That night, after Niska, Mal didn’t come swinging down the ladder like he usually did, and Jayne lay frozen in his bunk, wondering just what the hell he should do now. Even after Ariel, Mal had kept coming, his face hard, eyes cold, but he had come. This was different.
It wasn’t like Mal would take comfort, even if Jayne knew how to give it. He knew he was rough around the edges. That’s what Mal wanted from him. An edge to rub against, to forget the past pain and live in the present tense. He wasn’t as dense as everyone made him out to be. He could read a person as well as anyone, if he cared to. It was just, well, mostly he didn’t care to.
Mal was different, though. He hadn’t been at first, just another con man with a pleasant enough face. That was the surface, though, and those waters ran deep. Living in close quarters with a man really gave you his measure, as much as Mal gave anything away. He couldn’t remember when it had been, what had happened that had given him the first glimpse of the depths below. He remembered the feeling, though. The cold burn of attraction trickling down his spine, raising the hair on his forearms.
It wasn’t until later he realized that the water had closed over his head without him even noticing. By then it was too late.
“I just don’t think it’s a very good idea to trust him again, sir,” Zoe said.
“Who said anything about trusting the man?” Mal asked. “He’s got work, we need work.” He grinned and held up a jingling purse. “I got him to pay me up front, cold hard coin.”
“All the more reason not to trust him, sir,” Zoe said implacably.
“Ain’t no reason for a man to give up money like that,” Jayne added. “He’ll try to take it back.”
“Badger’s a right ornery cuss, that’s true,” Mal said. “But I’m not plannin’ on coming back to Persephone for a good long while. If he wants his money back, he’ll have to leave this rock, and Badger’s never wanted to knock the dirt off his boots and take to the stars.”
Zoe made a disbelieving noise. She answered Mal, but a familiar face at the edge of Jayne's vision made him turn his head. The noise of the port drained away and he stopped in his tracks. He watched the man smile, nod, disappear into a tall, rich looking building. His hand had automatically gone to the gun strapped to his hip, and he clenched it into a fist to avoid drawing. Mal and Zoe had gotten some paces ahead, and he hurried to catch up.
“Wash? How soon can we leave this niushi dirtball?” Mal was asking, the radio close to his mouth.
“Ready to roll any time, Captain,” Wash answered.
Mal nodded. “Warm her up,” he said. “Soon as we’re inside, we’re gettin’ gone.”
Jayne touched Mal’s shoulder and gave him a look that he hoped the other man would understand. The cold weight that had rested in his stomach since they had gotten Mal back from Niska stirred, stretched, and settled again as Mal raised an eyebrow and slowed to a stop.
“Zoe,” Mal said, “why don’t you go on ahead and made sure everyone’s back safe and sound so’s we can get off this rock?”
Zoe gave them both a suspicious look, a slight narrowing of the eyes, but all she said was, “On it, sir.”
Jayne waited until she was out of earshot before saying, “You don’t need me on this job.”
“What?” Mal crossed his arms. “What are you saying to me, Jayne? You just get done tellin’ me all the different and myriad ways Badger ain’t to be trusted, and now I don’t need you on this job?”
“I’m sayin’ I got me some personal business I gotta take care of,” Jayne said, fingering his gun. “This job is simple, ain’t nothin’ gonna go wrong. You don’t need me.”
“We ain’t comin’ back to Persephone any time soon,” Mal said.
It wasn’t a no, and Jayne pressed his advantage. “I know,” he said. “I’ll take a transport to Holden and meet you there.”
The struggle to trust him was plain as day on Mal’s face. “Jayne,” he started.
“I swear Mal,” Jayne interrupted. “I swear this is personal, and it don’t got nothin’ to do with that pansy ass doctor. I swear.”
Mal compressed his lips into a tight, thin line, but he nodded, a quick jerk of his head. “You ain’t there in a week and a half,” he said, “we’re leavin’ without you.”
“Fair ‘nough,” Jayne said. “Gotta get some gear from Serenity and then I’ll be gone.”
“Right,” Mal said, and started walking. “Don’t expect to get paid,” he added. “Leavin’ like this before the job ain’t even started.”
“I ain’t askin’,” Jayne said. He touched the knife hidden under his jacket and smiled. Little man was gonna find out he had messed with the wrong crew. He was lookin’ forward to it. The look on Niska’s face when he saw who had come for him would be payment enough.
Jayne hitched his duffle up more securely on his shoulder, wincing as the cut on his back pulled. His shirt stuck to his skin in the humidity of the air. The main port city on Holden was at the edge of a lush jungle. The afternoon rains hadn’t yet appeared, and the heat was oppressive. The air smelled heavy, earthy. He’d taken the first transport off Persephone he could find, and the journey hadn’t been easy, or comfortable. Made him appreciate Serenity all the more. Made him glad to be going back home.
And didn’t that just go down easy. Home. It wasn’t like he was taking his place on the ship for granted, not after Ariel. But no place he’d laid his head a while had felt like Serenity did. She appeared in front of him just as thick, dark clouds started to form up above. Kaylee was standing at the cargo bay doors, directing Wash as he drove the ‘cat, loaded down with boxes, up the ramp.
He jogged the last few steps, ignoring the sting in his back as his duffle bounced. His boots were loud on the ramp, and Kaylee turned at the noise.
“Hey, Jayne,” she said warmly, smile spreading across her face like the sun. “Welcome back!”
“Hey,” Jayne said roughly. He ran his hand over his face, wiping off the sweat before it could sting his eyes. “When we fixin’ to leave this goushi planet?”
“Coupla days, I reckon.” Kaylee's hair was curling on her neck in the heat and her cheeks were rosy. “Inara’s got a client booked. Captain and Zoe are out looking for work.”
“Hope it’s sooner,” Jayne muttered. “Any longer and I’m gonna start growin’ mold in some uncomfortable places.” He headed up the stairs to the crew quarters as Kaylee giggled behind him.
After a sonic shower and changing his shirt, he felt marginally cooler. He unpacked his duffle, tossing the dirty clothes on the floor and carefully setting his pistols back on the rack above his bed. He hadn’t had to use them. Just the knife, so sharp it was like slicing air to cut on a man. He palmed the small white box from his duffle to his pocket and threw the bag underhand into a corner of the room.
Jayne climbed out of his bunk and ambled over to the mess. He spooned some of the congee still gently steaming on the range into a bowl and brought it to the table, sitting with his back to the wall so he could keep an eye on the exits. He could see Wash at the helm, feet kicked up on the console. It was quiet, that sleepy kind of quiet it got in the middle of the afternoon.
Mal and Zoe came in as he was scraping the last grains of rice out of his bowl and licking the spoon for good measure. They were laughing about something, on the tail end of a joke. Zoe walked through the kitchen, nodding at Jayne, the corners of her mouth still warm and generous as she jogged up the stairs to the helm. Jayne tuned out the low murmur of her conversation with Wash as Mal pulled out the chair across from him and sat, leaning an elbow on the table.
“You through with your business?” he asked. His voice was neutral, but his eyes were keen, as usual. Seeing more than they ought.
“Yup,” Jayne said shortly. He rose, walking to the sink to wash his bowl.
Mal picked at a spot on the table with his thumbnail before leaning back in the chair, his hands behind his head. “Any of that business follow you back here?”
“Come on, Mal,” Jayne said. He swiped the bowl with a towel and set it back in the cupboard. “I ain’t an amateur.”
Mal’s right shoulder hitched up, then down, but he didn’t turn around. “Just askin’,” he said mildly.
“Here,” Jayne said, pulling the box out of his pocket and slapping it down on the table in front of Mal, “brought you back a present.”
Mal looked at him suspiciously, hands dropping back into his lap. “A present,” he said. “What’s the occasion?”
Jayne shook his head. “Open it."
Huffing, Mal slid the box closer and lifted off the lid. He blanched. “What the ruttin’ hell is this?” he asked.
“It’s an ear, Mal,” Jayne said. He leaned his hip on the table, bending closer. “Figured you could use a spare.”
“Whose ear is it, Jayne?” Mal’s voice was low and deadly, and Jayne dropped a hand to the table so he was looking straight into Mal’s eyes as he turned slightly in his chair.
“It’s Niska’s,” he said.
What color was left drained from Mal’s face. His hand shook as he tried to put the lid back on the box. “Wo de ma. Man better not come knocking on my door wantin’ this here grisly piece of work back,” he said with visible effort.
Jayne leaned back and put his hand on Mal’s shoulder, squeezed once. “Not unless the dead are walkin’, Mal, and I just ain’t noticed yet.”
“Personal business,” Mal muttered to himself, disbelieving. He turned, and Jayne let his hand drop away. “How dead is he, Jayne?”
“Dead as I could make him, an’ that’s pretty dead,” Jayne said. He stood, turned to leave the room.
“Jayne,” Mal said, stopping him.
Jayne paused, looked down at Mal, who was staring at the box. “Yeah?”
Mal carefully straightened the lid on the box, aligning it with a click, then sat for a moment, fingertips resting there. “I never asked you to kill Niska." His voice was quiet.
“I just took the opportunity what presented itself to me,” Jayne said. He started for the stairs to the crew quarters again.
“I ain’t gonna say thank you for this,” Mal said behind him.
Jayne didn’t turn around. “Ain’t expectin’ you to.”
It was a couple days after they had left Holden when Kaylee clattered down the stairs to the cargo hold, standing in front of Jayne and bouncing a little on her toes as he finished a set of pull ups.
“Word on the Cortex is that Niska’s dead,” she said without preamble.
“That so.” Jayne turned his back to Kaylee, picking up some free weights. “Where’d you hear that?” he asked gruffly.
“‘Nara told me,” she said, her voice sweet.
“That so,” Jayne said again. He could feel her moving closer to him, and he shuffled a few steps to the side, sat on the weight bench.
“Yup!” Kaylee replied. She went on as Jayne leaned his elbow on his thigh and started doing bicep curls. “Seems he was on Persephone and got snatched. Just - poof! - disappeared.” She snapped her fingers.
“Huh.” Jayne switched arms.
“Also,” Kaylee said, sitting on the bench next to him and leaning toward him conspiratorially, “word is he was missin’ an ear.”
Jayne grunted. He was sweating now, more from Kaylee’s artless interrogation than the weights. He dropped the dumbbell, leaning both elbows on his thighs and staring at the floor, counting holes in the grate as a trickle of sweat crawled down his spine, stinging a little in the cut that hadn’t quite healed. He snuck a glance at her and she was staring intently at him, frowning a little.
“Did you torture him?” she asked.
“What?” Jayne jumped up from the bench, started pacing. “What the hell?”
“I know you did it, Jayne,” she said. Her face held no judgment, her eyes still warm. “Did you torture him?”
“Might of cut off his ear ‘fore I cut his throat,” Jayne admitted, grinning just a little. “He died clean, though. Torture ain’t really my thing.”
Kaylee was looking up at him, all smiles. “That’s a real nice thing you did for the Captain,” she said.
Jayne rubbed the back of his neck. “Wasn’t aware that killin’ a man the way I did Niska was a nice thing,” he said. “Or killin’ a man at all.”
“It’s not the how.” Kaylee stood up. “It’s the why.” She was still smiling, reaching out to touch his hand. “You’re a good man,” she said, softly.
Jayne barked a laugh, knowing it was too harsh but unable to soften the sound. “I ain’t ever been a good man,” he said, his voice low, “and I ain’t likely to be one, neither.”
Kaylee opened her mouth to answer, but just then River came tripping down the stairs, calling, “Kaylee, Kaylee!” and the moment was broken. Jayne made his escape, backing away, then taking the stairs two at a time as Kaylee laughed at something River said.
His bunk felt small and safe. He shut the hatch behind himself and sat on the bed with a huff. “Girls’ a fool,” he muttered to himself, unlacing his boots. He kicked them off and lay back, arms under his head. He closed his eyes, saw Mal’s disbelieving face. “She’s in good company,” he said, and laughed at himself.
A careful thunk from the hatch woke him. He hadn’t meant to fall asleep, and his eyes felt gritty as he blinked up at the ceiling.
“Jayne,” Mal said.
Jayne lifted his head a little. Mal was standing on a middle rung of the ladder, one hand on the hatch. His face was uncharacteristically uncertain as their eyes met.
“Oh, hey, Mal,” Jayne said, sitting up completely. He swung his legs over the edge of the bed and put his socked feet on the floor.
“Doc said,” Mal started. He didn’t continue, his knuckles white on the rungs where he gripped the ladder.
Jayne curled his toes on the floor. “Ain’t nothin’, Mal,” he said. “Just a little scratch.”
“Doc said he gave you stitches.” Mal jumped the bottom rungs and landed with hardly a sound. “Don’t sound like nothin’ to me.”
“I’ve gotten worse just foolin’ around playin’ ball,” Jayne mumbled, knowing he sounded surly but unable to change his tone. Mal put him so off balance sometimes, hot and cold and he could never figure out if he was coming or going with the ruttin’ man.
Mal just looked at him, eyes steady, mouth turned down at the edges. He looked tired, like he had the whole world on his shoulders and couldn’t stop carrying it.
“Hell,” Jayne growled, and stood.
Mal flinched almost imperceptibly before he let go of the ladder and took a step into the room. “Far be it from me to pry,” he said dryly, “but I gotta know what’s happenin’ with my crew. I gotta know I can rely on you, Jayne.”
“You can,” Jayne said shortly. He took the hem of his shirt in both hands and lifted it off to hide the hurt he knew was plain on his face. He never had the art of hiding his feelings, not like Zoe, stoic as all get out, not like Mal, covering up with a smile. He turned his back to Mal for good measure, dropping the shirt on the floor and standing with his hands at his sides, waiting.
Mal’s boots made soft, hollow sounds as he walked closer. His fingers brushed Jayne’s spine and he couldn’t help the sharp intake of breath at the touch, but Mal didn’t comment. He just rested his forehead on Jayne’s bare shoulder. “You’re in my crew,” he said, low, so low Jayne could hardly hear him over the ever present circulating air. “I gotta know my crew is safe.”
“I know, Mal,” Jayne said. He wanted to turn, to take Mal in his arms, but he wasn’t sure if that would be welcome. They breathed together like that, in and out.
Clearing his throat, Mal lifted his head and stepped away. “Looks to be healing just fine,” he said in a normal tone.
Jayne picked up his shirt, putting it on before turning to face Mal again, who already had one foot on the ladder, already had that half smiling mask up. “Told you,” he said, his voice rough.
“Dinner’s in an hour,” Mal said as he climbed up, his voice muffled by the hatch. “You’re on KP.”
“Aw, Mal, no,” Jayne protested. “I’ve had KP for weeks.”
“Serves you right, going off like that.” Mal pulled himself out of the hatch and kicked it closed without another word.
“KP,” Jayne grumbled. “Gorram dish duty 'til I die.”
Jayne woke slowly, blinking up at the infirmary ceiling, his memory trickling back to him. Hovering over the estate on Bellerophon, trying to reprogram the trash unit. A wash of white and a great blank space. Waking up, unable to move, Simon’s implacable voice saying, “I’m your doctor". River …
Best not to think about River.
He shook his head, and immediately regretted it as a wave of dizziness washed over him. He closed his eyes, but that only made the vertigo worse. A small hand touched his forearm, and he jerked.
“Just me,” Kaylee said. “You gave us an awful scare.”
Jayne grunted. “I’m all right." He turned his head carefully to look up at her. Black spots swam in front of his vision, then cleared.
She took his left hand, callouses rough along their palms, and he let her. She was smiling softly at him, her eyes shining a bit. Her hair was piled up on top of her head, messy tendrils escaping as usual, and she had a smudge of grease on her cheek.
Clearing his throat, Jayne asked, “We get it?”
Kaylee nodded. “Dunno how we’re going to sell it,” she said, with a wry twist of her lips, “but we got it.” She squeezed his hand a little.
“That’s good,” Jayne mumbled. His right hand started to ache, radiating out from his palm, and his eyes didn’t seem to want to stay open. He blinked. “Mal’s all right?”
“Yes,” Kaylee said gently. She kissed his cheek. “He’s been growling at everyone, pretending he ain’t worried over you.”
Jayne laughed, then grimaced. The ache had extended up his arm to his shoulder now. It hurt to laugh. “He ain’t never worried a minute over me, Kaylee. It ain’t his style.”
She squeezed his hand again. “It’s funny how you two think no one notices all your growlin’ and snappin’ at each other turns into moon eyes the minute t’other’s back is turned.”
“That ain’t true,” Jayne protested, but it sounded weak even to him. He closed his eyes. He was so gorram dizzy. The infirmary felt like it was yawing back and forth, like Serenity had lost her stabilizers. He resisted the urge to cling to the gurney, to hold on for dear life.
“Leave it alone,” he said, quietly. His heart ached and he didn’t think it was anything to do with being electrocuted.
Laying his hand carefully at his side, she patted it once. “Jayne,” she started.
“Leave it alone,” he said, more sharply this time, and didn’t resist the urge to make a fist in the sheets, to hang on as his insides spun around in crazy circles. The words just fell out of his mouth, his filter spun off into the black. “You’re the best of us, you know? You have a heart that’s big enough for -” he couldn’t say it, even now, and he switched tracks in the middle “- I’m like to die any time, Kaylee. It’s my job to be the first through the door, you know that.”
She hummed at that, but didn’t sound hurt or amused, maybe just a little sad. He felt her hand brush his forehead, then her lips. “Best get on with living, then,” she said, her breath stirring the short hair next to his ear.
He meant to answer, but the dizziness pulled him under again, and he slept. When he woke again, she was gone. The doctor was standing with his back to Jayne, scrolling through something on his handheld scanner. Jayne cleared his throat.
“Good, you’re awake,” Simon said, but he didn’t turn around. “How are you feeling?”
“Fine, Doc.” The room had settled somewhat, but he could still feel the vertigo if he moved his head too fast. He sat up slowly on the gurney, wincing. He couldn’t feel his toes, but he wiggled them and saw the sheet move. He was fine. “I’ll just get out of your hair.”
“Whoa, hey, no,” the doctor said, dropping his scanner with a clatter on the counter and whirling around. “I have to keep you under observation for at least 24 hours.” He hooked the earpieces of his stethoscope over his ears and pressed it to Jayne’s chest.
The metal felt like an icy flame against the bare skin of Jayne’s chest. “I’m fine,” he insisted, brushing the stethoscope aside.
“Of course you are,” Simon soothed. He put a hand on Jayne’s shoulder, gently pressing him back down.
Jayne knit his eyebrows together. “I -” he started, then stopped. He could feel small tremors begin in his right hand and clenched it into a fist. “What happened?” he asked. The past day was a yawning black hole in his mind. Vaguely he recalled something with that troublesome redhead, wind stinging his eyes, bright light ....
“You were electrocuted,” Simon said. His hand was still pressing on Jayne’s shoulder, and Jayne let himself lay back down.
“Kaylee was there?” He didn’t mean for it to come out like a question.
“She was there,” the doctor confirmed. “She’s okay. We’re all okay. You can rest.”
Jayne closed his eyes against the ceiling spinning dizzily above him. “Mal,” he said.
“The Captain is fine,” Simon said. He patted Jayne once and then his footsteps moved away. “Any pain?”
“No,” Jayne said irritably. “‘Cept for the pain of having to listen to you,” he added.
“I see you are feeling better after all.” Simon's voice was dry as dust.
Jayne thought he fell asleep for a while after that, but he couldn't be sure. Time seemed to be doing funny things. Once, he thought he woke up and both Kaylee and the doctor were there, then another time just Simon. He didn't see Mal, but he felt him, standing just beyond the edge of his vision, heard his voice talking with Book or Zoe.
The doc let him go with only a little arguing the next morning. Jayne spent most of the day in his bunk, only regretting his bullheadedness a little. His hand had stopped shaking, but he felt all shaky inside, exhausted but he couldn’t sleep, couldn’t sit still for more than ten minutes at a time. He cleaned all his guns, touching them as if for the first time, relearning the weight of each trigger on his finger, casting his mind back to how he had acquired each and every one.
His pa, in a rare moment of camaraderie, before the drinking really got started. The Gauss action Moses Brothers pistol he picked up after his first real job. It was a real piece of feiwu; the barrel wasn't bored straight and the hammer stuck, but he was sentimental about it. His sniper rifle, the shotgun he had gotten for a screaming deal out on the Rim. And of course Vera. She was a beautiful piece of machinery. He had been stupid, that day, and cocky. He had barely survived, really, but Vera was worth every drop of blood he had left behind. Even the blood that was his own.
Those memories were clear. It was just the more recent ones that slipped through his fingers, left him feeling melancholy for no good gorram reason.
He carefully pinned the fabric back up, kneeling on the bed. It was easy, then, to lay down, rubbing his face on the cool pillow, breathing in the soothing mineral and mint scent of gun oil. He thought he might be able to sleep, but that shaky feeling started up again and he sprang to his feet, pacing around the room before climbing up the ladder with a frustrated grunt.
"Don't do anything too strenuous for a while," Simon had warned him when he left the infirmary.
Well, if he could just sleep, that would be easier to swallow. He headed down to the cargo bay, taking it slow in the hush of Serenity's night. He stopped in the middle of the catwalk, shutting his eyes against the dim lights illuminating the space below, twisting his hands around the steel railing. The white noise of the air and the engine filled his ears. His heart tripped in his chest and he gritted his teeth against the tingling pain in his fingers.
Jayne started at Mal's voice behind him, but he didn't turn around. "Can't sleep," he said shortly.
"Seems to be catching." Mal appeared in Jayne's peripheral vision, stood next to him. His hand on the railing was close enough Jayne could feel the warmth on his skin.
They stood in silence for a long minute before Jayne said, "Ain't never been electrocuted before."
"As I recall," Mal said, "it ain't the most pleasant feeling in the 'verse."
Jayne had a flash of Mal's bloody, haggard face in Niska's skyplex, the careful way he had moved for days afterward. "Don't remember much of it, to be honest," he admitted.
"Doc said it takes some people like that." Mal bumped his shoulder against Jayne's. "Come on," he added. "I left water to boil in the galley."
Jayne followed Mal back through the ship. He wasn't much for thinkin' on the why of people. Trying to figure out the things they did. Mal puzzled him more than most, though. He played the genial, rough around the edges Captain well enough, but there was a darkness to him, too, that was closer to the surface after Niska. It came out in odd, unguarded moments.
He sat at the table in the galley and let Mal fuss over the tea, make inconsequential small talk about their next job, their next port of call. By the time their cups were empty, his heart had settled into his chest and the shaking feeling had subsided.
Their talk had trailed off into comfortable silence. Jayne cast a glance over at Mal, who was blinking and biting back a yawn. "Get some sleep," he said gruffly. "I'll clean up."
Mal let him with only a token protest and a muttered, "Good night," on his way out. Jayne cleared the mugs, throwing them in the washer before making sure the kettle was locked in place. He felt heavy, tired, and thought maybe he could sleep now, if he tried.
If not, well, there was always something else that needed cleaning on a boat this size.
Jayne hesitated in the corridor, outside of Mal's bunk. The hatch was half open, glowing around the edges in the darkness of the middle of the night.
"And when you can't do that, well ... yeah, you know the rest." A pause. A click. "You know it's funny. We went to the war never looking to come back ..."
He backed away quietly, then started forward again, making sure to stomp a little so his boots made noise. There was a click, then rustling as Mal's head appeared at the top of the ladder.
"Oh, hey, Mal," Jayne said.
Mal looked rough, mouth pressed in a thin, tight line, the dark circles under his eyes stark against his pale face. His suspenders were off and the top two buttons of his blue shirt unbuttoned, exposing the hollow of his throat. "Jayne," he said, and his voice was rough too, low.
Jayne flashed hot all over. It had been a while, but he recognized that look in Mal's eyes, had seen it often enough before Niska had had his nasty little way with the man.
Tipping his chin at him, Mal jerked his head, then vanished down the ladder. Jayne was rooted to the spot for a minute before he followed, his feet quiet and almost hesitant on the rungs, pulling the hatch shut carefully behind him. He inhaled through his nose when he reached the bottom, rubbing the pads of his fingers over the smooth metal, cool to the touch, before he turned around.
Mal's bunk smelled like he did, most of the time. Soft cotton, gun oil, the metallic tang of recycled air underlaid with the peppery tang of sweat. The sharp soap smell that was almost a taste in the back of his throat. Mal was sitting on the bed, taking off his socks. His feet were pale, toes knobby and fine-boned.
Jayne stared. He didn't think he had ever seen Mal's feet before. Somehow that felt more intimate than anything they'd done before, him standing in Mal's bunk, looking at his bare feet.
"You comin' over here?" Mal asked. He started unbuttoning his shirt.
Clearing his throat, Jayne said, "Yeah," and bent over to unlace his boots, kicking them off before he took the three steps toward the bed. He stripped off his t-shirt on the way, dropping it on the floor.
Mal reached for him, pulling him in between his legs and rubbing his cheek over Jayne's stomach while his hands made short work of his belt. Jayne pushed Mal's shirt off his shoulders, ran his hands through Mal's hair, soft and fine against his palms. Mal kissed the soft skin next to Jayne's navel as he unbuttoned his fly and took him in hand.
Jayne's hips jerked up into Mal's hand and his breath caught, just a little. He pushed his pants down with one hand, the other gripping the back of Mal's neck hard.
Looking up at him through his lashes, sultry-like, Mal said, "I want to run this rodeo. That okay with you?"
Heat pooled low in Jayne's belly and his cock, already half hard in Mal's hand, stood at attention. "Fine," he said gruffly as Mal hummed and smeared his thumb through the wetness at the tip. "I -" he broke off with a strangled groan as Mal started to jack him slowly, still looking up at him.
He let go of Mal's neck with an effort, trailing his fingers over his shoulders. The angry pink of the sunburn he had gotten on Bellerophon had faded into a golden bronze all down his back. Jayne pushed his hips into Mal's hand one more time before pulling away. "Too many gorram clothes," he grumbled, shucking his pants off unceremoniously and leaving them in a jumble on the floor.
Mal grinned, his face losing some of that haggard tightness he had been carrying around. He stood, shaking his shirt off his wrists before unbuttoning his fly.
Jayne took Mal's place on the bed, hesitating a second before turning his back on Mal and getting on his hands and knees. "It's been a while," he said as Mal climbed into the bunk behind him, pressing close, the head of his cock trailing hot and slick over the skin of Jayne's back.
It had been more than a while, but he wasn't going to tell Mal that. Wasn't going to tell him that he didn't usually let guys fuck him because it made him feel out of control, too needy, too likely to beg. With Mal, though, it was different. He felt that way no matter what with Mal, no matter who was the hand and who was the glove. He knew Mal didn't feel the same; maybe couldn't. He'd seen the way the man was with Inara, like he was ready to cut out his own heart and serve it up to her on a platter, if only she would ask.
Teeth on his neck brought him back to the present. He bucked up into the sting of it, and Mal let more of his weight settle over Jayne's back, trusting him to hold them both up. Jayne let his head hang, shivering as Mal's teeth worried the skin.
"Don't make a mark," Jayne said.
Mal chuckled but let go, licking a hot stripe up the top of Jayne's spine. He reached over Jayne's head, twisting the catch that opened a storage compartment in the bulkhead and rummaging through until he found what he was looking for. He pushed himself off of Jayne, trailing a hand up his back and squeezing his ass. His thumb trailed teasingly over his crack and Jayne widened his knees, pushed up into Mal's touch.
Mal's hands left his ass, and Jayne heard the click of a bottle opening. He let out a long, slow, breath as Mal's finger, cool and slick, rubbed over his hole, then pressed inside. Mal took his time with him, working him with two fingers, a slow in and out, until Jayne dropped to his elbows on the bed and groaned. Mal's breath went ragged above him.
"Come on, Mal." Jayne propped himself up on one elbow and patted around on the bed until he found the slick, holding it up.
"You clear?" Mal asked, twisting his fingers, dragging them across the spot inside Jayne that made him groan again. His other hand plucked the bottle out of Jayne's palm.
"Yeah. Just last week." Jayne pushed his hips back, chasing Mal's fingers as he pulled them out completely. "You want to ride me bareback?"
"If it pleases you," Mal said. He rubbed one hand over Jayne's flank and then pulled him open so he could press the tip of his cock to his hole.
Jayne thrust back, and they both groaned as Mal breached him. "Oh, it pleases me," he said. "Don't hold back; I ain't a woman," he added.
"Thought never crossed my mind." Mal fucked into him, their hips meeting a sharp slap in the quiet room. His fingers were hard points of pressure against Jayne's skin.
They found a rhythm together. Mal's hands were slippery on Jayne's hips. They were both sweating, sliding against each other as Jayne pushed back into Mal, meeting him halfway, fucking into his hand, then back onto Mal's cock.
"Y'close?" Mal asked, breathless. His hips hadn't stopped, his cock pressing into Jayne and over that spot that made him want to curl up and die, made him want to fuck and fight at the same time.
It felt good and it hurt a little, too, like pressing hard into a fresh bruise. Jayne pushed his face into the crook of his elbow. "Dunno," he gasped. "Don't stop."
"I ain't plannin' on it."
True to his word, Mal never faltered, even as Jayne lost the beat, inner thighs trembling. He could feel his balls tighten, only had time to say, "I'm going," before he was coming hard into his hand, teeth clenched around a moan.
Mal cursed and tipped forward as Jayne's body involuntarily tightened around him, then released. He planted his left hand on the bed next to Jayne's elbow, pressed his forehead into Jayne's shoulder. The angle of his thrusts changed just enough to make Jayne see stars, moaning and clutching at the sheets in the few seconds more it took Mal to spend inside him.
The whole of Mal's weight pressed against him for a moment as they caught their breath. With a groan, Mal pushed himself upright again, pulling out slowly, with a hand on Jayne's thigh. The gentleness made Jayne feel prickly inside, like he wanted to throw the first punch in a bar brawl, slip his knife between some cowboy's ribs and feel the blood, hot and sticky on his hands. He growled and pulled his legs up and around so he could sit on the edge of the bed, his back still to Mal.
"I'd like it if you set here a spell," Mal said. "Won't sleep for a while yet."
Jayne heard the echo of Tracey's last message in Mal's voice. His spine loosened, and he ran a hand over his hair. "You know I ain't one for pillow talk," he said, but he made no move to get up.
The sheets rustled as Mal lay down behind him. He didn't say anything, but he put a hand on Jayne's back, warm and low.
"You and Zoe did right by that boy," Jayne said. "I should be half so lucky, when my time comes."
"Don't talk like that." Mal's voice was sharp.
“Aw, hell, Mal, you know I ain’t gonna live forever.” Jayne turned to look at Mal. He was laying on his back, one arm behind his head. His chest was still flushed with exertion, his hair dark with sweat at his temples.
He looked at Jayne for a long moment, then huffed out a laugh. “People do shoot at us with distressing frequency.”
Jayne felt one side of his mouth quirk up in a smile despite himself. Here he was trying to be serious for once in his gorram life, and Mal was being his usual flippant self. Which, well, he hadn't been for a little while. Not with Jayne. So he let himself smile a little, remembering what Kaylee had said to him. "Best get on with living, then," he said, and they both laughed, and they both reached for each other.
And Jayne knew, however much time he had left, he would take it, would take however much time Mal wanted to give him and be grateful for the gift.