PART ONE - MAL & JAYNE
Malcolm Reynolds was raised on a small ranch on the planet Shadow. His favorite pastimes were riding his horse and tormenting one of the indentured boys that worked there. The boy's name was Jayne, but Mal never called him that.
Nothing gave Mal as much pleasure as ordering Jayne around.
"Boy, I want you to polish my horse's saddle. I want to see my face shinin' in it by mornin'," he'd say, chin in the air and the light of challenge in his eyes.
"If'n you say so," Jayne would drawl in reply; but by morning, the task would be completed just as Mal had directed.
The orders varied widely, but the answer was always the same. Mal's ma took him to task for it more than once, baiting a boy as couldn't rightly talk back to him on account of the Reynolds' owning his family's debt, but it never stopped him none. At least, not until the day he finally noticed that Jayne was a boy no longer.
"Boy! Fill these with water--" he began a command, dropping a pair of empty galvanized pails at Jayne's feet. But Jayne had already been chopping firewood; he had stripped to the waist as he worked, and sweat glistened all over his moderately muscled arms and chest. Mal swallowed as he took it all in, then looked up and met Jayne's eyes. Something in the way Jayne looked back at him made him add, for the first time ever, "--please."
"If'n you say so," Jayne said softly, studying Mal with a soft smile before bending to pick up the pails.
That day, Mal was amazed to discover that when Jayne was saying, "If'n you say so," what he really meant was, "I love you."
That thought was more than a mite discomfiting to Mal at first. He'd noticed men that way before, of course; God gave a man eyes so he could use 'em, but that didn't make Mal sly. He'd always had an eye for the womenfolk. Still, there was something about this coltish young man, the mix of defiance and respect in his attitude, the way his muscles flexed when he worked, the vulnerability in his eyes when he looked at Mal; he had no defense against it.
There weren't any one moment when Mal suddenly realized he loved Jayne back. Or if there were, he suppressed it very firmly. His ma might sigh over her romance novels, but he'd been part-raised by forty male ranch hands with very earthy ideas of what went on between consenting persons, and it didn't involve any damn sighing or swooning over flowers.
What it did involve, turned out to include such things as Mal asking Jayne to pass him objects already close to hand just for the pleasure of sharing personal space; hands and mouths in places that shorted out a man's entire nervous system; and extra apples mysteriously appearing in Mal's coat pockets for Jayne to pilfer.
"Deng yi miao!" A teenaged girl's voice interrupted the reading of the tale. "What kind of goushi is this?"
"River, language!" her brother replied, his forehead wrinkled in a frown. He was seated on the edge of her bed, the digital slate from which he'd been reading clutched in one hand; the other was on his sister's brow, where she reclined irritably against a pillow.
"You said it was an adventure story," she complained, pouting. "Simon, you promised! This is a kissing story!"
The young doctor-in-training shook his head, then smoothed her long, tangled dark hair away from her face. "I know you're not feeling well, and you're upset about not getting to go to the Academy, so I'll excuse your lack of faith in me this once. You know I wouldn't choose a story you wouldn't like."
The earnestness of his voice was belied somewhat by the mischeivous grin lurking around the corners of his mouth. River studied his expression for a moment, pouting, then rolled her eyes and glanced down at the digital slate her brother was holding. "You promise it gets better?"
"Fangxin," Simon said soothingly. "Just wait and see."
For months, the two young men ignored the differences in their stations and met as often as Mal could get out from under his ma's watchful eye. But their idyll couldn't last forever. There were years yet to go on Jayne's contract before he would be a free man, able to go where he would and wed whom he chose, and the drumbeat of war was steadily approaching.
The day came when a recruiter in a brown coat arrived on Shadow and visited the Reynolds' ranch. Mal listened to what the man had to say, and saw both justice and opportunity in the Independent cause. Not only could he strike a blow against the Alliance, whose taxes and rules impoverished the border planets a little more every year, but he would be paid to fight, and there would be chances for prizes and glory before the war was through. With a little luck he'd be able to buy Jayne's contract free, help his ma replenish the ranch's coffers, and still have some cashy money left over to start a household of his own.
Jayne saw the glint in Mal's eye the next morning, and knew then that he'd lost him.
"I ain't never gonna see you again, am I?" he asked, gruffly, running a callused thumb over the brown fabric of Mal's new coat.
"Of course you are." Mal smiled reassuringly at him. "Won't be but a year or two; I'll be back before you know it."
"And what if you get kilt out there?" Jayne frowned, unaccountably worried.
Mal just smirked in return. "Aw, c'mon Jayne. I'm just too pretty for God to let me die."
"I don't like it," Jayne insisted, stubbornly. "You're gonna get yourself captured, or shot, or find some woman with more looks than sense, and I'm gonna have to come for you."
"Jayne." Mal's expression softened a little, and he brushed the knuckles of one hand along the stubble on Jayne's jaw before leaning up for one last kiss. "Maybe I ain't made it clear to you yet, but ain't no one out there for me but you. I'll be careful."
And he was. He fought hard, but smart; over the course of the first year he gained a reputation for feng-le brilliance when it came to plans. He took some shrapnel in the back during his first tour, but that was the worst of it; he was quickly promoted to sergeant, and his corporal, Zoë Alleyne, was the best second he could have asked for.
When the chance came for a quick furlough home, he thought longingly of Jayne and of his ma's home cooking, but the trip would have cost most of what pay he'd managed to save. He wrote a letter instead, sent a few coins by courier, and spent the time with his men.
The letter was returned, unopened, two weeks later. The courier was apologetic; he'd arrived at the ranch only to find it a smoking ruin. Some said it had been pirates, some said it had been bogeymen-- what the shipfolk called Reavers. He'd found no survivors.
"Murdered by Reavers!" River gasped excitedly, staring wide-eyed up at her brother. "Poor Mal!"
Simon shook his head. "Shh," he told her. "It gets better."
Mal spent most of the next day stinking drunk, the letter tucked into the inner pocket of his brown coat. Zoë made excuses for him to Colonel Orbrin, then dragged him to the nearest well and dumped a bucket of water over his head.
"What the gui did you think you were doing?" she hissed, furious at him.
He just shook his head, staring past her at the setting sun. "Don't never love no one, Zoë," he told her, squaring his jaw mournfully. "It ain't worth the pain."
"I don't believe that," she said, her expression softening in the face of his grief. "And neither do you." He did not answer, but he finally turned his gaze to meet hers; and faced with those wet, blue eyes, the last of her anger drained away. "You know they wouldn't have wanted to see you like this," she said quietly.
The next day, they went back to war.
Mal's dreams of wealth and glory, of a triumphant return, had died when Jayne did; he held onto his notions of faith and justice a little longer, but the deaths of thousands of men under his command in Serenity Valley put paid to those as well. He took his savings and Zoë's and with them bought a ship; they found a pilot and a mechanic, each in their own way also escaping the past, and together they made the best of what life had left them. If that meant they smuggled and stole more often than they shipped legit cargo, then that was what they did.
And so it was that nine years after the day Mal had left Jayne on Shadow, one of the leading lights of Persephone society tapped a spoon against a crystal goblet and made a speech whose repercussions would echo for the rest of Mal's life.
"Ladies and gentlemen," Atherton Wing announced, his smooth, handsome young face beaming smugly above attire as rich as any that could be found in the Core. "A month from now, it will be exactly 500 years since the first colonists from Earth-That-Was founded the Anglo-Sino Alliance on Londinium."
He paused for the murmur of polite applause, then bowed and began again. "On that day, I shall marry a man who was once an Independent, in honor of the coming together of all humanity under one flag once more."
The murmurs at that speech were less cheery; half the men in the room were aware of where Wing's true politics lay, and suspected the marriage was aimed more toward stirring up former Independent support than any sort of peaceful symbolism. The other half spread rumors about the chosen fiancé's parentage; the man had no father of record, could it be that his time in the Independent Army was all a rebellion against some important Alliance offical of a father whose favor Wing wished to court?
All of them fell quiet when the fiancé himself entered the room. Gone were the brown coat and the gun the man habitually wore; Malcolm Reynolds was dressed in an expensively tailored suit, his posture correct and his hair trimmed close. He bowed stiffly to the assembled crowd, then crossed the room to Wing's side; something in his manner caught the interest of the guests, and many of them spontaneously bowed back, willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Several of the more political rumors died down, in favor of those concerning an attraction to the man's obvious rogue charms.
Mal accepted the hand Wing held out to him with a strained smile; he had not expected this latest piece of subterfuge to strike so close to home. As he exchanged polite words with his new peers, and later retired to guest quarters in Wing's home, his emptiness consumed him. Though his arrangement with Wing was scheduled to end before the date in question, still he could not help but see Jayne's face everywhere he went; he spent his days worrying over the fate of his crew, who were pursuing the most dangerous part of the mission without him, and found joy only in the daily ride Wing allowed him.
The lands within the estate were vast. Mal made it a point to explore a new corner of the grounds every time he went out. Until the twelfth day of his stay on Persephone, each ride was much the same; the peace and beauty of the scenery was unparalleled, but it could not touch the worry, grief, and guilt he held close in his heart.
On the twelfth day, everything changed.
PART TWO - THE KIDNAPPING
"A word, my lord?"
Mal blinked, caught off guard, and reined in his horse; he'd been wool-gathering as he rode through the hinterlands of Atherton Wing's estate. Before him, he saw a most puzzling sight: three men, of vastly different heritages and stations in life, standing together and watching him with identical blank expressions.
"Monty?" he asked, frowning at the tallest of the three; he'd fought with the man in the Independent Army, and could not fathom what he was doing with the other two-- one of whom was clearly of the moneyed set, with smooth skin and a sword at his hip, and the other, whose aged, wrinkled face, tiny glasses, and sour expression were as good as a nametag to those active in the seamier side of trade. What was his old friend doing with a crook as infamous as Adelei Niska?
Monty said nothing; he deferred to Niska, whose mouth curved up in a smug smile. "We are but poor, lost smugglers, whose ship has crashed in these woods," Niska said, bowing elaborately toward Mal. "Is there a town nearby?"
Mal stared at him incredulously. "There ain't nothin' nearby," he answered automatically, mind caught up in the puzzle of what the three could possibly be doing on the estate. "Not for miles." Surely they weren't there because of him...?
"Then there will be no one to hear you scream," Niska said, smiling even wider, and nodded to Monty.
"Sorry, Mal," Monty said, scrunching his face up apologetically, and reached for his friend.
Mal was unconscious before he knew what hit him.
Monty threw his former sergeant over his shoulder, and watched as Niska tore a few pieces of embroidered fabric loose from an Alliance soldier's jacket. The old villain tucked the scraps along the saddle of Mal's horse, then slapped the animal on the rump.
"What's that you were ripping?" the swordsman-- some young idiot called Fess Higgins-- asked, watching the horse as it ran back toward Atheron Wing's stables.
"It's fabric from uniform of an Alliance officer," Niska said in his heavily accented voice, and held the remnants of the jacket up to show Higgins. "Once the horse reaches the manor, the fabric, it will make Mister Wing suspect the Alliance captured his fiancé. And when he finds him dead aboard an Alliance cruiser, his suspicions, they will be confirmed."
Monty started at that, automatically reaching his free hand up to balance Mal on his shoulder. "You never said nothin' about killin' anyone," he said, disturbed by the idea. He'd shot plenty of people during the war, but always Alliance scum; never anyone he'd called friend.
Niska shook his head, clucking his tongue, and headed off through the woods towards his hidden shuttle. "I pay you to help me restart the war," he said as he walked. "This is long, prestigious line of work, yes? With long and glorious tradition? It will bring much profit to my Skyplex, and for you, the prospect once again of... independence."
Monty swallowed, disturbed by the mocking tone of Niska's words, and followed his employer into the woods. "But do we gotta kill Mal? I just don't think's it right. He's my friend."
Niska chuckled nastily. "So you think, do you? I think not. You were not hired for your brains, ben tiansheng de yi dui rou."
Higgins, walking behind them, chose that moment to speak up again. "I agree with Montgomery, actually," he said, disgust audible in his voice. "It doesn't seem right, killing the man without giving him a chance to fight back."
Monty winced at the use of his full name, then winced again as Niska stopped in his tracks, turning red with fury.
"What happens to this man is not your concern," he hissed angrily, enunciating more clearly. "I will kill him. As for you-- do not forget, you were held for murder when I found you, yes? Your father, did you give him a chance to fight back when you killed him?"
It was Higgins' turn to redden with fury; Monty held his breath and waited, but the swordsman held his tongue. In silence, the three of them trekked the rest of the way to the shuttle and made preparations to leave the planet.
Hours later, the small ship cut quietly through the black of space, weaving through an asteroid field on a short cut to a small planet where Niska's contact from the Alliance cruiser Dortmunder would meet them. The place was practically a black rock; it didn't even have a name of record. It barely supported a breathable atmosphere, and what little plant life grew there had mutated in the poisoned soil. Smugglers called the main habitable zone the Fire Swamp.
"We break atmo at local dawn," Niska said, checking the navigational readings with an air of satisfaction.
Fess Higgins nodded absently from his seat in the co-pilot's chair, tapping the controls for the sensors with a frown.
"Why do you do that?" Niska asked, shooting him a puzzled look.
Fess shrugged, still tapping at the controls. "I'm just making sure we're not being followed," he said, keeping an eye on the readings. Something was just a little off about them.
"That would be... how do you say... inconceivable," Niska said, plainly disbelieving.
In the back of the shuttle's main cabin, their unwilling guest snorted audibly. "Y'all will be caught, no matter what you think you got planned," Malcolm Reynolds announced, for all the world as if he were the Captain in charge and not a prisoner. "And when you are, I'll see you hanged."
Niska turned a cold eye on Reynolds, then chuckled nastily again and turned back to his screens. "Of all the necks on this ship, Mister Reynolds, the one you should worry about is your own."
Fess shook his head at the overly dramatic byplay, and tapped at the sensor controls one more time. Whatever it was they were detecting, it was very faint, perhaps even a sensor ghost; and yet...
"Stop doing that," Niska demanded, interrupting his thoughts. "It is almost done; there is no one who could have tracked us to this place. We left before Mister Reynolds could be missed; it is too soon for pursuit."
"You're sure about that?" Fess asked in return. Honestly; if this was the sort of man who rose to the top of the criminal ladder, he was surprised someone hadn't exterminated the lot a long time ago. He was certainly nothing like the Robin Hood sort Fess had expected after all the tales he'd read in his mother's books. "The sensors seem to detect otherwise."
Finally; he'd secured a lock on the whatever it was. He tapped a few more commands, and the image came up on the largest screen. It was a ship. Small, painted with something dark that distorted readings; it showed no energy weapons signatures, but that didn't mean it wasn't dangerous.
Niska frowned at the image, then shrugged. "Probably some local smuggler out for a pleasure cruise... through Alliance patrolled space..."
The large man, Montgomery, gulped loudly in the background. "Tell me it ain't Reavers."
Fess snorted. "I doubt it. According to all reports, Reaver ships are rather gaudily decorated, and they fly without containment in order to give their ships greater speed. I personally doubt they exist, but even so, someone must be maintaining the myth, and this ship is not even making the least bit of pretense."
"Oh, I assure you," Niska said, slowly. "They do exist. I have seen their handiwork..."
"You almost sound like you admire 'em," Reynolds piped up again, disgust in his tone.
Niska just shook his head. "Tell me, Mister Reynolds, are you familiar with the works of Shan Yu?"
"Don't worry," Simon said, breaking away from the story for a moment to reassure his sister. Her knuckles had whitened where she was gripping the sheets; he didn't want her making herself more ill. "He doesn't get tortured at this time."
"Shen me?" She blinked at him a little, startled.
"He doesn't get tortured at this time. I'm just explaining it to you, because I know you know all about Shan Yu, and you were looking a little nervous."
She blinked at him a little more, then self-consciously brushed some of the loose hair out of her eyes and tilted her chin up imperiously. "Well, I wasn't nervous."
Simon glanced down at the data slate, then back up at River, as if wondering whether he should continue. Not that he'd actually stop, she'd never forgive him, but a little distraction would distance her from the story a little, relax her mood.
She bit her lip. "Well, maybe I was a little concerned. But that's not the same thing."
"I can stop now if you want," he said, teasing her a little further, putting on his best earnest expression.
She narrowed her eyes at him, annoyance filtering back into her expression. "Simon!"
He grinned at her apologetically, then turned back to the data slate again.
"Tell me, Mister Reynolds," Niska said, "are you familiar with the works of Shan Yu?"
Reynolds rolled his eyes dismissively. "What, are we startin' a book club?"
Niska shook his head. "I suppose you think you are a brave man, Mister Reynolds."
"Compared to who? You? Yeah," Reynolds shot back.
"Tsk, tsk. You will regret saying that, Mister Reynolds. You will regret it, very much." With that parting shot, Niska turned back to the navigational controls-- they were almost in atmo-- and began the ship's landing sequence. "Well, it does not matter who is pursuit; whoever it is, they will be too late. He does not have the coordinates, and if he tries to follow us down..."
Turbulence picked up around the ship as Niska began the landing sequence. "...he will overshoot us at the Cliffs of Insanity."
Whatever Niska had been before he became a crime lord, it had clearly involved some pilot training; he guided the ship expertly down to the planet's surface, leaving Fess in the co-pilot's chair with nothing to do until they landed except for watching the scenery grow larger around them.
And what strange scenery it was. As they approached the ground, Fess could see why Niska had referred to the geological feature they were headed for as the Cliffs of Insanity; it was as though the crust of the planet had been cut with a knife, and where it had been parted one half had sunk hundreds of feet straight downward. Steep and sheer, the cliff blocked all possible travel by foot, horse, or motorized land vehicle from one side of the continent to the other-- and on both sides of the cliff, the land was wrinkled like a scrunched-up length of fabric for quite some distance. Potential landing sites were quite limited in number.
Niska guided the ship to a rough landing a few yards from the cliff's edge, settling in a space just large enough for the shuttle and no more. He shut down the ship's systems in a rush, leaving up just the sensors and the shuttle's one, small gun; as Fess watched, the blip that was the following ship shot narrowly past them, and Niska fired one quick shot. Streaming smoke, the little ship dropped rapidly and clipped the edge of the cliff.
Over the ship went, and down; Fess winced at the long fall, then registered an explosion on his screen at the cliff's bottom.
Niska chuckled. "So much for the pursuit," he said wryly, then nodded to Montgomery. "Bring him."
The over-tall Independent reached for his bound friend and slung him once more over his shoulder. Reynolds made no word of protest, but the look on his face spoke volumes.
The group exited the ship, Fess following behind the others. He had no desire to be within spitting distance should Reynolds choose to make trouble. The sight of the cliff's edge, several yards distant, roused his curiosity again; he glanced at Niska, who had paused to consult some sort of map, then ambled over to the brink, wondering how far it was to the bottom.
Not far enough, it seemed. "Mr. Niska," he said, cautiously. "I think there's something you should see."
The old man frowned, then walked cautiously over and attained a firm grip on Fess' arm before leaning out to take in the same view.
"He did not fall?!" Niska gasped, incredulous. For there, clinging to the side of the cliff, was a dark-clad form; whoever he was, he must have ejected himself from the ship somehow as it fell.
"These heroics, they are unseemly!" Niska continued, hissing. "They complicate!"
"Wo de ma," Fess gasped, awed despite himself at what he was seeing. "He's climbing."
"You must stay here," Niska said suddenly. "He has seen-- whoever he is, this man must die. Shoot him, whatever. When he is dead, take the shuttle to my Skyplex; I will ride with Alliance ship and find you later."
Fess sighed. Perhaps that was for the best; once he'd taken care of this obstacle, he would not have to return to the Skyplex directly. It could be the opportunity he'd been waiting for to cultivate support in other camps besides Niska's. He did not want to be bound to the feng-le old man forever.
Still. "I wish I'd brought a second sword, or an extra pistol," he said, mournfully. Whatever Niska said, he'd never yet killed an unarmed man, and that included his father.
"We have no time for this," Niska frowned at him. "Just make sure he is dead, then leave, dong ma?"
"Wo dong," Fess confirmed reluctantly. He watched Niska leave with the two former solders-- the one under his command, the other not-- and wondered at the man's allocation of roles. Did he honestly think his control over Montgomery was that great? Why not leave him here, and assign Fess to drag their captive onward? Well, it wasn't his concern anymore.
He turned back to the view down the cliff, and watched patiently as their mysterious follower continued to creep upward.
PART THREE - THE MAN IN BLACK
After several minutes of watching the black-dressed, black-masked man move fingerlength by fingerlength up the cliff, Fess Higgins grew bored. He fiddled with his sword belt, kicked a few small pebbles over the cliff's edge, then gave a jaunty little wave when the man looked up. A low growling sound carried up through the thin air.
"Hello there," Fess replied to the sound. "Slow going?"
The man grunted, shifting one foot into a crack in the rock a few inches up from its previous position, then put his weight on it and levered his body up just that little bit more. "I ain't lookin' to be rude," the man replied, his Border accent thick, "but this ain't as easy as it looks. I'd appreciate if'n you'd stop tryin' to distract me."
Fess sighed. "Sorry!" Not that he'd mind especially if the man fell; it would take the burden of killing him off Fess' shoulders. But there was an air about him, all the same, that almost had Fess rooting for him. Something very nearly heroic, and that pulled at the part of Fess that had never outgrown his mother's adventure stories.
"Thank you," the man called back sarcastically, and continued to climb.
Fess thought again of the gun at his hip, and of the length of time it would take him to start up the shuttle and get it off this rock alone, and fiddled around impatiently for a few more minutes. It felt even more wrong to him to just kill the man summarily now after neglecting to do so immediately, but neither did he want to stand around in this arid, unpleasant climate for the rest of the afternoon with nothing to do but watch a man crawl up a cliff.
"I don't suppose you could speed things up?" he asked, half-heartedly, staring down at his masked foe.
The growl came again. "If you're so all-fired impatient to meet me, why don't you drop me a line or find a winch or somethin' else useful 'stead of standin' up there harassin' me."
Fess sighed. "I could do that. I have the equipment in the shuttle. But I have my doubts that you'll actually accept the help, as I am only waiting around up here to kill you."
Impressive biceps displayed nicely by the tight black cloth of the man's shirt flexed, and the climber moved upward another few inches. "That might could affect our dealin's," he admitted, voice strained by the effort he was making.
Fess sighed again, and debated actually going through with the offer. Well, either way, the man would be dead; and this way would be quicker. "Very well. Then I'll promise I will not kill you until you reach the top."
"Yeah, that's real comforting," the climber drawled. "You'll just have to hold your horses."
"But I hate waiting!" Fess complained impatiently. "I could give you my words as a Higgins?"
That got an unexpected chuckle out of the other man. "No good, considerin' I robbed a Higgins nigh on a year ago. A downright unpleasant man he was, too. Offered to sign over his kid if'n I'd let him keep his platinum. Don't suppose that was you?"
Fess stared. Of course, how could he not have guessed? "But that was the dread pirate, Roberts! Are you saying you're the man who ruined my father's fortune?"
"'Less there's another Roberts runnin' around claimin' what I done," the pirate grunted.
Well then. Fess straightened his back, placed his hand on his sword's hilt, and offered an oath he suspected Roberts would find more appealing. "Then I swear on the sword that killed my father, you will reach the top alive."
The pirate turned his face upward, eyeing both the sword and Fess himself speculatively. Then he grunted. "Well, hell. You coulda shot me already, I s'pose. Go ahead, then."
Fess made short work of retrieving the line, anchoring it, and running it down the side of the cliff. There was a tricky moment or two when Roberts nearly fell trying to shift his grip from the rock to the line, but soon enough he was making his way up the line hand-over-hand, and then climbing onto the cliff-top next to Fess.
"So how we gonna do this?" he asked, resting on his heels, panting slightly as he turned wary eyes on Fess.
The man didn't seem to be wearing any significant weapon, though he had an empty handgun holster at one hip and the hilt of at least one knife protruded from the mouth of a sleeve. Fess considered that, wondering if he might successfully challenge the man to a knife fight instead of his usual sword duel. "Well, we'll wait until you're ready," he finally answered, still considering his options. The man who had so thoroughly humiliated his father-- for which Fess would eternally be grateful, despite the effects the aftermath of that event had had on his own life-- would undoubtedly be a worthy opponent regardless, but Fess was slightly better with swords than knives, and much less gifted at gunplay.
Unfortunately, he had misjudged the pirate's own sense-- or lack-- of fair play. The man rolled his eyes behind the mask, then scooped up a chunk of rock from the ground in one swift movement.
"Gou huangtang," he said irritably, as he threw it.
Fess barely had time to gasp in outrage before his world went dark.
The pirate known as Roberts shook his head as he stared down at the slumped form of young Higgins. Decent kid, that one; dumb as a box of rocks, but anyone else'd been in his position, Roberts would be dead right now.
Good thing he'd never cottoned on to no similar notions of fair play and justice; they only served to hamper a man unduly. Roberts growled a little, reminded again of the whole reason for this little mission of his, then sighed. Still, he hadn't been able to bring himself to kill the kid for it. 'Verse could use a few more like him around, keepin' things fair and easy. He'd wake up with one hell of a headache from where the rock had struck his skull, but none the worse for his nap. Roberts stepped over him, headed into the shuttle, and took a quick look through the luggage.
Unfortunately, if there'd ever been any spare weapons, the crew had already taken them. Higgins had had a small handgun on him, but it weren't worth much; at least it were better than nothin', though. Roberts slid it into his holster, replacin' poor Betty what had fallen down the cliff after his transport, then headed off into the hills followin' the signs left by two distinct pairs of feet.
"Is not possible!" Monty's employer hissed, gazing down from the high, hillside path toward a distant black-clothed form threading its way up from the cliff's edge.
Monty shifted Mal's limp form on his shoulder again, wondering what Niska would expect of him now. Mal had struggled and fought and nearly got away once or twice on the hike up, prompting the old crime lord to inject him with some drug or other to knock him out; wasn't no way he'd be able to drag Mal any further without Monty's help. So he couldn't be expecting Monty to stay behind, like he'd had Fess do. Could he?
"We are almost at meeting location," Niska said, irritably. "Carry him into the next valley, just beyond that corner; then put him down and come back. You have reputation for getting things done, yes? Prove to me it is not gossip. Kill this man in black, then come back for Mister Reynolds and help me get him to Alliance shuttle."
"Kill him how?" Monty asked, shrugging. He had a sniper rifle, but there really wasn't time enough to move Mal and return to set up before the man following them arrived. Aside from that, all he had was a pair of knives. Niska hadn't wanted him heavily armed for close-in fighting; probably still didn't trust Monty as far as he could throw him. It left him a little light on options, however.
"I don't care how he dies," Niska replied, "just that he is dead. Mister Reynolds, him I will show the meaning of pain. Many men know the name Malcolm Reynolds; many know of his... disagreement with the Alliance. When he is found, this correlation of Alliance and torture, it must be made in their minds. This man in black? Is not so important."
Monty gulped. Was it too late to back out now? Sullenly, he followed Niska's directions, patting Mal awkwardly on the shoulder as he laid him down on a flat stretch of rock. Didn't seem right for it all to end this way.
Niska was busily removing things from the little rucksack he'd been carrying when Monty left them again, returning to the trail they'd seen the intruder from. He had no idea what the crazy old hundan was up to, but he was rapidly beginning to think he wanted no part in it. Maybe he should try to talk to the other man, see just why he was following them in the first place.
He managed to find a good rock for cover just before the man in black arrived, appearing around a bend in the trail and moving at a fair rate of speed. He had a small handgun in one hand, and was checking his surroundings warily as he ran; Monty knew he wouldn't have long before the man spotted him.
"You there!" he called down to him.
The masked man reacted instantly, diving off to the side and firing instinctively at Monty's position. Monty ducked, hearing the whine of a bullet pass by a foot or so from his head, and winced.
"I did that on purpose!" the attacker called up. "I didn't have to miss!"
"I believe you!" Monty yelled back. "I don't suppose there's any chance of dealin' with this like civilized people?"
"Considerin' what civilized people is capable of?" the other man chuckled. "You gonna try and kill me like the last guy, or what?"
"'Pends on what you came here for," Monty called back.
"For the same reason it looks like you did," came the puzzling reply. "Only you got to Mal and carried him off afore I could."
Not a rescue, then. But why did he want Mal? "You meanin' to kill him?" Monty had to ask.
"'Course not," the man in black snorted. "Though he'll wish I had 'fore I'm through with him. Why? Is that what Niska's plannin'?"
"Niska's aimin' to restart the War," Monty told him. "He's got Alliance meetin' him somewhere close by..."
"Ni tama de tianxia suoyou de ren dou gaisi," the masked man interrupted, swearing virulently. "Throw me your guns. If you hurry, you can catch Higgins afore he blasts off this rock. And if I ever see you again..."
Monty chewed the ends of his mustache in indecision for a moment. In a choice between helping kill Mal, though, and getting the hell out of here, he thought the small risk of getting himself killed by the masked intruder was worth it. He was beginning to believe taking up with Niska in the first place was the stupidest thing he'd ever done.
He unslung the rifle from his shoulder, then tossed it out onto the rocky path.
Seconds later, a blur of movement passed him by. Monty sighed in relief, then started back down the trail, retracing his earlier steps.
PART FOUR - THE FIRE SWAMP
The pirate continued his run up the mountain path, snipin' rifle clutched tight in his arms. It weren't his favored model, but it would do for the time bein'. When he got back to his ship-- the one hidin' over to Whitefall while the Captain pursued a personal errand, not the little transport he'd managed to wreck on this wretched planet-- Vera would be waitin', but 'til then he'd thought it best the crew didn't ask no questions. They saw him take Vera out, they'd have known somethin' was up.
He slowed at the next bend in the trail, knowin' Niska and Mal had to be close. Weren't no way the tama de hundan could've dragged Mal up here on his own, and Monty couldn't have had time to retreat far. And sure enough, there they were, like a scene from some bodice-rippin' tale: Niska had Mal tied up, propped against a rock with a knife to his throat, and in front of them a whole meal spread out, wine and apples and cheese and all sorts of other rich man's delicacies.
Roberts had no idea what the crime lord thought he was up to. Maybe if he weren't an experienced merc and tracker, he mighta gone chargin' up around the bend and got himself in the position of havin' to give up his weapon to save Mal. But from cover like this, with a long-range gun, and all Niska's bodyguards back on his Skyplex makin' like he'd never left? Weren't a power in the 'verse as could stop him.
Roberts aimed carefully and fired.
Niska slumped forward, blood drippin' on his fancy napkins. Beside him, Mal flinched-- but he were never one to let an opportunity pass him by. Soon's the knife dropped away from his throat, Mal made a grab for it. Somethin' seemed to be wrong with him though, 'cause his reactions were much too slow and he didn't manage to get hold of it. Looked like it would still be up to Roberts to cut him free.
The pirate slipped the gun strap over his shoulder and approached the makeshift table. Yep, Niska was dead; weren't no fakin' that kind of injury. He kicked the corpse away with one black boot, then picked up an apple and sliced himself off a chunk. Damn tasty. He didn't get much fresh fruit these days, even with his lucrative occupation.
"Who're you?" Mal slurred, straightenin' up a little and blinkin' at him as he ate. Looked like he was surfacing from under some kinda smoother; the longer he sat there, the more alert he got.
"The guy that's rescuin' your ass," Roberts said bluntly, then took another bite. He could wait a coupla minutes 'til Mal could move under his own power; 'til then, he might as well eat his fill.
"Don't... don't look like one of Ath's men." Mal's brow furrowed up a little at him, and the pirate fought the urge to smooth it back out with one gloved thumb.
Return him to 'Ath'! Chufei wo si le, Roberts thought irritably. "That's 'cause I'm not," he said aloud, and abandoned the food in favor of doing away with Mal's bonds.
"Ain't Alliance," Mal continued, still puzzling the matter over. "Ain't my crew. Who you kidnappin' me for?"
"You'll find out."
The last of the ropes fell away, all but the ones tied snug around Mal's wrists, and Mal staggered to his feet. "If you'll let me go, whatever kinda ransom you're lookin' for..."
"Ain't gonna take no promises from you," Roberts growled, cutting him off.
"...My fiancé's got money and connections," Mal continued doggedly, "and you're better off takin' whatever he'll give you and gettin' gone. I ain't exactly without friends, myself, neither. Hidin' behind a mask won't protect you forever."
Roberts snorted. "You think your 'dearest love' will save you?" he asked, voice full of sarcasm, as he shoved the other man toward the path. The hill sloped downward sharply not far from where they stood; down below, he could see a lot of strangely colored foliage, one of the few outcroppings of 'native' life on the planet. Somewhere nearby was an Alliance shuttle sent to meet Niska; if they couldn't get around 'em or subdue 'em right off, hidin' in a place like that might be their best bet.
Mal turned interesting colors at his taunting. He stopped in his tracks, steppin' up close into Roberts' personal space, and glared up the two or three inches that seperated 'em in height. "I never said he was my 'dearest love'," the former sergeant ground out from between clenched teeth. "But I will be rescued, one way or t'other."
"If you don't love him, then why're you marryin' him?" Roberts asked, raising his lip in a sneer.
"I learned a long time ago love weren't worth the hassle," Mal replied, coolly. "I base my decisions on somethin' a little more solid, now." He made a gesture, rubbing his fingers together; his meaning was clear.
So that was why Mal'd never come lookin', Roberts thought. He made an effort to reign in his temper, but he couldn't keep all the heat out of his voice as he replied. "Or maybe you just ain't capable of love."
Mal's eyes flashed with anger. If his hands hadn't still been tied, Roberts figured things might have got ugly; he might be bigger and stronger, but Mal weren't to be underestimated. "I died the day Jayne did," he ground out, "and don't you think you can tell me different."
Died? Roberts blinked at that, digesting the idea. He'd always thought...
A noise distracted him. Roberts looked up and saw the underside of a shuttle soaring away-- Higgins, it had to be. He wondered briefly if the other one had got there in time...
... and then there were fingers graspin' at his jacket, and his feet gettin' yanked out from under him, and gravity pullin' him down.
"Cao!" he blurted. Take your eyes off that man for one second...
"And you can die too, for all I care!" Mal yelled after the falling man.
After all these years, Jayne had finally faded to a comfortable ache in the back of his mind; he'd even managed to be happy for Zoë when she'd found a love of her own. Not that he thought Wash were good enough for her, but he'd been able to honestly tell her he wished them well. But now... all this mess with Atherton Wing had dragged the grief back to the surface, and to have this... pirate, or whatever he was, spit on it like that...
Words floated back up to him as the tumbling form slid ever closer to the tangled, alien growth at the hill's base. "If'n... you... say so..." the pirate groaned.
The blood ran cold in Mal's veins. "Laotianye," he breathed. He catalogued again in his mind's eye the shape of the man's jaw, the timbre of his voice, the breadth of his hands; his lover had bulked up some in the years since he'd seen him and acquired a whole range of new skills, but how could he not have recognized him?
He weren't dead after all.
"Jayne!" Mal yelled, and threw himself after him without a care for his own safety.
By the time he reached the bottom, he was sure he'd put half his spine out of joint, and the bruises he'd picked up were going to last for weeks. He paid that no mind, though, struggling to sit back up and find Jayne.
He spotted him a few yards away, yanking his mask off and crawling over to Mal quick as he could manage. "Yuben de shagua," he muttered, running eyes and hands over Mal's body. "What were you thinkin', jumpin' off like that with your hands tied?"
Mal chuckled softly, staring right back, gettin' an eyeful of the matured, dangerous, handsome man his Jayne had become. "Who said I was thinkin'? You're alive, Jayne. I 'spect I was actin' on instinct."
Jayne snorted and shook his head, then pulled out a knife that had managed to stay tucked in his boot during the fall. "I toldja I'd come for you," he said, voice low and intense, as he cut through Mal's bonds.
"But... you were dead. You been dead for eight years," Mal told him, still feeling a little stunned. In his world, people didn't just resurrect themselves, 'specially after all this time.
Jayne rolled his eyes. "Someone done told you 'bout the Reavers, didn't they?" he said. "You think I'd just lay down and get myself et? Me and your ma and a coupla hands locked ourselves down in the root cellar."
His ma, too? Mal swallowed. "But my letter... it done got returned. The courier told me there weren't no survivors."
"And they told us you got kilt your first tour," Jayne replied, climbing stiffly to his feet and holding a hand out for Mal. "Wasn't 'til that thing with the Valley I heard you done survived; your ma still probably thinks you're dead. I sure ain't told her. Me, I left Shadow soon's I could after we got the ranch back on its feet, lookin' to find your grave. Got myself captured right off, though, and things have been... interestin', ever since."
Jayne alive. His ma alive. Eight years wasted. Mal shook his head, then took Jayne's hand and levered himself to his feet. "So, you a mercenary now?" he asked.
"Pirate," Jayne corrected him, grinning widely. "Dread Pirate Roberts, in fact; got myself a ship called the Revenge."
Mal stared. He'd heard of the Revenge; they were near as infamous as Reavers, though they tended to hit rich Alliance targets more often than not and didn't never eat their prisoners. What prisoners they took, anyway.
"And I thought I had a reputation," he said admiringly.
Jayne chuckled. "Shoulda 'waved you a damn long time ago," he said. "Thought you wouldn't approve."
Maybe they'd both changed, Mal thought. And some of those changes would take some gettin' used to. But there'd be plenty of time to explore that later. For now, he'd just have to show how very much he'd missed him...
"Oh, no," River groaned, wrinkling her nose up. "Another kissing part."
"Someday, probably soon, you may not mind that so much," Simon told her with a smile. His meimei might be precocious in all ways academic, but she was very much a young girl still in others.
River ignored that. "The Fire Swamp part sounded interesting. They're almost there, right? Skip ahead to that."
"Well..." he drawled, then sighed dramatically. "Okay. You're sick, I'll humor you. So where were we? Ah, yes."
Moments later, voices on the path above alerted the two men to the presence of the Alliance soldiers. They'd grown tired of waiting for Niska to appear and had gone looking for him themselves. If Mal and Jayne stayed out in the open, with only one knife to hand and both battered from the long drop, they wouldn't stand a chance against them.
"We'll be safer in the Fire Swamp," Jayne said, pulling Mal after him as he ran down the last bit of slope. "They won't find us in here. Somethin' about the trees mucks up ordinary scanners."
Mal eyed the looming foliage warily. "I heard stories about this place. You sure we'll survive?"
"'Course we'll survive," Jayne declared. "Just 'cause it's got a reputation for killin' folk, don't mean it'll kill us."
"Somehow," Mal drawled, "I don't find that very reassuring."
The plant life around them was close enough to normal that the strangenesses about 'em all seemed that much more disturbing. Color just a little off true, strange textures to the bark of the trees, popping noises in the background, and very little sun making it through the leaves; Mal stuck close to Jayne as they walked, wishing they was already off this rock, or failing that, he at least had a weapon.
Jayne cleared his throat, knife in the hand that wasn't clutching at Mal's. "S'not that bad, really."
Mal stared at him in disbelief.
"Not sayin' I'd like to move here or nothin', but really, I don't know what people's so scared of."
No sooner had he finished speaking, than a loud popping sound echoed up from somewhere near their feet; both men looked down, perturbed, but it wasn't until a jet of fire shot up practically under Mal's feet that they had any idea what was causing it.
"'Course there's fire," Mal said irritably, stamping out the small flames that clung to his boots. "Wouldn't be a Fire Swamp if there weren't."
"Burn your toes, there, Mal?" Jayne guffawed.
"Aw, shut it, Jayne." He mock-glared at his companion. "If I gotta be the damsel in distress in this here rescue, shouldn't oughta come as a surprise the whole gorramn planet's against me."
"Fair 'nuff, the way you left me on Shadow like some pinin' schoolmarm," Jayne said, grinning.
Another series of pops sounded from the ground at their feet, and both men scrambled to get out of the way.
"How much further we gotta go in here, you think?" Mal wondered aloud, watching another spurt of flame shoot up from a hole in the rocky ground.
"Oh, not too far," Jayne assured him. "I crashed my ship, and Niska's is gone, but there's still at least one shuttle on this rock. We get around the next hill up there, we crawl up and find it."
"An Alliance shuttle? You crazy?" Mal blurted. "There's a base ship up there for sure."
"Got any other idea?" Jayne shrugged.
"Oh, I'll think of somethin'," Mal assured him. Or his crew would. Serenity should ought've heard he was missing by now.
PART FIVE - THE DREAD PIRATE ROBERTS
Mal and Jayne made slow headway through the Fire Swamp, threading through the close-growing trees, ugly vines, and other underbrush, always keeping an eye out for the flame-spurting holes underfoot. They didn't talk much as they walked, mostly just getting used to each others' presence again while they tried not to get themselves killed, but eventually Mal couldn't hold his curiosity in no more.
"So, the Revenge, hunh?" he asked.
"Yep," Jayne said, looking pleased with himself.
"How's that possible, anyhow?" Mal prodded, turning over dates in his mind. "Rumors of that ship been spread around for nigh on twenty years now, and I know you ain't been out there that long."
"Well, the Revenge don't normally take no prisoners," Jayne began. "They could tell I weren't no rich traveler, though, like the others, and asked me what I was doin' there. So I told 'em; my man went off to war and got himself kilt, and I meant to find his grave and return anything he'd left behind to his momma."
Mal nodded. Stories like that had to've been common during the War. "What'd they say?" he asked.
"Well, they told me they was in the middle of a crew turnover, and you were dead and wouldn't miss me, so whyn't I come along and make some money of my own?"
"What happened to your contract?" Mal had to ask. One of the reasons he'd left in the first place was to earn money to pay that off; Mal's ma's ranch was enough in the red as it was, she couldn't never have afforded to forgive Jayne's family's debt and give him wages besides.
Jayne grunted. "Kinda ignored that," he said. "I sent money to your ma to make up for it. Figure I've paid it off by now, and she ain't complained the few times she done wrote back."
Well, that was a relief. Mal smiled. "So how'd you go from bein' Roberts' hired man to takin' on his title?"
Jayne gestured Mal to a halt, then picked his way carefully over a rickety log bridging a small, poisoned-looking creek. "Around the time the War was endin', we'd made so much money pickin' off Alliance outposts and blamin' it on your side or the Reavers, Roberts took it into his head to retire. Thing was, he wasn't the original Roberts, neither. He told me his real name was Ryan, and that he'd had it off a crazy man name of Washburn that flew her before the War. The first Roberts, the real one, only had her for maybe six years; he bought himself a title and a place on Sihnon."
"Washburn?" Mal blurted, startled. "Not Hoban Washburn, calls himself Wash, talks to plastic dinosaurs?"
Jayne stopped in his tracks and turned to Mal, brow wrinkled in puzzlement. "Matter of fact, yeah. How d'you know him?"
Wo de ma, Mal thought. Zoë's husband, a pirate captain? Maybe he weren't all that worthless after all. Must have got tired of the career right quick though, the way he carried on about non-violence these days. Mal'd have to corner him for a good talk, later, get his truthful perspective on things. Might be worth listening to, if he actually knew what he was talking about.
"He's my pilot, actually," Mal told Jayne.
"Don't that beat all." Jayne chuckled. "Anyway, the name's what mattered. Wouldn't nobody be afraid of the Dread Pirate Jayne. So he took 'er to port, brought on a new crew, and played first mate for a couple jobs. Ship's been all mine for three years now."
"That's quite the story. Suppose you know most of mine," Mal said, ruefully.
"Yeah. Made somethin' of a name for yourself end of the War, got a smugglin' ship after. What's this goushi with Wing, though?"
Mal winced. "See, it's like this. Rich man died in the Core without any heirs, and the Companion we got on board had this fool-proof plan for us to swoop in and claim his money. Only, one of us had to pose as the lost son, and I was the only one what couldn't claim a father. So they went off to change the records, and Inara sent me to Ath to set it up so's they'd have to hurry the verification along. 'Thout me bein' in the public eye, and Ath pushin' it so's he could get married on time, they coulda drug their feet or swept me under the rug. This way, soon's the money came in I'd pay Ath and off we go. Wouldn't actually have gone through with it."
"Well, Niska sure buggered that plan up, didn't he," Jayne snorted.
"That's all right," Mal said. "At least it brought me you."
"Yeah." Jayne grinned. "Ain't like I don't got money to throw around. 'Bout time I passed on the title anyhow. Think that Higgins boy would take it?"
Mal grinned at the idea. "He might take some work. Don't much see him as a pirate. What're you sayin', though, you want to come be a merc on my ship?"
"Well, I ain't exactly opposed," Jayne grinned back.
Mal savored that idea for a moment, picturing him in amongst the motley family Mal had built, and unfortunately took his eyes off the ground.
"Mal!" he heard Jayne yell, and then the entire world went black around him.
It took him a moment to realize what had happened. He'd stepped in some kind of lightning sand; he could feel the grains in his ears and between his fingers, and the warm earth pressed in on him all 'round. He couldn't see, couldn't breathe, and couldn't move; it was the most terrifying experience he'd ever had.
He had no idea how long he was down there, before there was a disturbance above his head. He'd fallen in with one arm reaching upward, and just when it was starting to get really painful not to breathe, something brushed against those outstretched fingers. He grabbed hold as best he could, and nearly cried in relief when the hand on the other end began pulling at him. Jayne to the rescue again.
They surfaced, gasping. Mal flopped on the ground, laughing softly and coughing on loose sand that trickled into his mouth. "Goin' to be downright interestin' havin' you around again," he said.
"What's life without a little excitement?" Jayne leered at him. The effect was somewhat ruined by the sand caked in his goatee and eyebrows, but Mal appreciated it all the same.
"Let's get the hell out of here, then," Mal said, "and get to it."
They turned to climb up the hill. They'd kept near the edge of the Fire Swamp as they made there way through it, so there wasn't too far to go. Surely, Mal figured, they'd gone far enough to get away from the Alliance soldiers and maybe have a shot at the shuttle.
It wasn't to be, though. They emerged from the cover of the twisted trees to find a row of soldiers staring straight at them, aiming guns in their direction.
"Thought scanners didn't work in there," Mal whispered out of the corner of his mouth as he raised his hands.
"Thought they didn't!" Jayne hissed back, and raised his also.
"Gorramn it Jayne..." Mal muttered, then grinned suddenly as he saw something in the sky overhead behind the soldiers. "Aw, nevermind. Just get ready to duck."
"Shen me?" Jayne frowned in his direction.
"Duck!" Mal threw himself to the ground as the bulk of Serenity soared in overhead, dangling Zoë from a line underneath. She fired a few warning shots into the soldiers, and the rest of them scattered for cover as the ship lowered its ramp to within jumping distance of the sloped ground.
"Need some help, sir?" Zoë called out, grinning over in Mal's direction.
"Doin' just fine, Zoë!" he called back. He leaped to his feet and made a run for it, Jayne close on his heels, and soon's they were on board he felt the ship lurch upward again. Damn fine pilot, Wash was; Mal really would have to have a talk with the man sometime soon.
"Good to have you back, Cap'n!" Kaylee, his meimei of a mechanic, called cheerfully from where she was bringing Zoë up with the winch.
"Good to be back, li'l Kaylee," he said, and gave her a big hug. "Ambassador back on board yet?"
"Yeah. She's not too happy with you though, gettin' yourself kidnapped and ruinin' her fine scheme." Kaylee hugged him back, grinning.
"That's all right, though; I did me one better. This here's Jayne," he said, with a wide smile over Kaylee's head in Zoë's direction.
Zoë turned to stare at him. "That Jayne, sir?" she asked, incredulously.
"Yep, that Jayne. Think he'll be travelin' with us for a spell. Right, Jayne?" Mal turned to the man in question, exchanging a long, heated gaze.
"If'n you say so, Mal," Jayne replied, quietly.
Mal gulped. Yep, life was about to get downright interesting.
"Is that it?" River complained, sounding disappointed.
Simon tapped the slate, turning it off, and shook his head. "Well, there's more kissing, but I didn't think you wanted to hear that part."
River wrinkled up her nose. "But there'll be more story, later, right?"
Simon nodded. "That's all Inara's sent me, so far. At least, all that you'd want to hear. But who knows what her crew will get up to by the next time she writes us? I'm sure there'll be at least one story in the next batch you'll like."
River sighed. "I don't care what Mom and Dad say, I'm glad we have a cousin who's a Companion. She tells the best stories."
"Why don't you get some sleep now?" Simon said, soothingly. "I'll have the cook make your favorites for lunch, and wake you up when it's ready."
River sighed, then smiled sweetly in his direction. "If'n you say so," she said, then snuggled down under her covers.
Simon smiled back, then turned off the light and left the room.