BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL

JANE0904

Third Chance: Part I - REPOST
Monday, November 26, 2007

Maya. Post-BDM. Jayne wants to go to his son's wedding, but has family trouble too. Part I of II


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 1788    RATING: 0    SERIES: FIREFLY

Part I

Jayne stared at the screen. He knew a lot about death, the places to hit to make dying easy, and more to make it hard, the way blood flew when a throat was cut just so, how a bullet through lungs bubbled … all this and more. He could’ve written a book on it. But this, looking at what happened, the sheer physical improbability of it …

“What’re you looking at?” Hank asked, stepping down into the galley.

“Huh?” Jayne was so engrossed in the portable Cortex link that he didn’t even try to hide it as the pilot looked over his shoulder.

Everything a father needs to know about pregnancy …” he read out loud.

The big mercenary belatedly put his arm across the screen. “Hey. Bug off. Private.”

“Not no more.” Hank grinned and strolled to the counter for a coffee. “’Sides, you’re glaring at a father here. There ain't one Cortex site you can think of I haven’t looked at.”

“Yeah?” Jayne was intrigued, despite himself.

“Sure. And I ain't the only one.” Hank dropped into the chair opposite, his mug in his hand. “I could show you the logs. Prove it.”

“Even the Cap?”

“He was worst of all!”

It had been a week since River had gone to see Simon, Jayne tagging along reluctantly.

“Only reason I’m going is to see the look on his face,” the big man avowed.

“I’ll keep him away from scalpels. Come on.” She took hold of his hand and pulled him into the infirmary. “Simon.”

Her brother looked up from some test results. “At last,” he said, smiling at Jayne.

“What?” Jayne muttered.

“You’ve got her to let me check her over.”

“I don’t need checking over,” River said, letting go of Jayne’s hand and hopping up onto the medbed.

“You don’t?” Simon looked confused. “Then this is a social call?”

“No.” She took his hand and placed it on her stomach. “Run the test.”

“Test? Test what?” Realisation came slowly, dawning like sunlight, only it turned into shock. “Are you saying … you’re … you and Jayne?” He couldn’t say anything else, his jaw working but no words, just eyes wide staring at the pair of them. If anything he’d gone paler than usual. His free hand gripped the edge of the examining couch.

She patted his hand. “I know I am. So you’d better get your little medical doodad and check.”

“How … how far along …” Simon knew he was sounding like the worst of the most incompetent medical students ever, but he couldn’t help it. His sister. Pregnant. His little sister. With … with him.

“Simon.” She was looking at him, and it was the look he knew all too well.

“If you didn’t read me you wouldn’t see things like that!”

Jayne stared from one to the other, then sighed. “Figure it’s me you’re talking about.”

River held out her free hand to him. “Simon’s a boob.”

“I am not a boob!” the man in question snapped.

“Doc …” Jayne warned.

Simon took a deep breath. “Yes. You’re right. I’m sorry.” He turned to his equipment. “I don’t know if I can tell yet, but I can do a blood test.”

“You’ll tell.”

He turned back. “It will only take a moment.”

She smiled. “No, Simon. Eight months.”

No-one spoke for the next couple of minutes, as Simon kept his eyes glued firmly to the machine, waiting for the reading to appear, not sure what response he was praying for. Jayne started to smirk slightly, and River hit him lightly on the pad of his arm.

There was a beep, and Simon took a sharp breath.

“See?” River said to no-one in particular.

“You’re … you’re pregnant. Just.” He turned back, trying to pull his professional pride together.

“Didn’t think moonbrain was lying, did ya?” Jayne asked, leaning forward.

“No, no, of course not. I just …”

“Just what?”

“Don’t see how it happened.”

Jayne guffawed. “Doc, if I have to draw you pictures, Kaylee’s got some real trouble.”

“I didn’t mean that.” A blush worked its way up Simon’s porcelain skin. “I meant, River was being medicated.”

“Things happen, Simon,” River said airily. “And I was due another shot a few weeks ago, but things were happening. I forgot.”

“Forgot?”

She shook her head. “Been thinking about it. Knew I needed to come along, should use something else … but I wanted to feel all of Jayne, and I –“

“River!”

“Sometimes you’re more of a prude than the captain,” she said pointedly. “But I don’t know why I didn’t.”

“I think that sort of psychological analysis would be better for another day,” Simon said, wishing the heat he could feel in his cheeks would go. “So what happened, Cerberus, everything … this was why?”

“Yes.” She gazed at him, her dark eyes calm. Suspiciously so.

He looked seriously at his sister. “Mei-mei, we have to … I have to keep a close eye on you. Monitor your hormone levels. If it looks like they’re peaking –“

“Doc, figure that’s why we’re here,” Jayne growled. “You’re gonna help keep her healthy. Sane. Well, much as she can be.”

Simon drew himself up. “I am her brother, Jayne. Of course I will. As well as being her doctor.” He looked back at her. “I want to do a blood test every morning.”

River’s nose wrinkled. “I don’t have enough.”

“You have to. And if you don’t turn up I’ll just tell Mal and he’ll order you.”

“Just disobey.”

“Don’t worry none, doc,” the father-to-be put in. “I’ll make sure she’s here. Even if I have to carry her.”

“Thank you, Jayne.”

“And ya took it real well,” Jayne said, slapping the younger man on the back. “Thought maybe you’d faint or something, knowing I’m the pa of your niece or nephew.”

Simon couldn’t go any paler. “Right.”

That night Jayne called for silence at the dinner table. “Got something to tell you.”

“What’s up, big guy?” Hank asked, then turned, startled, as Bethany giggled.

“Hey, you weren’t supposed to be peekin’!” Jayne admonished.

“Auntie Frey did,” the little girl pointed out, still sounding congested but with a grin so wide on her face that all her small white teeth were visible.

“That don’t mean you can, Bethie,” Mal said, his arm around Ethan as the boy sat on his thigh. “I asked her to.”

Freya, Jesse asleep in her arms, smiled. “Lessons tomorrow, Bethie.”

The grin faltered a little, but only for a moment. “Don’t care,” she said, her light coming back on. “And I didn’t tell Momma when she asked.”

Everyone looked at Kaylee, who glanced up from wiping Hope’s nose. “S’right,” she confirmed. “Not a word. And chicken soup was involved, too.”

“Bribery and corruption?” Mal asked, smiling.

“Course. Had me good teachers.”

“The best.”

Jayne became aware that River was tapping her foot agitatedly. He took her hand and squeezed gently as he said over the other voices, “We’re pregnant!”

Silence fell, along with three jaws.

“You and him?” Hank finally managed to get out, staring at River. “Or are we looking at a miracle here?”

“I am with child,” River agreed formally. “And Jayne’s the father.”

“So no jokes,” the mercenary said, glaring at Hank.

“Wasn’t about to. Not yet, anyway.” A grin to rival Bethany’s appeared. “Congratulations!”

Zoe got up from her chair and came around the table to hug the expectant mother. “And that’s from me too. Anything you need, you just ask.”

“I will.”

Kaylee was glaring at Simon. “How come I’m always the last to know?” she demanded.

Bao bei, I only found out myself this morning,” her husband insisted.

“Took it real well, too,” Jayne added. “Didn’t faint nor nothing.”

“Thank you,” Simon said. “I think.”

“Auntie River’s gonna have a baby?” Ethan asked, his eyes huge.

“That’s right, big feller,” Mal said. “Kinda your cousin.”

“Like Ben and Hope?”

“Exactly.”

“And Bethany.”

“That’s it.”

“More smelly diapers?”

“Pooh,” Bethany put in, and the little boy laughed.

River was watching Kaylee. “Aren’t you happy for us?” she asked her sister-in-law, her tone somewhat fretful.

The young mechanic realised she was the only one who hadn’t appeared pleased. “Oh, mei-mei, of course I am.” She handed Hope to Simon and hugged the girl. “Course I’m happy! I'm just stupid, as usual.”

“Not stupid,” River said, smiling in the tight embrace. “Much.”

“Hey!”

“I’d say congratulations, ‘cept I knew already,” Mal said smugly. “So all I’m gonna say is … when’s the wedding?”

Freya glared at him, and from the wince he gave also kicked him under the table.

“No wedding,” River said.

“Could be a double,” Hank put in, earning his own glare and kick from Zoe. “Just saying.”

“Don’t want to get married.”

“I already asked,” Jayne admitted, grumbling a little. “She turned me down.”

“I’m not ready yet.”

“Honey, don’t let them try to brow beat you into anything,” Zoe said, tossing another glare at Mal.

“I won’t,” River promised.

“What is it about the women on this boat?” Mal asked. “What makes ‘em all so loathe to get married?”

“Must be something in the water,” Jayne said, sighing.

“Got that right,” Hank agreed.

Now, though, a week later, the pilot was all smiles.

“It’s a great Christmas present for everyone.” He sipped his coffee. “And any advice I can give –“

“Christmas?” Jayne’s brow furrowed.

“Yeah. You know, twinkly lights on a tree, trimmings, turkey …”

“Soon?”

“Pretty much.” Hank grinned. “Jayne, you really have no idea what date it is?”

Jayne didn’t respond, just checked the Cortex screen. “Cao,” he muttered.

“What? Is there a problem?”

“How far’re we from Jangyin?” Jayne asked suddenly.

Hank shook his head. “’Bout a week. Why?”

“A week.”

“But getting further every second. We’re heading in the other direction. And I ask again … why?”

“It’s the fourteenth.”

“So? Jayne, you’re making less sense than … whoa, wait a minute,” Hank said, putting his hand on the old table top. “What was that?”

“What?”

“We changed course.”

“What? You can feel that?”

Hank was on his feet and heading for the bridge. “I know this ship like the back of my hand. Better. We changed course,” he threw over his shoulder.

Jayne followed him, an odd feeling in the pit of his stomach. He wasn’t surprised to see the pilot’s chair occupied.

“River, what’s going on?” Hank asked as he climbed the steps. “Did you just –“

“Got to pick up your mother first,” the young psychic said to Jayne, tucking her feet underneath her. “And Inara. But it will only take an extra day. Still be on Jiangyin in time.”

“Time?” Hank leaned over her, studying the controls. “Time for what?”

“The wedding.”

--

Part II

“Wedding.” Mal stared at River, who sat placidly in the chair at the end of the table. He had his arms crossed, and there was contained annoyance in his gaze. “Unless it’s you, albatross, I wanna know why we ain’t going to Paquin and that paying job.”

“We have somewhere else to be.”

“And where would that be?”

“Jiangyin. I’ve plotted the most efficient course. We’ll be on Lazarus in twenty-six hours, and Ezra in -”

“River.” Mal interrupted her. “Why?”

“Simon’s wedding.”

Most eyes drifted to the young doctor standing behind his sister. “Hey, don’t look at me. I’m already married.”

“Not Simon Simon, sillies.” River smiled. “Simon Cobb.”

The eyes turned to the mercenary.

“Jayne?” Mal asked. “You got any light you wanna shed on this?”

He sighed. “I was gonna ask. Didn’t know she was gonna just -”

“Well, she did.” Mal looked at his pilot. “Can you get us back on course?”

“Nope. Least not yet. She’s locked me out but good. Better‘n last time.”

“Didn’t I tell you to stop her doing that?”

“How?”

Jayne shook his head. “Mal, I -”

“You’d better explain,” Mal said in exasperation, his temper was not improving.

“My … Simon Cobb. He’s getting married soon, and he … well, he wanted me to be there. Give him away or something.”

“That’s the bride, Jayne,” Freya put in.

“Right.”

“You got that letter,” Mal suddenly said. “Back before Ben was born. I remember.”

“River must’ve picked up … on … It’s only a few days off, Mal, and I was gonna ask,” the big man insisted. “And if it’s money you’re worried about, me and River, we got some saved. We’ll hire ya.”

You’ll hire us? And what about Paquin?”

“It was just a transport job, Mal. Three days,” Freya said gently. “Hardly worth the effort.”

“We were getting paid!”

“So?” She put her arm around his waist, feeling the tension in him. “I think we should all go and see Simon Cobb get married.”

“Frey …”

“Mal, please?” River looked into his face. “I’ve never met him. I’d like to. And Mrs Cobb …” She glanced at Freya, an unspoken conversation going on between them.

The older woman nodded slowly, then looked back at Mal. “It’s not every day we get to attend a wedding.”

“And whose fault’s that?” Mal said, glaring at River and Zoe.

Freya smiled. “River, why don’t you show Hank what you did? I’ll wave Inara, and Jayne can do the same for his mother. Give them enough time to get ready.”

“Hey, I ain’t agreed anything yet!” Mal protested.

“But you were going to, weren’t you?” She smiled into his blue eyes.

“Gorramit,” he murmured, then sighed heavily. “Hank, check out River’s route. See if she’s right. Might be able to shave the time somewhat. And I’ll talk to Inara.”

--

“So it looks like we’re picking you up, Inara,” Mal apologised.

“Well, I do have a nice dress I can wear,” the ex-Companion said, smiling. “Although Samuel … Dr Nazir is still here.”

“Well, he’s welcome to join us if’n he wants. We’ll pretty much be a full house, but I’m sure you won’t mind bunking up together.”

Her smile froze a little and a slight chill seemed to shimmer off the screen. “We’re not sleeping together, Mal.”

“No? How come?”

“I … we’re still … Mal, you don’t ask questions like that.”

“I do.” The grin on his face showed he was enjoying winding her up. “But if you want separate rooms I think we can oblige.”

“Thank you,” she said formally.

“Be with you in just over a day. The girls gonna be okay without you to supervise?”

“I think they’ll consider it a holiday. And Mrs Boden and her husband will make sure they don’t get into too much trouble.”

“Far as I can recall, girls that age don’t need too much encouragement to find trouble.”

“They’re far enough from town.”

“So?”

“Don’t you want me to come?”

“Just saying you can’t rely on them not having raucous parties while you’re gone. And it is Christmas.”

“It’ll only be a few days.” She raised one eyebrow. “It will only be a few days, won’t it?”

“Coupla weeks at the most.”

“I think they can manage.”

“And I think River has something she wants to tell you.”

“Oh?”

“Least, her and Jayne.”

Inara smiled. “Oh.”

“I haven’t told you!” Mal insisted. “She’d likely kill me if I did.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll look surprised.”

“Only you ain’t,” he said accusingly.

“Of course not. Mal, this was going to happen sooner or later.”

“It’s just sooner than I thought.”

“How’s Simon taking it?”

“Not sure he’s got used to it quite yet, but he’s making a pretty good show of pretending.”

“And her hormones? Are they getting in the way?”

Mal considered River’s actions on Cerberus. “Could say that.”

“You know, if Samuel will come with me, then maybe we can kill two birds with the proverbial stone.”

“You mean have him talk to her?”

“If River wants.”

Mal nodded slowly. “Might be a good idea. Simon’s checking her blood every morning, but that’s just the physical side. And Frey’s boosting her control, but … might not be bad to have a back-up.”

“A back-up.” Inara laughed. “Yes, it’s always well to think things will go smoothly.”

“I like it smooth!”

“Pity it hardly ever does.”

“You think that’s a reflection of me?”

“Probably.”

He glared at her, but she just gave her the professional smile back.

--

“Well, Inara’s coming,” Mal said, stepping down the ladder into their bunk. “I think she’s looking forward to it.”

Freya looked up from the laundry she was folding. She had a small shirt that looked like a tiny version of one of Mal’s in her hands. “Ethan’s growing out of these,” she said, stroking her fingers across the collar.

“Well, we could’ve bought some new if we’d taken that job on Paquin,” Mal pointed out. “And I’m still waiting to find out how come we ain’t.”

“You’re keeping your crew happy.”

“Well, yeah, but … I’m getting the distinct feeling that ain’t everything.” He picked up a small pair of pants, smiling at their size, and folded them carefully.

“Well, perhaps.”

“So?”

Freya sat down on the edge of the bed. “Mrs Cobb’s ill.”

He joined her. “How bad?”

“Very. According to River, maybe just a few weeks.”

“Does Jayne know?”

“He knows. Maybe not the timescale, but he knows she’s dying.”

“Why didn’t he say?”

“And make it clear he cares?”

“He does about River.”

“That’s different.”

“How?”

“I don’t know. It just is.”

“You know, if I’d known, we coulda passed by Ezra before. He could’ve visited -”

“Things have been happening. Sickness. Births. That sort of thing.”

“I could still’ve made sure he saw her.” Mal waved his hand towards the ladder. “Not gone through all this … craziness.”

“Jayne wants to see his son get married.”

“Simon Cobb ain’t his son.”

“Like River isn’t your daughter.”

“Yeah, but we both know that.” Mal put his arm around her shoulders. “Frey, there’s gonna be a lot of people on board. You gonna be okay with this?”

“I’m fine, Mal.”

“Only there won’t be any place to hide.”

“Maybe I’ll go out on the hull.”

He raised his eyebrows. “You try that and I’ll lock you in the infirmary.”

“I wasn’t thinking of going alone. I’d take River with me.”

“So the pair of you can just stare at the stars? Don’t think so.” He pulled her closer. “I know you’ve been having bad dreams again.”

“They’re just … dreams, Mal.”

“No, they ain’t. Not the way you wake up crying.”

“It’s just that depression Simon talked about. And they’ll go away.” She smiled at him. “You always make them go away.”

“Glad to hear it.” He leaned in, nuzzled her neck. “You know, we could be putting this laundry away for a while –“ Jesse began to wail next door in the nursery. “She got some kind of radar or something?” Mal asked, only a little petulantly.

“Of course. It’s called not letting Mommy or Daddy get naked and have fun.” She laughed. “Ethan was just the same.”

“We ever gonna get any time for just us?”

“You’re obviously forgetting last night.”

“No, I ain’t.” He bit her earlobe gently, making her breath catch. “Maybe if we ignore her she’ll – “

“Mama?” Ethan called down the open hatch.

Freya closed her eyes. “Yes, sweetie?”

“I’ve hurted my hand.”

Freya sighed and looked at Mal. “This is what comes of having children,” she said. “You deal with Jesse, I’ll look to your son.”

“What if she wants feeding?” He looked down at his chest. “I ain't exactly got the equipment.”

“It’s not time for a feed.” Freya headed for the ladder. “I think she needs changing.”

Mal couldn’t help the grimace. “How about I see to Ethan?”

She smiled at him and disappeared without a word.

--

Part III

Jayne exhaled and lifted the barbell back into its cradle. The exhalation became a sigh as he sat up, reaching down for the water bottle he kept by his feet. Taking a good long pull, he let his head fall between his shoulders.

A father. That’s what he was going to be. A daddy. He'd spent so long making sure he was never gonna be one, never gonna get the call from an irate woman saying he’d knocked her up and she was expecting marriage, so long sticking to whores and the like that he didn’t know how to deal with it now. Not that he wasn't pleased. He was. Just … wary.

It wasn't River. She wouldn’t hurt him, and if she tried she’d probably tell him first. And the doc was as good as his word, checking her blood every morning until she already complained he was making her feel like a pin cushion. This morning she’d thrown a bowl at him when he reminded her to come back tomorrow, missing his head by not more’n an inch. She probably meant to miss. Jayne grinned slightly. Probably.

No, it wasn't River. It was him. Only Pa he remembered was the one who’d gone and gotten himself killed back when Jayne was fifteen, the one he’d avenged, the reason he’d left his home in the first place. It was funny, but he’d spent years not thinking about his father, pushing away the thoughts when they happened to catch him unawares, like when Simon Cobb first contacted him. Still couldn’t get his mind round that. Someone wanting to be his son. Determined to make it that way, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Just ‘cause Shannon, his Ma, had said so.

Truth was, Jayne understood that. If anyone was ever always right, it was a Ma. Any Ma. ‘Spect that was how little Bethie felt about Kaylee, and Ethan about Frey. Might fight and scream and swear nobody ever understood them, but deep down there was this abiding tickle of thought that they were always right. Enough to make a man irritated, that was for sure.

Jayne grunted. And it weren't just his Ma. His Pa was the same. Might be that he didn’t live long enough for Jayne to realise he was just a man, like anyone else, but somehow … And he knew Mal had a special spot for his Pa, too, despite his dying when the Cap was five. Maybe that was it. A man had to die while his kids were young, before they got disillusioned.

No. Weren't gonna be like that. Jayne lay down again, and lifted the barbell back to his chest. His kid wasn't gonna be left without a Pa. No matter if they fought ‘til judgement day.

He paused, wondering what the tyke was going to look like. More like River if it was a girl, he hoped. Hate to see a girl with his kinda build. He grinned. Mind, no-one’d ever mess with her if she did. No, but a girl needed to be pretty, with those big eyes that’d drag a man’s soul through his chest and … He sat up suddenly, the weights in his lap. Gorramit, no! That weren't how it was gonna be either. Not gonna have any bu yang hwoon dahn chasing his daughter. No way. Bringing her flowers just so he could … no rutting way.

Suddenly a laugh forced its way out of his throat. Here he was, kid not even big enough to make River’s belly round, and he was laying down the law. ‘Sides, might not be a girl. Might be a boy. Now, he could look like Jayne. Big, broad, they could work out together, and he could show him how to handle himself, and the guns, and … He stopped, an image of a man – rather, a boy, lying on the ground, blood pooling beneath his young frame … No. That weren't gonna happen. Not to his son. Not to his –

“You cuddling that thing or you just feeling lonely?” Mal asked, watching from the catwalk above.

Jayne looked up, then glanced down into his lap. He still had the barbell resting on his thighs, and his hands were closed around it like he was throttling it. With a grunt he stood up and put it back in the cradle. “Just working out,” he muttered.

“Figured that.” Mal walked down the stairs. “But we’ll be landing on Lazarus in a coupla hours, and there’s a few things need doing before we take on our passengers. You can get all sweaty doing that instead.”

“Sure.” Jayne stretched, easing the kinks out of his shoulders. “Long as I'm doing something.”

“Something other than thinking?”

Jayne glared at him, then told himself he shouldn’t be surprised at the captain’s astuteness. Might like to pretend sometimes he was from Hicksville, but there was more than just book-learning under that smug exterior. “Yeah, pretty much.”

“It’s something to do with being a father, Jayne,” Mal said, leaning on a stack of crates. “Makes a man pensive.”

“I was … I was just wondering what the kid’s gonna look like,” Jayne admitted.

“River told you if it’s a boy or girl yet?”

“Nah. Don’t think she knows yet. Or she ain't looked.”

“Does she want to know?”

Jayne raised his eyebrows. “Not sure. Ain't something we’ve talked about.”

“You might want to. Not sure when Simon’ll be able to tell, but you need to prep him, just in case. One way or the other.”

“Yeah. Guess we do.” He leaned over and picked up his towel, wiping his neck with it. “So what do you need doing?”

“The two bigger guest rooms are filled with crap. All needs to be got out.”

“How many people’re we taking on?”

“I just want it tidy, Jayne.”

“Sure.” He went to walk towards the lower quarters, but realised Mal hadn’t moved. “There something else?”

“You need to tell Simon about your Ma.”

“What?”

“I know she’s sick. Simon needs to know too.”

Jayne bristled. “How’d you –“

“Freya. River told her yesterday. While we were debating the merits of heading towards Jiangyin.”

“Mal, I apologised over that already –“

“I know you did. But you shoulda told me. ‘Bout your Ma. I’d’ve made sure you got back to Ezra once in a while.”

Jayne shook his head. “Nah, Mal. My Ma ain't like that. It’s why River never said nothing before. If my Ma thought anyone was fussing, she’d … well, I figure she’d still try and put me over her knee.”

Mal smiled at the mental image. “Really.”

“She surely would. And I have written. Waved a coupla times, too. Not that I could talk to her, a’course, but I've left messages at the feed store. With Gilford.”

That was something River had mentioned. That Jayne’s mother had remarried, some ten years back. “Is he coming with us?”

Shrugging, Jayne took another mouthful of water to give himself time to think, to push down the resentment he still felt, however unfairly, that his mother had taken another man into her bed after his father was killed. “Don’t know. Prob’ly. Can’t see him letting her outta his sight right now. Not now she’s …”

“You heard back from her?”

“Yeah. Got a message this a.m.” His face lightened. “She’s looking forward to it. Only she wants to know how come I didn’t tell her she was a grandma.”

“She ain't.”

“Yes, she is. And no-one’s to tell her different.” Jayne wasn’t threatening, but there was a determination in him that was plain to see. “You shoulda seen her face, Mal. She looked so … so young.”

Mal nodded. “I’ll pass the message around. Hank’ll be the one who’ll say something if anyone does, but Zoe’ll keep him quiet.”

“Thanks.” Jayne breathed heavily. “She ain't got long, Mal. Don’t need a doc to tell me that. I can see it in her face. But … to think she’s got someone to carry on the name, being a Cobb and all … and Simon ain't gonna tell her otherwise.”

“Si … oh, you mean your son.” Mal put a lot of emphasis on the last word.

A slow grin broke out on Jayne’s face. “Yeah. Guess I do.” The grin became slyer. “You know, figure this means I've been a Dad longer’n any of you.”

“Don’t you go getting ideas,” Mal warned. “You don’t know all there is to know about being a father.”

“Hey, I saw Ethan get born, didn’t I? Was ready to catch him, too.”

Mal shuddered. “Don’t remind me.”

“You think the doc might be able to help her?” Jayne asked, it having been on his mind somewhat.

“I don’t know. It sounds like she’s already seen doctors, so … don’t get your hopes up.”

“Nah, I ain't gonna do that. And I think you’re right. No matter what I think about him, that Gilford would’ve made sure Ma got the best around on Ezra, and if they couldn’t do nothing …” He looked down at his hands, the size of them, the calluses from his guns. “Doubt there’s anything anyone could do.”

“Sometimes it’s just people’s time.”

“Yeah.”

Mal pushed straighter. “So, does your Ma know about River? And the baby?”

“Nope.” Jayne shook his head slowly. “Figure that’s something I need to tell her in person. Quietly. With no-one else listening.”

“You don’t think she’s gonna be pleased?”

“I think she’d as like drag us in front of a Preacher all by herself!”

“A woman after my own heart, seems to me,” Mal pointed out.

“It ain't like I haven’t tried,” Jayne griped. “Moonbrain just keeps saying it ain't the right time yet.”

“So when will it be?”

“I'm just saying it ain't my fault, Mal. And anyways, Hank and Zoe still ain't married. And Bethie was already born when –“

Mal held up his hand. “Okay. Enough.” He let a small laugh escape. “You know, Frey’s told me I'm not to push this. Made it perfectly clear.” He could almost feel the bruise from where she’d kicked him.

“Hell, Mal, River’s more likely to listen to you than me. You being her … well, like her …” He didn’t finish.

“You know, I can see this being River’s surrogate father coming back to bite me in the ass,” Mal muttered, but said out loud, “So you’re thinking that perhaps your Ma might be able to persuade River?”

“I'm thinking she’ll do her damndest. People just don’t have kids outta wedlock. Not on Ezra.”

“I think they probably do, Jayne, but I take your point. Should be an interesting conversation.”

“One that you ain't gonna be hearing,” the mercenary said firmly, an entirely too accurate picture of the expression that’d be on Mal’s face if he was anywhere close by suddenly filling his mind.

Mal suppressed a chuckle. “Well, ‘til that happens, best you get to that clearing. Most of it’s the stuff River took out of that locker to make her garden anyway, so I’ve a notion it’s your responsibility by default.”

The big man considered arguing, but decided it wasn't worth it. He'd end up doing the work anyway, so might as well just knuckle down to it. He headed towards the common area, but couldn’t resist one last swipe. “So you’ll tell me the best sites to look at on the Cortex, won’t ya?” he said, glancing back over his shoulder.

“Sites?”

“Yeah, you know. The ones I hear you spent hours looking at. On how to be a good father.” He grinned and strode away from the Cap’s surprised and somewhat embarrassed look.

--

As Serenity landed on Lazarus, the sun was setting over the mountains, throwing long shadows through the orchard. The cargo bay ramp descended and Mal stepped out into the warm evening air.

“’Nara,” he said, nodding formally at the woman standing waiting.

“You’re late.”

“Am I?” He ostentatiously looked at his bare wrist. “Not that much.”

“Three hours.”

“That much?”

“Yes.” She wasn’t quite tapping her foot, but almost.

“Jayne made us stop at the Geigerplex to pick up some stuff. River’s started her cravings.”

“Already?”

“Seems so.”

“What for?”

“I didn’t like to ask.”

“You should have!” Inara was annoyed at him. “I can get Mrs Boden to package some things up if –“

“I figured you’d like to talk to her about it.”

The ex-Companion took a deep breath. “Yes, of course,” she said, getting herself back under control. “And how’s Freya?”

“Changing Jesse.”

“Yes, I thought I could detect the odour of a diaper bin.”

Mal turned and sniffed hard. “Gorramit,” he muttered. “I told Kaylee to boost the scrubbers –“

Inara laughed. “I was joking, Mal.”

He looked back at her, his eyes narrowing slightly. “You ain't changed, Inara.”

“I hope I have. For the better.” She smiled, suddenly more relaxed than he’d seen her in a long while.

“That remains to be seen.” He glanced down at the pile of boxes and suitcases at her feet. “You sure you’re bringing enough stuff with you?”

“You said it might be two weeks,” Inara pointed out. “Besides, it isn’t all mine.”

“The good Dr Nazir?”

“Some of it. And there’s Hermione’s bits and pieces, of course.”

“Noni?” Mal’s eyebrow raised. “She’s coming?”

“She asked. The other girls are all quite happy to stay behind, but Hermione wants to come. If that’s okay with you.” Inara put on her slightly haughty look. “Of course, if it’s a matter of food or accommodation –“

“It ain’t that! Either of ‘em!” Mal protested. “We got plenty of room, as you well know. And if you’d like to contribute to the larder I ain't gonna say not to. I just figured, with it being Christmas, she’d want to be with her family.”

Inara looked a little sad. “In all honesty, the other girls seem to exclude her somewhat. It’s probably something to do with being two sets of twins, but they don’t always get along. And if I'm not there, I'm afraid she might be left to fend for herself.”

Mal remembered the little girl huddled up against him as he took her out of Han’s house, and felt a surge of protective righteousness run through him. “Well, if it’s likely to be that way, and I've no doubt Bethie’ll be pleased …”

“Sam thought it would be a good idea.”

Mal’s ears perked up. “So it’s Sam now? Not Dr Nazir? Or even Samuel?”

Inara realised she’d made a tactical error. “It’s easier to call him that. Less … formal.”

One of Mal’s more self-satisfied grins lifted his lips. “Really.”

“Yes. Really.” She drew herself up. “Well, now you’ve finally deigned to arrive, I’ll go and tell Hermione and Dr Nazir that we’re ready to go. And get Mrs Boden to put together a food parcel since that seems essential. If you’ll have our luggage taken to our rooms?”

“Of course, Ms Serra.” He bowed low, with just the right amount of arrogance.

She sniffed and walked quickly away back towards the house.

Mal stood up and smiled ruefully. Already she was making him wonder about this little excursion, and they hadn’t even picked up Jayne’s mother and brother yet. He sighed heavily, remembering an ancient Chinese curse his mother had been more than a little fond of. May you live in interesting times. He shook his head. Surely looked like it was going to be an interesting few days.

--

Part IV

By the time Serenity left Lazarus night had fallen, and her engines made the orchard glow as she lifted off into the darkened sky. Still, Mal was happier when he saw the stars outside become hard and sharp points of light again, not the wishy-washy sparkly things they were when he was dirtside. As much as he’d loved to watch them when he was a kid, staring out of the window of his room in the roof at them, there was something more restful about them now. Unchanging. Like him, they kept flyin’.

“Cap?” Kaylee stood in the doorway to the bridge. “Food’s ready. And the babies are all in bed, so we’re going to have some adult time. And I might add that the way Jayne’s been packin’ it in lately, you’d think he was the one eatin’ for two, so you’d better join us before there ain’t none left.”

Mal smiled. “Be there in a mo, little Kaylee.”

“’Kay. Better be, though. Or I’ll send Freya to come get you instead.”

“Hey, that’s not fair.”

“Not fair would be sending River,” the young woman said over her shoulder as she retraced her steps. “In her current state of mind, she’d probably hit you over the head and carry you.”

The smile widened. “Oh, I'm pretty sure she would,” he murmured to himself. He set the autopilot and stood up, stretching his back until it popped. Maybe he was getting old, but sitting sometimes made him ache. Still, he had offered to take the ship out of atmo, giving Hank a chance to spend a little time with their guests. It also gave Dr Nazir the opportunity to meet them all in their natural habitat, so to speak, without his influence.

You’re not getting old. Freya’s thoughts wound through his mind like silk. And they’re just the same when you’re there.

“You mean they ain’t over-awed by my commanding presence?” he asked, vocalising softly.

“Not in the slightest.”

He turned, seeing his wife gazing at him, her lips curved sweetly.

“Kaylee?”

“She said she told you she would.” Crossing the bridge she put her arms around his waist. “River was busy.”

“Glad to hear it.” He returned the compliment. “So everyone’s getting along? I ain't heard gunfire yet.”

“Everyone’s fine. River’s told Inara her good news, Inara pretended to be surprised, and Jayne was sitting there looking like the cat that got into the henhouse.”

“Fox.”

“What?”

“It’s the fox that got into the henhouse, and the cat got the canary.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Are you saying I mix my metaphors?”

“Wouldn’t dare.” He leaned forward to kiss her nose. “River knew, though, didn’t she? That Inara already … suspected.”

“Oh yes.”

“She angry at me?”

“Not particularly. But stay away from sharp objects for a while.”

“I didn’t tell Inara. Not outright.”

“But you hinted.”

“Can’t help it if that woman knows things.”

“She was a Companion, Mal. They’re taught to read men.”

“Am I an open book, then?” He stroked her back.

“Only to me.” She smiled. “Come on. The food’s getting cold.”

“Who cooked?”

“Simon.”

“That’s okay, then.”

“I hope you’re not suggesting if it was me you wouldn’t be rushing.”

He grinned at her as they walked down the corridor to the galley, the flow of conversation reaching them.

“… didn’t get much chance to see more’n a junkyard when we were there the first time, but seen more since,” Kaylee was saying. “It always seems kinda … fixed.

Samuel Nazir, sitting towards the end of the table next to Inara, smiled. “I suppose it is. Core planets are all somewhat alike. Perhaps that’s why my daughter prefers to live on Greenleaf. It’s not quite so … fixed.”

Kaylee grinned up at the captain and his wife as they took their seats, then turned back to their guest. “Guess it ain't. So what’s she like?”

“Dhira? She’s actually very like you, in a way. Young, vibrant, very open …” His face relaxed. “She’s the light of my life.”

“She sounds nice.”

“She is. I think you’d get on well. She also has two children, a boy and a girl.”

“And she’s married?” Hank put in, steadfastly refusing to even glance at his fiancée. “How … modern.”

“I insisted.”

“Isn’t that something of an old-fashioned attitude, Dr Nazir?” River asked, carefully sifting salt and pepper over her food as if she couldn’t get enough. “I mean, marriage isn’t essential to a happy relationship.”

“Of course it isn’t.” He smiled at the young woman. “But in my family it’s traditional. Besides, I see it as a commitment. Something other than just sleeping together.”

“Did you hear that, dear?” Hank said, now turning to look at Zoe.

“I heard.” She shook her head. “And I’ve said yes.”

“But not when.”

“When I'm ready.”

“Ah, that is the other point,” the therapist added. “The truth is, Dhira wanted to get married. She couldn’t wait, despite what she said to me. And no-one should be forced into something they don’t want.”

“Thank you, Dr Nazir,” Zoe said, smiling at him.

“Samuel, please. Calling me Dr Nazir, here, with this excellent company, makes me feel ancient.”

“And you ain't that,” Kaylee said gallantly, then blushed slightly.

He’s fitted himself in pretty well, Mal found himself thinking, then wasn't surprised as a response formed in his mind.

He’s a therapist. I think it’s in the training.

Mal looked at Freya, and smiled lightly. You think?

No idea.

He wanted to laugh, but asked instead, “Where’s Hermione?”

Kaylee grinned, glad someone had changed the subject. “She and Bethie are having a little girl time in her room. They took a couple of plates with them. They were even talking about bunking together.”

“The amount they took they ain’t looking to come out any time soon,” Jayne put in.

“And you’re eating like a bird, are you?” Simon asked, watching him pile more rice on his dish.

“Hell, it’s good eating,” the big man said, shrugging, then realised he’d given the young doctor a compliment. “Better’n anything Frey makes anyway.”

“For that you get to do the clearing up,” Mal said, forgetting entirely he’d made a similar suggestion himself not five minutes before.

“Aw, Mal …”

“It’s good that she has someone who wants to be with her,” Samuel Nazir said, his soft voice slipping back into the conversation with ease. “Her sisters don’t mean to be unkind, but they do form their own little clique, and Hermione feels left out sometimes.”

“So ‘Nara said.” Mal shook his head. “Never having any siblings of my own I can’t comment, but I’m kinda surprised at them.”

“Hermione has been through more than they have,” the doctor went on. “That sort of trauma … it changes people.”

There was a silence as they all realised what he was talking about, then Mal nodded. “Guess maybe it does.”

“Well, come on, Cap,” Kaylee said brightly. “Before Jayne eats it all.”

“Kaylee …” the big man whined.

The conversation began to flow again, and Mal watched as Samuel Nazir waited on Inara. There was no other way to describe it. If she needed some more bread, he had the platter in his hand. When she accidently dropped her fork, he immediately offered his own.

Jealous?

Stay out of my mind, witch, Mal thought back, glancing at his wife. She was smiling at him.

--

As the meal broke up, and Kaylee told Samuel off for offering to help with the clearing of the table, the young mechanic said, “I’m decoratin’ tomorrow, so if you all want to help with that, you’re more than welcome.”

“Decorating?” Mal asked dubiously.

“Yeah. You know. Christmas. Make some paper chains, that kinda thing.” She hugged a plate to her chest. “I love Christmas. Egg nog, cake, those little biscuits my Ma makes with all the sugar topping …”

“I don’t know about that, mei-mei,” Mal said, shaking his head.

“I know Bethie’ll help. Do you think Hermione’d like to join in?”

“I've a notion Noni would like it a lot. Me, on the other hand, I’m not too sure about you cluttering up my ship with such folderol.”

She smiled, the one she reserved for her captain when he was doing his mean old man routine. “Cap, you know you don’t mean it. You like Christmas as much as the rest of us.”

“Well, maybe I do like it more’n before,” he admitted grudgingly. “But I'm still somewhat worrisome on the idea of streamers and the like.”

Kaylee grinned. “I’ll get Bethie to come and ask you,” she said mischievously.

“Now that’s low.”

“’Sides, Ethan’ll be missing out on the holiday spirit otherwise. Don’t want him getting all sad and miserable, do you? Thinking you don’t love him.”

“That, Kaylee, is lower than low.” Mal knew he wasn't going to win this, but he had to make a show. “Ethan doesn’t need fancy decorations to know how much he means to me.” He glanced at Freya. “To us.”

“Cap …” She was using the wheedling voice. That and the eyes. Puppy dogs had nothing on Kaylee when she wanted something this badly.

Mal felt Freya’s hand on his arm, and her voice in her mind. Don’t wind her up like this. You know you’re going to say yes.

He sighed heavily. “In here. That’s it. I don’t want to find little bits of things stuck up on the bridge, or in the cargo bay. Or in the engine room. Something falls in the coil and makes it blow up, you’ll be spending the whole of the holiday fixing it. Dong mah?”

Xie xie, Cap’n.” Kaylee turned back to the counter, handing the plate to Jayne who dunked it in the water.

Mal couldn’t help but chuckle.

“I love you,” Freya said softly, putting her arm around his waist.

“That’s handy,” he murmured back. “Wanna show me how much?”

“Thought you’d never ask.”

He grinned and led her towards the doorway. “Jayne,” he called. “When you’ve finished, turn off the light.”

The big man just grumbled something obscene under his breath.

--

“Is there … is there something between Captain and Mrs Reynolds?” Samuel asked, his hand in the small of Inara’s back as they walked down the stairs.

“I hope so.” Inara smiled at him.

“No, I mean …” It wasn’t like him to be tongue-tied, and it irked him somewhat. “There just seems to be more going on than just words.”

“Ah.” Inara didn’t answer for a moment, pondering what to say. She’d told him a great deal, but not about Freya’s or River’s abilities. That wasn't for her to mention.

He took her silence for a rebuke. “I'm sorry. I didn’t mean to imply anything. I know people in a long-standing relationship often finish each other’s sentences, appear to read each other’s minds …”

“It’s alright, Sam,” Inara said softly, stopping at the bottom of the staircase. “In fact you’re more right than you might imagine.” She glanced around, making sure no-one could overhear her about to divulge a confidence. “Mal and Freya have a … special bond. It’s not something I can necessarily explain, but –“

“She’s psychic.”

Inara stared. “I didn’t say that.”

“No. You didn’t have to.” He put his hand on her shoulder. “Inara, I've come across it before. As a therapist I’ve had to counsel several patients who’ve had this … skill.”

“Counsel?”

“They had a great many problems, but I never really understood whether the problems came about because of the ability, or the other way around.”

“Freya talks about a darkness …”

“Yes, that’s often the case. It seems to go hand in hand.”

Inara shivered, her mind skittering to Bethany. “I had never come across it myself. Not until … until Freya.” She bit her lip. She’d almost said River.

Samuel could see he’d upset her. “Inara, don’t worry. Please. Your friend seems amazingly well-balanced. I always knew there must be people who could cope with their lives and their talents. I'm glad to know that I was right.”

“She is an extraordinary woman. Not least for living with Mal,” Inara said, unable to resist the slight dig.

“Well, we all have our crosses to bear.” He was relieved when she laughed, a silken sound that soothed his mind. He escorted her towards their quarters. “Tell me, does the Captain always call Hermione that?”

“Noni?” Inara was surprised. “Since what happened to her, yes.”

“It’s a surprising diminutive.”

“It’s what Bethany calls her.”

“Does he realise he’s doing it?”

Inara smiled. “Probably not. But he cares about the girls, even if he won’t admit it. Particularly Hermione.” She paused. “I have a bottle of fine old brandy in my room. Would you … care to join me in a small glass?” she asked, almost tentatively.

“Are you trying to get me drunk so you can have your way with me?” Samuel asked, stepping close enough to her so that she could detect his personal scent.

“Would it work?”

“Unfortunately, probably not.” He shrugged. “I have a high tolerance for alcohol.”

“That’s a great pity. But would you still care to join me? It is very fine brandy.”

Samuel smiled, the years dropping away from his smooth, olive face. “I’d be delighted.”

--

Having finally finished the washing up, Jayne stood in the middle of the shuttle and undressed slowly, staring into the corner of the room, not seeing anything. He tossed his t-shirt onto the chair then sat on the bed to remove his boots, and paused.

River watched him, then climbed up on the bed behind him, snaking her arms under his. “My Jayne’s thoughtful,” she said, winding her body around his so she sat in his lap. “You’re worried about Ezra.”

“It’s my Ma, River.” He looked into her dark eyes. “I want … I want things to go right. It’ll prob’ly be the last time I see her, and … she’s my Ma.”

River laid her head on his shoulder, feeling his heart beating just a few inches from hers. “I know. When Freya saw her mother, it brought back all the pain and memories she’d tried to suppress. But it was cathartic.”

“You know I don’t know what that means,” Jayne said softly.

“It helped her. Healed her a little more. Gave her the chance to hold her mother again.”

“Did that. Before.” He closed his eyes. “Maybe this ain't such a good idea, moonbrain. Doing this.”

“You need to be her son. And this is the last opportunity you’ll get to show her what a man you’ve become.”

“She knows what I am.”

“No. Not what you are on the outside. On the inside. The real Jayne.”

“Not sure there’s such a thing.”

“Yes there is. I can touch him.” She reached up and kissed his neck, tasting sweat and black powder with just a hint of soap.

“Tried before.”

“Third time lucky, Jayne,” she said, holding him tightly. She sighed, inhaling him deeply. “Hungry.”

“Ya just ate,” he said, looking down at her.

“Not for food.” She smiled at him.

“You catching that from Frey? ‘Cause she couldn’t keep her hands off the Cap either.”

“It’s not contagious.” She stroked his chest, her hand wandering down to his waist. “Unless you want it to be.”

He growled deeply in the back of his throat, and tugged her up so he could kiss her.

--

Part V

By the time they hit the atmo of Ezra, Mal knew he’d been right. Kaylee couldn’t be trusted. No matter that he’d said that the festive frivolity was to be kept to the galley, little things were creeping up. And creep was the right word, particularly when he found the somewhat unconventional Nativity scene sitting on the pilot’s console. There was something about the three dinosaurs wearing little crowns, all gathered around a manger made out of a Blue Sun soup box, with a tiny origami baby inside, that just made him want to turn and run. Mind, the stegosaur’s paper angel wings had been nicely rendered.

In the cargo bay a tree had sprung up, if tree could be used of something that appeared to be made out of all the junk Jayne had cleared from the passenger dorms. It stood in the corner by the EVA suit locker, and every time he went past it had sprouted more ribbons and knick-knacks. His eyes narrowed slightly as he recognised some of them as belonging to Inara. Just knew she wouldn’t be able to keep her fingers out of the pie, he thought. And the lights that used to hang around Kaylee’s door now glimmered on its metal branches.

Mal strode through into the common area and past the infirmary. Thankfully the interior hadn’t been touched yet, but there was what looked like frosting on the outside of the windows. Simon peered out at him.

“Nothing to do with me,” he said, throwing up his hands.

“Can’t you keep your wife in check?” Mal asked, somewhat irritably.

“If you ever find out how to do that, you’ll tell me, right?”

“Same goes for you.” Mal headed up the stairs to the engine room. “Kaylee!”

His mechanic was leaning over the spinning heart of Serenity. “I'm here, Cap.”

“I told you galley only!”

“What?” She stood straight. “Just trying to get in the holiday spirit.”

“The only holiday spirit I want to see is some of your inter-engine fermentation product.”

She sighed. “Now, I know you ain't a Scrooge. You took us to that moon when Bethie was a baby so she could see real snow at Christmas. And you’ve bought gifts. So don’t pretend like you don’t enjoy yourself.”

“That’s not the point.”

“Sure it is.” She stepped down from the lip and crossed to him, her head barely reaching his chin. “You’re a good man, Cap, and you like us to be happy. Well, this makes us happy. All of us.”

“All of you.”

“’Xactly.” She grinned and pulled him closer so she could kiss his cheek, leaving a grease smear. “Now go along to the kitchen and help the others.” She pushed him towards the door.

“This is my ship.”

“Know that.”

“How come nobody takes any notice of it, then?”

“’Cause you’re cotton candy.” She returned to whatever she was fixing inside the heart of her girl.

“No. Now, I really ain't having things like that bandied about.”

She sighed as she hit something hard. “Okay, then you’re a mean old man who don’t know the true meaning of Christmas.”

“And just you remember that.” At least she hadn’t … she had. As he turned to leave the engine room he saw a silver star on the wall, cut from several pieces of scrap metal so it was three-dimensional. “And make sure my boat’s okay before you go off making anything else.”

“Scrooooooge.” The word whispered out around the Firefly’s heart beat.

Jamming his lips closed so he didn’t say another word, or grin the way he wanted to, Mal walked heavily down the short corridor to the kitchen area.

“Hello, Uncle Mal,” Hermione said, smiling at him, sitting at the table with Bethany, Freya, and River. She waved, but found a strip of paper was sticking to her fingers, and the wave became more frantic as she tried to dislodge it.

“Here,” Freya said, pulling it gently away.

“You too?” Mal asked.

She grinned at him. “Can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”

Mal looked around the galley, seeing more coloured lights and ribbons strung everywhere, even as he noted Ben, Hope and Jesse snuggled up on a blanket in the seating area, Fiddler rolled up with them. “Is there any place on my boat that Kaylee hasn’t … defiled?”

“Hardly defiled.” She held up one of the paper chains they were making. “It’s just a little decoration.”

“Decorations emulate the traditional fresh garlands from Earth-that-was,” River put in, concentrating on getting the edges of her current link lined up perfectly. She shrugged daintily. “I couldn’t grow any so this is a suitable substitute.”

Mal watched her perseverance. “Least you ain't got any mistletoe.”

She looked at him and raised an eyebrow. “Are you sure?” Her lips twitched.

“River …”

“Do you mind, Uncle Mal?” Hermione asked, her eyes wide and childlike for all her thirteen years. “I mean, if it’s really something you hate I'm sure we can –“

He sat down next to her and put his hand on hers. “I don’t hate it, Noni. And I’m just being a … what was it? A Scrooge.” He picked up the chain with his free hand, noting it was made of a selection of different papers from coloured scraps to newsprint. “Well, it’ll be different.”

“Dad never had much to do with any holidays except Christmas,” Hermione said thoughtfully, disentangling her fingers from under his and blushing slightly. “Presents, food, even when there wasn't much money for stuff like that. The house was always decked out, and the front too. Lights and everything.” She looked down, not wanting to show the others the sadness she felt inside talking of her father.

“Not putting stuff on the outside of my boat,” Mal said firmly, understanding nevertheless, and squeezing her shoulder. “Definitely not landing on Ezra looking like something out of a parade.”

“Going to a wedding,” Bethany said, sucking her finger where a paper cut was stinging. “Serenity would like to be dressed up too.”

Mal looked across at the little girl. “She told you that?”

Bethie nodded, her mouth still full. “Told me.”

“Well, she can get dressed up inside.”

“Daddy, can I help?” Ethan asked, climbing carefully down the steps into the galley.

Mal held out his arms and his son hurried to be picked up. “Thought you were up on the bridge with Hank, making sure he don’t crash us.” He settled his boy on his knee.

“Won’t crash. Daddy’d get mad with Uncle Hank if he did.”

“Got that right.”

Ethan leaned over the table, touching the chain tentatively. “Can I have some?” he asked. “In my room?”

“You want to decorate?” Freya asked softly.

He nodded hard. “Pretty.”

His mother raised her eyebrows at her husband. “Well?”

Mal sighed. “Okay. A couple.”

“Want to make them.” Ethan reached for the glue pot.

“Who, there, not so fast, big feller. Don’t want to have to be cleaning you up. Although we could always stick you to the ceiling. Know where you were all the time, that way.”

Ethan laughed, as did everyone else around the table. “Silly Daddy.”

“Got that right.” Mal picked up a strip of what looked like a girlie magazine. “Jayne know you’ve got these?” he asked River.

“He doesn’t need them anymore.” She smiled. “He’s got me. I'm better than all the pneumatic women in those pages.”

“Too much information, sweetie,” Freya said, and the psychic exhaled contentedly, going back to her work. “And you should talk,” the older woman added, turning back. “You’ve got a kiss on your cheek in grease.”

Mal wiped at it. “Kaylee,” he explained.

“Really? And I thought your true feelings for Simon had finally come to the fore.”

“Well, I didn’t like to tell you, but –“

Hermione giggled, and Bethie joined in.

“I like Christmas,” Ethan put in suddenly. “Pressies.”

“You been coaching him?” Mal asked Bethie.

She just grinned at him.

Inara watched from the doorway as Mal helped his son thread strips of paper together, gluing them carefully into a long string. There was an ache in her heart for what she could never have, but a smile on her lips for the love she was watching,

“This isn’t quite what I imagined,” Samuel said, standing close to her.

“You met him when they came to Lazarus after Jesse was born. What’s different?”

“I'm not sure. Something to do with being on his own ground perhaps, but … he seems very family-oriented.”

“He is. Before the war I think more so, but since Freya’s been in his life, he’s almost back the way he was.”

“Only almost?”

“It took too much away from him. He can never be that young man again.”

“Perhaps you should be the therapist,” Samuel joked gently.

Inara shook her head. “I could never undo all of Mal’s knots.” She added quickly, “Nor would I wish any more to try.”

“But you wanted to.”

They’d talked about him. Long and often. The man she’d loved and lost when he went back to the woman who’d always honestly been there, between them.

“Perhaps.”

“You feel sorry for him.”

She turned to look into his dark eyes. “I used to. Leaving so much of himself in Serenity Valley, then surrounding himself with the parts he thought he’d lost … he needed healing.”

“And it hurt that you couldn’t do it.”

“Sam, I’ll never stop loving him.” She held her breath.

“I know.”

“But that doesn’t mean I can’t want anyone else.”

They stared at each other for a long moment, then Freya’s voice broke in on them.

“Are you two going to just stand there, or are you going to help?”

“Shall we?” Inara asked.

“I can’t think of anything I’d rather do.” His eyes, though, said something quite different.

--

Between them Mal and Ethan had made quite a length of paper chain, getting most of the glue in the right place, although by the end they were both somewhat sticky. It was made worse by the fact that, ten minutes after Inara and Samuel had sat down at the table, River ran back to her shuttle and returned with a tub of sparkles, which she proceeded to sprinkle over all of the still damp edges, and also pretty much every else.

“River, be careful with that,” Kaylee complained, laughing all the while. She’d joined them after being unable to ignore the happy sounds coming from the kitchen, and was liberally covered in the stuff, it sticking in a shiny cloud to the grease on her face and clothes.

“No,” the young woman said, dropping a handful over the mechanic, who squealed and tried to duck out of the way, half of it going over Hermione and Bethany who were hiccupping from giggling so hard. Fiddler sneezed twice and hightailed it out of the room.

“River,” Mal warned, one eyebrow raised. “Don’t even think about it.”

She paused, her hand ready to toss the fairy dust at her captain, then very carefully, slowly, she let it slip through her fingers back into the tub. “See?” she said. “All safe.”

“Good.” Mal stood up, Ethan on his hip. “Well, I think we’ve made enough to put up in the nursery, don’t you think?” he asked his son.

Ethan nodded. “’Nuff.” He held tightly to the paper chain.

“You’d better get him cleaned up too,” Freya said, brushing her fingers down her shirt and only making it worse. “I’ll be along in a minute after we’ve cleaned up.”

“Hey, it wasn't my fault!” Kaylee insisted.

“It won’t take us long.”

“We’ll help,” Inara said, standing up, Samuel following. Even she’d managed to get some in her hair, and she looked more alive than she’d ever done, laughing and patting at Samuel’s hands as he tried to brush the tiny glittering particles off her shoulders. She was slightly flushed and couldn’t look less like a Companion, ex or otherwise, Mal considered.

Carrying Ethan towards the bunks, he saw the still look on Freya’s face, and thought carefully, Don’t mean I want her, xin gan. Except to be happy.

I know. She flashed him a grateful smile as he passed her by.

“Mama’s okay,” Ethan said as his father carried him awkwardly down the ladder. “Loves Auntie ‘Nara.”

“I know, big feller.” Mal hugged him a little tighter. He must have picked up on Freya’s feelings. “And I love your Ma something fierce.”

Ethan grinned and patted Mal’s face, leaving more glitter stuck to his cheeks. “Mama loves you.”

“I know that too.” Mal smiled as he put Ethan down. “Now, better get your stool and we’ll get you washed up.”

The little boy shook his head. “Put this up first. Get messy again.”

Mal glanced at the trail of sparkle they’d left across the floor. “You know, for someone only knee high, you’re smart.”

Ethan beamed, watching as Mal fastened the paper chain to the bulkhead before attending to the more delicate task of cleaning the both of them up. Just as he finished buttoning his own fresh shirt, the com beeped and Hank’s voice filled the small room.

“Mal, we’re coming up on Ezra.”

Mal thumbed the response switch. “Get us down and let Jayne know.”

“He knows already. He’s been breathing over my shoulder for the last half hour.”

“Ain't breathing! Well, not hard.”

“You’ve made my shirt wet.”

“I've got a mind to –“ The com cut off.

Mal sighed heavily. “Ethan, I have to get to the bridge, stop your Uncle Jayne killing your Uncle Hank. You gonna be okay here?”

His son nodded, then yawned. “Shiny.”

“Maybe you ought to take a nap. Be ready for our next lot of guests.”

Ethan didn’t answer, just snuggled down on his little bed and hugged his toy alligator. Within a few seconds his breathing had slowed, and he was asleep.

For a long moment Mal watched his son, a lump in his throat as always as he contemplated how amazingly lucky he was to have such children, and a wonderful wife. Then he headed up the ladder to stop the potential bloodshed.

--

Jayne was almost vibrating. They’d touched down a few minutes ago, and he was standing in the cargo bay, feeling his heart beating nineteen to the dozen. It had been over a year since he’d seen his Ma, and there had been days he’d worried he’d never see her again, but now, right this minute, she should be outside. Waiting.

“You gonna open up?” Mal asked, striding down the stairs from the top catwalk, interrupting his chain of thought.

“I … er …”

Mal tried to stop the twitch of his lips. “Yeah, gets you like that, don’t it?” he said gently, stepping down to the floor just as River hurried out of the shuttle, her face freshly scrubbed and her best dress on. “Ready?”

The psychic ran down to her man, taking his arm. “Ready.”

Passing the big man by, Mal resisted the urge to pat him on the back, instead just leaning on the button, and a groan and a hiss, the inner doors slid apart as the ramp lowered. The warm, dull air of Ezra filtered in as three people were revealed, a tallish older man with a shiny head, another who looked remarkably like Jayne, and a woman, her white hair pulled into a bun at the nape of her neck. Around their feet were boxes, but nowhere near the amount Inara had brought on board.

Jayne stood straight. “Ma,” he said.

“Jayne.” Mrs Cobb gazed at him. “How are you?”

“Shiny. You?”

“Better if you give me a hug.”

Jayne didn’t move for a moment, then felt River pushing him in the back. “Go on.”

He resisted only a moment, then strode down the ramp and enveloped his mother in his arms, feeling Gilford patting him on the back but ignoring everything except his Ma.

Matty scowled.

--

Part VI

Mal watched a little uncomfortably from inside the cargo bay as Jayne hugged his mother. It was one thing knowing the big mercenary could shoot the eye out of a flea at fifty paces, another seeing him with the woman who’d given him life. In his arms she seemed diminutive, almost doll-like.

The two men standing behind her had very different looks on their faces. The older man, presumably Gilford, was almost smiling, watching indulgently. The other, a younger, slighter and clean shaven version of Jayne looked angry, the kind of anger that made Mal reach unconsciously towards his hip.

“He won’t hurt Jayne,” River breathed into his ear.

“You sure about that?” Mal murmured. “Looks like he’d rather punch than hug.”

“That’s true. But he won’t hurt Jayne because he knows what I’d do if he did.”

Mal turned his head, looking down at her. “That right, albatross?”

“Have to protect him.” With that River walked down the ramp, leaving Mal to ponder which him she meant.

Jayne let go of his mother, and looked at Matty. “Hey,” he said.

“Yeah.”

“So you’re gonna come see my … my son get married.”

“Wasn't my idea.”

Jayne bristled. “You’re old enough to say no. Hell, you’re near older than the Cap.”

Mrs Cobb hit him on the arm, not hard, but enough to get his attention. “I don’t want any fighting. I thought you’d got that out of your systems.”

“Yeah.” Jayne looked down at her. “Sorry, Ma. Well, better get you all on board. Got rooms all ready for ya.”

“That’s nice.” She leaned down to pick up a large carpet bag.

“No, Ma,” Jayne said quickly. “I’ll do that. You go with River, and she’ll show you where everything is.” He stopped, glancing over his shoulder to where Mal still stood in the opening. “And introduce you to the Cap.”

“Mrs Cobb.” River smiled, putting her hand under the older woman’s elbow. “We have a lot to talk about.”

“Thought we did all that on your visit,” Fionnula Cobb said astutely.

“There’s more.”

“Is there?”

“But later. Let Jayne bring in your boxes.” She steered his mother up the ramp. “Mrs Cobb, this is Captain Malcolm Reynolds.”

“Ma’am.” Mal would have tipped his hat if he wore one, but instead he just inclined his head. “Welcome aboard Serenity.”

“Thank you, Captain Reynolds.” She smiled at him, and her blue eyes twinkled. “And thanks for picking us up.”

“Couldn’t let you miss the wedding, could I?” He grinned back. “If you’d like to get settled, we can do the grand tour later.”

“That would be nice.” She held out her hand and the older man hurried forward, taking it. “This is my husband, Jason Gilford.”

“Sir.” They shook hands, and Mal was surprised to find such a strong grip.

“She’s a Firefly, isn’t she?” he asked, looking up into the superstructure.

“That she is.”

“Not seen one in a long time.”

“You’ve been out in the black?” Mal asked, surprised.

“When I was young. Younger’n you. Spent a few years just doing anything that came to hand, before I decided my life was back here on Ezra.” Gilford laughed. “Haven’t left since.”

“It’s not changed much.”

“Nope. Can always be pretty sure the stars’ll stay the same as you remember ‘em.”

“Ain’t that the truth. If you want to visit the bridge, take a look, just let me know.”

“Thanks.” Gilford looked at the ‘tree’ standing in the corner. “And it is good of you to be taking us to Jiangyin at this time of year. I understand you’ve got children on board. They must be excited about Christmas.”

Mal chuckled. “Far as I can see, it ain't just the kids.” He eyed Jayne as he carried a double armful of boxes up the ramp.

“Nothing wrong with that,” Mrs Cobb said, tapping him on the arm. “Jayne always did like Christmas. He used to beg me to let him help me make the cake, but that was just so he could lick the spoon.”

“Ma!” the big man complained.

“Mrs Cobb, I think you’re going to have to tell us a lot more about young Jayne.” Mal heard the moan coming from the mercenary, and grinned.

“Let’s get you settled in first,” River said, leading the small group towards the rear of the cargo bay and through the doorway into the common area.

“Don’t, Mal,” Jayne implored as his mother disappeared. “I ain't got much dignity left on this boat as it is. Don’t want what I have got torn to shreds.”

“She’s your mother, Jayne,” Mal said firmly. “She’s designed to make you squirm.” He climbed the stairs towards the upper catwalk where Freya had just appeared. “Thought you’d all be out here to see the new arrivals.” He smiled at her.

“I told everyone to stay put.” Her lips twitched. “We are a little intimidating all in one go.”

“Afraid they might run off into the hills?”

“Something like that.” She put her arm around his waist. “We’ll get to meet them at dinner.”

“Don’t quite see how that’s going to work,” Mal admitted. “Table ain't gonna be big enough to fit all of us, even with the kids put to bed early.”

“Kaylee’s got some ideas on that score.”

“As long as she doesn’t plan on taking down one of the bulkheads.”

“No. Not that.”

“So don’t I get to know?”

“Probably better that you don’t until you need to,” she said, wrinkling her nose and smiling at him.

“I'm gonna worry now, ain't I?”

“Wait and see.”

--

“How’d she do it?” Mal asked, staring at the table down in the cargo bay.

“Kaylee took the table apart from the galley, reassembled it down here –“

“That what all the cursing was earlier?” Mal interrupted.

“Hank and Simon were helping her. I think they got their fingers trapped more than once.”

Mal tried not to smile. “Sad.”

“Very. Anyway, she extended it with extra planks and put a throw over the whole lot.”

“And the seating?” Mal looked at the long benches covered in what appeared to be some of his best sheets.

“Crates, lashed together. I don’t think there’s enough chairs on Serenity for all of us.” She leaned against him. “She’s worked really hard today.”

“I think she has,” Mal agreed, looking around at the soft lighting his mechanic had rigged up. She’d dimmed the normal lights, and found some others out of her scrap that cast individual pools on the bay floor. She’d even used some old emergency lanterns and covered them with scraps of fabric to make a coloured glow. “Don’t even recognise my own ship.”

Freya smiled. “That’s the idea.”

“Don’t you like her?” Mal raised his eyebrows.

“I love her. She’s home. But this isn’t for us.”

“No. Guess not.” He looked around the bay again. Even the ‘tree’ in the corner looked better in this light. “So what am I supposed to sit at when I wake up in the night and need to stretch my legs?”

“You wake up in the night, you tell me.” She pressed closer. “I’ll stretch whatever you like.”

He couldn’t help it. Swinging her into his arms he kissed her softly.

“Cap, we’ve got guests,” came Kaylee’s voice from below him, and he released his wife long enough to look down. The mechanic had stepped through from the common area, a large platter in her hands.

“My boat,” Mal murmured, but smiled anyway.

“Always,” Freya responded.

They watched as Simon followed Kaylee with a box full of assorted tableware, and Hank came along behind with jugs and glasses.

“Got ‘em well-trained,” Mal commented.

“First night with us all on board.”

“But having to carry everything up and down the stairs all the time …” Mal shook his head.

“It’s only for a few days.”

Jayne and River were next, with baskets of bread and other comestibles, Hermione and Bethany at their heels with yet more stuff.

“Do you think Jayne’s told his Ma yet?” Mal asked quietly, watching his crew set the table.

“No. And no-one else is to.”

“I told ‘em.”

“It’s up to them when they say.” Her voice still held a warning note.

Mal turned to her. “Darlin’, I ain't gonna spoil the surprise.”

“You two going to just stand and watch, or are you going to help?” Kaylee called, standing and glaring at them, her hands on her hips.

“I'm captain,” Mal pointed out. “I supervise.”

“You don’t help and you’re on fatigues.”

“You ordering me about, little Kaylee?”

“Yes.”

Mal grinned and took Freya’s hand, leading her down the steps. “Just so long as I know. Remind me when it comes to apportioning the take next time.”

--

They were all around the table, even the babies, and conversation flowed easily. Only Matty sat silently, despite Inara and Kaylee’s attempts to draw him into the conversation. He ate his food as quickly as possible, then excused himself, saying he was tired.

There was an uncomfortable silence after he left.

“Sorry about that,” Gilford said eventually. “He’s been angry a long time, and it’s … difficult for him.”

“Perhaps I could talk to him,” Sam Nazir offered.

“No. Best you let him be.”

“It’s my fault,” Jayne put in unexpectedly. “If’n anyone talks to him, it best be me.”

“Well, not tonight,” Mal said. “Maybe a good night’s sleep will be just what he needs.”

Inara nodded, her hand on Sam’s. “So, what was Jayne like as a boy?” she asked brightly, turning to Mrs Cobb.

“Yeah, tell us,” Kaylee pleaded, her eyes big in the subdued light. “I'm sure he was a pretty baby.”

“Kaylee …” Jayne sounded anxious.

“Now, come on. You met my family, know all about me. I think it’s time we heard about you.” She smiled at him.

“Ain't nothing to tell.”

“Of course there is,” Hank agreed. “Like maybe he had a favourite toy, or something.” There was a speculative gleam in his eye.

“Toy?” Kaylee looked at him.

“Yeah. Maybe a … oh, I don’t know. A teddy bear. With some kind of weird name.”

Kaylee’s eyes widened even more. He couldn’t know. Not that River had filled in that chainwave that time, putting everyone else’s answers as well as her own. But she and Freya had deleted it. There was no way Hank could know Jayne had a teddy called –

“Pookie.” Mrs Cobb smiled. “I’d almost forgotten. Wouldn’t go anywhere without him, not until he was … oh, five at least.”

“Ma!”

“You had a teddy?” Bethany asked, gazing at him.

“Pookie was a christening present from his uncle.” She shook her head. “Almost forgotten,” she repeated softly.

“Well, everyone can forget that right now,” Jayne said firmly.

“I think it’s sweet.” Kaylee sighed. “Mine was called Harold. Don’t know why. Just picked a name.”

“Mal’s was –“ Freya started but was interrupted by her husband.

“No-one wants to know that, ai ren.”

“Sure we do, Cap’n,” Kaylee said, leaning forward.

“Well, no-one’s going to find out.”

“That ain't fair,” Jayne put in. “They’re all picking on me. Why shouldn’t you get some?”

“You know, it’s real bad that I have to keep reminding you all that I'm captain. And that gives me some privileges.” Mal sat back, his hand on Freya’s knee as she held a sleeping Jesse. “One of those being that I don’t get embarrassed. I just cause it in other people.”

There was a general murmur of laughter.

“You know, Jayne wasn't always so … big.” Mrs Cobb turned to her first born. “Up until he hit puberty, there was nothing of him.”

“You were scrawny?” Simon asked in amazement. “You?”

“Oh, Ma …”

Mal watched as Jayne squirmed in his seat, and wondered at how much he’d changed. A few years back he’d never have taken this, the good-natured ribbing, the insults that weren't really all that insulting. He’d have had the man – or woman – saying it on the floor, pummelling their face into the plating. Or at least have been thinking about getting his own back.

He’s mellowed. River’s voice touched his mind.

Not that much.

Enough.

Mal glanced at her, seeing her staring at him. You?

Me. And Freya. And you.

Never touched him.

River grinned. He admires you. He will never admit it, but he does.

Nothing to admire, albatross. And do all Readers talk this easy?

No. Only to those they love.

His eyes widened, then he chuckled as she stuck her tongue out at him. He shook his head and looked back at the table, noting that Freya was most studiously not looking at him, and he felt his lips twitch.

Mrs Cobb was still talking. “… so Jayne carried her home, sopping wet and freezing. Her Pa nearly shot him when they got there, but she told him how he’d saved her.” She looked at her son. “They were more than grateful.”

“She was just a kid, Ma.” Jayne’s ears were pink.

“Didn’t mean they weren’t planning the wedding.”

“Ah, weddings,” Hank said, a dreamy expression on his face. “I like weddings.”

“Well, that’s where we’re going, dear,” Zoe said. “To a wedding. I'm sure you can get all that out of your system.”

“Nope. Not likely to.” He smiled at her. “Still want it to be ours.”

“Soon.”

“Promise?”

“I promise.”

Hank beamed at the assembled company. “You heard her. She promised.”

“We did,” Mal said. “Not sure I approve of these shipboard romances, but it’s probably a bit late to stop that now.”

Zoe looked down at her son, curled in her lap. “I reckon so, sir.”

Eventually the conversation started to flag, and more than one yawn was hidden behind a hand.

“Well, we’ll be on Jiangyin in three days,” Mal said, getting up from the table, and lifting a very tired Ethan onto his hip. “Plenty of time for everyone to talk themselves out.” His son wrapped his arms around his neck and dozed off.

Everyone followed, heading towards various bunks, wishing each other a good night’s rest.

“We’ll clear,” River said, piling plates together.

“Thanks, albatross.” Mal patted her arm and followed his wife up the stairs.

“You sure?” Kaylee asked, watching Bethany and Hermione meander for the room they’d decided to share, hand in hand.

“Go on. Simon’s waiting.”

Shr ah.” Kaylee grinned and hurried off.

River watched Jayne tipping the remains of the uneaten food onto one plate. “Are you all right?” she asked.

“Shiny.”

“I'm sorry.”

He looked up. “What for?”

“Letting them tease you.”

The corner of his mouth lifted. “Hell, moonbrain, if that’s the worst they can do, I ain't worried.”

She stepped close to him and kissed his cheek. “My marshmallow.”

“Told you, I ain't.” He grabbed her and kissed her properly. “Better get this stuff done, then I’ll show you.”

“I’ll go get the crate for the plates.” She grinned and skipped through the common area.

Jayne continued to stack everything ready. “Ya might as well come on out. I can hear ya breathing.”

Matty stepped out of the shadows. “Something you picked up from being a merc?” he asked.

“Prob’ly.” Jayne didn’t look up, but knew his brother was staring at him.

“You liked that, didn’t you? Being the centre of attention.”

“What, with folks laughing at me?”

“I think you lapped it up.”

“Think what you like.” Jayne stood straight. “You didn’t have to leave. You could’ve stayed. Hell, I might even let you rib on me.”

The younger Cobb shrugged. “Why’d I want to do that?”

“We’re brothers.”

“Not for a long time.”

Jayne released a breath slowly. “Matty, I thought we’d got past this. You know why I left. Ma wrote me, told me she’d told you. You wrote, too.”

“Didn’t say I forgave you.”

“Matty, it weren't my choice!”

“Not taking me with you was.” His eyes were dark, hooded. “Had to go down the mines, Jayne. No choice at all.”

“You said maybe we’d talk.”

“It’s been a year, Jayne. You had your chance to come back again.”

“Ya think?” The big man slammed the platter he held onto the table. “You know what’s been happening to us in the last year? What we’ve been through?”

“No. Not sure I care.”

Jayne gritted his teeth. “No. Guess you wouldn’t.” He shook his head. “Better go to bed, Matty. ‘Fore one or both of us does something we’ll regret.”

His brother glared at him, his jaw working as if he wanted to spill all the venom that had been building up inside him for so long, but nothing came out. Instead he span on his heel and marched away, pushing past River where she stood in the doorway.

“Jayne?” she whispered.

“S’okay, moonbrain.” He sat down on one of the crates. “It’s okay.”

She put down the box and walked silently to him, curling into his lap. He held onto her, feeling her heat warm the cold lump inside him.

--

Part VII

“How did you know?” Kaylee demanded, catching Hank alone on the bridge after breakfast.

“Know what?” The pilot turned his innocent face to her.

“About Pookie.”

“Pookie.”

“Jayne’s bear. The one you teased him with last night.” She stood with her hands on her hips, radiating injured pride for the big man.

“Ah.”

“So?”

“Remember when the Cortex kept shorting? I was trying to fix it, and Serenity bit me?”

“I remember you having to get some burn cream from Simon.”

“That’s it. Well, when I finally managed to get it back up and running, I reset a few things and … well, this whole bunch of dead files appeared. And … I read them.”

“Hank.” There was a wealth of meaning in that one word, from reproach to pity.

“What? I didn’t know they were private!”

“We’d deleted them.”

His ears pricked up. “We?”

“I meant me.”

“Who else knows?”

“What, that you have a tat?”

Hank suddenly blushed. “Oh. Yeah.” Then he looked up. “But I ain't the only one.”

“Hank, that’s private. The Cap … hell, Freya’d kill you if you let on.”

“Wasn't going to. It’s just … with Jayne … it was too good to let pass.”

Kaylee finally smiled. “I know. And you don’t know the number of times I’ve been having to bite my tongue not to say anything.” She pointed at him. “But you don’t. Say anything, that is.”

“Kaylee –“

She leaned over him. “Promise.”

“’Kay, I promise.”

“And wherever you’ve kept it, get rid of it.” She turned and walked off the bridge.

“Who said I kept a copy?”

She didn’t answer, just glared over her shoulder at him.

--

“Can I come in?”

River looked up from where she was making the bed to see Mrs Cobb standing in the doorway. “Of course,” she smiled.

“Thanks.” She stepped over the sill and looked around the small shuttle. “So this is where you sleep.”

“Yes.”

“And Jayne.”

“Yes.”

Mrs Cobb’s eyes flickered over the array of guns on the wall. “Are these his?”

“And mine.”

“Yours?”

“Those ones.” River pointed to one end of the display.

“I see.”

“It’s who we are.”

“I see that.” Mrs Cobb dragged her eyes away and fastened them on the young woman instead. “And I can see something else, too.” She reached out and took River’s hand. “You’re pregnant.”

River felt as if all the air had been knocked out of her. “How …”

Mrs Cobb nodded, leading her to the bed so they could sit down. “I've seen it enough, dear. The bloom. The glow surrounding a woman who’s going to have a child.” She paused. “Jayne’s?”

“Yes.”

“Were you going to tell me?”

“Yes, yes, we were, but Jayne wanted to … we were going to do it together.”

“And I've spoiled that. I'm sorry.” She shook her head slowly. “You’re so young.”

“I'm twenty-three, Mrs Cobb.”

“Fionnula. Or Fin.” She shrugged.

“Mother?”

“No. Not yet.”

River nodded. “I understand.” She clasped the older woman’s hand. “But I'm old enough. And I … we want this child very much.”

“Jayne does?”

“Yes. Mrs Cobb … Fin …” River’s brow creased slightly. It felt wrong calling her that. “Mrs Cobb, he keeps me sane. I can’t explain – I won’t. But he’s my Jayne, and I want this child with him.”

“You could’ve told me sooner.”

“I know.”

“Did you think I’d be angry?”

River dropped her head. “You’ve only just got him back.”

“And I don’t have that long. Do I?” Her blue eyes, so like Jayne’s, pierced the younger woman.

“No.”

“I won’t get to see this child born.”

“No.”

Mrs Cobb sighed. “I knew it. No matter Jason keeps telling me I'm gonna live to a ripe old age, I knew it wasn't going to be much more.”

“I'm sorry.” River’s eyes filled with tears, spilling down her cheeks.

“Oh, no, don’t. No matter what, I've had a good life. There’re things I wish I’d done differently, things I wish had never happened at all … but I've had two good men who loved me. Two sons. Lot of women can’t even lay claim to that. And I … I always thought Jayne would be a good father.”

“He will be.” River nudged closer. “I wish you’d see. Maybe you will. I’m not right all the time.”

“Just mostly.”

“Mostly,” River agreed.

They sat together quietly, each absorbed in their own thoughts, until Mrs Cobb asked, diffidently, “So what else has been going on?”

Half an hour later Jayne stepped into the shuttle to face an irate woman with white hair.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” his mother stormed.

“Tell you what?” Jayne asked, his mind automatically going over the possible things he’d done, what excuses he could make, and came up with the one thing he didn’t know how to answer.

“You nearly died!” She pointed with a trembling hand to his head.

Jayne looked over at River, who drew her feet up under her, and he relaxed a little. “Ma, it weren’t nothing.”

“You had to have an operation!”

“Ma, it ain't nothing new.”

“Nothing …” Mrs Cobb stared at him. “How can you say that?”

“Because it’s true.”

“Jayne, River’s brother had to cut into your brain.” His mother was shaking.

“Ma, sit down. You know this ain’t good for you.” He eased her back to the bed. “You need your pills? I can get Simon to -”

“I’m fine,” she said, with asperity. “But you should have told me.”

“So you could do what, Ma? Worry?” He went down onto his heels. “Doc fixed me up real good. Weren’t nothing to tell you about.”

Mrs Cobb touched the line of white hair above his ear. “You’re my son, Jayne. Of course I worry.”

“I’m a grown man. Have been a long time. You gotta remember that.”

“Trouble is, I remember the little boy who was afraid of the dark, too.”

Jayne saw River half smile, and he shook his head. “That ain’t something you want to be telling anyone.”

“How about when you broke that picture frame because you were playing catch in the house?”

“Ma, I was twelve.”

“It’s okay,” she said, smiling, stroking his cheek. “I forgave you for that.” Her eyes turned steely. “What I haven’t forgiven you for yet is not telling me you’ve got this little girl pregnant.”

Jayne glanced at River, who managed to look both innocent and guilty at the same time. “Ma …”

“You sit right down and tell me. Everything. Right now.” Her voice would brook no objection.

“Yes, Ma.”

--

Jayne was about to set up the table again for dinner when Matty bundled out of the common area, tackling him and taking him to the ground. Jayne threw him off and stood up, glaring down.

“What the diyu d’you think you’re doing?”

Matty climbed to his feet. “You ye zhong,” he snarled.

“What?”

“Your woman’s pregnant!”

“Guess Ma passed on the good news.”

“You ain't just content with forcing your way back into our lives, but now this?” Matty’s fists curled. “No, wait, let’s kill the fatted calf. Welcome you properly.”

“You afraid I'm trying to take your place?” Jayne’s brow furrowed. “You hun mei or something?”

“You’d left! Gone! Two damn rutting visits in more’n twenty years … and you think you can just walk back in?”

“Just ‘cause you’re too sly to get yourself a woman –“

“I've got a woman!” Matty hit out, the sudden movement catching Jayne by surprise, and he staggered back.

“Then why ain't you with her?”

“’Cause my Ma needs me!”

Jayne stepped forward, easing his jaw. “Seems to me she’s got someone. Got Gilford. Maybe it’s you who do the needing.”

Matty lashed out again, once more catching Jayne, but lighter this time as the big man went with it, allowing the power in the punch to diminish before it touched him, and he sat back onto the floor. He looked up at Matty, standing over him, his face red, his fists balled.

“Come to this, has it?” he grinned.

“Said we’d maybe fight it out of our system,” his brother said.

Jayne got up slowly, carefully, watching the other man. “You know I’m bigger ’n’ stronger’n you. You been sick, I know that. Don’t want to hurt you.”

“And you think you could?”

“I know it.”

“Wrestle.” River looked over the catwalk at them both.

“What?” Jayne said.

“Don’t use fists. Wrestle. I’ll watch, say who’s won.”

“Yeah, right, ‘cause that’d be fair,” Matty mocked.

“If I say I will be honest, then I will. Even if Jayne loses.”

“Ain’t gonna lose, moonbrain,” the big mercenary promised.

“Then wrestle.”

Jayne looked at Matty. “How about it?”

“Sounds fine.”

“Only, you get tired, you let me know. I’ll go easy on ya.”

“I won’t.” Matty launched himself at his brother, taking him down onto the deck of the cargo bay.

“Albatross, you seen Frey?” Mal asked, ducking through the doorway and moving to stand next to River as she gazed down into the cargo bay. “And is there something I need to be worried about here?”

Below them Jayne and Matty were now circling each other, looking for an opening.

“They need this. The bull and the bear. See who’s top dog.”

“You mixing your metaphors now?”

She glanced at him, the line between her eyebrows deep. “Huh.”

“River, not sure Simon Cobb’s gonna be too all-fired pleased if his father … well, that is if Jayne turns up to the wedding with a black eye. Or something broken.”

“I’ll make sure there’s as little blood as possible, captain.” She leaned forward as Matty grabbed Jayne around the waist, trying to throw him, but the bigger man shrugged him off. “And Freya’s napping. She’s …” River shook her head, as if trying to clear it.

Mal sighed. “This gonna go soon?” he asked quietly. “These moods of hers?”

“It’s partly me.” She looked into his concerned blue eyes as she spoke, seeing his love for his wife in them. “Picking up on my … loss of control.”

“You don’t seem too bad at the moment.”

“Tight hold. But I leak.”

“And she’s catching it?”

“It builds on her worries.”

“It’s been near two months since Jesse was born, and Frey’s still waking in the night. She cries, River. And won’t tell me what it’s about.”

“She’s afraid she’ll lose them. And you.” River put her hand on his. “She dreams she has.”

“She ain't gonna lose us.”

“Then just be there for her. And I’ll try not to …”

“Leak?”

“Mmn.” River looked back down to the cargo bay floor, where Jayne now had Matty in a headlock. The younger man was kicking at Jayne’s shins.

“Painful,” Mal commented.

“More than physical.”

“Yeah.” Mal watched a moment longer, then stood straight. “Well, if one of them kills the other, let me know. I’ll be with Frey.”

“Of course, captain.”

Mal took a last glance down then walked away.

“You ready to give it up, little brother?” Jayne asked, puffing slightly and pulling away.

Matty was holding his ribs, trying to get air back into his body. “Ain’t so little anymore, Jayne. And it’s been a while since you beat me last.”

“So, what, you’re all growed up and I have to let you take me? You think that’s gonna happen?”

“Nope. Just saying I’ve learned a few tricks since we used to fight out back.” He tackled Jayne low down, forcing the bigger man to roll away, but not before twisting his foot around his brother’s windpipe.

“What’s going on here?” Fionnula Cobb asked, joining River. She looked down at the two men rolling on the floor. “Oh, no!” She went to run down the stairs, but the young woman stopped her.

“They have to do this.”

“But –”

“They have to.” River turned back to the match below. “I’ll make sure they don’t hurt each other too much.”

“How can you stop them if they try?”

“Mrs Cobb, I don’t think you need to worry about that,” Zoe said, coming out of the hatchway behind them. Mal had quickly filled her in on what was happening as he headed for his bunk. “Now, why don’t you join my fiancé and me in a cup of coffee? I’d like to hear more of those stories when Jayne was a boy. Though personally I can’t figure that he ever was.”

“Gilford.”

“Ma’am?”

“It’s Mrs Gilford. Has been for a long time.” She couldn’t tear her eyes from her sons.

“You know, I don’t think that’s likely to sink in for a while, seeing as I’ve only just got used to Jayne having a mother at all.” The first mate smiled.

“Then Cobb will be fine.” Jayne had Matty down now, twisting one arm up behind him, and their mother pressed her hand to her mouth.

“Fionnula.” She put her hand on her arm. “Let them get this done.”

Mrs Cobb finally looked up into Zoe’s face. “But -”

“Come on. That coffee’s getting cold.”

She allowed him to lead her back through the doorway. “You should put eggshells in it,” she said distractedly, her mind still on her boys.

“Eggshells?”

“In the coffee. It improves the flavour.”

Zoe smiled. “Well, seeing as we don’t get fresh eggs that often, it’ll be hard to prove. But maybe I’ll bear it in mind for when we do.”

--

Mal climbed down the ladder and looked at Freya. She was lying on her side, facing away from him, her legs pulled up towards her chest, protecting herself. The hand he could see was gripping tightly to the blanket beneath her, her fingers clawed into it, and she was whimpering.

“Frey …” he whispered, sitting next to her, putting his hand on her shoulder. “It’s okay, Frey. It’s okay.”

She rolled towards him, suddenly awake, grasping at him. “Mal … oh, Mal.” Tears were streaming down her face as he gathered her into his arms.

“What was it? What were you dreaming about?”

She shook her head, her face in his chest. “Nothing.”

“Nothing. Right. Nothing makes you cry like this.” He stroked her hair.

“It’s just …” She wound her hand in his shirt. “I saw them. Both of them. On Prom. We were …” She gulped in a lungful of air but couldn’t speak.

“Frey, they’re safe. Ethan’s with Hank on the bridge, and Jesse’s next door.” He nodded towards the nursery. “Right in there. They’re both safe. And they’re gonna stay that way. We’re gonna make sure of that.”

“I … I can’t help it, Mal.” She looked up into his face. “I can’t help it.”

“So me telling you that Jayne and Matty are duking it out in the cargo bay ain’t gonna make things any easier for you?” He watched her sit up.

“What?”

“One or other of ‘em’ve have had enough. River’s keeping score.”

“Mal, you shouldn’t let them -”

“You think I should get involved?”

She sat up more, wiping at her face. “It’s your ship.”

“Really.”

“Mal, you have to stop this.”

“Nope. We’ve got another full day before we get to Jiangyin. And I for one ain’t intending to sit around with the atmosphere we’ve had.”

“What if they hurt each other?”

“Told you, River’s there. She’ll make sure they don’t.”

“Mal …”

He pulled her back into his arms. “They’ll be fine. Ethan and Jesse will be fine. We’ll be fine. I promise.” Lowering his lips he kissed her gently. “You hold onto that fact, ai ren. You hold onto me.”

--

Jayne looked down into the face of his brother, and realised if he squeezed just a little more he could cut off the blood supply to his brain. Just a little more, and they wouldn’t have to argue any more, wouldn’t have to …

Jayne. Stop.

He looked up at River, standing so still on the catwalk, then back at the purple congestion marring Matty’s skin. With a grunt he let go, his brother’s body sliding out from between his legs to the cargo bay floor.

“You ain’t worth it,” he murmured, but loud enough so that Matty could hear. “She’s worth more’n a dozen of you.”

He clambered to his feet, feeling muscles protesting, and turned his back. In the doorway to the common area stood Simon and Kaylee, Hermione and Bethany peering out around them. Above, on the catwalk opposite River, were Inara and Sam Nazir, Hank loitering just behind.

“You seen enough?” Jayne asked, slowly climbing the stairs. “He ain’t dead. Might need some doctoring with the bruises, though.” At the top he came face to face with River. “I wouldn’t’ve killed him,” he said softly.

“I know.” She put her arm around his waist and led him back into their shuttle.

Down in the bay Simon hurried to the younger Cobb, helping him to his feet.

“Why’d he do that?” Matty asked, his words slurring a little due to the swelling of his lips. “He could’ve ended it right there.”

“He’s your brother,” Simon said, taking a lot of his weight and guiding him towards the infirmary. “Whatever else, he’s your brother.”

--

Part VIII

They couldn’t get it back, the wonderfully relaxed feeling of the previous night, at least at first. Matty wasn’t even present, claiming aches and pains from the wrestling match, preferring to eat in his room. Even Jayne was favouring his ribs.

“You should let me take a look at those,” Simon said. “In case they’re cracked.”

“They ain’t. And even if they were you couldn’t do nothing.”

“I could give you a shot for the pain.”

“They’re just bruised, Doc.”

“Matty got lucky a couple of times,” River put in.

“I don’t think you should use the word luck when it’s my two sons fighting,” Mrs Cobb said, her voice tight. River’s face reddened.

“It wasn’t River’s fault, Ma,” Jayne said quietly, putting his arm around his moonbrain’s waist and squeezing.

“You could have been really hurt.”

“Matty started it.”

“I don’t care.” She shook off Gilford’s restraining hand. “You’re my boys. Both of you. You shouldn’t …” She swallowed. “It’s all my fault. Making you leave.”

Samuel Nazir looked up. “Mrs Cobb, please, let me assure you it isn’t. In my line of work, I see people blaming themselves all the time for things they could not control.” He could see Inara on the periphery of his vision, nodding gently. “From what I understand, you did what you thought was right. You had no way of knowing the outcome. No-one ever truly does.”

“I didn’t want Matty to leave me too,” she admitted, her voice low.

“That’s understandable. And forgivable.”

“Ma, it ain’t your fault neither,” Jayne said, leaning forward. “What I did, to Ballard … you were right. I shoulda left it to the sheriff to deal with, not taken it into my own hands. But I did, and … Ma, you ain’t made me what I am. That was all my own doing.”

“And not one of us is what we intended,” Freya put in. “Things happen, wars, other events …” She took a breath. “We lose people, people we care about, and it changes us. None of us is the same as we were. But we’re all here now. Around this table.”

Mal knew what she was talking about, the things she’d never say in front of comparative strangers, and he closed his hand over hers.

Jayne sighed and gazed at his mother. “Matty and me … that‘s ‘cause of me. I coulda done it different, made up some reason why I wouldn’t take him with me, not just told him I didn’t want him hanging round my neck.”

“But you told him that because I made you promise.” Mrs Cobb blinked hard.

“Still did it badly. And then letting my pride come first and not coming home …” He gazed at her. “I know letters and stuff don’t make up for it. Nor does blood money. I’m sorry, Ma.”

There was something of an embarrassed silence around the table until Mal spoke, mindful of the worried looks on the faces of the children. “Well, as sweet and pretty as that was, I’d rather we actually got around to finishing this fine meal, else I might cry.”

“Don’t want that,” Hermione piped up, more understanding than she had a right to be at her tender age. “Red-faced and snotty.”

“Hey, I told you that in confidence, Noni!” Mal said indignantly.

Everyone laughed, the tension finally broken.

“Did I tell you about Meg Wilkins?” Mrs Cobb asked, looking at her eldest son, suddenly ashamed at the way she‘d been acting and wanting to put things right.

Jayne shook his head, remembering the young girl he’d been more than sweet on. “Nope. Don’t recall you saying anything.”

“Meg was a girl Jayne had his eye on,” she explained to the assembled table. “Long blonde hair, sweetest little dimples, and one of those young bodies you just knew were going to blossom …”

“Ma …” Jayne was beginning to squirm again.

“Just had her eighth. Little boy. And the eldest presented her with a grandchild only a coupla months before.”

“So that’s mean that her grandkid’s uncle is younger than …” Kaylee shook her head. “That’s -”

“Complicated,” River finished.

“Least she’s married,” Mrs Cobb added, her soft gaze turning somewhat steely.

“Ma! I asked!” Jayne protested.

“Yes, well, we’re going to have a talk about that.” Mrs Cobb raised her eyebrows at the young woman.

“That will be … interesting,” River said quietly, dropping her eyes to her plate, twitching slightly as she heard Jayne‘s low growl of laughter.

As the meal wound down, and the children were put to various beds, Sam Nazir excused himself for a moment, hurrying to his temporary quarters. On his way back he realised the younger Cobb brother was standing on the steps up from the common area, watching the remaining adults chatting and laughing.

“You know, you could join us.”

Matty started guiltily. “Nah. No-one out there wants me to put a dampener on things.”

“Your mother would like you out there.”

“Yeah, well -”

“And your step-father.”

“Jayne wouldn’t.”

“Did you ask him?” Not giving the younger man a chance to respond, Sam went on, “I was going to offer these around.” He opened the box to reveal a dozen cigars. “Would you like one?”

Matty shook his head. “Much as I’d like to say yes, I can’t. Been sick. Damplung. Wouldn’t do me any good, much as I’d enjoy it.”

“Are you recovered?”

“Mostly. Much as you can.” Matty sat down on the step. “Made life harder for a while, least for me. And Ma was worried all the time, and Jason … well, he wasn’t too busy with the store … I mean, it‘s better now, but for a while things were tight.“

“I understand Jayne sent money home when he could.”

“Yeah.”

“Did that help?”

“We didn’t ask!” Matty insisted. “But … it made life a little easier. ‘Specially when Ma got sick. Bills and the like.”

Sam closed the box, sealing off the heady scent of tobacco. He leaned on the handrail, noting once again the physical resemblance between the brothers. “Jayne was thinking of you.”

“We didn’t ask him to! I didn’t ask …” Matty bit his lip, fully aware he sounded like the eight year old he’d been when his father died.

“Mr Cobb … Matty … if you want to talk, I’ll be willing to listen.”

“Don’t need to talk.”

“We all need to talk sometimes. I was merely offering because I don’t know you. You can tell me anything and it will never get back to anyone.”

“Ya mean like how I’ve fantasised killing my brother for the last twenty odd years?”

“Do you still feel like that?”

“I …” Matty stared at him, then stood up. “Better get to my rest.” He walked past the therapist.

“I’ll be around. If you’d like to talk.”

“Don’t hold your breath.”

Sam watched him walk away, then headed back to the table. “In honour of the occasion,” he said, “would you care to join me?” He opened the box and laid it in the centre of the table.

Jayne leaned forward, breathing in appreciatively. “Hey, they smell good.”

“They were a gift from a grateful client,” Sam said, smiling.

“Pretty grateful.” He reached into the box and pulled one out.

“Sam?” Inara had seen movement in the common area, realised who he’d been speaking to.

“It’s all right.” He spoke equally quietly.

“Matty?”

“I’ve offered. It’s up to him now.”

Inara reached up a hand and without thinking tucked a strand of his hair back behind his ear. He smiled at her, and she glowed, then turned the softest shade of pink when she noticed Freya looking at her.

“If you’re going to smoke one of them,” River said, watching Jayne sniffing the cigar, “I’m going to bed.” She stood up. “Good night.”

“No, look I’ll -” Jayne went to get to his feet, but she pushed him back into the seat.

“Enjoy,” she whispered in his ear. “I’ll be waiting for you.” She drifted silently towards the stairs.

Mrs Cobb got to her feet. “And I think I’ll turn in too.”

“Fin?” Gilford asked.

“No. You stay. Enjoy yourself.” She kissed him delicately on the lips then headed to the guest quarters. Jayne dropped his head in slight embarrassment, busying himself with his smoke.

“Zoe?” Hank asked, hopefully.

“Go ahead,” she said. “I’m not pregnant.”

“Not for want of trying,” the pilot muttered under his breath, taking one of the cigars from the box and rolling it gently in his fingers. He could feel the tightness of the leaves, firm enough to resist the pressure. “Jayne’s right. If I was a betting man I’d say these were from Achaeon.”

Sam grinned, his face lighting up. “You’d be right. Remind me not to play cards with you.”

“Oh, you wouldn’t want to do that anyway, Sam,” Freya said, laughing. “You’d lose.”

“Or with Frey,” Kaylee added, wrinkling her nose at the other woman. “Almost as bad.”

“You seem to be a ship of reprobates,” Sam observed wryly.

“That we are,” Mal said, sitting back and looking around the table in satisfaction. “Worse kind.”

“You know, speaking of cards, I wouldn’t mind playing a hand or two,” Simon put in. “Not for money, of course.”

“Then what’d be the point?” Jayne asked, lighting up and blowing a cloud of blue towards the ceiling.

“For the fun.”

“Ain’t no fun if you’re not playing for money.” He grinned. “Or chores.”

“Now that sounds like fun,” Hank said, jumping up. “I’ll go grab a pack of cards.”

Zoe sighed as she watched her fiancé run up the stairs. “Why are you encouraging him? You know he’ll win.”

“Not necessarily,” Simon said, flexing his fingers. “I’ve been practising.”

“You like cleaning out the septic vat, doc?” Mal asked, a grin playing around his lips.

“It’s the highlight of my week,” the young man said, with slightly more sarcasm than was really called for.

“In which case, since I ain’t too enamoured of my husband coming to bed smelling of … well, I think this is called for.” Kaylee leaned down and pulled a large glass flask out from under the table.

Freya‘s eyes narrowed. “Is that …”

“Best yet. Got some strawberries in it from River’s garden.” Kaylee grinned. “Been making it ‘specially for an occasion. And I figure this is as good a one as any.”

“Are you planning on ’fixing’ Hank?” Zoe asked.

“’S a good plan,” Jayne said approvingly. “He kinda loses some of his skill when he drinks. Brings him down to my level.”

“You think?” Mal shook his head. “Not sure that’s possible.”

Jayne glared at him, unsure of whether he was being insulted or not, and was about to make a retort when Hank reappeared at the top of the catwalk.

“Got ‘em!” he called, holding up a deck of cards.

--

The next morning, as Kaylee turned up the air scrubbers to get rid of the lingering smell of cigar smoke and most people were feeling more than a little fragile, Matty sat in his room and pondered. He’d gone back and watched the game for some time, hidden in the shadows, hearing the laughter and seeing the way everyone treated his brother, and now he just felt confused. He’d got this image in his mind of the cold-blooded killer he knew Jayne to be, but this was …

“Hello.”

He looked up. The little girl, Bethany, was standing in his doorway, a small dog at her feet.

“Hi.” He glared at her. “You lost?”

“No. I know where I am. ‘S’my home.”

“Yeah. So why’re you here?”

“Wanted to talk to you.” She looked into the small room. “Can I come in?”

Matty shook his head. “Nope. Don’t want to talk.”

“Yes you do.”

“Look, girlie -”

“Bethany. My name’s Bethany. Or Bethie. Or short stub. I don’t mind which.”

She was gazing at him with her large brown eyes, and he felt uncomfortable.

“Why don’t you just go away and play someplace else?”

“Want to know why you don’t like my Uncle Jayne.”

“Uncle …” He couldn’t stop it. “Your Uncle Jayne?”

“That’s who he is. And when the baby comes and he marries Auntie River, he’ll be my Uncle Jayne even more.” She smiled a little. “You look like him.”

“No, I don’t.” He turned away from her, but could still feel her eyes on him.

“Yes you do. But you’ve been sick. Hurts.”

“No.”

“Here.” She touched her chest when he glanced at her. “Getting better though.” She regarded him seriously. “People have been sick here too. Ethan was, had to have an operation. So did Uncle Jayne. Nearly died.” She sighed heavily. “Daddy made him better.” She stepped into the room. “That’s what families do.”

“Well, that’s … nice.” He went back to studying the wall.

“Are you my uncle too?”

He jerked his head around to look at her. “What?”

“You’re Uncle Jayne’s brother. I think that makes you Uncle Matty.”

“Kid, I ain’t your uncle anything.”

Bethie put her head on one side. “Why’re you so angry?”

“I’m not.”

“Can feel it. Even more than the hurt. Why?”

He looked at her, saw only honest concern in her young face. “I … I don’t know,” he admitted.

“Then don’t be.”

“Ain’t as easy as that.”

“Course it is. Tell it to go away.” She smiled, her eyes lighting up. “I’ll help, if you like.”

“Girl - Bethie - you need to be careful,” Matty warned. “You should be more wary who you speak to like this.”

“I’m not afraid of you. I know you wouldn’t hurt me.”

“No?”

“No.” She seemed to think for a moment. “Uncle Jayne’s sorry.”

“What?”

“For what he said. He didn’t mean it. Didn’t want to leave.”

“I …”

“Don’t be angry any more.”

“It’s been such a long time, Bethie.” Matty looked down at his hands. “Not sure I know how not to be.”

“We can help.” Bethany grinned and stood to one side so that Matty could see Ethan was behind her. “You can play with us. That will cheer you up.”

“You think?”

“I brought you this,” Ethan said, holding out a teddy bear. “Thought you might be angry ‘cause you didn’t have one.”

Matty stared. This little boy, more or less the spitting image of the captain, was offering him comfort. “Um, thanks.”

“You c’n keep him, if you like.” Ethan bit his lip. “Uncle Jayne gave him to me.”

Matty could see this was something of a sacrifice on the part of the boy, so he shook his head. “Better if you keep him for me. Know he’s safe then.”

Ethan nodded and clutched the teddy to him, looking more than a little relieved.

“So are you going to play with us?” Bethany asked.

“Ah, not right now, okay? I … um … don’t really feel like it.”

She looked like she was about to argue, but her mother’s voice floated down from the stairs.

“Bethie? You down there?”

“Yes, Momma,” she called back.

“Time for lessons.”

“Momma …”

“Come on. Frey’s waiting for you.”

The little girl sighed heavily and looked at Matty, such an adult expression in her eyes that he had to try hard not to smile. “’Nother time,” she said, taking hold of Ethan’s hand and leading him out of the room, the dog following.

“Another time,” Matty echoed, hearing her walk heavily up the stairs, muttering to herself something about not needing to be educated. This time he allowed his lips to lift.

He sat for a while longer in the quiet, hearing small noises from around the ship that he variously identified as the doctor doing something or other in the infirmary, someone working out with the weights in the cargo bay, and vague voices drifting down from the galley. He came to a decision. Getting to his feet he walked out of his room and around to the other set of passenger dorms, knocking on one of the doors.

It slid open.

“Can … would you mind if we talked for a while?” he asked.

Sam Nazir moved back to allow the younger man inside. “As long as you need,” he said, putting his book down on drawer unit.

--

to be continued

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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!]