pancakes and bacon was drifting through the air calling him, and for once he had enough money in his pocket to order whatever he gorram wanted. Some of it were even his.

Walking into the dining room, he looked around and spotted Mal sitting in the corner, his back to the wall. He already had a plate, poking things around the plate with his fork.

"Food bad?" Jayne asked as he sat next to Mal in the corner. River sat with her back to the door, but then Jayne didn't figure she needed to see the door to actually keep an eye out for it. And even if she were distracted, him and Mal would notice trouble quick enough.

"Don't know. Hurt too much to eat," Mal answered with a dark look at River. She smiled sweetly.

"Ain't feeling springtime fresh myself," Jayne agreed as he stretched his back carefully.

"You both deserved it," River announced. Then she reached up and poked her bruised chin. "Me, too," she added. Mal gave a good snort and stabbed a big of chunk of sausage with his fork before shoving it in his mouth.

"We all messed up, and now it's all forgiven," River finished. She smiled at Jayne, and he had to admit that he was feeling forgiving, especially looking at the purple bruise on her face. Might be he felt just a little bad about that, especially knowing that she'd only been emasculating him cause she were jealous. Been a long time since anyone was jealous for wanting him. And remembering back to when the doctor first came on board and Kaylee liked him, Jayne had to admit that when he were jealous, he were a good sight meaner than River ever dreamed of being.

The server came and took their order, and got the money off Jayne before he disappeared again. "Don't feel like my insides are quite right," Mal complained as he chewed.

"You're bruised, not broken," River said without much sympathy. "I wouldn't break the captain. But I might have been a little angry." She looked around the room curiously, returning the stares of the other people without even acknowledging that she was sort of offering an apology.

"Just as long as you don't plan on making kicking my ass a regular feature of your spells," Mal sort of accepted.

"Wasn't planning on it. I wasn't thinking clear last night." River spent the entire time looking around the room and several people were now staring at them, some not even trying to hide their aggression.

Jayne sighed as a man from the next table saw River's multicolored face and promptly glared at him. Weren't worth hitting the man over a look, and Jayne didn't figure the captain or River would take kindly to him starting a fight with some dandy in a suit, not even a short fight, but it were aggravating. "Now everyone thinks I'm a woman beater. I ain't never beat on a woman who weren't trying to beat on me," he complained.

"I think River fits into the category of women trying to beat on you," Mal said slowly. "I ain't sure how this is supposed to work when we get back to the Serenity because if you two are going to be settling your problems with fists, I sure can't afford to replace what you'll be breaking."

"Wasn't figuring on this being a regular feature of the relationship," Jayne said without paying the captain much attention. If these dandies were going to glare at him, least he could do was glare right back until they looked away.

"So how do you plan to handle it if River decides to go whaling on you?"

Jayne looked at the captain and slammed his open hand down on the table hard enough that silverware bounced and the quiet murmurings of a dozen conversations all stopped. "Ain't some helpless sort with no say," Jayne growled. Mal looked at him for a long time as the conversations around them slowly restarted.

"I ain't never said you were helpless," Mal said in his verging on being pissed voice. "Obstreperous, annoying, and occasionally untrustworthy, but never helpless. But dealing with River... ain't an easy thing, and being a registered slave kinda presupposes that you don't have no say in it," Mal finally finished.

River just looked at them and smiled and didn't say anything. Turning around in her chair, she put her knees in the seat and grabbed a glass of juice from the tray of a passing waiter.

"River!" Mal hissed.

"Get me one while you're at it," Jayne suggested. River smiled and handed him the glass as she went back to watching the waiters. The one who got his juice stole spluttered a bit and then hurried away to serve his customers what was left. Jayne drank.

"This ain't the sort of place where you do that," Mal warned.

"I ain't the sort of man who cares. And River, not sure she can even wrap her mind around manners, leastwise not most of the time."

"I can this morning," she said over her shoulder. "Last night I wasn't really paying attention to manners or really thinking straight. I got caught up in my own head and said things I shouldn't be saying."

"I didn't notice you doing much talking at all," Mal muttered to her back because she was still watching and waiting for another glass of juice to come her way. The waiters were avoiding her now so she reached over and took the glass back from Jayne, drinking some before giving it back to him.

"I meant before I went down there. I said things, and Jayne hit me, and it's all okay now." River finally gave up on stealing another juice and dropped back into her seat.

"Ain't as simple as all that," Mal said slowly.

"I reckon it is," Jayne said. "She were acting a little high handed, and we had a meetin' of the minds."

"Wait. I'm confused. Jayne, is she cutting you loose?" Mal sat up and put his fork next to his plate.

"No!" River almost snarled as her smile instantly vanished. "He's mine and I'm keeping him."

Jayne flinched as she grabbed his arm hard enough to make his bruised flesh ache.

"River, you're hurting him," Mal said sharply as he sat forward.

"Ain't nothing," Jayne snorted. "Never knew you were so all-fired worried about me having some bruises. And speaking of, you need to stop acting like you got to protect me from River."

"Someone needs to." Mal crossed his arms as he looked from one of them to the other. "She were out of control last night."

"I was," River agreed before Jayne could say anything. "I got caught up in whispers and I wasn't thinking straight. Sometimes I can hear the whispers of other people's thoughts so clear that I can't find my way back. That's why I like space. All that black and no one's thoughts to push in on me. Just familiar minds sliding past making shadows."

"And it seems like you caught the worst of it last night, captain." Jayne did feel pleasure in pointing that out. "So if someone needs protecting from River, I reckon it's you."

"Seems like half the menfolk at the docks caught the worst of that," Mal shot right back without even a trace of embarrassment.

"Gorram right," River agreed with a smile. Both men stopped and just looked at her. Jayne was finding it hard not to smile.

"Jayne, I do believe you're a bad influence on her," Mal commented as the waiter brought their food. Jayne immediately dug into the huge pile of pancakes. Wasn't but a couple of seconds before he was leaving syrup drips on the front of his new shirt.

"Figure I am," Jayne agreed with his mouth full as he tried to clean himself up with a napkin. "Were a brand new shirt, too," he complained.

"I'm not so young and innocent as you think," River said as she reached over with a damp napkin and helped. Cleaning the drips of syrup involved a bit more rubbing on River's part than Jayne figured were totally necessary, but he just sat and watched Mal's expression as River's wiping worked south, her strokes slowing down as they became less and less about cleaning up after his mess.

"Don't reckon I have any idea what you two are up to, but I can't say I think of either of you as all that innocent." Mal shoved half a sausage in his mouth.

"I plan to seduce Jayne," River offered without any guile, and for a second, Jayne thought they were going to lose the captain as he choked on his mouthful. River watched him with an expression of curiosity as he coughed and spluttered and finally drank so much water that a waiter came over to find out if they needed to call a doctor. Mal's answer weren't even near decent.

Jayne just ate his pancakes and watched in amusement as Mal's temper finally drove the staff away. Fact was that Jayne didn't think he'd probably hold out too much longer, but it were easier having the confrontations with folk when he could claim his conscious was clear, at least clear on this count. This morning, walking up with a warm body in his arms, her curves pressed against him, for those hazy minutes before the rest of him woke up, his body didn't worry about River being too young or too crazy or too gorram unpredictable. For those hazy minutes, it only cared that for the first time in years, there were a woman who cared enough to still be in the bed in the morning. If she'd woken up before him, if she'd slipped her hand under his shirt and opened his pants... he couldn't claim that he weren't interested in her as a woman.

"Captain's all cranky," River announced softly as she started in on her eggs.

"Her seducin' me is more shocking than her raping me?" Jayne asked, mumbling the words around a mouthful of pancakes.

"Never said..."

River reached out and poked Mal's arm. "Thought it. Thought it loud once Jayne told me what you'd said. I wasn't listening to what I sounded like when I talked to you about Jayne, about him being mine, and you got yourself all twisted. Which is only fair because you got Jayne all twisted, but I hit you for that, so I'm not bringing up how you messed up again."

"Just once, wish I could understand one thing that you're gorram saying," Mal muttered before focusing on Jayne. "But her being the curious sort, and buying those chains and talking about you sleeping with her, weren't an unreasonable assumption to make, but seducing..." Mal trailed off unhappily.

"What?" Jayne demanded.

"Seducing is a mite bit more personal," Mal snapped back.

"It is personal." River's voice was small, confused. Mal sighed and looked at her.

"Maybe so, mei-mei, but seducing sounds like you're looking for something Jayne might not be able to give. He ain't the settling down sort."

"I reckon I'm settled down now seeing as how she owns the paper on me, unless I plan to have the law after me," Jayne shrugged.

"The law been after you half your life."

Jayne stopped and thought about that one because it suddenly occurred to him that he was feeling more law-abiding about following River than he had ever been about most laws. He just dismissed the thought. He weren't one for thinking on his own motives. "Yeah, but ain't like anyone actually cares about smugglers. A runaway slave, though..." Jayne shrugged his shoulders. "Ain't like to go anywhere until River gets tired of me and sets me free."

"I won't ever get tired of you. You're mine, I bought you fair and square. And if you get turned around and run, I'll just chain you up until you remember that I won't ever get tired of you." River's words, so matter of factly given, were pretty much the same thing she'd said the night before, but today they just weren't inspiring the panic. He still had that cautious feeling like he were standing up in a boat that weren't too steady, but not panic.

"And don't you go looking at me with pity," Jayne warned, poking his dinner knife in Mal's general direction.

"I just don't truck with slavery. Ain't right, her owning you. Ain't right for anyone to go owning a man. But the longer this goes, the less likely it seems that this is a passing spell of hers."

"Right, wrong... don't matter. Stopped waiting for the 'verse to be fair a long time ago," Jayne pointed out. "I were ready to accept being a farm slave, and I reckon I don't need no pity for having an owner who wants to seduce me. Mind, I ain't interested in having the doc cut off my balls the first time I have a toothache, which is why I'm hesitating on the gettin' seduced part."

"He wou--" Mal stopped. "Niou-se. He'll want to, but he's a doctor. He'll treat you fair."

"If he thinks I were the one doing the seducing, and that the seducing came before her getting her ideas of making this permanent… well, I ain't assuming the doc's that good a' man," Jayne pointed out.

"Sees me as a little girl," River said unhappily. "Jayne's almost as bad, seeing me one minute and then seeing a little girl the next. He's right, I should have a bigger body, something that shows people I'm not that young or that innocent." River stuck the rest of her bacon in her mouth and crossed her legs up under her in her chair. "If I were bigger, he wouldn't have to worry about all of you blaming him for having thoughts," she finished unhappily.

This time it was Jayne's turn to choke. He grabbed his orange juice and drained it as Mal considered him with eyes about as sharp as any Jayne had ever seen. Cao, she couldn't go and say something like that in front of someone stupid. No, she got to go and say it in front of Mal, and from the expression, Mal weren't going to buy that it was just some random babble.

"Why would we blame Jayne? I mean, apart from him going and getting stupid and selling himself as a slave."

"I gorram lost a game, didn't sell myself," Jayne growled.

"If you'd sold yourself, you would have gotten something out of the deal. You done gambled yourself away for nothing," Mal pointed out coldly. Problem being that Jayne couldn't rightly disagree. "Ain't hearing the part where we would blame him for you takin' up with slavers, mei-mei."

"That's Jayne's. I told him I wouldn't take anything that he hasn't given me, and he hasn't given me that part of himself," she said seriously.

"Ai-ya! That works better if you don't go hinting at something being there," Jayne pointed out. River considered him seriously, and Jayne just had to sigh. He figured that he'd wanted Mal long enough that River couldn't rightly separate what he were thinking from what he'd said. Wanted Kaylee, wanted Mal, ended up with River, and somehow Jayne weren't sure yet whether the universe had done him a favor or played one more joke on him. River tilted her head, and Jayne just knew she was in his thoughts with him that second. "And it ain't fair, having you rattling around inside my head. Have gou shi in there that I don't rightly want to share," he sighed.

"She's reading you?" Mal asked.

"Were since before I left Serenity."

"That have something to do with her taking to introducing you to walls?"

"Might be."

Mal pushed back his empty plate and crossed his arm, waiting. Still sitting Indian-style on the chair, River looked back and forth between them.

"Ain't going to ask, but if this is something I need to know as captain, I assume you'd be telling me," Mal said quietly, and Mal's quiet voice always worried Jayne more than any yelling the captain did.

He remembered being locked in that air lock, the captain's voice over that radio as he explained why Jayne was going to die, explaining that Mal took it as a personal betrayal that Jayne had tried selling out the Tams, that Jayne had fucked up but good. That were a voice Jayne still sometimes heard in his nightmares. And part of him still didn't understand why Mal hadn't done it. Mal had led him to a quiet place in his own mind, a place where he could look at death and accept that he deserved it, and then Mal had gone and let him live. Still didn't make no sense to him.

"That never made him tell before," River interrupted the quiet that had fallen over their conversation, her eyes still focused on Jayne. Jayne put his fork down and glanced around the room. Weren't anything new to look at, and eventually he focused on Mal again, the captain's arms crossed as he waited with an expression that didn't leave much room for avoiding.

"Figure you already know I got ugly stuff in here, stuff she's been sorting through," Jayne said as he tapped his head.

"Ain't one to talk myself," Mal agreed quickly. "Got memories I wouldn't share lightly if I had a choice in the matter."

Right, this were the embarrassing part. Jayne took a deep breath. "Might be River got some of her ideas about slaving from me."

"From you?" Mal started shaking his head. "Jayne Cobb, I've knowed you to do some right lowdown things, but I ain't never seen you do anything disrespectful to someone who you saw as below you. I can't see you ever having thoughts of keeping slaves."

Jayne glared at the captain. If he were making this hard on Jayne just for orneryness, Jayne was going to hit him right here in the middle of breakfast. River's hand came up, resting on Jayne's arm and holding him in place.

"Ain't funny," Jayne growled.

Mal frowned. "I ain't funning with you, Jayne, but I'm starting to get mighty annoyed."

Jayne didn't answer, emotions pushing too hard as him, and just didn't have the words to say it. Wanted to hit Mal. If he hit Mal, the shame and fear and that terrible quiet nagging at the edge of his words would just vanish. River's hand on his arm tightened.

"You showed him," River said softly. She studied Jayne's face even though she was talking to Mal, her eyes seeing into him so that Jayne feel like one of Kaylee's engines with all the peering into his parts. She fell quiet for a minute before starting again, her voice whisper soft. "You showed him how to lay his strength down for you when he didn't know what were the right direction," River whispered, her voice taking on a rough edge. "He thought he were going to die, and figured that was okay because you told him he should, and it were a relief, not having to figure out the right choice, but knowin' that someone else would make the choice for him. Even if the choice were him dying, it would be better than never knowin' where to turn and never feeling sure anymore. But after you showed him how to not argue, you didn't ever show him that quiet place again. Got confusing." She stopped, her head tilted to the side as she studied Jayne.

Jayne held his breath. Were only the one time that he was so tired he was ready to accept death, and that was a memory he didn't rightly want River wandering around in. But if she had seen that, why hadn't she seen the betrayal? Jayne's guts twisted. He'd been all kinds of fool to think he could keep that from her. His chest ached with every breath.

"Jayne?" Mal asked.

"Seems like she keeps trying to get at my memories of Ariel," Jayne admitted slowly.

"Do she--" Mal stopped.

"I know. I always knew. But he lied to you captain. He didn't get stupid because of the money," River said softly. Jayne looked at her waiting for the anger or the accusations or for her to just get up and walk away and not come back. She just continued to study his face. In the infirmary, she'd told him she could kill him with her brain, but she'd said it with such honest cheerfulness that he couldn't rightly take that too serious. And never, not since she'd got her sanity back had she ever hinted that she'd understood what he'd done. Jayne had poked around the edges in conversation often enough, trying to see what she knew, and she'd just given him those cow eyes that suggested she didn't remember none of it. And after seeing her with the Reavers, even her brother avoided the topic of Ariel.

"Tsai boo shr," Mal breathed.

"You listened to his words and not his thoughts, and you never knew what you done," River accused Mal, tilting her head in his direction. "He got stupid--afraid for Kaylee, not knowing what I'd do, and I couldn't explain because words slid away like fish and I only told him he looked good in red, and you told him he should die, and he laid down for you. He laid down and accepted his death because you told him he should, and then you didn't never tell him anything that sure again."

"Wait." Mal sat up straight. "You mean--. Cao."

"So I ain't some gorram victim here," Jayne snapped. "She ain't done nothing that didn't come out of my own thoughts, just ain't never had those thoughts about her. Bad enough she looks 'bout twelve, but she were also the one who gutted me, before I even done nothing to deserve it."

"You had fantasies about getting your ass kicked?" Mal sounded shell-shocked. "If I'd known that, I suppose we could have solved this long time ago," Mal finally breathed softly.

"Ain't lookin' to lay down for anyone," Jayne growled. This were beyond embarrassing. This were right up there with mortification. "Wanted to find someone who I could fight with, someone just as strong as me who wouldn't take a runner when I went and done something stupid, because we all know I don't make the best decisions."

"And the captain's an idiot because he didn't see what was right in front of him since Ariel, but too late now because Jayne's mine and I'm not selling." River tightened her grip on Jayne's arm.

Mal didn't seem capable of doing much except blinking. "Ai-yah. Tyen-ah. That what she's had her knickers in a twist over? Me not taking you in hand?"

River glared at him. "Tell, don't tell--you don't ever make up your mind and it makes things all twisty," River complained. Mal just had an expression like some stranger had walked up and slapped him.

"Merciless hell. Weren't never in my mind that you needed that, Jayne." Mal leaned back. "I always figured I'd lose you one day when you had a stake together. Figured you for getting your own ship and your own crew."

Jayne thought about that. He'd had that dream once, but the more he followed other captains, good and bad, the more he'd known that weren't something he could ever do. "I ain't one people follow," he admitted. Felt wrong, admitting that he wasn't ever going to be what a man were supposed to be, but it was the truth. Jayne looked Mal right in the eye, refusing to flinch, even from a truth that was sounding a mite bit like weakness when he said it out loud. "I'm good at covering your back, ain't a better fighter on the crew, excepting River who ain't all that predictable, and I have a code. I ain't never shot anyone who wasn't looking to shoot me, I ain't never hit anyone who couldn't hit back, and I ain't never forced a woman. But I'm not a good man, and I'm not one that people follow."

"You are a good man. All that darkness, whisperings in your ear, and you still don't have the ugly thoughts that sometimes smother all the light," River immediately disagreed.

"Don't think you have the best judgment on whether I'm good or not, not considering you're comparing me against those Reaver thoughts you have bouncing around in that brain of yours." Jayne gave a dark laugh. "Guess compared to a Reaver, I might be good. But even then, I ain't a leader. I ain't a thinker, and we all know that sooner or later I'm going to get stupid again. A captain gets stupid and a crew and a ship dies. That ain't a responsibility I'll ever take," Jayne said firmly.

"You're a good man," River insisted. "And if you get stupid, I'll just sit on you."

"Jayne." Mal still was looking shaken up. "Think I misjudged you. Think I misjudged you quite a lot."

"Ain't like I'm asking for an apology," Jayne shrugged, uncomfortable at how much talking they were doing about things that should have stayed in his brain. Would have stayed in his brain if it weren't for River getting in there and pulling out things that he had buried. It were just hard to stay upset when she had an expression of child-like joy on her face, like she'd just found a new puppy. Even harder when that expression were turned on him.

"Feel like I owe you one anyways. Didn't--." Mal stopped. "If I hadn't been so gorram thick, I would have taken you in hand in a second, Jayne. Would've been proud to know you trusted me with all that."

"I told you," River said without taking her eyes off Jayne. "The captain messed up, but Jayne's mine now and I'm not giving him up."

Mal turned that sharp gaze to River now, studying her for a long time before frowning. "Yeah, well you can explain that to your brother because I plan to be as far from him as possible when he figures out that you're serious about keeping Jayne as a slave." Mal snorted. "Might be helping Kaylee clean the engines that day. Maybe checking the hull from space. But I figure if you're going to be a slave owner, it's your job to keep Jayne and Simon from killing each other."

"Yep," River agreed as she leaned over and put her head on Jayne's shoulder. "I plan to do less messing up than you did," she smiled sweetly at Mal who just sighed and shook his head.

Jayne just watched her, the woman who owned him, who knew that he had tried to sell her out to the feds. Slowly, she looked at him. "Should go now," she said as she stood up and held out her hand. In that second, if Jayne could've run, he would've. Instead, he wiped his mouth with his napkin and dropped it on the plate before getting up and taking River's hand.

River leading them back up to the room weren't no comfort, Jayne thought as he fought down the fear that twisted in his stomach. Last night she hadn't taken him up on his offer to let her whip him, but he wasn't so sure that she still felt that way, especially if she'd been reading him, reliving that time when he'd betrayed her and her brother. Looking back, it was a gorram stupid plan.

She pulled him into the room and closed the door. For a second, she just frowned at him, her head tilted to the side. Slowly she smiled.

"Silly Jayne, goes and get stupid sometimes."

Jayne blinked in surprise, but considering she was pulling things out of his brain, he shouldn't be… he knew he wasn't smart, and no matter what he told people, he knew it wasn't just because he didn't stand for schooling.

River slowly shook her head, her hair flowing around her shoulders. "I'm not mad. I always knew. I tried to tell Simon at the hospital, warn him that they were coming, but even then I wasn't mad. I was more confused. I knew you had something good in you, but you wanted pain, and you brought them, and it didn't make any sense to me." River walked to the window seat and sat down, leaning forward as she looked at him.

"It make sense to you now?" Jayne asked cautiously. Didn't sound like she was mad, but it wasn't like he had a good track record with figuring women out. That's why he used whores… it's why he tried so hard to buy that one woman off Mal. Relationships where someone expected him to be able to figure them out were just destined for misery.

"Yep," River shrugged. "You got stupid. Should've talked to Mal."

"Seems like I did. Told him 'or else'."

River smiled slowly. "Captain got stupid. He should have made you say what. You would have told him."

"And then he really would have thrown me out an airlock," Jayne pointed out as he imagined how that conversation would have gone.

Yeah, telling the captain that he either put off part of the crew or Jayne'd turn 'em over to the feds? He would have been floating in space for sure. And back then, Mal probably would have rightly pointed out that part of the problem was that Jayne hated the doc because Kaylee was panting after him. Funny, Jayne always thought he had a chance with her seeing as how she had about as much education as he did, but educated or not, raised on a ball of dirt or not, she were smart. Guess he didn't ever really have a chance. Course that didn't explain how he ended up with a genius raised on some core planet tryin' to seduce him. Life were funny.

River got up, and Jayne took an involuntary step back. "Little guilt, big guilt, old guilt, all like bricks in a wall," she said as she stepped close, and Jayne took a deep breath as she reached up and let her hand rest on his chest. "Take it off," she said as she gave his shirt a tug.

"What? I ain't changed my mind about not being with you. I ain't giving that," Jayne said, that darkness that he was balanced over swelled, surging under him until Jayne felt almost physically unbalanced. He reached out a hand for the door. Meanwhile, River was working the buttons free one at a time.

"Not looking for sex," River said as she worked, her warm fingers brushing over his chest. His cock was already hardening, just from the feel of her fingers tugging the buttons free, catching a few hairs on one so that he hissed.

"Ain't really giving me the choice to say no, not with you doing that," he said through clenched teeth as he wished he'd kept on his undershirt, even if it were warm today. River stopped, her hands hovering just above his buckle. She was looking down at his crotch even as a slow smile started.

"Your body knows I'm not too young," she said as she looked up with a challenge in her eyes as her warm hand slid over his bare chest.

"My body has a long history of being stupid. Most men are stupid when it comes to thinking with their cocks, even someone like Mal, so I figure I ain't got much of a chance. And when I face the others, I ain't going to have them think I went and seduced you to keep myself out of chains." Jayne tightened his hand on the doorknob just to keep himself from reaching out and touching her-- the slope of her shoulder, the long hair, the small mouth that smiled at him wickedly.

"You aren't out of chains."

Jayne gripped the doorknob hard enough to do it damage. "Ain't going to have them thinkin' I seduced you anyhow you have me," Jayne pointed out.

River looked at him and sighed. "Stubborn," she finally declared.

"Gorram right."

"If you won't give me that, I still have you as slave," she shrugged. "Have to go take care of that or make it go away." She looked down, and Jayne didn't have to follow her gaze to know he was obscenely hard in his trousers. Didn't help that she had bought him a style that were more like Mal's than the scruffy one's he normally wore, so they were tighter than he liked.

"Make it go away?" Jayne asked incredulously.

"Make it go away or stand there while I take the ownership of the parts you already gave me," River said more than a little smugly. She paused. "Or go take care of it."

"Ain't going out there. I'll traumatize some kid trying to get to the bathroom," Jayne said as he finally looked down at himself. The tight pants, obvious erection, and open shirt made him look like something from the front cover of one of Kaylee's books. "Maybe you could give me a minute."

River backed up to the window seat and sat down. Pulling up her legs, she rested her chin on her knees and watched him.

"You ain't going to watch, are ya?" Jayne demanded.

"If you stay here, yep," she answered cheerfully.

"Never knew you were evil," Jayne growled as he started buttoning his shirt back up. Unfortunately his cock wasn't going down a bit, so the walk to the bathroom was going to be painful and potentially humiliating.

"Yep," River agreed amicably. Jayne gave her the worst glare he could muster before he stormed out the door, slamming it behind him for good measure. Luckily, the hall was clear so he made it to the bathroom before causing himself any humiliation that would scar him for life. Opening his trousers, he pulled his cock out and nearly hissed in relief as the pressure eased.

Ai-yah. Tyen-ah. He hadn't been this hard in months, not since that whore in the house Inara's friend ran. Maybe not then. Jayne braced himself on the wall and started stroking furiously, the pleasure and the pain of his own rough handling sent cold shards of need and lust and raw desire ripping through him as he came without a sound.

His come splattered into the toilet, and he panted, his body trembling even thought Jayne hadn't done more than quickly bring himself off. Despite the quick release, his body sent up the same aftershocks of tremors and weakness he sometimes got when he let himself sink deep into some fantasy. Sometimes, when he was feeling particular safe, he'd lock the door to his cabin, tie one wrist to the frame of his bunk and jerk off slow, building fantasies. Sometime it were Kaylee looking up from an engine to find some gorram pirate trying to steal the ship only to have Jayne come storming in and splatter his blood across the inside of the hull. Kaylee'd look at him with surprise and then with lust, but she'd admit that he scared her. He'd offer to let her tie him down just so she'd feel safe, and then she'd have her way with him.

After Ariel, he more often fantasized about Mal, about Mal making rules for letting Jayne back in. The captain would say that he trusted Jayne to be a gorram good soldier, but he weren't trusting Jayne to stay out of trouble on his own. He'd tell Jayne that he either had to be at his side or chained up nice and safe in Mal's quarters, and things would get involved from there.

Now both fantasies were strangely silent and Jayne's body shook from a powerful orgasm triggered by nothing more than his body's needs. His hands still feeling unsteady, he swiped at the come that had splattered on the seat before he peed and then tucked himself back in.

He weren't really sure what to expect from River, but not having a choice about going back in that room, it was him feel about as unsteady as he'd felt in a long time. He walked a good sight slower heading back to their room, but eventually he got there anyway. He went in and found River in exactly the same spot, her eyes closed and her head tilted to the side. Slowly her eyes drifted open and she watched him with a dreamy expression, her movement sluggish as she stood up.

"Not unbuttoning you again," she said softly as she drifted closer, a look on her face like Jayne hadn't ever seen before. He quickly closed the door and started working on his buttons as she wandered to the tall dresser, fingering the bedspread as she passed the bed.

Without being asked, Jayne shrugged out of the shirt, letting it fall to the ground behind him.

"Who owned you?" River asked sleepily.

"Loser named Mann," Jayne answered carefully.

"He chain you?"

"First week I didn't come out of the cage without chains."

"Hands in front or in back?" River asked softly as she bent down and opened the box Jayne knew just too well. He closed his hands into fists and worked at not physically showing the sudden fear and uncertainty that flooded through him, not that it would help considering that River could just go rummaging through his mind whenever she felt like it. "Front or back?" River repeated, and it took Jayne a second to gather his thoughts.

"Front most days. Did 'em in back one day when I woke up particular cranky."

River stood, shackles in hand as she moved to a spot in front of him. She raised one eyebrow in question, and Jayne felt himself blush as his cock managed a twitch as he held out his hands. She locked the heavy metal around them, and Jayne had to struggle not to fidget.

"He chain your legs?"

"No, first week or so, he tethered me by one ankle to a tractor he drove out to where I were working, but he never actually chained my feet." Jayne looked at River suspiciously now. At the chain shop, she'd already said no to leg shackles, so had she known, or weren't she planning on using them even if he'd said Mann had chained his legs? Weren't no telling with River.

"Make you strip?" she asked.

Jayne jerked, and the short chain between his hands rattled. "No."

"He make you call him master?"

That just made Jayne snort. "He were lucky when I didn't call him fat," he pointed out. "Took my slave mat away one night for being disrespectful." River smiled and gave him an amused look. "Ain't gonna lay down easy for someone like Mann," Jayne said with conviction.

She stepped to him, resting on hand on the chain between his wrists so that he couldn't raise his hands, and resting her other hand on his stomach. Jayne took a deep breath and thanked the gorram 'verse that she had given him time to jerk off. He would have embarrassed himself coming in his pants like an idiot teenager by now.

"He put a collar on you?" she asked as her hand slid up his chest, a thumbnail scratching lightly over his dark nipple so his whole body jerked. His chun zi of a cock really attempted to make a comeback at that touch, but her fingers kept going, over his collarbone until they rested on his neck.

"No." Jayne strangled the word.

"What did he do?"

Jayne swallowed. "Made me work."

River's hand wandered over his bare shoulder, slipping down to his bicep where she dug fingers in just hard enough to make sore muscles twinge and spark with pain, and Jayne groaned as need slowly built. "When we get back to Serenity, I'll sit on the walk and watch you load and unload with Mal, watch those muscles bunch under your skin. Might make you do it without your shirt so I can see what's mine." River leaned forward until her breath swept across his skin, making the hairs stand on end.

"Mann ain't never done that," Jayne said shakily. He could feel the quiet gathering under him like a dark ocean rising.

"Made you work without your shirt?" River asked curiously.

"Stood so close talking to me," Jayne corrected her. She moved around behind him, giving him a push so she could fit between him and the door. He already knew he couldn't physically overpower River, not even before the chains, but having her between him and escape made his breath hitch in his chest. He pulled against the chains around his wrists, but they were solid enough. Warm hands ran over his back, strong fingers finding and working the knotted muscles.

"What else did he make you do?" River asked. Jayne closed his eyes and took a deep breath as the feeling of her words over his sweat-damp skin made him tremble.

"Made me kneel," he confessed, the words slipping out before his common sense could veto that confession. The hands drifted from his back up to his shoulders, and firmly pressed down. For a second, Jayne resisted, and the pressure simply built until his sore muscles protested. Then he sank to his knees. River kept one hand on him as she came around to the front again. Normally, she were about neck high on him, but now he had to look up to her, the ends of her hair tickling the top of his shoulder as she leaned against him, her fingers brushing through his hair.

"What else?"

"Ain't much more. Made me sleep in a cage," Jayne answered. Came easier now somehow. On his knees, looking up at River, it weren't so hard admitting that she were strong enough to keep him on his knees. Her eyes drifted shut as she stroked his hair.

"What did you think when you woke up in that cage?" River asked without opening her eyes.

Jayne thought on that a second. "Thought it were a joke."

"And when you remembered, when you found out that you'd given this away to strangers?" River asked, he hand stilling on his head.

"Depended on which minute you caught me," Jayne admitted. "One minute I was focused on escape. The next I figured that if I were just good at what I did maybe it wouldn't be so different from some of the ships I've worked." Jayne paused, and River's hand started stroking again. "Minute after that I figured I deserved what I got. My pop used to say that people end up where they deserve to be."

River was quiet, and as the minutes passed, Jayne could feel the need to fidget drain out of him. The clock on the dresser ticked noisily, and that mechanical click and River's hand on his hair became his whole reality as he waited for her next question.

"Do you want me to forgive you for Ariel?" It came in such a calm tone of voice that Jayne didn't process the question right away. When he did, he jerked, but her hand on his shoulder kept him on his knees.

"Won't take what you don't give," she said, her voice low and soothing. "Won't give you pain or forgiveness without you asking."

"Then why you have me on my knees?" Jayne demanded. River kept a hand on his shoulder keeping him down, but she reached down with her other hand and cupped his chin, forcing him to face her.

"So you learn to trust that I won't take what you haven't already given me," she told him firmly, her eyes holding his gaze. "Even if you're on your knees, especially if you're on your knees, I won't take what you haven't given."

Jayne's heart pounded, panic running through him as he knelt on the carpet knowing that he was trapped for fair. Part of him wanted to agree, to ask for forgiveness. "Don't need your forgiveness," Jayne lied instead.

River held his gaze for several seconds before the hand under his chin caressed up and over his cheek and then returned to playing with his hair. "You going to take the whip to me?" Jayne asked cautiously.

"Did Mann whip you?" River asked, that dreamy voice back again.


"You haven't given that part of yourself away then," River said calmly. "I'm going to read, but I want to see you, on your knees for me because you know you've given me this," she told him, her fingers reaching down to his neck, kneading the tense muscles there. "I want to see you giving me this because you know I want your strength."

River paused. "That's a lie. I don't just want your strength, I need it. Need that anchor." Her voice took on a more playful tone. "I want your body, but I can wait until you're ready to give me that, too," River gave him one last pet that ended with a sharp tug at the hair at the back of his head, and then River was walking back to the window seat, curling up with her back to the wall so she could see Jayne as he knelt in the middle of the floor, his chained hands resting on his thighs.

Jayne watched her as she opened her book, her eyes scanning the words and randomly glancing up at him. Tension slowly faded to boredom, and as she kept reading, a small smile played on her lips when he would make the shackles jingle. Eventually, Jayne started finding himself just sinking into a silence defined by the clicking clock and the soft rub of old paper as River turned page after page.



"Can I have something?" River asked, holding his arm as they walked down the ramp to the dusty streets of Persephone. A week. A week since he lost his freedom, but this felt just like it had before. He didn't feel no different, except bein' so frustrated he were ready to pull off his own cock.

"Reckon you have whatever you want," Jayne answered as he scanned the crowds. Considering that Jayne had more credits in his pocket right now than he'd ever held in his whole gorram life, he figured she could afford most anything Persephone had to offer. Served the crew of the Mockingbird right, trying to play poker with River. Serenity crew had learned the stupidity of that a whole sight faster than they had. A shirt seller was pushing his cart, and Jayne studied him for a second seeing as how that would be a real convenient place to hide weapons.

"Can I have sex then?" River asked brightly. Jayne glanced down at her. A deckhand from the Mockingbird were a good bit more surprised and almost drove off the side of the ramp, jerking the wheel on the small hauler filled with freight at the last second to save it from going nose down in the dirt. Mal didn't even twitch, but then after five day's passage on the Mockingbird, Jayne supposed the captain was immune to her saying such as that.

"No," Jayne answered as he kept scanning the crowd.

"Getting frustrated, you know. When you do finally give me sex, you aren't coming out of our quarters for a week. Chain you to the bed," River grumped.

Mal actually lost a half step on that.

"You actually want something or are you just pointing out that you need sexing?" Jayne asked as he followed Mal down onto the dirt. Felt right... back on the worlds the Serenity ran, his gun on his hip, and his new knife hanging from his belt. Now if he could just slip River and find a seller with some looser britches, he figured life would be about as close to perfect as it got for him. Maybe if he spaced these tight ones River would let him wear some of the ones that would have gone back to Serenity with his bag. Then again, she might make him walk around without no britches.

Jayne glanced down at River. She held his arm, pressed closely to his side as she gazed about curiously. Yeah, she'd probably space his old britches and use it as an excuse to keep him half naked in their quarters. She looked up at him with a smile. "Have something for you for me," she said as if it made perfect sense.

"What's that?" Jayne asked. She reached in the small bag she had carried off the Mockingbird with her and pulled out a metal cuff. Jayne looked at the slave cuff in surprise. He let her put that on, and he wouldn't be able to take it off. Anyone who looked at him would know he was a slave.

Jayne froze, and River's open curiosity slowly turned to confusion. "Thinking ugly," River said softly. "Why?"

Swallowing, Jayne looked at the thing. Black metal, heavy, just the right size to lock around Jayne's wrist. One side had a flattened ring for attaching a restraint. The restraint didn't bother him none given that he wore shackles about as often as not in quarters, but wearing that out in public.... "Ain't sure I want everyone seein' that and dismissing me as some gorram slave who ain't worth paying attention to," Jayne said. He'd learned he had to be real specific with River or she went plucking things out his mind, which weren't always to his benefit.

Mal snorted.

"You got something to say about this?" Jayne demanded. Mal glanced over to where the Mockingbird crewman was unloading their baggage and then at Jayne. For a second, then he shook his head and got an almost amused expression.

"First time I saw you, I knew I didn't want to cross guns with you. If you'd had that slave cuff on, I still wouldn't have wanted to cross guns with you," Mal pointed out. "If anything, it'd make me worry more. You wear that and everyone knows someone is on the other end of that leash--someone strong enough to hold you and command enough loyalty to let you loose with a gun. That ain't a comforting thought."

Jayne thought on that a second as he scratched his crotch. "If I'd been wearing a cuff that first time we met, you wouldn't have thought I were less of a man?" Jayne asked.

Mal snorted. "Jayne, you could wear a pink tutu and borrow my pretty floral bonnet, and you'd still look plenty manly, and I still wouldn't want to cross guns with you. Course, you doing that inappropriate scratching in a tutu would be a good sight more disturbing."

Jayne hesitated and glared before he just kept right on scratching. With River doing her best to seduce him, jerking off was about his only relief. Never thought he'd do it so much he were sore, but he wasn't about to stop scratching that itch just because he offended Mal's sense of manners.

When Jayne didn't stop, Mal just shook his head. "Only difference a slave cuff would've made in how I saw you was I wouldn't have assumed I could hire you away from that backstabbing son-of-a-bitch Marcos you was working for. A man wears a cuff or collar because he wants to or because someone has paper on him. Ain't no one in their right mind going to give a slave he holds paper on a gun because paper ain't going to keep a man from killing to win his freedom. So, if I saw you with your penchant for heavy weapons and a slave cuff, I would've assumed your loyalty weren't up for offer." Mal paused for a second. "And in a tutu, I'd be thinking you weren't right in the head."

"Ain't like you had problems bring crazy folk on board before," Jayne verbally jabbed at the man, but the fire weren't in it. Couldn't hardly say it was a bad decision, keeping River around. That's why Jayne had no business being captain because he would have spaced her and her brother long time back.

"I got all kinds of crazy folk on Serenity," Mal agreed. "Mind, you best be ready because doc is going to take one look at that and have thoughts about serving your guts up for supper."

"It's for him, too," River said. "So easy to forget, and I want everyone to remember that Jayne is mine. No more trying to throw him out an airlock," River said with a glare at the captain.

"I expect you to keep him from doing anything particular stupid then," Mal picked at a hangnail without looking up.

"I will," River quickly agreed, her glare vanishing.

"Ain't sure I like you two conspiring against me," Jayne said as he looked from one to the other. River smiled sweetly up at him. Her sweet smiles always worried him more than the wicked ones she'd flash him when she locked the chains on around his wrists.

River looked down at the cuff in her hand, stroking the edge with her thumb. "I want to look at it and know that everyone can see you're mine, that you laid down your strength for me. I want to see the steel and know you'll always be there to anchor me because you're mine and I'm never setting you free," River said quietly. Jayne knew that sweet smile were more worrisome than any wicked expression she ever got. He couldn't very well say no to that. With a sigh, he held brought his hand up and surrendered it to her.

Still smiling, she locked the cuff around his left wrist, closing it with an audible snap. The metal was cold against his skin, and Jayne could see his whole arm go to goose pimples. Then River wrapped herself around his arm, again pressing to his side.

"Ain't nobody going to see it if you keep clinging on him like that," Mal said dryly.

"Captain's cranky," River declared, but then a familiar face appeared, over the crowd.

"Captain," a voice called. Zoe maneuvered Serenity's hauler around a small crowd of children playing in the dirt. Her hair was pulled back, the curls dusted with gray from the clouds of dust that hung over the docks.

"Captain, Jayne, River," she called as she came to a stop and powered down in front of the Mockingbird. "Everyone okay?" she immediately asked as she studied each of them in turn.

"Got our lost sheep back," Mal commented, his thumb poking in Jayne's direction.

"Kaylee said you were coming in with some freight," she said as she looked at the pile the Mockingbird crew had just finished stacking in the dirt. "Looks a little scrawny for a hauling job."

"River done some shopping," Mal said without any emotion.

"He's thinking cranky thoughts about his shuttle," River said. Trust that girl to figure out whatever folk most didn't want to talk about and then bring it up. Mal gave her a real unfriendly look.

"What about the shuttle?" Zoe asked.

"Sold it," River announced. "Bought a Jayne."

Zoe whistled. "We sent along nearly 1200 credits. How much you go for, Jayne?" Zoe got off the hauler and leaned back against it as she gave Jayne an appraising look.

River jumped in before he could answer. "I paid 900 credits for him," River said cheerfully as she held up Jayne's arm with the slave cuff. Jayne stared at Zoe, just daring her to say anything.

"And I come back with 1,200 credits, but no paper on Jayne and no shuttle," Mal offered with a sigh.

"You could have had Jayne if you hadn't messed up so bad," River pointed out. Mal really glared at her then.

"Considering you weren't going to bring that up any more, you spend a goodly amount of time bringing that up."

"And now Jayne is my slave," River finished happily.

The whole time Jayne watched Zoe--her shocked face and the way her eyes kept darting from River to Mal to the cuff on his arm. "If you're planning on saying something, spit it out now because I ain't going to have you staring at me," he warned.

"Just surprised, is all," she said, not even bothering to change her expression.

"Shocked the hell out of me, too," Mal sympathized. "I would have figured that Jayne would space himself before ever wearing a cuff, but like I told him, don't make him any less of a black-hearted hwun dan."

Zoe laughed. Jayne could feel his guts rise to his mouth, anger and frustration that made him want to rip off the slave cuff and punch Zoe right her gorram laughing mouth. River's hand caught his arm. Maybe it was something in his expression that cut off Zoe's laugh so sudden. "Sir, the only thing I'm surprised at is him wearing River's cuff. Always figured you'd cuff him sooner or later."

Mal's mouth about dropped open, and Jayne's anger turned all confusion. "What?" Mal finally managed.

"Come on, sir. Jayne went from shooting his old captain in the leg to following us through Reaver territory. If he were in it for money, he would have jumped ship when we started taking on missions that were more likely to get us killed than get us paid, but as much as he argued, he never hesitated to follow exactly where he didn't want to go."

"Wait, are you saying you thought..." Mal stopped and stared at her. Mal looked over toward him, and Jayne could only stare back with a confused expression of his own.

"Captain is stupid," River said. "He didn't even notice Jayne with all his strength following behind."

"I ain't stupid," Mal snapped, then he thought on that for a second. "Usually."

"Honestly?" Zoe asked, "I figured when Jayne had his bag sent to Serenity, that were his way of forcing your hand, sir."

"I weren't trying to force anything. Just wanted Vera to go to a good home if something happened to me. You thought I'd end up wearing a cuff?" Jayne couldn't even figure how he felt about that.

"I'm not one to lead myself," Zoe shrugged. "Can't say I'd ever wear a cuff, but that's just me. Jayne, you okay with River buying your paper? Don't seem like you two have a real amicable relationship."

"She ain't bad, and she's smarter than the captain," Jayne shrugged. River smiled up at him, that look like someone had just given her a puppy, and Jayne couldn't ever remember anyone looking at him like that. He remembered his Ma watching Matty's crib with that sort of pure love, so he supposed before he were old enough to start breaking things, she'd looked at him like that, but he sure hadn't had anyone in his life since consider him like she done right now.

"Right now, I'm starting to think you're right on that," Mal said, sounding kind of dazed. "So, if I had walked out at dinner and said I were moving Jayne into my quarters?" he asked.

Zoe looked at him with a sort of indulgent amusement. "I would have asked what took you so long to figure it out, sir."

"Tee wuh duh pee-goo."

Zoe coughed like she was hiding a laugh. "Inara asked if mayhaps you needed some instruction either on handling Jayne or just on menfolk's ways of pleasuring," Zoe added, and now she was clearly enjoying the situation.

"She... what?" Mal's voice was sounding downright unmanly now. Jayne didn't even try to hide a smirk.

"She thought that you were taking too long to getting around to Jayne… that maybe you had some issue she could help you with. When she come to me, I told her I knew you'd taken a man or two to bed even if you did lean toward womenfolk, so I didn't think you were unversed. Didn't occur to either of us that you just hadn't figured it out." Zoe still had that military stiff body language, but Jayne could see the edges of her eyes crinkle, the corners of her mouth twitch as she fought back a laugh.

"Aiya. Tell me you and Inara weren't talking on my sex life."

"Sorry, sir," Zoe said, not sounding the least bit sorry. "In our defense, we did think you had at least noticed."

Jayne opened his mouth to get in on the fun, and River was there, pressing her back to his stomach and pinching his arm.

"Ow," he complained, and she looked up with that same affectionate smile. Mal didn't even seem to notice.

"Did everyone on the gorram ship know?" he demanded.

Zoe thought on that for a second. "I don't think Kaylee noticed, sir. Or Simon either. Reverend Book knew. Wash… well, he had all sorts of schemes for making you two stop butting heads and start talking." Zoe fell quiet, the memory of her husband did that when it slipped into the conversation. For a long minute, they all just stood, the bustle of Persephone flowing around them.

"Well, shi. Could've one of you told me," Mal finally sighed.

"Thought you knew, sir."

"Next time, when it comes to things like this, assume I'm gorram clueless."

"Yes, sir," Zoe agreed crisply.

"Told you that you messed up," River offered all friendly-like.

"Yeah, well tell your slave to help me load this gou shi you traded my shuttle for," Mal said as he headed over for the stack of goods sitting in the dust. River twisted out of Jayne's arms and gave him a smack on the butt to get him moving, but the grope at the end didn't make keeping his mind on work any easier as he headed for the pile. Three days on the slaver world and River seemed to have bought out half the planet. Mal grunted as he picked up a heavy box and headed for the hauler Zoe had brought. "What you got in here, River?"

"Books," River said absent-mindedly, her gaze on Jayne and a small smile on her lips. Jayne added the box of chains to the loader and looked at River suspiciously.

"Ain't a good look you're wearing," he said. River started to really smile, that sweet smile that made Jayne more stupid because it twisted something in his guts that made thinking downright impossible. Her eyes traveled down over him as she reached up and trailed a finger over the buttons of his shirt.

"Don't even go there," Jayne growled. "Not loading bare-chested in the middle of Persephone docks," he snapped as he started heading back for the pile, but River caught him by the arm, pulling him back in with that unnatural strength of hers. Jayne found himself pressed against the hauler as she went on tiptoes, her arms around her neck.

"Won't take what you can't give, but Jayne doesn't get to be that growly," River said softly. Sliding forward, she stood on the tops of his boots, her soft soled boots braced on his shit-kickers and her body pressed to his. Jayne's brain turned off as his cock hardened, sore or not.

"Why ain't I getting sexed again?" he asked as his arms went around her waist.

"Because you're being all stupid. Just because my brother would think you had been ungentlemanly with me, no reason for not having sex," River tightened her arms, her weight braced on his shoulders as she pulled herself up. Jayne tightened his arms to hold her in place and groaned. "Is it working yet?" she asked, her new favorite question as she kept trying new ways to seduce him. His cock were going to fall off before she was done with him.

"Ain't never wanted to get an argument over with so much in my life, but I ain't giving you that until we deal with your gorram brother. Mal, any chance we can just space the doc so I can commence with getting sexed without worrying about him getting his knickers all twisty?"

"No," Mal said as he loaded another box, "but you can put your woman down and help load now. A captain shouldn't be doing all the work." River smiled slid down Jayne's body, rubbing in a way that just didn't help with the need for getting sexed or the soreness. He reached down and scratched as she stepped back.

"So, who gave River the birds and bees talk?" Zoe asked as she headed for the pile and lifted a large, awkward crate.

Jayne caught one edge and she shifted her grip so they could carry it together.

"Ain't sure anyone has yet, but she seems to be feeling her way though on her own," Jayne said. Didn't bother him to have the crew see him in a slave cuff, but he sure weren't confessing to being the one to teach River about sex and submission. Any brother would kill over gou shi like that, and Simon were a good sight more protective than most brothers.

"I ain't gone a day without hearing how she needs to be getting sexed." Mal complained as he leaned on the hauler.

"Think how I'm feeling sharing quarters. I ain't been so frustrated since I were fifteen," Jayne complained.

"What, you two aren't…?" Zoe's eyebrows rose.

"Given how they're groping each other, shocking, isn't it?" Mal asked.

"Very, sir."

"Ain't going to walk on the Serenity and have you think I went and seduced her and turned her head all around. I ain't never coerced a woman or went and bedded a child, so I told her she's got to convince you that she ain't no child. I may be a black-hearted hwun dan, but I've got my limits." Jayne dropped his end of the crate kind fast so that Zoe grunted as she worked her end around.

Mal snorted. "Looking at her now, I'm convinced. Five days of hearing her say things damn near as inappropriate as all Jayne's scratching, and I don't think I'll ever forget she's not a child," Mal offered as he dropped two small boxed into the hauler.

"Salacious?" Zoe asked with a smile. Mal shook his head, leaning against the hauler as Jayne grabbed the last of their freight.

"Girl made one of the Mockingbird crew snort soup out his nose. One dinner should be enough to convince Simon that she ain't exactly child-like anymore. And for one," Mal added, "I'm hopin' she does less talking about sex once she's having it. If she don't, I ain't even going to be comin' to dinner because all we'll be hearing about is Jayne's prowess in bed."

"Like the shepherd would have said," Zoe smiled, "wonders never cease. Our girl went and grew up, sir," Zoe said with a smile as River attached herself to Jayne's side again as soon as he'd put the last box in the hauler. "You planning on staying attached to Jayne from now on?" Zoe asked as she looked at how River plastered herself to his side.

Jayne groaned, knowing exactly what was coming. River's hand stroked his chest, wandering south until she cupped his genitals. "You had to ask," he snarled at Zoe. The woman's eye were open about as wide as plates as she stared at River's hand, kneading Jayne's growing erection.

"Going to torture him until he agree to have sex," River announced happily.

"Zoe, never, ever ask anything like that again," Mal ordered, a strange expression on his face. Shaking his head, he truned and climbed into the driver's seat.

"Yes, sir," Zoe agreed as she walked around to the passenger side, but Jayne could still hear that amusement just under her military manners.

"Time to go home now," River said as she finally let go and climbed into the back, poking among her packages.

Jayne got in last, his cock already caught between aching and itching. Ignoring Zoe's disapproving look, he started scratching it again.



"Mei mei," Simon called from the walk above Serenity's bay as the hauler bounced into Serenity's belly. "I can't believe you stole the shuttle. You aren't to ever do something like that again."

Kaylee trailed behind as Simon stormed down the stairs toward his sister. Kaylee just smiled as she looked from one to the other. "You brought him back." She finally said as she got to the bottom. Jayne hadn't done more than get out of the hauler before Kaylee was there, arms wrapped around him. He didn't know quite what to do so he patted her awkwardly on the shoulder.

"Poop head," she whispered for just him. Jayne gave a shrug.

"Never been the brightest, but this time it weren't all my fault. Got drunk around people who weren't the best for getting drunk around."

Simon made a noise that Jayne chose to ignore as Kaylee took a step back. Her eyes took him in. "Looking good. I know you didn't dress yourself looking like that, so who dragged you out shopping for shirts that don't have logos promising blood and gunfire?" she teased. Jayne looked down with a frown.

"Ain't so different from what I normally wear, except for these britches being too gorram tight," he complained as he scratched again.

"Just like Captain Tightpants," Kaylee agreed with an amused look toward Mal who was going out of his way to ignore her as he and Zoe started unpacking. Kaylee got a confused expression on her face when the captain ignored her teasing, but Jayne figured the cowards were just trying to avoid helping him deal with Simon. Glancing over, Jayne could see Simon was still fussing over River.

"Kaylee's just surprised at your new look because she's not used to you being clean," Simon said to Jayne as he finally looked up from making sure River didn't have a mark on her. River frowned.

"Simon, that ain't nice," Kaylee immediately hissed at him, going over and giving him a punch in the arm for good measure.

"Least I know how to get dirty doing a day's work," Jayne crossed his arms and bit back a dozen other words, most a good sight less polite.

"We should help the captain," Kaylee said as she turned to the hauler and cargo.

"Nope," River said when Jayne went to do just that. "Brother has to look over Jayne," River said.

Mal put down the box he'd just picked up. "There a problem?" he asked as he watched them carefully.

"Not that I know of," Jayne shrugged. Maybe she just wanted them in the infirmary when they had their talk, but personally he'd rather keep the doc away from anything sharp or shiny when he found out.

"Jayne's all itchy and hurt," River said. Immediately, the look of mild disgust the doc always wore around Jayne vanished.

"Did something happen? When did you first start noticing symptoms?" he asked.

"Haven't really, just a might sore," Jayne said in confusion as River grabbed his arm and started dragging him toward the infirmary. "Last two or three days."


"Cock," Jayne answered, and the doc half stumbled a step. Turning around, he glanced at River who was still holding on to Jayne's arm.

"Mei mei, maybe you had better give us some privacy. Jayne might need to tell me things that you shouldn't hear, but don't worry. I'll take care of him, so you can let him go now."

"Not leaving," River said.

"Not like I care if she's in the room," Jayne said, not mentioning the part about River owning him because he really didn't want to get into that conversation if Simon was going to be looking at his prick.

"I don't think she should be seeing the exam," Simon said, his voice tight as frustration started coming through.

"I want to see. Testis, corpus spongiosum, corpus cavernosum, urethra, prostate, vas deferens." River's voice got that far-off sound.

"What those?" Jayne asked as River started pulling him toward the infirmary again. They passed Simon who had a look like he'd been frozen.

"Parts of the penis. I want to see them."

"Ain't had a doctor check my prostate but once, and I ain't looking to have you or your brother go checking it today," Jayne warned, the word finally registering with him as he remembered the government health check when he turned fifteen.

"Not today," River agreed cheerfully. Simon finally got himself moving again, catching up when they got to the infirmary. Jayne started unbuckling his pants.

"Jayne, don't undress in front of River."

"Silly Simon. I know how it all works. Arteries dilate and pressurized blood flows into the corpora cavernosa. But I've never seen it."

"And you aren't seeing it today," Simon almost yelped.

"Only a body part," Jayne said as he let his pants drop. "Ain't nothing to get that uptight about." He figured out he hadn't taken off his boots, and he cursed as he knelt down and started working on the laces so he wouldn't be hobbled if the doc decided to take a scalpel to his parts.

"River, you need to go back to your quarters," Simon said. Jayne just kept working on his boots while he watched with amusement.

"No." River leaned back against the wall. Simon frowned at her and then went over to physically push her out of the room. That worked about as well as Simon getting out and trying to push start Serenity.

"River," Simon said in a warning tone. River actually smiled at him. Then she watched as Jayne stepped out of his boots and pants and pushed his boxers off. Immediately, he reached up and scratched himself.

"Oh my god. Stop that," Simon said as he instantly turned to Jayne. "Get on the table. How long have you had this?"

"Just a bit of rash," Jayne said as he got up on the table. This were a bit uncomfortable laying with his parts exposed. River wandered closer, her fingers brushing across his shoulder, and Jayne curled his fists around the edge of the table and tried to ignore when Simon slipped on gloves and started handling him. Itched like a whore down there.

"A rash with signs of secondary infection."

"He gonna be okay?" Mal asked from the doorway.

"Captain, would you get River out of here, please," Simon asked as he poked at Jayne's balls. Jayne scowled at him, but the man was too interested in torturing Jayne to notice.

"Your sister does what she wants, in case you ain't noticed. Jayne, that don't look good," Mal said as he stepped closer.

"Doc needs to either stop touching it or start scratching because he's just making it worse," Jayne complained as he held on to the edge of the table as tight as he could.

"Balanitis with a slight secondary infection. I'll get cream," Simon announced as he finally let go of Jayne. Jayne reached down to scratch and Simon blocked his hand.

"Stop that. The more you scratch, the worse it's going to get."

"Wrong," River said.

"Good because I ain't going to itch and not scratch," Jayne said as he shoved Simon's hand out of the way and started scratching. River was there, catching his hand and pulling it away, and Jayne could only stare at the ceiling as he thought up colorful curses.

"You can't scratch. Simon will get you cream that makes it feel better, but it's not balanitis."

Mal stepped forward, a real disgusted look on his face as he stared at Jayne exposed on the table. "You ain't the doc, River. And are you sure that ain't dangerous, Simon? Because I've never seen a man's penis looking quite that unhappy."

"Just a rash," Jayne complained. Weren't good for a man's ego to have his prick judged like that.

"A real unhappy red bumpy rash on parts that I don't reckon I would tolerate any kind of rash at all. That ain't catching it is?" Mal took a quick step back.

"It happens when a person isn't regularly acquainted with bathwater," Simon said, the concern and sympathy of earlier largely gone.

"Intertrigo," River said definitively as she reached down and touched Jayne's cock. Idiot thing started hardening, which just made the itch worse.

"Don't be silly, River, a man would have to--. Stop That!" Simon came back over and pulled River's hand away from Jayne's cock. Mal was now standing with his back to them, leaning against the wall near the door. Jayne hadn't seen the captain move that fast since Reavers was after them.

"River, you don't ever touch a man there," Simon said, his voice caught between panic and patience.

"Ever?" River asked all innocent-like. Jayne didn't know what were coming, but he'd seen that sweet expression often enough to not trust it.

"What?" Simon asked.

"You think I shouldn't ever touch a man?" She cocked her head to the side with an injured expression.

"I…" Simon stopped. "This isn't a topic for discussion right here."

"You think I'll go through my whole life and never touch a man? You don't want me to have any life or happiness?" she asked, her voice small and sad. "Don't you want me to ever have what you and Kaylee have when you get all lost in each other's bodies and the feeling of hot skin in the bed? You want me to be alone?" Simon turned all kinds of red while River just had an expression like someone had killed Santa Clause. Jayne knew she were playing her brother, knew it and still wanted to punch the sha gua right in the face for making River look so sad.

"I didn't--. I mean--. River." Simon staggered to a verbal stop. River looked on the verge of crying. Jayne gave her points for manipulation, but it were making his stomach sour.

"Ain't helping with the itch, you two fighting," Jayne interrupted the staring match. River still had ahold of his one hand, and the slave cuff on the other were a mighty big reminder that if she told him not to do something, he weren't supposed to do it. And if that something involved everyone looking at his cock like it were about ready to fall off, he'd be following her advice. He looked down, and he had to admit that it weren't looking healthy, but hopefully it weren't all as bad as they were making it out to be.

"Here," Simon shoved a tube of something at him, and Jayne didn't waste any time getting it open and slathering some over his penis. The burning itch vanished as Jayne stroked it into the sore skin.

"Oh my god, you don't have to--. River, you need to leave," Simon said, his eyes focused on what Jayne was doing. Jayne finished wiping the rest of the cream off on his hip.

"Got a woman touching me, so it ain't my fault," Jayne pointed out as he considered his cock which was making a valiant effort to get hard even if it wasn't actually getting far. River's hand had drifted from Jayne's wrist up to rest on his hip bone.

"I really don't want to look, do I?" Mal asked as he stood at the door and watched the hallway.

"Nope," River agreed. "And it's not balanitis, it's intertrigo."

"River, a man would have to pleasure himself... oh... " Simon paused.

"Four, five times a day for the last eight days," Jayne filled in for him quickly enough. "Or seven, I guess. That first day after the auction I only jerked off the once, but starting that second day, I been doing it regular." He swung his legs around and hopped off the table, but when he turned around, Simon had that expression like his face done fell open. "What?" Jayne snatched his clothes off the floor and started pulling them on.

"You've... four or five times a day... with a rash like that?"

"Painful. The pain puts an edge on all the round, but he shouldn't hurt himself, he should let me hurt him," River said. Simon spared her a glance and then looked back at Jayne.

"To get that damage, he would have to be hurting himself. What would possess you to... do that?" Simon finally got his mouth to close as Jayne did up his buckle. He cast a look at his boots. He'd feel better with them on, but this was getting to the point in the conversation where being bent over were just too much risk.

"It's called jerking off," Jayne sneered.

"It's called masturbation," Simon crossed his arms and stared at Jayne. "Excessive masturbation. Potentially obsessive even. There are psychiatric medicines for compulsive behaviors like this. "

"Too much friction and heat and pressure and now he's all itchy. No more jerking off for Jayne," River said as she sat on the exam table and curled her legs under her. She'd lost her boots at some point so she was back to bare feet.

Simon sighed. "River, this really isn't something you should get involved in. Jayne, if you want to get undressed again, I'll check to see if you've caused any damage other than the rash."

"He didn't," River announced airily.

"I'll take her word for it," Jayne said as he retreated to a spot near the door and leaned against the wall. Mal glanced over at him.

"Have to say, I don't know whether to call that impressive or stupid," Mal commented. "Five times a day, Jayne?"

"You try having her rubbing up against you. It was either my hand or her," Jayne commented. He knew this was starting right down a road he didn't want to go down, but better to take on the enemy face on than have them chasing your back with a scalpel and a needle full of drugs.

"Her?" Simon looked from River to Jayne and back. "River?" he finally asked, focusing on his sister.

"I bought Jayne," River announced proudly as she looked at Jayne with that new-found puppy expression.

"I thought the captain was going to fetch him." Simon sounded confused, not angry, so Jayne figured Simon had missed the important part of her announcement.

"Oh, I tried. River outbid me. Sold my gorram shuttle to get the money to outbid me, but the law says that River holds Jayne's paper, and I can't do nothing about that," Mal said as he turned to face Simon. Now he and Jayne flanked the door and Simon just looked from one to the other in confusion. Yeah, he knew he were missing something; he just weren't too sure what.

"River?" he finally turned back to his sister.

"I put a cuff on Jayne, hold his paper, only he says he won't have sex with me until you see that this is my choice, so he goes and gets stupid and hurts himself instead of letting me hurt him." River summed it up pretty good, and once again Simon's whole face just kinda fell open. "Would have made him stop, but he needed to have the edge on all the round, and he says I can't hurt him yet. Can't hurt him and I can't have sex with him until you know. So now you know."

"You." Simon took a step back and braced himself on the counter. "Him?"

River nodded happily and slid off the table before going to Jayne, fitting herself into his side, and he rested his arm on her shoulders. She looked up at him. "Can we have sex now? I promise to be careful with your damaged penis."

Simon was breathing heavy like he was about to pass out. "Captain, I don't know what this man-ape has done, but unless you do something to fix this, I'm going to fix that rash by cutting it off," Simon said, his voice shaking.

"Ai-ya. Told me I were always safe on your table," Jayne protested.

"You ain't on my table!" Simon shot back. Jayne traded a concerned look with Mal. He hadn't ever heard Simon so upset that he forgot his grammar before.

"My choice," River said firmly, her arm still around Jayne's waist.

"No!" Simon shouted. "No, it isn't your choice. They cut into your head so you can't control what you're thinking, so it's not your choice to bed some addle-pate, some simpleton who can't even go a month without selling himself into slavery. This isn't your choice." Simon's voice rose to an uneven shout.

"Simon, what's going on here?" Kaylee appeared at the door, looking around with concern. "Zoe said you might want some privacy, but it's hard to let you be private with all the shouting and insulting going on."

"He seduced my sister," Simon shouted, poking a finger at Jayne. "I don't know how, and I don't care, but he needs to get his hands off River."

"You planning on trying to make me? I'd like to see that, little man," Jayne warned darkly.

"Play nice," River said, sounding all the world like Kaylee for a second. For her part, Kaylee was just looking confused.

"River and Jayne?" she asked.

"I figure that's about the face I made when I heard," Mal agreed. "Course, Jayne made a face even worse at the time, but River put her bid on him, and she's been working hard to convince all of us, Jayne included, that she's serious about this."

"I am serious. I like Jayne's brain," she said as she rested her head on his shoulder. Simon spluttered so hard that Jayne thought he might choke on his own tongue.

"Oh," Kaylee said. Nothing more, just 'oh.'

"Trust me, don't go asking after it because she'll give you some explanations that will leave you wanting to wash out the inside of your brain with a real strong soap. In fact," Mal said with a face like he'd been sucking a lemon, "if she starts talking on Reaver thoughts, just run."

"Are you okay with this captain?" Kaylee asked real soft.

"Me?" Mal looked over at her in surprise. "Aren't you worried about River?"

Kaylee shrugged. "I reckon River can take care of herself just fine, and Jayne don't appear to be suffering, but I always figured you and Jayne would end up together, captain, and now Jayne has River and you're alone."

Mal's mouth dropped open. "You knew, too? Why is it that everyone on my whole gorram ship knowed that Jayne were waiting on me, excepting me?" he demanded.

"You didn't know?" Kaylee blinked.

"No, and Zoe said you didn't neither."

Kaylee made a disgusted sound. "Everybody always thinks I'm so naive. Ain't so naive as to miss what's right under my nose."

"Well, next time something's right under your nose, you mind letting me in on it?" Mal asked.

"You bet, captain," she smiled and then looked thoughtful. "Does that mean you want to know about how--"

"Simon knows now, so can we start having sex?" River asked again, interrupting Kaylee. Simon was still clinging to the counter, looking back and forth like one of them dolls that nods in the wind. "I'll be careful with your broken penis."

"His penis?" Kaylee yelped, worry in her eyes, and Jayne weren't having no pity.

"Jerked off too much trying to not do the wrong thing, but if I ain't going to get any credit for not bedding River yet, ain't sure why I bothered," Jayne said, feeling more than a little put upon.

"Credit," Simon almost choked on the word. "Credit? You want credit for not bedding her?" Simon's voice started small and built up to a good rant. "She's a child! If you did bed her, I'd ask the captain to put you off the ship. Of course, even if you did bed her, I still wouldn't sell you to the alliance."

Jayne froze, his anger and guilt rising up like a monster out of the dark. "Your sister done stabbed me. Ain't like I didn't have cause."

"Yes, the cause closest to Jayne Cobb's heart--money. You want money? I'll pay you to leave my sister alone. Come on, how much will it take to get you to keep your hands off her?" Simon pulled his wallet out and started yanking credit notes out.

"Don't need your money," Jayne said, not sure when he'd gotten so off-balance in this fight, but this weren't going the way he'd planned.

"Oh, maybe you've already sold her out. Get a better price from some Alliance doctor? Plan to walk her to some pick up point with your arm around her shoulders?"

Mal stepped forward. "Now, Simon. Jayne ain't the one doing any selling. He's the one who went and got himself sold, and as far as I've seen, River's taking the job of owning him a fair sight more seriously than I would have thought. Look at him, Simon."

"I am." Simon growled the words. He was too, glaring hard enough that Jayne could feel the hatred sinking into his skin.

Mal sighed. "I ain't never knowed Jayne Cobb to wear pants that tight or shirts that button up without someone making him. It were River's choice. Jayne ain't the one doing the pushing here."

"So, if he lets River pick his shirt, that makes it okay for him to sleep with her?" Simon spat the words in anger.

"He's mine." River stepped forward, and Jayne could see in the way she held her body that she was near to an edge. He'd spent a week on his knees watching her every move, the way her legs moved slow and steady when she were happy, the way a book that upset her made her go all stiff, the way her body turned into something alien when she wanted to kill… one of the Mockingbird crew had come mighty close. Now her arms were stiff at her sides, head tilted forward as she faced off against her brother. Jayne figured Simon'd be safe enough, but she weren't always aware of whoever happened to be on the side when she was upset.

"Captain. How about you and Kaylee leave us to handle this for a bit," Jayne said as soft as he could.

"I don't think that's a real good idea, Jayne," Kaylee immediately answered, but Mal looked from River back to Jayne again.


"Yep," Jayne answered.

"Gao yang jong duh goo yang. Kaylee, let's leave them to do their talking," Mal said as he caught Kaylee's arm and started backing out of the room.

"But, cap…"

"Kaylee, we're leaving," Mal said as he dragged her out of the room.

"What?" Simon asked, and Jayne could see River's head come up, the aggression drain as her brother's anger gave way to confusion. "Captain?" Simon called out, and then Jayne watched the anger settle in again as he looked at Jayne. "You do this, and I will either get him to kick you off this ship, or I will take my sister and leave," he said, his voice deadly quiet.

"No!" River yelled, both fists coming down on the treatment table he was holding hard enough to leave twin dents.

"Mei mei," Simon yelped as he jumped back.

"No, I'm not leaving. He's mine. Stop thinking those things."

"Don't matter what the little man's thinking," Jayne said. "You put the cuff on me, and the law says he can't come between that."

"That's funny, you turning to the law. I didn't think you cared about the law."

Jayne spared Simon a dirty look before he focused on River with her tight body language. Just too much hate for one room, he reckoned. "You know, I ain't going to hold it against you that you're acting like a chun zi. You gave up your life for your sister, so I imagine it ain't easy seeing her make a life on her own, but you hurt her, and I'll kill you before you have a chance to take a breath. Won't feel bad or angry, and I'll probably even feel some respect that you had the balls to put your freedom on the line for her, but I'll kill you."

Jayne was calm, about as calm as he'd ever felt, but Simon turned white. River had been focusing on her brother, her head bent forward and her hair hiding her face, but now she turned to Jayne.

She stepped in front of him, her hand coming up to rest on his chest.

"This… this is who you pick mei mei? A killer? A stone-cold killer. A gorram dumb stone-cold killer at that?" Simon demanded. River stood, her hand braced on Jayne's chest as she breathed deep. Jayne laid his hand over the back of hers where it rested against his chest.

Simon just kept right on going. "He tried to turn us in to the feds. No one ever taught him right from wrong and now he's trying to take you away. Maybe if Mal took a bullwhip to him, he'd learn that he needs to have respect for other people, he needs to have respect for you."

Jayne looked up at Simon. "What I did were wrong. Mal's the captain, and River's my owner, so I guess they both got the right to take me to task for getting stupid, but you ain't. And I got more respect for your sister that you do. I don't go throwing my hate and anger into her mind where she can't hide. I don't go bottling things up and poisoning her with 'em. I weren't kidding. You either get control so you ain't hurting her no more, or I'll kill you."

"Do you really think I'd ever hurt her?" Simon demanded, but at least now he had some uncertainty in his voice.

"Anger." River's voice was low, verging on a moan.

"Mei mei?"

"Ain't about you and me, or else I'd beat the shit out of you and have done with it, so listen up. You ever stop and listen to her instead of shoving some needle in her arm?"

"Of course I listen." Simon didn't sound angry at all now, now he sounded so worried that he didn't even care if Jayne was in the room. He stepped forward, reaching out to lay a hand on River's shoulder, and she darted behind Jayne.

"Mei mei!" Simon tried to follow and River retreated so they ended up playing a round of ring around the Jayne. "River!"

She stopped in front of Jayne, on arm outstretched toward Simon, holding him away as she put her back to Jayne.

"No!" she snapped. "I can't shut people out but that doesn't mean I don't make my own choice," she just about growled. "I can hear you and Jayne and Mal and Kaylee and Zoe and I chose Jayne. I chose him." She stopped, closing her eyes and taking a deep breath. Jayne reached up and put a hand on her arm.

"Don't want your anger with elephant feet in my brain. Stampedes so fast I can't move out of the way. Anger, fear, accusation, all like lightening. Stop it." River opened her eyes and looked right at Simon.

"Mei mei, this isn't you," Simon said softly. "I have something that would help you, quiet your mind," he said as he edged toward his cabinet.

"No," she said firmly. "This is me. You just don't want to see me. You want me to be the girl I was before you left."

"That's who you should be," Simon soothed her, but Jayne could hear the frustration in his voice. "If they hadn't cut your brain open, that's who you would be."

River was shaking her head now. "I'd be grown up. I'd be getting sexed, and you wouldn't have no say in it. You'd hate whoever I bedded and complain to Mom and Dad, but I'd be grown. I am grown."

Simon stopped at that. "River."

"Baby, toddler, child, teen, grown, old. Always moving. Leaving." Jayne didn't realize the last was a command until she pulled at his arm. Still in his bare feet, he started backing up, not wanting to put his back to the doc right now.

"River?" Simon called.

"She's had as much of your stupidity and hate as she can handle in her brain right now. Give her space to recover or I swear, I will protect her even if I have to kill you," Jayne said seriously as he pulled River out into the hall. His quarters were farther away from the others than hers, so he headed that way, hoping they were still his and still unlocked. The ship was cold under his bare feet, and slap of skin against metal sounded wrong to his ear, but Jayne weren't about to go back for his boots. He just hurried River along before something else could go wrong.

Turning the corner, Jayne spotted the captain waiting at the juncture of two corridors near Jayne's room. "She okay?" he asked.

"Yep," Jayne agreed shortly. Weren't in much of a mood for conversation, especially now that River had fallen into silence.

"Simon okay?"

"For now," Jayne answered. "His table ain't the best."

"You or River?"

"River. Were me, I would have just broken his neck."

Mal sighed. "I ain't sure he ever truly thought about what it meant for her, having all of us in her head like she got. Maybe I'll talk to him."

"Well, you explain that she's my priority now. I warned him, and I'm warning you, I think he's doing her permanent harm, and I'll kill him. I'll do it quick and painless, but I'll kill him." Jayne turned to go to his room.

"This is my boat, Jayne," Mal said, reaching out and grabbing Jayne's arm to make him stop. Jayne stopped, and River stopped with him. "I already told you once, we don't turn on our own."

"I recall you told me to stab you in the front next time I was going to stab you in the back," Jayne said. "I'm just giving you that warning because if he hurts her, I'll do what I have to do. And I know you're the captain and if you figure I deserve a horse whipping or getting thrown out the airlock, I'll accept that, but that won't keep me from killing anyone who rips her apart." Jayne stared at Mal, a coldness in him that he hadn't ever felt. It weren't that he didn't care, it's that he cared so much that caring just froze out all else, even his fear of the one man who'd ever made Jayne face his own death.

"What are you defining as tearing her apart?" Mal asked. "Should I go put Zoe on guard at the infirmary now?"

Jayne looked down. River was leaning into him, but her breathing were calm enough. "Don't reckon so." River looked up at him and then over to Mal.

"His edges hurt so much more than others," she said softly. "Know all my tender spots. So much anger. So much guilt like big boulders holding back the water."

Mal sighed. "This is why I have a set in stone rule against family on a ship. Family always do know how to hurt us most, River. I'll talk to Simon. And Jayne," Mal looked at him with a deadly calm. "You kill someone on my boat without him having a gun pointed at your gut and a horsewhipping is the nicest thing I'll do to you."

Jayne didn't answer. With a long-suffering expression and a long sigh, Mal turned back toward the infirmary and headed out.

Jayne started River moving toward his quarters again. He had River inside and was closing the hatch when she sat on the floor at his feet.

"River?" he asked. Usually, he were the one on the floor. They'd have to get some rugs in here or his knees were going to be mighty sore. River reached out and traced the top of his foot with a finger.

"No boots."

"Left 'em with your brother. Be lucky if he doesn't take a knife to 'em."

"You were too busy with me to think about boots." She looked up and smiled and then with a sinuous twist, she was on her feet.


"Care about me more than the boots."

Now Jayne just looked at her like she really had lost her mind. River smiled at him and wrapped her arms around his neck. "Hate being confused," she muttered, her head against his chest. Jayne walked to the bunk, River dangling from him as she bent her legs up.

"Makes it easier when you just kill 'em, doesn't it?" Jayne asked.

Slowly River nodded. "Or hit 'em really hard so they stop thinking so loud. Can't hit brother, though, not even when he's being stupid. And you can't kill brother," she said as she slid down to the ground and then sat on the edge of the bunk. She pulled on Jayne's hand, and Jayne sank to his knees in front of her.

"Can I threaten to kill him?" Jayne asked. River brought both hands up and cupped his face, her fingers threading through his hair and exploring his head, the curve of his neck, the edge of his jaw. Slowly she nodded her head.

"Good," Jayne said, his cock starting to twitch as her hands stroked down his arms. "Don't rightly know if I could stop threatening him at least." River's fingertips traveled down his arms, stopping when she reached his wrist. Pulling his left hand up, she opened her eyes to stare at the slave cuff, her fingers exploring it before she turned his hand over and traced the lines on his palm.

"Just tell me what you want, and I'll do it," Jayne said softly.

"You giving me everything?" she asked.

"Yep. Already told you I'd give you my pain, back in there with Simon. I ain't taking the cuff lightly, and I never meant to deny you anything, but I had to have that out without everyone thinking I went and seduced you. Can't live with doing something they can't forgive me for," Jayne admitted softly, and that were sounding a whole lot like weakness.

"You're all itchy and I have all the sharp edges in my mind. Want to take you somewhere nice, and I ain't anywhere nice right now," River said softly.

"Don't have to be nice, I'll follow you anyway." Jayne shifted as his knees complained about the metal floor.

River slowly lay down, pulling at Jayne until he climbed in the bed with her. It wasn't exactly a big bunk, but she curled around him so she didn't take up any space at all. Jayne could almost feel the fatigue laying on her like a blanket, and he felt a flare of anger that Simon could be so gorram clueless. River pinched him.

"Ain't like I got anything else to think about, laying here," Jayne defended himself without even pretending ignorance.

"Tell me about Vera," River said softly. Her hand stroked his hip and tugged at his shirt until she could slip a hand inside and just rest it against his warm stomach.

"Tell everyone I got it off a mercenary I killed," Jayne started slowly. He'd told that story so often he believed it himself most nights when he lay here looking at her. Mal had hung her back on the wall of Jayne's quarters, and Jayne could see her now if he looked over his shoulder. He glanced that way and then looked back at River. Her hair had fallen into her face, and he brought his hand up, brushing it away with his thumb.

River poked him in the stomach. "Keep telling," she said.

"Yes, mistress," he joked, but then his thoughts turned to the story, and the smile just faded. "She belonged to my step-father. He always told me I were worthless, that I'd end up in some gorram jail and break my ma's heart…"

Jayne lay in his bunk, stroking River's hair and telling her the story of the night he left home until her eyes drifted closed and she finally slept. Then he just lay there watching her, catching sight of the black cuff locked around his wrist every time he brought his hand up to stroke her long hair.





Jayne stirred a bit in sleep. Serenity was rumbling, the soft growl of being at dock. He rolled over to go back to sleep and found a warm body in his bunk with him. Hands tightened around his middle, and Jayne had to catch up with his own mind. River. Slavery. Jayne looked down at the dark head resting on his chest, and he felt so much that he couldn't even rightly put words to it.

"Jayne's thinking loud," she muttered, shifting against him. Jayne could feel his cock stir, but the itch were back. Course, it weren't back bad enough to give up the feeling of a woman laying in his arms. Was that as much as anything that had made him fall so hard. Were women plenty who'd slept with him, some for money and some because Jayne had a reputation for being thoughtful in bed. Weren't no women who wanted to wake up with him. Were a few who had gotten so gorram drunk they were still in the bed in the morning, but they didn't rightly wake up with him. They woke up with their hangovers and Jayne was just in the room when they done it.

Now he woke up with River every morning, those lazy minutes before either of them were ready to move, their legs tangled in the sheets. Jayne knew full well River could have bedded him already. One touch, one whisper on these mornings, and he'd do anything to avoid losing this. But as much as she had worked to seduce him once his brain was as awake as his cock, she hadn't never taken the sex. Was hard to guard against giving someone your power when that person were so careful about not taking it.

It was like being on his knees. That first night, he kept waiting for something, for her to call him weak or humiliate him. Never happened. He went on his knees, and the only thing she ever did was look at him like he was the biggest prize at the fair. Sometimes she'd have him kneel close so she could touch him, fingers grazing his neck, his hair, the top of his shoulder.

Got hard to remember to be on guard when night after night weren't no bad happening. She'd read to him, stories with men who'd gotten sexed by girls only to find out the girls were already dead with evil spirits making the dead bodies walk around. Jayne liked that one even though she'd had to explain the French revolution to him. River never seemed to get lost when reading a story, and she would do it for hours, until Jayne's knees got sore, even with the pillow, and she'd tug at him and he'd sit cross-legged on the floor leaning back into her legs.

"Pretty thoughts," River mumbled as she stretched. She always made a funny little huffing noise first thing in the morning, like she was trying to get her lungs in the pattern of breathing. Jayne closed his eyes and listened to the sounds of her wakin' now. When the family had first moved back to the farm after his grandfather died, they'd lived in one room, the three of them, and Jayne had known how his folks woke up, the way his pop would always talk so soft to his ma first thing in the morning. Years later he learned how his brother Matty would wake complaining about the time being too early or the pancakes smelling burnt. He even knew the morning sounds of rough men he'd bunked with on different ships. River was the only woman he knew the sounds of. Well, unless you counted them who'd drunk too much and woke up groaning or retching.

"All kinds of pretty," River sighed after she'd finished her little breaths.

"Thinking on how today is the first day I ain't holding anything back," Jayne said quietly. River shifted in the bed, her hand slipped out of the covers and reached up, her thumb circling a spot on his cheek while her fingers lay along his jaw.

"Should shower," she said.

"Showered yesterday," Jayne complained. He'd showered more in the last week or so than the last year, but he'd never bedded a woman without washing up first, and having River in his bed all the time did suggest he was going to be washing a good deal more. River made a little laugh and crawled over him to get to the far side of the bed.

"Slept in clothes." She made a face. "Have to get my things in here."

"We can do that today," Jayne said. He hadn't been sure she wanted to keep his quarters seeing as how they were smaller than hers, but he preferred the privacy and security, and couldn't even pretend to be unhappy that she'd picked his room. She unlocked the hatch to his door and reached out without even looking, pulling her traveling bag in.

"How. . .?" Jayne sat up.

"Kaylee," River shrugged. Jayne could only shake his head at the way she casually knew things no one could know. He sure weren't ever going to forget that she were slightly on the side of different. He watched as she pulled her dress off, the fabric sliding over her smooth skin before she dropped it to the floor and stepped over to him, naked as the day she come out of that freezer in Serenity's hold. This was the first time he'd seen her, and he stared at the curves, the unmarked skin, the play of muscles under her skin.

She moved to him, stalking toward him, legs bent in that pose that almost meant attack, but weren't quite right for that. When she got close enough to put her hands on Jayne's shoulders, he reached up and rested his palms against her hips, feeling the heat there. She looked almost fragile, but touching her in a way he hadn't ever touched her before, he could feel the muscle under that surface. It were like a sand viper, looking all innocent up top, but then showing its red belly right about the time it poisoned you.

"So much want. Jayne was stupid back at the auction, thinking he didn't want me," River teased.

"Didn't think you were up to the job of taking me in hand," he admitted. She stepped back, and Jayne went to let go, but her hands landed on top of his so that she pulled him forward, off the bunk. Jayne ended up on his knees, his large hands still braced on the curve of her hips.

"Were mighty stupid," Jayne admitted as he swallowed. He hadn't peed, and the need to pee and the massive erection and the tight pants he'd slept in weren't making it all that easy to just wait as she looked down at him, her fingers playing with his ear.

"So much strength. You were all ready to kill Simon."

"He were hurting you. But I wouldn't have done it unlessing I had to."

"No killing brother. Just threatening," she added after a second's thought. "You want so much," she whispered.

Jayne licked his lips and tried hard to focus on the way her skin curved into her belly button and not the parts he sometimes got accused of staring at overmuch. "Yeah," he agreed. "Reckon I do."

"Can't have," she whispered firmly. Jayne's cock twitched so that his eyes just about watered. These pants were too gorram tight for this to be anything close to comfortable. "Pleasure comes after forgiveness, and my Jayne needs forgiveness first," River murmured, her fingers tweaking his ear just enough to sent a flair of pain and need through him.

"Wouldn't want to deny you," Jayne said as he look up at River. He tried to focus on her eyes, but he had just such a perfect view of those twin mounds, the skin even paler than the rest of her with the nipples tight and peaked. "I mean, you been wanting to get sexed, so it ain't right to put this off if you want it."

River chuckled, pulling on his ear harder, and Jayne was afraid of coming right there in his pants like some gorram teenager.

"Silly Jayne trying to turn me around, but forgiveness should come first. Pain and then forgiveness," she said, her voice becoming much more serious now. "Not pain like puts an edge on all the round so you can feel the round better. Not pain that makes the world more real and paints colors on the flat numbers. Real pain. Pain that is all sharp edges that cuts out the rotting bits and leaves what's left bleeding."

Jayne took a deep breath, thinking that for once he understood her perfectly. Almost disturbing how well he could follow that train of thought, and he wasn't sure it said much about his sanity.

"Ain't going to like this, am I?"

River stroked his head, her fingers reaching down and brushing up under his chin. She was shaking her head, her hair swirling around them both, ends ticking Jayne. "But after, all the infection is gone. Puss guilt like yellow under the surface, there if I poke too hard. Have to lance the boil."

"Ariel," Jayne said shortly.

She nodded.

"Ain't never felt right... not once I knew what they done cutting you open. Wanted to back out when I found that out, but sometimes it's like a stone rolling down hill and I start doing something stupid and don't quite know how to stop."

"Pain cuts a new path," River said softly.

"Reckon it does," Jayne agreed. He put his hands on his own thighs as he leaned back and focused on that patch of skin right under River's belly button. "Rather get it over than have it hanging between us."

"I'm not mad," River said.

Jayne just nodded. "Wouldn't want you to do this is you were," he said. "We doing this here or out with the others?"

"The others?" River stopped, and Jayne glanced up. From the expression on her face, she was rummaging around in his thoughts again.

"Ain't going to be able to keep anything from you, am I?" he asked with a sigh, knowing what she was about to say because it was exactly what he was thinking.

"You want them to see," she said softly.

"I figure they have a right to. Captain was right, weren't just you two I put at risk."

"Do you need me to chain you?" River asked. Jayne jerked as he thought of being helpless in front of them.

"Often as we get boarded, ain't safe," Jayne said quickly.

"Do you need me to chain you or do you need to stand there and take the lashes, not moving just because I told you to stand there... strong enough to endure just for me?"

Jayne's erection had been sagging some at the thought of actual punishment, but that perked it up a bit.

River nodded, making up her mind. "Need to talk to the captain. You should shower and get breakfast." She turned, giving Jayne a mighty up close view of one seriously well formed ass as she headed over to her bag. She pulled out a shirt and pants, still nicely folded from the shop they come from. Jayne thought about pointing out that the shirt and pants he had on were still clean enough, but he'd lost the discussion about wrinkles without even understanding it, so new clothes.

River pulled on underwear and a clean dress, one that had swirls that reminded Jayne of a comet cloud in red and brown, and then she was up and out the door, her bare feet up the ladder before Jayne could even get to his feet.

Breakfast. He wasn't feeling too much like breakfast. Somehow he didn't think she planned on taking it easy on him when he was under the whip, so eating a whole lot might just lead to some serious embarrassment when he threw it back up. Picking up his clothes, he headed for the showers and figured he'd get a little toast before she come to get him.

Rubbing his sore knees a bit, Jayne looked at the black cuff locked around his wrist. Big part of him didn't want to do this. Big part thought jumping ship right now in Persephone were a good deal smarter than letting River have at his back with a whip. If he didn't have the cuff, and if he didn't know River were so contrary and single-minded on owning him, he might run. He ran his thumb over the warm metal. He sure was grateful he couldn't.

By the time Jayne got to the galley, he was washed and shaved and dressed in the clothes River had picked out. Kaylee was sitting at the table when he walked in, an engine part sitting next to her plate. She studied it a bit between bites of what looked to be passable food, something with beans. Inara sat next to her picking at some cheese.

"Jayne," Inara said, looking up as he came in. "You're looking surprisingly groomed."

Jayne glared at her, suspecting some sort of insult. Were annoying when the whore could insult you and you couldn't even quite catch the whole insult, just glimpse the tail of it darting into the woods.

"Back from whoring early?" he asked. "Captain said we wouldn't see you until tomorrow."

She blinked at him and ate another piece of cheese, not even disturbed enough to get offended. "A day early. I had planned a shopping trip, but River sent a message that she picked up the merchandise I was looking for."

"It's probably in the cargo bay then. She purchased a whole heap of stuff."

"I hear that," Inara said with a half smile. It took Jayne a second to catch her meaning on that, and even then he weren't sure whether she meant it as insult or not. Of all the people on the boat, Inara and Simon bugged him the most. Never saying what they meant, they had all these manners that always left him feeling like he was doing things wrong. If they were a family on the Serenity, those two were definitely playing the part of Matty, the annoying and always underfoot brother that you desperatly wanted to space, even if you wouldn't let anyone else space them.

Kaylee looked up with a smile. "River surprised all of us buying Jayne like that, and keeping him? I thought Simon were going to give birth to all kinds of kittens last night."

"I can imagine," Inara said sympathetically as Jayne headed for the kitchen looking for some bread. "Is he still upset?"

"He calmed a mite bit after the captain talked to him. Ain't real happy though. Oh. Oh, I just thought on something. The captain ain't waiting on Jayne so that means--"

"Not that simple," Inara cut her off. Jayne found bread and cut a hunk, smearing butter on one side.

"Should be," Kaylee said in her pouting voice, but Inara didn't answer.

"Jayne, that all you having? We got some real good eggs at market. You should try them."

"Don't want a big breakfast," Jayne said as he sat across from Kaylee. "So," he took a big bite of bread, "Kaylee caught you up on River and me?" he asked. Inara got that slightly disgusted look on her face she so often had around him. Her and Simon, always judging, and never giving Jayne very high marks on the score sheet.

"Yes, she said the captain reports that River's been enforcing her ownership rights and cuffed you. I will admit that I'm surprised River has an interest in that area. Cuffing or collaring someone usually requires some concerted effort over a prolonged period of time."

Jayne frowned at that. "You don't think she likes me?" he asked.

Inara blinked at him for a second and then picked up a piece of cheese, nibbling at it with her hand partially hiding her mouth. Thought she was being so subtle, hiding that she was laughing at him. He glared at her.

Clearing her throat, Inara started again. "I didn't say anything about her not liking you. I merely meant that River seems easily distracted. Putting a cuff on someone requires you to pay attention to them at all times."

"Not like I asked her to," Jayne said.

"I'm sure she wants to keep you," Inara nodded. "I hear she is having a much better time concentrating now than she has had lately."

Jayne snorted. "Can say that. Broke my prick over all the concentrating she's been doing."

Suddenly Inara was choking, grabbing the edge of the table and coughing and turning red.

"Lord. Don't go choking on us," Kaylee said as she sprang up and started beating Inara on the back. Inara waved her off with a jeweled hand.

"I'm okay," she gasped as she reached for her water. "You didn't mention anything about Jayne having medical difficulties," she said after a big drink.

"Didn't seem polite to talk about a man's parts like that," Kaylee explained.

"Don't know why not," Jayne put in his two bits as he shoved the rest of his bread in his mouth. "Went and got myself sold like a gorram chun zi and had some woman buy me, which makes me sound like one of those idiots from those books you're always reading. Breaking my cock is about the only part of this that don't make me look the fool."

"The only part that doesn't… Oh, this I need to hear," Inara said.

"Jayne damaged his man parts jerking off too much because he refused to bed River, even though she were mighty insistent about getting bedded, at least from what I seen."

"She were," Jayne agreed. "Drove me right past frustration, but I weren't going to have Mal or you think I were bedding a child. So, she had to convince you lot that this were her choice before I were willing to give in on certain things."

"And you… damaged yourself?" Inara asked, her eyebrows up higher than Jayne had ever seen. Jayne shrugged.

"Doc said I did it too much, and River says I done it too hard, but with her sliding up to me every time I turned around and me spending nights not doing much but looking at her, it weren't easy, especially considering I ain't been sexed in a while. Healthy male here, it ain't normal to keep things bottled up."

"No, I quite agree," Inara said, her voice still verging on amusement, and Jayne glared at her.

Kaylee shifted her engine part farther down the table. "You sure you don't want more to eat, Jayne? Didn't have enough for a bird, and if River got Simon straightened out, I'm sure you need your protein."

"Simon's straightened out?" Jayne asked. Kaylee blushed and went back to studying her part.

"He ain't straight exactly," she admitted with an unhappy expression. "He isn't talking about River as a little girl any more, though. More like he thinks you've done something to her. There were talk of drugs and mind control last night."

Jayne snorted, and Kaylee gave a little shrug. "Captain made a noise that sounded something like that when Simon brought it up. Pointed out that your style is more on the intimidating and killing end than on fancy schemes with all the little intricacies."

"Yes, that's more Mal's style," Inara sighed. "Fancy schemes with little to no chance of working. Did Simon really think Jayne would drug her?"

"I'm a right bastard sometimes, but I wouldn't ever drug a woman for getting sexed." Jayne focused on Inara. "You talk to that whore Petaline. Did she say any of her girls had cause to complain about me?" Jayne demanded. "I swear, I'm going to beat that man of yours, Kaylee." Jayne went from poking his finger at Inara to poking it at Kaylee.

"Petaline says her girls sometimes ask if you'll be coming back through. You did make a favorable impression on them," Inara admitted.

"See?" Jayne demanded with another poke of his finger at Kaylee. "You tell that man of yours what Inara said."

"I somehow doubt the good opinion of whores will go far with the doctor," Inara sighed.

"It should. Man is truist around whores. You don't have to impress someone you already bought. And I ain't never left an unhappy whore behind me."

"You've done your best to never leave a whore behind at all," Inara said softly. Jayne glared at her. Weren't nothing wrong with visiting a whore, but she went and made it sound like he were doing something wrong.

"Not like every man can afford a fancy whore like yourself or get a pretty girl like Kaylee into bed."

"You think I'm pretty?" Kaylee asked with a smile. "He thinks I'm pretty," Kaylee announced to Inara.

"River ain't the only one on this boat who ain't got all her brain cells in the right order," Jayne sighed. He'd spent months trying to get her to look at him, had finally settled for being all brotherly, and now she was looking at him with that smile.

The smile vanished and she reached over and gave him a punch on the arm. "Both of us are taken. I was just enjoying a compliment, so don't go getting that expression," she said as she frowned at him.

"What? I ain't looking at you like nothing," Jayne defended himself as he rubbed his arm. "I ain't dumb enough to go looking at some other woman right before River takes a whip to my back."

"She… what?" Kaylee's voice got all small. "I think I done heard something wrong. Did you say River is going to take a whip to your back?"

"Yeah," Jayne shrugged. He really didn't want to get into this discussion, not considering what he'd done to deserve it. Weren't like he'd shot a man. Was some honor in shooting a man, or stabbing a man or even beating him half to death with your knuckles, but turning on your own crew. . .

Jayne stopped and scratched his crotch thoughtfully as he pondered that one. Was a time when he didn't think twice over shooting his captain for a better deal on living quarters. When had he turned into someone who cared about honor? Then again, when had he turned back into someone who cared about honor because he remembered being a boy and shouting at his step-father often enough, calling the man a gan ni niang for hitting his ma. . . hell called him that for hitting him and Matty too. Even if him and Matty screwed up, which they done often enough, the way he'd light into them just weren't right. Grown man didn't have no business hitting a child or any woman who weren't big enough to hit back. Now Zoe, she was fair game for anyone. River too, even if she didn't look it. Jayne jerked his hand away from his crotch, cursing himself for starting that. Now that he'd itched it once, he just wanted to do it more.

Jayne looked from one woman to the other. Inara was just back to her cheese and her sour expression, but Kaylee had a look on her face like someone had pissed on her engine. "What?"

"Why would River do that?" Kaylee nearly whispered.

"Ariel." Jayne got up and moved to the kitchen. He didn't want to eat more, but some distance seemed wise. Kaylee got up and followed him.

"But you were real sorry. We wouldn't have even figured it out if you weren't sorry and buying stuff for everyone, which were a little out of character."

"Don't matter. I got stupid."

"But that was so long ago. And you wouldn't do anything like that now, not now that Simon and River are really a part of the crew, even Simon knows that. He felt real bad about bringing that up, almost as bad as he felt about threatening to cut off your dangling bits. He doesn't feel bad about the trying to bribe you or get you thrown off the ship, but give him time. If he can forgive you, River should be able to."

Jayne sighed and leaned against the counter. "Doesn't matter what the doc does or thinks. I did something wrong, and River's well within her rights to give out punishment. She'll do it, and then she'll forgive me and it'll be in the past."

"But it's in the past now," Kaylee argued.

"Kaylee," Inara said softly. "Come away from Jayne. He's right, this is between him and River."

Kaylee turned to Inara, turning that pleading expression on her which was a relief to Jayne. He couldn't take Kaylee looking at him with that pity and worry, but then again, he weren't liking the way she was turning that attention to getting Inara on her side. "We gotta do something, talk to the captain maybe," Kaylee said as she went to stand next to Inara's chair.

Inara reached up and put a hand on her arm. "If I went to the captain, I would tell Mal to stay out of it," Inara said. "Whipping, both for pleasure and for catharsis is a skill every companion learns, so I have respect for its place in a relationship."

"But. . . " Kaylee just stopped and looked from Jayne to Inara with something real close to anguish in her eyes.

"Let them be," Inara said softly. "River obviously cares about Jayne, so you have to trust her to take care of his needs."

"So, you don't think River will really hurt him with the whipping?" Kaylee said hopefully.

Inara glanced over and Jayne met her eye, refusing to look worried about a punishment he'd earned. Couldn't erase the past, but he could gorram walk into the whipping like a man. Inara looked back at Kaylee. "I think she's going to hurt him rather badly. However, I think Jayne is the sort of man who shall survive a whipping without too much fuss."

Jayne looked at Inara in confusion. To his memory, she hadn't never said anything nice about him, and that sounded almost nice. Kaylee looked at him all worry and fidgeting. "Should find River," Jayne announced to them. "Kaylee, you might want to avoid cargo bay." Kaylee didn't answer, but she watched Jayne leave with worried eyes.

Walking down the corridor in old boots, it occurred to Jayne that the womenfolk on this boat were a whole sight more manipulative than the men. At one point, Kaylee could have gotten him to do most anything with that look of hers, but that time was gone. Right now, he just wanted punishment over so he could get to that forgiveness River was holding out like a prize at the end of a hard race. That was something worth enduring the whip for.


Jayne finally found River in the pilot's chair, Mal sitting co-pilot, which were strange considering they were parked so there wasn't much piloting to be done. She had her feet pulled up under her as she looked over the consol where Wash's dinosaurs still sat like some sort of gravemarker.

River held out a hand and Jayne went to her side, sanding behind the chair.

"Jayne," Mal offered.

"Mal," Jayne gave right back, and then the talking seemed to be pretty much done.

River looked from one to the other with that particular expression that said she was listening to others' thoughts. Eventually Mal sighed.

"I don't hold a grudge about Ariel," Mal said as he studied Jayne.

"Me neither."

"You? What would you have to hold a grudge about?" Mal immediately demanded.

"You just about spaced me. If you want to gut shoot me or horsewhip me, I ain't so good as to think I don't deserve it, but you were going to space me," Jayne pointed out indignantly.

"Oh." Mal fell quiet.

"And I forgive the captain for being stupid," River announced into the silence after a minute or so. "And now I need to give Jayne pain so I can forgive him for being stupid."

And there was the awkward silence again. Mal's eyes went from River to him and back again as River stood up.

"Jayne, you okay with this?" Mal suddenly asked. Jayne looked over in surprised and then glanced at River, but she didn't look like she was taking offense at Mal sticking his nose in their business.

"If I weren't, I'd take it up with River," Jayne answered. Mal stared at him for a long minute, and Jayne struggled to find some words to put on how he was feeling. "Ain't looking forward to it." Mal snorted, and Jayne ignored him as he kept going. "But I'd rather it be done than have it hanging over me. I suppose it's only right that I pay some sort of price because what I done was…" the word unforgivable was near to coming off Jayne's tongue, but he pulled it back because he really hoped that wasn't true.

"Stupid," River supplied for him instead.

"Yeah, that," Jayne agreed.

Mal looked at him with a frown before nodding as he obviously reached some conclusion in his own head. "I'm going to go get Simon." Jayne opened his mouth and Mal held up his hand to keep him from interrupting. "I ain't never had a horsewhipping on this boat, and I want the doc there just in case something goes wrong because we both know that accidents happen. Won't take no argument on that point."

Jayne glanced at River. Horsewhipping. He'd hoped it'd be a flogging, but she was taking this punishment seriously. River's hand came out and rested on his arm for a second, and Jayne took some comfort from the warmth of it, the weight as it rested on his skin. He nodded before looking at the captain. "I ain't got no problem with the doc being there. I figure he's got a right to watch seeing as how it were his hide I tried to turn in." Mal looked kinda dumbstruck. "But I was going to point out that if that chou ba guai bastard tries laying into me with his words again, I'm real likely to punch him in his mouth and make him even uglier, so you warn him that he's there to watch and take whatever pleasure he gets from it *silently*." Jayne crossed his arms and glared at Mal meaningfully.

"I'll be having that discussion with him," Mal agreed, and then River pushed at Jayne, urging him out of the room, and Jayne went. The bread he'd eaten was already heavy on his stomach and he feared he was going to get sick even before the whipping started. He hadn't expected her to go for a horsewhipping. The single tail horsewhip could do a man a whole heap of harm.

River slipped her arm into Jayne's. "Amygdala to the adrenal medulla and laterodorsal tegmental nucleus releasing epinephrine and norepinephrine," she said calmly as they walked the corridor.


"Fear," River clarified.

Jayne didn't answer as they walked the stairs down to the cargo level. He couldn't rightly deny he had fear running through his guts, and he didn't really know what she wanted him to say about it.

"Fear won't go away until you've had punishment and forgiveness." She said it all matter of fact, not like Inara who talked about it with something like sympathy or Kaylee who were horrified. "Amygdala makes memories that imprint so deep you won't ever forget again," she finished.

Jayne had no idea what she was talking about, but he figured the not forgetting part was going to be about right. He hadn't let anyone touch him for punishment since the day he punched his step father. What the man and his friends did later that night, that weren't a punishment, that was them beating on him. Jayne pushed all those thoughts aside as River led him into the cargo bay. The loader was still sitting there but all the boxes and bags were gone.

"Feel things so deep. Hide them under rough words, so others don't think you feel it all." River looked up at him, and Jayne felt stripped naked.

"Don't know what you're talking about," he said quickly. "How we doing this?" Jayne stepped to the middle of the cargo bay. "The others know?"

"I told Zoe and Captain. You told Inara and Kaylee," River said, dropping the discussion of just what Jayne was feeling. He nodded as she went to one of the hatches where they kept merchandise they shouldn't rightly have at all. She pulled the false panel and brought out a whip. It wasn't a horsewhip, no matter what Mal had said. It was still a wicked looking thing, though. Had ten or twelve long tails that were going to sting like a son of a bitch.

"Let's get it over then," Jayne said as he pulled his shirt over his head without bothering with buttons. "Where you want me?" He looked around the hold and could see a half dozen places where he could lean or lay while she done this.

"Fear," River whispered, her warm hand on his back near to making him jump out of his skin.

"Shouldn't outta sneak up on a man," he growled. She just looked at him with a small frown of confusion. "Just want this over," he muttered as he held his shirt, not sure where to put it.

River's voice got that far-off sound to it. "Father made you go get a switch. You'd agonize over which to bring. Too big would hurt too much. Too small and he'd go get one. Hated that more than the whipping. Hated walking across the yard and seeing your father's face. How old were you when you moved to grandfather's home?" River asked. Girl didn't seem to be good at staying on track today, Jayne wondered if should be worried about that.

"Two or three, just after my grandfather died," Jayne answered slowly as he focused on the cargo bay, not sure he wanted to get into the past when he had a present he was worrying about a good deal more. Jayne clenched his teeth against emotions he didn't want nagging at him when he had something to get through. His father was dead and rotting in the ground and talking about him wouldn't change that fact.

River leaned against his back, her arms circling his waist. "Jayne did something stupid and there *has* to be punishment. Stratum corneum, nerve endings, stratum germinativum, stratum spinosum, down into dermis where guilt lays."

"Know that. Ain't saying anything against it," Jayne said carefully as he tried to push his emotions aside. The one hand circling his waist still held the whip so he had a real good view of it: braided leather, cured leather, wood handle, so Jayne found that mass of emotions stewing in him pushed right out of the way by fear.

He could hear a ruckus from the walk, heavy boots that were sure to be Mal. "Where you want me?" he asked quickly. River slowly let him go and just stood behind him. Jayne didn't even look back.

"Leaning against the hauler," she said. It would put him at an awkward angle, but Jayne didn't complain as he walked over to the back of the vehicle. Tossing his shirt onto one of the seats, he put both palms flat against the back. It left him bending over some.

"This is barbaric, why do I have to be here?" Simon was complaining.

"Thought this were what you wanted," Jayne called out, but he didn't turn his head to look at Mal and the doctor as he heard them come down the stairs.

"I never… Okay, I said you should be horsewhipped, I certainly never meant it. As a doctor, I am against all forms of pain."

"And I'm against accidents on my ship with my crew, so you'll be here making sure there aren't any," Mal insisted firmly.

"Mei mei, whatever has gotten in your head that this is somehow necessary, I'm telling you that you need to stop. Hurting another human being is never right." Simon sounded all logical, but the sound of the whip cracking against Jayne's back sounded in his ears about a half second before the pain registered. Jayne hissed. Guess Simon's logic hadn't convinced her. Gorram whip hurt.

"River!" Simon called out. The lash came down again. The lashes from the first stroke were already fading from fire to a dull ache, but the new hit set his whole back on fire.

"Stay out of it!" Mal called, and Jayne could hear scuffling. As the whip landed several times, the rhythm of it caught Jayne on every breath out, opening pain as the long tails burned his back. Then the burn sunk into his skin, turning into a deep ache that reached down into his guts.

The whip came down again and again, and Jayne rocked forward against the hauler, struggling against an instinct that would have him turn around and fight. Another hit came higher, catching the top of his shoulder where the skin was still untouched, and Jayne flinched, one hand coming up off the hauler before he got back into position. River's hand was there then, hot against his back, burning and making him bite back a curse. Fingers trailed across his back leaving a hot path of pain as she came to his side and leaned against the hauler next to him.

"You done?" Jayne asked in confusion. His back was hot and tight so that he couldn't think of much else. The middle throbbed where the lash marks had overlapped, but overall it weren't bad at all.

"No," River answered. She just looked at him for several seconds. "Why am I doing this?"

Jayne groaned. Gorram memories of his weren't ever going to do him any good. He remembered this little ritual from being a boy. "Any chance you'll just get on with the whipping and not make me do the talking?" Jayne asked.


"You're a sadist, know this, right?" Jayne asked.

River looked at him very seriously. "Cutting out the wrong hurts."

"Ain't much use arguing that. Fine." Jayne took a deep breath and remembered the rules from a time back when he'd been a different Jayne Cobb. "I tried to sell you and your brother out to the feds."

Jayne could hear some disturbance behind him, and then Mal's voice rose up loud and strong. "I'd take it as a kindness if you kept quiet and didn't make me get unhappy with you because you ain't going to like it if I get unhappy."

"Stop this or I will."

"No, you won't."

"Or what?" Simon demanded.

"Seeing as how I make out the duty roster. I see potential for you cleaning the septic system for a month," Mal warned in that tone that weren't good news for the person on the other end. Jayne smiled evilly knowing that at least Simon was getting some of the captain's ire. River was frowning in their direction.

"Stupid brother," she complained darkly. "This is for you and me and he's being a big zhu tou." She sighed as she walked to the back again. Jayne braced himself. The next hit was worse. The break had given his blood time to rush to the surface, and it felt like she were cutting him open. Two more lashes came quick on the heels, and now Jayne could feel his legs start to get unsteady as the pain built. Another hit and another and another, and Jayne was caught so out of breath that the world got gray for a second. The hand was back then, bringing heat to a burning desert as it trailed across his back. Jayne arched his back to get away from that touch, and his muscles complained mightily.

"What did you try to do before you sold us out?" River asked calmly. Jayne had such a mass of white noise in his head he had trouble thinking about anything other than the pain in his back which was starting to sink into him.

"Told Mal to put you off," he finally answered.

"He said no. What rule did he give you?" River asked the question calmly, but then she walked around him, fingernails scoring across his back so that all thought skittered right out of his brain. Jayne couldn't even catch his breath. "What rule?" she asked, leaning into him, the buttons on her dress pressing points of pain into him.

"We don't never leave our own behind," Jayne answered, his brain struggling to find the answer in the scatterings of his thought.

"We don't never leave our own behind," River repeated softly. "You broke that rule."

The next hits weren't a surprise. Jayne let his mind sink into the pain, one strike fading into the next like fireworks against his back that drove the air right out of him. When the whipping stopped, he sagged forward, his elbows braced on the hauler as he struggled to pull enough air into his lungs to drive back the gray. Again, her hand brought fire to his back.

"Jayne, the man on the planet was stupid. He was greedy and wanted the reward. If he wasn't stupid, what should he have done?"

"Don't gorram know," Jayne complained. His brain weren't up to even counting his own fingers, so figuring out other people's motivations weren't something he could do right now. His back was fire and his legs shook so bad that Jayne had to focus just to keep upright.

"You're a fed. You know where prisoners are. What should you do?" River asked, her breath in his ear. Jayne rested his forehead against the cool of the hauler, wishing he could lay his back against that and ease the heat that burned him, but he knew it weren't over yet.

"Should call it in," Jayne answered as the questions finally made sense.

"Two by two, hands of blue," River said softly. "They would have come. What would they have done?" Jayne knew what was down that path. Knew since he'd heard the screams of the surviving feds but he'd pushed it so far back he never looked that bit of guilt in the face. Even now he flinched from the truth and didn't answer.

River vanished again, and Jayne forced himself to push off from the hauler, to support himself on arms that tingled and shook near as bad as his legs. Jayne could hear the slaps of leather against skin. He could feel the heat surge and flair without feeling the actual bite of the whip in one spot. His world became the heat in his back and the struggle to keep his legs under him. He weren't going to collapse. He just weren't. He was Jayne Cobb, and no whipping could take him down.

"What would they have done?" River demanded, but her voice was farther away, not whispers in his ear, but a command from a distance. Jayne gasped for air.

"What would they have done?" Louder.

"Brought in ships," Jayne blurted. "Shot down the Serenity. Killed everyone." Jayne's legs nearly gave out, and they might have if he'd had just the truth weighing on him, but the whip returned, and the fire centered him on that pain. Would have killed everyone. Would have killed Kaylee dead when he had told himself the whole time he were trying to protect her. Would have made the only place Jayne'd called home since he was sixteen years old a pile of scorched scrap. Came so close. If someone else hadn't been as stupid as he had been... Jayne gasped for a shuddering breath as pain of a whole other sort rolled through him until he thought he was going to throw up.

Jayne closed his eyes, and focused on the rhythm of the whip against his skin. That was a pain he knew. He could feel that. It was safer feeling that. The world vanished into the truth of the whip against his skin, as he got a light-headed feeling that left him so dizzy that he had to widen his legs to keep from toppling over like an unbalanced load. He only knew the whipping had stopped when he couldn't hear the slap of leather anymore. Silence.

He leaned into the hauler for what seemed like a long time. Jayne wondered if she had just left, but he didn't have the strength to turn and look. His mouth tasted of bile, and Jayne swallowed back an urge to be sick. Fingers stroked his cheek this time, and Jayne opened his eyes and looked at her. River's eyes were bright, like she was trying not to cry.

"What rule would have kept us all safe?" she asked.

"We don't never leave our own behind," Jayne immediately answered. River smiled at him, stroking his cheek with the back of her fingers.

"Two strokes. Strokes you won't forget," River said, and she showed him the horsewhip. The single tail of dark leather stood out against the white of the hauler. Jayne couldn't form words; he just nodded.

She walked behind him.

"Mei mei! No!"

"Doc, you stay outta this."

"As the doctor, I'm putting a stop to this whipping right now."

"You do that, and you'd better hook that fancy gizmo you got up to him, and I'd better see something flashing red. If there ain't some reason for thinking Jayne's on the verge of death, I'll let River finish and deal with you myself."

"What? With a whip? This is barbaric."

Jayne knew the voices, he just couldn't bother himself to sort out who was who. The words washed over him, meaningless noise.

"Jayne's mine. He won't forget the rule again." River's voice Jayne knew. The rule he knew. They didn't leave their own behind. The first hit of the horsewhip caught him across his shoulders, and he fell forward onto the loader. Warm trickled down his back, blood or sweat he didn't know, but it aggravated the fire that had soaked into every cell of his body.

"One," River said behind him.

Jayne gulped air and pushed himself back up on legs that trembled under him. The second line of fire caught him just below the first, and Jayne could see red splattering against the hauler as he fell to his knees gasping.

Strong hands caught him, the arm around his waist opening new fires that threatened to consume him, and Jayne couldn't rightly think past the pain as he struggled to get his legs under him. Couldn't even remember why he had to get his legs under him, but he did.

A second arm caught him so that now he was between two bodies. Jayne could feel them lift his weight, the muscle of his back screaming, but at least he could get his legs under him as he blinked to clear the darkness from his vision.

"You should put him down. I'll get a stretcher," a voice called from a distance. Jayne blinked again and saw River on one side, her arm around his waist and her hand on his stomach.

"Strong Jayne. No more guilt." She smiled up at him, and Jayne couldn't even form a word for a second. Didn't matter what he did, she'd forgiven him. "All the guilt is gone." She said the words like a command.

"Gorram well should be," Jayne muttered. "And I can walk. I ain't riding up in no stretcher unless I got a leg missing." He had more to say, but words kept sliding right out of his brain.

"Ain't never seen anyone take a whipping like that without being tied down."

Jayne turned his head and spotted Mal on his other side. He blinked, trying to figure out what was wrong with the wall behind Mal. Took him a second to realize they were walking, his feet sluggishly imitation motion as they basically carried him toward the infirmary.

"Do I have to worry about you tending Jayne?" Mal asked. Jayne couldn't even figure that out until Simon answered from somewhere behind them.

"What? No. No, I'll tend him. I have painkillers that will help, and I should close that one mark or it might scar."

"No." River said the word quietly and without looking away from Jayne. "He needs the scar," she said without even trying to explain the comment.

"Boo-tai jung-tzahng-duh," Mal muttered. Jayne weren't sure whether the captain meant River's insanity or his own because she was right about the scar. If he was going to feel this much pain, he'd earned a mark he could show for it.

"River…" Simon choked on the word.

"She's better than I thought at this slave-owning," Jayne muttered. They finally reached the infirmary and Mal and River helped him up on the dented table, laying him on his stomach.

"A mite too good for my comfort," Mal sighed. "Do me a favor, Jayne." Mal bent down to look Jayne in the face. "Never, ever do something so stupid as to earn a whipping like this again. I got enough gray hairs worrying about what stupid thing you're going to do next, I don't want to be worrying about the state of your back after you've done it."

"Ain't ever looking for a repeat of this," Jayne agreed. "And doc?"

Simon appeared in front of him which were nice considering that Jayne didn't think he could go twisting around much without passing out. "You mention Ariel to me again, you ever mention it other than as some planet we ain't like to go to again, and I'll punch you in the mouth hard enough to make you lose teeth."

"I…" Simon looked up and over Jayne to where River must be standing. "I won't ever mention it again."

"Good," Jayne muttered. The doc disappeared.

"I'll put that on," River said, and Jayne couldn't see what she was talking about. Didn't care either. All he cared about was that he was finally lying down and he could just sink into the pain. Fingers brought cool to his back, stroking gently, tracing the path the whip had burned.

"Doc, let's go," Mal said.

"I should stay."

"Is he in any danger?"

"No, he doesn't appear to be, but I should monitor…" Simon's voice cut off and Jayne watched with some satisfaction as Mal bodily pulled Simon out of the room.

River sighed. "Stupid brother doesn't get it. All interrupting." River's voice was as soft as her fingers slowly spread cool over his back. The cream took the heat, but it left an almighty ache behind. For long minutes, he just breathed and her fingers gently smoothed the cream across his whip-scores.

"I am sorry," Jayne said softly. "Thought I was doing right."

"I know. Kissed Jesus," she said, and that didn't make much sense to Jayne, but maybe that was because the world was starting to get gray around the edges. She came around to the side Jayne was facing and she laid her palm against his cheek.

"Never wanted to think about how close I came to getting everyone killed. Zoe, Mal, and me, we're fighters. Deserve to go down facing the gun that's going to end us. They would have taken us out without giving us that chance," Jayne admitted the darkness that he'd been fighting back in the bay. He could feel despair chew at the edges of his mind as he thought on just how much he'd done wrong.

"They had their secrets," River agreed.

"Put Kaylee and Wash in the path of them, too. Didn't even think through that before I put targets on all of us."

"You didn't know," she said softly as she climbed on the table, fitting herself awkwardly on the four inches that were left between him and the edge. He watched as she reached up, but then closed his eyes as she used fingers to trace over his eyelids, and down to his lips, over his cheeks and then back up to his ear.

"Should have. Mal knew. In the airlock, he told me that I got pinched because I talked. I just didn't think it through. Always make the wrong choice."

"Not always." River's caress wandered down his arm to where the cuff was still locked around his wrist.

Jayne didn't argue because he was starting to think that letting her put the cuff on him weren't such a bad idea, but the fact was, he was mighty good at always choosing the wrong side. He felt fatigue pull at him, making his body heavy as his face tingled from her touch.

"I forgive you." She said the words, and Jayne had to blink to rid of himself of a warmth in his eyes.

"Beautiful Jayne," she sighed. "Took everything. Mal was impressed." Jayne smiled a little, and fingers traced the new shape of his mouth. "Brother is all black with guilt because he thinks I took the idea from his words last night." Jayne smiled wider. He started a low chuckle at the thought of Simon eaten with guilt, but the movement just made him groan.

"And now Jayne will remember the rule and all that strength is going to stay by my side." Her fingers danced across his arm and sent a shiver though him that just made his back ache worse. She shifted a little closer, her body pressing against his on the small table. "All that strength aimed right where I send it. Never going to get in trouble like this again."

Jayne found himself believing her. He also found himself wondering if there was something in that cream because sleep was pulling him under even though he hadn't been awake long. "My beautiful, strong Jayne," she breathed in his ear, the words tickling him, but he was too tired to scratch. Instead he slid into sleep.



"You feeling shiny enough to come to the mess? We got passengers, so Mal made food that doesn't taste like sawdust," Kaylee said from the door of the infirmary.

"Ain't sure I’m supposed to be up and walking yet," Jayne said. After two days in the infirmary, Simon had finally decided to just avoid his cranky patient by avoiding the infirmary altogether and River had threatened to get a chain and use the slave cuff to lock Jayne to the table. Were mighty annoying having enough energy to take on the world and being stuck on the doc's table listening to Serenity's engines make that growl that meant they were flying through the black.

"Oh." Kaylee made an unhappy face.

Jayne watched the way Kaylee avoided looking at his back. Jayne had seen it in a mirror, and only the one whip mark was bad, an angry red welt of open skin that the doc had put a sealant on so it looked all weirdly slick. River'd let him speed up the healing on most of the others so they were just lines of soft green and blues from the bruising. He was still sore, but it wasn't so bad as to warrant avoiding a look. "Was thinking," he commented.

"Oh, about what?"

"About how we would have been a disaster," Jayne said as he shifted to try and settle an itch in his back.

"You mean you and me together?" Kaylee asked, looking at his face but carefully keeping her eyes away from the rest of him. "I guess I ain't really thought on it much," Kaylee said carefully. Jayne nodded. She hadn't ever thought on him, and if her cap was set on some fancy like the doc, well, she never would have thought on him.

"Ain't just that," Jayne said. "The back, it ain't that bad, but you're looking at it like a Reaver tried to take a bite out of me."

"Oh." Kaylee's gaze slid to the floor.

"On Ariel, I was trying to protect you because I thought River was dangerous." Jayne thought about that for a second. "Still think River is dangerous, but I thought she were another kind of dangerous. I made a bad mistake and I needed to pay the price for that."

"But…" Kaylee stopped, her eyes darting around the room as she chewed a spot on her lip. "Inara keeps trying to explain things, and River talks about things being round or edged, which ain't making much sense to me, but then what Inara says ain't making a whole heap of sense to me either. I just don't want to see you hurt." Kaylee picked at her sleeve, and Jayne felt something warm just knowing she cared enough about him to get so worked up.

"I ain't one for words," he said slowly. "Can't explain them like Inara or River, not that River always makes much sense. I just know it hurts less now than it did before the whipping."

"Really?" Kaylee asked all surprised as she looked at him again.

"Yeah," Jayne assured her. "Guess it's something like Book said about confession, only I'm not real good at confessing and letting things go unless there's a whip involved. Do something wrong and you have to expect to pay."

"I'm not sure that's a type of confession Shepherd Book would have taken to," Kaylee said with a small smile. "Especially since, as River has informed everyone, including Mr. Elsworth from Bellerophon, you two can have sex now that the whipping and forgiving part is over. Thought the man was going to swallow his own face he scrunched it up so hard."

Jayne laughed, feeling the slight ache and increased itch in his back. But then the silence was back, feeling like an itch between him and Kaylee that he needed to scratch, but he didn't quite know how to do it.

"I didn't need you to pay," Kaylee said softly. "Simon neither."

"That's why you and me together would have been a disaster," Jayne said seriously. "Because I needed to pay. Couldn't move on until I did."

Kaylee looked at him for a long time. "Is it okay if I think that's a little strange?" she asked with a wry smile.

"I figure I ain't so normal as to get worked up over being called strange," he agreed. Kaylee gave him a small smile and then the awkward just crept back in.

"Whatever you're thinking, just spit it out," Jayne said after a minute of watching her then shift from foot to foot awkwardly.

"What? I'm just thinking on the passengers. Mr. Elsworth is real fussy."

"You ain't good at lying," Jayne interrupted her.

Kaylee sighed. "Okay, I ain't thinking on Mr. Elsworth although he is real fussy. I washed his sheets twice and he's still calling them dingy." She got that offended look in her eye, and Jayne figured that Mr. Elsworth was going to be mighty sorry about complaining when Serenity started hiccupping and tossing everyone around half way through sleep cycle. Kaylee weren't the kind of strong hand he needed, but she wasn't exactly the sort to get walked on either. "I thought River was going to put the cuff on and do the fun parts of slavery like in my books. I never thought she'd hurt you, and even if you ain't upset about being hurt, it don't feel right. You can't just walk away."

Jayne pushed himself up with a groan and swung his legs over the side. If he was having this conversation, he weren't having it laying down. "I wouldn't want to be able to walk away," Jayne admitted. "If I could've walked away from that whipping, I would have, but then I'd still be carrying all that guilt. And I ain't saying I liked it because I'm going to make gorram sure I don't do things without getting her say-so because I ain't looking to earn another punishment like that," he hurried to add when Kaylee's expression just got more worried. "I figure the cuff makes things easier for me. I know I need to stay right with River, and I can trust River to keep me from doing anything overly stupid. The way I see it, should make you lot a good sight more comfortable, too."

"You stood by us through everything from Rance Burgess to Reavers. I don't need the cuff to know that you'll always have my back," Kaylee insisted.

"Always will if I have a choice about it," Jayne admitted. "But I don't make good decisions. I don't trust my decisions, so I ain't taking comfort in it if you do," Jayne snapped when Kaylee got that stubborn expression on her face. He looked up and River was drifting into the room.

"But you always said you were in charge when Mal and Zoe left the ship," Kaylee argued.

All Jayne could do was sigh and wonder what he'd done wrong in his life to deserve being around women who had to talk everything to death. At least, he wondered which wrong he'd done deserved it. "You and Inara aren't fighters. If someone's got to stand up and make a decision or get shot, it ain't going to be those of you who ain't fighters."

Stepping forward, River caught his eye and held it. Kaylee gave a little jump as she realized River had joined them, but Jayne focused on the woman who owned him in about every way that counted. "Jayne thought he had to. All unhappy because tides pull at him saying the warrior has to take charge and tides pull at him saying the warrior is supposed to be the sword of the king." She came forward and put her hands on his thighs. "Or queen."

Jayne just nodded. "Reckon so." He turned to Kaylee. "She owns paper on me, but that ain't why I'm staying with her. She asked me to wear this. . . asked, not told," Jayne said as he held up his cuff. "I ain't got to explain things to her that I ain't no good at explaining, and it were my choice, just like you sleeping with the overly-starched doctor is yours."

"Hey, the starch is coming out nicely, thank you," Kaylee insisted as she crossed her arms and gave him a smile. "He's even starting to think that maybe River ain't as childlike as he thought. Keeps going on about how he introduced her to corrupting influences, and I'm getting the annoying feeling I'm one of those corruptions, but he ain't making the mistake of seeing her as a little girl anymore."

"Jayne is a much better catch than my stupid brother," River added as her fingers moved up his legs to his hips, fingertips brushing against his bare waist. "And it's time for you to come back to our quarters."

"Not the mess? I ain't had dinner yet."

"I'll bring food down," River said. "Quarters now."

"Oh," Jayne said as he caught up with her meaning. His cock was already ahead of him, hardening at the thought that now they could finally finish what they'd started so long ago. He hadn't ever been good with self-denial, and he'd had about enough of denying himself sex for a lifetime. "Seems like someone promised I'd be chained to the bed for a good while. Make sure there's lots of protein in whatever you bring down," he said as he leered at her.

She just smiled and took his hand and pulled him off the doc's table and toward the door. Jayne was surprised and a little confused when Kaylee trailed behind them.

Jayne had the displeasure of meeting Mr. Elsworth on the way down to crew quarters, and got an earful on how the Alliance was going to outlaw the abomination that were slaving. River just smiled sweetly and pulled on Jayne's arm. Kaylee did the cursing for them both, muttering under her breath.

And finally, they reached his quarters, Kaylee still trailing. "Uh, I ain't never complained about a woman joining me in my bunk, but I figure River's about all I can handle," Jayne said cautiously as he looked at her in confusion. Kaylee smiled sweetly and didn't answer as River opened the hatch to Jayne's quarters.

"Surprise!" called out voices. Jayne jumped hard enough to make his back burn, his hand landing on his knife handle before his brain caught up with the fact that it was just his idiot friends near to scaring him to death.

"Nee mun doh shr sagwa, scaring a man in his own quarters," Jayne complained as he peered in. It didn't look much like is quarters anymore.

"This is your 'welcome home, don't never go selling yourself into slavery again' party, only that last bit seems a little not applicable right now," Mal commented. "So don't be calling us idiots. Save that for when we do something idiotic."

Jayne climbed down the ladder and looked around his room in shock. Vera was still on the wall, flanked above and below by the nasty blades River favored, and his smaller weapons was lined up under them all decorative-like, but beyond that, it were clearly a girl who had got at his room.

"That shouldn't take too long. After all, we haven't nearly died in a month," Inara offered Mal sweetly, and even Jayne caught that insult. Course, that one were aimed at Mal, and when she was insulting Mal, she seemed a little more direct with it.

Jayne stood looking at the deep blue carpet, the throw on the bed in swirls of blue and green, the fabric hung in front of his rod hiding the clothes behind it, the tall wooden dresser standing against one wall and the heavy wood trunk tucked in beside the bed.

"Maybe someone should let Jayne put on a shirt," Inara suggested as she took a step back toward Mal, even after insulting him.

"Ain't going to have something rubbing where the whip cut me open," he said absent-mindedly as he looked around the place. "Looks like Inara's shuttle threw up in here." River wrapped herself around his left arm, and Jayne spotted Simon, who was pressing himself into a corner, flinch back a bit at the sight of his sister being all affectionate.

"That would be called decorating," Inara said in that crisp tone that always made Jayne wonder if she were insulting him. Probably. "Of course, I suggested the collection of blades and guns come down off the wall, but taste is largely a matter of individual preference."

"At least it don't stink like the shuttle," Jayne shrugged.

"The shuttle doesn't smell bad."

"Smells like burnt crap," he disagreed as he watched Kaylee push in and go right to Simon, smiling at him all proud. "Could have half the couplings in the panel catch fire before you'd smell the first one go." Jayne was willing to just bet the doc got told to come or else. Well, watching him squirm almost made it worth having to put off the sexing again.

"It's incense. Why do I bother?" Inara shook her head and got a pinched expression. "River, good luck, and you have your hands full."

"I like him," River said simply.

"As I said, taste is a matter of individual preference, although clearly not all preferences are created equal."

Jayne narrowed his eyes because he were pretty sure there was an insult in there somewheres.

"I think it's real pretty. And look Jayne, you got wood fixings. Ain't that special?" Kaylee reached out and ran her hand over the wood of the dresser, following the grain with her fingers.

"Yep, until you go rolling the ship," Jayne commented as he thought of Mr. Elsworth and his dingy sheets. "First time you two do a Crazy Ivan, I'm going to be picking wood outta my skull."

"Nope, River and I braced it up real good, the dresser and the chest. So we could flip Serenity around all day and they ain't going nowhere," she said proudly.

"Let's not test that one out," Mal commented as he handed Jayne a drink. Jayne threw it back, surprised to discover it was good whiskey, not the usual stuff that could rot your stomach from the inside. He wandered closer to that tall dresser and grabbed a frilly cookie, something that he was guessing Inara made. Shoving one in his mouth, he nodded in appreciation. They were good.

"Let me just say congratulations," Zoe said as she stepped forward and refilled his whiskey glass.

"Really?" Jayne asked.

Zoe gave him a sigh as she rolled her eyes at him. "Yes. And being the one who had a long-term relationship, I will give you the traditional advice. Never go to bed angry. I will also tell you that never works." Zoe filled her own glass and then threw back the whiskey. "So, here's the real advice," she offered. "Never break anything in a fight that you'll regret the next morning. Wash and me… we kept all kinds of plastic nothings around for flinging when we got going good."

A quiet fell on the room. Zoe nodded for a second. "And Wash would officially add that you two deserve each other in every way. He'd be right."

"Yep, he would," Kaylee said softly. Zoe looked over at her for a second and then smiled before refilling her own whiskey glass and sipping slower this time.

"We got presents," River said happily.

"But this is your happy slavery and welcome back party, you two ain't the ones who's supposed to be giving out gifts," Kaylee objected.

"Ain't no 'we' in that, River got presents and I stood around carrying them," Jayne pointed out. Three days he'd been a pack mule she'd inappropriately touched until he was jerking off in public bathrooms. Hadn't been half-bad. If she'd gone and freed him, it would've been the basis for a real good bunk fantasy, but he figured he didn't need to be making up stories for his hand to recreate anymore.

"Nope. Jayne got 'em too," River said firmly. "People look at me and don't give me the deal they should. Never went into trading because the numbers didn't work. But the captain told me that improbable numbers work when you're flying if the ship loves you. I figured out on my own that improbable numbers work when the shopkeepers think Jayne is offended that they won't sell to me at the price I want."

"Intimidating shopkeeps, seems a good use of Jayne's talent," Mal agreed.

"Yep," River said happily. "I'll get the captain his shuttle back in no time with Jayne on my leash. Makes people worry seeing him with a cuff," she said as she smiled at him. "Mr. Elsworth wonders if you killed someone to end up sold and how bad you have to be to get a whipping that leaves your back all bruised and cut. He plans to hide in his quarters rest of the trip."

"Way to go, Jayne," Kaylee said happily.

"He were an idiot," was Jayne's only comment.

"An idiot with credits," Mal pointed out. "But I could still do with less discussion of Jayne bein' on a leash." Mal drained his glass and held it out for Zoe to fill.

"I don't know, sir. It does appear one way of keeping him out of trouble," she commented with a smile.

"Hey, ain't like I haven't saved your sorry asses a time or two. I figure it's a toss up whether me or Mal has gotten in the most trouble." Jayne defended himself and then tossed back his second drink. He held out his glass for Zoe to refill it, but before he could drink his third whiskey, River neatly plucked it out of his hand. Jayne glared at her as she sipped it without even bothering to look guilty. Reaching over to the plate of offerings, she grabbed a hunk of meat stuck to a stick and handed it to him. He took it with a frown and shoved the whole thing in his mouth only to discover then that it were spiced. His eyes watered as he chewed on it.

"My plans are original and inspired," Mal insisted as he looked to Zoe for some backup.

"If by original you mean no one else would ever try them, I would agree," Inara offered.

"No comment, sir," Zoe said as she turned her back. Jayne and River's quarters were small enough that she couldn't go far though.

"We aren't all dead, so they can't be that bad," Mal pointed out.

"He does have a point, what with us not being dead. But I want to get to presents," Kaylee interrupted.

Jayne watched as River weaved between the others to the other side of the room where the curtain hid their clothes. Simon's eyes followed her with something like sadness, but at least he weren't making a fuss anymore. Kaylee just looked like a kid at Christmas, and even Zoe had lost some of that sadness as she watched with interest as River pulled out a large canvas sack from behind the curtain.

"I just want to point out these are rightly from me too since she sold my shuttle for the buying of them," Mal said as River put the bag on the bunk, which seemed to have grown a few inches wider. "Unless the presents end up wildly inappropriate, then I'll be giving the credit to River and Jayne," he added after a second of thought.

River just laughed efore she pulled the first one out. "Brother is stupid when it comes to the heart, but he always protected me and gave up so much. Even Jayne says he respects Simon," she added with a proud look Jayne's way. Simon glanced over with something akin to shock on his face, but then so did the others.

"Also said I'd keep on respecting you even when I snapped your gorram neck if you kept being stupid," Jayne pointed out with some satisfaction as Simon went white.

"Got him something he gave up for me," she said as she held out the bottles. Simon took them, his eyes darting from the bottles to Jayne until he got a good look at the labels, and then he stared at them in clear shock, too much shock to even keep a suspicious watch on Jayne.

"Mei mei," he breathed. "This is too much."

"Let me smell," Kaylee said, holding his arm and leaning in to see what he got. "I heard of that brand but I ain't never smelled nothing as fancy as that." Simon carefully opened one bottle, and Kaylee bent down. "Jayne, smell this," Kaylee said after taking a deep breath.

"Smells like gou shi, and I'm not wearing any, so if you got more of that stuff in your bag, give it over to the doc right now," Jayne warned seriously.

Mal almost choked on his whiskey. "You'll take a whipping like I ain't never seen a man take, but you'll balk at some fancy smellin' cologne?"

"Gorram right," Jayne agreed as River pulled a book out of the bag. "A man's got to have his limits."

River laughed. "I like how Jayne smells of fresh sweat. For Zoe," River said quickly when Inara looked to start choking again. "It's not from Earth-that-was, but it's old. Estias has all sorts of treasures unburied, traded to buy back freedom after someone went and got stupid," River said as she smiled at Jayne for a second before handing over the old book with yellowed pages. Zoe took it with a confused look.

"Thanks," she said automatically as she read the cover. Jayne didn't know what the book meant to her, but he could see the minute that she figured out what it was. He back went stiff and she started blinking like she was trying to hold back tears.

"Zoe?" Mal asked all concerned. Jayne had to agree, anything that could make Zoe look like she was ready to cry was downright unnerving.

"Washington Irving," Zoe said as she held up the book cover for him to see. "It was one of Wash's favorites. He was always trying to explain some story from this book."

The dark binding looked familiar. "Is that the one where the guy sleeps with a dead girl thinking she ain't dead?" Jayne asked. River nodded.

"Oh god, that's really in here?" Zoe asked with broken half-laugh in her breath. "I thought he was making that one up."

At about the same time, the doctor blurted out, "*You* read Washington Irving?" toward Jayne.

"Ain't completely uneducated," Jayne growled at the doctor.

"And perfume. Every girl should have perfume," River said as she held a bottle out for Zoe. Zoe took the perfume without even looking up from the book. River could have handed her a rattlesnake for all the attention she was paying it. Then River held out a small wooden box to Inara.

Inara took it and opened it. "It's exquisite," she breathed as she pulled out a carved knife. The handle was a soft off-white carved into the form of a bird that curved gracefully into the blade. "Why get me a knife, though?" she asked.

River shrugged. "Jayne worries about you going off in the shuttle. Can't take a gun into a man's bedroom, but you can a knife."

"Yes, a knife is not an uncommon tool for a companion," Inara agreed. "And this is truly a work of art." Inara looked at Jayne strangely before she put the knife carefully back in the box and closed it. "Thank you both."

"Ain't like I picked it," Jayne shrugged. "I would have gotten you one of those little machines that suck the stink out of the air."

Inara's expression immediately shifted to something more familiar. "Incense does not stink. It is… never mind. It's like casting pearls before swine and then trying to have a meaningful discussion with the swine. I give up. Thank you for the beautiful present, River."

"For Kaylee," River said as she slowly pulled a long yellow gown out of the bag. It was simple, a low neck and long sleeves and a skirt that went to the floor.

"Oh River," Kaylee breathed as she reached out for it. She held it up in front of her, and the bottom spreading out around her feet and the waist all fancy with sewing and little pearls. "Oh, it's too fine. I couldn't take this."

"And this," River held out a small box, but Simon had to take it because Kaylee was still staring all wide-eyed at the dress, her fingers tracing the sewing.

"All embroidered and everything. River, I ain't even sure how to say thank you enough."

"Mei mei," Simon breathed as he opened the box and showed it to Kaylee.

"It's a ring, and it matches my dress!" Kaylee said happily as she reached out for it.

"Mei mei, is that real?" Simon asked as he looked at River with wide eyes. River just nodded.

"What?" Mal asked. "Don't look much special to me. It's pretty and all, but it's just a yellow ring," Mal said as he leaned in to look.

"Well it's special to me," Kaylee declared as she pulled it out of the box and put it on her finger so she could hold out her hand and admire it. "Real special."

"It's a yellow sapphire. That ring is probably worth as much as the ship," Simon said as he looked at River in surprise.

"That ring is?" Mal asked. "You got *any* of the money left from selling my shuttle?" Mal demanded as he looked at River in shock.

"Nope," she said happily.

"Wuh de tyen, ah. I ain't never getting another shuttle." Mal looked more despairing than upset, and River started laughing softly.

"Got more trinkets though," River said. "Treasure goes into Estias to buy back lives, but no one sees just how shiny it is. Ships go there to buy slaves and look right past everything else. That's why we're going to Bernadette, to sell the shiny and get the captain a new shuttle," River promised. "And with Jayne on my leash, they'll all be nice about giving me the price I want."

"Seems like little sister grew up in more ways than one this trip," Zoe said with amusement. "Inara, you might have some competition for the title of most successful business woman on Serenity."

"I just might. A sapphire that size is worth much more than a shuttle, so her trading skills are really quite…" Inara searched for a word, "formidable," she finished.

"And I got something for the captain, too." River pulled out a cardboard tube and held it out with a satisfied smile on her face.

Mal took it, looking at it like it was a snake as he pulled the cap off the end and tilted it up. A roll of paper slid out the end. He unrolled it. "Ai-ya," he breathed. River got a big smile on her face.

"Sir?" Zoe asked.

"Come on, show us," Kaylee urged him.

Mal turned the paper around so that the Chinese characters for truth and harmony were visible above the large title: Statement of Beliefs.

"Sir, is that…?" Zoe just stopped.

"One of the originals," River said proudly. "Captain always said that just because they were the losing side didn't mean they were the wrong side."

"River," Mal said softly as he looked at the scroll.

"That from their Independent Faction bunch?" Jayne asked.

"Yep," River said happily as Mal just stared at the document in his hands. "It's an original. I can still hear the men who signed whispering in the paper." That made Mal blink and look up at her.

"You can hear them whisper?"

River nodded.

"River, I'm…" Mal stopped. "I reckon I'm speechless. It ain't a feeling I have a regular acquaintance with. "

Jayne snorted. Weren't no use getting all sentimental over paper, not unless the paper was credits. "If you're going to be speechless, you mind doing it outside my quarters so I can get sexed?" Jayne asked. Simon started choking, and Kaylee ended up pounding him on his back.

"It's good to see slavery hasn't substantially changed you much other than your grooming habits," Inara sighed. "Thank you again, River, but I think it's time I left."

"I think it's time we all leave," Zoe said. "Sir?" she called when Mal was still staring at the scroll.

"I'm sure I got some business to do somewheres," Mal agreed absentmindedly as he slipped the scroll back into the cardboard tube. "Ain't got the words to say what this means," Mal said as he looked at River.

"Can hear you say it anyway," River said. Mal nodded and headed after Zoe up the ladder.

That left Kaylee and Simon, and Jayne crossed his arms as he waited for Simon to say something now that the captain weren't here to threaten him with cleaning out the septic system, although now that he thought on that, it wasn't exactly fair to call that punishment because Jayne did it all the time.

"Captain's right," Kaylee offered. "Ain't got words to say what this means. And this were supposed to be your party, something like an engagement party so it don't seem right that you gave all the gifts."

"I didn't give them all," River said, her eyes on Simon. "It changed the music in the ship, and that's the best gift." River hesitated. "Best gift after Jayne."

"Music?" Kaylee frowned. "Ain't following."

River leaned over, her shoulder brushing against Jayne, and he draped an arm around her as she just looked at her brother. "Thoughts shifting, changing, seeing me as something other than the crazy girl."

"Well, of course you aren't the crazy girl," Kaylee immediately objected and River looked at her with a half smile.

"It does seem like I missed some important point in time when you went from being my baby sister to something else," Simon said quietly.

"Still your baby sister," River answered. "Just added more on."

Simon nodded. Then without a word to Jayne, he headed for the ladder.

"Well, I guess we're going now," Kaylee offered. "Thanks again. It's real nice, everything you got."

Jayne watched Kaylee climb out and close the hatch after her so that he was finally alone with River. "Should've told me we were collecting treasure. I would have been more careful with it," Jayne pointed out. "There any more back there? We could make a stop there next time we come through."

"Not interested in cold treasures without blood flowing through their veins right now," River said as she turned to him, her hands coming up to rest on his bare chest. "More interested in treasure that's warm and breathing."

"Don't know if I'm rightly treasure, but I got the warm and breathing parts down," Jayne offered. River got her sweet smile, the one that meant that she was thinking things that weren't no good and Jayne felt himself harden at just the sight. "Oh, yeah," he breathed as her smile widened.


Jayne reached down and caught the back of River's neck, pulling her close and kissing her hard, and for one second, he could feel her heat leaning into him, and then he was spun around and flung face first into the wall next to the ladder, his arm twisted around behind him and pinned just below the whip score.

Flickering pain surged, no more than heat and spice added to the pleasure, his back sending tendrils through to his guts, his cock, his spine--and he shivered. "Seems familiar," he said as he squirmed a bit, only to have River press into him.

"But last time you went and ran and I was all stupid and let you. Coordinated hormones and sympathetic nervous system. Constricted blood vessels. Dilation of vessels to skeletal muscles. All from adrenal medullary hormones that trigger the metabolism of blood sugars and the evacuation of blood from the spleen."

"Ain't following a word you're saying excepting blood," Jayne pointed out. His cock was throbbing now, a singular point of pain and pleasure in a body bright with both. And against that brightness, he could feel that quiet dark rising up below, that peace he'd found when he'd stood and accepted his own death, and that feeling scared him about as much as River.

"Fight or flight. You chose flight."

"Ain't what I'm feeling now," Jayne pointed out.

"Penile tumescence and erection, constricted blood vessels, coordinated hormones and sympathetic nervous system. Not that different," River disagreed, and Jayne really weren't in a position to argue.

"You saying I'm wanting to fight or run?" Jayne asked, not sure he was following this conversation real well. He'd expected to be getting sexed about now, but instead of being confused, his cock was just harder.

"Yep," River agreed as she let him go and moved backwards. He turned, and immediately pulled at his too-tight crotch because River, her body angled for attack, was just about the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen, like a perfect blade shining in the sun. She smiled as if she could hear that thought.

"Gorram reader," he sighed.

"Jayne's going to get his ass kicked," River chanted softly.

"Someone's feeling a little over confident," Jayne answered, even if his cock didn't seem to mind the thought. He moved forward, crouching into a fighting stance as he watched River. He had an advantage. Sitting at her feet, he'd learned the way her body moved, the way she signaled her emotions and her excitement as she read.

River darted to the side, and Jayne didn't fall for it so that when she struck out, he blocked the hit and tried to counter. He found himself stumbling to the side and she blocked his counterattack and hit him with a firm kick to his hip. Oh hell, Jayne hadn't never played with a woman like this. Hitting women just weren't on his list of things he was okay with doing, but this… this were just fun. He feigned to the left, a wicked smile on his face, but she didn't fall for it. She struck out, and he ducked and kicked to sweep her feet out from under her.

She leapt, neatly missing his kick, landing behind him, and shoving him face down on the carpet, her knee in the small of his back, and her grip pinning his arm to the ground.

"There just ain't enough room for me to get going is all," Jayne argued as he struggled, only to have her other hand come down on his neck firm enough to make him hunch his shoulders and go still out of self-defense. He could hear her panting, hear his own heart pounding, and that quiet rose again--that feeling like all he had to do was follow and accept. He blinked and the dark quiet retreated.

"Want to fight in the cargo hold?" she asked sweetly, but then Jayne trusted her least when she were sweet.

"Not if this is going where I hope it's going," Jayne grunted as she shifted, putting all her weight on the knee in the small of his back. The deep soreness from the whipping made her weight sink into him so that his whole body felt bright, ready for sexing with every nerve primed. His balls started to ache in need.

"To the victor does the spoils," River whispered as she pulled something out from under the bunk. Jayne's head was turned the wrong way, but he could hear the links rattle. A cuff closed around his right wrist before she pulled it up over his head and locked it close to his slave cuff. That left a long length of chain that she held firmly.

Jayne's cock throbbed so hard that the world went gray for a second as he fought back a need to come right in his pants. Then River straddled him, her knees squeezing his waist as she held the chain close so that Jayne's hands were forced up close to his head.

"Up," she ordered.

Jayne considered fighting, but then she squeezed her thighs and he damn near came. There'd be time for fighting later. He got up to his knees and then struggled up, her riding his back. 'Course it didn't escape his notice that for all of their roughhousing, she hadn't once touched the score mark the doc had sealed over. It flared plenty just from him twisting, but those were just enough to put an edge on his pleasure and make his whole body feel everything more bright. She could've hurt him, hurt him bad, but she didn't, not even by accident.

"To the right. Hands up," River ordered. Jayne couldn't quite figure out what she was going for until he spotted the ring in the ceiling holding a scrap of blue fabric up there. "Cao," he breathed as he held his hands up and River reached up and chained him to the ceiling. Once he was secured, she dropped to the floor and circled him, looking until Jayne wondered if he could come just from having a woman look at him like that.

"Beautiful Jayne, all muscle and strength," she said as she circled again, this time letting her hands glide over his body. Jayne strained against the chains, feeling the sweat heat his body and the ache of the whip marks make the world bright until the fingers gliding over him left trails of aching need behind. River reached up and pulled at a nipple, rolling it between her thumb and finger, and Jayne twisted helplessly. The world seemed to get as quiet as space, only the pounding of his own heart as she tormented first one nipple and then the other.

"Please. You're going to gorram break me," he pleaded. River leaned close, pressing herself to his body and reaching down to cup his cock in her hand.

"You can take more," she said as she slowly worked his buckle and then the button on his pants. Jayne panted and strained until beats of sweat tickled down his back as she slowly pushed down the zipper. With a smile, River shoved his pants down without taking off his boots so that Jayne was hobbled by his own gorram pants.

He still couldn't help but groan in relief and frustration as the pressure eased off his cock. He wasn't as close to coming now, but he needed to come so bad his eyes were about ready to water. River worked a hand inside his boxers, exploring the head of his cock, teasing the tip that had slipped free of the foreskin before she reached down farther and felt the balls, rolling them in her hand. Jayne threw his legs as far open as he could and arched his back in an imitation of a thrust. It was the best he could do as trussed up as he were.

"Can hear you. Know you can take so much more," River whispered.

"Ain't going to be able to take too much more at all," Jayne disagreed, his whole body aching for release. Hell, his whole body was screaming for it. Jayne tried to thrust into her hand again, but she just slipped her hand free and started circling again, a single finger keeping contact, tracing a path across his stomach and side and back and then right around to the stomach again.

"When you're all healed, I'm going to chain you up and use the short flogger until your whole body is just heat and raw need and then I'm going to drop to my knees and swallow you whole."

Jayne jerked and nearly came in his shorts.


River stopped behind him, her hands around his waist and slowly, she slid them down, fingers over his ass as she pushed his shorts down. The waistband got caught on his prick, and then pulled free so that it bobbed, jutting out and looking a mite darker than normal as River knelt behind him, running her hands up and down his legs as though he were a horse she was considering buying.

"All trembling," she said softly, her words stirring the air against the back of his legs, and Jayne really did tremble for fair then.

"Guay. You're going to kill me," he warned as he strained.

"Nope, Jayne's not allowed to die," River said brightly as she stood up. The sweat was beading and rolling down his back in individual drops, and suddenly River's tongue was tracing their path back up his skin.

"Aw, hell. Can't you do that after?" he begged. Normally, he wasn't one for begging, but these were extraordinary circumstances.

"Not as much fun after. Jayne's going to go to sleep on me after," she said as she retreated altogether. She flicked the controls next to the door, dimming the lights, and then headed for the tall dresser and the plate of cookie things from Inara.

"Ain't you going to…" Jayne watched as she leaned against the dresser and ate a cookie.

"Going to what?" River asked, all innocence and sweetness.

"Going to get with the sexing?" Jayne asked desperately. His cock jutted out and his balls ached, but he was chained so tight he couldn't do a gorram thing about it. Hadn't ever been so caught between heaven and hell.

"I am. Just looking at you needing me is pleasure," she said. She twitched her body, sliding her right hand down over her curves and then up under her skirt, the folds still hiding what Jayne so deserpate wanted to see. He watched the fabric ripple and bulge as her hand very obviously disappeared between her legs. River spread her feet, the dress bobbing as she worked, and her eyes got all glazed.

"Lots of pleasure," she said as she started rocking back and forth.

"Hun dan! Let me do that. Come on," he pleaded as he rocked forward and back in time with her, but his motions were a lot more futile as he thrust into the empty air, his cock bobbing. River stopped and looked at him, her eyes only partially open.

"Going to pleasure me before coming?" River asked.

"Hell yes. I ain't never gone to sleep without the woman getting her pleasure," Jayne promised. River circled him, her head cocked as she considered his request, and for one second he thought she was going to leave him there and pleasure herself to completion. That should have made his chun zi cock unhappy, but the stupid thing just got harder at how much control River were taking. The quiet nearly roared in his ears.

"Remember your promise," she whispered, but the words echoed louder and louder in his head as Jayne could only nod mutely. Then she was on his back, using him as a step ladder, her knees gripping his waist as she reached up to unlock his hands from the ceiling. She didn't unfasten his wrists or let go of the chain, so when she slid to the floor, she led him to the bed by the chain, him taking small steps with his pants still hobbling him.

"Hands up," she ordered as she put her hands on his shoulders and pressed down. Jayne sank to his knees, and instantly touched his aching cock. Immediately, River yanked his hands up using the chain. Forcing him to raise his hands to shoulder level, she backed away, draping the chain leash over his shoulder before retreating.

"Ain't been sexed for a while. Can't really put it off too much longer," Jayne said tightly, his cock throbbing now. One touch. That's all it would take.

"You used to practice," she said, shimmying out of her dress and letting it puddle to the floor. "You used to practice how close you could come before pinching it off. Then waiting and starting all over again. Pretty fantasies with a woman who wore yellow pigtails."

Jayne could feel his balls, tight and hot, and remembering that one time he'd played with a woman and her whip weren't helping him much. River pushed her underwear off and then stood in front of him naked. He found himself swallowing and not really able to do much else.

"Hands," she said sharply, and Jayne brought them back up, not even realizing his fingers were drifting down to his damn prick again.

"Contradictions," River said as she stepped close, her body lithe and dangerous and setting off all Jayne's alarms as she got that predator's roll to her walk. "You want the fantasy to end but you want to keep it going. You want to be chained so you're free. Emancipation is slavery and slavery, freedom."

"Never claimed I didn't have a few bugs loose in the brain myself, Crazy," Jayne pointed out. She smiled at his old name for her, and the heat from her body brushed against him, teasing his arms and hands. She stepped so close, he reached out fingers and slipped them between her legs, into the warm folds. Pressing and stroking, he watched as her face twisted in need, her hands grabbing for his shoulders as she rocked forward into him.

Jayne leaned forward and placed a kiss on the flat of her stomach and she gasped and tightened her grip.

"Wanted to feel your mouth, to have you on your knees giving me pleasure."

Jayne pulled his fingers free and wiped them on his leg, fighting the temptation to reach over and give himself just one stroke. "Just come closer," he said, focused on the curling hair that hid his prize.

"Can't wait." River said, and she was pulling Jayne up to his feet. He followed, ending up on his back on the bed as she leaned over him, chaining him to the wall with his hands over his head. He couldn't resist; he thrust up into her hip, his whole body on fire as his need very nearly reached the breaking point where he could throw himself over into the beyond.

"You promised," River said firmly as she was on hands and knees above him, her body so close, but still held teasingly away. "Gave your word. Gave me you submission, so now you have to wait until I've had my pleasure," she said firmly as she looked him right in the eye. Jayne didn't think he could get much harder, but he did.

Curling his hands into fists and straining against the chains until his arms bulged, he forced himself to stop before he came all over himself and broke his word.

"Hot and needing," River muttered as she crouched over him. She rested her forehead on his arm, the weight of it hot. Jayne could hear her labored breathing as she fought with her own need, or maybe she was hearing his, he didn't really care anymore.

"Guay," Jayne swore. The fact that a woman needed him so much nearly drove him over that edge whether he wanted to or not, but she reached down and pinched the head of his cock, right where he always did when he was playing at some bunk fantasy. Only thing were, this wasn't no fantasy. Jayne writhed against the need to come and the pain of not coming and the overwhelming pleasure of having someone else take that choice from him.

"Only free to follow the fantasy once you're chained," River muttered. Jayne took a deep breath, but before he could answer, she dropped onto him, his cock sinking deep into a tight, slick heat that stripped Jayne of all control. His body flailed, fighting the chains without thought to how little chance he had to break them.

Digging his heels into the bed, he bucked up, thrusting River into the air, and she cried out, her breath coming fast and loud as he dropped back down to the bed. She didn't follow him all the way down, holding herself just above, so when he thrust up again, he slid into her. River screamed this time, throwing her head back and Jayne's thrusts became violent, uncoordinated, desperate as he struggled to hold back an orgasm that threatened to swallow him.

A black sea surged under him, and Jayne could feel it rising up. He strained against the chains, against the need to come, against everything except the look on River's face. And finally, he saw it, the moment when everything vanished, when her muscles tightened around him and her thighs trembled and Jayne finally let himself come with a shout.

He thrust up twice more, struggling to even breathe as every muscle ached after the most intense sex of his life. River braced herself on his chest, panting for breath, and Jayne could feel that ocean of quiet settle up around him. He'd done what she asked, and now she was flushed, panting and happy and slowly sliding down to rest against his chest.

River lay curled against his side as their bodies slowly cooled, and for once in his life, Jayne didn't feel the need to do anything. Being here in River's bed was enough. Weren't no doubts or fears, was only the quiet.

River's hand stroked his stomach, petting him as she made little happy noises, and Jayne just waited. Wasn't anything in the whole gorram 'verse he felt like doing other than waiting on whatever River wanted.

"Thoughts all…" River stopped. "symmetrical," she finished. "Jayne has such pretty thoughts."

"Not really thinking much of anything," Jayne disagreed with a sigh. She shifted, bringing her leg up to lay over his thighs as she looked down on him.

"You're thinking that you belong all to me," River said. Jayne thought about that, stretching his back a little to ease the itch.

"Yeah, guess I am," he finally agreed. She smiled, stretching up to press her lips against his and Jayne opened his mouth, tasting her, feeling her lips move against his until she pulled back and smiled at him again.

"Thoughts colored pretty," River sighed as she pulled the edge of the bedspread up and pulled it around them. Jayne laid there, the lights on dim and watched the top of her head as she curled against him, fingers still stroking his stomach. "Thoughts colored all shiny and pretty," she muttered.

Jayne didn't have much he could say to that, so he just closed his eyes and let himself drift to sleep, trusting River to keep him safe as he let himself drift in an ocean of quiet that made him feel like the whole gorram 'verse just might be colored pretty tonight.



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Epilogue One

Mal studied the inside of the saloon, his eyes still adjusting from the bright light outside, but this was the roughest bar in the area, so he had to be here. Blinking a bit, Mal eventually found what he was looking for. Ignoring a poker game on the verge of turning into an all-out brawl and two men who stared at him as though trying to consider whether he was worth killing, Mal made his way to the bar. "Jayne, what you doing here?"

"Drinking," Jayne said as he raised his glass.

"Can see that. River know you're here?" he asked as he slid into the seat next to Jayne. If River and Jayne were having some sort of spat, he really wanted enough advance warning to make sure he was at least two moons away before something blew up. Jayne just snorted and took another drink of his beer as he leaned against the bar and watched the crowd in the dusty saloon.

If it weren't for the black slave cuff locked around his left wrist, Mal wouldn't ever guess Jayne was a slave. His body language did more screaming of threats than rolling over and playing submissive. Of course, anyone who knew Jayne Cobb would spot the differences in him now that he did wear River's cuff. The t-shirts with dirty or just downright violent sayings in bold Chinese characters were gone. Instead he wore good quality button up shirts and carried a gun and a knife that were worth about as much as an honest working man made in a good decade. And he was definitely cleaner. But even with all the cleaning up, or maybe because of all the cleaning up, he looked like the most dangerous man in the place.

"Jayne," Mal started slowly, trying to figure out how to say this without sounding either overprotective or just downright stupid. It'd thrown him, not knowing that Jayne had spent months pining for him, and now every time he talked to the merc, he tended to get a tad bit paranoid about saying the wrong thing or not noticing something that apparently every other gorram person on his ship had noticed. "Are you doing something stupid enough that I’m going to have my gunhand laid up in the infirmary again?" he finally just came right out and asked.

"Ai-ya. Why you thinking that? I ain't doing anything but drinking." Jayne frowned at him.

"Weren't but a half hour ago, your owner was looking up one side of the docks and down the other for you."


"Telling me not to worry ain't helping my worrying overmuch," Mal pointed out. "Last time River got cranky enough, she laid you open with a bullwhip." Mal might understand intellectually how a man needed to pay for having done something as truly repugnant as turning folk over to the Alliance, but watching Jayne just stand there and take the whip until his blood was splattered across Serenity's hull was something he wasn't really interested in seeing again.

"She seem cranky to you?" Jayne really looked at him now, and Mal thought about that for a second.

"With River, what she's thinking is never really that easy to tell."

Jayne snorted. "River's about as easy to read as a book," he said. "And one of them easy books, not the gou shi she reads when she's thinking too hard about core things. Some of those books in her room are filled with nuthin but rows of numbers on numbers and she says she can see the universe in them. She's a good site easier to read than them things."

"Ain't no one on the boat who can read River but you," Mal pointed out. Was true too. Pissed Simon off no end that he just didn't seem to be able to track his sister's thoughts like he used to.

"She breakin' anything when she was looking for me?" Jayne asked.

"Not so's I noticed," Mal admitted. "Just flinging stuff around a whole lot."

"Then she ain't mad," Jayne shrugged.

The bartender delivered a beer without even asking Mal what he wanted, and Mal just paid up as he thought on that. "Shouldn't she know where you're at?"

"Kinda defeats the purpose," Jayne said, frowning at him. Mal worked hard at not yelling at the man because it wasn't that Jayne was trying to be annoying nearly as much as it was that the man didn't think things through nearly as much as he should.

"What purpose would that be?" Mal asked as calmly as he could.

"Hide and seek."

"Tyen shiao-duh. You're playin' with her? She's done tore through three cargo holds. You're putting all that cargo back, every crate and stick," Mal threatened. Gods in heaven, she had near thrown the cargo off the ship searching for Jayne, and this was a game. He just knew it was going to be his shi getting broke when these two started wooing.

"If'n she wins, I am," Jayne shrugged.

"If'n?" Mal asked incredulously. River versus Jayne didn't rightly seem like a fair battle of wits.

Jayne gave him a wicked smile. "Yep, she's going to win, but I'll give her a good run. Rules say she can't use her mind to find mine." Jayne's pleasant expression suddenly darkened. "Cao. But she can use your mind, and here you are sitting and getting all cozy. Gan ni niang." Jayne practically growled at him before he downed the rest of his beer and slammed the mug down on the bar a good bit harder than he needed to.

Just then a boy came running into the bar. "She's a'comin' mister!" Jayne pulled a coin out of his pocket and tossed it at the boy before he took off running for a side door.

"Jayne!" Mal called, but the door was already swinging closed. Only seconds later, Mal could hear the boy outside pleading in a loud voice.

"Please, can't you help me find my pa?"

River came through the door to the bar, the boy Jayne had paid still clinging to her skirt. She ignored him.

"River?" Mal asked. Jayne might think she was playing, but that was not a happy expression. If a woman who Mal was bedding had that particular expression, he'd be looking for another place to spend the night.

She stopped and looked at him before glancing down at the boy. Jayne clearly hadn't paid him enough to deal with a riled up woman because he let go and ran for the door.

"Now River," Mal tried placating her as he stepped into her path, which was exactly where he didn't want to be, "Jayne was only having a drink."

River frowned at him, cocking her head to the side for a second. "Captain is stupid," she declared. At one point, Mal might have argued that point, but after the strange going-ons in his ship, he was starting to think he might be. It would explain why he didn't understand his gorram crazy crew no more.

"Come on," River said as she caught his hand in hers and before Mal could come up with a good argument as to why this was a horrible idea, he found himself getting pulled behind River as they hurried out the side door.

"Damn. Which way?" River asked the air or herself or whoever River talked to when she didn't expect an answer. Standing just outside the back door to the bar, she frowned as she stared both ways down the dusty alley filled with crates and other leftovers from the day's business. Mal opened his mouth to point out that her holding his hand wasn't exactly proper, but then she was off down the alley. They raced past another barefoot urchin before turning south and closing in on a warehouse.

Mal stumbled and gasped for breath, but River was still pulling on him, and the strength of her grip did make him flinch. He couldn't imagine how much stronger she'd seem when she held a whip. River dragged him through a door into the dim interior of a half-empty warehouse before letting go of his hand.

Bending over, Mal gasped for air and watched River stalk around a row of crates. "Fee, fi, fo, fum, I smell a Jayne-man."

When a shadowed figure leapt from behind a crate and tackled River to the ground, Mal had his gun out and aimed before he could even identify the huge shadow as Jayne. He watched, his mouth most hanging open as River and Jayne traded a series of blows that were anything but playful. Jayne nearly took River's leg out from under her, his boot connecting with her thigh so hard Mal could hear the thump. She staggered back a half step, but even Mal missed seeing how her stagger put her in a position to duck and sweep both Jayne's legs out from under him in a vicious kick.

Jayne fell to his stomach, his hands coming out to break his fall as he cursed colorfully, and then River was on him, twisting one arm up behind his back so high that Mal's shoulder ached in sympathy.

"Give up?" River asked cheerfully.

"Get offa me. Guay."

"Jayne needs to know that he's mine because I'm strong enough to make him mine, but captain is all stupid thinking that I would ever hurt Jayne," River said.

"The cap's here?" Jayne squirmed, and River twisted his arm harder.

"Ai-yah. Tyen-ah."

"That looks like it's hurting him," Mal pointed out as he holstered his gun. He circled around wide so he was on the side Jayne's face was turned to because River now had her knee in his neck, keeping him from turning his head to see him. Didn't seem fair to stand in a man's blind spot while he was getting beat on by a woman half his size.

"No different from you not following officers who are so stupid as to walk into an ambush," River said as she stared at him real hard, and Mal just froze. Damn. So she'd plucked that memory from his head. "You want a smart officer. Jayne wants a strong partner." She shrugged as if they were just having some casual conversation, only Mal didn't normally have a palaver about the war or when one of his crew was face down on the floor.

Jayne grunted under her. "Jayne thinks," he said, talking about himself in third person, "you've made your point, so maybe you could ease off before you break Jayne."

"When did you take up talking about yourself in third person?" Mal asked.

"What? If anyone's the third person here, it's you," Jayne argued. "Are you planning on having him be the third person here?" Jayne asked, and River looked at Mal with her head cocked.

Mal realized two things. One, Jayne wasn't any smarter now than ever, and two, he really did not want to be the third person here.

"I'm just showing the captain that he can stop being stupid now," River said. She pulled a short chain from the back of her belt. "Other arm," she said cheerfully. Jayne didn't make a move to bring his free arm around, and River twisted the captured arm hard enough to make Jayne grunt in pain.

"Alright, alright. Ai-ya. You ain't goin' to like it if I'm in a cast after you twist my gorram arm off. You'll be fixing up the captain's cargo on your own then."

"Give me your other arm and I won't have to put you in a cast," River said in that same sweet voice she used to ask people to pass the rolls at dinner. It was just creepifying. Mal watched Jayne bring his other arm around to this back and she quickly cuffed him.

"You lost," River said as she hopped up and pulled Jayne up to his knees with a hand under his arm.

"If it weren't for the captain bein' stupid and leading you right to me, I wouldn't'a gone down so fast," Jayne complained as he gave Mal a real unhappy look.

"You talk to the captain for a minute. Rats in the shadows chewing on song words," she said as she headed farther into the warehouse with no more explanation than that and Mal found himself face to face with a chained and kneeling Jayne. Funny, even now the man didn't have the look of any slave Mal had ever seen. He was dusty from getting shoved face-first on the floor, but he still had the look of a real well-dressed and well-armed killer, the kind who could afford the sort of fees that meant they could afford to waste 800 credits on a gorram knife. In fact, it'd turned into a bit of a joke on board because all the women-folk took Jayne shopping with them, even Inara. One glare from Jayne and prices tended to fall dramatically.

"Song words?" Mal asked.

Jayne shrugged, and then winced before doing it again to stretch the abused shoulder. "Something ain't right. She won't wander far. More interesting part is her wanting me to talk to you. Ain't sure what I'm supposed to be saying to you."

"Never stopped you from saying gou shi before," Mal pointed out.

"Yeah, but if she just wanted me to go insulting your gorram bad cooking she wouldn't have ordered me to talk to you. So, I figure you got some question rattling around in your brain."

Mal sighed as he looked at his merc and then focused on the door. What he wanted to do was leave, but with Jayne chained and helpless, he didn't feel right abandoning the man.

"We gonna be here a long time if you're waiting for me to figure this out on my own, Mal. Better if you just cough it out before my knees get too sore."

"What… she'd leave you… until we talked?"

"Reckon so," Jayne shrugged. "Once she tells me to do something, she ain't real quick to let me outta doing it."

"Jayne…." Mal looked at his mercenary feeling more than a little concern here. Problem was, Jayne still wasn't looking all that worried. Jayne was just looking at him all cranky, and it wasn't even as if Mal had done anything except try to help Jayne, and that weren't happening again. Jayne sighed as he slid to the side and sat on his butt and pulled his legs up under him.

"I ain't exactly in a position to make you talk, but if you don't tell me what you're thinking that has her all worked up, I'm putting the doc's best laxative in your food," he warned.

"Don't you threaten me, Jayne Cobb." Mal stepped forward, and the very fact that Jayne was still sitting on the floor and still chained made Mal back up faster than any answer Jayne could have given him.

"What bug crawled up your ass and died?" Jayne demanded.

"I don't like seeing a member of my crew hurt and helpless," Mal snapped.

"Si lang gou. You got the same brand of stupid as Kaylee."

"I ain't stupid," Mal said darkly, "except where it come to you letting River take the liberties she takes. It's one thing to wear a woman's cuff, or a man's either for that matter," Mal quickly added as his brain reminded him that the whole gorram crew thought he would be the one to cuff Jayne. Sometimes he wished he had because he would have treated Jayne with a good sight more respect than River were. "I just wished I could trust you to say 'no' when she goes over the line."

"You wished… what?" Jayne looked up at him like Mal had just went and grown another head.

"When she goes over the line, I guess I will." Jayne had that on-edge tone to his voice now.

"And you ain't calling this over the line? I understand how wanting after woman can lead to makin' poor choices—"

"You saying I'm thinking with my kua xia wu?"


"River ain't the only crazy on that boat. Got a whole ship full of 'em, don't we?" Jayne snorted, and that sudden humor just sent Mal right off the rails into a whole heap of confusion.


Jayne chuckled and shook his head. "Told ya she took thoughts from me, don't know why you're getting your knickers in a twist now."

"Because she seems to be embellishin' some on those thoughts. As much as you ain't for sittin' still, I don't think you ever had thoughts of being chained and kneeling on the floor of your own quarters all night while she reads. Tell me that came from the brain of Jayne Cobb," Mal challenged him.

Frowning for a second, Jayne just shrugged. "The reading's all her, but I like some'a the stories. And the fact is I like her holding the leash, Mal. I go and get stupid and you ain't good at stopping me. Sometimes I just like a little reminder of how strong that hold is she's got on the leash, and when she comes back, ain't gonna mind that at all. Wonder if she'll chain me up and heat my back with a whip so's it's all hot and sensitive before she trails fingers over it making me go all… hun dan… can't even rightly describe how good that feels. Or maybe she'll just lay me out and ride until I'm just about ready to explode, pinchin' it off when I try to come and then starting to ride all over again once I can't come. Poured chocolate on me once, so hot I damn near bellowed, and then slowly licked it off until I couldn't think enough to say my own name."

Jayne's eyes just sort of glazed over, and for the first time, Mal really did see the submissive come sliding out of Jayne. The killer and the man who weren't all that bright just sort of faded and what was left looked a lot like an oversized boy with a bright face like he was just set in front of a whole heap of Christmas presents and told they were all his.

"I do respect Jayne," River said, her voice a whisper right behind Mal, and he just about leaped out of his own skin.

"Ai-ya, don't go sneaking up on a man."

"Wasn't sneaking. Was walking," River said as she walked over and crouched down in front of Jayne. Mal watched her stroke his cheek until Jayne's eyes half-drooped like a happy dog that was getting a good scratch. "Am going to make Jayne ache all over for being so fast at running," she said just loud enough for Mal to hear, and Jayne didn't even twitch at the threat. "Make Jayne ache and then confiscate his shirt so I can watch him put all the cargo away with his muscles straining. Sit on the walk with Kaylee and make comments about my beautiful Jayne. I made sure I flung it real far, too," she said. And still Jayne had that droop-eyed expression going.

River stood, her hand still resting on Jayne's head as she turned and faced Mal. "I do respect Jayne. I get all lost in emotions sometimes, but Jayne is strong and solid and never lost on what he feels, even if he does sometimes draw illogical conclusions based on the objective datum. I need his strength as much as he needs mine, and you needed to see that. But the next bit, you don't need to see. I want to ride Jayne until he's sweating and hot and loses all control over the evacuation of blood from the spleen. Make Jayne bellow and twitch and then ride his thoughts into the quiet."

Mal listened, but what she said wasn't making two bits' worth of sense, at least not past the part where Jayne was somehow emotionally strong. Mal was the first to admit that Jayne was about the best damn man for the job if it took brute strength, tracking, or shooting, but he hadn't ever thought on Jayne as being particularly emotionally stable. Then again, compared to River, most anyone had to be a bastion of emotional stability. Either way, Jayne was looking… Mal glanced over and Jayne's eyes were totally closed now as he leaned into River's leg… Jayne was looking happily submissive.

"Reckon I should be going now," Mal said as he started backing away.

"Yep, and should stop being stupid," River offered. Mal turned and headed for the door, ignoring the chuckle from Jayne he could hear as he let the door fall shut behind him. Yeah, he was pretty much stupid if he'd thought he had to ride to Jayne Cobb's rescue. He was also pretty in need of finding himself a good whorehouse. Shiong mao niao. He could'a had that for himself and he'd been a gorram idiot all that time when Jayne was trying to make him happy. And now, he got the real special added bonus of watching someone else enjoying that willing submission. Sometimes he swore, the 'verse just really didn't like him much.


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Epilogue 2: Not Enough Trouble

Jayne was on his knees listening to River read when she suddenly stopped. Jayne's first thought ran to Reavers or pirates seein' as how they were always getting in some sort of gorram trouble, but the slow way River set the book to one side suggested she were doing more on the speculating side.

"River?" Jayne asked as he scratched an itchy spot on his leg.

"You're lacking stimulation," she announced firmly.

"Hey, feel free to go stimulating on me any time," he welcomed her. If he'd known that bein' a legal and recorded slave would mean getting sexed this much, he mighta signed himself up long ago. Then again, if he'd been sold to some farm, if River hadn't come for him, things might not be looking so good with his life.

"Not acceptable," River said as she stood. Jayne got up and nearly tripped over the pad he'd been kneeling on as he hurried after her.

"Clothes," she sang as she darted up the ladder.

"Shi," Jayne swore as he stopped at the ladder and grabbed his clothes. One of these days he was going to gorram forget he was nakid and flash the whole gorram crew. By the time Jayne had pulled clothes on, River had vanished. Walking toward the crew area, Jayne watched suspiciously. It weren't exactly unheard of for her to ambush him, but he made it to the cargo bay unmolested, which were mighty disappointing.

In the cargo bay, Mal and Kaylee were bent over a panel, and that fancy passenger they'd picked up on Hera was standing right behind them.

"You seen River about?" Jayne asked. Mal immediately looked up with a fair bit of panic.

"Shun-sheng duh gao-wahn," Mal cursed.

"Captain!" Kaylee gasped all shocked like. Fact were, Jayne had heard her say worse when she thought no one were listening. But that dandy from Hera... he seemed about ready to have a stroke over a few words. It made Jayne want to spill a little blood in front of him and see what happened.

"That ain't nothing compared to what he'll be hearing if those two get going," Mal pointed out. "You tell that girl of yours that I won't be having you two taking your games into the ship when we's got passengers on board."

Jayne snorted. "You tell her. Not like I'm one to be doing the telling," Jayne pointed out as he held up his wrist with the slave cuff locked around it. The dandy from Hera started looking a bit pale at the sight of that.

"You're a slave ship?" he asked Mal, his eyes big.

"No!" Mal said firmly. "We're just folks what got stuck with a pilot and her man who do more getting in trouble than two people should."

"Not enough trouble," a voice came from the shadows, and River walked into the light. Jayne knew he was humped when he saw her short skirt and boots. Those were fighting clothes. 'Course, with her, being humped had a whole new meaning. "Jayne gets bored without a fight," River said seriously as she walked to the side of the room.

"Then you take him back to quarters, and do something to amuse him that I'm going to try hard not to think about," Mal said with some exasperation. "Kaylee, are you sure you can't put more soundproofing in the cabins?"

Kaylee smiled at the dandy. "The captain's just foolin'. The cabins are plenty soundproofed. And if you give us a second, I can figure out easy why the heat's all whorly in your quarters. It'll only take me two shakes."

"You allowed this brute to marry this child?" the man asked as he looked from River to Jayne.

"Can't rightly say I did," Mal pointed out. "Now, I'm tryin' to spare your propriety here, but you're startin' to annoy me bad enough that I'm going to stop trying," Mal warned.

"I am far less concerned about my propriety than the well-being of this... this child. The alliance has allowed these border territories far too much freedom if this is what you do with it—slavery, child brides."

Mal threw up his hands and started to walk away. "Do not turn your back to me, sir," the dandy said with great dignity, and Jayne were just about to bust a gut laughing at the look Mal sent him.

"He's got Mal's disease, not really seeing me," River said happily enough as she tossed a staff to Jayne. "He'll learn."

"You're going to take some bruises, girl," Jayne warned as he swung the staff through the air to get a feel for it. Oh, he knew he was going to take a whole lot more brusin' than she were, but he'd get his hits in all the same.

"Now see here, you will touch her over my dead body," the dandy insisted archly as he started striding toward Jayne, but then River was in motion, and Jayne didn't have time to worry about some fare-paying fop as he fended off a nasty series of hits aimed for his head.

"Now girl, that was just mean, what with me being distracted by the fancy-pants," Jayne pointed out. River used her staff as a long-jump stick and vaulted to the top of the shuttle.

"The enemy isn't always nice," she pointed out. "Besides, I know my Jayne wouldn't ever underestimate me like some boobs," she said, and it did warm Jayne's heart to have a woman who trusted his skills enough to try and take his head off. Jayne shifted his stance and braced himself for another attack.

"Bring it on girl, unless you think you have to order me to my knees to get the best of me," he taunted. River smiled and then did a flip right off the shuttle. A cartwheel teased him with a glimpse of her underwear and then Jayne was defending himself from a flurry of strikes. Falling back, he got to near the stairs before he turned, ducked behind a row of stacked boxes and then came out the far side with an attack of his own.

Wood hit against wood so fast that it sounded like one long rattle as they worked their way across the deck. Then River did a flip up and over Jayne, neat as the day, and Jayne felt the line of fire as her staff caught him across the shoulders. He went stumbling forwards and fell to the deck, snagging up one of Kaylee's wrenches on the way. He flung it at River, and watched her break stride as the wrench hit her thigh.

"Not my tools!" Kaylee yelled as she went wading in between them, and Jayne and River paced each other, watching for an opening as Kaylee scrambled to get her tools out of harm's way. Jayne struck first, a high swing toward River's head that she blocked easily before moving in for a hit of her own. Letting his staff get shoved to the side, Jayne punched out and caught River on the cheek. His victory was short lived as she twirled, knocked his feet out from under him, and slammed him to the deck with a sweeping hit with her staff.

"Shiong mao niao," Jayne cursed as she grabbed his wrist and flipped him over to his stomach. He tried getting up to one knee seeing as how he could lift her easy, but a hard punch to his back sent him crashing back to the deck where she grabbed his second hand and quickly cuffed him. Well, he'd lasted longer than most would have against her, and he'd gotten his hits in.

She flipped him over, and Jayne knew that look. River was panting and watching him with dark eyes. Watching his girl fight always did get him worked up, but not like this. Jayne looked around to see whose feelings River were channeling, and the dandy was clutching the rail to the stairs with wide eyes that didn't have nothing to do with fear.

"Captain, get him the hell outta here," Jayne bellowed. Mal looked at Jayne in confusion for a second, but then he looked at the man and musta realized what was going on.

"Kaylee, let's get Mr. Leidy into his room," Mal said as he closed in on the man, grabbing one arm.

"Oh, yeah," Kaylee quickly said as she hurried over to them. "No problem, captain. You guys have fun now," Kaylee called over her shoulder as the hustled the man out of the cargo bay.

Jayne watched them practically drag the passenger out and not a second too soon because River was channeling all that lust—Mr. Leidy's lust, Jayne's, her own. Jayne's arms were starting to ache what with all his weight on them, but he didn't comment as she pulled his pants open and then scrambled to get out of her own underwear. His girl needed this, and Jayne was more than happy to oblige. Hell, he was already as hard as a man could get without damaging himself.

River didn't take her time as she got on top of him and dropped all her weight so fast that Jayne's eyes just about watered at the sudden tightness. River cried out and lifted herself up before dropping again and again, hitting so hard that Jayne figured his hips would be bruised in the morning.

"Jayne," she screamed, and Jayne strained against the cuffs, wanting to touch her but denied the right as she started rocking against him, every motion just a little too far so that he was caught between pleasure and pain. She reached down and touched herself, crying out, and then she tightened around Jayne. He braced his heels into the floor and thrust up, driving his cock deeper when she was lost in the first wave of the orgasm. She threw her head back, lost in the moment as Jayne bucked up a second and third and fourth time, watching as she rode a wave of desire, and then he came with a bellow of his own.

The cargo bay was silent, and River slowly sank down onto his chest, and Jayne could only lay there and feel her beating heart. There were days he just knew he'd never been good enough in his whole damn life to deserve her, but he sure was going to try hard to be good enough from here on out. River sighed, and he figured she was probably reading his thoughts. There'd be time enough for getting back to the bunk later. Right now Jayne just relaxed and let himself feel truly happy.


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