Actions

Work Header

What Makes Us Mighty

Chapter Text

“She’s gettin’ worse,” Jayne said.

“I know,” Mal replied without taking his eyes off the schematics in front of him.

It was a lost cause and he knew it. He had never been able to understand the inner workings of Serenity, not like little Kaylee. It hurt, just a little, that his boat could talk to his mechanic in ways he was too stupid to understand, but he’d learned to live with it. Except now he couldn’t live with it, because his mechanic wasn’t here. Nor was his first mate. Or his doctor. No, they had been caught in the middle of a civil uprising on a backwater planet and now they were in an Alliance internment camp on some Godforsaken moon. And the hell of it was, he didn’t even know which moon yet, because he couldn’t keep his gorram ship in the sky half the time, never mind pay the kinds of bribes that needed to be paid for information like that.

Not to mention finance a rescue operation.

The simple truth was, he was having trouble simply keeping him, Jayne, and River fed and Serenity fueled, and that had been before they’d run out of River’s meds. River wasn’t normal, never would be, but she’d been pretty damn lucid since Miranda, despite her penchant for figurative language. The doc had found a drug cocktail that helped regulate her some, keep her here and now and verbal, but now, without Simon, they were in a fix. She was, as Jayne had said, getting worse, slipping back into her own fractured world a little more each day, and it was killing him to watch it.

“They’re gonna lock her up,” Jayne said. “You know that, don’t you?”

“She ain’t wanted anymore, Jayne,” Mal said. “We was in that jail on Greenleaf overnight, back before…” he cleared his throat, having a hard time even saying the name of the planet where half his crew had been arrested and deported before he even knew what was going on. “Before D’Aria. Plenty of time to wave, but no feds. Operative kept his word, they’re not lookin’ anymore.”

“That’s not what I’m talkin’ about, Mal,” Jayne said. “Did you see those looks we was gettin’ on Boros? They was ready to call for the people with the straightjackets to come haul her off. If they’d o’ done that, what were we gonna say? ‘You can’t, us two suspicious lookin’ húndàns[1] need her for our shady dealin’s?’ We’d o’ been took for slavers or worse.”

“Seems she may have to stay on the ship ‘til she’s a mite more stable,” Mal said without conviction, hoping maybe Jayne would leave it alone. He did not want to deal with this right now.

“Can’t do that and you know it,” Jayne said.

Mal did know it. Truth was, even barking mad, River’s abilities were the only advantage they had, what with their skeleton crew, ailing ship, and contacts who just wouldn’t quit trying to shoot him. They couldn’t afford not to use her, but Jayne was right, too many more displays like the one at the bar on Boros and they’d be hauling her off to a psych ward and throwing him and Jayne in a lockdown. Mal sighed.

“Ship couldn’t hold her anyways, she had a mind to leave” he admitted. “No lock in the ‘verse is enough to stop our little genius.”

“What’re we gonna do?” Jayne asked.

Mal rubbed his hands over his face. He had no rutting idea what they were going to do and that was the honest truth.

“Achilles must claim Iphigenia.”

Both men turned. River stood in the doorway to the bridge, pale as a ghost, her hair a wild tangle, staring over their heads at something only she could see.

“Course change set, little Albatross?” Mal asked.

“Turning, turning, turning,” she said, stepping forward, bare feet pointed. “Must spot, pirouette without falling down.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” Mal said. “What’s this about Achilles and Iphigenia?”

He knew she had a plan, the trick was figuring out a way for her to tell him what it was. Since Miranda, it had become clear that her genius brain was every bit as genius as her brother had said, and still working mighty fine despite the pretty hefty dings the Alliance had put in it. But it had been hard for her to communicate everything she thought and felt even on her best days and now it was getting damn near impossible. Especially since he’d never heard of half the obscure references she used when her own thoughts got tangled up too bad to get her point across.

“Iphigenia went to Aulis trusting her father to keep her safe” River said, walking past Jayne seemingly without seeing him, eyes still fixed on a point somewhere near the tea canisters. “Didn’t know her father had tricked her. Wanted to sacrifice her to Aphrodite, let the ships sail to find Helen. Real girl sacrificed for the idea of a perfect woman.”

“Crazy,” Jayne said, “I know you can’t make sense right now, but you gotta try a little ruttin’ harder than that, you want a couple a dumbasses like us to catch your drift.”

“It pains me to admit it, but Jayne is right,” Mal said. “Don’t happen often, I know, but when it does, it tends to be a very special occasion. Warrants some consideration.”

River smiled slightly, like he’d hoped she would, and and for a moment her eyes seemed to focus, just a little. His little reader was still in there somewhere. He just had to get his doctor back and get her out.

“Iphigenia could not protest,” she said. “Her father promised to sacrifice her and his army demanded it. No words of hers could save her and her father could not take it back.”

“Oh, I do not like the sound a’ that,” Mal said. “You tellin’ me you’re gonna die on me, little Albatross?”

She shook her head vigorously, pressing the heels of her hands into her eyes.

“Sacrificed,” she said, “Sacrificed for the vision of a perfect woman.”

“Sacrificed by who?” Mal said, trying to find something concrete to hang onto.

“The Akhians,” River whispered, “Smug in their self-righteousness, think because there’s a handful of them being dumb together, that makes them right, no idea there’s a whole ‘verse out there thinking different.”

Her description struck a chord somewhere in his brain, something he’d once said about petty planetside officials who had never travelled the black and couldn’t understand how big the ‘verse was and how arrogant they were for thinking they could control it.

“You’re talkin’ about the authorities planetside?” Mal asked.  

River looked up at him and smiled.

“Top of the class,” she said, sounding eerily like Kaylee for a second, then her voice went back to being hers again. “See a real girl, but she is not perfect, want to cast her aside for an imaginary woman she can never be.” Her voice hardened. “Not their business,” she said, “Helen would not be theirs, even if she was real, so what do they care if Iphigenia is not Helen?”

“Sounds mighty officious to me,” Mal agreed. “Seems Iphigenia is a whole lot shinier than some prairie harpy as don’t exist. So what do we do?”

“Agamemnon lured his daughter to Aulis under false pretenses,” River said. “Told her mother she was to marry Achilles, the greatest of the Akhians.” She smiled dreamily. “Achilles liked her. Said she would have made a worthy wife.” She struggled to focus again. “Achilles can stop the sacrifice,” she said.

“How?” Mal asked.

“Make the lie the truth,” River said.

“Still not gettin’ you here, little one,” Mal said.

“Agamemnon does not have the power to stop the sacrifice,” River said, “Nor does Clytemnestra. Iphigenia speaks for herself and is ignored. Achilles speaks, but does not have the right. Must claim the right before the Akhians will listen.”

“And how does he do that?” Mal asked.

“Fulfil false promise,” she said. “Go to the altar, but not to spill blood.”

Shèng de jiāopèi kōngjiān jīng[2] Mal swore. “You sayin’ what I think you’re sayin’?”

“Mal?” Jayne asked, clearly very lost.

Mal looked at Jayne with something akin to horror.

“She’s sayin’ one of us should marry her,” he said.

He fully expected Jayne to get all loud and belligerent, saying no way was he marrying the fēng le[3] girl. He depended on Jayne Cobb for that kind of vociferous protest against anything that threatened his self-interest or made him in any way uncomfortable. But Jayne was frowning, looking for all the world like he was thinking.

Well, that was downright creepifying. Jayne Cobb thinking.

“Lost,” River murmured, looking at Jayne with unfocused eyes. “Crying, darkness, blood, curled up in a ball. Aunt Nancy wanted to bring her home, take care of her, but he refused. Wanted the shiny white coats to take her away, get the other woman back.”

“Get outa my head, Moonbrain,” Jayne snarled.

“What’s she talkin’ about, Jayne?” Mal asked.

“Cousin o’ mine,” Jayne answered, still glaring at the girl. “Went fēng le after she lost her second baby. My aunt said it were natural after a miscarriage, would pass in time, but her husband were some fancy city type, wanted her all fixed up yesterday. Sent her off to some hospital and there weren’t nothin’ Aunt Nancy could do.”

“Opened her veins, let the light in,” River said, sounding like she was going to cry. “Cold light, white light in a white room. Forgot what the sun felt like. Better to go with the tiny angel than stay in a cold world.”

“Hey, hey,” Mal said, standing up and going over to the girl. “Stop that, darlin’.”

He put an awkward arm around her slender shoulders and led her over to the table, sitting her down in the chair he’d been occupying.

“Why don’t you take a look at these here schematics, see what’s makin’ Serenity’s engine sound like a box o’ tin pans?” he said. “Take your mind off cold lights and tiny angels.”

“She is right, Mal,” Jayne said as River began studying the schematics. “Comes to a choice about whether she gets locked up, family’s got pull and a husband’s got the most.”

Tā mā de wǒ de zǔxiān,”[4] Mal said. “You sayin’ you think we should go along with this fǔ huài de[5] plan of hers?”

The big merc shrugged.

“Let’s face it, Mal, you and I ain’t exactly the brains of this here operation,” he asked. “Even crazy as a wombat, she can think circles ‘round us. She says this is what we should do, it’s probably what we should do.”

Mal’s mouth dropped open.

“I’m dreamin’,” he said weakly. “This is a really, really bad dream.”

“Whatsa matter, Mal?” Jayne said. “All in all, this is one of our tamer es-ca-paydes. It ain’t like we gotta kill nobody and the odds of you gettin’ shot are lower’n...well, lower’n they ever get, in the normal run of things.”

“She’s a kid, Jayne,” Mal snapped. “And right now, she’s a crazy kid. She is not in the right mind to be makin’ this kind o’ decision.”

River cocked her head.

Non compos mentis,” she said, seemingly agreeing. “Can’t give legal consent. Not allowed in the Core. Evil stepmother protects folk from themselves.” She looked straight at Mal. “On the rim now,” she said. “Not relevant.”

“Don’t make it right, darlin’,” Mal said.

She grinned at him.

“You— I— that’s a dumb planet,” she said, sounding like him now. Mal vaguely remembered saying something like that to YoSaffBridge before she kissed him unconscious and tried to steal his ship.

“Just ‘cause she’s a crazy kid don’t mean she deserves t’ be locked up in a ruttin’ hospital,” Jayne said. “You know what they did t’ her Mal. That was me, I’d rather slit my throat than go back where people was gonna wanna be pokin’ at my brain.”

River began to get agitated.

“Two by two, hands of blue,” she whimpered. “Poke needles in my eyes, ask me what I see. Some of our best work is done while they’re asleepThe neural stripping does tend to fragment their own reality matrix— Scary monsters.

Mal shot Jayne a dirty look.

“Really?” he said. “You had to go say the exact thing guaranteed to make our resident crazy person even more crazy?”

Mal rubbed his hands gently up and down River’s arms. He’d found that it helped, when she got worked up, to touch her, to hold her hands or rub her arms or stroke her hair, like she was a skittish horse he was trying to calm down. It made sense, he supposed. People were mammals, after all, so what worked for a spooked horse should work for a spooked girl.

“Hey, ain’t me that’s lettin’ overdeveloped scruples stand in the way of doin’ what’s needful,” Jayne said.

She was calming down now, her focus turning to the schematics. Mal continued to rub her arms as he glared at Jayne.

“Jayne, since when do you care what happens to River?” he demanded. “Seem to remember an incident that indicated pretty much the opposite. An incident that ended with an airlock”

“I care since she’s been keepin’ me from gettin’ et by Reavers or shot by our backstabbing gǒu shǐ chī contacts, that’s when,” Jayne said, his voice rising. “You remember what you said when you was fixin’ t’ suck me outa that airlock?”

Mal surely did. His words ran through his head, but they came out of River’s mouth.

You turn on any o’ my crew, you turn on me,” she growled, voice deep and strident.

Mal jumped. No matter how often it happened, it was all kinds of startling when she did stuff like that.

“Didn’t make no kind o’ sense t’ me then,” Jayne said. “Way I saw it, she was just a fēng le kid, like t’ kill us all in our sleep, not worth anything but th’ coin they were offering for her. Still didn’t get it when you brought her back on board after that yǔ wūshuǐ jí nèizàng[6] on Beaumond and I sure as hell didn’t get it when we made a suicide run through Reaver space on her say-so. But then those blast doors opened and she was standin’ there covered in blood with all those Reavers dead around her, and I figured it out.”

“If you think I helped her because I knew that someday she would kill a shipful of Reavers to save me and mine, I think you missed the moral of that little lesson, Jayne,” Mal said, his voice hard.

“No Mal, that’s the whole gorram point,” Jayne said. “You had no way o’ knowin’ you’d get anything out o’ helpin’ her, but because you did, she was willin’ t’ die a right grisly death for us.”

“Conjure her brother was on her mind too,” Mal pointed out.

“You look after me, Simon,” River said, tracing a conduit on the schematics, “You always look after me. My turn.”

“Damn right,” Jayne said, apparently unphased, although she had to have picked that up out of his mind. “He looked after her, you looked after her, and then she looked after all of us because she thought it was her turn. Well, now Zoe, Kaylee, and the Doc are in trouble and she’s goin’ moonbrained again, it looks like it’s my turn.”

Mal blinked. It sounded as if Jayne Cobb had actually learned something from his time aboard Serenity. And if that wasn’t a terrifying thought, he didn’t know what was.

“Daddy is disturbed,” River said to Jayne. “Child is picking up bad habits from the parent, learning to be stupid, to fight for a losing cause because it’s the right thing to do. ”

“You mean Mal’s worried I’m learnin’ to be like him?” Jayne asked.

“Very noble path, but not conducive to good health,” River said. “Parent wants child to survive. Genetic imperative.”

“Hey,” Mal said, disturbed by River’s choice of metaphor. “Ain’t no genetics of mine attached to Jayne Cobb, you hear me, Albatross?”

“Well, if he wants me bein’ a selfish húndàn, he can try this on fer size,” Jayne said. “We’re already down more’n half our crew and of the three of us, she’s the one as keeps our sorry asses alive and in th’ sky. We have t’ leave her on the ship, we may as well just give up and go on the drift, ‘cause we’re done.”

He was right. Malcolm Reynolds and Jayne Cobb could not run Serenity alone, never mind get the sort of paying work to keep her in the air. River was the one who could stretch the fuel, jury rig the engine, and shoot the bad guys with her eyes closed, even if she couldn’t explain what she was doing. Without her to fill in for their missing crew members, Serenity would have been grounded in the first week.

Damnit. When had Jayne Cobb gotten smart?

“Children grow up so fast,” River murmured. Then she laid one long finger over a particular part of the diagram in front of her. “This is where Serenity hurts,” she said.

Mal looked where River was pointing, but it made no sense to him. He couldn’t even really tell what exactly it was she was pointing at.

“Can you find this part, I get you to a yard?” he asked.

She gave him the look. The ‘you absolute and utter boob’ look, the look she gave Simon when he’d swallowed both feet so far he was chewing on his own kneecaps. Mal sighed heavily. Jayne was right, they couldn’t even buy new parts without River. No way in hell they could keep her locked in the ship, no matter how damaging to everyone’s calm she was when she was out and about.

“Okay,” he said, “Looks like we got a stop to make when we hit dirt. How long ‘til we get to Oberon?”

“14 hours, 12 minutes, 16 seconds,” River said. “Approximately.”

 

***

 

“Well, that went well,” Mal muttered, looking dourly at the bag of parts that had almost gotten them...he didn’t even know what. He just knew that the owner of the junkyard thought that River was a victim of unspeakable atrocities, Jayne was a perverted lowlife, and Mal was too stupid to live. It was just dumb luck— well, actually, dumb brute intimidation— that had gotten them on their way before she decided what to do about it.

“You ain’t much of a liar,” Jayne said. “Never seen anything quite that pathetic.”

“Oh, and your show of honesty was so much better,” Mal snapped.

“Got us outa there, didn’t it?” Jayne said. “With a discount.”

“72.4% chance that a call to the authorities would have happened before our departure on the Captain’s former trajectory,” River said, her voice flat. “After Jayne’s course change, likelihood increased to 94.9%, but time interval also increased. We will be .568 miles away before she works up the nerve to call her sister.”

Both men looked at River with weary anticipation, waiting for the punchline.

“Ariana Yacobo Hanson, Sheriff’s Deputy,” River supplied obligingly.

Local sheriff’s department. Just perfect.

Mal had been trying to make a point. He had insisted that they could conduct their business at the scrapyard and be on their way without a fuss, intent on proving the three of them could keep on just fine without resorting to River’s Iphigenia scheme. But then, just when they’d gotten everything they needed and were getting down to the haggling, River had touched something— the hood of beat-up federal skimmer, Mal was pretty sure— and had flipped out. She’d started whimpering about smelling fear and feeling the bite of metal and choking on the seed of the protector and Mal and Jayne had stood there wishing this stupid rock would just open and swallow them up.

Mal had tried to smooth it over, smiling his most winsome smile and commenting on the whimsicality of his pilot, but the owner had not bought it. She started asking pointed questions about who they were and who River was and what she was talking about, all of which made it clear that she thought River was describing her own experiences at the hands of the two men with her. Mal had lost his head then and had begun babbling about how she was Jayne’s kid sister and their ma had sent her to them to avoid some unpleasantness at home and that, honest to God, she’d been fine this morning, he didn’t know what had gotten into her. The owner’s look had gotten positively murderous and Jayne had chosen that moment to step in.

He had told the woman, with a menacing growl in his voice, that she had better ignore the girl and sell them the parts or he was going to get tetchy real fast. Since he already looked pretty tetchy, the threat seemed a little tardy, but the woman had taken in the gun strapped to his leg and the muscle jumping in his jaw and agreed to a ridiculously low price just to get them the hell off her lot.

And, if River was to be believed, work up the nerve to call her sister at the sheriff’s office.

“You just had to touch the piece a junk with those kinda memories on it, didn’t you little Albatross?” Mal groused. “Couldn’t o’ been one with puppies and kittens, no, it had to be a fed skimmer where a couple o’ purple bellies took advantage o’ some poor soul who couldn’t fight back.”

He’d figured out pretty quick what River was whimpering about, but it hadn’t helped. What was he supposed to say? ‘So sorry, my pilot’s a psychic and a couple o’ lowlife feds raped someone on that skimmer’? Yeah, as Zoe would say, that would have been fun.

“She apologizes,” River said, hanging her head and shrinking into herself. “No puppies to touch. Only screams that could not be screamed. Choking, gagging on...”

“Yeah, we get the point,” Jayne said hurriedly, looking queasy. “So, you done, Mal, or do you wanna keep trying to prove you’re right until we actually get arrested? ‘If that lady had called th’ law before we got outa there, we woulda been humped and you know it.”

Bì zuǐ!”[7] Mal snapped. River’s visceral imagery was making him feel a little on the peaky side himself. “We’ll talk about it when we’re back on the boat. Right now, we got to go meet with Yitani and pick up our cargo.”

 

***

 

“Okay,” Mal said, glaring at his pilot and his merc across the table. “If we do this— if— who is River marrying?”

The pickup had gone smoothly, all things considered, but River had succeeded in creeping out their employer by telling him exactly which of his grunts had been skimming from him and how much, which had made the whole encounter a little tense.

“Role of Achilles presents complications,” River said fretfully. “Available resources adequate, but do not distribute evenly.”

Mal was too tired and too worried to keep track of River’s complex metaphor.

“Speak plain, little Albatross,” he snapped.

Tears filled River’s eyes.

“Spinning, spinning, spinning,” she murmured. “Chaos…” Her voice rose. “Broken,” she said. “Too broken, drifting…”

With a whimper, she scrambled out of her chair and rain for the bridge. Mal pinched the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes. When he opened them again, Jayne was wearing an expression that said clearer than any words, nice work, dumbass.

“Okay, so that’s the one thing she can’t do,” Mal acknowledged.

“Don’t get why you’re so twisted up about this, Mal,” Jayne said. “Like I said, far as our plans go, this is pretty tame.”

“Jayne, do you even know what marriage means?” Mal asked. “Or is there not room for that in your brain, what with all the guns and the violence?”

He was in a bad mood and Jayne was the perfect object for all his pent up aggression.

“You need me to be good with guns and violence,” Jayne said testily. “That’s why you hired me.”

“I hired you ‘cause you was about to shoot us!” Mal said, his voice rising.

“And since I signed on, you had to make anyone else th’ same offer?” Jayne countered.

Mal had to own, that particular need had not arisen, but he didn’t want to say it. Jayne, however, rightly took his silence as acknowledgement.

“Mal, what is makin’ you such a gorram píqì bàozào de hóuzi de pìgu?”[8] he said.

“Jayne, do I have to spell it out for you?” Mal said. “The girl ain’t been with anyone. Between goin’ to the academy at fourteen and then bein’ out in the black on Serenity, not to mention crazy, she’s had the life of a gorram nun. And that… I mean t’ say… they will notice, Jayne. Some well-meanin’ folk get ahold of River and start fussin’ over her mental state, first thing they’re gonna do is give her a full physical, and they’re gonna be mighty suspicious when it comes up that she’s … uh… you know… ”

“Ya mean that she’s a virgin?” Jayne supplied.

Mal winced. Jayne really didn’t believe in leaving anything to inference, did he?

“Yeah,” he said. “That’s what I mean.”

“Why’d they even be checkin’ on that?” Jayne said, looking puzzled and more than a little disturbed.

“‘S somethin’ they do with head cases,” Mal said. “Inara explained it to me once when she was talkin’ about th’ counseling work she did at the trainin’ house. I won’t… look, th’ details ain’t for the like of you and me t’ be discussin’, but the general picture is, girl comes in with mental problems and no history and they check for signs of… abuse. Body scan’s less invasive, so they do that if they’ve got one, but if not, they just, well, look. Like I said, ain’t gonna be talkin’ on the details, but th’ thing is, they can tell if she ain’t been… if she hasn’t… ”

“Gotten with anyone,” Jayne supplied.

Mal nodded.

“And that right there is a whole passel o’ trouble,” he said. “There’ll be all sorts a’ uncomfortable questions about why th’ happy couple ain’t been… well… happy.”

“So you’re sayin’ that whoever marries her is gonna have t’ sex her,” Jayne said.

Yup, Jayne Cobb really did want everything spelled out nice and clear and simple. Mal closed his eyes.

“Yes Jayne,” he said, “That is what I’m sayin’.”

Jayne shifted uncomfortably.

“You think she’s figured that out?” he asked.

Mal didn’t have quite the same facility with the ‘you boob’ look that River did, but he gave it his best shot.

“Right,” Jayne muttered. “Genius.”

There was a long, awkward silence.

“Mal,” said Jayne, “I don’t think you should be th’ one t’ do it.”

Mal blinked at the other man. He most certainly did not want to get biblical with his pilot— he really didn’t, the fact that his body found her all sorts of interesting did not count, his head knew better— but he was a little offended that his his crude, selfish, uncouth merc thought that he was unfit for the job.

“Girl’s a reader, Mal,” Jayne said.

“Yeah, I think we’re all aware o’ that,” Mal snapped.

“Well, seems like the idea of sexin’ her gives you a powerful uncomfortableness,” Jayne said. “Listenin’ t’ you twist yourself up inta knots while you two… I mean, I ain’t a girl or crazy, but that sounds all kinds of upsettin’ t’ me.”

Mal could not exactly disagree.

“So here’s what I’m thinkin’,” Jayne went on. “I’ll do that part. Ain’t gonna bother me like it’ll bother you, she won’t have to read nothin’ bad off a’ me. But you gotta sign th’ papers. Me, I’m just a big, dumb merc, don’t know nothin’. People listen to you. It may give ‘em the urge t’ shoot you sometimes, but they listen. Maybe it’s that whole sergeant thing, I dunno. Point is, she gets into trouble, you’re th’ one who can get her out of it.”

Mal leaned forward and put his head in his hands. He felt a powerful urge to hit something.

“So I marry her, you bed her, and we all live happily ever after?” Mal said. “Touchin’ story. I may need a hanky.”

He got to his feet and opened one of the cabinets, yanking out a bottle of cheap rotgut and a glass.

“Okay,” he said, splashing the liquor into the cup and tossing it back in one gulp. “We do this. And I hope t’ God the Shepherd ain’t watchin’ us from on high somewhere, because if he is, we’re both goin’ t’ end up in a very special corner a’ hell.”

He brought the bottle back to the table and poured another shot before dropping his head back into his hands.

 

***

 

Jayne looked at Mal helplessly. He wished to hell that Zoe was here. Nobody else could deal with the captain when he got himself all twisted up about something and clearly Mal was about as twisted up right now as a man could get.

It wasn’t that Jayne didn’t have his own problems with this idea. Women, in Jayne Cobb’s world, came in two categories: family and trim. Family were the women you owed something to, women you looked out for, women you didn’t sex. Trim were the women you didn’t owe nothing to, all dealings on a firmly monetary basis, and you could sex them all you wanted, assuming they were agreeable. River was family. It broke the rules. Added to that, River was River. Taking care of her was gorram complicated on the best of days. Zoe or Kaylee were different, they were older and more experienced and hadn’t had their brains dissected by the Alliance. With River… well, it was so gorram hard to figure out what would hurt her and what would help her.

And speaking of which, he wished that it was a little clearer whether the girl actually understood the sex part of this plan, because she might be a crazy genius killer woman, but Mal was right, she was pretty gorram innocent about some things. Again, with Kaylee or Zoe he wouldn’t have been so worried, but River had had a whole lot of people putting a whole lot of things in her without her say-so and he knew she was still a mite fragile on that count. She didn’t even like her own brother sticking needles in her. He and Mal weren’t her brother and this was a hell of a lot more than needles.

So yeah, Jayne was unhappy about the situation and nervous about River getting hurt, but Mal seemed to object to the idea on principle. He was torturing himself about right and wrong in a way Jayne really couldn’t begin to understand. For Jayne, right and wrong didn’t exist until there was a specific situation at hand. For instance, shooting people wasn’t wrong, it was what he did for a living, but shooting, say, Kaylee was all sorts of wrong. She was his mei mei and she was the sweetest person he knew and she couldn’t hurt a fly even if she really wanted to and for all those reasons, Kaylee should never, ever get shot. So sexing River might have been wrong before, but now it was how they were going to keep her from being taken away. Since River being taken away was one of Mal’s cardinal wrongs— man had taken them through Reaver space to keep it from happening— Jayne would have thought that anything that kept her on Serenity would have been about as right as a body could get. But apparently, there was something he still didn’t get about the whole right and wrong thing, at least, about Mal’s right and wrong.

Jayne shook his head and got to his feet. He stretched, feeling his spine pop, and, with a troubled look at the captain, set off towards the bridge. There wasn’t a single gorram thing he could think of to help the man in his current mood.

Instead, he went looking for the person who probably could have helped Mal, assuming she weren’t crazy. Of course, if she weren’t crazy, Mal wouldn’t be going round the bend, so it was a bit of a puzzle. Jayne didn’t like puzzles much. Not because he couldn’t do them, but because they offended his sense of order. All that twisting and turning was not for him. He liked straight lines or, at the most, gentle curves.

And wǒ de ma,[9] it had been too gorram long since he’d gotten laid, because straight lines and gentle curves had him thinking about crazy girls legs. Oh, this was all sorts of not good. Sure he’d volunteered to sex the girl ‘cause it needed doing, but… tā mā de,[10] he weren’t supposed to want to!

“Girl, you up there?” he asked gruffly, stopping in the door onto the bridge.

“Uncertain,” said a small voice from the pilot’s chair. “Variables… probabilities… I am what I am. False, but Iago or Satan? Unclear.”

“Damn, girl, you’re havin’ a rough day, aren’t you?” Jayne said, entering the bridge and moving to the co-pilot’s chair.

She met his eyes as he sat down. She was sitting in Wash’s old seat, her arms around her knees, bare feet perched on the edge of the chair.

“You don’t want to think she is sexually desirable,” she said, her brown eyes big and glassy.

“Gorramit, girl, you wasn’t supposed t’ hear that,” Jaybe growled.

Havin’ a rough day,” she repeated in his accent.

He sighed.

“Hard to block stuff out, huh?” he said.

She nodded.

“That why you bugged out?” Jayne asked, leaning back in the chair and jerking his thumb towards the mess.

She frowned and rubbed hard at her forehead.

“Leader’s neural activity causes resonation several orders of magnitude greater than is optimal,” she said. At his uncomprehending look, she clarified. “Captain is loud.”

Jayne snorted and rubbed a hand across his eyes.

“Not surprised,” he said. “Man has a burr th’ size of a tarantula under his tail about this plan o’ yours.”

River whimpered and drew back into the chair, face crumpling with distress.

“Hey, hey, not your fault,” Jayne said hastily.

“Arachnids in inappropriate places,” River said. “Cannot be allowed.”

Jayne frowned, stumped by the unfamiliar word for a moment, but when he realized what she meant, he smirked.

“You’re scared of spiders?” he said, delighted. “Big bad Reaver killer like you, afraid of some itty bitty spiders?”

She glared at him.

Too. Many. Legs,” she hissed vehemently.

He couldn’t help it, he burst out laughing. Her face slowly relaxed and a dreamy smile replaced her look of distress.

“Laughter warm like sunshine,” she said, “Comfortable like a blanket, soothing like Serenity’s heartbeat.”

“Yeah, guess we ain’t had enough to laugh about, this past month,” Jayne said. “Speakin’ o’ which, any idea what t’ do about the captain? He’s twisted himself up so tight it’s a wonder he ain’t choked hisself yet. You bein’ able t’ see in his head and all, thought you might have some ideas.”

River grimaced.

“Don’t like it in there,” she said. “Back and forth, back and forth. Get seasick.”

“Well, it could be worse,” Jayne offered. “You could be Mal instead o’ just havin’ t’ listen to him. Livin’ in his head— no wonder th’ man’s so crotchety. Must be powerful unpleasant, being seasick all the time”

She tilted her head, considering him for a moment, then giggled.

“Being an albatross is better,” she agreed. “Fly above the waves, maintain vestibular integrity.” She got a distant look on her face. “His head won’t be seasick-making forever,” she said. “We’ll help.”

“Well, that’s what I was askin’,” Jayne said. “How?”

River turned her chair and began pulling something up on the cortex.

“Rome on Earth-that-Was,” she said as though that explained everything.

Jayne let out a short bark of laughter.

“If that was s’posed t’ tell me anything, Crazy, it done failed,” he said.

She frowned, hands pausing on the keyboard.

“Staircase,” she said slowly. “It’s a staircase, not an elevator.”

Jayne sighed.

“How ‘bout you just tell me what I gotta do?” he tried. “I don’t doubt you gotta plan and I’m pretty sure it’ll work, but I don’t need t’ understand it. Hows abouts you just tell me my part?”

“For now, be Lancelot, ” she said. “Cannot be Tristan, won’t end well. Later… be Jayne.”

Jayne stiffened. Didn’t need to be a genius to figure out what she meant by “being Jayne.” It was like the captain said, he was good at one thing: violence. No shame in that, but it did mean that, when the Moonbrain said he needed to be Jayne, she was saying he was gonna need to kill some folk.

“We headin’ into trouble, Crazy Girl?” he asked.

She flashed him a brilliant smile that made his stomach flip in a curious way.

“Always,” she said.

“Fair ‘nough,” Jayne said, not as annoyed as he should have been, “But do I need t’ be gettin’ Vera right now, or should I wait ‘til later?”

“Time is relative,” River said.

He growled impatiently.

“Vera will be your mistress by the time you need her,” she said. “Do not worry, she understands. First, we must build our Round Table or nobody gets to dance. It’ll work better this time. Camelot fell because of problematic social norms. Can be circumvented now.”

“Okay, violence can wait,” Jayne said, pretty sure he’d gotten that part. “But the rest… I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about, Crazy Girl. Sorry.”

“Told you,” River said, still tapping away on the cortex, “Available resources adequate, but do not distribute evenly. Must adapt the equation.”

She finished what she was doing and beckoned him over. He hauled himself to his feet and went to look at the screen. The tag was for an interplanetary law database and River had pulled up a specific page labeled “family law>marriage>forms of marriage>Circe.”

“Five forms of marriage are used on Circe. Of those five, four are recognized by the Alliance within certain parameters.

“Monogamous: a marriage between two partners of any gender

“Polygamous: a marriage between one man and two or more women

“Polyandrous: a marriage between one women and two or more men

“Polyamorous: a marriage between more than two men or more than two women

“Polygynandrous: a marriage between two or more women and two or more men

“For reasons pertaining to taxation, the Alliance does not validate marriages between more than three people. Polygamous, polyandrous, and polyamorous marriages involving three partners are valid on any world, but those involving more than three people are only valid on Circe. Since polygynandrous marriages involve a minimum of four partners, this type of marriage is not valid anywhere but Circe”

Jayne blinked at the screen. The big words were downright annoying, not to mention all looking the same, but he got the gist quick enough.

Wǒ de ma,” he swore. “Well if that don’t beat all. Never knew there were so many ways of doin’ it.”

Not a dumb planet,” River said.

“Why you showin’ this to me?” Jayne asked.

“Because Camelot must not fall,” River said. “Keep her in the sky.”

Aha! Keeping her in the sky, this he could understand.

Serenity is Camelot,” he said, wanting to be sure he was right.

River nodded.

“And this,” he gestured to the cortex link, “This has somethin’ t’ do with how we keep her flyin’?”

River nodded again.

“King must marry the puppet, make her into a real girl, but cannot do it alone” she said. “Will get lost in the dark. Need the knight to lead them out of the twisty forest. But cannot be like Arthur and Lancelot with Guinevere. Serenity cannot end in fire and a broken table.”

Jayne didn’t understand everything, but what she was saying about not doing it alone and a twisty forest was sounding sort of familiar.

“Were you listenin’ in on what we was talkin’ about after you left?” he asked.

She rolled her eyes.

Very loud,” she reminded him, pointing back towards the mess.

“So you know…” he trailed off, absolutely unable to finish the sentence.

She slid off the chair and stood in front of him, face sad. She reached up and put one hand on his cheek and his whole body jerked.

Ain’t gonna bother you like it’ll bother him,” she said in his accent.

She stroked his cheek and Jayne concentrated all his willpower on not moving a muscle.

“Girl, you thought about this?” he asked. “Really thought about it? ‘Cause doin’s different than knowin’ and I got no idea what it’s gonna do t’ that pretty head of yours.”

That long, slim hand left his face and pressed lightly against his chest. Jayne wasn’t sure which part was more of a turn-on: her delicate touch or the knowledge that that tiny hand could kill him in heartbeat.

“Baby bird in the nest,” she said. “Never flown before, cannot know. But cannot stay in the nest forever. Must spread its wings and fly.”

Now this, Jayne could understand. He’d grown up on a rural backwater of a moon, he’d seen baby birds aplenty. Always did wonder how they could get out of the nest the first time. It wasn’t like his little brothers and sisters learning to walk, a couple steps and plop, back on the ground. It was more of an all-or-nothing type of deal.

Also, did she know what else ‘fly’ meant besides flappin’ wings?

“Sexuality serves several roles in primate evolution,” River said. “Procreation, motivation, social bonding. Very important.”

Jayne’s mind went blank. He had been trying to keep it together, her really had, but when she started talking about sex using those big words, his brain shut down.

Why the hell was her using those crazy-ass jaw-crackers so gorram hot?

“It’s alright,” River said, and for a moment, she was all there, her brown eyes bright and mischievous and looking at him as opposed to through him. “Sex is natural. Something humans were built to do. Built to fly.”

Oddly, her moment of lucidity was what got his tongue and at least a little bit of his brain working again.

“You think you’re built to fly, baby girl?” he asked roughly.

He winced. It had come out cruder than he mean. He’d actually been trying to ask a serious question, find out how much she’d explored… ah… ‘flying’ and whether she thought she’d like doing it with a partner, but damn, it had come out dirty.

Although, whoa now, the way her eyes were filling up with tears, it looked like she’d taken it even more serious than he had meant it.

“Actual and whole!” she said, tears spilling down her cheeks. “Girl! Not weapon!”

“Hey, hey!” Jayne said, grabbing her shoulders in his big hands and rubbing his rough palms awkwardly down the satiny smooth skin of her arms, trying to calm her down like he’d seen the captain doing. “Easy there!”

“Tried to take those parts away,” River whimpered, swimming eyes unfocused. Her fingers curled against his chest, tangling in the fabric of his shirt. “Make her not feel, not want, not know. Don’t need those parts to kill. Superfluous, interfere with performance. Not ideal for defense deployment.”

Oh, lā shǐ.[11] He had been so worried about messing up that little head of hers any more, he’d forgotten what the people who had messed it up in the first place had been trying to do. They’d been trying to make the perfect weapon and, having seen the Operative’s handiwork, he knew their vision of a perfect weapon would be one that didn’t have any kind of feelings or urges whatsoever, definitely not that kind.

They would most certainly not have built her to ‘fly.’

“Hey, hey,” he said, shaking her gently, “Those stupid húndàns couldn’t put t’gether a water pistol if you drew ‘em a gorram diagram. They certainly couldn’t put together a crazy little genius like you. Whatever you are, they did not make you, dong ma?[12] All your parts are still there, they just messed with some of ‘em, that’s all.”

“Clip the wings, they’re still there,” she sobbed. “Pretty decoration, not functional.”

“Aw, hell,” Jayne said.

He’d never been any good at words anyways. He put one hand under her chin and tilted her head up, meeting her tear-filled eyes for a second before bending his head and pressing his mouth against hers.

 

***

River knew many things.

She knew to the fourth decimal place how fast Serenity was moving relative to the twelve nearest astral bodies. She knew how many times per minute each heart on Serenity was beating. She knew that, based on the poem Arquehale but Xin Clark, Serenity was “Tumbling through the night / Around an alien sun.”

What she hadn’t known, until this moment, was just where she ended and the ship began. But now her skin, that fragile boundary between her and not her, was alive with tactile sensation, so achingly warm and sensitive that she could feel—she could feel—every inch of it.

River knew many things.

She knew that she was broken, a shell with a crack in it, a crack that let the universe in. She knew that, because she was broken, there were many things that, according to the laws of the planet she had been born on, she was not supposed to be able to decide—whether to enlist in the armed forces, whether to take out a monetary loan, whether to enter into matrimony. And she knew that, according to current psychological research, it was considered inadvisable to self-medicate for severe mental disorders with alcohol, drugs, or sexual intercourse.

What she had not known was that a simple kiss could overwhelm all of the voices in her head that told her these things. It couldn’t make them go away—they would never go away—but it could make them…irrelevant.

River knew many things.

But now she was learning something new.

 

***

 

Jayne did not make a habit of kissing, so maybe he’d just forgotten, but he was pretty sure he’d never felt anything as warm and soft has River’s lips. She made a tiny, surprised sound and it parted her lips just enough that he could really kiss her and damn, she tasted good. He slid his hand down off her shoulder, but oh, right, this wasn’t about whether he was built to fly, it was about whether she was, so instead of grabbing her ass like he wanted to, he slid his palm across the small of her back. Sure enough, she gasped and arched into him and oh shit, she had to have felt that, but gorram it, he couldn’t help it and she was the one who’d been talking about this being natural and all.

He kept stroking her back and she pressed closer, whimpering into his mouth, and he realized that he had better stop this before the experiment got out of hand. He broke the kiss and pulled her head against his shoulder, burying his fingers in her silky, tangled hair. They were both breathing hard and she was shaking a little.

“See?” he said, voice a little hoarse. “Definitely built t’ fly.”

“Actual and whole,” she whispered.

“Damn right,” he said.

She pressed herself harder against him and he closed his eyes, thinking real hard on what kinds of protein they had in the galley and ranking them in his head from ‘tastes bad’ to ‘tastes like old socks’ to ‘please, Buddha, make it stop.’ Didn’t help much, but it did make the girl giggle.

“The blue one is particularly offensive,” she agreed.

He laughed and felt her relax a little against him.

“You alright?” he asked.

“Broken,” she said, “But the parts are still there. He has proved his point, nothing lost, just damaged.”

“Seems t’ me those particular… uh… parts is pretty shiny,” he said, then cursed himself. Everything that came out of his mouth was dirty as hell all of a sudden. “I mean,” he said hastily, “Don’t look like they’re damaged at all, work pretty much like they’re s’posed to.”

She gave a little laugh.

“It’s alright,” she said. “She understands. Also, learning new metaphors. She likes metaphors.”

“Mal finds out I’m teachin’ you to talk dirty, he’s gonna pop somethin’,” Jayne said.

She lifted her head and looked up at him. Her cheeks still had tear tracks on them, but she wasn’t crying anymore. Her eyes were focused, but unreadable, looking at him and beyond him at the same time.

“King needs the broken doll and the knight to lead him out of the woods,” she said. “Needs sunshine.”

“You mean he needs a good laugh?” Jayne asked, remembering earlier when she had called laughter sunshine.

“Needs to be a real boy even more than she needs to be a real girl,” she said in seeming agreement.

“Ain’t that th’ truth,” Jayne said, smiling. “Okay, what do we do?”

“Broken doll is the glue of Camelot,” River murmured. “Without her, everything comes apart. Faithful knight serves his lady. Both serve the king, and the king keeps them safe.” She gave him a heartbreakingly earnest look. “They cannot leave the king in the wood while they run away into the meadow. Not polite. Camelot will fall out of the sky. ”

She pulled away from him and he clenched his teeth against her absence as she turned to the cortex and laid her finger on the screen.

“Three by three,” she murmured.

Jayne looked at the words under her finger: “Polyandrous: a marriage between one women and two or more men.”

It took a minute for her meaning to sink in.

Tā mā de wǒ de shēnghuó,[13] he swore.

This was beyond him and he knew it. Sex, he could deal with, but this was way, way more complicated.

“Mal!” he yelled, almost without thinking, “Think you better get up here!”

River smiled at him.

“See?” she said. “Three by three, need to be.”

 

***

 

“Huh.”

Mal stared at the cortex link, trying to process what he was seeing, but his brain refused to function. So instead, he said the first thing that came to mind.

“Ain’t that just typical. Alliance goes and interferes in a planet’s business for the sake of some tax credits.”

He heard River giggle from the pilot’s chair where she was sitting with her knees drawn up, looking like a mischievous twelve-year-old. Jayne was sprawled in the co-pilot’s chair looking like he’d been hit over the head with something heavy. Mal knew exactly how he felt. His own head was aching like a son-of-a-bitch. Mal closed his eyes and tried to focus.

“Okay,” he said in his best I-am-holding-onto-my-calm-by-my-fingernails, do-not-mess-with-me voice, “You mind explainin’ this to me, little Albatross?”

“Camelot must not crash and burn,” River said.

She was acting calm, but he could see the salt-tracks on her cheeks from where she’d been crying and her hair was pretty mussed. He winced. His fault, he knew. He’d snapped at her, blamed her for being crazy when it was those Alliance húndàns that needed blaming.

“Shhh,” River said. “Camel is already broken, adding more straws is redundant.”

“Huh?” Jayne said.

“Straw that broke the camel’s back,” River said. “Captain is feeling guilty, but carries too much guilt already. Has already broken the camel, now is just being mean to it.”

Jayne let out a choked snort of laughter and River smiled.

Mal felt his own lips twitch and covered it with a glower.

“When you’ve quite finished makin’ fun of me, little one, perhaps you could explain what you mean by crashin’ Camelot,” he said. “Way I remember it, Camelot was a city, and cities aren’t much given t’ crashing.”

River shrugged.

“Specifications change,” she said. “Concept parameters altered to apply to new situation.”

“She’s been tryin’ to explain it to me, Captain,” Jayne broke in. “Maybe you’ll understand better, you knowin’ what story she’s talkin’ about. She said Camelot was Serenity. Talked about a king and a knight and a broken table. I didn’t really get that part, but I understood what she pulled up on the cortex easy enough. She’s saying we have t’ do this whole marriage thing that way or Serenity crashes and burns.”

Mal folded his arms, trying to remember the book about the Knights of the Round Table that his Ma’s cook had read him when he was a kid.

“Camelot was built by a King called Arthur,” he said. “Man had some mighty idealistic notions, said all men were equal and built a round table where he and all his knights could sit and nobody’d be lording it over anybody else. But Sir Lancelot, th’ king’s noblest knight, slept with Queen Guinevere, th’ king’s wife, and the rest of the round table sentenced her to be burned at the stake for adultery. Arthur couldn’t pardon her without going against his own principles, so Lancelot raised an army and attacked Camelot. He rescued her, but Camelot fell.”

“Popular version, not accurate,” River said. “Best known though, needed to make widely comprehensible parallels.”

“So th’ moral a’ the story is, women is trouble?” Jayne asked.

River glowered at him.

“Little boys being stupid, fighting over toys,” she said. “Don’t listen to their mothers, set the house on fire.”

It was Mal’s turn to snort with laughter.

“Reckon you may have th’ right of it there,” he said. “So, you’re comparin’ our situation here to Camelot? Not terribly encouraging, darlin’. Also, not sure about callin’ Jayne Lancelot. Wasn’t Lancelot s’posed t’ be the most honorable of Arthur’s knights?”

River made an impatient sound.

“Perfection is illusory,” she snapped. “Must work with materials available.”

“Fair enough,” Mal said. “But it’s still soundin’ like this is all gonna end in tears. Or fire, as th’ case may be. Woulda thought you’d kinda had your fill o’ bein’ burned at the stake, what with that unpleasantness on Jianying.”

“Way I unnerstand it,” Jayne put in, “We’re s’posed t’ do better than them folks ye’re talkin’ about. Now that you’ve told the story, makes a little more sense. Far as I can figure, she… well, heard the conversation you and I had after she left, and she thinks we’re settin’ up to be like those fellows in the story. She’s saying we have t’ do it different, not make th’ same mistakes.”

Okay, so, this was making way too much sense. In a crazy-as-a-loon kind of way. But since it was the crazy girl’s idea, that shouldn’t really be surprising. And Mal had to admit, he had not been looking forward to marrying River only to send her to Jayne’s bed… and wǒ de ma, if that image wasn’t all sorts of damaging to his peace of mind. But surely the obvious solution was for Mal to consummate his own damn marriage or for River to marry Jayne.

“Won’t work,” River said.

“And why might that be?” Mal asked, folding his arms. “Seems th’ simpler answer.”

He already suspected that both of those options were flawed somehow, but having somebody else tell him so made him ornery.

“Guinevere and Arthur will get lost in the darkness, never find their way out,” River said. “Guinevere and Lancelot will set upon by rogues as soon as they leave the castle, king’s wrath will destroy everything.”

Oh, and that made way too much sense. He knew, in his heart, that if he married River and took her virginity, he’d drown them both in his own self-loathing. And if he let Jayne marry River, knowing that Jayne himself didn’t believe that he could protect her, and something happened to her… well, he’d probably kill them both, and anybody else that got in the way.

He scrubbed his hands over his face.

“I’m sorry, little Albatross,” he said. “I seem t’ be makin’ this all manner a’ complicated, don’t I?”

She slid out of her chair and put her arms around his waist, laying her head against his shoulder. He sighed and pulled her into a tight hug, pressing his cheek to her tousled hair and closing his eyes. He didn’t know what the hell was going on, but he did know that she was his crew, his Albatross, and that he would do anything in the ‘verse for her.

And just like that, everything became a whole lot less complicated.

“This what we need to do, Albatross?” he murmured into her hair.

“Yes,” she said. “To keep Serenity up, we all have to fly.”

The sound of Jayne choking brought Mal’s head up abruptly. The big merc was holding back laughter, but at the same time, he also looked kind of horrified and Mal raised an eyebrow.

“Something you would like to share, Jayne?” he asked.

“I— uh— no?” Jayne said.

The man didn’t seem to know which way to look and his twitchiness was making Mal a mite nervous. River raised her head, a sphinxlike smile on her lips.

“Questions concerning the ability to fly required empirical data,” she said. “Jayne instituted necessary experimentation to determine the girl’s aptitude. Evidence suggests she will fly exceptionally well with a compatible co-pilot.”

Jayne groaned and covered his face with his hands. Mal glowered at both of them.

“You mind tellin’ me what the sphincter hell you two are talkin’ about?” he asked sternly.

Jayne remained stubbornly silent. River tilted her head up and studied Mal solemnly.

“Best to show,” she said finally.

She slid out of Mal’s arms, grabbed his hand, and let him over to where Jayne was trying to disappear into the co-pilot’s chair. River reached out and laid her free hand on the mercenary’s chest.

“Needs to see,” she said. “Needs to see, like I did. Doll is more broken in his head than in real life, needs to see what’s really there.”

Jayne’s hands dropped from his face and he looked warily from River to Mal.

“He’s gonna kill me, Crazy,” he growled.

“Only if you crash her,” River said with a bright smile.

Jayne studied River for a moment, then pulled himself to his feet, looking down at the tiny girl with a half-smile.

“So you’re sayin’ if you like it, he won’t shoot me?” he asked.

“98.2% chance that all vital organs will remain intact,” River said.

Jayne grinned.

“Well then,” he said, “Better make it good.”

And he bent his head and kissed her,

Mal’s mouth fell open and he went automatically for his gun, but River, probably anticipating that reaction from him, had grabbed his gun-hand when she pulled him across the bridge and was now holding onto it with a truly tenacious grip.

And the girl knew what she was doing, because in the few seconds between reaching for his gun and realizing that River wasn’t going to let that happen, it sank into Mal’s dazed brain that she seemed to be enjoying herself. Jayne had her pulled right up against him, one hand on her back and the other buried in her hair, but River had her free hand around his neck, so it seemed like she wanted to be there. And, okay, he had his tongue in her mouth, but he was actually being pretty gentle about it, and, judging by the little moan she made, she sure as hell liked what he was doing. Hell, it was kind of sexy, in a weird sort of way, and…

Mal’s thoughts abruptly screeched to a halt and he made a low, strangled sound in his throat.

Special hell, his brain whimpered, special hell, special hell, special hell.

River broke the kiss and smiled up at Jayne, while at the same time giving Mal’s hand a reassuring squeeze.

“Enough now,” she said. “Positive feedback, but system overload is imminent. Can’t burn out the circuits, not nice.”

“No, we definitely shouldn’t fry the captain’s brain,” Jayne agreed, returning her smile. “He needs that t’ keep us outa trouble.”

Mal, once again— why couldn’t he just keep his mouth shut?— found himself saying the first bit of random flotsam that drifted across his mind.

“Thought you didn’t kiss ‘em on th’ mouth, Jayne.”

Jayne looked at him like he was insane, but— perhaps on the principle that it was always best to play along with crazy people— he humored him.

“Whores, Mal,” he said. “I don’t kiss whores on th’ mouth. They don’t like it. They ain’t Companions, they ain’t sellin’ all that emotional lèsè[14] and if you go askin’ ‘em for it, you’re a stupid húndàn. But don’t you think ye’re kinda missin’ th’ point here?”

River smiled at Mal kindly, as though she knew that he was running his mouth because he couldn’t help it… well, of course she knew. Reader.

“Not completely broken” she said. “Beat up, but has the parts, will still be able to fly.”

It would, Mal thought with some stray part of his brain that had mysteriously remained functional while the rest slid off the rails, have been infinitely better if he hadn’t remembered just then what ‘fly’ was slang for.

 

 

[1] Bastards

[2] Holy humping space whales

[3] Crazy

[4] Fuck my ancestors

[5] Addled

[6] Storm of sewage and entrails

[7] Shut up

[8] Grumpy monkey’s ass

[9] My god

[10] Fuck

[11] Shit

[12] Understand

[13] Fuck my life

[14] Garbage