BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL

JANE0904

Snake in the Grass - REPOST
Sunday, November 11, 2007

Maya. Post-BDM. Complete. Jayne goes home, and Mal has a close encounter with the Alliance.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 1627    RATING: 0    SERIES: FIREFLY

Snake in the Grass – Part I

“You’re gonna have to, honey.”

“I ain't doing it.”

“Every time I see you go up or down that ladder, I'm afraid you’re gonna slip and fall, and apart from the mess that’d make it’d be somewhat hard on my son.”

“You can talk all you like – it ain't happening.”

Hank got up from the pilot’s chair and took hold of Zoe by the arms, making her sit down. She could feel his warmth still in the seat. “It isn’t something you get to choose. Freya did it. Kaylee would’ve done it if she hadn’t already been sleeping in Simon’s room. So you’re going to as well.” Zoe opened her mouth to complain but he put a finger on her lips. “No. We’re moving into the lower quarters.”

“Am I allowed to speak now?”

“Only if it’s to agree with me.”

For a moment Zoe looked down at her belly, swelling even more at her waist now she was entering her seventh month. The soft, swirly patterned top was pulled tighter across it than before, and she let her eyes trace the design before lifting her head again. “I ain't broke, Hank,” she said softly.

“I know that.” He sat down in the other seat. “And you’re blooming, like all pregnant women should be. But right now, at this point, it ain't safe to use the ladder.”

“I know.”

He sat back a little. “You’re agreeing with me?”

“I don’t want to, I’ll admit. But …” She put her hand flat on the curve of her stomach. “I did knock him this morning.”

Hank’s mouth fell open and he went down onto his knees in front of her. “When?” he asked, his hands cupping her. “Is he okay? Did you see Simon? Does it hurt anywhere –“

“After breakfast, he’s fine, no I didn’t, and no it doesn’t.” She smiled at him. “He was a bit fractious for a while, moving around, but he’s settled again.”

“See?” He looked into her face, his grey eyes full of concern. “See what happens when I ain't around, when you do crazy things like this?”

“Climbing down the ladder? That’s crazy?”

“Yeah, well, it is starting from now.” He shook his head. “Please, Zoe. Be sensible. Just once.”

She couldn’t help the corners of her mouth lifting. “I thought I was always the sensible one.”

“Well, maybe you were and maybe you weren’t. All I'm asking for is for you to be sensible now.”

“Okay.”

“Okay what?”

“You’d better get our things.”

“You mean it?”

“I mean it.”

Hank jumped to his feet. “Don’t go anywhere.” Then he saw the look on her face. “Oh, well, yes of course you can go somewhere. Just … not down any ladders, okay?”

“Okay.” She watched him leave the bridge, going to move their stuff before she changed her mind. She knew he’d spoken to Mal already, and that at this stage of the pregnancy it was better to be safe than sorry, as Freya had been, but it didn’t mean she had to like it. It felt like giving in, and that was a feeling she didn’t much like, not since Serenity Valley. Still, it would make Hank happy …

A buzzing drew her attention to the board. A wave was coming in, and she leaned forward to bring it up on screen.

--

Jayne and Bethany were working out in the cargo bay, the big man on his weight bench, the little girl on hers. Jayne had made it for her as a surprise for her birthday, still a week away, but she’d come across him three nights before when she couldn’t sleep, carving the small dumbbells out of wood and painting them black and silver. She’d been so excited he’d had to say she could have it as an early present, just so long as she didn’t expect anything else.

“I won’t, Uncle Jayne,” she’d said, hugging herself in delight.

So far they’d worked out every day, and now she was laying on her back, her tiny hands wrapped in tape from the infirmary, lifting the barbell he’d made above her chest. She grunted like he did, and Jayne couldn’t help but smile.

“Not too heavy for ya, is it, short stub?” he asked, watching her out of the corner of his eye as she mimicked every movement.

“No,” she said, lowering it again and puffing in an exaggerated manner. “Shiny.”

He laughed. “You’re gonna end up with muscles like mine.”

Bethany giggled. “I'm a girl, Uncle Jayne.”

“So?” He lifted the bar and slid it back into its cradle. “Your Auntie Frey works out when she ain’t too lazy, and she lifts almost as much as me. You saying she ain't a girl?”

“Better not be,” the woman in question said from where she sat on the floor a short distance away. “I could take offence.”

“Would I do that, Frey?” Jayne asked. “Not if I wanted to ever have kids of my own, at least.”

“And I'm not lazy.”

“You ain't worked out in a while.”

Freya smiled. “True.” She lifted Ethan up from where he sat in front of her. “Hear that?” she said. “Your Uncle Jayne’s afraid of me.”

“You bet your ass I am,” Jayne said fervently. “Ain't no-one on this boat as likely to do me some harm.”

“Auntie Frey wouldn’t hurt you,” Bethany said, sitting up.

“You gonna protect me?”

“Yes.” She flexed her arm. “Strong.”

Jayne felt her little muscle. “Hell, yeah,” he grinned.

“Strong,” Ethan echoed.

Freya laughed, glad he hadn’t copied the cussing. “That’s right, Ethan,” she said, resting him on his feet. “And so are you. So why don’t you walk for your Mama?”

“Mama,” the little boy said, but wouldn’t stand when she let his weight down a little.

“That’s no answer, sweetie,” she tutted. “Come on. Walk for me.”

“He will,” Simon said, coming out of the infirmary. “Don’t worry about it.”

“Bethany was walking before now.”

“All children are different. I had it on good authority from my mother that I was over a year old before I took my first unaided steps.”

“And River?”

“Let’s not talk about her.”

Freya laughed. “That early?”

“She gave us all a bad name.”

“Well, people, looks like we’re got ourselves a job,” Mal said from the top catwalk, looking down onto the majority of his crew, Zoe next to him.

“What’re we hauling this time?” Jayne asked.

“More to the point, is it legal or contraband?” Simon put in.

“It’s legal, and it’s small. Doc, you’ll be in charge of it.”

“Me?” He didn’t quite squeak.

Mal smiled. “Eggs and sperm, from some of the finest herds in the Core.” He started down the stairs.

Simon’s eyebrows threatened to disappear into his hair. “I thought that was illegal,” he pointed out. “My understanding is that this sort of thing has to be done through official channels. If at all.”

“For once you’re right, doc,” Mal said, containing his amusement. “But we’re licensed, for this trip only.”

“We are?” Jayne asked, dragging on his water bottle. Bethany copied him assiduously.

“Bernoulli pulled a lot of strings, and we’re carrying the goods.”

“How big?” Simon wanted to know. “And what equipment? If we need to upgrade our facilities –“

“Hold on there,” Mal said, stepping down onto the bay floor and raising his hand. “All you need to know’s been transferred to your link in the infirmary. And Bernoulli says it’s all the latest kit, so there’s no need for any undue fussing.”

“I'm not fussing,” Simon said, watching as the captain sat down on the floor next to his wife and son. “If I’m responsible for this –“

“You ain't. I am. I'm captain.” Mal smiled at Ethan. “Hey, there, big feller, what’cha doing?”

“Walking,” River supplied, stepping out of the common area and dusting her hands of the soil from where she’d been working on her garden. Green shoots were starting to appear and she needed to weed out any interlopers.

“Are you?” Mal asked, taking hold of one of his son’s hands.

“Dada!” Ethan grinned, lifting his feet one at a time and staggering towards him.

“Hey, that’s real good!” Mal said, grinning at Freya.

“That’s the best he’s done,” Freya agreed, feeling warmth suffuse through her. “He’s a good boy.”

Ethan turned his smile on her, and tried to face her, but lost his balance and sat down hard on his behind instead. He laughed.

“He’ll soon be running us ragged around the boat,” Mal predicted.

“Did I?” Bethany asked, picking up her little towel and rubbing her face and neck like Jayne was doing.

Simon walked across and picked her up, swinging her to his hip. “Run us ragged? You still do, Bethie.”

She giggled.

“So where’re we taking this load of ji–“

“Jayne.” Simon’s voice stopped him.

“What?”

“Just don’t.”

“Don’t what?”

“You know exactly,” River said quietly.

Jayne grinned. “Yeah, well, maybe I do. But I still wanna know where we’re going with it.”

“New Hall,” Mal supplied. “They’ve got a fierce need to build up their herds, and Bernoulli’s making a packet out of this.”

“Are we?” the big man asked.

“We’ll be getting paid, if that’s what you’re worrying.”

“Ain't worried, Mal. Just careful.”

Freya watched her husband refrain, with difficulty, from saying exactly what he thought about that, and she smiled.

“Well, hopefully it’ll be a nice, easy journey, soon as we make the pick-up on Ezra,” he said instead.

“Ezra?” Freya asked. “I’ve never been there.”

“I thought you’d seen just about every place there was,” Mal teased.

“Not every place. And Ezra just happens to be one of those I missed. What’s it like?”

“Any other border moon. Got some fair to middling sized towns, ranches and the like. Ain't been there myself in a few years.” He shrugged. “Won’t get to see much of it this time either. Just a way stop.”

“Do we have time to go shopping?” Freya lifted their son onto her thigh. “I could do with getting a few things.”

“Probably manage an hour or two, but if you want more than that then we’ll …”

Jayne wasn’t listening to the conversation any more. He’d stopped as soon as Mal had said they were going to Ezra. He felt a hand on his shoulder and looked up into River’s dark eyes.

Tell him, he heard in his mind. You need to see her.

--

Snake in the Grass – Part II

“Mal, can I …” Jayne stood in the doorway to the bridge, his bulk filling it.

Mal had known he was coming, heard the footfalls up the corridor, getting slower as he approached the stairs, wondering just what was making the big man nervous.

He didn’t look around. “Sure. Just giving Hank a spell while he arranges things in his new cabin.”

“Yeah. Heard he’d managed to get Zoe to agree to living down in the passenger dorm. Good thing too. Closer to Simon ‘n’ all.”

“Yeah.” Mal waited but there was nothing more forthcoming. Eventually he turned the chair to look at the mercenary. “Jayne, you wanted to speak to me. Now, unless you’re thinking of taking up residence there, and I have to admit it’s a cosy spot, you’d better come out with whatever it is.”

Jayne actually looked like he wanted to run, but instead he cleared his throat. “It was … I just … Ezra.”

“Ezra. Right. Okay, something to do with our first port of call. Anything else? Do I get clues? Like how many words it is?”

Again he paused. “It’s kinda … there’s …”

Mal took pity on him. “This something to do with the fact that Frey tells me you were born there?”

Amid the overwhelming relief at not having to actually say the words was a touch of anger. “Did she peek?”

“You told her, apparently. One night. When you were drinking together.”

Jayne sent his mind back over the last few years. “Oh, yeah. I did.” He couldn’t sleep, neither could she, they sat up and played cards over a glass of booze … happened once or twice. “Forgot,” he admitted.

“Jayne, you’re making the place look untidy,” Mal said. “Take a seat or something.” A light flashed on the console and he reached out a hand and idly corrected it. “Your Ma still there?”

In the act of sitting in the co-pilot’s chair Jayne stopped. “Um, yeah.” He lowered himself gingerly and perched on the edge.

“And your brother?”

“Matty. Yeah. Works down in the mines. Least he used to, ‘til he got sick with the damplung.”

“Yeah, I recall you saying.” He waited. This time it was truly up to the big guy to carry on.

“Well, I ain't been home in a while. Never had call to go back, not on any of the jobs I worked.” Jayne looked down at his big hands, the calluses from his guns. “Just didn’t get the opportunity.”

“How long, Jayne?” Mal asked, surprisingly gently.

“Long time.”

“How long is that? A coupla years?”

“Mal, it was a while, okay? Do you need figures?”

“Well, as far as I can recall you haven’t been home since you came on board, and that was –“

Jayne lifted his head, fire in his eyes. “Twenty years. Okay? I ain't been home in near on twenty years.”

“Twenty …” Mal was almost speechless. “They think you’re dead or something?”

“Course not. My Ma sends me socks, don’t she?”

“True. Very true.” Mal nodded slowly. “So you’re asking … what, exactly?”

“I ain’t … not entirely sure, Mal.” He sighed heavily. “I’d like to see her, my Ma … won’t get much more of a chance to before … well, before it’s too late. And Matty, a’course.”

“Have you waved her?”

Jayne shook his head. “I don’t … she won’t wanna see me, Mal.”

“You’re her son. And, as you just pointed out, she still sends you socks and the like.”

“And she’s ashamed of me.”

“Ashamed?”

He picked at a dry piece of skin around one of his nails. “Last time I visited, only time since I left, I stayed but an hour. She told me I was too prideful of what I’d become.” He looked up. “I couldn’t take the disappointment in her eyes, Mal.”

“Over what?”

“I killed someone, Mal. Oh, I know I've killed a lot of men in my life, and I can’t be figuring how many. But the very first time … she knew. Knew what I was going to become. Told me I had to leave. And when I came home that first – that only time, she saw it was true. It damn near killed her to tell me to go, I know that, but I …”

“Killed who, Jayne?” Mal asked, offering without saying to listen if he wanted to talk.

He didn’t. “It ain't important.”

Mal understood. “So, what? You planning on stalking her? Or what?”

“I don’t know,” the big man admitted. “I just … I need a few hours when we get to Ezra.”

“Where does she live?”

“Port Town.”

“We’ll be landing at the docks close by.” Mal turned away and looked out of the bridge window at his stars. “Half a day, Jayne. We’ll be landing around eleven, local time, and I want to get gone before dark. Frey can get her oddments, and you can …” He glanced over. “Go see your Ma. Talk to her. Tell her you love her, at least.”

“She’s my Ma, Mal. She knows I do.”

“Jayne, believe me. When she’s gone you’re gonna wish you could.”

The mercenary stared at his captain for a moment, then nodded. Of course he’d know how that felt. “Half a day should be fine.” He stood up. “Thanks, Mal.”

“No problem.” Mal listened to him stride off the bridge, his boots making a far more confident sound than they had coming.

--

Hank relieved him after a while and Mal headed back for his quarters, climbing down the ladder to see Freya laying on her side on the bed, her head resting on her hand, reading.

“Ain't you got work to do?” he asked mildly.

“It’s nearly dinner,” she said. “And I should maybe be asking you why you’re back.”

“Just had a word with Jayne.”

“Oh?”

“He wants time to go and see his mother, although he …” Mal stopped. “You’re not surprised.” He glared at Freya accusingly.

“Of course not. I was listening.”

“Frey, you and me, we gotta have words about you peeking.”

“I don’t peek,” she said, rolling onto her back, smiling. “I … examine all the possibilities.”

“You peeked.” He crossed his arms. “Where’s that control you’re teaching Bethany?”

“Did you want to have to explain everything again?”

“No, but –“

“And I wasn't the only one.”

“River?”

“She was there too.”

“Anyone else? Bethany listening in, was she?”

“No.” Her forehead furrowed a little. “Are you angry?”

“Hell, Frey, can’t you tell?” It wasn't anger he felt as much as exasperation. “You keep doing it.”

She gazed at him, her brown eyes speculative. “You know, it’s odd, but in a way Jayne accepts River in his mind more than you do me in yours.”

“Frey, that ain't it.”

“No?”

“I do accept it. But since Ethan got sick, you’ve got worse.”

She sat up, all trace of levity gone from her face. “I'm sorry. I didn’t know you didn’t like it.” She couldn’t help the look of hurt flash behind her eyes. “I won’t do it again.” She rolled away from him to face the bulkhead.

He stared at her for a moment, the rigidity of her back. “Frey.”

“It’s been so long since I was able to read anyone, since it was easy to me.” Her voice was slightly muffled by the pillow. “I just forgot the rules. I'm sorry.”

“There ain't no rules, Frey.” He sat down on the edge of the bed, putting his hand on her shoulder. At least she didn’t pull away. “I remember that time like it was yesterday, Frey. Finding you in that market, having to buy you back, then knowing you were hurting so bad that I couldn’t help. I know it changed you, not being able to read people.”

He leaned forward a little more, running his hand down to her hip. “I also know having your abilities back makes you feel normal.” He paused. “Well, normal for you, anyway.” He heard a slight chuckle, instantly suppressed, and was inordinately relieved. “And I love to feel you in my mind. It makes me complete. Ai ren, I don’t want you to leave it. Just occasionally let me finish a sentence. Once in a while. Pretend like you ain't read it already.”

“Okay.” She still didn’t move.

“Frey.” He pulled gently on her hip, rolling her towards him. “You mad at me?”

“I thought you were mad at me.”

“Oh, I am. ‘Cept I can live with that, but not with you being angry.”

“Mal, you’re right.” She sat up so their faces were only a few inches apart. “I have been too intrusive. I just love you so much I want to tangle myself in you, knot my mind into yours so that I can feel you every second of every day –“

He kissed her, holding her face and pressing his tongue between her lips. Her arms came up and held him, feeling his body along hers, until finally he released her enough to take a breath.

“I love you, xin gan,” he murmured, letting his mouth rub softly across hers. He took her upper lip between his teeth and worried it gently. “Ain't no way I don’t want you in my mind, and I'm sorry for being such a cai bao zi.”

“You’re not an idiot.” She ran her fingers through his hair, tugging a little. “I feel you in my mind, you know.”

“Do you?” He lowered his head to her neck, licking her skin then biting enough to leave a red mark above her collarbone.

“Always when we make love, but lately other times. Like you’re …” She drew a sharp breath as he sucked. “Like you’re inside me.”

“That’s a good place to be,” he said quietly. “Figuring that might be happening sooner rather than later.”

“Sex isn’t the answer to every argument,” she pointed out, running her hand down his spine.

“No, you’re right. But it’s a hell of a way to apologise.”

“Who for?”

He lifted his head and gazed into her face, his blue eyes glinting. “Let’s just say we’re both sorry, okay?”

“Okay.”

“Okay.” He went back to his ministrations, his mouth moving lower against her shirt front.

“You know it’s nearly time to eat,” she whispered, her eyes closing slightly.

“Ain’t hungry for food …”

--

Snake in the Grass – Part III

Hank set Serenity down at the docks and powered down.

“We’ve arrived,” he said into the com, and down in the cargo bay Jayne stood a little straighter.

“Do you want me to come with you?” River asked at his side, her slight form giving him body heat and comfort.

“No, that’s … I ain't sure what I'm gonna do yet.”

“Mal’s right.” She slid her hand into his. “You need to see her. Tell her how you feel.” She sighed. “I wish I could.”

“Your Ma’d kill me if she knew about us.” He pulled her into his arms. “Or at least pay someone to do it for her.”

“One day I’d like to take the opportunity to find out.” She lifted her mouth to be kissed, and he obliged. “And you’re trying to put this off.”

“Am not.”

“Are too.”

“Am not.”

“Are –”

He stopped her mouth with another kiss.

Mal stomped out onto the catwalk, being sure to make enough noise to alert the two people in the bay. He spoke over his shoulder to his first mate. “The goods are waiting for us in a warehouse just along the way. You, me and Hank’ll go get them, and Simon’ll tag along to make sure everything’s as it should be.”

Zoe lifted an eyebrow. “Hank? Won’t Jayne be -”

“He’s got other things to do.”

When Mal didn’t enlighten her any further she nodded. “Yes sir.”

“Frey, you ready?” Mal yelled.

“Yes,” she said softly, appearing in the doorway directly behind him. “And you didn’t have to shout.”

“You reading?”

“No. Just close enough to hear you breathing.”

He flashed her a smile. “Do you want to come with us? Then we can go get the stuff you need, make sure you ain’t overdoing it.”

“Mal, I’ll be fine. It’s just a few things, and Ethan needs some air.”

He still wasn‘t convinced. “You sure you can manage him all by -”

She put her fingers to his lips. “Mal. Stop. I’m shiny.”

“Okay.” He shook his head. “Take a com with you, in case.”

“I was intending to.”

“He’s all ready,” Kaylee said, carrying Ethan out of the common area, Bethany at her side with Fiddler on his lead.

“You going with Frey?” Mal asked, starting down the stairs.

“Figured we’d tag along for a while.”

“Good.” Mal felt somewhat relieved. Freya was almost back to normal after the operation, her body healing fast, but he still felt the need to fuss. Just a little. “Okay. We all know what we’re doing?”

“Sure, Mal,” Hank said. He flexed his hands. “We’re good.”

Mal suppressed a grin. ”You keep acting like that and I’ll be thinking you’re considering a little mutiny and taking over my boat.”

“Nah,” Hank laughed. “That’s Jayne’s area of expertise.”

Everyone waited for the big man to make some remark, but he was staring into nothing, a frown on his face.

Simon bustled out into the cargo bay, closing his case. “Sorry, was I keeping you?”

“Nope,” Mal said shortly, crossing the bay and activating the door control. “Just going over a coupla things. Nothing for you to worry about.” The sunlight of Ezra oozed inside. “Four hours. Five and I’m leaving you behind.”

“Sure, Mal,” Jayne muttered absently.

--

“You okay?” Kaylee asked as they walked along the main street.

“Fine,” Freya smiled.

“Only you ain’t hardly said a word since we left Serenity.”

Bethany was dragged to a tree as Fiddler made great work out of sniffing around the base, then peed up it himself.

Freya smiled at the resigned look on the little girl’s face. “I’m just quiet, that’s all.”

“You don’t hurt, do you? ‘Cause the Cap told me specifically to let him know if you did.”

“I don’t hurt. Your husband did a good job.”

Kaylee relaxed and grinned. “He’s the best doctor outside the Core.”

“Oh, I think he’s better than that.”

“Well, I’m kinda biased,” Kaylee admitted, then laughed. “But I figure he is.”

“So …” Freya shook herself. “What do you want to do?”

“I was gonna take a look for some clothes for Bethie. I know Simon thinks I buy too many, but she’s growing so fast, and things just … well, they don’t seem to last long.”

“Same here,” Freya said, reaching out to tickle Ethan under the chin where he sat on Kaylee’s hip. “And you should let me carry him.”

“No. Cap was even more specific about that.”

“Kaylee –”

“No.” She swung the little boy away.

“Please don’t.”

Kaylee looked at her friend in surprise. “Frey? You okay?”

Freya swallowed and dragged up a smile. “Of course I am. I just … he’s my son, Kaylee. If I don’t carry him, then he’s liable to forget I’m his mother.”

“Mama,” Ethan said suddenly, holding out his arms.

“I don’t think that’s likely,” Kaylee said, shaking her head and letting Freya take him. “And if you’re gonna insist then we’re just gonna have to find some place for you to sit down.”

--

Jayne felt odd. This was where he was born, grew up … well, mostly … yet here he was, walking down a street he’d travelled a thousand times and it felt like he’d never seen it before. Only it was so familiar at the same time he thought he was turning as crazy as River.

She’d wanted to come, had followed him out of the boat, until he’d turned around and put his hands on her shoulders.

“Girl, this is something I gotta do by myself.”

“But I want to be there for you.”

“She’s my Ma. I ain’t even sure I can talk to her, let alone say … what I need to say. But I know for sure I ain’t gonna be able to do it if you’re there.”

“Jayne –”

“Moonbrain.”

River had stopped talking, and only glanced ahead to where the others had split up. She nodded.

“Good girl. You go along and stick next to Frey. Okay?”

“Okay,” she’d muttered, then run off in an entirely different direction.

He’d shaken his head and headed for his Ma’s place. And now he was walking down one of the back streets to the house where he’d been born, the house he’d left to make his own way in the ‘verse, the house he …

He stopped in the middle of the street. Truth to tell, he didn’t want to go. As much as there were happy memories from when he was a kid, from times when they didn’t have much but at least they had each other, there was a hell of a lot of pain from those last few days, and it wasn’t something he wanted to revisit. Maybe he should just go back. Go home to Serenity and wait it out. A few hours more and they’d be out in the black, going on to the drop point and pay day. Just a few hours …

She didn’t say anything. Not a word coalesced in his brain, but he knew she was there. He could feel her wrapped around his thoughts like his old blanket, the one she’d made him put through the laundry but let him keep. Pity he couldn’t put his worries through the laundry too, make them come out all shiny the other end.

“Okay, moonbrain,” he murmured to himself, earning a strange look from a man passing by. “Ya don’t have to threaten me. I’m goin’.”

He felt the warmth of her smile soothe him, and he strode on.

--

The warehouse was comparatively new, corrugated steel that reflected the sunlight. The ubiquitous Blue Sun posters had been pasted over much of the outside, though.

“Alliance?” Hank muttered, eyeing them worriedly.

“Nope. Just taking advantage of a clean space,” Mal said, leading the way inside.

Four men stood in the darkness, and Serenity’s crew slowed, letting their eyes adjust to the change in light.

“You Captain Reynolds?” one of the men said.

“That’s me.” Mal stepped forward. “You Griswald?”

The man nodded. “The cargo’s right here.” He patted a large box next to him.

Mal nodded at Simon, who hurried across.

The box was attached to a powerpack, keeping the contents at a very low temperature. Several gauges and panels gave the results of monitors inside, and the young doctor checked them carefully.

“Everything seems fine,” he said at last.

“Great.” Mal smiled at Griswald. “And the first half of the money?”

“Here.” Griswald tossed him a small bag that clinked satisfactorily.

Mal handed it to Zoe, who checked inside.

“I ain’t gypping you,” Griswald insisted.

“Then you won’t mind us counting it,” Mal said, his voice still light.

“Guess not.” He looked at Simon. “This a doc?”

“He has some medical training.”

“Only one of my men got sick yesterday, and he ain’t exactly getting better.”

“Well, we don’t have the time to make a house call –” Mal began, but Simon interrupted.

“What are his symptoms?” he asked.

“Fever, throwing everything up, and he’s got a rash on his chest, looks like cherry blossom.”

“Where did you land last?”

“Beaumonde. Picking up this.” He tapped the box.

Simon nodded, then reached into his medical bag and pulled out a bottle of pills. “Keep him isolated, give him plenty to drink, and three of these twice a day. If he isn’t better in a week you’d better get him to a hospital.” He tossed the bottle to Griswald.

“You know what it is?”

“I think I do. Did you all get inocked before going down to Beaumonde?”

“Nope. But it’s almost the Core,” the man insisted.

“And they’ve got an outbreak of Hobart’s Fever sweeping through at the moment.” Simon shook his head. “I’m surprised it hasn’t spread farther since they’ve not imposed quarantine.”

“We likely to get sick too?” Griswald glanced at his men.

“Probably not. But keep him away from everyone, just to be on the safe side.”

“Thanks, doc,” Griswald said gratefully.

“Well, now we’ve done our civic duty we’d better be getting the goods back to Serenity,” Mal said firmly. “Hank.”

The pilot nodded and went to pick up the box. “Hey, it’s heavy!” he complained.

“And don’t drop it,” Mal warned. “That’s worth a pretty credit and I don’t want it damaged.”

“Here,” Simon said, taking one side.

“Thanks.” Hank flashed him a smile and they carried it outside.

“Nice to be doing business with you,” Mal said, starting to follow them.

Griswald watching them gain the outside air, then called, “Wait.”

Mal and Zoe turned, their hands hovering near their guns. “Yeah?”

“Look, one good turn and all that …” Griswald looked around, as if not wanting anyone to overhear. “I can’t say for certain, but I’ve had the feeling, ever since we left Beaumonde, that someone’s been on our tail. “Now I can’t tell if it’s me or the box, but I figure … you oughta know.”

Mal‘s brows drew together. “A ship?”

“Like I said, I don’t know. Just a feeling. But that feeling’s kept me alive more times than I’d care to count, so … just … you know.”

Mal nodded. “Yeah. Thanks.”

“Any time.” Griswald melted back into the darkness. “Any time.”

“Sir?” Zoe asked.

“Not sure,” Mal admitted.

“What was all that about?” Hank asked, waiting for them to catch up.

“Nothing. Just a little captainy talk.”

“Oh. Okay.”

Mal looked at Simon. “Hobart’s Fever?”

“I keep an eye on the Cortex,” the doctor admitted.

“We gonna be okay? Not likely to come down with a cherry blossom rash?”

“No. I’ve made sure all your inoculations are up to date.”

“Good to hear it, doc. Good to hear it. Well, best be getting this back to Serenity,” Mal said, thinking on what Griswald had said. “I’d kinda like to be off this rock sooner rather than later.”

--

Freya sat at the small table outside the hotel, the tree shading her enough so that she could stare into the distance. Ethan was at her feet sitting on a small piece of blanket she’d brought with her for just this use. He was watching something with a lot of legs making its slow away across the dirt in front of him, every bit of his concentration on it. Kaylee had been insistent that, while she took Bethany to look at clothes, Freya have a rest. She fingered the cup of tea on the table, but her mind was elsewhere.

Mal was right. She’d been lacking in self control, one of the things she’d been trying to teach Bethany and reinforce in River. She hadn’t been lying about the reason, about wanting to be with Mal as much as she could, but she knew she was in the wrong here. There had to be a middle path somehow, but at the moment it eluded her.

She glanced down at Ethan, still intent on the insect. Did he feel her? Was he aware of her in his mind all the time? Did he resent it? Her abilities had been coming back when he was born, but Mal had been right. Since Ethan had got sick, she’d been worried about him, and part of her listened all the time. Peeked, as they were inclined to say.

Did all mothers feel like this? Was it something they all wished, to be able to keep an intimate eye on their offspring, except she had the talents to do it?

“What are you thinking about?” River asked, standing in front of her.

Freya looked up. “Families.” She smiled. “Mothers.”

“Like Jayne’s.”

“Yes.”

River nodded sadly. It didn’t occur to her that Freya wouldn’t know – even if Mal hadn’t told her, she’d have picked it up. “Do you wish you could see yours?”

“Sometimes.”

River sat down on the other chair. “I don’t have any memories apart from Simon’s of how my mother was after I left, but … I wish I could tell her I love her.”

“Even after what they did?”

“I don’t know that they did anything apart from be totally stupid and not listen to Simon.” River put her head onto one side and regarded the older woman. “You?”

“Oh, I’m pretty sure they didn’t know. They’d never’ve let anything like that happen to a Rostov.”

“Weren't they curious when you didn’t write?”

“I don’t know. Maybe I did. During one of those times when they …” She shivered despite the warmth of the day.

River nodded. She didn’t have to ask, to look. She’d seen what they did to Elena Rostov when Freya was recovering from what Wing did to her. When Mal had been so afraid she was going to kill herself. She glanced down. “He’s making a break for it,” she observed.

“Who?” Freya followed her gaze. Ethan was crawling off. “Oh, no, young man,” she said, standing up and hooking him around the waist. “You stay here with me.” She sat back in the chair and stood him up by her leg. He held on and grinned up at her.

“Mama,” he said, patting her thigh.

“He’s such a happy baby,” River said.

“I think Mal was probably just the same.”

“So do you … have you missed your mother?”

Freya thought for a moment. “When this little one … when I thought I would lose him … I so wanted someone to hold me, stroke my hair, tell me everything would be all right.”

“Mal did that,” River pointed out.

“Don’t tell him, but he’s the wrong sex.”

They both laughed, then River sobered.

“I know what you mean. When Jethro died, you were there for me. More mother than my blood.” She laid her hand on Freya’s. “I know how much you want a daughter of your own. But you have us all.”

Freya swallowed. “Thank you.”

River lifted her head. “I have to go now,” she said, as if she was scenting the wind.

Freya nodded. “I understand.” She watched as the young woman ran off, her hair flying.

--

Jayne stared at the house. It hadn’t changed. A little bit more weathered, perhaps, and in need of a paint job, but it was still the place where he was born. The only difference now was that it seemed smaller, but he’d not been sixteen when his father was killed, when he … No. Not the thing to think about. Couldn’t be considering the reasons he’d left right now, otherwise he’d never be able to take that final step and …

Someone was behind him. Breathing, a heartbeat not his own. Body heat …

Jayne turned and came face to face with his reflection.

“I knew it was you,” the man said, his eyes narrowed. He lashed out with his fist and hit Jayne squarely on the jaw, knocking him backwards onto his ass.

“Hi ya, Matty,” Jayne said, holding his chin.

--

Snake in the Grass – Part IV

Simon settled the box on the counter, then proceeded to dismantle the outer casing.

“That it?” Hank asked as the interior was revealed. Twelve metal testtubes, suspended in a gel, linked by fine wires to an array of sensors. Moisture was condensing off them, rolling in a fog out of the box.

“That’s it,” Simon confirmed.

“Only that don’t look like much.”

“It takes one egg and one sperm to make an entire human being. Even someone as big as Jayne.” Simon glanced at the pilot. “That’s all it took for you and Zoe.”

“Yeah, but –”

“And those single cells can’t be seen with the naked eye.” He leaned down and adjusted one of the tubes just a little. “If these are full, there’s enough in just one of them to breed several thousand cattle.”

“Seems like a hell of a lot of trouble just to make a cow.”

“Those cattle’ll make the herds they breed with naturally worth a hell of a lot more,” Mal said, leaning against the counter, his arms crossed. “Maybe ten-fold, if’n they’re good enough.”

“Really?”

“That’s why this all has to be done legal. There’s a lot of planets won’t allow meat from lower grade herds to be transported in, so the folks out on the Rim can’t get the best prices. With this, and the licenses that go with it, they’re gonna have a good chance at a better life.”

“Then it’s worth it,” Hank said. “Just glad it doesn’t happen that way with people. Imagine, thousands of kids and none of the pleasure of making ‘em.”

“That happens too,” Simon said quickly. “People with money are willing to purchase embryos if they come from the right bloodlines.”

“You mean like ordering blond hair and blue eyes?” Hank seemed sceptical.

“Or brains and strength,” Mal put in. “Seen it myself. Some rich folks don’t like the idea of the lottery you play when you have kids. They’d like to make sure of a winner every time.”

Hank put his arm around Zoe, his hand on her belly. “Every kid’s a winner.”

“Oh, I ain’t disagreeing. Just there are some who don’t look at it like that.”

“Mal’s right,” Simon said, hooking the box up to the infirmary sensors. “I’ve seen it myself. A couple of my parents’ oldest friends decided they wanted a child, but she was unable to carry to term, so they bought the services of a surrogate mother, then looked around for the kind of donors they wanted.”

Mal, intrigued despite himself, asked, “What did they choose?”

“The sperm came from a high Alliance scientist, and the egg from a diva of the Osiris Ballet.” He shook his head. “They ended up with the family they always wanted, and it only cost them a small fortune.”

“Why would people like that want to sell their … bits?” Hank asked. “If they’re as important as you say.”

“Ego. Knowing their genes will continue in more than just their family.”

“It don’t say much for some folks.”

“No, it doesn’t,” Zoe agreed, her hand on his.

Simon shrugged. “I think it started out as a good idea – breed out any sickness, reduce the chance of genetic abnormalities, that sort of thing. It’s just gone too far.”

“Can’t help agreeing with you there, doc.” Mal looked at his pilot. “Hank, get Serenity ready to go. And see if you can’t get hold of the others. I’d rather not wait.”

“Is there a problem?” Hank asked.

“No. Not …” Mal took a deep breath. “Griswald mentioned he thought they were being watched. Just … keep an eye on things, will you?”

“Sure, Mal.” He looked at Zoe. “You gonna come and hold my hand?”

“As long as it’s only hand-holding on my bridge,” Mal interjected.

“You never let a man have any fun,” Hank said, grinning as he walked out of the infirmary. “How do you get that stuff anyway?” he asked Zoe as they walked up the stairs towards the upper level. “I mean, it ain’t like you can give the bull a cup and a girlie magazine.”

“I don’t know,” Zoe said. “Perhaps there’s a specialist market out there.”

“I’d hate to see the centrefold.”

Their voices faded away and Mal looked at Simon. “So, despite the picture I currently have in my head, we good?”

“Everything looks fine.” Simon patted the case gently. “I’ll babysit it all the way to New Hall.”

“Thanks.” Mal went to leave but Simon called him back.

“You really think there might be a problem?”

Mal paused in the doorway. “Truth is, I ain’t too sure. Griswald didn’t strike me as the kinda man to get rattled easily. Could be he’s a touch paranoid, but I don’t intend counting on it. But I figure if we make this a straight run, we should be able to get to our delivery point nice and smooth without any undue fussing.” He pointed at the box. “You just keep an eye on the produce there.”

“I will.”

Mal headed for the cargo bay. “Just be glad when the girls are back, that’s all,” he muttered to himself.

--

Across town Matty’s fists balled and he let fly, and Jayne staggered back under the onslaught to his jaw, until his legs slipped from under him and he sat on the dirt.

“Hi ya, Matty.“ He stroked his chin. “Guess maybe you were due that.”

“You hwoon dahn …” Matty gritted his teeth, his face darkening. “I should kill you …”

“You still pissed?” Jayne asked, not getting up.

“I begged you. I gorram pleaded with you, but no - you had to be the big man and …” His voice trailed off and he became unnaturally still.

Jayne smiled a little. “Matty, think maybe I should introduce you to the person holding that gun to your neck. And don’t make any sudden movements. She don’t like it. And River, girl? Don‘t shoot him.”

She stepped closer. “He hit you.”

“He’s my brother.”

“And that gives him the right to hit you?”

“Kinda figure it does. Least this time.”

River moved enough to look into the other man’s face. “Are you going to kill Jayne?” she asked, her gun still pressed into his skin.

Matty shook his head very slowly. “I … uh … I guess not.”

“Good.” She released the tension in her trigger finger and put the safety back on. “You didn’t finish the introductions, Jayne,” she said softly.

The big man got to his feet. “No, looks like maybe I didn’t.” He brushed the dust off his pants. “Matty, this is River. She’s my … my partner.” He saw River’s lips twitch.

Partner? he heard in his mind.

What the hell else do I call you?

Lover?

Jayne squirmed mentally. River, he’s my brother!

“Pleased to make your acquaintance,” River said brightly, putting the small gun back into the thigh holster under her dress.

Matty stared at the flesh revealed, then mumbled, “Yeah, likewise I’m sure.”

Jayne bridled a little, jealousy heating him, but there was pride too. He’d given River that gun and holster, just to protect herself, and she insisted on wearing it.

River, in the meantime, studied Matty Cobb, noting the close resemblance to the man she’d given her heart to. But there was a weakness to the chin that Jayne didn’t have, and his eyes were less vibrant in their blue tone. Not did he have the physical mass she was used to lying next to her, but perhaps that was because of the sickness that had invaded him. Even if she hadn’t been told, she could see it in his aura. That was no excuse for what he’d done, what he wanted to do, the very long list of things he’d dreamed of doing to his big brother in the darkest part of the night, but perhaps …

Across the brightly lit ribbon of street the door opened, and a woman with white hair came out onto the porch, sweeping the dust outside.

Jayne looked up and his heart missed a beat.

“Is that her?” River asked softly at his side.

He nodded. “She used to be so beautiful …”

“She still is.”

“But her hair was jet black, now it’s …”

“It’s been a while since you were home, Jayne. People change. They grow old.”

The woman went back inside, closing the door behind her.

“I know that, moonbrain. It’s just … I got this picture in my head of her that last time, and that ain’t …”

Matty watched the pair of them, his own heart burning with anger. “You even think of going there and I’ll …”

“You’ll what?” Jayne turned on him. “That’s my Ma, Matty.”

“And you lost all claim to her the day you left!”

“The day I …” Jayne’s eyebrows almost shot into his hair. “Matty, I reckon you ain’t remembering things that well.”

“Oh, I remember fine,” the younger Cobb spat. “I remember the days … the weeks of Ma grieving, and you not being there. I remember, Jayne. I remember too gorram well.”

“You think I …” Jayne couldn’t finish. “Matty, you don’t know.”

“Know what? That you left just when Ma needed you most?” There was still murder in his eyes, and it was beginning to boil over again.

River touched the gun on her thigh.

“Matty, there are things I guess you ain’t been told, and maybe I should –”

“Matty? That you over there?” They all turned.

Mrs Cobb stood on the porch, her hand raised over her face to shield her eyes.

Matty’s face flamed red. “Yeah, Ma. Just coming.”

“Who’s that you’re talking to?”

“No-one, Ma.”

Mrs Cobb peered against the light. “Don’t you lie to me, Matthew Cobb. Who’s that man … with …” Her voice trailed off. “Dear God in Heaven,” she murmured, her face turning as pale as her hair.

“Ma …” Jayne said, then ran across the street as she collapsed to the floor.

--

Snake in the Grass – Part V

“Uncle Mal!” Bethany tumbled up the ramp and into the bay.

“Hey, there,” Mal said, smiling at her. “Did’ya have fun today?”

She nodded, untangling the lead from around her legs. Fiddler barked joyfully and tugged the leather out of her hand, running towards their room. “Gorram puppy,” Bethany muttered, then looked up at Mal, guilt written across her face.

“You’d better go find him, make sure he ain’t doing something he shouldn’t where Jayne’ll find it,” Mal said softly. “And I won’t tell your Ma what you just said.”

She smiled at him, then hurried off after the little dog.

“Where’s she going?” Kaylee asked as she and Freya neared the doors.

“Fiddler made a break for it,” Mal supplied, looking from his mechanic to his wife. “And how come you’re carrying Ethan?” he asked the latter.

Freya leaned on her stick just a little. “He’s my son, Mal.”

“And I told Kaylee –”

“She wouldn’t let me,” Kaylee put in quickly. “And don’t think I didn’t try. I even said I’d take him just when we got in sight of Serenity, but … nope, she wouldn’t have that either.” She sighed. “You ever tried making Frey do something she doesn’t want to?”

“All the time,” Mal conceded. “All the gorram time.”

Kaylee glared at him. “And you shouldn’t be swearing. Not with Bethany around.”

Mal hid the smile until she had gone past him into the common area. Then he turned to his wife. “You are obstinate, you know that.” He took Ethan from her, settling him on his own hip.

“Must be catching.”

“Maybe it is.” He put his free arm around her waist. “You should’a called. I’d’ve come.”

“It’s okay,” she said, smiling at him. “He was just a bit heavy.”

“Dadda,” Ethan said, patting his cheek gently.

He looked into his son’s blue eyes. “You gotta walk soon, big feller. Give your Momma a rest.”

“And as soon as he does he’ll be unstoppable,” Freya laughed.

“I’d rather put him on reins than have him making you hurt.”

“I don’t hurt, Mal.”

“No?” He put his hand on her hip. “You might be healed up on the outside, but you know what Simon said. To take it easy.”

“I was. Kaylee made me sit down while she did the shopping.”

“Good girl,” Mal approved. “Might even consider buying her that new thingie she wanted for the engine.”

“Only consider?”

“Oh, yeah, I ain’t as thankful as all that.”

“Course not.“ Freya smiled at him and lifted her lips for a kiss, which he duly obliged.

“Anyhow, I still think you should’ve stayed on board.” His arm tightened.

“I needed to think.”

Mal put Ethan down on the cargo bay floor and watched him crawl towards one of his toys. “What about?”

“Apologising.”

He turned back to Freya and his eyebrows raised. “What for this time?”

She moved away from him to sit down on a crate. “I’ve been mulling over a lot of stuff, and you’re right. I shouldn’t … I need to be stronger. Not doing things just because I can.”

“You’re talking about reading me.” He stood in front of her, his arms crossed.

“I … there are times you need to be …” She found it hard to put into words, so gave an example instead. “I know you went back. That morning we left Mead, and you went to see Kilbrook, get all the arrangements made. I know you went to the stables and rode Casmir.”

“Did I now.” Mal gazed at her.

“And I shouldn’t have been there. That was your time, not mine. And I’m sorry. I should have –”

“No.” He leaned forward and put his hands on her shoulders, looking into her hazel eyes. “You ain’t been there today, have you?” He studied her. “You pulled away from me, didn’t you?”

She stiffened. “I –”

“Frey, I feel like a part of me’s missing.”

“I just thought –”

“Don’t. And don’t apologise either. Frey, I said a part of me’s missing. It’s true. Worse, it’s the better part. You leave me like this again and I’m gonna get mad. You don’t want me to get mad, do you?”

“Well –”

His grip tightened just a little. “Do you?”

“Not particularly. Because then I’ll get mad and it’ll get messy and someone’ll have to clear it up.”

He smiled. “Ain’t gonna be me. So you‘d better not do it again.” He lifted her gently to her feet and into his arms. “Don’t think I could take that.”

“Okay.” She relaxed against him, feeling his heat warm her through more than the sun had done. “So what was it like? Riding Casmir?”

“You know what it was like.”

“No, I mean for you.”

“Didn’t do it for me. It was for him.”

“Because of what he let you see.”

Mal lifted one eyebrow. “And what was that?”

“Um …” She bit her lip, then shrugged expressively in his embrace. “Wouldn’t know.”

He smiled. “That’s better. Least give me the pleasure of telling you.”

“I’ll try.”

“Frey, that’s all I ask.” He kissed her gently, then with more passion, before pulling back a little. “Ain’t got the time to follow this through, though.”

“No?” She tilted her head slightly. “Why not?”

“No, of course, you weren’t there,” he said, a grin playing around his lips.

“So?”

“Just enjoying the feeling of knowing something you don’t.”

“Mal …”

He laughed. “Sorry, Frey.” An expression rather more serious settled across his face. “It’s just that we might have ourselves a tail, and I’d kinda like to get off this mudball soon as we can.”

“A tail?“

“Probably nothing, but better safe than sorry.”

“Are the others back?”

“All except River and Jayne.” He glanced out into the sunlight. “How do you figure they’re fairing?”

“Do you want me to take a look?”

“Won’t that break your new rules?”

“Not if you ask me to.”

He smiled. “This could be interesting. And permaybehaps you should. Just to make sure they’re not in any kind of trouble.”

--

“Ma?” Jayne gathered his mother into his arms.

“You leave her alone!” Matty insisted, trying to take her from him, but his brother glared at him.

“Just open the damn door,” he growled.

Matty looked as if he was going to punch his brother again, but after a moment he flung the door open.

Jayne carried his mother into the house, into the same room where they’d come to tell her, where she’d told him he had to go. The same curtains at the window, the same sofa … it even looked like the same comforter thrown across the back. He laid her down, bunching the blanket under her head.

River ran through into the kitchen, coming back with a glass of water. Matty glared at her, wishing he’d thought of that, but pulled open a drawer and took out a bottle of pills instead.

Mrs Cobb’s eyes fluttered, and as they opened they lit on Jayne’s face. She gasped. “It is you,” she murmured. “I thought I was seeing things.”

“Here, Ma,” Matty said, holding out two tablets on the palm of his hand. “Better take these.”

“I'm fine,” Mrs Cobb said, pushing him away, but he wouldn’t let her.

“This kinda thing … it ain't good for your heart. You know what the doc said.”

Jayne stared at his mother. “You sick?”

“No. Everyone’s just makin’ too much of a fuss.”

“She’s had two attacks this year,” Matty said shortly.

“Then you take these.” Jayne was firm.

“I don’t need –“

“Yes, you do,” River said softly, holding out the glass of water. “Please.”

“Oh, all right.” Mrs Cobb gave in, swallowing the tablets and washing them down. “Thank you.” She smiled at River. “But who are you?”

“My name’s River,” the young woman said. “I'm Jayne’s … partner.”

“Partner?” Mrs Cobb looked confused for a moment, then tried to pull herself together, concentrating on the hulk of a man at her side. “I was afraid you were dead,” she said quietly, reaching out to touch his hand but pulling back at the last moment.

He had to smile a little, even though her action made him ache. “You make socks for corpses?” he teased.

“Don’t you joke with me, Jayne Cobb,” she said, a little colour coming back into her face as she sat up.

“Ma, don’t you be moving.” Matty leaned over the back of the sofa.

“I'm fine, Matty,” she insisted.

Jayne glanced at River, who nodded. “She’s okay,” he said. “Better let her sit up before she lays into us.”

“I don’t do that,” Mrs Cobb said, striking at his wrist nevertheless. “And you give me some space. It’s been an age since there was someone as big as you in the house.”

Jayne reluctantly stood up, moving away from her. “Why’d you think I was dead, Ma?” he asked.

“Haven’t heard from you in so long,” she said, adjusting her dress around her legs. “I write, send you things, but I don’t hardly ever get a reply.”

“I wrote coupla months back,” Jayne said. “Thanked ya for the socks.”

“Never got a letter from you, Jayne,” his mother said, just a taste of reproach in her voice.

Matty coughed slightly, and Jayne understood. “Yeah, well, maybe it’s got lost somewhere,” the big man said.

Matty coloured.

“We move around a lot,” River added. She could see it perfectly clearly in the younger man’s mind, the letters he’d destroyed if he’d got to them first. But if Jayne wasn't going to tell on him, she wouldn’t.

“I expect that’s it,” Mrs Cobb said, although the look she gave Matty suggested she might have a hint herself as to the truth of the matter.

“Fin?”

Everyone looked to the door where a man stood, his face worried as he looked into the dimly lit room.

“Fin, are you okay?” he asked.

Jayne stood tall, his bulk almost filling the room, and stared at the newcomer. He seemed familiar, as if Jayne had known him a long time ago … the picture appeared to shift, almost going out of focus, and he saw three men in that same living room – Jefferson, the local sheriff, Hobson, a friend of the family, and … his vision cleared. Gilford.

“Fin?” the man repeated, crossing the room to kneel next to the sofa, ignoring everyone else. “You okay? Do you need your pills?”

“Already taken ‘em,” Matty said quickly.

“She’s fine,” River said, earning an odd glance from the old man.

“Well, that’s … good.” He looked back at the woman on the sofa. “You sure?”

“Jason, honestly. I'm fine.” She sat up a little more, patting her hair back into place. “How did you know …?”

“That old bat across the street. Mrs Flanagan,” Gilford said. “Saw you faint and this man carry you into the house. Sent me a wave saying you were being abducted at the very least.” He glared at Jayne. “Just who the hell are you?”

“Jason, it’s okay,” Fionnula Cobb said quickly. “It’s –“

“Jayne.” Rover spoke warningly, having seen the big man’s hand stray towards his gun.

Gilford stared. “Jayne? Jayne Cobb?”

“That’s me. You’re Gilford. You owned the feed store.”

“Still do, son.”

“I ain't your son.”

“Well, I figure it’d be okay since I –“

Fionnula Cobb got to her feet suddenly. “Well, now that introductions have been made, I think I’d better make us some tea.”

“Ma –“ Matty reached out towards her, but she waved him away.

“It’s my kitchen, and I’ll make it. Not having you messing it all up.” She looked at Jayne. “Then maybe we can find out what you’re here for.” She strode out of the living room as if she hadn’t fainted at all.

Matty followed her, leaving Jayne, River and Gilford staring at each other.

Gilford looked Jayne up and down. “Never figured it’d be you come home.”

“Never thought I’d be coming,” the big man acknowledged.

“So why now?”

“In the area.”

“Just like that?”

“Just like –“

“Jayne.” River was suddenly close to him, breathing his name in his ear.

“What is it, moonbrain?”

She led him to the door. “Mal wants to leave. Now.”

Jayne glanced towards the kitchen … “Thought we had a couple more hours.”

“He might have a tail.”

The big man grinned at the sudden mental picture of Mal with a forked appendage growing out of his backside, but River spoke in his mind.

Jayne.

He nodded, but said, “River, I can’t. I ain’t … my Ma and me, we need to talk. ‘N’ I don’t know when we’re like to be this way again. Could be never.” He dropped his voice as low as it would go. “Those pills … she’s sick, ain't she?”

River looked at him, then nodded. “I recognise them.” She blinked once, slowly. “She may not have long, Jayne.”

He straightened. “Then I ain't going anywhere. If’n Mal don’t like it, he can fire me. Drop my guns off and I’ll get another job.”

“She might not want to talk to you.”

“She’s my Ma. I'm here now, and I … least I gotta try.”

She smiled at him. “Okay.” She unfocused.

“You … you talking to Frey?” he asked after a moment.

“Shh. I'm listening.”

--

Snake in the Grass – Part VI

“Well?” Mal asked. “They on their way?”

“Ah.”

Mal peered at her. “Ah … what? I hate it when you say that, Frey. Always tends to mean something bad’s about to happen.”

“Not bad. Just … unexpected.” She looked into his blue eyes. “They won’t be coming back yet.”

“Not … Frey, I want off this planet as soon as we can make it. If Griswald was right, I want to put as much distance between that tail and me as I can.”

“No, that’s fine.”

“How can that be …” He shook his head. “Make sense, woman.”

“Jayne and River are staying for a day or two. We can pick them up on the way back.”

“Staying.” Mal crossed his arms. “And what makes you think I’m gonna give them permission to do that?”

“Well, unless you’re considering going and bringing them back at gunpoint, I don’t think you have any choice.”

His brows drew down. “Frey –“

“He’s found his mother, Mal.”

“You mean –“

“Yes.”

“Oh.” Mal’s face cleared a little. “Is she … has he …”

“Not yet. I think there might be one or two complications.”

“Complications?”

“Like when Jayne finds out about Gilford.”

“Who?”

“I’ll explain later.” She smiled at him, then headed for the stairs.

“Wait, where the diyu are you going?” he asked, his mouth open slightly.

“To disengage the shuttle.”

“What?”

“They need somewhere to sleep, Mal. And their clothes. Unless you expect them to keep wearing the same ones for the next few days.”

“I've known Jayne wear the same clothes four weeks running and then figure he didn’t need to shower. And you said a day or two.”

“Maybe three.”

“Frey –“ He was getting exasperated.

She turned and smiled at him. “Mal, you know you’d have done it too, if you’d been thinking straight.”

“And when don’t I think straight?”

“Right now.” She continued up the stairs.

“I am captain, you know!” he called. “It’s what I say goes with this boat.”

She stopped. “And what does the captain say we should do?”

He glared at her, then sighed heavily. “You … you get shuttle two launched, and come right back. Jayne and River can use it ‘til we pick ‘em up after the job.”

Trying unsuccessfully to hide the smile on her face, she looked down at him. “And that’s your orders as captain?”

“It is.”

“Aye aye, sir,” she said, saluting crisply then heading back up to the top catwalk.

“Just you remember that!” he said loudly as she disappeared into the shuttle.

“We’re staying,” River said softly, watching Gilford make a discreet exit into the kitchen.

“We?” Jayne shook his head. “No, no way. You don’t need to. This is … this is family business, River.”

“And I'm your family too.” She leaned up against him. “Besides, Freya’s already told the captain.”

He grinned a little. “Told him?”

“It was … interesting.”

“Bet it was.”

“And we have the shuttle to sleep in.”

“River, if they need you –“

“You need me.” She lifted her face and touched his lips with hers. “And that’s more important.”

“No it ain't.”

“It is to me.” She whispered so only he could possibly hear. “For so long I've needed other people – my parents, Simon, everyone on board Serenity … it makes a change to be needed.”

“They all need you too, moonbrain.”

“But this is different. This is you.” She pressed against him a little harder. “And I don’t sleep with them.”

His smile grew as he looked down into her limpid dark eyes. “You’re crazy, you know that.”

“Of course.”

“You ever gonna get any saner?”

“No.”

“I'm kinda glad about that.” He kissed her again, just softly.

“Come on,” Mrs Cobb called from the kitchen, almost embarrassed at the way the two of them were standing, so close, so intimate. “Time to eat.”

--

Hank ran over the preparations one last time.

“You really think Mal’s right?” he asked Zoe, standing behind him.

“About the tail?” When Hank nodded, she shrugged. “Not sure. But he’s right in wanting to get away as soon as possible. Put some distance between us and them.”

“Oh, not disagreeing on any point. Just worried, is all.”

“We’re not carrying anything illegal, Hank.”

“Never stopped anyone before. Maybe they’ve got a hankering for a Firefly.”

“Then they’d have to be insane.”

“I heard that,” Mal said, stepping onto the bridge. “Nothing wrong with my boat.”

“Of course not, sir,” Zoe said, her hand on Hank’s shoulder. She felt him stiffen just as a slight movement rocked Serenity.

“Hey, who’s stealing –“ He stared at the readings, reaching out to …

“No-one’s stealing anything,” Mal interrupted. “Frey’s just moving the shuttle off.”

“Sir?”

“Jayne and River are staying behind.” He sighed. “They’ve got … issues they need to sort out.”

“Does Simon know?”

“I do now,” the young doctor said, leaning in the doorway. “Are they arguing?”

“Not those kinda issues,” Mal explained. “But they need a day or two, and I've been persuaded to let them keep the shuttle here. Just for the duration.”

Simon didn’t have to ask who he’d been persuaded by. “Are they okay?”

“They’re shiny, doc. No need for you to fret.”

“I wasn't.” Simon felt an odd thrill of surprise that he really wasn't fretting, as Mal put it. Somehow, knowing that Jayne and River were together, looking after each other, made it seem almost … he shivered.

“Cold?” Mal asked, wishing he could read the young man’s thoughts as well as Freya read his.

“Just … disconcerted.”

Mal’s lips twitched. “Well, I’d let you stay behind and spoil their fun, but you’ve got work to do. How’s the cargo?”

“Fine. I've got them linked up to the infirmary sensors, so if there’s a problem I’ll know.”

“Good.”

The internal com crackled into life. “Mal, I'm on,” Freya said.

He lifted down the handset. “Great. Close up and we’ll get moving.”

“Aye aye, sir,” she said, the amusement still evident in her voice.

Mal looked at Zoe and shook his head. “Don’t ask.”

--

Jayne sat down at the table, River next to him, his brother opposite, and wondered what other world he’d unwittingly stepped into. His Ma had put out five sets of plates, knives, forks … and Gilford had taken the place at the head of the table like he did it all the time.

“Are you sure I can’t help?” River asked Mrs Cobb, knowing her lover was biting his tongue, wanting to ask all the questions crowding up in his brain.

“No, dear, that’s fine. I do in my own house, and I won’t have anyone waiting on me.” She smiled at the girl, curious yet again about her relationship with her son. “But thank you for offering.” She held out a platter of meat and Gilford took it, placing it in the centre of the table. She sat down and put her hands together, dropping her head.

Gilford began to speak. “Dear Lord, for what you have put on our table –“

That did it.

“What the hell is going on?” Jayne asked, glaring at Gilford.

“Jayne, I don’t appreciate language like that at the dinner table,” his mother admonished as she sat down.

“He’s sitting in Pa’s seat, looking like he has the run of the place, saying Grace, and you’re talking to me about my language?”

She pierced him with her blue-eyed gaze, so like his own. “You don’t know everything, Jayne.”

“Looks to me like I don’t know nothing.” Jayne shook his head. “Ma, explain it to me.”

“Yeah, in words of less than one syllable,” Matty said softly.

“You stay outta this,” Jayne growled at his brother.

“Why? You come into this house, into my home, acting like we should kill the fatted calf for you, and you’re telling me what to do? You don’t have the right, Jayne,” Matty almost spat.

“This was my home too, you little piece of …” He took a breath. “This is my Ma, and I think I should know what’s going on.”

“It’s okay, son,” Gilford said, his grey head nodding placatingly. “There’s no need to –“

“There’s plenty of need! And I told you before, I ain't your son!”

Mrs Cobb recognised the stubborn look on Jayne’s face, and equally the intent on Gilford’s, and stood up quickly. “Jason, don’t –“

“Not sure about that,” Gilford said, talking over her. “I'm married to your Ma.”

If, before this moment in time, Jayne had heard the phrase ‘knock me down with a feather’ he’d have scoffed. Now he looked like he was about to do just that.

--

Snake in the Grass – Part VII

Jayne stared, his mouth open. “You’re what?”

“I married your mother, son. Ten years ago. In fact, it’s our anniversary coming up in less than a month, and I’d be happy to see you there for the –“

“You married him?” Jayne turned to his mother. “You got married to this qingwa cao de liumang and didn’t tell me?”

She stood her ground. “Jason’s my husband. Not yours. It had nothing to do with you.”

“It had …” For a moment the big man was speechless, then he caught the smirk on his brother’s face and wanted to wipe it off with his fist.

Jayne, River whispered in his mind, letting the control she had fought for and won at such great cost give him strength.

“I was lonely, Jayne,” his mother was going on. “You have no idea. When Frank … when he died, I didn’t know what to do. You were gone –“

“Ran off, more like,” Matty muttered.

“It wasn't like that!” Jayne thundered at him.

“No?” Matty glared. “You seen it from my point of view at all?”

“You don’t know!” The big man pushed up from his chair, towering over the table. “You never did understand.”

“Then explain it to me,” Matty sneered. “Tell me why you left your eight year old brother and your mother alone without anyone to take care of ‘em. Only don’t expect me to believe a word you say.”

Jayne took one look at his mother’s face and knew he couldn’t get into this. Not now. Instead he waved his hand in the direction of Gilford. “You let this happen! Let this man take our Pa’s place!”

“What the hell do you care?”

“I care!”

“Yeah, right.”

“Please, don’t,” Fionnula Cobb pleaded.

Jayne turned to his mother. “How could you? How could you do this?”

Her eyes flashed with sudden sapphire anger. “You weren’t here, Jayne!”

“And who’s fault is that?”

“Don’t you speak to your mother like that!” Gilford said.

Jayne loomed over him. “You ain't got the right to say a damn word.”

“I think I do.” The old man got up, the top of his head only coming up to Jayne’s shoulder, but his quiet strength outdoing the big mercenary. “You’re upsetting your mother. You know she’s not well.” He walked to the other end of the table and stood next to her, his arm around her. “I think you’d better go.”

“You telling me to leave again?”

“I think I am.”

Jayne stared at him then stomped out of the house, kicking his chair away so it hit the wall.

“He’ll calm down,” River said, slipping out after him, but not before she saw Mrs Cobb crumple into her seat, tears sliding down her cheeks.

Outside in the dusk, Jayne was striding along, muttering, “This ain't right.” River ghosted along next to him.

“How?” she asked.

“What?”

“How isn’t it right?”

He stopped dead in his tracks. “She’s –“

“And don’t say she’s your mother. She’s a grown woman, with needs of her own.”

“River!” Jayne was appalled at the thought that his mother might have … needs.

“She’s been a widow for a long time,” River went on. “And it wasn't as if she jumped straight from your father’s bed into Gilford’s.”

“Stop it.”

But she was relentless. “And if she didn’t tell you, well, she’s right. You weren't around. She didn’t have to ask your permission.”

“That’s enough.” His voice was low, almost below the level of normal hearing, and his hands balled into fists.

She put her fingers on his arm. “There’s something else, though, isn’t there?”

He shook his head. “Nothing for you to get all tied in knots over.”

“It isn’t me who’s knotted inside.”

He turned away, forcing his hands to relax, staring at the ground. “It ain't your business.”

“Matty.”

Jayne stiffened. Even in the semi-darkness she could see the muscles in his neck tighten.

“Ain't your concern.”

“Jayne …”

“No!” He glared at her, his face white. “You leave it!” He strode away from her.

She watched him leave, her heart aching from what he felt but couldn’t say, then followed him slowly.

--

River undid the holster from her thigh and rubbed the red mark it had left on her skin.

“Ya got it too tight,” Jayne said, not looking at her from where he lay on the bed.

“I'm afraid it’ll fall down otherwise.”

“Wouldn’t wanna lose it.”

“No.” She slipped the dress from her shoulders and stepped out of her panties, her naked flesh glowing in the half light. She picked up his blanket, wrapping it around her as she settled into the only chair, pulling her legs up underneath her.

“You planning on sleeping there tonight?”

“I didn’t think you wanted me next to you.”

“Didn’t say that.”

“Felt it.”

“Stay outta my brain.”

“I'm not in there.”

“Sure feels like it.”

“Must be guilt, then.”

He glanced sharply at her, but she was just sitting, watching him, almost fading into the shadows. Almost. Her eyes were like flames in a furnace.

“Ain't guilty.”

“That’s all right then.”

He turned back to contemplating the shuttle ceiling and there was silence for a minute. Then two. After three he fidgeted. After four he exhaled heavily. After five … “What?” he demanded.

“Nothing.”

“You’re staring at me!”

“My eyes happen to be facing your direction.”

“Well, face ‘em some place else.”

“If you wish.”

He heard a slight movement and surreptitiously looked her way. She had shifted enough so that her cheek lay on the back of the chair, and her eyes were no longer visible.

It didn’t help.

“Okay,” he said at last.

“I'm sorry, did you want something?” she asked. “Only I was just about to fall asleep.”

“Yeah.”

“Which is it?”

“What?”

“That yes, you did want something, or that you were glad I was about to fall asleep?”

“Girl, just shut up and get over here.”

There was a scrambling sound and she was next to him, the blanket thrown over both of them as she pressed her naked body against his clothed one. She sighed happily.

“What’s gonna happen when you get real mad at me?” Jayne asked, his arm tightening around her.

“You remember the butcher’s knife?”

His chest seemed to itch. “Ain't likely to forget nine and a half on that scale of yours.”

“Remember ten?”

“Killing everyone on board?”

“What do you suppose eleven would be?”

He considered, and his entire body flinched. “Ah.”

“Exactly.”

“Good job that ain't happened yet, then.”

She lifted her face so her chin rested on his chest, looking into his eyes. “Are you going to tell me?”

He put one large arm behind his head. “It ain't easy, moonbrain.”

“Talking about the past never is.”

“No, I guess it ain’t,” Jayne said softly.

“If you can’t tell me, let me see.”

“River …”

“Please.”

He shook his head. “Too long ago.”

“It’s still raw.” She touched his forehead with a slim finger, and he felt a shudder go through him. “See?”

“That hurt.”

“Because it’s only scabbed over, not healed. Show me.”

Jayne shook his head, but closed his eyes. “Ain't pretty,” he said, letting his memories of the day flood back into his mind.

Jefferson, Hobson and Gilford in the living room, his Ma in Pa’s armchair, crying. Them telling him a hwoon dahn called Ballard had shot his Pa down in the feed store. Trying to make his Ma rest, covering Matty with the old comforter, deciding what he had to do. He could still feel the gun in his palm as he took it out of the box in the closet, checking to see if it was loaded. Then strapping the belt around his hips, and walking off into the night.

Waiting. Knowing that Ballard had to go this way, and hearing him approach. The feel of fear was still in his throat, the bravado he had to put on as he faced down the young gunman.

“I’m gonna kill you.”

“You think? You ain’t even got your gun out.”

“No, I ain’t. ‘Cause we’re gonna do this like men.”

“Like men? You wanna try and beat me to the draw? How old’re you? Thirteen?”

“Fifteen.”

“Well, you ain’t gonna reach sixteen.”

Then the sound of gunfire, the stench of black powder in his nostrils, the need to vomit as he looked down at the man on the ground, his throat torn out by a bullet.

“Jayne …” River murmured, her eyes wet.

What was worse was the look on his Ma’s face. The disappointment. The realisation he was never gonna be someone she was proud of, the knowledge that he’d become everything she feared. And the promise she’d exacted from him.

“I tried,” Jayne whispered. “Came home, brought them stuff, showed them I could be more’n what she thought …”

Except it hadn’t worked. She refused to take the gifts, saying it was paid for with blood money. He tried to tell her, explain he’d earned it, working on transports, and finally she’d accepted a little coin, but nothing else. Telling him to leave. He’d left the box of stuff by the door, not caring what she did with it.

An hour. Sixty minutes of his life that he’d wished he could have back and do again, but never could. Walking away from the house.

Matty, running after him, eighteen and full of hope, begging Jayne to take him along. Teach him to fight, to be a man, to … anything but go down the mine.

“I can’t,” Jayne had said, letting his bluff exterior hide his hurt. “Ain't got the need to drag you along with me.”

“But I can help. Carry stuff. Do whatever you want.”

The pleading in his voice was too much. Jayne grabbed his arms. “Don’t do that,” he said, squeezing hard. “Don’t ever beg. Ya don’t need to. Stand up like a man and take what comes.”

“But … you ran,” Matty said, the spark of hope dying under an avalanche of anger. “Pa died and you ran.”

“I didn’t run, Matty. I …” He clamped his mouth shut.

“You what, Jayne?” Matty pulled away. “You ran. Here one day and gone on a transport the next. What the hell else do you call it?”

Jayne looked away from him, and saw his mother’s face at the window. The anguish in her eyes. The fear he’d tell Matty the truth.

“Ain't gonna happen. You need to stay. Look after Ma.”

He’d seen the love for his brother die in his eyes that day, replaced by hate for the man who left him there.

River held him fast, her arms and legs wrapped tightly around him. He wasn't crying, but it was close.

“I couldn’t stay. Matty was angry with me for going, and I couldn’t tell ‘im why I had to.”

“Why did you promise?”

“I … I don’t know, River. I know he’d’a understood, but she thought he might wanna follow me, become like she saw I’d become.”

“You have the chance to put that right.”

“Can’t.”

“Why not?”

“He’s had a lifetime to hate me. A few words ain't gonna put that right.”

“You can try.”

“Can’t. ’N’ if I do tell him he’s gonna figure Ma lied to him all these years.”

“So you’re going to let him believe you ran because you were afraid?”

“Better’n him hating her.”

“He deserves to know. You deserve that he knows, Jayne. He’s your brother.”

“I think he stopped being that when he was eight years old.”

River had no answer, just let him cling to her like a drowning man to a lifebelt.

--

“You think they’re okay?” Mal asked, pushing his suspenders from his shoulders and looking at Freya sitting on the bed removing her boots.

“Jayne and River?”

“Yeah.”

“I haven’t looked.”

“No?”

She lifted her head. “I'm trying to control myself. Find a middle way. Be aware but not active. Subtle, not hitting people over the head with it.” She held up a hand and ran it along an invisible seam. “The middle way.”

“Like telling me what to do on my own ship?”

She smiled slightly. “You let me get away with it. I was surprised.”

“Who said I let you?” He grinned and lunged at her, pressing her back onto the bed just as the Firefly rocked and objects cascaded onto them from the shelf above. “What the –“

“Mal, we got company!” Hank yelled over the com as another blast rattled all Serenity’s fittings.

“You think?” Mal said, jumping from the bed and almost falling but grabbing hold of the ladder at the last moment. He glanced at Freya but she was holding onto the table. He scrambled up the rungs.

--

Snake in the Grass – Part VIII

“Mal, we got company!” Hank yelled over the com as another blast rattled all Serenity’s fittings.

“You think?” Mal said, jumping from the bed and almost falling but grabbing hold of the ladder at the last moment. He glanced at Freya but she was holding onto the table. He scrambled up the rungs.

“Our tail?” she asked, following him up, then sliding sideways as the Firefly rocked again. Her hip hit the wall and she had to stifle a gasp as sudden pain flared through her, but luckily Mal was already up and into the corridor, running for the bridge.

“Tell me!” he ordered as he almost fell up the steps.

“A Kasparov. Armed.”

“Really.” His dry tone was punctuated by another blast across their bows, and he heard Serenity groaning.

“She could’ve blown us out of the sky, Mal.”

“And there I was thinking they were just bad shots. You tried hailing?”

“I’ve tried everything, including promising to have their children, only they ain’t listening.”

“Try again.”

Hank reached for the com, but before he even touched it a light flashed on the board. “It’s them, Mal.”

“Move. I’ll take it.”

The pilot scurried out of his seat and Mal slid in. He heard the others gather behind him but didn’t look around. He opened the link.

“I seem to have your attention,” the man on the screen said. Even over the somewhat grainy transmission they could see he was all business.

“You coulda tried saying hello,” Mal pointed out. “I ain't too keen on folks firing on my ship instead of knocking.”

“I wanted you to understand I could take you down without a thought.”

“Well, I’d’a been thinking about it, so why don’t you tell me what you want?”

“My property.”

“Your …” Mal shook his head. “You’re gonna have to be a mite more specific than that.”

“Maintain your position. We’re going to lock on and board.”

“Now look here –“

“Or did you want my ship to take out your starboard thruster?”

Mal felt his teeth grind. “I’d take it as a kindness if you didn’t,” he said quietly.

“Then be ready to open up.” The screen went to static.

“We’re not carrying anything except that cow stuff, Mal,” Hank pointed out.

“I know that.” Mal was still staring at the screen, then turned to fix the young doctor. “You sure it’s what it says it is?”

“I haven’t tested it – that would entail breaking the seal on one of the tubes and risking contamination –“

“You’d better get ready to check.”

“Mal, these eggs and sperm are kept under conditions which have to be –“

The look Serenity’s captain gave him was pure command. “Get it ready.”

Simon nodded. “Yes, Mal.” He turned to go, seeing Freya leaning on the wall, her hand pressed into her hip. “You’d better come too,” he said.

“I'm okay.”

Mal jerked his head around. “What?” he asked.

“Nothing,” Freya said.

He took a step towards her. “Did you hit it?”

“No.” She wilted under his stare. “A little.”

“Zoe, get her down to the infirmary. Whether she wants to or not.”

“Mal –“

“Please, ai ren.” His voice changed for just a moment, then he looked back at Zoe. “You’ve got your orders.”

“Yes sir.”

“Then join us in the cargo bay. We’re gonna have visitors.”

“Sir.”

His first mate took hold of Freya’s arm and almost manhandled her off the bridge.

Hank looked at Mal. “You wishing we hadn’t left Jayne and River behind?” he asked.

“Not just wishing. Only I’m not sure they’d be able to help that much. Not with that Kasparov out there.” He looked out of the bridge window at the ship approaching his Firefly. “Can’t help feeling I would’ve liked them as back-up, though.”

--

“What is it, girl?” Jayne muttered, feeling River jerk in his embrace, pulling him out of his sleep.

“Serenity.”

He pushed himself up onto his elbows to look down at her. “What’s going on?”

“Nothing we can help with.”

“Bad?”

“I'm not sure yet.”

“Tell me.”

“We can’t help.”

“Tell me.”

--

Kaylee cuddled Ethan on her lap, her other arm around Bethany. “It’s okay,” she whispered, rocking gently. “Everything’s going to be shiny.” She looked around at all the toys and stuff that had been knocked from shelves in the little girl’s room, and wondered whether she was being honest or just hopeful. Except there was nothing wrong with being both.

“Yes, Momma,” Bethany said, holding tightly to her. All she could feel were the emotions running high on board, and it scared her.

“You okay?” Simon said, sticking his head into the doorway.

“I think so. You?”

“At the moment. Can you wait here? I have something I have to do.”

“What? Can I help?”

“Not with this,” he said, smiling slightly, then going back to prepare his infirmary and take a look at Freya.

“Okay.”

“Daddy will fix it,” Bethany murmured. “Daddy will fix it.”

“Sure he will,” Kaylee said, wondering what her daughter was seeing. “Daddy’s a genius.”

“Daddy will fix it.”

--

Mal felt the other ship dock, the shudder itself communicating through Serenity’s deck plates. He settled his gunbelt, then looked up at the top catwalk that ran around the cargo bay.

“You okay?” he asked quietly, locking eyes with his wife as she stood above him, her gun ready.

“Shiny.”

He smiled slightly, knowing there was no way he was going to be able to make her stay in the infirmary, then checked the other side. Hank stood solid, his gun aimed. Glancing down he saw Kaylee in the doorway to the common area, a rifle in her hands, ready to protect the children, while Simon was fidgeting with his own sidearm.

“Zoe,” he said, nodding at his first mate.

She activated the inner doors, then opened the outer hatch.

A man stepped through, probably around Mal’s age, his dark hair cropped almost to his scalp, his expensive clothes at odds with the thoroughly workmanlike gun at his hip. He scanned the bay, a slight twist to his lips, his eyebrows raised at the sight of the pregnant woman who’d opened the door, until his gaze settled on the man in front of him.

“I’d say welcome aboard, but I wouldn’t be meaning it,” Mal said, his tone deceptively light.

“I'm Victor Tannhauser,” the man said. “You have something that belongs to me.”

“I’m Captain Malcolm Reynolds. And no, we ain't.”

“You’ll forgive me if I don’t believe you.”

“No, ain't gonna do that either.” Mal looked past him into the other ship, seeing slight movement but no sign of guns the other side. “You know, that really ain't so smart. Coming on board my ship with no back-up,” he said.

“I don’t need it. You hurt me and my ship will take you apart. And it won’t take more than a second for me to relay exactly those instructions.”

“Won’t do whatever it is you think we’ve got much good, now, would it?”

“Both thrusters, Captain. Perhaps your accelerator core. You’d be dead in the water and irradiated to boot. Care to try me?”

Mal took a deep breath, holding his anger in check. It was there, ready for him to use, but right now he needed to keep his temper. “You want to explain exactly what it is you think we have that’s yours?”

“My children.”

“Your … right. Course. A man like you thinks we’re kidnappers.” He opened his arms. “Take a look. Only children on board this boat belong to me and the doc.” Mal gestured behind him towards the young man, then added quickly, “Not … both together, you understand.”

“And you look so suited for each other.” Tannhauser’s voice was so dry it bordered on the desiccated. “Perhaps children isn’t quite the right word. My future, then.”

“Nope, still ain't reading you right.”

“My wife was ill. We thought she was going to die. I thought I was going to lose her. And I was going out of my mind.” Tannhauser watched the captain as he spoke, surprised to note he was nodding very slightly, as if he truly understood. “There was treatment, but we knew it would destroy her chances of conceiving naturally, so we made arrangements.” He almost smiled. “When you have money, there’s very little you can’t do.“ He took a deep breath, holding it for a moment. ”Her eggs were harvested, stored safely, along with my sperm, in case of accident. When we went to reclaim them, however, we found the company had sold them. I’ve chased halfway across the galaxy to find them.”

“So that matters to me … how?” Mal asked, crossing his arms.

“You have them on board this vessel.”

“You think I’d deal in stolen merchandise?”

“Come now. A vessel of this type, a crew like yours … of course you do. It’s just this time you got caught doing it.”

Mal moved so fast Tannhauser didn’t see the blow coming. His head jerked backwards and he fell, to the deck.

“Think you had that one coming, don’t you?” Mal said, his fist hurting but his mind cold with anger. “Threatening me and mine just so you could play daddy?”

“They’re all we have left. Stolen from us!” Tannhauser climbed to his feet, swaying slightly, wiping the blood from his nose.

“Well, it wasn’t us that took ‘em. And they’re not on board.”

“I don’t believe you!”

“Fine. Take a look. You’re right, we’re carrying eggs and sperm. Only it ain't yours. It’s cattle. And we’ve got the proper licenses for it, so there ain't no mistake.”

“The only mistake is the one you made in taking this job.”

“Now that I can’t help agreeing with you over. But you want to see, fine. Our perfectly legitimate cargo’s in the infirmary. Through to the back, next to the common area.” He nodded to the man’s still bleeding nose. “Might like our doc to take a look at that.”

“No.” Tannhauser strode through the door.

“Wait …” Simon hurried after him.

“Better, sir?” Zoe asked, watching Mal trying to shake the pain from his hand.

“Somewhat. But I’ll feel a whole lot happier once he’s off my ship.”

--

“What do you see?” Jayne prompted.

“No harm. Not yet.”

“Likely to be?”

River shook her head, her eyes still unfocused. “They don’t know what they have.”

--

Snake in the Grass – Part IX

Tannhauser stared down at the metal tubes.

“How many in each of those?” he asked, his face pale, the blood from his nose drying unnoticed on his chin.

“Several thousand,” Simon said, handing over a swab before taking out his DNA tester from the drawer. “How many were harvested from your wife?”

The other man shook his head. “I … I don’t know. There were drugs … a dozen … perhaps more.”

“Choose.”

Tannhauser looked up. “What?”

“Which one you’d like tested. Just so you can see I'm not forcing a particular one on you.”

“Okay.” He pointed to one at random. “That one.”

Simon nodded. With great care he lifted the tube out from the gel, unscrewing the top and laying it to one side. A soft beeping began.

“What’s that?” Tannhauser asked.

“It’s a warning, telling me that one of the tubes is open.” He held it out. “See?”

A thick gloopy liquid swirled heavily inside the metal canister.

“Fine. Just … just do it.”

Without a further word Simon dipped the probe into the liquid and pressed the read button on the small machine.

“What’re you gonna do when we’re proved right?” Mal asked quietly. “You’ve boarded my boat, threatened my crew … What do you do then?”

Tannhauser turned on the captain. “You wouldn’t have done the same?”

“Well, maybe not with the shooting at us, no. You coulda just asked.”

“And you’d have taken notice?”

“Never know now, will we.”

Tannhauser looked back at the tubes. “I don’t know what we’ll do,” he admitted. “Pris is … she’s so close to the edge anyway, if I have to go back to my ship and tell her she’ll never be a mother …” He heard a soft gasp from outside the infirmary, but couldn’t tell who’d made it.

“Your wife’s on board?” Mal asked, knowing it had been Kaylee.

“She’s waiting. As is our own medic.”

“And she’s … she’s well again?”

“The treatment was successful, yes. But it was only the thought of finally having our own children that kept her going, kept her from … I have to … it’s our only chance.”

“Then I'm sorry.” Simon held out the test kit. “It is just cattle.”

‘DNA detected,’ the small device showed. ‘Source – subfamily Bovinae of family Bovidae, genus Bos, species B. Taurus’.

Tannhauser read the results, his face was grim. “How do I know you didn’t just falsify this?”

“You say you have your own medic. Take a sample to him. He can check. I'm not lying to you.”

Simon was so calm, so assured, that Tannhauser found he was believing him. He seemed to crumple a little. “I don’t …” He swallowed. “How am I going to tell my wife?”

Mal found himself feeling sorry for this man. So strong, so sure of himself, he’d just lost a part of his soul that he’d never get back. “Maybe … maybe it was some other ship,” he suggested.

“No.” Tannhauser stood straight. “I paid enough to find out, followed this all the way from … There is no other ship. And no children.” He nodded curtly at Simon. “Thank you. I … there won’t be any need to test any further samples.”

“I'm sorry.”

“So am I.” He strode out of the infirmary back towards the bay and his ship. At the airlock he paused. “My apologies, Captain Reynolds.”

“Accepted.” Mal could see he was holding himself together by an effort. “And I almost wish we coulda been more help.”

Tannhauser smiled tightly. “As do I.” Without a further word he left Serenity, and Zoe closed the door firmly behind him.

His wife was standing in the airlock of their own ship. “Well?”

“I'm sorry, Pris. There was … it wasn’t …”

She went white and collapsed against him. “No, no, no,” she began mumbling, her face pressed into his chest. “They must have destroyed them. Oh, Victor …”

--

River was crying softly.

“Hey, girl, don’t,” Jayne said, holding her close. “Ain't no need for that.”

“He doesn’t know.”

“Who, honey?”

“None of them.”

“What’re you saying, River?”

“And she isn’t listening.”

“Who? River, honey, you ain't making sense.”

“Have to try another way.”

--

“Hank, get us to moving.” Mal rubbed his hands through his hair. “Sooner this stuff is off my boat the better.”

“Going, Mal.” He ran up the stairs.

“Fastest route, okay?” Mal called after him.

“Be there quicker than blinking,” his pilot’s voice echoed down.

“Frey, you okay?” Mal looked around but couldn’t see her.

“She ain't here, Cap’n,” Kaylee said, wiping at her face, emotion heavy in her eyes. “I think she’s still in the infirmary.”

“Thanks, mei-mei.” He walked back through.

His wife was standing by the box, one hand placed lightly on its exterior.

“Something’s not right,” she muttered.

“What? What’s not right?”

“I don’t know.”

Simon had followed. “Is there a problem?”

She took a step back. “Dammit, I can’t focus! If River were here …”

“Auntie Frey?” Bethany pushed past her father into the colder blue light of the infirmary, Fiddler clasped in her arms. “Can I help?”

Freya turned to look at her, and for a few seconds out of eternity seemed to be actually considering it.

Simon was about to speak, to complain vociferously at the mere thought of his daughter being used like this, but Freya finally said, “No.”

“Auntie Frey –“

“Go back to bed, Bethie.” She smiled at the little girl.

“’Kay.” She held out a hand. “But Auntie River says this might help.” Dull metal gleamed on her palm.

Freya took it. It was her medallion. “Thank you, Bethie.”

The little girl grinned and walked slowly back towards her bunk. “If anyone needs me …” came the small voice.

Freya turned back to the box, the gel inside almost rippling as she stared at it. Laying the medallion on the clear plastiglass lid, she consciously slowed her breathing, controlling her heart rate as she stared at the metal disk. As she concentrated, the image became clear – a tiger about to leap from the surface, and she manipulated it, turning it inwards, folding the space around it until it flattened to a mere atom thick.

Everyone watching saw nothing, just Freya staring at an old metal coin, but Bethany, sitting on her bed, was in awe. She’d never seen anything like this, and even River hadn’t been able to do that. She gasped as Freya sent her consciousness inside the box …

“People.”

“What?” Mal wasn't sure he’d heard correctly.

“People.” Freya stood up, a slight sheen of sweat on her forehead, her heart rate very high. “He was right. I can see human DNA.”

Simon shook his head. “Frey, I tested the tubes. You saw. It’s definitely bovine in origin.”

“There there’s something else,” she insisted.

Mal leaned down and studied the sensor readings. He hadn’t taken a good look before, but now … “Doc, this thing’s taking quite a bit of power. More than you’d think, maybe?”

“Some,” Simon allowed. “But there’s a number of redundant systems in case of any malfunction, so perhaps it’s being –“

Mal didn’t let him finish. “If we took it apart, how long until the contents started to degrade?”

“Mal, I know Freya thinks that –“

“How long?”

Simon considered. “Six, maybe seven minutes. At the outside. Once the temperature starts to rise … Mal, this is insane.”

“Maybe. But we’d just better be quick.” He glanced at Freya. “You’re sure?”

“Human. River would probably have found it straight off, but …”

“You weren't peeking?”

“No.”

“But it’s human?”

“For sure.”

“Good enough.” He looked at Simon. “Come on. Let’s get this thing dismantled.”

--

River was sitting up in bed, clasping her arms around her bent knees. “Closer.”

“They okay?”

“Better, but not yet …” Her brow furrowed. “Fox in the henhouse …”

“You ain't that crazy,” Jayne said firmly, taking hold of her to make her look at him. “You tell me exactly what you mean.”

“They’re coming.”

--

“Shit.” Simon hardly ever swore, but what had been revealed pushed his envelope of what was right just a bit too far.

In front of them, in the base of the box, wired up to use the same power, were five small containers, half the size of the tubes, each containing a tiny grey mass suspended in nutrijelly.

“That what I think it is?” Zoe asked, her face pale.

“Human embryos.” Simon pulled the scanner across. “About five weeks.” He looked up at Mal. “This is seriously illegal, Mal.”

“Are they alive?” Kaylee asked hoarsely.

“Alive and viable. Implanted in a surrogate, there’s no reason there wouldn’t be five children born.”

“Are they his?” she wanted to know, holding onto Zoe’s sleeve very tightly. “Tannhauser?”

“No way of knowing, bao bei,” her husband replied.

“Yes there is.” Mal held up his hand. “I hit him, remember? Kinda made a mess of my knuckles, but he bled on me. Wiped my hand down my shirt, and I ain’t changed it yet.”

Simon immediately picked up one of his gadgets and ran the collector over the darker area of red on the maroon fabric. “Got some,” he said, his professionalism shining through. “I just need to filter out your …” The machine clicked and hummed.

“This really is illegal, sir,” Zoe said softly. “Even with our license, if we’re caught carrying this …”

“I know. I’m wondering exactly that myself.”

Kaylee looked between the pair of them. “You ain't … you’re not thinking about killing them?”

“Didn’t say that, little Kaylee,” Mal told her.

“No, but you’re thinking it. I can tell. They’re kids, Cap’n. Ain't their fault they ain't inside someone right now. ‘N’ that Tannhauser, he really wanted them.” She sniffed slightly. “For his wife.”

Mal glanced at Freya but spoke to Kaylee. “I know, xaio mei-mei,” he said softly. “But if it’s a choice between us and them …”

Kaylee glared at him then ran out of the infirmary back towards the room where the children were still sitting.

“Kaylee, wait –“ Simon called, but was interrupted by his machine clicking. He read the result. “It’s his, Mal. Tannhauser’s the father. I can’t say who the mother is, but it’s likely –“

“To be his wife.” Mal nodded. His face was unreadable.

“Mal, you can’t seriously be thinking of destroying them, can you?”

“I –“

“Mal, that hwoon dahn didn’t believe you!” Hank’s voice over the com was urgent. “He waved an Alliance patrol boat!”

Mal closed his eyes and mentally damned everyone in a fifteen thousand kilometre radius. “How far?” he asked, thumbing the button.

“Close. Too damn close. ‘Bout ten minutes. We ain't exactly been travelling under the radar.”

“That shi da koudai!” Mal hit the wall with his fist. “Can we outrun them?”

“You being serious?”

“Give us as much time as you can.”

“It ain't gonna be much.” Hank closed the link.

“Kaylee!” Mal yelled.

“No,” she called.

He strode across the common area to the children’s room. “How long to rig a cryobox?”

She looked up from where she sat on the bed, her arms around Bethany and Ethan. Tears had streaked down her face. “A … maybe an hour. If Serenity’ll give up a few of her parts … Cap’n, what –“

“You got ten minutes. Maybe.”

“Cap –“

He stepped closer, putting his hands on her shoulders. “Can you do it, mei-mei?”

“I … I’ll try.”

He smiled at her. “Good girl. Get those containers off your husband and start work.”

“Yes, sir,” she said, scooting off the bed.

“Uncle Mal?” Bethany asked, moving over so she could hug Ethan. “Can I help?”

He went down onto his heels for a moment. “Can you make time stretch a mite?”

She shook her head. “Don’t know how.”

“Then you just look after Ethan, dong mah?”

Dang rahn,” the little girl said.

He ruffled her hair then hurried back to the infirmary.

--

Snake in the Grass – Part X

Commander Montez didn’t like cargo vessels. As far as she was concerned they should all be towed out to the scrap belt and blown into their constituent parts. But since she was unlikely to be able to accomplish that, at least in the short term, she contented herself with making life as awkward as possible for all those who chose that way of life.

As the airlock light turned green, indicating a hard seal and access open, she pulled her uniform straighter and nodded to her subordinate. The door opened and four soldiers went through ahead of her, their guns held high. She followed, her underling at her heels.

Her nose crinkled at the odour on board. People, living in close proximity. She’d rather be on an Alliance cruiser any day. They smelled clean. Still, she had a job to do.

She looked at the man in front of her, judging him with a practised eye. Criminal, her experience said. And not to be trusted in any way. She raised one eyebrow. “You are?” she asked.

“Captain Malcolm Reynolds.”

“Do you usually greet Alliance officers armed?” She looked down at the obviously well-used gun on the man’s thigh.

“Depends on what we’re supposed to have done.”

“Transportation of human embryos across interplanetary boundaries.”

“Really.”

Montez felt a frisson of irritation at the attitude being displayed. “We have received a complaint.”

“And that would be from Kasparov belonging to Mr Tannhauser?”

“It would.” Montez looked around the cargo bay at the motley assemblage of people. “And is this all your crew?”

“Couple of ‘em are off on their honeymoon, but that’s about it.”

“Then they should stay here whilst we search.”

The man in front of him seemed to bridle. “For what? We’re not carrying anything except bovine produce. And we’ve got the licences for that.”

A tall, dark woman stepped forward and held out a folder of papers. Montez would normally have flicked her fingers at her junior officer to take them to check they were all in order, but this other woman was rather beautiful, and obviously pregnant. She took the papers herself, granting a brief moment to look the woman up and down, appraising the tone and power of her before handing the folder to her underling. “And you expect me to believe that’s all you’re carrying?” she said, reluctantly turning back to the so-called captain.

“Not expecting anything from you at all.”

Montez considered taking offence at the arrogance being displayed, but decided this Captain Reynolds probably wouldn’t understand such a thing as sarcasm, and instead she ran a hand along one of the crates next to him, rubbing the dust between the pads of her thumb and forefinger. That seemed to get his attention. “Where is the cargo?”

“In the infirmary. Through the common area at the back.”

Montez strode through, knowing the captain at least was following.

Mal glared at the commander’s back, and wondered if he shouldn’t just record that last speech, and play it back every time he got boarded by the Alliance.

--

Montez stared at the tubes.

“I can –“ Simon began, but was pushed back.

“You won’t touch them.” Montez nodded towards one of her men. “Check them. All of them. Carefully.”

The man stepped to the counter, pulling a DNA module from his bag, newer than Simon’s, sleeker, smaller.

“And check the rest of the ship, including the engine room,” Montez ordered. “Although these decrepit ships have such badly shielded cores I'm surprised anything’s alive in here at all.”

Mal saw Kaylee stick an indignant head out of the nursery, and gave her a glare. It would just be like her to make a fuss and get them into deeper trouble.

“What for, ma’am?” one of the soldiers asked.

She gave a tight smile. “Anything.”

“Ma’am.” They pounded up the stairs.

“We ain't hiding anything,” Mal said. “And I’d take it as a kindness if your men didn’t mess up my boat too much.”

“As much as it takes, Captain.”

The man with the DNA module coughed. “Ma’am, I have the results.”

“About time.” She gave Mal a smile that chilled the very air around them. “Well?”

“Bovine.”

Her head jerked around. “What?”

“Cow, ma’am. Unfertilised eggs and sperm.”

“All of them?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“See, I told you that was the case,” Mal said cheerfully.

She glared at him, then sighed heavily. She stalked past him back into the cargo bay.

Ten minutes later she had had enough. The only good thing about today, she considered, was that the dark woman had stayed within view, but it also meant she had to put up with the Captain’s occasional comments, as witty as he obviously found them. Realising she was tapping her foot on the floor, she glared at her subordinate. “Well?”

He turned with his hand to the tiny comunit in his ear. “They haven’t found anything yet, ma’am.”

“Call them back.”

“Ma’am?”

“I have better things to do with my time than hunt for non-existent contraband on board a ship of this type.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He spoke softly into the com.

“Well, Captain Reynolds, it appears you were telling the truth.” Montez so obviously wished she could say otherwise it almost made Mal smile.

“Seems so.”

“There are, however, a number of other violations I have noticed in my brief time on board your vessel, and I shall be reporting them, so expect a hefty fine the next time you go through an Alliance check-point. And I will recommend a thorough search when you do.”

Not if I see it first, Mal thought. “Well, that’s mighty decent of you,” he said instead, trying his best smile on her, but seeing it slide off her as if he didn’t exist. “But like I said, we’re just a transport ship doing a job.”

She glared at him, and the chill had turned to fire. She turned on her heel and marched out, giving only Zoe a glance as she hurried back through the cargo bay to her own ship. Her men followed, heads down, and Mal slammed the door closed as hard as he could, the sound resonating throughout Serenity.

A moment later they felt the patrol boat disengage, and Mal thumped his fist down on the com.

“Kaylee, what in the gorram sphincter of hell have you done with them?” Mal yelled as the patrol boat disengaged.

“Easy, Cap’n,” came his mechanic’s voice. “In the kitchen.”

“Kitchen?”

Mal exchanged a glance with Zoe then ran up the stairs to the dining area. Kaylee was down on her knees behind the counter, emptying out the contents of the fridge.

“Kaylee …” he said, his exasperation showing. “If you’re hungry –“

“I ain't a miracle worker, Cap’n,” she said over her shoulder. “You gave me ten minutes. What else was I supposed to do?” She dragged out a loaf of bread.

“You ain’t telling me …” Mal watched in shock as she pulled the loaf apart, cracking it like an egg down the middle to reveal the five containers slotted into the interior.

Simon hurried over and ran his portable scanner over them. “They’re okay. I don’t know how, but they’ve not been damaged.”

Kaylee grinned. “Mebbe I am a genius after all.”

“I need to get them back into proper storage,” Simon said, still not believing it.

“Do it.” Mal turned to his pilot. “And wave the Kasparov. I want to speak to Tannhauser.”

“Mal, he turned us in!” Hank was outraged.

“So you think we should just pass these back to the men that stole them? Or maybe flush them out of the airlock and take more away from that man than he can afford to lose?”

“No, of course not –“

Kaylee watched as her husband carried the embryos still in their bread armour back towards the infirmary. “I’d’ve felt the same way, Hank. Wanted to lash out, hurt someone. We just got in the way, is all.”

--

“Captain Reynolds.” Tannhauser looked old, his face ashen.

“You called the Feds.”

“I'm sorry. My wife … I didn’t realise until … she was distraught.”

“That part’s understandable. But I’d got kids on board. Do you have any notion what might have happened if they’d taken it into their minds to shoot first?”

“She wasn’t thinking. She’s beside herself.”

Mal paused for a moment, letting the man ponder the possibilities, then said, “You want to put a smile back on her face?”

Hope burst on Tannhauser’s face like fireworks in the night sky.

--

“You told me –“

“And I was telling the truth. It was only after that we began to think, to consider that maybe … just maybe … you were telling the truth too. So we took a look.”

Tannhauser stared at the five containers in the cold box Simon had rigged. “My children,” he whispered, then looked up at Mal. “Why? Why would you do this? After what we did …”

“I know what it feels like to lose everything,” Mal said softly. “And I ain't gonna wish that on a mortal soul if I can help it.” He smiled a little. “Kinda like to know what it is about you that makes someone want to steal your children, though.”

“I’m … to put it bluntly, I’m intelligent. Driven. I made my money from the ground up. But it’s more about my wife. She’s … she’s a concert pianist. At least, before the illness. She was the best in the Core.”

“Tann …” Simon looked up. “Pris Tannhauser?”

“Yes. You’ve heard of her?”

“I saw her play once. She was magnificent.”

“What did she play?”

“The Greig Concertos.”

“It’s one of her favourites.”

“Much as this is fun, listening to you two talking about music written by someone who’s been dead near on six hundred years, I think you’d better be getting back to your ship, don’t you?” Mal interjected.

“Yes. You’re right.” Tannhauser took the box, holding it close to his chest. “And I know she’ll want to play again now. Thank you, doctor …?” He left the sentence hanging.

“He’s just a man with a little bit of training,” Mal put in before Simon could respond.

“More than that, I think.” Tannhauser smiled, relaxed for perhaps the first time in months.

“Maybe. But out here, that’s all he is.”

“I understand.” He nodded. “And I do have to get back to my wife.”

“Do you … have the facilities to keep these safe?” Simon asked, unable to keep from being the professional Mal didn’t want him to admit to being.

Tannhauser laughed. “Well, not-quite-doctor, my wife is going to want to get pregnant immediately, but we have storage already set up for the others.”

“Well, if you get them inside in the next ten minutes or so, you should be fine.”

The years had dropped away from the man, and he grinned. “We will be. Thank you.” He held out his hand and Simon shook it firmly. Tannhauser turned to Mal. “It’s … unusual to find an honourable man out here, Captain. I wasn't expecting to, and I reacted accordingly.”

“Ain't no harm done. And there are a few of us still around.”

“I'm glad.” He hugged the cold box Simon had rigged. “If you ever need help …”

Mal smiled. “Oh, that tends to happen more’n I care to admit, so I’ll bear it in mind.”

“I'm sure it does.” He extended his hand again. “Thank you.”

Mal took it, pumped it twice. “Better be getting back to your wife.”

“Yes.” Tannhauser headed for the airlock. “I meant it. If you need my assistance at any time …”

“Might just be giving you a call.”

--

“What do you suppose he does?” Zoe asked as Serenity was left alone in the black once more, the Kasparov dwindling to a speck against the stars.

“Not truly sure I want to find out,” Mal said quietly, glancing at his first mate. “Whatever it is, I ain't sure I want to be on the wrong side of him.”

“No, sir.” She lifted her chin. “And the delivery? If Bernoulli was part of this, he’s going to want to know why only part of the shipment arrives.”

“Can’t see him knowing about this somehow.” Mal turned to her. “And we’re handing over exactly what we were employed to, nothing more or less.”

“There’s others might not see it that way.”

“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

“As always, sir.”

“You saying I don’t plan ahead?” Mal’s lips twitched.

“Not always, sir, no.”

“Well, the plan right now is for you to tell that man of yours to get us back to heading to New Hall, while I finish remonstrating with my wife.”

“I’ll make sure to put the ear plugs out for the crew, sir.” She walked away towards the stairs, her scarlet top moving softly around her hips.

--

River relaxed against Jayne, putting her arms around him.

“Everything okay now?” he asked, holding her close.

“Happy.”

“You or them?”

“Both.”

“Well, least one of us is.”

She looked up into his face. “You’ll speak to your mother tomorrow. Calmly. And you will work it out.”

“Not sure I'm going back there, moonbrain.”

“You won’t be alone, Jayne.”

“Still not sure.”

“You need to finish this.”

“River –“

“Tomorrow.” She lifted her lips and kissed him. “Right now, I'm awake.”

A slight grin warmed his face. “How much awake?”

“Why don’t we find out?”

--

Snake in the Grass – Part XI

River left Jayne still asleep, dressing quietly and stepping out into the early morning. The sun had barely kissed the sky, but the air felt good on her skin. She walked quickly through the town, her feet raising almost no dust, until she came to the house. His home. Time to put things right.

She knocked. The door opened after only a moment, Fionnula Cobb standing there in the shadows, her black dress pressed and clean.

“Kinda figured it might be you,” she said. “Better come on in.”

River sat on the couch, and looked at the other woman in the armchair. There was so much of Jayne in there, more delicate, perhaps, but a strength that she recognised.

“Do you love him?” she asked his mother.

“He’s my son.”

“That wasn't the question.”

“Do you?” Mrs Cobb stuck out her chin.

“Yes.”

“Oh.” She deflated slightly. “I … I didn’t realise it was that serious.”

“More. We have found each other after a lifetime of searching. Admittedly, his lifetime has been longer than mine –“

“He’s old enough –“

River interrupted in her turn. “To be my father. I know. I'm not sure how my father would take that, but I do know this. It doesn’t matter. It’s never mattered. We are soul mates.”

Jayne’s mother stared at her, then shrugged. “I guess maybe you are. What I saw yesterday, how you were with him …” She wasn't going to admit to the jealousy, but the girl in front of her understood anyway.

“Then tell me.”

“There ain't been a day gone by that I haven’t regretted telling him to go. I know I did it for him, because I was afraid someone’d come after him for killing that man, but … I wish I hadn’t. I wish I’d kept him here, at my side.”

“Are you ashamed of him?”

“Ashamed?” A flash of guilt crossed her features.

River nodded sadly. “Yes. I can see that. And he has done things that are shameful. But he’s changing.”

“I don’t …”

“You don’t have to. All you have to do is believe that a man can improve himself. Not a lot, perhaps, but he thinks now before he kills.”

“He still kills.”

“That won’t change. For either of us. But we are learning control.”

Mrs Cobb looked shocked. This was a slip of a girl, yet she was suggesting … “Both of you?”

River smiled slightly. “We are more alike than you can possibly imagine. We are capable of so much bloodshed, but we will balance each other.”

“An eye for an eye …” Mrs Cobb stared at the old bible on the shelf. “That’s what Jayne understood. He avenged his father, and I've been hurting ever since because I made him leave.”

“Tell him.”

“I had good reasons.”

“I know. He understands. But it hurts him.” River went down onto her knees in front of the older woman, taking her hand. “And it hurts him more than he will ever tell that Matty hates him for what he sees as abandonment.”

“I couldn’t lose them both –“ Mrs Cobb began.

“I know. You wanted one to stay at your side. But all Jayne sees is his brother’s disgust.”

“I’ve wanted to tell Matty these long years. Especially now. And I would, but Jayne never showed signs of wanting to come home before.”

“He wanted to. He was afraid.”

“Afraid?”

“Of the disappointment in your eyes.” She squeezed her fingers. “He is changing. He’s saved all our lives, more than once. Our captain is an honourable man, and he wouldn’t keep Jayne as part of his crew, his family, if he didn’t see more to him than just a killer.” River paused a moment, debating how much else to say.

“He’s my son,” Mrs Cobb said quietly. “But what I saw that day, in his eyes …”

River tried to explain. “He cares. The captain’s wife was hurt, a while back, and Jayne was there for her, helping her, because he cares. Don’t ask him about it, because he’ll say he doesn’t. But he does.”

“When he was a boy … I saw all these bright futures for him. Makin’ something of himself, a better life than me and Frank had … I guess I hoped too much.”

“No. Hope is never wrong.”

“But the look on his face yesterday, when he found out about Jason …” Mrs Cobb swallowed. “I was afraid there’d be killing again.”

“It was a shock. He hadn’t realised you were a woman as well as a mother.”

“Jason loves me.”

“I know.”

“I was on my own longer’n I had Jayne with me, and it take somethin’ out of a woman. Makes her feel less than female. So when Jason Gilford came callin’ …”

“You answered.” River smiled. “And you found someone else to be with.” Her voice softened even further. “The Bible says ‘thou shalt not kill’. But it also says to forgive. Jayne loves you. He wishes things were different, but that can’t be. I can’t go back and change the past, which I would in a heartbeat if I had the skill. But he deserves a second chance with you.”

“He isn’t coming home, though, is he?”

“Not to this home, no.”

“I told Jayne he couldn’t tell Matty why he was going, that he’d killed that man. I was so afraid I’d lose both of them, but in a way it meant I lost them anyway. Matty’s been so angry for so long …”

“I think you need to tell him.”

“I don’t know how.”

“You don’t have time to be waiting.”

Blue eyes, so like Jayne’s, looked into her soul. “You know that?”

“Yes.”

“How long? Can you tell?”

“A few months. Perhaps a year.”

Mrs Cobb nodded slowly. “I thought as much. And I'm glad Jayne came home. I'm glad he has you.”

“So am I.”

--

River walked out into the sunshine, and wasn't surprised to see Jayne standing in the dust, his eyes half-shut against the light.

“Told you not to,” he said quietly.

“I love you.”

“That ain't an excuse.”

“I couldn’t let you go on hurting.”

My pain.”

“Ours.”

“This what the Cap and Frey are like? Nothing being just mine no longer?”

“They’re worse.”

“Can’t quite get my head around how that can be …”

She smiled. “Take my word for it.” She glanced over her shoulder. “Your mother’s waiting for you.”

“To say what? Tell me to leave again?”

“Go in, Jayne. Go in and find out.”

He felt her eyes on him, even though his were closed. Then he nodded, straightening his shoulders and standing upright, his strong body holding him purposefully as he strode to the door.

River watched him pause, then enter. And for a moment, just one fraction of a second, she saw the fifteen year old boy walk through the door into forgiveness.

--

END ….

This was difficult. Perhaps the most difficult thing he’d ever done. ‘Cept maybe that time on Ita when he’d had to talk his way out of a noose. Or burying Charity. Or admitting to River that he loved her. Or … hell, maybe it wasn’t that difficult. But it was hard.

Jayne sucked the end of his pen and read the few lines he’d managed to get down.

‘Thanks for your letter. Sorry I ain’t replied before, but we been busy. I don’t know if you was honest about not asking that girl to marry you if I wasn’t gonna be there at your wedding, but I hope you ain’t that stupid. You love her, you ask her. Then you tell me when it is and I’ll ask the Cap if we can swing by Jiangyin. Might not make it to the day, but maybe we can have a beer or three to sele … celle … ‘ Thick black lines scored through the last two words. ‘… to mark the day. I’ll post this first chance I get, and I hope it finds you as it leaves me, and all that.’

He sucked harder, then finished off.

‘Hope to see you soon. Your loving father, Jayne Cobb.’

His mouth tightened and he was about to cross out the word ‘loving’, but decided to leave it. Everyone put that, even if they didn’t mean it. Using the word ‘father’ was bad enough. Shepherd Book’d tell him he was going to one of them special hells for misleading the boy, but maybe it wasn’t so bad if it was in a good cause.

Folding the letter, he placed it carefully in the envelope, sealing it down, then tucked it behind Vera. Time he was getting going. He stood up and stretched, his hands touching one of the overhead beams, then walked out of the shuttle.

River watched from her position lying on the top catwalk as the big man set up his weights, checking them carefully to make sure each one was in good condition and not likely to leap up and damage him. His entire being was concentrated on that single act, his thoughts centred on … no, not quite. He was humming to himself.

Then he began to sing softly.

“Oh, give me a home, where the fireflies roam, where the whiskey and beers are all free …”

Bethany ran out of the common area, wrapping the tape around her little fists, and joined him, her small voice high against his bass, Fiddler settling down in his usual spot by the crates.

“Home, home in the black, where the beer and the girlies are free, where a man is a man, gets a wife where he can, and leaves more of the trim just for me.”

Bethany giggled at the last line, and Jayne guffawed, lifting her up and waltzing her around the cargo bay as he reprised the final chorus again, the little dog barking delightedly in counterpoint. Then gently, carefully, he set her back down on her weights bench and they got to work.

River smiled. He was going to be okay.

COMMENTS



POST YOUR COMMENTS

You must log in to post comments.

YOUR OPTIONS

OTHER FANFICS BY AUTHOR

Monied Individual - Part XIX
“His name’s Jayne?”

“What’s wrong with that?” the ex-mercenary demanded from the doorway.

“Nothing, nothing! I just … I don’t think I’ve ever met a man … anyone else by that name.”

“Yeah, he’s a mystery to all of us,” Mal said. “Even his wife.”

[Maya. Post-BDM. Hank's not out of the woods yet, and Mal has a conversation. Enjoy!]


Monied Individual - Part XVIII
Jayne had told him a story once, about being on the hunt for someone who owed him something or other. He’d waited for his target for three hours in four inches of slush as the temperature dropped, and had grinned when he’d admitted to Hank that he’d had to break his feet free from the ice when he’d finished.
[Maya. Post-BDM. The Fosters show their true colours, Jayne attempts a rescue, and the others may be too late.]


Snow at Christmas
She’d seen his memories of his Ma, the Christmases when he was a boy on Shadow, even a faint echo of one before his Pa died, all still there, not diminished by his burning, glowing celebrations of now with Freya.

[Maya. Post-BDM. A seasonal one-off - enjoy!]


Monied Individual - Part XVII
Jayne hadn’t waited, but planted a foot by the lock. The door was old, the wood solid, but little could stand against a determined Cobb boot with his full weight behind it. It burst open.


[Maya. Post-BDM. The search for Hank continues. Read, enjoy, review!]


Monied Individual - Part XVI
He slammed the door behind him, making the plates rattle on the sideboard. “It’s okay, girl, I ain't gonna hurt you.” The cook, as tradition dictated, plump and rosy cheeked with her arms covered to the elbows in flour, but with a gypsy voluptuousness, picked up a rolling pin.

[Maya. Post-BDM. Kaylee finds the problem with Serenity, and Jayne starts his quest. Read, enjoy, review!]



Monied Individual - Part XV
“Did we …” “We did.” “Why?” As she raised an eyebrow at him he went on quickly, “I mean, we got a comfy bunk, not that far away. Is there any particular reason we’re in here instead?” “You don’t remember?” He concentrated for a moment, and the activities of a few hours previously burst onto him like a sunbeam. “Oh, right,” he acknowledged happily.

[Maya. Post-BDM. A little with each Serenity couple, but something goes bang. Read, enjoy, review!]



“Did we …” “We did.” “Why?” As she raised an eyebrow at him he went on quickly, “I mean, we got a comfy bunk, not that far away. Is there any particular reason we’re in here instead?” “You don’t remember?” He concentrated for a moment, and the activities of a few hours previously burst onto him like a sunbeam. “Oh, right,” he acknowledged happily.

[Maya. Post-BDM. A little with each Serenity couple, but something goes bang. Read, enjoy, review!]


Monied Individual - Part XIV
This wasn’t how an ex-companion did things. Perhaps she’d been hanging around a certain Firefly captain for too long. He listened at keyholes as if it were a competitive sport.

[Maya. Post-BDM. The crew go to the Spring Lights Procession, Mal gives some good news, and Sir Warwick puts in another cameo. Read, enjoy, review!]


Monied Individual - Part XIII
“It’s a family tradition, Mal.” Eugenia patted his hand. “No matter who marries into us, whatever their name, the moment they say ‘I do’ they become Rostovs. So you are Malcolm Rostov. It has a fine ring to it, don’t you think?”

[Maya. Post-BDM. A chapter of Mal and Freya, and a small revelation from Eugenia Rostov. Read, enjoy, review!]


Monied Individual - Part XII
Hank had to shake his head. In this day and age, when the entire output of every quill, pen and two-fingered monkey thumping on a keyboard was available on the Cortex, this statement of wealth and power was way over the top. He loved the feel of paper himself, turning the pages to get to the next twist, scanning the print to try and guess the next turn, but even his collection wouldn’t fill more than a shelf here.

[Maya. Post-BDM. Hank thinks about Zoe, Zoe thinks about Hank, while Freya and Mal have lunch. Read, enjoy, review!]