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The plantation owner- Forshay, was the name on the big steel gates outside- squinted at the infosheet and shrugged. "That picture's eight years old. Can't tell you if I've seen the fella or not."

The hand holding the sheet didn't waver. "Look again," Mal said quietly. "A good, close look if you please. And think real hard about it."

"I've got a hundred head of slaves on this property, Mr. Reynolds, I can't tell 'em all on sight of an out of date picture."

"You would've picked him up at an Alliance slave sale. Six or seven years back." Mal's throat hurt from breathing the damn gritty dust of this piece of shit planet. He couldn't imagine how the slaves out working in the fields felt. "Big fella. Strong. Possibly the surly type."

One of the kids sitting around the room- Mal marked him for the plantation owner's son, based on the fat face and beady eyes- leaned forward and studied the picture. "Hey, Pa, think it might be the ijit?"

"The ijit?" Mal stared at Forshay, who scowled at his kid but leaned in to take a closer look himself. "Well now. Tell you what, Perry, you might be correct at that." He shifted his gaze to Mal. "What you looking for him for, anyway? He owe you something?"

"Actually, the debt's mine."

The fat bastard's eyes lit up at that. "Well, since he's my property, you can just give the money right to me. On his behalf, you might say."

"Ain't money I owe him." Man probably never stirred from the chair; Mal marked Perry instead. "Can you take me to see this ijit of yours? So I can see if he's the man I'm looking for?"

The kid shrugged and got to his feet. "That all right with you, Pa?"

He'd already turned back to his ledger. "Go right ahead. You have a fine day, now, Mr. Reynolds."

"I will do my very best." Would be the first he'd had in going on eight years, if he was successful. Wasn't getting his hopes up none.

"Was you saying he was a big fella that got me thinking about the ijit," Perry said as they walked across the property, boots crunching in the mineral-clogged dust. Mal wondered if his lungs would crunch like that by the time he left. "Biggest man we've got on this rock. You might've noticed most of our slaves are kinda scrawny-like." He shot a disdainful look at the men and women walking up and down the rows of plants in the fields. "We put him in the breeding shed, the first couple years we had him, hoped he could put some size into the stock."

Mal had to swallow hard before he could reply; gorram grit had his throat clogged up solid. "Didn't work?"

"Oh, they got size all right. But even as little ones, they had a mean streak. Ornery. Stubborn." He kicked at a clod of dirt and Mal winced as a fresh burst of dust went into the air. "I tell you what, it's funny, though. Cause you said your man's the surly type, but the ijit ain't like that at all. Peaceable as a dead man. Most breeders, if you take 'em out of the shed and send 'em out to work, you've gotta castrate 'em or they'll be too much trouble. He's so quiet-like, though, we left him alone." He stopped at the door to a huge metal shed and began keying a code into the entrance panel. "Simple-minded fella. Don't think he speaks a civilized language- at least, I ain't heard him say a word in six years."

Mal squinted into the dim interior of the shed. "That a fact."

"Yep." Perry laughed and gestured at the far end of the shed. "Pa reckons the Alliance broke something in his head before they sold him off. I ain't sure he wasn't born that way." He pointed at a figure hunched over some kind of harvester. "That's him. Hey, dummy! Got someone here to see you."

The figure didn't so much as look up. It was tapping away at something inside the machine with a constant, mechanical rhythm. Tap, tap, tap. Pause. Tap, tap, tap.

"You hear me, boy?" Perry called, striding closer and kicking at a clump of dirt lying on the floor. It flew past the man's head, but he still didn't move. Tap, tap, tap.

Mal took a step forward. "Jayne Cobb." The tapping stopped. The figure went very still. "Do you remember who I am?"

Slowly, stiffly, the figure got to its feet. The height was right, and the broadness of the shoulders. Definitely a big man, like he was looking for. The wrench hung loosely from his hand. He didn't turn around.

"Jayne," Mal said quietly, taking another step. "Jayne, it's me. It's Mal."

"Captain." The voice was rough enough to make Mal wince in sympathy at the grit in his own throat. Six years of that, and apparently not talking all that time to boot. No wonder it sounded like it needed oiling. "I didn't tell 'em. Didn't tell 'em nothin'. Swear on m' life. M' mama's life."

"I know, Jayne." Maybe the tightness in his throat wasn't all from the grit. "I know you didn't tell."

He turned around, then, stiffly. Mal imagined he could hear the bones creaking. It was Jayne, all right; godawful thin, big scar across his face, hair and beard rough and matted and eyes staring through things instead of looking at them proper. But it was Jayne. "They tried real hard to make me," he grated, looking off at something over Mal's shoulder and near the ceiling. "Lots of tricks up their sleeves. But I did 'em one better." His gaze wandered to Mal's face, and focused for a moment. "Don't even remember what it is I didn't tell 'em. Pushed it to the back of my head so I wouldn't let it slip. Ended up pushing it clean out. But I didn't tell." The focus faded, and his eyes settled on the floor somewhere near Mal's boots.

"No, you didn't. Wouldn't be standing here if you had." He took another tiny step, trying to catch Jayne's attention, get his eyes back again. Wanting to thank the man for taking the fall and saving all their lives. For winding up here, grounded on a rock after the Alliance chewed him up and tossed him out with the garbage, while the rest of them stayed up in the sky with Serenity.

"Wanted you to know that," Jayne mumbled, turning back to the machine. He lurched back to his knees, settled himself, lifted the wrench again. Tap, tap, tap.

Perry stepped up to stand at Mal's elbow. "Well, I'll be damned," he said, voice bright and delighted. "How'd you get him to talk?"

His throat hurt so bad. Chest, too. Kind of a tight, burning feeling. Hadn't felt that in some time, didn't care to think about what it might mean. "Reckon he's been storing that up to tell me for a while now." Almost eight gorram years.

"We tried everything to get him to talk. Guess the overseer just needed to whup him a little harder." He laughed and shook his head. "Don't that just beat all."

Mal heard something snap in his head. He wished it was this fat son of a bitch's neck. "I'll be taking him with me now."

"You out of your ruttin' mind?" Perry stared at him, the smile fading quickly. "That's a valuable piece of property you're talking about. I'm not just going to stand here while you steal it."

He'd come here alone, expecting another false lead. After four years of them, who could blame him? But he couldn't take on the whole plantation in a firefight single-handed. Backup plan, then. He reached into his pocket and pulled up a bag of credits. "All right. How much?"

Perry's beady little eyes moved back and forth from the bag to Jayne so fast Mal half expected him to give himself a stroke. "A worker in his prime like that? Couldn't take less than fifty."

"Done." He pulled the right credits from the bag and pressed them into Perry's fat hand. The man instantly looked sorry he hadn't asked for more. Mal wanted to spit in his face. "Jayne."

The tapping stopped. Jayne went through the laborious process of standing and turning again. He looked at the money in Perry's hand. He looked at Mal. He coughed and stared dully at some point between them.

Slowly, Mal went to his side and took hold of his arm. "Come on, Jayne," he said quietly. "You're coming with me."

"Got work to do," was the uncertain reply. Mal shook his head.

"Not here, you don't. Come on." Obediently, Jayne began to walk. "I'm taking you back to Serenity."
*****
Well, not right away.

Jayne turned his dull stare on the inside of the shuttle. "Was Inara's," he remarked flatly, not moving from the doorway. "Back then."

"Yeah," Mal said, tugging at his arm again. "Come on inside." Jayne shuffled two steps forward and stopped. That was far enough to shut the door, so Mal let go of him and let him be.

"You ever see her again? After she left?" His eyes moved slowly around the inside of the shuttle, the few remaining scraps of pretty fabric attached to the walls. They'd stripped most of it down long ago. Kaylee'd cried, hating to admit Inara was really never coming back.

"No." Mal punched in the codes to send the message to Serenity, letting them know that finally, one of his missions had been a success. "We were out hiding in the black for a little more than three years, and when it was finally safe to come back in toward civilization, none of us wanted to ruin her life by association."

"How bad is your rep now?" He moved a little farther in, eyes still roving, arms tight to his sides. His hands twitched, like they weren't used to being empty. "They still looking for you?"

"Not actively, but if they'd be happy if we got ourselves caught. Still technically wanted." His neck hurt a little from looking up at the man. "Jayne, you can sit down, you know."

He started, like the idea never occured to him. "Yes, sir." He half-collapsed to the floor. Mal closed his eyes and turned back to the control panel.

"The others are running a job. Should be back for us sometime tomorrow." The screen lit up- Wash acknowledging the wave. Can't believe it- miracle- is he all right? Mal stared at that for a moment. Not sure, he finally punched in. "We'll get a good rest tonight."

"The others." Jayne stared at the dirt that had fallen off their boots onto the floor. "Same others? Everybody?"

"All but Inara." He punched in coordinates for Wash and switched the panel off, swiveling the chair to look at Jayne. "The rest of us...well, we can't exactly get work anywhere else, now, and you kinda get used to people, living with them out in the black for three years. Make connections and whatnot."

"Three years in the black. So you've been back in for four?" He wouldn't look at Mal. His eyes wandered across everything else in the shuttle, but never Mal.

"Right about." He swallowed and kicked the toe of his boot against the flooring. "I'm sorry we didn't find you sooner."

Now Jayne looked at him, just a fleeting glance of utter disbelief. "Can't believe you kept looking for four gorram years. Crazy folk, wasting all that time hunting for somebody who mighta sold you out."

"Jayne. We knew you didn't sell us out." How did you convince someone you trusted him when your whole working relationship had been based on him being for sale? "We never would've made it out of the central 'verse if you had. We trusted you."

"Even the doctor? And the girl?" Jayne fidgeted, and Mal realized that he probably hadn't had this much time to sit still without being asleep in a good long while. "Can't recollect their names, 'mfraid. Guess I pushed that out of my head too. But I didn't tell," and that last sentence was very soft, with a feeling of repetition that made Mal wonder if Jayne hadn't been saying that in his head for a long time.

"Simon and River know you didn't rat us out," he said. "They'll be happy to see you."

"Shepherd still there? Wash and Zoe?" He reached out and began picking up the clumps of dirt that had fallen from Mal's boot treads, one by one, and crushing them into powder. "Little Kaylee?"

"All waiting. Kaylee's been saving some cocoa powder for a year or two now, so she can make one of those awful protein cakes of hers to celebrate your return. She's probably baking it right now." He smiled, thinking of Kaylee and her cakes. Jayne's face spasmed and went blank again. Maybe that was a smile, out here.

"That reminds me," Mal went on, forcing his voice to stay light, "you hungry?" He stood and went over to the little storage cabinet that served as kitchen on the shuttle. He felt Jayne's eyes boring into the back of his head, but when he glanced back he'd looked away. Mal opened a few protein rations and arranged them on plates, handing one to Jayne on his way back to the chair. Jayne set it carefully on the floor and stared at it for a long moment before he started methodically breaking the bar into pieces.

Mal took bites of his own dry, tasteless meal and turned back to the control panel, since Jayne seemed to function a bit better without eyes on him. When he looked back again, half of the pieces were gone. The other half were arranged carefully in a pile on the plate, and Jayne was staring at them the way he used to look at his cut of the credits after a job gone well. Mal couldn't recollect a single time in all the time he'd known Jayne that the man had left food uneaten.

"Jayne," he said quietly, and his whole body jerked at the sound of his name. "You can eat all of it. It's okay. There's plenty more."

He shook his head quickly, staring down at the floor. "Reckon I can't, sir."

"Right." He rubbed his hands on his trousers and tried to keep his voice cheerful. "Probably take you a while to get used to being able to eat till you're full again. That's fine."

Jayne nodded, a jerky and nervous motion that didn't mesh at all with the memories in Mal's head. He counted the pieces of protein four times, lips moving to sound out the numbers, then tucked them away in his pockets. When they were all gone, he folded his hands in his lap and looked up at Mal.

He seemed calm, suddenly, and the restless motion of his eyes had stopped. They were focused on Mal's face, intently. His own expression was still utterly blank. "What do you want me to do, Captain?" he asked quietly. "Just tell me what needs doing."

Mal blinked. "Reckon I don't follow your meaning, Jayne."

He shrugged, face perfectly still, eyes not leaving Mal's own. "You gave the man your money. Makes me your property. Right kind of you to feed me first, but I'm ready to go to work now. Do what you want me to do."

He recoiled, head jerking back against the chair. "Wo de tien ah, Jayne, you ain't my slave!"

"Gave the man your money," he repeated. "Reckon that's what that means."

"But I didn't mean..." He trailed off, because what had he meant, then? It was the only way to get them out of there without a fuss, but facts were facts. He'd bought Jayne off the plantation, put a price on the man's head and paid it. "I set you free. I'll draw up papers the minute we get back to Serenity. Hell, I'll draw 'em up now." He fumbled at the control panel, trying to find a function that would let him do it. "You ain't my slave, Jayne. I don't truck with that. You know I don't."

"Yeah." Jayne's hands twitched and he unclasped them, letting them roam over the flooring. He watched them like they belonged to someone else. "Reckon I don't know what you expect me to do now, Mal."

"Well, we'll figure that out once we get you back on Serenity. Let the doc look you over, get you fixed up." He stared at the scar across Jayne's face, wondered where it came from. "Get some meat back on your bones. Then we'll figure it out."

"Ain't the man I was then. Can't go back to being him." He stopped the motion of his hands with a visible effort and looked up at Mal again. "Ain't nothing the same, Mal. They busted everything up, in my head." He winced, and Mal's mind flashed to the whispered rumors in the darker corridors of space, about Alliance interrogation techniques. "Broke me right down the middle. Reckon I ain't someone you'll want around."

"Wouldn't've kept looking for you this long if we didn't want you around."

"You kept looking. You're the Captain." Jayne's voice was hoarse and rough, and Mal wondered if it was hurting him to talk this much after not talking for so long. "But you ain't gonna want me around the nice folk. The doc and his sister. Kaylee. They shouldn't have to put up with me."

"Simon called in his very last Core connections to find out which auction the Alliance sold you off at," Mal said quietly. "Kaylee was the first one to ask after every job if we had enough to stop working and look for you for a while. They want you back too, Jayne."

"That's cause they don't know! They haven't seen!" It was the kind of shout you'd hear from a choking man, but at least it was an emotion. A response. Mal was beginning to wonder if the Alliance had just sucked that part out of him, the way they sucked the sanity out of River so long ago. His eyes were blazing, just a little bit, but they were fixed on Mal's own intently enough that he couldn't look away. "They tell you, back there, that they sent me down to the breeders for the first couple years?"

"They told me." He kept his voice soft and level, but he could remember when that look on Jayne's face meant that somebody was going to get knives chucked their way and some part of him was itching to run.

"They tell you when they start sending the girls down to the breeders? That some of 'em are only thirteen when the overseer decides they're ready? " Jayne demanded, something raw and hurt creeping up into his voice. His eyes were still bright but now they were getting a little wild. "If they're so ready, Mal, how come they scream and cry during it, and how come the babies are too big for 'em, so they have to rip their way out and the mamas die bleeding? They tell you about all that, Mal?"

He'd been breathing recycled air for nearly an hour now. Couldn't be grit he was fighting to swallow down now. "No, Jayne, they didn't."

"Bet not." He was staring down at the floor again. "Or about the drugs they've got, so even if you don't want to they stick you with a needle and you've got to. Can't help it. Can't do nothing about it. Make 'em scream, the way you screamed when it was the Alliance sticking the needles in, trying to make you tell them something you can't even remember."

"Ain't none of that your fault, Jayne." Their fault, all of theirs, for leaving him there to cover their escape. For running out to the black and hiding for three years and then taking their damn time following cold trails for four years more. So what if he told them to go, if he never expected them to look for him anyway? They should've found another way, they should've tried harder.

Jayne coughed, and Mal walked over to the dispenser and poured them each a glass of water. He stared at it and wished it was whiskey.

Jayne took a swallow and stared at him again. "When I was a kid," he said quietly, "my mama moved us all from town to a ranch about an hour west. Back on Dunbarrow." Mal knew that place; a dusty burned-out moon that didn't grow nothing but rocks. "Wasn't much room on the transport, so I had to leave my dog behind in town. Was a couple of years before I was big enough to hitch rides back in to do the shopping, but one day Mama gave me some credits and sent me to the store. I was walking down the main street and I saw that old dog, trotting along behind one of the townies. He was cussing and kicking at it, but the dog just lied down and took it. Like he was used to it." He licked his lips and took another swallow. Mal wanted to tell him to stop talking, to rest, but he had a feeling whatever this was, it needed to come out.

"Guess I went a little crazy, cause I ran up to the man and offered him all those credits for that stupid dog. Knew Mama would tan my hide when I got back out to the ranch again. Didn't much care right then, though. He laughed and took the money and told me I was welcome to him. And I sat right down in the dirt and hugged that dog. He licked my face and crawled up into my lap and made it clear he was right glad to see me.

"But when I got him out to the ranch, I realized real quick that he wasn't really a dog no more. He'd been broken, see, broken up inside. Beat down too hard to get up again. Couldn't get back to being a dog. So I did him the only kindness I could- took him out back behind the barn one morning and put a bullet between his eyes." He tapped his own forehead slowly in illustration. Mal took a convulsive sip of his water.

"Now don't worry, Captain, I ain't gonna lick your face and I ain't gonna crawl into your lap. Less you tell me to, since you did buy me square and proper. But if you've got the same respect for me I had for that old dog, you'll do me the same kindness. Just take me out into the dust and give me a bullet, Mal. Don't make me go back and try to live in the world again."

Mal knew he was gripping the glass too tightly. He forced his fingers to relax a fraction. "You know that ain't gonna happen, Jayne. Knew it before you started telling the story."

He nodded, slowly, staring down into his own glass. "Reckon I did. Thought I'd give it a try."

"We'll help you," Mal said quietly. "You're one of our people, and we ain't gonna throw you away. Besides, we don't have a barn."

Jayne's face spasmed again. Mal was fairly certain that was indeed what was left of the man's smile. Kaylee would go to work on that right quick. "You should get some rest," he said, nodding his head at the bed. "I'll keep watch in case the ship gets back early."

Jayne stood up, looking uncertainly at the soft sheets. "Those ain't still Inara's?" he asked.

Mal chuckled. "Nah. She took hers with her. Those are clean."

Jayne nodded and settled himself awkwardly on the mattress. "Reckon I won't be able to sleep at all, something this soft," he muttered. Mal shrugged and switched off the lights. He stared out the windscreen at the dirt and rocks that passed as a landscape on this world. After a moment he heard Jayne shifting.

"Mal."

"What, Jayne."

There was a long silence, and for a minute he wondered if Jayne had just been checking to be sure he was still there. Then, "Why'd you keep looking for me, anyway?" There was honest bewilderment in his voice. He truly didn't have a clue.

Mal couldn't help but laugh. "How many times I have to explain this to you before it sinks through your thick ox skull, Jayne? You're one of my crew. I don't leave my crew behind. Not ever." He looked back over his shoulder and met Jayne's eyes, glittering in the dark.

"Not ever," he repeated softly. "Now get some sleep."

Jayne nodded slowly and rolled over to face the wall. After a moment his breathing evened out as he fell asleep.

Mal turned back to the windscreen and looked up into the night sky, looking for Serenity.

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