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Stroke of Luck

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It's raining the first time Jayne sees him, and he figures that helps some. The ground gets all sticky in the wet, a slick layer of black like liquid tar, the water in the air weighing down the black dust that he's got into a habit of not even noticing, until times like this bring his attention to it.

Anyway, he figures that if it weren't raining, the air would be too thick with the dust to see that far. It's in the shadow somewhat, the light made dark like the air beneath the metal overhang, sheltering him from the wet some but not enough to stop the fall making the skin filthier. Not that Jayne can even tell that it's a he when he first catches sight. It's only when he gets within a few strides that he realises it's a body.

His sense of unease increases as turns it over some from where it's half-crumpled against the side of a dark-smudged, tech-looking crate, nudging at the shoulder with the toe of his boot until it's facing upwards and Jayne can see the fancy clothes on it; once-white shirt now some red and mostly black, sodden black vest and jacket. Too fancy for this settlement at any rate, even within throwing distance of the landing dock, which ain't ever really used anyhow, only when the land trains go out of action and they need to transport the cargo some other way.

Fat drops of water collect at the top of the scarred metal forming the overhang, falling rapid and engorged to land on the back of Jayne's neck, reaching in beneath his collar where he's leaning in. He cusses a little under his breath, shuffles closer, and then feels the heavy collection of water collect on his own eyebrows, not brushing them away fast enough to stop them getting weighty enough to fall, stretching elastic and blurred right in front of his eye before breaking, falling; and the splash of water on the body's face make the eyelids flicker.

Not dead, then. Out, though, and from the way the edges of the gash running down his temple are darker red, like it's dried up before getting all wet again, and the darker bruising on the skin around it --maybe had been for a while. Maybe not waking up again. It gets real hot on Boros but when it rains it brings the chill in, clouds thickening the atmosphere, pulling in from off the lakes, some distance away and with wind fierce enough to drive them this far. It's settling down now, though. Rain's stilling. Been out here for a while, in the cold. It'll still be a while before the clouds clear.

Jayne glances around before wiping the flat side of his hand over the display on the crate; it's dull even once the thin layer of dust is off it. He presses some of the buttons experimentally, but nothing lights up, so he glances around for something--There. A steel bar the length of his forearm, with a ragged end and some leverage to it; he makes certain to look around once more to make sure he's alone before angling his body to hide the movement of his arms from anyone who'd happen upon him right now. Not that the likelihood of that's very high; he knows this area, knows the dead ground ain't use for more than dumping scrap and hiding out sometimes, and besides, the syrupy coating of black underfoot is thinning out, water running a little faster, rushing over the toe of his boots.

Later on he figures it's luck that the kid grabs the arm that Jayne's doing the levering with, his free hand feeling for the seam on the crate for him to push the jagged edge of the bar into. Because his first reaction to the sudden surge of violent movement towards him is to strike out in defence, an automatic response that would have caused a certain degree of more damage were it his bar-holding hand that were free to move. It ends before Jayne's even had a chance to think about it, his knuckles streaked with red as well as grimy rain, smarting, and the body in a different position, now, body slumped and shoulders flush against the pocked-metal wall.

Huh. He shakes the kid's shoulder a little, then is well and truly convinced that he's really out this time when he starts to make little choking sounds, so Jayne tips his head forward and smears his fingers through the black sludge over the kid's nose and mouth til he's breathing clearer again. He don't waste no time finding some way to lever open the crate after that, urged on by a curiosity, anticipation, even some kind of hope that he don't examine too close before he gets distracted by the discovery of some levers set into the side of the crate. They're beat up some, all bent and twisted like someone's been there before him, but he hauls on them anyhow until the seal on it breaks in a flat hissing sound.

The sound don't last as long as it ought, maybe, because it seems for all the futility in the twisted levers that the seal's been broken already. He's covering his nose and mouth with his sleeve before he's even aware of the move as a reaction to the smell. The kid must have been there for a while, because the girl certainly has, features still recognisable, still looking like she's just sleeping but for the colouring that makes it clear she ain't been alive for some time now; or at least a little time, probably still in the heat, before the rain came. The inside surfaces of the crate - all molded to fit 'round her curled up body -- are sweating with condensation, and there are grills towards the top of the sides of them that are all caked black, a familiar sight. Dust got into the ventilation some, then. Clogged it all up. And for ventilation to be needed at all must mean she was alive when they'd put her in there. And who'd tried to get her out before now?

He hauls the lid back, kicks at the levers with the soles of his boots until they creak back into place, then crouches down in the mud to peer at the boy again.

*

It's been long years since they started digging in deep enough that the dust settled in good and proper; been a long time since there's been birds and such around for Jayne to bring in foundlings of. There'd been a few stay dogs that wandered off when he stopped having scraps to feed them, and some of them hollow-chested, mangy hybrid-cats that had bred amongst themselves, the black caked all around their eyes and nostrils until Jayne wiped it away. His Ma don't bat an eyelid, though, just holds the door open for him when she sees Jayne's arms otherwise occupied, closes and locks it behind him, goes off to haul out the crates of linen she keeps beneath her bed.

Maddy's room's been empty nigh on twelve years now, and Jayne's been thinking on it for long enough now that there ain't so much more than a twinge when he clears the bed of the few sundries that have made their way on there -- mostly his -- and places them on top of the piles of boxes stacked 'round the walls that make the room somewhat smaller. The bed's still made up, not dusty so much as just a little off-colour in the worn blankets, but the boy looks filthy against them, the yellow light in the room bringing out the charred purple of the bruise, the dark blood on his face. His clothes are sodden, black on top of black with the grimy sludge of the dust-mud, his skin all white underneath when Jayne manages to peel them off. Almost blue, with a lacework of veins beneath the thin grime of dust that makes its way everywhere, in this settlement. When Jayne turns around again his Ma's standing in the doorway, arms full of blankets.

When the boy's warmed up some, the gash on his face starts the sluggish bleeding again, and predictably he wakes up just as Jayne's trying to clean it up, tape it closed. Jayne supposes he also ought to have predicted that he were gonna try fighting again, but there weren't really more he could do to prepare for it this time except be paying attention and not distracted by something else. He don't need to strike out this time; the boy's thrashing, but weak, and Jayne manages easily to stop any of the clenched fists reaching their intended targets, at least up until the boy sinks teeth into the tender inside of Jayne's forearm.

He's cussing something fierce and getting ready to still the boy with his fist again when the body abruptly stills, but for the heaving of his chest as he struggles for breath. Jayne looks to him for a moment longer, trying to still his own breathing but it being a bit hard with the throb of his arm, and the sight of the blood smeared all over the flattened pillow that he's seen bare and clean for so many years.

"Gorram it, boy," he says at length. "I was only tryin' to help," before he gives his arm one last shake and turns to see where the boy's staring so fiercely. Jayne's Ma's standing in the doorway, or just inside the doorway, and that's enough to make Jayne's breath catch for just an instant. She were a formidable woman, once upon a time, and there's still parts of that in her that shine out some moments, make her impossible to shove aside, or even just downright ignore. She takes another step, and her hand rests on the boy's ankle where his foot's flung the blanket off.

"There," she says, and steps again, then sits on the edge of the bed. "There. Jayne," her voice is pointed, and he don't need telling twice; fetching the dressings and tape from where they'd dropped to the floor. The boy don't move much as Jayne takes up his task again, but his whole body's thrumming with tension.

"Where--" the boy's voice is hoarse, and Jayne pauses, watching his eyes dart to the door then back onto Ma's face again. "Where is she?" Jayne hears the way the words curl round and back on themselves in the boys mouth. Fancy way of talking, to go with them fancy clothes. The boy's eyes shift to his, and narrow, as best they can still all vague and tense, like he can't focus good.

"Where's who?" Jayne says gruffly, then continues when the boy don't speak up again. "Weren't no one but you."

The boy don't speak again, but blinks once, slowly; and then, as if the movement's sticky, his eyelids are drawn back down again, sinking slow. "What's your name, boy?" His Ma's voice ain't hoarse, is low but strong, compelling the eyes to open again. He seems to have even more difficulty focusing this time, and his gaze drags slowly over Jayne's face to fix on hers again.

"Simon," he says, voice gummy.

"Simon…?" Jayne leaves the question unasked, voice gruff, and the boy blinks again, Jayne seeing a flash of something that don't look a lot like vague sleepiness, but looks somewhat like complete awareness. Just a glimpse, though, and then it's gone.

"Just Simon," the kid mumbles, and then his eyes are closed.

*

While the ground's still running quick and black Jayne backtracks along the familiar path, leaving no footsteps. It's getting dark real quick but the light of the stars and Boros's two moons leave reflections on all the wet surfaces, so he can see just fine. Was always able to move fast and quiet anyhow, and find his way true. The crate's still where he left it, still streaked grey, and he hunts around a bit until he finds enough rusted sheets of metal and discarded bits of plastic to set around it til it looks like it's been there for a while anyhow. The rain's washed away any other traces he and the boy have left; a steady stream water clinging to the inverted angle of the overhang makes it glimmer in the light, and the ground is all anonymous slush.

When he gets back his Ma is sitting at the kitchen table, elbow resting up on it, hand over her mouth. She just looks at him.

*

It's not even a week later when Jayne's coming up out of the dark toward the end of the day, and walking past the sheriff's office sees something on the data projector that makes him stop, walk back past again as if he's forgotten something.

He thinks on it. When he gets home his Ma's sitting on the edge of Maddy's bed again, and Simon's folded up in the far corner of it, as he always seems to be. There's something different; the gash tracing down the side of his face is uncovered, has tiny black stitches with little white tabs crisscrossing it.

"Someone been here?" Jayne says, knowing he sounds angry, and not giving a rutting damn, especially after what he's just seen. Simon just looks up at him, not moving, not speaking.

"He did it hisself," Ma says, and the look she gives Jayne is a little different to the ones she's been treating him to lately.

"And where'd you get the stuff for it?" he braces a hand on either side of the doorframe, not letting his tone relent. Not that she's ever been intimidated by that kinda posturing.

"I bought it," Simon says, his voice still all at odds with the soft, worn shapes of the room, like he ain't been using it enough for it to get used to him. He ain't looking at Jayne's Ma, just straight up and into Jayne's eyes, his own jaw clenched.

"My ass you did," Jayne says, knowing full well the value of what the kid had on him when Jayne found him, that value being zero.

"Jayne," Ma says, "it were my decision." And that's that.

*

Jayne never were a man of god, never did put any stock in omens and portents or any of that go se that some of the other folk who spent their days outta the sunlight liked to believe. He don't think it's a sign when a week after that there's murmurs of the trains getting waylaid on their way to Bathou, and then an official announcement telling them that they'd be hauling rocks to the rarely-used landing docks instead today, to transport by air.

It ain't that hard to contrive a reason to get aboard one o'them boats with the cargo, ain't that hard to skip out of being aboard for its return run. The city's crawling with Alliance, and Jayne's used to tracking more out on the dirt roads and quarries, but it ain't too hard to trace the uniforms back to their hive. The data projector out the front makes him pause only for a moment, and he takes a breath before stepping inside.

He ain't stupid, but he weren't ever the quickest mind in the family either. Mostly he just needs time to think on things, work out in his own head the way of things, and how he can make them get where they need to be. When he mentions the notice outside, they make him wait before a more fancier-uniformed officer comes out and leads him down a hallway.

"Uh," he says as they step through a security field. He weren't expecting that so soon, but that ain't to say he hasn't practiced this. "Before we start, sir… See the thing is, I ain't out for my visit here to be recorded." The officer raises an eyebrow, but don't look too suspicious, so Jayne takes that as encouragement. He mentions a name, a corporation he knows Alliance don't deal too well with since back before the war, and that seems to help his cause some. "Were just passing through, you see. Picking up work where I could." The other man nods. "They don't take too kindly to them who break their contract, but then, they don't take too kindly to free folk much at all."

"I see," The officer says at last, and they're paused in the hallway now, speaking in lowered tones. "And the girl…? You mentioned--"

Jayne nods hastily. "I skipped out back at the settlement, see," he says. "The mining settlement a few clicks north of here. There's a junkyard, near the landing docks… That's where I found it."

"A cryo-crate."

Jayne nods again. "All broken up. And I figure," he leans forward a little conspiratorially. "I figure, maybe there's some coin in this. It don't look like scrap. Maybe some cargo's gonna help me get outta this hole."

There's a stretched-out moment, and then the Alliance man smiles. "Maybe you were right."

Jayne waits outside while they send off a shuttle to check out his story, and it don't take more than an hour but feels like much, much longer. His gut hurts, all empty and twisted-like, and it lurches when the officer he'd been speaking to steps out onto the street and across the bustling street to where he's standing. He's carrying something, and Jayne tenses up before he can see that it's a small, cloth pouch, stuffed full of something that looks mighty like coin.

"Thank you, sir," he says, genuinely grateful. "Might I be assured that there ain't no record of my being here?"

The Alliance fellow gives that odd, slow smile again. "Don't know you," he says. "Never have."

Jayne spends some of the coin on lodgings in the city, for two more nights before making a show of heading towards the off-planet docks. Once in, he finds a quiet way out under the cover of night, and clambers into the cargo hold of a train heading northward.

*

It's just verging on dawn when he opens the front door and finds the boy there, standing at that place where the rug from the hall ends and the dusty wood floor bordering the kitchen starts. The thought and the sight of him are enough each in their own to pull Jayne up sharp; the gash on Simon's face has closed up to a long, angry, red streak, now, and it brackets the fierce clench of his jaw, the still tension around his eyes. Not boy, not kid; standing there with his off-white, clean and dry shirt and black trousers pressed, sitting a little crumpled over the polish of his shoes, hanging a little low with no belt.

Jayne grunts acknowledgement and shuts the door behind him, but Simon don't move. Jayne glances up and down him again, making it obvious. "Leavin'?" he asks gruffly, and Simon just tips his head back a little. Jayne takes another step in, sees Simon not startle, but a ripple of tension ratchet up the tautness of his limbs. Simon opens his mouth as if to speak, even takes a breath, but when nothing comes out, Jayne just keeps on walking, turning to head toward the kitchen.

There's a piece of paper on the table, rare as it is in this house; looks to be a torn-off can label, all covered in neat blue writing. He glances at it as he passes. "Ma sleepin', then?" he asks, nonchalant, not turning back around to face Simon as he rifles through a draw.

"Yes." Just a single word, voice clear but self-consciously quiet.

Jayne shakes his head a little, as if in regret. "I'm sure she'd mighty prefer it if you said your goodbyes in person." He finds what he were looking for, turns around again. Simon's still standing there, same place, just turned a little to face Jayne more full-on. His expression's unreadable. "In fact, I recall she has a right lack of fondness for them who slip out in the night with nary a word."

Simon's fists are clenched by his sides, but he's still not moving, still not leaving, so Jayne makes a decision. It takes him a while to think on things, and he figures he's been thinking on how to work this the whole train ride back home, even if it ain't been at the front of his mind -- just slowly growing on up to this point, where he can look back and realise where it came from, that it's the right thing to do. If you can't do something smart, do something right, he figures, and he takes a couple of strides round the table closer to Simon before dropping to the floor.

The knife's blade is thick, sturdy, and just the right width to slide in between the floorboards without Jayne having to force it. A couple of sharp jerks, then, and it pops up out of place with only a small measure of creaking, revealing the clean, dry hidey-hole beneath. He weighs the pouch in his hand for a moment, feeling and hearing the slight clink of heavy coin within before carefully setting it in the recess, then pressing the board back in place. When Jayne sets his hands on his bended knees and looks up, Simon's looking right back down at him, mouth closed, now, head still tilted back a little but his eyes angled so's not to break contact.

"She's dead, isn't she?" It's the first time he's talked to Jayne proper, instead of having the words squeezed outta him, hard-pressed and defensive.

Jayne licks his lips, glances down, up again. Nods. Simon makes an odd noise; a sharp breath out, a snort of laughter that runs out of steam as it's gripped fierce and fist-like. "My sister," he says, and Jayne can't hardly tell a difference between the words and the sound. Simon's hands move abortively. "I was going to … to save her."

Jayne don't want to hear no more. He finds his hand clenched around the handle of the knife, resting on his knee. He looks at the floorboard long and hard, listening til the breathing above him steadies some. Jayne looks up. "Alright?" Boy (not-boy) knows the way of it now; it weren't ever Jayne's money to begin with, so that makes it easier some, even with all the dust-eating he and his Ma have been doing of late. He knows where it is, he can take it, and leave. No loss on Jayne's part.

"Alright," Simon says, and reaches out a hand to help Jayne to his feet.

*

He refuses to go down into the mines; won't even talk about why though Jayne suspects it's something to do with all the people, or the low headspace, or just the black. He still wakes up at night, choking; Jayne hears it from the next room, paper-thin walls always let him hear it though he don't say nothing, not even the next morning let alone when it's happening. Still leaves the house, though, running errands for Ma, more often than not helping her sift through the rubble on the days her back's not up to the task as it used to be. Sometimes he just leaves, and don't come back til long after Jayne's got home, and he don't say where he's been and Jayne and his Ma ask don't ask neither; Jayne suspects it's enough for his Ma that Simon comes back at all.

He's getting dressed one night after showering off the day's fine powdering of dust when he hears his Ma's voice, hears it raised a little and in a tone he ain't heard for a while. When he gets into the kitchen Simon's there, looking at Jayne with an expression Jayne might have likened to surprise, had he been fooling himself that he could ever read Simon's expressions. His shirt, one of Jayne's cast offs, grown out of years since, looks more too-big for him than it ever seems to have before, hanging off him in most places but clinging to him in others, mainly where the fabric's dark with blood. The cuffs of his jacket are heavy with it too, and his hands stained red though the skin shows up white underneath when Jayne's Ma takes them in her own, rubs her thumbs over them. She draws them closer to her face, turning them over to examine closely, keeping up a steady litany of concern all the while.

"What happened?" Jayne asks.

"There was a fight," Simon says, and looks from Jayne back to Ma. "It's alright," he says. "I'm not hurt." But she ain't satisfied until she's run his hands under the faucet in the kitchen sink, til the water runs clear and his hands pale white below the stained cuffs.

"Awful lot of blood for someone who weren't hurt," Jayne observes. "Fight like that makes you wonder how none of it were yours."

Simon looks up sharply. "I wasn't in the fight," he says, and then don't say no more.

Couple days later when Jayne comes home there's fresh fruit on the table, oranges, and a burlap sack resting on the bench with a film of white powder around the lip; flour, he finds out, when he goes and dips a dampened finger into it. They have fresh bread with supper that night, and Jayne's Ma's real happy, so he don't say nothing.

Ain't long after that he wakes up late after a night of the consuming of some liquor to celebrate the week's end, and Simon's crouched on the floor in the kitchen, using a wicked, curved needle to stitch up a gaping slit along the shin of the boy who lives not four lots down from Jayne. His Ma's standing by the sink where the late morning sun's coming in through the window, cup of coffee in hand, talking to the boy's mother. "I can't thank you enough, Mrs Cobb," the woman's saying, looking up and smiling at Jayne as he walks in from the hall, as if it's every day she's standing about jawing in his kitchen while her boy gets darned up like a sock.

"Ain't nothin'," Jayne's Ma says, and pockets the coin the woman presses into her palm as she closes the door behind them.

It takes some weeks for Simon to agree to come to the bar with him on those nights Jayne likes to celebrate the end of a working week, and Jayne guesses he really ain't entirely surprised by the fact there's already groups of people there that Simon seems more eager to avoid than others, and a few who come up to speak to him on their ownsome.

"You a doctor, then?" Jayne asks later, tongue loosened by more'n a few hits of the local brew. Simon's still steady beneath his arm, shoulders tense and pointy as they walk along. Or in Jayne's case, stumbles along. "Like to … to fix people up?"

"Yes," Simon says. "I'm a doctor."

"Little young for that, ain't you?"

Jayne sways a little as Simon gives a delayed shrug, and Jayne's silent for a good long while, waiting for a verbal answer that ain't never gonna come.

"How old are you, anyway?" he asks as Simon hauls him up the steps of the Cobb residence, and Simon answers quicker this time, quick and clever like he always is, like Jayne never was.

"Old enough."

Jayne gives a slurred snort of laughter at that, interrupted somewhat by Simon tipping him into bed. "Old enough for what, is what I wanna know," he says jokingly, but Simon don't answer, and when Jayne opens his eyes again after an extended blink, he's gone.

*

They get into a kind of routine. It ain't common knowledge 'round the settlement that the Cobbs have a resident doctor at their place, but enough people know to keep fresh fruit on their table at least once a week, and to lighten Jayne's mind some so that for the first time in a good long while he thinks maybe things are looking up. Simon still disappears off on his ownsome for stretches of time, but it's mostly only while Jayne's off working, and he always gets home while supper's still warm enough to be et. Jayne's Ma starts walking a little taller, and the fine film of dark dust that seems to have settled over the house starts to shine off.

Then it gets round to that time of year again where the rains come in and settle a thin sheen of cool over everything, and Jayne's employer shuts down some branches for a spell to prevent the flooding that inevitably costs them more'n if they were to keep up production. It ain't such a daunting thing, those couple of weeks without working, as it might be otherwise; with Jayne staying home in the house he's privy first-hand to all the handful of folk that come in throughout the day with various ailments; cuts, breaks, coughs and knocks. No more than a handful, but enough coming with duffels of potatoes, or small sacks of sugar, even a few with some coin.

It's enough that Jayne feels somewhat lighter in spirit, and takes it upon himself to make his time above-ground count. He's hauling scrap in their tiny yard for an hour or so before he notices Simon standing on the back step, wearing that old black jacket what Jayne found him in, fingers picking at where it's gone a little threadbare in the elbow, collar turned up. It's cool out, but Jayne's been working hard, revelling in the feel of the air damp moving against his skin, of just being out where it's daylight, being able to see the sky change colour as it gets later. He grunts an acknowledgement before tossing the sheet of rusted iron he's got a hold of onto the larger pile, and when he looks up again he sees an odd smile on Simon's face, mouth-closed and soft, something quiet and amused in his eyes.

Jayne can't figure if it looks odd because he ain't used to seeing that kind of expression there on Simon's face, or if there's something just wrong with it in the first place. "What?" he says, going for the easy solution, hoping to get in on the joke.

"Ain't nothin'," Simon says, and Jayne gets the urge to scowl. Instead he turns back 'round and leans down to pick up another piece of junk. "Stop standin' there gawping, then, and help a body out."

The metal's slick from the damp air, and he's a little too eager to lift the other side of it, seeing as Simon's grasped his edge fierce enough; so Jayne ain't got a proper grip on it when he realises a little to late that it's a little heavier than he anticipated, and then there ain't nothing he can do but grab uselessly for it as it drops heavily to the ground. And if that weren't the dumbest thing he's ever done, he don't know what is. The ragged edge has sliced clear through his glove and into the heel of his palm, and before he can even start cussing about it Simon's standing right there before him, holding Jayne's hand immobile with a fierce grip 'round his wrist, torn glove already off and underfoot.

Simon's long, bone-white fingers press hard at the edges of it before his hand folds firmly over the wound entirely, pressing it closed and keeping the pressure tight, leaving Jayne hissing a breath in through his teeth at the pain of it, and looking up from the bright blood oozing between the fingers to see Simon's face near-expressionless but for the darkness making his brows heavy, pupils wide and black. He leads Jayne inside, not talking, and Jayne hears it when his Ma discovers the dripped trail of blood, leading her back to where they're standing over the sink, Simon's head bowed and his hands moving skilful and steady as they close the seam in Jayne's flesh.

*

It ain't long after that that things start to change again. Simon don't talk much, never tells them where he's going, so Jayne don't know the first place to look when Simon don't come home one night. And then he don't know if it's his place to look at all. It's with a sudden surge of nausea that he gets the urge to crack up the floorboard again, check for that soft blue pouch that he ain't had to touch for months now, not since Simon started up his doctoring.

"I can't do this," his Ma says when they've been sitting up drinking coffee in silence for far too many hours. "Not with another one. I can't." He don't know what to say, just stares down at the tabletop, mug cooling in his fist. "I never thought he'd…" she starts, then pauses, the silence full of unspoken words. "He lost his sister," she says, as if starting again with a different tack. "Folks didn't care enough to do nothin' about it. He tried, but… It was all no use. None of it were any use." Jayne aches, back sore from hunching over clutching things all night. He thinks of Simon's long silences, the way he don't open up like Jayne does when they've both consumed considerable amounts of liquor. Thinks of Maddy's room, the way it ain't much less silent than it's been, all these years.

He finally convinces his Ma to get on to bed, promising her what he already decided his own self, and sitting up with a cup of coffee in his hand on the old sunk-bottomed arm chair on the cusp of the hall, in front of the doorway. The house feels empty behind him, he feels hyper-aware of the hollow rooms and abruptly his own tiredness, the brittle shell the coffee's shaken up around him.

He wakes up all abrupt-like, and is disoriented for a moment; not just because he's sitting up instead of lying in his own bed, but because the lights are still on, bright electric yellow with the dark pressing in around the drawn curtains. Simon's standing at the door; it's just closed behind him, the snicking of the lock being the sound what woke Jayne up. He's got a hand up covering his mouth and nose, and spots of red have blossomed on the front of his shirt. Jayne's chair creaks as he sits forward and Simon's eyes snap to his. There's a moment of silence, then Simon slowly lowers his hand.

"I need to buy a gun," he says, and his voice is all strange and clotted because there's blood running slow down from his nose over his mouth, his lower lip swollen, blood coming down from a split on the other side.

"You been out making yourself enemies?" Jayne keeps his voice low, mindful of his Ma.

Simon takes a couple of steps forward, and he's moving funny too, all careful like it hurts just to take them steps. His face is masked doubly, by the blood and by his still, taut expression, fierce like he's screaming but as composed as a death mask. "I didn't make them," he says, all soft-like, and Jayne pushes himself up and out of the chair.

"Is that to say that I did?" he hisses, shoving his face in closer even as he lowers his voice. He's angry, and he don't know why; he don't like being blamed for nothing and he don't like not knowing what's going on, either.

Simon don't budge, looking back up at him as unmovable as ever. The scar down the side of his face looks even more white than pink in comparison to the blood, and the light coming in round the curtains now is just as grey, overwhelming the dim light bulbs and dulling down all the colours, making them heavy and thick. "I need a gun," Simon says again.

Jayne nods slowly. "Go get cleaned up," he says. "Be sure to keep quiet, and don't wake Ma."

*

Jayne scribbles a note, weighs its corner down under the edge of his coffee mug on the kitchen table before pacing silently back down the hall again and pushing on into Maddy's room. Simon's standing there by the bed, his shirt off, wadded up and held against his nose and mouth, and they both just kinda stop and look at each other for a few seconds. Simon looks somehow younger than he does when Jayne usually sees him, usually small in Jayne's over-sized shirts but this time the thin undershirt clings to him some, and his arms are smooth and bare but he looks older, too than Jayne expected, firm muscle and litheness, upper body angled back a little and tilting the flat plane of his stomach down toward his belt buckle, hips standing out in the small gap between where the undershirt ends and trousers begin. His eyes stare at Jayne from above the stained shirt.

"Get some clothes on," Jayne grits, and breaks the moment, moves further into the room and to the stack of boxes against the far wall. He starts to heft them, silently, and when he's done he turns back 'round to find Simon watching, skin 'round his mouth still stained a little red but clean-clothed, at least, in a sweater what Jayne's Ma had knitted for him when he were naught but a boy starting to shoot upwards, all pulled outta shape now. Simon's not looking at Jayne, though, he's looking at the gun in Jayne's hands.

"This were Maddy's," Jayne says. "By rights I oughtn't even have it, but Ma don't hardly ever come in here anyway." He pauses for a moment. "Don't tell her 'bout this."

Simon glances up at him, then down again. "I won't."

"C'mon, then."

The gun feels strange in Jayne's grip, not unfamiliar, but he's unused to it. Unused to the weight of it and the way his balance shifts as his arm swings it about a little as he walks. It hasn't rained for some weeks now, and the ground's finally beginning to give up the last of its moisture, get all cracked and hard again, no give in it at all. They don't make much noise, and the trails out to the exhausted quarries are familiar to Jayne like the gun is familiar, surprisingly vivid in the way the memories are all willing to leap back to the forefront of his mind and lead the way.

"You ever fire one o'these before?" Jayne asks when they finally stop. The sun's risen, but the quarry they're in's deep, and it's cool in the dark shadow it casts, sunlight gilding the rim of it far above, blindingly. Simon only hesitates a moment before shaking his head. Jayne lifts the gun, resting the butt of it in the crook of his shoulder. He can smell the metal when it's up this close, like wet, cool blood, and his left arm angles up on its own to steady it even as his right hand automatically finds the trigger. The kick-back merges with the sound, another familiarity in the abrupt, indignant pain and half-deafness; though even as the punched-in ringing dies off he can still hear the echo of the crack bouncing 'round the quarry. "Here."

Simon mimics his pose, allowing Jayne to make some final adjustments to the angle of his elbow and positioning of the butt against his shoulder. "Sight along here," Jayne instructs, and then watches as Simon's face tightens in concentration, inflammation going out of his split lip a little as his mouth presses tight, and then his whole body jerks with the kick-back. He don't look pleased, or even thoughtful. Just determined. The gun hangs his hands, cradled in front of his body with an ease that makes Jayne's skin crawl a little before he shakes it off.

"How do you reload it?" Simon asks.

*

He starts leaving before Jayne does, before dawn, before Jayne and his Ma are even awake yet. Or at least before they're out of bed; quiet as Simon is, Jayne finds himself waking up when he hears the creak of Maddy's bedsprings, the sound of bare feet pacing on the floorboard. Sometimes when Jayne gets home from work Simon's already there, seeing to sick folk at the kitchen table while Ma chops the fresh vegetables on the bench behind, sometimes he don't come home til late, til after the food's ready and left waiting for him on the table. Then there's a weekend, the last day off before Jayne has to head back down into the mines again the next morning, and they're all in the house, Jayne's Ma dusting round even as her cigarette ash covers the surfaces she's polishing; Simon shut up in Maddy's room, a silent presence; Jayne picking through the stuff in the yard again, when the heat eases enough to allow him to go out in it.

It ain't until later that evening when he comes in to find the house silent, his Ma just sitting at the table now sucking on in the smoke and puffing it out again, that he realises why he's had such an odd feeling this afternoon, something like a vague timelessness, like they whole house is stuck in an instant that's suddenly jumped forward to sunset. They ain't had no visitors today. No kids screaming up hell with their broken arms, no men who'd sliced their foot open with a shovel. No womenfolk clutching their bellies and looking worried.

"Since when you smokin' again, Ma?" Jayne says, coming closer to the table and picking up the rusty tin case sitting in front of her. It's almost empty. "You know it ain't good for your lungs."

She shrugs, stands, turns away from him and shuffles toward the sink, twisting on the faucet. "Neither is the dust," she says, and spits black.

*

The next day Jayne's sitting out on the front steps, chewing on a cigar, when Simon turns up in the early afternoon. He stops short when he sees Jayne there, then his body seems to stutter a little, like it's considering moving on, or running away, or coming toward him before he stills it again. There's a grey-green duffel thrown over his shoulder, mostly empty from the sunken look of it.

Jayne takes another drag. "I been fired," he says, pleased with the way his voice sounds all calm and conversational-like; he's had plenty of time since this morning to think on this, get ready what he's gonna say. "'Parently I ain't--" he takes another fierce puff, resisting the urge to bite down hard on the tacky-tasting stem of it "--showin' enough dedication to them in charge of the operation. Or in charge of my unit, at least. Though I been diggin' down there with them for comin' on fifteen years now. Somethin' about socialising with them that would sabotage the success of my co-workers."

Simon still don't move for another long moment, not even looking as if he's thinking of something in response to say to that, and then before Jayne can even blink at that thought Simon's turned heel and is striding away real fast. "Hey," Jayne says, but he don't stop, so Jayne grinds the cigar out against the side of the step and stands, moves after him. "Where'd'you think you're goin'?" Simon still don't stop, in fact speeds up a little, and then Jayne's chasing him, through the dusty little alleys between the houses, through the dry streets, out past the limits where the land mules grind out the perimeter, then toward where there're just shells of buildings, decades-old metal and wood architecture striving up to sky, all covered in dust still blowing in from the abandoned quarries further out.

Jayne's had enough. He puts on a burst of speed, surges forward a little further, and then they're both falling against a wall that shudders and creaks and rains a shower of dust over them as they slam into it. Simon takes the brunt of it, but he still don't stop moving, and his fists and feet kick out and meet somewhat painfully on Jayne's flesh more'n a few times before he gives up the struggle and lies still and tense under Jayne's weight, or as still as he can be with his chest still heaving, whole body keeping up a constant shaking. He's gasping for breath and it sounds like he's drowning, Jayne can't help but angle himself up a bit to look at Simon's face, the sound reminds him so much of the choking that comes with the suffocating on black dust and phlegm that so many folks succumb to 'round here. Simon closes his mouth after just a moment, breath still sharp through his nostrils, eyes wide open and staring right back at Jayne, hard and wild like maybe it ain't even Jayne he's seeing. Or maybe it is.

Jayne stays still like that for a few minutes longer before backing off some, wincing a bit as his body moves in the places where Simon's come to blows with him, sitting back himself as Simon scrambles backwards, back pressed against the degraded wooden wall, knees pulled up.

"Am I gonna find out what in ruttin' hell is going on?" Jayne asks, voice a little hoarse from the run in the heat, his heart still not slowed from pounding. "Me'n Ma, we don't have no hold on you," and he hadn't meant it to come out like that, but then, he weren't sure what he was trying to say with it in the first place. Doggedly, he pushes on. "But I ain't gonna sit by and watch you pull apart what we's been holdin' together somethin' fierce all these years."

Simon's face twists then, and it's shocking and familiar all at once; Jayne ain't never seen him like that before but it seems so natural that he can't figure out why. "Holding together what?" Simon spits. "That little shack, the empty rooms? The piles of worthless junk you insist on collecting?" Simon's chest is heaving but Jayne's noticing it as if from a great distance, he feels all cold and very far away from the sweat prickling on his skin from the run. He don't say nothing, and Simon don't even look at him no more, though the heaving of his chest gets worse like he's still running and he can't run no more, and his head tips back against the wall behind even as his whole body rocks forward a little, then back, and, "I can't--" he gasps. "Why did you bring me there, Jayne? Why not leave me to them?"

"To who?"

"The ones…" Simon passes a hand over his face, and when he drops it again his eyes are screwed shut. "The ones who killed River."

Jayne thinks of the still little body, not for the first time, and the traitorous black caked around the ventilation slits. The smell. He'd already known her name, of course, from the wanted notice with the big figure projected under it. "Ain't nobody killed her."

The movement is convulsive, but tightly controlled, and Simon's still again and looking at him and talking, finally, "But, I remember. I took passage from Persephone. On a cargo ship, Catreus class. But--" He pauses for a moment, eyes reeling from Jayne 'round the bleak landscape before returning, more distant. "I was waylaid. I don't even know if they knew about River, the crate… Later, though. I remember. Someone at the crate." He's quiet, breathing finally steadied. "And then you."

Jayne remembers. He remembers a lotta things he wishes most of the time he were able to forget, and some things that feel like they right punch him in the chest every time he thinks on them, moreso even than when they were happening. "That were me," Jayne says, and his voice is rough. "At the crate. I found the both of you."

Simon's very still. Jayne can see him breathing, but not much more. "Did you kill her?" he asks.

The words come to Jayne quick and easy, as they should; he's been saying them to himself verging on constantly for more years than he can count, now. "I ain't never killed nobody." Didn't think this conversation would be happening like this, though, even with this person. "It were the dust. I saw when I opened it up. She ain't been alive for a long while 'fore I got there. Whoever it were that robbed you… They didn't get into there. Air vents all blacked up with the dust."

He thinks Simon might be about to retch his guts out, his body's gone all loose and limp but held not-quite-right either; he ain't relaxed by a long shot. Jayne's gaze drifts to the abandoned duffel on the ground between them, remembers feeling it slam into his hip and ribs as he tackled Simon. "You figuring on procuring a little revenge on them who stole from you?" he asks. "With that piece?"

Simon's eyes are half-lidded like he's wincing, looking to Jayne from the corner of them as his head's turned part-away, and he closes them as his shoulders make an unruly, uncontrolled shrug. Then a noise comes out his mouth, and it takes a moment for Jayne to realise it's laughter. Like someone's throttling it. "I don't know," Simon says. "I-- oh. It's just…" he laughs again.

"Figure I know the crowd you been lookin' for," Jayne says, and Simon's looking at him again. "Figure you found 'em too, from what's been happening these past couple days." He at least has the good grace to look a little shamed, and Jayne can't help but push at it, like a bruise. "Though sometimes it's hard to tell from inside that dusty little shack, what it's like when things get broke down and messier."

Simon's mouth pulls in distaste again, and Jayne only regrets it a little. "I'm--" Simon starts, and Jayne shakes his head a little, curling up the edge of his mouth in something that ought to read as a smile. Jayne braces his palms on the hard earth and pushes himself up to standing again, wincing a little. He looks down at Simon.

"You alright?"

Simon grimaces a little, takes the offered hand and allows himself to be hauled to his feet. When the grip goes loose as he's standing, Jayne turns the hand over, looks to where it feels rough against his palm. The skin's part grazed off on the heel of it, little rocks embedded where the tiny clear strips of it have pulled away; it's barely even bleeding. "It's fine," Simon says, drawing it back. "I'm fine."

*

On the first day after that, Jayne spends his time out in the yard, digging through for bits of junk he's picked up around that might be of some worth. On the second day it's a notch cooler, and Simon comes out and helps him. Jayne's Ma stays in the house; she'd left the day before to buy food and come back with her basket empty. On the third, they're both inside and Jayne don't even see either of them until Simon comes out into the yard at dusk, holding something in his hands. When he gets closer, Jayne sees it's the blue pouch, still more full of coin than he coulda hoped for otherwise.

"You dig this out?" Jayne asks, and Simon nods.

"I have a proposition," he says.

Jayne makes the trip to Bathou, wary still of the Alliance presence though this time he keeps to the other side of the city, the outskirts that grow up on their ownsome and get left ignored mostly. He gets rides from shuttles skipping out back north until he's close enough to walk, and approaches the house again from behind. His Ma takes hold of his head and presses it into her shoulder for a brief moment before taking the sack of food he's brought for her and turning her back to them both. Jayne walks back to Maddy's room, Simon following close, shutting the door behind him.

The revolver fits in his palm better, and he likes the weight of it more'n Maddy's long-barrelled piece, like it's an extension of his hand, balancing out the weight of his shoulder when he holds it at arm's length. Simon accepts it when Jayne holds it out, turns it in his hands before aiming experimentally at the head of the bed. "You can keep the other," Jayne says gruffly, and Simon hands the revolver back. "I got enough coin left to get a passage outta here, and enough ammo to last at least one run, if things go bad."

Jayne don't like to leave Ma on her own, so they take it in turns going out. Jayne can figure the best approaches, but Simon seems to have a knack for figuring the workings of the security of the places; be they private safes or just cargo storage, so with a couple days planning between them they're able to fix up a pretty seamless plan 'fore one goes running off. It's plain stupid to try anything in the settlement; they make sure each job is at least a couple day's train ride away, at least, and then maybe one walking on top of that.

Jayne does the first one, heading out further north before hitting the settlement that's grown up some into a town, forming a hub along the train line to branch out further. He waits beyond the perimeter until dusk, then sees the blue-tinged security light flicker on within the outskirts, just like Simon said it would. It cuts off abruptly as there's a dull thud a few blocks down, a patched-together circuit disrupter coming on as Jayne set it to. He hadn't been even sure would work til that moment, willing to humour Simon's recently-revealed tendency to stitch 'lectrics together like surgery by take it with him nonetheless. It's just a matter of knocking the (now mostly-loose) catch on the door out after that, and then in and out real quick-like, layout memorised, before the back-ups kick in.

There's a train heading west scheduled so's he has time to walk leisurely 'round the back streets and pay for his passage half a click out, covered with road dust and mining boots strung from his duffel. When the train stops roughly halfway he slips out again, starts walking back south-east, sticking to the dirt-mule tracks that run alongside a sluggish creek. Simon's waiting for him, sitting out on the back steps with his arms resting on his knees.

"Alright?" Simon says, standing up, still too dark for Jayne to see much more'n his white arms below the faded orange of the tee-shirt, white face with dark hair melting into the black-dusted house. Jayne slings him the duffel.

"Like clockwork," he says, the old phrase odd in his mouth, but oddly appropriate, too. He's tired, but satisfied.

*

They plan good enough that it ain't that often they need to go out, and that leaves plenty of time between for travelling and such. Simon learns well enough how to shoot at something without having to make sure his aim's right for precious long moments beforehand, and even comes back from a three-week run over to Carpatho knowing how to block a punch and kick out proper to where it hurts most. Things ain't easy in the settlement but things are running smooth in their dealings outside of it, so that Jayne gets a little cocky, a little self-assured.

Not that he weren't following the plan to the letter, just that he weren't paying enough attention, and gets a bullet in the leg for his trouble.

Simon'd said something once about bleeding being more serious the closer the wound were on the body to the heart, but after Jayne's stumbled a coupla miles he ain't so sure of the truth of that. Simon ain't never been shot, anyhow. He ain't gonna know that it's like this. He stops when he's sure there ain't no chance in hell of him being followed, and then figures that that better be the case, as he's having trouble starting again, even with the torn bit of his jacket he's tied above the wound, slowing the bleeding some, though it's hard to tell as it's all soaked through the cloth of his trousers, all sticky and black in the dark. He winds more strips over the wound itself and pushes on.

There's a landing dock on the other side of town but he ain't sure he'd be able to haul hisself into one of those without being noticed, and besides, by now they ought to know he's about, even if they ain't upon him right this moment. They'd started shooting in the first place, after all. So he starts walking.

It's just the sight of the outskirts of the settlement that does him in, in the end. That feeling knowing he's so close to home and his body refusing to go no further as if it's thinking ahead of him. Not that he's thinking much at all by that stage. The blood's dried stiff brown on his trousers, and it chafes against the skin of his leg, though he's stopped feeling it to a point. Not gotten used to it. Just stopped.

He's slept some and he's been awake for a while after that before he sees Simon, coming toward him. It takes some time, as Simon's walking slow-like, and careful, looking all around, and he's holding Maddy's gun in his hand, loosely by his hip. He moves faster as he gets closer, til he's standing right by Jayne, looking down.

"You sawed it off?" Jayne croaks, peering at the oddly foreshortened weapon.

"Yeah," Simon says, "easier." And slides it on into a holster hanging against his thigh. "Why didn't you call out?" He crouches, hands starting already to pick at the makeshift bandages. "When you saw me?"

"Didn't want you to shoot me," Jayne says, and then realises he is still feeling some, and feeling strong at that, as Simon drags him to his feet and props Jayne up on his own shoulders.

Jayne wants to say something about the gun, tell Simon to hide it maybe, as he's dragging Jayne up the front steps, but Jayne's voice seems to have bled out like the rest of him, and his Ma's there then, so it's too late. She takes a hold of Jayne's other arm and all three of them manoeuvre slowly down the hall to Jayne's room, and then it's just his Ma there, and Simon gone, and she's looking at him and looking at his leg and he feels right stupid. "Shh," she says, though he's sure he ain't said nothing, and then he feels it as Simon's pulling at the bandages right proper, pulling them away where they've stuck to his skin.

"I ain't doing this, Jayne," his Ma says later, when Jayne's feeling all swaddled up though he knows his mattress and blankets don't usually feel this soft. And his mouth this smooth, neither, all silk-coated from the cool water. "I ain't risking both of you, out there on your ownsome." Simon's standing in the doorway, and he meets Jayne's eyes for a brief moment as Jayne's Ma dips her head down, and when she raises it again her gaze is fierce. Jayne ain't seen that look on her face more'n a few times in his lifetime, and he still remembers each one. "You go on out together, next time, or not at all."

It's rough for a few weeks after that; with Jayne laid up in bed as his leg heals and not much for them to eat, as he hadn't been able to bring back any bounty, what with the job going sour and all. Simon stays in the house most days, but Jayne wakes up more'n once after dark to hear him strapping his boots on, heading out the back door. They eat a whole lotta protein, the kind that usually gets took on long flights off-world, when there ain't nothing out there for nothing fresh to grow on, let alone keep for those long spells.

Simon also brings back medicines, mostly in unlabelled little canisters, but none of the witch-doctor stuff that Jayne's seen sold 'round the settlement on occasion. They're in mass-produced plastic jars and packets instead, though Simon never brings home more'n a handful of them. Though he seems to think they're enough, for the time being at least, and Jayne tends to agree with him; they get him up and walking right quicker than if her were doing all that mending on his own.

"Folk on the trains," Simon says when Jayne asks where he gets 'em from, and looks a mite thoughtful in the way Jayne's learned means he's got to stick it out, quit asking questions and just wait for the plan to pop right outta Simon's head.

It's only a few days later, then, when Simon comes out to join him where he's sitting on the back step, blowing smoke out into the dusk, the hazy air all hard-like and mingling with the sound of Jayne's Ma coughing in the house behind him. Simon sits next to him, glancing down at where Jayne's leg's propped up in front of him before shifting his gaze to somewhere in the middle distance.

"Are most of the settlements on Boros mining operations?"

Jayne sucks on the cigarette, feeling it burn as it goes down. He only ever really smokes when he's bored enough to, and he's been stuck in bed for long enough now that it's become habit. "Most o'them, yeah. Some farming ops down further in the valleys where there's more water, and closer to the poles. But on this mass, at least…" He blows out a lungful of smoke, glances to Simon. "S'Where the profit lies."

"And the cities, Bathou, Carpatho…?"

"Agnes. Further south. Bit more reputable than Bathou, as it were… Less Alliance, but less need for 'em. More rich folk. No sour grapes Browncoats to go stirrin' stuff up."

"How far south?"

Jayne shrugs, squints. "Less than an hour on shuttle. Maybe… Month or so on foot, less if we manage to hitch ourselfs a mule ride or two along the way. You havin' thoughts?"

Simon gives a wry smile, still staring out over Jayne's junk piles but eyes a bit more focused, now. "Something like that."

He hobbles into the kitchen the next morning to find Simon already there, sitting at the table, tapping at something in his hands; a grey electronic slate with figures and lines rushing over the face of it, flashing and shifting with the rapid movement of the stylus.

"Jayne," he says when Jayne's just taken his first mouthful of coffee, and beckons him over. The slate's glowing a little, but its display is still now, or at least moving slower as Simon tilts it a little to scroll along. Jayne peers at the white lines angling against the blue background. "These are the blueprints for the major hospital in Agnes. Do you think you could take a look and work out the best way to get in?"

"To the hospital?"

"Yes."

"The major hospital at Agnes. The Alliance hospital."

They've planned enough things together now that Simon's got used to Jayne questioning his logic at every turn, so his face shows nothing more than dogged patience. "Yes, the Alliance hospital."

"You've lost your ruttin' mind."

Simon blinks, and his head tilts a little, as if he's about to give a conceding shrug. He taps at the slate again. "I've worked in a place like this. The Alliance facilities are all run practically the same, and they keep," he leans toward, almost conspiratorially, and Jayne slides into the seat beside him. "Masses of this stuff." He's shaking one of the small medicine jars, picking it up from where it sat by him on the table.

"So? It's a hospital, ain't it?"

"Yes, but Jayne -- do you have any idea of the black market value of this stuff? These medicines, the stuff they keep in stock for all these rich people--" he picks up another packet. "A steady dose of this for only two weeks is enough to send a severe case of black lung into recession."

Jayne blinks. "And the Alliance hospital in Agnes has how much of this?"

Simon grins.

*

They're ready to start walking within two weeks, and taking it slow-like means they have time to go over the plan more times than Jayne can count, ironing out any kinks, Simon coming up with alternatives to each step of the way they've decided so's Jayne can think on them, pick them apart or integrate them accordingly.

The train line bends 'round to the west before heading downward again, so they cut across until they get to another anonymous, dusty settlement and pay for a passage on to the next hub. They walk further south-east from there, til they hit a slightly larger, greener settlement than their own, and Jayne trades his last tin of cigars for a whole heap of fresh fruit that seems to be in aplenty all about the place. Simon approves, and Jayne knows it, but they both also know after more'n a week on the road that Simon making his approval known is a sure-fire way of getting Jayne to clam on up and do the opposite.

"I don't know how your mother ever managed to live alone with you," Simon remarks as they watch the glow of the settlement tune on up from the scattered, skeletal orchard a few lengths outside of the limits, and Jayne's inexplicably pleased. He figures one of the best things about being on the road with Simon is being able to observe how prissy and irritable he can get first-hand, which weren't the case so much in Ma's house, where Simon seemed to always be either silent or absent. Jayne figures living right up in someone else's face don't let them hide much behind broody exteriors, and hell, maybe Simon's getting downright tired of having to be so thoughtful so damn much of the time. Jayne's always found that shutting his brain off and focusing energy down on the physical task at hand's always the best way at getting things done, keeping them simple.

They both fall down tired enough to sleep deep and dreamless after a long days steady walking in the heat, though, and it's been a long time since that weren't one of the things that Jayne's most grateful for.

It don't seem like very long before the settlements start getting closer together, and each of them more clean, well-established, less dust and more grass and they start to hitch rides on land-vehicles taking cargo on into the hubs, which means they get to talk less, but that don't seem like much of a loss. The closer they get to Agnes the more closed-in Simon seems to get; he's always awake before Jayne at dawn, and more often than not Jayne falls asleep as Simon's sitting up next to him. Even when they're alone -- settling down as night falls a little ways from the road, out of reach of the grey dust -- he don't talk much.

Then, before Jayne can think on it too long, they're in the outskirts of the city. He ain't ever seen nothing like it before, it ain't nothing like Bathou when he's looking into the centre of it, all curving glass shapes sticking up like fans in the centre of the massive green basin they're in, but closer to ground level, a few feet in front of his face, it ain't that different. They've come into the city's blackout zone, where the rich folk come get their unmonitored-by-Alliance fun, and that's just fine with Jayne, because he don't want to be noticed none.

And by the looks of things, Simon don't want to be noticed neither, but the first stage of their plan still feels a little unreal to Jayne, maybe because they been talking on it so long, maybe because it feels just plain unnatural, seeing Simon looking like that. Then Jayne feels like the unnatural one, because Simon fits in more than he does on the street, all neat and fanciful, and Jayne finds hisself standing on, feeling all awkward-like.

"Alright?" Simon says as he gets closer, in a tone Jayne's come to recognise as a kind of wry nervousness. Jayne shrugs his shoulder a little, indicating the hefty bag carrying their disguises slung onto his back. And then Jayne realises he's touching Simon's face, fingers pressing experimentally along the thin white scar tracing down the side of Simon's temple to his jaw, all the more obvious now for the clean-shavenness and the haircut that don't hide it none. Simon flinches back, a little too late for it to be instinctual, and Jayne's hand drops to pluck at the shiny vest Simon's wearing over his crisp white shirt and under a high-collared jacket.

"Startin' to look old enough to be a doctor now," Jayne offers as a jibe, though he ain't sure if it's a successful one, hell, he ain't even sure he meant for it to come out in those words. Simon's face twists up a little and it ain't quite enough to dislodge the unnerving sense that the whole situation gives Jayne; the sense of years passed but memories that ain't faded.

They get a little room behind a store selling weaponry, mainly so's they have a place to leave their gear; even Jayne's smart enough to know that they ain't gonna be walking on into the hospital with guns a-blazing, let alone just strapped to their hips. Jayne cleans hisself up too, spending some time cleaning off the road-dirt and shaving his beard back into shape. And then there ain't much to do before evening, when the next phase kicks in good'n proper, when the hospital's busy enough for them to slip in with the rest of them. The slate-like uplink's been re-sold to pay for their getups, so there ain't even room left for re-planning, or re-remembering, though Jayne reckons he's got the hospital's blueprint embedded in his brain permanent-like, at this stage.

*

It's one of those times where he's been thinking forward to it so much that he don't expect time to run the same when he gets there, so as it goes, it's over before Jayne's even had a chance to think about it. He carries a small cryo-unit Simon says they use for transportation of live organs, and Simon strides in front of him, white overcoat floating out a bit behind and peering at a datapad like it's something mighty important. They fill the empty unit with drugs from a storeroom Jayne pickpockets a pass for, then head on through the hospital from back (where they'd come in) to front, out into the main concourse. They sight a mid-weight transport shuttle, exchange a nod, and then Jayne presses the gadget Simon's prepared against one of the doors, disengaging the immobiliser. Then the white jacket's off and Simon's just another rich guy flying on out of the hospital docks, Jayne hidden in the back, struggling out of the uniform-blue med-courier coveralls.

"I've never flown one of these before," Simon confesses, and the shaky laughter that comes outta him mirrors the fitful kinda surging going on in Jayne's belly, but he ain't entirely sure that it's fear. Simon's hands grip the controls fierce enough that his knuckles are bone-white, and he's leaning forward, entire body tense. It's odd to see the back of his neck bare, especially with the stiff collar standing away from it, short hairs stopping abruptly and all alarmed-like. Jayne clambers over to the front, and Simon swears a little jerkily as the shuttle sways mid-air. "Careful," he says, but when Jayne glances over Simon's looking right back, grinning like a crazy person.

They leave the shuttle in a more industrial area, a little further east of the city centre, which is mostly empty of people anyhow, all the machinery self-contained and automated. They dump everything with a hospital insignia in the first waste-disposal chemical degradation chute they see, and Jayne slings the medicines over his shoulder in a battered road bag that fits in with the rest of his outfit. Simon brushes imaginary dust off his jacket sleeves, the thighs of his trousers. He still don't look right to Jayne, especially with that expression.

"Let's go," Jayne says, and so they start walking, soon coming back into where people are moving about, all clean and purposeful-like, and Jayne makes a bit of a show of looking about like he ain't never seen nothing like this before, and is just wandering about aimlessly. It ain't too hard. He mostly just watches Simon, walking a few lengths ahead on the other side of the street.

*

They figure that if the loss is even noticed, authorities are gonna be searching for folk in hiding, in disguise, looking to hoodwink others or even get outta town right quick. So they figure it might be a good idea to stay around at least one more day before heading back out. Simon leaves the vest and jacket in the room, undressing and untucking some with a barely-veiled sigh of relief before tweaking the room's safe a bit, making sure nobody ain't gonna open it but them, and then he and Jayne make their way to the loudest, busiest bar they can find. Jayne's of a mind to settle the lightness in his belly with drink, and he's pretty sure he ain't the only one still feeling a mite less weighed-upon in the aftermath of the job.

Besides, it's been a while since Jayne's been able to sit about drinking while the people around him are laughing, whether he knows them or not. And he ain't feeling like stopping when after the first one-and-a-half Simon's laughing along with them, looking all bare and open with the neck of his shirt unbuttoned and his face clear, and that weightless feeling in Jayne's belly don't seem to be going anywhere anytime soon.

By the time they run outta coin walking has become something somewhat more difficult, though they seem to manage alright when they decide to approach the challenge as a team, or, as Jayne prefers to phrase it, supportive like a lean-to. The room's dark when they shove back into it, and it's disorienting enough that Simon's fists end up gripping the front of Jayne's shirt, and then they're both teetering a bit off-balance with no visual cues and Jayne's fumbling for a light switch and then Simon's mouth is against Jayne's neck, loose, and a bit wet.

Jayne thinks if he were sober he might freeze, but then his thoughts tumble over themselves a bit and suggest that if they were both sober this might not be happening at all, and it's too late anyway because his hand's at the base of Simon's skull, numb fingers twisted up in hair and then Simon's mouth loose and uncontrolled against Jayne's mouth, and wet, and his hands moving up to dig fingers into Jayne's shoulders. And then Simon gets the presence of mind to tilt his head some, and Jayne's fingers twist tighter, and Simon's breathing out hard through his nose and making an odd little noise even as his teeth bang against Jayne's and then Jayne's free hand finds the light switch.

Simon swears a little, and his hair's mussed, and one hand's covering his eyes while the other's still grabbing Jayne's shirt for support, and he sways a moment before squinting up at Jayne but then his eyes close again anyway and he's gripping Jayne's head fierce between his hands, shoving his mouth against Jayne's again and stumbling them back toward the room's narrow bed. Jayne figures he's fooling himself if he thinks at this stage he needs any encouragement for anything, and fumbles for Simon's belt buckle, struggling for long moments with the drape of the untucked white shirt before shoving his hands under it, feeling Simon's belly jump at the touch. He's addled from the liquor, yes, but moreso by Simon's mouth, and Simon's tongue in his mouth. He pulls away and breathes hard for a moment, then drops to his knees.

Somehow, Simon manages to stay standing, though Jayne can feel the tremble in his locked knees and his hand clenches in Jayne's hair extra-fierce when he sways, the edge of the bed pressing into the back of his legs, but Jayne ain't paying much attention to that once he's successfully negotiated the clasps on Simon's trousers. It might have been a while, but his mouth's half-numb from the liquor and that makes him work more eagerly for the taste. Which seems to be appreciated, from the noise Simon starts to make, and the way his hips stutter forward so that Jayne has to grip a hipbone in his palm to steady both of them as well as preventing the possibility of gagging on his part, and this is another thing he ain't ever gonna forget, with the sound, and the smell, and the ache of his own cock pressing against the taut canvas of his trousers and Simon alive and gasping and twisting his fingers in Jayne's hair til it hurts and distracts him just a little from the bitter swallowing.

But then Simon's hauling him up by the hair even as he's finally dropping back to the bed, kicking ineffectually at the restriction of his trousers, loosening hands to fumble at Jayne's belt before Jayne presses his mouth against Simon's concentrated frown. He's unable to stop himself from letting out a groan as Simon's mouth opens under his and Simon's fingers wrap around his cock, and then he's pushing erratically against Simon's hip, thrusting into the circle of Simon's fist, grip looser than the one on the back of Jayne's neck, pressing their mouths together til he can't breathe.

When Jayne wakes up the room is very still and close, the light shining in through the heavy red curtains overwhelming the dull light bulb, making the air solid. He feels like he can't move, and he ain't sure if he wants to anyhow; there's already the beginnings of a hangover scritching along the inside surface of his skull. His arm is near completely numb, Simon's hair tickling the inside of his bicep and Simon's breath damp against his collarbone, even through the tee-shirt. His belly's cold a little in the open air where Simon's forearm's pushing the hem up, Simon's warm fingers tracing over the scar just beneath Jayne's ribs, and the one just to the right of his breastbone. Slow, thoughtful-like. Jayne angles his head incrementally, and finds that Simon's staring right back up at him.

"Don't tell Ma," Jayne murmurs, a rough-edged whisper.

Simon's quiet for a moment, then he tilts his head down, watching the movement of his hand beneath the shirt. "Don't think I'll need to tell her anything," he says.

*

They sell the suit while they're still in the blackout zone, then head out east, using most of the coin in the first moderately-sized settlement they get to the buy passage on a converted transport mule to the nearest hub. It's a day-long ride, and the road gets steadily rougher as they go along, so by the time they climb off at dusk, Jayne's ready to fall down and sleep til sunup, and gather back his limbs from where they feel they've been shaken to bits. They're still low enough, close enough to the basin that cradles Agnes that there's still grass surrounding the town, and it's green enough for them to bunk down in without having to spend any more on somewhere to sleep. They buy enough food to stop the gnawing hunger from a day with naught but water, and then Jayne falls asleep to the sound of Simon tearing up the white shirt he's kept hold of, making a pile of carefully-folded, bandage-sized strips.

He wakes up again before dawn with Simon shaking at his shoulder, and they skirt around the silent buildings before slipping into the waiting train's cargo carriage just before its doors lock-down, making sure the crates are marked for delivery to the next major hub. There's space enough to sit side-by-side in the cool dark between the cargo, then, and Simon sleeps while Jayne stares off into the dim carriage, watching the way the light comes through the gaps in the welding, slices of it moving round as the train wends its course.

The bustle's enough when they get there that they're able to slip out again without being noticed, and then they're close enough now that they just decide to push on, cross-country, getting to familiar territory long after dark.

It feels strange, the trip being so short heading home; it feels like it's been years since they set off. The house is dark, so Jayne figures Ma must be abed, and makes sure he's quiet walking on up the old steps, Simon following suit just behind.

Jayne's key don't fit in the lock. Or it fits, but don't turn none, no matter how much he jiggles it and heaves against the handle, looking to force it out of whatever's sticking the latch. After a few minutes he exchanges a look of puzzlement with Simon, who's all dark-eyed and heavy-browed in the shade of the porch from the double moonlight, and Jayne tilts his head a little. Simon nods, and they head 'round the back. Jayne knows from long experience just how much the catch needs to be jiggled and leaned on for this door, and soon enough it gives way, swings open.

Then the light comes on, and Simon's grabbing Jayne’s shirt and hauling him back of a sudden, and Ma's standing there, mighty big kitchen knife held pointy end up and out toward him, clenched in her fist.

"Jayne," she says, more like gasps it, sounding mighty breathless, and Simon lets go of his shirt and Jayne goes forward toward her before his heart's had a time to settle down from the rapid pace it's surged up into. Her arm wavers, drops; he takes her wrist in one hand and the handle of the knife in the other. After a moment, her fist loosens and he sets the knife aside. "Jayne," she says again, lifting her hands to grip at his upper arms, smiling up into his face, and he wraps his arms around her shoulders. She's shaking some, and he can feel the bones curve a little in his grip, bird-brittle. She pulls away after a moment, looks past his shoulder. "Here y'all are," she says, her smile a bit stronger. "My boys."

*

Jayne takes to prowling 'round at night so's Simon can stay by Ma's side if she needs him, though after about a week of this he's eased the pressure on her chest enough that she's got enough energy to complain about the coddling. That cheers Jayne some, but it doesn't stop his gut from turning over when he comes home one night, late, to find Simon sitting there at the table, looking more'n a little worse for wear, like he's been sitting there for longer than Jayne can count.

"What?" Jayne says when Simon looks up at the sound of the door, and he can't say no more because he's stuck somewhere between preparing himself for the worst possible news and being unable to even think about it.

"She's getting worse," Simon says, his voice low and steady. Jayne's sick feeling settles some, though he ain't sure if it's because it ain't as bad as he thought it might be, or because having Simon say something, instead of just sitting there staring, is enough to kill off that anxious anticipation some.

Jayne walks past him, strides over to the sink, sticking his hand under and leaning down, drawing the water up to drink. "We got plenty of medicines," he says when he stands up again, dragging the back of his wrist across his mouth. Simon don't turn around, and Jayne watches the back of his head as he bows it down, shoulders tense.

"She won't take it," he says.

"What the ruttin' hell's that 'sposed to mean?"

Simon twists 'round. He looks right about as ornery as Jayne's starting to feel, and that only serves to make the escalation from irritation to anger happen quicker. "I can't force her--"

"Course you can force her. Just shove the gorram pills down her gorram throat!"

"Jayne, I'm not--" Simon stops, swallows, makes an obvious effort to continue at a lower volume. He gives that vague shrug he's so good at, and Jayne resists the urge to throttle him. "She's made her decision. She has her reasons."

"It ain't--" Jayne starts, then braces his hands on the table and leans in close. Simon don't flinch. "It ain't right."

"There's nothing I can do," Simon says, voice firm as Jayne's but with an edge of apology instead of threat to it, and Jayne up and leaves the room before he does something that he might regret later.

The sound of Ma coughing comes through the walls like the sound of Simon tearing up his shirt, but wetter, heavier, and even after the fit stops and she stills again Jayne's lying there with his breath held for what seems like impossibly long moments 'fore it starts up again. Then he gets to wondering whether the night's even gonna end, or even if he's ever gonna sleep again, and then the door opens and Simon slips in, closing it softly behind him, all white skin and dark tousled hair when he pulls his shirt over his head, then real close and warm when he climbs in next to Jayne.

The bed ain't exactly big enough, but they manage anyhow; Jayne rolls over to face the wall and Simon rolls in behind him, sliding an arm over Jayne's ribs, and his chest is hot against Jayne's back, even through the thin skin of his undershirt. His mouth moves against the back of Jayne's neck a little, and then his breath slows and evens out, damp and warm against Jayne's skin.

*

Jayne's sitting out on the back step in silence next to his Ma when the dusk starts coming in, bringing Simon with it, back from the train yard. He's hauling a small sack over his shoulder, what looks to be food, and he smiles at Ma before turning his gaze to Jayne. "I think I found us a fence," he says. "For the hospital bounty." He pauses, chews on his lip a bit. "But we need to go talk it out. In Ursa." A hub, then, half a click south.

Jayne frowns, but before he can say anything Ma's speaking up beside him. "'Spose that means you boys'll be gettin' up to planning another trip shortly," she says, and Jayne opens his mouth to speak. She cuts him off 'fore he can even start. "Ain't no matter what you say about it, Jayne," she says, pausing for a moment to catch her breath once she's struggled to her feet. "You're both goin'."

Simon don't meet Jayne's eye, just gives Ma a half-smile before heading on past them into the house, boots echoing loud on the dusty hall floorboards before turning to slightly duller thuds on the plastic kitchen tiles.

"You're goin', Jayne," Ma says, voice a little softer, a little seriouser, but still unmoveable.

"Ma," Jayne says, and his voice feels thick in his throat after struggling to come out all day. "Why?" and she knows he ain't talking about making a trip to Ursa no more.

She stares out into the dusk turning into twilight, the colour of the sky making the rusted metal stacked in the yard a kind of bruised purple. She looks at him. "Everythin' happens for a reason, Jayne," she says, and she's smiling a little, but she's sad, too, and he's reminded of times when he were small, and his Pa said he couldn't have something and Ma would be grieving alongside even as she comforted him.

"So you don't think a doctor just happened to come along for a reason?"

Her smile gets a bit wider, soft mouth pushing lines out into her skin, bracketing it. "I do."

She rests her hand on the back of his neck and it's softer, softer'n he remembers. She ain't worked for some time now, but then it ain't just that; all of her's softer, all wrapped up there in a grey blanket or lying abed with Simon fretting over the cushions at her back, or standing at the kitchen, staring out the side window while she scrubs plates or drinks coffee. It's like the fight's gone outta her, but she ain't given up, she ain't lost.

Jayne wants to keep talking, but he can't seem to make the words come. "Come on," his Ma says, and leans heavily on his shoulder as she steps on up back into the house. "We'd better go on in before he gets it in his head that he wants to cook somethin'."

*

They head to Ursa armed, the need more to show they mean to do business, now, rather than sneaking about, taking the long way. Jayne's been there on occasion, but not for a good long while, but that don't seem to matter because Simon leads the way without hesitation to what seems to be an abandoned warehouse that turns out a little cleaner inside. Soon they're standing on front of a desk with the fence behind it, her hat tipped back, feet propped up, peering at them openly. Jayne hooks his thumbs into his gun belt, stares right back.

"Ain't used to shipments this big," she says. "Usually they've broke into smaller batches by the time they get to here."

"We like to go direct to the source," Simon says, and his voice, the way it curls round the R's and picks out each word carefully strikes Jayne, abruptly, in the dusty space with the tacked-together furniture. It seems to grab the fence's attention, too, as she stares exclusively at Simon after that.

"That so," she says. "Why're you bringing it on to me, then? Wouldn't it be best to go direct right on down the chain?"

"We're not looking to change the system," Simon says. "Just make it smoother."

She drops her feet to the floor, leans forward a little. "Well if that don't sound mighty refreshing," she says. "And somewhat unusual, in folk such as yourself." Her gaze shifts from Simon for a moment, flickers over Jayne again before returning. "You sure y'all ain't Alliance, looking to shut down my legit little cargo operation here by trapping me into accepting--" she pauses significantly, raises an eyebrow. "--Missing goods?"

Simon's arms drop from where he's crossed them over his chest, one hand coming to rest on the butt of Maddy's modified rifle. "We ain't Alliance," he says, voice all soft despite the emphasis on the middle word, sending something mighty uncomfortable up the back of Jayne's spine.

He and the fence stare on at each other for a little longer, Jayne itching to draw his revolver but knowing that ain't the wisest thing he could do at this juncture. Then the fence leans back again, a different grin on her face this time, one more crooked, easier, less pointed. "What's your asking price, then?" she says, and Simon shifts his stance, hand slipping off the rifle to hook onto the leather of the belt, other hand rising to stroke his chin thoughtfully. He offers a figure; she offers to raise it if they want to take up her offer on doing some of the deliveries themselves. "Smoothin' out the system," she says as she shakes Simon's hand, and then Jayne's, and Jayne gets the feeling that he's missed something.

Simon's in a right cheerful mood after that, though it sits different on him than it does on ordinary folk, but Jayne's gotten used to it, now. Simon don't gab more, just offers sharp little responses to just about everything; responses that get returns of nervous laughter, mostly, and end in a sharp-edged kinda half-smile on Simon's face. Jayne's learnt to just ignore it instead of laughing along, with either Simon or the unfortunate barkeep that don't seem to know what's just been said; but always finds he relaxes some when Simon's in this state of mind, anyhow.

They get food at the local tavern, bright inside but too hot, with the thick glass front letting all the sunlight in, but it only makes them all the more ready to enjoy the air moving against their skin when they get outside again. Then Simon drops back a bit, half a pace or so, letting Jayne lead the way to somewhere further out than the centre of the hub, somewhere with less people and more abandoned buildings. When they get there, Simon don't waste no time in shoving Jayne against a wall, sliding his (improbably cool) hand into Jayne's pants, biting Jayne's neck.

When the sun starts sinking and the heat eases off some, they head back to the warehouse. The fence ain't there, but some of the folk who'd welcomed their arrival the last time are, and they lead Simon and Jayne to a yard 'round the back where a dusty old land mule's waiting, keys in the ignition, recycled-looking crates sitting ready on the back. Jayne takes some time distributing the medicines he'd been left carrying into the crates (which don't take so long, as about half of it were left in with the fence after all the hand-shaking) while one of the goons hands Simon a data chip, says a few words.

Jayne drives, the feel of the ground moving blur-quick along beneath them more exhilarating than he expected, but then, it's been years since he's had a vehicle of his own to get around. Simon slots the data chip into the display on the dash, and the screen of it lights up his face long after sundown, as they keep on driving into the night.

*

Maybe it's the fact that they've got the mule now, that they don't get so exhausted just making short trips no more; but the drop-run seems to take a lot longer than Jayne anticipated. Part of it's the covering more ground, visiting all the local dealers the fence has listed on her data chip; but part of it is the fact that Simon gets into the habit of spending some time in each settlement after each drop, waiting til the meds get on the market, as it were, and helping the more one-on-one applications of them. They may have the mule, but Simon's more exhausted than ever, and most of the time he sleeps while Jayne drives.

Which helps, some, when Jayne wakes him up before dawn on the day after they've made their last drop, hustling him into the mule, and he's out again 'fore he can start whining about staying longer, though Jayne suspects that under it all he's probably grateful. Jayne figures it's easier, somehow when things out of your control take hold of a situation for you. They ain't used to sleeping on the road but settle back into it easy enough, even though it's getting cold, it ain't started raining this season yet, and it's enough just to keep each other warm.

The clouds are rolling over by the time they get home, though, making it feel later than it is, darker, and the stop off at Ursa for the rest of their coin hardly slowed them down none either. A window alongside the back door's broken, and the wet air that's rushing in of a sudden makes the torn curtain billow out of it. Jayne swears, but he can't even hear himself, and is in the house before he's even realised he's off the mule. He slows when he gets into the hall, though, a fine carpet of dust rushing around his feet, the sound of a door slamming and creaking in the wind from somewhere further in the house, the walls all dark around him. His gun's in his hand, and Simon behind him, and when the figure darts out in front of him he's surprised hisself that he ain't shooting first and asking questions later, but as it is, he's got the boy against the wall, forearm across his throat, his feet scrabbling at the floor.

"You'd better have some answers, boy," Jayne growls, and the boy chokes a little, fingers clawing at Jayne's arm, eyes wide and terrified. They dart over Jayne's shoulder, and Jayne knows Simon's standing there.

"Cobb--" the boy huffs out breathlessly, and Jayne eases the pressure a little. "Mr Cobb, sir, it ain't what you think--"

Jayne recognises him, then, bringing home with a sudden jerk just how long its been since the other folk in the settlement have paid any mind to the Cobb family. Last time Jayne saw him he was considerably younger, having his leg stitched up by Simon at the kitchen table, but he's almost a man, now, maybe sixteen, maybe a bit older; never did seem to grow up fast like Jayne did. "And what is it that I think?" Jayne draws his arm back, leaving just his hand resting broad just below the boy's throat. He still looks terrified.

"I didn't do nothin'," the kid says, and his eyes flicker again past Jayne's shoulder. "I didn't do nothin', Doc, it's just I ain't seen her for some days, and I know she's been mighty ill--" Simon moves, then, Jayne hears his footsteps move rapidly toward Ma's room. "I didn't touch nothin', I promise, I was just… Tryin' to help her."

"Jayne," Simon's voice, low and urgent, and Jayne drops his hand away and it's only a couple of paces to Ma's room from there but it's like he's stepped into foreign parts, like he's stepped out into the dark and each time he sets his foot down he ain't never been there before, but then he's in his Ma's room, seeing Simon crouched down beside the bed, seeing Ma laying there, her eyes open, and black with dust.

*

The thunder rolls in, but it don't stop Simon none, and so the house is so quiet with just Jayne sitting on in there, feeling the black press in and the boards of the house creak as the water starts streaming down the outside of it. Jayne's still awake when Simon gets back, and the rain ain't eased none so he's soaked, dripping all over Ma's floor and an angry bruise standing out on his cheekbone.

Jayne runs a finger down the scar again, sharp white line. "You git your revenge this time?"

Simon don't flinch, but don't lean into it neither. "Something like that."

They wrap her body and take her out into the plains; Jayne don't want to bury her in no place where she weren't welcome, so they pick a spot their feet crossed many times. The ground's soft from the rain, and high enough that the water's running all away from it instead of pooling up; the grasses'll come grow here first after the wet season's done with, coming up high and green before dying off in the first wave of heat. Jayne sets the rock they've carved her name into down in the soft earth, where they've stomped it down flat. Won't even be able to see it for very long, just til everything comes and grows up around it. Still know it's there, though. He runs his fingers over the deep-scored letters one last time; Vera Cobb.

When he stands up, Simon's face is grim. They don't say nothing.

*

It ain't no use going where there's nothing to go to, so they head on out from there without stopping by the settlement. They got the mule, and coin and guns and each other, and an invisible trail of places they've been, threads they can pick up on. The fence in Ursa don't look unhappy to see them neither, and offers then a good deal on distributing the rest of the meds, even suggesting some more cargo and the locations they might want to pick them up at.

It's good money, and they're good at it, ain't never hungry, or cold, and there gets to be places where they can leave the mule when they're walking on in to a job, and places where they can sleep with a roof over their heads and a clean bed to lay on.

Then things get a little skewed. A job they never shoulda been doing on an Alliance arsenal goes bad, and they manage to get out without the bounty, but with a bullet in Simon's shoulder. They ain't ever been short of medicine, but it still takes longer'n either of them like for it to heal, and when they get on the move again they find out things ain't as welcome for them as they once were. They spend more time on the road than doing business, and even the fence in Ursa's reluctant to give them a deal.

Jayne thinks of the house, sitting empty in the settlement, and thinks of how they ain't been eating regular of late, and how Simon's getting more and more quiet and how the wound's healed up beyond paining him now, but how he still flinches when Jayne brushes a thumb over it.

When they head on back they find there ain't no house to go to, just a wide square of muddied ash, blackened stumps of foundations rising up from it. Jayne thinks of all the boxes left stacked and untouched in Maddy's room for so long, thinks of the worn floorboards in the hall, and the way he knew just how to jiggle the back door so's it opened for him. There's still some junk back in the yard, but it's been depleted some, and there ain't no fence marking the land no more neither.

"Jayne," Simon says, and puts his hand on Jayne's back. Jayne just walks on away from it, not looking back.

*

They head to Agnes, remembering the vibrant blackout zone, the anonymity in crowds and fancy clothing. The job offer comes in good time, when the coin from selling the mule's near run out. It's a transport job that need's doing on the sly, and extra couple pairs of hands needed that know how to conceal stuff from prying eyes.

It feels strange to be walking again, doubly so because they're heading further south, relatively unfamiliar territory, and it's greener, more shrub and curving land than flat, grassy plane or the inexorable slopes scarred by the quarries, riddled with mines. They talk about what would happen if they just kept walking; how long it would take them to reach sea. Jayne ain't never seen it before, and Simon talks about shuttle rides over water, about a blue planet left behind and him out in the black. Strange words in Simon's mouth, wisping out like smoke escaping being swallowed down. Osiris. Father.

The fence in Agnes had given them half to seal the deal, with the other half expected on delivery, so when they get to the town who's name they've been given in relation to more finite coordinates, they can afford to bed down somewhere reasonably clean and out of the elements. Which turns out to be quite fortunate, as the town seems to be crawling with Alliance. Jayne can't figure it, this kinda town in this kinda place, running smooth on its own with the sheriff's office having shop-front window like all the other stores on the strip, ain't no room even in that back-lot for all the uniformed folk he's seeing walking around.

They lay low, and Simon sleeps uneasily, keeping Jayne mostly awake and then when Jayne does wake up again he can't tell if he's slept at all except that Simon's silent, eyes closed, beside him. Jayne don't move, and time falls away from him some; he can feel the ache in his legs and lower back from so many miles walking, feel the almost-pain where he's lying on Simon's bent elbow, feel the slight prickle of cold over his shoulders where the blanket's slipped down. It's all distant, though, things layering the surface of him that won't shift none if he just keeps still.

When the colour coming in round the curtain starts to lighten, he slides his hand down, outlining Simon's hip with his thumb. Simon's eyes come open, slow-like, then blink stickily before he screws them up, stretches, pressing against the length of Jayne's body as his spine curves before stilling again, face a considerable amount closer. His pupils are wide, still sleep-drugged, and Jayne can't really tell how tired he looks from this close, just gets stuck in the details of the edge where Simon starts shaving in front of his ear, the curl of unwashed hair toward his forehead, the carefully etched lines between his eyebrows and the faint freckles over the bridge of his nose; too much walking in the sun.

"Ready?" Jayne asks, and Simon nods.

*

It kinda gets all tied up with the burgeoning waves of unease that've been growing in Jayne's belly since they arrived in the town, but the biggest surprise, it seems, is that it ain't really a surprise when they find they're being followed. They start off following the coordinates but it don't seem like much use once the town's outta sight and the hum of the Alliance transport starts coming on up behind them. Jayne realises that it's almost with a sense of relief that he recognises it; something in him easing that's been building since the crabbed arsenal job.

The ground ain't flat like it is further north so they got some time still before the transport even has them in visual range; they crouch down behind a hillock, which ain't gonna be cover much for anything if things turn out that way. Simon's gun's already in his hand, shoulders tense and straight, and Jayne draws his revolver.

"Never expected it to come out like this," Jayne comments, feeling the need to say something, and finds that he ain't really lying.

Simon gives an odd noise, one Jayne's come to recognise as a laugh from the fierce twist it gives to Jayne's gut. When Jayne looks at him, though, Simon's giving an open-mouthed smile like he ain't even aware he's doing it, and Jayne finds he can't think of a time where that ain't made him want to see what it feels like against his own mouth. Simon's eyes scan over the landscape in front of them before turning back to Jayne. "Never really expected anything," he says, and then the transport comes into view.

The fact that there're only a few of them aboard it gives Jayne a slender thread of hope that he weren't expecting; and they come 'round only a few yards to the left of the hillock. Jayne sees up close that one of them catches sight, but they're going fast enough that by the time the passenger manages to relay that to the driver and the transport starts to slow, they're already past. And Jayne's already stood up, and aimed, and the rear resistance thruster kinda just implodes with a blinding flash even as his arm lifts a little with the kickback. Jayne don't even have to think, is already following alongside Simon as he strides on through the grass toward where the passengers have come to rest; one pinned beneath the now sickly humming vehicle, one rising up quick enough but still looking dazed, lifting what looks like a comm unit to his mouth until the motion's stopped by the fact that Jayne's gun's trained right on him, and Jayne probably don't look like he'd hesitate, at this point.

Then some more things happen that he weren't expecting, that were stupid of him not to. Something presses into the base of Jayne's skull and he hears a voice speak low and a little breathless behind him. "Drop it."

Jayne lets go of the revolver, sees out of the corner of his eye Simon's gaze fixed on him, Maddy's rifle slowly lowering also. The Alliance with the comm unit slots it away like he ain't got no use for it no more, draws instead his weapon, smirk plastered all over his face as he steps slowly toward Simon. "Doctor Simon Tam," he says, "you are hereby bound by law." The man's eyes flit to Jayne, and still that self-assured curl to his lip. "Jayne Cobb, you're bound on charge of aiding a know fugi--" The last syllable's cut off by the rifle-crack, his arms splayed out for an instant before his body drops into the deep grass. Jayne don't think, just heaves himself backwards, ears ringing still and a sharp pain in his arm before his fingers are pressing down into the fragile flesh of the Alliance man's throat, his face hidden in the grass but his hands beating with decreasing energy at Jayne's, and then still.

There's an odd noise when he stands up, and the gunshot finally clears from his hearing; the humming from the transport's engine's stopped, and he can hear the sounds that the man trapped beneath it's making. Simon's still standing there, ain't moved much, gun still heavy in his hand and hanging down by his thigh. He's staring at where the man he shot fell, but looks up and follows when Jayne walks by him.

The man under the transport's messed up real bad. Jayne's revolver's still in the grass back where he almost got arrested, so he lifts Simon's hand, presses the sawn-off muzzle of the rifle to the already-bloodied temple and moves his hand to squeeze finger and trigger at the same time.

It's real quiet after that. Then Simon's hands are on his arm and Jayne realises he's been shot again, probably when he floored the one that tried to arrest him, but it only stings some; looks like it's just burned along his sleeve and grazed the flesh a little underneath.

"Ain't nothin'," Jayne says, and Simon's mouth tastes like gunmetal.

*

There ain't really anywhere for them to go, after that. They find the cargo and push on west; ain't no question of taking it back for the rest of the coin, especially when they crack it open to discover it's a whole crate of them nutrition-bricks what the Alliance distributes to help start up the new settlements. They take all they can carry, and head on into the landscape that proves a little wilder, more grown-over, offering a little more cover from any thing that's gonna be looking out for them from the air. There ain't no question of pushing on down to the water; even with what little schooling Jayne's had he knows that the coast's like to have more eyes on it that anywhere else, and he don't know what's on the other side of the water no how.

Then they come to the end of a forest that abruptly turned into cleared land, and small houses made of damp wood, and there ain't hardly anyone there, just a few families that look kinda terrified when Jayne and Simon walk on into their almost-settlement, happy to trade some of the nutrition blocks for some real meat, and fruit, and a roof to keep the rain off, and even seen right keen to assure Jayne that they ain't gonna say nothing to no one about none of it.

The further they go, the bigger and closer together these new settlements get, and any of them with folk more'n will fit in a town hall sport a sheriff's office too, plastic Alliance shield all out of place with the rest of the rough-hewn wooden architecture. Eventually they get to a town big enough that there's a neighbourhood in it that most folk avoid, so they head toward that. It becomes pretty clear pretty fast that there ain't no one willing to do business with them, even this far out. They find somewhere to sleep, and even shower, and Simon's skin starts to feel warm again after what seems like to Jayne like an age. Jayne's muscles ache the next morning from pressing up close to him even in his sleep.

Then they get news of a deal going on a click or so north. It's all cleared country, out here, mostly grazing but a lot of empty lots waiting to be filled, too.

"We could do it," Simon says, determined.

Jayne ain't so sure. Part of the reason they heard about it at all is because the folk doing the job ain't to be messed with, otherwise there's no way they woulda gotten news down wind about cargo so expensive.

"We know this ground, could get there first, on foot. See where they leave it," Simon continues when Jayne don't say nothing. "Jayne," he says, and leaves the rest unspoken, not because it ain't true, but because Jayne knows it already. What do we have to lose?

They don't get there early enough, and it seems to Jayne like they've underestimated them doing the job just a little. There're tracks, though, from a land mule, and Jayne's been watching their backs long enough now that he can recognise marks left by Alliance tread, but that ain't the case this time. The track's strange, though, like it's been made by something going in both directions, and it takes a while before he figures it out, and can't help but laugh. Simon don't ask why, just jogs alongside when Jayne picks a direction and starts following it.

He's a little less cheerful when they get to where the tracks stop, and then even moreso once they've spent some time scoping the area. There ain't no sign of the cargo, not even after more'n hour of looking.

"I can't figure it," Jayne says eventually, exasperated. "It ain't right. The tracks stop here, they start heading back from here. The dump must be close by."

"Unless it's a diversion," Simon says, voice holding nothing beyond a kind of surrendered hopelessness.

Jayne grits his teeth. "Only one way to find out," he says.

*

They come across them late afternoon, and Jayne's sure it were a useless thing to aim for in the first place but as it turns out, their mule's stopped. Broken down. No surprise really; from the look of it it seems to be the kind of vehicle that lives in the cargo bay of some ancient-class ship, not meant for long trips, or too much heat or damp. It's dark enough that he and Simon can stay out of sight even in the relatively bare landscape. Looking on unobserved. There're two of them, both armed, the man bitching and cussing while the woman stands on with her hands on her hips, not saying a word. The back of the mule's empty but for a half-full water tank, and Jayne's heart sinks a little, knowing that they're further away from the cargo than they were before they made the decision to follow. There ain't no other option left to them now, and he rests his fingers on Simon's wrist for a moment before shifting, slowly rising up out of the grass.

The woman sees him sooner'n he expected, but he ain't so slow on the draw himself, and it even takes the man a moment to realise his partner's pointing her gun at someone who's aiming right back, and then he realises there's another one trained on him, and he stops his cussing right quick, then.

"Where is it," Jayne says. It's getting dark and he don't have time for this. There's a kind of hollow hunger below his ribcage, eating in at his guts like the dark's starting to eat in at the detail of the landscape.

"Whoa, now," the man says, his eyes darting from Jayne to Simon, aborting a not-so-subtle reach for his own weapon as the cocking of Maddy's rifle clicks without ceremony or subtlety. His hands slowly lift into the air. "Not sure I know what you folks're talking about."

"Tell her to drop her weapon," Simon says, not wavering, and the man stares back at him for long moments before his head dips in a careful nod, and then Jayne relaxes some as the woman slowly crouches down and lays her gun on the ground, stepping back a few paces before lifting her own arms.

"The cargo," Jayne says. "Where is it?"

"Don't rightly know what cargo you're talking about," the man says. "Zoë? You know anything about any cargo?"

"No, sir," the woman responds, deadpan. Jayne ain't impressed.

"If you don't tell us," he grits. "We'll have to shoot you."

He sees Simon shift a little out of the corner of his eye, and sees the edge of the man's mouth curl up a little. He don't like it.

"What my friend's trying to say, is," Simon says, voice low and calm and doing that thing again that makes Jayne glad of the fact that he's rarely on the receiving end of it. "It ain't in your best interests to be bandying about words, here."

"No," the man says, and his gaze only flickers to Jayne on occasion, now, staying mostly on Simon. "I suppose it ain't. Say," any traces of a smile are pushed aside and he takes on a demeanour more similar to that of his poker-faced partner. "You folks track us all the way back here?"

Simon gives a short nod.

"Well ain't that convenient, seeing as we were just looking at a way of getting un-lost ourselves."

Jayne scowls a little at the continuing lack of plain-talk. "Y'all were just following your own tracks back anyhow. What use've you for a tracker?"

"I can think of a couple," the man says, "and some for a merc or two, too." Jayne blinks, and relaxes a little further when Simon don't seem too concerned at the man shifting a little, scratching his head, turning to his partner with one hand still in the air. "Don't you think?"

"Might be some use in it, sir," she says.

"How much they payin' you, to track us here? What kinda cut you gettin’?" the man says, and Jayne responds when Simon don't.

"Ain't no one payin' us," his voice is gruffer than he expected it to be, when he ain't trying to put on no act. "Makin' our own luck."

The man don't try and hide the smile this time, but Jayne still finds it just as difficult to read. "Fifteen, for both of you," he says abruptly, and before Jayne can open his mouth again Simon's saying,

"Twelve. Each."

"Twelve? You looking to keep us all on the ground? I ain't gonna be able to afford fuel and food with crew charging that much for services."

"I'm a doctor," Simon says.

Even Jayne can tell that the man ain't sure whether to believe him or not, and he drops his hands, hooking them into his belt and rocking back on his heels a little.

"'S'true," Jayne says. "I wouldn't be standing alive here in front of you right now if it weren't."

"Well," the man says, "now I know who to thank." The man's eyes narrow, and he looks to Simon for a long moment. "Ten. And you'll have to share a bunk."

"That ain't gonna be a problem."

One eyebrow raised, the man glances from Jayne to Simon before giving a swift nod. "Shiny." He holds out a hand and Jayne lowers his gun once Simon has, watching on as Simon steps forward to shake the man's hand. "Doctor…?"

"Tam," Simon says. "Simon Tam."

"Malcolm Reynolds. Captain. This here's my first mate Zoë, and this is…?"

It all seems oddly formal, after weeks with naught but damp and mud and silences they didn't need to speak into, but Simon don't seem unnerved by any of it. "Jayne Cobb," Jayne offers, and holsters his gun to shake the Captain's hand. It's been a long while since he's had to work for someone else.

"Charmed," the Captain says, then, "You wouldn't happen know the coordinates for this very spot, would you?"

Simon does, of course, and Zoë goes back to the mule and lifts a battered looking comm to her mouth. "Wash?" she says, and there's a response immediately. "You can come get us now." She recites the coordinates, and Jayne finds that he's quite happy to wait, then, til the battered-looking ship comes over, her spotlights lighting up the young night sky and her thrusters whipping Simon's hair about 'til she settles on ground.

It's bigger'n any ship Jayne's ever seen, and when he glances over at Simon he finds that Simon's already watching him grinning like a crazy person, like he can't help it. Simon's mouth twists into a smile that Jayne suspects ain't that different from his own, answering Jayne before Jayne even has to ask. "Alright."