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Chapter Text

Title: Wingtip
Author: alianora
Rating: R
Summery: Ariel AU. Simon gets left behind.
This is, in fact, sort of a Rayne story. But not exactly. *innocent smile*

Chapter Text




Simon hadn't seen it coming.

The men had appeared out of nowhere, just as they were leaving the hospital. There were too many, and they were well armed.

The three of them were taken; Jayne swearing and fighting as he was handcuffed.

Simon still had the brain scans in his pocket.

But they had come out of nowhere, with orders and guns, and Simon was forced to drop River’s hand.

The Alliance separated all of them. Jayne and River disappeared down the same hallway, one at a time. Jayne did not go easy, and Simon saw one of the guards strike him in the face with the butt of a gun. The big man went down hard, and three guards dragged him away. River was crying and shaking so hard, she nearly had to be carried.

And in the end, it didn’t matter how hard Simon fought, River disappeared down that hallway, calling and crying out his name.

He waited tensely for the guards to come for him.

Before it could happen, the screaming started. The sound traveled down the hallway, from the same direction River and Jayne had been taken, reverberating and echoing. The sound made the hair on the back of Simon’s neck stand up.

The guard that had been left with him spun away, searching for the source of the screams, gun cocked and ready in his hands.

The guard only had his back turned for a second, but that was enough – Simon grabbed for the man’s throat.

It was truly amazing how little pressure was needed to crush a man’s larynx.

Simon choked back a retch, and ran. The screaming was getting worse, and Simon passed bodies, bleeding out the ears and nose.

The echoes were unnerving. The walls and the ceilings and the floor were all white, and before long, Simon was hopelessly turned around.

He kept going. He had to find River. He had to get her out of here.

Hallways lead to hallways, and doors opened onto empty rooms.

It was pure luck when Zoë and Mal found him. He had been checking doors at random, looking for River and a way out for them. Instead, he flung open the door and nearly got himself shot by the captain of Serenity.

"Whoa!" Mal exclaimed as Simon barreled into him. "Doc, slow down!"

"River!" Simon gasped, sucking in a sharp lungful of pained air. "They... they got River! And Jayne!"

"Who?" Zoë asked intently. "Who got them?"

Simon struggled for breath. "A... Alliance!"

The looks that passed between them weren't lost on him. They were the ‘Oh, shit’, looks he'd come to recognize after one too many near-misses in the black. "Come on, we gotta get you back to the ship," Mal said, tugging on his arm.

Simon shook loose, stumbling back. "NO," he snapped, giving the captain and his first mate a fierce look. "I'm not leaving my sister here for those monsters!"

"Gorrammit, doc, this ain't time to argue!" Mal hissed. "We gotta get you back to Serenity 'fore they decide they want the girl and her uppity brother!"

"Captain's right, Simon," Zoë said, eyes scanning the corridor with pinpoint efficiency. "Best thing we can do for River now is live to find her."

"I'm not leaving!" Simon insisted,

"Yes," Mal said firmly. "You are."

With a swift, precise swing of his arm, he brought the butt of his gun down across Simon's temple.

The doctor slipped into the dark.


Chapter Text


Serenity was screaming into the atmosphere when Simon awoke, the ship shaking around him from the force of the take off.

It only took a second to think past the blinding headache to remember.

"River," he gasped, crashing off the infirmary bed and charging towards the cockpit.

"Captain, we have to go back!" He stumbled up the stairs, shouting. "They have my sister! They took her, and I can’t let them have her again.”

"I know that, Doc." Mal looked up from the co-pilot's seat, frustration written across his face. "But they ain't there no more." He leaned back so Simon could see the console. He pointed. "A ship took off right before we hit atmo. We think River and Jayne might’ve been on board.”

"Where are they going? Are we following them?" Fear churned in Simon’s gut. The chances of getting River back if she wasn’t on planet were slim.

Wash spoke up, an oddly grave look on his face. "They disappeared."

"They what?" Simon looked from the pilot to the captain in desperation. "We have to find them!"

"We're looking, I can promise you that," Mal said firmly. He turned back to the console. "Folks took off with my mercenary. I don't take it kindly when my crew is taken."

"Go get some rest, Doc," Wash said. "We'll call you as soon as we know anything."

And just like that, the matter was closed. Book shut, door slammed, wall erected and reinforced with cement. Simon stared at the view screen and debated arguing with them. They were taking this too calmly. This was his sister. His River.

He’d just gotten her back.

He was supposed to protect her.

"Go lie down, Doctor. That weren’t no little tap on the head I gave you." The protest was stopped on Simon's lips by the captain's soft voice. His teeth clicked shut as Mal turned in his seat and stared at him, and it was only now that Simon saw the weariness on the smuggler's face. "Shoutin' ain't gonna get 'em back any faster, and neither's fallin' over from exhaustion. Let us handle the findin'. You go get her room set to rights. She's gonna be wantin' a good night's sleep when she gets back, I reckon."

Simon nodded dumbly. Quietly, trying very hard not to blink, he turned away and left the bridge. River's bed needed making -- he hadn't bothered to tidy after giving her the shot to put her to sleep.

He'd only meant it to mimic death. He'd never meant to lose her for real.

He spent most of the next few days waiting. He waited in the cockpit until the Captain threw him out. Then he waited in the mess hall, looking up desperately every time Mal or Wash came in. They always avoided his eyes.

Serenity had set down on three separate planets and two different moons in three days, but Mal and Zoë returned from each one with nothing but a head shake and a tight look in their eyes.

No word.

Simon could feel time slipping by too quickly. River did not have the luxury of waiting. If they didn’t find her soon, they probably wouldn’t.

Simon’s mind shied away from the thought that it might already be too late.

A week slipped by. Then two.

Mal searched the cortex. Inara tried to pick up information from her clients. Book left to go to a monastery he thought might know something.

Kaylee hovered over everyone, wringing her hands.

Simon took to spending most of his days in River's room. He didn't want to mess up her nicely made bed, so he sat on the floor.

He had found her sketchbook under her pillow, and took to holding it. It was a link to River, more real than the nightmares he had about her in the rare times he slept.

Kaylee would bring him dinner at night, and would sit with him and hold his hand, and lie to him about finding River.

He loved her a little for that.

Finally, after a month went by with no word on River or Jayne, Mal turned off the console.

"We'll keep looking," he said gravely. "But we gotta eat too."

Simon didn’t bother to argue. He didn’t have the energy.

Simon stopped sleeping. Not that he was much anyway. But this way, he could search the cortex himself when everyone else was asleep.

He kept looking for codes.

River was so smart. She would be able to signal him somehow. He just needed to be somewhere that she could find him

He had thought about leaving, had thought about packing his and River's things and looking for her the way he did the way before.

But River knew Serenity. When she managed to get a message out, she would send it here. He didn’t have the money necessary this time to search for her again.

He spent hours poring over video footage of hospitals, researching access codes in mental health centers, attempting to hack into alliance records.

He found nothing.

Life on Serenity wasn't the same anymore. Not for any of them.

River had been a part of Serenity for such a short time, but her absence was everywhere.

Kaylee had taken him gently to her bed at the three month mark, when he had finally broken down at the dinner table and cried.

Jayne's loss was felt as well. Not as much, not the same, because Jayne was never thought to be charming or cute, but the whole ship knew he was gone.

Mal and Zoë were doing all right, generally not needing the backup, but then they went out on a job, and things went bad. Real bad.

If Jayne had been there, it probably wouldn't have mattered.

If Jayne had been there, it probably would’ve been alright.

But Jayne wasn't there. And Zoë nearly died on the infirmary table.

And then six months had gone by, and River still wasn't back and Zoë was hurt and Simon had to learn how to use a gun.

Simon -- as backup. Jayne would’ve laughed himself sick. But, with some help from Wash and a lot of yelling from Mal, Simon got to be a decent shot.

And that was how he found himself with a gun on his hip almost two years later, feet planted in the dust of some backwater planet far out on the rim, walking one pace behind Mal to watch the captain's back

Once upon a time he'd have wondered if this was what Jayne felt like all the time; the second man, a rung down the ladder. The cannon fodder.

Once upon a time. Now he tried not to think too much at all. Especially when he was on a planet and caught sight of a young girl with long dark hair. It was never her, but he couldn’t stop the hope that one day he would find River.

He almost walked head on into Mal's back when the smuggler stopped dead in his tracks. "What the..." Simon sputtered as he stumbled to a halt, trying to hold on to some kind of poise; it didn't do for the hired gun to fall flat on his face like a toddler. "What?"

The captain didn't answer; just stared straight ahead like a man caught in the path of a speeding bullet. Simon frowned at him in confusion before following his gaze.

Simon froze.

Almost two years had passed since that day. Zoë still had trouble breathing after she perforated her lung, Simon had calluses on his hands from too many hours of target practice, and Wash's jokes had all but dried up.

But Jayne Cobb's eyes were still blue as cornflowers in the Core.

He was leaner, harder, his eyes were colder, but there was no doubt it was Jayne Cobb.

And there was no doubt he had seen them too.

He froze, eyes flicking over Mal and Simon, and it suddenly occurred to Simon that all of them were vastly under armed for this meeting.

Then Jayne turned, and vanished into the crowd before Simon could do more than take a step towards him.

Simon didn’t even stop to think. He just took off after him. Mal’s shouts echoed in his ears as he crashed through the people in the marketplace, searching for the man who had been taken when River disappeared.

But Jayne was gone.

Simon whirled as a hand clamped down on his shoulder. “Did you see him?” He asked Mal desperately. “Did I imagine it?”

“I saw him,” Mal said soberly. “I also saw him disappear.”

“We have to find him,” Simon said intently.

“I’m not arguing that point,” Mal said. “But we have a job to do first. And it don’t look like Jayne wants to be found right away.”

Simon glared at the Captain. “That man might know what happened to my sister. I’m not just going to let him vanish into thin air.” He made to push through the crowd in the direction the man had disappeared.

Mal shoved him up against the wall of a merchant stall. “We ain’t letting him vanish.” He shook Simon, hands clenched in Simon’s shirt, “we got a job to do, remember? And if we don’t do it, we can’t afford to buy Zoë any medicine, or Kaylee any food.”

Simon fought against him. “I’ll find him myself.”

Mal shook him harder. “Kaylee, eating. You remember Kaylee? Cute little girl who lets a hun dan like you share her bed?”

Simon snarled and shook off the Captain, but he followed willingly enough.

There would be time after the job.

Plenty of time for Simon to search the entire town if necessary.

And he intended to. Until he got some answers.


Chapter Text

 The job actually went almost smooth for once, with Mal getting grazed in one arm. They got the money, with enough left to pick up some extra supplies, and even a single strawberry for Kaylee.

They walked back to Serenity in fairly good spirits. Simon was making plans to search the town, and Mal had that look in his eyes that said he was scheming.

They didn’t have to search far.

“Y’all looking for me?”

Jayne stood off the road a ways, watching them closely. A new scar twisted its way down his cheek onto his neck, making him look even fiercer than before. His hand twitched, like he was thinking of going for a weapon.

For a second, nobody moved. Jayne watched them. They watched Jayne. Had it been High Noon, someone would have reached for his gun.

Simon recovered first. He blinked, and when the man didn't fade like a mirage, his jaw hardened.

"Where is she?" he asked through gritted teeth.

Jayne's feet shifted, spreading a little further apart, as if he were trying to hold the world on his shoulders and needed more support. "Who?" he asked.

"MY SISTER!" Simon threw himself at the mercenary, forcing the taller man up against the side of the nearest building and pressed his arm across Jayne’s throat. Jayne had lost weight in the two years since he'd disappeared; Simon could feel the sharp ridges of the other man's collarbone even through the layers of his clothes. "Where is River?”

Jayne wasn't fighting back. Simon knew he should be concerned about that. The part of him that hadn't turned to gunmetal still remembered what it meant to be a doctor; he knew he should care.

But he didn't.

"I swear, if you don't start talking, Jayne, I will not be held accountable for my actions," he seethed. A piece of him -- that same pitiful part that still felt sympathy -- knew it was foolish, going after Jayne like this. The man hadn't done anything wrong. He'd been a victim, the same as River.

Only he wasn't, was he? He was a grown man, outweighed her by a few hundred pounds. He could have killed those guards, gotten them both out -- gotten River home.

Jayne was staring at him. Simon had forgotten how blue the mercenary's eyes were. Now he was remembering how icy cold they could be.


"What?" Simon snapped over his shoulder, his eyes never left Jayne's.

"He ain't gonna be able to tell you nothin', your arm crushin' his windpipe like that," Mal pointed out.

Simon flexed his fingers, hearing the knuckles pop with tension. Slowly, begrudgingly, he loosened his hold. Jayne sucked in a deep breath through his nostrils, his broad chest expanding and relaxing. "Now talk," the doctor said.

Jayne straightened up, pulling himself to his full height.

Simon refused to be cowed, even though the other man was almost a head taller than the doctor.

Jayne took his time, brushing off his clothes and picking his hat up from the ground from where it had fallen.

"Jayne," Mal said calmly, but with an undercurrent of steel. "I think the Doc asked you a question."

Jayne looked up, startled. It was like he had completely forgotten they were there.

"Where is my sister?" Simon seethed. "Where is River?"

Jayne blinked. He studied the man in front of him, looking a little confused. "River?" he said. "River's dead."

The words that came out of Jayne's mouth didn’t make sense to Simon.

"What?" He asked. "What do you mean?" He half laughed as he turned to Mal. "Where is she, do you think?"

Mal hadn’t taken his eyes off of Jayne. "Doc, did you hear the man?"

"Yes, but he's wrong," Simon insisted desperately. Jayne was wrong. He had to be wrong. "River isn't dead."

Jayne nodded. "River's dead. Buried by the river."

"Stop saying that," Simon ordered fiercely, hands clenching into fists. "She is alive, and you're hiding her!"

Mal shoved him backwards, "Knock it off, Doc." He studied Jayne for a moment. “You got plans for the night?”

Jayne shook his head mutely, eyeing Simon with suspicion.

"Kaylee would sure love to see you." Mal added, "She's missed you something fierce."

Jayne refocused on the Captain. He tilted his head to the side and mulled for a minute. "I gotta make it home for dinner."

Mal nodded. "No problem. You can make it home for dinner. Just come for a little visit and see everyone."

"Kaylee?" Jayne asked. "And the Shepherd?"

"Kaylee, Inara, Zoë and Wash," Mal said shortly. "The preacher don't ride with us these days."

Jayne repeated, "Gotta get home for dinner. But I can come for a visit."

"Why don't you come on then, Jayne," Mal said, gesturing Simon back. “You come on, and you can tell us a little of what happened.”

Jayne stared at the Captain for a second, and then looked over his shoulder towards the town. When he looked back again he said, "You at the docking yards?"

"Yes," Simon managed. If he pushed too hard, he would never find out what happened to River. His little sister. His hands were sweating. "Berth five."

Jayne nodded tersely. "Gotta get home for dinner, but I'll be 'round later," he said. He looked startlingly unsure for a moment when he said, "You ain't gonna take off or nothin', is you?"

Simon and Mal exchanged looks. "No," Mal said carefully. "We'll wait on you, Jayne."

"Where do you go for dinner, Jayne?" Simon asked suddenly.

The mercenary froze. Slowly he turned those clear blue eyes in the doctor's direction again. "Why you wanna know that for?" he asked, voice dark and suspicious.

Simon swallowed hard, at the menacing look the mercenary was directing at him. "Maybe we could come with you," he suggested cautiously. "Maybe you could show..." He paused and closed his eyes, swallowing before continuing. "Maybe you could show me where... River's... buried, if it’s on world." His hands shook. Saying it, admitting it -- that River was dead -- was like choking up razor blades.

Jayne frowned, his face suddenly gone dark as thunderheads. "No," he said firmly. "Ain't a good idea. You all just gotta head back to the ship. I'll find you. Don't follow me." He turned on his heel and began to march away.

"Jayne!" Simon called after him, suddenly desperate. His anger had melted away, leaving nothing but a hole in the pit of his stomach that was swallowing him bit by bit. "Please? I just want to say goodbye."

Jayne stopped but didn't look back. A moment later, he started walking again, disappearing around a corner and down a nearby alley.

"Jayne!" Simon called again, moving to give chase. A firm hand on his shoulder stopped him.

"Let him go, doc," Mal said softly. Simon looked wild-eyed over his shoulder at the captain, and saw his own confusion mirrored on the other man's face. "Ain't never paid to rile Jayne when he's done told you not to rile him. You just let him come to you. Then you get him to bring you to her."

Simon felt the world shift under his feet as Mal quietly steered him back towards Serenity. The day had begun as just another payday.

The credits in his pocket seemed like just so much lint now.

Now that he knew River was dead.


Chapter Text

 He didn't even feel Serenity's ramp under his boots as Mal led him onboard and quietly told Wash to pay up the docking fee for another forty eight hours. They had company coming.

It was a strange night, to say the least. Some of the spark returned to Kaylee’s eyes when she heard Jayne was alive and was coming back to Serenity. She and Wash spent a happy hour decorating the mess hall with a welcome home banner.

Simon couldn’t figure out a way to tell her that River was…gone.

By the look in his eyes, neither could Mal.

He could tell that the others had picked up that something was wrong. But Simon avoided everyone’s eyes, and helped Inara make the tea.

Everyone froze for a moment when they heard boots tramping up the ramp. Kaylee threw herself down the stairs to greet Jayne.

She was crying and hugging on him, and he was standing there with his hands at his sides. "Hello," he finally said, sounding oddly formal. "How are you, Kaylee?"

"How am I?" She marveled, laughing through her tears. "How am I, he says, when I'm not the one been missing for two years?"

“Two years?” Jayne’s eyebrows rose a little. “Has it been that long?”

“It’s good to see you, Jayne,” Zoë interjected quietly. She waited on the stairs, Wash supporting her with one arm.

He nodded at her. “Zoë, Wash.” He gave Inara a cautious nod. Greetings done, he looked a little lost. He looked around Serenity as he stood, shifting his weight uncomfortably.

“Where’s your new muscle?” he finally asked. “You didn’t give him my guns, did you?”

Mal almost smiled from where he leaned up against the stair railing. “Don’t got no new muscle, Jayne.” He stepped forward to shake Jayne’s hand. “Simon’s been filling in while we been waiting for you to get back from vacation.”

Jayne’s eyebrows furrowed. “Simon can shoot?”

“Not so good as you,” Kaylee assured him, tugging on his arm. “Come on, we got a surprise!”

Jayne nodded. “Alright, but I can’t stay long. I gotta get home before it gets full on dark.”

“Where you living?” She asked brightly. “You got family?”

He hesitated for an eyeblink. “Yeah,” he finally replied, throwing her a penetrating look. “I got family.”

It was a good visit; for all that nobody knew quite how to act. They weren’t the same people Jayne had lived with two years ago, and it was pretty obvious from his unease that Jayne had changed a good bit as well.

They talked some -- not about anything important -- but Kaylee kept the conversation going whenever it flagged. Simon couldn’t help but notice that Jayne avoided all questions about what he was doing now. And no one asked about River.

Finally, Jayne looked up from his drink. “I gotta go, Mal,” he said, searching the Captain out with his eyes. “It’s getting dark.”

Mal walked him out, after Kaylee hugged him again and cried a little more. “Ain’t you coming home?” she had asked, her eyes full of tears. “We ain’t touched your bunk or nothing.”

Jayne had met Mal’s eyes and shaken his head.

“You should come back,” Mal said abruptly as the two men reached the catwalk. “We still got a place for you.”

Jayne stopped walking in the middle of the stairs. “Dunno, Captain.” He half turned back to him, a strange look in his eyes. “Man can’t always go back to where he was.”

“Or what he was,” Mal agreed quietly. “We all changed some, Jayne. Way I figure it, a man does what he’s got to, dong ma?”

Jayne nodded, tension easing from his shoulders.

“Think on it overnight,” Mal suggested. “We’ll be on planet for another couple of days. Just one thing though.” He stuck his hands in his pockets and studied Jayne. “I’m all for leaving the past in the past, but you and Simon would have to come to some sort of peace. And that would mean telling us a little of what happened to River.”

Jayne didn’t say anything, just looked down at his hands on the stair rail. “She died.”

“We got that part. I was meaning as to the how.” Mal’s voice was steady as he watched the still mercenary.

Jayne shook his head, a frown tugging at the edges of the scar marring his face and neck.

“It sure would be nice to have somebody to back me up that didn’t have to be told which part of a grenade to throw.”

A smile quirked at the edge of Jayne’s mouth. “I’ll think on it.”

“That’s all I’m asking.”



Chapter Text

 The next day was blindingly bright.

Mal had arranged for a few more crates of supplies to be delivered in the morning, prior to their original liftoff. The crew spent the majority of the early hours shifting cargo to make room for the new freight.

No one mentioned Jayne.

Kaylee looked ready to cry, and she kept sneaking glances through Serenity's rear hatch, obviously hoping to catch a glimpse of the mercenary strolling towards them, dripping with his customary weaponry. As the sun moved higher in the sky, her eyes began to droop further and further.

Simon could empathize. He wanted Jayne back as much a she did -- but for an entirely different reason.

He wanted to hear how River died.

It was morbid, but he didn't care. He wanted to know what happened. It had been the mercenary's job to look after the pair of them at that hospital on Ariel, and he'd failed. For years Simon had been heaping the blame on his own shoulders, for lack of a better platform.

Now that his worst fears were confirmed he wanted Jayne back. Those broad shoulders of his could shore up a barn, so Simon directed all his self-loathing at the mercenary with a kind of sadistic pleasure.

He was in the process of shoving a difficult crate into an awkward corner when a pair of large hands came into his field of vision, grabbing hold of the opposing corner and giving a mighty heave. "You gotta use your back, Doc," Jayne grunted as the crate shifted into place with a groan of distressed metal. "Can't just keep shaking yer ass like a peacock."

"JAYNE!" Kaylee exclaimed, pelting across the cargo bay to wrap him in a hug that rivaled the one from the night before. "You came!"

"Guess I did at that," Jayne said, patting her back uncomfortably.

"We sure are mighty glad to see you, Jayne," Mal said, utterly genuine as he shook the merc's hand. "This boat ain't been the same without you."

"Naw, guess it wouldn't be, huh?" he agreed, a smile twitching at his mouth. "When we taking off?"

"Tomorrow morning," Mal said, still grinning. "You anxious to get off this rock?"

Jayne nodded. "Just get us in the air, Mal. Ain't been there in donkey's years."

"What about your family?" Kaylee asked, smiling so bright she was rivaling the late morning sun. "Ain't you gotta say goodbye, or bring 'em with?"

Jayne ran a hand through his short hair. "They're done by," he said gruffly by way of explanation. And that appeared to be that.

Kaylee let her disappointment be subsumed into her excitement that Jayne was here -- he was home -- and let the matter drop. "I'll go fish around in the galley, make you your favorite for lunch! Just you wait!" She pelted off towards the common room happily.

"You sure you don't gotta say goodbye to no one, Jayne?" Mal asked in concern.

Jayne leveled him with a flat blue gaze. "Ain't never been one for goodbyes, Mal, you know that," he said with finality. "Don't like 'em."

Mal grinned and clapped the taller man on the shoulder. "It's good to have you back, Jayne," he said. "Someday you're gonna have to tell us where you been all this time."

"And what happened to River." Mal and Jayne both turned their eyes toward Simon. The doctor was standing right where Jayne had left him, carefully wiping his hands on a towel.

"Now Doc-" Mal began, but Simon cut him off.

"No, Captain," he said, voice steely as he glared at Jayne. "I want to know. Why won't he tell me what happened to her? Why won't he take me to her? Tell me, Jayne. Why? Is it because you're ashamed that a man as big as yourself was too much of a damn coward to look after a little girl?"

Mal looked ready to step between them to deflect the blows that were bound to start falling. But surprisingly, Jayne didn't look ready to commit murder. Yet.

"River's dead, Doc," he said, in a voice that sounded like lead. "Better get used to it, ‘cause ain't nothing gonna change it. Crazy girl's gone. Buried with her boots on. Dong ma?"

This time Mal did move between them, but more to protect Jayne from Simon than vice versa. "Jayne, how 'bout you go see what Kaylee's doing in the Common Room."

"Nah, Mal, I gotta go check on my stuff. It's all waitin' outside." The mercenary turned on his heel and strode down the ramp, disappearing around the side of the ship.

Mal waited until he was out of sight before turning back to Simon. "You gotta stop, Doc," he said firmly.

"He's a monster," Simon spat. "Did you see him? He didn't even bat an eyelash!"

"He's been through a lot, Doc."

"My sister is dead, Captain!" Simon hissed, shoving Mal away and straightening his vest. Smacking his hand against his chest he continued, "My mei-mei. She's dead and gone and that hun dan acts as though she were nothing but a... a... fly on a windshield!"

"He’s been through a lot, Doc. Just like River."

"He is nothing like River," Simon snarled. "No one will ever be like River again." Spinning on his heel, he stormed out of the bay.

Mal sighed and rubbed his palms over his face. "Lao tian, I thought things were supposed to get easier from here on?"

There was cargo to get loaded, but all he really wanted was a sandwich. He meandered his way up the stairs towards the Common Room, trying not to think and failing miserably.

Outside, in the lee of Serenity's engine, Jayne said softly, "Ain't never liked goodbyes."

A small voice answered, "Never ever."


Chapter Text

 They'd barely cracked atmo the next day before Jayne disappeared into his bunk. Kaylee tried to get him to stay and visit, but he just shrugged and clambered down into his bunk like he'd been sleeping there every night of his life.

There was a strange aura on the ship now that the mercenary had returned. They'd been living with ghosts for the past two years, and now one of them was back in flesh and blood. Of course, that one didn’t seem too interested in having anything to do with anybody.

Knowing that Jayne was down in his bunk instead of enjoying this newfound reunion made the corridors seem emptier, somehow.

Simon kept glaring at the hatch to the man's bunk. More than once, Mal found himself having to steer the young doctor away from the crew quarters physically.

One of the two was going to end up in a world of hurt if they didn't sort this thing out and fast. Time used to be he'd have put his money on Jayne eight days out of the week, but seeing the cold fury in the doctor's eyes had Mal rethinking his philosophy.

Kaylee was trying to be cheerful. She'd drafted Wash and Zoë into helping her decorate the common room with paper streamers and the banner she had put up before Jayne came to visit the first time. She'd baked a cake in preparation for his return, and now it sat under cover on the galley counter, waiting to be eaten. Before his disappearance, nothing in the 'verse would have kept Jayne Cobb away from fresh-baked chocolate cake; he could smell it cooking ten miles away.

If anything, that just made the situation stranger. An insatiable hunger for everything from food to sex to guns to liquor was one of the core tenets of who Jayne Cobb was. Now he didn't seem to care too much, and that was disturbing on too many levels to count.

It was time for some of this to stop. Mal knocked firmly on the door to Jayne’s bunk.

“Yeah?” A gruff voice answered.

“Jayne, come on out.” Mal turned his back and started to walk to the mess. “Its dinner time and I think we need to talk some.”

The hatch opened behind him, and Jayne climbed out, carefully shutting and locking the door behind him. “What about?” he asked warily.

“Your job, for one.” Mal leaned against a bulk head with his arms crossed. “And Simon, for another.”

The big man shrugged. “I do what you say, Cap’n. I know my job.”

“And the doc?”

“I ain’t got nothing to say to him.” Jayne’s face closed. “I’ll get dinner later.” He turned to go back into his bunk.

“No.” Mal ordered. “You’ll get dinner now, with the rest of the crew. And you’ll smile, and pretend you’re happy to be here, and you’ll let Kaylee spoil you a little, so she’ll stop looking like she’s about to cry.”

Jayne glanced back at his door, chewing on his lip. “Alright, I guess.” He double checked the lock, before following Mal slowly down the hall.

He hesitated at the doorway, but Mal nodded at Kaylee, leaning over the untouched cake looking sad. Jayne stepped in slow, but stopped at the table. He looked a little confused.

Kaylee had brightened when he walked in, and bounced over to him. “You can sit wherever you want,” she assured him. “We don’t eat together much anymore, so we fight for chairs when we do.” She beamed up at him as she manhandled him into a chair at the end of the table.

"How's the bunk feel?" she asked, bounding over to the cake and cutting him off a big wedge. "I aired out the bedding and took a dust rag to all your bits and pieces."

She stopped as she put the cake down in front of him, eyes widening. "'Cept not your girls, Jayne, cuz I know you wouldn't want no one else touchin' 'em. We kept 'em covered, and swished a duster over them now and then, but nothin' more than that." Her brow furrowed as she bit her lip. "We probably done ruined 'em, ain't we? Shoulda taken better care o' them for you."

Jayne looked from the cake to the unhappy mechanic to the cake again.

He smiled.

Jayne Cobb rarely smiled, and when he did, it was usually because someone else had just done something incredibly stupid, dangerous, or both. But this was a genuine, ear to ear, shiny white smile that set his eyes alight. "Ain't nothin', little Kaylee," he said as he picked up his fork. "They'll clean up just fine."

Kaylee frowned. "You... sure you're feelin' all right, Jayne?" she asked tentatively.


"Cuz I just said ain't no one oiled up your guns since... well, since you left."

"I heard."

"And you ain't mad 'bout that."

Jayne shrugged and dug his fork into the cake. "You didn't know I's comin' back. Can't blame you." He shoveled the bite into his mouth, chewing thoughtfully.

"Relax, little Kaylee," Mal said, coming up behind his engineer and rubbing her back. "Man's got his priorities straight. Don't go questionin' 'em or he's liable to forget." He kissed her on the forehead. "Now do any of the rest of us get some of that cake, or that just goin' to Mr. Cobb here?"

Kaylee beamed and hugged him. "I love my captain," she grinned, before darting back to the galley counter to cut Mal a slice of the cake.

Mal flopped down near Jayne's elbow with a heavy sigh and watched the mercenary wolf down his cake. It was as if the man hadn't eaten in years. Judging by the pounds he'd shed since Ariel, Mal was willing to believe that was the case.

Kaylee was happily getting cake for everyone as they drifted in one by one and settled at the table.

“Oh, we get dessert first?” Wash eagerly held his hands out for a plate. “And here I was thinking we would start with dinner!”

The crew was pretty cheerful and dinner was looking to be a pretty peaceful affair with the mercenary back.

Kaylee, Zoë and Inara were chattering about some new style in dresses, while Wash and Mal discussed the destination for their next job. It was going to be a mite safer with Jayne at their backs again, that was for certain.

Jayne didn’t even look up to notice. He seemed real intent on getting every last bit of icing off of his plate.

Simon shot Jayne a cold look, but settled himself at the other end of the table with a smile for Kaylee as she dropped a kiss on his nose.

Finally, when everyone was starting to relax, Jayne looked up from his plate. “Got something to say,” he said abruptly.

The table froze. The forced sense of normalcy ending as soon as Jayne opened his mouth.

Mal looked sharply at Jayne.

Jayne was looking uncomfortable and kind of anxious -- something else that he didn’t used to do. He was holding the edge of the table in both hands, like he needed an anchor.

The big man hesitated. “It’s ‘bout why I came.”

The rest of the crew exchanged uneasy glances. “Why’s that, Jayne?” Mal finally asked.

“Some people was sniffing ‘round,” he explained. “I didn’t want them getting no ideas this time.”

“Ideas about what?” Zoë asked.

“It happened last time,” Jayne shook his head. “And it upset her so, because there was blood on River’s grave.”

Mal was getting steadily more disturbed by this disjointed conversation. “Think you better go back to the beginning, Jayne, ‘cause I’m all kinds of confused.”

Jayne blinked, looking puzzled. “It’s easy enough, Cap’n. I didn’t want to mess up her garden this time.”

Simon twitched when Jayne mentioned River’s grave, and tightened his hold on Kaylee’s hand.

Mal had a very strange feeling in his gut, and it wasn’t getting any better.

Jayne seemed a little frustrated that they were all staring at him, not understanding. He pushed his chair back with a grunt and headed towards his bunk.

The others exchanged confused looks. Zoë started to lean forward to say something to Mal, but Jayne’s boots beat a solid thud against the decking as he returned. He stopped in the doorway and looked back down the hallway.

“Well, see,” he tried again. “Like I said, those guys were sniffing around, and I thought they might think she was her.”

“Jayne,” Mal said, a little too calmly. “Who is she and her?”

“I’m getting there, Mal.” Jayne looked down the hallway again. “See,” he started again.

“River?” Simon asked. “Is the her you are talking about River?”

Jayne shifted his weight uneasily. “Yeah. Her.”

“Tell me what happened,” Simon demanded, knuckles white around his mug. “What happened to my sister?”

Jayne blinked. “I told you, Doc. River’s dead.”

“Buried by the river.” A soft voice floated from behind the mercenary. A young woman with short dark hair peeked out from behind Jayne. “River by the river. Poetic.”

She stepped around him, her arms wrapped around a plant with a small bud on the top. “I bring you housewarming gifts,” she said shyly, offering the plant to the shocked crew.

“I want you to meet my wife,” Jayne said, putting one hand on her shoulder. “I want you to meet my Birdy.”

For a moment, no one moved.

Simon started violently, knocking his mug to the floor in a crash.



Chapter Text


The girl flinched back against Jayne in confusion. “My name is Birdy,” she corrected him, glancing nervously over her shoulder. She offered the plant again.

Simon did not seem to hear her. He came towards her, hands outstretched, “River, mei mei, come away from him.” His voice was very intent.

Her hands holding the plant wavered, the shy smile dropping from her face.

The rest of the crew was still frozen; staring at the girl.

She looked around uneasily, edging away from Simon, who was getting a little too close for her comfort.

“River,” Simon said, a little too calmly, one hand reaching for her. “I want you to come with me.”

Jayne stirred, hand tightening on the girl’s shoulder protectively. “This ain’t River, Doc.”

“I’m Birdy,” she insisted, her face twisting with anxiety.

“No, you aren’t!” Simon growled in frustration. “You’re RIVER!”

Mal finally got his legs back under control. “I’m thinking we all need to calm down.” He stood up and tried to push Simon back a step.

“Don’t you protect him, Mal,” Simon hissed. “He lied!” Simon pointed an accusing finger at the mercenary. “He said River was dead!”

“River is dead,” interjected Jayne. “Told you that a couple of times now.” He pulled the girl back against his chest protectively.

Simon was seething, his blue-black eyes darting back and forth between the frightened girl and the scowling mercenary, as if unsure where to focus his full attention. Jayne, for his part, was staring down the doctor with eyes like searchlights, warning him off.

And River... Birdy... The terrified girl trapped between them just kept trying to grow smaller and smaller, pressing herself deeper into Jayne's protective embrace, brown eyes growing bigger by the second.

Her hand was trembling as she gripped her housewarming plant against her belly and reached back with her spare hand to curl her fingers in the material of Jayne's pant leg. She looked as though she'd gladly turn around and climb into his body like a cave if it meant she could get away from the prying eyes and overpowering voices of the rest of the crew.

“It sure looks like River.”

Mei mei, please.”

“Did he say she was his wife?

Squeezing her eyes shut, the girl whimpered and turned to bury her face in Jayne's chest, cuddling the plant up under her chin like a teddy bear.

Jayne's arm immediately wound around her shoulders in a possessive hug. "Everyone shut up!" he barked. "Ain't you seeing how scared she is?"

"Take me home, Jayne," a small voice whispered urgently against his chest.

"Can't, ladybird," the large man murmured into her hair, eyes watching the others intently.

"Wanna go home."

"I know you do." He swept his fingers through her short-cropped hair. "I'm sorry. I wish I ain't never had to bring you here."

Seeing Jayne lay hands on his sister was the end for Simon "You son of a whore!" he snarled, shoving Mal aside in an effort to get to the mercenary. "She's my sister! You have no right to keep her away from me!"

Jayne pinned him with a glare that would have torn another man to ribbons and clutched the girl tighter against his chest. "She ain't your sister! Your sister's dead!"

"Buried with her boots on," Birdy’s little voice whispered, eyes shut tight as tears leaked out onto Jayne’s chest. “Gotta walk soft.

"Look what he's done to her!" Simon cried in anguish, appealing to the room at large. "See what he's done? He's brainwashed her! Taken advantage of her diminished mental capacity and made her think she was his wife!" The way he said that final word made it come out sounding like "whore."

Jayne's eyes narrowed and the room went from pleasantly warm to glacial. "She is my wife," he snarled, clutching her tighter. "She's my Birdy."

"Ladybird," she whispered against his chest.

"That’s right."

"Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home..." Her fingers were clenched in his shirt, and her voice was trembling.

"You are home, River," Simon said, breathing heavily through his nose as his heart surged in his chest. "You're home now. Come away from that monster. He's not going to use you anymore." He lunged, catching her elbow in his hand and trying to pull her out of Jayne’s embrace.

The girl screamed. Not a soft shriek of fright; a wail of pure terror that seemed to pull up from the soles of her feet before exploding through her teeth. She jerked away from Simon's hand as though it burned, the action jarring the plant from her arms and sending it crashing to the floor in a spray of earth and pottery.

Any response Simon might have had was cut off by the force of the mercenary's fist connecting with his mouth. "Look what you done!" Jayne bellowed as Simon stumbled backward, blood pouring down his chin. "Don't you touch her! Don't nobody touch her but me!" He shoved the frightened girl behind him and glared around, daring anyone to come near her.

"Everybody calm the hell down!" Mal roared, trying to lay hands on Simon before the doctor could do something stupid like try to fight back and get himself snapped in half. "Cool off!"

No such luck.

"Get your hands off my sister, you lewd piece of pedophilic garbage!" Simon shouted, shrugging off the captain's restraining hands. The fact he was cursing Jayne in English rather than Mandarin had to mean something: that either that his brain was burning too hot too translate, or he wanted to make sure the larger man understood every word he was saying. "Get your disgusting hands off of her NOW!"

He threw himself at the mercenary, and the two stumbled backward to crash into the wall – barely missing the frightened girl cringing against it.

Kaylee shrieked as the pair began to fight in earnest. Jayne was without a doubt the stronger of the two, but Simon's years moonlighting as one of Serenity's heavies had finally taught him a little something about fighting dirty, and he was landing a few good punches of his own.

The tussle rocked to the side as Simon landed a solid punch to Jayne's gut, sending the mercenary stumbling to land on his back on the tabletop. The doctor stalked towards him, only to get a booted foot to the chin as Jayne kicked up and sent him reeling backward, fighting to keep his footing.

There was an organic sound, like the grinding of teeth.

Birdy let out a strangled cry of loss.

Everyone froze, all eyes swiveling to face the sobbing girl as she dropped to her knees beside the shattered remnants of her clay pot, shaking fingers trying to scoop the scattered soil back into the largest shard of earthenware. She cooed soft, tearful words of reassurance to the tattered flower that lay amidst the mess, its petals smeared and torn where Simon's boot heel had crushed it into the floor.

Tears licked down her face and her breath came in wet hiccups as she sobbed, "Theodore... My pretty, pretty Theodore...Should've let you stay home safe...

Jayne wrenched himself up from the table and threw himself past the startled doctor. “Aw, hell,” he sighed, taking in the destruction. He knelt beside her, large hands reaching to help, but she struck out at him.

“Don’t touch!” she sobbed, clutching ceramic shards to her chest. “Grave digging, standing vigil.” She scrabbled in the dirt desperately. “Oh, Jayne,” she moaned, holding her hands out beseechingly, “It’s broken.” She raised her dirty, tear streaked face to him.

“I know, bao bai,” he said sadly, tucking her hair behind her ear.

The rest of the crew wasn’t moving. Even Simon seemed to have been shocked into silence by the heartbreak on Birdy’s face.

“Just wanted to be safe,” she mourned. “Just wanted to be planted, warm sun, and love.” She pressed her face into Jayne’s chest, dirt covered hands inching under the sleeves of his t-shirt to press into his skin.

He cradled her, whispering into her hair as tears slipped down her face into his shirt.

Simon twitched, mouth twisting with revulsion and seemed to be about to say something. Kaylee shook her head at him hard, her face angry and disapproving. It was an intensely private moment between Jayne and the girl, and Mal couldn’t shake the feeling that he and the others were intruding. It was very strange seeing Jayne so gentle. Especially with River. Or whoever she was.

Birdy was still crying, but she wasn’t shaking anymore. Jayne turned her palms up in his hands. “You’re bleeding, Ladybird.” He blew softly into her cupped hands. “Let’s get you cleaned up, alright?”

He lifted her carefully to her feet, where she immediately hid her face in his side.

He completely ignored the others as he steered the subdued girl around the mess on the floor.

“Theodore,” she whispered, looking up at Jayne with pleading eyes.

“I’ll come back for him,” he promised quietly, tracing her jaw line with one finger. “I gotta take care of my girl, first.”

She offered him a watery smile, “Your girl will be alright.”


She nodded, slipping her cold hand into his and following him back to the bunk. “I have you,” she said simply.

“Got that, Ladybird,” he promised softly. “Come on, let’s get you patched up.”


Chapter Text

"They don't like me," she said sadly, as Jayne tugged her down onto the bunk and kneeled in front of her.

"They don't know you, is all." Jayne took her hands in his and examined the damage. "You gotta be more careful, Birdy girl. Your hands is all tore up."

She told the top of his head, "They want me to be her, and I can't." One dirty hand touched the side of his face. "You know who I am, don't you?" Her mouth trembled, wide eyes searching his face for reassurance.

"You're my Birdy." He looked up at her, worry creasing his forehead. "You're my wife, and nothing that hun dan doctor says is gonna make that different."

She gave him a tiny smile. "You won't let them take her from you."

"Promise." He kissed her wrist, whiskers brushing over her palm.

She gave a faint giggle and closed her hand. "Tickles."

He smiled at her as he got up and filled a bowl with warm water. "Haven't had to do this since you decided you needed to feel the earth when you was digging in your garden. You remember?"

She nodded. "The plants wanted to feel my hands."

"The plants tore up your hands so bad I had to do all your digging for a month." He frowned as he took her hands in his, and gently began to clean them.

They sat in silence for a moment as her hands soaked.

"Birdy," he asked, keeping his eyes on the bowl of water. "Do you remember River?"

"Buried by the river," she said quietly.

"Yeah, you know that. But I mean," he hesitated, tightening his fingers around hers. "Do you remember her? Before she died?"

Birdy shook her head slowly. "I can't."

"Can't?" Jayne could feel her hands shaking under his in the cooling water.

"Don't make me -- she lived in pain and fear, and I don't want to." Her face twisted as a tear slipped off her cheek. "River's dead," she insisted. "River by the river."


"Poetic," she echoed as he bandaged her hands. "Buried with her boots on."

“Buried with her boots on,” Jayne agreed. “Do you remember why?”

Birdy slowly lifted her eyes to his. Searching his face, she gave a small nod.


“Girl?” A low voice filtered through the drone of noise in the back of her head. Her eyes flickered open.

The world was dark, inhabited by shapes and monsters and nightmares. She whimpered.

“Girl, you’re dreaming.” The voice was gruff and weary, as if he had said that simple statement many times over. “Wake up, huh?”

Her eyes were open, so maybe she wasn’t still dreaming, but nothing felt real except for the blood under her fingernails. That felt too real; for all that she knew she had washed her hands.

Her hands looked insubstantial set against the wood grain of the bed frame she was laying on. They looked too small and fragile to belong to the girl she was.

“Girl?” That tired voice came again. It was a voice she should know.

She turned her head, the world shifting oddly. A man was sitting beside her, blue eyes blood shot and weary. She blinked at him, shadows shifting around him. “Is it morning?”

The man shook his head and rubbed his eyes. “It don’t matter none, really.”

“Oh.” She closed her eyes against the shadows and swallowed hard. “Where are we?”


“How?” Her voice cracked. She touched her forehead with a trembling hand. “I can’t remember.” She shivered. “I remember...blood.”

“There was that,” he acknowledged. “Yours and mine and a bunch of other people’s. But we got out.”

She turned her head away from him, a tear sliding down the side of her face. “Did we?” Despair pulled at her. “Maybe we died, we’re dead, but we don’t know it.”

“Well, I ain’t dead.” A large hand patted her arm clumsily. “Go back to sleep. And no more nightmares, they’re keeping me awake.”



Chapter Text

“Mal, you have to do something.” Simon’s voice was intent as Kaylee gently dabbed antiseptic on his bleeding lip. “He is holding her prisoner somehow. He’s..he’s..brainwashed her!” he spluttered, knocking Kaylee’s hand away.

“We don’t know that, Simon,” she sighed, turning him back to face her and squinting in concentration as she carefully applied a bandage. “We don’t know what happened.”

“I know what happened,” Simon snarled and jerked away from Kaylee. “He brainwashed her and he is taking advantage of her. She thinks she is married to him. Like River would ever marry a man like that.”

“You never know, Simon, people change.” Kaylee attempted to wipe the blood off his forehead, but he ducked her again, brushing her hand away. “Will you stand still?” she asked in frustration.

Simon didn’t even blink, just turned to demand answers from Mal. “What are you going to do, Captain?”

Mal stood up from where he leaned against the wall. “I’m not going to do anything, Doc.”

“WHAT?” Rage rose in Simon’s face as he clenched his fists.

Mal shouted over him, “Nothing tonight. It’s late, and we’re all tired.” He stared down the furious doctor. “I expect we’ll get some answers tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow is too long,” Simon said, desperation leaking into his voice. “Who knows what he will have her thinking tomorrow? She definitely shouldn’t be sleeping in the same room with him.” The doctor’s face contorted into a snarl. “She thinks she’s married to him!”

“It’ll keep,” Mal said sternly. “Jayne ain’t gonna do nothing in the next twelve hours that he didn’t already have two years to do, dong ma?” He turned away, speaking over his shoulder, “I expect you to stay away ‘til then. Leave both of ‘em alone ‘til breakfast.”

Mal disappeared into the cargo bay, his shoulders set stubbornly.

Simon stared after him, his jaw tight.

“Simon,” Kaylee tried to put her hand on his arm, but he jerked away.

Whirling, he slammed his fist into a cabinet. “Ha wo deh bang.

Kaylee flinched. “It’ll be alright, Simon.” She rubbed his back soothingly. “You’ll see, just give the Cap’n some time to find out what’s goin’ on.”

“I don’t know what to do, Kaylee.” Simon slid down the wall to the floor and gave a sharp bark of laughter. “I thought I had lost her, but now she’s back. Of course, she thinks she’s dead, but she’s back.”

“She’s home now, Simon.” Kaylee leaned her head on his shoulder for a moment. “Just give it some time.”

He threw her a strained smile. “I’m not going to be very good company tonight, Kaylee.”

“I don’t mind,” she promised.

Simon looked down at his hands. “I do.” He licked his lips, dropping his head back against the wall. “I think I need some time to think about all this. Alone.”

Kaylee blinked, a little hurt, but smiled, trying not to show it. “That’s alright, I understand.” She climbed to her feet, brushing off her coveralls. “You better get some sleep, Doctor. You got a busy day tomorrow.” She leaned down and brushed a kiss over his forehead. “I’ll see you later, alright?”

Simon caught her hand. “Thank you, Kaylee.”

She smiled at him, reaching out to touch his cheek. “Sure, Simon.”



Kaylee ended up wandering back to the mess hall.

It was empty, the crew having scattered after the disaster that was dinner. The plates were still on the table, and the plant that River had brought was in ruins. Dirt was scattered clear across the room, and clay shards and oozing plant matter were mixed in with a few fallen leaves.

It was a pretty sad mess.

Kaylee shivered as she remembered River’s cry of pain when Simon had stepped down on the poor little plant.

Or..not River. Birdy. Kaylee wrinkled her nose in confusion. It was all very complicated.

She sighed as she kneeled beside the smashed container. The plant looked in pretty bad shape, but she tried to scrape it up without hurting it anymore than it already was. The bud had been well and truly squashed, but some of the roots still looked alright.

She placed what was left of the poor thing on a towel, and swept up the rest of the mess. Her customary smile was missing as she tried to puzzle through what had happened with Jayne and River.

They sure were different. Jayne was real different, but he still knew who he was. But the way River was acting, calling herself “Birdy” and looking like she had never met any of the crew before, it was downright strange.

But Jayne sure seemed to love her, though. He had been beside himself trying to comfort her when she got upset, and standing up for her against all the rest, even Simon. That was something she wouldn’t have seen coming, even if she hadn’t thought the both of them were dead for the past two years. It was kind of an odd match.

Then again, so were she and Simon, if you thought about it. So she didn’t really have anything to say about that -- but Simon would. She signed as she got the last of the dirt out from under the table. He wasn’t going to take this easily.

Simon couldn’t just let things work themselves out in their own time. He was gonna push it. She shook her head sadly. She couldn’t help but think it was all gonna end bad when he did; it couldn’t help but end bad if it didn’t let River figure it out her ownself.

‘Sides, if Simon butted in too much, Jayne were liable to throw him right into the nearest black hole.


Chapter Text

Jayne and Birdy were slow to get moving the next morning. Jayne was dragging his feet about going to breakfast. He had things to think over about how to handle the doctor and his feng le ideas about River. He sat on the bunk and brooded, cleaning guns that hadn’t seen proper care in a good two years.

Birdy busied herself peeling old girlie pictures off of the walls. She was humming a little with a determined smile pasted on her face.

“Don’t need these,” she told Jayne half sternly as a picture came loose from the wall. “All the girl bits you need are Birdy-shaped.”

He grunted in reply, eyes narrowed in concentration as he carefully disassembled Betty and Veronica. The build up wasn’t too bad, although all of them could use a good dusting. He ran his thumb lovingly over the trigger guard.

He had really missed his guns.

Birdy stripped another stripper off of the walls above him, balancing carefully on the bed railing. “Bye bye, Petunia,” she sang, letting the faded magazine picture flutter to the floor. “Perhaps you should put on some clothes. It can get cold out here in the black.”

She scolded a stubborn piece of tape. “Must come off, neat and clean and presentable. New pictures, new starts, on the wall and off.” She smiled in satisfaction as it came loose under her fingernail.

She jumped lightly off of the railing onto the floor and spun in a cheerful circle. The bunk was small, but after a little bit of time had been made tidy and cozy. A small quilt was folded at the edge of the bed and a budding plant was carefully placed on the tiny end table.

Jayne was still working on his guns and didn’t react when Birdy came to sit beside him. She leaned against his back and snaked one little hand around his stomach. It growled under her fingers. She giggled into his shoulder blade.

He shifted slightly at her touch but didn’t say anything.

She hummed into his ear, rising onto her knees to do so. “Jayne, your girl is hungry.”

He didn’t look up.

“Jayne,” she repeated, tapping him lightly on the knee.

Jayne ran the cleaning cloth over the barrel of the gun in his hand, squinting in thought.

Birdy cocked her head to the side curiously. She leaned over his shoulder so she could look at his face and studied him, forehead wrinkled slightly in concern. After a moment, she carefully reached out and put her hand over his on the cleaning cloth.

He stilled, blinking in confusion as her light touch brought him back to reality. With a sigh, he turned his hand over and squeezed her fingers.

“It is time for breakfast,” she said softly. “Would you like me to go get you something so you can stay and finish checking everyone’s wellbeing?”

He turned to look at her, eyes focusing on her face slowly. He licked his lips. “Breakfast?”

“Breakfast for Jayne,” she said calmly, still leaning on his shoulder. “Important meal leaves you healthy and strong.”

He blinked, smirked, and was back to normal. “I already am big and strong.”

“Yes,” she agreed solemnly. “And your wife would like you to stay that way.” She rapped her knuckles gently on his forehead, concern in her eyes. “Everything alright in there?”

Jayne grabbed her hand out of the air, dropping a kiss to her bandaged palm. “Yeah, just thinking.”

“I can go get you something,” she suggested hesitantly. “If there is thinking to do, it is easier to do it in private.”

He shook his head firmly and quickly reassembled the piece he had been cleaning, hanging it back in its place with the others.

“Don’t want you to have to deal with the doc on your own.”

Birdy couldn’t hide the small flash of relief that crossed her face.

Jayne frowned uneasily. “You worried about dealing with him?”

She shook her head slowly, eyes trained on the floor. “Not worried.”

“Then what?”

She shrugged while turning and starting for the ladder. “Breakfast!” she said brightly. “I hope there are eggs!”

Jayne stopped her with a hand on her arm. “Ladybird, I need to know.” His mouth was set.

She studied Jayne’s chest, running one finger down the buttons on the front. “A little scared,” she admitted, circling one button slowly. “Don’t think he will believe me about who I am.”

He sighed, tugging on a strand of her hair. “I don’t think he will either.”

She looked up at him, eyes wide and frightened. “River is dead. You buried her.”

“I did. You was there too,” he said this quietly, twisting her short hair around his finger.

Birdy shook her head. “I don’t remember. I was still very confused about everything.”

“We both was, I think.”

“I don’t know how to be River.” Her eyes filled with sadness “Her brother,” she sighed, sinking into his chest. “Her brother, not mine.”

“We’ll tell him,” he promised her, large hands gentle on her back. “We’ll keep telling him until he remembers.”

“And you’ll stay with me?”

“Can’t get rid of me, Ladybird.” He pulled her into his chest for a hug. “We been through too much together for you to get rid of me that easy.”


The girl tossed on the bed, moaning in her sleep again.

The big man sitting vigil beside her rubbed his face in exhaustion. Every night since they got out, she dreamed. And when she was awake, she drifted through the rooms in the small berth they shared like a ghost, whispering to herself.

He hadn’t exactly been sleeping, either, trying to keep her from screaming the other passengers awake. They didn’t need to attract any attention now, a bare week from leaving that place.

He still wasn’t sure how it had happened but he remembered the blank look in her eyes when he pulled her out of the pile of bodies. She almost had tried to take him out, before some part of her brain that hadn’t been cut up to hell finally recognized him.

It had taken him two days to convince her to let go of his hand long enough for him to get her cleaned up. They couldn’t exactly get passage on a ship while she looked like a walking corpse herself.

But they had gotten out and they were headed as far as his meager pile of credits could get them. He owed her that, crazy and screaming notwithstanding.

The girl on the bed whimpered and he soothed her automatically, rough hands patting her head. Her long hair got tangled in his fingers and he grimaced.

She wasn’t doing well, and damned if he knew how to handle it.


Chapter Text

Kaylee looked up as Jayne strode into the mess hall. His face was closed and cold, but when he saw her, something in his shoulders relaxed a fraction. He turned half around, looking at the door behind her.

“Simon ain’t up yet,” she offered, dropping a stack of bowls on the table. “Wash is in the cockpit, Zoë should be headed up for breakfast soon, and Mal and Inara are yelling at each other.”

“They ain’t never figured it out?” Jayne sat down with a grunt, throwing the door behind them another look.

Kaylee rolled her eyes with a grin. “You know the captain, stubborn to the last.” She looked down at the table. “’Sides, things got a little complicated after you was took.”

Jayne snorted. “Complicated. Yeah. I figured, when Mal said that the doc was the muscle ‘round here.”

He eyed the door again, and Kaylee turned around just in time to see a small hand disappear back out of the frame.

“You can come in,” he told the door. “Ain’t nobody here but Kaylee, and she don’t bite.”

Slowly, Birdy peeked around, eyes wide and a little apprehensive. “She will not yell at me?”

Jayne leaned his elbows on the table and gave her a stern look. “Would I let her?”

Wide eyes blinked slowly, and then Birdy herself slipped into the room, scooting sideways and ducking behind Jayne’s bulk as soon as she was close enough.

“Hello, Kaylee,” a shy voice offered from behind Jayne.

Kaylee felt her mouth tugging up in a smile. “I don’t think we been introduced proper yet.” She held out her hand. “I’m Kaylee Frye.”

One little hand crept out. “Birdy Cobb.” Birdy edged out from behind Jayne, trailing her other hand down his arm to his hand. He squeezed it comfortingly, but didn’t interrupt.

Kaylee shook Birdy’s hand carefully. She was still confused by this whole not-River mess, but that weren’t no reason to forget good manners.

She took the chance to examine Birdy, aware that the younger woman was examining her just as carefully.

She still looked like River, but for the short hair and the little bit of extra weight this one had. Unlike River, who always looked like she was going to break in two if the wind blew wrong. Birdy looked like she ate regular.

Jayne was watching them both, eyes a little anxious, not that he’d admit to it. The hand that Kaylee didn’t have was tucked tightly into his, where it almost disappeared – it was so little.

Birdy tilted her head to one side, eyes wide with shy curiosity. “Hello, Kaylee,” she repeated

“Hello, Birdy,” Kaylee said solemnly. “It’s very nice to meet you.” A hundred questions went through her head, but she held her tongue. There would be time for them later. Right now, they was making friends.

Birdy released her white knuckled grip on Jayne and leaned against him, offering Kaylee a tentative smile. “Do you like plants?”

Jayne relaxed another fraction as Kaylee gave Birdy her brightest smile.

“I don’t know much about plants,” Kaylee chirped, “but if you wanna know anything about machines, I’m your girl!”

Birdy almost giggled, hiding her mouth behind her hand.

Jayne stayed real still as she scooted out from under his arm a little. She leaned forward, resting her chin on her hands.

“Jayne made me a machine to help haul water to my garden,” Birdy offered. “Jacob and Samantha enjoy the water very much, so they are planted beside the river.”

“Oh!” Kaylee jumped up and rushed behind the small counter. “I picked this up for you, from..well..yesterday.” She lifted a cloth wrapped bundle and placed it in front of Birdy carefully. “Don’t know if you can do anything to save it, but it seemed wrong to just give up on it.”

Birdy gave Kaylee a confused look, but unwrapped the odd looking package.

Jayne reached for his gun reflexively when Birdy cried out. She turned towards him, her arms full of something weird and crackly, ‘fore he could do more than put his hand on his gun.

“It’s Theodore!” Birdy held up the small mess of twigs. Her face was shining. “He isn’t all dead!” She cradled the plant to her, offering Kaylee a blinding smile. “I thought he was gone, but you saved him!”

Jayne took a closer look at the bundle she was cuddling in her bandaged hands, and sure enough, it was the plant she had brought as a housewarming gift for the crew. It looked awful broken, but if she said it was still alive, then she had a chance to save it.

He tugged a lock of her short hair affectionately. “Good thing, Birdy girl. You only brought how many others with you? Crammed into my stuff like you thought I wouldn’t notice?”

She stuck her tongue out at him. “Had to leave most. I only brought the ones who wanted to come.”

He chuckled, tugging her into an affectionate hug. “You three alright by yourselves for a bit?” He was speaking to Kaylee too, but he kept his eyes on Birdy.

She gave him a small smile, and he knew she was alright if he left.

“Three?” Kaylee asked with a puzzled look on her face.

“Theodore,” Birdy explained, laying the broken plant gently on the table. “He counts too.”

Kaylee nodded, still looking a little confused.

Jayne let himself grin as he stepped out of the mess, even though he wasn’t looking forward to where he was going. He had to find Mal, ‘cause he was sure the Captain was gonna have some things they needed to talk about. And none of those things needed to be said in Birdy’s hearing.

But she and Kaylee were getting along, and he found himself to fairly relieved. Kaylee thought good of everyone, and if she was willing to befriend his Ladybird, Jayne would personally buy her strawberries in the next three towns they stopped in.

If she could keep the Doc from causing trouble, Jayne would nominate the girl for sainthood.

Behind him, he heard Kaylee’s voice raise in a question about Birdy’s plants.


Chapter Text

”It’s growing.”

The man looked up when the girl spoke.

She was sitting on the bed, pale and hollow-eyed, thin arms holding herself tightly.

“What’s growing?” His voice was hoarse and thick with fatigue. The girl had barely slept in the past four days, and he kept having to get up to tend to her.

“Death.” Her voice was eerily calm. She held her hands up to look at them. “Covered in blood and drowning in it.”

“There ain’t no one drowning, girl.”

She kept getting worse. Half the time she was hallucinating, thinking he was her brother. The other half, she kept asking him to kill her.

He was starting to seriously consider it.

“We’ll figure something out, girl.” It was the same thing he had said so many times before.

He still didn’t believe it.


Birdy was a sweet girl.

Kaylee stood at the sink, wiping off some dishes, watching Birdy talk to the plant at the table.

She was bent over, carefully going over the stems of the plant, exclaiming worriedly over every break and tender part. She was also carrying on a conversation with it involving a number of either people or other plants, Kaylee wasn’t sure which. But the fact that it didn’t answer back didn’t seem to bother Birdy any.

Birdy seemed completely absorbed in her surgery on Theodore, and Kaylee hesitated, throwing a glance at the door. The starboard motor had been running a little hot lately, and it really did need tending to. But the way Jayne had been acting before he went off to get yelled at by the Captain kind of made her feel like she needed to be sticking close to Birdy ‘til he got back.

But that motor was starting to make her nervous. And there was nothing left to do in the mess. Kaylee always was one to never be able to sit still for long. And with Birdy all wrapped up and involved in talking to Theodore, there wasn’t much for her to do.

Birdy didn’t even look up when Kaylee came over to the table, she was so absorbed in what she was doing. Kaylee paused, but Birdy didn’t even seem to notice. So Kaylee went on and stepped out of the room.

She paused on the threshold, worried. But the starboard motor was barely a few feet away. And really, it weren’t like Birdy wouldn’t be alright on her own for ten minutes.


Mal was mad.

Which wasn’t unusual, when it came to dealing with Jayne, but seeing as Jayne had only been back on board Serenity for twenty-four hours, the yelling was coming a bit earlier than expected.

The big man shifted from one foot to the other. He could feel the Captain’s irritation from where he stood.

Mal leaned back against the empty pilot’s seat, arms crossed unhappily. “Why the hell did you lie to me, Jayne?”

“I didn’t lie, Mal.”

“You said that River was dead!”

“River is dead!”

Mal dug his fingers into the back of the pilot’s chair. “The girl is standing downstairs, bright-eyed and bushy tailed, and from what I could see last night, alive as you or me.”

Jayne shook his head in frustration. “But that ain’t River.”

“It sure as hell looks like River. Wanna tell me how you managed that?”

“She ain’t River,” Jayne said stubbornly. “She’s Birdy.”

“That girl downstairs?” Mal spit into Jayne’s face. “That girl is River and you lied to my face after I let you back on my boat!”

“She ain’t River!” Jayne yelled back. Why couldn’t none of them see what was right in front of their ugly faces? “That’s Birdy! My wife, Birdy!” His voice went cold. “River’s dead,” he repeated. “Buried by the river,” he gritted out. “River by the river. Poetic.”

“What the hell does that even mean, Jayne?” Mal ran a hand through his hair, breathing out in exasperation. “I got a girl downstairs who looks just like the doc’s sister, a girl you say is dead. And all you can tell me is that River is buried by the river?” A ragged chuckle forced its way out of his throat. “Never thought I’d be signing up for this, Jayne.”

“You want us to leave?” Jayne’s voice was quiet. He was watching Mal close, looking a little anxious. “You can put down somewheres and let us off.” The big man looked down at the floor. “We don’t want no trouble.”

“I ain’t decided yet.” Mal breathed out hard, closing his eyes. “I’m all manner of unhappy right now, Jayne, let me tell you that.”

Jayne nodded. “She ain’t the crazy girl, Mal, I swear.”

“Then where did you get her? She’s the spitting image of the doc’s sister, and you know it.”

“They’s different girls, Mal.” Jayne’s face was earnest. “They’s different.”

He believed what he was saying was the truth.


Chapter Text

She was crying again.

She kept the lights dim in her cabin, so he always felt like he was stumbling through her nightmares when he went in to check on her.

“Tell me what happened?” Her voice kept getting weaker. Today, he could barely hear her.

“Tell you what, girl?” He sat on the edge of her bed, with her nothing but a thin shadow in the gloom.

“When you got out.”

“We both got out, remember? We’re headed away from there now.”

“I didn’t get out.” Her voice was bleak. “River died there.”

“You’re alive, girl. I know it.”

She shook her head and he felt strands of her hair slide across his hands. Her voice was intent.

“River’s dead.” Little fingers dug into his arm with bruising force. “You have to bury her, Jayne.”



River was carefully repotting the mangled remains of a plant when Simon entered the mess.

Her name was River. He didn't care what that hun dan mercenary had brainwashed her into believing; she was his mei mei. She was River.

He watched from the door as she worked, humming quietly to herself and occasionally stopping to make a comment to the plant she was easing into a new unbroken container. She had a small smile on her face and seemed perfectly content to remain in her own little world with her plants and her delusions of marriage.

But Simon couldn’t let her.

It was wrong, what Jayne was doing. What Jayne had already done. Jayne had taken Simon’s beautiful sister and twisted her already fragile mind.

He squared his shoulders. He knew what he needed to do.

It started with taking advantage of the fact the hulking brute wasn’t underfoot, giving Simon the perfect opportunity to speak to River and try and get her out from under Jayne’s spell.


She didn’t even look up. But he had spoken very quietly. It didn’t mean anything.

”River,” he tried again, voice tight with strain.

He couldn’t stop the leap in his heart when she spoke.

“Name isn’t River.” She kept her eyes on the plant in front of her, one dirty hand brushing a strand of hair from her face. “I am Birdy.” She watched him from the corner of her eye as she tried to hide behind the small plant. “I am Birdy,” she repeated softly, stroking a leaf between her fingers.

“You are River,” Simon stepped towards her with his hands out beseechingly. “I know that Jayne has lied to you, told you that your name is Birdy, but your name is River.” He reached to touch her, but she flinched away.

“My name is Birdy,” she told the plant in front of her. Her mouth was trembling slightly. “River is dead and gone.”

“No, she isn’t,” Simon’s voice came out in a snarl.

River shrank back, scooting behind the table at the anger in his voice.

Simon choked back a curse. River was so timid now; he had to be careful to not frighten her. She was probably easily frightened after living with that monster for two years.

Simon vowed that he would kill Jayne for abusing her.

“Not River,” she whispered, tears falling onto the small plant in her arms. “I’m Birdy, and River’s dead.” She was hunched over under the table, and couldn’t resist a small cry of fright as Simon came closer.

“It’s alright,” Simon kneeled beside her, trying to control his anger at Jayne. “I’m here now, River. I’m here.”

She tightened her arms around the container in her arms and shook her head. “Not River!” she sobbed, voice getting louder. She would not meet his eyes. “Want Jayne,” she insisted. “Want Jayne!”

Simon tried to shush her, but her cries were getting louder. He glanced around desperately. He did not want to have to drug her but could think of no other way to get her to come with him.

Simon had to get her away from Jayne, to a place where she could heal and recover.

He reached for her again, but she threw herself across the room, scrambling for the door. “Want Jayne!” The sound was a shriek, and Simon swore as he heard the heavy tread of booted feet running towards the mess.

Jayne threw himself into the room, one hand on his gun, eyes going immediately to the girl clinging to the side of the doorframe.

River choked out his name and buried her face into his chest. “Not River, not River,” she whispered.

Jayne tightened one arm around her protectively, his other still on the pistol on his hip. Cold blue eyes fastened on Simon’s face even as Jayne cradled the girl to him gently. “No, you ain’t River.”

“River’s dead,” her little voice whispered. “I’m Birdy.”

“Yeah,” Jayne growled. “You’re Birdy. And River ain’t here.” The last bit was snarled at the doctor.

Simon was not going to back down this time. “You know that she’s River. You’re messing with her memory.”

Jayne edged River behind him gently. “Go on down to our room, Ladybird.”

She shook her head, fingers tightening in his belt. “Don’t wanna leave you, Jayne.”

“Go on,” he nudged her. “I’ll be down shortly.”

She glanced over her shoulder, eyes skittering over Simon without focusing on him. She straightened her back, wiping her eyes with one shaking hand. “I do not like him, but River did. She would not want him hurt.”

Jayne nodded jerkily, not even looking at her. “We’s just gonna talk is all.”

She squeezed Jayne’s arm gently before disappearing down the hallway.

“So, doc,” Jayne loomed over the shorter man threateningly. “What say we have a little chat?”


Chapter Text


Birdy slipped down into Jayne’s bunk and huddled on his bed, hugging his pillow to her chest. Taking a deep breath, she wiped her eyes with one small hand.

“I’m Birdy,” she reminded herself, wedging herself into the corner of the bed, clutching the pillow tightly to her stomach. “River’s dead, and I’m Birdy.”

She closed her eyes, chanting this short litany over and over.


“You ‘wake yet, Birdy?”

She hesitated in the kitchen doorway, wide eyes blinking in the bright sunlight

“I was dreaming,” she said, rubbing her forehead in confusion. She looked around the room hopefully. “Jayne, where’s River?”

“River’s dead, Birdy.” The big man turned away from her to look out the window. “Don’t ya ‘member?”

The girl shook her head. “No.” Her eyes slide past him. “Jayne, where’s River?”

“She’s buried by the river.” Jayne gestured out the window, his back to the girl at the table. “She’s safe.”

Birdy twisted a strand of her long hair around her finger. “River by the river,” she mused. “Poetic.”


Simon stood his ground – mouth set in an angry line as the mercenary approached.

“I don’t want you talking to her no more,” Jayne growled. “She ain’t your dead sister, and she don’t need you messing with her head to make her think she is!”

Simon’s eyes flashed dangerously. “We both know you’re lying, Jayne.” He leaned forward and spoke slowly, so that Jayne wouldn’t miss a word. “I will kill you for hurting her.”

The big man smirked. “You don’t even know the girl you claim to be all worried about.”

“She’s my sister,” Simon spat. “Of course I know her!”

“Did River like plants? Did she wake up early in the morning to see the dew on her roses?” Jayne ran frustrated hands through his hair. “Did she like just sitting and listening?”

“I know River,” Simon insisted over him.

“No, you don’t!” Jayne’s anger drained away suddenly. “Look, Doc. River died. I was there. I saw her die. Then I dug her a grave and buried her.” He slumped onto a chair and looked down at his hands on his thighs, face tight with something that might be pain. “I couldn’t do nothing to help her but that. I couldn’t do a gorram thing.”

Simon blinked, shaken by this information. He swallowed hard, suddenly unsure. “I don’t understand.” He licked his lips. “That girl..downstairs…”

Jayne interrupted. “Is my wife, Birdy.” He looked up at the doctor. “I’m sorry ‘bout your sister, Doc, I swear. But leave my wife alone.” The big man ran a tired hand through his hair and turned away from the doctor to face the table. “Just leave us both alone.”

Simon was rattled. The way Jayne spoke about River dying was almost like she really was…No. No, the girl with Jayne was River.

It had to be.

Didn’t it?

Confused, the young man pushed past the captain standing in the doorway and headed for River’s old room.

He needed to straighten her bed again.


“You wanna talk about it?” Mal offered in the silence after the doc left.

Jayne was slumped at the table, staring at nothing. He shook his head. “Ain’t nothing to talk about.”

“You said you were there when she died,” Mal said thoughtfully, sliding into a chair across from the mercenary.

Jayne flinched - a movement so slight, Mal wouldn’t have seen it if he hadn’t been looking for it. “Yeah.”

“What happened, Jayne?” Mal’s voice was quiet. “You ain’t even said what happened after you got took.”

Jayne shook his head, eyes still on the tabletop. “Ain’t nothing to tell,” he said automatically. His shoulders had tensed again, and he was holding on tight to the edge of the chair he was sitting in.

“Did something happen?” Mal persisted. He had let Jayne get by without answering anything so far, but he was going to need some answers to justify why he was letting the two of them stay on board.

Jayne shrugged jerkily. “I dunno.”

“You don’t know if something happened when you got took?”

Jayne shrugged again, tightly, shoulders bunching up tensely. “Can’t remember much. Don’t want to.” He looked up suddenly. “Don’t ask Birdy.”

Mal nodded. “Jayne,” he started slowly. “When did you meet Birdy?”

Jayne shrugged, his attention back on the table. “After River died.”

Mal studied the man in front of him, but no more answers were forthcoming. The big man held himself tensely on his chair, eyes firmly on the table. He was drawing a small pattern in the wood with his thumbnail, and seemed entirely focused on that small task.


The mercenary didn’t even twitch.



Chapter Text

 Birdy huddled deeper into the covers on Jayne’s bed. Her eyes were fixed on the door to the bunk.

It didn’t open.

She bit her lip worriedly. Jayne should have been back by now.

She buried her face in the pillow in confusion. She couldn’t hear any fighting, but she couldn’t hear anything else either.

She eyed the door hopefully, but it remained stubbornly closed.

Curling tighter around herself, she watched the door anxiously. “Please come back, Jayne.”


Mal’s shoulders were stiff with tension.

Jayne had been sitting at the table for almost thirty minutes. He was totally focused on the pattern he was copying and recopying with his thumbnail. He wasn’t responding to the captain at all. He didn’t even so much as flinch.

Mal had tried everything short of touching him. He had tried yelling, calling, sitting food in front of him - everything.

What he really wanted to do was just shake Jayne really hard, but he was resisting the urge. For one thing, the man was armed. For another, Jayne was still twice Mal’s strength, and never had reacted well when startled.

Mal rubbed at his eyes tiredly. On some level, he knew the other man had changed. The lost weight, the hyper awareness, the wary looks, those Mal had noticed. But this was just …strange.

He shied away from thinking about what could have happened to the mercenary after he had been captured by the same people who cut River’s brain all to hell.

Mal paced across the room, watching Jayne obsessively tracing that odd little pattern with his thumbnail. If Jayne didn’t snap out of it soon, he was going to have to call the Doc to see to him, and that wasn’t something he really wanted to do. There was too much bad blood between the two men. Doc might “accidentally” poison Jayne, just out of spite.

Mal glanced over at Jayne again, and saw nothing but the same thing he had seen the last seven times. The big merc still hunched over the table, eyes glazed over as they followed the line his thumb was drawing.

It was creepy.

A small noise caught his attention and he whirled, hand to his gun.

It was the girl. River. Birdy. Whoever.

She stared at him, eyes wide, looking uneasy and unhappy, but her gaze kept sliding sideways to the man at the table. Her hands were clenched at her sides.

“Jayne,” she half whimpered.

Mal turned to look, but Jayne didn’t even respond to her voice.

The girl took a hesitant step into the room, eyes flicking back to the Captain unsurely.

“What’s wrong with him?” Mal asked her.

She flinched, skirting around him carefully to kneel beside Jayne.

“Sure you should be touching him?” Mal’s hand twitched towards his gun again.

The girl ignored him. She wasn’t the least bit afraid of Jayne – but she was scared of Mal.

“Jayne?” One little hand reached to touch the big man’s knee. “Jayne, it is time to come home.”

Mal kept a wary eye on the mercenary, as well as a hand on his gun, but it didn’t matter. Jayne still didn’t move.

The girl glanced at Mal again, a quick flick of her eyes his way. He wasn’t sure what she was doing, but he wasn’t about to leave her alone with Jayne in this state.

Her hands slid up to cup the mercenary’s face. “Jayne,” she said gently. “Jayne, come home.” She smiled up into his blank face, her expression open and loving. “I will bake you cookies and cakes to welcome you back, and you can tell me all the places you have been.” She rubbed his face with her thumbs, smoothing out the lines of concentration as she spoke.

Her voice was soft, and Mal had to strain to hear what she was saying to the man.

“Birdy?” Jayne sounded like a man waking up from a bad dream – lost and confused.

The girl, whoever she was at the moment, took Jayne’s hands in hers and rubbed them. “Shh,” she soothed. “You’re home now.”

Jayne’s hands were shaking in hers, and she rose to her feet and slipped her arms around him. He rested against her, face tucked into her stomach as she stroked his hair.

Mal took a quiet step back towards the door. The whole situation was deeply unsettling.

“He gets lost sometimes.” The girl glanced briefly up at Mal - most of her attention focused on the shaking mercenary in her arms. “I have to help him remember how to get home to me.”

“What about you?” The captain asked. “Don’t you think that you’re a little lost too, River?”

A ghost of a smile played over her lips. “River got lost a long time ago,” she said simply.

Chapter Text

Birdy led Jayne back to their bunk in silence. She had to coax him into the hallway after the Captain left, and it was a slow journey of a few steps. She was grateful that none of the other crew was around. Dealing with the Captain had been difficult enough, and she knew that Jayne trusted the man. But she wasn’t comfortable dealing with any of them. She knew how to care for Jayne when this happened. She didn’t need any help.

His hand was cold in her small one, and she could tell by looking that he wasn’t fully back yet. His eyes were still slightly unfocused, and he let her tug him down the ladder without arguing. He almost missed the first rung. She grabbed his arm in panic.

“Sorry, ladybird,” he whispered on the last rung. His face was lined with strain, and he tucked shaking hands under his arms as he put his feet back on solid ground. He didn’t look up. The after headache was lurking at the edges of his vision, and he kept graying out. He swayed on his feet.

Birdy flipped off the harsh overhead light and patted the bed beside her. “Come here.”

The dim light was a relief to his head and his eyes, and he sighed in thanks. Jayne slid down onto the bunk, leaning heavily back against the wall. He had at least two guns jamming him in the back, but he didn’t do more than shift some. He rubbed his eyes tiredly. “I didn’t mean to get lost again.”

“I know. It’s ok.” She curled up beside him, tucking her head against his shoulder. His heart beat was steady and strong under her ear, and she relaxed slightly at the sound. She pulled his arms around her and looked up into his face.

“It happened in front of Mal, didn’t it?” His voice was bleak, and a sardonic smile twisted his lips.


Jayne chuckled harshly. “I thought this was the right thing to do, Birdy, I really did.” He looked defeated, slumped back against his guns, large hands hanging uselessly at his sides. “I shouldn’t have drug you away from your garden and from River like that. Shoulda known it wouldn’t work out.”

“Nothing has happened yet,” Birdy reminded him gently. “You have always told me that the Captain doesn’t leave people behind.” She ran her fingers lightly over the scar winding its way down his face. She looked him directly in the eyes. “You are his people.”

Jayne looked at her and she couldn’t read his expression. “I ain’t anymore. Not for a long time.”

“Not since Ariel and River,” she finished for him, placing her fingers over his lips. “I know.”

“What good’s a merc who can’t even keep his head on the game?” Jayne demanded. He sighed and rested his head on hers. “What good am I gonna do on this ship, if I can’t do the job for fear something is broken in my brain?”

Birdy hugged him silently, knowing there was nothing she could say to help him. She tucked him into the bed and sat beside him stroking his hair until he fell asleep.

Jayne was broken. She knew that. Whatever had happened to him and River had broken the both of them.

The difference was that Jayne had lived, and River had died. The difference was that Jayne could still function, most days.

She hadn’t known the Jayne before, just like she only had a few memories of River, but she wondered how different they had been before. The rest of the crew had been giving Jayne some odd looks, but Birdy had thought that was because of her. She hadn’t considered that it was because her Jayne wasn’t their Jayne.

She pressed her lips to her husband’s forehead. He wasn’t feverish, which was a relief. Sometimes it would take him days to get better after a bad episode.

Birdy hugged the sleeping man carefully. “We will be ok,” she promised him. “Everything is going to be ok.”


“You scared me.”

Jayne squinted into the dark, trying to see the girl. His head was throbbing, and he was lying on the ground. Had they been attacked?

“River?” he croaked. His throat was dry, and he coughed.

“Shh,” she soothed, one little hand reaching to cup his face. “It’s Birdy.”

He jerked away in alarm, regretting the motion instantly as the pain behind his eyelids pounded louder. “What happened? Did somebody come? Are you ok?” He lurched to his feet, looking around cautiously. It was night, and they were outside the house beside the garden.

Her face wrinkled in concern. “You left.”

“What do you mean, I left? I didn’t go nowhere.” Jayne grabbed for the stair railing as the world spun uncomfortably. Birdy’s frightened voice rang in his ears as his knees buckled.

“Jayne?” She was crying. He could hear it in her voice. “Please don’t go away again!”

“I didn’t go nowhere,” he panted. He rested his head against the bottom step and closed his eyes.

“You did!” Birdy was kneeling beside him, clinging to his hand tightly.“You left, and I thought you were leaving like River left, and then I would be all alone!” She wiped her wet face with a dirty hand, still clinging to his with the other. “Please don’t leave,” she pleaded.

She had the biggest eyes. Bigger than River’s even. Jayne blinked at her in confusion. He nodded, slowly, so as not to set off any more chain reactions in his head. “I ain’t going nowhere,” he told her, voice heavy with fatigue. He tried to wave off her concern, but couldn’t move his hand under hers. So he squeezed her hand instead.

Her hand felt good in his. Small and delicate.

She smiled tremulously at him. “You’ll stay with me?”

“I’ll stay with you, Birdy.” He squeezed her hand again as his voice slurred with exhaustion. “Promise.”


Chapter Text

“Are you going to let them stay, sir?”

Zoë stood in front of him, arms behind her back, watching him calmly.

“Zoë, I’ve never seen anything quite like that.” Mal paced in agitation, slapping his hand against the wall of the cockpit with every turn. “He wasn’t looking, he wasn’t talking, he was barely moving! It was like he wasn’t even at home in his own head.”

Zoë nodded. “I heard you, sir.” She tilted her head, looking directly at him and repeated her initial question. “Are you going to let them stay?”

“I don’t know,” Mal muttered, shaking his head in confusion. “If it were just River who was crazy, hell, we could deal with that. We have before.”

“Birdy,” Zoë corrected.


“She says her name is Birdy.” Zoë informed him.

Mal stopped mid pace, lip curling in a disbelieving sneer. “Don’t tell me you believe that gos se about River being dead too, do you?”

Zoë shrugged carefully. She had never healed completely from the punctured lung, and would always have some leftover pain. It made for slow moving. “Don’t know. But I know that the girl and Jayne both say she ain’t River.”

Mal snorted and rubbed his face. “And the Doc is absolutely insistent that she is. And she sure does look like River.” He leaned against the bulkhead and scowled absentmindedly out at the black. “And how Jayne is acting just ain’t normal.”

Zoë lowered herself carefully into the pilot’s seat and picked up one of her husband’s dinosaurs. “He did get taken by the Alliance when River did. I can’t even imagine what they might have done to him.”

“I don’t want to imagine what was done to him,” Mal muttered, running a hand through his tousled hair. “They cut River’s brain all to hell, and she was a genius to begin with. Cutting up Jayne’s brain would be stupid. He didn’t have any brain cells to spare.”

“It is very possible that they didn’t do anything to his brain. I don’t think anything could make Jayne a reader. But I conjure that wasn’t what they were trying to do anyway.” Zoë shook her head unhappily.

“Think they was trying to link the two of them? Or was Jayne just a body to poke at and see what happened?” Mal tilted his head quizzically. He sounded uneasy.

“Don’t know, captain, but the very idea makes my spine itch.”

“Mine too. But it still don’t change the facts.” Mal sighed, lacing his hands together behind his head. He scowled out into the black. “We got a hell of a problem, Zoë.”

Zoë nodded in acceptance. “I know, sir.”

“He’s different, Zoë.”

“I know that too, sir. I’ve been watching.” Zoë’s face was composed as her captain took up pacing the length of the cockpit again.

Mal kicked at the bulkhead in frustration. “Gorram it! Finding either of them was amazing and something I never thought would happen. It should’ve been a good thing. It should’ve been happy and dancing and Kaylee being annoyingly cheerful like she used to be. It should’ve been Jayne eating us out of house and home, and Simon running around after River, trying to get her to put shoes on.” The Captain’s voice took on a bitter edge. “Instead, we got Jayne acting like River used to and River insisting she’s dead. Wonderful.” He slumped down into the co-pilot’s chair with a weary scowl.

“We don’t know what happened to the two of them, sir.” Zoë repeated, resting her feet on the edge of the console, worn boots shifting.

Mal sighed. “Yeah, I know.”

“I suggest we hold off judgment,” Zoë told him, twisting the dinosaur in her hands. “They might just need time to settle in before talking about anything.”

Mal nodded. “Yeah, I guess.” He thought for a second. “What if Jayne can’t do the job?”

Zoë looked straight at him. “Then we have to decide if keeping ‘em on board is good or bad for the crew.”

“Jayne ain’t crew?” Mal asked quietly, watching her face closely.

“I don’t know, Mal. I wish I did.”

They both turned to stare out into the black for a few seconds.

“It wouldn’t be easy, letting them go,” Mal finally said. “Kaylee would have herself a crying fit, and its likely Inara wouldn’t speak to me again.” He paused for a second, face twisting into a tired frown, “Plus, I gotta say, I have no idea how the Doc would react to that.”

Zoë nodded in agreement, blowing her lips out in a sigh. “But if they’re a danger to the crew, should we even have them on board?”

Mal shook his head and shrugged. “Hell, we kept River on board for a while, and she sliced Jayne open at one point.”

Zoë’s mouth twitched. “True, but I think Jayne might be likely to do more damage than River ever could. And he’d be a hell of a lot harder to take down.”

Mal nodded unhappily. “I’ll see if I can’t talk Simon into making up some strong tranqs, just in case.” He rested his head in his hands for a moment, rubbing his temples tiredly. “And if we gotta take Jayne down, I’m pretty sure we’d have to take River or Birdy or whoever the hell she is down too.”

“So they’re staying?”

Mal just looked at her, face unhappy. “I need some time to think about it.”

Zoë nodded and pushed herself slowly to her feet, letting her hand rest on the Captain’s shoulder for a moment. “It’ll work itself out, Mal.” She squeezed his shoulder comfortingly. “It always does.”

Mal’s only response was a slow nod.


Chapter Text

Jayne was on his feet and visibly armed two days later, a trifle paler, but not noticeably out of his mind.

And Mal was looking. Close.

The girl, whatever name she was going by, hovered nearby, half-hiding behind a pile of cargo. She alternated between worried looks at the big mercenary and suspicious glares at the captain.

It made for a refreshing change from the way she had been avoiding human contact. Or would have, except for the glaring that was giving him a headache.

Fortunately, the doc had been making himself scarce for the past couple of days. Hopefully, he would keep away for a while until he got good and calmed down about River being married to Jayne. Not to mention her not actually being River.

Mentally, he shook his head. Still didn’t make sense.

Simon had trapped Mal and Kaylee when Jayne and River first got on board, ranting about psychological trauma and selective amnesia. Which didn’t make a lot of sense to Mal, because if things were that bad, wouldn’t River have turned into someone else a long time ago?

But, they had a job to do today, and Mal had a mercenary who might go wooly any second. He had enough to worry on than trying to figure out if the girl was who she didn’t think she was.

Pity Zoë wasn’t up to going out anymore. He never felt quite right without her at his back. But lung shots were lung shots, and she wasn’t up to keeping him out of trouble from beside him. Nowadays, she took over the planning. Said she could at least limit his chances of getting shot if she was in charge.

Hopefully, she had taken Jayne’s fun new personality changes into the equation. Getting shot was no fun. Getting shot because your backup went crazy was just plain miserable.

Plus, then he’d have to shoot Jayne, and while he’d had thoughts in that direction in the past, he got a weird feeling whenever he thought about shooting this Jayne. This one actually acted somewhat human. Ish.

Kaylee seemed to be fond of whats-her-name, and they would both cry and pout and be very cranky if Mal actually shot him.

And the girl might kill him if he got her husband shot. And boy, wasn’t that a weird idea? Jayne being married. Happily married, even.

He took another look over at the big man, who was standing close to the girl as she whispered to him, big eyes shining.

Jayne was nodding and smiling faintly. He looked kinda amused as she tightened his gun belt and worried at his collar.

She shot Mal a stern look, and very clearly told Jayne not to get himself, or anyone else, shot.

Least someone was concerned about Mal getting shot at today.

And it wasn’t even anything more strenuous than a pick up. The details were worked out weeks ago by Zoë herself. All Jayne had to do was hold it together for a couple of hours, look intimidating and make sure they weren’t getting cheated out of their cargo.

Then the man could get back here and go crazy in his own bunk.

So long as he didn’t take a swing at what’s-her-name, they’d have no troubles.

If they could just get through this one stupid little job.


Birdy wrung her hands again as Jayne and the captain walked out of Serenity. Her small hands were clenched white as she ducked back into the shadows of the cargo bay to wait.

He would be fine. They would both be fine. She was worrying herself over nothing.

Jayne had slept the night through after finding his way back to her, and spent most of the next day slipping in and out of consciousness. When he came out, sometimes he thought she was River, sometimes he thought they were back home in their own cozy little house with her garden beside it.

But he hadn’t lost track of what day it was, and he knew he was dreaming. It just took him a minute to remember where they were. She had to help him, sometimes, whispering reminders and names. But he hadn’t gotten sick, the way he sometimes did after a spell as bad as that one.

She had kept her cheek pressed to his scarred face, waiting for the slightest flush of fever, but it never came.

He was going to be just fine.

And he was going to watch out for the captain, and do his job, and everything was going to work out just like they wanted. Like River would have wanted, if she were here.

When he came back, she would make him dinner, biscuits and soup, maybe, and they could celebrate. She would set the little table in their cabin, and put poor Theodore in the middle for a centerpiece.

His first successful job back on Serenity.

Birdy smiled, a little tremulously. Things would be fine now. The others would adjust to who Birdy and Jayne were now. They’d fit in, both of them, here on Serenity. No matter who people thought they should be.

Chapter Text

 "I done told you, already, Birdy." Jayne was leaning over her bed, blanket in one callused hand. "They ain't stories. They're real."

"Tell me about them, Jayne. About the Captain and the Preacher, or little Kaylee. And tell me about River's brother." Birdy tucked one small hand under her cheek, looking trustingly up at the large man tucking her into bed. "Please, Jayne. Tell me about your home."

Jayne sank down to sit beside her, absently scratching at the still healing cut on his face. "They," he said haltingly. "They was good enough people, I guess. Captain paid a fair wage, and Kaylee kept the ship running, and the doc, well." Jayne's forehead wrinkled in confusion. "I don't remember ever telling you about the doc, Ladybird."

Birdy flushed, dropping her eyes to trace her fingers along the lace of the sheet. "River told me about him."

Jayne caught his breath. "Does River talk to you much?" His voice didn't quite shake, but he sat very still, hands white on his knees.

"Sometimes," she whispered. "Sometimes when I go to visit her, or when I'm sitting in the sun, she'll tell me things." She smiled as she picked at the edge of her pillow. "She told me a story about when she was Serenity, and danced in the Black." She lifted large, dark eyes to his face. "She loves to dance, but she says she can't teach me."

"Why not?" he managed. His throat was tight.

"She says that the dancing died with her." Birdy's voice was sad and small. "She says I have to find something that I love, instead."

Jayne's voice was husky. "What will you love, then?"

Birdy rolled onto her side, away from Jayne. Her voice was troubled. "I don't know, Jayne."

He squeezed her shoulder with one callused hand. "You got time, Birdy," he said as gently as he could.


Jayne and Mal came back swearing and bloody, but grinning.

"The hell happened to you, sir?" Zoe asked, taking in the whole picture.

Jayne was dirty from head to toe, and he was trying to beat the shape back into his hat, which looked like someone had sat on it. His lip was busted, but it didn't seem to bother him at all. He grinned upwards and waved cheerily to Zoe, who was waiting for the captain at the top of the stairs. He walked off towards the corner of the cargo hold where Birdy hovered, his battered hat jammed down onto his head.

Mal had dirt in his hair and the evidence of a bloody nose as he swaggered up to the cockpit. He was limping slightly, but he whistled as he got settled down into the co-pilot's seat.

Wash openly laughed at the captain's appearance. "And here I was thinking everything went fine. I never got a call to come and get you, and it doesn't look like anyone is chasing us..unless they are very small. Are you being chased by very angry pixies, Mal?"

"No pixies. Just a mite of violence, that's all," he said cheerfully. "We got the goods, and Jayne used his intimidating manner and got us another job on top of that."

"Does that explain the violence?"

Mal waved away the question. "Violence was just for fun, didn't have nothing to do with the job."

"You and Jayne got into a fight. With each other." Zoe nodded. "Of course."

Wash snickered. "Did Jayne wipe the floor with you again?"

"The floor was not wiped," Mal answered haughtily. "Might have been bounced off the ground a time or two, but 'twas all in fun."

"I see," Zoe said with an amused look. "So, I take it that Jayne did well?"

"Jayne did very well!" Mal said happily. "He even kept me from getting shot!" He spun the chair in a circle. "You know," he mused, "Think we might have to keep him and his lady, whatever the hell her name is today. I don't even mind getting covered in dirt!"

Wash and Zoe exchanged an amused look. "You're very weird, sir."

He grinned unrepentantly. "You know it."

Zoe kissed the top of Wash's head and headed down the stairs, chuckling to herself.

Mal sat in silence for a moment after she left. He kicked his heels up on top of the consol and laced his fingers behind his head. "I gotta admit it, Wash," he said with a sigh. "Things will go a mite smoother for us with a good gun hand on board again."

The pilot's shoulders sagged. "She'd be with you if she could, Mal, you know that."

"I do."

"And you know I sit much easier knowing my wife isn't out there being shot at." Wash leaned back in his chair. "And you know she hates not being there at your back."

"Not having her at my back has cost us," Mal said soberly. "With Jayne here and armed, we might actually have a chance of eating for two months in a row. I never thought I'd say it, but I never realized how much I missed the big lug until he wholloped me in the face and called me a dirtsucker. I tell you, Wash -- there were almost tears."


"There were tears of bravery."

Wash snorted.

"You try getting hit in the face by a man the size of a tree and see how brave you are."

Chapter Text

 Birdy hopped from one foot to the other as Jayne strode over to her.


He was grinning, and she felt an answering smile tug at the corners of her lips as he grabbed her off of the floor and spun her in a circle. She beamed up at him, completely ignoring the dirt he was getting all over her. "It went well!" She would've clapped her hands in excitement, but she had both hands clutched in his shirt for balance.


He grinned down at her, the scar on his face twisting painfully. "Went great," he said. "And I got into a fight!" He bounced her in excitement.


Birdy giggled, short strands of hair falling into her eyes. "I would worry, but you are happy, so I am happy!"


"And I'm happy if you're happy."


"We're a big happiness circle!"


Jayne laughed out loud at that, and placed her gently back on her feet. "I think we can do this, Birdy-girl," he said. "I can work, here. No more mines or farming, and we won't have to keep an eye out for somebody looking for River. And Mal pays decent, and I bet if we waited a bit, we could get a bigger bunk." He dropped his battered hat on her head. "I think we can live here."


Birdy looked up at him, hat falling over her eyes and nose. She was still smiling, but it was a little hesitant. "No more looking over our shoulders?" She reached up to touch his bloody lip. "No more hiding and fear?"


Jayne pulled Birdy into his chest in a tight hug, hat toppling to the floor behind her. "No more, Ladybird," he said into her hair. "We can make a new home here."


"A home." She said softly. "Home is where the heart is. Home is where Jayne is."


"Home is where we both are, Birdy." Jayne looked intently into her eyes. "And this time, nobody can run us out of it. Not no one, you hear me?"


Birdy stood up on tiptoe to kiss him, a smile threatening to take over her face. "Good and permanent," she said in satisfaction.


He couldn't work all the time. His spells took a good bit out of him, and, at first, they came fast and often. But he was a good worker, so long as somebody didn't mind telling him a couple of times what he needed to get done, and the mines always needed strong bodies.

It was miserable work, but it was something he could do, no matter where they were living.

They had moved from town to town, from planet to planet for the first few months. Until they found a little place for them – it wasn’t much, just two little rooms and a kitchen shoved onto the side. But it was theirs and Birdy had found the remnants of a little garden behind it. She spent a good bit of time poking at the thin green shoots coming up, and you couldn't have found anyone prouder of a couple of undersize onions when she finally picked them.

Birdy was shy around him, still. She was a small shadow behind him, most of the time, which was good when strangers were around. It was a mite more irritating when he was trying to find her to tell her to stop leaving leaves and dirt all over the house.

It was hard to believe that River wasn’t there sometimes. You can’t help but get used to someone being there after the time the two of them had spent in the place. He'd hear her, sometimes, he thought, but then he’d turn and look, and it would be Birdy peeking around the corner or Birdy prattling on about some green thing she had found growing.

River had been dead four months, and both he and Birdy were still getting used to it.

They had just gotten around to cutting Birdy’s hair.

It helped.

Chapter Text

He had never moved. Mal had offered him a bunk. Kaylee had even asked him, months ago, to move in with her. But it had never felt right. River's things were all here, right next door, and it was easy to keep them straightened when he was close by.

It made it easier to remember who he was. Who he had been. Before.

Before Serenity, before River was taken. The first time, he had given up everything to find her. And then he lost her, and he was left with practically nothing.

He clung to the few familiar things that remained.

His bed was made every morning with tight hospital corners. His clothes, although much more tattered than they used to be, were hung neatly in the closet – shirts on one side, pants on the other, all facing the same way.

River’s room was clean and ready for her at any moment. Her sketchbooks and colored pencils had been stacked nearly beside her bed. Once a week he changed the linens and remade the bed – he turned it down automatically, as if she might still come back and slip into bed at night without him noticing.

He still woke up at night, sometimes, but would catch himself right before he opened her door. Her nightmares had bothered her so. Some nights neither of them had gotten much sleep.

Simon's hands trembled on the base on the gun.

He put it down with care. Two dull scalpels and a worn hospital badge lay scattered beside it.

This was the sum of his life, here on this rickety table in a run-down transport ship.

He touched the badge gently. In bold letters, it announced "Capital City Trauma Center Staff: Dr. Simon Tam, Surgeon." A faded capture of a young man looked up at him with a tight, distracted smile.

He wasn't that man anymore. He hadn't been that man for almost four years. Not since he got River's first coded letter. It had taken him days to break the cipher. At first, he thought it was one of her jokes. Something funny or rude, maybe, about one of the instructors.

The edge of the card was curled and burnt, and he picked at it with his thumb. He placed it precisely on the very end of the table – out of his reach.

He hesitated over the scalpels. The steel was cool and comforting in its familiarity. They were slightly dull, but that could still be fixed. They would have to be fixed. There had been little to no money for medical supplies in months.

He moved the scalpels to the other side of himself, leaving only one thing in front of him.

A gun.

Something he had never in his life expected to own.

He unloaded it slowly, lining up each bullet in a precise line, the casings smooth to his callused fingers. His hands barely shook when he fired... now.

This was the only gun he had, the one he took on jobs. It was the one he learned to shoot on, after Mal nearly brained him with a rock for having bad enough aim that he nearly hit Serenity.

The gun was old, but serviceable. Sometimes the trigger jammed up, and he had to take extra care to clean and oil it carefully before a job.

It was the most obvious example of how his life had changed.

He stared at it. There was a nick on the handle, and a deep grove across the trigger guard that had been there before he ever got it.

Slowly, he slid it to the right – to join the old hospital identification card.

He didn't need it anymore.

Jayne had taken this from him, as well.