BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL

JANE0904

Get of the Unicorn - REPOST
Monday, November 26, 2007

Maya. Post-BDM. River is in trouble, in more ways than one, and it's up to Mal to find out why.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 1790    RATING: 0    SERIES: FIREFLY

Part I

It was cool. The breeze against her skin felt good, but there were goosebumps up and down her arms. She looked down. No wonder. She was naked, her feet in three inches of snow. Snow? But she wasn’t freezing. Oh. A dream. She looked around, at the wild trees and the wilder bushes, all tight around her. Well, if it was a dream, then she should be wearing a thick fur coat. Ah, that was better. All snuggled up in warmth that wrapped around her like a man’s arms.

A man’s arms. A man. Which man? She screwed up her forehead, trying to think. Which man? Someone big. Tall. But not the captain. He was father. Someone with brown hair. But not the pilot. He was friend. Someone with blue eyes. But not the doctor. He was … yeuk. Brother. She grinned. Only left one. The mercenary.

She started to walk through the snow towards the light in the distance. It looked like a lamp hung on a metal pole, but as much as she ploughed forward it receded, and her feet were getting mired. She stood still, angry at herself. This was her dream. It should go the way she wanted it. No point in lucid dreaming if it didn’t. She stamped her foot, and it splashed. She looked down. Snow turning to slush, with green shoots pushing through the water-logged earth, growing up, tangling around her legs.

Something moved. Something in the bushes. She listened. Sounded like something pushing through. Perhaps it was the mercenary. She bit her lip because she couldn’t remember his name, only his callused hands on her skin, making her bones turn to liquid, her insides to mush. Brown hair. Blue eyes. Yes. Him. He stepped out of the undergrowth, his body naked, glistening, advancing on her, his arousal prominent. She smiled, held out her hands to him, welcoming him.

But he looked … wrong.

His skin was turning white, and his hair the same, a bulbous growth erupting on his forehead. He went down onto all fours, his hands and feet changing, the nails growing, merging into hoofs. His arms were lengthening, legs bending the wrong way, the growth elongating, hair covering his body …

A breeze carrying an odd, stinging scent made her close her eyes a moment, and when she looked again he wasn't there, his place taken by a horse. No, not a horse. Not with the horn on his head. A unicorn. She smiled, calling him, clicking her tongue to make him get closer. He moved through the sweet-smelling grass, forelegs lifting high, watching her, his horn lowered a little.

She knew she was safe. Unicorns never hurt virgins, the only humans able to tame such a … except she wasn't a virgin. Not any more. Not since that night. The night he took her, made her a woman, tore her into little pieces and made her bleed …

The unicorn reared up, razor hooves slashing at her, horn digging deep, thrusting through flesh and bone. She tried to fend him off, telling him this was just a dream, that this wasn't right, that he shouldn’t be doing this to her …

The horn stabbed her to the quick, through her heart, stopping her breath as she fell, her red blood mingling with the small white flowers that grew on Hera, their scent pushing up through her as she stared at the sky with sightless eyes …

She woke, struggling against the blankets, against Jayne’s heavy arm.

“Moonbrain?” He lifted his head. “You okay?”

“I …” She stared at him, half expecting to see a horn sprouting from his forehead. “I … hungry.”

“Oh.” He settled back, rolling onto his side. “Bring me back something, will ya?” He rubbed the scar across his naked chest. “Got that delivery tomorrow on ‘Dymion,” he added, his eyes already closing again.

“Yes. Yes.” She stood up, grabbing her dress and pulling it over her head quickly, running out of the shuttle, away from the unicorn …

--

“S – I – K – I – K.” Bethany looked up, expecting to be congratulated.

Freya shook her head instead. “No. Try again.”

“But that’s how it sounds.”

“Yes, I’ll agree with that. Except it isn’t spelled that way.”

“Why not?”

River stirred in her seat at the other end of the table. “It comes from Ancient Greece of Earth-that-was. Psykihkos, meaning of the soul. Also Psyche, a princess loved by Cupid. Of or relating to influencing by the human mind.”

Bethany’s brow furrowed. “Who’s Cupid?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Freya said, her eyes resting on the young woman for a moment before coming back to Bethie. “We’ll look it up later.”

“But Uncle Jayne spells it like that,” the little girl insisted.

“Perhaps he does, but –“

“Then why can’t I?”

“Because it’s not right.”

“But –“

Freya could see it was going to be one of those days, with question after question. She sighed and held up her hand. “Let’s try another word, shall we?”

Bethany nodded. “Shiny.”

“Spell embarrassment.”

The little girl’s face fell as she looked back at her pad, sucking furiously on the end of her pencil. Even the presence of Fiddler under her feet wasn't enough.

Mal stepped down into the galley, something in his hand. “Having fun?” he asked.

“No,” Bethie grumbled, and he had to smile.

“Not sure education is meant to be.”

She looked up. “How do you spell psychic?”

“I don’t. I tend to stick to mind-readin’ genius.”

Bethie turned to Freya hopefully.

“No. Come on. You’re trying to spell embarrassment.”

“It’s okay, Bethie,” Mal said, ruffling her hair. “Not being able to spell never did me any harm.”

Freya was about to admonish him by pointing out that he could, in fact, spell, but his eyes asked her not to. “Then maybe you should be taking classes too,” she said instead.

Mal shook his head. “I get by. Anyway, thought Bethie’s IQ was off the charts? And wasn’t River here correcting Simon’s spelling when she was three?”

“I don’t think it’s hereditary.” Freya glanced at the young woman, but she wasn’t taking much notice. “Besides, Bethie’s spelling is far ahead of her age.”

“Then what’s the problem?”

“We have to push the boundaries, Mal.”

“Why? She ain’t even four yet.”

Freya glared at him, then exhaled heavily. “Fine. Shiny. Everybody just spell the way they want. What does it matter?”

“Hey, no need to get snippy,” Mal said, pointing at her with the toy in his hand.

“Snippy? Snippy?” Freya bit back on the response that hurried to her lips. “I’m trying to do what I was asked here. Trying to give Bethie an education. Trying to -”

“And you’re doing a grand job.” He smiled at her, then glanced at Bethie. “Ain’t that so, squirt?”

Bethie nodded enthusiastically. “Know lots of things.”

He went down on his heels between them and looked into the little girl’s face. “Bethie, you ever seen the word psychic written down?”

She thought for a moment. “No,” she admitted.

“Anyone ever told you how it’s spelled?”

“No.”

He turned to his wife. “Frey, no-one would be able to work it out without seeing it first.”

“So, what? You think I should make Bethany read a dictionary every day?”

“Nope. But do word lists.”

“What?”

“It’s how Mrs Gingrich taught us. Three types of word lists. Easy, medium and hard. Then she’d do a test, see if we’d learned them, and make us use them in a sentence.” He laughed. “Some of the things people used to come out with, it was hilarious.”

Freya stared at him. She sighed again. “Damn.”

He grinned. “You know, it ain’t a failure to ask. Most of us went to school, and a few actually got something out of it. Or research the Cortex.” He stood up and put his free hand on her shoulder. “It’s okay to use other folks’ ideas.”

“Why are you so reasonable?”

“Hey, ain’t it me usually asking you that?”

She smiled and looked at the toy he still had clutched in his other hand. “Lonely?” she asked.

He glanced down at the stuffed alligator. “Found this on the bridge. I think it’s Ethan’s.”

“It is. Hank gave it to him.” Freya took it, looking across to where the little boy was sitting in one of the easy chairs, his six week old sister next to him. He was telling her a story. “Nowhere important, I hope?”

“Wedged up under the attitude controls.”

“Ah. Sorry.”

“Good job we didn’t need to go to full burn. Could’ve torched my whole ship.”

“Can you do that in space?”

“You know what I mean.”

She smiled. “But no harm done this time.”

“Nope. But I'm thinking we’re gonna have to start laying some ground rules. Like no playing on the bridge.”

“Hank won’t like that.”

“Hank’ll just have to play somewhere else.”

“Now you know he likes having the kids up there with him.”

“Frey –“

Whatever Mal was about to say was interrupted by Jayne slouching noisily down the steps. “Hey, any food left?”

Mal glared at him. “Breakfast’s long done.”

“Figured.” The big man looked at River. “How come you didn’t wake me?”

“Sleepy. Dreaming.” She shivered.

“Yeah, well, I know how it goes sometimes.” He studied her. “You okay?”

She nodded but didn’t look at him. “Shiny.”

“Only I'm pretty sure you didn’t come back after getting up to find something to snack on.” He walked behind the counter and started going through the cupboards.

“Fell asleep out here,” she said, staring at her fingernails. Suddenly she got up. “Have something to do.”

“River?” Freya half stood.

“By myself.” The young woman hurried out of the galley, going the other way so she didn’t have to pass Jayne.

“What’s going on?” Mal asked.

“Damned if I know,” the mercenary said, staring after her.

“Well, you’re gonna have to wait to ask her. You need to get tooled up. We’re landing on Endymion in five, and I wanna be gone for the meet with Garber in ten.”

“But I ain't had no –“

“Ten minutes, Jayne.”

“Ruttin’ hell.” He grabbed a pack of protein crackers and strode back towards the shuttle, knowing River wasn't going to be there.

Bethie looked at Freya, who shook her head slightly. Whatever was going on was none of their business. At least, not yet.

--

Serenity landed safely and the goods were handed over without incident, although there was something of a delay when Garber insisted Mal, Zoe and Jayne stayed for a round of drinks or six, which meant they didn’t get back to the Firefly until well after dark.

Mal closed the cargo bay doors, his head slightly muzzy. He glanced up at the sound of a footfall on the catwalk.

“We okay?” Hank asked.

“Yeah. No problem.”

“Good.”

“You waited up for us?” Mal shook his head. “No, wait. Let me rephrase that. You waited up for Zoe?”

Hank smiled. “Kinda. But everyone else is in bed. Doubt Frey’s asleep though.”

“Prob’ly not,” Mal agreed.

“Not sure she’s gonna be too pleased at you rolling in smelling of booze.” Hank waved his hand in front of his face. “And cheap cigars.”

Mal sniffed his coat. “Can’t smell a thing.”

“Well, just don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

Zoe walked up the stairs towards her fiancé. “Any food left?”

“Of course. I made sure Kaylee put enough aside.” He put his arm around her as she reached him. “’Less Jayne decides to eat it all.”

“Not hungry,” the big man said, stretching hugely.

“You?” Hank stared at him. “Tianna, is the ‘verse ending?”

“Just don’t feel like food. Thought I might work out for a while, get the kinks out.”

Mal slapped him on the back. “Well, if’n you do, turn out the lights when you’ve finished.”

Hank wouldn’t leave it. “I don’t know, Mal. Maybe he oughtta see the doc. Off his feed like this.”

“Dear, it’s been a long day,” Zoe said quietly, watching her captain climb the stairs towards them. “I don’t feel like cleaning up entrails right now.”

“Me neither,” Mal said, passing them and heading towards his bunk and his wife. “But you can have all the food, and I’ll see you in the morning.”

“Night, sir.”

Mal waved over his shoulder and disappeared.

“You really hungry?” Hank asked, pulling her closer.

“Yes.”

“Well, maybe we could take it to our bunk. You know. Play a little.”

“Last time you did that I was cleaning crumbs out of the sheets for days.”

“I’ll be good.”

“Well –“

“Please?” He put on the look his son used when he wanted something.

“We’ll see.”

“Good enough.” He pulled her through the doorway. “Night, Jayne.”

The big man didn’t answer, just watched them leave. He sighed heavily and glanced down at his weights. Truth was, he didn’t feel like working out. What with River not coming back to bed, and waking up alone, he felt … antsy. Like something was off. He’d figured it was the job, but since that had gone well, there had to be another reason. Maybe he just needed some good time with River. He stroked his goatee. Yeah, just some time together. He grinned, happier, and bounded up the stairs and tried to open the door.

“What the …”

He put his considerable weight behind it. Nothing.

“River, the door’s locked,” he called. “You wanna let me in?”

Still nothing.

“Honey? You pissed I’m late back? Weren’t my fault. The Cap decided to let Garber buy the drinks, and you know what that shrimp’s like once he gets started.” Jayne tried the door again, just in case it was stuck, but it still didn’t move. “River.”

There was no sound from inside the shuttle, no movement, no apologetic face smiling at him through the window.

His brow furrowed. Maybe she’d made a mistake. Locked it without thinking. He input the code to override the lock, but the door didn’t open. He glanced down at the com by the bay doors, wondering if he should call her. Unless she was asleep already. And if she was pissed at him, it wouldn’t help being woken up. ‘Cept maybe she was hurt. In pain. But she’d tell him, let him know somehow. He shook his head slowly. Best to wait. Wait ‘til morning. He headed slowly down the stairs again, unease eating at him.

--

The unicorn was stalking her. She could hear his hooves in the undergrowth, even though the snow made all other sounds dead in her ears. His soft voice called out to her, teasing, cajoling, trying to tempt her to come out of hiding so he could seduce her, pierce her with his horn, make her bleed …

--

Part II

River was alone in the kitchen next morning as Jayne stepped quietly down into the galley. She was concentrating so much on stirring the hot oatmeal Kaylee had put on that she didn’t hear him moving up close behind her until she felt his breath on the back of her neck. Her hand strayed towards the knife block, but she stopped it, turning instead.

“How come you locked me out?” he asked, trapping her against the counter. “And ya changed the code.”

“I forgot.” She glanced up into his face but just as quickly dropped her gaze again.

“What, that ya locked me out or didn’t tell me the new code?”

“Just needed to be alone.”

“River, if there’s something wrong … if I've done anything …”

“Nothing.”

“Then why won’t you look at me?”

“Just needed some time.”

Voices in the corridor announced Hank and Zoe arriving for breakfast, and River took the opportunity to wriggle past him to go and sit at the table, her hands clasped tightly in front of her.

“Look, if I’ve done something wrong, tell me,” Jayne hissed.

“Nothing wrong. Bad dreams.”

“Bad dreams?” Hank echoed as he followed Zoe into the dining area, Ben on his hip. “You want to know about bad dreams? Eat too much cheese.” He shuddered. “Worse kind, cheese dreams.”

“Well, since we don’t get cheese that often, I don’t think we need to worry.” Zoe smiled at him and walked to the counter.

Hank sat down, arranging his son in his lap. “What kinda bad dreams did you have, honey?” he asked River.

She managed a smile for him. “Being chased.”

“I have them too. Usually it’s something big and hairy.” He glanced up. “Oh, hi, Jayne.”

“Huh,” the big man grunted, slopping oatmeal into a bowl and sitting down.

“What? No cheery greeting this morning? No sunny hello, a song and a joke?”

“Wanna be eating your breakfast through a straw?” Jayne growled.

“Jayne,” Zoe warned.

“Just saying.”

“Well, don’t.”

Jayne glared at her, almost as if he was about to speak, to argue, but instead he stood up. “Ain’t hungry anyway. Not for this crap.” He tossed the bowl into the sink where it broke into half a dozen pieces.

“Better clear that up,” Hank said softly, this time not baiting, just concerned. “Mal might not like you busting up the crockery.”

With ill-grace Jayne grabbed the pieces and tossed them into the bin. “Happy?” He strode out of the galley, not even giving River a second glance.

“What’s going on?” Hank asked the young woman.

“Nothing.”

“Didn’t look like nothing.”

She pushed her chair back and got to her feet. “I’m going to work on my garden.” She smiled brightly and ran.

“Zoe …” Hank looked at his fiancé.

“People argue, dear.”

“But that? It ain’t like either of them.”

“No.”

--

Jayne leaned in the infirmary doorway. “Doc, can I ask you something?”

Simon glanced up from the readings he was studying. “Mmn?”

“You spoken to River lately?”

“What?” The young doctor’s brow furrowed a little. “Talked to her? Of course I’ve talked to her.”

“I mean, like yesterday.”

“Well, probably.” Simon shrugged. “I’ve been a little busy.”

“Hope okay?”

“It’s just a cold, but I don’t want it to develop into anything else.”

“Nope, sure you don’t. That little girl don’t need it.”

“No.” Simon put the readings down on the counter. “So far she seems fine.”

“Sure Kaylee’s glad to hear that.”

“She is.” He ran his hands down his face, trying to wipe away the tiredness. “You don’t know how exhausting having children is until you actually have any. And they’re sick.”

“Guess not.”

Simon sighed. “So what is it about River?”

Jayne started guiltily. “She just seems … not right.”

“How much not right?”

“Not her normal self.”

“Well, since it’s difficult to know what her normal self is, I’m not sure I can comment.” Simon smiled.

“I mean she ain’t … I don’t know, doc. Just feels wrong.”

“Do you want me to talk to her?”

“Would ya?”

“Of course. She is my sister.”

“Be grateful.”

“Leave it with me.”

“Thanks, doc.” Jayne headed for the cargo bay and his weights.

Simon stared after him for a moment, trying to fathom how much it had taken the big mercenary to come and ask for help. He mentally promised Jayne that he’d find River in a little while, try to see what the problem might be, if indeed there was one over and above the fact that his sister was still crazy, then turned back to his results and promptly forgot all about it.

--

The strawberry plants were flourishing, and the vegetable bin was coming along nicely. The soil was moist, well-nourished, and there was no sign of weeds. There was really nothing to be done, yet River spent over an hour checking each plant minutely, removing a total of five leaves and adjusting the lights to aim one third of a degree higher.

Then there was nothing left to do. She knew Jayne had gone to the cargo bay, was even now lifting weights, trying to get to that state of emptiness where there was only the repetition, the concentration of breathing in as the weights descended, breathing out as he strained to lift them back, the slight increase in his heart rate, the sweat trickling down his skin. She could feel him reaching for it, and wanted to go out and touch him. It wasn’t his fault. She leaned back on the strawberry bin, feeling his frustration, his inability to understand what she was doing, why she was behaving the way she was.

She so wanted to tell him. Except she didn’t know either.

She closed her eyes to try and reason things better, feeling her body relax as she skimmed the consciousness of the people on board Serenity …

“Why’re you hiding?” the unicorn called in a voice she recognised. “Ain’t gonna hurt you.”

“You’ll spear me with your horn and I’ll bleed into the snow.” She made her voice bounce from the mountains, filling the glade so he couldn’t find her.

“Why’d I do that?”

“I don’t know.”

“Then come out. We can play. You like to play. You can ride me, and I’ll take you to the wide plains and show you the ‘verse.”

“Come out and play …” Another voice echoed through the landscape, and her breath caught in her throat.

“Who’s that?” she asked.

“Why don’t’cha come and find out?” the unicorn asked, pawing at the frozen ground until it oozed red.

“Want to wake up now,” she whispered, her hands clasped in front of her belly. “Now.”

--

“River, honey, are you okay?” Freya asked as the young woman stepped out of her garden. She was sitting in the yellow armchair in the common area, Jesse in her arms.

“Shiny.”

“Only you look pale.”

“I fell asleep.” She tilted her head a little. “A crick in my neck.”

“I get them,” Freya said, grinning. “This little one tires me out.” She laughed. “I must be getting old.”

“Not old.”

“Tell that to my bones.”

“I will.” River managed a smile. “If you’re waiting for my brother he’s in with Hope.”

“I know. He wanted to check Jesse over, see how she’s doing.”

The psychic moved forward, going down onto her knees to look into the baby’s face. “She’s perfect,” she murmured.

“I know,” Freya said, ever the proud mother. “I can’t believe I have two such beautiful children.”

River nodded, watching Jesse sleep, her little fist pressed against her cheek. “Perfect.”

“So are you going to tell me what’s wrong?”

“Wrong?”

“Well, Jayne’s going around the place shaking his head like a wet dog with fleas, and you’re giving everyone the jitters. I’d say there was something wrong.” She tried to see into the young woman’s eyes. “Did you and Jayne fight?”

“No.”

“Then how come he’s out there wearing out those dumbbells?”

“I … I’ve had a bad day.”

“And it’s not even noon.”

“Then a bad day or two. That time of the month.”

“Ah.” Freya nodded understandingly. “I’ve had them. Admittedly, not at the moment, not since I’m still breastfeeding this little one, but I can recall days like that. Mal learned not to leave sharp objects around.” She paused a moment. “So you think you might need to apologise to Jayne?”

“I …”

“Please. It’d clear the air. Otherwise Mal might get involved, and that could get messy.”

River’s lips twitched. “Okay, Momma.”

“You know, sometimes I do feel like I have a helluva lot more than just two children on this boat.”

“You’re Mrs Reynolds. You’re supposed to.”

Freya laughed. “I suppose. So go and apologise.”

“I will.” River stood up, then leaned over and kissed Jesse on the forehead. The little girl’s hands opened and closed as she dreamed.

“She likes you,” Freya observed.

“I love her.”

“I know.”

For a moment River just gazed at the baby, then ran out into the cargo bay.

“Moonbrain?” Jayne sat up on the bench, his T-shirt drenched in sweat, the aroma of sheer male physicality filling the large space.

“Jayne, I …” Suddenly she was tongue-tied, her good intentions melting under his gaze. She ran up the stairs to the shuttle, closing the door.

Chuan liu bu xi,” he muttered, shaking his head as he lay back down, flexing his aching hands before beginning another set.

--

That night, as Jayne sat on the bed and removed his boots, he didn’t watch her, at least, not overtly. But his hunter’s instincts told him that she was watching him, like a wild animal waiting for him to pounce.

“Moonbrain, you gonna tell me what the problem is?” he finally asked, looking up at her standing in the corner.

“No problem. Nothing.”

“Must be, otherwise you’d be here with me, not over there looking like you’re trying to blend into the metal.”

“I'm fine.”

“You didn’t eat a bite of supper.”

“Wasn't hungry.”

“Girl, you’ll waste away to nothing.”

She took a step forward, her eyes flashing in the semi-darkness. “Not a girl.”

“Okay. Not a girl. But you’re still my River.” He paused. “Ain't you?”

She stared at him. “Hungry,” she whispered, but it was difficult to tell whether she meant she was or it was some other appetites of Jayne that she was referring to.

He decided to take it the easy way. “Want me to get you something?”

She nodded slowly. “Please.”

“I think little Kaylee put a plate away for ya. You gonna come to the kitchen, or –“

“Bring it here.”

“Okay.” He stood up, and immediately the shuttle seemed smaller than usual. She stepped back again, nestling into the bulkhead. “Won’t be but a moment.”

He smiled, trying to project calmness, rationality, and not the worry that was inside him.

“Thank you,” she said. “And I’m sorry.”

“Ain’t nothing for you to be sorry for,” he heard himself say. “Just had a bad day, I guess.”

“Bad day,” she echoed.

“I’ll grab you that food.”

Stepping outside in his socks, he closed the door and waited for a moment. Sure enough he heard the sound of the lock being engaged. He shook his head. Maybe someone needed to talk to her. Someone not him. Maybe Freya. He made a mental note to mention it in the morning as he headed for his weights yet again. Had to do something to work out the knots, since being out in the black meant he couldn‘t go out and kill something.

--

Part III

Someone was tapping their foot. Loudly. Jayne struggled to consciousness, ungumming eyes that would much prefer to remain closed. The sight of Mal standing there, his arms crossed and glaring down at him, made him wish he’d stayed asleep.

“Okay – you wanna explain to me how come you’ve been sleeping in the common area the last two nights?” Mal asked. “It’s a small ship, and people’ve noticed.”

“Not sure,” Jayne said, scratching his beard, then his chest, his hand heading southwards until Mal’s glare got colder. “Seems maybe I did somethin’, only I ain't got no idea what it was.”

“To River?”

“I guess.”

“What did you do, Jayne? And I'm asking you to remember what I said before about what’d happen to you if you hurt that girl.”

The big man stood up. “I don’t know!” he blustered. “You figure I wouldn’t be saying sorry if I knew?”

“Have you asked?”

“Yeah. She just locks the door on me and won’t talk.”

“So you’ve been sleeping down here?”

“Seemed … kinda comfortable.”

“Why didn’t you go back to your old bunk?” Mal wanted to know.

“Ain't mine no more, Mal. Mine is in that shuttle, but she’s thrown me out.”

“Then you’d better get it sorted. ‘Cause the atmosphere is so thick I'm surprised any of us can take a breath.”

“I've tried!”

“Try harder.” He strode away, flinging back as he walked into the cargo bay, “And sleep in your old bunk. You’re making the place look untidy.”

--

River plaited her hair, undoing them again, then tighter, over and over, until the pain almost drowned out the calling inside. Finally she looked at herself in the small mirror on the shuttle wall. Better. Not perfect, but better. Two plaits of dark hair, coming from either side of her delicate skull, so tight that it was pulling her skin taut across the planes of her face. Turning to her somewhat meagre selection of clothes she pulled out a dress she’d bought on Boros (meant as part of a game of dressing-up for Jayne) that was really too short for her, slipping it on, its little puffed sleeves sitting proud on her arms, the high bodice disguising her small breasts. She didn’t have the ankle socks and barred shoes, but had to make do with a pair of pumps Inara had given her. Twirling, just about managing to see most of her reflection, she nodded and headed out to breakfast.

She was first in the dining area, so she sat down, her back straight, and waited for someone to come and get her some food. It was only a few minutes before she heard footsteps, ones she recognised easily. Her brother stepped down into the galley, then paused.

Mei-mei?” Simon asked tentatively, seeing his sister sitting at the table, her hands tucked into her lap.

“Simon.”

“What’s going on?”

“Waiting for breakfast.” She smiled at him, but it gave an odd, unreal effect to her face.

“Why are you dressed like … like that?” He motioned towards the dress, the plaits.

“This is how I always dress, silly.”

Mal came down the steps at the other end of the room. “Hey now,” he said, smiling warmly. “There a game going on here that I don’t know about?”

“Of course not, captain,” River said, turning her smile on him.

Something unpleasant crawled up his spine, settling into the short hairs on the back of his skull that raised to make room for it. He glanced at Simon who looked as confused as he felt. “River, sweetheart, are you okay?“

“I’m fine, captain. Just waiting for breakfast.”

“Well, I thought it was your turn to cook.”

“I’m not allowed to.”

“Not …”

“Besides, young ladies don’t need to cook. We have people to do it for us.”

“River, what are you talking about?” Simon asked.

“Mother wouldn’t approve.”

Mal took a deep breath. “Is there something you want to tell us, albatross?”

“No, captain.” She giggled. “Why are you calling me that?”

He sat down carefully in the chair next to her, her brother taking up a place behind her, both of them well aware she was capable of doing them some serious harm if she took it into her head. “River, you know who I am, don’t you?” he asked, lowering his voice as if he was talking to a wild animal in need of calming.

“Of course. You’re Captain Reynolds.” She looked around at the paintings on the conduits. “I like the flowers.”

“Well … that’s good. So you know where you are.”

She gave him the ‘boob’ look. “Of course. On board Serenity.” He felt encouraged, but that encouragement turned to dismay as she went on, “You’re taking Simon and me home. I don’t know why Daddy didn’t come for us himself, but Mother probably said this was the best way.”

“Home?” Simon asked. “Mei-mei, we are home.” He put his hand on her shoulder. “This is home.”

“Don’t be silly. How can this be home?” She swung her legs on her seat. “Anyway, it’ll only be a few months, then I'm going to the Academy.”

Mal paused a moment, taking a leap beyond logic. “River, how old are you?”

“Thirteen, of course. Daddy said I had to wait until I was fourteen, but I don’t really know why.” She put her head on one side. “It should be fun.”

Simon stared at her, his jaw dropping.

“Well, that’s … that’s nice. So you just sit there and wait for … you just sit, okay?” Mal said, getting up slowly. He looked at Simon, flicking his eyes towards the corridor to the bridge.

“Okay, captain.” She went back to staring at the table, her legs swinging.

The two men walked out, stopping just through the door.

“Well?” Mal asked.

“I don’t … this seems to be such a … I can’t believe …” Simon couldn’t finish even a single sentence.

“Best guess, doc.”

The young man took a deep breath. “Honestly, I don’t know. If she hadn’t made such amazing progress, I’d say she was hiding from something.”

“From Jayne.” Mal put his hands on his hips and shook his head angrily. “I knew that hwoon dahn had done something.”

“Not necessarily.” Simon glanced back at her. “If she was hiding from him she could just lock the door to the shuttle.”

“Which she’s done the past couple of nights.”

“Oh. I didn’t know. But anyway this is much more as if she’s hiding from herself.”

“Herself?”

“It’s … maybe I should have seen this coming. Jayne asked me yesterday to talk to her, but I forgot. I was so busy worrying about Hope, and now Bethie’s gone down with the cold too, that I … perhaps I could have prevented this.”

“Looks as though prevention’s like to be bit late now, doctor. What we’re looking for is a cure.”

“Mal, I don’t know. I can … I can try to talk to her, get her into the infirmary, see if there’s anything physically wrong … but this is new. This regression.”

“You thinking you might be having to dose her up again?”

“It’s possible, but the side-effects … she hasn’t had to have anything like that since …” The concern on the man’s face was palpable.

“You don’t reckon she’s seen something in our future that might be worth avoiding?”

“I … actually, Mal, I doubt it. If it was she’d tell you, even if it came out as complete nonsense. But she’s lucid, articulate …”

“Just not all there.” Mal looked at the young psychic. “Though she seems happy enough. Even with that hair done so tight I conjure she might snap.”

“Me too.” Simon shook his head. “It’s how she used to have her hair. When she was thirteen.”

“And the clothes?”

“Probably the closest she can get.” He stared at her.

She glanced across at them and smiled.

“Think she’s reading us?” Mal asked softly.

Simon’s brow furrowed for a moment. “I don’t think so.”

Mal couldn’t help the twitch to his lips. “Thinking something derogatory about your sis, were you?”

The young man blushed a little. “Just … seeing.” He exhaled. “If she thinks she’s thirteen, then it’s before the Academy, before what they did to her, stripping her amygdala …”

“But she can’t undo that. Can she?”

“No. But she might be ignoring it. Maybe she’s built up walls inside her mind and is keeping all other thoughts at bay.” He shrugged. “I don’t know.”

Mal heard Kaylee clatter into the galley from the other end. “Well, best you try and talk to her after we eat. Maybe she’ll let you do some tests.”

“I’ll try.”

“Hey, what’re you dolled up like that for?” Jayne’s voice came just a moment before his footsteps.

“Shit,” Mal breathed, hurrying back into the kitchen, but it was too late.

River looked at him, her face guileless. “I don’t like you.”

“What?” The big man looked confused. “River, honey, I know I did something, even if I don’t know what, but you don’t have to say –“ He'd moved towards her.

She was on her feet in a moment, backing away from him. “Don’t touch me!” she screamed, squirming past him and running away. “Don’t you dare touch me!”

Jayne just stood, staring after her.

“What’s going on?” Kaylee asked.

“She was scared,” the mercenary said. “I could see it in her eyes. She was scared … of me.” He turned to look at the other men. “What’s happened?”

“We don’t know, Jayne,” Mal said, feeling oddly sorry for him.

“I’ll go and talk to her,” Simon said, hurrying after her.

“Cap’n, what’s going on?” Kaylee asked.

“Not sure. Not sure at all.” Mal stared into the empty corridor for a moment. “Could you get breakfast?” he asked. “And call the others. I think we need to have a council.”

--

Mei-mei?”

“Go away.”

“It’s only me.”

“Simon?” She came out from the shuttle bridge.

“Are you all right?”

“I …” For a moment it was the old River, or rather, the River from now who looked back at him, and there was fear and confusion in her eyes. Then she smiled that same odd, disconcerting smile at him. “Of course.”

“Why did you run away?”

She made a moue of distaste. “Not hungry.”

“Is that all?”

“Of course. What else would it be?”

“Nothing else, I suppose. How about … do you want me to brush your hair?” he asked quietly.

She considered the offer, then smiled again. “That would be nice.” She sat down on the chair by the table.

Simon stood behind her, undoing the ends of the plaits, teasing her hair out. He could almost see her skin relax as the tension was released. Finally free, it fell in waves around her shoulders.

“Here,” she said, passing him the brush. “You can be Mother.”

Hesitantly at first, then with more confidence, he began to brush through her tresses, and she hummed with satisfaction.

“River, what did you mean by going home?”

“Home. Back to Osiris.”

“Where do you … where have we been?”

She didn’t answer for a moment. “Where do you think?”

“I asked first.”

“Boob.”

“Brat.”

She twisted and looked up at him, a smile on her lips. “I’ll tell on you.”

“You never have yet.”

“No.” She sat back round. “No, I haven’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because you’re my brother.”

“What about Jayne?” He immediately knew he’d said the wrong thing as she tensed up.

“That … that creature.” She almost spat the words. “Talking to me as if he knew me.”

“Doesn’t he?” Simon continued the brushing.

“Of course not! Mother would never let him in the house!”

“But we’ve been on board Serenity a while, haven’t we?”

“Ye-es.”

“Then you know he’s a member of the crew.”

“I … I suppose so.” She turned again. “But he called me honey.”

“Yes, yes he did.”

“I mean, that’s …” Her face became the image of Bethany’s when she had thought of something disgusting.

“I see.”

“I mean, I know I’ll want to meet boys eventually. There might even be someone nice at the Academy, but he’s so old … it’s gross.”

As much as Simon would once have agreed with her, knowing how happy Jayne made her, he couldn’t honestly do it now. “Don’t you like him at all?”

“Jayne?”

If it hadn’t been so strange he might have laughed at the look in her eyes. “Yes, Jayne.”

“No.” She turned away.

“Why did you come here?” he asked, starting the brushing again, knowing the rhythm was soothing to her.

“This is where I sleep.”

“Why?”

“What do you mean?”

“Why don’t you sleep in the guest quarters? If you’re a guest.”

“I …” She stopped again, and he could almost see her marshalling her thoughts. “Perhaps there was no room.”

“I sleep down there.”

“I know.”

“With Kaylee.”

She sat still, even more so than she had before. “With Kaylee?”

“My wife.”

Suddenly she was on her feet. “No, no,” she said, staring at him. “You’re Simon. You’re my brother. We’re going home, and I … there’s no … Kaylee isn’t …”

“And Bethany.”

Her mouth opened but no sound came out. She licked her lips. “Who?” she finally managed to squeeze beyond the constriction in her throat.

“Bethany. My daughter. Your niece.” He took a step towards her but she backed away. “She’s in her room at the moment. I hope she’s in bed, but knowing Bethany she isn’t. She has a cold. She caught it off Hope, and I made her go back to bed this morning. Probably that’s why she didn’t know you were feeling … that things didn’t seem right.”

“Didn’t seem …” She waved her hands. “Why are you lying to me?”

“I'm not lying. River, look into my thoughts. See if I'm lying.”

“I can’t.”

“Yes you can.”

“No, I … I can’t.” She caught her foot on something and sat down heavily on the floor. Immediately he was at her side.

Mei-mei¬, look at this.” He lifted up what she’d fallen over. It was a boot. “This is Jayne’s.”

“Jayne’s.” She looked scared.

“He sleeps here too. With you.”

“No.”

“Those are his guns.” He pointed to the hardware on one wall. “And those are yours.” His hand moved further along.

“No touching guns …”

“You’re not thirteen, River. You’re twenty-three years old, a grown woman. And you have a man who loves you, who’ll do anything for you.” He reached out and touched the bullet still hanging on the chain around her neck. “Why do you think you’re wearing this?”

She lifted a hand, almost as if it was against her will, her fingers playing lightly across the metal. “I …”

“River, remember.”

“I don’t want to,” she whined, her face screwing up. Tears began to roll down her cheeks.

“Oh, mei-mei …” He gathered her into his arms, holding her tight.

“Don’t leave me, Simon,” she said, sobbing into his chest. “Don’t leave me.”

“I won’t.” He stroked her hair. “But I think I’d better take some blood, just make sure there’s nothing physically wrong.”

River swallowed hard. If he did that, he’d find out, and that would mean questions, and answers she didn’t have … “Later?” she asked, using the old wheedling-River voice from when she was a child.

“All right. Later.”

She snuggled against him, resting her thumb between her lips.

--

It was a subdued meal, all of them waiting for Simon to come back. At Mal’s suggestion Ben and Hope had been put in with Ethan and Jesse in the nursery, mainly so they didn’t pick up so easily on the bad vibrations running through the galley, and only the adults sat at the table.

“You really figure she thinks she’s thirteen?” Kaylee asked.

“She knows she isn’t,” Freya said softly. “But it doesn’t help.”

“Can you pick up on anything?” Mal looked at his wife. “Anything that might help?”

“No.” She frowned. “And what I can doesn’t make sense.”

“What do you mean?”

She was about to speak when Jayne pushed his chair back with a squeal. “Gonna work out some,” he announced.

“Prob’ly a good idea,” Mal said. “But take it easy. Don’t want you pulling something and ending up in the infirmary. Ain't what I pay you for.”

“I’ll take it how I want it,” the big man growled, heading out of the galley.

“It’s not his fault,” Freya put in, her hand on Mal’s. “Whatever’s going on, he hasn’t done anything.”

“How can you tell?”

“He’s involved, but not …” She closed her eyes, her brows drawn together. “It’s hurting him. A lot.”

“Yeah. Figured that,” Mal said quietly.

“Well, this ain’t helping anyone,” Kaylee said, getting up and starting to clear the plates, just as Simon came back into the room. “How is River?” she asked quickly, before her captain could speak.

“Not … not good.”

Mal nodded towards one of the chairs. “Better sit down, son, before you fall down.”

He collapsed into the seat, rubbing his hands over his face.

“Is she safe to leave alone?” Zoe asked.

“I think so. I don’t think she’ll hurt herself. Besides, she’s asleep at the moment.”

“Did you dope her?” Mal wanted to know.

“No. She refused to go to the infirmary either. She just cried herself out.”

“She still thinking she’s thirteen?”

“No. I don’t think so.” Simon felt Kaylee slip her hand into his. “But she’s worried about something.”

Mal looked at his wife. “Frey? You got any idea at all what the good gorram that might be?”

She didn’t answer for a good long while, and he almost asked again, but she finally said, “I don’t know.”

“That ain't an answer.”

“I don’t know the reason behind it, but I know what she’s doing.”

“Then –“

“She’s running away. There’s a decision she has to make, and it’s got something to do with unicorns.”

“Unicorns?”

Freya almost smiled at the look on his face. “Don’t ask me what they have to do with the price of beagles, but … unicorns. They’re on her mind. But that’s about all I can get. If I get any closer she bites me. And there’s a sort of … echo …” She rubbed the bridge of her nose. “Hurts.”

“Can you keep trying?”

“Mal …”

“Don’t want you hurting. But something’s not exactly good here.” He turned his hand so their fingers interlaced on top of the old wooden table. “Just keep an eye on her.”

“I know.” She nodded. “I’ll try.”

--

River woke up. For a long moment she couldn’t quite remember where she was, then the scent of Jayne reminded her. In the shuttle. Their shuttle. And no matter than Simon had promised not to leave her, she was alone. She hadn’t dreamed, hadn’t seen the unicorn trying to find her, but in a way that just made it worse. And the little voice was still calling …

She got to her feet, feeling a little light headed, and looked down at herself. She looked … stupid. With a yelp of disgust she dragged the dress over her head, dropping it to the floor, and kicked the pumps into the corner of the room. Staring about her she saw her red dress on the chair. Better. Much better. Sliding into it she hurried to the small bridge. Had to go. Had to run. Run away before they asked the question she didn’t want to answer.

--

A judder ran through the ship.

“What the hell was that?” Hank asked.

“Felt like –“ Kaylee began.

“My rutting shuttle,” Mal finished, out of his seat and running to the bridge. Freya ran for the cargo bay, just in case, while the others followed the captain.

Hank slid past him into the pilot’s seat, activating external sensors. “There she goes,” he said, finger tracking a tiny dot on the screen, fading even as they watched.

“River?”

“Oh, yeah.”

“Are you sure?” Zoe asked.

“Pretty much. She’s locked me out so we can’t follow.” He muttered to himself as he tried to wrestle control back, flipping switches and typing new commands with no success.

“How long to fix it?” Mal wanted to know.

“No idea until I get in and see.”

“Fine. Then we take the other shuttle.” He looked behind him. “Zoe, get Jayne. He ain't gonna want to get left behind. Simon, you’d better bring your bag of tricks. No telling what she’s likely to do off the leash like this.”

The doctor looked as if he was about to argue, not least about talking of his sister like she was a dog, but instead he nodded. “Yes, Mal,” he said, and ran for his quarters.

“Kaylee, stay here and help Hank. Don’t want to run into anything bigger’n a pinhead, do we?”

“No, sir.”

Mal put his hand on her shoulder then hurried off the bridge, dropping down into his bunk and grabbing his and Freya’s guns.

“Daddy?” Ethan stood in the doorway to the nursery.

“Need you to look after things, okay, big feller?” he said, buckling the belt around his hips.

“’Kay.”

Mal smiled for him. “That’s my good boy.” He went back up the ladder, two rungs at a time, and ran for the cargo bay.

--

Part IV

River settled the shuttle about a mile from the centre of town, next to what looked like a junkyard. She didn’t know what the moon was called, and didn’t really care. That wasn't why she was here. She knew the others were coming, could feel them, but there were three moons in this cluster, and she was blocking Freya as much as possible. Still, better not to tarry.

She stepped out into the hot, dry air, feeling perspiration immediately dampen her skin. The sun was almost directly overhead, and there wasn't a cloud in the sky.

“You selling?” asked a querulous voice.

She turned, saw an old man sitting on an upturned barrel outside the gates to the junkyard. He had a wide-brimmed hat jammed hard onto his head, but that hadn’t stopped his skin tanning to the consistency and colour of leather.

“No. Parking.”

“I can keep an eye out on it for ya, if ya want.” He pointed towards town with the greasy pipe in his fingers. “Ain't exactly a place for the law-abiding,” he admitted. “Some of ‘em’ll steal anything.”

River reached into the pocket of her red dress. “Then stop them.” She tossed him a coin.

He snatched it out of the air, faster than his age predicted. “No problem. It’ll be here, if’n you come back.”

“Thank you.” She walked towards the low huddle of buildings, her booted feet causing little clouds of white dust to rise up before settling reluctantly back.

--

“Beacon?” Mal asked, standing behind Zoe as she disengaged the locking clamps and took off from Serenity.

“No sir. Looks like she disabled it.” She brought up the system schematics. “There are three moons the shuttle could reach.” She tapped the screen.

“Can Serenity track her?” Simon asked.

“Not without the beacon.”

Mal pushed by the young doctor, going to where Freya was tying her holster to her leg. “Frey?”

“She’s doing her best to block me.”

“If we’ve got to search all three of those gorram rocks –“

“No. In a way she’s made it plain where’s she’s heading, not her normal method at all. I think she’s distracted somewhat. Basically, I know where she isn’t.”

“Frey, can you not talk like River?”

She smiled a little, then walked past him to the bridge. Leaning over Zoe’s shoulder, she pointed to the screen. “That one.”

“Cerberus?”

“That’s the one.”

“Any idea where? There’s half a dozen mining towns –“

“You want me to take all the fun out of it?”

“Oh, no,” Zoe responded dryly. “Wouldn’t want that.”

Freya squeezed, then added, “Sunward side, near the equator.”

“Thanks.” The first mate input the co-ordinates.

“Cerberus.” Freya shook her head. “What’s this thing people’ve got for names from mythology?”

“Mythology?” Zoe queried.

“Cerberus was the three-headed dog of the underworld, guardian of the gates of Hades,” Simon supplied.

“Sounds like a fun place,” Mal put in. “Just our kinda moon.”

Jayne didn’t say a word, just sat against the wall, staring into nothing.

--

It was noon as she walked down the main street, at least according to the clock over the church that was tolling the hours. The few people out in the heat stared at her, but none tried to talk to her, or stop her as she walked through the swing doors of the bar.

Letting her eyes adjust from the brightness, she could see half a dozen tables, each with four or five chairs, one occupied with a Tall Card game. She half-smiled. The dealer was cheating, but the other players didn’t know. A dozen other men were in the room, in twos or threes, their conversation stilled as they watched her in the doorway. Music played from a Cortex link in the corner, but nobody was listening.

She walked up to the bar and the man behind looked at her with concern. “Miss, does your Pa know you’re here?”

“No father,” River said, her voice full of sadness. “No-one to care.”

He leaned forward. “Look, this ain't the kinda place you wanna be saying that out loud. Ain't safe.”

“I want a whiskey.” She put a coin on the old wooden counter.

“Miss, I –“

“In a clean glass.”

He stared at her. Eventually he said, “O-kay,” placing a glass in front of her and filling it.

With a brilliant smile she picked it up and tossed the contents down her throat. She didn’t even wince as the alcohol seared its way to her stomach.

“Again.”

“No, now look, I've served you once –“

She slammed another coin down. “Again.”

“No.” This time his voice was firmer. “I've got daughters of about your age, and whatever ails you, getting drunk ain't gonna help.”

River gazed at him, reading his honest concern from the back of his mind. And knew he wasn't going to pour another drink. For a moment she considered the twenty-three ways she could take the bottle from him, eighteen of which didn’t actually involve killing him, but realised it was pointless. Besides, the man who’d just left the bar was suitable. His thoughts had burned.

“Okay,” she said. “I’ll go.”

“Shiny.” Amidst the relief that she was leaving his place, though, there was still a thread of worry. “Look, why don’t I wave someone for you? Ask them to come get you? This ain't a town to be walking on your own. Not for a girl like you.”

“No need to worry about me. I can take care of myself.” She smiled for him.

“Somehow I kinda doubt that. Let me wave –“

But she was gone, out of the door and into the dry street, just a flutter of dust motes marking her passage.

--

The old timer watched a second shuttle come in to land, settling next to the first in the white dust. Only a moment later the hatch opened and a large man dropped out, followed by two younger men and two women.

“Been a while since we had so many visitors,” he muttered, eyeing the strangers suspiciously as the big one crossed to the first shuttle, banging on the door.

“River!” he yelled.

“Ain't there, mister,” the old timer said.

Jayne turned. “Where’d she go?”

“Well, that’s an interesting point. Paid me to watch her things, but not to say where she walked.” He sucked on his pipe. “Interesting.”

Jayne didn’t have the time to argue. He started ranging across the dirt, his eyes glued to the ground.

“Was she okay?” Mal asked.

“Walked of her own accord. Can’t say she was okay, though. But she was a sight for sore eyes.” He grinned, showing he had fewer teeth than fingers.

“Alone?”

“Surely was.” He pointed at Mal with the pipe. “You want me to be looking after your shuttle too?”

“That’s her tracks, Mal,” Jayne interrupted, pointing down at what looked like little more than wind marks in the dust.

“You sure?”

Jayne didn’t even bother to answer. Instead he was off at a jog, following them towards town.

“You chasing that girlie?” the man outside the junkyard asked.

“She’s my crew.” Mal glanced at the door to the shuttle, making sure it was locked up tight.

“Only she looked pretty determined.”

“Yeah,” Mal sighed. “She usually is.”

--

They were following her. Well, not actually following. They’d spread out along the street behind the main buildings, keeping pace with her. They thought they were being clever, but she could see their desires like flames in the darkness.

A little way along one of them was lounging in the entrance to an alley, his eyes flickering up and down the street, checking nobody was watching. As she came level with him, he stepped forward.

“’Scuse me, miss. You ain't seen Raster around anywhere, have you?”

River studied him. He looked very young, but there was something in his eyes much older, and a scent around him of pain and destruction. “Raster?” she asked, letting her lips smile.

“My dog. Big thing. Kinda brown. Just a mutt, but he’s the family dog. My sister’ll be more’n angry with me if I don’t bring him home. She’s expecting, you see, and, well, he’s more’n company for her.”

The lies dripped blithely from his tongue.

“I haven’t seen a dog anywhere. Not even one that’s sort of brown.”

“Well, that ain't good.” He shook his head. “See, I keep thinking I’ve got him, but he goes the other way and I miss him.”

“Oh.”

He suddenly snapped his fingers. “Say, would you help? If I go this way, could you go down there and see if you can catch him as he runs away from me?”

“Shouldn’t you be in school?” she asked, feeling them taking up their positions.

The young man grinned. “Nah. Need to find Raster.” He tried again. “Just take a minute. If’n you’d just go down here …”

She almost wanted to tell him he was stupid, that no-one would ever fall for his ploy, but then she had set herself up as just someone who would. “All right,” she agreed. “Just down here?”

“Yeah.” He looked eager but his heat radiated off him. “It turns to the right. Follow it round and I’ll go the other way.”

“Okay.” She started down the alley. At the end she went to the right, into a patch of deep shadow. An arm snaked out of the darkness and pulled her back against a solid chest, pinning hers to her side, at the same time as a hand covered her mouth.

“Don’t even think on screaming,” said a voice, dripping with malevolence and stinking with need as the hand across her travelled towards her breast.

--

“Where the ruttin’ hell is she?” Jayne said, staring down the street.

“Frey?” Mal looked at his wife.

“She’s here. I just can’t tell exactly …” She concentrated, trying to get past the pain in her head.

The big mercenary wouldn’t wait. He strode along, eyes taking in every detail.

Up ahead he saw a young man lounging against a wall, and it didn’t take much of his tracker’s instincts to recognise a lookout when he saw one. He headed for him, and the young man stood up, about to run, when something behind him drew enough of his attention to allow Jayne to grab him by the throat and pin him to the brickwork.

“Where is she?”

The sound of a scuffle filtered through from behind the building, and the big man slammed the lookout’s head against the stone, knocking him out and dropping him in one motion. He ran through the alleyway, knowing the others were behind him.

Rage filled him at the sight of River surrounded by five men, despite the fact that another was on the ground already, wrapped around his belly like it was on fire.

“River, what the hell are you playing at?” Jayne was angry, so angry that he hit the man who had been holding River’s arm so hard there was an audible crack as his jaw broke.

Surprised to hear his voice, to see him lay the man out, River didn’t swerve in time to avoid a fist aimed at her cheek, and it connected. Her head snapped back and she saw bright lights in the darkness that dimmed as she slid to the ground, even as Jayne roared and tackled her assailant, going down on top of him and pummelling him into submission.

From the corner of his eye Jayne saw one of the others begin to draw his pistol, even as he felt the cheek of the man he was hitting part and blood begin to flow, but Simon grabbed his hand, allowing a well-aimed foot to catch the gunman in the chest, which Mal followed with an uppercut that laid him out.

Another one was faster, and the sound of a gun firing deafened them all in the confined space, even as chips of brick caught Freya’s cheek. Zoe had her Mare’s Leg out in an instant, and caught the man in the throat, leaving him gasping.

The last man tried to run, but Freya swung her arm, catching the man in the belly with her elbow and lifting him off his feet, slamming him into the wall. A double fist to the same place had him whimpering soundlessly on the hard packed earth.

“Mal, we have to go,” she breathed, wiping the small amount of blood from her skin with the back of her hand. “Someone will have heard, and we really don’t want to have to explain this.”

“No.” He looked at the young woman on the ground, her brother next to her. “Can she be moved?”

“She’s just knocked out.” Simon sounded angry, but it wasn’t aimed at the captain.

“Jayne.”

The mercenary nodded, lifting River easily so she hung over his shoulder.

“Sir.” Zoe stood a little further off. “We can get out this way. Don’t have to go through the town.”

“Good.” He followed his first mate, knowing the other two would follow, back out into the heat and the dry sunlight.

--

“See you found her,” the old timer said, still sucking on his pipe.

“That we did,” Mal said, coming to a halt. “Frey, you’d best pilot the other shuttle back.”

She nodded, opening the door and climbing quickly inside.

“Jayne, go with her.”

“Nope.”

“Jayne.”

“I wanna know what just happened there,” the big man said, “and I figure River’s gonna tell me.”

“She’s still out,” Simon said.

“No, she ain't. She’s been awake these last five minutes.”

Simon’s eyebrows raised, and he ducked under the fall of dark hair. “River?”

“Make him put me down,” came the small voice.

“Jayne.” Mal had the door open. “Inside first. Don’t want her running off again.”

The mercenary carried her inside, even as the other shuttle fired up and lifted off. Zoe hurried through to the bridge while Mal closed the hatch.

Jayne lifted her down, standing her on her feet on the deck. She staggered a little, and he put his hand out to steady her, but she moved back, sitting down on the bench.

“Sit still while I check you over,” her brother said, joining her quickly.

“I'm okay.”

“You were knocked out.”

“He distracted me.” River glared up at the big man.

“They were gonna hurt you!”

“No, they weren't. I knew what they wanted, and I wasn't going to …” Her voice faded away.

Jayne was livid. “You came here deliberate? Just to kill someone?” He towered over her. “You coulda got dead!”

“I knew what I was doing!” She glared up at him.

“Yeah? Don’t look like it.” He touched her cheek, his callused fingers pressing into the darkening flesh. “Don’t look like it at all.”

“Simon …” She called for him, that slightly wheedling tone that had her brother wrapping his arms around her.

“Later, Jayne,” he said.

“Doc –“

“I said later.”

Jayne threw himself across the shuttle and onto the bench, his fists curling and uncurling.

Mal shook his head. “Calling for your brother’s protection ain’t gonna work with me, albatross.” He looked down at her, his face stern. “You could’ve gotten yourself badly hurt back there, and Jayne ain't the only one needs to know.”

“Mal, let me just get River back to Serenity,” Simon said firmly. “Then you can question her to your heart’s content. Although I’d rather you waited until tomorrow.”

“Doc, it’s likely we killed one or two folks back there. I’d like to know why.”

“And it can wait for a few hours.”

Mal. He heard Freya’s voice in his mind, and he looked up, even though his reasoning consciousness knew she was flying the other shuttle. She’s not going anywhere.

Ain't the point, Frey. If she’s likely to take it into her head to –

She won’t. There’s a reason.

What?

“Mal?” Simon saw his eyes widen.

Instead of answering, Mal stared at River, who snuggled down further into her brother’s arms. Then he half turned. “Zoe, call Hank. If he’s got Serenity back under control tell him to hightail it back here and pick us up,” he ground out.

--

Part V

Kaylee opened the door to the Bethany’s room to be greeted by a huge sneeze.

“Sorry, Momma,” the guilty party said, wiping her nose on a hankie.

“That’s okay, sweetie.” She smiled and stepped inside, a bowl of soup balanced in one hand. “How’re you feeling?”

“Soggy.”

Her mother chuckled. “I know what you mean. I hate getting colds, too. Makes me feel all kinds of annoyed.”

“What’s that?” Bethany asked, looking at the bowl.

“Chicken soup. Well, chicken flavour.”

“Who made it?” The little girl eyed it doubtfully.

Now Kaylee laughed out loud. “It’s okay. I did.”

“Good.” She moved over so Kaylee could sit on the edge of the bed, and wrapped the blanket around her waist.

Kaylee lifted a spoonful of the broth to her daughter’s mouth. “How’s Hope?” She looked over to the other small bed.

Bethie glanced at her sister and swallowed. “Sleeping.” She grinned. “Mmn.”

“Tastes okay?”

“Nice.” She opened her mouth for another.

“Your granma swears by this. Says it’ll kill any kinda bug, cure what ails you.”

She licked her lips. “S’good.”

“Anything for my baby.”

“Not a baby,” Bethie said firmly, shaking her head.

“Then you can feed yourself and I can get back to work?”

Bethany weighed up the pros and cons, and decided it was worth it, just this once. “Baby.”

Kaylee grinned. “Okay. Open up.” Another spoonful went down.

“Have you got some for Auntie River?”

“You think she needs some?”

Bethie nodded. “Make her feel better.”

“Well, I think the Cap’s going to talk to her, but there’s enough for another bowl. If you don’t eat it all.”

“Might have to make some more.”

“We’ll see about that.” Kaylee gently wiped a splash of soup from her daughter’s chin. “Do you … have any idea what’s wrong with your Auntie River?”

Bethany paused in the act of trying to lick her own cheek. “Might.”

“Can you tell me?”

“Secret.”

“Even from me?”

“Not supposed to peek.” She looked down at the soup. “Momma?”

“Anything I should be worried about?”

Bethie sighed. It looked like blackmail was involved here. “Nothing to worry about. Uncle Mal knows.”

“Frey?”

“Mmn.” She opened her mouth. “Momma. Please?”

Kaylee had to smile. “Okay. Guess we’ll all know ‘fore too long.” She filled the waiting entrance with another spoonful of hot chicken broth, and watched Bethany’s eyes close in satisfaction.

--

“Albatross?” Mal knocked gingerly. “Can I come in?”

“No.”

“Well, seeing as it’s my shuttle, and I let you use it out of the goodness of my heart, I kinda feel that was a rhetorical question.” He ducked inside the doorway, ready to duck even more if she started throwing things.

“Tell him I don’t want to see him.” This came from the figure on the bed, all covered over with a blanket until there was just a mound with feet.

“I've a notion you mean Jayne. Though since you won’t let your brother check you over properly, there might be some doubt over that.”

“Yes, Jayne.”

“Well, I can do that. I conjure he’s got the message already, but … yeah. I can tell him. Might make it easier if he knew why you did what you did, though.” He shook his head. “And I’d kinda prefer not to just be talking to a heap of bed linen.”

There was movement under the pile, and she sat up slowly. “Why can’t everyone just leave me alone?” she asked.

“Pretty much it’s ‘cause they care about you.”

“Don’t need to.”

“No, well, maybe they don’t, but seems to me that everyone knows you’re family. You talk about being a daughter to Freya, to … well, to me, and you’re sure Simon’s sister and Bethany’s aunt. And we won’t even mention what you are to Jayne. So I think caring comes with the territory.”

“Huh.”

“So can I sit down?”

“Your shuttle.” She drew her knees up out of the way and he perched on the edge of the bed.

“Glad we got that straight, at least.” He smiled, then looked at her more closely. “That’s one hell of a black eye.”

“It’s fine.” She let her hair swing forward, covering the bruised skin. “I'm fine.”

“Well, I’d have to take issue with that notion, albatross.” Mal dipped his head to try and see past her shield. “I'm kinda certain being fine don’t equate to you stealing my shuttle and trying to get yourself killed. Or worse.”

“What’s worse?”

“Well, what those men had in mind. And you know damn well it’s a lot worse. Going into a place like that, looking like you do …” He shook his head. “If Freya hadn’t been able to pick up where you’d gone, there’s no saying what might’ve happened to you.” He put his hand under her chin and tipped her face up to look at him. “Unless that’s what you wanted.”

The guilt flashing across her eyes told him everything, despite the fact that she said, “Of course not.”

“Right.” He nodded slowly, letting go of her face. “So what we saw, what we stopped, that wasn't what I thought it was.”

“They attacked me. I would have dealt with it.”

“Yeah, figure they did. And yeah, you could. But you went down to that place to make it happen.”

She glared at him. “You don’t know everything.”

“I know enough, River.” He paused a moment. “Are you pregnant?”

Her face disappeared behind the wall of hair again. “Not answering.”

Mal released a long, slow breath. “Doesn’t make it go away by not saying it.”

“Might.”

“For a genius you sure can be a dummy sometimes.” A hand shot out and whacked him on the thigh. “Ow.”

“Not a dummy. Although it is a proven fact that pregnancy destroys 34.875 percent of your cognitive brain cells …”

“I’ll let you tell that one to Frey.” He waited a long moment. “Look, River, you can tell me what you know, or think you know, or I can get your brother in here with his little medical doodad and he can take some of your blood while I hold ya down.” He shrugged. “Your choice.”

“Tiny feet in huge combat boots …” she whispered.

“I’ll take that as a yes.”

“Who told you?” Then her lips pursed. “Freya.”

“Your walls ain't as good as you thought.”

“Shouldn’t have been peeking.”

“I told her to.” He looked down at her belly. “This little one going to be psychic?”

“I haven’t decided.”

“Haven’t decided? On what?”

“Whether there’s going to be a little one or not.”

“Ah.” Now he understood. “And you thought you’d make it someone else’s decision.”

“I don’t know.”

“River …”

She began to bluster. “It was just … the dreams, the voice, the … the feeling wrong, not myself and not realising it wasn't myself but someone else, and it just … “

“Forced the cracks open a bit?”

She looked at him. “Yes.”

“So all this pretending to be thirteen again, wearing your hair in those pigtails –“

“Plaits.”

“Plaits ... that was all so you didn’t have to face having a baby?”

“I'm too young.” She barely breathed it.

“You’re twenty-three.”

“Not age. My mind. I’ve not been whole for a long time.”

“And you think having a kid is going to make you crazy … sorry, crazier than you are already?”

“It’s a variable that I can’t control. Hormones, mood swings … I could cut your throat in your sleep.”

“Rather you didn’t.”

“But I don’t know.”

“So that’s a reason to do what you did?”

“It’s my reason!”

“Your brother’s right. You are a brat.”

“Boob.”

Mal half smiled and put his hand on her knee. “I take it it’s Jayne’s.”

She looked outraged. “Of course!”

“Just checking. And how long’ve you known? That you were pregnant.”

“A few days for certain, but I've felt odd for a little while longer.”

“Since you …” He waved his hand uncertainly in the direction of her stomach.

“Since I conceived. Yes.”

“You planning on tellin’ Jayne?” His voice had softened. “’Cause the way I figure it, he has a right to know.”

“Haven’t you?”

“Nope. Ain't my place.” He paused. “Well, yeah, maybe it is, but as captain, not as friend.”

“My father.”

“Not even that, River. But you act like that again, running off, and I won’t be averse to putting you over my knee. And don’t say Jayne’d stop me. He’d probably hold you down.”

“Freya wouldn’t let you.”

“Wanna bet?”

“Ask her.”

“River, I’d hold his coat,” the woman in question said, stepping into the shuttle.

Mal wasn’t surprised, and stood up so she could sit. River scuttled round to lay her head in the older woman’s lap.

“Not old enough to have children,” she muttered. “Still a child. Everyone thinks so.”

“You think I feel old enough to have kids? Hell, you think Mal is?” She smiled at the look of effrontery on her husband’s face. “Doesn’t mean anyone ever feels ready for them, jaio nu.”

“I didn’t know what to do.”

“So you ran off? Why didn’t you tell someone, River? Me? Or Simon?”

“I felt broken. In two pieces. I was afraid.”

“Of what?”

“The need.”

“The need for what? To stay a child?”

“To be looked after.”

“You don’t wanna be looked after?” Mal asked, slightly confused.

“That’s the thing. I do.”

Freya stroked her hair. “But you don’t have to be a child to have that, River.”

“I know.”

“And you do have to tell Jayne.”

She sighed. “Already knows.”

Mal looked over and, sure enough, the mercenary stood in the doorway. “You eavesdropping?” he asked.

“Must be catching,” Jayne grunted, but Mal didn’t miss the glance that passed between him and Freya. He understood – she’d told him to listen.

“Yeah. Must be.”

“You’re gonna have a baby?” the mercenary asked, his eyes on River.

She nodded slowly, her thumb inching towards her mouth, but staying on her lip.

“That what all this gos se was about? You were afraid to tell me?”

She didn’t answer, just clung to Freya.

“Time we left,” Freya said, disentangling the young woman’s hand from her shirt.

“Don’t,” River pleaded.

“This is between you and Jayne.” Freya got up. “But we won’t be far.”

Mal let her go ahead of him out of the shuttle, then glared at Jayne. “Play nice,” he warned, then followed his wife.

--

Part V

Mal closed the door to the shuttle, leaving just Jayne and River in the silence.

“Are you?” River asked, not looking up at the big man, standing so still in the middle of the floor.

“What?”

“Going to play nice?”

“Wanna know what’s going on, River. What the hell were you playing at?” Barely contained anger was radiating off him like heat.

“You know.”

“I know you’re pregnant. And the kid’s mine. Which I’m glad about.”

“It would never be anyone else’s.”

“Then why’d you do this?” He couldn’t move. Seeing her on that bed, knowing his off-spring was growing inside her, made his heart ache more than he could bear, and it came out in harsh words. “What made you think you could do this to me?” His hands were in fists.

“I don’t know.” She hunched over, pulling the covers up to her chin.

“Did ya … did ya want to kill it? Or get yourself killed?” She didn’t answer, and he gritted his teeth. “Tell me.”

She shook her head, then shrugged. “I wanted to feel normal.”

“Ain't we agreed there’s no such thing? Least, not for you.” He glared at her. “Look at me,” he ordered. “I wanna see your eyes.”

She lifted her head slowly. “See if I'm lying?”

“No, I don’t think you are. But maybe I can see what you ain't saying.” It hurt. More than he could admit. Hurt that she hadn’t come to him, hadn’t said what the problem was, hadn’t gorram trusted him to be there for her, to help her.

She could see it all, so clearly in his mind, the sharp edges she’d caused, the cuts, the bruises. The need to understand. “Trying to read me.”

“Maybe.” He stepped closer, slowly, haltingly, as if he was mired in quicksand. “Is it me?” he asked. “If’n this kid weren’t mine, would it be easier for ya?”

“No!” she protested, reaching for his hand, holding it tightly.

He felt her pulse beating wildly, although maybe it was his, the way his heart was jackhammering in his chest. “Then what?”

“I don’t want to kill you all.”

“Kill us?”

“I might. In my sleep.” Images of blood on snow white flowers, arterial spatter across conduits, eyes pleading for mercy before the life faded away … she pushed them down ruthlessly.

He didn’t know what was in her mind, but the shudder that moved through her small frame was enough. “You think I'm gonna let you do that?”

“You couldn’t stop me.”

“I’d do my rutting best.”

She shook her head, her hair swinging about her face. “It would be easier if I wasn't here.”

“Who for?”

“Everyone!”

“That’s fei hua.” He looked into the dark wells of her eyes, trying to see into her soul, into the truth of things. “Was the Cap right? That why you went to Cerberus? You wanted to let them make that decision? Kill you? Or … or the baby?”

“If I don’t have the baby or I leave Serenity –“

“River, don’t.” There was a begging, a pleading note in his voice that was quite foreign to Jayne. “Don’t talk like that. Can’t take it. It’s my kid. I got rights –“

“It’s my body.”

His fist closed on her hand, hurting her, but she didn’t pull away.

“Mine too,” he ground out. “River, if you have to … if you need to leave, then we will. Together. But if you didn’t let me come with you I … I don’t know what I’d do. You’d tear out my heart.”

She stared at him, the pain in his blue eyes he’d given up trying to hide, and looked into his soul. She saw the love, the devotion, the feelings she inspired in him, and she melted, launching herself at him, wrapping herself around him, letting her need for him dictate her actions.

His arms came up, one at her back, the other under her legs, lifting her to his chest. He held her, his cheek to hers, just revelling in the feeling of having her in his embrace for the first time in what felt like years.

“I feel torn, Jayne,” she whispered into his body. “There’s two of me now, and I … I sometimes can’t cope with just one.”

“That’s what I'm here for, moonbrain. To help.”

Something about the way he said it, called her his moonbrain, relaxed a knot deep in her belly. “Help me.”

“Always.” He breathed deeply of her scent, letting it fill him, and sat down carefully on the bed, holding her in his lap. He could feel the dampness of the tears she was shedding soak into his t-shirt, and lifted her face away. “Hey, no need to cry.”

Tears still splashed onto his hand. “Lots of need. But mostly sad that I did this to you.”

“’Pology accepted.” He wiped them from her chin.

“I didn’t think.”

“Mind-readin’ genius, huh?” He tightened his grip on her. “Don’t see much of that genius part right now.”

“My Jayne has more sense.”

“Yeah. Figured that.”

They sat for a long while, just holding each other, until she quieted, her body enervated.

He finally spoke. “So you’re still crazy? Likely to go off and do this kinda thing again ‘less I tie you to the bed?”

“When the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.”

“Ain't no wind in space, River.”

“Then I’m as sane as you are.”

“Don’t say much.”

She sniffed loudly. “I'm still crazy. You know I always will be. But now crazy and pregnant.”

“Sure could be an interesting combination.”

“Define interesting.”

“Like you said, there’s two of you now. And if this is just a taste, well, I'm gonna have to consider my options.”

She looked up, her face tense. “Are you going to leave me?”

“Why’d I do that?”

“Because I'm not what you want anymore.”

“Girl, if you weren't pregnant I’d put you over my knee, and Mal wouldn’t be able to stop me. I wasn't talking about leavin’ you. I was talking about locking you in the shuttle until you bring that little baby into the ‘verse.”

Her face softened. “Keep me safe.”

“Yeah.” He moved her hair away from her forehead. “I figure that’s partly why it’s been bad. You thought I didn’t want kids, didn’t you? What I said about Jesse.”

“Crying.” He had said it. More than a week ago. When Jesse was waking everyone in the middle of the night. That kids weren't worth it, the way they kept a man from sleeping.

“River, I didn’t mean it. You know that. And I know kids cry. They all do. Ya shoulda heard Matty when he was small. Some nights I hadta go and sleep out on the porch. Got some looks from the neighbours, I’ll tell ya. But he grew out of it. So’ll Jesse. And it’d be our kid.”

“But that’s not … not the point.”

“You really afraid you’re gonna gut me?”

She placed the palm of her hand on the scar across his chest. “So easy.”

“Yeah, guess it would be. But killing yourself or the baby ain’t gonna solve anything. Just make everyone … River, I’d like as die if that happened.” There was a lump in his throat that he tried to swallow back.

“I might not stay sane. Not all the time.”

“Well, there’s two of you in there right now.” He touched her belly lightly with his large forefinger. “Two minds. It just pushed you a bit too far this time.”

“I want this baby.” As she said it, she realised she did, with all her heart.

“So do I.” His blue eyes stared at her, willing her to believe him. “So do I, River.” He sighed. “I figure maybe you ought to talk to Frey some more. She’d understand. Help.”

“I won’t run away again.”

“Good.” He tried to lighten the mood. “‘Cause it’d probably give me a heart attack if you did. Then your brother would go all prissy on me and stick me with those big needles, and I’d hit him, and it’d be messy.”

She giggled suddenly, and it was like a light turning on in the shuttle. “My Jayne’s a marshmallow,” she stated.

He harrumphed. “No, I ain't. And don’t you go round telling anyone that I am. I just love you, is all.”

Her heart beat faster. He said it so naturally. “I love you, too.”

“So talk to Frey. She’ll help.”

“I know.” She moved over a little so she could lean against him, her head on his shoulder. “That’s what Mommas do.”

“She ain't your Momma, girl.”

“Yes she is. She sees herself like that.”

“Does she?”

“Called me jaio nu.”

“Well, you are beautiful.”

“And she thinks of me as her daughter.”

“More fool her.” He smiled as she pinched him. They sat quietly for a while longer, their bodies getting used to each other once more. Then Jayne spoke again. “Moonbrain …” He looked down at her, nestled against his chest.

“Yes?”

“Why … why a unicorn? Frey said you were dreaming about a unicorn. That me?” he asked, feeling foolish.

“Don’t feel like that,” she said, her hand on his belly. “The unicorn is a creature of fable, fierce yet good, selfless yet solitary, and beautiful.”

“That how you see me?”

“I must do.”

“I ain't good, River.”

“I think you are.”

“And I ain't beautiful.”

“You are.”

“We gonna argue over this?” He pulled her closer. “I'm a mean, ornery bastard of a man, and I wouldn’t want to pass that on to anyone, but with you there to temper me, to make something better … hell, River, I can’t wait to meet this kid. But there’s no way in hell you could say I was beautiful.”

“You are to me.” She stroked his skin through his t-shirt, feeling the musculature underneath, knowing the name of every rib and organ, yet just enjoying being next to him.

“Yeah, but you’re crazy.”

“So they say.” She sighed in contentment. “Besides, I should have known my unicorn wasn't there to hurt me. A unicorn’s horn is said to neutralise any poison.”

“Poison?” He screwed his forehead up. “You saying you were poisoned? ‘Cause if you are I’d better get your bro in here and he can –“

She laughed. “Not that kind of poison. Poison of the mind. My mind. Cracked as it is, it broke when I realised I was pregnant.”

“Is it that bad?” he asked softly, almost afraid again.

“Not now. And I should have realised. You were there to cure me.”

“River, I don’t understand a damn word of what you’re saying.”

“It doesn’t matter. You don’t need to.” She closed her eyes. “You’re my Jayne.”

For a long moment neither spoke, then the big man whispered, “So how long?”

“Mmn?”

“Until I see this get of mine?”

“Eight months, one day and … something like three hours and twenty eight minutes.”

“Something like?”

“I'm guessing.”

“Right.” He laughed, a deep rumble that penetrated to her heart. “Just so long as I know.”

--

Outside on the catwalk, Freya relaxed.

“They okay?” Mal asked, slipping his arm around her waist.

“They will be. It won’t be easy, but I think they will be.”

“Why not easy?”

She turned enough so that she could look at him. “River’s right. She could get worse. It’s bad enough being pregnant at the best of times. I mean, you know what hormones do.”

“Surely seen the results,” Mal agreed, remembering ducking more than once.

“Imagine that multiplied maybe a hundred times. More. Then add on top that you can still hear everyone else as well.”

“So we take precautions.”

“Mal, you’re not locking her in the shuttle.”

“Kinda solve all our problems, though, wouldn’t it.”

“And she’d be out of there in a moment. You know that. Unless you’re considering asking Simon to dope her.”

“Wouldn’t do that. That’s only for you.” A sly grin spread across his face.

“And you’re not to tell him about her pregnancy. That’s up to River and Jayne.”

“Oh, now, come on, Frey,” Mal protested. “A man has to have something to look forward to in his life!”

“No. You’re not to say a word.” Then her lips twitched. “Although I’d dearly like to be listening in when they do.”

Mal grinned wider. “Five’ll get you ten he’ll end up on his back, spark out in the infirmary.”

“I'm not taking that kind of bet.” She tried to look prim but it didn’t work. “Unless you’re considering taking a side on how long it takes him to come round.”

He laughed. “I just wanna see his face when he realises who he’s gonna be related to.”

“Related?”

“You don’t think I'm gonna let them get away with not getting hitched, do you?”

She pushed him in the chest. “No. You’re not going to say a word about that.”

“Frey –“

“Hank and Zoe aren’t married yet.”

“And I tell them every time I get the chance to make it legal.”

“Mal, no. You know marriage isn’t essential to a happy relationship.”

He pulled her closer. “No. But it makes it feel amazing.”

She smiled a little. “So you like being married to me?”

“Love it, ai ren.”

“That’s nice. But you’re not going to change the subject.” She poked him. “You just want to give her away.”

“What if I do?”

“I think that’ll be Simon’s responsibility.”

“He’s not her father.”

“Neither are you.”

“You sure about that?”

“Mal, I know we don’t know who River’s biological father is, but I’m pretty sure it isn’t you.”

In loco parentis.

“Does that mean you have to be crazy to have kids?”

“Something like that, only I was thinking more along the lines of you know how she looks on us.”

“But that makes you a grandpa.”

His eyes widened. “What?”

“If you’re River’s surrogate father, then you’re her and Jayne’s child’s surrogate grandfather.”

“Come again?”

“You heard the first time.”

“And I still ain't taken it in.” He shook his head. “Frey, darling’, I ain't old enough to be a grandfather.” He paused. “Although I guess I did start young so maybe out there could be –“

“Don’t even think it,” she warned.

“Hey, you started this!” He grinned. “Grandma.”

“What?”

“If I'm surrogate grandpa, you’re surrogate grandma.” He laughed at the look on her face.

Cao,” she whispered.

“Exactly.”

Freya pulled herself together. “But that little titbit of information doesn’t get you out of promising not to badger them about getting married.”

He sighed heavily. “Okay. I won’t say anything. Yet. Least, not to Jayne.”

“He’s not going to be the problem, Mal.”

“You think River won’t want to marry him?”

“Mal, she’s just found out she’s pregnant, and look what that did to her. I don’t think she can cope with a wedding as well.”

“Yeah.” He leaned forward and kissed her nose. “You’re way too sensible for this crew.”

“Me? Sensible?” She shook her head. “Wash your mouth out. And promise me you won’t nag either of them.”

“Okay. I promise.” He smiled. “But you’re going to have to do something in return.”

“Oh?” She raised an eyebrow.

“Not that.” He paused. “Well, not ‘til later. I mean for River.” He glanced towards the shuttle. “You’re right. She’s going to have problems, maybe all the way through until she gives birth. And right now I can only see two ways round this. Either I dump her on Lazarus with Inara for the duration –“

“You like living dangerously, do you?” Freya asked in astonishment. “Do you have any idea what Jayne would do to you if you suggested that?”

“OR …” he said firmly. “Or you take her in hand. Teach her some more of your control. And maybe at the same time you can give her your worldly wisdom on being pregnant.”

Freya smiled. “You’ve been reading my mind.”

“Must be catching,” her husband said. “So you’ll do it?”

“Wouldn’t have it any other way.”

“Good.” He grinned. “Now, about the other stuff you’re going to do in return …”

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Monied Individual - Epilogue
"I honestly don’t know if my pilot wants to go around with flowers and curlicues carved into his leg.”
[Maya. Post-BDM. The end of the story, and the beginning of the last ...]


Monied Individual - Part XX
Mal took a deep breath, allowing it out slowly through his nostrils, and now his next words were the honest truth. “Ain’t surprised. No matter how good you are, and I’m not complaining, I’ve seen enough battle wounds, had to help out at the odd amputation on occasion. And I don’t have to be a doc myself to tell his leg ain’t quite the colour it should be, even taking into account his usual pasty complexion. What you did … didn’t work, did it?”
[Maya. Post-BDM. Simon has no choice, and Luke comes around.]


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!]