BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL

JANE0904

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

Maya. Post-BDM. The wedding is interrupted, and Jayne goes on the warpath. Part II of II


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 1683    RATING: 0    SERIES: FIREFLY

Part IX

Half a dozen times over the next couple of days River stopped outside Matty’s door, almost knocking, but stopping with her hand raised. She knew he was talking to Dr Nazir, but that was all. It was hard not to look, to peek, but what they were saying was private, no matter how much it might impact on Jayne. At least they hadn’t fought any more, and although he’d not joined them for any meals, the atmosphere on board was a lot better.

Now all she had to deal with was an increasingly edgy Jayne. And her own mood swings. And Simon wanting to stick needles in her. And Freya insisting she sit in on Bethie’s lessons. And … She sighed heavily. Maybe not a good time to be pregnant.

It was full night when Serenity touched down on Jangyin, outside the town, just a few hours different to the ship‘s chronometer.

“If you’d all like to reset your watches,” Hank called over the com, “it’s 8.30 in the pm, local time. Looks like you’ll be getting a coupla extra hours in bed tomorrow. I, for one, will be taking advantage of said sleep-in, so this is your pilot, signing off.”

There was a click and the com went silent, and River smiled slightly as she stood in the cargo bay, the doors open, breathing in the fresh cool air as she ran her hands over her flat belly.

“Gonna have to put something in that man’s coffee,” Mal complained, standing next to her, his thumbs hitched into his pants.

“I think Zoe will remonstrate with him.”

“I conjure that ain‘t too much of a threat. Think he’d enjoy it more‘n was seemly.” He smiled down at her. “If you’re planning on staying up, make sure we’re locked tight ‘fore you turn in.”

“Will do, captain.”

She heard him climb the stairs, then tuned, just for a moment, to his thoughts.

Wonder if she’s naked? Just waiting for me. No. Prob’ly not. Jesse’s last feed. Though it’s something that with the change of times she don’t wake us in the middle of the night. Still, might be enough for a quick tumble. He smiled mentally. Can be fun. Put her up against the bulkhead and … albatross, you get outta my mind.

River giggled, withdrawing her consciousness. He often knew when she was eavesdropping.

She felt an arm snake around her waist.

“What’cha thinking about, moonbrain?” Jayne rumbled.

“Sex.”

“Whose?”

River grinned and pressed back against him. “All sorts.”

“The Cap, weren’t it?” Jayne shook his head. “One’a these days he’s gonna throw you in the airlock for invading his privacy.”

“Loves me.”

“Ain’t the only one.” He fastened his lips on the back of her neck, sucking gently.

“Mmn.” She sighed. “And are you okay?”

“Sure. Why wouldn’t I be?”

“Meeting Simon again. The wedding. Being a father.”

“Better be getting used to it,” he murmured indistinctly, still working on her neck. “Seems like it’s gonna become a habit.” He licked her skin once more, then raised his head. “So what’re you looking at?”

“Lights.” She pointed.

He looked outside, seeing the glow from the town, and further away, in the hills, more glimmers from the settlers up there. “You ain’t afraid to come back?” he asked, pulling her closer to him. “They tried to set you on fire.”

“Not afraid. But you didn’t want to come and rescue me.”

He felt his face redden slightly. “Didn’t know you then. Hadn’t killed a roomful of Reavers.”

“Was that the turning point?”

“Pretty much. ‘Fore that you were just a crazy kid. After you were a crazy kid with attitude.”

“Not any more.” She put his hand on her belly.

“No. Guess you ain’t a kid no more.” He grinned. “Still got the attitude, though.”

“Salt.”

He blinked. “What?”

“Have a craving for salt.” She licked her lips.

“Now you know your bro said you weren’t to go eating it. Not good for your blood pressure or some such.”

“Need it.”

He turned her in his arms. “No, you don’t.”

“Want it.”

“Well … how about I let you make me all sweaty then you can clean me up?” he suggested, his blue eyes glittering.

She grimaced. “Yuck.”

“’Bout all I can offer.” He went to let go, but she held tight.

“I’ll take what I can.” She smiled. “And the sex will be most welcome.”

“Glad to hear it.” He punched the close button on the console then led her towards their shuttle, unaware that Matty was watching from the shadows, an odd, wistful look on his face.

--

“… and the little boy ran away from the big dinosaur, who chased him until they were both worn out and fell asleep in the long grass.” Hank looked into the face of his son. “Why ain't you sleepy yet?”

“Dada.” Ben grinned, showing the five teeth he’d managed to procure from somewhere.

“And saying that ain't gonna make me come over all soft and let you stay awake.”

Zoe stepped down from the ladder. “Don’t lie to my son.”

Hank looked up. “Your son is playing hardball. Wants to see the dawn in, I think.”

“We’ll see about that.” Zoe took the little boy into her arms and started to sway gently. She began crooning, no words, just a pleasant sound. Within the space of a minute Ben had closed his eyes, and was sucking on his thumb. A minute after that and he’d relaxed into slumber.

“How’d you do that?” Hank asked quietly, shaking his head in disbelief.

“Talent.”

“Can I bottle it? Make a fortune.”

Zoe laid Ben in the crib in the corner. “Just don’t wake him up again.” She stroked her son’s cheek.

“Still think we need to talk to the Cap about making a nursery,” Hank said, sitting down on the bed and pulling off his boots. “Every time we make love I expect to look up and see him watching us.”

“Who, the Cap?” Zoe turned, a smile on her full lips.

“Yeah. And Jayne. With Simon holding up the rear.” He sighed. “I meant Ben.”

“I know, dear.” Zoe sat down at the small dressing table and undid the clip at the back of her hair, letting it fall in luscious curls around her shoulders. “But he hasn’t so far.”

“Only a matter of time.”

“Maybe we should see about moving into the lower crew quarters. There’d be room enough there.” She picked up a brush and started to pull it through her tresses.

“Only if we can soundproof it.”

Her lips twitched. “Were you planning on making a lot of noise?”

“Absolutely!” He grinned. “But if there were a choice I’d rather we stayed here.” He looked around the room. “Got everything we need.”

“Except more space.”

“There is that.” He nodded towards the bulkhead. “Could knock that through, use the storage area behind.”

“There’s a reason it’s called a storage area. Because it’s used for storage.”

“Wouldn’t hurt to ask.”

“I suppose not.”

Hank got up and padded across to stand behind her, taking the brush from her hand and starting to run it through the tangles. She closed her eyes and sighed in satisfaction.

“So how’s Jayne tonight?” Hank asked, letting the repetitive action sooth him. “Looking forward to seeing his not-quite-kin tomorrow?”

“I think River’s taking his mind off it.”

Hank shuddered. “Too much information.”

“And you’re not to say anything.”

“Me?”

She half-turned to look up at him. “You. Jayne’s touchy enough as it is. You say anything about Simon not being his blood, it’ll be like lighting the blue touch paper, and I wouldn’t like to be in the vicinity when he blows.”

“Hey, that’s Matty’s fault, not mine.” He sounded aggrieved.

“Well, just see you hold your tongue.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Good.” She turned back around, feeling him begin again. Once more her eyelids dropped.

“You going to sleep?” he asked, just enjoying the feel of her hair in his hands.

“I might.”

He tugged lightly. “Don’t you dare. Now Ben’s out for the count I’ve got plans for –“

“Dada?” Ben was standing up in his bed, holding onto the side, watching them. He bounced slightly.

“I’ll speak to Mal tomorrow,” Zoe promised.

--

“They asleep?” Kaylee asked as Simon closed the door behind him.

“No. They’re both on the same bed, under the covers, giggling.” He smiled. “I didn’t have the heart to tell them off.”

“What were they laughing about?” Kaylee lifted the covers and slid her naked body underneath.

“Hermione’s boyfriend.”

Kaylee’s eyes widened and she sat up. “What?”

Simon shook his head. “Don’t worry. I don’t think it’s something we need to tell Mal about. It’s just a young man who works on the estate sometimes. I think she’s got something of a crush on him.”

“Thought that was on the captain.”

He paused as he pulled his sweater off. “You noticed too?”

“Think everyone has. The way she kinda goes pink when he talks to her. Won’t look him in the eye sometimes.” She plucked at the sheet with her fingers, mimicking the young girl’s actions. “And I figure he knows, ‘cause Freya surely does.”

“I imagine he’s hoping she’ll grow out of it. And maybe she will now, with this other young man to think about.”

“Don’t think there’s a rule about only having one crush. I didn’t.”

He tossed his pants onto the chair and sat down on the bed. “You had a crush?”

“Yeah. More’n one.”

“On whom?”

“Well, there was my Sunday School teacher. And that actor off the Cortex. And Bill Appleby, but he started going out with Kelly Chen so I kinda –“

“Kaylee!”

“I was young, Simon.” She took his hand. “And I don’t have crushes no more. Not since I found someone to share my life.”

“I hope you’re talking about me.”

“I am.”

“That’s good.” He leaned forward and kissed her, feeling her smile under his lips. Quickly wriggling out of his underpants, he slid into bed next to her.

“How do you think Matty’s talks are going with Sam?” Kaylee asked, feeling him down the length of her.

“I think they’re confidential.” He looked into her dark brown eyes. “And you’re not to ask.”

“Wasn't going to,” she said softly. “Just glad he is. So’s Bethie.”

“I’m still not happy about her going to see him. Especially on her own.”

“She wasn't on her own. Ethan was with her. ‘Sides, she says he’s nice. Once you get past the angry bit.”

“She needs to be careful, bao bei.” He pulled her closer to his chest. “Being trusting is one thing, but if she doesn‘t know –“

“She knows people, Simon. Maybe more’n any of us.”

“I know.” He sighed a little. “I just worry about her.”

“She’s your daughter. You’re supposed to worry.” She ran her fingers down his muscular chest. “What about Mrs Cobb? Saw you having a chat with her earlier.”

“She just wanted a second opinion.”

“And?”

“Nothing I could say. Her doctors were right.”

Sadness clouded Kaylee’s face for a moment. “I'm real sorry about that. She’s a nice lady.”

“Yes, she is.” His breath hitched. “What are you doing?”

“Need to cheer myself up.”

“Kaylee, there are other people close by.”

“Then you can bite the pillow.”

“Kaylee …”

--

In the captain’s bunk, Mal was finishing feeding Jesse with the bottle of milk he’d found on the table, a note attached to it saying ‘Your turn!’ He was sitting in the chair by the desk, his feet on a convenient box, cradling his daughter. She was regarding him with her blue eyes, sucking on the teat, even as he felt his attention divided between her and her mother.

It looked as if Freya’d fallen asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow, and now lay with her back to him, her tattoo showing all the way down to her waist. She was dreaming, twitching slightly like Fiddler did, but he decided that discretion was the better part of not getting bruised, and he wouldn’t tell her that particular thought had occurred to him. Still, at least she wasn't crying. Not at the moment.

Something was worrying her, though. She was murmuring now, nothing intelligible, just sounds. Suddenly she cried out and sat up, her eyes wide. Jesse, who had been beginning to doze, let out a wail and grabbed at the air with her little hands.

Mal didn’t know which one to calm first, and split the difference by the simple expedient of crossing the small room and sitting down on the bed, pulling his wife towards him with one arm while cradling the crying baby with the other.

“Hey, hey, what’s this?” he murmured softly. “You were dreaming, ai ren.”

“I …” Freya stared at him, and for a cold moment he was sure she didn’t recognise him, then she blinked. “Mal …”

“What is it? Something I should know about?”

“I … don’t know.” Her forehead screwed up.

“Was it the usual dreams?”

“No.” She seemed to only then notice Jesse crying. “Give her to me.”

Mal placed his daughter in her arms, and she moved enough so that her nipple was over Jesse’s mouth. The little girl took a breath to wail again, then realised something much better was close, and began to suckle.

“Looks like our girl here’s might be like Ethan,” Mal said, swallowing hard. “Empathic.”

“I was projecting,” Freya said apologetically. “It’s partly River, I think.”

“She’s trying not to leak.”

“Leak?” A small smile creased his wife’s mouth.

“She called it that, not me.”

“It sounds painful.”

“So what were you dreaming about?”

“I'm not sure. It was dark, and there was screaming …” She shook her head. “I don’t know.”

Mal brushed her hair from her forehead. “It was just a dream, Frey.”

She exhaled. “I know. Sam says it’s not unusual in the weeks after a birth.”

“Sam?” He raised his eyebrows at her. “You been speaking to the shrink?”

“Once. Maybe twice.”

Mal was delighted to see a faint blush rise across her breasts, running up her chest to her face. “That’s good, Frey. No need to be embarrassed. You know if you need to use him, you should.”

“But he’s a guest.”

“Not like you’re the only one.”

She nodded. “Matty.”

“Think it’s working?”

“I hope so. For Matty’s sake.”

“Yeah. Boy sure is angry.”

“He’s not a boy.”

“Oh, I think in his mind maybe he is. That little boy Jayne left when he took that ship from Ezra.”

Freya looked at him, her eyebrows raised. “You sure you’re not a shrink? That sounds almost … deep.”

“Oh, I am. Very deep.” He looked at Jesse. “She’s asleep.”

“She only took a little.”

“She’d nearly finished the bottle.” He stood up. “Come on. I’ll put her down and you can relax again.”

“Mal …”

“It’s okay. I won’t let you dream again.” He grinned. “Not for a while. And according to Hank, we’ve got a couple extra hours in bed before we meet up with Jayne’s in-laws.”

“I don’t think it works like that,” Freya said, watching her husband take their baby daughter through into the nursery and putting her down in the cot next to Ethan’s bed. The little boy was still fast asleep.

“Why not?” Mal pulled the comforter up.

“I think they’re Simon’s in-laws, not Jayne’s.”

“Jayne’s his father.” He slid the door closed.

“No, he isn’t.”

“They don’t know that.”

“’Sides, Simon’s going to be there, and you know that’s going to make Jayne’s day.”

Freya shook her head in mock exasperation. “This is going to get really confusing. Simon Cobb, Simon Tam … do you think we can call them something else?”

“Well, no good saying ‘the doc’ since we’ve got two of those on board at the moment. Maybe old and young Simon, but I don‘t think ours would be too pleased.” He slid his suspenders off his shoulders. “I’ll have to take me some time to ponder on that.” He grinned. “Now move over. I've got some other ideas I want to try right now.”

--

River lay with her head on Jayne’s chest, letting the even motion of his lungs as he breathed in and out calm her as he dozed. She could feel Freya’s anxiety level decrease, replaced by something a lot more pleasurable, and she smiled slightly. Much better.

Then the smile slid away. The trouble was, it wasn’t her leaking that was the problem, not causing the dreams - at least not tonight. She was aware of it too, something in the offing, something that could cause trouble to the captain and his crew, except every time she reached for it, it retreated. It was frustrating, particularly as she knew exactly why this was the case. And another eight months of not being able to see very far was going to make her a very irritable mother-to-be indeed.

Mother-to-be. Her lips curved again. Mother-to-be. A mother. Mother and child. A family. She sighed and looked into Jayne’s face.

“You gonna be doing that all night and we ain’t gonna get much sleep,” he muttered.

“Love my Jayne,” she said quietly, resolving to keep a watchful eye on everything for the foreseeable future.

“Good. If you really ain’t sleepy just give me a while and I’ll show you how much I love my River.” He grinned, his eyes still closed. “Again.”

She licked his skin, tasting the salt. “Mmn.”

--

Part X

“Should we all be waiting here?” Sam asked Inara, surveying the majority of the crew lined up along the catwalk. “It is personal.”

“Sam, I don’t think you could stop them even at gun point.” She smiled. “It’s something about seeing Jayne … a man we all know as one thing … proving us wrong.”

“People are like that.” He slipped his arm around her waist, and was rewarded by a faint blush across her cheeks.

“So I've noticed.” She heard Kaylee giggle softly, but didn’t move away.

Jayne, down in the doorway of the cargo bay, straightened up.

“Pa.” Simon Cobb climbed the hill and halted a few yards from Serenity’s ramp.

“Simon.” Jayne nodded. “Good to see ya again.”

The young man took a deep breath and exhaled. “You too.”

“You’re filling out,” Jayne commented, and indeed he was. Whereas at their previous meeting Simon had just been a tall, somewhat skinny boy, he was broader in the shoulder now, and there was the hint of muscle about him.

“Been working out.”

“That’s good.” Jayne nodded again. “Been keeping up with your gun practice?”

“Yeah. Most days.”

“That’s good.” Jayne went to nod again, but felt it might make him look like on of those Geisha dolls. “That’s good,” he repeated instead.

“Pa, will you …” Simon held out his hand somewhat tentatively.

The big mercenary stepped down the ramp, holding out his own, then suddenly found himself enveloped in a bear hug. His arms came up reluctantly, slapped the boy on the back, then they broke apart.

“Good to have you here,” Simon said, more than a little embarrassed.

“Said I would. ‘Cept it’s the Cap you need to be thanking.”

“Where is he?”

“Oh, I’m pretty sure they’re all ear-wigging from inside.”

“Eavesdrop, yes,” said Mal, striding out into the sunshine. “Ear-wig, no.” He smiled at the young man. “Don’t know if you remember me, but I’m Captain Reynolds.”

“Yes sir, I do.”

They shook hands, and Mal was glad there was no hug involved this time.

“So you’re getting married.”

“Yes sir. Tomorrow.” He looked at his ‘father’. “You’re just in time. We’re having the rehearsal today, then there’s a dinner, and the main event tomorrow.” He licked dry lips. “I … wondered if you’d be my best man.”

Jayne was taken aback. “Ain’t you got no friends you want to do that?”

“None over you.”

Mal looked from one to the other. Even though he knew there was no blood between them, there was something very similar in the look each one of them had on their faces. Hope, and not a little trepidation.

“You sure you want me?” Jayne asked.

“You’re my Pa. Can’t think of a one I’d prefer to stand by me.”

The big man stood silently for so long that Mal thought he’d turned to stone.

“Answer the boy, Jayne,” he urged.

“Sure I will,” he finally blurted out. “Be proud to.”

Simon grinned, suddenly looking very young indeed. “Thanks!” He blew out the air in his lungs through rounded lips.

“Got some people you’d prob’ly like to meet too, don’t we, Jayne?” Mal said, seeing his mercenary appeared to be in no fit state to make introductions.

“What? Oh, yeah.” Jayne stepped back, looking into the bay. “Um …” Simon watched as an older couple stepped into the daylight, and Jayne looked about as nervous as he could get. “Ma, this is Simon,” he said to the woman, then looked back. “Simon, this is my Ma.”

“You mean my grandma.” Simon grinned. “Hi.”

Mrs Cobb looked him up and down. “You got your great-grandma’s eyes,” she said softly, then pulled the boy into a hug.

Jayne watched, seeing Mal smiling indulgently, and all the while expecting the ground to open up beneath him and swallow him down. What had started as a little lie to save Simon’s feelings had now got a lot bigger. Any minute now and he’d be sucked down to the special hell. He could almost hear the Shepherd tutting.

Book would have understood, he heard somewhere south of his ears. Family we choose.

Not sure it’s right, moonbrain.

Look at them. Of course it is.

She was right. There was a glow about his mother, and delight on Simon’s face. Maybe not the special hell, then. Just the one he knew he was bound for anyway.

Mrs Cobb let the young man go, and smoothed her dress. “This is Matty, by the way. Your uncle.” She beckoned her other son forward.

“I think I’d’a known,” Simon said, holding out his hand, which Matty took, somewhat unwillingly. “You look like my Pa.”

“Can’t say you do.” He tugged on the hand then let go. “’Cept maybe around the eyes, like Ma said.”

“Got a lot of his own mother in him,” Mal put in. “Least, that’s what I'm told. Never met her myself.”

“I wish she was here now,” Simon said softly. “To see this. I just got a whole load more family than I ever had before.” He shook himself, gathering his emotions. “Well, we’d better all get going. The rehearsal’s due to start in half an hour, and I've been told, in no uncertain terms, to get my Pa down there so that Suzie can meet him.” He sighed happily. “She can’t wait.”

“Simon, there’s a fair number of us,” Mal pointed out. “Not just the ones you met last time, but our wives and such. Kids too. You might not want us all to –“

“No, of course I do.” Simon grinned. “Up ‘til today there was just gonna be me on my side of the church. Felt a little outnumbered, truth be told. I’d be glad if you could all come.”

“Then we’d be honoured.” Mal laughed. “It’ll probably take me a while to introduce you to all of ‘em, though.”

“Then you can do that on the way. Suzie’s waiting.”

--

Simon was right. There was hardly anyone on his side of the church, but the crew and passengers of Serenity soon put that to rights. And he quickly introduced his fiancée.

“Everyone, this is Suzie Patton. The woman who’s consented to become my wife tomorrow.” He couldn’t have been prouder, and his chest swelled so much his buttons were under strain.

“I'm pleased to meet you,” she said, smiling somewhat warily.

“It’s okay,” Freya said, giving Jesse to Mal and putting her arm around the young woman. “We’re rather a lot to take in at the moment. Truth is, the only one you need to worry about is this one.” She pointed to Jayne. “Your prospective father-in-law.”

Jayne looked down at the diminutive young woman at Simon’s side, and realised he could probably pick her up in one hand. She was barely as tall as River, and even slighter, looking as if she might blow away in the first strong wind. Her hair, jet black, hung around her head like a polished helmet, cut to follow the line of her chin, while her eyes were almond-shaped and deep grey.

“Hi,” he said, holding out his hand. “I'm Jayne Cobb.”

She let him engulf her fingers in his. “I'm so glad you could come,” she said softly, her voice pleasantly light. “Simon’s been worrying himself sick that you wouldn’t get here in time.”

Jayne smiled. “Weren't going to let this go by without trying my damndest.”

“Jayne,” Kaylee hissed. “No swearing in church.”

He glanced at her, wondering why she’d come over all proper all of a sudden, but didn’t pursue it. Then Suzie’s lips twitched and he knew she was trying not to laugh. Maybe she was okay at that.

“And I'm Suzie’s father,” said a tall man with grey hair swept back from his high forehead. “Garrett Patton, Preacher to this parish.”

“Jayne Cobb.”

“Interesting name.”

“Yeah.”

Again there was a shaking of hands, this time much firmer, and the two fathers sized each other up.

“Well, time is pressing, so I think the rest of the introductions can wait until afterwards,” Preacher Patton said eventually, not allowing he‘d come to any decision. “If you can all take your places …” He indicated the pews, and headed for the front of the church.

Bethany was staring up at the stained glass window above the altar. “Daddy, what’s that?” she asked, her eyes wide.

“I think it’s a depiction of the angel Michael.” His brow furrowed. “I think.”

“It is,” Kaylee said, moving Hope to her other hip. “Supposed to be he looked after Adam and Eve when they got thrown out of Eden.”

Simon looked at her. “I didn’t know you knew –“

“Went to Sunday School every week when I was a kid,” she said, smiling. “Something was bound to stick.”

“We didn’t. I mean the Tams.”

“Well, we’re all different, honey.”

“I have to say, I never expected to see a window of this quality out here, though.”

“I see you’re admiring our window,” Preacher Patton said.

The doctor turned. “It’s very fine.”

“It was a gift from young Simon’s father … or rather, his step-father. He had it brought in all the way from Londinium.”

“It’s beautiful,” Bethany said, still staring, captivated by the image of a winged angel with a sword.

The Preacher nodded, then clapped his hands. “Well, as we’re all agreed on that, I think we’d better begin, don’t you?”

--

“He’s sure a stickler for protocol,” Mal said as they finally walked from the church towards the hall where the rehearsal dinner was being held. The sun was already setting above the hills.

“He’s a Preacher. I’m sure he just wants it to go all right.” Freya watched as Ethan chased Bethany and Hermione along the path. “Sweetie, don’t run,” she called.

“’Kay, Mama,” the little boy acknowledged, not slowing down even a little bit.

“He listens to me about as much as you do,” she said, sighing.

Mal smiled, then looked down at his daughter in his arms. “You gonna have to find somewhere to feed this little one?”

Freya nodded. “Somehow I don’t think the Preacher would take kindly to me opening my shirt at the dinner table.”

“Might make his day. Would mine.”

She laughed. “Oh, the temptation.”

Ahead of them, young Simon was talking to Jayne. “And we’ve got the house ready, decorated just the way Suzie wanted, so soon as we’ve said I do, we’re gonna …” He coloured.

“So you ain't …”

“No. We agreed.” The young man lifted his head. “I know things are done differently out here, but I –“

“No, it’s right. You’re lucky, you know. Finding the one you wanted straight off. Some of us look for a long time. Few of us never look at all, not ‘til it comes calling and twisting its long hair around its fingers.”

River sighed happily. “He means me.”

“You’re …” Simon looked from one to the other.

“I chased him for a long time until he caught me,” she whispered.

It took a long moment for the young man to close his mouth.

“Sweet, ain't it?” Hank asked, one arm holding Ben, the other around Zoe’s waist.

“What, seeing Jayne all paternal?”

“No, that’s creepy. I mean young love.”

Zoe chuckled. “I don’t think we’re that old.”

“Well, no, but … they’re not even twenty. Either of them. But they’re going to be together for the rest of their lives.”

“And we’re not?”

“Sure we are. But I want to put a wedding band on that finger so everyone knows you’re mine.”

“You don’t own me, Hank.”

He looked into her smooth face. “Not even a little bit?”

“Maybe a little bit.”

“I don’t think Bethany took in a single word of that,” Simon was saying. “She only had eyes for that window.”

“It was kinda nice. And real, too. Never seen anything like, that I can recall.” Kaylee handed their daughter to him. “Can you for a while? She’s getting heavy.”

“She’ll be walking soon.”

“Then I’ll never keep track of her, like I can’t half the time with Bethie. Did you see where she went?”

“Playing hide and seek with Ethan and Hermione.” He looked into Hope’s face. “Isn’t that right, sweetheart?”

“Daddy!” she said, patting his cheek.

“I thought we were never gonna get her out of the church.” Kaylee laughed softly. “Think this’ll pull her away from pirates?”

“Nothing has so far,” Simon admitted. “So I doubt it.”

“Yeah, me too.”

At the rear of the group Sam and Inara were walking with Mrs Cobb, her husband and Matty.

“She looks such a sweet thing,” Fionnula Cobb said. “And he’s a lovely boy. Loves her a lot, I think.”

“You can see it in his eyes,” Inara agreed. “And that’s reflected in hers.”

“You really think they ain’t … been together?” Jason Gilford asked. “Didn’t think that was possible, this day and age.”

“More than you’d imagine,” Sam said. “In some cultures, even sub-groups of cultures, it is becoming increasingly sought after. A gift from each partner. And of course it guarantees that the marriage bed is free from any other impediment. But neither option is right or wrong.”

“Right,” Jason said, nodding his head sagely.

Fin Cobb nudged Inara. “Your man’s sure educated.”

Inara smiled and didn’t correct her.

Near the front, following the Patton clan, Jayne and River were close together.

“Shiny?” she asked, slipping her hand into his.

“I think so.” He glanced down at her. “How’d you think it’s going?”

“She’ll be good for him.”

“Yeah?” He thought for a moment. “Yeah, you know, I think you’re right.”

“We’re here,” Patton called, opening the double doors to the hall.

“Well,” Jayne said, taking a deep breath. “Let’s eat.”

--

The meal turned out to be surprisingly good, and there was plenty to go around. Conversation, while slightly stilted at first, eased up, until there was a general hubbub of talking over and around each other.

“… been friends since school, of course, but … you know when they say something hits you out of the blue? That’s what it was like with me and Suzie, just like an explosion or …”

“… asked me out then got all tongue-tied because I said yes. It was the sweetest …”

“…and it was so bright, made my ears sing, and the wings and the sword … can I have a sword? Just to play with when we …”

“… a year, but I was a late developer. He’s pulling himself up on things, though, so it won’t be long before …”

“… don’t want to go back, but I know I have to. It’s just they all like to be with each other, and I get left out and it makes me …”

“… not wearing Ethan’s hand-me-downs. Well, not all of them. Jesse’s going to have some pretty dresses and …”

“… sleep with the light off until he was four. I kept telling him, there was nothing in the closet, but he wouldn’t …”

“… something of an eclectic crew, captain. I’m sure you have some interesting tales to tell.” Preacher Patton smiled encouragingly.

Mal shook his head. “Life on a transport ship can be mighty dull. With occasional sharp points of frenzied activity but believe me, dullness has a lot to be said for it.” Movement in the corner of his vision made him turn slightly. River’s hand was creeping towards the salt. “Jayne,” he said softly, nodding in her direction.

The big man followed his gaze. “No you don’t,” he said, whisking it away from in front of her.

“I want it,” she said, turning her big eyes onto him.

“No.” He passed the cellar to Kaylee, who put it down out of the young psychic’s reach.

“But nothing tastes right,” River complained. “There’s no substance. It’s like eating air.”

They could all see the Preacher beginning to bridle at the imagined slight to their repast.

“River, that’s not true,” Freya said quickly. “It’s just the pregnancy. And as soon as your hormones settle down a bit you’ll find –“

“Pregnancy?” Preacher Patton’s brows drew together. “She’s pregnant?”

“That she is,” Jayne said, putting his arm around her shoulders. “Gonna have my kid.”

Mal closed his eyes. Ever since meeting the Preacher, he’d been praying that no-one would mention River’s condition, and here was his own wife bringing it up. He wasn’t at all surprised at the next words out of the older man’s mouth.

“And are you married?”

--

Part XI

“And are you married?” Preacher Patton asked.

“No.” River gazed at him. “It isn’t essential to have a healthy child.”

Patton turned to Mal. “And you’ve allowed this on your ship?”

“Tell me, Preacher. You related to a Cyrus Hetter, by any chance?” Mal asked.

This threw him. “I … no, not that I'm aware.”

“Must be the profession then. And yes, I’ve allowed it. Not sure it’s up to me whether they get hitched or not. Seems to be their decision.”

“But that’s –“ He took a deep breath. “I had no idea Simon came from …”

Mal waited a beat. “From what, Preacher?”

“Captain, please don’t take offence, but … I gave Simon the benefit of the doubt because, despite not being Earl Grogan’s blood, he was at least born in wedlock. And his actual father knew nothing about him until recently. But now I find that this same father has gotten yet another young girl into trouble –”

“Trouble? What about love?” Matty interrupted, surprising everyone. “When’s that ever been trouble? Jayne loves River. I’ve been on that ship for less than a week, and even I can see that. Why should a stupid piece of paper make that much difference?”

“And you leave River out of this,” Jayne growled, honestly amazed but oddly gratified that his brother was standing up for him. “You got a problem with me, that’s fine. But you ain’t gonna say anything about my girl here.”

Preacher Patton raised his eyebrows. “Mr Cobb … both Mr Cobb’s … I gave my consent to this marriage believing that Simon came from good stock. I might have to be adjusting my position on that.”

“Papa –” Suzie began, but her father held up his hand.

“I don’t know that I can, in all good faith, allow this marriage to go ahead.”

“Mr Patton …” Simon Cobb was on his feet now, unable to sit. “This is crazy. What my father chooses to do isn’t anything to do with –“

“You’re his son. Of course it does.”

Jayne shook his head. He could put a stop to this, right now and was about to stand up, tell everyone the truth, that Simon wasn't his blood, that there was no need to think he was going to be anything like him, when River put her hand on his. He looked into her eyes, and he could feel she was asking him not to say.

Mrs Cobb, unaware of the turmoil inside her eldest, stared at the Preacher. “Are you saying my son isn’t a good man?”

Patton sat forward in his chair. “I'm just saying if he hasn’t done the decent thing –“

“You don’t know a gorram thing.” Jayne was speaking quietly, and Serenity’s crew knew this was a bad sign. A real bad sign.

“I really think maybe this ain’t the time to be having this conversation,” Mal said firmly, glaring at his mercenary.

“No, I want to know.” Fionnula Cobb’s Irish temper was building, and she was stepping in on the side of her family. “I want to know what he thinks is wrong with my son.”

“Fin, please.” Jason Gilford put his hand on her arm but she shrugged him off. He patted at his pockets to find her pills.

“I don’t need them,” she said dismissively, going back to the target of her anger. “You tell me.”

Patton put up his hands in defence. “Mrs Cobb, it isn’t necessarily a case of what’s wrong with him. But in all honesty I have to consider –“

“You’re not going to do this!” Suzie said, her voice cutting through them. “I’m going to marry Simon tomorrow, and you’re going to perform the ceremony.”

Her father turned to look at her. “Sweetheart, you know I only want what’s best for you, and from what I see here –“

“No!” She pushed her chair back with a squeal. “I love him. I’m going to marry him. And if you try and stop us we’ll leave this moon and find someone who’s not so … so stupid and pig-headed as you to do it!” She glared at him then burst into tears, running out of the hall.

“Suzie …” Simon called, following her. “Wait. Please.”

“That went well,” Zoe said under her breath.

“You think?” Hank responded, equally quietly.

“Mama?” Ethan looked up at his mother, trembling slightly at the anxiety in the room.

She reached over and picked him up, holding him close to her. “It’s okay, baby. It’s okay.”

--

“Wait, Suzie, please.” Simon ran after her, catching her arm and making her stop. She turned her face to him, and even in the dark he was shocked to realise her normally wonderful eyes were filled with sadness.

“I can’t, Simon,” she said, shaking her head. “I can’t.”

“Can’t what?” He pulled her close. “Suzie, it’s not up to him. Your Pa might be the Preacher here, but he can’t tell you who you should be with. And I love you.”

“I love you too.” Her voice was muffled from where she was buried in his chest.

“That’s good,” he said softly. “I wondered for a moment if you just wanted my money.”

She laughed slightly, hiccupping. “Didn’t know you had any.”

“I don’t.”

“Then I’d be a fool to want you just for that.”

“And that’s something you’re not.” He stroked her hair, fascinated by it as always. “You know, we could leave,” he suggested. “Like you said. Find someone who’d marry us. Maybe Captain Reynolds could take us –“

“I can’t, Simon.” She pushed away enough so she could look at him. “He’s my father. I can’t just run away.”

“But you said –“

“It doesn’t matter what I said.” She was still trembling. “Ever since Momma died, he’s been … I know it’s because he loves me, but sometimes I’ve felt like I’m drowning, and now this … but I can’t run. Simon, as much as I’d love to be able to say yes, to say let’s elope, I can’t. He’s my father.”

“That doesn’t give him the right to tell you how to live your life.”

“It would kill him.” She tangled her hands in his shirt. “But if I can’t make him understand, then … Simon, we can’t get married.”

“That’s not gonna to happen.” He tugged her back towards him, trying to still the anxiety that was coursing through him. “We’re gonna be married. It was meant. Not losing you, Suzie.”

“I don’t want to lose you either.” She let her head fall against his chest, hearing his heart beating within. “I’m sorry for what he said. About your father.”

“I’m not.”

“What?”

“It’s not true.”

“I don’t …”

“My Pa’s a good man. My Ma said so. And my Ma told the truth. You think I’m going to let some words like that upset me?”

“But your father … the look on his face …”

“I'm thinking they’ll work it out. Somehow.” He tilted her face up to him and kissed her gently. “Come on. Let’s take a walk. See if we can’t work out some plan of attack to convince your Pa that I'm suitable marriage material.” He looked up, seeing the bulk of the Firefly on the hill above the town. “You know, I've never really seen a spaceship close up.”

Suzie sniffed, wiping the back of her hand across her nose. “It’s pitch dark, Simon. What could you hope to see?”

He smiled, drying her tears with his sleeve. “Let’s go find out.”

--

“Mr Patton, that probably wasn’t the smartest of things to do.” Mal was shaking his head as they all stared at the banging door.

The Preacher drew himself up. “This is my daughter we’re talking about. I want her to be happy.”

“And I’ve a notion that’s gonna be with Simon. It’s plain they love each other. And it’s equally plain it doesn’t matter who his father is.”

“I believe it does.”

“Nature or nurture,” Sam Nazir murmured.

“What was that?” Mal asked, turning to the therapist. “Something sounded a mite familiar about it.”

Sam looked up at the expectant and somewhat angry faces around the table. “It’s an age-old question that’s never been honestly answered. Whether a man is the way he is because of his parentage, or because of how he was brought to adulthood.”

“You mean what makes him good or bad.”

“Exactly. Is it how you were brought up or your genetic background that determines how you behave? I have to say, most people in my profession have an opinion on the matter, and there are spirited arguments when we discuss it at various symposia.”

“What do you think?”

Sam took a deep breath. “I believe it’s the homelife of the individual, but that’s probably simplistic. And it doesn’t take into account external factors, such as economic dynamics, or trauma experienced during that …” He stopped as Inara put her hand on his. “I'm sorry. I'm lecturing.”

“Permaybehaps a little, but I get your drift.” Mal smiled slightly. “Good home, loving family, a man’s like to turn out okay, barring Reavers or similar. Bad home, getting beaten by someone regular, he’s probably gonna have problems. Trouble is, there’s always exceptions.”

“Always,” Sam agreed.

“Like you said, too simplistic.” He looked around the table, his eyes stopping at the mercenary. “Truth is, though, I ain't saying Jayne is the model of propriety, but there’s few I’d be willing to be at my back, and he’s one of ‘em.” His gaze flicked towards Patton. “I know that don’t mean much in your world, but it does in mine.”

“I can’t ignore what I see,” the Preacher said. “From the guns you all wear, to the language you use –“

“That doesn’t make any of them bad people,” Inara said, her face flushed even though her voice was icy cool. “They’re my friends.”

“Ms Serra –“

Jayne couldn’t take any more, being talked about like he wasn't there, or worse, like some slab of meat hanging in a butcher’s storeroom, despite the fact that Mal had just said he trusted him. He stood up, dwarfing everyone and making the room seem that much smaller. “I asked River to marry me. But I ain't gonna force her. No matter what any of you think.” He fixed his eyes on Patton. “Preacher, whatever you think of me, Simon’s a good kid. His Ma … Shannon raised him right. I ain't excusing who I am, or what, but don’t hold me against him.” He pushed his chair back.

“Jayne …” River looked up at him, about to get up, but he patted her shoulder.

“You stay put. Just need some air, moonbrain. Mite stuffy in here.” He walked out, closing the door carefully and quietly behind him.

Into the silence Freya said, “You knew Simon’s mother?”

“Shannon? Yes, I knew her.”

“Did you like her?”

“Well, I …”

“Simple enough question,” Mal put in. “And I’d be grateful if you answered my wife.”

“Yes. Yes I did. She was a hard worker, and after Earl died she kept the place going, and … what does that have to do with it?”

“You were happy enough for Simon to marry your daughter before. You thought his Momma’d done a good job raising him. It shouldn’t make any difference now.” Freya was trying to maintain her control but River’s fretting was being broadcast like a knife screeching on a plate.

“My Uncle Jayne’s good,” Bethany added, trying hard not to cry. “He’s good. And you’re mean to say that he isn’t!”

“Oh, honey.” Kaylee held out her arms and her daughter flung herself into them.

Mal took a deep breath to try and clear the anger that was building up inside him. “I think this is one conversation that’s gonna go better after a good night’s sleep.”

“I agree,” Patton said. “I can’t say I’ll feel any differently, but I think tempers are perhaps frayed at the moment.” He stood up. “If you see my daughter, please ask her to come home.”

“If we see her.”

Patton stared at him, then nodded.

--

“Why didn’t he just tell them?” Hank asked as they headed back towards Serenity, picking their way in the dark. “All he had to say was that he wasn't Simon’s dad, and that would have been that.”

“You think that would’ve worked?” Zoe shook her head. “So from having Jayne – a man Preacher Patton doesn’t approve of as a father – Simon ends up with some unknown, faceless one night stand that his Ma slept with? Somehow I don’t think that would go down a whole lot better.”

“We don’t know that. Might be Grogan was his Dad. Jayne said the old boy had a soft spot for Shannon.”

“I don’t think we can prove it now, though.”

“Guess not. But I just don’t get it. He likes Simon, that’s clear.”

“He’s a Preacher.” Zoe shrugged. “Never been one for organised religion myself, but … Jayne and River maybe don’t fit with his neat and tidy view of the ‘verse.”

“Sometimes I think Book was the exception,” Mal added from behind them. “He might not have approved of some things, but he’d never –“

A shape loomed up in the darkness in front of them. “Mal?”

The captain dropped his hand from where it had strayed towards his hip. “Jayne?”

“Where’s the doc?”

“Just a few steps … wuh de mah.” Mal realised the big man was carrying something. Only it wasn't a thing, it was a person. Simon Cobb. “Doc!”

“Almost fell over him,” Jayne explained. “Looks like he’s been beaten up pretty good.”

“Put him down. Gently,” the doctor ordered, hurrying up.

Jayne did as he was told, then looked up at Mal. “He was conscious for a few seconds. Said they took Suzie.”

“Who?”

Jayne’s voice shook with his suppressed anger. “That was all he said. They took Suzie.”

--

Part XII

Mal was immediately in command. “Hank, Frey, open up and get the torches. We need to search, see if he was wrong and maybe she’s just hiding somewhere.”

“On it, Mal,” the pilot said, and they ran for the ship.

“Noni, take the kids inside. Keep ‘em occupied.”

“I want to stay!” Bethany wailed.

“No.” Mal was firm. “Not now, Bethie. Go with Noni.”

“I’ll take them,” Inara said quietly, lifting Hope from Kaylee’s arms as Sam took Ben from Zoe. She felt little fingers entwine with her free hand, and looked down into Ethan’s frightened face.

“Thanks.” Mal looked across at his first mate. “Zoe, sheriff’s office. Might not be able to do anything ‘til morning, but they need to know. And take Kaylee. Someone’s got to tell the Preacher.”

His first mate nodded. “Yes sir.” She touched the mechanic on the shoulder and they hurried back towards town.

Above them Freya went to open the cargo bay door, but stopped.

“What is it?” Hank asked.

She touched the panel. “Scratches. Looks like someone tried to break in.”

Wang xiang tai.”

Glancing up from his cursory examination, Simon said, “Jayne was right. He’s been beaten. I need to get him into the infirmary.”

“You need a stretcher?” Mal’s face was revealed in the light as the cargo bay doors opened and the ramp lowered.

“No. Jayne. Carry him. Carefully.”

Jayne didn’t respond, just lifted the boy into his arms and walked toward the ship.

--

“He took a blow to the back of the head, but the rest appears to have been done with fists. He’s got three cracked ribs, concussion and a fractured wrist, as well as other bruises and abrasions.” Simon stripped the gloves from his hands. “I've set the wrist, cleaned up the cuts, but the rest will have to heal by themselves.”

“Someone really did a job on him,” Mal said, standing just inside the doorway to the infirmary, his arms folded.

“More than one, I think.” He looked down at his namesake lying very still on the medbed. “There’s bruises on his arms from being held while someone punched him.”

Outside in the common area Jayne and his mother were standing close together.

“He’ll be fine,” she said. “He’s a Cobb. We’re strong people.”

“Yeah.”

“Only it looks like maybe he got a few blows in as well,” Simon added, lifting the boy’s hand to show the grazes on his knuckles.

“Might be why they beat up on him so much. Finding he fought back.”

Mal.

He turned to look at Freya, and realised Jayne was striding away into the cargo bay. “Just look after …” he started to say to the doctor, then hurried out after his mercenary. “Jayne,” he called from the doorway.

The big man stopped on the stairs. “I’m gonna find her. Bring her back to him. If I have to kill ‘em all to do it.”

“We don’t even know who they are.”

“Men from the hills,” Zoe said, walking up the ramp out of the night.

“Settlers?”

“No. The sheriff says these are much worse. Scavengers. Lawbreakers. They live out there somewhere, taking what they need, killing anyone who gets in their way. It’s not the first time they’ve taken a woman.”

Mal’s face set. “Did they get them back?”

Zoe shook her head slowly. “Not alive, sir.”

He closed his eyes briefly. “What’s he going to do about it?”

“He says he can’t get a posse together until first light, and since they don’t know where they’re hiding ...”

Wang ba dahn,” Jayne cursed. “He’s gonna wait until she’s dumped somewhere, ain’t he?”

“No,” Zoe said calmly. “But he says it’s like hunting for a needle in a haystack.”

“Not with me around.” He started up the stairs again, and Mal knew he was heading for his guns. The captain’s voice stopped him.

“Jayne, you ain't going anywhere. Not right now. Even as good a tracker as you ain't gonna be able to see a damn thing ‘til it gets light.”

“Mal, they ain't gonna be happy. From what Frey says, they tried to get inside, steal stuff, but they didn’t. They’re liable to take it out on Suzie. ‘Specially since Simon might’ve bloodied them up some.”

“So what do you suggest we do? Go blundering around in the dark? It’s not like last time, Jayne. That was a settlement, homes, lights, no matter how misguided those folks were. We have to wait. Then you’ll do what you do best.”

“Kill.”

“Probably. But I was thinking more on leading us to them. Then we’ll see.” Mal looked back to his first mate. “Where’s Kaylee?”

“With the Preacher. He’s in something of a state.”

“I conjure that’s putting it mildly. She gonna be okay down there?”

“There’s a number of relatives in the house. No-one’s going to hurt her. He’s waiting on the sheriff to do something.”

“We ain’t,” Jayne muttered.

“No. We’re not.” Mal looked around, saw the rest of his crew and most of the passengers crowded in the common area doorway. “Frey, you and Hank’ll stay behind. Simon, you’d be best to stay too and look after your namesake, while –“

“I'm coming.” The doctor was adamant. “There’s no telling what they’ve … I might be needed.”

Mal looked at him for what seemed like a long time, then nodded. “You wear a gun.”

“I wasn't intending to go without one.”

“What about Simon? I mean Simon Cobb. Doesn’t he need you?” Inara asked.

“He’ll live, and I've sedated him for the moment. There’s nothing anyone needs to do but keep an eye on him. Freya has enough battlefield experience to deal with anything minor.”

“Well, we’ve got a few hours before dawn. Better make sure we’ve got all we need, then try and get some rest,” Mal advised.

“Won’t be able to sleep, Mal,” Jayne said.

“Try.”

The big man stared at him, then climbed the stairs two at a time and disappeared into the shuttle.

River went to walk past Mal, but he caught her arm. “You keep a rein on him, little one. The Preacher got him wound up, and this’ll just make him tighter.”

“He’ll hold it in, captain,” she said. “Until it needs to come out.”

“How about you? You okay?”

She nodded slowly, then shrugged. “Be better when we’re touching the sky.”

“Know what you mean, albatross.” He watched her waft up towards her home, then turned to Freya. “I know what you’re gonna say.”

Her arms were crossed and there was fury in her eyes. “Mal –“

“You’re staying with the ship.”

“If you’re saying this because of Jesse, I’m –“

“No, I'm not.” He stepped closer, putting his hands on her shoulders. “Ain't no-one else I’d rather have at my side, xin gan. ‘Cept maybe Zoe. Or Jayne, on a good day. Perhaps Simon –“ He saw the look on her face and stopped trying to wind her up. “I need you here. You said yourself, they tried to get in. Might have been to steal what they could, or maybe try and take the whole ship, can’t be sure. But they could come back. Now, Jayne’s going, and River will be right there with him, no matter what I say. So who’s left to make sure I still have a ship to come back to?”

She glared at him. “Dammit, Mal, stop being so gorram reasonable!”

“You stamp your foot and I'm gonna put you over my knee, wife or no,” he advised. “And I seem to recall you asking me once for a reasoned argument, rather than me getting Simon to dope you.”

“At least you’ve got over that impulse.”

He raised his eyebrow. “Frey, I've got other people on this boat I need to keep safe. Mrs Cobb and her husband, Inara and Sam, let alone the kids. I can rely on you to do whatever’s necessary.” A small smile creased his lips. “’Sides, I might need rescuing myself, and there’s no-one flies the shuttle better than you. Not even Hank.”

“Complimenting me isn’t going to work. And I can help.”

“Can you feel her? Suzie? Pick out where she is?”

Freya paused, then was forced to shake her head. “No. I don’t know her well enough.”

“Neither can River.”

“Yes, but she’s going!”

“And you’re gonna do what I tell you.”

“Mal –“

“Don’t argue. It’s been decided.” He stroked her arm. “I’ll take you next time Jayne’s son gets his fiancé kidnapped.”

“You’re only saying that to make me feel better.” The glare softened a little. “You do this to me again and I won’t be responsible for my actions,” she warned. “And if you get shot out there I’ll be annoyed.”

“Just annoyed?”

“I won’t hold your hand while you’re recuperating.”

“Then I’ll try not to get shot.”

--

“Jayne?” Matty hung through the open shuttle doorway.

“Yeah?” His brother was taking down various weapons from the wall, checking down their sights, making sure the barrels were clean.

“Give me a gun. I'm coming with you.”

The big man stopped, turning to stare at his brother. “You don’t have to.”

“Family, Jayne. Family.”

River came out from the small bridge. “Thank you,” she said simply.

Jayne didn’t say anything for a long time, then nodded. “You fired a gun?”

“Jason taught me. He said I needed to be able to protect Ma.”

“Ya ever killed anyone?”

Matty swallowed. “No.”

“There’s some on board’d say that’s a blessing.” Jayne picked up a revolver. “Me, I say, first time for everything. River, find the man a holster that’ll fit him.”

“Yes, Jayne.”

--

“They don’t mean it, do they?” Sam asked, watching Inara tuck Ben and Hope into the little bed. “They’re not really going out there to kill those men?”

“Yes.”

“How can you … Inara, you’re standing there accepting this?”

She turned to look at him. “I don’t accept it. But I do understand it.”

“But we’re civilised!” He raised his hands. “The sheriff –“

“Didn’t find them before, Sam. He didn’t find the other girls.” Her voice was trembling.

He realised she might be talking about Jangyin, but she was thinking about another place entirely, another man with his hands on her. “Inara –“ He reached for her but she stepped away.

“Suzie is going to feel alone right now. Terrified out of her wits. If they haven’t … haven’t hurt her already, she’s going to be fully aware of what they plan to do. They’ve probably told her.”

“Inara, I'm sorry. But that makes it all the more … surely they should try and take them alive. Hand them over to the proper authorities to deal with.”

“Sam, I might have agreed with you once. But I've lived out here on the edges of your so-called civilisation long enough to realise this is the way things are done.”

“It’s wrong!”

“Shh,” she said, drawing him outside into the corridor and closing the door. “You’ll wake them up again.”

“Inara, this is wrong. Surely we should call the Alliance, let them know –“

“You do that and Mal may well shoot you himself.”

He took a step back as if she’d struck him. “You don’t mean that.”

She took a deep breath. “Sam, please try to understand. Mal won’t kill unless he has to, but … these men have threatened his family, taken one of his.”

“But she’s not –“

“Oddly enough, to him she is. Because she’s going to marry Simon. He takes responsibility for people, Sam. Like Hermione. Like me.” She put her hand on his arm. “He came for us. They all came for us.” She gazed into his eyes, trying to make him see. “I tried to explain to you how he is.”

“But this is murder.”

“No.” She shook her head sadly. “Execution, perhaps. But not murder.”

“Even for Jayne? Inara, he’s going to kill them all.”

“Nature or nurture, Sam?” she said softly, moving past him to go and look in on Bethany and Hermione.

--

Jayne crouched in the opening, his eyes never leaving the outside. He hadn’t moved for more than an hour, just waiting. Behind him Matty was fiddling nervously with the gunbelt around his hips, while River sat composed on a crate, apparently communing with the infinite, her bandoleers crossed over her chest. Zoe and Hank were at the back of the bay, holding hands, Simon and Kaylee similarly engaged. No-one had said a word for a long time.

Finally there was a faint glow in the sky, and Jayne started to tense. Suddenly shapes became clearer outside, as the grey light grew. He stood up.

Mal walked out of the common area, Freya behind him. “Time to go, people,” he said, his voice quiet.

Without even any indication that he’d heard, Jayne strode out into the dawn.

--

Part XIII

It didn’t matter how often Mal saw this, saw Jayne work the ground, it was always something of a wonder. He wasn't a bad tracker himself, but this, the way the big man saw everything, analysed and plotted each blade of grass, each stone or pebble … he was skilled in a way Mal couldn’t even begin to understand.

This wasn't like Cerberus, where Jayne just had to see the direction River had walked and head the same way. This was far more complex, ultimately more time-consuming. But fascinating to watch, seeming as it did like magic.

If Mal was amazed at Jayne’s skill, Matty was in awe. The lie of a twig, a bent weed stem, everything seemed to tell him something. He was so intent, so focused, it made the hairs stand up on the back of his little brother’s neck.

He’d led them to a wide stream bed, only a little water still flowing down the centre. Matty was sure even Jayne couldn’t track over the large flat stones, but changed his mind quickly when his brother spoke.

“They crossed. Came out here.”

Mal, hanging back a little so as not to obscure the sign, asked, “You sure?”

Jayne went down onto his haunches, touched a rock with the tip of one finger. “They was careful. But someone splashed.”

Moving forward Mal looked down at a spot, only slightly darker than the surrounding stone. He’d never have seen it. “Can you tell how many?”

“Least five.” Jayne stood back up. “Could be more. They’re walking in single file, but that’s just confusing things a bit.”

“Can you keep tracking them?”

“Does Fiddler lick his balls?”

Mal didn’t dignify that with an answer, but was glad to see there was something of a slight smirk on the big man’s features. “Better get to it then.”

“He’s in his element,” River breathed next to him. “Doing what he does best. Not being what he isn’t.”

“Well, all I'm hoping is that we ain't too late.” They continued on after the mercenary. “You picking up anything now we’re getting closer? I'm assuming we’re getting closer.”

“She’s afraid. I don’t think they’ve hurt her yet. There’s no pain. But she’s very frightened.”

“Any idea on a location?”

“Dark.” She shrugged. “I'm sorry. Not everything is working at the moment.”

“The kid?” He glanced down at her belly.

“Making me confused.”

“Just don’t shoot me by accident.”

“I wouldn’t. If I shot you it would be entirely intentional.”

“That’s … good to know.”

For almost five long hours Jayne led them further into the hills, into the scrubby landscape, until the sun was high overhead and everyone was sweating. Finally the big man put his hand up, signalling them to stop.

Mal nodded, glancing at Zoe, who blinked just once. She’d smelled it too. Wood smoke. And where Jayne had been was an empty space.

“Think he’s coming back?” she breathed.

“Better. Don’t know how many of them are around. Don’t fancy going in against overwhelming odds. Ruin my day somewhat.”

“Not sure it would do mine much good either, sir.”

They waited for a few minutes, and Mal was beginning to feel restless, when a voice spoke close to his ear.

“Twelve.”

Mal only jumped a little. “Gorramit, Jayne, you trying to give me a heart attack?”

“Easier ways of getting rid of you. And you got the doc here.”

“Hmmn. So, twelve?”

“Was thirteen. I took care of the guard this side.”

“Unlucky for some.”

“Sure was for him.” Jayne wiped his knife on the earth. He’d cut the man’s throat as he was turned away, relieving himself into a bush. Stupid thing to do, he considered. Supposed to be on duty and turning his back to piss. He’d slid up behind the sentry like a ghost, but it was a man who grabbed his head, holding down slightly as he dragged his knife swiftly across an unprotected windpipe. There was a gurgle, and a splash as arterial blood spattered across the bush in front of him.

“Where are the rest?”

River oozed up next to them, Matty staying a little further back with Simon.

“Half of ‘em are eating. There’s a bottle going around, too. The rest are either talking or dozing.”

“More guards?”

“One, round the other side. But they’re in a pretty good position. Got their backs against a low cliff. And I figure that’s where Suzie is. They’re camped in front of a cave mouth.”

“Inside?”

“Reckon.”

“Don’t suppose –“

“I couldn’t see.”

Mal nodded. “Show me.”

Jayne picked up a stick and cleared a small area of dirt. He drew a line. “That there’s the cliff. They ain't pros, otherwise they’d have a man on top, scoping out the surroundings, but I checked and there ain’t. Good place for a sniper though.”

Mal nodded and looked at Zoe.

“Yes sir.”

Jayne added more to his ground plan. “There are two fires. That’s what we can smell. And a wood pile over here.” He stabbed down into the earth. “They think it’s secure, but there’s an old animal track through the thicket, comes out right behind. Get there and we’ll be amongst them ‘fore they can scream.”

“Only problem with that is –“

“Suzie. Yeah. No way of knowing if there’s someone in the cave with her, and even if there ain’t, won’t take but a moment to get to the entrance and put a bullet in her. Or use her as a bargaining chip.”

“Then we need to get their attention away. Can we get to the cave unnoticed if they’re looking the wrong way?”

Jayne drew a jagged line. “It ain't easy, but there’s a path takes you almost there. Need to be a mountain goat, but it’s possible.”

Mal looked up. “River –“

“I’ll do that,” she said.

“Good girl.”

“Mal –“ Simon began.

Mal held up his hand and spoke to Jayne. “Can any of the rest of us make it?”

“Maybe. But it’s narrow as hell, and mostly scree. One wrong foot and you’d end up at the bottom of the hill, as well as letting them know there’s something happening.”

“I’ll be fine,” River said, taking off her boots and flexing her toes in the fresh air.

Simon looked unhappy but didn’t say anything else.

“Captain Reynolds …” Matty swallowed nervously. “I don’t think I can …” He touched the gunbelt around his hips.

“Figured not.” Mal smiled a little at him. “Your job’s gonna be covering fire. Don’t worry if you don’t hit someone. Long as you don’t hit one of us. Just make ‘em keep their heads down.”

“Yes, captain.” He still licked dry lips.

“Won’t they realise the guard is dead?” Simon asked. “Before we’re ready, I mean.”

Jayne looked at him almost admiringly, like he’d performed a trick right. “Nah. I saw ‘em change shift. No-one’s gonna come looking for him for a good long while. This’ll all be over by then.”

“Anything else?” Mal asked, turning back to the drawing.

“Back door. They think they’re damn clever, hiding where they are, but it’ll only take a little bit of effort to block their escape route.”

“I hate to ask this, but how, exactly?”

Jayne grinned evilly and held up a grenade. “Right place, right time.”

“Then that’ll be our signal. Jayne, set the grenade on a delay and get to the woodpile. Zoe’ll take the top position, River’ll be our goat, and –“

“Wait a minute,” Simon said suddenly. “You were talking about a diversion. Or were you planning on that being the grenade?”

“Nope. Grenade’ll just let them and us know it’s started. I need to get River into the cave well before that.”

“So how …” His eyes widened as Mal started to unbuckle his gunbelt. “Ta mah duh.”

“Doc, your cussing is coming along a treat.” He handed his weapon to the astonished doctor. “Just don’t lose it.”

“So River’s the mountain goat and you’re going to be the sacrificial lamb?”

“Ain't thinking of sacrificing anything, Simon. But someone has to stumble on their little hideout, give River a chance to get to the cave. Only way is if they’re looking at me and not at her.”

“You’re insane.”

“Probably.” He looked at the others. “Know what you’re all doing?”

“Yes sir.” Zoe checked her ammo. Full load.

“No, but I suppose so,” Simon said, clutching his medical case with one hand, his other laying lightly on the pistol grip at his hip.

“Always,” River put in.

Matty just nodded, feeling his heart pounding in his chest.

“Good. River, you got ten minutes. Be ready.”

“I’ll try not to crack.” She smiled brilliantly at him, even more so at Jayne, then was gone.

“How does she know where to go?” Matty asked, his voice cracking slightly.

“Better not to ask,” Mal advised. “Zoe, think you can make it in time?”

“Think you can stop from getting shot?”

“Promised Frey.”

“Oh, that’s all right then.” Her tone could have withered a tree.

“Can you make it?”

“Sir.” And she too disappeared.

Jayne grinned. “You ain't gonna wish me luck?”

“No.”

“Good.” He stepped back. “Wouldn’t need it anyway.” He slipped into the scrub.

Mal watched him go then turned to the other two. “You keep low, out of sight. But I'm going to need you to start shooting when they do, dong mah?”

Dang rahn.” Simon said quietly.

He felt bad leaving them to their own devices, but Mal also moved off, getting as close as he dared to the camp. Close enough to hear voices, anyway. At least three, holding a conversation. He could only make out some of the words, but what he could hear made his blood run cold.

“… pretty tail.”

“… think? Ain't like she’s gonna go for …”

“… won’t have a choice.”

There was laughter.

“Marcus … might not be anything left after …”

“…get my share … see about that.”

It was maybe one of the longest ten minutes of his life. Listening to these men planning to violate that little girl. And looking forward to it.

--

“Where is she?”

Freya looked up from the book she was trying to read, most of her mind with her husband while trying not to peek too much. She slid from the stool and stood by the medbed. “They’re getting her.”

Simon Cobb struggled to sit up, then groaned as his cracked ribs made themselves known. “I have to -”

“You have nothing you have to do.” Freya pressed him gently back onto the bed. “Jayne’s going to get Suzie back.”

“Pa?”

“Just lie still.” She turned to the open medcase and prepared a hypo.

“They came out of the dark,” Simon said, seeing it all again in his mind. “Men. They grabbed Suzie. I tried to stop them, hit them, but they …” He barely noticed the needle slipping into his arm. “I heard them, Mrs Reynolds. What they were …” He pushed himself into a sitting position, ignoring the pain. “I have to get to her. Rescue her. They’re going to -”

“Simon, you’re not going anywhere. My husband and your father are up there right now. They’ll bring her back safely.”

“My Jayne won’t let anything happen to her,” Mrs Cobb said from the doorway. “He’s a good man.”

“That he is,” Freya agreed.

“Can I come in?”

“Of course.”

“I kinda wanted to sit with my grandson for a while.” She smiled at the young man. “Tell him about his Pa.”

“Mrs Cobb, I need to be out there …” There were tears in Simon’s eyes, even as the low dose sedative made him feel lethargic.

“No, you don’t. And you call me Grandma.” She patted his hand. “We’re family, Simon. And your daddy might be rough around the edges, but he’s still your daddy. Freya’s right - he’ll bring your fiancée home.”

“Besides, he isn’t the only one out there,” Freya put in. “Zoe’s there, so’s your Uncle Matty, and my husband …” Her voice trailed off and she shook her head. “About to do something stupid as usual.”

--

Time was up. Mal moved back a few feet and stood up, still hidden from the camp by a stand of dead trees. He started to make a deal of noise, crashing through the undergrowth, hoping they’d wait to see who he was instead of firing at an unexpected appearance. He staggered through low bushes into the clearing.

“Oh, boy, am I glad to see you!” he enthused, a wide grin on his face. “I felt sure I was gonna die out here.”

Every gun was aimed at him, and the hairs on the back of his neck were standing at attention.

“Who the hell are you?” asked one, a stocky individual with a scar running down one cheek from his eye to the corner of his mouth. It pulled his lips into a perpetual sneer.

“I’m trying to get to town.” He gestured over his shoulder. “Damn horse threw me a while back.” He brushed imaginary dust off his thighs, drawing their attention to the fact that he wasn’t armed. “Rattler, I think. Whatever it was, spooked him and he hightailed it away. Tried to follow him but I ended up more lost that I thought was possible. I’ve been walking for hours, then I smelled your smoke.” Pointing to one of the fires, he went on, “Never was so glad to see a friendly face. I coulda stumbled around here ‘til Judgement Day.”

“Lost, huh?” Scarface looked thoughtful.

He moved to his right, keeping their eyes and guns trained on him, “You guys on a hunting trip? What’re you after? Rabbits? Or something bigger?” A faint shadow registered at the corner of his vision, slipping into the cave mouth.

“Bigger prey.” Scarface laughed, a dry, dead sound. “Much bigger.”

“Deer, I’m guessing.”

“Something like that.”

“So if you fellers’d be kind enough to take me to town, or least point me in the right direction, I’d be obliged.”

“And what kinda payment can we get if we do such a kindly task?”

Mal seemed to ponder. “Well, all my stuff’s back on that damn horse, along with my coat and my money. Don’t suppose you’d do it out of the goodness of your heart?”

“I ain’t got no goodness. But I’ll be taking your boots.”

“Well, see, that’s a problem. I’m kinda attached to these boots. Got a lot of happy memories accumulated wearing ‘em. So I’m loathe to give ‘em up. I’m sure you can understand that.”

“Sure. It don’t make no never mind. I’ll just take ‘em off your corpse.”

Mal watched as, almost in slow motion, Scarface lifted his gun, and he got ready to dodge the inevitable bullet, all the while mentally considering that if Jayne had screwed up on the grenade, he’d be very, very pissed …

--

Part XIV

“What do you mean, something stupid?” Inara asked, leaning in the doorway to the infirmary.

Their eyes met as Freya crossed to the com. “Hank, pull up the plans for the hills to the west.”

“Coming up,” the pilot responded.

“Mrs Cobb, keep him here,” Freya said, glancing at Simon then running past Inara and up the stairs.

-

Moving silently into the darkness of the cave, one of Jayne’s knives in her hand, River was ready to take out any man who might be guarding Suzie. They must have felt secure, however, because she came upon a pool of soft light from a candle stuck onto a ledge, and in its glow lay the girl, her legs drawn up, on a dirty blanket. One ankle was attached by a chain to the wall. A bruise marred her left cheek, and her normally sleek hair was mussed and wild, but she was otherwise unhurt.

She sat up, about to speak, but River laid one finger on her own lips, then smiled.

-

Matty was scared. More so than he had ever been in his life. As Mal walked out into the camp, the young doctor had urged him forward, and they were listening to the entire conversation. There was something reckless about the way the captain was handling the situation, yet he admired him immensely for it. He could never walk in there, into the lion’s den, unarmed. He slowly pulled his own borrowed pistol from its holster and tried to make his heart calm down a little.

-

From her vantage point on the ridge above them, Zoe could see Mal standing looking relaxed, as if he was out for an afternoon stroll. Her lips twitched. Something about the prospect of imminent action always brought this out in him. She remembered other days, other battles they’d survived, and lived to tell the tale. Just like today. She eased the butt of the rifle in her shoulder, and took the slack out of the trigger, preparing to make that happen.

-

As he thumbed the safety off his gun, Simon was mentally counting the number of emergency dressings he had in his medbag. If things went the way they usually did, one of their number would get shot, usually Mal, another would be grazed, and there might be other minor injuries. It didn’t even occur to him that he might be patching up any of the other side.

-

Jayne, ready behind the woodpile not fifty feet from where Mal was facing the man with the scar defacing his cheek, counted down. “… four, three, two, one. Now.”

-

“There,” Freya said, her finger stabbing down onto the screen. “Relay the co-ordinates to shuttle one.”

“What’s the Cap up to?” Kaylee asked from the back of the bridge.

“He’s …gos se.”

“Frey?” Hank looked into her eyes. “What?”

“It’s too late.”

-

The explosion from the grenade rocked the ground, and everybody turned to look at the dust cloud generated. Everyone but Mal, who threw himself sideways to the dirt.

Simultaneously rifle fire erupted above him from the top of the small cliff, and the distinctive boom of Jayne’s weapon joined in. The men began to scatter to cover, but three were down already. More gunfire, considerably less accurate, came from the spot where Simon and Matty were hidden.

Scarface roared and span on his heel, firing at the spot where Mal had been, then tracking after him. Mal, on his back, scrambled back on his heels, but the pistol was heading towards him.

“Mal!” Simon broke cover, running forward, and tossed him something, which he caught by reflex, the grip sliding into his palm as smooth as oiled silk. He rolled, feeling dirt kicking up behind him, then a sharp sting across the back of his neck. Biting back a cry he flipped over and fired. One, twice, three times, the sounds almost simultaneous.

Scarface fell backwards, each bullet finding their mark, the last dead centre between his astonished eyes.

Two men made a break for the cave, whether to find shelter or to get the girl would never be known, as they collapsed in the entrance, one of them writhing as blood forced out of his mouth, clutching at the wound in his chest. A third bullet from inside the cave silenced him.

Another couple fell as they tried to run, Zoe making her shots count, until only three remained.

“Wait! Don’t shoot!” one of them shouted. “We give in!”

“Throw out your guns!” Mal ordered. “Belts too. All of you!”

Three holsters hit the dirt in the centre of the clearing. “We give up!”

Mal climbed to his feet. “Come on out, hands behind your necks. Now!”

“We’re coming. Please don’t shoot us!”

The three men stood up warily, walking slowly forwards.

“On your knees and cross your ankles.” Mal’s gaze didn’t move. “Zoe,” he called. “Get back down here.”

There was movement on the top of the ridge. “Sir,” she called.

Matty walked into the camp, his eyes huge as he surveyed the bodies and the blood spilled. “God,” he whispered, and threw up onto the ground next to him.

Mal watched him, sympathy in his eyes, wondering when the last time was that had happened to him, then turned as Jayne approached the prisoners. “Don’t even think it,” he warned, seeing the big man’s finger very close to the trigger. “We hand them over to the sheriff. He can deal with them.”

“They’ll hang anyway. Just save the cost of the rope.”

“Jayne.”

The mercenary didn’t move for a moment, then nodded slowly.

Simon had quickly checked the other bodies but found no sign of life, and now approached the captain.

“You didn’t have to do that, doc,” Mal said, waving his gun slightly. “But thanks.”

“You’re welcome.”

Mal gingerly felt the back of his neck, wincing, then bringing his hand away red with blood. “Ouch,” he said quietly.

“Let me see.” Simon reached up, pulling the shirt collar away. “You’re lucky,” he said. “Just a graze.”

“Feels more like a canyon.”

“Mal, believe me. You’re very lucky. Just a half an inch deeper and it would have damaged your spine, possibly even severed your spinal column. It might not have killed you, but you’d never have walked again.”

Mal swallowed. “Glad it didn’t, then.”

River appeared in the mouth of the cave, her gun ready.

“The girl okay?” Jayne asked, half-turning towards her, then he fell backwards. The sound of the gunshot seemed an eternity behind.

Mal span, firing, River a microsecond ahead of him, a third as Zoe pounded into the clearing, and the gunman’s head all but exploded, splattering blood and brains over his comrades, his hidden gun skittering away among the rocks.

“Jayne?” River ran across to where her lover lay, his hand thrust against a spreading wet patch at the top of his thigh.

“Gorramit,” he ground out, his face white.

“Simon!” she screamed, but her brother was already there, Matty dropping down the other side.

“Move back, mei-mei,” he said quietly, opening his med bag and pulling out a small portable scanner. “Let me work.”

Xiao nu,” Mal said softly, gently pulling her away. “Can you get the girl for me?”

She turned her big dark eyes on him, anguish in them, then drew herself together. “I can,” she whispered. “They’ve got her locked up. I’ll need …” She bent down and picked up Jayne’s gun, heavier than her own.

“That’s my albatross.” He watched her head reluctantly back into the cave. “Zoe, you’re on guard duty.”

“Sir.”

Simon’s face was set, impassive, his professionalism firmly in place. “Jayne, lie still. The bullet fragmented.”

“Gorram it,” the big man growled, trying to wriggle away from the pain in his groin.

“Matty, hold him down.”

The younger Cobb wiped his mouth then grabbed his brother’s shoulders, leaning into them.

“Doc?” Mal went down onto his knees next to them, his hand clasped to the graze on his neck.

“I have to remove the fragments. Now.” He was searching through his medical bag.

“Frey’s bringing the shuttle. Can’t we wait for –“

“If we move him, if he moves the wrong way, it could be fatal. At least one of the fragments is close to the pelvic artery. It could tear it open and he’d bleed out. Very fast.”

“Must’ve been a Butler,” Jayne ground out, trying to lie still.

“Thought they were illegal.” Mal watched as Simon injected the mercenary with a painkiller as a boom from inside the cave was ignored by everyone.

“Don’t mean folks don’t use ‘em.”

“Mal, hold this.” Simon gave him the scanner. “Here. I need to see what I’m doing.”

“Got it.”

“Butler?” Matty asked, trying not to stare at the shiny metal instrument Simon had pulled from his bag.

Shock was making Jayne talk. “Designed to shatter on impact. Worse’n a dum-dum, truth be told. Slower. Meant to cut you up inside. Must‘ve been a faulty load though. Else I‘d be trying to bribe St Peter right now.” He hissed sharply. “Ain't numb yet, doc.”

Simon paused, the extractor head already in the wound. “I can’t give you a full local yet. Sorry.”

“That’s what you always say.”

“Jayne, I’d rather you were out. Then I wouldn’t have to listen to you.”

“Ain't the sound of my voice … shit … music to your ears?”

“Absolutely. Matty, hold him steady.”

“So who’s the girl you got?” Jayne asked, grunting as Simon probed for the bullet.

“You wanna talk now?” Matty was dumbstruck.

“Ain’t got nothing else to do.”

“Well …” Matty blanched slightly as Simon pulled a fragment of metal out of the wound and dropping it to the bloodstained dirt. “Told you, she ain’t exactly a girl.”

“Really? Always figured you for a cradle snatcher.”

“That seems to be your area, not mine,” Matty pointed out, nodding towards River who had come back out of the cave, her arm around Suzie, staring at the scene in front of her.

“Hell, Matty, sometimes I think she’s older’n me.”

“You’re crazy.”

“Prob’ly.” Jayne flinched.

“Hold still,” Simon warned. “If you move before I get this last piece, you could bleed to death.”

“Kinda got that, doc.” Gritting his teeth, Jayne added, “Just do it.”

Simon dug deep, and despite himself Jayne groaned. Matty took his hand, holding tight.

“Jo … Jolene,” he stammered out. “It’s Jolene.”

“Jolene Anderson? The girl you told me you was sweet on back in the day?”

Matty reddened. “Still am, Jayne.”

“Then why ain't you married the girl?”

“She’s a grown woman. Got two kids. Her husband up and died some three years back, and … well, we kinda got back together last fall.”

“You in love, Matty?” Jayne bit his lip hard, tasting blood, then exhaled heavily as Simon withdrew the other fragment, its sharp edges gleaming in the sunlight.

“Think I must be, Jayne,” Matty said, beginning to breathe again himself.

“Then go for it. Ma ain’t gonna be too pleased she thinks she’s standing in your way.”

“Not doing anything until … wanna spend as much time with Ma as I can.”

Jayne nodded slowly. “You’re a good son, Matty. Better’n I ever was.”

“Nope. Just different.”

“Ma still wouldn’t mind.” He winced as Simon injected him again, but this time the area swiftly slipped into blessed numbness.

“You telling me what to do?”

“Nope. Just giving you some brotherly advice.”

“Really.” Matty’s blue eyes glimmered. “So how long’d that little bit of yours chase you ‘fore you stopped running?”

Jayne laughed. “Long enough, Matty. Long enough. Only now I got me something I ain't gonna let go of.”

“Well, this is sweet,” Simon said, sealing the bandage then standing up. “But now I've removed the bullet I need to get you back to Serenity so I can clean it out and sew it up.”

“Shuttle’s here,” Mal said quietly, standing up and gazing into the sky as Freya brought the small craft in to land a short distance away. “Soon get you home.”

“Ain't gonna bleed to death?”

Simon pulled his latex gloves off. “Not today.”

“Kinda glad about that. Still got a wedding to get to.”

“You should rest it for a few days –“

“Doc, that ain't gonna happen. I'm best man.”

Simon shook his head. Something about that just seemed … wrong. “Matty, if you wouldn’t mind, I’ll need help getting him into the shuttle.”

“Sure, doc. And thanks.”

“It’s what I do.”

Mal looked down at the prone mercenary “He’s going to live, I take it.”

“’Fraid so, Cap. Can’t get rid of me that easy.” Jayne grinned.

“Could’ve used having my shuttle back.”

I'm glad he’ll be fine,” River said, looking down her nose at Mal. “I have a baby to bring up.”

“Well, that told you, sir,” Zoe said dryly.

--

Part XV

The shuttle docked with Serenity, and as soon as the hatch opened Suzie flew out and ran down the stairs, barely touching the treads, having insisted they tell her where Simon was. Mal followed, a little slower, still nursing the graze on his neck as well as his wounded pride. Freya had not been happy.

“You couldn’t duck faster?” she’d asked, storming out of the shuttle almost before the engine had stopped.

“Nice to see you too.” He grinned at her.

She didn’t reciprocate, just turned him around so she could look at the still oozing wound above his shirt collar, the blood soaking into the fabric. She hit him on the shoulder blade, hard enough to make him wince. “Dammit, Mal, I told you not to get shot!”

“It wasn't exactly my idea.” He turned back to her. “So you ain't gonna hold my hand while I recuperate?”

“No!”

“Pity.” He glanced over his shoulder. “River, get Suzie inside. Doc, can Jayne walk?”

Freya looked past him, realising the big man was on the ground, his pants stained red. “What …”

“Got himself a little bit wounded,” Mal explained. “Although I think River’s the one gonna be doing the hand-holding.” He looked into her eyes. “Didn’t you see that?”

She looked almost embarrassed. “No. I was concentrating on you.”

“No need, xin gan,” he murmured. “Always come back to you.”

“One day you’re going to say that and you won’t.”

“Then I’ll haunt you. Forever.” He smiled again. “Doc? We need the stretcher?”

Simon shook his head. “As long as Jayne doesn’t do anything stupid, I think we can manage.”

“Good.” Mal turned back to Freya. “Got any ropes in there? We’ve got us a couple of prisoners.”

“You considering having a little necktie party?”

“I was considering handing them over to the sheriff.” He raised his eyebrows at her. “You know, you are a very violent person sometimes.”

“Only when my husband gets shot.” She nodded, back to being business-like. “I’ll find something.”

Mal watched as she strode back to the shuttle, admiring the smooth lines of her buttocks inside her tight pants, before going back to deal with the others.

Now he was watching Matty help Simon negotiate Jayne through the shuttle door aboard Serenity.

“Wouldn’t it be easier if you just let me go back to my shuttle?” the big man was saying.

“It’s my shuttle,” Mal pointed out. “And the doc says you need to go to the infirmary.”

“And fairly quickly,” Simon added. “That shot’s going to wear off soon, and you’ll be in some pain. I’d like to get the wound irrigated and stitched before then. And the only reason you’re not going to be carried on a stretcher is because you’re so damn heavy.”

“You saying I'm fat?” Jayne asked, glancing down at his rock hard stomach.

“I'm saying if we dropped you I don’t think you’d be too pleased.”

“As long as you ain’t saying I'm fat.”

“He might not be, but I am.” Matty was already red in the face. “What the hell do you eat, Jayne?”

“You’re only jealous. Just ‘cause I'm all muscle.”

“Is that what it is?”

“You want we should wrestle some more and you can find out?”

Simon sighed. “Oh, come on.”

They manhandled Jayne down the stairs and through into the common area, River like a ghost behind them.

Mal stepped back into the shuttle and looked down at the two prisoners, trussed up like turkeys ready for Thanksgiving, both Zoe and Freya keeping an armed eye on them. “I'm handing you over to the sheriff,” he said quietly. “Don’t know what they’re like to do with you, but I've got a pretty good idea.”

“It wasn't our fault,” one of them insisted. “I used to have a home, a ranch, but it got taken away from me.”

“My wife ran off with someone else, and things just went from bad to worse,” the other added. “And we never killed no-one.”

“So you weren't planning on violating that little girl, were you?”

“No, sir,” the first said, his friend shaking his head vehemently.

“Well, ain't that interesting.” Mal leaned down, his blue eyes hard as ice. “’Specially since I recognise your voices as two of them that were talking about taking her.”

They glanced at each other, wanting to deny it, but knowing it wasn’t likely to do any good.

“They’ll hang us,” the second said, his voice hoarse.

“Figured as much. And it couldn’t happen to nicer fellers.” Mal stood up and looked at Zoe. “Get ‘em off my boat ‘fore they piss themselves,” he ordered. “The sheriff’s on his way. He can pick ‘em up from outside.”

--

In the infirmary Suzie was draped over Simon Cobb, crying and laughing at the same time.

“You fought for me,” she was saying, wiping her own tears from his face. “You fought for me, and then your father came for me, and I … oh, Simon!”

“Suzie, Suzie … they didn’t hurt you, did they?” He was running his fingers across the bruise on her face, his heart beating nineteen to the dozen.

“They were going to … but they stopped them. Stopped them before they … Simon …” Her breath caught in her throat, and she lay her head down on his chest, sobbing.

“Where do you want him, doc?” Matty asked, helping Jayne over the door sill.

“On the worktop to your right.”

“Pa?” Simon tried to sit up.

“It’s okay,” Jayne insisted, hefting his buttocks up on the cold counter. “Just some hwoon dahn shot me, is all. Ain't much more’n a scratch.”

“Lie down,” the doctor ordered. “I need to get your pants off before I deal with things.”

“Didn’t think you appreciated a fine figure of a man,” Jayne joked as Matty started to undo his boots.

“I don’t.”

“Well, you will. I ain’t exactly wearing anything underneath.”

Simon Tam stared at him, aghast. “You mean …”

Jayne grinned. “Surely do.”

“Jayne Cobb!” His mother stood in the doorway, her hands on her hips, anxiety and annoyance in equal measure on her face. “Why ain't you wearing your nether garments?”

“Ma …” The big, bold, bad mercenary suddenly took on the aspect of the little boy he used to be.

Mal, standing behind the small crowd of passengers and crew, chuckled. “’Scuse me,” he said, pushing to the front. “Suzie, I think you’d better come out of there, before you see something someone of your tender years shouldn’t … actually, more than anyone should see.”

“I'm staying,” River said, pulling up a stool and sitting down.

“Kinda figured that. But there’s someone to see you, Suzie,” Mal said softly. “Found him waiting outside when we opened up.”

Suzie looked at him then ran out towards the cargo bay. “Papa!” She hurtled into the Preacher’s outstretched arms.

“Baby, oh, baby,” he was saying, holding her tightly. “Are you all right?”

“I'm …” She was hiccupping so much she couldn’t speak.

“She’s fine,” Mal said, following her through the door at a slightly slower pace. “Our doc checked her out. Apart from a couple of bruises, she ain't hurt.”

“I have to thank you, Captain Reynolds.” Patton kept his arms around his daughter. “For bringing her home to me.”

“Well, that’s fine, but it’s not me you have to thank. That’ll be the man lying in that infirmary. If Jayne hadn’t tracked ‘em, we’d still be looking.”

“Jayne?” Patton glanced beyond him.

“He wasn't gonna let his son lose the one thing he prizes over everything, Preacher. And I'm pretty sure you feel the same way.”

“He’s hurt?”

“Got shot. Something of an occupational hazard in his line of work, but he’ll be okay.”

“I'm glad.”

The man sounded so honest that Mal was tempted to push it further. “You know, you might want to cut Jayne a little slack. I ain't lying when I say it’s due to him alone that you got your daughter back in one piece. Whatever he is, what he’s done in the past, he saved your girl here.” He mentally asked forgiveness for the small white lie, but it was only a little stretching of the truth.

“I …” Patton looked down into Suzie’s face, at the tear stains amongst the dirt. “Can I see him? Thank him?”

“Well, the doc’s still patching him up, but … just give it a few minutes.”

“Thank you.” He glanced over his shoulder. “And those two?”

Mal looked past him to where Zoe and Freya were still standing guard on the prisoners outside the Firefly. “Ain't my decision. That’s up to you and the good townsfolk.”

“What about the others?”

“Feeding the crows.”

Patton gazed at him, then nodded once. “Yes.” He drew himself up. “I think I’d like to … to talk to Mr Cobb now.”

“Sure. You can wait in the common area with the rest of the crew.” Mal smiled.

“Thank you.” Patton walked past him, his arm still around his daughter.

As they reached the doorway, Mal spoke again. “And the wedding? That going ahead?”

The Preacher paused and looked down into his daughter’s hopeful eyes. “You know, Captain Reynolds, I think it might.”

--

The wedding was delayed a couple of days due to the slight indisposition of a couple of the main participants, but at 11.00 am on Christmas Morning, Suzanna Dominique Patton said yes to Simon Cobb to the cheers and applause of all the assembled parties.

Jayne managed to stand upright throughout the entire proceedings, thanks to the aid of a couple of the infirmary crutches, even if he was sweating somewhat by the time Preacher Patton pronounced them husband and wife.

Retiring to the local hall, the entire congregation then started on the reasonable intent of getting as much food and drink into themselves as possible, and soon the large room was filled with laughter and the sound of people talking too much.

Jayne sat at the top table, in a place of honour, River next to him, while Mal and the rest, for once, were lower down in the ranking than him. And he was playing it for all he was worth, magnanimously declaring that he couldn’t have done it without his crew.

Mal, in fact, was grumbling. “Wait ‘til he’s fit,” he threatened. “See if he likes cleaning out the septic vat for the foreseeable.”

“You did tell the Preacher it was all down to Jayne,” Freya pointed out, Jesse secure in her arms.

“That ain't no excuse for him to act like he owns us.”

“Let him have today. He’s gone from outcast to hero in a few short days … so it’s gone to his head a little.”

“Surprised he could get through the door.”

Jesse tugged gently on the charm bracelet around her mother’s wrist, and the little silver house that Mal had given her that very morning.

“This where we’re gonna live some day?” she’d asked, kissing him.

“Bit small.” He ran his hand up her bare waist. “All these kids we’re gonna have.” He grinned as she bit him lightly on the neck. “But one day. When we can’t fly no more, and you want to put down some roots.”

“So it’s up to me?” Her mouth wandered south.

“Surely is.”

“Then we’ll be flying forever. Just you and me and our hundred kids.”

He hadn’t really been able to think of an answer at that point. Now, though, he grinned as his little daughter played with the charms.

“She likes it,” he said softly.

“She likes hers, too.” Freya touched the small expanding bracelet around Jesse’s own wrist.

“Only the best for my girls.”

“And me,” Ethan put in from his position on Mal’s lap.

“You too.” His father hugged him. “You enjoying yourself?”

“Want to dance.” He was gazing in entrancement at the people doing a reel. Or possibly a jig.

“You know how?”

“Been watching.”

Kaylee and Simon stopped by the table, out of breath.

“That’s it,” Simon said. “I’d rather operate on Jayne a thousand times, before you get me to do another step. I'm sitting down.”

“Wimp,” Kaylee said, sticking her tongue out at him.

“Wind’ll change and you’ll stay like that,” Mal put in. “And you want to dance, why not take my son and heir for a turn around the floor?”

“Yeah?” Kaylee smiled. “You want to dance?”

Ethan climbed down from his father’s lap, nodding strongly. “’S. Please.”

She held out her hand. “Come on then.”

Freya watched as Kaylee led her son out into the middle of the floor, where the other dancers made room for them, clapping as they moved to the music.

“You sure you don’t want to dance?” Mal asked, leaning forward so his face was close to hers.

“No. I'm quite happy sitting here with you.”

“We could always let Jayne and River take Jesse. Go for a walk.”

She managed to look scandalised. “Are you suggesting –“

“Yes.”

“Good idea.” She stood up. “Give me a minute to persuade them.”

Mal grinned and watched her approach the top table, standing himself and stretching his back a little.

“Captain Reynolds?”

He turned to see the local sheriff standing in front of him. “What can I do for you?”

“Trial’s tomorrow.”

Mal raised his eyebrows. “That soon?”

“Ain't feeding ‘em any longer at the town’s expense.”

“Right.”

“We’ll need you to testify. What you saw. Heard. Did.”

Mal glanced up towards Jayne. “Sheriff, we got the girl back. If there’s gonna be any hassle –“

“No, no. We’re grateful for what you did. They were plaguing folks for a long time. But this has to be done right. In the eyes of the law.”

“I understand.”

“So I can count on you?”

“Whatever you need.”

The sheriff smiled and they shook hands before he wandered back off towards the bar.

“What was that about?” Freya asked, stepping up behind her husband.

“I'm going to be doing my civic duty tomorrow,” Mal said.

“What?”

“Testifying at the trial.”

“They don’t hang around here, do they?”

“Nope. But I’m thinking hang is probably the right word.”

Freya shivered just a little. “Yeah.”

He put his arm around her. “Come on. I’ve got a pretty foolproof way of making you feel happier.”

“Really?”

“Really. And I saw a barn on the edge of town …”

She laughed. “Then maybe I do need a breath of fresh air.”

Mal led her out of the hall, glancing back only once to make sure his crew were all safe and happy. His eyes lit on Inara and Sam, at the distance between their seats. Something seemed to be wrong there, but he wasn't going to worry about that now. It could wait until tomorrow. He followed Freya out into the evening air.

--

Part XVI

“’Nara? You okay?” Freya looked around the corner of the door into the guest quarters currently occupied by her friend.

Inara looked up from where she was dabbing at a mark on the dress she’d worn the night before. “I found a grease stain,” she explained. “Kaylee said this solvent would work.”

“Does it?”

She held up the crimson fabric. “I believe it has.”

“That’s our Kaylee, always ready with the solution to all our problems. Pity she can’t solve people’s love lives, though.”

Inara looked up in surprise. “Not you and Mal.”

“No. You and Sam.”

The ex-Companion suddenly took an extreme interest in the dress on her lap. “Nothing wrong with us.”

“Of course not. And before you say anything, I wasn't peeking. Mal noticed a … certain tension between you two yesterday.”

Inara glared at her. “And he told you to come and ask me instead of doing it himself?”

“Sweetie, we spent weeks talking. He thought you might open up to me.”

“Just because he –“

Freya interrupted her gently. “Just tell me.”

The glare dissolved into something much sadder, and Inara collapsed back on the bed, her head against the wall. “What is it about men?” she asked. “Why are they all so stubborn?”

“Is that a rhetorical question or do you really want an answer?” Freya stepped into the room and slid the door closed behind her.

“I want to know.”

“No idea. My experience with the male sex boils down to a handful of really good friends, two of whom are so sly they squeak when they walk, and three men I've slept with. And two of them are dead.” She paused. “You think that’s a commentary on me?”

“Freya …”

“Look, you were the Companion. Couldn’t your feminine wiles tell you?”

“They don’t help nearly as much as some people think they do.”

Freya smiled and sat down. “So what’s he done?”

“Oh, nothing much. Just proved himself a short-sighted, narrow-minded idiot.”

“Is that all?”

“Isn’t that enough?”

“Where men in general are concerned, I wonder sometimes.” She took Inara’s hand in hers. “I take it the last couple of days have upset him somewhat.”

“Eleven men were killed. That’s all he can see. Not why or anything like that, just that eleven men died and none of the crew seem at all sorry over it.”

“You explained?”

“Of course I did. I tried to make him see things are done differently out here, that these men wouldn’t have thought twice about murdering Mal, Jayne, everyone. That they took Suzie with only one intent in mind.”

“He didn’t listen.”

“Not to one word.” She sighed heavily. “He’s from the Core.”

“So were you.”

“But I …” She stopped, then said slowly, “I do understand what he thinks. But things out here … they’re different.”

“I know it,” Freya said softly.

“You know he offered his services to Mr Patton if Suzie wanted to talk.”

“That’s good, isn’t it?”

“Of course. But it doesn’t make him listen to me.” She shook her head. “Why did I ever think we could be … wan shui qian shan.”

“You really like him, don’t you?”

Inara got to her feet and crossed to the small chest of drawers, ostensibly to powder her already perfectly made-up face. “We get along well. At least, we did until now.” She looked at her eyes in the small mirror. “He says he’s going back to Ariel.”

“Oh, Inara.”

She span on her heel. “Let’s look at the bright side,” she said, trying a smile. “At least we haven’t slept together.”

“You’re saying that like it’s a good thing.”

“We were taking it slowly. But now … no, it is a good thing. No complications.”

“I think it’s too late for that.”

Inara was about to deny it, but Mal’s voice sounded through the ship. “Time to get going all of you planning to watch the proceedings.”

Freya stood up. “You coming?”

“No. No, I think I’ll stay here. There are a few memories this might dredge up.”

“Do you want me to stay?”

“No, you go. I’ll be fine. I’ll make some tea and just sit quietly.”

“Top cupboard, far right hand side at the back.”

“What?”

“Earl Grey. My own stash.”

“I didn’t think you –“

Freya smiled. “All that talking we did, well, it made me thirsty. And Mrs Boden turned me onto it. Only I have to keep it hidden. Mal’s developed something of a liking for it too.”

“I could never get him to drink it.”

“You weren't lying naked next to him at the time.”

Inara had to laugh. “No. Maybe I should try that occasionally.”

--

The town didn’t have a courthouse, so the same hall the wedding reception had been held in was doubling for the seat of the legal community. A high dais had been swiftly built at one end, and a heavy table and chair was on top. The two prisoners were already standing to one side, looking very sorry for themselves. Half a dozen deputies were keeping guard.

Mal was squirming slightly in his seat. Last time he’d been in a courtroom, he’d been the one in the dock, and it was awakening some rather painful memories.

“I won’t let them hit you,” Freya murmured, her lips twitching.

“Thanks,” he muttered back. He glanced over his shoulder at his crew. Not everyone had wanted to watch the trial, and Inara wasn't the only one to stay behind. Kaylee, Hank and Sam Nazir had elected to remain on board Serenity and look after the children. Mrs Cobb had insisted on attending, though, her husband and Matty at her side. Jayne was the next seat along, with River, Zoe and Simon.

“Don’t they have a jury here?” Freya asked, noting no space for one.

“Doubt it. Small community, everyone knows everyone else … where’d you find twelve good folks that weren’t biased? You’d have to bus ‘em in from the other side of the planet.”

“I suppose.” She was about to go on, but there was movement at the front.

“All rise,” ordered the Court Bailiff. “The Honourable Judge Levi Bailey residing.”

Everyone got to their feet as a small, somewhat rotund man entered the hall and climbed onto the dais, and Mal nodded slightly. He was right - even the judge had been at the wedding the day before.

“Court is now in session,” he said, sitting down in the large chair and banging his gavel on the table. “Be seated. Jonah, read the charges.”

There was the scraping of chairs as everyone sat back down, and the Bailiff began.

“The defendents, Emmanuel Kuang and George Tucson, are hereby charged with kidnapping, attempted murder, manslaughter …” He droned on for maybe half a minute longer. “There are others, Judge, but that about covers the main articles.”

“I should think it does.” He sat back in his chair, his feet almost off the ground. “So who’s defending?”

“Me, your honour.” A man stood up from the front row.

“Drawn the short straw then, have you, Royce?”

“Seems so, your honour.”

Judge Bailey nodded at the Bailiff. “Let it be shown that Royce Cutler appears for the defence.”

“Yes sir.”

“And I'm presuming you’re prosecuting, Tempe?”

Another man stood. “That I am, your honour.”

“And Temperance Donnelly appears for the prosecution.” He looked around his courtroom. “Better get started.”

It didn’t take that long. Not really. Not to condemn two men to death. Suzie was first up on the stand, trying hard not to get too emotional, then Simon telling his part of story. Jayne was next, and finally Mal. There were no defence witnesses. Even the two accused seemed to wilt as more and more damning words were laid against them.

“… just talking. Simon wanted to show me his father’s ship, and … they came out of the darkness …”

“… saw they had hold of Suzie I tried to stop them. They beat up on me and left …”

“… tracked up into the hills. Weren't easy, but I followed the sign all the way to their camp …”

“… heard three men talking. About what they were going to do to the … to Suzie Patton. I waited until …”

Royce Cutler did try - no-one afterwards could ever accuse him of shirking his duty.

“How can you be sure these were two of the men who kidnapped you?”

“I can’t. It was dark and someone hit me, but … they came into the cave. I saw their faces, clear as day.”

And …

“Couldn’t it just be that these men were lost? And in coming across you and your fiancée only wanted help, and you attacked them by mistake?”

“Mistake? You wanna see my arms, the bruises? If they’d been lost there ain’t no way they’d’ve held me and pummelled me that hard just to get directions.”

And …

“How do you know it was the camp of the people who attacked your son?”

“Followed them. ‘Sides, they had Suzie. Ain’t that plain enough?”

And …

“You were a distance away, Captain Reynolds, and you admit you couldn’t see their faces. Yet you say it was the accused.”

“May not’ve seen what they looked like, not then, but I heard ‘em. Ten minutes I spent listening to what they were planning on doing to take their pleasure. And, believe me, I ain’t gonna forget those voices in a hurry.”

Cutler didn’t even bother putting the two men on the stand, and neither of them objected.

Judge Bailey sat back in his chair. “That it?”

“Defence rests, your honour,” Cutler said, sitting back down.

“Tempe?”

“Nothing further to add, Judge, ‘cept to ask the court for the fullest weight of the law.”

The judge nodded slowly, then went slowly through his notes before steepling his fingers in front of his chin. Looking off into the distance, he gave himself over to careful thought.

After a few minutes people started to fidget.

“Open and shut, ain’t it?” Jayne whispered to Mal. “Why’s he cogitating like that?”

“The law has to be seen to be done,” Mal muttered back.

“’Cause if he lets ‘em off, I’m thinking we should never’ve bought ‘em back from the hills.”

Judge Bailey sat forward again, and the room went silent. “Seems to me a lot of this is guilt by association. There’s no proof these two men took part in the attack on Simon Cobb, nor kidnapped Suzie Patton. Yes, they were at the camp, but again there’s no proof they ever murdered anyone.”

Mal could feel Jayne stiffen behind him.

Then the judge went on. “However, I’m inclined to accept Captain Reynolds’ testimony that he overheard their conversation, and recognises their voices. The fact that the Captain and his crew were in time to stop anything happening to Miss Patton is merely fortuitous. Their conversation shows intent, and that intent would have been carried out.” He glared at the two men. “We all know what you’re guilty of, what you’ve done in the past and would’ve done again. But it’s going down in the records that you’re convicted of intention to rape. And hereabouts that’s a capital offence, and you’re gonna hang for it.”

Jayne sighed contentedly behind Mal, but the captain was feeling no such satisfaction. As the two men were taken back to their jail cell to await execution of their sentence, he felt slightly sick. The courtroom emptied, and he pushed through the crowd to get outside, taking a deep breath.

“They are guilty, Mal,” Freya said, walking up behind him and standing close enough so he could feel her heat.

“I know. But technically it’s on my word. They’re gonna hang because of my evidence.”

“Did you lie?”

He turned to her, his eyes hard blue. “No!”

“Then don’t worry.” She moved even closer, so there wasn’t even daylight between them. “Mal, they’ve killed. I can give you one example out of many. There’s a farm in the next valley. They took the wife and killed the husband. They did it. The body of the woman was found a month or so later. Both those men in there took turns with her.” She stopped, seeing the disgust on his face, knowing it was mirrored on her own. “I saw, Mal. I saw.”

“Why? Why’d you look?” he asked, wrapping his arms around her.

“So I could tell you that you weren’t wrong. That the judge is right. Everyone knows what they’ve done. It doesn’t matter what the actual conviction’s for.” She sighed. “Except you think it does.”

“Ain’t an honest man, Frey. Haven’t been for a long while. But if I ever get bound, brought up before a judge like this, I want it to be for something I’ve done, not something I ain’t.”

“They did, Mal. They were going to rape Suzie. And they were going to enjoy every minute.”

He stared down into her hazel eyes, then held her close, feeling her breath on his neck.

Jayne hobbled out of the hall. “They’re putting the gallows up in the square. You gonna come and watch?”

Mal shook his head. “We’re going back to Serenity. Sit with Ethan and Jesse for a while.” He felt Freya squeeze him in agreement.

The big man thought for a moment, then nodded. “You know, that ain’t a bad idea. Seen me enough men hang. Reckon I don’t need to see no more.” He looked at River. “You coming?”

“Wherever my Jayne leads, we follow.” She patted her belly.

“Good,” Mrs Cobb said, coming up behind them. “And we can talk about that wedding.”

River looked into familiar yet different blue eyes. “I’m not going to marry Jayne. Not yet. It isn’t time.”

“You’re pregnant.”

“I know. And this child will be born in wedlock. But there’s months yet. And I think I might need gentle persuasion.” She linked her arm with Jayne’s. “Lots of it.”

--

Part XVII

Despite being feted by the town’s people for ridding them of a persistent nuisance, by New Year Mal was anxious to get off world, needing to return Mrs Cobb and her family back to Ezra and drop Inara home on Lazarus so he could actually get down to the arduous task of looking for work. Even the celebrations on the turn of the old year into the new wasn’t enough to persuade him, although people did try.

“You know, you could stay,” Preacher Patton said. “What you did for the town, there’ll always be a place for you if you need it.”

“Well, that’s mighty fine of all of you, but we’re a transport vessel. Need to be out in the black, transporting.”

Patton smiled. “I understand. But we’ll be pleased to see you if you do decide to come back this way.”

“Oh, I’m pretty certain we will.” Mal nodded towards where Jayne was sitting with Simon Cobb and his wife. “Don’t think I’ll be allowed to keep us away too long.”

“We’ll be back ‘fore long,” Jayne was saying. “Might even be quicker’n we think, if a cargo comes up.”

“And you’ll have to bring my half-sister or brother when they’re born,” Simon said, his arm locked proprietorially around Suzie’s shoulders.

“That I will.” Jayne laughed. “And somehow I’m thinking it won’t be long ‘fore you two get one of your own.”

Suzie blushed delicately under her helmet of shining black hair.

“You know, I wouldn’t be at all surprised,” Simon said, grinning broadly.

Jayne slapped him on the back, then lifted his glass. “Come on. Time to get drunk, I figure.”

Freya watched Sam and Inara, each being excessively polite to each other, and shook her head.

“They still not worked it out?” Mal asked, stepping up behind her and putting his arms around her waist.

She leaned back into his chest. “Nope. If anything I think it’s got worse since the hanging.”

“Why?”

“Sam thinks those men should have been handed over to the Alliance for rehabilitation.”

“She tell you that?”

Freya nodded slowly. “She’s very angry with him. Asked him how could he tell her she wasn’t to blame for what Han did when he then goes and says that.”

“That don’t make sense.”

“She also told him that she was glad Han was dead, so he couldn’t do what he’d done to her to anyone else, but by not wanting the men who would have raped Suzie to die, Sam was making concessions for Han.”

“Now that really is crazy.”

Freya shrugged. “They were arguing.”

“And she told you this?”

“Well, maybe I was in the common area at the time.”

“And you all accuse me of eavesdropping.” He squeezed her gently.

“Trouble is, she cares about him. A lot.”

“She loves him?”

“I’m not honestly sure. But … I think maybe she might.”

“Yet he’s leaving her.”

“I think so.”

“Poor Inara.” Mal watched them for a few moments longer. “Think it’d do any good if I talked to Sam?”

“I think it would be like pouring kerosene on a forest fire.” She turned in his arms and poked him. “Don’t you dare.”

“You don’t think my sweet and fluffy nature wouldn’t smooth them over?”

“No.”

“Now that’s wounding.”

“Mal, promise.”

He gazed at her, his blue eyes mischievous, but eventually he smiled. “I promise. Long as no-one comes to talk to me about it, I won’t talk to them. Okay?”

Her eyes narrowed slightly. “No, not really, but I suppose it’ll have to be good enough.”

“Then you’d better keep me occupied until we take off tomorrow.” He glanced over her shoulder to where the majority of his crew were standing at the improvised bar, drinking. “Least, if I can pour that bunch of sorry-asses back on board in time.”

“They’ll be there.”

“You have a lot of faith in them, don’t you?”

“So do you.”

He grinned. “Wanna join ‘em?”

“You know, I think I do. It’s been a long time since I got drunk.”

“That’d be about the time I took you to bed for the first time.” He snuggled her closer.

“I wasn’t drunk. If I had been, you wouldn’t have taken advantage.”

“Always figured you were the one taking advantage.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. Me being all innocent and the like.”

Her eyes widened. “You being all … I … that’s …”

He laughed, glad he could still surprise her. “Come on. The others are way ahead of us.”

--

By noon the following day, hangovers dealt with as much as possible, Serenity was ready to go. Final goodbyes, some tearful, had been said, and Mal was walking back up the hill towards his Firefly, having had a last drink with the Preacher and sheriff, and feeling pretty good about life.

He wasn’t entirely surprised, though, to see Sam Nazir waiting outside the cargo bay, his cases at his feet.

“You leaving us?” he asked as he got closer.

“Inara and I talked. A lot, over the last few days. We both agreed this was for the best.”

“You mean you talked.” Mal shook his head, pushing down the urge to hit this doctor until he saw sense. “You got any idea what you’re throwing away?”

“Yes, captain, I think I have. But I see no alternative.”

“And you an educated man.”

“Education has nothing to do with it. I’m just a man. And I have failings. And one of those appears to be an inability to accept that life is or should be as cheap it appears.”

“That life you’re talking about turns on a pin out here,” Mal said quietly, turning to look out over the rolling hills and plains of Jangyin. “One moment it’s all sweetness and light, the next someone’s trying to kill you.” He glanced at Sam. “The way it is is how it is. You get used to it or find yourself a cave and you hide. Or dig yourself a grave and pull the stones back in after.”

“You think that’s what I’m doing. Hiding in my cave.”

“I ain't a therapist. Most kind of counselling I do is with my gun. But you leaving Inara … yeah, I think you’re running away.”

“You know nothing about me, captain.”

“No, that’s true. But I know Inara. How she feels about you. And you’re breaking her heart.”

“Captain –“

“A little while back, I seem to recall a conversation around the dinner table, where you said people weren’t to blame for the things that happened. I'm thinking there’d be some kind of debate about that, in as much as some folks set out premeditated to kill or hurt other folks, but in this case I think it’s pretty true. And Frey was right. We none of us are what we intended to be.”

“I think you pretend to be what you’re not.” Sam shook his head. “You like to present yourself as uneducated, just a man scraping a living on the fringes of society, and yet you can use a word like premeditated …”

“I’m not Core-bred, Sam. Not like some on this boat. But I've never let that stop me. Shouldn’t let that stop you either.”

“But seeing this, what happened … all those men dead …I feel out of place. Even Inara, standing up for what you were planning to do …”

Mal felt his lips curve. “Jealous?”

“Yes. But not like that. I didn’t know she had it in her. To be comfortable with this.”

“She ain't, Sam. None of us really are. But there are things you have to do, so you get on and do them.”

“Even if it means killing people?”

“That’s what they planned for that little girl who’s just got married. And it wouldn’t’ve gone easy for her. You know that.”

“I do.” Sam sighed. “I feel adrift. And I don’t know how to handle it,” he admitted.

“Could always tie up to Inara. She’ll hold you in place. Keep you from getting lost.”

“No. I think that’s something I … I can’t go back to that.”

Mal looked at him and shook his head. “Then you’re a fool.” He unhitched his thumbs from his gunbelt. “Well, I can’t say I’m surprised. Though I’d’ve thought you’d at least wait until Ezra.”

“No. I’m still helping Suzie and … it’s better this way.”

“Well, as it happens I’ve made a few enquiries, and there’s a ship landing here in ‘bout a week. They’re bound for the Core, so even if they can’t take you all the way, you’re headed in the right direction.” He made it perfectly clear he considered it the wrong direction, but enough was enough.

“Thank you, captain.”

“You gonna say goodbye to Inara?”

Sam glanced through the open cargo bay door. “No, I … we said what … no.”

“Then we’re gone. Got to get Jayne’s folks back to Ezra, then take Inara and Noni home.” He held out a hand. “See you around.”

“Captain.”

They shook firmly, then Mal strode back up the ramp, thumping his hand down on the control panel. The cargo bay closed up firmly behind him. Thumbing the com, he said, “Hank, take us out.”

“On our way, Mal.”

“Did you tell him to step back?” Freya asked, sitting on the top step of the staircase.

“Must’ve forgotten.” He walked slowly up towards her, feeling his Firefly taking off. “Kinda figure he ain't gone through our intake, though.”

“But you wouldn’t mind.”

“Hey, he talked to me! I only promised not to be the one starting doing the talking.”

“I know.” She didn’t sound convinced.

“Frey, Inara’s -”

“She’ll be all right.”

“You think? That’s three men she’s loved and lost.”

“Neither you nor Sam are dead.”

“Might as well be, far as she’s concerned.” He sat down on the step below her. “You gonna talk to her?”

Freya nodded. “Maybe this I can actually help her with.”

“Unrequited love?”

“Seems to me I had a lot of practice at that.”

“I think maybe I have to apologise for my whole sex.”

She leaned forward and planted a kiss on his cheek. “Not your whole sex.”

“That’s good to know.” Putting his hand on her knee, he smoothed his palm against the inside of her thigh. “So you really think she’ll be all right?”

“Inara’s strong. And she’s not alone.”

“No. Guess she isn’t.” He stopped, listening. “What’s that?”

A thin tune made itself known, slightly metallic but with a rhythmic beat. A waltz. It appeared to be coming from below them. They glanced at each other, then peered through the metal stairway.

Ethan climbed over the sill from the common area, a box in his hand. He saw his parents above him, and hurried to the bottom of the stairs. “Daddy, dance with me!” he demanded, holding up a small music box.

“Well, boys don’t generally dance together, ‘cept maybe on a couple of moons I know, but … where’d you get that?” Mal asked, curious.

“Ethan!” River’s voice rang out of the shuttle. “Did you steal my musical box?”

Freya laughed at the guilty expression on her first-born‘s face. “Well, like father, like son,” she said, patting Mal on the shoulder.

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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!]