BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL

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Swinging (complete story)
Friday, December 16, 2005

REPOST: All four parts of the episode-style Firefly story in one spot by request. A rim world layover leaves Jayne hanging, but it's Mal and Inara who swing.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 2637    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

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The kiss of a sweet breeze on her cheek beckoned Inara toward consciousness, the familiar comfort of a contented dream releasing its warm embrace.

"I don’t care what you have to do," a harsh, hushed voice was saying somewhere nearby. "Do you have any idea what kind of chance I’m taking using these kinds of drugs on a registered companion? No, I haven’t told anyone else, and I expect to be handsomely rewarded for that. Extracting information like that is not easy, especially when someone has been trained to resist..."

Inara’s eyes squinted and her head began to pound as awareness fully returned. The voice abruptly stopped. There was quick movement, and a man was standing over her.

"Ah, you’re awake." In the blink of an eye, the angry whispers had morphed into the smooth, refined charm of Mallory Stanton, the man on whose bed she now lay. Lacy white curtains fluttered in the afternoon sunlight over an open window. "I was beginning to think your indulgence at last night’s party would rob us of the entirety of our second day. Perhaps I’m too generous."

"Not at all," Inara cooed in the most convincing tone she could muster. She fought to bury any sign of fear while struggling to raise her very heavy head. "It’s only that I’m too easily tempted," she smiled. "I apologize."

"Not to worry," Mallory said, reaching a hand toward her cheek. With a great effort, she resisted shrinking from his touch as he continued. "I plan to engage you for another week."

"I’m afraid that’s not-" she began.

"And I simply won’t take no for an answer," he finished without blinking. His long fingers brushed her hair behind one shoulder. "Oh, you’re not going anywhere."

There was a long silence between them. A massive old clock ticked off the seconds.

"I see, Mallory."

"Call me Mal."

---

A bullet pinged away near Zoe’s shoulder as she ducked behind a crate to reload.

"We just want the girl," a voice called from just inside the cargo bay entrance. "No need for all this. Send ’er out and we’ll be on our way."

With her back to the crate, she saw River’s curious face peek from the hallway near the top of the stairs. "Stay back!" Zoe yelled as she finished loading her carbine. It hadn’t seemed like much of a risk to take a job on a rim rock like Braggadocio. They had no reason to expect trouble here, but word that River was onboard had somehow reached these mercenaries. She would make sure the news didn’t go any farther.

She grimly spun from behind the crate, and the cargo bay rang with the sound of gunfire.

---

A round exploded off the metal floor as Simon’s hand darted to his medical bag near the bridge entrance, where he and Wash were pinned down.

"Don’t worry," Simon said, pulling out a syringe. "I’ve got just the thing."

Wash grimaced. "Not to seem ungrateful – you know about my long and sordid love affair with enormous needles-" The whir of a bullet buzzing past his ear cut him off.

"It’s not for you," Simon replied, his eyes on the clear liquid he was drawing from a small bottle. "It’s for them." The shooting stopped as he finished preparing the dose. "Now all we have to do is deliver it."

"Oh, I see," Wash said in mock realization. "So I should just walk up and... ask politely?"

"It should be easy," Simon continued. "Tell them you give up. I’ll wait near the door, and when they walk in-"

"That sounds like a mighty fine plan," a man said.

Simon and Wash looked up to see a large figure standing at the doorway, his gun in the back of a cowering Kaylee. There was the click of a trigger being cocked.

Simon closed his eyes and waited for the gunshot. What he heard was a loud clang.

His eyes opened to see the man falling in a shower of food, revealing Book behind him with an outstretched frying pan. The four of them stood watching as the figure writhed on the floor and then fell still.

"Ai ya!" Wash yelped suddenly, causing the other three to jump. "Was that... lunch?"

Book raised his eyebrows. "You’d rather I let him shoot you?"

Wash wrestled with the question.

"Everything shiny up here?" Zoe asked, rounding the corner as River floated by over her shoulder.

"Looks like our meal was the only casualty," Simon said. "I find that I respect the shepherd’s cooking more with each passing day."

Book was watching Zoe with a somber look. "The other men?" he asked.

"Don’t know how they found out about River, but they won’t be tellin’ no tales," she answered quickly.

The preacher bowed his head and paused for a moment before continuing. "You’ll find another man tied up in the dining room. He will tell tales, including a captivating one about how fast word travels in a small town."

"Jayne and the captain," Kaylee gasped. "They didn’t know when they set out to get the job. Just walked right into town. We gotta do somethin’! Could be they’re halfway to dead already!"

---

Mal closed his eyes, leaned back, and sank lower into the tub, the hot water lapping at his earlobes. The peace of the steam-filled bathhouse was broken only by the occasional slosh of water.

"Sometimes I think I’m in the wrong line o’ work," the captain smiled, his eyes still closed, to Jayne in a nearby tub. "Ya know what we shoulda been? Gentlemen o’ leisure."

There was general muttering of agreement from other tubs around the room.

"What’s that mean?" Jayne muttered, soaking up the hot water with a wet cigar between his teeth.

Mal raised one eyebrow and tilted his head toward Jayne.

"Nah, I’m just jokin’," Jayne grinned. "I know what it means. It’s like when you’re sly or somethin’, right?"

The quiet peace settled in again for a few seconds.

"Have to admit, this rock has a kind o’ likeability to it," Jayne said. "Wasn’t lookin’ to find that in a rusticated little spit pot like Braggadocio." Silence returned as Jayne’s brow knotted. "Makes a fella think real hard about things, ya know? About the future. Maybe settlin’ down with the right girl..."

Mal sat up and looked at Jayne. "Exactly how long has it been since you had a bath?"

A boy walked between their tubs, pouring in more hot water. As he bent over Mal there was a short exchange, and the boy turned and left.

"Looks like our business here is done, pleasant though it may be," the captain said to Jayne. "We got a job to do in Kowloon." Mal leaned forward and put his hands on the sides of the tub, then froze. All of the other tubs were now empty. They were alone in the room. "Somethin’ ain’t right here."

A long black coat walked between them, one hand holding a revolver. The figure turned at the foot of the tubs and faced them, the wide brim of a black hat rising to reveal pale skin and ice blue eyes.

"You got something that belongs to me," the man said quietly.

The captain sarcastically looked around the tub. "Don’t see nowhere to hide it," he smiled, trying to conceal a quick glance at Jayne, who was still leaning back in his tub with the cigar dangling from his lips and may very well have been asleep.

"It’s a girl," the man continued. "You’re gonna take me to her. Else I’ll just have to kill you here and find ’er myself. I gotta take her alive, but the bounty on you ain’t too specific."

Mal raised his voice in an attempt to rouse Jayne. "How much am I goin’ for these days, just outta curiosity?"

"A hundred credits."

The captain’s head jerked in disbelief. "A hundred... Hell, I’d turn myself in for that."

The bounty hunter’s mouth tightened, and he cocked the gun. "Are you gonna take me to River Tam? Or do you wanna die here like a dog?"

"As appealin’ as both o’ those sound-" the captain started.

"Sounds like you already made your choice," the man cut him off.

Mal swallowed. "Guess I have at that."

The captain watched as the bounty hunter’s finger tightened on the trigger. An instant later the stillness of the bathhouse was shattered by the crack of a gunshot. The man’s hat flew away in a spray of blood, and he fell lifeless to the wet floor.

Smoke rose from the barrel of the gun Jayne had produced from the water of his bathtub.

"Took ya long enough," Mal said.

Jayne grimaced apologetically, moving the cigar to the corner of his mouth. "Knew once I shot ’im the bath was over."

The two of them rose from their tubs and were starting toward the door when a crowd of townsfolk burst in. Anxious voices blended into a cacophony of chaos. Mal tried to make himself heard over the din, but no one seemed to be listening.

A woman was crying. People kept saying the name "Billy."

"I saw it," a boy said. "It was him. The big one." He pointed at Jayne.

Several people were staring at Jayne’s nether region. Mal was struck by exactly how much Jayne had enjoyed the bath.

A short, stern-faced old man stepped forward. His portly build and thick mustache gave him the look of an angry walrus. "He’ll swing at dawn."

Jayne misunderstood, looking to his own crotch.

"That? It don’t mean..." he stammered. "I mean, it’s nothin’ personal. I ain’t a gentleman o’ leisure or nothin’."

+++

+++

Inara always felt like she was smothering in the fencing uniform, and here she was entombed in it again, struggling to dissect her sparring partner’s defenses through the mask’s grids, her figure engulfed in the traditional head-to-toe protective garb, her arms and legs taut and heavy from endless parry, thrust, feint, thrust and parry.

The smell of sweat and talcum powder made Inara a little dizzy, but she was too busy battling her faceless opponent to ask why she was back in the academy, in the athletics hall, learning again the swift dance of blades. The sweat soaked her hair, making it stick to the sides of her face, and dripped down the back of her knees, but she was too focused to notice. She had to impress the fencing master with the precision of her technique, her feet in the right place always, her back in the proper angle, her blade flicking out rapidly like the tongue of a snake but a controlled movement as if the blade were part of her arm instead of this foreign metal she gripped with aching fingers. Her arms became snakes, and she danced, smiling a smile that was skin-deep.

Mallory Stanton sat on the edge of the bed, sighing, watching Inara’s eyes move frantically under their closed lids. He had given her more of the serum, pushing her to the edge of insanity to pump out more information in the hopes of salvaging this wreck of a job. Billy Evisse, the cro-magnon who planned this hunt for a fugitive woman-child, was shot dead by the Firefly captain’s enforcer. The men who stormed the Firefly, gracelessly he thought, did not report back, and the group who wanted the fugitives didn’t really care if the truth serum fried the brain of this woman, registered companion or not. Mallory freed a few locks of her hair from the stickiness of her flushed, sweaty face and pushed them back above her temple, noticing the tension in her jaw, her cheeks, her lips, wishing he could stop the pain that marred her features.

Mallory always had the cleanest fingernails of anyone he knew, and he noticed details, the cut of a cravat, the crimp of a collar, the hem of a lady’s dress. He also had the inclination to make his pretension of wealth a fact. So he had taken what scraps he could from menial scams and waited for his moment, keeping his fingernails clean, his face unscarred and comely, his light blond hair tamed, short with a bit of curl.

This job of minor espionage in Braggadocio was a gig he thought he could sink his teeth into, except that right now he’d rather sink another part of him into something of hers. Only there wasn’t time, not with everything going to hell. Listening to the woman’s shallow, rapid breaths, he wondered if this was going to be as close as he’d ever get to a companion.

---

"Well, this day’s gettin’ stranger by the moment," Mal said. "Ambushed on the ship and planetside, Jayne gets himself thrown in the pokey, prelude to hangin’ and our secret little fugitives here don’t seem too secret no more."

"Jen dao mei," Simon sputtered, looking across the table at River, whose expression was strangely neutral.

Mal squinted, his hands mussing up his damp hair, as he addressed what was left of the crew in the dining room. The warm glow of the lamp on the dining room table contrasted with the coldness he felt, both from the hasty end to his bath that left him drying slowly in soggy clothes and the feeling the ‘verse had turned against him, more so than usual.

"So much for a simple job on the rim,” Wash snorted, continuing with the game of Solitaire. "So, was the trip across town to jail a come-as-you-are affair, or did they at least let him have his dignity?" He stopped briefly, his eyes glowing with mischief before he continued in a slightly higher pitch. "Oh, right, this is Jayne we’re talking about."

"Sounds like this was a frame-up, sir," Zoe offered, pretending not to have heard Wash. "There’ll probably be a welcoming party at the rendezvous point. Too bad Jayne’s otherwise occupied. We’re gonna miss him in Kowloon."

"Miss him?" Kaylee was wide-eyed, incredulous, as she sat up. "What’s that mean? We’re not gonna just let him swing..."

"Nah, we’ll never fail our dimwit in distress," Wash mused. "We’ll slay the dragon or," he paused, slapping down the jack of diamonds on top of the queen of clubs, "whatever needs slaying, if anything does. Or maybe we can even outthink the dragon."

"Dragons don’t really exist," River commented, twirling a strand of hair with her index finger. "They’re creatures of fable, early Earth-That-Was, used to symbolize the power of nature."

"Now’s not such a good time for an Earth-That-Was history lesson," Mal said, folding his arms over his chest and leaning back in the dining room chair. "What we need’s a plan. Jayne’s supposed to swing at dawn. We’re gonna keep that noose off his neck by hook or crook. And I think we have hook and crook aplenty."

"I can gum up the works," Book ventured, his eyes closed as he plotted a course through potential pitfalls. "We can demand a trial, delay them as long as we can in order to bring the pieces together."

"Good. Pieces together is good. Because things are put-near falling apart." Mal stared down at the table, unseeing, as he mentally put things in place. "Zoe and I’ll go to the job in Kowloon, primed for menace. Simon and River, you’ll go with Book. The people coming after you won’t expect fugitives from the law to be in the house of the law. Dong ma?"

Simon ventured a pained smirk. "Your wisdom leaves me breathless, Captain."

Ignoring Simon’s qualms, Mal zeroed in on his next pieces of the puzzle. "Wash and Kaylee, you two can do some spyin’ from the usual spots, the markets, the saloons - but keep your nose clean and your ear to the ground. Last thing we need is more people in the pokey."

"Ya can’t keep your nose too shiny if your ear’s to the ground, but we’ll try," Kaylee grinned, eager to drink, hear some tall tales and forget some of the chaos the day had brought.

"And Wash, time for Shenanigans," Mal winked.

"Shenanigans ahoy, sir," Wash saluted, rising from his chair. "I’ll warn Inara."

"What exactly ... ?" Simon stammered, looking to Mal.

"I’ll explain Shenanigans later," Book put his hand on Simon’s shoulder. "Right now, we have a man needs defending."

---

A bonnet. Braids. A dress many sizes too big. This is where I hide my River, River smiled as she made her way down to the cell, swaying in the nonexistent breeze. She looked out of the corner of her eye to Simon, who was dressed as much like Book’s twin as possible, a shepherd, hiding under a wig of medium-length, sandy hair, but Simon’s eyes betrayed him as Simon, wild and hunted. Simon always had a problem with the fanciful, the make-believe, not knowing that it is the same kind of craft as sewing people up.

Crafting. Being crafty. Freeing your statuary creation from the block of wood it is now. Even if it is a block you might want to keep unmade. It is a strange thing, River thought, whittling that man, Jayne, out of a death sentence. Especially when he’s so ... firm.

"Gorram it, doc. Would you stop your sister from lookin’ at my stiffy?" Jayne glared at Simon from behind rusty bars. "It ain’t bad enough I got a noose callin’ for my neck. Now I get to be drooled at by folk, including this gal who ain’t seen one this mighty big and up close."

"River, please don’t make the condemned naked man whine," Simon sighed, finding a nice patch of peeling paint to look at, anything to keep his eyes from the spectacle of an angry, nude man called Jayne.

"Well, tell him to stop pointing at me!" River sassed, arms on her hips. "It’s an ugly thing to do. Not polite."

"I ain’t pointin’. It does what it wants without me havin’ a say," Jayne defended, looking down at the accused appendage. "And you better not be calling this here thing of beauty ugly. It’s prettier than you."

Book looked like the lunch he didn’t eat was giving him heartburn. "I know everyone’s feeling a bit… vulnerable. But could we please maintain some decorum?" Book glanced at the brother and sister beside him, trying to regain control of a situation that was sliding into the infantile. "And you two may not want to call each other by name so loudly."

"Right, right," Simon scratched at his faux hair, still keeping his eyes on the wall.

"So what’s the plan? When d’ya bust me outta here?" Jayne hissed, getting his face as close to the bars as he could without them impeding his speech. "First there’s a trial, of sorts," Book offered. "Tomorrow, we have thirty minutes to argue to an angry mob why you should not swing. There’s also a rather odd addendum involving fake mustaches-"

"And if they’s keen to make me swing?" Jayne whispered.

"Then the village herbalist will use your still-warm parts for poultices," River smiled. "After you hang, of course. The blood of the condemned is particularly useful..."

"Tian xiz shou you de ren dou gai si! Why’d ya have to drag Miss Crazybritches along?" Jayne hollered, his face a broiling magenta.

"She’s aiding your defense." Simon bit his lip, trying not to laugh at the absurdity of it all.

If Jayne were capable of foaming at the mouth, he would have been. "For ruttin’ sake, what kind of half-assed thing is this?"

"Don’t worry. We don’t put much stock in a fair trial in these parts." Book spoke softly, emanating calm to combat the worry pouring off of Jayne.

"I sure as hell hope there’s a Bust Jayne Outta the Pokey plan, ‘cause I’m not overthrilled by my prospects," Jayne snarled, grabbing onto the bars on the sides of his face as if he’d like to rip them apart.

His unlikely trio of defenders looked at each other.

"I’m sure we’ll think of something," Simon shrugged.

---

If The Painted Lady Saloon was an actual lady, it would be the kind you don’t take home to mother, or yourself for that matter, Wash surmised as he stepped across one creaking floorboard after another, unless you like your women rode hard and put up wet. And you are also fond of strange rashes on your private parts.

The saloon had a used-up feel about it, from the dirt on the floor, to the cloudy glass of the fluorescent dope lamps to which a couple of vacant-eyed locals were tethered, to the cushioned bar stools whose ripped fabric couldn’t hold in the decomposing fluff that puffed out whenever someone sat down.

The Painted Lady Saloon would be just the right kind of lady for Jayne, Wash smiled as he sat down at the bar, inhaling the pungent dust that drifted on the air.

"Well, this ain’t too shiny. But I guess it beats drinkin’ at home," Kaylee sighed, elbowing up to the bar.

"Don’t get too cosy in here," Wash whispered. "After what happened today, I get the feeling someone wants us all for lunch. And not to share a good meal."

"Gotcha. Ain’t much in the way of cosy goin’ on here yet anyway," Kaylee frowned.

Wash sighed and tried to get comfortable on the lumpy barstool seat. He stared vacantly at the smudged, well-used glasses hanging above the bar that vaguely reminded him of an Alliance science lab. Besides the dual gunbattles that had greeted the crew of the Serenity earlier that day and the mercenaries who somehow knew their big secret, Wash was nursing another worry – the silence from Inara. She hadn’t responded to his wave about Shenanigans: the code word for the booby traps Wash was sometimes asked to set aboard Serenity. He and Kaylee had even waited a bit, long after the others had set out, for a confirmation. Nothing.

Wash figured she didn’t spend the entirety of her appointments on her back and, in fact, usually gave him an idea of when she would rendezvous at Serenity. But he chalked his worry up to paranoia. A registered companion was free from most of the non-amorous schemes of men, he knew, because no one is crazy enough to risk angering The Guild. Inara was likely in the arms of some handsome, rich client, safer than any of the rest of them could ever be.

Strong hands jerked him from his reverie and scooped him up by his shirt. He found himself face to face with a very large woman who was looking him up and down and smiling in a way that wasn’t at all humorous.

"Ain’t you a little cutie, all clean and unbroken. Won’t be for long, though," she growled, tearing his shirt as she pulled him closer. "Cause tonight, you’re all mine."

Yes, Inara’s definitely safer.

+++

+++

Nighttime in the desert always reminded Zoe of Serenity Valley. Rim world deserts were all the same, barren and scarred and merciless. Death always waited in the darkness, waited for her to lower her guard so it could reach out and grab her. So she never did.

Still the wind would bite away at her, pinching her ears and burning her cheeks. Every breath would fill her lungs with ice, with air so cold it wasn’t cold anymore, wasn’t anything but numb. And it would spread through her body until the cold and the numb were all that was left, until she clung to the numbness.

Tonight, Serenity Valley was called Braggadocio.

She cursed under her breath. When Jayne shot down Billy Evisse back in town, he had condemned her and the captain to this long night. They had to keep the ship and shuttle near town just in case. So Zoe and Mal had been on horseback since twilight a few hours ago, and there was still a long ride ahead to the rendezvous with their job contact in Kowloon.

Zoe glanced at the man galloping along to her right. Mal’s lips were tight, eyes straight ahead, just like back in the cargo bay when she had tried to talk him out of going. He said they needed the work, and that was that. But she knew that wasn’t that. Mal’s face had slowly settled into this look while Wash waited in vain for Inara’s reply about the booby traps. Zoe knew that what the captain really hoped to find in Kowloon was answers: whether this was all a setup, who was behind it, and how many people they had to kill to set it right. She didn’t expect Mal’s eyes would budge until all those answers – and Inara – were in plain view.

Not that there was much to see at the moment, not much but desert.

Stars are kinda shiny, though, she thought, looking up. Big open sky just about full to bursting. Lately she found herself noticing the stars a whole a lot more. Seemed to start right around the time she met her husband.

And lately she found the deserts weren’t quite so empty anymore.

Nothing was.

"Hey," Mal called from his horse. "You comin’?"

Zoe, who had fallen behind staring at the sky, sped up again. "Right behind you, sir," she said, thinking she’d like nothing better right now than to throw her husband onto his back.

---

Wash’s back cracked onto the table and bounced, his flailing arms and legs sending half-empty glasses in all directions. His momentum carried him backward, and he rolled off the end, landed on his stomach, and crawled underneath the wobbling wooden legs.

The situation didn’t look much better from this perspective. Glass exploded and tinkled down from the surface of the table around his face. Bodies, chairs, and punches were flying. People were firing guns at nothing in particular.

He blinked, confused. How did this happen? The big woman had less-than-subtly encouraged him to have a few drinks. Not the best beer in the world, but he didn’t remember saying so. And Jayne wasn’t even here. But somehow within a few hours the Painted Lady saloon had degenerated – if that were possible – into an all-out brawl.

The table was thrown away. Three men were staring down at Wash, who was still on all fours.

"Just what d’ya think you’re doin’?" one asked.

Wash looked up and sputtered, pointing at the floor. "Thought I saw some change-"

The men roughly lifted him to his feet. He cringed as one moved toward him, but the man’s hand just slapped him hard on the back.

"Relax, son!" the man grinned. "Ain’t nothin’ but a hangin’ party!" The saloon, which all seemed to have stopped to watch, let out a yell at this. Wash winced as more guns fired into the air.

"Hell, son, I run this whole gorram town," the man continued. "I give my word ain’t nobody gonna get hurt. Well... not too permanent-like anyway," he laughed.

Wash searched his face with confused apprehension. "What exactly does that-"

"Now how ‘bout we cause some pain, ride some whores, shoot stuff up, and have a little fun!" the man bellowed. "What d’ya say?"

"Hooray?" Wash managed.

The saloon exploded into whooping violence again. As he was pulled away, the pilot desperately looked for Kaylee. She was gone.

---

"Ah, this place ain’t so bad," Kaylee smiled in the darkness, taking a swig from the small flask and passing it back through the bars.

"Ain’t so bad?" Jayne yelled in protest. "Damn yokels’re gonna hang me! Maybe it ain’t so bad for you..." He grabbed the flask and took a swig.

"Now, Jayne, ya know that ain’t what I meant," she said. Her forehead wrinkled as her thoughts fought to surface through the warm cloud that had settled over her brain. "S’just... s’just ya gotta see the bright side o’ people." She accepted the flask, then set her chin on her hand and smiled at him. "Sometimes there’s a awful lot t’see. Just gotta know how t’find it s’all."

The mercenary looked away from the smile and leaned back against the wall. The girl always looked so warm, no matter where or when, and for whatever reason that was getting under his skin more now than usual. He shifted uncomfortably under the fuzzy pink blanket Kaylee had brought him. She probably thought it was funny. Yeah, hi-larious, he thought. "Tough to see much bright side when you’re sittin’ in the cold dark waitin’ t’get hung."

When he looked back, she was still smiling. "What?" he demanded.

Her smile broadened. "S’just..." Her mouth did an odd sort of dance as she fought to restrain it, but her shaking back betrayed silent giggles as she fell sideways, an unsteady head coming to rest on the wall. "You been struttin’ around naked as can be all day... and some folk might say... might say ya already hung." At this, she burst into sloppy laughter.

Jayne smiled in spite of himself. "You’re just a little-" She cut him off with a particularly loud guffaw as her head leaned forward onto the bars. "-a little ray o’ sunshine, ain’t ya?" he finished with a grin.

Her laughter melted into weary giggles as she turned and leaned backward against the bars. After a few moments, she fell still.

"Guess you’re right," Jayne said, looking at the blanket. "Things ain’t so bad. Fact is, I was just sayin’ to Mal this place kinda makes ya think about things, ya know? Maybe even... settlin’ down-"

Kaylee’s snore cut him off.

Jayne sat quietly for a few seconds. Then he inched forward and tentatively reached through the bars, his hand brushing past her ear. He reached farther, straining, and his hand returned to the cell with the nearly empty flask.

"Yeah," he muttered, swishing the liquid around. "Things ain’t so bad."

---

"You’d almost think these folks weren’t happy to see us," Mal noted as their horses trotted through Kowloon.

There wasn’t much to be stirred up in this wood-frame settlement, trouble or otherwise. A handful of modest structures formed a lone street. Nevertheless, the few gaslights to be seen were quickly extinguished as the pair rode past each window.

By far the most remarkable thing about Kowloon was the half-built church that also happened to be the rendezvous point. It was a tall building by rim world standards, tall enough that the beams of its unfinished roof slid past the full moon as the two of them approached, throwing picket-fence shadows across their faces. Mal started to get a familiar feeling of uneasiness.

They slid off their horses and made their way to the open arch that beckoned from where the door would eventually stand.

Inside was a vast open space and a dusty floor striped by moonlight and roof beam shadows. Nothing else.

"We’re early," Zoe said, her eyes sweeping the four bare walls. "Maybe you should get some rest while we wait, sir."

Mal raised both eyebrows. "Hi, I’m Malcolm Reynolds," he replied. "Don’t think we’ve met."

---

There was a glint of reality winking at Inara as if from some far distant place. She stretched for it, fighting to open her eyes and pushing away the warm perfection that she knew wasn’t real. She wanted cold truth.

Her eyes opened. She was in Mal’s arms, warm and safe, and she smiled.

No, this wasn’t right. Her face contorted as she pushed him away.

Her eyes opened again, just a sliver this time. This was reality – a bedroom seen sideways and a cold, bitter light. She knew it was real because pain throbbed through her head when she saw it.

Inara’s eyelids fluttered as she searched for more truths. There was a man here before, but not now. He had left a wine glass and a vial of something on a nearby stand. Something inside her told her what she needed to do. You don’t have to understand. Just do it, the voice said.

Perspiration shined on her face, and her brow knotted as she made a mighty effort to break the chains of inertia. Her hand moved a few inches then flopped back down beside her.

It wasn’t enough.

A life-or-death resolve filled her, and she tried again. This time the hand landed on the nightstand. It groped at the air for a moment before fumbling its way to the vial.

Reality began to dim. No, not yet, the voice said. The harsh light returned, and she watched her hand tip the vial toward the wine glass. Light and darkness blinked in and out. She could feel her eyes rolling back in her head.

Her captain embraced her again.

---

Book lifted Simon’s head and rescued the drool-soaked papers underneath. He gingerly lowered the sleeping doctor’s face back to Serenity’s dining room table and watched as the young man swallowed twice before his mouth went slack again. His lips twitched into a smile as his eyes swam underneath the lids.

"It’s Kaylee," said River from the other side of the table. Her cheek was lying on her folded arms, but her eyes were open.

"Excuse me?" Book said.

"You were wondering what he was dreaming about," River explained, her dark eyes fixed on the far wall.

Book’s mouth opened in protest. "I really don’t want to-"

"Right," River cut him off. "I’m pointing. It’s not polite."

The preacher paused in mid-reply, carefully weighing his words, before deciding to let the disturbing subject die altogether.

He returned to Braggadocio’s well-worn and barely legible law records. His finger had slid down yellowed page after page, stopping from time to time at a passage that offered a hint of hope, then shaking his head and continuing. There were few pages left.

"They don’t always mean what you think," said River’s gravelly, sleep-heavy voice.

Book kept reading as she continued.

"Sometimes it’s not manifest, just images… brain electricity shocking reality into whatever it wants. You have to be lucid." Her eyes closed, and her voice was softer. "Have to be lucid."

The preacher’s hand turned another page. Silence settled, heavy and still, as the minutes passed.

Book’s finger stopped. He wordlessly repeated a passage several times.

"Aha!" he exclaimed with a smile.

"Hey!" said the man from the failed raiding party, who was still tied to a chair in the corner. "Do you mind? People are trying to sleep."

---

The captain was leaning against a wall, chin lowered and eyes closed, as a shadow slipped into the church and quickly advanced on him.

Zoe cocked her carbine and put the barrel to the back of the man’s head. The man raised his hands.

"Evening," Mal smiled, abandoning his feigned sleep. "Or is it morning? Either way I’m just sick o’ tryin’ to puzzle things out, so I’m hoping there’s some light to be shed real soon."

"Malcolm Reynolds?" said the man’s shaky voice in careful, unsure English. "I was to meet – um – with a Malcolm Reynolds."

"Sir, I don’t think that’s the sound of a new day dawning," Zoe said, lowering her gun.

Mal’s face tightened again. "You’ve found him," he said to the man.

"I am Kwa," the man said, nervously extending a hand, which the captain shook. "I have heard you will – uh – take job?"

"Depends on the job, but on the whole," Mal nodded.

"There is a man, a bad man, who angers many powerful people," Kwa said. "He likes to be taking things that are not his. This man, this Mallory Stanton, he has man here who helps."

"You mean on Braggadocio?" the captain interjected.

Kwa nodded. "We wish for you to be killing this helping man. Do this and you will be well paid."

"Who..." Mal began.

"His name-" Kwa was speaking slowly, and it was obvious that he had carefully rehearsed the enunciation of these words. "-is Billy Evisse."

The captain smiled. "Huh."

"Guess Jayne was able to help with the job after all," Zoe grinned.

Kwa looked between them, confused. Mal explained, and realization dawned on Kwa’s face. He, too, began to smile. Then he passed the captain a bag full of coins. All three laughed for a while.

Mal turned, fighting back tears of mirth, and walked out the church door with Zoe.

"Okay," he said, catching his breath. "Okay, so we go back and spring Jayne. Then maybe just set him loose on the next town we see," he spluttered as the laughter returned. "Could be there’s a fortune waitin’ to be made."

"Sir, you still need to check on that missing brain."

"Uh, w-wait," Kwa called, running out after them. "I am speaking other words with interest for you."

"Not to kill and run," Mal said, mounting his horse and still laughing, "But one of ours is gettin’ fit for a noose."

"This Mallory Stanton, he takes something from you."

The captain’s laughter began to subside. "And what exactly would that be?"

Kwa struggled with the name. Mal’s features fell in horror as he watched the man's mouth work.

"Inara," the captain breathed.

The man nodded. "He takes her. I am believing you want to take her back? There is much danger and time is soon gone, as will be woman."

The air was suddenly thick with silence. Zoe watched Mal, whose wide eyes stared at nothing.

Kwa looked to each face in turn. "I am to be leaving now in small ship. I can take you to this woman. But Brag-do-sho... small ship is not to be going there."

"Sir," Zoe said to her stone-faced captain. "We ride hard, maybe we make it back by dawn. Maybe we have time for one rescue. One, dong ma?"

The thick silence returned. After several seconds, her horse snorted and shuffled, oblivious to words and anxious to gallop.

"Sir," she pleaded. "I’m sayin’ we have to choose, and fast."

"I already have," the captain replied.

+++

+++

Excited voices bored buzzsawlike into Kaylee’s brain, making her teeth hurt. She wanted to shush them all, but they wouldn’t have listened even if she had the moxie to do so.

The crowd had crammed inside what passed for a courthouse in these parts, although it didn’t look much different from The Painted Lady saloon with its silent decay of creaking boards and dust. There was even the musky scent of alcohol filtered through the pores of a crowd that had been drinking all night. The funk was strangely comforting, and she relaxed a bit in the uncomfortable wooden chair despite the nagging headache that had welcomed her to consciousness on the floor outside of Jayne’s cell.

Earlier that morning, Kaylee had been roused by a nudge and some fecal-smelling breath in her face. "Girl, it’s time for the trial," a tall, wide man with a chesty voice warned her, and she had scampered out of the way so that he and his slightly smaller counterpart could take Jayne.

Even in her dazed state, Kaylee could tell Jayne didn’t need waking. There was a mixture of fear and exhaustion etched in his stony features as he was whisked past, hands bound, her pink blanket wrapped around his waist. For a few minutes, she stared at the spot behind the cell where Jayne once existed and then wandered into this meeting hall. With all the people gathering, it wasn’t too hard to find.

Kaylee looked to the front of the room and found Simon. Dressed as he was, with the black moustache that was wider than his face and was curled into a ringlet at the end, the wig, the shepherd’s blue frock, and a pained expression that reminded her of constipation, it was hard for Kaylee not to laugh. He looked like a cross between a preacher and a villain from an old movie.

Simon sat at a table next to Book, who wore a similar moustache on top of his real one. River was waiting in the first row, posing as a spectator in a dress that could have housed three Rivers. Kaylee scanned the rest of the crowd and found Wash in the left side of the hall, laughing loudly along with a group of more loud men. Kaylee was amazed to see Wash so chummy with this group of strangers. He must have formed some kind of bond over a night of booze, corny jokes, and sad stories.

It was the faces she didn’t see that worried Kaylee – those of the captain and Zoe. After she scanned the crowd good a couple of times with no luck, Kaylee stopped, not wanting to be caught staring at the wrong person. She didn’t want to give anyone a reason for a donnybrook.

Surely they wouldn’t let this mob have their way with Jayne? she frowned. But she remembered that the captain always, without fail, came to the aid of his crew, even when there seemed no hope to be had. And she tried to stop worrying.

With the sudden sound of gong, the two lawmen Kaylee saw earlier escorted Jayne up the aisle of the meeting hall, a hum of whispering voices following in their wake. He had the same grim look she remembered from the jail, her blanket still around his waist.

Jayne was led to a chair at the front of the room and he sat down slowly, his hands between his legs in an effort to keep the blanket, which seemed so small now, over his man parts, but his upper thighs were still open for public viewing. He’d be an awful woman if he can’t even sit down in a chair better than that, she thought. An odd mental image surfaced and brought a quick smile to Kaylee’s face.

"Dear people," a whiskery old man that Kaylee assumed was the chief addressed the crowd from near where Wash was sitting. "We are here today to hear a desperate plea on behalf of the man you see before you, Jayne Cobb, who yesterday in an act of cruelest malice, shot and killed in cold blood and ended the life of Billy Evisse, a fine man, a saint among us, whose life was ended before it truly begun."

The man’s face was getting more and more flushed as he went on, and Kaylee could see the man’s spittle flying onto the crowd as he spoke in a nasally voice.

"Billy leaves behind a grieving widow who worshipped the ground he walked on, who is now forced to walk the lonely path of life alone, with no mate to keep her warm in the cold, cold night. She will nevermore see the smiling face of the man she cherished above all others. And now, you two shepherds, tell us why we should spare the life of this man who has brought violence and untimely death to our fair town?" The man was nearly screaming as he ended this speech, and the crowd erupted in applause and cheers when he stopped.

What godawful racket, Kaylee thought as she gnashed her teeth.

Book stood at the table, looking as solemn as he could with the double moustaches, and waited for five minutes for the fervor to die down before he began the defense of Jayne. "Dear citizens, we hope you will not allow this man, Jayne Cobb, to be slain for saving a life. In your chronicles, it states this very plainly: A man’s life is not forfeit if he preserves the life of the man who hired him. Billy Evisse was seeking the life of the ship’s captain, and Jayne Cobb killed the man who threatened his boss. Our eyewitness, born here in Braggadocio and well known for his honesty, saw Evisse threaten the ship’s captain with a gun. Evisse had the gun prepared to fire when Jayne Cobb responded with deadly force."

Book paused, and the crowd’s mutterings doubled. After a few seconds of this, the chief whistled loudly, and the sound rattled around in Kaylee’s brain for a few seconds. The onlookers quieted, though.

"Well," the chief remarked, "it looks as if it’s a open-and-shut case. Folks, what do you think?"

An old lady, looking refined in her Sunday bonnet, stood up, and her voice rang loud and clear through the meeting hall.

"Hang ‘em anyway!" she shrieked, and a roar of voices echoed their agreement. Kaylee didn’t know what hurt more, the pounding of all these hateful shouts in her brain or Jayne looking like someone hit him in the gut as he listened to the howl of the jackals calling for his hide.

"Send ‘em to the gallows!" the chief hollered and pointed at Jayne, and the din rose even more. Kaylee saw that Simon was yelling and gesturing, but no one paid him any mind as Jayne was dragged from the room.

Then Kaylee’s eyes caught an even-more shocking sight – Wash, who, along with the group of men around him, was whooping, dancing and singing a hanging song: "Hang ‘em high, lay ‘em low. Let the devil have his soul. Let the eyes pop out o’ his head. Hang ‘em ‘til he’s dead dead dead!"

Kaylee, who was gazing agog at this barbaric dance of death, didn’t register the quiet approach of River until she was right next to her, and her sudden appearance jolted Kaylee.

"Shh. Don’t fret. It’s undercover time. Listen," River whispered in Kaylee’s ear, and the look of wide-eyed shock turned into a conspiratorial grin.

---

A lump lay under a silk sheet in the ornate bed, twisting and groaning in some unseen struggle, unaware of the man who had entered the room and who was now watching with disgust.

A large hand grabbed the sheet and threw it away, revealing a sweat-soaked Mallory Stanton, whose thrashing form had left his drenched clothes twisted at odd angles around his body. The hand seized his expensive shirt by the collar and jerked him to a sitting position. An instant later, a fist smashed into his face, sending his head bobbing on a loose neck.

It was only then that Malcolm Reynolds realized the man was alone in the bed. That the wet face was smiling strangely as it lolled about with a lip split by Mal’s punch. That his eyes were rolling back into his head. And that an outraged Inara had appeared in the doorway behind him.

"What are you doing?" Inara demanded with a familiar look of disbelief.

Mal quickly dropped Inara’s client, who collapsed to the floor with a thunk.

"I was... I mean, he-" Mal stammered. He stopped and pointed at Inara in frustration. "But you needed rescuin’!"

"Of course I did," Inara smiled sarcastically. "Please save me from the rich, handsome stranger."

"He was tryin’ to... How did you-" The captain seemed unable to finish a thought, his gaze dancing from Inara to the sleeping figure at his feet. "He’s... bad," he stammered awkwardly.

"Oh?" Inara raised her eyebrows. "And how’s your latest crime going?"

Mal fumbled for a response but found none, so the companion continued with a sigh. "It’s a simple thing to turn the tables on your opponent once you know his weakness. This one happens to be very fond of his wine. I’ve also found him quite forthcoming and a lot more... agreeable when under the influence of his own serum," Inara smiled. "Of course, I don’t believe he’ll remember much about the past few days once we’re done."

She watched as Mal staggered slightly, his omnipresent façade collapsing into relief.

The next few moments seemed to happen in slow motion and yet end in a heartbeat. She was suddenly in his arms, his lips on her hair. "I thought..." he breathed, his whisper thick with emotion. Inara’s eyes closed as his hands clenched desperately at her back. Her mouth brushed his suspenders and she felt her knees buckle, but he held her upright.

The neverending dance of feint-thrust-parry was over at last, and her suffocating mask had fallen away. She blissfully embraced defeat.

With a sudden, decisive shove, he pushed her to arms length and turned away, gathering himself.

Inara was an open wound now without him, cut in half. She had to be back in his arms. "Mal," she started softly, reaching toward his back.

"Had some help gettin’ in," he croaked over his shoulder. "I’ll wait outside, make sure things’re squared away. A lotta squarin’ t’do." He paused and chuckled, shaking his head. "Shoulda figured you wouldn’t let a man get the better of you, bein’ a... professional and all."

"Never," she exhaled from an aching chest as he disappeared through the doorway. And she again raised her guard over the fresh wounds.

---

So it’s come to this. All these strange folk glaring at me, pitchforks at the ready, waitin’ for me to swing, Jayne thought as he shivered on the gallows, the pink blanket hiding his loins, his lips in a hard, stern line. His blue eyes blazed as emotions boiled inside him, and it was hard for him to keep them from gushing out. Ain’t dignified to weep, even at your own untimely demise, Jayne kept reminding himself.

Despair had a hold, but anger was tearing at Jayne’s insides as well, and it made him grimace as he wondered where in the blue blazes was his glorious rescue. He only saved the guy’s life; it would be the right and proper thing for Mal to pay him back. That’s what folks are supposed to do. But here he stood at the gallows, and here Mal wasn’t. Ching-wah tsao duh liou mahng. Last time I watch his ruttin’ back, Jayne thought.

"Sir, it is customary in these parts for the condemned man to have some last words," the chief man hollered from the crowd, and who was next to him but that damn weasel Wash. What the hell’s he doing aiding and abetting the enemy like that? Jayne wondered, and all his hopes for rescue were dashed at seeing Wash so gleeful in that bunch. Always so high and mighty with his technical knowledge and such. He can go gun-hoe-tze-bee-dio-se with the rest of’em, Jayne sneered.

"Well, I ain’t never been one for the speechifying or all the technical stuff some folks seem to love so much." Jayne’s eyes bore holes in Wash’s hide for a bit before he proceeded with his last words. "But one thing I learned in life, you gotta have family. Whether your family’s just your friends, some strangers you took a likin’ to or your blood-kin, you gotta beholden yourself to those bonds and not just throw ‘em out like... yesterday’s cheese whenever things get too, uh, smelly." A few people nodded. Someone coughed.

"Some’d just as soon throw you to the wolves as look at you. Maybe..." Jayne looked to his feet for a moment before raising his eyes again. "Maybe the money’s too good and they get stupid. Or maybe they’re just idgits who think they’re so much better than you just ‘cause they know how to flip a few switches." Jayne shouted this last part, glaring at Wash, who was too busy telling the chief a funny story to pay his words any mind.

"And you know, I got my regrets. And I... regret those things." He continued in a rush before his thoughts could get in the way. "Like takin’ people for granted. I wish I’d got the gumption to say the things I had in mind, to find that right girl and settle down, sire a few young’uns." Jayne paused to scan the faces but didn’t see Kaylee’s cherubic cheeks among them. Wouldn’t be right for her to be seein’ this no way, he thought.

"But all that time’s gone now." His eyes found his feet again. "My mother, when I was a whelp, she used to let me suckle at her breast, and I used to bite her sometimes and draw blood. But she let me eat my fill just the same, despite how it hurt. But now I’m hurtin’ her worse than I ever could back then, hurtin’ her right to the bone," Jayne’s voice cracked at this thought. "I done gone and shamed her by getting myself hung."

He paused for a moment to try to stem the tide of tears that threatened to overrun, then raised his chin to the crowd. "I want ya to know I don’t blame any of ya for all this. Hell, if I were you, I’da hung me too. But I blame other people, other people what stood by, put the job before anything else and let a man swing. A man who thought of’em as family."

Jayne stopped and peered at the quiet crowd through his bleary eyes, noticing that some of the women were blubbering. Damn, didn’t know I was so good at speechifying, he mused. Maybe those words would move the crowd to let him live.

"Okay, hangman, prepare the noose," the chief cried, and Wash, standing at the chief’s shoulder, hooted with appreciation, shattering the solemn mood Jayne’s words had created. Nope, guess not, Jayne exhaled as the short, slight frame of the hangman approached, dressed in a black shroud that was much too long, his head covered with a black hood.

Despite his pending demise, Jayne noticed that even Simon, standing in the front row, looked spooked, his lips forming a little circle, his eyes glazed over. Kinda touchin’ that the ol’ doc would get bent outta shape like that. But then he noticed another detail that explained it all. Simon’s pained demeanor might be on account of him being in an intimate situation and not knowing what to do with girls, Jayne realized as he saw a woman dressed in a standard mourner’s black gown tucking herself into Simon’s side. Her lips closed in on Simon’s ear, like she was trying to fill it with sweet nothings. Or her tongue. Doc gets the girl and I get the noose, Jayne frowned.

"Don’t worry. It’ll all be over soon," the hangman whispered to Jayne, looping the noose around his neck, and the familiarity of the feminine voice coming from such a frightful visage puzzled him. The confusion jumbled his lips and widened his eyes, and he still looked quite out of sorts as the drumroll started slowly, built speed and loudness and then stopped. The hangman pulled the lever, and Jayne fell through the trapdoor.

He landed with a thud on the sandy ground, surprised to see Kaylee standing over him, her knife eating at the ropes binding his hands before he had time to say a word. Then suddenly, as his wrists became free, he realized what had just happened and he started trembling. His glorious rescue had come in the lovely form of Kaylee, and before he could think, he plucked her up from the ground, wrapped his arms around her and placed his eager lips over hers for a quick, hard kiss. He held onto her for a while, eyes closed, lost in her warmth as he waited for his shaking to stop.

"Um, Jayne..." choked the girl whose limp body he had in a death grip. "...As nice as this all is, we got a angry mob wonderin’ why you ain’t a hanging-up corpse," Kaylee hissed, and it was only then that he heeded the shouts and screams from the crowd.

Jayne let Kaylee go and peeked outside to see the ruckus. What he saw drew a full-toothed grin out of him, for there was Zoe, her gun placed on the chief’s temple, with Wash at her side, looking proud as a peacock for having pulled off his part of the plan – buddying up to the town’s leader and keeping him close at hand for just this moment. Zoe moved herself and her captive to the front of the crowd.

"I think you need to rethink your death sentence, old man," Zoe shouted, Wash cheering alongside her. The chief was dumbstruck, face flushed at being so close to a woman under such awkward circumstances, but he managed to sputter, "Actually, you’re right. It was a clear-cut case of him defending his boss. You all can have your man."

"One other thing. Have your people drop their weapons. A lynching could be the end of you." Zoe glared at the man, and he knew by the way she wielded him and the way she was able to get the jump on him so quickly that she was a professional with whom he should not quarrel.

He quickly agreed. "You all, leave your pitchforks in a pile. Now ain’t the time for all that. Jayne Cobb’s a free man." The crowd grudgingly complied, filling the air with the sounds of clanging metal and muttering.

The hangman approached Jayne and Kaylee under the scaffold, and Jayne tensed up in anticipation of a brawl until Kaylee touched his shoulder and muttered, "Ease down there. We’re among friends. How d’ya think you were able to get outta swingin’?"

"So, you talked the hangman into jinxing the works?" Jayne smirked at Kaylee.

"No, silly. You get all stuck on appearances," River remarked in her gentle voice. "That’s why you point. That’s how the other hangman came undone. And that’s how I was able to undo things."

Jayne’s eyebrows did a shuffle on his forehead as he tried to puzzle out River’s words.

"No time for thinking," River said as the mule slid to a halt nearby with Book behind the wheel. "Preacher’s delivering us from evil."

---

Wash’s back hit his bed and bounced.

He smiled up at his wife, who had provided the push. "You make a good point," he conceded. "But I still have to disarm all the-"

"Oh, you’re not going anywhere," she said, moving forward with a predatory glare. "Ain’t nothing out there that can’t wait. We already broke atmo."

"Well... I didn’t actually see-"

She straddled him and put a finger to his lips. "Don’t worry, little man. I am gonna make you see stars."

Her finger moved, and Wash grinned.

"Hooray."

---

The cargo bay slid open, its emptiness giving way to the echo of loud voices.

"-who’s the one that got herself kidnapped in the first place?" Mal was saying as he marched onto his ship with an agitated Inara close behind.

"I’m not helpless, no matter how desperately you want to believe otherwise," she shot back. "How would you feel if I came barging in on you every time a deal went wrong? I mean, aside from that quickly becoming a full-time job..."

"The very first time one of’em seeks companion-ing outta me, you have my full permission t’intervene."

"It all comes back to that, doesn’t it?"

He stopped near the stairs and turned. "If by ‘that,’ you mean-"

She brushed passed and her foot touched the first step of the stairs, breaking a thin string. With a whir of rope, the two were engulfed by a cargo net and scooped off their feet. Mal’s face was pressed awkwardly into her side as the tangled pair shot into the air. After a few seconds they came to a stop, dangling high over the bay.

Inara fought to spit out the rope as the thick grid pressed against her face. "Shenanigans?" she managed.

"Didn’t mention that, did I?" Mal slurred around Inara’s skin.

They struggled fruitlessly for a brief time before falling still. Long moments passed in silence.

"Mal?"

"Yeah?"

"Thanks. For rushing to my rescue."

"Don’t mention it."

The rope suspending them off the ground creaked as they swung in their twine prison. The cargo bay was quiet again.

"Mal?"

"Yeah?"

"Can you… move your hand?"

The captain gave a strained grunt, and there was a jolt of sensation through an area that Inara had been trying to ignore. She swallowed a sound of pleasure before it escaped her throat.

"No," he said, his body going limp again.

"I see."

They whiled away the minutes, avoiding each other’s eyes and both working hard to appear uncomfortable. Eventually Mal spotted Jayne standing in the cargo bay below them with a drink.

"Jayne!" Mal called.

"Cap’n," Jayne replied casually.

"Could use a hand," the captain said. "You see us hangin’ here."

"Yep," he said.

Another few seconds passed in silence. "Could ya get us down?"

"Yes. Yes, I could," Jayne said, sitting down on a step and sipping his drink with a smile. "Had a talk with Zoe. Thought this might be a good time to discuss my cut."

---

"Cap’n an’ Inara can’t make it down for chow," Jayne said, brushing his way around the table. "Said I could have their share."

"It’s good they’re back at least," Kaylee smiled. "Serenity don’t feel right when some of us ain’t here."

Simon smiled at this from his seat next to her. Jayne, who hadn't spoken to her since getting back to the ship, didn’t look up from shoveling down food.

"I agree, young lady," Book said. "Even the food tastes better." He nodded pointedly toward the far end of the table. "And how is dinner, River?"

"Hasn’t started yet," she replied, staring intently at the man next to her from the failed raiding party.

"What?" the man demanded, catching her look. "I done told ya everything I know, I swear. Don’t nobody else know who ya are."

"It’s okay, son," the preacher smiled, his finger absentmindedly tracing the vial of serum in his pocket. "Just enjoy your meal."

Kaylee picked halfheartedly at her plate, thinking about how loud things can get when they’re unsaid. So she spoke quietly. "Ever feel kinda out o’ sorts but don’t know why? Like ya got every reason t’be happy, but you’re... not?"

Jayne kept eating. Book and River kept watching the prisoner.

"Actually, yes, I do feel that way," Simon said. "Except I think I know why, and I’m pretty sure it has something to do with that wig." His hands scratched furiously at his hair.

"Oh, poor thing," Kaylee said, reaching across the table to extract a few remnants of sandy hair.

"The glass is half empty," River blurted out, still staring at the prisoner, who was now smiling back strangely.

"I don’t think the mustache was half bad, y’know?" Kaylee grinned, still picking away wig hairs.

"You did once profess a fondness for such a thing," the preacher said, smiling warmly at Simon. "Could it be that being a traditional criminal mastermind is not all you hoped it would be?"

"I just think they need to update the look," Simon winced, still scratching. "Something with a little less hair."

"Widow wasn’t complainin’," Jayne chimed in without looking up from his plate. "My guess is," he continued, swallowing a bite and pointing with his chopsticks, "that itch she left him with ain’t from the wig. It’s from his-"

"Jayne!" Kaylee snapped, her face flushed with anger and embarrassment.

"Oh, like you didn’t see it," he said, returning to his meal. "Don’t know why you’d get all cozy and play like ya didn’t. Unless maybe you’re itchin’ too."

Kaylee’s fork hit her plate, and she rose resolutely. Jayne looked genuinely shocked when she grabbed Simon by the arm and led him out of the room, muttering something about him learning to eat with his mouth closed.

"Wha’d I say?" Jayne asked Book and River, both of whom were looking at the prisoner.

The prisoner was smiling widely at the whole scene, his eyes occasionally rolling up. "Mind if I lay down?" the man asked.

"No, go right ahead," the preacher replied.

"Thanks." His face fell forward into his food.

Clunk.

"Dinner’s done," River announced.

---

Mallory Stanton had been left with the odd feeling that something was amiss, that he had forgotten something very important. Such a feeling ate at him more than it would another man. For a reason he could not explain, he found himself tying that frustration to the companion he had recently hired. He suspected that he had somehow been tricked, and he had made a resolution to be more careful with his trust.

The two men who were in his parlor now, though, they were trustworthy. Like-minded. He would feel perfectly comfortable telling them every secret he had ever known, though he couldn’t say exactly why.

"We don’t care about that," one was saying. "We just want to know about this girl." He pointed a blue glove at a picture.

A glint of a memory taunted Mallory and then danced away. There was a high-pitched noise coming from something one of the men was holding.

"I don’t know," Mallory shook his head. "I don’t know anything."

The tall one with the unblinking eyes stared right through him. "No. You don’t."

Mallory felt something warm and wet trickling from his nose.

+++++

END

+++++

Written collaboratively with smithandwesson. Thank you from both of us to everyone who reads.

COMMENTS

Saturday, December 17, 2005 3:28 AM

BOOKADDICT


Loved it the first time and loved again on the second reading. I really enjoyed Jayne's speech!

Saturday, December 17, 2005 8:42 AM

SMITHANDWESSON


Funny thing, I got the first germ of an idea for this fic while giving my son a bath. He has a plastic tub which kind of reminds me of the tubs seen in Westerns such as "Once Upon a Time in the West" and other Westerns that I don't remember right now. And I thought, we need a bath house scene.

And then I thought of other Western settings and remember "Cat Ballou" and the almost-hanging.

Oh no, I have the "Cat Ballou" theme song in my head now.


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The snow turns into Rayne, and Jayne has a bad case of the munchies. A little throwaway vignette that wouldn't shut up.

Deja Vu Ain't What It Used To Be (part 4, finale/epilogue)
The upside of memory loss. Final part in an episode-style story set during Firefly. Link to part one inside.

Deja Vu Ain't What It Used To Be (part 3)
Slow dances and surprises. Third in a four-part episode-style story set during Firefly.

Deja Vu Ain't What It Used To Be (part 2)
The pieces start to come together. Second of a four-part episode-style story set during Firefly.

Deja Vu Ain't What It Used To Be (part 1)
A routine delivery on a central planet turns out to be not so routine. Intended as an episode-style, four-part story set during Firefly.