Mal says, “You ain’t got to take up with Jayne, Giles. You earned your spot on this boat free and clear.” Mal is wearing the earnest look he gives damsels in distress and orphaned children in need, the look that says he’s ferreted out an injustice and shall not rest until it has been righted.
Rupert stifles the urge to laugh in his captain’s face.
“I know that, Mal,” Rupert says. “I haven’t taken up with Jayne, as you put it, out of some misguided sense of self-preservation.” Far from it. Taking up with Jayne is a bit like touching one’s tongue to a battery—moderately unpleasant, thoroughly shocking, and utterly exhilarating. “But I appreciate your concern for me.” And Rupert truly does. Mal is a good man. He may not always behave legally, but Mal’s ethics are unimpeachable, and Rupert supposes no man could hope for higher praise.
Mal looks bewildered now. “Well, pardon me for sticking my nose where I ain’t got no call, but what in the ri shao gou shi bing are you doing with Jayne then?” Mal crosses his arms and leans against the bulkhead like he’s got all day to listen.
Rupert sighs. The answer to that question is complicated, and Rupert isn’t quite sure he understands the whole of it himself. He decides to go for obvious and crude. “For the most part, Jayne is blowing my ji ba on a regular basis, and I’m returning the favor just as often.”
Mal winces like the mental picture physically pains him, and then he scrubs his hand over the back of his neck and looks down at the deck. “Okay, then. You two enjoy that,” he says and all but runs up the stairs to the bridge.
“Fellatio is merely the foundation,” River says from underneath the mule. Only years of living on the Hellmouth keep Rupert from jumping backwards while shrieking. “Layers of bedrock underneath.” River pauses, her head cocked to the side as if she hears a voice that no one else can detect. Rupert doesn’t doubt that for an instant. “I can’t parse the sexual function of blowing on male genitalia.”
Rupert snorts. “Ask your brother. I’m sure he has a pamphlet tucked away somewhere.”
Jayne is a passable musician. His guitar is well made and as lovingly handled as Vera, the wood a smooth and buttery satin when Rupert runs his fingers across the grain.
Jayne plays for him sometimes: bastardizations of hymns that Rupert recalls from his days as an altar boy, folk tunes that have survived the centuries unscathed, and the bawdy drinking songs that spring up by the minute on every backwater moon on the Rim.
One day Rupert finds a music file on the Cortex, music from Earth That Was, music from Rupert’s past—Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones. His hands tremble when he saves the files to Serenity’s mainframe; the music takes up so little space, just a blip of data amidst star charts and engine specs and the complete works of Lao Tzu.
Jayne is in his bunk, a gleaming array of knives spread out on his thin sheets.
“I found something I think you’ll like,” Rupert says.
They listen for hours, Rupert singing along, and Jayne picking out notes on his guitar where he can. He makes Rupert play “Happiness is a Warm Gun” over and over again until he gets the basic chords right.
Rupert’s thigh is warm where it presses against Jayne’s, and Rupert’s face is wet for all he’s lost, and not once in the whole long night does Jayne ask Rupert for anything other than the words to the chorus of “Sister Morphine.”
Rupert is eating what passes for food on Serenity—a bowl full of protein and water with a handful of Inara’s precious spices thrown in. It’s not bad for a glorified MRE, but Rupert would certainly never choose to eat this soup if he had other alternatives. He never imagined in Sunnydale that he’d one day miss processed and packaged foods—pizza and candy bars and salty, butter-drenched popcorn. Oh, Rupert longs for vegetables fiercely, and he’d love to eat actual meat again before he dies, but what he craves most are snack foods. Rupert rather thinks he owes Xander an apology if he ever sees him again.
He can hear Kaylee and Zoe talking in the corridor, Kaylee’s merry laugh twining around Zoe’s soft alto. “Where’s Jayne?” Zoe asks. “I got boxes need moving in the hold.”
Kaylee’s voice gets louder, clearer, as she walks into the galley. “He’s got two hands full of tits about now, I reckon.” She breaks off when she sees Rupert sitting at the table. Her eyes grow comically wide, and she slaps a hand to her mouth. “Gosh, Giles. I’m sorry. I didn’t see you sitting there. I—”
Rupert cuts her off. “No apologies necessary, Kaylee. I know where Jayne spends his time dirtside.”
“And that don’t bother you none?” Zoe asks from the galley doorway.
“Not at all. His inoculations are up to date.”
“Zoe ain’t asking if you’re scared your pecker’s gonna fall off,” Kaylee says. She sits down across the table from Rupert and props her chin up on her hands. “Don’t it hurt your feelings that he’s off whoring while you’re all on your lonesome?”
Rupert sighs. Kaylee means well, and he can tell that she’s interested enough in his answer that she won’t be put off by protestations of invaded privacy. “Kaylee, Jayne and I are not now, nor do we ever intend to be, married. We are crewmates, and we are friends.” Kaylee looks almost disappointed by the never marrying bit, so Rupert rushes onward. “From what I have seen of your reality, most people’s lives are empty of joy and comfort. Why should I begrudge Jayne any pleasure he can find?”
“That makes sense, I guess,” Kaylee says, but she clearly thinks Rupert is certifiable.
Rupert wonders if he is crazy, if his reasoning should sound as flawed in his own ears as it does to his shipmates, if he ought to want more from this new life than what he has with Jayne, if he should be disappointed. But he’s not. Rupert isn’t disappointed at all.
Zoe says, “Ain’t enough sorrow in the ‘verse for me to stand idly by while Wash takes another woman to bed.” She comes into the galley, ladles herself a bowl of soup, and slides in beside Kaylee at the table. She looks up at Rupert then, her expression as serious as Rupert has ever seen it. “Folk have a way of sitting too easy in a routine, of walking the same path so long their feet lead the way with their head none the wiser. Being the only person in the room ain’t the only way to be alone, Giles.” And then she tucks in, her head bent down over her bowl.
Rupert looks down at his hands clutched around the pain in his gut. They’re stained with blood. His fingers are hot and slick with it.
“Doc’s gonna fix you up right as rain,” Jayne says from very far away.
Somehow Rupert is lying on the ground. He doesn’t remember moving. He can see the bright blue of the sky on this world above him, glossy and brilliant as a magazine page.
“Giles,” Jayne says, and the sky above Rupert heaves when Jayne lifts him into his arms. “Rupert,” Jayne says, and his voice breaks. “Wo de tian a,” Jayne says, and then all is blessedly dark for some time.
Rupert wakes up in the infirmary. Kaylee is asleep on the other bunk, and Simon is leaning against the wall with his eyes closed. Jayne is sitting in a chair by Rupert’s bedside; he’s holding Rupert’s hand, but he lets go the second Rupert stirs.
“Hey,” Jayne says. His eyes are the same impossible blue of the sky on Verbena.
“Hey,” Rupert says.
Jayne fishes in his pocket and pulls out a lapel pin—an enamel shamrock outlined in gold—and places it carefully in Rupert’s upturned palm. Rupert remembers seeing the pin on the sheriff’s coat before he drew his gun and shot Rupert in the belly. Rupert knows what this gift means. “Thank you,” he says and closes his fist tightly around the brooch.
Simon opens his eyes at the sound of Rupert’s voice, and Kaylee stretches herself awake, and Jayne hightails it out of the infirmary faster than Buffy faced with a research session.
Jayne doesn’t dote, and Jayne doesn’t cuddle, and Jayne doesn’t cater to Rupert’s every whim. But he carves a walking stick out of hardy pine, and he does Rupert’s share of the lifting while Rupert is healing, and he nails Rupert into the mattress the second Rupert’s knees can take the pressure.
“No need to panic,” Wash says. “Missing the rendezvous is all part of the plan.” He speaks in a determinedly cheerful tone, but his death grip on the console in front of him tightens.
Rupert very politely does not accuse the good pilot of bullshitting him.
They sit in silence for a long and uncomfortable moment, and then Wash clears his throat. “So,” he says. “You and Jayne. That doesn’t seem to be going away.”
Rupert resists the urge to roll his eyes. “Sorry to disappoint.”
“No worries,” Wash says. “I stayed far away from that betting pool. A man crazy enough to go steady with Jayne Cobb in the first place defies all logic and, thus, cannot be counted on to run away screaming in a timely fashion. Mal? Now that’s a disappointed man. He’s been on latrine duty three weeks running.”
“Are you joking?” Rupert can’t decide whether to be amused or very, very angry.
Wash makes a face that reminds Rupert of Xander. “Um, yes?”
Rupert is spared the trouble of making up his mind by the sound of Serenity’s cargo ramp descending. He and Wash rush to the hold just in time to watch Mal, Zoe and Jayne come on deck. Mal is a bit battered about the face, but he’s wearing a shit-eating grin. “Did you miss us?” he says.
Wash grabs Zoe around the waist and kisses her soundly. “Did we ever.”
Jayne seems to take that as his cue to stuff Rupert’s front pocket with coin before pulling his head down and laying a kiss on him that promises good things for the immediate future. The money is a solid weight against Rupert’s chest, and Jayne’s five o’clock shadow is a pleasant rasp on his jaw, and all in all, Rupert thinks this stacks up to a pretty good day.
“Thought you didn’t hold truck with kissing on the mouth,” Mal says when they break for air.
Jayne slings an arm around Rupert’s shoulders. “This here’s my exception.”
“Oh, Mal,” Rupert calls out behind him as Jayne manhandles him up the stairs. “I do believe it’s your turn to clean the septic system.”
Rupert is in the galley chopping vegetables with Shepherd Book while Simon grinds spices with his mortar and pestle and Inara makes tea.
Shepherd Book says as he slices tomatoes into perfect rounds, “You and Jayne continue to confound most of this crew.”
Everyone stops working. The silence is absolute and oppressive.
“Well, let’s make it unanimous then,” Rupert says wearily. “I wouldn’t want anyone to actually approve of my relationship with Jayne. That would be far too easy.”
Shepherd Book puts down his knife and wipes his hand on a towel. “Quite the opposite actually. I very much approve of your relationship with Jayne.”
Rupert nearly slices off his thumb. “I beg your pardon?” he says. “I expected that you would have the most problem with us.”
“Why?” Shepherd Book says.
“Your religious beliefs are an evolution of Christianity, yes?” Rupert says. When Shepherd Book nods, Rupert continues. “On Earth That Was, most iterations of Christianity disapproved of homosexuality, to put it mildly.”
“The Good Book has plenty to say about committing sexual sin outside of marriage. It has nothing to say, however, about whose hand is on the plow, so to speak.” Shepherd Book throws a handful of onions into hot oil and waits until the hissing dies down. “I must admit that I’d rather you made honest men of one another, but that’s not my decision to make.”
Rupert can barely speak around the lump in his throat. “Thank you.”
“Jayne reminds you of someone you knew in your old life before Serenity,” Inara says, and Rupert is struck once again by how perceptive she can be.
“Yes,” Rupert says. “He does.”
“Far be it from me to suggest that I understand what you see in Jayne, but you smile more now.” Inara pours tea for each of them, and Rupert takes his cup gratefully. “I don’t know why, but he makes you happy. I like you happy.”
Simon says nothing, but Rupert isn’t surprised. Mal took particular relish in telling him what Jayne did on Ariel. Rupert can’t excuse Jayne’s behavior, doesn’t even want to, but he’d like to believe that Jayne has changed since then. Rupert would like to believe he’s been part of that change.
When the mouth-watering aroma of butter, garlic, and onions starts to permeate Serenity, the crew shows up in the galley one by one. The room quickly becomes crowded, noisy, and filled with laughter. Rupert remembers other tables, other meals, and he allows himself one brief moment of bittersweet memory. Then he takes his place at Jayne’s side, bellies up to the table with the rest of those whom Rupert has come to regard as family, heaps his plate high, and digs in.