Chapter 1: Absolution
Long after the crew had returned to the ship, long after dusk had started to fall, Jayne stayed on his knees by the grave. He scooped up a handful of dirt from the mound and fisted it in his hand before letting it sift through his fingers, the wind picking it up and carrying it away.
It reminded him of the way her hair would catch and blow around in the breeze.
'I'm sorry I never told ya. Wouldn't of changed nothin', but I wish I had.'
He'd been in love with her for years; he knew that. Hell, everybody on the crew except for River knew it.
But she was less than half his age and too smart for him. More importantly though, her mind was just too broken for her to be able to give conscious consent to any kind of relationship.
Simon had been regretful when he'd answered Jayne's questions along those lines. Things had changed between the two men since Miranda, and he'd told Jayne flat out he wouldn't object, if only he could find a way to heal her. But they both knew that would never happen; science had yet to learn to regenerate brain parts.
It hadn't stopped Jayne from living his life; he wasn't that kind of man. Hadn't stopped him from drinking and laughing, hadn't stopped him from loving and marrying Kaylee when Simon had finally put his foot in it one too many times.
But it had kept a special place, just for her, in the back of his head, had kept his eyes following her as she swung from good days to bad, had kept him gripping his gun a bit tighter when they landed on Core planets.
And it kept him here, immobile, by her graveside, regretting his silence. Because he knew he would always wonder, would forever question, if maybe she wouldn't have been so quick to pull the trigger if she'd known there was someone she was supposed to keep living for.
Chapter 2: Shakespeare
Jayne had been drunk since the funeral. Two weeks and he hadn't stopped smelling of whiskey and lumbering in a broken way through the ship. Mal had turned away two paying jobs waiting for him to sober up and everyone had started watching Kaylee like she was a ticking time bomb.
On the fifteenth morning, Simon found her in the kitchen, pouring two cups of coffee. She had dark circles under her eyes and her lids were red.
'Are you okay, Kaylee?' It was a stupid question, but Simon always followed the forms.
'Jus' fine!' she said brightly. 'Gettin' some coffee for Jayne!' She turned to go and Simon put his hand on her arm.
'Kaylee - ' he started gently, but she rounded on him fiercely.
'Don't. Don't you feel sorry for me. I knew 'bout her before we ever got married. We all did. He gave me ev'rything else he had, I ain't gonna begrudge him this.' Her smile turned slightly bitter. 'And it ain't like I wasn't already used to playin' second fiddle to her.'
Simon winced. 'I...'
'Don't apologize. I never blamed you for that, an' you know as well as me that ain't why we didn't make it.' The tightness around her eyes softened. 'He'll be fine, Simon. You know he always got like this when she had a bad spell. It's just lastin' a little longer this time.'
She resumed her journey toward their room and then paused at the door. ''Sides, I think he's comin' out of it. Tried to tell a joke this mornin'.'
'Really? Which one was it?' She was right. If Jayne was joking again, he was on the upswing.
She made a face. 'To be honest, he was mumblin' so bad I could hardly make it out. But he laughed real hard and said May as well fuckin' do it. We got the same goddamn initials after all. So, I ain't real sure what the punch line was., but then he sent me to get the coffee and said he was headed to the infirmary for somethin' to help wake 'im up. He's probably waitin' for you now.'
The phrasing clicked and the color drained from Simon's face. 'Dammit! I should never have given him that book.'
'Simon?' But he was roughly pushing past her and sprinting toward the infirmary, causing her to spill the coffee and burn her hands.
If Simon hadn't been in the kitchen, if he hadn't paused to try to comfort Kaylee, he would have made it in time to stop him. But Jayne knew Simon's routine just as he knew he'd never been able to resist helping Kaylee. When he finally made it to the infirmary, Jayne's eyes were already looking beyond him, his hands sliding clumsily off the syringe.
Right before his body fell limp, he looked suddenly worried and mumbled out. ''It's a bit backward, though, ain't it Doc?' Then he wheezed out a laugh. 'Guess it's okay. She always did say it was a girl's name.'
* * * * * * * * * * *
Chapter 3: Waiting
He walked through the swinging double doors of the Maidenhead. He frowned slightly, wondering how he'd gotten here, but he shrugged it off at the lure of a cool room and a colder drink.
He must have arrived at those few hours between close and open, because the place was deserted, all except for River, sitting at the bar, her back to him. She was wearing the dress she'd had on when she'd kicked his ass here and he smiled and lumbered down the stairs toward her.
As he neared, she spun around on the stool to face him and wordlessly held out a frosty mug. He took it gratefully and then crinkled his forehead at the contents.
'Milk?' He stared at her in disbelief.
The stool put her just a bit higher than him and she looked down her nose at him coolly. 'You have pickled your liver quite enough for the next several eternities.'
He remembered then. Oh.
'We're dead, huh?'
She nodded and giggled, the laughter running through him like bells. 'As door nails!'
'Now see, that's somethin' I ain't ever understood: door nails weren't never alive in the first place.'
She sat up straighter. 'It is an idiom from Earth-that-was, referencing the practice of flattening - '
He put his hand over her mouth. 'Hush, woman. That was one of them questions that didn't need no answer.'
She licked the palm of his hand and he jerked it back and rubbed it on his pant leg.
She grinned. 'Yes.'
He looked her over and realized how clear her eyes looked, like she was actually seeing him for the first time ever. If he'd had time before he'd arrived, he'd have worried she would appear like she had when he'd found her on the floor of the cargo bay, bloody and pale and missing pieces.
She nodded. 'No more broken bits. Whole on the inside and out.'
He grimaced. 'Still ain't managed to fix your nosy ass way of pokin' around my head.'
'No, but you love me that way.'
He put the drink down on the bar and leaned his forehead against hers, holding her face between his hands. 'Yeah, I do.'
They sat still that way for several long minutes, Jayne's hands eventually finding their way into her hair and River's to his arms. Her breath was warm against his face and it was easy enough for him to bridge the distance between their mouths.
She tasted exactly like he'd always known she would.
More time passed and then the juke box kicked on, playing a slow,soulful song from Earth-that-was. They drew back, both breathing a little ragged, and River held out her hand.
'Dance with me.'
He grasped the offered hand. 'Alright.' The only other time they'd danced had been at his and Kaylee's wedding.
He'd been so drunk that he maybe hadn't thought that part through completely. He frowned and met River's gaze.
'She gonna be alright?'
River arched one eyebrow at him and he realized that it might not have been exactly proper to mention his wife to her at a time like this. Maybe she would think it was impolite. He couldn't help it though. He couldn't change loving Kaylee anymore than he could change loving River.
'That bother you?'
She jumped off the barstool and used his hand to turn herself in a quick circle. 'Of course not. She is my sister; she made you happy. And you've always loved us in different parts of your brain.'
He led her toward the dance floor. Just before they reached it she grinned up at him mischievously.
'Besides, you'll have to share her with Simon soon enough.'
He thought about that for a minute. 'I guess that's good then. Don't want her to be lonely.'
'They will comfort each other. Will find that old arguments no longer mean quite as much.'
He pulled her into his arms and she nestled her head up against his chest. They swayed in time to the music for what might have been eternities before he had a thought. He ran his hand down her hair and buried his nose in the tresses.
'How's that all gonna work? You know, when they eventually get - ' He raised his head and peered around. 'Where exactly is this?'
He'd always suspicioned he'd end up in hell, but he knew this couldn't be that, not if River was here.
She stretched her hand up to cup his cheek. 'There is no hell, there is no heaven. Just this, the places we build for ourselves, constructed with our love and our friendships and our binding ties. We're just waiting for the rest of our family to come.'
'Aw, hell. You mean Mal's gonna be here, too? Damn man can't stop botherin' me even when I'm dead?'
She rolled her eyes. 'Of course. And Zoe and Inara, too. Book and Wash are already here.' She leaned up into him to whisper conspiratorially. 'They've just made themselves scarce to give us some alone time.'
'Hmm.' He pulled her tighter against him, not wanting any space between them. Not after waiting so long to be able to touch her at all. 'I always knew there was a reason I liked them two.'
Her hands were rubbing small circles on his back and he closed his eyes, his chest rumbling. 'So, you never answered me. What happens next?'
'You already know. Everything works out fine – just two more links added to the chain. It's why people who love always mistake this as heaven and those who reject it experience hell. It's a self created reality.'
'Reckon I came pretty close to the second one, didn't I?'
'Yes. Serenity saved you. She saved us all. Took all our broken bits and made something beautiful.'
The music finally trailed off and they halted, just standing into each other.
'Now, I believe there was another dance you wanted to show me?'
He whooped and swung her up into his arms before burying his face in her neck.
'Yep, I'm definitely callin' this one heaven.'